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Issue 84 - The Clan Fletcher

Scotland Magazine Issue 84
December 2015


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The Clan Fletcher

James Irvine Robertson visits the original arrow makers of the Highlands

William Shakespeare's Henry V in 1415. And he sent some 75,000 arrows a minute at the French to ease their way at the Battle of Agincourt.

Even in a modest Highland skirmish, arrows by the hundred would be loosed, and this made arrow makers an important part of every clan. Those who lived in Glen Orchy formed the core of the Clan Fletcher – the name comes from old French, flechier, a maker of arrows – and were affiliated first to Clan Gregor, and then to the Campbells of Breadalbane, both of whom went through the missiles faster than most.

In Gaelic, the name is Mac-an-leistear – ‘the son of the man of the arrow’ – and, like the Macgregors, they were Siol Alpin, descending from Kenneth MacAlpin, the king who united Scots and Picts in the 9th Century.

For centuries thereafter, they lived at Achallader by Loch Tulla in Argyllshire. The remains of the castle testifies that this was one of the most dangerous parts of Scotland, on the main route for raiding clans and armies travelling east to west across the Highlands. Even today, just one road passes across the moors and lochans amid the mountains, but now the people are gone and the land is no longer tilled.

The Fletchers were already settled in Glen Orchy when Alexander II granted the land to the Macgregors in 1222. The two clans co-existed happily but, in 1359, a Royal Charter handed the glen to the Campbells of Breadalbane.

A scrawl on vellum in some faraway charter chest had little relevance when control came from the power of the sword but, in 1492, Sir Duncan Campbell was made King's Baillie and waged war on the Macgregors, citing lawlessness as the excuse, and he ousted them from Glen Orchy.

However, the Fletchers remained, too valuable to disturb, and they expanded across the 12 mile long glen.

In 1497, when the Macdonalds of Keppoch were away cattle lifting in Moray, the Maclarens from the south raided their home territory in Lochaber. Keppoch returned and immediately set off in pursuit of the rustlers and caught up with them at Loch Earn.

After a sharp battle, the Macdonalds recovered their cattle and drove them back towards home. On the way, the exhausted and bloody victors were intercepted by the Stewarts of Appin and the Fletchers on the green slopes of Ben Dorain just a mile or two from Achallader. In the murderous battle that followed, the chiefs Dugall of Appin and Donald of Keppoch fought each other to the death.

For their help in their victory, the Stewarts signed a bond of friendship with the Fletchers promising assistance if they were ever threatened. But in 1583, Black Duncan of the Cowl succeeded as Laird of Glen Orchy and wanted to add to his extensive portfolio of strongholds by building a castle on Fletcher land.

Duncan recruited fighting men from the Lowlands and some spoke no Gaelic. He took out a patrol from his castle on Loch Tay and sent a trio of such troops to ride ahead and graze their horses in the Fletcher chief's young corn. Iain Ruaidh Mac-an-leistear turned up and remonstrated with them -– in Gaelic. He received back a torrent of abuse in English, lost his temper and bashed one of the soldiers on the head with the iron stake with which the horses were tethered – and killed him.

Up rode Black Duncan. Oh, woe! A disaster! He was the Baillie and therefore the dead man was one of the King's servants. The penalty for killing him was death. Iain Ruaidh must flee... but his lands would be forfeit. Duncan had a solution. If Fletcher conveyed his property to Duncan, then he could look after them and return them when the matter had blown over. Inevitably, he did not.

The name Fletcher was not confined to the Highlands. Perhaps the most famous holder of the name was Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun in East Lothian. Known as ‘The Patriot,’ he argued ferociously against the Act of Union in 1707. Christian Fletcher was wife of the Minister of Kinneff Church who hid the Honours of Scotland (the Crown Jewels of Scotland) from Oliver Cromwell in 1650.

After their chief was executed in 1603, the Macgregors came and burnt the castle. The Jacobites did the same in 1689, and it was never rebuilt. Many of the descendants of the clan ended up emigrating to the USA.