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Traditions of Lochaber
by Mary Cameron Mackellar
April 23, 1890

Lochaber was a place of note in very ancient times.  Banquo, Thane thereof, lived at Tor Castle, on the banks of the river Lochy, as history tells, and the topography of the surroundings proves.  Afterwards Macbeth had a home at what is now known as Lundavra.  St Bershom; in his "Chronicles of St Andrews," says that Macbeth was slain at his habitation of Deabhra, and Skene in his "Celtic Scotland" quotes this, saying that Deabhra is a lake in the forest of Mamore in Lochaber, on an island of which there was a castle known as the Castle of Mamore.  He further remarks as proof of this place having been a royal residence, that the glen leading west from it is still known as Glen-ree, the King's glen, and that the river running from the lake through this glen is known as the King's river, "Abhuim ree."  The real old Gaelic name of the lake seems to have been Loch da-ràth, and the castle was known as Dun-da-ràth.  There are two artificial islands still in the lake, and on them the castles or raths would be built.  The palaces of Tara and Emania in Ireland were thus built of logs and wattle, and they were continued in the Highlands until a recent date as the homes of chiefs and people of note.   Lochiel's castle of the '45, burnt by the Duke of Cumberland, was all of wattle, excepting the bit of wall where the fire-places were, and which still stands.

Lundavra is a beautiful place, well fitted for a royal residence.  Ben-Nevis, from its base to its summit, stands like the mighty guardian of the sheltered spot, and the top of Dundeardeul, which rises so high from Glen-Nevis, is on a level with Lundavra, and one can imagine the blaze of the watch-fires there in the days of Macbeth and his wife Gruoch, daughter of Bode.  This king and queen must have had settled an ecclesiastical colony around them here, as they had done in Kinross.  In driving up on Marshal Wade's road from Fort-William to Lundavra, we get to a green fertile tract of Country, enclosed by sloping hills, and known as "An Crò," or "the fold."

This beautiful part is tenanted by a crofter population who look thriving and comfortable, and the different names of the townships are suggestive of a religious colony.

The first township we meet in the fold has the name of " Blar-mac-Cuilteach," the field of the son of the Culdee.   This name has been in recent years corrupted into Blar-Mac-Failteach, but the old people pronounced it Blar-Mac-Caoilteach, or Cuilteach.  Next to that is the township of "Blar-nan-Cleireach," or the field of the clerks, and it is striking to find that name also given to one of the places granted by Macbeth and his wife Gruoch to the Cludees of Kinross from motives of piety and the benefit of their prayers, with the utmost veneration and devotion.  Further on in the fold there is a place that commemorates the older form of religion.  It is known as Blar-Mac-Druighneach," the field of the son of the Druid. Macbeth and his wife are said to have placed the Culdees in Kinross between them and the sea, and they seem to have acted on that principle here also, for they gave the beautiful and fertile lands of Callart to the Culdees, who built a cell which they dedicated to St Mun, or St Munnu, and the island in Loch Leven, on which it was built, and on which its ruins still stand, is known yet as Eilean Mhunnu, the isle of St Mun.  This island is the burying-ground of the Glencoe men as well as of the inhabitants of Nether-Lochaber.

We will now record some traditions of the Camerons of Callart and Lundavra; and, before proceeding, we may give the following in support of Dun-da-Raths being the ancient name of this place.  In the Scots Acts of Parliament of 1502, vol. II., pp. 241, 249, we find King James IV. gave a grant of the life-rent of the royal forest of Mamore, and the castle on the island of Dun-davray, to one of the Stewarts of Appin.  Early in the fifteenth century, John Cameron, Archbishop of Glasgow, granted the Church lands of Callart and the isle of St Mun to his young relative and godson, John, second son of Ailean nan Creach, Allan of the Forays, chief of Lochiel.  The Archbishop was a great builder of churches, and it was through his influence that Allan of the Forays built the seven churches in the Highlands, which were attributed to the suggestion of the King of the Cats, in the "Tigh-ghairm," or house of invocation.  The Archbishop changed the name of St Mun into St Mungo, after the patron saint of his own diocese, but the ancient name is still given to it.

The first offshoot of the Camerons of Callart was Alasdair Dubh of Cuilchenna, and the second was Allan, first of Lundavra.

The chieftains of Callart, like other Highland gentlemen, sent their sons to school in France.  On one occasion two fine lads were sent there, the only legitimate children of the gentleman who was at that time the chieftain of Lundavra.  There was unfortunately an illegitimate son at home, whose name was Angus, and in the absence of his brothers he had ingratiated himself so much with his father that he hoped by some means, fair or foul, he would one day be his successor.

At length a messenger came from Appin, saying that a ship would land the two sons of Callart on the following evening at Cuilchenna.  Angus was sent off to receive the young gentlemen, and a jealous pang darkened his soul when he saw the joy of his father over the return of his boys.  He went to meet them, but instead of conducting them safely home, he slew them, and buried them in a spot still known as "Glac-nam-marbh," "the hollow of the dead."  The murder was discovered in the course of time, but the unhappy father was too lenient to punish Angus, and although he banished him from his presence he lived on the estate, as he had formerly done, with his family.  The old chieftain died after some years passed, and then one of his nephews of Lundavra became his successor.  The new chieftain left Angus and his family in peace on the estate, and the clansmen were anxious lest some judgment would fall upon the house because the innocent blood of the young men was crying in vain for vengeance.  This new chieftain became the father of five sons and two daughters, the eldest being still known in Lochaber song and story, and is always spoken of as Mary of Callart.   Mary was the most lovely girl in all the country, and was the favourite of rich and poor.   She was a poetess, and had the prodigal liberality and the unwisdom of her kind.   She helped her mother in housekeeping, and all who were in need went to her, as she could not send anyone away empty-handed.  Her father frequently found fault with her, and one day, being more angry than usual, he turned her out of doors, and told her to go about and see what she would in her need get from those to whom she was so foolishly liberal.  Mary wrapped herself in her tartan plaid and went away sorrowfully, for her mother and sister, as well as her brave boyish brothers, were weeping over the stern decree which they were powerless to contradict.  Mary made up her mind to go up the Màm, and take refuge in the meantime in her uncle's house in Lundavra.  She met a poor old woman on the top of the hill who was shivering of cold.  Mary's compassion was drawn forth by her misery, and she at once made two halves of her plaid, giving the one half to the poor woman, who poured forth benedictions upon her fair young head.  Mary was received kindly in Lundavra, and meantime the poor wandering woman had gone to Callart, and as Mary's plaid was recognised, it was feared that she had suffered foul play.  The poor woman showed them that she only wore half the plaid, and told how Mary had met her on the hill and given it to her as she was shivering of cold.  There was great indignation among all the people when they knew that Mary was banished from her father's house, and the stern chieftain himself began to yearn for the loving face of his most beautiful child, and he sent to Lundavra, and had her brought home.

A dark cloud was, however, hovering over Callart.  A ship came in with dyes and having some richly embroidered garments.  The lady of Callart bought largely of the dyes for her wool, and they also bought some of the gay garments.  Alas! death was in the merchandise, and in a few days the plague broke out in Callart house.  The chieftain and his wife died of it, and all their children but Mary, who attended to them night and day, but was not touched by the plague.  She was in a dreadful position alone in the house with the dead.  No person would come near her, and she did not dare to leave the house.  A watch was set around the shores to see that no one would leave Callart.

Mary had a lover, young Patrick Campbell of Inverawe, or, as he is called in Gaelic story, "Oighre Mhic Dhonnacha Inbhir-atha."  A messenger went to him to tell how his beloved maiden with the golden hair was situated, and he at once went off with a boat and a few trusty men to deliver Mary from her awful position.   Some of the men were afraid to venture, but he assured them that he would act so cautiously as to run no risk.

The brave men rowed silently past the watchers, who had fires lighted along the shore about the ferry at Ballachulish, and they were soon at Callart.  Mary had a dim light in the chamber in which she had isolated herself from the dead.  Surely there never was a case of the bride's rejoicing over the voice of the bridegroom more real and more earnest than the joy of Mary's heart when she heard her name called by her gallant lover.  He got her out of the house, and made her bathe herself in the sea, and cast all her clothes into the water.  He then gave her his own large, soft plaid, which she wound carefully around herself, and then he lifted her into the boat, and they rowed away with their treasure as silently as they came.  After getting to Inverawe he built a bower for her in the woods, and got clothing for her from his sisters.  He married her forthwith, and then they lived alone, apart from all his relatives and friends, for three months, until all agreed that the danger of infection was over.  Further sorrow was in store for the hapless Mary, for her husband fell at the battle of Inverlochy, fighting against Montrose.  Mary was broken-hearted over his death.  We think he must have returned home wounded and died there, as in her lament she refers to his being buried behind her house, and we know the escape of the Campbells from Inverlochy was too precipitate for their carrying any of their dead with them.  After her husband's death, her father-in-law was very neglectful of Mary, and then he and others began to insist upon her marrying the prior of Ardchattan, who had proposed to her.  Her heart was sore for the loss of him whom she so devotedly loved, and she was very unwilling to enter into this new bond, but they brought such force to bear upon her that she consented; and, according to the Lochaber version of her story, she composed the song of hers that is still known and sung, on the night of her marriage with the prior.  She sang it to the maidens who attended her, and her soul floated away in her song, and she died that night.  In her song, she first charges her father-in-law with coldness, and then through the rest of the pathetic verses she apostrophises her beloved Patrick.  It runs thus: -
A Mhic Dhonnachai' Inbhir-atha,
Is coimheach a ghabhas tu 'n rathad,
Ged tha Mairi Chamshron romhad,
'S og a chaill mi riut mo ghnothuch.

Fheudail a dh' fhearabh na dà-'lach,
Thug thu mach a tigh na plaigh mi,
Far an robh m' athair 's mo mhathair,
Mo phiuthar ghaoil 's mo choignear bhraithrean.

Fheudail a dh' fhearabh na greine,
Thog thu tigh dhomh an coill nan geugan,
Bu shunndach ann mo luidhe 's m' eiridh,
Cha b' ioghua sud b' ur mo cheilidh.

Righ gur mise th' air mo sgaradh,
Bhi dol le fear eile 'luidhe,
Is m' fhear fhein air cùl an tighe,
Sealgair nan damh donn 's nan aighean.

Before concluding this story, we may mention that the Camerons of Callart were satisfied that the plague was sent as a punishment for the deaths that were unavenged.  A new chieftain came to Callart from the family of Lundavra, and the descendants of Angus - who were never called Camerons - were known as Clan Aonghuis, and in English they came to be known by the name of Innes.

There was no further break in the succession until the last of the Callarts sold the estate to Sir Ewen Cameron of Fassifern.  On the first morning that Sir Ewen's dairymaid went to milk the cows, in one of the Callart parks, she saw a little woman, with a handkerchief about her head, rocking herself to and fro, with a plaintive wail.   She was sitting on the side of a burn, and looking furtively at the dairymaid, and as soon as she noticed herself observed she gave a loud piercing scream, and fled for ever.  It was the "Bean-shith" that followed the old Callart family, and she was never seen there again.  Our next story is of a more weird sort than that of Mary of Callart.   It is the history of the famous Lochaber witch, "Gormshuil Mhor na Maighe," "The Great Gormshuil of Moy."   Gormshuil was a common name among the Scotch and Irish Celts.  It was the name of the wicked wife of Brian Boruimhe, who brought Jarl Sigurd and Brodir, the Viking, to fight against her husband at Clontarf, where he was slain.  It was a common name among the Camerons until it fell into disrepute through this famous witch, and no child in Lochaber ever got the name again.  The Camerons of Moy, known as "Teaghlach na Maighe," were said to be a branch of the Camerons of Callart.  A young widow of the house of Callart had fled for protection to Lochiel at Tor Castle, with her two boys, Charles and Archibald.  This Charles was the progenitor of the family of Moy, and the name of Charles has been common among them down through the ages.   These Camerons had Wester Moy, whilst a family of the name of Mackinnon had Easter Moy.  The ancestor of these Mackinnons had come from Skye, with a lady who married into the Lochiel family; and when he married he got a place called Ardnois, in the Giubhsach, or great fir forest at Loch-Airceag.   Afterwards his family got Easter Moy; but to this day they are known in Lochaber as "Sliochd Iain Maidh na Giubhsaich."  These Mackinnons frequently intermarried with the Camerons of Wester Moy.   Among others, young Gormshuil Cameron became the wife of one of those Mackinnons.  She was a strong, brave young woman, full of sagest wisdom, and very high-spirited, and she had no objection to be considered uncanny, as it gave her power over her fellow men.  People shook their heads and said, "Tha tuille 's a paidir aig Gormshuil," hinting that she knew more than her Paternoster; but she heeded them not.   The fisherman going forth to the river, or the hunter going to the hill, came for her blessing, and gave her of their spoils.  One incident, in which her forethought and wisdom was of good service to her chief, made her famous in the annuals of her clan.  Lochiel was invited to meet the Earl of Athole to fix their boundaries, and he suggested that they should meet without any of their men, but each having his piper.

Lochiel and his piper were passing Gormshuil's house at Moy, and she sat by her door crooning a song, and with the familiarity of the times she asked where he was going.  Lochiel resented her speech by asking what it could matter to her where he was going.  Her reply was "'S minic nach bu mhisde iasgair no sealgair mo bheannachd agus co dh' an duraichdinn e coltach ri m' cheann-feadhna" - "Ofttimes a fisherman or a hunter were none the worse for my blessing, and to whom would I wish it so heartily as to my chief?"  Lochiel then told her of the message he got from the Earl of Athole, and she advised him to return and take a contingent of his men and to hide them in the heather when nearing his trysting-place with the Earl of Athole, and to appear before him only with his piper as originally arranged, and that he was to have an understanding with his men that they were to rush to him if they saw him turning the scarlet lining of his cloak outside.  Lochiel saw the wisdom of her counsel, and he did as she suggested.

He met the Earl of Athole, who was unreasonable about the boundaries, believing that Lochiel's person was at his mercy.   So when they could not come to terms, the Earl blew a silver whistle he had, and immediately a number of armed Athole men sprung from heath and copse. "  Who are those?" asked Lochiel.  "These are the Athole sheep coming to eat the Lochaber grass," replied the Earl.  "Seid suas," said Lochiel to his piper, whilst he turned out the scarlet lining of his cloak.  The Lochaber men jumped up from their hiding places, and the Earl asked who those were.  "They are the Lochaber dogs going to chase the Athole sheep from the Lochaber grass," replied Lochiel, and forthwith the piper blew up the tune that has been the gathering of the Camerons until this day, "Thigibh an so, a chlannabh nan con, 's gheibh sibh feòil."  Gormshuil's counsel saved her chief, and he called at her cot on his return home to thank her and to promise her any favour she would seek from him at any time.  The piper stood on the road, and played the new tune, and Gormshuil told her chief how glad she was that he had been delivered from the Duke of Athole's deceitful plans.  " Yet," she added, "in spite of all your promises of kindness to me you will one day hang my son."   "Never," said Lochiel, "you have only to come to me, and remind me of this day, and even if your son deserved hanging, he will be saved for your sake."  I need not record here the part that Gormshuil was said to take in the sinking of the Florida in Tobermory Bay, as it has been given by Dr Norman Macleod in "The Reminiscences of a Highland Parish," but the tradition in Lochaber gives the following account of her death: -

In the course of years one of her sons and the son of a neighbour were out together on the hill, when the neighbour's son and another quarrelled, and without intention of murder he gave his man a blow that slew him.  The young man who had done the deed expected to be put to death, and his mother, whose only child he was, was in sore distress.  Gormshuil, recalling the promise given her by Lochiel, got her own son to take the blame, although he was quite innocent, and he did so, and was imprisoned in the dungeon, whose iron door stood in the face of Loch Airceig.  Then Gormshuil set out to go to Achnacarry to crave the life of her son from the chief.

She got the length of a burn known in the district then as Allt Choille-ros, but known since then as Allt Gormshuil or Alit a' Bhradain.  When the hapless Gormshuil got to that burn she saw a salmon in a small pool, and thought it could easily be caught.  She asked some persons on the road to help her, but they objected, and she went alone.  She went on her knees on the lower side of the pool, and at that moment the Beum-sleibhe or spate was in the stream, and it carried Gormshuil away into Loch Lochy, where she was drowned.  Her son, who was innocent, was executed, for Lochiel did not know he was her son until it was too late.

The chief spoken of as being the one to whom Gormshuil gave the sage advice in connection with the interview with the Earl of Athole, is generally spoken of as Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel; but the date of the sinking of the Florida declares Gormshuil to have lived at an earlier date, and the following song would indicate that it was in the time of Ailean Mac Iain Duibh, the grandfather of Sir Ewen, that Gormshuil lived in Moy.   The following is a waulking song, a Glengarry witch and Gormshuil having met on a trial of individual power, to be demonstrated on the piece of cloth they tossed between them on the "Cliath-luadhaidh," or "waulking wattle": -


Hi hiu o! sid gun cluinneam,
Hi hiu o! gar am faiceam,
Hi hiu o! gar am bithinn,
Hi hiu o! beò ach seachduinn;
Hi hiu o! creach an t-Sìthein,
Hi hiu o! creach an Lagain,
Hi hiu o! gu Coille-ròs,
Hi hiu o! bho Baile-Mac-Glasdair.
Hiro, haro, horo eile,
Hiro, hara, fuaim na cleithe.
Hi hiu o! mhollachd bo dhubh,
Hi hiu o! no bo ghuaillionn,
Hi hiu o! eadar Ladaidh,
Hi hiu o! 's Gairidh-ghuallach,;
Hi hiu o! nach toir Ailean,
Hi hiu o! donn air ruaig leis,
Hi hiu o! co chuireadh tu,
Hi hiu o! gan toirt uaithe.
Hiro, haro, horo eile,
Hiro, haro, fuaim na cleithe.

A Bhan-gharranach

Hi hiu o! cha ruigte leis,
Hi hiu o! an tilleadh dhachaidh,
Hi hiu o! mhollachd bo dhubh,
Hi hiu o! no bo chais-fhionn;
Hi hiu o! a leigeadh na fir,
Hi hiu o! mhora thaiceil,
Hi hiu o! le bodaich bheaga,
Hi hiu o! Dhoch-an-fhasaidh,
Hi hiu o! saighead an suil,
Hi hiu o! nam fear lachdunn,
Hi hiu o! 's mnathan tuiridh,
Hi hiu o! bualadh bhasan,
Hiro, haro, horo eile,
Hiro, haro, fuaim na cleithe.

Hi hiu o! gheibhte sud,
Hi hiu o! mu bhun Airceig,
Hi hiu o! bodaich bheaga,
Hi hiu o! chroma chairtidh,
Hi hiu o! cuarain laoicinn,
Hi hiu o! stocaidh chraicinn,
Hi hiu o! breacain liath-ghlas,
Hi hiu o! dronnag bhradach.
Hiro, haro, horo eile,
Hiro, haro, fuaim na cleithe.


Hi hiu o! c'uime an dubhairt,
Hi hiu o! 'chaile bhradach,
Hi hiu o! gun robh Ailean,
Hi hiu o! donn gun chaiseart,
Hi hiu o! cha ruig i leas e,
Hi hiu o! bha iad aige;
Hi hiu o! brogan min-dubh,
Hi hiu o! ciaraidh cairtidh,
Hi hiu o! stocaidh de 'n t-srol,
Hi hiu o! dhearg mu 'chasan.
Hiro, haro, horo eile,
Hiro, haro, fuaim na cleithe.

Hi hiu o! ruaig a' chaorain,
Hi hiu o! leis an abhainn,
Hi hiu o! 's a ghràn eorna,
Hi hiu o! am bial na brathann;
Hi hiu o! air na tha beo,
Hi hiu o! a chinne d' athar,
Hi hiu o! eadar chlann og,
Hi hiu o! 's mhnathan tighe,
Hi hiu o! 's Eilean Droighneachain,
Hi hiu o! 'bhi na lasair,
Hi hiu o! 's mar creid thu sud,
Hi hiu o ! seall a mach air.
Hiro, haro, horo eile,
Hiro, haro, fuaim na cleithe.

The Glengarry witch looked out, as she was asked to do, and her home was on fire.  In the blaze of her wrath, she burst on the waulking wattle, and Gormshuil was triumphant.  There are several of her descendants among the Mackinnons in the Lochaber district, but they do not like to be reminded of their most famous ancestress.

Editor's Note: This paper was presented to the Gaelic Society of Inverness, and included in Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, Vol. 16