As a diversion I’ve marked out one square section of the OS map to use as a frame and to look at places or stories of interest that fall within. It may look like an empty expanse of heather and rock but digging about in books and digital archives this section of moor between Strathnairn and Strathdearn has turned up a few interesting things.
(OS explorer map 7135 top left corner to 7435 bottom right corner. The road is the A9.)
On a bright autumn day we walked the route from an opening off the A9, along the forestry track, following the line of General Wade’s road, past Uaigh an Duine Bheò, the site of Ruaig na Màighe and up into Ciste Creag an Eòin.
Uaigh an Duine Bheò / Living man’s grave
The story of this place as taken down from Andy Cumming, Croft Croy is as follows;
‘The MacIntoshes and the MacGillivrays had a dispute about land boundaries. It was decided that a very old man … would point out the line of the March. He swore that he was telling the truth “by the head under my bonnet” (a very solemn oath then) and then proclaimed “the land under my feet is MacGillivray land”. For some reason his word was doubted even with his oath. It seems he had under his bonnet a coileach’s head (a cockerel’s head) and in his brògan (shoes) was earth, presumably from the territory of the MacGillivrays. He was telling the truth but not the whole truth. He was sentenced to be buried alive and his grave, a heap of stones, is to be seen yet. When this happened, I don’t know but at least 300 years ago.’
In a letter to An Comunn Gàidhealach’s Sruth magazine on 8 January 1970, he adds a detail to this story, linking it to a nearby stream name - allt na rànain - the burn of the crying. This would seem to be quite far from the site of the grave though!
I.F. Grant in her book ‘Along a Highland Road’ makes several interesting points about the story. She says ‘It is not as old as one would expect for such a barbarous tale. MacGillivray only got the feu of the land from Campbell of Cawdor in 1626 and ... MacGillivrays were members of Clan Chattan and loyal supporters of Mackintosh.’
She makes mention of ‘other cases of stories that are re-dated to fit onto later and more familiar facts. There is something quite ancient and primitive about this story that is not quite in character of the kind of society it was ascribed to.’,
Ruaig na Màighe / The rout of Moy (from Màgh; a plain or level ground)
There are several versions of what happened. In I.F. Grant’s account, got from a great grandson of the hero, she says Lord Louden, who commanded the King’s troops in Inverness, hearing the rebel Prince Charlie was staying at Moy as a guest of Lady MacIntosh, planned a night attack to capture him. Lady MacIntosh heard of this and sent for Donald Fraser, the blacksmith. He went with four other men to watch the road from Inverness. When they heard Louden’s troops coming, they took up position behind peat stacks and called to one another as if they were from different clans in the Prince’s army and fired their guns. In the darkness the looming peat stacks gave the impression that a large force of men were waiting to attack the column of government troops as it issued from the pass. The number of the King’s soldiers was given as 1500. They retreated to Inverness. Donald Fraser was known thereafter as ‘Caiptean nan Còig’ (Captain of the Five). He went on to fight at Culloden, survived and was later buried in Moy churchyard with a fine tombstone made of marble, sent from Rome by Jacobite admirers. There is a beautiful cairn to mark the site - here is an account of that work.
When researching the name of Caiptean nan Còig I came across a lovely story connected to him, the story of Iain a’ Bhreacain (Iain of the plaid ) - a Hero of Clan Chattan - in the Celtic Monthy, volume 6 1898. The story tells something of life here pre and post Culloden but begins with how this boy earnt his name. His widowed mother perished in a snow storm while crossing the hills between Badenoch and Strathdearn. Before she died her last act was ‘to strip herself of nearly all her clothes, wrap them around her child and swaddle him in her tartan plaid and lay him beneath a bank overhung with heather and bracken.’ The boy was found and adopted by Angus MacQueen of Strathdearn and raised happily along side his daughter Mary. He became ‘an excellent shinty player, runner and leaper.’ He wanted to own a sword and ‘in the winter, when there was not much work to be done on the croft, he often made his way to the smithy where the youths of the strath were wont to meet for sword exercises - the blacksmiths of that time being not only makers of warlike weapons but experts in the wielding of them. He even went the length of Moy at times to get lessons from Donald Fraser, Caiptean nan Còig of song and story.’
The story then relates that ‘Tearlach Bàn Òg (Prince Charles) had come to the west coast and rumour had it that the MacDonalds, Camerons and Stewarts had joined the standard. The young men of the Strath rejoiced… Iain expressed a wish for a more elaborate garb and Mary determined that she should be the spinner and dyer of the yarn for the new plaid. The lichen of the rocks, the heather of the braes and the bark of the alders by the river supplied her with material for the dye.’
Mary composed a this spinning song;
Cuir car dhiot mo chuigeal,
Spin quickly, my distaff
Cuir car dhiot gu luath,
Spin quickly and sure
Cuir car dhiot mun togar,
Spin before reivers
A’ chreach air mo shluagh,
Plunder my people
Cuir car chiot, cuir car dhiot
Spin quickly, spin quickly
Toinn làidir is caol,
Twist well and thin,
Gun snaoim is gun chnapan,
Without knots and catches,
Biodh breacan mo ghaol.
My love’s plaid should be.
As luck would have it, this wee spinning song was recorded in Colonsay from a Bella MacNèill (b. 1875-1960) by Calum MacLean for the School of Scottish Studies. She says her mother used to sing it to keep time. There was no story attached in the SSS record.
It’s nice to mend and darn this song and the story together again. I asked my girl to sing it using a yo-yo to keep time. There was a lot of laughter and tangled words / string!
I sent on this story and song to Maureen Hammond, expert on the textiles of 18th century Badenoch. She shared two photos of a plaid from the Strathdearn area. The information she sent is as follows;
“This piece is from the Highland Folk Museum (IFG 1354), listed as ‘Scarf’ in the museum records, but most likely a ‘Tonnag’, a type of hard tartan shoulder plaid. It was possibly last used as a scarf by the donor to the museum, where it was acquired by Dr I.F. Grant. It dates to mid-to late eighteenth, and the red dye comes from Cochineal, the blue most likely Indigo. The edging is herringbone which is a way of dating the piece as this was a weaving technique used c1750 -1780. It is a way of strengthening the edge of the cloth, but also gives the edge extra weight and helps it hang perpendicularly straight, in the case of a fèile.
Although thought to be a piece originating in Badenoch, the sett is most likely a ‘Badenoch and Strathdearn’ type, where this sett was also found.”
Maureen credits Peter E. Macdonald for the Strathdearn reference.
Ciste Chreag an Eòin / The chest of the crag of the bird
“A circular hollow in the mountains surrounded by high rocks and accessible only through one narrow entrance”. The new statistical accounts of 1845 mentions that it was used as a place of concealment for their wives and children “by Highlanders on predatory excursions to the low country.” The OS place name book mentions hunting ‘forays’. The statistical account also mentions that Fraser the blacksmith made use of this place in his defeat of Louden’s troops.
We reached Ciste Chreag an Eòin, wee boy carried high on shoulders and the others pulled up through the heather. It’s quite a place - entirely hidden, sheltered on all sides, still out of the wind and silent but for a little waterfall. It’s unusual in that it’s so far off the beaten track and undisturbed but the purpose it served makes immediate human sense when you enter the mouth of the ciste.
It has good flat ground, marshy now with the undirected flow of the stream, but it would have made an excellent camp. Any lights wouldn’t have been seen from the road below. We got the last of the summer’s blaeberries here.
MARCHES ON THE HINTERLAND: PART II - A FORGOTTEN STONE CIRCLE & A HEAD IN THE ROCKS (A THEORY)
Beinn nan Cailleach / The old women’s mountain
This rounded hill is situated near the boundary between Strathnairn and Srathdearn. The OS place name book entry reads ‘The name is given to it from several large stones which lie on the top, which the country people say, resemble old women convening.’ I haven’t found any other reference to these stones.
There are many references to old men and old women in Gaelic placenaming which remember generic characters. They are sometimes paired across a valley. Cailleach can also refer to a witch or a hag.
Figuring that there wouldn’t be many more sunny, still afternoons left before the cold weather hit, I headed up on Sunday past. I cycled across the Fearnag bridge and stayed on the high forestry road, leaving the bike and following the deep cut of the Uisge Dubh, until Beinn nan Cailleach was visible.
Things that caught my eye on the bound up;
The remains of a sheiling bothy & fold marked on the first edition OS map in 1871, covered in many lichens
a green bottle with a bullet hole
a deep split in the peat bearing up some ancient pine roots - bog fir / giuthais-blàir
3 red kites (preachan nan cearc / clachan-gobhlach), one on the summit rock pile, deer taking off down the other side, 2 grouse, a companionable wren and plenty caochain/hidden streamlets.
When I stopped on the way up and looked back down the Strath I saw Brin rock from a different angle.
Does it not look like a face of a man? He was there again when I reached the top. I can’t shake the feeling that these two places are connected. It’s a distinct form. Primitive people in other countries sought out human forms in the landscape. I remember being in Tanzania and hearing that the rounded hills on the horizon were considered sacred in ancient times - they resembled a woman’s pregnant form. You can see the Brin rock clearly in the middle of this picture taken from the top. That’s Loch Dùn na Seilcheig / Duntelchaig on the right.
The light was going, as the clocks had changed - I had a hunt about the top for the ‘caillich’ but couldn’t find any features worth naming. There were some erratics, frozen boggy pools and much bare rock but nothing that looked placed by humans. I was about to give up and make for home assuming anything that had once been there had been grown over or swallowed down but checked the map one more time. There was a shoulder of the hill to the north west that didn’t have a separate name on the map and figuring it was worth a look I took a run over and there they were.
9 or so sizeable erratics, some with smaller stones on either side, sitting roughly in a circle. This is the best vantage point for views over Strathnairn and out over Inverness and the Moray Firth. It seemed that you were being asked to look this way. You could say they were in a feminine position - away from the very top of the hill. They aren’t marked on the OS maps or on the Canmore site, the on-line catalogue of archeological sites. I need to go back, to measure and plot them to better see how they are positioned.
In Alan B. Lawson’s book ‘A Country called Stratherrick’ there is a photograph from a top overlooking Loch Ceò Glas, not many miles from Beinn nan Cailleach. The circular stone structure bears some resemblance, in terms if it’s position at least, with the stones here. He wonders of it is a hut circle, but is unsure. The place name of ‘Meall na h-Uaighe’ / ‘The rounded top of the grave’ might suggest previous purposes of burial or cremation. In the OS place name book the entry reads ‘This name applies to a slight eminence situated between Tom Bailgeann and Erichte hill.’
This article gives some views as to the purpose of these types of circles. It quotes Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen, specialist in Neolithic archaeology. He says that the ground plans of many of Scotland’s stone circles are similar to the structures people built for their everyday housing. But instead of being for the living, the stone circles seem to have served the dead. He says “They are essentially very large houses for the dead and spirits”. Kenneth Brophy, lecturer in archaeology at Glasgow University, makes the point that there is a ‘stage-managed’ positioning to stone circles - the general conclusion being that stone circles were places of social ritual could have taken place, especially to honour the dead with evidence of burials and cremation at some sites.
If you come into Strathnairn from the North on the B851, past the Gask ring cairn and look up to the skyline you can just make out 3 of the caillich sitting on the brow of the hill, if you know to look. I’m glad I know to look.
I like to know they are there, not for the mystery that surrounds them, but because of what they signify of human hope; hope that they could mark their time somehow, that they could make sense of cycles of nature - whatever else they might have been, they seem to me to be statements of hope - a need that we share with whoever set these stones there.
‘I have fallen through time and found an enchanted world. Where all is beginning…’ - Nan Shepherd’s words sum up the day.
And this fellow saw me home …