Places of Interest, Rannoch

By James Irvine Robertson

P

arts of the western Highlands were devastated by government troops after the crushing of the '45 Rising but Atholl got away comparatively lightly. The exceptions were Glen Errochty and Rannoch. Nowhere in Atholl had the Jacobite flame burned more fiercely. The greatest of the Culloden casualties had been on the extreme right of the line which was the position held by the first battalion of the Atholl Brigade and these were the men from Tummelside. The government knew this was the heartland of the rebellion in Highland Perthshire. Moreover the Campbells of the Argyll Militia had been headquartered at Kynachan near Tummel Bridge when they had been caught unawares during Lord George's raid just before Culloden. They wanted revenge for the humiliation. Twice they ravaged the land between lochs Tummel and Rannoch.

The surviving fugitive Jacobites skulking in the hills and woods could do no more than watch their homes being destroyed from the crags above. One, Allan Stewart of Innerhadden, amused himself by writing verse. A contemporary informs us that he composed best when 'warm flustered with whisky'. The leader of the Argyll Militia on the second raid was Colin Campbell of Glenure, victim of the Appin murder in 1756 which was the foundation of R.L. Stevenson's novel 'Kidnapped'. This author spent a season at Moulin above Pitlochry and produced 'Thrawn Janet'

The only two estates in Atholl to be confiscated after the Rising were in Strathtummel. Lochgarry was one. Its laird was an old Jacobite war horse, Donald Macdonnell, who was on the prince's council with Lord George Murray and the other chiefs. He escaped with the prince in the French frigate 'Heureux' after the same six months hiding in the heather.

The other belonged to the chief of Clan Donnachaidh. Before the '45, Rannoch was one of the most remote, poverty-stricken, and backward regions of the Highlands but this changed. Amid the government's policy of cultural genocide applied to the Highlands after the '45, the record of the Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates is a light in the darkness of persecution. The clan system froze its society. The chief had total power over his tribesmen and warfare was both a recreation and an instrument of policy. Matters such as agricultural improvements, the creation of infrastructure, industry, and raising the living standards of the people were not on his list. These were the priorities of the factors on the confiscated estates.

The village of Kinloch Rannoch was created in the period after the '45. It is a nomenclatural oddity. Kinloch means the head of the loch whereas this village is at the foot. Similarly, a good general rule is that a river originates in the loch that bears its name. Not so with the Tummel which one would expect to be called the Rannoch. Redcoats built roads from Tummel Bridge and round the side of Schiehallion. The river was bridged adjacent to the new settlement. Initially this was to be populated by retired soldiers who would act as long term insurance against further rebellions, but their habits - picked up in a thousand European estaminets, bierhaufs, and alehouses - militated against the bucolic rhythms of a croft and so Rannoch people were given leases for their own few acres for the first time.

The factors encouraged the linen industry by building little mills. Craftsmen moved in to keep the machinery in repair. This brought cash into the community and gave more economic power to the women who did the work. Lime burning was introduced to reduce the natural acidity of the soil and grow more crops, particularly the potato.

At one time the Commissioners intended to drive a road across Rannoch moor to Glencoe and thus make Kinloch Rannoch the hub of the Highlands. Two hundred and fifty years later, the road is still occasionally mooted. The redcoats built themselves a barracks at the head of the loch and continued their road westwards for a few miles. They were even put to work in a futile attempt to drain parts of the moor and make it cultivable. Today the scars are still visible.

The man best remembered in Rannoch from this time was Dugald Buchanan. He was from Balquhidder and won the job of schoolmaster at Kinloch in 1764. Today a memorial stands in the centre of the village to commemorate the impact that he made upon the people. He was 'affable, free, and jocular...a severe disciplinarian, feared, but at the same time beloved.' He was a great religious poet in Gaelic as well as a teacher and preacher and in the ten short years before he was carried off by fever he brought about a moral and religious transformation of the people. The soil would have been fallow. Their culture had been turned upside down and they were waiting for something to fill the void but they were fortunate in having a man of the quality of Buchanan to introduce them to the morality and beliefs of the rest of the nation.

The old Jacobite chief in Rannoch, Alexander Robertson of Struan, was burned out of his Hermitage at Dunalastair by government soldiers, and then burned out of his second home at Carie on the south side of Loch Rannoch. His clansmen hid him in the depths of the Black Wood until the first frenzy of post-Rising destruction had died down. The old man died in 1749 and two thousand mourners - men, because women did not attend funerals - marched behind his coffin fourteen miles to his grave in the kirkyard of Struan.

The Black Wood where the old chief found refuge had long served as a hiding place for those escaping their enemies. Its survival is due to its position on the slios garbh, the rough side of the loch, which was stony and infertile save for a few places where a burn running into the loch has created a miniature delta. The Wood is a relic of the old Caledonian forest which once clothed Scotland. It contains important communities of species characteristic of old pinewoods, particularly insects, lichens and fungi. The old Highlanders believed its ancient pines to be the haunt of fairies and other sinister spirits which helped preserve privacy for fugitives.

At certain points in history the Wood was extensively felled. In the nineteenth century a timber chute led down from the heart of the forest and trunks of trees hurtled down into Loch Rannoch and eventually floated into the Tay. Sometimes their speed was such that they buried themselves in the bed of the loch and some are still there. Some timbers were hauled over to Glen Lyon and manhandled down the river to provide General Wade with a scaffolding during the building of his bridge at Aberfeldy. Now when one looks at the woods that clothe the high ground in both straths, one can be forgiven for wondering why the general did not use material closer to hand. It is an indication of how bare and treeless these straths used to be, and consequently how rare mature timber was.

The Pedlar's Stone by the hotel complex on the north shore of the loch was where the packman's load slipped when he rested it upon the stone and he was strangled by a strap. These men used to trudge round the Highlands carrying knives, needles, mirror, ribbons, salt, spices and anything else they thought might sell. They peddled luxuries and the necessities of life that the land and the estate craftsmen could not manufacture. Later they carried chapbooks, precursors of the paperback, which told vivid stories with religious morals, or simply vivid stories which were avidly devoured by the Highland people once education had reached the remoter glens.

The pedlar was also greatly valued as a source of information and news. The more he could produce the greater his welcome and his sales. He brought knowledge of the nation fresh from Edinburgh or London. He also brought news and gossip, if they are not interchangeable terms, from the neighbouring estates and clachans. He would be welcomed at the mansion house of the laird with a dram and would glean what he could for dissemination round the townships. The doings of the family in the Big House was a subject of absorbing interest to the tenantry.

On the north side of the loch, the slios min - the smooth slope - the soil was more fertile and faced south to the sun. Here and out into Rannoch Moor the land was held by the Menzies but he seems to have had but the loosest control over its people. The king more than once ordered him to curb the brigands and outlaws, usually MacGregors, who infested the area. Menzies clansmen were rare in Rannoch. Most of the inhabitants of the north side of the loch were Camerons and Macdonalds who had spilled across the moor from their own clan lands. The remarkable remoteness of Rannoch from its neighbours was shown when the Menzies failed to notice that his land was being squatted upon by these outsiders who were paying their rents to their own chiefs. In reality the lord of the land was always the man who could protect or intimidate the people and, far from the rule of law, the contents of treasured charter chests were sometimes of only academic interest.