The Calum Maclean Project is based at the department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh and focuses upon the collected archive materials of the renowned folklorist and ethnologist Calum I. Maclean (1915-1960). For further details, please visit the project website.
Wednesday, 25 September 2013
Murt na Ceapaich / The Keppoch Murder (1663)
Three-hundred and fifty
years to the day one of the most ‘heinous’ crimes was committed when two
brothers, Alexander (Alasdair
MacDhòmhnaill Ghlais) and Ranald (Raghnall
Òg) were murdered by around 30 assailants – judging by the number of wounds
said to have been inflicted on Alexander (35) and Ranald (28) – each dirk stab
corresponding to a signature on the “black bond” signed at Tòrran nam Mionn,
just south of Bohuntin in Glenroy. Iain Lom MacDonald, Bàrd na Ceapaich, explicitly names the guilty party in Cumha do Mhac Mhic Raghnaill na Ceapaich
agus a Bhràthair:
’S ann air madainn
Rinn na mèirlich do reubadh
Dà mhac bràthair t’ athar,
Gum bu sgrathail leam féin sud,
Agus seachd de Shìol Dùghaill,
Luchd a spùilleadh nan ceudan.
was on Friday morning
that you were
murdered by the robbers:
By two sons of your
horrible indeed do I
deem that deed,
And seven of the Seed
Calum Maclean recorded on
the 17th of January 1951 a version of the events leading up the murder from the
recitation of Allan MacDonald or MacDonell (1870–1954), a native of Bunroy then
residing in the village of Inverlochy:
da ghille òg Mhic ’ic Raghnaill, bha iad air tighinn dhachaigh às an Fhraing.
Chaidh iad a dh’Inbhir Làire a choimhead air piuthar an athar is air an
teaghlach is air an t-seann duine, e fhèin. Thuirt e nach robh e uamharaidh
slàinteil is bha e às an leabaidh. Rinn iad fuaran mòr dar a ràine na gillean.
Thuirt piuthar a mathar:
seallaidh sinn na pàipeirean dhaibh airson nan cùmhannan a th’ againn airson
i na pàipeirean dhaibh. Bha na pàipeirean, na cùmhannan a bh’ aca air a bhith
seachad deich bliadhna roimhe sin. Thilg fear dhiubh na pàipeirean anns an
eil feum idir annta a bhith gan cumail,” thuirt e.
ise glaodh agus thuirt i: “Carson a rinn thu sin?”
an seann duine a bha san leabaidh e agus thuirt e:
a gheibh mise,” thuirt e,” air mo chois thèid siud a phàigh’.”
na gillean dachaigh. Cha robh còrdas uamhraidh maith eatorra an dèidh na
pàipeirean a dhol san teine. Chaidh iad dachaigh don Cheapaich. Thug iad
bliadhna ann. Bha iad a’ toirt leotha nan claidheamhan aca an àirde dar a
bhiodh iad a’ dol a chadal. An oidhche bha seo cha tug iad an àirde na
claidheamhan. Chaidh iad air adhart sìos ro Inbhir Làire is ràinig iad
Clianaig. Dar a ràinig iad Clianaig, bhruidhinn iad ri Dòmhnall Gorm, bràthair
an athar airson e a dhol leotha.
tèid, cha tèid,” thuirt e. “Cha bhi gnothach idir agam ris.”
iad thairis air Bun Ruaidh. Chum iad air adhart ri taigh na Ceapaich. Cha robh
fada aca ri dhol. Fhuair iad a-staigh is dh’fhairich na gillean gu h-àrd. Thug
fear de na gillean gu h-àrd, thug e leum le bruthach an staighre. Chuir iad an
claidheamh roimhe mun d’fhuair le bruthach. Bha e airson a’ chlaidheamh
fhaighinn. Chaidh am fear eile a mharbhadh.
co-dhiù, Sìle Nic ’ic Raghnaill, bha i ann Tìr an Drìs. Bha Tìr an Drìs aca
còmh’ ris a’ Cheapaich. Dh’èrich i. Thug i sùil suas air a’ Cheapaich. Cha robh
fhios aice air nitheann. Chunna i nach robh smùid san taigh agus thuirt e:
mi moch madainn Dhòmhnaich,
mi taigh m’ athar gun cheò ann.
mo lionn dubh o hao o ho,
goirt a bhuail iad san dà thaobh sibh,
ghràidhean mo ghaoil o ho ill ò.
mi doras an t-seòmair,
ri ’s na lu o rò,
fuil Alasdair agus Dhòmhnaill
tighinn thairis air bheul nam bròg.”
And the translation goes something like the
of Keppoch had two young sons and they had come home from France. They went
over to Inverlair to visit their paternal aunt and the family as well as the
old man himself. He said that he wasn’t terribly well and he was in bed. The
lads were given a great welcome when they arrived. Their maternal aunt said [sic].
we’ll show the deeds to them for the contract we have for Inverlair.”
showed them the deeds. The deeds, the contracts they possessed had been given to
them over ten years before. One of the lads threw they deeds into the fire:
no need at all to keep them,” he said.
gave a cry and she then asked: “Why did you do that?”
old man lying in bed heard this and he said:
I get on my feet this will be paid for.”
lads went home. There was not a terribly good relationship between them after
the deeds had put in the fire. They went home to Keppoch and stayed there for a
year. They used to take swords with them when they were going to sleep. On this
particular night they didn’t take swords with them. They went down to Inverlair
and reached Clianaig. When they got to Clianaig they spoke to Donald Gorm,
their paternal uncle to asked if he would go with them.
no,” he said. “I’ll have nothing to do with it.”
went over Bunroy and they kept going to Keppoch House. They had not far to go.
They entered and noticed that the lads were upstairs. One of the lads upstairs
leapt down the stairs. They put a sword through him before he get down the
stairs. He had wanted to get a sword. They other one was murdered.
any case Cecila MacDonald (Sìlis na Ceapaich) was in Tirnadris; they owned
Tirnadris as well as Keppoch. She got up and she took a look over to Keppoch.
She didn’t know anything about it. When she looked she noted that there was no
smoke coming out of the house and she said:
rose up early Sunday morning,
saw my father’s house without smoke.
of my sorrow o hao o ho,
they struck you in both sides,
dearest of my loves o ho ill ò.
opened the door of the bed chamber,
ri ’s na lu o rò,
Alasdair and Donald’s blood
Swept over the mouth of my shoes.
The story behind the crime
is a rather complex one but it involved an internecine clan struggle for power,
property and land. The culmination of this bloody act had been generations in
the making and centred around a family struggle between Sliochd an Taighe, founded by Iain Dubh MacDonald and Taigh na Ceapaich, the MacDonalds of
Keppoch House. To cut a long story short, Alasdair Buidhe, styled the Tutor,
came to be the new power in the Braes in 1646. His rise to power came by way of
some rather dark political machinations. During the next eleven years, the
Tutor consolidated his position by gaining leases for the vast majority of the
Braes. With the coming of his nephews Alexander and Ranald, in the summer of
1661, the scene was set. The two brothers settled into Keppoch house – the only
property which they actually owned – once they had the Tutor removed to his own
residence Tom an Taigh Mhòir,
Bohuntin. An action which raised the ire of the Tutor’s eldest son, Ailean Dearg, who saw himself as
rightful heir according to the old law of Celtic tanistry. The Tutor and his
sons waited for a false move to be made. The false move, eagerly awaited by the
Tutor, came when the young Keppoch moved against Alasdair Ruadh mac Dhùghaill, Inverlair, the head of Sìol Dùghaill.
Alasdair Ruadh refused to
pay rent to Keppoch, instead paying it to the Tutor who leased the land from Gordon
of Huntly. The young chief resented this blatant disregard of his authority and
refused to acknowledge any titular deeds other than Keppoch’s own to these
lands. The bitterness between the two branches soon led to punitive measures:
“Early the following year, on 30th January 1662, a complaint was lodged against
him by Alexander MacDonald, tacksman of Inverlair, for having invaded his lands
the previous month, accompanied by sixty of his dependants, and conducting
himself in a most riotous and barbarous manner, as a result of which he himself
was forced to seek refuge among strangers.He further stated that Keppoch boasted that he would eject him from his
lands, and that before they would be satisfied ‘one of them tuo must dy.’” By
this action the young upstart Keppoch lost the little respect that he had among
the Braerians. All but one of the cadet branches came when summoned. Sliochd an Taighe remembering their
murdered kindred stood apart. Strange to relate that they stood with the Tutor’s
sons, who had the very same grandfather, but they too were of Bohuntin blood.
The Tutor's wife was also of Bohuntin stock, a sister of the bard Dòmhnall Donn of Bohuntin. The young
chief was now in a quandary. Turning to the chief-worshipping advice of Iain
Lom MacDonald, was probably a mistake. His forthright views were not
unanimously shared among the Braerians especially concerning the troublesome
Alasdair turned to his
superior, the Tutor, for redress. Any prevarication on the Tutor’s part would
have been negated by his brother Donald Gorm, described as “the fiend
incarnate.” Spurred on by Donald Gorm and his own eldest son, Ailean Dearg,
the plot of murder was soon hatched. What then was the real motive? Annie M.
MacKenzie, editor of Iain Lom MacDonald’s poetry, favours the contemporary
accounts: “With regard to the motive which prompted the murder he [Iain Lom] is
also very specific, and states explicitly that it was committed solely on
account of the attempt made by the young chief to curb the unruly habits of his
assailants … It seems clear that an attempt was made to raise the general
standard of conduct within the clan ... it is probable that they were resented
by the MacDonalds of Keppoch, who were a predatory clan by tradition and
The young Keppoch’s
ill-conceived and somewhat naive conception for the introduction of new order
in the Braes, together with the inherited mistrust of Keppoch House as seen by Sliochd an Taighe, sealed his fate.
The following is the
oft-quoted conversation that it said to have been held (although most certainly
were not the actual words) between Sir James MacDonald and Iain Lom:
He turned to Sir James MacDonald of Sleat:
“Where have you come from?” asked James.
“From Laodicea,” replied the Bard.
“Are they hot or cold in that place?” asked
“Abel is cold,” said the Bard, “and his blood
is crying in vain for vengeance: Cain is hot and red-handed, and hundreds
around are lukewarm as the black goat's milk.”
The persistence of Iain Lom
MacDonald’s campaign for justice, especially through the effective use of his
muse, entreated Sir James MacDonald of Sleat, which subsequently resulted in a
commission of fire and sword issued by the Privy Council on the 29th of July,
1665, listing the following names:
MacDonald, son of the Tutor of Keppoch;
MacDonald, brother of the said Allan;
MacDougall in Inverlair;
Roy MacDougall, brother to the said Alexander;
Orie McCoull there;
McCoull in Tallie;
These are the men who were
executed by the posse, numbering around fifty, who arrived under the leadership
of Sir James’s brother, Archibald MacDonald of North Uist, better known in
Gaelic tradition as An Ciaran Mabach.
The Isles men arrived in the Braes on Sunday at dawn after four days’ march and
immediately set about their business. After a brief fray, the so-called perpetrators
of the Keppoch Murder were executed on the spot and beheaded. Iain Lom
MacDonald then had the rather grizzly task of taking the decapitated heads,
after which he cleansed them in the Well of the Seven Heads (Tobar nan Ceann) by Loch Oich, before
presenting them to MacDonell of Glengarry.
What in the end did Iain
Lom MacDonald’s so-called cry for justice achieve? The status quo remained as Alasdair Buidhe was re-elected chief, no
doubt as a benevolent despot, until the river Roy finally claimed him c. 1669.None of the real perpetrators of the crime were brought to justice. And in reality the action instigated by
Iain Lom MacDonald was really a massacre of scapegoats. Perhaps Iain Lom MacDonald
had a personal vendetta against Inverlair; and perhaps, Alasdair Ruadh, was unwittingly
manipulated by the Tutor, as a disaffected member of the clan, who shared the
common purpose of wanting to get rid of the troublesome young Keppoch. The
Tutor had been vindicated with his re-election thus partially exonerating him
of any guilt for the crime. Not so for Iain Lom MacDonald who found it
expedient to remove himself from the Braes of Lochaber, to seek shelter under
the MacKenzies of Seaforth, Kintail, returning many years later from this
self-imposed exile, after his kinsmen's hostility had cooled, to die in extreme
penury at Allt a' Chaorainn, near An Urchair, where his
great-great-grandfather, the deposed 4th Chief of Keppoch, Iain Àlainn, ended his days.
Catriona Fforde, The Great
Glen: From Columba to Telford (Castle Douglas: Neil Wilson, 2011)
Angus J. MacDonald & Rev. Archibald MacDonald, The Clan Donald,vol.
MacDonald, Back to Lochaber (Edinburgh:
The Pentland Press, 1994)
M. MacKenzie, (ed.), Òrain Iain Luim:
Songs of John MacDonald, Bard of Keppoch (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd,
C. MacPherson, ‘The Clan Donald of Keppoch’, The Celtic Magazine, vol. 4
(1878), pp. 368–75
NB 1, pp. 27–28
Tobar nan Ceann / The Well of the Seven Heads, Loch Oich, Invergarry.