There is nothing gloomy about it, for the great hills lie far back from its shores and let the sun and wind play freely about its open waters. Indeed, from the bright, wave-washed beach at Kinloch to the far-off Glencoe Bens the west winds race helter-skelter over the great moor with its desolate lochans, down the gorge of the Gaur River, and over ten clear miles of sparkling water, until you begin to think of Loch Rannoch as the loch of perpetual breezes. It gives you the sense of the open sea as few inland Highland lochs do. The shapely cone of Schiehallion guards its eastern shores, and the dim blue Shepherds of Etive stand sentinel in the sunset far away.
And yet, this heartsome Highland loch, for all its beauty and brightness, will always be to me the Loch of the Vanished Races. For round its shores there is a chain of ancient graves, many a dead village, and a whole world of lost romance, the very sough of which can only be heard by those who know how to lean a fond ear to the pipes of time as they wail soft coronachs down the glens. It may be that the Celt has not yet reached his last horizon in this grey old land. But, at least, no one who has haunted the Hebrid Isles, wandered in the waste places of the hills, or looked long and lovingly for some news of a lost folk in the Standing Stones can deny that where once the glens were thick with clansmen and hundreds rallied to the battle-cry, today it would be hard to elist a company or gather a mere platoon. The wind sings only one lament as it moans about the bracken braes where the shielings lie in ruins :-
CHA TILL, CHA TILLE, CHA TILLE MI TUILLE — No more, no more, no more returning.
Standing any summer day in the little square at Kinloch, you will hear nothing but the clatter of English tongues, with a word or two of the good Gaelic wafted to you on a stray breeze when a bodach goes by or a ghillie passes on to the smiddy, with a garron from Tummelside or far Corrievachtie. Yet, time was when the shores of Rannoch swarmed with Robertsons, Macgregors, and Camerons, with some venturesome Campbells who had travelled north from the real Argyll.
There is a rocky height above Kinloch called Craigievar, once tree-clad, now bare and bald except for a tuft of pines left on its summit, like the feathers on an Indian’s head. Climb the scarp, and what a volume of history you can read in that little open valley – once an extension of the Loch – which runs from the river mouth to Dunalastair !
Yonder, snuggling among the trees at the glen-foot right opposite is Innerhadden, where St Chad is said to have had a disert or chapel of retreat. This is more than likely. For, when Aidan, that princely successor of Columba in Iona, went south to Lindisfarne, he brought back from Northumbria two of his Saxon converts, the brothers Cedd and Chad, to receive further instruction in Iona. When they were on their return journey, some time about 650, they settled for a time at Fortingal in the Lyon Valley, beyond Schiehallion, and while there St Cedd built churches at Fortingal and Logierait, while his brother St Chad founded the churches of Grandtully and Foss. Both were made bishops on their return to the south. St Cedd was Bishop of Essex, and St Chad fixed his See of Mercia at Lichfield, where in the Cathedral today you can look upon his shrine.
How much meaning there is in an ancient Gaelic word ! As Innerhadden means the Beginning of the Fight, and Dalchosnie means the Field of Victory, and Glen Sassunn that runs between them means the Englishman’s Glen, I see here a complete place-name description of the Battle of Innerhadden, which took place in the year 1306. That was the momentous year when Robert Bruce killed John Comyn within the chapel of the Minorites at Dumfries in February, was crowned King at Scone in March, and was defeated at Methven by the English under the Earl of Pembroke in June. All through the summer night Bruce and his followers fled across the hills to Atholl, until the morning found them tired and hungry, in a wood on Tummelside, near Killiecrankie. A woman was making porridge in a house close by, and Bruce asked for some of the fine brose. So the wood was called ever after Coille Brochain, the Wood of the Brose, and a gable of the old house still stands with a tablet in the wall, on which is carved this legend : “Robert the Bruce rested here after the Battle of Methven – 1306.” An old site on the Tummel hillside across the river from Dunalastair and a little east from Macgregor’s Cave is still known as Seomar-an-righ, the Room of the King. Doubtless one of Bruce’s haunts, for he hid for a time in Rannoch. But his enemies found him out, and a battle was fought between Innerhadden and Dalchosnie. Bruce gained the victory and the English fled south over the hills by the nearest glen. So, in these three Gaelic place-names – Innerhadden, Dalchosnie and Glen Sassunn – we have the whole history of this battle in brief : the Beginning of the Fight, the Field of Victory, and the Glen of the English. It is said that the women of Lassentullich, that Hill of Passion near by, were so anxious to help Bruce that they took off their stockings, filled them with stones, and laid on ferociously whenever an Englishman came near.
At Lassentullich you can still see the ancient chapel of St Blane on the rock above the road, with a graveyard behind. Little Norman windows pierce the ruined walls, a tiny holy-water font lies in the recess of the churchyard wall, and a fine old Celtic cross on an upright slab stands near the gate – all eloquent of the old faith. Here, also, was St Peter’s Well, and doubtless the neighbouring place called Tempar commemorates some Tom-Peadar, or Hill of Peter. There used to stand a large stone in a field west of Tempar Lodge, called the Clach Sgoilt or Split Stone, until it was broken up for road metal – so I am told. For when the Stewarts of Innerhadden went out to fight for Prince Charlie, a Stewart woman who lived here heard on Culloden day a black dog howling most pitifully, and then by some strange occult force this great stone was suddenly split in two. She knew that her man was dead, and there was a keening in Rannoch that day. What a weird world of love and lore can be reaped from a few old Gaelic words !
But it is graves and dead chieftains all the way. You can stand high up in the burial ground of the Stewarts of Innerhadden, among the trees, and look east to Dunalastair. You can stand among dead Macdonalds at St Blanes of Lassentullich and look through the little window to Loch Garry’s House across the Tummel. You come next to an old derelict burial place of the Stewarts of Crossmount across the road below the lodge, where the view westward was once open, before the trees grew up. You cross the bridge over the river at the gorge of Dunalastair, and, if you know where to find it, you can climb through the wood to the little enclosure where the old Struan Robertsons of Rannoch sleep below the lordly new house of Dunalastair, the ancient Mount Alexander of the clan. A stone’s-throw farther and you come to St Luke’s burial ground where Robertsons, Camerons, and Campbells sleep peacefully enough now. Above them stands the new cross of a new laird, on a new mound. But the old Struans sleep today beneath long grass and nettles.
Those were the days when there were still some wolves in Rannoch. Struan hunted them down until there was only one great dog-wolf left. This brute was all the more to be feared because it was a baby-stealer, and had destroyed several children. Today there is a lonely little farm in a hollow of the moors below the Struan road which is called Mullinavadie. Here in olden times there was a meal-mill. One day the miller’s wife was mashing potatoes in the kitchen with her wooden bittle. The grey wolf walked in and made straight for the cradle, in which lay a six-month’s-old baby. The Robertson woman raised her bittle and hit the wolf behind the ear, killing it on the spot. The head was afterwards cut off by her goodman and sent as a gift to Struan, and the place is called to this day Mullinavadie – the Mill of the Wolf.
Walk round the loch and you will find the same story of lost lore and a vanished race of heroes. The standing stone in the garden of the Loch Rannoch Hotel is called Clach-a-Mharscin, the Stone of the Pedlar, because a packman once sat down to rest himself against it, threw his pack over the stone, and was strangled by the strap. On the shore below Annet there is a grave. Here lies the last Rannoch man who was hanged for sheep-stealing. He dangled in chains from that great oak-tree close-by which has four trunks and some fine handy horizontal branches. Climb the hill above Annet itself and you will find the remains of a large village. I counted twenty-four distinct houses, and there are many more stone heaps where other houses probably stood. Yonder by the wood at Leargan is the only cottage left of this hillside community. Past this ancient village runs a very old right-of-way to Loch Garry, and the story is that there was a sudden raid down this old war-path from the north, and the whole village was left tenantless and deserted. The cloverstones had just been gathered from the fields in preparation for further husbandry, and there they are today, mute reminders of the breathless haste of the fugitives.
There must have been a holy cell or chapel here, for the very name of Annait means a relic chapel. The Annait was the church where the patron-saint was educated, or in which he kept his relics, and it ranked first among the different kinds of chapel. Is there not a Bal-na-banait over yonder in Glen Lyon, a Tobar-na-banait in Skye, and a Teampull-na-banait on the island of Killigray off Harris ? Having got word of this Abbotland or Annait on Loch Rannochside, I searched in the dark pine wood of Annet, and instead of finding a mere cell I came upon a lost village ! Six or seven ruined houses and a long walled place of graves oriented east and west. In the windless gloom of the wood there was silence. No bird called. No beast or creeping thing appeared. I sat down against the lichened stones, and the smoke of the fire rose like incense in the solitude. A sound of chanting seemed to steal through the unearthly stillness, and the tinkle of God’s little bell could almost be heard as the priest in his simple robe spoke the words of mystery to the rude Celts who dwelt above this eerie Annait. Songs of love, the laughter of children, the shout of armed men, the sob of women, and the clash of claymores must often have been heard here. Now – the very trees, all grey with lichen, grow where stood their hearths and altar-stone. And when the wind rises it is only to sigh through the dark wood the same ancient coronach of sorrow – ” No more, no more, no more returning !
At Craig-an-Odhar – the dun-coloured rock, there is a strange hatchet-shaped standing-stone on a tree-clad mound by the roadside, which some call the Cheiftain’s Grave. If he was a local lord he would not have far to travel for his weapons, for at Aulich, a little farther on, there was in olden times a famous smith, said to be in league with the devil, and he made the finest claymores in Rannoch. Rannoch long ago was as famous for its swords as Doune was for its pistols. Deposits of bog-iron were found all round the loch. The Black Wood provided fuel for smelting and charcoal for tempering, and as I write I have before me a piece of iron from the slag smeltings which was picked up at Aulich. Still farther on at Killiechonan, which is one of the last dwindling crofter communities round these shores, there is an old font lying within the wall of the churchyard. For war and religion have ever been dear to the soul of the Celt.
When you come to the glistening sands of Camus and look across the loch, you will see a little tower on the rocky Eilean nam Feoileag – the Isle of Storms. Here some local chief confined a prisoner. Who he was or what his crime I cannot tell. But his friends sent him every year two sacks of apples, and the laird sent out the apples in a boat with two of his ghillies. “Here are your apples, shifty lad,” said they. “Well, there are more here than I can eat, just men, so take a sack for yourselves,” he replied. With that he emptied a whole bagful before the greedy ghillies, who scrambled for them on their hands and knees. But while they were busy at the game of grab, the sly fellow made off in the boat and left them on the island staring after him
Standing on the Bridge of Gaur at the head of the loch, looking at Rannoch Barracks – once a thatched depot for the redcoats who were sent to quell those fiery Highlanders, and now an ample lodge – it is part of the old sadness to think that this last lodge on Rannochside, owned by a Robertson, is now changing hands. Cha till, cha till !
Note: On the first day of January in the year 2000 my eldest son went walking in the Howgill hills from Sedbergh in North Yorkshire. In that little town he found ‘the only shop in England open on that day’. It was a bookshop, and in the window was a little book called ‘The Road to Rannoch’. Being aware of what I was up to, his interest was aroused, and he bought the book. Its author is T. Ratcliffe Barnett, and the book was first published in 1924 and this copy printed in 1930. The above is an extract from that little gem of a book. – DH