Places of Interest, Ballechin

By James Irvine Robertson

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long the north face of the strath between Logierait and Aberfeldy are eleven estates whose boundaries have been largely unchanged for a thousand years, each with the classic proportion of arable fields by the river and the lower slopes of the hill, rough grazing higher up, and a substantial swathe of moorland overlooked by Farragon - the Hero in Gaelic or, if you prefer it, the Wart. The mix of land allows the owner his salmon fishing, his pheasant shooting and, on the moor, the pursuit of grouse and deer. These estates always carried a high population because limestone occurs on the hillsides and thus the soil is fertile and can grow crops at a greater altitude than is common in the Highlands.

The most important of these estates, all of them under once the superiority of the duke of Atholl, was Ballechin which stretches along the north bank of the Tay for much of the way between Logierait and Pitnacree bridge. The family who occupied it for three centuries was perhaps was the most powerful of the many Stewarts of Atholl. They were Gaelic and Highland in their culture but, having never had a chief, could not be called a clan.

The Ballechin family descend from a bastard son of James II and were the most enthusiastic of Jacobites. In Glencairn's Rising, the laird was killed by Cromwellian troops at Dunkeld in mistake for the earl of Atholl. During Dundee's campaign the head of the family, Patrick of the Battles, was the marquis's military commander, his brother chamberlain. The marquis supported the government but Patrick took Blair Castle for the rebels. The Rev Robert Stewart, minister of Balquhidder and nephew to the chamberlain, laid aside his dog collar and earned the sobriquet of Robert Mobile thanks to the speed at which he cut down government troops at the Battle of Killiecrankie.

Patrick and his sons were heavily penalised by the marquis for their rebellion but the family were out in the '15 and the '45 and were lucky to retain their heads and their bowels, let alone their estates. During the nineteenth century the laird married a Roman Catholic and built a chapel on the Tulliepowrie burn in Strathtay but the conversion brought about the family's downfall. In the subsequent generation the heir's line died out, and, of the two spares, one became Abbot of Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire and the other head of the Jesuits in Great Britain. Roman Catholic priests have no legitimate descendants and that was that.

In the 1890s Ballechin was let for three months to the Society for Psychical Research who had heard reports of a ghost. They published their results in The Times and one of their number followed up with a book. Not allowing themselves to be distracted by the loquacious central heating system, they heard supernatural bumps, bangs, groans, gurgles, grunts and breathing - both heavy and anguished. Nuns were observed, spectral priests mumbled mass, dogs put their hackles at unseen rivals, temperatures fluctuated and a retired colonel reported an invisible calf disturbing his rest by hurling itself at his bedroom door.

The Society tried to lease the premises the following year but the proprietor understandably found a prior booking. One concrete outcome of the summer was that the staff refused to live in the house so the laird was forced to build a detached wing for them. This is all that remains of the mansion which, riddled with rot, was pulled down in the 1960s.

Robert Stewart became minister of Killin in 1680. He neglected his religious duties and pocketed all the parish income for nearly 50 years. Consequently he was able to buy one of these creamy Strathtay estates for each of his four sons - Killiechassie, Blackhall, Clochfoldich and Derculich.