Though but early November, it was a day
typical of the depth of winter in the Western Highlands when, at the gracious
invitation of Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel, I set off on my twelve-mile run to
Achnacarry: that "depth of winter" which has little seasonal meaning
for us since it lifts and falls and lifts again from September until May.
But this was Winter itself: chill, bitter, snarling down from the grim
north-east over the great hills of the Achdalieu and Achnacarry Forests and
moving above in slow inexorable veils that blotted the heights, then passed to
leave them mantled with the snow.
As I turned my back on the distant point of
Fassifern House, which once sheltered Prince Charlie; as I left the shores of
that loch from which for five hundred years the hereditary chiefs of Clan
Cameron have taken their title, and its islet on which their earliest castle
stood; as I forked into the Great Glen, past Tor, their stronghold for
centuries, past Erracht and Glen Loy, the birthplace of the Cameron Highlanders,
my thoughts, though centred on him who was to be my guide to the treasures of
his house, were paradoxically wide of my destination.
Insofar as I was thinking rather than feeling, I was puzzled.
Achnacarry drew me with imperative call, yet I was conscious of other
voices, dim yet insistent, which murmured those old names again and again over
the still fainter question: "You, who seek the Home of Lochiel, why pass us
by?" But I pressed on, answering doggedly: "The hearth of Lochiel is
the home of Lochiel." Yet I
knew that I was wrong.
So I reasoned further with these dim voices,
saying: "On every crag and boulder of the ancient Cameron lands is stamped
the history of their chiefs. The
burns that trickle in height of summer through heather and bracken whisper ‘Lochiall!';
the rivers that thunder in spate, the hills that echo the tempest, in harsh
reminder of days that gathered wolves and foxes to the open battlefield, shout
the proud slogan of the Clan: 'Hither, Sons of the Dog, and I will give you
flesh!' From Glen Pean to Glen
Nevis, from Callop to Arkaig, all is the Home of Lochiel!"
But I knew full well that though the mysterious voices and I alike spoke
truth, it was not yet the whole truth. So:
"My mind is a slate," I said, "washed clean; let Lochiel inscribe
what he will.”
Scraps of verse and prose, relevant rather to
the spirit than to the intellect, were beating themselves into the rhythm of the
engine: Barbour, Ronsard, Mallory - all such as treated of heroes, high courage
and deeds bright as burnished steel mingled their strains confused as in a
distant "surge and thunder of the Odyssey."
But the pulse faltered; and when the little bridge, the Witch's Bridge,
was reached, it turned to the iambs and anapæsts of the inevitable
"Lochiel, Lochiel, beware the day When the Lowlands shall meet thee in
battle array!" Few seem now to
remember the old tradition that it was by this burn where the curve of Bunarkaig
Bay first strikes on the traveller's vision, and on the site of this little more
than culvert whose foot-high parapet curves away on either hand to
insignificance, that the Wise Woman of Moy (wrongly immortalized by Campbell as
a Wizard) foretold to the Gentle Lochiel of the Forty-Five the approaching fate
of his clan. But I myself had it
from one who held it direct in the fifth generation and of its intrinsic truth
and that of its "local habitation " I see no reason to doubt.
Now the road forks and, while the private way to the Castle turns sharply left, the main continuation flanks the Bay, set about with the neat whitewashed cottages of estate workers; runs on over the mouth of the River Arkaig and by Clunes Lodge (a favourite house of the present Lochiel) turns due west through the famous pass of the Dark Mile to the long loveliness of Loch Arkaig. Here indeed it seemed to me that I was in the heart of the old clan lands. Every roof of this scattered community, grouped most thickly by Achnacarry and Bunarkaig, shelters a family directly dependent on the great estate: no stranger lodges in the vicinity, no modern villa scars the fair landscape. From Gairlochy to far Glen Dessary the road preserves in microcosm the clannish character borne by the whole district in the days before the 'Forty-Five.
As I pursued the private road my excitement
grew. At length the great iron gates
were before me. Straight as a gun
barrel, but diagonally and flanked by century-old plane trees, the avenue runs
to the Castle: which receives it askance, its high Georgian windows gazing
placidly over terrace, lawns tree-dotted and decked with formal flowerbeds, and
meadows where in summer Jerseys and Friesians graze.
The setting is a natural amphitheatre formed by the heights of Beinn Bhan,
the southern wall of Glen Maillie and the waters of Loch Lochy: a place of
beauty and of peace.
Achnacarry is indeed a noble house: of hewn
grey stone, four-storeyed, curving out at the nearer end into a wide semitower,
in turn buttressed at the angle by a slender bastion on which floats the banner
of Lochiel when he is himself in residence; a house of lofty calm and dignity,
fitting symbol of "port after stormie seas, Ease after warre," which
is the just guerdon of the family that dwells there.
Even now in retrospect it is hard to link up
with it on paper the impression of the past which this comparatively modern
residence makes on the visitor. At
that moment all my earlier confusion of mind returned.
The Home of Lochiel: a nineteenth century building: the race-long history
of the Family: that vivid sense of days long gone - to reconcile the apparently
irreconcilable, that was the problem. However,
the time was not yet; I laid it aside and am not ashamed to own that my heart
was beating more quickly as I was led into the presence of Sir Donald Walter
Cameron of Lochiel, Knight of the Thistle and Twenty-fifth Chief of the clan
which bears his name.
For it is difficult in these days of change to
find his parallel. Few remain of the
old chiefs who live on the lands of their ancestors; fewer still who continue to
lead their people, though it be but in the constitutional government of that
place in which their forebears ruled as kings; none, no, none, whose is a more
honoured name or who is heir to greater tradition.
So, as the twenty-fifth MacDhomhnuill Dhuibh, as Convener of the County
Council of Inverness and as a most courtly Highland gentleman - so I saw
Lochiel; but it was as the latter that he greeted me and I was at once at ease
in his house.
It was not long, however, before my unspoken
questions were again to rise in my mind as Lochiel spoke simply of the
connection of his family with Achnacarry. Not
until the second half of the seventeenth century did it become their home, when
the exigencies of the old feud with the Mackintoshes, combined with the
establishment of a Government garrison at Fort William, dictated that they
should leave the more open position of Torcastle, six miles away on the River
Lochy, and establish themselves in that natural amphitheatre behind Bunarkaig.
There Sir Ewen Cameron – with the exception of the Gentle Lochiel
perhaps the most famous of his line - built the original Achnacarry and there
dwelt in the more peaceful moments of his adventurous days.
Constant skirmishes with the garrison however, the campaigns of Dundee
whose trusted ally he was and the troubled period of the Fifteen left him little
time to beautify his new abode; so that on his death in 1719 (his eldest son
then being in exile for his share in the Rising) the task fell to his grandson
Donald, who laid out the grounds and planned the magnificent avenue of beech
trees which alone to-day marks the approach to Sir Ewen's house.
As he spoke of them, Lochiel rose to point out
these lovely trees framed in the windows of the Library.
Tall, straight, perfectly matched and perfectly aligned, they form the
most touching memorial to the man who, in his own person, centred all that was
best in the Cause to which he gave up everything save honour and his people's
love. In 1745, concerned only with
the improvement of his estate, he had ordered the saplings to be sent to
Achnacarry; but before that order was fulfilled Lochiel had met his Prince.
The pledge had been given in words that are surely immortal: “I will
share the fate of my Prince and so shall every man over whom name or fortune has
given me power"; there could be no retreat.
Of small account then were the little
saplings, come to a district in the throes of mobilisation.
"Every man" of strength to plant a tree was of strength
sufficient to wield dirk and claymore for the Stewart; so, by Lochiel's command,
a trench was dug on the planting-site and the little beeches “sheuched"
against the return of peace and of King James VIII.
Alas for Lochiel and the Jacobite hopes!
"No more returning,” he could not mark the destiny of his trees.
Perhaps in unhappy exile he pictured them straggling, thin and weedy,
along the avenue of his desire to the ruins of his home.
But where man was struck down, Nature prevailed, and to-day, throughout
Great Britain, the Achnacarry Beeches are unrivalled in symmetry and strength.
It is impossible to look upon them unmoved.
The arms that dug their trenches, the feet that tramped them firm,
mouldered to dust far from the kindly earth of home; of the Castle to which they
were to form the grand approach not one single stone remains – and yet - not
in his most sanguine dreams could the Gentle Lochiel have pictured a nobler rank
than that into which, as it were of their own good will, those neglected
saplings have sprung.
After Lochiel had told me their story he
pointed to the lawn below the semitower to which they lead.
"That is the site of Sir Ewen's house," he said.
"There is nothing to be seen. But
sometimes when the ground has sunk a little the mower strikes on the old
foundations: that is all." Cumberland
burnt it; no picture nor print of it remains, and the years of forfeiture and
chaos that followed the Forty-Five obliterated the fate of its very stones.
Eventually the forfeited estates were restored
to the grandson of the Gentle Lochiel. Brought
up in Paris, he at last returned to the land of his fathers, but a
constitutional delicacy forbade his living in the then primitive surroundings of
Lochaber. He it was, however, who,
about the turn of the century, began the structure now standing which, after
remaining roofless for over twenty-five years, was completed by his son, the
present Lochiel's grandfather. Not,
however, until 1885, when the late Lochiel retired from Parliament, did
Achnacarry again become the permanent dwelling-place of the Chief of Clan
Perhaps at that moment Lochiel sensed
something of my perplexity, since it must have been shared by many another in
his experience. "The connection
of my family with Achnacarry, old and new, is, as you will now understand,
comparatively recent. At least two
other places that we know of were strongholds of the Lochiels: Eilean a Chraobh
and Torcastle. But the possession of
actual castles and the ownership of land were not the source of an old
chief's strength nor of his family's continuance in power.
That depended entirely on the number of men that followed him:
those of his own name and of the septs dependent on his clan."
Then at last I saw!
Eilean a Chraobh – Torcastle – the persistent voicing of their names:
"every crag and boulder of the ancient Cameron lands" - half-truths,
both. And all the while, at the back
of my mind, had lurked the whole truth, in words familiar from childhood:
"Every man over whom name…has given me power."
Truly the Home of Lochiel is in the heart of the Cameron and the man of
Cameron sept whether he is still in his native glen or in the farthest deserts
of the Antipodes! And as my host
went on to speak of the ever-changing “ownership" of Highland land from
the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and of the MacLauchlans,
MacMillans, MacMartins, MacPhees, MacMasters and others who had eventually
thrown in their lot with Clan Cameron, I at last fully realised that it was as
futile to seek the history of the Lochiels in Achnacarry alone as that of the
House of Windsor in Buckingham Palace.
But now Lochiel rose and offered to show me
the carefully preserved treasures of Achnacarry, so with eager steps I followed
him across the wide flagged hall. On
every hand hung trophies of the chase from the surrounding Forest and to one
side hovered a golden eagle, its immense spread of wing dwarfing the antlers
beneath. As we trod the oak
staircase under a high dome of glass my eyes were fixed on the wall-group of the
central flight : an armoury and, above it, the dearest relic of all.
Its crimson folds barely dimmed by nigh two
hundred years, its emblazoned centre still clear and bright, whole, beautiful,
the Culloden Banner hangs, a silent pæan to the Highland heart.
On that fatal April day it waved in the forefront of six hundred
followers of the Gentle Lochiel; and as I gazed I seemed to see the stiff silk
tossed in the bitter north-east wind and spattered with the cruel sleet which,
beat in the faces of that haggard army. But
as I remembered that on the right of the Camerons were the Men of Athole, and
among them my own forebear who fell for his Prince: that their eyes, his eyes,
had looked first with hope and then with brave despair as well upon this
fluttering emblem as their own, I turned away.
"Old unhappy far-off things And battles long ago": the
quotation is inevitable and not all the careless mouthing of the herd can rob it
of its poignancy.
The Banner was never captured.
Its honour was saved by the bravery of MacLauchlan of Coruanan,
hereditary standard-bearer to Lochiel, who, wrapping its folds about his own
body, fought his way through the aftermath of carnage and bore it safe away.
Different was the fate of the next relic that
Lochiel pointed out. This was the
central feature of the group of arms below the Banner: a "grim two-handed
engine" of immense size and obvious antiquity, its hilt alone a foot in
length. "That,” my host told
me, "is the sword used by Donald Dhu at Harlaw in 1411,” when, under the
leadership of the Lord of the Isles, the powers of the West clashed with those
of the South and East in what was both an indecisive engagement and perhaps the
most decisive battle ever fought on Scottish soil, ending as it did the Gaelic
bid for supremacy and rounding off the period begun in Malcolm Canmore's
marriage with a Saxon queen. As,
with reverent fingers, I touched the dark steel of its two-inch blade, I
wondered whether the West had then been in the hands of giants.
During the battle the sword was captured by
the Aberdeen Trained Bands who bore it in triumph to their city; and there it
remained until the present Lochiel's great-grandfather offered to have made and
presented to Aberdeen a special silver-mounted dirk to commemorate the
generosity of its citizens should they return the weapon to its rightful owner.
The bargain was struck and now in its turn this tremendous blade on the
Achnacarry staircase is memorial to that generosity.
From that armoury two other weapons must give
the imaginative beholder keen delight. One
is a gun - its barrel-length alone topped my host's six foot of stature by some
eighteen inches - with which Sir Ewen shot the last wolf ever seen in Lochaber.
(And to recollect that he did not die until 1719 and that during his
lifetime the Cameron slogan often on his lips might bear a literal as well as a
metaphorical meaning, is to experience something of a shock.)
The other is the fowling-piece used on the surrounding hills by Prince
Charles Edward during the sunny autumn days of 1745, a slender Spanish weapon
delicately inlaid with golden scrolls.
I then followed Lochiel into the Drawing-room,
the most beautifully proportioned that I have ever had the privilege of
entering. Lofty, square but for the
fourth side, it there curves out into a noble bay of immensely tall windows hung
with curtains of deep gold: which frame a picture such as even in this, the most
lovely district in Scotland, cannot be surpassed.
Away to the left, the river Arkaig pours from a gorge, spills over falls,
tree-shadowed and rock-buttressed, creams over rapids and divides to encircle a
wooded island. Reuniting as it were
beneath the centre window it then gathers its waters in a single sweep to pass
calmly away to the right in an amber flood.
Behind lie the heights of the Dark Mile, richly clothed with every
variety of tree: before lie narrow green lawns and walks of the Castle garden:
and between the river flashes like a bright and swift-drawn scimitar.
To see that room is to love it and, further,
to rejoice that the house of which it is the central hearth is that destined to
hold treasures whose fitting setting is the concern of every man or woman of
This old verse haunted me during the next
half-hour: for if the Prince did ever reign indeed, it was in Cameron hearts and
over Cameron lands. In pride of
place above the mantelpiece hangs that miniature of himself which he gave to the
Gentle Lochiel. The eyes are bold
and bright, the features high, and across his breast lies the ribbon of the
Garter. To look upon that picture
was a fitting prelude to that which was to come.
Lochiel then led me back to the Library: a
long room - lofty and tall-windowed as all in Achnacarry - of soft browns and
reds, light despite the dark bookshelves, dignified yet essentially comfortable.
Here a portrait of the Old Chevalier is matched in strangely apt fashion.
Exiled in Rome until he was a stranger to his forebears' Scotland, his
picture in the heart of that northern land is surrounded by Italian brushwork,
the collection of the late Lochiel. Primitives
such as James would daily see and learn to meet as friends, the Virgin-Mother
for whose sake his father fled a throne, a saintly-seeming yet shrewd-looking
cardinal typical of those among whom his younger son was placed: these and
others bear the Stranger-Monarch wonted company.
But I had little time to study them, for Lochiel was unlocking a case.
Then, one by one, he drew the contents forth and with kindly detailed
explanation put them into my hands.
Space will allow only the most outstanding
Jacobite relics here to be touched on, with a single exception.
This belongs to a far earlier and to a somewhat later period, but its
story is so remarkable that it demands recounting.
The exception consists of a pair of plain gold C-shaped bracelets, solid,
heavy, telling of the meeting of age-old East with raw young West; Phoenician
bracelets traded for we know not what that caught the crafty Semite's fancy when
Tyre and Sidon flourished far away: or bracelets which cost him his life by the
savage shores of Loch Leven. Fifty
years ago, however, they paid an Onich crofter's rent and the manner of it was
thus. The crofter, whose
determination to do as little work as possible had got him into sore arrears
with his landlord, dreamed of a treasure in his field.
He told his wife who, delighted at the thought that he might at least
take spade in hand, urged him to dig. He
did; and unearthed a bracelet. The
following night he dreamed again - with a like result.
His wife then bade him take the queer-looking objects to Lochiel's Factor
who, having had them assayed and examined by experts, found them to be of purest
gold and of Phoenician origin. As a
reward, the late Lochiel not only gave the crofter a pound apiece for the
bracelets but handed him as well the receipt for his long arrears of rent.
What ancient deal lay behind this modern business transaction, or what
distant influence touched the crofter as he lay asleep?
Truth - in the Highlands - is certainly stranger than fiction!
But to pass on to the relics of the
Forty-Five. First came a little
thistle-glass from Fassifern. At the
time of the Rising this house was the dwelling of Lochiel's brother: the same
who, foreseeing the inevitable result, endeavoured to dissuade him from making
personal contact with the Prince. But
after the Standard was raised, Fassifern was the first private residence to
shelter Charles Edward. There, on
the night of the 23rd August, 1745, the Prince and his officers slept; and it
was out of this glass that Charles at dinner, in stammering Gaelic that went
straight to his followers' hearts, toasted the success of their undertaking.
Of all that I saw at Achnacarry this little thistle-glass held the
greatest power to roll back the mists of time and to reveal the living figure of
Tearlach Og. Warm fingers about the
stem, red lips at the brim below cheeks flushed with hope and starry
eyes…perhaps the lamplight gathered itself on the shining hair that powder
could not dim and left in kindly shadow the anxious faces of Lochiel, of Keppoch
and old Tullibardine.
The Gentle Lochiel's accustomed snuff-mull,
the pistol presented to him by the Prince, cyphered with the fashionable double
initial and of most delicate workmanship, a pair of heavy "regulation"
pistols captured from an English officer at Preston Pans: these recalled the
campaign itself when hard work, discomfort, danger but not despair were the
order of the day. But then Lochiel
lifted a little silver box, with a flat lid and a curved cup-shaped body, some
two inches deep. With gentle fingers
he drew off what seemed to be an outer shell that fitted close below the lid and
handed it to me. "Read the
inscription," he said.
And as I did so I saw in swift procession the
long months of hiding, weariness, hunger and cold; the escape; the state visit
from St Antoine when, with hope reborn, the Prince "glittered…like the
star which they tell you appeared at his nativity"; then the beginning of
the long night of despair. What were
hismemories, what his emotions. I
reverently wondered, as he penned these words for the silversmith to inscribe?
Of the other relics I can only mention one:
the tiny hoop of gold that was Mary of Moqena's wedding-ring.
History tells us little of this unhappy Queen, neglected, calumniated,
robbed by scandalous tongues even of her title to motherhood.
Yet mother she was and grandmother. And
in this golden circle, so strangely small, I seemed to hear her cause pleaded
and vindicated: that through her alone did the Stewart Line end, not in
complacent domesticity, but in the sudden evanescent glory of the Northern
Lochiel then took me to the Dining-room to
view the portraits; but again space forbids a full account of what to me was an
unforgettable experience. To us who
dwell in Lochaber the name of Sir Ewen Cameron is a household word and, since
his portrait is the first to strike the eye, I felt as though I had been ushered
into his very presence. Most people
must be familiar with prints taken from engravings of this painting and possibly
they have made an unfavourable impression: the heavy rounded chin, full underlip
and oblique eyes portrayed in the lifeless lines of the graver’s tools seem to
hint at a sulky slyness, quite at variance with what we know of the character of
Eobhan Dubh: admirer of Montrose, active supporter of Glencairn when he sought
to carry on the Great Marquis's work, Dundee's most trusted officer at
Killiecrankie, and hero of a hundred skirmishes in protection of his own people
and their lands.
But look upon the original painting!
By a miracle of brush-work, the dark complexion to which he owed his
Gaelic soubriquet glows with life above the coal-black armour: the eyes shine
with the light of a knife-keen intellect, and their sideways-downwards glance is
amply explained by the mischievous twist of the mouth.
No sullenness, no slyness: subtlety, yes, but redeemed by unbounded
humour and strength. Even when I had
passed on I was conscious of Sir Ewen at my back, a still-living, lovable and
most powerful personality.
In turn I viewed the portraits of my host and
his father; two magnificent Raeburns, one of his great-grandfather - he who
returned from France to begin but not complete the present Achnacarry - the
other of this chief's wife who was daughter to Sir Ralph Abercrombie; then at
length stood before that painting which purports to portray the features of
Donald Cameron, Nineteenth Chief and the real hero of the Forty-Five - a
portrait which, under the circumstances, is but too widely known.
"A bad copy of a bad picture,"
Lochiel said briefly; then went on to tell me that there is much doubt as to
whether this delicate, effeminate-looking man really does represent the Gentle
Lochiel, since the original bears a date five years later from than his death.
If, on the other hand, it is a posthumous portrait, then something -
perhaps a trifle that was the all - has escaped the artist's memory.
For here is gentleness certainly, but without the historic strength of
will; womanly qualities which need not disgrace a warrior but lacking that
virility which in Donald Cameron endowed them with noble significance.
The man of this portrait could never have given that famous pledge to the
Prince, still less have redeemed it by the unflinching courage, the loyalty and
resource shown by Lochiel throughout the campaign and in the grim days after
Culloden. Here, in short, is one
who, in Charles's own gibe, might have been content to follow the fortunes of
his Prince in the newspapers: emphatically it is not the Lochiel of the
But although his physical lineaments may,
through the confusion of exile, be lost to posterity, it matters little.
As long as honour has any meaning for Highland people (and when shall it
cease to have?) so long will the Gentle Lochiel be their dearest inspiration.
Even during his lifetime and the bitterness of political strife, his
enemies could find no evil either of motive or of conduct to impute to him: his
nobility was accepted by all. Writing
later - in 1774 – Mrs Grant of Laggan, who did not share his devotion to the
Stewarts, could find only this to say: "I call him gentle because he really
was so…He was like Brutus among the conspirators.
No man sacrificed more domestic comfort to mistaken principle.
No man had clearer views of the fatal result."
Two other quotations leapt to my mind as, with
Lochiel, I left the Dining-room, still as it were walking within the aura of the
finest flower of Highland race. The
first, from a poet of earlier time and other country, cheapened ad nauseam
though it may be through loose and foolish panegyric, is here the best and
truest of epitaphs: "He was a verray parfit gentil knight."
The other - and I do not hesitate to use it in this connection since his
exile endured but little over a year - begins: "Greater love hath no
On the threshold of that house of glorious
memories, I sought in stumbling fashion to express my thanks to him who, in the
midst of pressing affairs, had yet seen fit to sacrifice well nigh two hours of
his time that others might share the Inspiration of the Past.
And as I took my leave the scudding cloud-wrack parted.
Swift, sudden, like a spear from heaven, a sun-shaft flashed into the
heart of the Achnacarry Beeches.
Beneath their shadow the old line endures.