Sunday, 13 December 2015

McComie Mor

One figure in the Angus glens was much feared by outlaws and caterans:  Iain Mor Mac Thomaidh, or McCombie Mor, 7th chief of the Clan Mac Thomas (a sept of the Macintoshes).  In 1652 he led his family east over the hills from Finegand in Glenshee, Perthshire, and rented Forter from the Earl of Airlie.  The move may have been prompted by the clan’s reluctance to do business with the tax collectors of the Earl of Atholl.  It is rumoured that Atholl once employed an Italian swordsman to assassinate his tenant, but McComie ended up killing him.  McComie was a mighty man with a large family and a larger following.  A stone in Glen Prosen is called McComie Mor’s Putting Stone, or McComie’s Stone, and there is a nearby McComie Mor’s Well (and also a McComie Mor’s Chair, a rock in Glen Beannie.) At Beltane each year he and his kin moved up Glen Isla from his home at Crandart to summer pastures at Mount Keen. The fortified house of Crandart, about a mile and a half north of Forter on the right hand bank of the River Isla, became McComie’s principal home several years after he gained possession of Forter.  Sometimes McComie would wander off alone to meet the mermaid who inhabited the Crooked Loch.  She was a friendly soul who would rise from the water and sit by his side in the heather, whispering strange things in his ear.  Once she boldly leapt onto the back of his horse and they rode together down the glen, astonishing all who saw them.  Despite such flagrant behaviour, McCombie was happily married to a Campbell wife and supported the Parliamentarians in the civil strife of the period (despite have previously been a Royalist himself), which did not endear him to his Ogilvy landlords, who had been troubled by the Campbells.  Following the restoration of King Charles II, the Royalist Earl of Airlie took important grazing lands from McComie and bestowed them on the Farquharsons of Brough Dearg, his former neighbours in Glenshee.  This led to a long bloody feud. There were personal issues at stake also.  Robert Farquharson had once promised to marry McComie’s daughter, but afterwards changed his mind and wed Helen Ogilvy, daughter of Colonel Ogilvy of Shannalie, no doubt incensing the MacThomas clan. In the early hours of New Year’s Day, 1669, Robert Farquharson, with his brothers John and Alexander and around fifty men, launched a surprise attack on Crandart and captured McComie Mor.  Five of his sons who set out to rescue him were ambushed and the remaining two sons were forced to pay a ransom of £600.  In the following May the Farquharsons attempted to take possession of Robert McComie’s farm lands at Killulock.  Later that year the McComies later besieged Brough Dearg, but the enemy chief escaped.  Robert Farquharson was missing for months and was finally spotted by one of McComie’s followers in Glengarmie, Perthshire.  To his chief’s fury the man left Farquharson unharmed, without takeing at least ‘ane legg, ane arme, or his lyffe’.
   The climax to the feud happened in  January 1673.  Robert Farquharson took his dispute about the Glen Isla grazing rights to the Sheriff of Forfar, but McComie became aware of the visit and instructed his men to pursue the enemy with swords and pistols and kidnap him. A fight took place at Drumgley near the town, sometimes called the Battle of Padanaram.  A plaque in a field remembers the fray:

                                     McComie’s Field – Here in a skirmish with
                                     The Farquharsons of Brough-Dearg on 28th
                                     January 1673 were slain John and Robert,
                                     Sons of Iain Mor Mac Thomaidh, seventh
                                     Chief of the Clan MacThomas.

   McComie by this stage was too old to fight himself, but when he heard the news of his sons’ deaths he said, ‘I wish I had been but twenty years of age again.  I would have made the Farquharsons thinner south of the Cairn o’ Mounth.  I would have had a life for each of my two dead sons.’’ His daughter wept, but she was told by her brother Angus, ‘You have no reason to lament for them.  They got the life they were wanting.’  Several of Farquharson’s sons also died in the skirmish.
   The clan MacThomas departed from Angus after McComie’s death, before the 12th January 1676.  When two Anerdeenshire caterans met shortly afterwards, one asked the other what news there was.  ‘News and good news,’ the other informed him.  ‘Blessed be the virgin Mary!  Death as come to the great McComie in the head of the Lowlands, for as big and strong as he was.’  Some of the family took to farming in Fife, but the 15th chief, Patrick, was provost of Dundee in the mid-nineteenth century and became a prominent landowner in Aberlemno.
   Kingoldrum kirkyard in Angus has a memorial to the last of the Farquharsons of Brough Dearg.  John Farquharson lies here with his spouse, Elizabeth Ramsay of Baldovie, and their two daughters.  Their son, Thomas, last of the line died in 1860.  In his time he served as a magistrate and deputy lieutenant of Angus.
   McComie’s Stone on the mountain of Mayar was still locally famous in the 1880s when local lads from nearby glens made a pilgrimage to see how far they could throw its formidable 35lb weight.  It was forgotten and nearly buried for over a hundred years before being rediscovered at the end of the 20th century.  Nearby there was another McComie landmark, a now vanished bothy named McComie’s Shelter.  There used to be two stones in Caenlochan which McCombie employed in a feat in strength and there are other Perthsire tales of his prowess, including one in which he overcame a rampaging bull in the Stormont area.  As well as the friendly mermaid, McComie also once encountered a kelpie in the River Shee.  One night he heard cries from the water, calling him by name, asking for help.  He brought a staff to help the foundering being and pushed it out into the water, but the malign kelpie pulled it and tried to drag McComie in to his death.  McComie was undaunted and gave a mighty tug.  The enraged water horse, fearing he would be imminently landed, gave a shout of rage and vanished.  Later, when he had removed from Perthshire to Crandart, McComie was out walking at Caenlochan when he saw a female water kelpie in Glascorrie.  He grabbed the protesting supernatural beast and determined to carry her home.  He knew that if he crossed running water the kelpie could break free, so he had to devise a long and convoluted path back to Crandart.  The she kelpie bargained for her release and the price that McComie demanded was some knowledge about the circumstances of his death.  The kelpie (or was she a fairy or even the confused mermaid we encountered earlier?) took him took him to the face of the hill above the house of Crandart and pointed out a large stone, telling him that he would die with his head above it.  The being was freed and McComie Mor removed the fatal stone and placed it in the wall of his house, under the head of his head, so that he could be assured the prophesy would come true in circumstances of his liking. 
   There is another strange, stone-related story at Crandart.  This stone forms the lintel of the lime kiln and was could not be manoeuvred into place by the strongman McComie and his sons for all their efforts.  In the end a suspected magician named Knox Baxter (also known as Colin McKenzie) came to Crandart while father and sons were struggling with the stone.  Sitting a little apart, he remained there and refused the invitation to accompany the family to dinner.  When they returned the stone was in its intended place and McCombie silently cut a silver button from his coat and handed it to Knox in silent acknowledgement of his supernatural assistance. 
   McComie once ambushed his eldest son, whom he suspected of being too gently on account of his Campbell blood.  Waiting for him as he journeyed from Glenshee to Glen Isla, McCombie pounced from the place that became known as McCombie’s Chair.  The boy, also named John, suspected that this fierce, sword wielding berserker was his father and demanded to know his identity as he defended himself.  At length he exhausted the old man and agreed to spare him, on condition that he revealed his identity.  McComie did so and young john told him off by saying that one of them could have easily slain the other.  Old McComie happily replied that it was no matter, since he not knew that his son would be a strong and worthy successor.
   Crandart House later fell into ruins and one inscribed stone from it was carried to nearby Balharry.  It carries the interesting inscription:

                                     I SHALL . OVERCOM . INVY . VITI
                                   GODS . HELP . TO . GOD . BE . AL .
                                     PRAIS . HONOVR . AND . GLORIE
                                                             1660



Crandart Farm.  The 19th century building was constructed using materials from McComie's old home.

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