Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Well of the Seven Heads

DRIVE along the shores of Loch Oich - one of three lochs forming Scotland's Caledonian Canal - and you will find yourself amid some of the most spectacular Highland scenery imaginable. The view across the loch from the store in the village of Invergarry is breathtaking.
While you're standing there your eye will be drawn to a large monument taking you back to an era when this part of the west Highlands was a brutal, lawless place and whose very name evokes blood and gore - the Well of the Seven Heads.It is a tall needle-like monument topped by a sculpture of a hand holding a dagger and seven severed heads - a stark reminder of one of the most gruesome episodes in Scottish clan history. Warfare among the clans was commonplace in the 16th and 17th centuries but this was a bloody tale of internal strife among different sections of one of the largest clans in the Highlands, the Macdonalds. What is striking about the story of the Well of the Heads is the overwhelming sense of vengeance and power masquerading as justice which typified the clan system and over which the authorities in Scotland had no control.In somewhat typical Highland fashion the story begins with a fight which got out of hand. On 25 September 1663, Alexander, the 13th chief of the Keppoch family, powerful members of the Macdonalds, and his brother Ranald were killed by their cousins at a brawl in the mansion of Insch, just outside the village of Roybridge. The two Keppoch men had just returned from schooling in France and had thrown a rather grand party. One theory behind the argument is that their cousins began mimicking their French accents and mannerisms and the situation escalated. Others claimed the killers had been set up by more prominent members of the clan to rid them of an unpopular, reforming clan chief.Whatever the truth, the upshot was that two leading clan members lay dead. The killers were well known, Alexander Macdonald and his six sons from Inverlair, near Roy Bridge. They had been engaged in an argument with the Keppochs over a piece of land, which undoubtedly contributed to the killings, but in a part of the country dominated by the Macdonalds they had many sympathisers, particularly among "ordinary" people who regarded the Keppoch boys as "gentry". Time passed and no justice was meted out. But vengeance brewed within one man, Iain Lom, or Bald Iain, a kinsman of the victims and an important figure who held the title of Gaelic Poet Laureate of Scotland. He was known locally as the Keppoch Bard.Bald Iain embarked on a seeming one-man crusade to make the Macdonalds at Inverlair pay for what had happened. He first approached a fellow clansman, Lord Macdonell of Glengarry and Aros, who at the time was regarded by the Scots Privy Council as High Chief of the Clan Donald. But Macdonell did not want to get involved.His next stop was Sir James Macdonald of Sleat but he too was hesitant to become involved in the affairs of a fellow tribe. But Bald Iain had a trump card up his sleeve. The two murdered men had been fostered with Sir James at Duntulm Castle on the Isle of Skye. The vengeful Bard travelled to the castle and appealed to the chief's emotions in dramatic and biblical language. "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 milk," Bald Iain told Sir James.His ploy was successful. Sir James applied to the Privy Council in Edinburgh which issued letters of "fire and sword" against the killers. Sir James' brother Archibald - the Warrior Poet - was put in charge of 50 men who were sent to avenge the killings of two years previously. Bald Iain was there to guide them to the Macdonald home at Inverlair where, after a brief struggle, the seven known killers - and probably more - were murdered and decapitated.The Bard was satisfied; he had his revenge and he wanted to prove it. He wrapped the severed heads in his plaid, tied them together with willow rods and set out for Glengarry. Before presenting them to Lord Macdonell at Invergarry Castle, Bald Iain stopped to wash them in the waters of Loch Oich, at the site where the grim obelisk now stands. The heads were then sent to Edinburgh where they were "affixit to the gallowes" between Edinburgh and Leith.The monument at the side of the A82 road was erected in 1812 by the then chief of the Clan Macdonell. The story was by this time verified by the exhumation of a mound on the lands of Inverlair, close to where Tulloch Station on the main Glasgow to Fort William rail line now stands. The mound revealed at least seven headless corpses. Bald Iain had got his bloody vengeance after all.So next time you stand by Invergarry admiring the scenic beauty of Lochaber, cast a glance into the waters of Loch Oich. It might just turn a curious shade of red.

Courtesy The Scotsman.

It's quite easy to miss the wee marvel as it's situated on a pretty fast road, the A82 between Invergarry and Laggan with limited parking. But it's well worth the effort. Especially on a beautiful Autumn day.

It's been a while since I posted a good gory tale and I think this one makes up for that.

I'm not sure if you can make out the inscription on the base of the obelisk. It's on all four sides in four languages. English, Gaelic, French and Latin. Just in case there's some Latin scholars passing by I guess. Click to enlarge and you should just make it out.
In case you can't make it it is in full :

As a memorial of the ample and summary vengeance which in the swift course of Feudal Justice inflicted by the orders of the LordMcDonnell and Aross overtook the perpetrators of the foul murder of the Keppoch family, a branch of the powerful and illustrious clan of which his Lordship was the chief.This monument is erected by Colonel McDonald of Glengarry XVII. Mac-Mhic Alaister, his successor and representative in the year of our Lord 1812.

The heads of the seven murderers were presented at the feet of the noble chief in Glengarry Castle after having been washed in the spring, and ever since that event which took place early in the sixteenth century it has been known by the name 'Tobat nan Ceann' or The Well of the Seven Heads.

This is the view across the loch from the monument. Rather attractive don't you think, given the bloody goings on.

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  1. Great story. I still get shit for my family name from unexpected corners.

  2. What a fantastic post for the day, Neil! I look forward to the history that goes with your photos almost as much as I look forward to your photos - they're both marvelous and compliment each other. And what a perfect tale for the Halloween weekend!!! Your shots of the tower are terrific -- spooky, but terrific! I'm sure I can hear the ghosts chuckling!

    Have a marvelous, spooky weekend!


  3. So very very interesting ot read about you beautiful country. Visit it for the first time this sunner, and will be back!!! you bet :-)

    Hugs form Anne in Norway.

  4. What a great story to go with the beautiful country you live in...great scenery .


  5. Great post Neil. I have seen the monument but only when passing. I enjoyed the history even though it's very gory and will make sure to stop an look next time I'm out that way.

  6. Interesting post and wonderful photos for skywatch.

  7. Mmmmmm, nice and gory, Neil. Great post!

    You posted a previous photo of that loch with the dock (or whatever it is) that goes gradually into the water and I thought, 'what a great place on a hot summer's day'... now? hmmm... a bit creepy! But then that can just add to fun, eh?

    Thank you for typing out the inscription on obelisk!

  8. Bloody Scots, eh? Always go a bit mental wi a bevvy in them.

    3 or 4 summers ago a bunch of us walked the Great Glen Way from Fort William to Inverness. We stopped one morn for a peek at the monument after breaky from the village store. Didnae ken the whole tale though so ta for that.

    The walk's highly recommended for anyone into that sorta thing by the way. Well tasty.

  9. Dramatic photo of the monument and an interesting, convoluted, and gory story (how nice of him to wash the severed heads off before presenting them!) Yikes. Thanks for the morning amusement!

    Three Rivers Daily Photo

  10. I visited this some years ago when I had my motorcycle,very impressive,but like the Glenfinnan
    Monument not much written about it,apart from your imformative info.Great part of unseen Scotland.A must to be seen.
    Mike Masterton son of Alba.

  11. I visited this area in 1990 staying at the site opposite, found the memorial when shopping opposite --- I was reminded of this from a programme about the Scots and just had to look it up on Google Earth, It brought back happy memories of our stay with Australian relatives.
    This is one of the many beautiful parts of the Bonnie Land.
    s I am too old to revisit so articles such as this are a godsend--Thank you
    Alec Smith Bournemouth