William M'Combie Smith.

Memoir of the family of M'Combie, a branch of the Clan M'Intosh; online

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Canlochan and Canness, a distance of over four
miles, the top of the escarpment the whole way



Barony of Fort er. 21

being from a little under to a little over 3000
feet above sea-level. Where the waters of Can-
ness and Canlochan meet, the height above
sea-level is 1500 feet; so that there is a preci-
pitous wall of from 1000 feet to 1500 feet run-
ning round Canlochan, indented with rugged
and broken rocky gorges. The glen is about
two miles long, running first in a north-westerly
direction, then turninof almost due north to Cairn-
na-Glasha. From its south-eastern end, for about
a mile, it is wooded for a considerable distance
up the precipitous face. Beyond this the surface
is bare, with here and there rocky faces rising
sheer and abrupt, in the crevices of which grow
some very rare alpine plants, the exact habitat of
which is known only to a few enthusiastic bot-
anists, who keep their knowledge from ordinary
mortals with jealous care. After passing the
Tulchan, the eye discovers fresh beauties at
every step. The Isla, winding through grassy
hauQfhs, the liorht rich orreen of the q-rass contrast-
ing with the deeper and darker green of the
larch wood, and both with the purple of the



2 2 The Family of M'Combie.

heather ; the rocks seamed with red scaurs, jut-
tinof at first here and there through the wood,
then rising sheer and abrupt over it, — present a
picture of beauty and grandeur altogether un-
rivalled in Forfarshire, and with few equals in
the Highlands of Scotland.

Between the Brighty — which, rising far up the
Glas Maol, flows first south by the base of Craig
Leacach, and then east till it joins the Isla at the
Tulchan — and the Isla, below the junction of Can-
ness and Canlochan burns, there lies on the west
side of Monega a small ravine or gully called the
Glascorrie, the burn from which falls into the
Isla, after a south and then south-easterly course,
nearly a mile above the junction of the Brighty
and Isla. Glen Brighty is black and bare, the
only feature in the landscape that attracts the
eye being the precipitous face of Craig Leacach,
destitute of vegetation and covered with loose
shingle. Such is a brief outline of the property
of the M'Comie Mor in Glenisla.

Coming now to the personal history of M'Comie
Mor, we shall first take up the traditionary tales,



M'Coinie Mor routs the Kain-gatkerers. 23

which are still preserved, both in Glenshee and
Glenisla, of his intrepid bravery and immense
personal strength. The first of these refers to the
time he resided at Finneo-and.

Those passing along the Highland road from
Blairgowrie to Braemar, may observe a large
stone on the west side of the road, about opposite
to Dalnaglar, and about a mile south from Finne-
gand. This stone is known by the few Gaelic-
speaking people in the district as Clach-na-
Coileach — the stone of the cock ; by those who
speak Scotch, as Cocksteen, which originated as
follows. Proprietors in Glenshee — and most if
not all those in the Blackwater district — in the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, held their lands
by feu-charter from the then Earls of Athole, who
levied kain — that is, so many fowls annually, as
a tax or rent — from every reeking house on the
various properties. The term is probably derived
from the Gaelic ceann, a head — as this tribute
would consist of so many head of whatever kind
of live stock the kain had to be paid in. This
annual gathering of kain by the Athole men,



24 TJie Family of M'Comhie.

while M'Comie Mor was in Finnegand, had gone
on peacefully one year, from the head of the glen
down to a small cot above Finnegand. Here the
kain-gatherers, finding a poor widowed woman —
a tenant of M'Comie Mor — heartlessly took not
only their lawful kain, but all her stock of poultry,
despite her most urgent entreaties to leave at
least some of them, in pity for her circumstances.
We can easily conceive that the retainers of the
powerful Earl of Athole carried matters with a
high hand, as in those times there was practically
no redress of grievances except by the strong
arm. The widow's only strength lay in tears and
entreaties ; and finding these of no avail, she be-
thought her of the strong arm of M'Comie Mor,
if only he could be persuaded to aid her. There
was no time to lose ; for the kain - gatherers
were making their way down the glen, and her
treasured poultry would soon be irretrievably be-
yond reach. In all haste she set out for Fin-
negand, with many tears laid her complaint
before M'Comie Mor, and to her great joy he
at once consented to accompany her to ask re-



M'Comie Mor 7^outs the Kain-gatherers. 25

dress. We can picture the widow, with heart
already lightened — for who would dare to refuse
what M'Comie Mor asked in Glenshee ? — trudg-
ing along by the side of her stalwart protector,
and relating all the circumstances of her visitors'
harsh words and still harsher deeds. It would
not be difficult to find the kain-gatherers, as
their progress would be accompanied by the
shrill " scraichs " of the captured cocks and hens,
mingled, no doubt, with equally shrill objurgations
in Gaelic from irate goodwives, whose ideas of
what should be taken and what should be left
would doubtless differ widely from those of the
Athole men. M'Comie Mor and the widow came
up with them near the big stone, when the former
explained the circumstances of the poor widow,
and asked that at least part of her poultry might
be returned to her, especially as they had taken
more from her than they had a right to. To the
widow's great surprise and renewed grief, this
reasonable demand was met with a decided re-
fusal, couched in terms the reverse of polite.
There was nothing for it, then, but to return to



26 The Family of M'Combie.

her cot, and put up with her loss as she best
could. But if the widow was to be content with
silent submission to those with part right, and
seemingly whole might, on their side, not so
M'Comie Mor. It was bad enough to be re-
fused, but to be spoken to with insolence on his
own ground, when making a reasonable request
for one of his own dependants, was intolerable.
The civil request for the restitution of part of the
widow's fowls became a peremptory command to
deliver up the whole. The command meeting
with no better reception than the request, was at
once followed up by M'Comie Mor drawing his
sword and attacking the leader of the band. The
kain-gatherers at once set down their creels, and
rushed to their leader's assistance. But he was
hors de combat before assistance could reach him ;
and the astonished Athole men soon found that
might as well as right was on the side of the
widow, for wherever a blow from M'Comie Mors
right arm fell, there fell an Athole man also. As
by this time a good few Glenshee men were arriv-
ing, who had learned what was going on, the



M'Comie Mor routs the Kain-gatherers. 27

Athole men wisely gave way, M'ComIe Mor
then advanced and unceremoniously cut open the
coops containing the widow's feathered treasures,
whereupon one crouse young cock mounted the
big stone, and sent forth a shrill, clear, and tri-
umphant pseian of victory. That was a scene not
likely soon to be forgotten in Glenshee : the poor
widow, doubtless but a moment before in an agony
of fear for the safety of her chivalrous champion,
risking his life against such heavy odds on her
behalf, now gladly pouring forth her thanks, while
rejoicing over her recovered treasures : the crest-
fallen kain-gatherers making off with what kain
was still left to them — doubtless strictly civil
and honest in their further requisitions while
in Glenshee ; the stalwart chief sheathing his
sword ; and high over all the brave little chan-
ticleer, sending forth his notes of defiance to all
the race of Athole kain-gatherers. The scene
was not likely to be forgotten, and is not for-
gotten ; for the Clach-na-Coileach still remains,
a mute but steadfast witness : and often is the
story told in Glenshee of how M'Comie Mor



28 The Family of M'Coinbie.

supplied the much-needed might for the widow's
riorht.

But the quarrel about the kain, as might be
expected, did not end here. The Earl of Athole,
as superior of the district, could not brook the
insult of having his retainers routed, and his kain
withheld by a vassal. A well-armed band was,
therefore, sent from Athole to Glenshee, to bring
M'Comie Mor to Blair Athole dead or alive. In
due time they reached Finnegand, and surprised
the laird unarmed in the house. But M'Comie
Mor had sagacity and wit, as well as strength
and courage. The Athole men having explained
their errand, he frankly admitted that, in the cir-
cumstances, he was powerless to gainsay them.
However, it was a pretty long way to Blair
Castle, and both they and himself would be better
of having some refreshment before setting out.
Orders were at once given for refreshments to
be set down in the other end of the house ; the
Athole men and the laird being at this time in
the kitchen. While the servants busied them-
selves in preparing a substantial repast, M'Comie



M'Comie Mor outwits the A thole Men. 29

Mor, by his frank and genial bearing-, soon put
the Athole men at their ease. When It was
intimated that their repast was ready, the laird
courteously requested them to lay aside their
arms and plaids, that they might be at more
freedom while eating and drinking. As he him-
self was unarmed, and all distrust of their enter-
tainer had vanished under the influence of his
unexpected affability, the Athole men piled their
arms in a corner of the kitchen ; and removing
their plaids, followed the host to the other end of
the house, where they found a profuse abundance
of Highland cheer set forth. Charmed by their
host's genial frankness, and softened by unlimited
uisge-beatha, the Athole men were now completely
at their ease, and were doubtless mentally con-
gratulating themselves on the unexpected ease
and pleasure with which they were carrying out
a mission, which they had calculated would be
one of no little danger and difficulty. When,
therefore, their host at length asked permission
to go and give some necessary Instructions to his
family about the management of his affairs while



30 TJie Family of M'Combie.

he would be absent, rendered necessary by his
being so unexpected called away without notice,
the permission was at once granted, without the
slightest feeling of mistrust on the part of the
Athole men. Accordingly, M'Comie Mor went
out, telling them he would send word when he
was ready. After waiting a short time, a servant
announced that her master was ready. The
Athole men at once proceeded to the kitchen
to resume their plaids and arms, and found —
M'Comie Mor standing fully armed, their plaids
all laid out on a table, but not a single gun nor
sword to be seen in the corner where they had
so imprudently left them. Their lately so genial
host then informed them in a haughty tone, that
as they had been sent for him, they were at
liberty to try and take him with them, but that
he was determined to defend his liberty to the
utmost of his power. The dismay of the Athole
men may be imagined. Even had they been
again armed, they knew full well by this time
how extremely dangerous a task it would have
been to have overpowered him ; as it was, it



M'Comie Mors Fight with a Foreign Bravo. 31

would have been but throwing their Hves away
to have attempted his capture. There was
nothing for it then but to resume their plaids,
and return unarmed to Athole, and explain, as
they best might, the ignominious failure of their
mission.

As a matter of course, M'Comie Mor did not
expect that the Earl of Athole would quietly
submit to this fresh indignity. An unforeseen
event, however, brought the matter to a more
friendly termination than could otherwise have
been looked for. Shortly after the unsuccessful
attempt to carry off M'Comie Mor to Athole, a
professional champion swordsman, or bully as he
was called, a gigantic Italian, made his appear-
ance at Blair Athole, and as usual challenged the
best man the Earl of Athole could produce to
fight ; and in the event of no one accepting his
challenge, or any one accepting it and being
beaten, he would claim, as a right, a sum of
money, as a sort of tribute earned by his
prowess. The payment of the money was a
less source of annoyance to one in the position



32 The Family of M'Coriibie.

of the Earl of Athole than the thought that in
all the wide district of which he was superior,
he could not find a man of sufficient strength
and courage to successfully cope with this foreign
bravo. And in proportion also to the disgrace
of having no man in Athole a match for him,
would be the glory to the Earl and his vassals
if he could produce an Athole champion able to
conquer such a redoubted hero. In the present
instance, disgrace instead of honour appeared
likely to fall on Athole and Athole men ; for a
sight of the foreigner, who was of immense
size and fierce aspect, together with the no-
toriety of his extraordinary skill as a swords-
man, proved sufficient to deter the strongest and
bravest of the Athole men from risking life and
limb in a fight with him. In this emergency, the
Earl at last reflected that M'Comie Mor, who
had recently lowered the prestige of the Athole
men as their opponent, was the very man to
raise it again as their champion. We can easily
understand that at a time when personal prowess
was of such account, the Earl's displeasure at



M'Comie Mors Fight ivith a Foreign Bravo. ^2,

the double indignity offered to his immediate
retainers was tempered with a feehng of satis-
faction that he had amongst his vassals a man
possessed of such unusual strength, courage, and
sagacity. It was evident, also, to a prudent man,
that it would be a more satisfactory termination
to the present quarrel that M'Comie Mor should
give satisfaction to the Earl's offended dignity by
rendering a personal service to him, than that so
brave a man should be subdued by mere force of
numbers. Accordingly, a trusted retainer was
despatched to Finnegand, who was to explain to
M'Comie Mor that if he would come to Blair
Castle, and there render a personal service to
the Earl of an honourable nature, that in that
case the Earl would look on this as making full
amends for the indignities inflicted on his re-
tainers on their last two visits. For some time
M'Comie Mor was in great doubt as to this
intimation being made in good faith, and had a
strong suspicion that it was merely a ruse to get
him quietly into Athole, where satisfaction would
be required of him for the affair of the kain-

c



34 The Family of M'Coinbie.

gatherers, and his outwitting the second expe-
dition. Assured at length that the Earl's in-
vitation was made in good faith, he set out with
the messenger, and arrived at Blair Castle. But
here a fresh difficulty arose. On being con-
fronted with the Italian champion, and the pur-
pose for which he had been summoned explained
to him, he flatly refused to fight with any man
with whom he had no quarrel. At this unlooked-
for declaration, the hopes of the Athole men,
which had been raised to a great height, from
the account given by the kain-gatherers of his
extraordinary strength and courage, and from his
magnificent personal appearance, received a rude
fall. In vain the Earl urged and entreated him,
in vain some of the Athole men began audibly to
hint that the redoubted M'Comie Mor's courage
had vanished like their own at the sight of the
fierce and stalwart Italian. This latter worthy's
behaviour soon brought about the desired result.
On learning that the man who was expected to
fight with him refused to do so on the plea that
there was no quarrel between them, and there-



M'Comie Mors Fig Jit with a Foreign Bravo. 35

fore no occasion to fight, he at once attributed
this to cowardice, and began to indulge in much
high-sounding bravado. This having no effect,
he next proceeded to personal indignity, and
approaching his apparently imperturbable oppon-
ent, he with one hand lifted his kilt, and with the
other — horresco referens — bestowed a sounding
whack on the astounded chief's posteriors. In
an instant, with the peculiarly graceful sweep
that always marked the drawing of his sword —
a peculiarity which afterwards stood him in good
stead on another occasion — his sword was out of
its scabbard. The Italian immediately sprang
back, and put himself in position. The Athole
men now silent, in breathless suspense watched
the two gigantic opponents, for there was that on
the face of M'Comie Mor that showed it was
to be a battle ct outrance. Nor were the spec-
tators held long in suspense as to the result. A
few careful parries, and almost before they could
comprehend or believe what they saw, M'Comie
Mor's blade, with lightning-like rapidity and ex-
traordinary force, was through the Italian's guard,

1135570



36 The Family of M'Combie.

and his fiofhtino- career in this world was for ever
ended.

Another incident of his Hfe while at Finnegand
marks both the proud spirit of M'Comie Mor and
his determination not to put up with any slight to
himself or family, and also shows the lawlessness^
of the time, and the little regard for human life.
One day on coming home to Finnegand, he found
his wife and the female servants in a very excited
state, and on inquiry found that a big strong caird
had called, and finding no man about the place,
had behaved very rudely to his wife. Ascertain-
ing that the caird had gone up the glen, he took
two swords with him, and immediately followed
in pursuit. Coming up with him opposite Brough-
dearg, he gave him his choice of the swords, and
the result of the fieht that followed between them
was the slaughter of the caird, who was buried
where he fell, and the place is still known as
Imir-a-Chaird, the Caird's ridge or field.^

After obtaining the wadset of the barony of
Forter, and building the mansion-house at Cran-

^ Appendix, Note F. ^ Appendix, Note G,



M'Comie Mors Piitting-Stone. 37

dart, M'Comie Mor left Finnegand and resided at
Crandart, the house of which was built in 1660.
By the time he came to reside there he was past
his prime, and had become less desirous of exert-
ing his personal strength, it is therefore probable
that his famous feat with the stone, which since
then has been known as M'Comie Mors putting-
stone, was performed while he was yet a young
man at Finnegand, The place where the feat
was performed, and the stone itself, and the stance,
are all remarkable. The source of the Prosen, a
right-bank tributary of the South Esk, is at the
west end of the slope that reaches back from the
summit of the Mayar, 3043 feet, whose eastern
side rises abruptly over Glen Prosen. At the
west end of this slope, in two slight depressions
which spread out like a V, are gathered the head-
waters of the Prosen, a short distance from the
source of the Cally, a left-bank tributary of the
Isla, Between the two depressions is a com-
paratively level meadow of short benty grass, and
from the surface of this meadow the upper edge
of an earthfast stone, about 4 or 5 feet long,



38 The Family of M'Combie.

projects for about 6 inches above the surface.
This projecting edge of the boulder forms the
stance, and about 26 feet beyond this stance
is embedded, in a round hole in the ground, •
a round -shaped rough -surfaced stone of about
35 lb. in weight, and local tradition for over two
hundred years has handed down the hole, in which
the stone lies embedded to about half its diameter,
as the mark to which M'Comie Mor putted the
stone from the stone stance. On many of the
surrounding heights, pieces of ground as smooth
and level may be got ; but so good a natural
stance and natural putting-stone is extremely rare,
if not altogether unique, on a mountain-top. It
is easy to understand that all the conditions and
materials being found so handy, for such a national
pastime as putting the stone, by the young men
of the surrounding glens, when on hunting ex-
peditions or looking after their flocks, the place
would soon become well known ; the marks of noted
throwers would be pointed out, and every noted
putter would be anxious to put a best on record
down if possible. There is nothing Improbable,



M'Comie Mors Well. 39

therefore, in believing that the mark put in over
two hundred years ago by admiring contempor-
aries, and kept fresh by succeeding generations,
points out the exact spot to which M'Comie Mor
putted the present stone from the present stance.
Many athletes of the present day have made a
pilgrimage to it when passing between Clova and
Glenisla, and to both them and their forefathers
stance, stone, and mark have ever remained the
same. What renders it still more probable is,
that the same stone could be putted the same
distance by one or two of the leading athletes of
the present time. Most traditionary putting-
stones of bygone heroes are of a weight, or have
been putted a distance, that at once stamps the
accounts given as absurd nonsense.

On the west side of the westmost arm of the
V, the strongest spring that there gushes out is
known as M'Comie Mor's well. From the top
of the Mayar, looking north, the top of Benachie,
beyond the vale of Alford, may be seen through
a gap, as it were, among the intervening moun-
tains. Perhaps it was a glimpse of distant Ben-



40 The Family of M'Combie.

achie from this point that led young Donald
M'Combie in after-years, when the fortunes of
his family were on the wane in Forfarshire, to
seek his fortune in the Vale of Alford. Besides
that of the well-known putting-stone, other tradi-
tions exist of M'Comie Mors great personal
strength. Two stones used to be pointed out
in Canlochan, with which he performed feats
altogether beyond the power of ordinary men.
He is also said to have become possessed of a
bull in the Stormont district, which had become
unmanageable from its fierce temper, on very
easy terms from his point of view. M'Comie
Mor hearing the owner of the bull saying he
would have to destroy him, as he was become
unmanageable and unsafe, laughed at the idea of
a man being beat by a bull. The owner, said to
have been Mercer of Meikleour, nettled at being
laughed at, said that if M'Comie Mor could
manage the bull unaided, he would get him home
with him as a present. This offer being accepted,
they proceeded to the enclosure where the fierce
brute was confined, which no sooner saw them



M'Comie Mor and Knox Baxter. 41

than he rushed bellowing to the side of the fence.
M'Comie Mor, reaching over the fence, with his
left hand seized the bull's right horn, then vault-
ing over the fence, seized his other horn with his
right hand, and in a moment had the now in-
furiated brute on his back. Then allowing him
to regain his feet, he immediately overthrew him
a second time, and this he repeated till he was
thoroughly subdued, when he was afterwards
taken home in triumph by his conqueror.^

In an agfe when witches were still believed in
by ministers of the Gospel, and duly punished or
exorcised, and the black art had its schools of
learning, it is quite natural that several tradition-
ary incidents in M'Comie Mor's life should con-
tain supernatural elements. There is still pointed
out a large stone forming the lintel of the lime-
kiln at Crandart, which, after baffling the efforts
of the old chief and his sons, was placed there
by one man. The story goes that this man,
Knox Baxter, alias Colin M'Kenzie, by name,
who was suspected of being possessed of black

^ Appendix, Note H.



42 The Family of M'Combie.

art, came to Crandart as M'Comie and his sons
were trying ineffectually to get the stone into its
place. Sitting down a little apart, he viewed un-
concernedly the efforts put forth, without volun-
teering a helping hand. By-and-by the dinner-
hour came, without the stone having been got
into position. Having excused himself from
accepting the invitation given him to dinner,
the stranger was left sitting by the kiln-side,
where he was found when they returned to con-
tinue their work at the kiln, but the stone was
now in the place where the united efforts of
M'Comie Mor and his sons had failed to place
it ! It is said the old chief made no comment
on this startling feat, but quietly divesting
himself of his coat with its silver buttons, he
handed it to Knox Baxter as a tacit acknow-
ledgment of the estimation he had of his powers.


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