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A History of Rannoch

In the 15th century Scotland was in a lawless state after a succession of weak sovereigns, and as result many ‘broken men’ arrived in Rannoch to escape the hands of justice.  These men were not from any particular clan.

However, in 1440 bands of MacGregors took refuge in Rannoch because they had been driver out of their ancestral lands.  These land of Glen Orchy were the ancient home of the MacGregors, but in 1390 their chief, John MacGregor, died without leaving a satisfactory successor.  Colin Campbell of Lochawe, although having only a flimsy claim, was not slow in grab the land and title.  He was strong enough to withstand the opposition of the MacGregors.

It was a time when the kings of Scotland were powerless to prevent stron barons from pillaging weaker neighbours, and the Campbells somehow acquired a Royal Proclamation from Robert III acknowledging their right of ownership.  The MacGregors did not take this ling down, but their only answer was the sword.  This they did not hesitate to use but gradually they were harried out of their lands which one after the other passed into the hands of Campbells, until there was not a glen that the MacGregors could call their own.  Brave and fearless though they were in battle, they were no match for the diplomacy of the Campbells, and they had one to speak for them ’in court’.  As they were driven from their homes they took to living by raiding and slaughtering.  Their anger grew and their name struck terror into the heart of all.

By 1440 we find that they were seeking shelter further and further eastwards.  Two main branches of the clan formed roots of sorts in Glen Dochart and Glen Lyon.  Small bands of them were also finding their way to Rannoch.

In 1480 occurred an incident which resulted in the MacGregors establishing a stronger foothold in Rannoch.  At Dunan, a mile or two west of Loch Rannoch, a tribe has possession called Clann Iain Buidhe (Clan of John of the Yellow hair).  They waylaid a party of Stewart pedlars of merchants who were traveling with goods from Perth to Appin.  They murdered two of them.  The others escaped and when Dugald Stewart of Appin was told what had happened to his kinsmen he hastily gathered a force bent on revenge.  He made his way without delay and as he was passing through Glen Lyon he encountered the MacGregors of Roro who had recently been driven from Glen Orchy.  He was treated so well by the MacGregors--he was given the fattest calves for his party to feed on--that he asked him to join him in the forthcoming battle.

The two parties, Stewarts and MacGregors together attacked the Buidhe Clan.  It was a fiercely contested fights in which many of the defenders were killed.  Blood flowed freely; the nearby burn is still called by the old people Caochan na Fola, the Rill of Blood.  Those who survived escaped over the river while the victors divided the spoils.  Dugald took the cattle back to Appin and MacGregors took the land.  Here they were much sager from attacks and it was a good base from which to launch raids.  The country was a natural stronghold protected by Schichallion in the east with further three thousand foot mountains in the south. The north faced miles of wild mountainous country while the wilderness of Rannoch Moor guarded the western approaches.

For many years now Rannoch’s neighbours had been troubled by attacks from bands of wild caterans and ’broken men’ operating from Rannoch but now the numbers of such men taking refuge in Rannoch increased by leaps and bounds with the hounding of the MacGregors by the Campbells.

One such man who was to terrorise the area for years to come was Duncan MacGregor, called Ladasach.  He opening claimed to be the chief of the Clan with legitimate titles to it.  He disputed the 1488 Act of Council which had given the Campbells power to pursue and destroy the MacGregors.  He claimed the Royal Proclamation was a farce given by James IV while still a minor and seized the leadership of the MacGregors.  However, as we have seen previously, the MacGregors had one great misfortune--they had no one willing or able to stand out on their behalf or to tell their side of the story.

So there was no alternative for Duncan but to try to take back his territory by the sword.  His exploits of daring are typical of the MacGregor spirit throughout the whole of their trouble history.

The moon’s on the lake, and mist’s on the brae.
And the clan has a name that is nameless by day.
Our signal for fight, which from the monarch we drew
Must be heard by night in our vengeful halloo.
If they rob us of name, and pursue us with beagles,
Give their roof to the flames, and their flesh to the eagles.
Then gather! gather! gather! Gregarach!
(The MacGregor’s Gathering)

He and his wild men took refuge in Rannoch from where they plundered the country far and wide.  Although the Campbells were their chief targets they had no chance of dislodging them.  Their acts of violence struck terror into every heart but they did not have everything their own way.  In 1513 he and his merry men were out on a raid when the Campbells surprised them and cut off their retreat to Rannoch.  They were drive southwards where they were overwhelmed, and Campbell of Glen Orchy captured Ladasach and jailed them.  He was chained like a wild beast in an underground pit at Finlarig waiting to be hauled up to be ‘heidit’.  However, before Campbell could do this he was called up by James IV to march to Flodden.  There he died with his king and then thousand of his countrymen, and Duncan was saved.  He did not mourn Campbell’s death; in fact he celebrated it by escaping.  He made his way back to Rannoch in safety from where he was able to begin afresh his career of slaughter and rapine on those who had cheated him of his birth-right, and on others.

Sometimes it was not Campbells that sought him out, for we find that his near neighbours, the Robertsons and Athollmen in 1531, having suffered from his plundering and violence, joined together and made concerted attacks on the Island fortress, and also on their hideouts in the Blackwood, this relic of the Caledonian Forest of pre-history.  Here they captured one of Ladasach’s Lieutenants, Alastair Dhu MacGregor.  They dealt with him in the only way that Ladasach would understand.  They ’untopped’ him.

However,  some years later (1545) Duncan got his own back.  He exacted a heavy toll from the Clan Donnachaidh in a furious fight at the east end of the loch.  He captured the chief, Struan Roberston and carried him off.  History does not record what happened to him.  Probably Ladasach was satisfied with his victory and the resultant plunder and released the chief for the Robertsons were powerful neighbours to offend.

For forty-two years Ladasach and his Children of the Mist terrorised the country.  His exploits were full of daring as he stole from his enemies and filled the corries of Rannoch with plundered flocks and hers. Also, in keeping with the times, very few of his victims were spared from violent deaths.  It was said of him that he ‘lovit never justice not yet law’.

In his last exploit he heard that a MacGregor has become a turncoat and joined Campbell of Glen Orchy.  To Ladasach this was the most heinous of crimes and though he was a man of sixty-five he was determined to make the journey to show the defaulter the evil of his ways.  Fortunately for him their intended victim was absent to Ladashach and his sons broke into his house and stole his money.  It does not require much imagination to conjecture what punishment they would have meted out to the unfortunate turncoat, for the neighbour of this man on coming to the house to see what the intruders were doing had ‘his heid struck from his body’.

This was their last crime because they were caught and on 16th June, 1552 they were beheaded by order of Colin Campbell of Glen Orchy, Campbell of Glen Lyon and Menzies of Rannoch. 

His contemporary James MacGregor, Dean of Lismore and Vicar of Fortingall, gives us an account of his last days in a satirical poem called ‘Testament of Duncan Ladasach” in which his final words are

‘Now farewell Rannoch with the loch and isle
To me thous was richt traist baith even and mourn.
Thou was the place that wad me not beguile,
When I have been oft at the king’s horn.’ 

As he awaits execution he distributes his worldly goods as follows:

‘To the Curate he gives NEGLIGENCE; to the Vicar RAPACITY, to the Parson OPPRESSION; to the Prior GLUTTONY, PRIDE and ARROGANCE to the Abbot, HIS FREE WILL to the Bishop, and to the Friar FLATTER and FALSE DISEMBLING.’

So with two fingers raised the ‘bare arsed’ MacGregor faced his executioners.


Though Ladasach was out of the way the MacGregors of Rannoch continued to perate unabated.  A particularly grisly affair led them to be condemned to death (proscribed) by law.  In 1589 John Drummond caught two MacGregors poaching deer in the royal forest so he hanged them.  Such an affront to the MacGregors was not likely to be taken lightly.  If there was any hanging to be done the MacGregors wre usually on the safe end of the rope.  So the chief with a band of his followers captured Drummond and executed him by dragging his body at a gallop through his deer forest.  Then hew was ‘heidit’ and they sat his head on a table in the house of his sister, Mrs Stewart of Ardvorlich, to confront her when she came home.  They also stuffed bread and cheese into Drummond’s mouth.

As if this was not enough they took the head to Balquidder Church where the MacGregor Clan were forbidden for the occasion and one all swore ‘to defend ye authors of ye said murder’.  Each one approached the altar where the gruesome trophy was placed, and with hand on the head and sword held high, each said

‘……… heaven I swear
This deed of death I own and share’
(Sir Alexander Boswell’s poem ‘Clan Alpine’s Vow’)

After this the MacGregors were pursued with fire and sword and stripped by law of everything that humans regard as necessities--food, drink, shelter and friendship.  Their woman were branded and whipped naked.  Children were taken from them and given over as slaves.  But it was a brave person who would venture into Rannoch after them, and here they continued defying the law, making regular raids for food and plunder.  As more and more turned against them so they would grow closer together.  It was this characteristic that brought even sterner retribution on their heads.

In the summer of 1602, the MacGregors attacked the Colqhouns because they had hanged two Rannoch clansmen for stealing a sheep as they were making their way home from a raid in Luss.  As you would expect, this action brought immediate retaliation from the Rannoch Chieftain. ‘Gregarach’ was soon to be heard as the avengers swept through Glen Finlas taking 120 cattle and killing and wounding many Colquhouns.

Colquhoun wasted no time in appealing to King James VI at Stirling.  In fact local historians suggested he overdid it by taking wounded men, bloodstained shirts held aloft by wailing widows and line after line of weeping orphans and parading them in front of the King.  Whether that be so or not, it is a fact that he was granted a Commission to raise a force against the cursed MacGregors.

It was not until 8th January, 1603 that he set out.  He probably had difficulty persuading warriors to join him against such foes as the MacGregors.

Meanwhile the MacGregors had heard of the preparations and believing that attack is the best policy the fiery cross was sent around the area to summon the Cammerson from Rannoch and the MacDonalds from Glencoe, all expert in ‘spreaghs’ and eager to join the MacGregors in what would seem to be a profitable enterprise.  There was said to be 500 of them.  What a spectacle it must have been as they poured over the hills of Rannoch, heading for Loch Lomond.  It was enough to strike terror into the heart of the bravest foe.

However, although Colquhoun had managed to get 800 men they were no match for the MacGregors.  Geln Fruin echoed to the clash of arms and the wild yells of fighting men, but not for long.  It was all over in a few minutes, and the slaughter of the Luss and Dumbarton men began.

Although the MacGregors by taking decisive action, had saved themselves for the moment, it was the beginning of the end.  In April, 1603, three months after the Battle of Glen Fruin, the name of MacGregor was banished.  They were ordered to take the name of any clan other than their own, on pain of death.  James VI was determined to do his best to leave a peaceful Scotland behind him before he moved South to become King of England, Scotland and Ireland and a step in this direction was to scourge the Highlands of Clan MacGregor.

Although they were safe in the fastnesses of Rannoch, elsewhere proscription, ‘diteadhu gu bas’, was to be enforced.  Every MacGregor was condemned to death.  A MacGregor could be killed by anyone with impunity.  Any notorious criminal could purchase a pardon by bringing a certain number of MacGregor heads.

Some were dealt with summarily, some were brought to trial.  Some saved themselves by informing, others found other ways of avoiding retribution.  An uncommon one was at Kenaclacher at the west end of Loch Rannoch (now where the Camusericht Farm is). On the 12th of June 1683 the Commissioners of Justice assembled to try five caterans guilty of rapine and other crimes.  Two of them were MacGregors from Glen Lyon. They were now called Patrick McNaughton and John McInkaird and the other three were MacGregors from Rannoch.  The father was called Duncan Macgregor (now called Fletcher0 and the other two were his son Ewan and his son-in-law Duncan.  The Commissioners included Sir James Campbell of Lawers, Sire Ewen Cameron of Lochiel and Alexander Robertson of Struan and they found them guilty and condemned them to be hanged.  When sentence was passed John McInkarid ‘begged his life before them on his knees and offered to be a public executioner, which the Commissioners upon consideration of his ingenuitie and the necessitie of having a servant to attend, they upon caution repryved him, and ordered him to enter on his service, which he instantlie did and hanged his fellows.’

Their well-wishers ignored the proscription orders and befriended MacGregors sometimes at great risk to themselves but their enemies pursued them relentlessly, determined to exterminate them.  In the wilds of Rannoch they were sage, they were never driven out, even though proscription was not finally lifted until 1775.

However, long before that the robber bands of Rannoch gave up their warlike ways.  Although cattle lifting continued for a long while; after all it was really a way of life with Highland clans, this eventually the MacGregors who had already become law-abiding, and Rannoch became a place of peace containing hundred of honest and hardworking MacGregors.  They would still be there today if it had been for the tragedies that struck the glen.  Now there is only one MacGregor left.  But that is another story.

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