The West Coast of Scotland has many weird and wonderfully-named hills, glens and villages. How the tourists must titter as they pass through Tongue and then Tarty, or get Lost after visiting Odness and Quarrelton.
But few places reverberate with such past menace as the chillingly named Well of the Seven Heads.
You’ll know you’ve got there when you pass over the swing bridge which crosses the Caledonian Canal, and the western shore of Loch Oich is on your right. There, 18 miles south of Invergarry, you will see the Well of the Seven Heads Convenience Store (fresh fruit and newspapers available) and then a rather creepy obelisk, atop which rest a serrated dagger and seven heads.
This monument was erected in 1812 by Colonel Macdonell of Glengarry and commemorates a particularly bloody incident in Scottish history which throws light on the lawlessness of the clans and casts a shadow over Highland justice of the time.
In 1663 Alasdair and Ranald Macdonnell (or Macdonald in some versions) of Keppoch had arrived back from France. During a visit to their uncle, Alasdair Buidhe of Inverlair, and his six sons, there was a quarrel which ended up with the murder of the Macdonell brothers. Some say that the fight broke out after the cousins were mocked for their French accents and foreign ways; others suggest that a dispute over a patch of land led to the trouble.
In the 17th century, the Highlands were a long way from what could best be described as the short arm of the law. Although the killers were known, neither the locals nor other clansmen appeared particularly bothered by the murders and Edinburgh justice rarely made it that far north.
The only man who cried out for vengeance was the dead men’s kinsman Iain Lom, or Bald Iain, who was at that time Scotland’s Gaelic equivalent of the Poet Laureate. He began a one-man campaign to bring the killers to justice. First he approached Lord Macdonell of Glengarry – the High Chief of the Clan Macdonell – but he wasn’t particularly interested in getting involved. Next was Sir James MacDonald of Sleat, but he too declined to help.
But Bald Iain refused to give up and then approached Sir James at Duntulm Castle on the Isle of Skye, who had fostered the two men when they were younger. Iain travelled to Skye to make a personal and impassioned plea to Sir James – firing the blood of the laird with judicious use of ripe Biblical quotations. Presumably drawing himself up to his full bardic height, Bald Iain launched forth crying: “Abel is cold and his blood is crying in vain for vengeance. Cain is hot and red-handed and hundreds are lukewarm as the black goat’s mile.”
Irresistible stuff, or at least it proved so for Sir James. He applied to the Privy Council in Edinburgh which issued letters of “fire and sword” against the killers. Sir James’ brother, Archibald, then rounded up 50 men to tackle the murderers and gain vengeance for the wronged family. The 17th-century “SWAT team” travelled to Inverlair to find that Alasdair Buidhe and his family had barricaded themselves inside their house. The squad smoked them out, before murdering and decapitating the seven men – although there are suggestions even more were killed.
Bald Ian had his vengeance, but needed everyone to know, so he wrapped the severed heads in his plaid and journeyed to Glengarry to gift them to Lord Macdonnell. Before presenting them to his chief he stopped, by the side of Loch Oich where he washed them clean in the local well.
It is at this spot that nearly 150 years after the massacre the monument was erected. At the time of construction, so the story goes, at least seven headless bodies were found buried in a mound close by. So it is here at “Tober nan Ceann” – the well of the heads – that we can be reminded of the deaths and brutal vengeance of the warring clans.
After their triumphant tour round the Highlands the heads were sent to Edinburgh and where there “affixit to the gallowes” between Edinburgh and Leith as a grim reminder to all.
An interesting side note to the story is the parallels it has with both the Celtic cult of head and water worship and the more widespread reverence of the magical properties of severed heads. Perhaps, with his poetic bent, Bald Iain’s gruesome baptism of the severed heads pleased him with its mystic and ancient connotations.
But locals take note, these times have long passed, so, perhaps you’d better resist mocking any French tourists for their la-di-da accent and fancy ways if you happen upon them in Glengarry. You never know where it might end.