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Issue 69 - The stronghold of the fairies - Schiehallion

Scotland Magazine Issue 69
June 2013

 

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The stronghold of the fairies - Schiehallion

James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of Schiehallion

The geographical centre of Scotland is reckoned to lie in Highland Perthshire, on the shoulder of an isolated mountain named Schiehallion. It's an easy tramp of a couple of miles to the summit ridge, up the path created by the John Muir Trust that now owns much of the mountain. A quick scramble across the rocks and you will be comfortable ensconced on the peak. On a clear day you can almost see coast to coast - Arthur’s Seat at Edinburgh to the southeast, and to the west are the hills guarding the mouth of Glen Coe and Ben Nevis. Ben Lawers fills the southern horizon and, far to the north, lies the great Cairngorm plateau.

At the foot of the mountain is a strath, a flatbottomed glacier valley with a river running through its heart. To the east it ends in Loch Tummel, nestling within wooded hillsides. And west, a dozen miles away, the strath opens onto the tranquil waters of Loch Rannoch.

Once this land carried ten times its present population. This was the ancient Pictish kingdom of Athflota and for centuries, as Atholl, was one of the great earldoms of Scotland. It was also the clan territory of the Robertsons and the Stewarts.

So from this standpoint what would have looked different then? Take any summer for a thousand years until 1800. The hillsides are swarming with sheep, cattle, goats and ponies. To the south, at the back of the mountain, lies a long sunlit empty glen.

All along the burn that runs through its heart are scores of tiny habitations, now marked only by humps and hummocks and a few scattered stones.

Throughout the year these hills were thoroughfares. For many centuries, the only exports from the Highlands were cattle and hides and this was one of the main routes for tens of thousands of shieling-fattened cattle from all over northern Scotland to the markets of the south.

But not all was bucolic peace. History did brush this mountain. In the early 1300s King Robert Bruce was fighting for the independence of Scotland from England. Beaten by the English near Perth, he came here with his queen to seek shelter. He had a rude palace a mile west from here and fought a winning battle within the shadow of this mountain at Dalchosnie, a farm whose name means the field of victory.

In 1437 King James I of Scotland was assassinated in Perth. His killers miscalculated their support and fled. Sir Robert Graham with three hundred desperados at his back skulked in the woods. The Robertsons joined with John Stewart of Rannoch to extirpate this band, capture Sir Robert and bring him to his grim end at the hands of a vengeful queen.

A score of estates run along the strath below whose lairds had charters from the Duke of Atholl.

Although the Duke supported the government, these Stewart lairds combined in the first battalion of the Atholl brigade and joined Prince Charles's army. Most of the tenants would rather have stayed behind but refusing the laird’s command to muster would lead to expulsion from their homes and their families would starve.

Initially the rebellion went well. The broadswords carved up an ill-trained government army outside Edinburgh and Prince Charlie was acknowledged King of Scotland in Holyrood Palace. The ragged, kilted army of 5,000 invaded England and reached to within 150 miles of London before retreating, faced by 60,000 redcoats, most hurriedly brought home from fighting the French in Flanders.

The final engagement at Culloden lasted less than an hour. The men of this strath were on the right wing and charged into hail of grapeshot and cannon. In a single battle, the last fought on British soil, it has been estimated that three times as many men were killed from Atholl as during the whole of the World War I.

The suffering was far from over. The government had a fright and they were determined to destroy the culture that provided a dangerous pool of ferocious fighting men, which could be raised against the state.

Twice the redcoats swept through the strath torching every house and stealing cattle. Struan Robertson, well into his seventies, had to flee a home in flames twice before being carried on the backs of his surviving clansmen to a refuge deep in the Black Wood of Rannoch, a relic of the primeval pine forest that once covered this land. From here, you would have seen columns of smoke for miles in each direction. There were no men left to defend the widows and children. They had to endure the raids as well as plough and plant the land themselves to ward off starvation the following winter. The old Highlands ended that year. Cash not swords became the priority of the duke and the lairds.

In 1774, the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, came to Schiehallion. Its conical shape and the consistency of the rose-pink quartz rock made it ideal for his experiments to measure the density of the Earth. He set up observatories either side of the summit ridge. He made complex observations of the stars and measured the angle that gravity pulled massive pendulums towards the mountain. His assistant, Charles Mason, invented the contour line to assist the calculations. He had already put his name to the Mason-Dixon line that symbolised the cultural boundary between the Northeastern US states and Dixie. Eventually Maskelyne was able to give a good estimate of the weight of the planet.

The natives helped. They threw a party for him in his hut just south of the peak when he had finished his work. Much whisky was drunk, the hut burnt down and the great man had to replace the fiddle belonging to his local guide. It still exists, named the Yellow London Lady in tribute to its place of origin and the colour of the varnish.

One winter in the late 19th century, a devout and pious girl named Margaret Ritchie vanished from her home in the strath below. Ten days later her body was found in her nightdress frozen solid on the mountain peak. She was lying on her back; her arms crossed, and had a sweet smile on her face. Some thought the fairies had taken her spirit.

But what of the fairies after whom the mountain was named? An illegal still on the mountain flank used to produce the finest whisky for miles. It may have been protected from the Excise men by fairies. A fairy well on the mountain flank once drew young girls with ribbons in their hair from the villages at dawn on Beltane, the first of May. They danced round it and those who first drank its water when the sun arose would have good health and luck for the following year. But no more. The spring is hard to find but the crystal clear water that bubbles from the rock still makes an excellent addition to whisky.

Now the mountain is lonely. Fairies only exist if people are here to see them and tell stories about them. Those people left a century ago, drawn to a better life in the Lowlands or across the seas. The fourth dimension is the past and you need to seek it out. If you do then the experience of travel and tourism can be immeasurably enriched.