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Battle of Glen Fruin 1603 (by Stewart Noble)

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This article was originally published in the January— February 2008 issue of "The Highlander", an American magazine.

However having read the booklet "The Battle in Glen Fruin 1603 — A Legend Re-Assessed" by James Pearson (Elachan Publications 2006) and having spoken to him, I amended the article in April 2016.

fruin-monument"WHAT is history," asked Napoleon, "but a fable agreed upon?"

That a battle took place in Glen Fruin on the 7th February 1603 between the Colquhouns and the MacGregors, that the number of Colquhoun dead was very much greater than MacGregor dead, and that the MacGregors were subsequently severely punished for their actions — these are about the only three facts that most historians will agree upon regarding the Battle of Glen Fruin.

It has been said of Sir Walter Scott that he was never the man to decline the opportunity of talking up a good story. His novelRob Roy' is woven round the exploits of the most famous MacGregor, a man who lived about 100 years after the Battle of Glen Fruin.

Scott introduced his novel with a history of the Clan MacGregor in order to give his readers a better understanding of the background against whichRob Roy' was set.

This contains an account of the events surrounding the Battle of Glen Fruin, and some have argued that even here Scott's ability as a story teller has overtaken his accuracy as a historian.

So, at the risk of perpetuating myths, let us look more closely at the Battle of Glen Fruin.

Because of the events in 1603 the valley of the Fruin has also been calledthe Glen of Weeping', a name which contrasts with its likely Gaelic origin:the Valley of the Sheltered Places'.

The Fruin is a small river that enters Loch Lomond near its south-west corner, very close to where the geological Highland Boundary Fault separates the Highlands of Scotland from the Lowlands.

In the lower reaches of the Glen the rocks of the Lowlands produce a more fertile soil surrounded by more gentle hills, in contrast to the poorer quality soil and steep hills towards the head of the Glen, which is itself a classic U-shaped glacial valley.

It is the nearest Highland glen to Glasgow, only some 25 miles from the city centre, and today the Glen lies within the boundaries of the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park - all much more in keeping withthe Valley of the Sheltered Places'.

The Participants — the Colquhouns

The origins of the Clan Colquhoun are traced back to the twelfth century when they lived at Milton of Colquhoun overlooking the River Clyde a couple of miles upstream from Dumbarton.

It was through marriage to a lady known only as the Fair Maid of Luss in the fourteenth century that the clan chief became Colquhoun of Colquhoun and Luss. Although the village of Luss is firmly in the Highlands, the Colquhoun lands stretched southwards and included the flatter, more fertile lower reaches of Glen Fruin, where the river flows into Loch Lomond.

The seat of the chief of Clan Colquhoun was at Rossdhu, about a mile to the south of Luss. Initially the chief lived in a castle built on the crannog of Ellan Rossdhu — there are several of these artificial prehistoric islands in Loch Lomond. Today because of silting Ellan Rossdhu is almost attached to the mainland, depending on the level of water in the Loch.

In the fifteenth century the clan seat moved to Rossdhu Castle, just a couple of hundred yards away from Ellan Rossdhu, but now on the mainland. Finally in 1773 the clan chief moved his seat a couple of hundred yards further to the elegant Rossdhu House, which today is the clubhouse of Loch Lomond Golf Club.

The Participants — the MacGregors

The picture of the relatively affluent and successful Colquhouns stands in marked contrast to the fortunes of the MacGregors.

Following the gift of their traditional lands at the east end of Loch Awe by King Robert the Bruce to the Campbells early in the fourteenth century, they had been gradually driven out into poorer lands and many had settled at Inversnaid on the rugged east side of Loch Lomond and by Loch Katrine, although the clan was more widely scattered.

fruin-from-northLiving on the poor soils of this area was always going to be difficult, and so there would always be a temptation to prey on their more prosperous neighbours on the better lands to the south of the Highland Line.

In 1563 Mary Queen of Scots, by an Act of the Privy Council, allowed several noblemen to pursue the MacGregors with "fire and sword".

The MacGregors were not the only ones to indulge in this kind of behaviour; the Macfarlanes who lived across Loch Lomond from the MacGregors also preyed on the more prosperous Colquhouns.

However it would be wrong to think that the behaviour of the MacGregors and Macfarlanes was particularly out of the ordinary for that time. Successive Scottish kings had found it very difficult to exercise control over the Highland clans.

However one has to admit that the MacGregors perhaps had a worse reputation than most others; after all, the wordblackmail' was coined to describe the practice whereby the MacGregors would not steal one's cattle — provided they were paid sufficient money!

The Prelude

So, who or what started it — and when?

Pick any area of conflict in recent years — say, between Palestine and Israel or the Troubles in Northern Ireland — and try asking the same question of the two sides.

You will get a multitude of different answers, some of them going back days, months, years or even centuries. Exactly the same is true of the events leading up to the Battle of Glen Fruin.

Some, including Sir Walter Scott, argue that it all started when two MacGregors were refused food and overnight accommodation in Colquhoun territory.

They then caught a sheep, killed it and ate it. However, unusually, the sheep was black in colour and so its absence was quickly noticed and the alarm raised. The MacGregors were subsequently caught and taken before the laird of Luss.

As free barons the chiefs of the Colquhouns had the legal right to administer justice, and in those days stealing or killing a sheep was a capital offence. The subsequent execution of the two MacGregors, it is said, so incensed the rest of their Clan that revenge was necessary.

There are two big difficulties with this story: firstly, none of the MacGregors cited it in their defence after the Battle, and secondly some historians have placed the event as early as 1526.

Furthermore, other historians will argue that the origins of the battle were merely just another raid for plunder by the MacGregors into Colquhoun lands — after all they had raided Glenfinlas just eight weeks earlier and Glen Mollachan some months before. However this time the Colquhouns had warning of what was about to happen, and so were ready to protect themselves.

At this stage we introduce a new suspect, albeit only briefly for the moment. He was Archibald the Grim, 7th Earl of Argyll.

In 1587 the Scottish Parliament had passed the Act of General Ban. This required lords to control all living within their lands, or face heavy fines — and some MacGregors were considered to be living on land belonging to the Earl of Argyll.

In 1593 the Earl had obtained a commission to suppress the "wicked Clan Gregour, and divers others broken men of the Hielands".

However the MacGregors were still a problem to their neighbours nine years later, as evidenced by the fact that the Colquhouns were granted the exceptional right to bear arms for their own protection.

On 1st December of that year, 1602, Alexander Colquhoun lodged a complaint against the Earl of Argyll with the Privy Council on the grounds that he had failed to control the MacGregors.

Six days later the MacGregors instigated what is now known as the Glenfinlas Raid, although some historians have believed that the Glenfinlas Raid and the Battle of Glen Fruin were one and the same. Glenfinlas is a small valley very close to Rossdhu and lying between Glen Fruin and Glen Luss.

Charges alleged that 300 cows, 100 horses, 400 sheep and 400 goats were taken by the MacGregors.

Not only do these figures appear suspiciously high in themselves, but one has to wonder how the MacGregors would ever have succeeded in getting so much livestock either over Loch Lomond or round it to their own lands at Inversnaid — although admittedly some may have gone elsewhere.

More importantly in terms of subsequent events, it was also alleged that two Colquhouns had been killed during the Glenfinlas raid.

This occasioned two Colquhoun advisers, Sempell of Fulwood and William Stewart, Captain of Dumbarton Castle, to suggest in a letter to Alexander on 19 December that the relatives of the dead take the "bludie sarks" (bloody shirts) of the deceased to King James VI at Stirling Castle.

The King was known to be highly squeamish at the sight of blood, and the number of "widows", who bore the blood-stained shirts of their late husbands on spears, and who actually appeared before King James, was apparently very much greater than two.

The sight of the bludie sarks had the desired result, and King James granted the Colquhouns the right to pursue the MacGregors.

The MacGregors were not best pleased by this, feeling sore done by. Once more, revenge was in the air!

The Battle

Both sides started recruiting allies to swell their numbers. The MacGregors were accompanied by men from Clan Cameron, Mac Iains of Glen Coe and Robertsons of Struan.

It has been suggested that the MacGregors and their allies totalled 400 men. This makes one wonder whether or not the MacGregors were expecting a battle, or merely just trying to mount an even bigger raid on the lands and livestock of the Colquhouns.

Certainly, none of the allies of the MacGregors at the Battle had been involved in the events leading up to it.

The Colquhouns were accompanied by men from as far away as Buchlyvie in Stirlingshire, and their presence seems to indicate that they too had been subject to the depredations of the MacGregors.

Townsmen from Dumbarton swelled the Colquhouns' ranks, as well as Napiers from Cardross and others from the surrounding area.

Many accounts have suggested that the Colquhouns and their allies had as many as 500 men on foot and another 300 on horseback. While this seems perhaps an improbably large number, there has never been any suggestion that the Colquhouns were outnumbered by the MacGregors.

The MacGregors decided to approach Glen Fruin from its top end, and so some crossed Loch Lomond by boat from Inversnaid to Tarbet, probably met their allies en route, thence to Arrochar and down the east side of Loch Long, ultimately approaching Glen Fruin from the direction of Garelochhead.

The MacGregor force was split in two: one part headed a little down the Glen, while the other took up position near the head of the Glen above Strone. Clan chief Allaster MacGregor led the first part of their force, while his brother John Dhu led the other.

We have no way of knowing how much the MacGregors knew in advance about the plans of the Colquhouns, and so we are left to guess just how much the positions adopted by the MacGregors were planned or just purely fortuitous.

The Colquhouns meantime had decided not to approach Glen Fruin by what one might consider the most obvious route, namely to follow the river upstream from Loch Lomond. Instead, they went up Glen Luss, a little to the north of Glen Fruin and parallel to it.

fruin-near-ballymenochNear the head of Glen Luss there is a low pass to Auchengeich Glen which in turn leads into Glen Fruin near Strone. The Colquhouns may well have expected to surprise the MacGregors there.

Instead, the opposite happened. The MacGregors launched a downhill surprise attack on the Colquhouns, which drove them back in the direction whence they had come, namely the Auchengeich Glen.

Unfortunately for the Colquhouns the second part of the MacGregor force was lying in wait for them there.

Just as there are doubts over the numbers in the two opposing forces, so there are also doubts as to how many were killed. A fairly commonly accepted figure is that 140 of the Colquhouns and their allies were killed, although some accounts have put the number as high as 200.

On the other hand most traditional accounts have said that only two MacGregors were killed, which seems a very unrealistically low figure. Not content with having routed the Colquhouns, the MacGregors then carried off or destroyed the "haill plenishing, guids, and gear of the . . . land of Luss".

"The Killing of The Scholars"

Today if fathers wish to impress their sons, they take them along to watch a football match in which they are playing. The story goes that something similar happened in 1603, the principal difference being that the Colquhouns and their allies brought along a number of scholars from the Collegiate School of Dumbarton to watch the "fun".

However, as we know, things did not quite work out in the way that the Colquhouns had expected. Instead the scholars were supposedly captured by the MacGregors and locked in a barn for their own safety.

However the MacGregor who was put in charge of them apparently had a change of heart, perhaps out of frustration at being unable to participate himself in the sacking of the Glen.

The outcome was that he "murdered without pity, the number of 40 poor persons, who were naked and without armour". What is certain is that six years after the Battle Allan Oig MacIntnach was charged with the murder of 40 people, presumably the scholars.

Legends also recount that for some 150 years after the Battle, the murder of the scholars was commemorated annually by a special procession at Dumbarton Academy. One boy, the dux of the school, wrapped in a shroud, would be carried shoulder-high on a bier to the nearby graveyard, where a mock burial would take place.

The Repercussions

One wonders if the MacGregors had contemplated what the reaction of the Colquhouns might be. Perhaps they were hoping that the severity of the defeat would be such that the Colquhouns might cease to constitute any formal threat to them.

In the event the opposite happened. The Colquhouns again went hot foot to King James VI - at this point he was keenly awaiting the news of the demise of Queen Elizabeth of England, and the consequent probability that he would inherit the English throne from her.

No doubt the King was looking forward to becoming monarch of a kingdom not inhabited by such barbaric "tribes".

On 24th February, 1603, just 17 days after the Battle, the King and the Privy Council settled the future of the MacGregors.

The decision was that "that unhappie and detestable race be extirpat and ruttit out, and never suffered to have rest or remaining within this countrey hierafter".

The very use of the name MacGregor was "altoggidder abolisheed" on pain of death — thus inRob Roy' the eponymous hero refers to himself as Mr Campbell.

It was also perfectly legal to hunt down the MacGregors like animals and indeed bloodhounds were used against them on occasions. These measures remained in force until 1775, albeit with a 30-year gap in the late 17th century during the reign of King Charles II whose restoration the MacGregors had supported.

Of course the leaders of the MacGregors had to be caught and punished.

Their chief Allaster remained at large for nearly a year and then surrendered to the Earl of Argyll who promised him that he could go to England — which of course was still a separate country with its own jurisdiction at that time, even although King James VI had by now also become James I of England.

The Earl of Argyll was as good as his word. He escorted Allaster MacGregor to Berwick on Tweed, just over the English border — and then immediately took him straight back as a prisoner to Edinburgh! There he and some of his followers were put on trial.

The day before his trial Allaster MacGregor wrote a confession putting all the blame on the Earl of Argyll. One should not dismiss his accusations out of hand.

Although he would have been keen to retaliate against the Earl for having been taken just over the border into England and then back to Edinburgh, he would also have realised that he was going to be executed anyway and so that he had nothing to gain personally from implicating the Earl.

Furthermore MacGregor was a Catholic and so a truthful last confession would have been important for him.

It will be remembered that the MacGregors lived on land belonging to the Earl of Argyll and that they had been a thorn in his side for many years. Therefore it could well be argued that it was in the Earl's interest to stir the MacGregors up to some form of action that would have harmful consequences for them, but would also be beneficial for him.

fruin-near-black-bridgeFurthermore the Earl enjoyed the reputation of being a manipulative individual — and the Colquhouns were already enemies of his.

Nevertheless there is no evidence that the Earl played any role in the events, although some historians still have their suspicions.

Needless to say Allaster MacGregor was executed; his body was then quartered and his head was sent to Dumbarton to be displayed on the Tolbooth there.

Other leaders of the MacGregors were tried and executed over the years, some as late as 1622 — 19 years after the Battle of Glen Fruin. For the whole clan MacGregor the harsh consequences of their victory at the Battle of Glen Fruin lasted for very much longer.

"History," averred George Orwell, "is written by the winners." The MacGregors certainly won the Battle of Glen Fruin, but they most definitely did not win the battle for public opinion that took place after it.

I have even heard it suggested that someone employed some very good spin doctors at that time! This is what makes it so difficult to be certain of the events surrounding the Battle.

Appendix: Sir Walter Scott and the Colquhouns

When Sir Walter Scott wrote the history of the Clan MacGregor as part of his novel "Rob Roy", a certain bias against the Colquhouns became apparent.

Clan Colquhoun historian James Pearson finds this strange, as the Colquhouns were the victims of raids by the MacGregors, whereas the MacGregors were never raided by the Colquhouns. Furthermore he asserts that the tale of two MacGregors being hanged for having stolen the black sheep has no foundation.

However it is worth remembering that such tales might have been handed down from generation to generation and then on to Sir Walter by word-of-mouth, and so we should not rush to dismiss the possible veracity of oral history, if such were indeed the case here.

In 1809, nine years before he became a baronet and when he was just plain Mr Scott, Sir Walter visited the Loch Lomond area to acquire some local colour for his poem "Lady of the Lake". The author John Colquhoun (1805 - 1885) told his daughter Lucy of the reception which Scott got from his father, Sir James.

Lucy describes her grandfather as being "as stupid a country magnate as existed" who would have regarded Scott as just "an Edinburgh lawyer" and hence a person of "no consequence".

When Scott visited Rossdhu expecting a welcome from Sir James, the latter ordered his butler to show Scott around while he absented himself from the "intrusive, prying body". Lucy believed that Scott felt slighted by the behaviour of Sir James, and that this gave rise to his hostility to the Colquhouns.

Lucy went on to write that the descendants of Sir James "had cause to rue his pride and pompous stupidity as regards the famous author. As Sir Walter himself made no secret of the why and wherefore of this, and as my father often referred to it with much regret, I have no hesitation in stating it as a fact."

Last Updated ( Saturday, 16 April 2016 10:39 )  

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