A Tale Told by the Fireside by Mary MacDonald

Mary MacDonald, recording her father’s story-telling, reveals a family tradition about the Keppoch Murder of 1663.

The authentic story of “The Well of the Seven Heads.” by the shore of Loch Oich, is that the two brothers of Keppoch had returned home from France, having spent some time there finishing their education, and were supposed to have thrown a party at Keppoch House which was then at Insch, between Roy Bridge and Fort William. Their cousins picked a quarrel with them, mimicking their French manners and so forth. In the tuilzie that ensued the two brothers were killed.

Iain Lom, the Bard of Keppoch, went to Glengarry to get assistance to track down the murderers. He did not get assistance from Glengarry but some time afterwards – quite a long while afterwards – with the help of Macdonald of Sleat he tracked down the murderers and killed seven of them. He cut off their heads, tied them together with willow withes and washed them in the well now known as the Well of the Heads. From there he took the heads to Glengarry to show him that punishment and justice had been duly inflicted.

So much for the authentic version, my father has the following story to relate:

“In 1933, when I was making enquiry among friends that I have at Bridge of Orchy and surrounding district I called on two aged cousins of my father in Aberfeldy; one was a Mrs McGregor, a minister’s widow, and the other was Kirsty (both were McDonalds, course).

“Kirsty, who was in her late seventies, had been blind since she was little more than an infant. All the reading she did was from moon type. She had not learned to read Braille so that she had no way of gaining her information from print of any kind and any information she had of Clan matters was quite likely to have been gained by listening to other people talking round ceidlidh fires.

“As a matter of interest I recounted the official story of The Well of the Seven Heads to Kirsty and she listened attentively until I had finished. Then she said: ‘That story is not right, there were three brothers not two. Two were killed but the third one escaped and took to the hills. He landed at a place called Tigh-an-Auch-na-Skeoch, now called Auch. It is from him we are descended.’

“I remember being impressed with the expression on Kirsty’s face at the mention of Iain Lom’s name. Her face lit up and she interjected, ‘Ah our cousin.’ The Highlanders had a way of referring to kinsmen as cousins.

“It took me some time to identify the present Auch. The name Tigh-an-Auch-na-Skeoch, means The House of the Field on the Skew (or angle). Auch lies just like that, in an angle between Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy and at the end of Glen Lyon.

“Some of the fugitive brother’s descendants must have gone from Tigh-an-Auch-na-Skeoch to a place, Stecks, near Kenmore, and the only direct way there would be through Glen Lyon before there were proper roads. By this time this branch of Keppoch had become weavers, crofters and craftsmen, because it was from Stecks that my great-grandfather went to Aberfeldy where he set up a weaver, crofter, craftsman and trader’s business.

“I was born in 1876, my father was born in 1833 and my grandfather (son of the proprietor of this business, on the site of which, at the corner of the Crieff Road, is now the Bank of Scotland in Aberfeldy) was born in 1807 or 1809.

“My father told me that his father or his grandfather – it could have been either because his father would he about six years old at the time – told him that he remembered seeing the troops returning home after the Battle of Waterloo. They tramped along the Crieff Road and passed by this very corner and crossed General Wade’s Bridge on their way to Ross-shire and Sutherland. The troops had been demobilized, as it were, in England and then tramped their own way home to Scotland, sleeping during the day in shady places while it was too hot to tramp, and tramping during the night. The crofters left oatcakes and bowls of milk and cheese on the windowsills and such places for the troopers to help themselves.

“The Aberfeldy business went out of existence because of a fire. My forebears had had it under a Deed of Gift from the Marquis of Breadalbane and the legal documents were destroyed in the fire. The family were evicted because they had no evidence of their claim upon it. Some, at any rate, of the table and bed linen of Taymouth Castle and Castle Menzies was woven in my great grandfather’s premises. Records of the family, from the time records were kept, should be in the Parish of Logierait but the family burial ground is in Dull church yard. From this information evidence might be obtained as to whether or not our family can claim descendancy from Keppoch.

“One last point about the Keppoch story: The land to which the third brother fled was, at the time of his flight, a kind of ‘No-Man’s-Land’ where broken clansmen took shelter; the McGregors in particular who are known to have been scattered and landless took shelter there.”

The fire still burned and the tongue had been loosened and so were recorded by me, Mary, stories of lain Lom, the Keppoch bard; a Keppoch connection with the massacre of Glencoe; the choice of the Keppoch MacDonald tartan for the regimental tartan of the Cameron Highlanders; and the Cameron medal won by a grand-uncle in the North-West Frontier after the Indian Mutiny. …

“Now a story of slight military significance in which another son of the weaver of Aberfeldy figured.

“Well now, this son of the weaver of Aberfeldy, my grand-uncle William, had settled in Ardeonaig on Loch Tay side. He was a crofter weaver there and at the time of the expected visit of Queen Victoria to Taymouth Castle, the Marquis of Breadalbane, perhaps wishing to emulate the Duke of Athol with his own private army, formed a bodyguard of which number my grand-uncle William was one. They were rigged out in Highland garb with Glengarry Bonnets, etc. and were drilled and drilled to bow one knee and uncover the head on being formed up as the bodyguard when Her Majesty arrived. However, on the day, the story goes, not one man could bring himself to such act of obeisance. This may be an example, if the story is true, of how void of servility the Highlander is. There was no feeling of disloyalty to the Sovereign, I am sure.”

By this time the fire had burned low and it was time to think of bed.