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Historical and Traditional Sketches of Highland Families and of the Highlands
Highland Robbers and Cattle Lifters

The following is an account of the wild and daring exploits of three of the most hardy cattle-lifters that ever traversed our Highland hills, viz., Alexander Macdonald, alias Coire-na-Caorach; Donald Kennedy or Macourlic, alias An Gaduiehe Dubh, and Samuel Cameron, alias Mac Domhuil Dubh:--

Macdonald, or Coire-na-Caorach, lived in a secluded bothy on the confines of the Glengarry estate, a little to the west of Fort-Augustus, whose daring exploits in robbery and cattle-lifting ultimately became the terror and scourge of the surrounding country, whose creach, or spoil, he often, in defiance of the law, drove to the south. However, this state of things was not to be much longer carried on by him, as the neighbouring lairds supposed, with their vassals combined, they might lay hold of him; and none was more eager for his apprehension than Glengarry, who cordially joined the other lairds in getting him outlawed; but Coire-na-Caorach being apprised of their design, it only had the effect of making him more vigilant than before. Coire now perceiving that he was outlawed and a price set upon his head, determined on not venturing any more to sojourn over night at his own residence, but ever afterwards took up his nightly abode in his cave on the margin of Loch Ness, a most rugged and craggy spot, a few miles west of the celebrated falls of Foyers. This cave actually stretches out upwards of twenty yards below the bed of the lake, and over the entrance was a large flagstone. There, Coire-na-Caorach was perfectly secure from all his pursuers, where he lived on the best, viz., roast beef and mutton, &c., but he contrived to see his wife now and then in her bothy without being observed; at last, in consequence of old age creeping upon him, he became unable any longer to go in search of prey, and confined himself to his dungeon. At length he became so very ill that she expressed her wish that he should breathe his last under their own roof. But how was this to be done? About midnight, however, this devoted woman buckled up the feeble frame of her husband in a good blanket, and carried him to the mouth of the cave, and afterwards trudged on through rugged crags and barren moors with her aged partner in life, and arrived at the house in safety—unseen and unknown—before daylight. Coire began to sink rapidly, and in the course of a few days thereafter, breathed his last, when his remains were gathered to the dust of his kindred unmolested.

Donald Kennedy, or Macourlic, alias an Gaduiche Dubh, was also a notorious thief and cattle-lifter. He lived in the Braes of Lochaber, and sometimes sojourned in the company of Coire-na-Caorach, and divided the spoil. He was also outlawed, and a price set upon his head. Having no proper place of concealment in the neighbourhood, he forsook home and family, and went to Perthshire. Here he engaged as a farm servant, but still indulged in his old practices, and a rather curious circumstance led to his discovery. A fine horse, the property of his master, having been amissing, he was ordered to search for the animal, which he gladly consented to do, and on his finding the horse, rode at Gilpin speed to a remote part of the country with it and sold it. After being two days away he returned to his master, telling him that there was not a hill or dale that he could think of but he searched for the horse. His master replied, angrily and said, "You ought to try, sir, places you did not think off." An Gaduiche Dubh set out again on his pretended pursuit, but in the course of a few minutes thereafter, the worthy farmer and his wife, who were sitting round a blazing pile of peats, were suddenly startled by a rumbling noise on the top of the house. In a minute or two afterwards large pieces of turf began to pour down upon them, which caused them quickly to repair outside, lest the whole fabric might fall in, when, to their astonishment, who did they see on the house top (eagerly throwing the turf in all directions around him), but he whom they sent in further search of their horse. The honest farmer bawled out to his servant, "What in the world prompted you to do such mischief?" The Gaduiche replied, "Did you not tell me to go and search for the horse where I did not think off, and I am just doing so," Before morning the farmer formed another opinion of his supposed haif-witted servant, for, said he to his wife, "As sure as you are alive, woman, Donald is no other than the Gaduiche Dubh, (the fame of the Gaduiche being over the length and breadth of the Highlands), so that the sooner we get quit of him in peace and quietness the better." The honest wife at once coincided with her husband. Next morning Donald was paid his wages, no doubt as well pleased to go, as his master and mistress were to get quit of him.

At one time Lochiel being on a visit to Glengarry, where the two chiefs spent a happy night together, among other conversation between them, a wager was laid which of the two, viz., An Gaduiche Dubh or Coire-na-Caorach, was the greatest thief. Glengarry wagered on Coire’s head, and Lochiel on that of the Gaduiche. Next day the desperadoes made their appearance before their respected chiefs at the Castle of Glengarry. Having been told the nature of their mission, they set off down the strath to Fort Augustus; from thence to Invermoriston, but having espied nothing worthy of capturing, they traversed part of Glenmorriston, with as little success. Being determined not to return without some evidence of their expertness, they bent their course to Glen Urquhart. After ascending the hill of Monadh-na-Leumnaich, Donald, the Gaduiche Dubh, became overcome with fatigue, and said it was of no use to enter the country of the Frasers and Mackenzies, as they would be in danger of being taken, they then sat down on the top of that stupendous hill, and immediately Donald fell into a profound sleep. However, Coire-na-Caorach did not sleep, as he was fully determined not to return without some token of his dexterity, and having quickly unfolded his companion’s plaid, cut a piece out of one of the folds, and made a pair of hose, which he put on his brawny legs ere he awakened the Gaduiche Dubh. He now roused him up, saying it was of no use to go any farther, but to return to Glengarry. The Gaduiche reluctantly assented, and on their arrival at the Castle the chiefs anxiously enquired what had they done on their journey. The Gaduiche spoke first, and said he regretted to say nothing at all. Coire-na-Caorach answered, looking to Donald, "But I have though, look at my hose, and look at your breacan," or plaid. The Gaduiche unfolded it, and at once saw that the piece had been taken out of it, and became fully convinced that it was the identical piece which had been so quickly converted into Highland leggings. As a matter of course, Glengarry won the wager. The Gaduiche, like his contemporary, Coire-na-Caorach, lived to a great age, and died a natural death.

Samuel Cameron, alias Mac Dhomhuil Dubh, was also one of those worthies who considered might to be right, and that his ability and daring in cattle-lifting afforded him a title to pursue that avocation with impunity. At the era of the outlaw, the power of life and death was confided to the Sheriffs, and he who was the principal Sheriff in the north at this time, was a Mr Mackenzie, of the family of Kilcoy, residing at Kilmuir Wester, better known on account of his severity, by the title of Shirra Dubh. This official had long desired to have Mac Dhomuil Dubh in his clutches, and he at length succeeded. Conviction and sentence of death followed as a necessary consequence of his having fallen into the hands of the Sheriff; but just previous to the hour of execution, Mac Dhomhuil Dubh applied his Herculean powers with such success as to break out of the Inverness jail; and rendered still more desperate by this circumstance, became a greater terror than ever to the surrounding country, which he in a manner placed under tribute. The officers of justice, although they knew whereabouts his ordinary retreat was situated, at the same time knew that their lives would be in jeopardy by even approaching the supposed spot, as he could with his pistols and gun, defend himself successfully against a host of invaders. A cave in the Red Craig, near Abriachan, on the mountain side above Loch Ness, was his place of rendezvous.

From this elevated spot the outlaw could command an extensive view of the Loch, and for miles around, particularly to the south and east of Inverness, while no one could pass along the narrow pathway at the foot of the mountain, without coming under the inspection of the tenant. It happened on one occasion, that Shirra Dubh was led by the chase along the side of Loch Ness, immediately below the domicile of the outlaw, who, perched eagle-like, aloft betwixt earth and sky, and, with a glance well nigh as keen, watched the approach of a horseman, in whom he quickly recognized the person of the relentless Shirra Dubh. With the delight of the vulture hovering over its devoted prey, and with the agility of the tiger advancing to spring upon his lair, the person of the outlawed Highlander, with a visage so overgrown with hair as to resemble the shaggy goats that alone shared with him the empire of the mountains, might have been seen rapidly descending the face of the cliff, or screening himself behind the stunted pine and birch trees which skirted the base, until the Shirra Dubh came fairly abreast of the place where he was ensconced. Then springing forward, the outlaw, with one hand, grasped with an iron clutch the neck of the Sheriff, while with the other he presented a pistol at his breast, exclaiming, "Shirra Dubh, I have you now in my power. I am hunted as a beast from the earth; if I attempt to meet my family, I do it at the peril of being shot by any one that may please. I cannot be worse off, and now, unless you will solemnly swear to reverse my sentence, and declare me a free man at the Cross of Inverness, on Friday first, I will instantly shoot you." The Sheriff perceived that he was entirely at the mercy of the outlaw, in whose haggard countenance and eye he plainly read that desperation which would assuredly lead him to fulfil his threatening. He therefore religiously proposed compliance, but this would not satisfy Mac Dhomhuil Dubh, until he gave a most solemn oath, whereupon he was permitted to depart, and the outlaw retreated to his cave. Shirra Dubh, true to his oath, assembled on the following Friday (being a market day), the officials of the town and neighbourhood, and publicly, at the Cross, proclaimed the reversal of the sentence, and Samuel Cameron, alias Mac Dhomhuil Dubh, a free man. This act of mercy was not misplaced, as Samuel who had before been a pest to the wealthy proprietors, and (like Rob Roy), to them only, ever after abandoned his predatory habits, and lived highly respected for the remainder of his life at the Muir of Bunchrew, where he reared up a large family. The narrator was personally acquainted with his grandson, a most decent and exemplary man.

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