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Balquhidder

After spending a couple of days in Edinburgh, Neil and I drove to Inverness. We stopped at a few places along the way to see where our ancestors once lived. Interestingly, Neil and I can both trace our Scottish ancestry to the area surrounding a tiny village in southwestern Scotland named Balquhidder; he, through Clan MacGregor and me, through Clan MacLaren.

This is the view from the hillside overlooking the village. It consists of a handful of houses and small farms, a pair of churches (one maintained and the other in ruins) and a churchyard.

A close-up on the houses below.

A close-up on the farms near the Loch.

Balquhidder is a Gaelic word that translates as “the farm in the back-lying country” and is pronounced “Bal-wh-ither” (with the “-ither” pronounced so hard it almost sounds like “idder”). It is located in Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. The closest major city is Stirling, and it would take approximately one hour to drive northwest to Balquhidder from there.

Balquhidder lies at the foot of Loch Voil, and shares its name with the Glen that encircles the Loch (Balquhidder Glen).

This part of The Trossachs National Park features a range of steep hillsides, and Balquhidder lies at the base of one of these. A Scottish term for this kind of geographic feature is a “brae.” The “Braes of Balquhidder” is a traditional song by Scottish lyricist Robert Tannahill (1774-1810).

In the picture below are some of the braes that surround Balquhidder. I was standing midway up one of them, looking down on the village.

This was the view behind where we were standing when I took the above picture.

I think Scotland is beautiful precisely because it has all of these steep “braes” with sky-blue lochs (lakes) located at the bottom. Loch Lomond, of course, is probably the most famous of these.

Although it is a small village, the history of the area packs a hefty punch. It goes back at least 4,000 years. The present church has a sign that reads, “the Celts recognized Balquhidder as a ‘thin place’ where the line between God and man, heaven and earth, is very thin.” There are several areas of prehistoric interest including the remains of a stone circle, a Neolithic chambered cairn, a 2 metre tall standing stone known as “Puidreag” or “Puidrac“, and the “Priest’s Stone”, among others. I had learned about these stones before we went to Balquhidder but, on the day of our visit, we didn’t have the time to go looking for them. Perhaps we’ll check them out on a future visit.  If you are interested in knowing more about these stones, the BBC mentions them at this site, and I found a blog that goes into more detail and includes some pictures.

The sign at the church also stated:

Behind the church is the Hill of Fire (Tom-nan-Aingeal) where at Beltane, 1st May, and Samhain, 1st November, the Druids lit sacred fires from which householders re-kindled their hearths to encourage the ancient gods to continue bringing warmth to the earth.

Some more information on Tom-nan-Aingeal can be found here. I wanted to point out that the hill behind Balquhidder was a place where fires were lit this early in history, because fire-lighting on this hill is going to continue with Clan MacLaren, later in this post.

I spent many hours of my childhood driving through rural Saskatchewan and Alberta so I feel like I have a good understanding of small, practically nonexistent towns. Still, if it wasn’t for the following sign, Neil and I would have kept going right on down the road with no clue that we had already driven through the very same place we were looking for.

I had a place saved on our map that I really wanted to see. We found a little road (“is this actually a road?”) that led us on a steep climb up the hill behind the village. We took the car as far as we dared to go, and then continued walking along a hiking path. Neil was feeling very skeptical that we were going to find anything, and my confidence was also starting to falter when we came upon this sign:

CREAG AN TUIRC—”the boar’s rock”—is the motto, the rallying cry, and the ancient meeting place of the Clan MacLaren, also known in Scottish Gaelic as the Clan Labhruinn¹. The MacLarens are the earliest known inhabitants of the Glen of Balquhidder, and the boar’s rock—located just a few hundred metres uphill from Balquhidder—is their traditional rallying place. A man bearing a fiery cross would be sent throughout the MacLaren lands to notify clan members that they needed to gather at the rock on the hill. The Hill of Fire! This is also where the Celts lit sacred fires that were then used to rekindle the hearths of community members! I thought this was kind of a cool parallel.

The MacLaren crest is a lion’s head wearing a crown, situated between two branches of laurel.

Below is a Victorian-era (and thus highly romanticized) illustration of a MacLaren clan member.

A scrap of MacLaren tartan, tied to the bench that sits just below the rock.

Before our trip, I traced a branch of my paternal grandmother’s family tree back to the MacLarens of Balquhidder. I was really excited to see the village, the boar’s rock, and to make a connection with this beautiful country I had read so much about. I’m not sure if I tapped into the same feeling that led to the Celts describing Balquhidder as being a “thin place” between “heaven and earth”, but it felt special and maybe a little bit magical to be standing on that hilltop. The wind was quivering in the trees behind us and the sun danced in and out of the clouds, a restless spotlight. I felt like, for a moment, that I had emerged from a time machine and I was standing on the tip of a stage where history would, at any instant, return in full, dramatic force in the valley below me. How incredible, I thought, is it that I have the opportunity to return, around 200 years later, to a country that my 6th great-grandfather left behind? It is an unfathomable gap of time and people that separate our experiences, and at the same time it feels like no time has passed in this Glen at all.

Me standing by the rock.

Neil standing at the edge of the cliff just below the rock.

While we were up there, we ran into a couple of other people who had hiked up from the churchyard below. They suggested that we check it out, so that’s where we went next.

The Christian history of Balquhidder begins in the late sixth or early seventh century with the arrival of St Angus. He blessed the Glen and remained in Balquhidder for the rest of his life. He was buried on the hill where the present churchyard can be found. In 1250, Abbot Labhran of the Clan MacLaren built the first stone church, called “the Little Church”, over St. Angus’ grave site. As the founder of the church, Abbot Labhran and his heirs (ie: members of the Clan MacLaren) had the right to be seated first in the church and to be buried within its walls. In 1631, another church (known as “the Old Church”) was built on the same site as the medieval church of 1250. It’s the ruins of the 1631 church that make for a dramatic visit to the Balquhidder churchyard today.

The Parish Church was built in 1855. It was full of information about the history of the area, and there were a few books for sale concerning that history as well! It was definitely worth checking out.

Here are some images from around the churchyard.

From what I can make out, this reads: Donald MacLaren Who Died At 4th Aught (?) 189? And His Wife Catherine McDiarmid

We tried looking at some of the gravestones, but the older ones can be really weathered and hard to read. And, as is the case below, they can be totally overgrown as well.

The big attraction of the churchyard, though, is the grave of Robert (Rob) Roy MacGregor. We’ll get to his story, but first we’ll begin with Clan MacGregor itself.

Clan MacGregor was famous for its warlike and marauding nature. (Although, to be fair, I think this behaviour was fairly typical of many clans of the time). The lands of Clan MacGregor were originally located west of Balquhidder, in the Loch Awe area. In the early 14th century, Robert the Bruce awarded the barony of these same lands to the rival clan of Campbell, and then left it to the Campbells to sort out what to do with the MacGregors in the area. The MacGregors were pushed further inland, and that’s when their attention turned to the MacLaren lands in the east. In 1558, a band of MacGregors descended upon the area around Balquhidder and slaughtered 18 MacLaren families (including the women and children), and seized control of their farms. It’s an interesting, if bloody, connection in our distant family histories. No love lost between the MacLarens and the MacGregors!

Below is the crest of the Clan MacGregor. Their motto, RIOGHAL MO DHREAM, translates as “Royal is My Race.”

Below is another Victorian-era (and also highly romanticized) illustration of a Clan MacGregor member.

MacGregor brutality came to a head when, in 1589, John Drummond (the King’s forester) was murdered after hanging a few MacGregor men for poaching. For this and a host of other reasons, King James VI and the Privy Council passed the Proscriptive Acts of Clan Gregor on April 3, 1603². The MacGregor name was abolished, and all members of the clan had to renounce it. Those who refused to do so (of which there were many) would be punished. The men were executed; women were stripped of their clothing, branded, whipped, and made to walk barefoot through the streets. Women and children were also sold into slavery and shipped to New England. MacGregor men were hunted down with dogs, and their heads could be sold to the government to gain pardons for theft and murder. The Clan Chief, Alasdair MacGregor of Glenstrae, and 30 of his kinsmen were hanged in Edinburgh. The members of the clan were assigned new names and a new chief. The Proscriptive Acts also denied the sacraments of baptism, communion, marriage, and last rites. Water, food, shelter, and medical care for infants and the elderly could also be withheld. King and country sought to strike the MacGregor name from history. Because of this, Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott referred to the clan as the “Children of the Mist.”

These were the circumstances into which the clan’s most famous member, Rob Roy, was born in 1671. Rob Roy was an outlaw who became a folk hero, akin to Robin Hood, as his life story was fictionalized first by Daniel Defoe³ and then by Sir Walter Scott. His Gaelic name was Raibert Ruadh MacGhriogair. “Ruadh” refers to his red hair, which is expressed as “Roy” in English. At the time of his birth, Rob Roy couldn’t use his father’s surname due to the proscription against the MacGregor name, so he went by his mother’s, Campbell. At 18, he joined his father in the Jacobite uprising of 1689.

Below is a portrait engraving of Rob Roy MacGregor from the 1820s.

In 1711, Rob Roy borrowed a large sum of money from the Duke of Montrose so he could purchase more cattle for his own herd. He trusted his head drover with the money and the purchase, but the drover double-crossed him. He pocketed the money for himself and disappeared. Rob Roy tried to hunt him down and, unsuccessful, returned home to find that he had been bankrupted and evicted, his lands seized, by the Duke of Montrose. This kicked off a blood feud between the two men that would last until 1722.

Rob Roy then turned to cattle raiding, theft, kidnapping, and other forms of banditry. Cattle raiding was big business in Scotland in the early 18th century. Rob Roy set up a profitable enterprise in which he charged farmers a “protection fee” to ensure that their cattle would be safe. Since Rob Roy had complete control over the cattle raiders who worked the area, he could guarantee that any stolen cattle would be returned. Rob Roy would later participate in the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1719 as well, earning himself a price on his head for treason in addition to other charges for cattle rustling and banditry. He was captured more than once, but always managed to escape. The tales of his exploits grew with their telling and retelling.

In 1723, Daniel Defoe published a fictionalized account of Rob Roy’s exploits entitled  Highland Rogue. The story was a hit, and Rob Roy’s popularity soared. Public acclaim urged George I to extend a Royal Pardon to Rob Roy for his crimes, which was accepted. He passed away in 1734 at his house in Balquhidder. His grave site can be found in the Balquhidder churchyard, and also includes the graves of his wife and two sons.

The slogan, “MacGregor Despite Them”, is the refusal to renounce his name as the Proscriptive Acts of Clan Gregor would have demanded. It was added to the gravestone in the 1980s, and is taken from a line in Sir Walter Scott’s poemMcGregor’s Gathering:

“…While there’s leaves in the forest
And foam on the river,
McGregor, despite them,
Shall flourish forever…”

Another piece of Scottish literary history (in addition to Rob Roy) is tied up with the Reverend Robert Kirke who, in 1669, came to Balquhidder and served as a minister in the Old Church built in 1631. A scholarly man, Kirke found himself among people who believed in the Fairy World, and wrote the first account of fairy lore: The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. Balquhidder does feel like a magical place. It’s interesting that a Christian minister felt moved enough by his surroundings to write such a book!

Balquhidder: a tiny town with an incredible history**. We were there for only a couple of hours, and I feel like I barely scratched the surface. I would definitely like to go back there on a future trip and maybe spend a few days in the area.

But for now, we need to move onto our next destination.


¹ The use of “Mac” in a Gaelic surname implies “son of.” “Mc” is a shortened form of “Mac.” So “MacDonald” would mean “son of Donald” and “MacLaren” is “son of Lawrence.” (Lawrence is the English version of Labhruinn).

² The MacGregors were persecuted for 171 years before the proscription against them was repealed in 1774.

³ “Highland Rogue”, by Daniel Defoe, was published in Rob Roy’s own lifetime, in 1723. It has the best/longest alternate title I’ve ever seen: “Highland Rogue: Or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-gregor, Commonly Called Rob-Roy: Containing a Genuine Account of His Education, Grandeur, and Sudden Misfortune; His Commencing Robber, and Being Elected Captain of a Formidable Gang; His Exploits on the Highway; Breaking Open Houses, Taking Prisoners, Commencing Judge, and Levying Taxes; His Defence of His Manner of Living; His Dispute with a Scotch Parson Upon Predestination; His Joining with the Earl of Marr in the Rebellion; His Being Decoy’d and Imprison’d by the Duke of ——–, with the Manner of His Escape, &c.” The book is only 63 pages, and I’m sure the title took up at least five of those.

* The first Jacobite uprising of 1689 sought to restore the (Catholic) Stuart monarch, James VII of Scotland and II of England, to the throne. James VII had been deposed by his daughter and son-in-law, the (Protestant) Mary and William of Orange. Interestingly, Rob Roy and his father, Donald, were fighting to support the son of King James VI, the man who had issued the proscription against the Clan MacGregor. Better a Scottish bastard on the throne than an English one, I guess. Also of note: for the later Jacobite Uprising of 1715, Rob Roy and the Clan MacGregor were specifically excluded from the Indemnity Act of 1717, which pardoned everyone else who had taken part in the Uprising of 1715.

** I haven’t even gotten into the story about how a member from another clan in Neil’s family history, Clan Buchanan of Leny, slapped a MacLaren man in the face with the tail of a salmon at a county fair in Kilmahog. And how that MacLaren man dared the Buchanans to try that again at the next fair in Balquhidder. And so the county fair in Balquhidder (maybe during the time of James V?) devolved into a giant, bloody clan battle, in which the Buchanans lost. Neil doesn’t believe this actually happened. I think he’s saying that because he knows better than to start that old feud up again.

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