Sron A Clachain by Rory MacDonald

“Lord it is now five years since I troubled thee with a request. I pray thee that thou wilt be with us today . . . and if thou wilt not be with us, be not against us but just let it be between ourselves and these carls.”

This soldier’s prayer of big Archie Macphail before the battle of Sron a Clachain is part of the considerable folklore which surrounds this encounter between the Breadalbane Campbells and the MacDonalds of Glencoe and Keppoch. The Breadalbane tradition was recorded in a paper presented to the Gaelic Society of Inverness in 1905/6, the Glencoe story is printed in the Dewar mss. and the Brae Lochaber version comes from D.C. Macpherson’s account in the The Highlander and a letter printed in Gaelic Studies, Aberdeen Vol. XI. We are also able to date it accurately from entries in the Kenmore Parish Register which gives the date as 4th June 1646. It was a time when the Campbells were attempting to make good their “title” to Keppoch which they had won on paper following Huntly’s sequestration. This raid and the following battle gave the MacDonalds a full revenge.

The Dewar ms. gives a graphic account. It describes how the Glencoe men had heard that Breadalbane’s daughter was to be married to Menzies of Culdares in Glenlyon. It seemed a good opportunity for a raid and they called in their Keppoch neighbours to help them. “The two bands met in the upper part of Rannoch on the day appointed and they reached Breadalbane. This being the wedding day of Breadalbane’s daughter, the gentlemen of the country were at the wedding and the whisky was in their heads.”

The lifting of the cattle in Glen Dochart and possibly from the south-west end of Loch Tay would present few difficulties. The problem for the raiders was that before they reached the comparative security of Rannoch moor they had to pass behind Killin, where the wedding was being celebrated at Breadalbane’s castle Finlarig. From there, where they could not fail to disturb the wedding party, there was a drive of about fifteen miles up the side of Glen Lochay and the head of Glen Lyon. This country was all against them. Moreover, it was the beginning of June. The cattle would still be weak and slow. The calves would be small and hard to drive. Rather than fight on the retreat, the MacDonalds having passed Killin, stood on the hill of Sron a Clachain, north of the village between the slow moving cattle and their disturbed owners.

The accounts of the battle vary according to the source. All agree, however that the bridegroom Menzies of Culdares had been a professional soldier. Known as the “red-headed crower”, he had been a penniless poultry boy but had served under Gustavus Adolphus in Germany and came back with sufficient fortune to buy an estate in Glen Lyon. Knowing the ground and with his experience, he tried to avoid a direct attack. He wanted to turn the MacDonalds’ position to the east and take the high ground behind them. He was however overruled. The Breadalbane men, inflamed with whisky, attacked straight up the hill. For once the MacDonalds had every advantage and the result was almost a massacre. Menzies himself was wounded and it is said that fifteen Campbell tacksmen were killed.

Unfortunately, in the pursuit the chief of the Keppoch family, Angus Odhar was severely wounded. The Campbell records say that he was killed instantly in a duel with Culdares. The Glencoe account says that rather than share the spoils, their men insisted on taking the cattle, leaving the Keppoch men to carry their chief home. The Brae Lochaber accounts which vary slightly in detail agree however that after a dispute among themselves, his clansmen left Angus Odhar severely wounded in a Sheiling above Glen Lochay at Corrie Charmaig. It may have been part of the family rivalry which was to culminate in the Keppoch murders 20 years later. Angus Odhar’s father Ranald Og had been an outlaw for many years and his brothers had led the Clan. It is one of these, Donald Gorm, described by Macpherson as a fiend incarnate, who is blamed by him for the decision to take a share of the booty but to leave the wounded chief to his fate.

It is possible on the other hand that his clansmen believed that he was so badly wounded that the only hope for Angus Odhar was to lie hidden and wait for his wounds to mend. There is a story that he was entrusted to the wife of the farmer who was a MacDonald and who hid him from her husband. Iain Lom the famous Gaelic poet who lost his father in the raid gives no hint that his chief was betrayed. His account, one of his earliest poems speaks movingly of his chief.

“The raid to Loch Tay has darkened my way
Angus lies dead by its waters” 


“what wrung tears from my eyes was the gap in your side as you lay in the house of Corie Charmaig”

Iain Lom was a legend for his outspokenness and it is unlikely that he would have kept quiet if he saw this as a betrayal. The outcome was however that the Campbells found the wounded chief and dispatched him.

Sron a Clachain was not a great battle. It was however more than a mere cattle raid. It shows how, in time of civil war, the clans turned to “lifting” on a much larger scale and used the war to pursue their own private vendettas. Keppoch had been burnt by the Campbells in 1640 and with raids and counter-raids, the young men of the clan will have had little thought of peaceful farming. It was a situation which persisted more or less continuously to the end of the century. Sron a Clachain is however unusual in that it is so well documented and it was, of course a considerable victory over the traditional enemy.