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Thursday 26 September 2013

Tobar nan Ceann / The Well of the Heads

The following very short historical anecdote was taken down by Calum Maclean from the recitation of Duncan Chisholm (b. c. 1859), who belonged to Foyers, Stratherrick, on the 31st of October 1952:
Tha feadhainn agus rinn iad murst agus bha feadhainn air son a maraadh, tha fhios agat. Agus bha Ionbhar Gharadh, an fheadhainn aig an robh Gleanna Garadh air an taoi’. Agus dh’fhalabh iad seo agus ghearr iad na cinn dhiubh a's a' Cheapach agus chaidh an ceangal ann an gad. Chaidh an toir’ leis gu Ionbhar Gharadh, agus ghlanadh anns an fhuaran iad. Bha fuaran fo’n an àite uras agus…They were going to carry them and put them at Mac ’Ic Alasdair’s front door, the heads.
And the translation goes something like the following:
There were those that committed the murder and there were those who were out for revenge, you know. And MacDonell of Glengarry, those that were on Glengarry’s side, they set off and they decapitated them in Keppoch and they tied them on a withie. They took them back to Invergarry and they were washed in a spring. And the spring was under the place below and…They were going to carry them and put them at Mac ’Ic Alasdair’s (Glengarry’s) front door, the heads.
A more detailed account of the Keppoch Murder was given in an earlier blog and also in Glen-Albyn or Tales and Truths of the Central Highlands reproduced in full as follows:
Directly opposite Invergarry station on the edge of the loch there stands a small monument commemorating one of those deeds of blood so common in the Highlands. Beneath the monument there bubbles up a little spring of clear, cold water, whilst the top of the shaft is crowned by a hand grasping seven heads transfixed with a dagger. Few stories are better known in the Highlands than this tale of the seven heads, yet seldom has so well-known a fact been confused with such a mass of conflicting details. 
The case is characteristic and throws a singular sidelight on the manners of the north at the time of the Restoration. 
One of the chiefs of Keppoch had sought a bride outside the limits of his clan and had married “a woman from the south,” as she was contemptuously styled, one of the Forresters of Kilbaggie, in Clachmannan. The two sons of this marriage were sent abroad to be educated in Rome, and while there the father died, leaving his brother in charge of the clan till such time as his son should have Completed his course and attained his majority. Five years after their father’s death the two youths, Alexander and Ranald, returned to Lochaber and took up the leadership of the clan.
With all the enthusiasm of youth and a liberal education, Alexander set about improving the condition of his people and made it his endeavour “to drive all thieves and cattle-lifters from his boundaries. This running counter to all the dearest traditions of Lochaber brought a certain amount of discontent and disaffection in its wake. The uncle, Alastair Buidhe, an unscrupulous and ambitious man, turned this dissatisfaction to account and fanned the spirit of rebellion till a widespread conspiracy was formed against the youthful chieftain. Finally the head of one of the minor septs, who had long cherished a secret grudge against the family of the chief, set out one night with his six sons and some other retainers, and having wade the river below Keppoch Castle, entered the house “with the water of the Spean still in his shoes.” Finding the young chief defenceless in his bed they plunged their dirks into his body, killing him on the spot. 
Ranald, the younger brother chanced to be out at the moment of attack, and hearing of the disturbance hastened to the rescue; but on entering the castle he was instantly seized and overpowered. He cried to his uncle, Alastair Buidhe, who was present, to assist him, but instead of Trying to defend him the uncle plunged the first dagger into his breast. The other conspirators followed suit and then fled to their own homes. The clansmen quickly gathered, and John Macdonald, the famous poet, better known as Ian Lorn, the bare or biting bard of Keppoch, had the bodies carefully laid out and honourably buried.
No one thought of seeking redress at the hands of the Government, and had it not been for Ian Lom the incident would probably passed unavenged. As it was, the bard poured forth such a torrent of bitterest invective against the perpetrators of the deed that he had to fly the country and take refuge in Kintail. Glengarry, though loving the name of Superior of Clan Donald, evidently thought that charity began at home, and his love of justice was not sufficiently strong to make him risk burning his fingers by attempting to call the culprits to account.
Finally, Sir James Macdonald of Sleat dispatched a party of his clan, under command of his brother, to try and bring the murderers to justice. The conspirators expected an avenging party to come from Glengarry, and kept a sharp look out upon the castle from a little bothy on the summit of one of the hills of the southern range. But Ian Lom skilfully outwitted them, and brought the little party of Islesmen up the valley of the Spean to Inverlair, where they surprised the father and six sons in bed. The sons were instantly dragged out and slain and the house set on fire. In the scuffle the father almost escaped unnoticed, when Ian Lorn cried out, “the six cubs are here but the old fox is still in the den.” At once a number of men dashed into the blazing house and dragged out the father, dispatching him on the spot. The bard then severed the heads from the bodies and putting them into a sack carried them by a circuitous route to Invergarry. Before reaching the castle he washed his gory trophies at this little spring. Then, after taunting Glengarry with bitter sarcasm on the inactivity which left the avenging of this foul murder to his distant kinsman, the poet laid the seven heads at his feet, and they were afterwards buried in a little glade not far from the present mansion house of Invergarry.
It is worthy of note that the mother of these murderers on whom the beardless bard executed such summary vengeance was his own sister. This monument was erected and the inscription upon it invented by Colonel M’Donell, the last chief of Glengarry, in 1812. 
Some years ago an antiquarian enthusiast in Fort William sought to prove the truth of this tradition, and dug up the mound at Inverlair where the bodies were supposed to have been buried. The skeletons were found buried without a coffin, whole and entire, excepting that each one lacked a skull, thus confirming the main facts of the story current in Lochaber.
Later, the heads were sent to Edinburgh and ordered to be “affixit to the gallows standing on the Gallowlie between Edinburgh and Leith.” However, if the original list of the names are compared with the heads displayed on the 7th December, 1665, a telling discrepancy arises for the Tutor’s sons’ names are wanting as they had escaped decapitation, although they were still outlawed.
The inscription, containing some half-truths, that appears on the monument reads as follows:
As a memorial of the ample and summary vengeance which in the swift course of feudal justice, inflicted by the orders of the Lord McDonnell and Aross, overtook the perpetrators of the foul murder of the Keppoch family, a branch of the powerful and illustrious clan, of which His Lordship was the chief. This monument is erected by Colonel McDonnell of Glengarry XVII. MacMhicAlaister his successor and representative in the year of our Lord 1812. The heads of the seven murderers were presented at the feet of the noble chief in Glengarry Castle, after having been washed in this spring: and ever since that event, which took place early in the sixteenth century, it has been known by the name of “Tobar-nan-Ceann”, or the Well of the Seven Heads.
Catriona Fforde, The Great Glen: From Columba to Telford (Castle Douglas: Neil Wilson, 2011)
Andrew J. Macdonald, Glen-Albyn or Tales and Truths of the Central Highlands (Fort Augustus: The Abbey Press, 1920), pp. 48–51
Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (London: Batsford, 1959)
Donald C. MacPherson, ‘The Clan Donald of Keppoch’, The Celtic Magazine, vol. 4 (1878), pp. 368–75
SSS NB 22, pp. 27–28
Tobar nan Ceann / Well of the Seven Heads, Loch Oich, Invergarry

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