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Deeside Tales
Note III

THE original habitat of this famous clan was in Argyll and Perth—principally the districts of Breadalbane and Atholl. When and how some of them spread north and obtained a footing on Deeside has been differently related. According to popular accounts there were two branches, the Macgregors of the Smoke (Griogairich na Smfiide) and the Macgregors of the Lime (G. an Aol). Miss Murray Macgregor prints in her History of the Clan a MS. account of the Braemar families of the name by “John Gregory.” The author is otherwise unknown, and the document is undated, but from internal evidence it seems to have been written not long after 1700. According to him the Macgregors of the Lime came from the south under the patronage and protection of the Earls of Mar about 1400, and soon were able to acquire “four of the best towns in Breman—Cluny and Kilach, Dalchork and Balachbuidh,” besides Inverey. Their nickname arose from their being the first to make use of lime for agricultural purposes in those Highland regions. They burnt it and applied it to the land, raising great crops, “to the inexpressible astonishment of the whole country.” Gregory’s object is evidently to show that his clansmen, far from being caterans and ne’er-do-weels, were the first scientific farmers. His account is marked throughout by strong hostility against the Farquharsons, whose founders he represents as mere “ cow-stealers and raisers of herships,” whereas the first Macgregor Laird of Inverey was a man of such fascination that his patron “the Earl of Marr was never happy but when Inverey was with him.” In the course of time, however, by force and cunning the Farquharsons succeeded in ousting the honourable members of his clan from all their fair possessions west of Crathie.

Most of this story is pure romance. The names of the principal landholders in Braemar and Crathie are known about 1500,* and none that can be identified as Macgregors are to be found there, nor do they otherwise appear on record.

The truth is that Macgregors did not figure in Deeside history till a much later date, and their emigration to the north was owing to the critical experiences which they passed through in the reign of James VI. The savage proceedings carried out by him against this clan need not be referred to here further than to point out that large numbers of Macgregors fled from their native seats, seeking for a living wherever it was to be found. They gravitated most naturally to the north, where the chronic clan feuds and quarrels had reached a height that was indistinguishable from civil war. Some of the more disreputable went to swell the ranks of “broken men,” living by cattle-lifting and robbery; others sought protection and employment in a more regular way under the northern chiefs and lords, who quietly turned a blind eye on the laws and ordinances, pains and penalties, by which King and Council sought to forbid landlords from having any dealings with the proscribed clan. So far from joining or assisting the Royal boycott, these potentates would appear to have competed with each other for the services of the wandering Ishmaels. The particulars of one negotiation have been preserved, t which, though it belongs to a later time than the period of which we are speaking, illustrates the sort of arrangement that was common both before and after, and helps to explain how the Macgregors managed to survive in spite of the best efforts of the State to destroy them.

Letter from the Earl of Atholl to Gregor Mcindowie [Mac-gregor] in Gaulaurk in Strathavene:—

“Assured Freind, I am informed by Donald MacGregor that you have ane intentione to cum and leive in this Cuntne and that you are more desirous to leive in my lands then in any odyr man’s landis Therefor thos are to assure you that there is no landis that I haue that can be spairit but you shall haue it to live in. In the mean tyme I desire you to cum and speack with me. Untill which tyme I shall remaine

Your freind

Tulimatt May ye 6, 1655.” Atholl

The result of the interview seems to have been satisfactory, for six months later Gregor Mcindowie has a charter of the lands of Easter Drumnacharrie in the Earldom of Atholl.

Soon after 1600, considerable bodies of Macgregors had taken refuge in the north. Their chief protectors were the Clan Chattan and the Marquis of Huntly. The Privy Council called the latter to account in 1611 for sheltering them on his lands; he did not deny the fact, but pretended that they were there against his will; and the Councillors got no further satisfaction. In the same year they appear for the first time on Abeigeldie, also a Gordon possession, and afterwards one of their favourite haunts, from which the Council struggled for many years to expel them. They make their ddbut on Deeside in highly characteristic fashion :

“Complaint by George and James Rossis, tenants to William Gordon of Abiryeldie of his lands of Eistoun and Loichmaynis [in Cromar] that, albeit the reset and intercommuning ‘ with that unhappie and rebellious race and handfull of wicked people callit the clan Gregour ’ is strictly discharged, yet on 27th August last Nicol Davie in Muirtoun, accompanied by ten or twelve persons of the said clan and others to the number of fourscore persons, all armed with swords, gauntlets, platesleeves, bows, darlochs and dirks, maist feirslie set uponn the said complenairis at the market of St Marie’s Fair, with great rungis and battonis’ felled them to the ground, and would have slain them if they had not been relieved. Indeed there had been such a tumult in the fair that all the people had dissolved without making further market” (Privy Council Reg.1611.)

The strength of the entente cordiale established between the Gordons and the Macgregors was revealed in 1634 when a savage vendetta arose between the Crichtons and the Gordons consequent upon the mysterious death of the Marquis of Huntly’s son in the conflagration of Frendraught

“Thair cam in to the countrie,” says Spalding, “about 600 Hielanders of the Clangrigour, Clan Chamaron and utheris, and opinlie declairit thay had takin pairt with the Gordons, the friendis of the lait brynt laird of Rothiemay, and wold sie the samen revengit” These Macgregors belonged to the Roro branch of the clan, and in return for this service some of the leaders obtained settlements in Strathavon in Banffshire —at Dalnabo, Dalvorar, and Gaulrig, where they founded families that gave some distinguished soldiers to die British army in the succeeding centuries.* The close connexion which they maintained with their patrons is evidenced in a deed executed in 1711 at Gordon Castle by which with all due formality John and James M'Grigor, sons of Grigor M(Grigor of Delivorar, bind and oblige themselves and their heirs and successors to call themselves Gordons for ever, “and that both in word and write.”

Close on the private Crichton feud followed the wars of the Covenant, a struggle big enough to make the last man that Huntly could put into the field of value. The Macgregors eagerly supported him on the Royalist side, and their services were of such importance that, unlike most of the King’s men, they emerged from “the Troubles” richer than they began. Tradition says that it was at this time that the Glengaim Macgregors became established as lairds on part of the Gordon lands there, at Inverenzie, Dalfad and thereabout This is probably in the main correct, but it is certain that others of the clan owed their lands to the Earls of Mar, and at an earlier date too. There is a charter of 1633 from the Earl of Mar to Thomas Erskine of Rinabrouch in Glengaim, the name Erskine, we are told, being an assumed one, instead of Macgregor (in accordance with the law of 1603 which commanded the clansmen to discard their own surname and choose another—in this case the family name of the Earls being taken). In the public records of the district “Erskine alias Macgregor” occurs more than once, so that “John Gregory’s” narrative, referred to above, contains this amount of truth that some of the Deeside Macgregors owed their position to the favour of the Earl of Mar, though he greatly antedates their appearance on the Dee.

At one time or other in the 17th century the following lands were in the possession of owners bearing the name— Auchallater in Braemar; Wester Micras in Crathie; Toma-warran in Abergeldie; Belnabo, Rinabrouch, Richarkarie, Ardoch, Dalfad, Torran, Inverenzie in Glengaim; Ballater in Tullich. Though these lairdships were fairly numerous, most of them were small, and they gradually passed into the hands of the richer and bigger lairds. Macgregors of Ballochbuie figure in most of the local guide-books, the last of them as the hero of a quite incredible story. He sold, it is said, his estate to one of the Farquharsons for a tartan plaid—a transaction which is commemorated on the stone erected by Queen Victoria on the property when it passed into her possession, “The bonniest plaid in Scotland.” There may have been tenants of the name at one time in this place, but public records seem to be quite silent as to its ever having been owned by a Macgregor.

Sheltered among the mountains of Glengaim and fortified by a tenantry mostly of the same name and blood, these Macgregor lairds were the leaders of a little sept or miniature clan that presented a bold front to all and sundry. In character and habits they were Highlanders to the core— proud, spirited, and clannish, devoted to the old faith and the old dynasty, famous for their readiness “with word and blow, but the blow first.” Their enemies, it is true, would likely have added another less pleasing feature of character, which may be described in the words of Gillecallum Macpherson concerning another clan: “When at war with the Macintoshes bolt your door once, when at peace bolt it twice.” The most famous of the race was Malcolm, commonly known as Calum Og of Ballater, an addition which he or an ancestor made to the Glengaim lands, but which did not remain long in their possession. Apart from tradition, the little that has hitherto been known of him is contained in the short notice in Blakhats Narration (Spalding Club), but since the publication of Miss Macgregoris researches several interesting particulars can be added to his dossier.

In February, 1692, he is denounced as a “lawless man* (Records of Justiciary). Four months later, “Malcolme McGregor of Balater, Alexander McGregor in Tilliechurder are indyted along with Gordon of Abergeldie, etc., at the instance of Robert Stewart of Innerchat [in Birse], for burning his house,” etc. Some years afterwards he is found borrowing 700 merks from Farquharson of Invercauld and 280 from Grant of Grant. Following on the ecclesiastical changes introduced at the Revolution, there was held in 1704 an inquisition of Roman Catholics in Glenmuick and the neighbourhood. The minister of the parish, the Rev. James Robertson, in presenting to the Presbytery his list of papists, priests, and apostates, puts Calum at the head of it for boldness and inveteracy. He keeps mass and Popish conventicles in his house. He has sent his eldest son to Douai to be trained for the priesthood. He has lately erected a crucifix on a little hill near to his house to be adored by all the neighbourhood. He is worth about 500 merks per annum, but much of his fortune “is now adjudged upon decreits obtained against him for robbing the Laird of Glenkindie’s house [the Strachans were a strong anti-Stuart family and old enemies of the Macgregors], and other such like barbarities. Only he makes a considerable deal of money by blackmail, extorted from several low country parishes, such as Fordun, Strachan, Fettercaim, etc., under pretence of protecting them.” One of his escapades touched the worthy minister to the quick. Calum had stepped over from Gaimside to Allanaquoich one day to a wedding feast where there was a large company present, and had contributed his share towards the entertainment of the guests in a unique manner. “After he had at first ridiculed the protestant religion, he next went to his knees and with a loud voice uttered a deal of horrid blasphemie, pretending to personate protestant ministers in their prayers and then fell a preaching, to the great astonishment of the beholders.” The warmth of the minister’s feelings and language is no doubt due to the fact that it was at him that Calum’s caricature was levelled. A year or two before, the minister of the three upper parishes, an Episcopalian, had been deposed “ for gross negligence in preaching, etc.,” and Robertson, his successor, the first Presbyterian minister, no doubt introduced a pulpit manner which was new to those parts, and which, if we may judge from a contemporary satire, Scots Presbyterian Eloquence Displayed, must have presented considerable temptations to the lively laird of Ballater. In the narrative by John Gregory, mentioned at the beginning of this note, Calum also figures.

“The lairds of Inverenzie,” he says, “were in opulent circumstances until at last when one of them, young Mallcoin, one of the most valiant men in his day, by misfortune was inveigled in a process of law before the Court of Session, in defence of which process he almost spent his all, so high was the spirit of this brave man. After being told by his advocates that he would inevitably lose, unless he would sell some part of his estate in order to maintain the cause, so much perplexed was he that he did not know how to behave; but upon retiring to his room in Edinburgh he betook himself to his pair of trumps and there was making a tune to himself by way of recreation. The lawyers now finding, as they thought, that he would be obliged to sell his estate or at least a good part of it, they would go and advise him to advertise the same. Upon their approaching the room they were confounded to see him in such top spirits as he seemed to be; however, so dexterous was he at that kind of music that the lawyers insisted on his playing on, and after some hours play and a handsome treat no doubt, they left him without ever advising him to dispose of any part of his estate; and next day, or a few days after, upon considering the high spirits of such a brave man, gained his plea.”

His descendants continued true to the traditions of their house to the last. One of his grandsons, Captain Macgregor of Inverenzie, mustered his little band of followers on the haugh at Dalfad and marched off to join Lord Lewis Gordon’s regiment in the *45, and if Grant’s Legends is to be believed two others perished in the Gaim within sight of their own house as they were returning from a cattle-lifting expedition in the west.

It was probably soon after this that they had to part with their estates, a misfortune which in view of their manner of life was plainly inevitable. In the Roman Catholic burying ground at Dalfad a rude flat tombstone bears the inscription,

“G. M. G. 1734.
Here lies John Gnerson
Who died the 2nd day of May 1787.”

The second name is said to refer to one of the last of the lairds. Though no longer figuring as landed men, the race did not become extinct on Deeside, and there is, or at least there was in existence some years ago, a manuscript account of the doings of Captain Macgregor of Culloden fame, carefully cherished by his descendants.

The Cateran Macgregors.—The landed Macgregors with whom we have been dealing, wild and reckless as they were, might pass for law-abiding citizens compared with some others of the name who kept Deeside in a ferment about the beginning of the 17 th century. These were “broken men" of the clan, whose leader was Patrick Macgregor alias Gilderoy or Gilroy, “the red lad,” the hero of the ballad,

“Gilderoy was a bonnie boy.” Whether the popular rhyme concerning the burning of Culbleen and the harrying of Cromar refers to his depredations or not, it is known that the centre of his operations was in that neighbourhood. The so-called Rob Roy’s cave near Loch Kinnord probably owes its name to him, and the Cairn of Gilderoy in Strathdon is another reminiscence of this notorious freebooter. In a proclamation issued by the Privy Council (Mar., 1636) it is stated that

“Patrick Macgregor and others hes associat and combynned themselves togidder, hes thair residence neere to the forrests of Culblene, Glentanar, and in the mountains of Tullich, Glengarne, Strathdie, Strathdone and Cabrach, and from these parts they come in the darknes of the night down to the incountrie, falls unawars upon the houses and goods of his Majesteis poore subjects and spoyles thame of thair goods, and, being full handed with the spoyle they goe backe agane to the bounds forsaids where they keepe mercat of thair goods peaceablie and uncontrolled, to the disgrace of law and justice. For the remeid whairof the Lords of Secreit Counsell charge all landslords and heretours, where thir brokin lymmars has thair resset, abode, and starting holes, to rise, putt thamselffes in armes, and to hunt, follow, and persew, shout and raise the fray, and with fire and sword to persew the saids theeves, and never to leave aff thair persute till they be ather apprehended or putt out of the countrie.”

Impudent and systematic spoliation like this would of course have been impossible had the band not had supporters among the people. A fortnight after this proclamation, another follows directed against those who “reset, supplee, assist, maintain or defend” Gilderoy and his followers, or who “hoord thair goods, blocke, buy or bargain with them thereanent” More than a hundred and fifty of these resetters are mentioned by name, the great majority belonging to the Upper Deeside parishes. The list supplies a highly instructive example of the difficulties with which the forces of law and order had to contend in bringing the lawless to justice. It embraces all classes of the community, beginning with “ brewsters ” and brewster women (with whom the country seems to have been more than well supplied) and even some representatives of the Cyprian sisterhood, and rising up through cottars, tenants, and tacksmen to the Laird of Abergeldie on the summit of the social pyramid. He, like his father before him, was the chief local supporter of the Macgregors, “broken” or unbroken; but in almost every “town” from Aboyne to Balmoral, Gilderoy had his secret allies.

The Council go on to issue a commission to Lords Forbes and Pitsligo, Farquharson of Invercauld and others to pursue Gilderoy, to arrest and deal with resetters, and in short to abate the plague by any means that seemed likely to be successful A reward of £1000 is offered “in present and thankful payment ” for the presentation of Gilderoy and his chief followers alive or dead, and a long series of proclamations and fiilminations concludes with a rather amusing confession of weakness :—

“And whereas in the execution of the commissioun the saids commissioners will be sometimes constrained to employ persons not altogidder answerable and obedient to law and justice, and the Lords of the Council being willing if thir person sail do anie worthie and memorable service that they sail have some taste of his Majesties favour for thair panes, theirfoir the saids Lords promises that if anie person will take and bring in a more notorious and powerful lymmarnor himselffe and find caution for good behaviour he sail have his Majesties gracious favour and pardon for all bygane offences.”

This is the method which Spalding describes as that of “garring one devil ding another.”

Gilderoy’s capture was finally effected by one of the chief enemies of his race, Lord Lome afterwards Marquis of Argyle, somewhere in the west country. He was taken, with nine of his band, to Edinburgh to be tried. There they were speedily sentenced to “be hangit quhill they be deid; and Patrick Gilroy and Johnne Forbes sail be hangit upon ane gibbet, quhilk gibbet sail be advanced ane grit degrie heicher nor the gibbet quhairupone the rest sail suffer.”

Though Gilderoy was thus well disposed of, matters were not greatly mended on Deeside. His brother promptly served himself heir to the leadership of the Gillean Ruadh, and when he was captured and executed in turn, still another of the same brood stepped forward to captain the band. Equally steadfast was the Laird of Abergeldie in his defiance of King and Council. He again figures in a new list of resetters as one who “has suppleed and inter-commoned with the brokin lymmars, furnished them meate, drink, poulder, lead, lunt, and all others things necessar, keeps intelligence with them be word, writt and message, and ministers unto them all kynde of confort and assistance.” Deeside was at last relieved of these Macgregor desperadoes by the outbreak of the Civil war in 1639. They found employment with the anti-Covenanting forces, but so bad was their character that the more moderate Royalists doubted if the credit and strength of their cause were not injured by the presence of such auxiliaries.

Though they left no successors who operated on quite so daring and magnificent a scale, the trade of spulzie continued to have its devotees on Deeside, as everywhere else in the Highlands. After the commotions of the 17th century, when lawlessness reached its height, the forces of order gradually proved the stronger and the business might be described as a declining industry. Still the practice of cattle-lifting had been an established Highland institution from the earliest times (the first Act agamst “thift, stouthreaffe, and violent and maisterfull oppressioun ” dating from as far back as 1384), and so it continued to the last, in fact dll the Highlanders were disarmed after Culloden. The local caterans levied their toll on the surrounding lowlands; Deeside itself was preyed upon by the bands whose headquarters lay further west, especially by the Lochaber men, who were reckoned the most finished experts in their profession. The lairds and the law did their best to protect the industrious tenant, but never, as long as the clan system lasted, with perfect success. In fact, the insecurity pertaining to live stock had to be accepted as one of the unavoidable risks of ordinary Highland life. As the Gaelic proverb had it,1 “ I took my milch-cows to the fold; with me to-day, from me to-morrow.” Even in the cradle the young cateran heard the praises of his future pastime and was inoculated with the proper spirit There is a sweet lullaby, t once heard in the Lochaber district, the first verse of which runs—

“Cagaran, cagaran, cagaran gaolach,
Cagaran foghainteach, fear de mo dhaoine;
Goididh e gobhair dhomh, goididh e caorich;
Goididh e capull is mart o na raointean.

“Hushaby, baimie, my bonnie wee laddie
When ye’re a man ye shall follow your daddie,
Lift me a coo, and a goat and a wether,
Bringing them hame to your minnie thegither.”

Such was the immemorial antiquity of the practice of cattle-lifting, and so closely allied with the methods of clan warfare, that the caterans almost claimed a sort of toleration from public opinion. When Donald Cameron, the leader of what was probably the last band in the country, was caught and condemned to death in 1752 at Kinloch Rannoch, General Stewart records that “at his execution he dwelt with surprise and indignation on his fate. He had never committed murder, nor robbed man or house, or taken anything but cattle off the grass of those with whom he was at feud.”


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