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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part I.—Records and Traditions of Gairloch
Chapter XL—John Roy Mackenzie

T AIN RUADH MACCHOINNICH,or John Roy Mackenzie, third A son of John Glassich, and grandson of the great Hector Roy, was a minor when his brothers died in 1566, and his lands were in 1567 given in ward by Queen Mary to John Banerman of Cardenye.

John Roy became one of the most renowned of the old chiefs of Gairloch; he was in fact second only in fame to his celebrated grandfather, whom he closely resembled in appearance and physique. He is one of the most prominent figures in the old traditions of Gairloch, though there are no stories extant of his personal prowess in warfare.

He was born in 1548, but two years before his father was poisoned at Eileandonain. On this event his mother, Agnes Fraser, fled with John Roy to her own relatives, and she concealed him as best she could, putting him, it is said, every night under a brewing kettle. His mother afterwards became the wife of the laird of Mackay in Sutherlandshire, and John Roy then spent some time in hiding on his patrimonial estate of Glasleitire in Kintail, under the faithful guardianship of Iain Liath, one of the MacRae heroes. It is said he was afterwards concealed by the lairds of Moidart and of Farr.

John Roy grew up a tall, brave, and handsome young Highlander. When he could carry arms and wear the belted plaid, he went to the Mackay country to visit his mother. None but his mother knew him, and neither she nor he made known who he was. In those days any stranger who came to a house was not asked who he was until he had been there a year and a day. John Roy lived in the servants' end of the house, and slept and fed with them. Mackay had two rare dogs, called Cu-dubh and Faoileag, and they became greatly attached to John Roy, so that they would follow no one else. Near the end of the year Mackay told his wife that he suspected the stranger was a gentleman's son. Her tears revealed the truth. John Roy was then kindly received at the table of the laird, who asked him what he could do for him. John Roy begged that Mackay would give him a bodyguard consisting of the twelve of his men whom he might choose, and the two dogs Cu-dubh and Faoileag. He got these, and they went away to Glas Leitire in Kintail, taking with them an anker of whisky. Arriving there John Roy placed his twelve men in concealment, and went himself to the house of Iain Liath Macrae. It was the early morning, and the old wife was spinning on the distaff. She looked out, and saw a man there. She called to Iain Liath, who was still lying down, "There is a man out yonder sitting on a creel, and I never saw two knees in my life more like John Roy's two knees." Iain Liath got up, went to the door, and called out "Is that you John?" John Roy answered that it was. "Have you any with you?" "Yes, I have twelve men." Kt Fetch them," said Iain Liath. He killed the second bull, and feasted them all. Then he told John Roy that Mackenzie of Kintail was coming that very day to hunt on the Glas Leitire hills of his (John Roy's) fathers. John Roy, with his twelve men and Iain Liath, went to the hill, taking the whisky with them. Mackenzie arrived to hunt the deer, and when he saw John Roy and his men, he sent a fair-haired lad to inquire who they were. John Roy bade the boy sit down, and gave him whisky. Whenever he rose to go, more whisky was offered, and he was nothing loath to take it. Mackenzie, thinking the lad was long in returning, sent another boy, who was treated in the same way. Mackenzie then saw that John Roy had returned, so he went back with his followers to Brahan, and John Roy was not further molested by the lords of Kintail.

John Roy came back with Iain Liath to his house, when the latter told him that he had Hector Roy's chest with the title-deeds of Gairloch, and that John Roy must claim the estate. Iain Liath took all his belongings, and accompanied John Roy and his twelve men to Gairloch. They came to Beallach a Chomhla, at the side of Bathais [Bus] Bheinn. Coming down the mountain they found a good well, and there they rested and left the women and the cattle. The well is called to this day "Iain Liath's well." They met people who informed them that Iain Dubh Mac Ruaridh M'Leod, or Black John the son of Rorie M'Leod, who was governor of the old castle of the Dun, was accustomed to wralk every day across the big sand and to lie on the top of the Crasg to spy the country. The party went to the Crasg, and Iain Liath told Iain Dubh MacRuaridh M'Leod, whom they met there, that unless he left the castle before that night he would lose his head. M'Leod took the hint, and sailed away in his birlinn with all his valuables, except one chest containing old title-deeds, which came into John Roy's possession along with the castle.

It is said that after this John Roy had the resolution to wait on Colin Cam Mackenzie, lord of Kintail, who established him in all his lands. John Roy came of age about 1569, but it was not until 1606 that he received a charter erecting Gairloch into a free barony.

How John Roy came to revenge the assassination at the hands of Ruaridh MacAllan M'Leod of Gairloch, of the sons of Mac Ghille Challum of Raasay, and how this led to John Roy obtaining possession of the third part of Gairloch, which had been retained by the M'Leods since Hector Roy's time, will be related in our next chapter. John Roy had a long feud with the M'Leods, and it seems to have been nearly the end of the sixteenth century before they were finally expelled from Gairloch. In the latter part of this struggle John Roy was much assisted by his twelve valiant sons, several of whom, as will be seen, also figured in struggles with the M'Leods after they had abandoned Gairloch.

John Roy was twice married. By his first wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Angus Macdonald of Glengarry, he had eleven children. By his second wife, Isabel, daughter of Murdo Mackenzie of Fairburn, he had five children. Besides these he had several illegitimate children. The recorded pedigrees give the names of only eleven sons ; but tradition says that, as John Roy's family grew up, his bodyguard of twelve chosen warriors was composed solely of his own sons.

The northern lairds, like the nobility further south, profited by the alienation of church property which followed the Reformation. The rectory and vicarage of Gairloch was vacant for some years, and in 1584 we find John Roy dealing with the tiends or tithes. Disputes ensued, and ultimately John Roy seems to have abandoned his claim.

The ironworks at Letterewe were commenced about 1607 by Sir George Hay; they were on the property of Lord Mackenzie of Kintail. The iron-smelting furnace at Talladale was most likely established by Sir George Hay about the same time. No doubt woods on John Roy's Gairloch estate were cut down to provide charcoal for smelting, and if so John Roy must have derived pecuniary benefit from the Talladale ironworks, but there is no record to confirm this conjecture.

John Roy resided in Eilean Ruaridh, on Loch Maree. There are two islands of the name, distinguished as big and little; they almost adjoin. It was in the little island that John Roy dwelt, in the house where formerly Ruaridh M'Leod had lived. John Roy enlarged and improved the house, and made it his Gairloch home. Some remains of the house and adjoining garden are still to be seen.

It was early in 1609 that John Roy paid a visit to the laird of Mackay in Sutherlandshire., On his return journey the laird of Mackay escorted him as far as the Meikle Ferry, on the Kyle of Sutherland. When the party arrived at the ferry, the groom of a gentleman, who was also about to cross, endeavoured to keep possession of the boat. Amongst the attendants of the laird of Mackay was his youthful piper, named Roderick Mackay, a fine lad of seventeen summers. The groom placed his hand on the boat to hold it until his master should come up. The hot-headed young piper drew his dirk and cut off the groom's hand. The laird of Mackay said, "Rorie, I cannot keep you longer; you must leave the country." John Roy Mackenzie said to the piper, " Will you come with me, Rorie?" The piper lad was only too glad to accept this invitation, and his master, who had a great liking for the handsome and talented boy, was quite willing that he should go with John Roy, who sent Hugh Mackenzie of Gairloch, his gamekeeper, to the laird of Mackay in exchange for the piper. The descendants of Hugh Mackenzie still dwell in Sutherlandshire, where it is remembered how their ancestor came from Gairloch. Donald Mor Mackay, an elder brother of Rorie the piper, spent a number of years in Gairloch, and assisted his brother in the office of piper.

In the following winter—probably early in 1610—Kenneth, Lord Mackenzie of Kintail (son of Colin Cam), who had lately obtained a charter to the Lews, and had been raised to the peerage, returning from his new possessions, landed at Torridon on his way home to Brahan. His lordship sent a messenger to John Roy Mackenzie, desiring him to meet him at Torridon. John Roy's growing power had revived the old jealousy of the Kintail family, and Lord Mackenzie had determined to slay him. John Roy's sons strongly dissuaded their father from going to Torridon, fearing that he might share the fate of his father, but he determined to go, and to go alone. He requested his sons to follow him, and to keep watch, but to do nothing until the morning of the following day. Towards, evening John Roy arrived at Torridon, and was hospitably received by Lord Mackenzie. He and his men were drinking and making merry far into the long winter night. At last they resolved to retire to sleep. It was in a barn where their couches of heather were prepared. John Roy would not lie down except on the same bed as Lord Mackenzie. He lay quite still as if asleep. After a while a man came in, with his dirk drawn, and asked Lord Mackenzie if he should stab John Roy. Lord Mackenzie replied, "No, you shall not befoul my bed; let be until daylight." At daybreak a man came hurriedly into the barn, and told his lordship that there were twelve big men and a piper on the Ploc of Torridon, putting the stone and playing other Highland games, and that one who seemed to be the chief of them was so tall that he had the head above the whole of them. Lord Mackenzie got up and went out in some alarm. No one knew who the men were, until Lord Mackenzie asked John Roy. John Roy said, "They are only my boys come to see if I got safe over the hill." It was a hard winter, and the snow was deep on the mountains. Lord Mackenzie then told John Roy that he had been thinking to do him harm. John Roy said, "If you had had the supper you intended, you would have had a dirty breakfast." When the young men saw their father they told the piper to play; they came up to where their father was and took him away with them.


They went over the shoulder of Liathgach, and the piper played all the way to the top of the hill without a halt. Then they made their way homewards, and reached their house in Eilean Ruaridh without mishap. The man who was a head taller than any of the others was Alastair Breac, second son of John Roy, and his successor in Gairloch. The piper was Donald Mor Mackay, brother of John Roy's piper Rorie.

The terrible feud between the Glengarry Macdonalds and the Mackenzies of Kintail came to a head during John Roy's life. He was not involved in the warfare, and it is unnecessary to give any account of it in these pages. During its blood-stained progress Alexander MacGorrie and Ranald MacRory, allies of Glengarry, made an incursion to the district of Kenlochewe, and there meeting some women and children who had fled from Lochcarron with their cattle, attacked them unexpectedly, killed many of the defenceless women and all the male children, and killed and took away many of the cattle, houghing all they were unable to carry along with them. At this time Kenlochewe seems to have still formed part of the Kintail possessions.

Later on we find that the lord of Kintail was staying on a visit with John Roy at his house in Eilean Ruaridh in Loch Maree. There is some confusion or obscurity in the dates, but it seems certain that this visit was after the incident at Torridon ; it shows that the enmity between the Kintail and Gairloch Mackenzies was now at an end, and we hear no more of it.

When the M'Leods were finally expelled from Gairloch, and all the fights to be recorded in our next chapter were over, John Roy applied to the crown for a "remission" for himself and his sons for their lawless conduct during the struggle, and this was granted by King James VI. on 2d April 1614, in a document now in the Gairloch charter-chest, which gives John Roy and his sons credit for "much and good benefit to His Majesty's distressed subjects."

John Roy acquired some properties in the part of Ross-shire towards the east coast, partly in right of his mother and partly by purchase. He built the first three storeys of the tower of Kinkell, and no doubt himself resided there at times. He was a shrewd and prudent chief, frank and hospitable, and (notwithstanding his necessarily imperfect education) a good man of business. He greatly furthered the interests of his people and of his own large family.

He died at Talladale in 1628, in his eightieth year, and was buried in the chapel his son Alastair Breac had erected in the old churchyard of Gairloch.


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