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A Highlander Looks Back
Description of My Native Parish

ADJACENT to the Dell of Sherrabeg are Sherramore, Crubenbeg, and Garvamore where at one time lived families of the Clan Macpherson, the land at that time being part of the Cluny Estates, overlooking the dell on a nearby hill called the “Dun”, in Gaelic “Dun-da-Lamh”. These are the ruins of a British stronghold said to be the most perfect relic of its kind in Britain. Of this old fort much has been written and to the person in search of such scenes I would strongly recommend a visit; the scenery may well be described as unsurpassed and one of the most romantic parts of the Highlands.

Near to the old fort there stands a very old chapel, which in my day had a very large congregation of worshippers and a resident priest, but owing to the depopulation of the glen the priest now lives in Kingussie, twelve miles or so further down the Spey valley and the chapel is fast going the way of the old fort. About a mile from the chapel there is a very old dwelling house called “Dalchully”, in Gaelic “Dail-a-Chulaidh”, meaning the dale of the holly. Lady Jane, daughter of Simon Lord Lovat, who was married to Cluny of the ’45 lived here, and it was here that in 1887, as a boy, I ran races at celebrations in honour of Her late Majesty Queen Victoria.

On the opposite side of the river Spey is Crathie, in my day a thickly-populated crofting community where now, alas, there are only one or two houses from which smoke comes from the chimney. The road which passes Sherrabeg and links up with the main road at Laggan Bridge is one of those built by General Wade in 1735 through the wild glen of Corrieyairack to Fort Augustus. For a time until taken over by the County Council this road got into a state of decay and it is only now passable as far as Garvamore, at the western end linking up with Fort Augustus.

This is only a very rough track which requires caution on the part of the most experienced mountaineer. My father often guided people over the pass bringing with him his bagpipes, and, when on the summit and before leaving on his return journey would play a tune in praise of Corrieyairack and its majestic grandeur. The General Wade road from the chapel to its junction with the main road has, through recurrent flooding from the Spey river, been washed away and is now very inaccessible to traffic.

A new branch road was, however, built from the chapel linking up with the main Fort William road near Strathmashie. Turning to the right, one passes Strathmashie Lodge where once lived Lachlan Macpherson, a Gaelic scholar and poet of repute. The Mashie river flows quietly along the flat meadow land joining up nearby with the Spey. Its source begins near the Benalder mountains and the well known Loch Ericht, a rugged stream until it reaches the Falls of Pattock. In her poems Mrs Grant of Laggan refers to the Mashie as follows:—

“Deep in a narrow vale unknown to song,
Where Mashie leads her lucid stream along,
Then turns as if unwilling to forsake.
The peaceful bosom of her parent Lake,
While her pure streams the polished pebbles show,
That through the native crystal shine below.”

Further along one passes Aberarder, long noted as the home of successive members of the Clan Macpherson, and the ruins of St. Kenneth’s Chapel and consecrated burying ground. Kinlochlaggan Hotel, and Moy Lodge with Loch Laggan on the left, known to anglers far and wide, until the parish of Laggan joins up with romantic Lochaber and Loch Eil.

On the south side of Loch Laggan stands Ardverikie. In Gaelic this means the height for rearing the standard, and in olden times it was the Lodge of those who revelled in the chase and became famous for the paintings of “The Challenge” and “The Stag at Bay” by that great painter, Landseer. The deer forests of Ardverikie and Benalder, all of which at one time belonged to Cluny Macpherson, are reckoned as being the best in Scotland. In 1847, on her first visit to the Highlands the late Queen Victoria occupied Ardverikie for a time, and along with the Royal Family paid a visit to Cluny Castle, and from my parents, who were at Cluny at that time, I have heard a lot of that historic visit.

I was told that Her Majesty the Queen contemplated buying Ardverikie, but the place being then let on lease Her Majesty was so gracious as not to have the lease interfered with. The good people of Deeside did not miss the opportunity and seized what would have been an imperishable gain to Laggan and the Spey valley when soon afterwards Balmoral became the Royal residence. The water from the hydro-electric dam at Sherrabeg is carried through a mountain tunnel into Loch Laggan, joining up with a large dam at Roughburn and carried by tunnel into Loch Traig and through Ben Nevis, supplying Fort William, Inverlochy, and the industrial plants with electric power.

Reverting to the junction of the river Mashie to the river Spey, I will follow still my youthful scenes on both sides of the Spey until the Calder river is reached, where from the fastnesses of the Monaliadh Mountains and picturesque Loch Dhu the Calder rises to join the Spey river. On the left there is the farm of Coul, in my day tenanted by a stalwart clansman, Ewen Macpherson, a keen volunteer, a farmer and contractor, and a man of great physique.

Blaragie, a large sheep and arable farm: here it was that Captain John Macpherson who fought in the battle of Quebec was born, and who took in his arms his beloved General Wolfe as he fell mortally wounded. In my time Blaragie was tenanted by a Donald MacKillop, a man who has left a fragrant memory in the parish, and is now tenanted by Donald Tolmie, as fine a player of shinty as ever handled a caman and a member of a family once well known and respected in Badenoch.

Further along there is the small hamlet of Croft, and nearby the Gergask Public School, where I romped in days of yore. A general merchant’s business and post office is in close proximity at Laggan Bridge, carried on in my time by a family of the name of Dott, from whose door a person in need was never turned away empty. The business is now carried on by a very progressive family of the name of Gillies, who steadily expand to the ever-increasing demands of the catering trade.

On high agricultural land behind the post office there stands the Manse of Laggan overlooking the Spey Valley and the Church of Scotland, where many eminent Ministers preached the gospel and now carried on, I understand, by the Rev. Mr Titterington with much acceptance. The church is surrounded by a wall within which lie the mortal remains of many with whom I associated in the flesh, including my dear father and mother and sister.

Next comes the farm of Gaskbeg. Here it was that the old Manse of Laggan stood in the time of the celebrated Mrs Grant of Laggan when her husband was the parish minister from 1775 to 1801. In the latter year Mr Grant died and is buried in the churchyard at Laggan Bridge where a massive tombstone was erected to his memory by the people of the parish. In my day Gaskbeg was tenanted by a Mr William MacGillivray, a good farmer with a good sheep stock second to none, and a herd of Highland cattle with as many as eighteen milk cows suckling their calves, a picturesque sight indeed as they grazed by the banks of the river Spey.

Gaskmore, made famous from historical military records by the deeds of a Colonel Ranald Macdonald who was born here, is now a very imposing dwelling house, built, I presume, on the spot where Colonel Macdonald was born. In my boyhood it was a simple little thatched cottage occupied by a shoemaker, the name of Macleod, whose workmanship defied penetration from the most rigorous weather.

Craigville, standing close in its own grounds was and is the residence of the medical doctor, in my early days occupied by a Doctor Macrae. Since then many skilful men have given of their best to the deserving people of Laggan. At present, Doctor Mackay, recently appointed from Glasgow, is the medical doctor, a man whose friendship I am proud to have and a man who I am sure will uphold the best traditions of my native parish. Here he will find himself in the best environment for his enthusiasm and his skill in his playing of the bagpipe.

The old schoolhouse of Balgowan stands by the wayside, and here a truly Christian man, Mr Roderick Macdonald, laboured as schoolmaster for many years. From this small seat of learning with its lovely garden grounds, Mr Macdonald sent many scholars to the university who became eminent in the professions and in business both at home and abroad. The teaching was in both languages, Gaelic and English. It was in those days that the scholars had to bring with them a peat for the school fire. I remember Mr Macdonald very well. He was a great fisherman, and to his salmon-fishing experiences it was indeed thrilling to listen.

After his death when his effects were put up for auction, I was determined to become the possessor of his fishing rod and with a very meagre purse, I proudly walked home with the prize. What a fishing rod! Let modern anglers imagine its power. It was in four pieces, nineteen feet long, with the butt end carrying inside two spare points. It was made of the best material, but to give it justice required the arms of a Goliath, a relic of the past which I regret got lost in a fire in later years along with many more of my valued possessions.

Balgowan: here was a thickly populated crofting community which, although not so much so now, has, through the foresight of the proprietor Cluny Macpherson in building good substantial dwelling houses, many families living in contentment upon the land, much of which was cultivated from its virgin state by their forebears. Overlooking this panorama of beautiful country stands Cluny Castle, the seat of the Chiefs of the Clan Chattan for many generations. Passing the large agricultural and sheep farm of Cluny, tenanted in my day by Mr William Macdonald, who also acted as local factor for Cluny, a man greatly respected, a mile further on is Ovie which takes its name from the Gaelic, meaning in English “awe-inspiring”. This may be due to its close proximity to the famous rock “Craigdhu”, the war-cry of Clan Chattan.

In the face of this gigantic rock there is one of the many caves in which Cluny Macpherson of the “’45” period took refuge when hunted about by his enemies for nine years. The cave is most inaccessible; I have visited it, and one false step to its entry and one would be hurled over the precipice for hundreds of feet. A sure rock of defence where two or three persons with the modern hand grenade could defy an army. Cluny, however, had what was even more effective, the loyalty of his people, not one of whom would ever betray nor divulge the secret of his dens in the mountains although there was £30,000 offered for his capture.

Loch Ovie lies by the wayside, where as a boy I caught many a good pike—a fish, if one knows how to deal with it, which can be a very appetising dish. Ovie had two farms, now in one, called Auch-more, tenanted in my early days by Mr Alasdair Cattanach, a man who as a churchman held great and honoured sway in the parish. I can remember his being one day in search of sheep on Craigdhu when he fell over one of the danger spots and succumbed to his injuries causing very great gloom in the district.

The mansion house of Craigdhu nestles in a lovely spot facing the giant rock and was the home of many generations of Macphersons. It is now owned and occupied by Colonel Ritchie, a gentleman who takes a keen interest in the welfare of the parish. From the main road one can see what is described as the Giant’s Head in the face of the rock, a truly wonderful likeness, which may have had something to do with the name from which Ovie is derived.

The old burying ground of Bialid Beg is nearby, where many of the Clan Macpherson are buried and, doubtless, many who fought in the historic battle of Invernahavon, which was fought in the year 1386 where the river Truin enters the Spey. Bialid farm on the slopes of Craigdhu, with meadowland bordering on the river Calder where it joins the Spey, was at one time the home of reputable members of the Macpherson clan, and in my day of Mr MacGillvray who before then tenanted the farm of Cluny, a good-neighbour, who many a time gave my father a skin from a three-year-old wedder sheep.

From this my father always made a bag for his bagpipe; nothing else would suffice, and the skins far surpassed for quality and endurance the best that can be obtained nowadays.

Crossing over by the Spey Bridge to the south side of the river Spey, I am indeed on familiar ground. On this road I often walked from Catlodge to Kingussie, ten miles each way, and thought it a simple day’s walk, in drifting snow in the winter time, and in summer listening to the lark soaring in the sky with his tuneful song and to the curlew with its haunting call from the hillside.

Turning westward from Spey Bridge a road turns left to Ralia and Nuide, at one time homes of famous members of the Clan Macpherson and part of the then Cluny estates. Ralia is supposed to derive its name from an old druidical circle where the druids used to worship, and at Nuide there is a very old burial place, probably centuries old.

Travelling westwards on the main Inverness to Perth road for two miles one comes in view of the Glentruim estate with its lovely mansion house facing the rising sun, a most picturesque sight near to where the river Truin joins the Spey. Here one leaves the Perth road crossing the railway by what the local people call the Dry Bridge, and a little further on the road bridge over the Truin river, linking up with the General Wade road at Laggan.

There is no more attractive estate in the Spey valley than Glentruim, long owned and occupied by successive families of Mac-phersons, and in my early days by Colonel Lachlan Macpherson, a very distinguished soldier. I was at the ball, one of the items celebrating the coming of age of the then heir to the estate, a very fine young gentleman, but who being lured away by the gold rush to Australia unfortunately lost his life, a life of great promise deeply mourned throughout Badenoch. It was on this occasion of the ball mentioned that Mr Donald Campbell of Kingussie composed that song in Gaelic and English, “The Ball of Glentruim”, a song which is still received with much pleasure from the concert platform. The estate of Glentruim is still happily owned and occupied by Mrs Duncan Macpherson of Glentruim, a lady who takes great interest in county and local matters.

Looking westwards from Glentruim one comes in sight of what may be described as one of the most beautiful views on the run of Spey. For miles the river Spey is seen winding its serpentlike way along the plains with the mountains of Cluny, Monaliadh, Corryarrick, and Corryarder, in the distance. One passes the small hamlet of Seannbhaile, old town, where in days of yore I passed many happy hours with my friend Ex-Provost Campbell, of Kingussie, a worthy product of the parish of Laggan, who with either bagpipe or the violin, could give the most pleasing selections.

Seannbhaile borders on the farm of Breakachy, and passing along this road for three miles, many foundations of old dwelling places can be seen. I remember the last two families who lived at a spot called in Gaelic Tom-na-Chrochaire, which in English means the Hangman’s Knoll. I often wondered how it derived its name and conclude that in all likelihood here was the very place where many weird executions took place when in bye-gone days one would be hanged for stealing a sheep and sometimes for less. To pass this particular place at night one often did so with fear and trembling as the ghost stories related by the old people in connection with Tom-na-Chrochaire were indeed most terrifying.

Nearby is a place called “Luib-A-Mhoid” which might be the place of meeting to determine the fate of the various transgressors of the law. There is also “Ault Mhorrish” and “Corrachy”, celebrated too, as haunts for the ghosts, which in my wanderings I never contacted.

Breakachy is a large sheep and agricultural farm. The present house was built when I was a boy, very much more modern than the old building. In those days it was tenanted by Mr McCall-Smith, an excellent neighbour, a County Councillor, and a man whose advice in farming circles was often referred to. With the older members of his family of five, I went to school. Breakachy was in olden times long the home of the Clan Macpherson who were closely associated with Cluny Macpherson of the 1745 period in the many conflicts of that age. Beside Breakachy stood my old home in Catlodge.

Mr McCall-Smith had the grazing land bordering on Loch Erricht, and at one time he got implicated in a lawsuit with a neighbouring proprietor over a boundary fence, the legal rights of which could not be procured. In Court the evidence of the oldest persons who knew the land was taken, and decided the issue in favour of the farmer, mainly on the evidence given by a John Macpherson, an old shepherd then well over 80 years of age, whose son and daughters were very much against his going to Edinburgh at, his time of life. Mr MacCall-Smith, however, was very anxious that the old man should go, and in order to prove his fitness, old John got off his seat and danced the Highland Fling, which I witnessed. The old hero returned from his journey none the worse, but satisfied that he had given well-deserved service.

Before leaving the Glentruim estate there is a road turning off at Seannbhaile to the falls of Truim, Crubenbeg, and Crubenmore, joining with the main road to Perth. Here again there lived families of Macphersons. Crubenmore has a very attractive shooting lodge, and never fails to give good results on the moors. On the Truim river nearby, there used to be good salmon fishing, but looking at the river now as one passes on the railway, one fears that as a salmon river it has very much deteriorated since coming under the control of the hydro-electric scheme.

Carrying on for seven or eight miles Dalwhinnie is reached. Dalwhinnie has been a place of historical note, and claimed the attention of the poetess, Mrs Grant, of Laggan, when she wrote of it as follows:—

“In solemn prospects stretched before ye
The Mountains rise sublime and hoary,
The inconsistent blast the clouds dividing,
On which old hero’s ghosts seemed riding,

While struggling moonbeams point their graves,
And roaring streams thro’ echoing caves,
Resounding, fill the soul with terror,
While slave to superstition’s error.”

It was at Dalwhinnie in 1745 that Johnny Cope mustered his army in expectation of being attacked by Prince Charlie’s followers who were commanded by their Chief, Cluny Macpherson. Since those far off days Dalwhinnie has steadily advanced and is now a very progressive community with ample hotel accommodation, and an angler’s paradise on famous Loch Ericht.

Turning off the main Inverness-Perth road one joins the road leading to Laggan, part of the General Wade construction, over seven or eight miles of beautiful moorland, now a first-class county road linking up with the cross-roads at Catlodge for Fort William on the west and Inverness on the east. Nearby are the farms of Drumgask, once a hotel and farm, Middleton, Tigh-an-Fhraoich (Heather House), and Lagg, and three crofts all tenanted and cultivated, with large families with whom I went to school, and many other settlers all within an area of two miles. How different today!

Catlodge, which takes its name from the hollow of the Cat, was for long the home of the Macphersons, notably Colonel Fraser Macpherson, a grandson of Cluny of the ’45 and a great soldier. There is a very pretty shooting lodge where I saw many large and distinguished parties. Here it was, on a beautiful knoll overlooking the meadow lands of Breakachy farm and the burn which runs into the Spey, where in boyhood days with my homemade fishing rod I spent many happy hours, my early life began, and in the environment of mountain, loch, and river, I often wondered what the future had in store for me.

At the age of eight years I witnessed an unforgettable scene, the funeral of Old Cluny, Chief of the Clan Chattan. Cluny died on 11th January, 1885, and was laid to rest on the following Saturday, 17th January, in the family burial ground overlooking the river Spey and the mountains, which were so dear to his heart. It was a somewhat cold winter day with a slight covering of snow. A very large crowd of people including women and children, not only from Laggan but many other parishes, and representatives of the greatest historical Highland families assembled to pay their last respects to a great man of whom it could truly be assigned was the last of the Jacobite Chiefs.

It was a memorable scene when, after an appropriate service, the coffin was raised and firstly carried shoulder high by a detachment from Cluny’s old regiment, the 42nd Black Watch Royal Highlanders, and afterwards by employees and the general public, preceded by the Black Watch pipers with muffled drums, also my father and my brother John with their bagpipes, playing in turn the solemn notes of “The Lament”, as they wended their way along the avenue. On the coffin lay the Chief’s Glengarry bonnet with eagle feather and sword, and the old green banner with its tattered but honoured stains from many a battlefield.

My father played the last lament as the cortege entered the burial place, and never will I forget it as he struck up “The Lament for the Hary Tree”, as fine a piobaireachd as ever was composed, and, as the coffin was reverently lowered, he changed into “Mac-Crimmon’s Lament”, “Cha till, cha till, mi tuilleadh an cogadh no sith cha till mi tuilleadh” “I’ll return, I’ll return no more, in war or peace, I’ll return, no never” With the strains of the piobaireachd lingering in their ears clansmen and friends, many in tears, left the mortal remains of their venerable chief sleeping, who as a proprietor and laird, knew his people, lived with them, and spoke their language, the Gaelic, which speaks to the Highlander as no other language can.

Cluny Macpherson was 81 years of age and occupied the castle and lands of his ancestors for nearly 70 years, having succeeded his father as Chief of the clan in the year 1817. The year after Cluny’s death, in 1886, my father composed “The Lament for Cluny Macpherson”. In its notes one can feel the pathos and deep sincerity of the grief of the composer for the loss of a beloved master and friend. Old Cluny, as he was affectionately called, was succeeded by three of his sons, Colonel Duncan, Colonel Ewen, and Mr Albert Macpherson, all of whom gave notable service to their country.

Colonel Duncan commanded the Black Watch Royal Highlanders and his brother Colonel Ewen commanded the 93rd Highlanders, and together they took part with their respective regiments in the Crimea, including the seige of Sebastapol, the Indian mutiny, and relief of Lucknow in 1855, and on their retirement they were awarded pensions for distinguished and meritorious service. On the death of Mr Albert Macpherson, the succession to the Cluny estates ended, and now comes what may be described as a grievous episode in the history of the Clan. The Cluny estate was sold, and the castle, which held within its walls some of the most precious Jacobite relics in history, and antique furnishings, put up to auction, including the green banner and the Pheadan Dhu, the Black Chanter, two victorious mascots of many a battlefield, now commercialised, which formerly were reckoned to be beyond price, now offered to the highest bidder.

As a clansman I strongly objected to those articles being treated in this ignominious manner, maintaining, as I still do, that they were the property of the clan, and only held in custody by the Chief, and when such custody ended should have been handed over to the clan as clan heirlooms, without the stain of commercialism being put upon them. Those views, however, were overruled by the higher authority and both the green banner and the Black Chanter had to be bought by the clan at a price which, compared with their historic value, makes one shudder. Happily, they are now carefully housed along with other relics where they should be, in a substantial building bought by the clan in the village of Newtonmore and under the shade of Craigdhu, where a caretaker is there to welcome the visitors in an atmosphere of traditional glory.

It was in the time of Colonel Ewen Macpherson of Cluny, when he became heir to the estates, that I joined the Cluny service. I also served Mr Albert Macpherson for a time. My brothers, John, Ewen, and Norman, succeeded my grandfather and father who served the former Chiefs of their day. Colonel Ewen had all the characteristics of his ancestors. He loved the bagpipes and a piobaireachd had to be played every night during the dinner hour. Sometimes I would be asked to play a tune with which I was not familiar, and Cluny would at once give me the order to go across to Catlodge and get my father to teach me. This I did frequently, crossing the Spey river by a chain boat, which was sometimes in high water a rather perilous experience especially if returning on a dark night. But with the notes of a fresh and beautiful piobaireachd ringing in my ears neither the danger of the old, rickety, cobble boat, nor the ghosts that were supposed to frequent those parts could disturb my dreams, although I must confess that the hooting of the owl as I passed by the old burial ground where the mortal remains of many warriors slept was rather awesome.

In my home at Catlodge the Gaelic was the predominant language spoken in our family, my father being from the Isle of Skye and my mother from Islay. They always conversed in Gaelic, and to the family in both Gaelic and English, thus helping us to be bilingual, which we found of much help in after years. My mother had a melodious voice, and often sang to us the Gaelic songs of her native isle. She was born in Lagavulin, in the parish of Kildalton. She had wonderful ability, untrained, as a sick nurse, and was often called upon to help with the needy, and in cases of maternity was reckoned to be most successful, even in times when in such a wide parish the medical doctor could not always be at hand.

No motor car in those days, but the pony and gig, nor Social State Service, but the service of an intelligent and willing neighbour, which could always be relied upon. At their bedside my father and mother always had their Gaelic bible and John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” not as a silent ornament, but as a guiding star through the years of their lives. The love of a good mother can never be overestimated, and remains with one from the cradle to the grave. As a tiny little tot I was sent to a Sunday School held in the homely kitchen with the blazing fire in the farmhouse of Lagg, then tenanted by a Mr James Macdonald and his sister Chirsty. Mr Macdonald instructed in both Gaelic and English, but the prayer was always said in Gaelic. Although I could not, at that time, fully grasp the full meaning of his petitions it has come to me in later years with illuminating force revealing the sacred truth. In James Macdonald (“Seumas Mor”, as he was affectionately known) and his sister, were two of the finest Christian characters that ever served the Master. Mr Macdonald was a worthy elder in the Free Church, and the minister at that time was the Rev. Dougall Shaw, a man whose name is permanently honoured in the annals of the Free Church of Scotland, and to whose memory a suitable memorial was placed on his grave by the people of the parish.

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