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McIan's Highlanders At Home
Mac Phee, the Outlaw

Mac Phee, the Outlaw

AFTER the risings of 1715 and 1745, numerous individuals, and even bands of Highlanders, lived in undisguised hostility to the constituted authorities of the realm; being either legally proscribed on charge of rebellion, or having voluntarily disclaimed allegiance to the House of Hanover. These lived in the ‘troublous times’; but that any one in the present day should be able to maintain himself in safety when outlawed, is somewhat surprising.

There is considerable interest in the life of the Highlander, here the subject of illustration, who has lived so long at the ban of the law, and has grown grey in a state of roving independence.

It is about forty years since Ewen Mac Phee, then a fine athletic young man, was enlisted by his landlord in one of the Highland regiments embodied at that time. The profession was well suited to Ewen’s disposition, and he was noted as a sprightly and able soldier; but having very improperly been led to expect a commission, he became greatly discontented; and when, after serving some time, he found no prospect of the realization of his hopes, he formed the resolution to desert.

He did not attempt this object in the usual clandestine manner, but quite deliberately left parade, and marched home to the Highlands. He was, of course, quickly pursued, and was speedily captured, handcuffed, and marched off under a file of soldiers. In passing through Stratheric, the prisoner, watching a favourable opportunity, bounded from his guard, and plunging down a precipitous bank escaped the musquets of the party, and was quickly lost in the thicket. He continued his flight until he reached a lonely cottage, where, with the assistance of the shepherd, the handcuffs were knocked off by a stone, and the deserter was again free in his mountain wilds. He proceeded to Coiriebuie, a secluded retreat on the estate of Locheil, where he lived unmolested for many years, supporting himself by hunting, fishing, and rearing a few goats, and occasionally assisted in floating wood.

He was well known by his countrymen, but met with no molestation, for although he avoided giving any offence, his determination to die rather than be retaken, and his being constantly armed, served to overawe any who might intend to arrest him; and it was matter of prudence not to arouse his sense of danger. On one occasion he was pointed out to a person anxious to see a character so noted, by the incautious observation, "there he is," on which Ewen drew his dirk, and in the confusion which arose, Mac Kenzie, the stranger, was wounded.

Being at last hotly pursued, he was obliged to leave Locheil, and he took possession of an island in Glenquoich, one of the chain of lakes in the line of the Caledonian canal. It is of small dimensions, scarcely a half acre in extent; but the situation is highly romantic and solitary, the few birch trees which it produces contrasting agreeably with the dark mountains on either side, which are streaked with snow almost throughout the summer.

He had, when in Locheil’s country, won the affection of a girl of fourteen, who is now his faithful wife, and mother of five children. In this islet they constructed a hut with branches of trees and turf, and he found, or formed, a boat, to enable him to get to the mainland, where he pastured some goats. These supplied him with milk and flesh, and his rod and gun procured him other food.

Ewen is held in fear by the neighbouring tenants, from his daring character and supposed supernatural powers, which he believes himself to possess, and hence offerings of meal and money are not unfrequently conveyed to the island. This residence, however, must in winter be exceedingly cheerless; and the situation of his family, bred up in lawless wildness, is a painful consequence of Ewen’s singular position; although it is believed the mother, who is still comparatively young and active, may impart a certain amount of instruction and Christian duty.

Ewen is represented as much attached to his family, and a melancholy evidence of this lately occurred on occasion of the death of one of his sons. He had no wood wherewith to form a coffin, and if he had possessed the materials, he was so overwhelmed with grief, that he could not, as he said, "steady his hand for the work." He therefore left the desolate isle in his boat, and sought the assistance of a shepherd, who, procuring some herring barrel staves, was able to form a rude receptacle for the body, which was interred in a romantic burying-ground used by the people of the glen, and situated in another island in the lake.

Ewen, although well stricken in years, is still strong and healthy, and his muscular frame gives promise of a protracted age. The dangers to which his irregular mode of life exposes him, require his utmost vigilance, and frequently his greatest physical exertion. To prevent surprise, he has always a loaded gun close to his bed by night, and his dirk by his side during day: it seems even his wife is not unused to the rifle.

His goats, a flock of sixty, had pastured on the farm of Mr. Cameron, of Coirechoillie, for which Mac Phee had never paid ‘grass mail’; so one day in February, 1842, during his absence, the whole were driven off. Mrs. Mac Phee, a modern Helen Mac Gregor, gave quick pursuit, firing several times upon the party, but could not rescue the spoil; yet the dread of the outlaw’s retaliation on Cameron’s sheep, induced him at last to pay for the goats.

When Mr. Edward Ellice had purchased the property of Glenquoich, Ewen paid him a visit, and in the style of ancient vassalage, or rather independent lairdship, he presented him with some goat milk cheese, and coolly, but with great politeness, informed the new proprietor, that he wished him well, and if no disturbance were ofFered to him, he should never think of molesting Mr. Ellice! The island is, indeed, not perhaps worth a shilling; but it was well adapted for the residence of this stern Highlander. Yet he has been lately ejected from his domain, and lives at Fort William, without much fear of being farther troubled by civil or military authorities.

The foregoing is graphically described in Mr. Edward C. Ellice’s book on Place-Names in Glengarry and Glen quoich, published in 1898.

"Macphee was a well-known character throughout Inverness-shire about 50 years ago. Enlisting into the army as a young man, he soon found the restraints of discipline irksome to his restless nature, and, after a short term of service, deserted, and returned to his native Glengarry, where he lived in concealment with his sister at Feddan. The regimental authorities, however, hearing of his hiding—place, sent a sergeant with a posit of soldiers to arrest him, and these, coming to Feddan unawares, captured him without much difficulty, and marched him off to the steamer at Corpach. Just as the steamer was starting, Ewen suddenly bent down, and, snapping his handcuffs against an iron bar which lay on the deck, leapt ashore. The steamer was off; and so was Ewen, and bounding over the heath, he was soon out of reach, unharmed by the few bullets which the soldiers sent after him. For two years he wandered about the woods which line the shores of Loch Arkaig, when, finding that he was no longer pursued, he made up his mind to build himself a bothy on the island in Loch Quoich, which now bears his name. His bothy built, he must needs have a wife; so one fine morning he stepped across the hill to Glen Dulochan, where he had previously made the acquaintance of a girl, and, without much more courting, popped her on his back, and returned to his island, where they were duly married.

When Mr. Ellice first came to Glenquoich he found Macphee in possession of his island. He was looked up to by all the poor people of the glen as a "seer" ; cows that were ill were brought to him to be cured, and he was also a noted weaver of charms. Mr. Ellice’s first interview with Ewen was characteristic of the man. The former and a friend were sitting one night after dinner at Glenquoich Lodge, then quite a small house, "a but and a ben," drinking their whisky-toddy, when in walked Macphee, attired, as usual, in full Highland dress. Mr. Ellice, in the course of conversation, asked him by what right he lived on the island; for answer, Ewen drew his dirk and, plunging it into the table, said: "By this right I have kept it, and by this right I will hold it."

Macphee lived for many years on the island, and was a great favourite with Mr. Ellice, in spite of his notoriously wild character. Many are the anecdotes told in Glenquoich of his escapes from the sheriff’s officers; but as time went on his 8heep-stealing propensities grew on him, and at last the neighbouring shepherds, alarmed at the losses in their flocks, determined to try and bring the thefts home to him. They had not long to wait; one snowy morning they found the tracks of a man and some sheep which led down from the hill to the lochside just opposite his house. The sheriff was informed, and two officers were sent to his house; these rowed over from Glenquoich to the island. Ewen, of course, was away on the hill; not so his wife, who without much ado commenced to fire on the officers as soon as they approached the island; these, being quite unprepared for this style of reception, found in discretion the better part of valour, and retired to Inverness. Then, next week, however, they returned in force and this time well-armed. Ewen Macphee was caught and taken to prison, where he eventually died ; and on searching the place, bales upon bales of tallow and skins were found hidden in the loch under the banks of the island."

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