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A History of Rannoch
The Camerons

In days gone by the boundary between the Cameron and Rannoch lands was roughly where the West Highland Railway now makes its way from Rannoch Station to Corrour.  If you travel on the train you will get a fleeting glimpse of a peat-stained lochan with a sandy shore a mile or two from Rannoch.  This is called Loch a’ Chlaidheimh (In English: the Loch of the Sword). The story of how t got its name is an important one in Rannoch history, and although the account of the incident which occurred there has no doubt been ‘improved’ with the telling it is based on an old and persistent tradition from the 17th century.

This tradition states that there were frequent clashes between the Cameron and Rannoch Clansmen because each claimed the valuable grazing lands of Beinn a’ Bhric and the pastures around the Blackwater. (This was, of course, hundreds of years before the area was flooded to make Blackwater Reservoir). Ewen Cameron of Lochiel arranged to meet the Earl of Atholl on the disputed ‘march’ and come to a decision, once and for all, about the boundary between their lands.  Each agreed to be accompanied by one man.  Hardly had Lochiel set off when he met the well-known with Gormusuil (The Blue-eyed One).  ‘Turn back,’ she said, ‘where are your men?  If you go to meet a wolf you need more hounds’.  He decided it would be prudent to do as she said. ‘Choose three score and five of your men’ she added.

Near the loch--then nameless--he told his men to hide in the heather unless he gave a signal.  At ‘High Noon’ the two warriors strode toward one another warily, hand on sword hilts.  Soon a heated argument arose about the boundary and swords flashed in the air.  At a shrill whistle fifty hidden Atholl warriors appeared behind their chief, who said triumphantly. ‘These are my Atholl wedders come to graze on the Lochaber grass’.  Instantly Lochiel gave his own signal and sixty-five Cameron warriors sprang up eager for the fray.  ‘These are my Lochaber dogs and they are gey hungry for the flesh of the Atholl wedders’.

Seeing that he was outnumbered Atholl gave way to Lochiel and renounced for ever his claim to the disputed grazings and to ratify the agreement a sword was thrown into the loch.  Thus the lochan got its name.  And the sword remained there for years until in 1812 it was found by a herd-boy when the loch was low during a dry summer.  The rusty and peat stained claymore was taken to Fort William, to a Dr Thomas Ross.  When the leading inhabitants heard what had happened they decided it must be returned to the loch from which it had been removed.  It was carried with fitting solemnity by twelve men back to the Loch of the Sword where it was thrown far out and (in the words of Seton Gordon) ‘for an instant as it sped, its trusty blade turned to glowing bronze in the sunlight, then, like Excalibur, it sand for ever from sight’.  The story illustrates the importance of grazing land to the Highland Communities such as those of the Camerons and those of Rannoch.

Agriculture was very primitive so that the peoples’ very existence depended on cattle and adequate grazing.

It was probably shortage of grazing and its subsequent consequences that brought the firs Camerons to Rannoch, but this would be some time before the Loch of the Sword incident.  The early Camerons were not a rich clan.  The country lived in was difficult: most of it was over a thousand feet with steep and narrow glens and not able to support a great number of people.  In additions they had frequent feuds with a rival clan, the Mackintoshes, which continually drained their resources.  When times were particularly hard some had to find a living elsewhere and many came to Rannoch.  They lived on both sides of the loch, some them setting down peaceably, other finding themselves very much at home with the many caterans already occupying Rannoch; after all they were just as experienced at ‘lifting’ cattle as many others who had been brought up in a Highland glen.

The largest body of Camerons who came to Rannoch were the McSorlies of Glen Nevis.  They were a tribe descended from the race of Somerled, hence the name McSorlie.  They settled in large numbers on Slios Garbh, the South side of the loch, mainly at Camghouran.  According to the present Chief they were not faithful adherents of the Cameron chiefs although they were of course part of the Clan and followed the Chief, Cameron of Lochiel, on various occasions.  There was an occasion when Lochiel had instructed some of his men to go to Rannoch to raise the Camerson there for service in the regiment in support of Prince Charlie in 1745.  An account of this recruiting was given by John MacDonald of Dalchosnie.  He said; ‘Upon Thursday, the 15th August Cameron of Kinlochleven, Cameron of Blairchierr, Cameron of Blairmackalt, Cameron of Glennevis, Cameron (Alias Macalonvie) of Strone, heads of the several tribes of the name of Cameron, came from Lochiel’s country and entered Rannoch with a party of their servants and followers to the number of 24, and went from house to house on both sides of Loch Rannoch, the North side belonging to Sire Robert Menzies, and the South side to Struan Robertson, and intimated to all the Camerson, which are pretty numerous on both sides of the said loch, that if they do not forthwith go along with them, they would that instant proceed to burn all their houses and haugh their cattle.  Whereupon they carried off the Rannoch men about one hundred mostly of the name Cameron’.  From the same report of Keppoch warned him that a like fate would befall him and his cattle if he did not his chief.

The MacGregors who lived on the Isle and on Slios Min had brought Rannoch into bad repute and the Camerons did the same for the Slios Garbh with their turbulent and unruly ways.  They became as notorious as the MacGregors at the ‘creach’, particulary after the ‘45.  It is worth remembering at this time that after the defeat of the Stewarts after the Battle of Culloden, cattle thieving all over the Highlands had increased for a very good reason….the reason being that all their own had been stolen by the greatest thief of the lot, the notorious Duke of Cumberland, by whose orders at least 40,000 head of cattle were collected and sold to southern drovers, while the number of the horses were so great that most of the private soldiers were given one each.

Of course cattle were not the Duke of Cumberland’s main concern.  He was determined to break the spirit of the Highlanders so they at they would never rise again  in rebellion.  So cruelly did he do his work that in Scotland he was called ‘Butcher Cumberland’.  The English later gave his name to the flower, Sweet William, while the Scots called their noxious weed, the Ragwort, after him, Stinking Willie. Troops were ordered  to hunt down Prince Charlie’s men wherever they were to be found.  They were dragged out of cottages where they had taken refuge and they were shot in cold blood.  Although the pursuit of them was pursued ruthlessly it was not easy in Rannoch.  One Cameron on the run, called Black Duncan, led the soldiers a fine dance.  He was remarkable for his agility and swiftness of foot.  When Bonnie Prince Charlie was besieging Stirling, Black Duncan was sent upon some urgent business to Fort William.  He did this journey of foot, a distance of  88 miles, in a day. His strength and skill in the mountains enabled him to avoid pursuit with ease.  He used to rest up in Meal Chomraidh on a rocky ledge now called Leaba Dhonnacha Dhuibh a Mhonaidh, meaning The Bed of Black Duncan of the Mountains.  This position at the head of the Loch Rannoch is in a vast amphitheatre surrounded by mountains, providing views of 20 to 40 miles distance.  He could see the Redcoats searching for his hiding place but he was concealed from view even from someone approaching close to it.

An incident in which he and another fugitive were concerned is said to have given rise to a well-known story called ‘The Lone Highlander’.  It concerned a large troop of Redcoats who were on patrol from The Barracks at the west end of Loch Rannoch to the Soldiers’ Trenches (still to be seen on the West Highland Line between Gorton and Rannoch Station) when they saw a lone Highlander on the top of Meall Chomraidh making rude gestures and taunting the soldiers.  A private and a corporal were sent up to deal with him.  They disappeared over the top following him and there were sounds of battle. Then it was quiet.  Not long after this the lone Highlander appeared again but there was no sign of the private or the corporal.  He made further rude gestures at the soldiers so an officer was detailed to lead a troop up to teach him a lesson.  They disappeared over the top from where there were sounds of shouting and yelling, then it was quiet.  Lo and behold the lone Highlander again appeared and again he started mocking the troops.  The Colonel in charge now ordered the bugler to signal an all-out attack and the remainder of the unit charged up the hill.  As they were approaching the top a figure limped out signaling frantically.  It was the private, who was wounded.  He yelled out, ‘ Get back! Get  back! It’s a trap.  There are two of them!”

I do not apolgise for this light-hearted diversion, for serious things are to follow.  Such fugitives were driven to lead the life of the outlaws for subsistence, swelling the large numbers of caterans already in Rannoch.  The most famous of these was a Cameron whose daring and character mad him a folk hero.  His name was John Dubh Cameron, commonly called (Big) Sergeant Mhor.  He had fought with Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden and he soon gathered round him a band of desperadoes, all armed and accustomed to fighting.  He led them on raid after raid, escaping to safety in Rannoch.  He got the reputation of being a sort of Robin Hood.  He plundered the Whigs and the Sassenachs and he gave to the poor.  He also controlled his men from committing senseless violence.  Followers and others worshipped him.  It was said that although he extorted the usual Black Mail over the Lowlands the protection money they paid him guaranteed that if their cattle was stolen by others he would replace it.  Unfortunately one day on a raid in Braemar one of his men killed a man.  As soon as it happened the Sergeant stopped the raid, but deed had been done.  A larger price was put on his head and the search for him intensified.  A Lieutenant Munro was put in charge of the party to search him out (he later became the famous General Sir Hector Munro).

The Lieutenant marched with a strong force of soldiers through Rannoch.  Here, one of his own clansmen gave Big John away, whether from spite for the reward is not known.  He informed the Recoats where he was hiding.  It was in a house at Dunan and under cover of darkness they surrounded this place.  After a great struggle Big John was overpowered.  He was taken to Perth where he was tried.  The reports of his trial show that he was defiant to the end.  He was executed and hanged in chains on 23rd November, 1753.

It seems that another leader took over after Sergeant Mhor’s capture called Donald Dameron (known as Donald Bane Leane) but he was soon arrested for cattle stealing and was executed at Rannoch as an example to the others.  He expresses surprise and indignation at his hard fate as he not had committed murder or robbery, only taken cattle off those with whom he had quarreled.  He had merely had taken part in the Highland activity of cattle ‘lifting’.

He was said to be the last man to be hanged on the Gibbet Tree.  A pardon had arrived for him but the commanding officer of the troops concealed the fact and allowed the execution to take place, considering that it would be an example to the other wrongdoes in the district.  He was right!

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