SOME TALES OF STRATH NAIRN
By Andrew Cumming, Croft Croy, Farr (1930 – 2003)
The following is taken from an article by the late Andy Cumming which was published in Volume 51 of the “Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness” (1st February 1980).
Andy was an exceptionally popular Strathnairner, local historian and story-teller whose passion for all things ‘Strathnairn’ was legendary. His house was one of the last remaining occupied ‘blackhouses’ in the Strath and there was always an ‘open door’ and a warm welcome to locals and strangers alike who visited him. A ‘ceilidh’ at Andy’s house was a memorable experience that many of us will forever remember with great affection. His passing in July 2003 left a gap in the community life of the Strath that will never be filled. We owe an enormous debt of thanks to Andy for preserving so much of the culture and heritage of Strathnairn which – but for his efforts – would have otherwise been lost from record for all time. We would also acknowledge the Gaelic Society of Inverness for the use of this publication.
SOME TALES OF STRATH NAIRN
Raid of Strath Nairn
There once lived a man called An Crunair who had a bad temper and who did some deed which force him to leave Strath Nairn and go to Antrim in Ireland. This was in the sixteenth century. There, he killed a girl supposed to have been either a daughter or a niece of the Earl of Antrim. He, An Crunair (The Crowner), was immediately executed but the Earl’s vengeance was not complete. Hearing where he came from, the Earl and a band of follower came to the Strath and burned all they could of people of The Crowner’s name and killed the men, women and children, but principally the men. They besieged Dunmaglas and destroyed everything until they came to Dunlichity where, on learning that they were now in MacKintosh land, they stopped. But they found one more man of MacGillivray name, east of Dunlichity Church (at a ruin called Larach Mairi Fhidhleir – Mary the violinist) and killed him making the round number of fifty killed.
A chief of the MacKintoshes was killed leaving an infant son, Lachlan, whom the Earl of Moray wanted to have (and consequently the clan) in his power. The nurse took the child and arranged for another woman to on the opposite side of Clach a’Bhruinidh, the Brownie’s stone, east of Bunachton. While the nurse listened, the woman spoke to the stone, giving instructions where the baby was to be taken. This was to ensure that one woman could not say who the other was, even under torture. The child was taken to the home of MacKay of Strathnaver but they were intercepted by MacKenzie of Kintail and Lachlan was brought up at Eilean Donnain. He later married Kintail’s daughter and avenged his father.
From time immemorial there has been friendly rivalry between Strath Nairn and Strathdearn (and between Strath Nairn and Stratherrick, but that wasn’t friendly). Every New Year’s day there was a shinty match between the lads of around Farr and the lads about the church of Dalarossie in Strathdearn. One particular New Year’s day was on a Sunday and the Strathdearn lads refused to desecrate the day. However, the Farr lads played a game between themselves. Legend has it that all the Farr lads took a fatal disease and died before the next New Year. When New Year (old style) 12th January falls, a ghostly battle of shinty is said to be seen if that day falls on a Sunday.
The Strath Nairn - Stratherrick feud, which is not altogether dead yet, gave rise to many saying, some of which are:
Aran is im air son gillean Srath Fharagaig, brochan gun salann air son gillean Srath Narunn. Bread and butter for the Stratherrick lads, gruel without salt for the Strath Nairn lads.
Obviously this was said by the Stratherrick side, Stratherrick being a more fertile glen.
We replied – Bidh am boll air an sgillinn aig bodaich Srath Fharagaig gun aon sgillin ann. If a boll of meal cost a penny the churls in Stratherrick wouldn’t have one. Meaning the Stratherrick folk are so wastrel that if they were offered something for next to nothing they couldn’t buy it.
Another saying is – an triuir nach fuiling an cniodachadh, seann bhean, cearc agus muinntir Srath Fharagaig. Three things that won’t stand for carressing or good treatment, an old wife, a hen or the folk of Stratherrick.
They say – Bo no bean a’ Srath Narunn – cha do chinnich riamh. A wife or a cow from Strath Nairn, they never did thrive (having had lifelong starvation).
Our reply – better lifelong starvation than feeding our bairns to the pigs as was done in Stratherrick.
Notes On The Church
At one time the parish church was at Brin more where the stones of the graveyard can still be seen. The story goes (and it is a very old one) that a new laird took over Strath Nairn who lived at Dunlichity. He wanted the church near him and had one built. He took the bell from the church at Brinmore to Dunlichity but as often as he would have it taken to the east, so it would return to Brinmore tolling to the words”Glag Fhinnan” (Finnan’s Bell). St Finnan was the saint who Christianised the Strath. The laird had it chained but it broke the chain. At last he left the bell at Brin and it disappeared. It is said since then that Strath Nairn has been neither so fertile or healthy.
In the Presbytery Records of 1643 it is written – “There was in the parish of Dunlichity ane idolatrous image called St Finane keepit in a private house nearby, obscurely”. The presbytery ordered that it should be burned at the market cross of Inverness and this was done on December the 21st of that year.
As far as is known, there were five churches in Strath Nairn in the days of the Celtic Church. There was the one already mentioned at Brinmore behind Creagan an Tuirc. Bones were dug up there in the course of land improvement in the 19th century. There was the church at Daviot. Another was at Mid Lairgs, the site of which is no more as the quarry operations there have obliterated every trace of it. There was said to have been one at Dunmaglass but its site is now unknown. The stones of one at Bunachton are still to be seen and two names in connection with it, Cathair an t-Sagairt, the priest’s chair, and Tobair an t-Sagairt, the Priest’s Well, are still known. When the corn “breared”, the marks of old graves could be seen.
St John’s Day, St Bridget’s Day, St Finnan’s Day (17th February) and St Andrew’s Day were at least some of the holy days on which fairs were held on the land between Croft Croy and [the old] Farr Post Office.
As a result of the Disruption in 1843 it was said of the parish church –
Agus ballachan bana;
An clag a’ bualadh
‘S chan eil an sluagh tighinn.
(The pews are empty and the walls are white; the bell tolls but the people do not come).
When the precentors taught Psalm tunes, in order to avoid irreverent use of the words of the Psalms, they used verses composed by themselves. One was –
Buntata pronn is bainne leo
An comhnaidh dha mo bhroinn;
Nam faighinn-sa na dh’ithinn diu
Gum bithinn sona chaoidh.
A rough translation is –
With mashed potatoes and good milk
May I be filled for aye;
With them me feed; then shall I joy
Until my dying day.
Ther ewere ludicrous tales too of precentors at the time when Gaelic was giving way to English. Saturday came to be known as “An t-Sabaid Bheag” and was given a degree of respect even when I was a boy.
There are various good stories of the Catechists. These were men, usually elders, who went from house to house giving religious instruction and examining knowledge of the Catechism.
One tale goes that the woman of the house got the Catechist privately beforehand and asked him to ask her an easy question as it would not do for her (a person of some consequence) to be embarrassed by being unable to answer in front of children and dependants. So the Catechist asked her, thinking it would be an easy one, “what is the seventh commandment?” “Oh” says she “I never thought you would ask me that one”.
Again a woman about Farr was asked (and this was in Gaelic of course as all these stories were), “How many persons are in the Godhead? (Diadhachd)”. The woman thought he said the name of a place which sounded like Diadhachd and she replied “Well, there is Farquhar and his wife and her father, the bairns and yon silly lassie her sister had”.
Another one was about a woman who was a good woman but very ignorant and coarse and who answered all the questions correctly. The Catechist praised her piety and she replied: “It would not matter to me if I lay in the achlais (armpit) of Abraham tomorrow morning I am so ready to meet my Maker”. Said the Catechist, “Kirsty, Kirsty, it is not the achlais of Abraham but the uchd (bosom) you mean”. “Ach well” said she, “achlais, uchd no ton (armpit, bosom or a- - e) I do not care as long as I get there!”
They are countless but one final one concerns a minister who was doing his rounds. He went into a certain house and as was usual the Bible was on the mantlepiece. He went and took it down and pointedly and reproachfully brushed off the dust on it. Said the man of the house, “you need not be so particular, there was not a hand on it since you were here last yourself.” In these days it was one Bible per house.
The little education there was before the Reformation was given by the Church but there was no parish school in the Strath for ordinary people until 1672 when the lairds put up money for a teacher. He taught in an outhouse at Farr for some time and either he or another also in an outhouse somewhere else. But in 1682 the school was discontinued for lack of funds. There were attempts before that when indigent relatives of the lairds held classes for the better off farmers’ sons. The lairds’ sons were going to school in Inverness by this time. The first real school was built in 1820 at Dalbhourn where the building still stands, known as An Seann Sgoile. Broomhill was also at the time a school but whether that was because the lairds could not agree or not I do not know. However, it remained the school until the 20th century. It also doubled as a meeting house until the Free Church was built and was for a time used for the same purpose by the Free Presbyterians when they seceded from the Free Church in 1893. The first school-master was a MacGillivray who committed suicide by cutting his throat. This school was, of course, for boys only at first. Later there were what were known as dames’ schools where some women with a rudimentary education taught reading and writing and what might be called, with charity, domestic science!
Early in the 19th century before the use of bodies for dissection was legal there was a lot of body snatching from graveyards and it became so bad that houses had to be built adjoining graveyards to prevent this. The relatives of the dead folk stayed keeping watch for several weeks. One was built and stands at Dunlichity called Tigh Faire (Watch House). On one occasion (and probably on all) the watchers had taken plenty drink and they began to imagine things. One imagined he saw the body snatchers and let fly witht his blunderbuss. The marks are to be seen on the gravestone yet.
There were once brothers in Strath Nairn who were very attached to each other. They were hunters and one of them had a dog called Frangach (Frenchman). One day the brothers and another man were hunting at Loch Duntelchaig when thick mist came down. One of the brothers and the other man were separated from the brother who owned Frangach. The two men were concerned about Frangach’s owner. All at once they saw a figure sitting on a stone. The brother said “Sin mo bhrathair” (That’s my brother). But the other man said “Ach c’ait am bheil Frangach?” (But where is Frenchman?). When he said that he knew the brother and the dog were inseperable. The figure disappeared. Much later they found the brother with a broken leg at Leitir Chuillin.
Uaigh An Duine Bheo
About four hundred years ago there was a dispute between the MacKintosh and MacGillivrays of Dunmaglass about where the march between their respective lands ran on Beinn na Cailleach. Finally it was decided that the oldest man of the clans would give judgement. He was Eoin MacGillivray, Achadhlodan. A day came and Eoin said such and such a line is the boundary and “I swear that by the head under my bonnet (a fearful oath then) and the ground under my feet that this is MacGillivray land”. One of the MacKintoshes doubted this, but knowing Eoin would not take such an oath unless there was some trickery, suspected what he had under his bonnet. Eoin’s bonnet was taken off and under it was the head of a cock and, on further investigation, ground was found in his shoes, presumably from MacGillivray land.
As a warning, Eoin was buried alive where a cairn still shows the place. A burn and corrie nearby are called Coire Eoin Ranaich (the burn and corrie of Eoin’s wailing). It is said he can be heard yet. The spot is only a few feet off the Old Edinburgh Road near where the Rout of Moy, in 1746, took place.
Tigh Faire (House of Watching (the dead) )
In the olden days all over the Highlands there was a belief that the spirit of the last person buries in the churchyard had to keep watch until it was “relieved” by the next person to be buried. This was believed in the Strath. When two burials took place at once there was, one can imagine, an unseemly clash as relatives of both corpses sought to save their friend’s soul from doing the duty. Of course the soul thus occupied could not go to Heaven.
We tend to associate the ‘wake’ with Ireland but it was held in Scotland too and long after it was stamped out in the Lowlands it was still going strong in the Highlands including our strath where it was notorious. Session and Presbytery records have several mentions of their efforts to stamp it out.
It was often the case that after three days of the wake, on the way to the churchyard, the corpse was sometimes mislaid or left at the “tigh faire”. At the funeral itself whisky flowed like water and fights were not at all uncommon. Drink is seldom served now at funerals but there is always a dram for near relatives at the house of mourning and the atmosphere is often surprisingly cheerful. The wake, of course, is dead enough though echoes still are heard, usually of a religious nature.
Until comparatively lately, before the coffin was carried by horse hearse, later motor, it was carried by men. All over on roads leading to churchyards there were recognised stopping places for rest and refreshment. One was opposite Carn Ban, I believe. Another was at Achnabat and still another at Dell.
There is a story of a laird of Aberarder who sent a messenger who was called Calum Luath (swift Malcolm) to Edinburgh to do with a lawsuit the laird was involved in. When Calum reached Edinburgh he was told there were most important papers to go back in a hurry. So Calum, without taking rest, turned round and went back at great speed to Aberarder. It is said he took a little over two days for the round journey. When he got home, Aberarder would not believe that he had been to Edinburgh and back in so short a time and in a rage stabbed him with a dirk. When he found out the truth by the papers Calum carried he cried bitterly. It is not recorded whether Calum lived or died from the dirk thrust but possibly he did.
Writing of Aberarder there is a good ghost story connected with it. In old days and up until the turn of the century it was the custom for household to make or buy the cloth and a tailor on his rounds would stay in house after house making the cloth up into clothes. About 1700 a tailor was doing his work in an upper room in Aberarder House (which is the building behind the present one). There was a loaded gun in the house and a herd boy, trying to make fun of the tailor, took the gun not knowing it was loaded and threatened to shoot the tailor. The latter in the same spirit of fun mocked the boy and challenged him to fire. The boy pulled the trigger and killed the tailor. It was maintained that people in the house often heard the thump of the tailor’s fall and the jingle and the rolling sound of his thimble which dropped when the tailor fell.
The story was forgotten by all except a few old natives and there were none about 12 years ago in Aberarder Estate as workers who could have known anything about it. But there was a gardener and his wife there then and the wife worked in the modern big house (the old part is used as a sort of annexe) and she, a woman from the west, told me that she heard a thump often followed by a jingle in the old part. She also smelt a bad smell which no-one else smelt. At that time I did not know the story and I am certain she did not because she was not long there and there was no-one who could tell her of it.
The last wolf in this area was killed by the wife of one of the MacGillivrays (cadets of Dunmaglass). She was going to Dunchea, near Torness, to borrow a girdle (for baking) and met a wolf on her return above Loch Ruthven; she killed it with one blow of the girdle. I think this was about the year 1700.
Mr Archibald Cook, First Free Church Minister
It is not generally known but the wishes of the people of Strathnairn helped to alter history by their strong adherence to Mr Cook whom they desired to be their Minister. The Heritors (the lairds) wanted another man. But the people stuck out and the case went to law; the people lost the case which was rank injustice and it was the injustice tat was the final spark that set the blaze of the Disruption when almost half of the Ministers, Elders, Members and Adherents of the Church of Scotland left the church and formed the Church of Scotland, Free or as it has been known, The Free Church.
Though the Free Church is but a shadow of what it was it is still quite a force in Scotland and particularly the Highlands. Almost everybody in Strathnairn went over to the Free Church in 1843. Mr Cook became, in 1844, first minister in this strath of the Free Church and his nephew Alexander was minister in Stratherrick. He was much beloved and quite a few prophesies of his day are now fulfilled.
He said that though the church then was packed to the door (it seats 950) the day would come when the grass would grow on the path up to it and on the cracks of the doorstep and this we all can see.
He said, too, that the day would come when there would not be a gate on the Duntelchaig road. This too we can see; cattle grids are now there instead.
He said the day would come when Strathnairn would be nothing but trees and water and the Gospel would not be read or sung from one end to the other. This, in part, seems to be coming.
Not long after the Reformation, a minister was walking with a friend who had not taken on the ‘new’ religion. The minister stumbled and his friend said “God and Mary be with you”. The minister was shocked and said “God be with me and Mary with you. What better is she than my own mother?” said the other quietly. “We shall say nothing of the mothers but great is the difference between the two sons”.
About the same time a minister in the Strath was met by a beggar woman and gave her some money. She said “May you rest in the Holy Virgin’s bosom this very night”. “Thank you” replied the minister, “but you need not be so particular as to the time”.
The churches in these days were miserable affairs and even later records talk of much needed repairs to the roof thatch. In those days people were often buried in the church and Dunlichity was no exception. People too in those days took their dogs into church and it was a common occurrence for the dogs to fight over the bones of their owners’ ancestors! Bonnets were worn and pipes smoked during the time of the service. As there were no seats, old and infirm people brought their own stools. While in fashion, the taking of snuff was indulged in, and this gave way to the habit, still with us, of eating sweets in church.
The following story I heard when I was very young and as it made a great impression on me I am inclined to think it happened locally. It is a story which typifies a lot that is best in our race and I doubt if a similar story had happened anywhere else except in the Highlands it would be remembered.
There was a man called Seumas Gorach (Silly James) but he was very pious and was always in church whenever possible. He lived alone near the manse and the minister, I think it was Mr Cook, was very good to him. He asked if he could “come forward to the Tables” (that is take communion) – a big step even for the very pious then and even now. The minister said that he could but he must tell him (the minister) all he saw at “the Tables”. Well, Seumas went to the Table and the minister later asked what he had seen. Said Seumas, “while you were putting out the wine and the bread a beautiful man was there and he put his hand on a head here and there and the people he put his hand on were not at the Tables. When he came to me he said ‘Seamais, a’bhalaich (James, boy or lad) be you a good man until I come for you a year from now’ ”. The minister left Seumas, his heart and eyes full. A year to the day the minister was in his study from where he could see Seumas’s house and on going to see, the minister found Seumas in his long sleep.
Sometime after Culloden, the story goes, when the Gael and the Sassenach had got time to be somewhat more friendly than in previous times. A Gael (reports say he was from about Faillie) Donald was travelling on an old broken down horse with a retired Redcoat, Joseph, who was attached to Craggie Inn. Joe had a good horse and they travelled together to Inverness. They went into an ale house and Joe called for drink but before he paid he went out and cut the tail off Donald’s poor brute. Donald chanced to see him do it and when Joe came back in he gave no sign that but went out himself later and cut open the ribs of Joe’s good horse. When they came out Joe said “What has happened to my horse?” Said Donald, “He has split his sides laughing at my poor tailless beast!”
It was said there was a laird of Faillie, MacBean, whose wife ran off with another man and he said “God’s curse on women or men who take other men’s wives.” He had but one child, a girl, and he reared her so that she never saw a man. When she grew up and he, poor fool, thought she would be safe, he took her to Inverness and showed her everything. “What are these?” said she, pointing to men. “Ah, they are just geese”, said he. When the day ended he said to her “Of all the wonderful things you saw, what would you like me to buy you?” Predictably, she said, “Buy me a goose”.
The Seceders or Free Presbyterians (who seceded from the Free Church in 1893) are so much part of the place that they cannot be left out. Both of the following stories are true but some say the latter is older than 1893.
Two old faithful Seceder women were discussing the minister whom they had only heard once or twice. One said to the other “Wasn’t the minister lovely?” The man was over seventy.
It was not the same two old women or the same minister but the discussion was much the same. One said to the other “Didn’t he make a grand sermon? He can preach about Hell as if he had been born and bred in the place”.
Not a hundred years ago a family of MacKintoshes lived at Milton of Tordarroch. The father was a very pious man but his son Uilleam never showed much sign of piety. One day he came to his father and asked him for a shilling. Shillings were not plentiful and the father asked Uilleam what he wanted it for. Uilleam said “Mr Rose in the shop (latterly Farr P.O.) has New Testaments in English and I would like to get one”. The father was thinking “Perhaps there is a change coming on Uilleam” and gave him the Shilling. Later back came Uilleam and his father asked for the Testament but Uilleam said he lost it on the way home. The father was not very pleased but worse was to come. He was over at the shop and asked Rose to show him the English Testaments. Rose, who even if he did sell Testaments, would certainly have sold more whisky than Testaments, knew MacKintosh was a pious man and that he was not joking. He just said “I do not sell Testaments”. The father found out from Rose that the day Uilleam had come over with a shilling to spend, far from asking for a Testament, he was in no two minds as to what he wanted and got. A pipe, tobacco and matches! When MacKintosh next saw Uilleam he said “Aren’t you a liar, you ugly sinner”. And the name Peacach (sinner) was his all his life.
The Evil Eye and Second sight were believed in until not desperately long ago and the belief in second sight is not dead yet. There was a woman in Farr called Seonaid Mor (Janet, daughter of Sarah or Marion) and if she looked at a child it became sick or if she looked at a cow it lost its milk.
I know two men, though one is now dead, who saw the ghostly battle at Loch Ashie. One woman still alive who lived at Innish by Loch Ashie told me she had seen it often. Seeing funerals before their actual occurrence was known of until recently. There was a godly man in Strath Nairn who was working in the quarry at Errogie and when one of his workmates was swearing, he told the man to cease as he saw his blood on the rocks. Sure enough, in a rock fall the man was seriously hurt and his blood was on the rocks
Ghosts and Ghastly Dogs
Two people have told me of seeing this. One told me (and he said it was because he was born on a midnight with a caul, that he could see what he did) that he was passing Dunlichity Churchyard when he saw a huge black dog. His sister did not see it but when the man put his hand on her it exploded at the gate and disappeared. The other saw it “frequently” going up the road to Blarbuie.
There were superstitions of every kind and they were discussed incessantly. What with that, songs, stories, riddles and the news the infrequent travellers would bring, they would have no use for either books or newspapers.
To finish, a tale of a “ghost” that met its match. A certain man called Donald had the habit of sitting in a bush by a place quite a few people passed, a big house, and it was mostly girls who passed. He would shake the bush and make unearthly sounds. One night, not a hundred years ago, a young swack fellow passed and Donald did his work. Duncan, the swack fellow, got such a fright that he kicked the bush with tackety boots and broke three of Donald’s ribs.