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Amelia Volume 1 Chapter 24

The Battle of Glenfruin according to Sir Walter Scott

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THE world-wide celebrity of the writings of Sir Walter Scott, whose sympathetic mind caught the fire of Highland adventure and was able to reflect it back into the hearts of thousands who never saw the scenes, or knew the Highland people, has led to implicit belief in all that he has narrated, although it was his avowed purpose to mix romance with history, and the congenial materials which he wove into his brilliant pages were derived from various informants and mingled sources. Sir Walter’s account of the Battle of Glenfruin as given in the introduction to “Rob Roy” must ever be interesting, and therefore it is here copied verbatim.

“Other occasions frequently occurred, in which the MacGregors testified contempt for the laws, from which they had often experienced severity, but never protection. Though they were gradually deprived of their possessions, and of all ordinary means of procuring subsistence, they could not nevertheless, be supposed likely to starve of famine while they had the means of taking from strangers what they considered as rightfully their own. Hence they became versed in predatory forays, and accustomed to bloodshed. Their passions were eager, and with a little management on the part of some of their most powerful neighbours, they could easily be hounded out, to use an expressive Scotch phrase, to commit violence, of which the wily instigators took the advantage, and left the ignorant MacGregors an undivided portion of blame and punishment. This policy of pushing on the fierce Clans of the Highlands and Borders to break the peace of the country, is accounted by the historian one of the most dangerous practices of his own period, in which the MacGregors were considered as ready agents.

“Notwithstanding these severe denunciations, which were acted upon in the same spirit in which they were conceived, some of the Clan still possessed property, and the Chief of the name in 1592, is designed Allaster MacGregor of Glenstrae. He is said to have been a brave and active man; but from the tenor of his confession at his death, appears to have been engaged in many and desperate feuds, one of which finally [page 292} proved fatal to himself and many of his followers. This was the celebrated conflict at Glenfruin, near the south-western extremity of Loch Lomond, in the vicinity of which the MacGregors continued to exercise much authority by the ‘coir a glaive,’ [1]   or right of the strongest, which we have already mentioned.

“There had been a long and bloody feud betwixt the MacGregors and the Laird of Luss, head of the family of Colquhoun, a powerful race on the lower part of Loch Lomond. The MacGregors’ tradition affirms that the quarrel began on a very trifling subject. ‘Two of the MacGregors being benighted, asked shelter in a house belonging to a dependent of the Colquhouns, and were refused. They then retreated to an outhouse, took a wedder from the fold, killed it and supped off the carcase, for which it is said they offered payment to the proprietor. The Laird of Luss seized on the offenders, and, by the summary process which feudal barons had then at their command, had them both condemned and executed. [2]  

The MacGregors verify this account of the feud by appealing to a proverb current amongst then, execrating the hour (Mult dubh an earball ghil) that ‘the black wedder with the white tail’ was ever lambed. To avenge this quarrel the Laird of MacGregor assembled his clan, to the number of three or four hundred men, and marched towards Luss from the banks of Loch Long, by a pass called Raid (Ruidh) na Gael or the Highlandman’s pass.

“Sir Humphrey Colquhoun received early notice of this incursion, and collected a strong force, more than twice the number of that of the invaders. He had with him the gentlemen of the name of Buchanan, with the Grahams, and other, gentry of the Lennox, and a party of the citizens of Dumbarton, under command of Tobias Smollett, a magistrate or bailie of that town and ancestor of the celebrated author.

“The parties met in the valley of Glenfruin, which signifies Glen of sorrow - a name that seemed to anticipate the event of the day, which, fatal to the conquered party, was at least equally so to the victors, the ‘babe unborn’ of the Clan Alpine having reason to repent it. The MacGregors somewhat discouraged by the sight of a force much superior to their own, were cheered on to the attack by a seer, or second-sighted person, who professed that he saw the shrouds of the dead wrapt around their principal opponents. The clan charged with great fury on the front of the enemy while John MacGregor, with a strong party, made an unexpected attack on the flank. A great [page 293} part of the Colquhoun’s force consisted in cavalry, which could not act in the boggy ground. They were said to have disputed the, field manfully, but were at length completely routed, and a merciless slaughter was exercised on the fugitives, of whom betwixt two and three hundred fell on the field and in the pursuit. If the MacGregors lost, as is averred, only two men slain in action, they had slight provocation for an indiscriminate massacre. It is said that their fury extended itself to a party of students for clerical orders, who had imprudently come to see the battle. Some doubt is thrown on this fact from the indictment against the chief of the ClanGregor being silent on the subject, as is the historian Johnston, and a Professor Ross, who wrote an account of the battle twenty-nine years after it was fought. It is however constantly averred by the tradition of the country, and a stone where the deed was done is called ‘Leck a Mhinisteir,’ the Minister or clerk’s flag stone. The MacGregors impute this cruel action to the ferocity of a single man of their tribe, renowned for size anti strength, called Dugald, Ciar Mhor, [3]   or the great mouse-coloured Man. He was MacGregor’s foster brother, and the Chief committed the youths to his charge, with directions to keep them safely till the affray was over. Whether fearful of their escape or incensed by some sarcasms which they threw at his tribe, or whether out of mere thirst of blood, this savage, while the other MacGregors were engaged in pursuit, poniarded his helpless and defenceless prisoners. When the Chieftain, on his return demanded where the youths were, the Ciar Mhor drew out his bloody dirk, saying in Gaelic, ‘Ask that, and God save me.’ The latter words allude to the exclamation which his victims used when he was murdering them. It would seem therefore that this horrible part of the story is founded on fact, though the number of the youths so slain is probably exaggerated in Lowland accounts. The common people say that the blood of the Ciar Mhor’s victims can never be washed off the stone. When MacGregor learnt their fate, he expressed the utmost horror at the deed, and upbraided his foster-brother with having done that which would occasion the destruction of him and his Clan. The homicide was the ancestor of Rob Roy, [4]   and the tribe from which he was descended. He lies buried at the church of Fortingal, where his sepulchre, covered with a large stone, is still shown, and where his great strength and courage are the theme of many traditions.

“MacGregor’s brother was one of the very few of the tribe who were slain. He was buried near the field of battle, and the place is marked by a rude stone called the Grey Stone of MacGregor.

“Sir Humphrey [5]   Colquhoun, well mounted, escaped for the time to the castle of [page 294} Banochar, or Benechra. It proved no sure defence however, for he was shortly after murdered in a vault of the castle, - the family annals say by the MacGregors, though other accounts charge the deed upon the MacFarlanes.”

“Note by, Sir Walter Scott. - The above is the account which I find in a manuscript history of the clan MacGregor, of which I was indulged with a perusal by Donald MacGregor, Esq. [6]   late Major of the 33rd Regiment, where great pains have been taken to collect traditions and written documents concerning the family. But an ancient and constant tradition, preserved among the inhabitants of the country, and particularly those of the clan MacFarlane, relieves Dugald Ciar Mhor of the guilt of murdering the youths, and lays the blame on a certain Donald or Duncan Lean, who performed the act of cruelty, with the assistance of a gillie who attended him, named Charlioch or Charlie. They say that the homicides dared not again join their clan, but that they resided in a wild and solitary state as outlaws, in an unfrequented part of the MacFarlane’s territory. Here they lived for some time undisturbed, till they committed an act of brutal violence on two defenceless women, a mother and daughter of the MacFarlane clan. In revenge for this atrocity, the MacFarlanes hunted them down, and shot them. It is said that the younger ruffian, Charlioch, might have escaped, being remarkably swift of foot. But his crime became his punishment, for the female whom he had outraged had defended herself desperately, and had stabbed him with his own dirk on the thigh. He was lame from the wound, and the more easily overtaken and killed. I incline to think that this last is the true edition of the story, and that the guilt was transferred to Dougal Ciar Mhor as a man of higher name, or it is possible these subordinate persons had only executed his orders.” - Introduction to “Rob Roy,” 1829.

The preceding account of the Battle of Glenfruin by Sir Walter Scott falls into the error of dates to be found in the article on Colquhoun in Douglas’s “Baronage,” [7]   which is understood to have been written by Crawford, the Peerage writer, and was apparently taken from a MS. History in the Colquhoun family. It has been shown from the “Chiefs of Colquhoun,” that while Sir Humphrey met his death in the Castle of Bannachra, by a raid of Macfarlanes only, so far as can be proved, in [page 295} 1592, it was in the time of his brother and successor, Alexander, that the conflict of Glenfruin took place on the 7th Feb. 1603, and it also appears that the display of shirts to excite the King’s indignation followed the smaller raid of Glenfinlas of the 7th Dec. 1603. The picturesque account of the procession of the widows, mention is only made of two men slain, is given by Sir Walter after the recital of the alleged affair of the murder of the students, with these few words preceding it :-

“This battle of Glenfruin, and the severity which the victors exercised in the pursuit, was reported to King James VI. in a manner most unfavourable to the ClanGregor, whose general character being that of lawless though brave men, could not much avail them in such a case. That James might fully understand the extent of the slaughter, the widows of the slain, &a.” [8]  

We have now to consider more particularly the accusation of the murder of the defenceless students. Sir Walter quotes an account from traditional sources, collected by the late Major Donald MacGregor of Balnald. Sir William Fraser repeats this, and adds a few particulars :-

“On the memorable day of the conflict of Glenfruin, according to the tradition of the country, a number of youths who, from mere curiosity had come from the Grammar School of Dumbarton to witness the battle that was expected to take place, were massacred in cold blood by one of the Clan Macgregor. The boys came along the ridge of the high hills on the south side of the Fruin called the Highland road; and they were shut up for safety in a but or barn, to the west of the battle on Greenfield Moor, under the charge of a Highlander, who, on seeing the MacGregors successful, stabbed them with his dirk one by one as they came out of this place of shelter. The site of the barn is still pointed out at a spot called Lach na faul, or Lagnagaul, ‘hollow of the Lowlander.’ . . . . . . It is worthy of notice that this atrocious massacre forms no part of the charges in the indictment of any of the MacGregors who were tried before the High Court of Justiciary on account of the raid of Glenfruin, or ‘The field and murder of Lennox,’ as that conflict is sometimes called. But some colour of truth seems to be given to the tradition by an act of Privy Council 5. Jan. 1609. in which Allan Oig McIntnach, [9]   in Glencoe, is accused of having, while with the ClanGregor in Glenfruin, ‘with his awne hand murdered without pity the number of fourtie poor persons who were naked and without armour.’

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“Sir William also quotes in a footnote ‘The barn of Blairvadden in the dukedom of Lennox was burnt by the Macgregors in Feb. 1603 as appears from the records of the Privy Seal 28 July 1612. and Dec. 1613.’ In the Records there is no allusion to any persons having been killed or even injured on that occasion. Sir William adds the following remark ‘Nor do the MacGregors deny that the story is founded on fact; but they affirm that the Clan as a body execrated the crime, and they impute it to the ferocity of one of their tribe, Dugald Ciar mhor, &a &a.’ ”

The original Dougal Ciar died many years before the date of Glenfruin, though one of his descendants at that time bore the name of Dougal, with the patronymic belonging to his house, Dougal McCoulcheir, but there is no evidence against him. We cannot assent to the statement that MacGregors do not deny the story. On the contrary, it may be confidently asserted that there is no proof, or even probability, that any MacGregor was concerned in the deed. Turning to the “Baronage” under the article of MacGregor we may see what Sir John MacGregor Murray’s views were on the subject :-

“It has been industriously reported, that one Cameron, a servant of MacGregor’s had murdered a number of boys the sons of gentlemen of distinction, who were on their way to the school of Dumbarton, or had come to see the fight; the following reasons may he sufficient to discredit these reports :-

“1. That we had few or no very young scholars in these days, they were generally young men from 15 to 25. and of course capable of bearing arms.

“2. Glenfruin, about six miles in length lies beyond large mountains, at a distance of several miles from, and far off any road leading to Dumbarton; and as the fight was at the farthest end of the Glen, which was then entirely wild and uninhabited so it is totally incredible that the scholars should have been there accidentally or that any boys, much less the sons of gentlemen of distinction, should walk so many miles to school, across such hills.

“3. Professor Ross, who wrote an accurate account of the battle in the course of the history of another family, about 29 years after it was fought, when the truth or falsity of the report must have been well known, does not mention such; nor does Mr. Johnston, who about 20 years after Mr. Ross, wrote a detail of the battle, and who as he was employed to traduce the MacGregors, Macdonalds, and Macleans, and write the eulogiums of their enemies, would not have omitted a circumstance which if true would have afforded him such a field of declamation against this Clan; nor is there any such cruelty even hinted at in the preamble or any other part of the Act. of Parliament afterwards made against them.

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“4. Since neither Mr. Ross nor Mr. Johnstone mention it, it is clear no such report prevailed in those days and therefore it was trumped up of a later date to serve certain purposes of the enemies of the MacGregors, or if there were any scholars they must have been such as had followed their friends as volunteers to the battle and shared the fate of the day.”

It may be readily granted that local traditions have usually some grains of truth, although names of personages are apt to get mixed up with personal prejudices in their transmission from past generations. It seems probable that a calamity happened to some unarmed persons after the fight, whether by the hand of a McLean, a Cameron, a McIntuagh, or a MacGregor remains undecided, but the latter, for reasons already stated as to the readiness with which guilt would have been attached to one of the Clan on their trial, is most improbable. Whoever may have been the criminal (if such there were) the act was that of a single individual apart from any clan. [10]  

Whilst regretting such carnage, as there may have been in the eagerness of pursuit, in days when quarter was seldom asked or given and the victors were of an excitable race, peculiarly liable to the “madness of battle” (as it was called), yet MacGregors cannot read of the conflict without just pride in the admirable generalship of the two Glenstray brothers, and in the valour of the Clan which carried the day against such great odds.

Allaster MacGregor of Glenstray had a holding in Rannoch, and it was from thence that he started for the Colquhoun country. Dwelling on the Sliosmin side of Loch Rannoch (i.e., the north side under Menzies of Menzies, the Laird of Weem), he probably first crossed the Gaur Water by the Ferry called Tighnalinne, a little above the head of the Loch, thence across the hill by Lairig Mheachdainn (an old Gaelic word for twigs or branches) to near Pubil, towards the head of Glenlyon, thence by a pass called Lairig nan Lunn [11]   to Glenlochay, striking that glen about [page 298} eight miles above Killin, thence up that glen to near its head and across the ridge to Strathfillan at Crianlarich, down Glenfalloch to the head of Loch Lomond, and from Tarbet on Loch Lomond through the Pass of Arrochar to Loch Long. Glenstray had allies in the McFarlanes of Arroquhar, and we know from the indictment against his own clansmen, the tribe of Dougal Ciar, that they (whose dwelling was in Balquhidder) convoyed him to “the syd of Lochloun,” from whence by Gairlochhead he would strike off Strone in Glenfruin. The march must have occupied several of the cold, misty days of February. The wives and bairns doubtless watched these “pretty men” all starting in their warlike array, and many an anxious heart must have been left amongst their womenkind, although trained to courage and endurance. Happily, however, they could not foresee the calamities which victory was to bring upon them. In whatever light the case may appear in these days when the power and justice of law are established, and when all things work comfortably for the nation at large, yet when the ClanGregor sallied forth in strength that wintry morning, whether for an intended conference or for mortal combat, it was under a deep sense of wrong done to them and of bitter persecution. Few, if any, of these warriors returned, and worse times than any yet experienced in their struggling existence, were to follow the ill-starred success of their arms.

[1] Right of the Sword.

[2] This tradition, given more fully in the previous chapter, appears extremely probable, in addition to the other circumstances as to Argyle. There was no ancient feud with the Colquhouns, and even after the conflict, on the MacGregor side, there was no feeling of old grudge.

[3] The name is confuses with that of a distant ancestor; the MacGregors do not acknowledge that such a deed was done, and do not impute it to anyone of the Clan.

[4] This statement is also erroneous.

[5] See next page for correction of this name and statement.

[6] Who afterwards purchased Balnald in Strathardle; the MS. History perused by Sir Walter Scott, we are informed by Alex. MacGregor, Esq., Crosshill, Glasgow (grand-nephew of Major Donald), has been lost. It is supposed that the tradition as to the students may have been collected whilst Major Donald was quartered at Roseneath in 1824.

[7] In the article on MacGregor in Douglas’s “Baronage,” explanation is made that Humphrey, Laird of Luss, was not murdered after Glenfruin - Buchannan stating that he was “killed in Benechra Castle by the Macfarlanes, through influence of a certain nobleman whom Luss had disobliged.” See also Chapter XX, pages 233-4.. volume 1 chapter 20

[8] See page 285, where this account is given from the quotation in “Chiefs of Colquhoun”. volume 1 chapter 23

[9] A misspelling for “Mac an Tuagh,” “Son of the Axe.”

[10] See chapter XXVIII., where the apprehension of Alan Mac an Tuagh on the 3rd January 1609 is recorded. volume 1 chapter 28

[11] “Lunn” means the poles or staves on which a coffin is borne.

[12] Assistance in tracing the probable route has been kindly given by Mr. John Robertson, Old Blair, Blair Atholl, himself a Rannoch man.