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A Story of Clan Shaw
By William G. A. Shaw of Easter Lair


Like a Seannachie of old, would that I could visit each and every one of your homes to tell my story. But in this case, the pale and tepid Written Word will have to do!

In our Celtic mind’s eye, I’d show up at your home just before suppertime, (conveniently) when the chores were done.  Children up and down the neighborhood would spread the word. After a good meal, we’d sit around the family table, or gather by the fireplace.  As if by magic, friends and neighbors would casually drop by for a blether.  Of course, someone would show up with a fiddle and let loose a tune or two. With a couple of damp dogs or a purring cat sprawled at our feet, talk of family, politics, work and home would soon run its course. 

Announced by the cheerfully corky squeak of a fresh bottle of usage –beatha, a wee bit of the creature is unleashed.  With the happy sounds of drams being poured, it is time for a story of Clan Shaw……an 18th century a tale of:

Cattle, Deceit, Honour and of Carma...

Now, a young man named Seumas ‘Og’ Shaw grew up in Rothiemurchus, hard by the old Shaw castle at Loch an Eilean. The son of James Mackintosh ‘Shaw’ of Tullochgrue and Christina, a daughter of Robert Farquharson of Invercauld, our young Seumas was of the bloodline of the Clan Shaw Chiefs.   

During the unhappy time when the Grants of Rothiemurchus were slowly backing up their canny lawyers, papers and charters to Rothiemurchus with steel and roof-burning (mostly of Shaw homes), Seumas ‘Og’ left his family home in Rothiemuchus and crossed the Lairig Ghru - going ‘over the hill’ to settle with his mother’s family in Upper Deeside, in Farquaharson of Invercauld country. It was 1633. 

In 1653, James had a son was named Donnachaidh, or Duncan.  His name means ‘Brown Warrior’. James gave his son a good education, and as he grew up into manhood, Duncan also became quite canny in local business affairs.  He soon became pivotal in the community.  By 1690, Duncan was Chamberlain to the young Earl of Mar – the infamous ‘Bobbing John’ who led the ’15 Rising.  Duncan was also factor for the estates of Balmoral, Abergeldie and Invercauld.   In short, at one point, nothing moved in Upper Deeside that was not party to, or aware of.  Today we would call Duncan a ‘Go to Guy’. 

Living up to the meaning of his name, Duncan was also noted for his great bodily strength and stature. Both he and his father James had large and shaggy eyebrows – a trait which still continues in the Shaws of Glenshee families even to this day.  This latter attribute came in handy when claymore and dirk were often cheerfully called to play - for as any fencer knows, it is the movement of your opponent’s eyes that first betray where the next move of his blade will be. 

It is said that Duncan’s father James ‘Og’ was a Gaelic poet of no small repute.  It is also said that young James went out with ‘Bonnie Dundee.  While privately a Jacobite, his son Duncan of Crathienaird was wise enough to know which way the political wind was blowing.  A man of his word, Duncan was trusted by both the Williamite government and his Jacobite friends and relatives.  In 1691, he received  a Captains commission to raise, arm and command a company of 20 men for the local ‘Watch’ or Independent Company.  It was his job to protect the district from cattle raiders and who plagued Deeside and Glenshee.  For all that and more, he was known as Donnachiadh ‘Riem Aon’ Shaw – Duncan the ‘Man of Power’.

In the Highlands, a man’s position in society was dependent on two things: How many warriors he could bring in to the field, and how many cattle he owned.  So naturally, Duncan’s entrepreneurial spirit was such that he also became a drover and dealer in cattle: ‘walking gold’.  So successful was he that he acted as agent for his kin, tenants, friends and local widows, selling their cattle at local markets. 

In or around 1708, Duncan had a disagreement with the town fathers at Kirkmichael over the price of cattle tolls.  So the next year, he drove a large herd down south to Falkirk market instead. They were plump and fat from lush summer grass, so he would get a good price per head.  As his cattle were penned or pastured just out of town and as his men rested, Duncan came across a very wealthy Englishman who was looking to buy a large number of Highland cattle.   Well dressed and bewigged he was, all silk and satin and lace.  Even his servants and retainers were only slightly less elegant: their shoes had silver buckles!

What a contrast with Duncan of Crathienaird and his shaggy yet manly breacan-feile clad Highlanders in their flat blue bonnets and blazing tartan.  Our Heilant men were all armed to the teeth and ever shadowed by their loyal black and white dogs. Well, after a bit of haggling, that afternoon Duncan and the Englishman agreed to a fair selling price on the entire herd.

Crathienaird’s word was truly his Bond, so when they shook on the deal, that was that.  Duncan would meet the Englishmen the next morning, turn over the cattle, load his shaggy pony with the Englishman’s silver and be on his way.  Pleased with the arrangements, the Englishmen’s hospitality was quite fulsome.  He invited Duncan and his men to the public house to eat and drink in celebration. As the night progressed, the Englishmen’s retainers were quite affable. Too affable!  And the whiskey flowed. And then the claret. And more whiskey.

Came the dawn, Duncan and his men awoke with mouths as dry as dust.  But despite the throbbing in their heads, they were each working out how they would each spend their shared profits when they returned triumphant to Deeside.  Gathering themselves and their drink-scattered gear, they waited at the agreed-to time and place to complete the transaction with the Sassenach.  A minute or two became ten.  And still they waited. The Englishman and his ribboned walking stick and powdered wig and gold threaded jacket and his retinue of servants were late.  Even hung over, the Highlanders noticed it was quiet. Way too quiet.  As they waited, visions of stacks of bovine coin began to fade like morning mist.  Duncan tersely ordered one of his sons to check the cattle pens.  When he returned, the young man’s frantic look said it all.  Where the cattle were lowing the evening before was only full of dust, hoof prints and cow pies, alas no longer fresh. 

Black despair became incandescent fury. The herd was gone!  Long gone!  With shaggy brows a-thunder, even his sons and loyal friends could not summon the courage to look Duncan in the eye.  Now bristling with claymore, gun, dirk, dag-pistol and even the hidden sgian achlais, Shaw and Co. saddled up for a ‘Hot Trod.’   Seething with righteousness, they urged their sturdy garrons or jogged alongside, weapons jingling, guns angrily cocked as they followed the fading trail south mile after soggy mile.   

Poor Duncan tried to keep the soon to be disappointed and quietly desperate faces of his friends, tenants, partners and neighbours out of his mind’s eye.  Winter was coming.  And they all had counted on him.  He and his men were well versed in tracking thieves and caterans and deer and wolf.  But soon Duncan’s roiling mind and lowering brow were mirrored by the unfair Scottish sky. And the heavens opened up, the remorseless rain muddying and confusing the already cold trail.

Slower and slower they went.  Heavier and heavier the burden of guilt and self-incrimination weighed on Duncan’s broad shoulders.  Until at last even he - who through fire and war, through despair and disaster lived by the ancient Clan Shaw motto: ‘Fide et Fortitudine….even Duncan finally stopped. And with an inward sigh, slowly turned his dripping pony north.  It was the quietest, longest homeward trip there ever was.  For once, even the dogs were silent.

Now Duncan of Crathienaird was not called ‘Riem Aon’ for nothing.  It was not his influence, or his position in Deeside and Glengairn, or the loyal armed men he could summon.  It was not the powerful friends he had, like the Earl of Mar or Ogilvy of Airlie or Farquharson of Invercauld, or even his Clan Chattan connections over the Lairig: Lachlan Mackintosh, MacPherson of Craggie and his Shaw cousins at Tordarroch, Dell and Guislich.

But it was Duncan’s own strength of character.  And his deep sense of honour and his commitment to Justice that truly made him ‘The Man of Power’.  Despite his loss of the cattle money and his battered credibility and most important of all, the terrible theft of his dignity in a muddy field in Falkirk - Duncan did the only thing he could do.  The right thing.  He duly paid from his own modest treasury each and every one of his friends, tenants, crofters and the widows that he acted as agent for.  All got their fair share of silver what they would have received for their cattle.

With all his canny business dealings and well placed connections, I am sure Duncan tried to weather the storm of this terrible financial loss.  But it was just too much.  So, like his ancestor Alan ‘Ciar’ Shaw of Rothiemurchus before him (but for a different reason!), Duncan had to sell ownership of his portion of his beloved Crathienaird back to Farquharson of Invercauld.

‘The Memorials of Crathienaird’ tell us how Duncan and his large family soon had an Old Testament-style exodus, moving from his home on Deeside south to Glenisla.  The elderly rode on horseback and the small children nestled in creels on the back of shaggy ponies.  With a heavy heart, Duncan leased a home from his friend the Ogilvy of Airlie, settling in his family in the farm and sturdy fortalice at Crandard - a former MacThomas holding.  

With his considerable talents, experience and local influence,  Duncan was able to re-gather himself from his misfortune and put down roots for his ever-growing family in Glenisla and Glenshee.

A few years later, Duncan and his men again assembled and drove a large herd of cattle south to Forfar for market.  Just outside of town, the lowing herd was at last settling in under the very watchful eye of Duncan’s men and their dogs. 

As he walked to the little town to transact business, Duncan’s brow-hidden eyes must have for once been as big as plates!  For who did he see but the same ‘fause Southron’ and his elegant ‘tail’ of retainers.  Although Duncan was around 57 years old at the time, he drew his claymore and dirk with the swiftness of chain lightning that even legendary Cuchullan of old would not match! Moving faster than he ever did when he was a lithe twenty year old, Duncan’s blade angrily quivered at the Sassenach’s lily white throat. 

Looking at the quickly oncoming death that he read in Duncan’s angry blue eyes, the Englishman protested sorrowfully, his hands upraised.  With his face truly expressing his guilt, he apologized for what he had done, and plead to Duncan for forgiveness. That for six long years, he had spent many sleepless nights plagued with a tortured conscience for the terrible injustice he had done on Duncan when he had stolen his herd.  Somehow, miraculously, whatever he said changed Duncan’s mind.  Lowering his blade – slightly, he gave the Englishman the tongue-lashing of his life! 

Finally silent, breathing heavily, both the aggrieved and the guilty party were spent.  The Englishman swore to Duncan that on his father’s grave that he would truly atone for his sins, and more so.  Ordering his retainers to bring forth a stoutly bound strongbox, the Englishmen brought forth a silver key hanging from his recently threatened neck and unlocked it.   

When Duncan saw the contents, he was reminded of the river Dee coldly shimmering on a breezy winters day, such was the amount of bright silver coins inside.  ‘Its Yours’, the Englishman said.  And, if you’ll forgive me, I will buy your present herd at a premium....sight unseen!  Well, to quite Tordarroch’s fine history book: “…and for long after there was a saying in the country, on the occasion of any unusually good market that there never had been a market like it since that in Forfar when Duncan ‘Riem Aons’drovers drank bickersfull of wine.” 

One can only imagine Duncan’s conversation with his wife (a daughter of Farquharson of Coldrach – a staunch Jacobite clan) when he returned home to Crandard and noisily dropped a very heavy sack of silver on the table. With thoughts of his old home up north, Duncan later approached Farquharson of Invercauld, offering to repurchase the old family property at Crathienaird.  He was deeply disappointed when Invercauld (knowing a good piece of land when he saw it) decided to keep it as part of his growing estate. He declined Duncan’s overtures.

But still, Justice had finally showed her tardy face on Duncan.  With his treasury doubly restored, he was able to give his seven sons and six daughters a good start in the world, helping James settle at Daldownie in Glengairn, John at Riverney and William at Broughdearg in Glenshee, Duncan at the Balloch (at the pass between Glenshee and Glenisla and Alister at the Auchavan in Glenisla. 

Duncan died at Crandard ‘castle’ at the ripe old age of 73 in 1726.

With ‘Riem Aon’ as a role model, many of Duncan’s sons and grandsons later served as officers in the Farquharson contingent that mustered with Ogilvie of Airlie for Bonnie Prince Charlie.  With Donnachaidh Riem Aon’s name on their lips, they drew claymore and charged the for the King Over the Water at Culloden.

Duncan’s progeny lived up and down Glenisla and Glenshee for many generations to come -  at Dalnaglar, Forter, Easter Lair, Cray Mount Blair and Blacklunans.  Generations after wandering away from our Highland glens, the Shaw families from Crathienaird, Glenshee and Glenisla are now spread ‘throughout the airts’.  But we will never forget the good Captain Duncan ‘Riem Aon’Shaw of Crathienaird, and will always remember how his word of honor meant even more than the home he so loved.

William G. A. Shaw of Easter Lair



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