Life around Briar Cottage, Lochearnhead
Briar Cottage 1700's to present day by Kim Proven.
This article was written for The Belfry news published by "The Friends of Balquhidder Church" and is reproduced here by kind permission of author Kim Proven.
All year round, visitors to Lochearnhead stop to marvel and photograph a pretty stone property with a thatched roof on the banks of Loch Earn known as Briar Cottage.
Three hundred years ago the property was extended from a single bothy (said to be the oldest still in existence in Lochearnhead) into three cottages. Known then as Easter Achraw, the cottages lay in the vicinity of Achraw Farm and Wester Achraw between the banks of Loch Earn and Achraw Hill. The building on the east gable boasts its original cruck frame ceiling crafted from naturally twisted Scots Pine. The cruck or crook was based on a medieval design concept where a pair of curved timbers make an A frame to support the roof without depending on the walls.
The first family on record at Easter Achraw were McGregors. They had a baby girl named Christian whose birth was registered at Balquhidder Parish in 1727; yet her surname was given as Murray . Christian's father Malcolm could not use the family's true clan name because the surname McGregor had been abolished in 1603 by King James V1. The King was said to have been outraged by the death of John Drummond (The Kings forester) at the hands of McGregors. He made it a capital offence for anyone to use the surname in public thereafter and the clan were not pardoned until 1774.
Up and until the 1750's Highland farms were developed by a group of tenant crofters sharing the work.
The tenants at Easter Achraw would live off barley and oats and later potatoes. They cultivated their crops using the run-rig system of farming which was common in the Highlands . A rig was a strip of land. Each tenant was allocated a share or several strips of land. This ensured that the worst and best terrain were divided fairly. Tenants fed from their crops and cattle were reared for sale in order to pay the landlord. Farming Achraw Hill would not have been easy and life would have been harsher still when the potato blight cursed the lands. The lowest workers in the hierarchy of the Easter Achraw household would sleep in the byre. A floor above the cows and below the cruck ceiling would provide some warmth. The actual metal ring that was used to secure animals can still be seen on the restored stone wall interior of the byre room today (now used as a lounge).
After the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46, the titled Campbell 's of Breadalbane held the deeds to Easter Achraw. The local Campbell's were a wealthy and powerful family who built some fine castles including Taymouth Castle in Kenmore and 16th century Edinample Castle on the South side of Loch Earn, directly opposite Easter Achraw. The failed Jacobite Rebellion marked the beginning of change from the erosion of the Gaelic language to Jacobite lands being forfeited (seized) and redistributed by government commissioners. By 1795 one third of the local parish lands had been forfeited leaving tenants like the Murray/McGregor's with no choice other than to move out and move on. During this period known as the Highland Clearances cattle farming declined and black face sheep walks ran over a quarter of land previously cultivated by crofters.
In the 1790's a tailor working wool cloth, by the name of Archibald McLaren, moved into Easter Achraw. He could not possibly have known then that generations of his family would live there for the next 200 years. McLaren was an ancient clan, said to have been in the region since the 9 th century. Archibald was directly related to McLarens living and working in the area around Loch Earn at Wester Achraw and the hamlets of Dalveich and Carnlia. He married Margaret King, the daughter of an eminent family who farmed at Caastran on the south side of Loch Earn. The couple had six sons and three daughters. Brother and sister John and Janet, worked the farm for a period. Their brother William left his job as driver of the mail coach from Callander to Stirling to take up the tenancy at Easter Achraw in the 1870's. Eventually, one of his sons (also a William) gave up his business in Glasgow and returned to farm the lands in 1900 with his bride Isabella Lamb from Edinburgh . The first thing that Isabella did was to change the name of the house to Briar Cottage. William and Isabella would witness the construction, development and opening of the Lochearnhead to Comrie railway, which would bring fresh employment to the area. The track ran along the back of the grounds separating Briar cottage from Achraw Hill. The McLarens and their offspring would also have to live through the challenges of two world wars.
A letter arrived at Briar Cottage in 2009 from a lady who had memories of Isabella who she referred to as “old Mrs McLaren”. The letter tells stories of Isabella's daughter Janet known as Jenny, who would swim in Loch Earn every morning whether summer or winter. Jenny would then cycle a mile and a half to Glen Ogle Farm to help the letter writer's mother and father (Wilson's) who had the tenancy there between 1925 and 1931. Later in her life Jenny married Wilf McDonald who ran the grocer shop at Balquhidder Station (now the Golden Larches Cafe). Isabella and William had 7 other children. Siblings Mary and Agnes became nanny's, Robina was a nurse, Margery was a teacher in charge of Glenlednock village school, William worked on the railways and Archibald like many before him left for America to seek his fortune at the age of 16. Margaret, known as Peggy, was the last of the McLaren children to live in Briar Cottage.
Peggy would have been witness to the closure of the railway line behind the garden in October 1951. During a recent visit to the house Peggy's niece Mary said, “Aunt Margaret served as a nurse in the military. I remember her being posted to Cairo . She was awarded the OBE for volunteering to nurse sailors who suffered from smallpox. My mother told me, though I was disappointed that we never found any mention of this decoration amongst her papers.” Peggy died in 1991. She was the last of the McLarens living at Briar Cottage, the last McLaren to live at Lochearnside and the last McLaren to be buried in the ancient family burial ground at nearby Leckine.
McLarens and McGregors still rally from around the world. They travel to Balquhidder and Lochearnhead in search of family ties and to take part in the Balquhidder, Lochearnhead and Strathyre Highland Games in July where clans battle it out in the annual tug of war. Modern descendents of Archibald and Margaret McLaren have travelled from the UK , Australia , Canada and USA to experience the picturesque lands around Briar Cottage where their ancestors once lived and worked.
Today Kim and Fraser Proven are the proud owners of Briar Cottage which was restored with the help of Historic Scotland in 1997 and in 2009 when the old cruck room was re-thatched. They let out two stone holiday cottages on the three acre site. Little Briar cottage was converted in 2004 from a workshop and Briar Steading was completed in 2010. Both cottages enjoy magnificent views over Loch Earn to Edinample Castle and Glen Ample. Guests are invited to visit Briar Cottage to view the cruck timber framed ceiling and to hear stories of past times and tenants.
Kim Proven (nee Donald) has no known links to McGregor's. A detailed account of her family history does show that she is descended from the Campbell 's who are documented as having sheltered Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scalpay on 26 th April 1746 during his historical escape after the battle of Culloden. Perhaps it is more fitting though that her paternal great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother turns out to be one Janet McLaren born 12 miles from Briar Cottage in the Village of Comrie in 1670 (married Patrick Stewart, born Lawers Estate, 1665).
By Kim Proven
Kim and Fraser Proven