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Ancient tales of Balquhidder


By Elspeth Porter

For all that it is a small village well off the main road in a glen with no through road to anywhere, Balquhidder has an amazingly colourful history.

The “Fairy” Postcard is a copy of a drawing by Watson Wood, an artist who lived in Strathyre. The drawing was commissioned by Rev Dr Ian Moir (my father, and Minister of Balquhidder Parish from 1949-1961) in 1957. Originally I thought it had been commissioned to mark the centenary of the Church, but that took place in 1955.   The original framed drawing which depicts historical characters associated with Balquhidder can be found in the Friendship Room in the Church. I think it is fair to say that there was an element of fun behind the idea for the picture and that there is evidence of considerable artistic licence.  I assume it has become known as the “Fairy” postcard because there are fairies depicted in it.

Robert Kirk

Robert KirkIf we start at the top left hand of the picture we find Rev Robert Kirk(e) and he is surrounded by five fairies.  Robert Kirk was minister of Balquhidder from 1664 to 1685. He came from a fairly well –to-do family. His grandfather was a lawyer in Edinburgh and his father, Rev James Kirk, was minister of Aberfoyle. Robert Kirk was born around 1644 and died in 1692.  He married Isabel Campbell, daughter of Sir Colin Campbell of Mochaster in 1678 and they had a son, Colin. When Isabel died, he married her cousin, Margaret Campbell of Fordie, and they also had a son Robert who later became a minister in Dornoch.

Robert Kirk senior was a scholar educated at the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews. In 1684 he published a Gaelic metrical version of one hundred psalms to assist in evangelising the Highlands.  He revised the translation of the catechism by Sir Hugh Campbell of Cawdor and this was published in 1688 and he also translated the New Testament from Irish into Roman characters, completing the whole transliteration by 1690. His other famous work, “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies” might appear to reveal an altogether more fanciful nature, but it was in fact a systematic attempt to gather evidence about fairies and supernatural phenomena in a scientific manner. Many of his parishioners believed in fairies and the second sight and he set about trying to produce a treatise which would make an important contribution to social history by recording their beliefs as a basis for further study. Those who have examined his work in detail suggest that he intended to produce a  much wider-ranging work, a comprehensive study of the Scottish Gael, which, had it come to fruition, would have been as important a document as Sinclair's “Scottish Statistical Account” a century later.

Kirk himself was a seventh son, something that was thought to confer special powers of second sight. He was fully convinced that such a phenomenon existed and that fairies existed. It might seem that such a belief was incompatible with Christianity, but Kirk put forward an interesting theological argument for fairies which stated that the existence of fairy spirits was proof of the existence of spiritual orders, both good and evil.  He felt that belief in fairies could strengthen belief in angels, archangels, the devil and even the Holy Spirit. He wrote in much detail about the nature of fairies describing their appearance, dress, social organisation and domestic economy as well as their weapons and powers and the means to counteract these. His belief seemed to be that fairies lived underground. These were not the sort of fairies of modern day children's stories, but cunning, unpredictable and sometimes sinister, menacing or threatening to man. He believed that fairies could be explained in terms of their relationship with mankind and were

“of a midle nature betwixt man and Angell”

There seems to have been an element of explaining the unexplainable, possibly linked to the relationship between the dead and the living. Kirk moved to be minister of Aberfoyle in 1685. He died in 1692. The story goes that he was taking the air in his night shirt on a fairy hill near the manse when he suddenly collapsed. He was buried in Aberfoyle church yard.  However, he later appeared to a relative, Graham of Duchray, and gave him a message which said that he was not dead, but had been captured and was in fairyland. When Kirk's expected child was christened he would reappear and Graham was to throw a knife over him (fairies were scared of iron) and this would break the spell and he would return to the upper world. However, when Kirk appeared at the christening Graham was so taken aback that he forgot to throw the knife and Kirk was never seen again. This story was still in circulation 200 years later.

There was also a suggestion that his grave in the church yard was empty and he had been spirited away by the fairies.

Robert Kirk presented a bell to the 1631 Balquhidder  Church which was built by David Murray, Lord Scone. The bell is inscribed –


followed by the letters I M with a thistle between them.

The bell eventually cracked, but was retained and can be seen inside the present Church.

David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart

Robert KirkIf we move down the left side of the picture we come across David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart.

Alan Breck Stewart and David Balfour are characters in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel “Kidnapped”. David Balfour was an entirely fictitious character, although Balfour was Stevenson's mother's name. Alan Breck Stewart was based on a real person who was an 18th century soldier and a Jacobite (supporter of the Stewart kings).  He lived from around 1711 to 1791 and was raised by a relative, James Stewart (James of the Glens) in Appin in Argyllshire.  Initially he was a soldier in George II's army, but he deserted at the Battle of Prestonpans and joined the Jacobites. After the Battle of Culloden he fled to France where he joined a Scots regiment serving there. He was sent to Scotland to collect rents for exiled clan leaders and to recruit for the French army. In 1752 Colin Campbell of Glenure, the “Red Fox” who was collecting rents from the Ardshiel Stewarts on behalf of the King, was killed.  Suspicion fell on Alan Breck Stewart who had publicly threatened the Campbell and who was in the area at the time and a warrant was issued for his arrest.  He was tried in his absence and sentenced to death. James of the Glens who had been in the company of Alan Breck shortly before the murder was also convicted as an accessory and was hanged in spite of there being no substantial evidence against either of them. The murderer was never found.

The mystery of the unsolved murder turned Alan Breck Stewart into something of a romantic figure and was an inspiration in Walter Scott's story of “Rob Roy” and later Robert Louis Stevenson's “Kidnapped”. If you read “Kidnapped” you will find that David Balfour, having discovered his greedy Uncle Ebeneezer's plot to get rid of him so that he would not inherit his late father's fortune, met up with Alan Breck Stewart and struck up an unlikely friendship after they joined forces to fight for their lives on board a ship whose captain and crew turned against them. At the time there was a price on Alan Breck's head for desertion from the King's army so it was not necessarily in David's best interests to associate with him. David was shocked at the foolhardiness of the man who would repeatedly risk his life by regularly returning to Scotland. However, Alan Breck was wily, resourceful, a good fighter and had contacts all over the country and so was of help to David in practical ways, even eventually tricking David's uncle into handing over David's rightful fortune.  In Chapter 17 Stevenson gives his version of the death of the Red Fox and in Chapter 25 we find an account of David and Alan's arrival in Balquhidder to seek shelter as David was sick and exhausted. Balquhidder is described as fragmented place, a place where lands were disputed, no-one was in charge and where you really didn't know who was friend or foe.  Alan Breck particularly wished to avoid the MacGregors who had a bad reputation. Stevenson doesn't say so, but this may have had something to do with the fact that James Mohr MacGregor was fighting and was injured at the Battle of Prestonpans, the same battle where Alan Breck Stewart was originally fighting on the other side. At that time when David and Alan arrived at Balquhidder Rob Roy's son, James Mohr, and the leader of the MacGregors in the area, was a prisoner in Edinburgh Castle awaiting trial for the abduction of a young widow (more of which later).

While David was regaining his strength he had a visit from Robin Oig, Rob Roy's youngest son, who thought David was related to a doctor who had helped his brother recover from a broken leg acquired at the Battle of Prestonpans. Robin Oig was a wanted man for cold blooded murder and for his part in the abduction incident, but we are told he was extremely cocky and self-assured. He dismissed David Balfour as insignificant when he discovered David didn't know his own ancestry, and then just as Alan Breck and Robin Oig were squaring up to one another their host, Duncan MacLaren, intervened and it turned into a piping contest which lasted all night! Alan Breck eventually conceded that Robin Oig was a bonny piper and a fight was averted.

In “Catriona”, Stevenson's sequel to “Kidnapped”, we discover that David has fallen in love with Catriona who turns out to come from Balquhidder and to be the daughter of none other than James Mohr. Stevenson has James Mohr as Rob Roy's eldest son, but history has him as the second youngest with Coll being the eldest.

In real life James Mohr attempted to ingratiate himself with the authorities to secure his release from Edinburgh Castle by informing on Alan Breck Stewart for the murder of the Red Fox, claiming that Stewart had tried to bribe his brother, Robin Oig, to do the deed. However, this cut no ice with the authorities. Later James escaped from prison and fled to France where he tried in vain to persuade the authorities to pardon him, once again informing on Alan Breck Stewart.

Isabel Campbell

To the left of the ruined Church we find Isabel Campbell.

Isabel Campbell was the daughter of Sir Colin Campbell of Mochaster.  She married Robert Kirk in 1678 and had one son, Colin.  She died on Christmas Day 1680.  Tradition has it that Robert Kirk carved the inscription on her gravestone.

David Carnegie

Just to the right we find David Carnegie depicted in the position of the Carnegie family vault at the west end of the ruined 1631 church.

David Carnegie was a major landowner and benefactor in Balquhidder.  He was the grandson of George Carnegie who fled to Sweden after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. George established a very successful business in Gothenburg and became a wealthy man

David Carnegie made his fortune from brewing in Gothenburg and also sugar refining. His second wife was his cousin, Susan. They had three children and decided to make their home in Scotland. In 1849 John Lorn Stewart sold the Glenbuckie estate to Carnegie.  By this time a new  Glenbuckie house had been built on the site of the present Stronvar House. The house was rebuilt on a much grander scale to the design of the architect David Bryce. Beautiful gardens were created and the estate was renamed Stronvar by Carnegie.  He acquired several other areas of land including Stroneslaney and Gartnafuaran and built many houses in the village for his tenants – solid stone houses which are still there today - such as the Smiddy.  He gifted the Church, also designed by David Bryce, to the village in 1855 and also the school and schoolhouse in 1869 as well as the Reading Room.

David CarnegieThe “big house” was known for its dances and parties, and visitors could expect picnics and trips on the loch.  This wealthy lifestyle was of great benefit to the village because it created much employment. 

Carnegie's younger son, also David, died in childhood and was buried in Balquhidder. His wife, Susan, died in 1859 and David Carnegie himself died in 1890. He left a fortune, some of which went to build a hospital and a church in Gothenburg. He was succeeded by his elder son, James, who died in 1925.

James's heir tried to run the house as a hotel, but unsuccessfully. The whole estate was eventually sold in 1952.

Clan MacLauren stones

Robert KirkTo the front we find two characters, presumably representing the MacLarens, just in front of several Clan MacLauren gravestones.

There are several MacLaren gravestones in the church yard, but the original ones were inside the Church where the MacLarens had burial rights.
Balquhidder was the heartland of the MacLaren Clan. The MacLarens, a powerful and warlike Clan, were probably some of the first dwellers in Balquhidder Glen. They were named after Abbot Labhran who had a cell in Auchtubh around 1250. He is thought to have build Eaglais Beag, the Little Church, which was roughly at the east end of the 1631 Church.

The MacLarens were  big, strong men of Pictish descent. They were an important Clan until their lands were appropriated by the Crown.  Not being inclined to give in to such indignities, they withheld their help when the King, James IV, wanted them to transport provisions for him.  In 1500 James gave the lands of Balquhidder to his mistress and later to his wife. However, the MacLarens did fight for James IV at the Battle of Flodden.

Between 1344 and 1455 the Crown tried to acquire land held by clans. Any clan without a legal title to their lands became unprotected. At that time the MacLaren Chief did not apply for a Royal Charter which was disastrous for the clan. By 1490 they had no legal status and diminished numbers.
They still held Auchleskine, but the Clan Chief was unable to provide for his clansmen in the traditional way expected of him.

Clan MacLauren stonesThe MacLarens found themselves in competition for land with members of other clans. They were friendly with the Stewarts, but less so with others, particularly the MacDonalds, Buchanans and MacGregors.  Their lands were frequently raided by marauding MacGregors who were not averse to murder if it meant acquiring more land for themselves.  The MacGregors, also dispossessed of their lands, took to cattle thieving and violent raids and were a real thorn in the flesh of the MacLarens. In 1573 the MacLarens made a bond with Campbell of Glenorchy to recognise him as their Chief in return for his protection of their interests.

In 1672 there was an act requiring the nobility to register their arms. The MacLaren Chief did not bother to do so and the clan became chiefless for official purposes and many MacLarens moved away from the Balquhidder area to the Lowlands or overseas, although the Clan still existed and fought in the 1745 Rebellion.

The MacLarens were devoted Jacobites and had their colourful characters. At the time of the Jacobite Rebellion Donald MacLaren of Invernenty was given command, but after the '45 his lands were laid waste by government troops. He was arrested and taken to Stirling and later Edinburgh Castle and was being escorted to Carlisle for trial when he escaped into the misty Devil's Beef Tub ( a deep gully in the hills near Moffat).  He disguised himself as a woman and eventually made it home, but continued with his disguise for nearly two years. This must have caused him some difficulty as he was reputed to be a very large man!

There is a MacLaren cairn on top of the hill behind the former manse, known locally as the Manse Rock, but by the MacLarens as Creag an Tuirc of the Boar's Rock.  In 1957 the father of the current Chief, Donald MacLaren of Auchleskine, had his Arms matriculated at the Lord Lyon Court and purchased land in Balquhidder including Creag an Tuirc. Officially the MacLarens were then no longer chiefless or landless.

Queen Victoria's visit 1869

Robert KirkIn the lower left corner of the picture we have Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria came on an excursion to visit Rob Roy's grave on Friday 3rd September 1869 when she was on holiday in the Trossachs.  She kept a journal and in this fascinating document we find her detailed description of her journey, the village, the churchyard and Rob Roy's Grave. She says of the view from the Church,  “Nothing can surpass the beauty of this spot....”, a sentiment with which I am sure most readers would agree. Thanks to the permission of the present Queen, these wonderful journals are now available in their entirety online. You can find the full account of Queen Victoria's visit to Balquhidder, most of which is clearly legible, in Volume 58, pages 229-230 at www.queenvictoriasjournals.org

This concludes the first of two articles on the stories behind the Fairy Postcard written by Elspeth Porter.

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