The Well of the Heads (Tobar Nan Ceann)

Work of restoration is to commence on the monument which was erected at the instance of Colonel Alasdair Ranaldson MacDonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry, in 1812, on the bank of Loch Oich, over the well near Invergarry where, according to tradition, the severed heads of the seven murderers of Alexander, 13th Chief of Keppoch and his brother Ranald were washed by Iain Lom, the Gaelic Poet Laureate of Scotland and himself a kinsman of the victims.

Unfortunately the details given in the inscription on the monument, which is in Gaelic, Latin, French and English respectively on its four sides, is inaccurate both regarding the time and details of the event. The Murder took place at Keppoch on 25th September, 1663, and is said to have been committed by Alexander MacDonald of Inverlair and his six sons who had been set up by other prominent members of the Clan to rid them of a chief whose reforming methods were more than they could or were willing to endure.

Iain Lom, incensed that no efforts were being made to punish the culprits, first appealed to Lord MacDonell and Aros, Chief of Glengarry, at that time looked upon by the Scots Privy Council as High Chief of Clan Donald, to exact retribution for the crime, but in vain. The Bard then turned his attention to Sir James MacDonald of Sleat but that Chief too hesitated to become involved in the internal affairs of a brother clan. The Bard of Keppoch then resolved to visit Sir James in person at his Castle of Duntulm, where the murdered Chief of Keppoch and his brother had been fostered, and on his arrival, Sir James asked in Gaelic “Where do you come from?” “From Laodicea” answered Iain. “Are they cold or hot in that place?” enquired Sir James. “Abel is cold and his blood is crying in vain for vengeance. Cain is hot and red-handed and hundreds are lukewarm as the black goat’s milk,” replied Iain.

The Bard’s personal appeal was successful. Sir James applied to the Privy Council for a commission to proceed against the murderers and a Royal Commission to that effect was granted on 29th July, 1665, instructing Sir James to apprehend “Allan MacDonald, eldest son of the Tutor of Keppoch, his brother Donald Gorm, Alexander Mac Dougall (MacDonald) in Inverlair, in the Brae of Lochaber, John Roy Mac Dougall (MacDonald) brother to the said Alexander, Donald Orie Mac Coull there, Dugall Mac Coull in Tallie, Patrick Dunbar there and others for …  setting upon Alexander MacDonald of Keppoch and MacDonald his brother, by giving the said Alexander 33 great wounds and the said (Ranald) MacDonald his brother 28 wounds of which they immediately died upon the place.”

The command of the expedition sent to execute the commission was given to Sir James’ brother Archibald, known as An Ciaran Mabach, the warrior poet, who, with a party of 50 picked men and guided by Iain Lom surprised the murderers at their residence in Inverlair who after a stiff resistance were all slain and their heads cut off by the Bard who wrapped them in his plaid and set out for Invergarry to exhibit them before lord MacDonell and Aros, washing them en route in the aforementioned well which has ever since borne the name of Tobar nan Ceann i.e. The Well of the Heads.

The inscription on the monument by the Celtic scholar, Ewen MacLachlan, which states that the event took place in the 16th century and that it was avenged by Glengarry is, as already stated, totally inaccurate. It is therefore worthy of consideration that a plaque be erected beside the monument giving a more accurate if brief account of the event and its aftermath.

The estimated cost of the work of restoration is £7,500, almost half of which is being provided by the Glencoe Foundation Inc. of the USA, which was set up by Ellice McDonald, Jr., CBE (Hon.) and the remainder by the Highlands and Islands Development Board and the Highland Regional Council. The Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh has also made a donation of £100. The actual work of restoration will be carried out at the instance of the Clan Donald Lands trust through its international Director, Rob McDonald Parker.