Places of Interest, Breadalbane

By James Irvine Robertson

M

uch of what is now called Breadalbane used to be in Atholl but the incoming Campbells of Glenorchy took the name as the title of their earldom. They seem to have influenced William Stobie who produced a map of Perthshire in 1783. In it the word 'Breadalbane' is writ large over both sides of Loch Tay, most of which was part of Atholl. Someone must have complained since, in later editions of the map, Breadalbane was kept very firmly on the south side of the loch. But the precedent had been set and the district name crept east and north as the family acquired land. In 1823, Atholl began east of the confluence of the Lyon and the Tay. Now even Aberfeldy considers itself to be in Breadalbane.

For nearly five centuries Loch Tay was the private pond of one of the most powerful - and terrifying - families in Scotland. Originating from Kilchurn castle on Loch Awe, the Campbells of Glenorchy, later earls and marquises of Breadalbane, had the power of life and death over everyone in their realm. They bought, parleyed, plotted, married and murdered their way into half a million acres stretching from Aberfeldy to the Atlantic.

In 1432 Black Colin obtained Glenorchy, between Killin and Tyndrum, from his father. By his death in 1475, he had obtained control of both ends of Loch Tay as well as bits in between. His son built the castle at Finlarig near Killin with its gallows tree and beheading pit before being killed at the battle of Flodden. The sixth laird, Grey Colin, was fostered by the chief of the MacGregors but, a few years after becoming laird, he forced the clan off their lands and out of their castle at Balloch where Taymouth now stands. Colin set himself up there at the eastern edge of his properties. His intention was to continue his progress towards the North Sea but he was thwarted by Clan Donnachaidh and the Stewarts who owed allegiance to the earls and dukes of Atholl, aristocrats as grand and as ruthless as himself, against whose lands he now abutted. They had even more swords at their backs than the Campbells.

Amongst those who lost their lands to this branch of the Campbell clan were the Fletchers, MacNabs, Dewars and, above all, the MacGregors. The latter had been the most powerful clan along the loch and were understandably miffed at being ousted but the Campbells made it their business to harry surviving clansmen and women wherever they were to be found. They even had a pack of hounds said to have been suckled by a MacGregor woman so that they would scent only MacGregors and hunt them down. Without land the clan was forced to live by banditry until eventually the very name was extirpated and survivors changed their names to, for example, Drummond, Murray or Anderson and thus created enormous confusion to modern genealogists.

Black Duncan of the Cowl, the 7th laird, plotted to take over the lands of his chief the earl of Argyll and was party to the murder of the earl of Moray in 1592. He was accused of trafficking with witches and wizards to obtain his evil ends. Then the nation was riven by strife and rebellions during which the the great men of the families of Argyll, Atholl and Campbell of Breadalbane jockeyed for power and position.

Those who suffered were their people. In 1639, at the very beginning of the civil wars, Breadalbane and Argyll supported Presbyterianism against the Episcopalianism of Charles 1. An army from Loch Tayside confronted the Athollmen across the river Lyon a couple of miles from Taymouth. The earl of Atholl was tricked and captured whilst his followers were beaten in battle at the top of the Pass over to Strathtummel.

Revenge came in 1645. The marquis of Montrose had a royalist army consisting of the Athollmen and the ferocious Irish Macdonalds under Alastair McColla who had already burned his way across Argyll. Breadalbane was on high alert in face of McColla's men making raids of Loch Tayside across the Lyon. To quote the minister of Kenmore, William Gillies, 'In December Montrose himself with his whole host descended upon Breadalbane like a whirlwind. Macdonalds, MacGregors, MacNabs and others were let loose upon the countryside. They killed all the men found with arms, they burned every house, destroyed the corn stacks, and drove away the cattle. Even the kirk at Kenmore did not escape. Its door was broken and the basin for baptism stolen. As the Royalist army swept along both sides of the loch, it left a trail of desolation behind it.'

The same thing took place a generation later. The marquis of Argyll supported Monmouth's rebellion against James VII. In 1685, the Athollmen were dispatched to beat up Inveraray. On their way, they burned their way down both sides of the loch. Once again the widows and orphans wailed and were saddled with the job of feeding themselves without a husband.

John Campbell, the next laird, was the first earl of Breadalbane. He was described by a contemporary as being cunning as a fox, wise a serpent, but as slippery as an eel. In 1691, he persuaded the government to give him £12,000 that he would distribute round the Highlands to keep them peaceful. Asked four years later what he had done with it, he replied 'The money is spent, the Highlands are quiet, and this is the only way of accounting among friends'. He was unjustly implicated in the Massacre of Glencoe but, as an old man, remade his reputation in the Highlands with his support for the Rising of 1715. His successor surprisingly employed Rob Roy to look after his estates in Argyllshire and worked hard to repair the damage to his lands on Loch Tay caused by the civil wars. The family were opposed to Bonnie Prince Charlie and, when the Jacobites sent the Fiery Cross round the loch - the last time this ancient method of raising men was used - the response was negligible. The runner did the round trip in three hours.