This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas
CUAIRT GU A'GHAIDHEALTACHD - The Way to the Gaeltachd
In The Footsteps of Alasdair MacColla, Part One
Loch Tay is one of those high mountain lakes one often sees in the Highlands. A long waterway filling a great gash in the mountains - fed by the river Dochart in the west and emptying into the river Tay in the east - on its course to the Lowlands, where it meets the sea at the ancient borough Perth. High in western Perthshire, stretching westward from the village of Aberfeldy to the border of Stirlingshire, the village of Killin sits astride the river Dochart. High on the braes of Ben Lawers (Beinn Laoighe), the mountain of the calf, on June 21 2004, the summer solstice, I took in the glory of this beautiful glen. On this unusually clear day in the central Highlands, sailboats far in the distance below adorned its silvery strand. The beauty and peacefulness of this scene is deceptive. For the fruitfulness of this land, so treasured in the Highlands, made it a place for contention - and in December of 1646 Alasdair MacColla and the Marquis of Montrose swept up the Strath-Tay to take revenge on the oppressors who stole it.
In this installment I will depart from my usual format in the development of Alasdair MacColla's Highland campaign to share my experiences from my most recent expedition to Scotland. In many ways it was the Strath Tay that was both the jumping off point for my most recent foray into the Scottish Highlands and it was the point of departure before leaving the Highlands. Usually I fly into Glasgow when I visit the land of my ancestors, but this time I flew into Edinburgh. My customary route into the Highlands is via Loch Lommand then through Glen Coe. This time I approached the Highlands via the Trossachs by was of Stirling. My departure would retrace this path.
It seems that one cannot take a step nor scoop a spadeful of earth without encountering layers of history in Scotland. History well preceding the Gaels is all around. Standing stones, Brooch towers, ancient collations stand in mute witness to the lost history of Na Cruthin, The Picts. One simply has to drive down the road in Argyle to see crannies, man made islands in lochs, on which fortified homes were built. Craning of the neck or production of binoculars are not required, they jump from the landscape if you know what you are looking at. Locals take them for granted. In the Strath Tay and throughout the surrounding district of Breadalbane they proliferate. It is no wonder that one of the oldest clans to call this land their home were the MacNaughtans, who took their clan name from the ancient Pictish name Nechtan. Later they would be replaced by Na Griogairach, Clan Gregor, who spreading out from their duthaich of Glen Orchy would colonize these lands and much of the Trossachs, particularly around Balquidder. The MacNaughtans would eventually settle in Knapdale in the heart of Scottish Dal Riada on the west coast.
The relationship of the MacGregors to Clan Campbell is more complex than popular myth often embellishes. Clan Gregor, as well as feuding with the Campbell's, also served as mercenaries for the MacCailein Mor. But no other Clan suffered more profoundly from persecution by Clan Campbell than the MacGregors. Driven from their lands to the high and barren Rannoch moor, they attempted to survive by reiving and pillaging the lands stolen from them by the Campbells. For this their very name was proclaimed illegal. Yet they were intermarried with the Campbells and shared the proclivity for red hair with their nemesis. The Roy in Rob Roy MacGregor is not a personal name, but a rendering of the Gaelic Ruaidh, which means red - denoting red hair - which Rob Roy had in much abundance over his whole body. Under the name Gregory, many MacGregors fled to the lowlands where they excelled as scholars and professionals. In his lifetime, Rob Roy was a guest of his cousin who was a professor of medicine at the University of Aberdeen.
While all-powerful, the Clan Campbell, was hated as much as feared throughout Scotland. They earned the general antipathy of most Highland clans. One such clan was Clan MacNab, an ancient ecclesiastical family that traditionally held sway in Glen Dochart, which breaches the Drum Alba running west out of Loch Tay. Reduced to tenants in their own land, they gladly helped Montrose seize the castle blocking the glen and thus enabled Montrose to sweep south via Crianlarich - flanking Inverary, almost catching the MacCailein Mor in his lair.
On the north side of Ben Lawers is Glen Lyon, a remote valley reached by a single track road from Loch Tay. Here also the name Campbell replaced MacGregor. After a warm wet winter and mild spring the Glen was alive with yellow wild flowers and the rhododendron were in purple bloom, climbing over the dry stone walls which line the road. Highland cottages, whitewashed, stood alone or in bailes, little hamlets of six to a dozens homes. Meticulously tended and landscaped, they bore testament to the Highlanders love of coaxing beauty out of an often harsh and barren environment.
Yet Glen Lyon, like much of the Central Highlands, balances the austere beauty of moor and crag with lush Highland forest. Alder and Ash proliferate along the river Lyon and on the lower slopes of surrounding hills. Prized as prime wood for electric guitars, these trees are far too gnarled and knotted to be planked. Commercial forestry around here is based on pine and the symmetrical rows of their stands attests to the fact they are actually pine farms. Birch and the holy oak are also in abundance. Throughout this district one enters enchanted silent forests only to emerge onto spooky barren moors as the road twists further on to remote rocky outcroppings perched dizzyingly over reservoirs and other bodies of water. Though the map does not show it, the road runs right on through the head of the Glen back to the town of Killin by the river Lochay.
Once a strong Gaelic speaking district, the last native speakers died out in the 1950s, but not before a dedicated Irish graduate student, Tony Dilworth, documented their dialect, a distinct dialect that was the basis for the Scottish Gaelic Bible. Now teaching at the University of Edinburgh, Mr. Dilworth's students keep West Perthshire Gaelic alive. During graduate school at New York University, when I should have been researching a project, I discovered a set of bound journals entitled Lochlann. Published in Norway (Lochlann is Gaelic for Norway) with no English, this now defunct journal was devoted exclusively to Scottish Gaelic. One article, entirely in Gaelic, was by a Gaelic speaker from this region. With dictionary in hand I read his account of the snowy winters in the 1930s and the many delightful characters that made up the Gaelic-speaking population in the Strath Tay of that time.
The following day we reentered Glen Lyon and headed east towards Fortingall, now a small string of houses stretching along the road, but once a district capitol. A short distance beyond we caught a single-track road that climbed over high moors to more Highland forest and on to the lovely village of Kinlochrannoch., made up of brown granite buildings straddling the river Rannoch as it falls out of Loch Rannoch on its way to the Dun Alistair water, which in turn empties into the river Tummel. This beautiful village stands in the shadow of Schiehallion, the holy mountain of the Picts. Schiehallion is derived from the Gaelic for Caledonian fairy -- and here the ancient Picts gathered to worship the spirit of the mountain. As Montrose led his forces through Glen Dochart, this must have been the path Alasdair and Clanranald followed before dividing once again to pincer in on Argyll.
We proceeded down the road a few more miles along the gentle shores of Loch Rannoch before the road comes to an end at Rannoch Station. A train station out in the middle of nowhere, one can see again the knack the Highlander has for coaxing fertility out of a barren moor. Like the peoples of the dessert that love to make the dessert bloom where they can, this is a little oasis in the middle of bleakness. It was here on this high barren plateau that broken clans and men like the MacGregors were forced to flee the Campbell imperial machine. It was here that Allan Breck Stewart, the person who appears as a character in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped, was born and reared. The Rannoch moor does possess an ethereal beauty of its own and there are foot paths across it for those sturdy enough to trek its vastness. One feels close to the sky here, but the thought of being caught here on some rain driven night inspires dread. The sight of an avenging army led by the mighty Alasdair MacColla and the Chief of Clanranald bent on revenge against Clan Campbell must have lifted the hearts of the men exiled here. But now all this is just a memory on the wind. Besides the train station, one or two Highland cottages and the Rannoch Station Hotel, there is only the whistling of the wind to break the silence.
Now was the time to jump the Drum Alba and visit the sight of Alasdair MacColla's greatest victory. Entering Badenoch via Glen Garry and the Pass of Drumochter, I passed through the lands crossed again and again by our rebel army. Here was lair of Alexander Stewart, son of King Robert II, and known to history as the Wolf of Badenoch. A terrible warlord, he was a purveyor of Stewart expansionism and evidence of Norman imperialism that was so reshaping the Celtic institutions of old Scotland. We entered Glen Spean and passed Roy Bridge where were Glen Roy joins with the great pan that is the confluence of the river Lochy and the River Spean. Here Alasdair's army marched south out of Glen Roy after crossing the high pass of Glen Tarff (Gleann Tarbh) at the south end of the Strath Ness. They then crossed to the Braes of Ben Nevis and positioned themselves to ambush the Campbell army and its allies.
Constructed in the late 1200s, Inverlochy Castle is in amazingly good shape -- and it is being further refurbished. When searching for this castle one must look carefully for the signs for "Old Inverlochy Castle" for if you follow the signs to Inverlochy Castle you shall find yourself at the gates of a posh and elite resort (I hear the food is sublime, if you can afford the price). Again, historical amnesia is a polite British way of dealing with unpleasant facts. On the historical plaque at the sight, there is no mention of the first or second Battle of Inverlochy. The focus is instead on the role the castle played in the Comyn empire.
The Comyns, modern name Cumming, were the rising stars of the Norman expansion in the 13th century. They had come out of the southern Lowlands to build an empire displacing Celtic families in the north. Inverlochy castle was built by them as they sought to expand their own power by bringing Celtic Scotland to heel for the Scottish monarchy. In the conflict that led up to the Battle of Bannockburn they supported the claim of the English crown to hegemony over Scotland. Having chosen to support what they perceived to be an invincible force, they were blindsided by history. Being on the losing side, they lost their lands in the northwest primarily to the Clan Donald. Their primary allies in the Highlands, the MacDougalls, had their lands divided between the MacDonalds and the Campbells, setting the stage for the conflict that would play out here more than 300 years later.
In 1431 another Alasdair, Alasdair Carrach, won a victory here for Clan Donald against the Earls of Mar and Caithness in their attempt to pacify the Lordship of the Isles in the name of the Scottish monarch. Though Alasdair Carrach's archers made short work of the royal army, this battle was ultimately a rear guard action in the wake of the debacle of the Battle of Harlaw, which was the beginning of the end for the Lordship.
In the gloaming of a late June evening I tried to reconstruct the order of battle. This proved almost impossible in that the hand of man has radically reconstructed the geography of the battlefield. Train tracks and a man-made canal intrude on the scene as do man-made earthen mounds embedded with trees. Houses and a school also obscure the old battlefield. Standing with the castle to my left I could not envisage Alasdair's army descending the Braes of Ben Nevis as they approached the covenanting force.
But what can be easily visualized is the desperate route of escape taken by the fleeing Campbells. On this peaceful June evening, the river Lochy, which flows behind the castle, was gentle and placid. As on the historical plaque, one could easily imagine Highland galleys beached on the shore by the castle. But on a mild February day the river was in full spate. I have seen the river in this state when I visited the castle in a past March. The river boiled as the water rushed to Loch Eil. Campbells leaping into this cataract to escape the avenging claymores would have been swept away at an astonishingly rapid pace by this muscular river. To witness this river in full spate is to be awed by its massive power.
A visit to Inverlochy castle is always an awe-inspiring and humbling experience. The history that has been writ in this beautiful place underlines the contrast between both the peace and the power that the natural setting here imbues. Hidden from the main road, its history is often obscured from the sight of the masses as the thousands who pass by here on the main thoroughfare obscure its presence.
The following day we left Lochaber behind. The destination was the fior Gaeltachd, Barraigh, the Isle of Barra. The ferry left Oban in the early afternoon and for the next five hours as the ferry coursed through the sound of Mull and then crossed the Minch, we would see the footsteps of Alasdair MacColla. The weather was misty, but the shores on both sides of the sound were visible with binoculars. After passing the majestic Castle Duart, home to the MacLeans of Duart, and just before approaching Lochaline, with the most convenient ferry passage to Mull, Kinlochaline castle came into view. In the past when I have seen it from the ferry to Mull, it appeared very small, garage-sized, with a little tab on the back. Now from the Barra ferry seen with a pair of binoculars it appeared much more mighty. Squat with thick gray stone block walls it was relatively small, but formidable. Alasdair garrisoned this brawny blockhouse with some of his Irish troopers. Though strategically located at a major route to Mull, it was still isolated and vulnerable.
Alasdair eventually moved his troops from Kinlochaline castle to consolidate his forces at Mingarry castle. Located at the confluence of Loch Sunart and the Sound of Mull, Mingarry castle is even more strategic than Kinlochaline castle. From this beachhead Alasdair launched his campaign. Like Kinlochaline castle, it gives the impression of a blockhouse. Though larger than Kinlochaline castle, it is still somewhat diminutive. Perched on a headland whose shifting rocks make this an unstable structure, the public is forbidden to enter the structure. One day this historic structure may collapse into the sea. On this day, Mingarry looked tiny in the far-off mist on this Ardnamurchan peninsula. The best way to see this piece of history is to drive the many miles from the main road over the single-track roads to this remote peninsula. One of the most beautiful districts of the West Highlands, this road less traveled will impart a lifetime of memories - and this is one of the few places on the mainland were the Gaelic still lives.
I was hoping if the weather was clear to see the Isles of Coll and Tiree as I crossed the Minch, but this bet I lost. The mist obscured both of these Isles. I looked longingly to Tiree, for this Isle of some 750 souls is the only Gaelic speaking district I have not visited.
The early evening approach to Barra was glorious. Passing amongst the skerries and smaller unpopulated islands en route, one catches the view of Kisimul castle. Of similar dimensions as Mingarry, this island fortification sitting in the middle of the appropriately named Castlebay (Bagh a'Chaisteal) was the seat of the Clan MacNeil. Descendants of the Ulster O'Neils, they incorporate the red hand of Ulster in their clan crest.
Barra is certainly a jewel. Besides it's lovely beaches, backed up by mountain and moor, this has got to be the most militantly pro-Gaelic of the Gaelic-speaking districts. With just under 2,000 people, the parents here have campaigned vigorously for Gaelic medium education for their children. It is a wonder to be on the main street in the morning by the quay in the shadow of Kisimul castle and hear three generations of Islanders speaking the Gaelic. In the shops and the post office, native Gaels are unintimidated by the presence of non-Gaels and speak their language not only unself-consciously, but also with gentle pride.
Each evening as we dined on the marvelous locally-caught seafood at one of the restaurants on the brae below Ben Heaval and next to the Catholic church - watching the evening light play off the hills and low mountains of Vatersay and the other small islands to the south - I could feel a new spirit that has grown among the Gaels since I first visited these Islands ten years ago. A spirit I would feel as I traveled north through these Outer Hebrides.
Though famous for predating on English shipping off the coast of Donegal as the hulks returned from the colonies, the MacNeils avoided the rebellions and uprisings of the Jacobite era. This did not save Barra from being savaged by the Royal Navy after the debacle of Cullodon. In 1746, men, women and children were massacred when the navy made this Island a port of call.
The same cannot be said of South Uist to the North. For South Uist and its off-lying island of Eriskay were a stronghold of the Clan Rannald, one of the most rebellious branches of Clan Donald. Like Barra, the islanders are strongly Catholic. In Victorian times, when the clan chief finally conformed to the Church of Scotland, the islanders resisted his attempts to forcibly convert them. In the local tradition the Presbyterian Church is referred to as an creideamh am bata buidh, the religion of the yellow stick, for the rod the laird would use to beat his tenants as he drove them to the church of his choice. The will of the people won out, however, in that the island remains about 90% Catholic.
The ferry ride that carries one from Barra to Eriskay has got to be on of the loveliest in the Isles. The clear turquoise water that would look more at home in the Caribbean than in these northern waters is punctuated by rocky mountain tops plunging out of the waters. St. Barr must have been watching out over the islanders, for in the early days of World War II when whisky was strictly rationed and regulated and thus sparsely available in the islands, a freighter laden with thousands of cases of Scotch whisky ran aground on the rocks off Eriskay. The islanders, all keen seaman, descended on the ship in small boats to save the cargo (for themselves) before the ship went under. The cat and mouse game played with the revenuers to conceal the booty was the gist for the hilarious book and movie Whisky Galore! Many of the locals were prosecuted, but the case did not hold up, for under the laws of admiralty such flotsam and jetsam was legal prey to all able to salvage them. To this day cases of Spey Royal continue to turn up in caves and crannies on the many unpopulated islands in the Sound of Barra.
In the spring of 1745 it was not whisky that Bonnie Prince Charley was looking for when he came here (he preferred brandy). On Charlie's strand, right next to the ferry landing, Charles Edward Stuart landed to reclaim the throne for the house of Stuart. One year later he left here - and left the Gaels to their fate. But one can walk the strand where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed and began the endgame for the clan system and the Highland way of life. In 1995, the 250th anniversary of prince's landing, the local school children erected a cairn here and left a Gaelic poem on the cairn to commemorate the cause many of these islanders ancestors died for.
Eriskay is now connected by causeway to South Uist to which it shares a common religion and clan heritage. South Uist is a large Island. Stretching out over 40 miles, it has a much larger population than Barra. However the long thin configuration of this Isle disperses the population and it is a more rural and less cosmopolitan (by island standards) than Barra, whose population is more concentrated (by Western Isles standards).
The fact is that all of these Islands are profoundly rural with all the advantages this conveys in terms of natural beauty and warm hospitality from the locals. South Uist is the home of the otter and the eagle. The first thing I saw in the sky upon landing in Eriskey and driving over the causeway was a golden eagle, soaring high over the mountains here. In 1995 I watched a mating pair dance in the thermals over the mountain corries, circling wingtip to wingtip, with my binoculars (as important here as a camera). For that matter this whole region is a birdwatcher's paradise.
One of my great regrets at leaving Barra was that I would miss the Saturday night ceilidh. The word ceilidh (pronounced kaylee) means together and is an age-old tradition where locals get together to make music and dance in as spontaneous manner as possible. Instead I was rewarded with a marvelous concert by the group Dochas at the South Uist village hall on the same Saturday evening. I felt behind the curve to have never experienced this extraordinary band that released its debut album in 2002. Dochas is one of the most exciting traditional groups since Capercaillie. In my time I have seen DeDannan, The Tannahill Weavers, Altan, Relativity, many incarnations of the Battlefield Band and Capercaillie - this concert was in the same league with the afore mentioned. Yet when I saw most of these other groups they were mature artists whose average age was in the 30s, all of the multi-instrumentalists that make up this group are under the age of 25.
I wish I had the time to explore each member of this group, but time and space do not allow this. But I can say two members were reared in the musical traditions of Ireland and the fiddler is from the Shetland Islands, the piper from Sutherland, the clarsach player from Skye. When I was on Barra I heard amazing Gaelic vocals by someone named Fowlis. Concentrating on my driving (on the causeway between Barra and Vatersay), I missed the details and cursed the moment. During this concert one of the Gaelic songs sounded very familiar; looking down at the CD I had just purchased I saw the name Julie Fowlis. When I spoke to Ms. Fowlis I mentioned that I heard her on Radio nan Gael. I expressed my delight in discovering the music of this native of North Uist and at having rediscovered her identity.
Speaking to the group in general I asked them if they knew who Alasdair MacColla was. They all piped up enthusiastically, "oh yes, he's a fiddler from Glasgow." I then explained this series and who Alasdair MacColla was. But this group is very much in the spirit of that great Gaelic warrior. Their tools are musical instruments, but in their sound the world of the Gael, Scottish and Irish fuse seamlessly.
As we drove from the concert back to our Bed and Breakfast in Kilbride, the gloaming sun illuminated the damp and shiny blacktop running like a brilliant black ribbon between mountain and machair in the wake of an island shower. On the radio came the soulful voice of Julie Fowlis backed by Dochas. It was a rebroadcast of the lost transmission. The voice of Archie Fisher, the great Scottish folk singer and documentarian, came on to praise "this new young Gaelic singer." Was it karma, the Tao or some ethereal Celtic higher power, or was it just a coincidence? In any event the confluence of events on this moist yet beautiful Hebridean night was sublime in a way that can only be experienced in the Gaeltachd.
For further information on Dochas can be found at their websight.
Well, this is the end of part I of Cuairt gu a'Gaidhealtachd, I'll leave you here with Dochas. Dochas is the Gaelic word for hope and surely Dochas gives evidence to an t-Earrach an Ghaidheil, the spring of the Gael. For despite the long winter spring has arrived and with this new growth we can feel confident that our work will be carried on by a new generation who will imbue the world of the Gael with a contemporary view.
My travels in the land of the Gael shall continue in two months and of course the campaign of Alasdair MacColla shall be revisited as he and Montrose build on the success of am Blar Inbher Lochaidh, the Battle of Inverlochy. Chi mi thu gu luath!
Griogair Dubhghlas, Am Fear Cathrach Albannach Gregory Douglas, Scottish Chair, American BranchFor more information on Scotland, see the Scotland Nation Page.
The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2005 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.
For more stories, click the links below: