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Scotland Magazine Issue 26
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The Lady of Lawers
James Irvine Robertson on a prophet with a pretty good track record
The Brahan Seer is the best known of the Highland prophets, those folk who often considered themselves cursed by having the power of foretelling the future.
This is strange because one would have expected him to lose most of his glen cred when he failed to predict that Lady Seaforth would burn him in a barrel of tar when he told her that her husband was misbehaving with a woman in Paris.
The other great seer, the Lady of Lawers, had, perhaps, a better track record.
The village of Lawers lies on the north shore of Loch Tay at the base of the eponymous munro, one of an exclusive clutch of 284 peaks higher than 3,000 feet and the highest point in Perthshire.
The remains of the village are down a mile long track from the Lawers Hotel. Only the dead remain – in the still-used burial ground of Machuim.
The last living inhabitant was Duncan McLellan, the peirmaster, who moved out in 1927 when cargo ceased to be carried by the Steam Boat Company. The last passengercarrying boat on Loch Tay was broken up in 1949. Before the steam boats Lawers had been the ferry port from Ardtalnaig and the route south towards Crieff.
The tumbled ruins of the cottages and mills are rapidly degenerating. Within the last two years, a gable of the mansion house, there since 1650, has collapsed; the kirk dates from 1669 and its ruins are going the same way.
The dates are significant, because the old village of Lawers was destroyed in December 1644. That was during the famous Marquis of Montrose’s year in Scotland.
Sir Mungo Campbell, the laird of Lawers, his four sons and, it is said, virtually every man from his estates were killed at the Battle of Auldearn.
Prior to that Montrose and his ferocious army of Highlanders and Irish Macdonalds had harried the length of Loch Tay, killing every man with arms, burning every house, every corn stack and driving off all the cattle.
The Scottish Parliament gave a grant a couple of years later to help alleviate the desperate state of the survivors, but it did not cover even a 10th of the damage. Debt had driven Sir James Campbell of Lawers to his estate in Strathearn, leaving his younger brother as laird of his Lochtayside lands. He is said to have married a daughter of Stewart of Appin, who became known as The Lady of Lawers.
The Lady was the chatelaine of the new mansion house, in ruins today. She saw the community struggle to recover from its losses; she saw the church built; she saw the increasing power of the diabolic Campbells of Glenorchy and she left her prophecies. Some were fulfiled in her lifetime; others not until the 20th century and others are still to be implemented.
Seers tend to see in the broadest of terms. The French prophet Nostradamus is worded so that his forecasts can mean almost anything. The Lady of Lawers made her fair share of enigmatic prognostications, but some were startlingly specific. She won the attention of the natives when she predicted that the ridging stones for the new church would never be put in place. Astorm blew up and the barge bringing them across the loch was wrecked just offshore.
She planted an ash tree beside the church and said the building would be ‘rent in twain’ when it reached the gable. This occurred in 1843 when the Church of Scotland split in the Disruption. When the tree reached the roof ridge, she said, the House of Balloch – in other words, the Campbells of Glenorchy – would be without an heir. This prophecy came true in 1862 when the Marquis of Breadalbane died with no successor.
She also said that anyone who damaged this tree would suffer a dreadful fate. In the 1870s, in spite of warnings from his neighbours, the local farmer John Campbell chopped it down. He was gored to death by his own bull, his assistant went mad, and even the horse, which pulled the farm cart, suddenly dropped dead for no good reason.
She prophesied the return of prosperity after Montrose’s rampage: “There will be a mill on every stream, and a plough in every field, and the two side of Loch Tay will become a kail garden” and at one time 3,5000 people lived along the loch.
Then she predicted the harsh local Clearances carried out by the Breadalbanes: “The land will first be sifted, then riddled of its people. The jaw of the sheep will drive the plough from the ground. The homesteads on Loch Tay will be so far apart that a cock will not hear its neighbour crow.”
Ultimately, she foresaw the downfall of the Breadalbane family. At a period when they owned land from the heart of Scotland to the Atlantic coastline, she said “in time the estates of Balloch will yield one rent, and then none at all. The last laird will pass over Glen Ogle behind a white horse leaving nothing behind.”
When the 9th Earl of Breadalbane sold his last piece of land in 1948, the locals were thrilled to see him go to the station in a trap behind a grey pony.
A couple of the Lady’s predictions are still to be fulfiled: “The time will come when Ben Lawers will become so cold that it will chill and waste the land around for seven miles.” She had no knowledge of Ice Ages, but this sounds very like a glacier and, inevitably, glaciers will cover the Scottish Highlands once more in millennia to come.
The other was that “a ship driven by smoke will sink in Loch Tay with great loss of life.” This kept many from using the old steamers which once plied the loch. With their disappearance, however, the Lady looked like being wrong – for once.
But nothing in life is certain. On the shores of the loch a new boat is under construction, which will be driven by fire, if not smoke. Will there be a queue waiting to board it?