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Tuesday 25 September 2018

The Black Captain and the Catastrophe of Gaick

The next generation will speak,
A full thousand years,
Of the judgement that came,
In that devastating blizzard.

So the Badenoch bard Donnchadh Gobha MacAoidh (Duncan Gow Mackay) summed up the repercussions of Call Ghàdhaig (The Catastrophe of Gaick, sometimes referred to as The Loss of Gaick). Be that as it may, some exaggeration may be at play here as the memory of the incident is probably not as strongly held in folk memory as it certainly used to be but, clearly, at the time it made a deep and lasting impact upon the locality which resonated for a long time afterwards.
The Catastrophe of Gaick is a famous (or perhaps a better description would be an infamous) episode in Gaelic tradition where many tales, poetry and traditions inspired by the event have in some ways clouded over an incident which was reported in contemporary sources. Even so, right from the very outset fiction has got in the way of fact in this rather macabre account of Captain John MacPherson of Ballachroan (1724–1800), styled in Gaelic tradition as An t-Othaichear Dubh (The Black Officer) or Othaichear Dubh Bhaile a’ Chròdhain (The Black Officer of Ballachroan), but who was probably better known, at least to his contemporaries and acquaintances, by his patronymic Iain Dubh mac Alasdair (Black-haired John son of Alexander).

Contemporary Report
The catastrophe occurred, according to the old calendar just before the Old Christmas (30th of December) in 1799, and according to the modern calendar on the 6th of January 1800. The accident was documented in the newspapers of the day as, for example, a contemporary report from The Scots Magazine relates:

…Major Macpherson of Lorick, and other four gentlemen who were out along with him shooting wild-fowl […] have unfortunately perished in the violent storm of snow […] They had retired for shelter to an old cot house […] which was blown down upon them by the fury of the wind. The bodies of Major Macpherson and other three of them were found under the ruins; that of the fifth gentleman was found on the outside of the cottage.

Although the report regarding the catastrophe is short, there appear three errors. The hunting-party did not go to Gaick to shoot wild-fowl but rather to hunt deer (in order to acquire venison for a traditional Christmas celebration), and John MacPherson has been erroneously promoted to a major when in actuality his rank was that of captain. However, the most galling mistake in the report is that it was not a gust of wind which destroyed the bothy and the men taking shelter from the elements but rather an avalanche which killed the occupants.
A few brief facts should be borne in mind with regard to the Black Officer. He was born in Glentruim, a somewhat remote glen to the south of Kingussie, in 1724. His father was Alexander MacPherson who was kin to a prominent and ancient branch of the MacPhersons of Phoness, the eldest cadet of Sliochd Ghillìosa (Gillies’s Progeny) whose reputed chieftains were the MacPhersons of Invereshie, and his mother, Isabel MacDonald, was of the famous house of Aberarder representing Sliochd Iain Dubh (Black John’s Progeny) of the MacDonalds of Brae Lochaber and so “the best blood of Badenoch and Lochaber ran in his veins.” Marrying rather late in life, when he was already in his fifties, he turned to a woman that shared his surname, Anne MacPherson, and they were betrothed in 1777, and had issue.

Military Service
Previous to becoming a family man, the Black Officer pursued a military career in the British Army and was attached to the 82nd Regiment. Before this he was involved in the ’Forty-five as the following piece of verse, composed by Calum Dubh nam Protaigean (Black-haired Malcolm Macintyre of the Tricks, so-called for he was a juggler as well has having the propensity to play practical jokes on his neighbours) (c. 1755–c. 1830), tells us:

In spite of malice and ill-will,
If I could, I woudl declare you
You were a Captain of the race of Gillies,
A MacPherson of high pedigree,
You won the battle in Penrith,
That laid the Lowlanders low;
A woman of Clan Donald, from the stock of
The Earl of Islay, raised and suckled you.

It appears that John MacPherson followed his clan chief, Cluny MacPherson, to England where he saw action at the Battle of Penrith (otherwise known as the Clifton Moor Skirmish) at the time when the Jacobite army was retreating back to Scotland after the fateful decision made shortly before in Derby. In addition, there is a passing mention of the Black Officer while he was in the army by the aforementioned bard Donnchadh Gobha MacAoidh (died c. 1820), who also composed a lament regarding the Catastrophe of Gaick:

The Black Officer was at their head,
He turned his back on his house and children,
If he had fallen in the French war
His loss would not be so distressing.

Although the Napoleonic Wars were ongoing at this time, it appears that the Black Officer, contrary to the bard’s wish, was not personally involved but that he did recruit many of the Badenoch youth who went and fought in these various campaigns. After taking retirement from military service, MacPherson became a tacksman and gentleman-farmer at Ballachroan. The Black Officer received the tack of Ballachroan farm from Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon (1743–1823), in 1776. It is, however, unfortunate that there is no real additional evidence regarding the Black Officer other than the fact that he is known to have suffered severe financial difficulties, something not unfamiliar to gentleman-farmers at that or any other time, as stated by the Liberal MP and historian Charles Fraser-Mackintosh:

He was a man of great ability, actively engaged in diverse business―constantly striving in the pursuit of gain. All came to nought, and years before his death he had become bankrupt. I have many of his letters, showing him servile to superiors, agreeable to equals when he chose, tyrannic to his inferiors. In the year 1767 he was living at Phoness, and is described as “Lieutenant John Macpherson of the Battalion of Highlanders, lately commanded by Major James Johnston,” and had seen service abroad. His chief home military work was recruiting, carried on with extreme rigour and arbitrariness.

There are many extant petitions which indicate that MacPherson was an extremely litigious character. One example out of many is the fact that he and the tacksman of Aberarder, Lachlan McIntosh, completely fell out with one another and that they were at loggerheads for a period of at least twenty years. It appears that no settlement was ever reached until either McIntosh died or the matter was simply put to one side. Not only was this a concern to MacPherson but he was taken to court when two brothers, Thomas and William MacPherson, who had formerly been soldiers, and thus, it may be inferred, were under his command, made an official complaint against him. MacPherson did not easily put aside anything which smacked of legality. Such official documents can, however, be supplemented by accounts from oral tradition but they contain opinions which were substantiated more upon rumour rather than upon the actual facts.

Two Histories
We are, however, fortunate to have a contemporary description of the Black Officer penned by Mrs Anne Grant of Laggan (1755–1838). It was written shortly after the catastrophe when its repercussions were still being strongly felt and it is interesting not only on that very score but also for the fact that she personally knew the Black Officer although it is not apparent how intimate their relationship actually was. It does, however, provide a more accurate description of the disaster than the previously quoted version from The Scots Magazine:

I have not the leisure to describe to you the dreadful fate of Captain Macpherson of Ballochroan, who, with four others, set out before Christmas to hunt for deer in a chase of the Duke of Gordon’s, between this country and Athol. There was a shooting-lodge, built in that place to shelter the Duke on his summer excursions. There the hunters repaired every night to sleep, having provided fire and food to keep them comfortable for the three days they were to remain. But on the third evening […] there came on a stormy night; next morning, the father of one of the young men of the Captain’s party, went up to see how they fared, but could not see even the house, the roof, timber, and every stone of which had been carried more then two hundred yards distance. The whole country was summoned out to discover and bring home the mortal remains and the Captain and his associates were found dead, covered with snow, where the house had stood. The story is almost miraculous, and every one hereabout was filled with superstitious horror. We account for it from a whirlwind or avalanche. You can have no-idea what a gloom has overspread us […] There are so many tender, as well as strange circumstances involved in this dismal tale, that the mind cannot shake off the impression.

Over the years many other authors have written accounts of the Catastrophe of Gaick and scarce a book has been written about the area which does not contain a passing mention or another about it. Perhaps the most famous of these various accounts was written by the well-known folklorist Calum I. Maclean (1915–1960). His account is important for the very fact that Maclean makes full use of the versions available from oral tradition as well as those which had appeared in print. A remark made by Maclean with regard to the Catastrophe of Gaick reflects his philosophical outlook which remains a touchstone of his famous book The Highlands (1959):

There are two histories of every land and people, the written history that tells what it is considered politic to tell and the unwritten history which tells everything.

This is perhaps a little too forceful in that Maclean rhetorically exaggerates his point in order to make his argument clear. In reality, as Maclean knew full well, the situation is far more nuanced and complex. As mentioned earlier, there are not a few authors who have made some mention or another about the Catastrophe of Gaick, and a few of these have subsequently become famous.

The Ettrick Shepherd and The Wizard of the North
Reports of the Catastrophe of Gaick spread far and wide throughout the Highlands and beyond eventually reaching the Lowlands soon thereafter. It was not long, therefore, before the likes of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) and James Hogg (1770–1835), known as the Ettrick Shepherd, heard of it. And it was not long before these two put pen to paper and wrote their own rather biased accounts. Hogg’s version made its appearance in The Spy (1810) while Scott’s rendition was published in The Foreign Quarterly Review (1827). As was the case with Gaelic storytellers, in the hands of both Scott and Hogg, the story grew in the telling. After Scott’s account appeared in print there arose immediate controversy as the following reply shows:

To the narrator of this notice Captain Macpherson was intimately known, and he begs to state, that Captain Macpherson never did, in any one instance, recruit for money. He did, no doubt, recruit at two different periods. He did so, first, to raise a certain number of men, to procure a lieutenancy that had been offered him in the 101st Regiment of Foot, when commissions, it may be remembered, were given to several gentlemen in the Highlands, on the terms of their supplying a certain quota of men. The 101st Regiment was reduced at the close of the first American War. Sometime after, Captain Macpherson obtained a company in the regiment then called the Duke of Hamilton’s, and on the same terms. To raise his company, he again recruited in Badenoch, and on no other occasion, and for no other purpose.

This bombastic account stemmed from MacPherson’s own daughter, Mrs Helen MacBarnet. Although the Wizard of the North later wrote a retraction, “for telling a rawhead and bloody bones story about him”, it did not appear to satisfy, so that the clearly irritated Scott wrote in his journal that, “I almost wish they would turn out a clansman to be free of the cumber. The vexation of having to do with ladies who on such a point must be unreasonable is very great. With a man it would be soon ended or mended. It really hurt my sleep.”

In League with the Devil
In many ways the controversy surrounding the Black Officer and the way in which his character was vilified has remained ever since and it is no easy task to think of anyone else in Gaelic oral tradition where opinion is so divided and controversial. However, the most pertinent question to ask is why are the majority of oral accounts so prejudicial against the Black Officer? Why did they maintain that he was in League with the Devil? And why did they slander him so much? More often than not, it was men of high rank who earned themselves a bad reputation, such as the Black Officer at the time, heroes such as the famous chief of Clan Cameron, Sir Ewen Dubh of Lochiel, MacDonell of Keppoch, or the famous medieval wizard Michael Scot who received the reckoning of Shrove Tuesday (Fios na h-Inid) when visiting the Pope in Rome by hitching a ride on the Devil’s back. Oral tradition has given them devil-like or infernal capabilities as they were connected with families of high education, such as the MacMhuirichs of Stilligarry in South Uist or the Beaton medical family in the Isle of Mull.
Clearly, they were under suspicion because of their occult or esoteric knowledge gained illicitly from book-learning. With regard to the Black Officer, it was less to do with book-learning but rather because of modern farming methods which he adopted and was successful with. It was further maintained that it was MacPherson’s own pride and hubris that brought him to his unfortunate (and as some would say deserved) end. Very often supernatural occurrences appear in these various accounts and the further we go from the place of the accident’s origin (both in time and in space), the more fabulous the stories tend to become not only about the Catastrophe of Gaick itself but also with regard to the Black Officer. In this case, distance lends a rather black enchantment and the accretions added to the story through the generations make for compelling renditions.

Badenoch and Beyond
There are several accounts from Badenoch and Laggan itself, as would be expected, and a little further afield, from Lochaber, Glenurquhart, and further still, such as Morar, Arisaig, the Inner Hebrides and then the Outer Hebrides. Geographical remoteness did not get in way of a good story spreading far and wide. A version from Nova Scotia (specifically) Cape Breton bears this point out. This account is extremely interesting because the story of the Catastrophe of Gaick must have been established early in the tradition before many of the emigrants left in the 1820s and thereafter. It may be argued that this is a very short space of time for the story to grow in such as fashion as it did. Then, again, there was nothing to stop storytellers, however remote, from adding their own fictions and inventions as would be their wont. Be that as it may, almost every oral account seems to agree upon the fact that the Black Officer generated animus towards himself mainly because of his insidious recruiting tactics by tricking the young men to take the king’s shilling. Did the Black Officer deserve the bad reputation that has been imputed upon him? There appears some evidence of this from the bard Donnchadh Gobha MacAoidh:

Black recruiting without blessing
He never reckoned anything without trouble,
Yet it has caused a trampling of his name
That detractors love to relate about him.

In addition, tradition also accuses him of using false pretensions in recruiting and the following is an account from a local man, John Cameron of Inch, Badenoch, relating the types of methods said to have been used by the Black Officer:

But I have heard them say that the locals were afraid of him for he had been recruiting their sons and doubtless through duplicity by offering them drams and by putting a shilling in their pocket when they were in the inn. The next morning he would say to them that they’d better make ready to join the army. And Oh! they saw no reason for this.
“Oh yes: you know fine well what you did last night. You took the king’s shilling.”
“We’ve never seen it,” said one of the lads.
“Oh! Well, I saw it going into your pocket.”
He never said who put it there.
“I saw it going into your pocket and if you look you’ll find it.”
The lad turned his pocket out.
“Oh, there’s a shilling!”
 know now that it went into your pocket,” he said, “and there’s no escaping it. There’s many like you who are going to join up.”
In any case, the old parents, they were not all pleased with this going on. And they never had a good word to say about him.

And, as have been stated previously, that he was in League with the Devil. Here is an account from another local man, John Campbell of Kingussie, Badenoch:

This Christmas night the Officer left with his companion called am Post Bàn and arrived at Gaick and they were going to spend the night in the bothy at the foot of the mountain. The Officer said to his companion that he should go to bed but that he was not going to bed himself at that time. He was pacing backwards and forwards on the bothy’s floor […] At midnight there was a knock on the door and the Post Bàn leapt out of the bed and was going to open the door but the Officer said to him that he’d open the door. The Post went back to bed and the Officer opened the door. He went out and had a conversation with the stranger at the door. After a while he came back in and when he closed the door the Post heard what he had to say. I will return a year tonight to meet with you.
The Post said to the Officer:
“Who was that?”
“Oh!” said the Officer, “that was a gentlemen who was going to go hunting with us tomorrow, but when he saw that there was only me he couldn’t.
The Post said:
“Has he got a long way to go tonight?”
“Oh!” said the Officer, “yes, but he has a good horse and he’ll not be long on the road.”
Well, the Post thought that there was something wrong and when he came back next day to Ballachroan and told his neighbours about him, and they started to talk and they thought—everyone thought—that the Officer was [in League] with the Devil. They were sure that the Devil had come to the bothy door at Gaick.

Not only this but supernatural occurrences were alleged to taken place on his way to the funeral as related by John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber:

There was a man John MacPherson, the Black Captain of Ballachroan as they would call him […] it was the last Christmas [of the century] when this happened. They made out that he was greatly in League with the Devil. He requested twelve men to go with him to hunt up in Gaick. They all went but nobody returned. They were dead and they [the others] went up to see the place. And it was a terrible site which they beheld. The barrels on the guns were all twisted round […] and everything was as strange as anything they had ever seen. They could do nothing else but bring the corpses home. They went up and when they lifted the body of this man, the Black Captain, they gave him the honour of the way by placing him in front. But they said that they’d carry him in the name of the God. When they said this, they could not lift him from the ground. An old man in the company said, “Leave with him in the name of the person he was promised to.” And they said that they’d leave in the name of the Devil. And it was in this way that they could move off and carry him. They had not gone far when snowing and drifting began. The man shouted:
“Put the old man at the rear,” he said, “and put the most godly one whom you think at the front.”
And this is how it happened. The weather cleared and the sun came out and they got safely back to their homes.

“Thus,” as Maclean so memorably put it, “came home the soulless body of the Captain of Ballachroan, a faithful servant of two principalities, the British Empire and the Powers of Darkness.”
The Black Captain was finally laid to rest alongside his kin in St Columba’s Churchyard, Kingussie, under a flagstone bearing the following inscription:


Fact and Fiction
It remains clear that there are differences between the accounts from Badenoch and Strathspey (central) and the accounts from Lochaber, Morar, Glenurquhart and Cape Breton (peripheral). The central accounts tend to put more weight upon the Black Officer’s character and how he tricked the Badenoch youth as well as the effect this had upon the local community. These accounts also maintain that there was a tryst between the Black Officer and the Devil a year to the very day before the accident itself took place. And, in addition, it is also maintained that there was a pact between the Black Officer and the Devil; a similar type of tradition is widespread throughout Europe and doubtless elsewhere which brings to mind the Legend of Faust. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), the famous German poet, novelist and scientist published his internationally famous play Faust in 1790 which was based upon a man who is said to have lived during the sixteenth-century called Georg Faust (1480–1540). This legend, in turn, clearly influenced the English playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), who wrote a version of this very story as the play A Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1588–92), which, it seems, had its inspiration from a historical sketch in chapbook format, The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus (c. 1588). The complex nexus of orality and literature and the influences upon one another can be seen at play here. Finally, it is maintained that the corpse of the Black Officer got its rightful place at the end of the procession when they were on their way to the funeral. Whereas in the peripheral accounts, the supernatural occurrences tend to gain an upper hand and appear to be based more upon rumour rather than upon the actual truth. But, perhaps, the story has reached its perfection, at least in terms of sheer exaggeration, from a Cape Breton account where the Devil appears in the guise of a goat.
It is clear that the stories concerning the Black Officer and the Catastrophe of Gaick have tended to become more and more fabulous in inverse relation from both the time and place of the actual disaster. Doubtless, though, the accounts have some connection with what really happened at Gaick but it would appear that storytellers, as was their wont, have tended to add parts as they saw fit and thus to maintain the artifice of the storyteller’s art. Why, after all, let the truth get in the way of a good fantasy?
For example, Andrew Lang (1844–1912), the famous novelist, poet, literary critic and not forgetting folklorist, wrote an account in his Angling Sketches (1891), that is as romantic as romantic can be. Lang heard the story from a schoolmaster in Rannoch where the black reputation of the Black Officer lingered long and this is probably why his account was so slanderous. And if Lang’s account is bad enough, a version published by James Grant in his Legends of the Black Watch (1859), is even worse as it contains hardly any factual detail at all. After all, the Black Officer, despite (or perhaps because) of his name was never in the Black Watch.
Nevertheless, it would be true to say that the Black Officer was a figure steeped in controversy mainly due to his notoriety as an extremely assiduous press-gang leader. Perhaps the main cause for the Black Officer to gain such a reputation was that he and his like were never popular in the eyes of the common people, in a similar fashion to repressive landlords who forced the tenantry to do as they were told without any recourse to the law. In such uncertain times perhaps they were only too happy to see him as a scapegoat which may have helped to assuage their powerlessness in the face of oppression and thus could act as a kind of therapeutic release.

Eye-Witness Account
To To return to the contemporary accounts, nearest in both time and place to the incident, there survives an eye-witness account. The account is preserved in a manuscript in the National Library of Scotland (NLS, Adv.MS.73.1.14, pp. 129–32) and was written down by the Rev. Mackintosh MacKay (1793–1873) who, in his day, was a notable Gaelic scholar. Unfortunately, no name can be indentified with regard to the person who actually gave the eye-witness account. It is worth quoting a good portion of the account as it not only gives an authentic voice but also lends itself to the truth, or at least the nearest to the truth that is now accessible to us:

Towards the End of December 1799, Capt[ain] MacP[herson] having a young greyh[oun]d that he was anxious to give blood to, determined on an excursion to the forest of Gawick. The foxhunter of the district was arranged with, to accompany the Capt[ain] with his hounds, so as to initiate the young hound in the chase. Beside the foxhunter, Don[al]d McGillivray & Serv[ant] the Capt[ain] also arranged with Duncan Macfarlane & John Macpherson […] This John Macpherson […] was the planner of the unfortunate exped[itio]n. Some days before, he came to the Capt[ain]’s house to inform him that there were deer on certain grounds of Gàig were they could be easily taken. On receiving this inform[atio]n the Capt[ain] planned the exped[itio]n, & sent for the Foxhunter, D[onald] M[acGillivray] to accompany him. They resolved to set out on Monday last of Dec[em]b[e]r.

Once the background has been recounted by the eye-witness, the narration proceeds by describing a great storm that lasted for a whole three days and which did not abate completely until Thursday:

After nightfall, it still continued to blow unabatedly. A brother & I retired to rest, and slept in the same bedroom. About midnight, the storm increased to such tremendous violence, that we both lay awake, fearing for the safety of our house. The window of our bedroom hung on hinges, and in a moment by the violence of a fearful blast, the window was thrown open, and the drift poured in upon us tremendously. We both got up, and from the great violence of the blast, it was with the utmost difficulty we could force the window to its place and secure it. During the evening and the night the wind appeared to have shifted considerably to the South. On Wednesday morning the violence of the storm had abated, and the state of the atmosphere indicated a thaw. From the moment particularly, at which our window was blown in upon us in our bedroom, I have the remembrance distinctly of a lively impression of the danger of the Capt[ain] and his party.

It is little wonder that after such a storm the witness should have been worried about the wellbeing of the hunting-party which had set out to the remote forest of Gaick some three days before that the witness describes earlier in his account:

On Monday morning, the Capt[ain]’s party having been now all assembled at his house, the Capt[ain] waited me for some time to breakfast. As my father’s house was not above a quarter of a mile distant from his, the Capt[ain] finding me not appearing, came himself down between 8 & 9 in the morning to my father’s, and on entering the house, asked where I was, to which my mother replied I was in bed. In bed, said the Capt[ain] eagerly – tell the lazy fellow, that we all wait for him to breakfast. I was soon dressed, being in the act of dressing when he entered, and came to him. He said in his usual jocose way, what was I about, I told him then the circumstances of my having received the note alluded to from Captain D. McP[herson] and expressed what I truly felt, my disappoint[men]t at not being now able to make one of his party. At this he also expressed regret, and left me to return to his house to breakfast. I had also to repair to attend the drill of that day at the Bridge of Spey. On way thither, I observed the Capt[ain] and his party, who had passed close to me, tho’ unobserved in a hollow of the road, crossing the Spey over the ice, and ascending the hill on the opposite side, taking the road to Gàig – the last sight of my friend, that I was destined in this life to have.

As there was no sign of the hunters who had set out only a few days before a search party was organised in order to find out what many of them may have feared:

On Thursday the weather was fine still, and the sky clear. On Friday a thaw commenced. On Thursday morning, I called at Capt[ain] Macpherson’s, when his family appeared not much alarmed, but expressed a general anxiety about the comfort of the party at Gàig. On Friday evening, continuing anxious myself, an anxiety I carefully concealed from the family, I again called at the Capt[ain]’s―when the family seemed to have taken alarm; and I endeavoured to persuade them that the Capt[ain] and his party, instead of returning straight home, must have crossed Gàig to Dalnacardoch, as an easier route, and would return home by the Highland road, by Dalnacardoch, & Dalwhinny. This kept their hopes alive, till Saturday evening, when their anxiety increased to alarm, when I endeavoured to persuade them, that should the party have come by Dalnacardoch, they might be unable to cross Druimochter, and would be comfortable enough at Dalnacardoch. Quite alarmed myself, I took aside Duncan Campbell, the Capt[ain]’s grieve, after I had left the house, and told him, that unless the Capt[ain] arrived in course of the night, I was certain all could not be right, and that he & I must set out for Gàig before daylight, next morning (Sabbath).
Before daylight on Sabbath, Campbell was at my father’s door, to say there was no word of the party, and ready to start for Gàig. He found me also ready to start, alive as I had all along been, to a sort of presentiment that there was need for our presence there. We accordingly set out before daylight. The morning turned soft, and there had been some thaw. After crossing the Spey, at the farm of Noldmore, and ascending the heights on the opposite side, it came on a severe and continued fall of snow, with a gale of wind. The gale and snow continued to increase greatly, as we advanced on our progress to the hills. On our way, we called at a shepherd’s house called Lynachragan, to inquire, whether the party might not have come there, or whether they might not have been heard of. There was no word of them.
After this, on our way, the snow lay so heavy, that it was with difficultly we walked. On entering what is properly called the plain of Gàig, the storm increased to a perfect hurricane. Campbell and I could hardly keep our footing. Here, a narrow pass is formed between a considerable lake and the base of a steep hill. In this pass, we had the utmost difficulty (Loch an t-Seilich) to hold ourselves by the ground, encumbered as we were, & sinking in snow to the waists. The scene was tremendous―the drift continued &c.
The bothy was situated at the south-west end of the lake, at a small distance from it. Here a considerable valley opens―the bothy was built at the entrance of the valley, on a rising ground close to the base of the hill forming the south side of the valley―closer to the hill than where the Duke of Gordon’s present shooting box stands. After we had gained the end of the lake, and as we set ourselves to make the bothy, we were met by a nephew of Capt[ain] Macpherson’s, Alex[ander] McPherson, and Alex[ande]r McP[herson] the father of John, alluded to in the commencement of the narrative. They had crossed from Phoness in Glentruim, a shorter route than that by which we had come. We exchanged a sort of boding salutation, and proceeded towards the site of the bothy.

After the arduous journey that the search-party had made in order to get to Gaick, the melancholy scene is now described of what they found before them:

As we came near enough to discern the site of the bothy, where we knew it ought to stand―there was no appearance of it. We were all so perfectly acquainted with the ground, that we came within a few yards, as we afterwards found, of the house. Still there was no appearance or vestige of it to be seen. This was sufficient to confirm our fears―and our impressions at that moment may be more easily conceived than described. On the drift ceasing for a moment, we clearly saw the marks and the cause of the deadly ravages committed. The mountain rises to a great height above the house, and very steep―almost perpendicular. Tho’ the subsequent snow and drift had partly filled up the chasm made in the mountain side, by the snow that had fallen, in so indescribably prodigious quantity, we could clearly trace its destructive progress. It was manifest, to the simplest observer, that the snow, by means of the drift, had accumulated on the brow of the hill, to such a depth and quantity, that its own weight tore it from its roof, as it were―and tho’ the mark of its course had since been in part obliterated, we saw with feelings of horror and consternation, that it took the house, in its very mid-way path―and after having rolled to the plain, its broken masses, now partly rounded by the accessions of new drift, lay scattered over the plain, diminishing in size as they extended forward on the plain, exhibiting precisely the same appearance, as may often be seen in the tract of a summer torrent, when it was carried down a hill stones and gravel, and poured on the champaign below.
It was now mournfully manifest to us, that the house was fairly swept off. If any part of it remained, it was then not visible to us, by the accumulation of new snow and drift.
Stepping forward from the spot we supposed (and rightly) to be the size of the house, and looking in mournful silence to the marks of devastation on the plain, it was only by blinks, when the drift cleared, that we could make any remarks on the scene before us. We soon however, in one of those blinks, observed a hat, half-buried in the snow. We immediately went up to―found it to be Capt[ain] M’[Pherson’]s hat, fixed on a sort of two-pronged stick, or click, that had formerly stood fixed to the wall of the house within, for the purpose of hanging hats and shot-bags &c. His shot-bag was also attached to this stick. The catastrophe in its full horror was now made known to our minds―and never can I cease to remember and feel, the frantic grief of the father of John Macpherson. He paced and ran, backwards and forwards thro’ the snow, as if not encumbered a moment by its great depth, &c.
As to any attempt at a further search in the snow, it was out of the question―besides we were provided with no instruments to dig with―and should we, the day continued so fearfully stormy that it would have been impossible―we therefore set off for home.

Unfortunately, the account ends rather abruptly with arrangements being made for men to be gathered together in order to proceed to Gaick with spades and shovels and also, it may be assumed, carrying stretchers to remove the corpses. There is, however, no description of how they actually found the corpses or, indeed, how they managed to carry them back in such inclement conditions. Despite this, the account provides a detailed picture of what the weather was actually like, that the disaster was caused by a naturally occurring avalanche and that the Black Officer was said to be congenial man (at least according to the writer of the above account).
It may well be that according to an article published by Veritas in The Highlander newspaper of 1874 that the above eye-witness account might have come from the testimony of a certain John Duff for the contributor states the following:

About twenty three years ago [1851], as I was passing Inverness, I called at the house of an old man named Kennedy, who kept a stable somewhere near Petty Street. In course of conversation Kennedy asked if I ever heard old John Duff speaking of the loss of the Black Captain, or doom of Gaick, as it was called. Having answered in the affirmative, he went on to say “Well, Duff and myself were the first two who entered the ruins of the house, and after removing a good deal of the snow and debris, we came on the body of the captain, with one leg resting on the floor and the rest of the body in what was once a bed. The body was greatly disfigured. His gun lay beside him with the barrels twisted like a straw rope.” Theses are the words of the very man who, along, with John Duff, found the body, and they exactly correspond with what I often heard Duff tell of the melancholy affair.

Contemporary Letter
Nonetheless, a contemporary letter survives, written by a certain Captain Alexander Clerk (who may have been related to James ‘Ossian’ Macpherson), only a few days after the incident, on the 8th of February to be exact. Clerk had also been a tacksman at Invernahavon and his letter was addressed to William Tod who was a commissioner and bailiff on the Duke of Gordon’s Badenoch lands:

…You well know the honest Captain’s passion and propensity of being in the hill, and at his favourite sport after the deer. This led him to go to Gaick […] with a party of four men and three greyhounds. That day and the next were tolerably good days but in the course of Wednesday night it came on to blow very hard, with snow and drift […] But as there was a most sufficient house there, and they had provisions, their friends had hopes of their being safe until the weather became moderate on Saturday, and they did not come home, nor any word from them. On Sunday a few men went up to Gaick, who returned that night and reported that no vestige of the house remained […] This report left no doubt as to the melancholy fate of the poor Captain and his unfortunate companions […] a pretty large number of men went on Monday to the hill, and after long labour in exploring the stance of the house, they at last made it out, and […] they that night dug the body of the Captain and three of his companions out of the snow […] The Captain was found in bed with his shoes of [sic] and night-cap on, in a kneeling position, with both his hands under his forehead. Two men in another bed in one another’s arms, with the three greyhounds lying above them, and the third as if he had been sitting by the fire-side. The fourth is not found yet […] The bodies are this day to be carried from Gaick, which will be a very serious trial for men, and the Captain’s corpse is to be in some sort of state for this night at his own house, and to be interred to-morrow. I will not dwell much longer on this melancholy subject, only mention to you the names of the people who accompanied the Captain on his fatal excursion―Donald Macgillivray, fox-hunter―a Strathdearn lad, with his servant, one Grant, from Duthil; John Macpherson, a fine stripling from Phones; and Duncan Macfarlane, from Kingussie […] and whose body is still unfound. The cruel accident was occasioned by a circumstance which could neither be expected nor foreseen, and which, I suppose, brought on their death before they were aware of any danger. It appears to have been done by an immense bank of snow having fallen from near the top of the hill behind the house, and afterwards carried down by the hurricane with great force and velocity, and sweeping the house along with it to the very foundation stones…

As can be readily seen, the Captain’s account clearly accords with the other eye-witness’s report and, thus, leaves but little room to doubt the veracity of either account. In other words, both accounts can be relied upon.
In addition, the Sobieski-Stewarts, in their Lays of the Deer Forest (1848), provide another account from Captain Lachlan MacPherson, styled “Old Biallaid”, who knew Captain John MacPherson intimately, and who left a eulogistic testimony:

…he is esteemed as a man who, in mental and bodily qualities, had few equals, and no superior, in the Highlands; kind, generous, brave, and charitable, full of noble patriotism for his clan, and if a formidable opponent, none ever sought his aid, or conciliated his enmity, without receiving prompt assistance and immediate reconciliation. His purse, as well as his talents, was ever at the service of the poor, the oppressed, and all who stood in need of assistance […] Active, intelligent, and superior in all things, he was a dangerous enemy, but an unshaken ally, and the most bitter foe had only to seek his amity, and he immediately became his friend. His mind was full of generosity, kindness, and sensibility; and if he had faults, they were errors of his age, and not of his own heart. In his latter days, his liberality in assisting others embarrassed his own affairs; but in every trial, his conduct was distinguished by honour and integrity. Amidst his misfortunes he was deprived of his wife, after which, he went little into society, but in his old age, spent many of his days, like the ancient hunters, alone in the hills of Gàic or the corries of Beann-Alder, with no other companion than his ‘cuilbheir’ and ‘his grey dogs.’ Such was one of the last true deer-stalkers of the old race of gentlemen—a man who, if we lived a hundred years, we should not see again.

Heart of Darkness
Hunting usually takes place in liminal areas and it would seem that the Forest of Gaick has always had a dark reputation. For instance, there is a story of how Walter Comyn (of a family that once held powerful sway in Badenoch) was ripped apart by a two witches who had transmogrified themselves into eagles. Further, there is a tradition in which Muirdeach mac Iain, while hunting in Gaick, killed a woman who had taken deer-form. There is also a story that the ‘spirit’ of Gaick itself would appear. And to make matters worse, the tragedy of Gaick occurred at one of the most liminal of periods between the Old and the New Year, when it was unlucky to carry anything out according to traditional Gaelic cosmology, as this was a time when otherworldly creatures would be abroad in order to tempt the unwary. In this respect it is little wonder that the Black Captain was seen to invite his own doom when he set forth with his hunting party to chase the deer into the alluring heart of darkness that was:

Dark Gaick of the winding runnels
She has always been a whore—
A witch ensnaring her net,
Each one who desires to lie with her.

A memorial can still to be seen to this day at Gaick which was erected in 1902 to commemorate the disaster under the aegis of Alexander MacPherson, sometime provost of Kingussie, as well as banker and antiquarian. Monies for the monument were raised from the funds accrued by the sale of Alexander MacPherson’s pamphlet, Captain John MacPherson of Ballachroan: The Gaick Catastrophe of the Christmas of 1799 (O.S.): A Counter-blast. As can be readily understood from the title, the author was at pains to try and protect or at least defend the memory of the Black Officer’s name from dectrators―the very same thing that the aforementioned bard Calum Dubh nam Protaigean (who also composed a lament for Young John MacPherson styled Iain Òg mac Alasdair ’ic Ullleim, another of the Gaick victims), it would seem, tried and failed to do a hundred years previously:

In Memory of
A valiant and patriotic gentleman
Born at Glentruim 1724
Who perished on this spot
By an avalanche in Jan. 1800
Along with four companions in the chase


O dùisgibh-se mu’m fas sibh liath
’S dluithibh bhur cas ris an t-sliabh
Feuch gu’m bi bhur fasgadh deant’
Mu’n téid a’ ghrian a laidhe oirbhe

This memorial stone
Erected August 1902
Is due to the exertions of the late
Provost of Kingussie
Who never wearied working for his chief
His clan & Badenoch, and who died
11th Jan. 1902 sincerely regretted
By all who knew him.

MacPherson, Alexander, Captain John MacPherson of Ballachroan and the Gaick Catastrophe of the Christmas of 1799 (O.S.): A Counter-blast (Kingussie, 1900); also printed in The Scots Magazine, vol. XXV (1900), pp. 215–28.
Scarlett, Meta Humphrey, In the Glen Where I Was Young (Moy, 1988).
Thompson, Francis, The Supernatural Highlands (London, 1976).
Wiseman, Anndra E. M., ‘Call Ghàdhaig ann am Ficesan is ann am Fìrinn’ [The Catastrophe of Gaick in Fact and in Fiction], Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. LXII (2000–02), pp. 298–346.

Portrait of the Black Officer, courtesy of the Clan MacPherson Museum, Newtonmore, Badenoch.
The Gaick Memorial Marking the Scene of the Catastrophe © Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.
Gaick Memorial Plaque © Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.

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