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The Castle of Finlarig - and the pitt thairoff

By Peter Lawrie, ©2017
Fionn na lairig - Finlarig - the name means 'the clear pass'. (Quotations from the Black Book of Taymouth spell it as Finlarg) . The old road from Morenish on Loch Tay passed over Druim na lairig - the ridge of the pass, crossing the river Lochay by a bridge ordered to be built by Black Duncan in 1627, "to the great contentment and weal of the country". The castle of Finlarig dominated the routes to the east, north and west at the point near where the rivers Lochay and Dochart flowed into Loch Tay. However, the present line of the road from Kenmore to Killin crosses the Lochay further upstream by the later, 18th century Bridge of Lochay,. so that today Finlarig Castle is isolated on a side road hidden in woodland.

The lands around Finlarig came into the possession of Sir John Drummond of Stobhall, an ancestor of the Earl of Perth, at the start of the fifteenth century. He erected his castle at Finlarig close to Dunlochay, the site of an iron-age fort. A descendant, John, Lord Drummond sold the lands and castle to Sir Duncan Campbell, second laird of Glenorchy in 1503. That Sir Duncan died at Flodden in 1513. Sir Colin, the third laird, erected the chapel of Finlarig in 1523 to be “ ane Buriall for himselff and his Posteritie.”
In 1550 Sir Colin Campbell, known as Grey Colin, Cailean Liath in Gaelic, succeeded as sixth laird of the Glenorchy Campbells. He evicted the MacGregors from Balloch at the North-Eastern end of Loch Tay, despite his bonds of kinship and fosterage. There he "biggit the Castell of Balloch" [1] on the site of the present Taymouth Castle. In addition during his rule he "biggit the castell of Edinambill in Buchquhidder, the haill lodging of Perth within the closs, the four kirnellis of the castell of Ilankeilquhirne in Glenurquhay, and the north chalmeris thairoff." [2]

He acquired much new land, including that of the chief of the Macnabs and, at the Reformation, much of the former properties of the Abbey of Scone and the Monastery of Perth. He "sustenit the deidlie feid of the Clangregour ane lang space". [3]

There is a story, whether true or not, that shows Grey Colin knew how to deal with builders. For the castle of Edinample he had ordered a parapet around the roof, but when he went to inspect the work this hadn’t been done. The builder, walked around the edge of the roof to prove that it was still possible, but Colin pushed him off. With his right of pit and gallows, who was to challenge him?

Colin "departit this lyffe the ellevint of Apryle anno 1583 in Balloch and was honorablie bureit in the chapell off Finlarg". [4]
  Grey Colin Campbell, sixth laird of Glenorchy from 1550 to 1583. Image from Black Book of Taymouth
Black Duncan, seventh laird of Glenorchy from 1583 to 1631, image from Black Book of Taymouth   Grey Colin was succeeded in 1583 by his son, Sir Duncan, the seventh laird and first Baronet. He was usually known as "Black Duncan of the Cowl" Donnchadh dubh na curich in Gaelic. Black Duncan made further vast increases in the Breadalbane estate. He cleared the Dewars from Glendochart, the Fletchers from Achallader and continued the hounding of the Clan Gregor.

Black Duncan "biggit the castell of Finlarg, pitt and office howss thairoff, repairit also the chapell thairoff, and decored the same inwardlie with pavement and paintrie, for the bigging and warkmanschip quhairoff he gaiff ten thowsand pundis". [5] The date in the Black Book is given as 15--, so one might infer that the work was completed before the year 1600. However, a panel above the door has the date 1609.

Perhaps the rebuilding of Finlarig at the end of the 16th century by the Duncan the seventh laird is the reason why he is sometimes confused with his great grandfather, Duncan, the second laird who had acquired the old castle of Finlarig from the Drummonds at the start of the century.

Black Duncan also "biggit the toure of Achalladoure .., repairit the castell of Ilankeilquhirn in Glenurqhay inwardlie and outwardlie ... biggit the howss of Lochdochart ... biggit ane greit howss in Benderloch in Lorne (1601) ... biggit the howss of Barchaltane in Lorne (1609)". [6] The great sums of money required for his undertakings came from "oppressing the poor and conspiring against the rich". Black Duncan left seventeen legitimate children, and numerous illegitimate offspring too. He was "bureit in the chapell off Finlarg"

Barcaldine Castle B&B, from   Barcaldine Castle (Barchaltane) on Loch Creran near Oban, originally built, as mentioned above, in 1609, was restored in 1897 by Sir Duncan Campbell third Baronet of Barcaldine. Barcaldine has a design very similar to that of Finlarig. It is still intact and was a family home when I visited in the 1990s, but is now a B&B.

The present owners of Barcaldine can show visitors the dungeon in which MacIain of Glencoe was briefly imprisoned in late December 1691 to prevent him from reaching Inveraray in time to swear allegiance to King William. This delay gave the Earl of Stair his excuse for the 1692 massacre of Glencoe.

Black Duncan was succeeded as eighth laird in 1631 by his eldest son, Colin, then aged 54. In 1632 Colin purchased hangings, silk beds and other furniture and plenishing for his houses of Balloch and Finlarig at a cost of three thousand merks. He also "causit big ane dyke of stane and lyme about the chapell and chapell yaird of Finlarg, quhilk hes ane fair entrie from the grein be ane pend yett, quhair thair is gravin upon the utter syde of the said yett the resemblance of ane morthead, and upon the inner syde thairoff the representation of the anatomie of death; and be also ane uther yett going from the said chapell yaird to the close, upon the head quhairof is graven the said Sir Colin and his lady thair armes and names; upon the bigging of the quhilk dyke he bestowit the soume of ane thousand merkis. Mair he bestowit the soume of ane thousand pundis." In 1634, Sir Colin "causit sclaitt the tua chalmeris that are in the westmost end of the close of Finlarg and bestowit thairupon the soume of tua thousand merkis. ... and tua stand of fyne Arras hingings for decorment of his houss for the quhilk he gave the soume of ane thousand fyve hundreth merkis. ... for dames naprie that he causit bring hame out of West Flanderis sevin hundreth merkis [7]

In November 1651, following the defeat of the Scots Covenanting army at the Battle of Worcester, the few remaining members of the Committee of the Estates who had not been arrested at Alyth by General Monck, called a meeting of the Scots Parliament to be held at Finlarig Castle. In the event only John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun, and three other members appeared. With no quorum, the Parliament was invalid. The Committee of Estates did not meet again until August 1660 when it was re-appointed as an interim government for Scotland during the Restoration of Charles II. [8]

According to Duncan McPharrie's account of the Clan Gregor in the '45 Rising, after the disbandment of the remnants of the Jacobite army at Ruthven in Badenoch - "We marched .... with flying colours thro' Glenlyon into Breadalbane and took refreshment at Killin. The Argyle Militia was in the Castle of Finlarig and they durst not move more than pussies. We came straight to the Kirk of Balquhidder. Then every man to his own house." [9] - At that time all traffic, whether men in arms or packhorse traders, passed by Finlarig and the castle had been garrisoned for the Government.

Ruins Finlarig Castle  north side   Finlarig Castle, now in a dangerously ruinous condition, was a Z-plan tower-house, although the NE tower has almost completely disappeared. It was once protected by an outer enclosure or barmkin. [10] Just outside the north wall lie the remains of a "pit". ("pit" or "pitt" is the Scots for a small prison cell) which originally probably had a corbelled stone roof. The reference in the Black Book of Taymouth, which was quoted above, clearly refers to the "the pitt ... thairoff". As the only features mentioned were the "castell, pitt, office and chapell", the prison cell or "pitt" was clearly one of the four significant feature of the site. [11] I don't believe it would be used for executions, but solely as a dungeon to hold those awaiting the laird's judgement.

Despite this, many websites, including the local history site incorrectly describe this as a 'beheading pit'. Indeed Gregor Roy, the chief of Clan Gregor, is said by many to have been executed here, although it is quite clearly documented that Grey Colin "beheiddit the laird of M'Gregour himself at Kandmoir in presens of the Erle of Atholl, the Justice clerk, and sundrie uther nobillmen" [12] in May 1570 at Kenmore.

  Finlarig Castle eastern side
Close to Finlarig Castle and the 'pitt thairoff' is the judgement hill, the old mound of Dunlochay. Here the baron court sat in judgement, exercising the laird's baronial right of jurisdiction which persisted until its abolition by the Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746. A Gallows Tree is pointed out to visitors, but only common people would be 'hangit'. Beheading was reserved for gentlefolk. However, an examination of the court records in the Black Book dating from the construction of the castle and pit in the early 17th century shows that while minor offences were heard at Finlarig, all capital crimes resulting in executions were dealt with before juries at Kenmore.

A stone circle between the Castle and the nearby mausoleum is said to indicate that the area has once been an ancient sacred site, but it is oddly shaped and is probably a Campbell folly and thus not listed by RCAHMS (The Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments, Scotland). .

To the East is the mausoleum of the Breadalbane Campbells. The mausoleum chapel was erected in 1829 on the site of the earlier chapel and burial place originally built in 1523 by Sir Colin Campbell, the third Laird. Having been allowed to decay over many years, this brick-built mock-tudor structure has now almost completely collapsed. The graves of Gavin, the seventeenth laird of Glenorchy, seventh Earl and first (and last) Marquess of Breadalbane and his wife are outside the mausoleum. The decay of the mausoleum was accompanied by the collapse of the vast Breadalbane estate - When Gavin, inherited his titles in 1871, his estate still encompassed nearly half a million acres of Perthshire and Argyll, the legacy of generations of the greedy, grasping Campbells of Glenorchy. During Gavin's tenure at Taymouth, he managed to lose all of it, due to an extravagant lifestyle, bad management and his gambling addiction. Mountainous debts finally forced him to put the castle and its remaining 60,000 acres up for sale, with completion of the sale in March 1922. Gavin died childless shortly afterwards, in October 1922 and most of his titles died with him. [13]

I have added my own third verse to the anonymous poem below
Gavin Campbell first Marquess of Breadlabane, The Queen's Lord Steward. Caricature by Spy published in Vanity Fair in 1894.   Frae Kenmore tae Ben More, the land is a' the Marquis's;
The mossy howes, the heath'ry knowes, an' ilka bonnie park is his;
The bearded goats, the towsie stots, an' a' the braxie carcases;
Ilk crofter's rent, ilk tinkler's tent, an ilka collie's bark is his;
The muir-cock's craw, the piper's blaw, the ghillie's hard day's wark is his;

Frae Kenmore tae Ben More, the warld is a' the Marquis's.
The fish that swim, the birds that skim, the fir, the ash, the birk is his;
The Castle ha' sae big and braw, yon diamond-crusted dirk is his;
The roofless hame, a burning shame, the factor's dirty wark is his;
The poor folk vexed, the lawyer's text, yon smirking legal shark is his;

Frae Kenmore tae Ben More, the land was a' the Marquis's;
The men that toil should own the soil - A note as clear's the lark is this -
The herd lad's is a physicist, the ghillie boy's a pharmacis'
The tinkler's loon in banking toon, the crofter's has Taymouth, once his.
Breadalbane's land - the fair, the grand - nane of it is the Marquis's!

Anon [14]
Finlarig site plan from
The Macnabs:
The Macnab seat was at nearby Kinnell House. Black Duncan probably intended the rebuilt Finlarig Castle to keep control over the Macnab chief. According to Gillies in "In Famed Breadalbane", the Macnabs had lived in Glendochart for a thousand years. Alexander Macnab, the second Laird, resigned his lands to the Duke of Albany at the start of the fifteenth century, and received a charter of them as vassal to the Duke. A descendant Finlay Macnab, the tenth Laird resigned his lands in Glendochart to "Grey Colin" Campbell of Glenorchy in 1553 and received them back as Glenorchy's feudal vassal. Finlay's brother the eleventh laird, borrowed heavily from the Campbells. By 1613 "Black Duncan" Campbell had obtained crown charters in his own name of all the former Macnab lands.

The sixteenth laird Francis Macnab, (1734-1816), known as Francis Mor, was the subject of Raeburn's portrait. Despite huge debts he lived with his retainers, ignoring his obligations and behaving as if he were the greatest magnate in the kingdom. He was a giant of a man, measuring six foot three in height and of immense strength. Over his 82 years, Francis drank, gambled and womanised his way through what was left of the Macnab fortunes and estate, fathered at least 32 children and died hugely in debt. While Francis is most well-known as the subject of Raeburn’s portrait, a reputation for excessively eccentric and uninhibited ways have ensured that he remains remembered as one of Scotland’s most notorious chiefs.

Francis's nephew, Archibald, succeeded as seventeenth laird in 1816. Inheriting his uncle's massive debts, he fled his creditors in 1823 to London and thence to Canada. He obtained a grant of 81,000 acres in the valley of the Ottawa river and populated it with Macnab clansman from Glendochart. The Macnab attempted to rule as a feudal lord exacting obligations on land which had been intended for the settlers in freehold. His oppressions led to his "vassals" protesting to the Governor-General in 1838. The ensuing inquiry led to his ruination and he ended his days landless and friendless, living in France.
  Francis Macnab, 16th laird, thanks to

[1] Black Book of Taymouth, Edinburgh, 1855 (reprinted), page 22
According to a 1527 document: Gregour Dougalsoune appears to be the 3rd son of Sir Dubhgall MacAne VcDubhgall and great grandson of Eoin a'bhicair / John, Vicar of Fortingall in 1406.
His older brother Seamus became the Dean of Lismore. Gregour was married to a Christian Murray who appears to have come from the family of the Murrays of Tullibardine. Gregor lived the latter part of his life at Balloch and was forceably removed from Balloch by Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy in 1552. see the genealogy of the Fortingall MacGregors here

[2] ibid, page 22
That is - He built the Castles of Edinampill in Balquhidder, his lodging house in Perth and enlarged Kilchurn Castle on Loch Awe.
Ilankeilquhirne [ILAN not LLAN ] is an English speaking clerk's rendering of Eilan Caol a' Chùirn - Scots Gaelic translating to ‘the isle of the fort on the narrow rock. Today the castle is joined to the land, but originally its rocky island in the Loch was accessed by a narrow causeway. Silt from the river Orchy has built up the land around it, but the path can still flood in wet weather.
the "four kirnellis of the castell of Ilankeilquhirne" refers to the four corner towers, while "the north chalmeris thairoff" - literally 'chambers' - the dwellinghouse within the castle

[3] ibid, page 22
Maintained the feud with the MacGregors for a long time.

[4] Black Book of Taymouth, page 23

[5] Black Book of Taymouth, page 35
He built the castle of Finlarig, the pit and office house, he also repaired the chapel and decorated it. The "office houss" refers to outbuildings - perhaps the quarters for staff, laundries, stables, etc. In total he paid £10,000 Scots.

[6] Black Book of Taymouth, page 35-36

[7] Black Book of Taymouth, page 73 -76

[8] The committee of estates 1640-1660

[9] Duncan McPharrie's account of the MacGregors in the 1745 rising, given to Sir John Murray, some 40 years later, and published in Amelia Murray MacGregor's History of Clan Gregor, volume 2, chapter 28, page 372

[10] RCAHMS / Canmore has this to say about Finlarig. Note they have not questioned the 'pit' as a site of execution - careless!

[11] For the usage of 'pit' or 'pitt' as a prison, see the following references from the Dictionary of the Scots Language:
Sc. 1872 C. Innes Sc. Legal Antiq. 58: - Furca et fossa — the right of pit and gallows, the true mark of a true baron in the ancient time, who had . . . jurisdiction in life and limb.
Sc. 1914 J. Mackay Church in Highlands 210: - It was then [after Culloden] that the clan system was broken, and hereditary jurisdiction terminated. The great chiefs and barons . . . were deprived of the power of “pit and gallows”.
Sc. 1700 S.C. Misc. (1846) III. 187: "He threatened to carry him to the town of Elgine, and to put him in the pitt there."
Sc. a.1814 J. Ramsay Scot. and Scotsmen (1888) II. 94: - All over Scotland pits were accounted legal prisons for thieves and other meaner criminals till the Jurisdiction Act passed.

[12] Black Book of Taymouth, page 23

[13] Wikipedia - Taymouth Castle

[14] 'Frae Kenmore tae Benmore' is traditional verse, by Anon, and can be inferred to date from the time of the first Marquess of Breadalbane in the late 19th century, when he owned 500,000 acres - about one fortieth of the total land area of Scotland. Gavin succeeded his father as the 7th Earl in 1871 and was created 1st Marquess in 1885. At the time of his death in 1922, the Breadalbane estate had been totally dispersed, although perhaps not to descendants of his tenants and servants. The implicit hostility of the words, perhaps written by a tenant, shows why the poet preferred to remain anonymous. I have attempted a final verse in a matching style to complete the story.
Breadalbane wasn't the biggest 19th century landed estate in Scotland. The Sutherland family had twice as much at 1.1 million acres,

I found another verse which goes:
Frae Kenmore tae Ben More, the warld was a' the Marquis's.
But near, mair near, God's voice we hear - The dawn as weel's the dark is His;
The poet's dream, the patriot's theme, The fire that lights the mirk is His.
They clearly show God's mills are slow - But sure the handiwork is His;
And in His grace our hope we place; Fair Freedom's sheltering ark is His.