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The Battle of Glen Fruin - Cath Ghlinn Freoin

By Peter Lawrie, ©2003

In 2003 the Clan Gregor Society held an International Gathering to commemorate the quatercentenary of the battle on 7th February 1603. The actual ceremony took place at the cairn by the roadside above Auchengaich farm. Certain events on that day definitely took place nearby but the fighting began some miles further north. The evidence for this is contained in a traditional Gaelic account of the battle collected in the mid 19 th century by John Dewar from Robert Scott, a cobbler in Glen Orchy. The translation used was published by Michael Newton in Bho Chluaidh gu Calasraid – From the Clyde to Callander, Stornoway, 1999, ISBN 0-86152-265-6. This book was reviewed and strongly recommended in the Clan Gregor Society Newsletter 50.

First of all it is necessary to recapitulate the political situation leading up to 1603. Gillespic Greumach, Archibald the Grim, Earl of Argyll had been awarded full powers of Lieutenancy over the Clan Gregor, ostensibly to bring the Clan to ‘gude rewle and the Kingis pece’. In fact. Argyll as hereditary Justice General had his own feuds to prosecute and in the context of intense royal disapproval of violence it was far too dangerous for him, a member of the Privy Council, to be implicated in feuding. He had been disciplined by the King for quarrelling with the Duke of Lennox and along with personal animosity he looked with jealous eyes on the rich Lennox lands, including those of Lennox’s vassal Colquhoun of Luss. He also had ambitions towards the lands of Clann Iain Mhòr (Clan Donald South). His manipulation of his lieutenancy over Clan Gregor was aimed at both these prizes. Several MacGregor-led ‘herschips’ of the Lennox brought much booty that was surreptitiously reset among Campbell lairds while at the same time damaging the revenues of the Duke.

During the winter of 1602/3 two MacGregor merchants, described as little older than boys, passed through the Luss lands on their way home with goods that they had purchased in Dumbarton. Night was falling and the weather was bad. The local people denied them shelter, food and even ferry passage over Loch Lomond to Craig Throstain where there were MacGregor farms. Cold, tired and hungry they took shelter in a goat-hut, they made a fire of some bits of wood and killed a sheep for food. Before break of day a band of Luss tenants arrested them and took them to Sir Humphrey Colquhoun for trial. Colquhoun sentenced the two boys to hang. Hearing of this MacGregor of Glengyle crossed the loch with his men. On the first attempt at hanging the boys the rope broke. Glengyle protested that this, traditionally, was a sign that the law had been satisfied and they should be set free. However, Colquhoun ordered a new rope and proceeded with the executions. Their heads were removed and set on stakes beside the gates of Rossdhu house.

Glengyle informed Alasdair ruadh of Glenstrae, the clan chief, of these events. Alasdair in turn, in conformance with the King’s instructions went to the Earl of Argyll. Argyll counselled conciliation whereby Colquhoun should be pressurised into giving compensation to the boys’ mother, but conflict should be avoided. It was therefore agreed between the two sides that Alasdair ruadh MacGregor of Glenstrae and Sir Humphrey Colquhoun of Luss should meet at the head of Glen Fruin, well inside Sir Humphrey’s lands, in order to discuss the matter and agree suitable compensation to the boys’ widowed mother. This was fully in accordance with contemporary Scots legal practise. By way of security each party was to be accompanied by 100 chosen men.

Fearing that Colquhoun intended treachery, Alasdair ruadh took with him his entire fighting strength of 200 men. However, he scrupulously observed the agreement by stationing 100 of them, under the command of his brother Eoin dubh at a stream called Allt a’ chlèith, just outside the Luss estate. This site was stated to be three and a half miles from the agreed meeting point.

Most modern traffic going north from Dumbarton follows the A82 along the side of Loch Lomond, but in the 16 th and 17 th century, the road, such as it was, followed the Gareloch and Loch Long to Arrochar and Tarbet and thence to Glen Falloch. This route was known as the Great Highland Road. Many of the names in the Dewar account cannot be located on the modern map and there is no stream named Allt a’ chlèith. However, we are told that they had passed Bràigh sròn a’ Mhaolanaich which can only be Sron Mallanach at NS255975 on 1:50000 OS map 56. Therefore Allt a’ chlèith must be the stream which flows through Glen Culanach crossing the road and entering Loch Long at NS249963. The outfall today is very close to an MOD ordnance depot associated with the Faslane submarine depot. The area is now heavily wooded with overgrown rhododendron bushes. However, several hundred yards from the roadside, a site which closely resembles the description in Dewar’s manuscript can be found.

True enough, Sir Humphrey intended treachery. He waited at the head of Glen Fruin with his agreed 100 men and a further 300 hidden in ambush behind a hillock called Badan Beithe. The exact site of their meeting is not known but may be assumed to be near Auchengaich at the head of Glen Fruin. The two leaders discussed matters for some time. Alasdair returned to his men and stated that ‘there will not be any bloodshed this time’. Instead of taking the anticipated route by which they had arrived, down the hill to rejoin the Great Highland road, Alasdair led his men across the moor directly back towards Allt a’chlèith. Thus frustrated, the laird of Luss summoned his men from ambush and gave chase. As has been mentioned, the place-names in the Dewar account cannot be found on the modern map. However, after some examination of the present day landscape, it appears likely that the present road from Auchengaich to Faslane which descends steeply to the side of the Gare Loch and joins the main road close to the gates of the submarine depot may have been the route by which the MacGregors arrived and by which Luss expected them to depart. Their direct route was probably close to the line of the modern electricity pylons which follow the western side of Glen Fruin, marching across the moorland and from thence alongside the railway line through Glen Cullanach.

The story continues that the MacGregors ran the three and a half miles back to Allt a’ chlèith where they passed out of the Laird of Luss’s lands. The stream, we are told, was full of holes and deep pools. Only at a few points was it easily forded and on the north side was a small embankment. Here the MacGregors made their stand. Soon the Colquhouns, packed together and knee deep in the stream, were taking casualties but having little effect on Clan Gregor. At this point the MacGregor bowmen left in reserve and stationed behind a craig next to the ford began to fire down on the Colquhouns. They killed a number of them, including Lindsay of Bonhill and the sons of the laird of Camstradden. At this the Colquhouns began their flight back down the road. The MacGregors followed, keeping to the higher ground. A stand was made at an unidentified site called Toman an Fhòlaich, where more of the Colquhouns were killed. They retreated again to the head of Glen Fruin. At this point, Eoin dubh, brother of Glenstrae was killed. He was the first MacGregor casualty of the battle. Traditionally the cairn near Auchengaich - Clach Ghlas MhicGriogair - is the site of his death.

Sir Humphrey’s remaining men still outnumbered the MacGregors. There is a large level field at Auchengaich, where Sir Humphrey set his men in battle formation, supported by horsemen. This stage of the fight lasted only three minutes, whereupon, the Colquhouns took to panicked flight down both sides of Glen Fruin. Near the lower end of the glen the MacGregors attacked an armed band of the freemen of Dumbarton, killing some of them. The second MacGregor casualty, and the last man killed that day, was shot by an arrow fired by a Colquhoun that he had pursued to a place called Eas Fhionnglais, or Finlas waterfall.

Alasdair gathered his men together to return home. They had won a significant victory, although severely outnumbered. However, the consequences would be most severe for the clan. Sir Humphrey, thwarted of the fruits of the treachery he had planned, complained to the king in Stirling. He arranged to have bloody shirts paraded in front of the castle. The king’s prejudice towards Clan Gregor, the result of many years of misrepresentation by Sir Duncan Campbell of Glen Orchy, among others, led to the most draconian punishments, including the abolition of their name; the forgiveness and reward of anyone who killed a MacGregor – involved at Glen Fruin or not and the branding of women. As late as 1609, Sir Humphrey’s continuing vendetta is demonstrated by the series of lists of surviving members of the clan that he had drawn up.

What of Argyll? He had been responsible in law for the behaviour of Clan Gregor. Various Campbell lairds were cited in 1604 for having benefited from the cattle reived from Glen Finlas and Glen Fruin by the MacGregors. As Alasdair ruadh stated at his trial in 1604, when he tried to refuse Argyll’s instructions, his own lands had been ravaged by MacLeans acting on Argyll’s command. Argyll subsequently, became the chief persecutor of Clan Gregor, for which the king rewarded him with the former Clan Donald lands of Kintyre.

Thankfully those days are long past. Today we remember with sorrow the consequences of deceit caused by the ambition and jealousies of great men. As Clan Gregor, we remember the dreadful days of 1603 and 1604 that were repeated with as much venom between 1609 and 1611. However, we should also remember those of the Colquhouns, Buchanans, Lindsays, MacLintocks and men of Dumbarton that were killed and maimed and also, the understandable anger that the tenants of Luss must have felt towards Clan Gregor after the herschip and destruction of Glen Finlas in 1602 and the even greater driving of livestock and destruction of houses that the Clan Gregor visited upon the Luss lands after the battle.