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The Battle of Glen Fruin - Cath Ghlinn Freoin

By Peter Lawrie, ©2003

Glen Fruin Cairn in 2003 In 2003 the Clan Gregor Society held an International Gathering to commemorate the quatercentenary of the battle on 7th February 1603.

The actual ceremony took place at the cairn by the roadside above Auchengaich farm.

Certain events on that day definitely took place nearby but the fighting was spread some miles to the north. The evidence for this is contained in a traditional Gaelic account of the battle collected in the mid 19 th century by John Dewar from Robert Scott, a cobbler in Glen Orchy. The translation used was published by Michael Newton in Bho Chluaidh gu Calasraid – From the Clyde to Callander, Stornoway, 1999, ISBN 0-86152-265-6.

This book was reviewed and strongly recommended in the Clan Gregor Society Newsletter 50.
Gillespic Greumach, Archibald the Grim, Earl of Argyll had been awarded full powers of Lieutenancy over the Clan Gregor, ostensibly to bring the Clan to ‘gude rewle and the Kingis pece’. In fact. Argyll as hereditary Justice General had his own feuds to prosecute and in the context of intense royal disapproval of violence it was far too dangerous for him, a member of the Privy Council, to be implicated in feuding. He had been disciplined by the King for quarrelling with the Duke of Lennox and along with personal animosity he looked with jealous eyes on the rich Lennox lands, including those of Lennox’s vassal Colquhoun of Luss. He also had ambitions towards the lands of Clann Iain Mhòr (Clan Donald South). His manipulation of his lieutenancy over Clan Gregor was aimed at both these prizes. Several MacGregor-led ‘herschips’ of the Lennox brought much booty that was surreptitiously reset among Campbell lairds while at the same time damaging the revenues of the Duke.

During the winter of 1602/3 two MacGregor merchants, described as little older than boys, passed through the Luss lands on their way home with goods that they had purchased in Dumbarton. Night was falling and the weather was bad. The local people denied them shelter, food and even ferry passage over Loch Lomond to the MacGregor settlements on Craig Throstain. Cold, tired and hungry they took shelter in a goat-hut, they made a fire of some bits of wood and killed a sheep for food. Before break of day a band of Luss tenants arrested them and took them to Sir Humphrey Colquhoun for trial. Colquhoun sentenced the two boys to hang. Hearing of this MacGregor of Glengyle crossed the loch with his men. On the first attempt at hanging the boys the rope broke. Glengyle protested that this, traditionally, was a sign that the law had been satisfied and they should be set free. However, Colquhoun ordered a new rope and proceeded with the executions. Their heads were removed and set on stakes beside the gates of Rossdhu house.

In retaliation, a band of 80 MacGregors, led by the tutor of Glenstrae in late December 1602, raided the Luss lands in Glen Finlas, burned some farms, drove off a large spreidh of livestock and killed two of Luss’s tenants. The wives of the two tenants processed before the King at Stirling bearing the bloodied shirts of their husbands, (having added pig’s blood to enhance the effect). The King ordered his Privy Council to give “letters of fire and sword” to Sir Humphrey permitting him to gather an armed force to punish the Clan Gregor.

Alasdair ruadh of Glenstrae, in conformance with the King’s earlier instructions, went to the Earl of Argyll who counselled conciliation to avoid further conflict. He advised that Colquhoun should be pressurised into giving compensation to the boys’ mother while in return compensation should be made for the raid on Glen Finlas.

Glenstrae and Sir Humphrey Colquhoun of Luss arranged to meet at the head of Glen Fruin, well inside Sir Humphrey’s lands, in order to discuss and agree suitable compensation. This was fully in accordance with contemporary Scots legal practise. By way of security each party was to be accompanied by 100 chosen men.

Fearing that Colquhoun intended treachery, Alasdair ruadh raised his entire military strength of 200 men. However, he scrupulously observed the agreement by stationing 100 of them, under the command of his brother Eoin dubh at a stream called Allt a’ chlèith, on the northern boundary of the Luss estate. This site was stated to be three and a half miles from the agreed meeting point.

Most modern traffic going north from Dumbarton follows the A82 along the side of Loch Lomond, but in the 17th century, the road, such as it was, followed the Gareloch and Loch Long to Arrochar and Tarbet and thence to Glen Falloch. This route was known as the Great Highland Road. Many of the names in the Dewar account cannot be located on the modern map and there is no stream named Allt a’ chlèith. However, we are told that they had passed Bràigh sròn a’ Mhaolanaich which can only be Sron Mallanach at NS255975 on 1:50000 OS map 56. Therefore Allt a’ chlèith must be the stream which flows through Glen Culanach crossing the road and entering Loch Long at NS249963. The outfall today is very close to an MOD ordnance depot associated with the Faslane submarine depot. The area is now heavily wooded with overgrown rhododendron bushes. However, several hundred yards from the roadside, a site which closely resembles the description in Dewar’s manuscript can be found.

True enough, Sir Humphrey intended treachery. He arrived at the appointed meeting site in Glen Fruin with his agreed 100 men, but more, variously reported at between 300 and 700 including up to 300 horsemen, were hidden in ambush behind a hillock called Badan Beithe. The exact site of their meeting is not known but may be assumed to be near Auchengaich at the head of Glen Fruin. The two leaders discussed their disagreements for some time. Alasdair returned to his men and stated that ‘there will not be any bloodshed this time’. Instead of taking the anticipated route by which they had arrived, to rejoin the Great Highland road, Alasdair led his men across the moor directly back towards Allt a’chlèith. Thus frustrated, the laird of Luss summoned his men from ambush and gave chase. As has been mentioned, the place-names in the Dewar account cannot be located with certainty on the modern map. However, after some examination of the present day landscape, it appears likely that the present road from Auchengaich to Faslane which descends steeply to the side of the Gare Loch and joins the main road close to the gates of the submarine depot may have been the route by which the MacGregors arrived and by which Luss expected them to depart. Their direct route probably lay close to the line of the modern electricity pylons which follow the western side of Glen Fruin, marching across the moorland and from thence alongside the railway line through Glen Cullanach.

The story continues that the MacGregors ran the three and a half miles back to Allt a’ chlèith where they passed out of the Laird of Luss’s lands. The stream, we are told, was full of holes and deep pools. Only at a few points was it easily forded and on the north side was a small embankment. Here the MacGregors made their stand. Soon the Colquhouns, packed together and knee deep in the stream, were taking casualties but having little effect on Clan Gregor. The MacGregor bowmen held in reserve and stationed behind a craig next to the ford began to shoot down on the Colquhouns. They killed a number of them, including Lindsay of Bonhill and the sons of the laird of Camstradden. At this the Colquhouns began their flight back down the road. The MacGregors followed, keeping to the higher ground. A stand was made at an unidentified site called Toman an Fhòlaich, where more of the Colquhouns were killed. They retreated again to the head of Glen Fruin. At this point, Eoin dubh, brother of Glenstrae was killed. He was the first MacGregor casualty of the battle. Traditionally the cairn near Auchengaich - Clach Ghlas MhicGriogair - is the site of his death.

Colquhoun’s remaining men still outnumbered the MacGregors. There is a large level field at Auchengaich, where Sir Humphrey arrayed his footmen, supported by horsemen in line of battle. This stage of the fight seemingly lasted barely three minutes, whereupon, the Colquhouns took to panicked flight down both sides of Glen Fruin. Near the lower end of the glen the MacGregors attacked an armed band of the freemen of Dumbarton, killing some of them. The second MacGregor casualty, and the last man killed that day, was shot by an arrow fired by a Colquhoun that he had pursued to a place called Eas Fhionnglais, or Finlas waterfall.

Alasdair gathered his men together to return home. They had won a significant victory, although severely outnumbered. However, the consequences would be most severe for the clan. Sir Humphrey, thwarted of the fruits of the treachery he had planned, complained to the king in Stirling. The king’s prejudice towards Clan Gregor, the result of many years of misrepresentation by Sir Duncan Campbell of Glen Orchy, among others, led to the most draconian punishments, including the abolition of their name; the forgiveness and reward of anyone who killed a MacGregor – involved at Glen Fruin or not - and the branding of women. As late as 1609, Sir Humphrey’s continuing vendetta is demonstrated by the series of lists of surviving members of the clan which he compiled.

movement of forces prior to battle of Glen Fruin I am grateful to Professor Neil McGregor for his work in tying the traditional accounts of the conflict to the geography of the area.

The proposed movements of the forces at Glen Fruin.

1) the Colquhoun entry via Auchengaich burn with position 1 as the likely position of the Colquhoun extra forces; 

2) the meeting point at Strone;
A) Allt a’ Chleit where John Dubh MacGregor’s force waited on the boundary of the Luss estate;
B) Greenfield Moor on the MacGregors route to the meeting point
It is here that a group of 40 people were placed in a barn;
C) Route taken by Alasdair MacGregor’s force entering Glen Fruin;

3)  Allt a’ Chleit or the Crate where Alasdair’s force retreated to before they turned and fought;

4) Toman an Fhòlaich where the Colquhoun force made its first retreat to and stood their ground, with Alasdair and John Dubh coming down both sides of the burn on high ground;

5) Auchengaich where the Colquhoun’s stood in battle formation;

6) the retreat down Glen Fruin.

What of Argyll? He had been responsible in law for the behaviour of Clan Gregor. Various Campbell lairds were cited in 1604 for having benefited from the cattle reived from Glen Finlas and Glen Fruin by the MacGregors. As Alasdair ruadh stated at his trial in 1604, when he tried to refuse Argyll’s instructions, his own lands had been ravaged by MacLeans acting on Argyll’s command. Argyll subsequently, became the chief persecutor of Clan Gregor, for which the king rewarded him with the former Clan Donald lands of Kintyre.

Thankfully those days are long past. Today we can remember with sorrow the consequences of deceit caused by the ambition and jealousies of great men.

As Clan Gregor, we remember the dreadful days following 1603 that were repeated with as much venom between 1609 and 1611 and then re-enforced by the edict of Charles I in 1633.

However, we should also remember those of the Colquhouns, Buchanans, Lindsays, MacLintocks and men of Dumbarton that were killed and maimed and also, the understandable anger that the tenantry of Luss must have felt towards Clan Gregor after the herschip and destruction of Glen Finlas in 1602 and the even greater driving of livestock and destruction of houses that the Clan Gregor visited upon the Luss lands after the battle.

Glen Fruin monument
Below are the words of "The Bloody Sarks". written and performed by the folk duo "The Corries"
While not entirely historically accurate, they convey the stark brutality better than my words do.

The young MacGregor o' Glen Strae wi eighty o' his men
Upon the Argyll sleekit word pit Finla's glen a flame.
The burning theiving hieland rant drove a the beast awa
And left ahint twa dirkit men to perish in the snaw.

By Fallisdall the letter come frae black Dumbarton toon
To show the way they were tae bring McGregor doon.
The bloody sarks o' butchered men tae Jamie's court maun gae
The widow women for to show and tell of the afray.

Colquhoun o' Luss could thole nae mair wi' trampeled savaged pride
Buchanan levies mounted up to tan MacGregor hide.
From Leven's vale, Dumbarton toon and all these lowland parts
The burgesses and fairmers came wi' vengeance in their hairts.

The Campbell and the Cameron, MacDonald o' Glencoe
Ranked alang wi' Gregorach and marched o'er the snaw
Far o'er the loch frae Arklet glen and doon the past Parlan
By Loch Long whose shores are held by the thieves o' MacFarlane

Colquhoun wi' his lowland mob lined o'er the Fruin glen
Five hundred foot, arrayed aboot three hundred mounted men.
Yon godless hoard o' Gregorach and others o' their kind
Will creep nae mair frae their lair wi' murdering in their minds.

Aye whether be it for some stirks or just a ween o' blacks
They’re ay'ways quick thier dirks to stick in ain anither backs.
For honest men and guid Scots law we'll tramp the vermin oot
Just steady bide, God's on our side, o that there is nae doubt.

Then like a torrent frae the glen MacGregor's scarlet charge
The sassenach could ne'er withstand the claymore and the targe.
And all around the hellish screams o' torn and dying men
Their precious blood seeped in the mud and drained in Fruin Glen.

And every beast was lead awa a full twa thoosand heid
And the sairest price the victors paid was twa McGregors dead.
But bide ye yet the victor's feast the worst still to show
For the king proclaimed the Gregorach henceforth to be outlaw.

Aye, the bold MacGregor and his clan were a declared outlaw.