The Braes of Balquhidder There’s a little chunk of heaven lying in the middle of Scotland called the Braes of Balquhidder. An area of outstanding natural beauty, where, mountain, hill, loch and river all combine to give a glorious landscape.
From our starting point at the Kingshouse hotel at the eastern end of the glen, the single track road meanders for 8 miles, passing the river Balvaig, through the village of Balquhidder, skirting Loch Voil, overlooking Loch Doine until finally coming to it’s conclusion at Inverlochlarig and the farm run for many years by our good friends, the MacNaughton family.
Evidence of human involvement in the glen can be dated back to Neolithic times. On level ground below the manse are the remains of a stone circle, at Broomfield is a standing stone called the Puidreag, nearby is another stone called the Basan An Saguirt: the stones and the circle were known as ‘worshipping stones’.
In the 8th century, the glen found Christianity in the shape of St. Angus. For many years St. Angus preached to the congregation from atop a small hillock close to the site of the present day church.
Balquhidder in the old days was never a quiet place, there was always something going on. One particular story is worthy of mention.
The main clan in the glen were the MacLarens and they had been around since the 12th century. One of their forefathers, the Abbot Labhran of Auchtubh probably built the first church, this gave the clan the right of burial within the church, also nobody could enter the church until the MacLarens were seated. This must have caused some grievance, in 1532, Sir John MacLaurin, the resident minister was murdered, probably following a disagreement over the power the MacLarens held in the church. Shortly after this event, while attending a fair at Callander a Maclaren was set upon by a group of Buchanans from Leny. The MacLaren had to suffer the humiliation of being slapped about the head by a Buchanan wielding a dead salmon! After being released by his tormentors the MacLaren dared the Buchanan to repeat the insult at the next fair in Balquhidder. Time passed and the day of the fair duly arrived, all was going well when the sound of the bagpipes came swirling up the glen closely followed by a large bunch of Leny Buchanans armed to the teeth and spoiling for a fight.
The skirmish began at Beannachd Aonghais (blessing of Angus). Outnumbered, the MacLarens fought a brave retreat back to the hill behind the Manse. The MacGregors, newcomers to the glen, had been sitting idly by watching the fracas, and if tradition can be believed struck a deal with the hard pressed MacLarens that in exchange for their assistance, the MacGregors for all time would have the right to enter the church before the MacLarens. Terms agreed the combined forces of MacLaren and MacGregor overwhelmed the Buchanans. What followed was a massacre, the Buchanans, driven back to the river Balvaig were either put to the sword or drowned. Behind Gartnafuaran a cairn marks the spot where the last of the Buchanan fell, and all because of a dead salmon!
Until around 1450, the MacLarens were the dominant force in the glen but only because of their close relationship to the Earls of Strathearn. The ruling family here then gave up the Earldom and consequently Balquhidder became crown property.
In 1500 King James IV awarded Balquhidder to his latest squeeze, Janet Kenney and later transferring it to the new wife, Princess Margaret Tudor of England.
In 1511 there followed another bout of ownership exchanges, first by charter to Sir John Ross of Craigy, then in 1558 to Lord Drummond who would later become the Earl of Perth, who would in turn forfeit Balquhidder in the aftermath of the 1745 uprising.
All this time there were constant clashes between the MacLarens and MacGregors. Two brutal instances come to mind. In 1542, the MacGregors, under Duncan Laudasach attacked the MacLarens in Balquhidder, slaughtering 27. In 1558, the MacGregors came over the hill from and murdered the inhabitants of nearly 18 properties. They did not go back over the hill, however: the MacGregors settled into the houses of those they had just killed and they had no intention of moving.
There are three historical characters whose names are associated with Balquhidder and are worthy of mention.
First, Donald MacLaren of Inverenty, or more commonly known as Big Donald of the Cattle. Big Donald’s life was anything but boring. A captain under Stewart of Ardsheil and related to Stewart of Appin, Donald fought with his men at Prestonpans, Falkirk, and Culloden. Following the debacle at Culloden, what remained of the clans loyal to Prince Charles started making their way home, harried all the way by the Campbells who were on the government side. The butcher of Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland then went on a bloody spree throughout the country and many properties, some in Balquhidder were put to the torch.
At the rallying of the clans in Glenfinnan, Prince Charles had only one cannon in his armoury: Big Donald was put in charge of the gun. Charles' route to Edinburgh was blocked by the English garrisoned at Stirling castle. Donald let off a couple of shots, one of them going through a window, before departing to cross the Forth at the Fords of Frew in Cambusbarron. Donald was captured in the Braes of Leny between Loch Lubnaig and Callander. Donald found himself in prison, first in Stirling castle, then for a time in the Canongate, Edinburgh. Donald was then earmarked for execution at Carlisle, so he was strapped to a horse and, escorted by a company of soldiers, they made their way south. Donald being a cattle drover was well acquainted with the area. Just north of Moffat the ground falls away very sharply in a deep hollow known as the Devils Beef Tub. Donald somehow slipped his bindings and flung himself into the misty gorge. A volley of shots rang out but Donald was gone, swallowed up in the mist. Donald’s actions here are recorded in 'RED GAUNTLET' by Sir Walter Scott.
For 2 years Donald moved around Balquhidder glen dressed as a woman. (There must have been some ugly women in the glen in those days.) Donald dropped the disguise and the skirts after the general amnesty was announced by the government in 1747.
Then of course there is Rob Roy MacGregor, Born on the 7th of March 1671 in the parish of Callander; his parents were Lt.Col Donald MacGregor and his wife, Margaret Campbell, a relative of Campbell of Glenlyon who carried out the massacre of Glencoe.
By the age of 20, Rob Roy was a successful cattle thief, at the age of 21 he received the tenancy of the farm at Monachyle Tuarach and shortly after introduced his new wife to life at Monachyle; there’s a lot to be said for keeping things in the family: Rob Roy's wife was his first cousin, Mary Macgregor.
As a captain of the Highland Watch Rob Roy was also running a very lucrative protection racket looking after other farmers stock for a tidy fee.
In 1712 it all went pear shaped for Rob Roy MacGregor: he had disappeared taking with him a large sum of money, allegedly and the authorities were hot on his heels.
Rob Roy was in England and Montrose’s factor, Graham of Killearn, evicted Rob’s wife and family, Mary being raped in the process. Rob wasn’t long in exacting retribution. Kidnapping the factor, he kept him in the most arduous circumstances for a week before releasing him.
Typical of Rob Roy, he participated in a duel and was wounded in the arm, Rob never again raised his sword. The wound must have festered in him and by December 28th 1734 he was dead.
Rob Roy MacGregor lies buried in the churchyard at Balquhidder.
And finally, there is the Rev. Robert Kirk who was the 7th son of the minister of Aberfoyle. Following his induction to Balquhidder church in 1669, Kirk set about translating into Gaelic the first hundred Psalms and then going on to rewrite the Bible.
Kirk also wrote The Secret Commonwealth of Elves Fauns And Fairies which is still regarded today as one of the definitive works in that field.
Kirk then moved to Aberfoyle and shortly after was found dead on a mound known as the Fairy Knoll. Legend has it that the fairies took him in revenge for giving up their secrets.
These are just a few of the stories linked with Balquhidder and the visitor should consider staying more than a day to explore the wonderful landscape and breathe in the history.