Morvern Lines – 7.7.22

Alex MacDonald, Achnacarry, who knows more than any man about the history of Loch Arkaig area and the MacMillans, pictured standing beside the ‘Rock of the Heads’ where the MacMillans decapitated their victims. Photograph: Iain Thornber

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West of the Great Glen and lying between Achnacarry and Glendessary, is Loch Arkaig.

A track, almost too narrow and tortuous to be described as a public highway, follows its northern shores and introduces the visitor to a remote and magnificent landscape of great natural beauty which the hand of man has not yet defaced. This freshwater loch runs for 12 miles, first among oak, pine, birch and alder and later under bare hillsides.

Here the eye is held by the high mountains on either side as they rise sharply from gleaming water, and loveliness is met at every turn.

This is Cameron of Lochiel country and the scene of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s wanderings after Culloden. In the days of clans and feuds, Loch Arkaig-side was as turbulent and bloody as any Highland district. Many murders were committed in the area earning it a fearsome reputation among travellers making their way through the high passes to the ocean and the isles. Some of these events were written down leaving others to be preserved in local folk memory.

About six miles from the foot of the loch, a double murder occurred on August 31, 1746 – an account of which has found its way into British military history.

The man responsible was a Captain Grant commanding a detachment of the Earl of Loudon’s Regiment of Foot, who summarily killed a young man close to the old bridle path at a place which became known as Culcairn’s Brae. His name was Alexander Cameron who was on his way to the nearest military camp to surrender a firearm. Grant said he didn’t believe him and had him tied to a tree and shot, not for carrying a weapon but more likely in revenge for an incident that happened at the battle of Falkirk earlier that year. Alexander’s father either saw or heard of his son’s death and vowed he would kill Grant.

Grant, who held a commission in the Hanoverian army and had been responsible for burning and laying waste to old Achnacarry House, proceeded up the loch-side where he met a company of soldiers commanded by his colleague, Captain George Munro of Culcairn, a Ross-shire bonnet laird, who had been harassing the inhabitants of Glendessary. Joining forces, he and Munro travelled back towards Achnacarry exchanging mounts for some reason or another on the way, which meant Munro was now riding a white horse.

When Alexander Cameron’s father saw the soldiers returning, he got hold of a musket and waited for them behind a tree close to where his son had been killed. He knew that Grant usually rode a white horse so when the two officers came abreast of him, he fired at the man in the saddle of the beast of that colour and, of course, hit Munro thinking he was Grant. Munro died instantly and Cameron disappeared into the woods unrecognised.

The ruins of Caillich house, scene of many murders, with Loch Arkaig and the promontory of Rudha Giubhais beyond. Photograph: Iain Thornber

Four miles west of Culcairn’s Brae and not far from Kinlocharkaig, there is an old settlement called Caillich nestling in a hollow on the hillside between Caonich and Murlaggan. There is not much of Caonich to be seen nowadays but it was once the home of a family of MacMillans who would have made Jack the Ripper blush with the plurality of the murders they committed and how they disposed of the bodies.

Donald MacMillan and his sons’ strategy was to offer a night’s lodgings to any strangers they saw on the road, especially packmen and drovers, knowing that they were likely to be carrying money. After giving them a hearty meal and doubtless some whisky, they showed them into an outhouse for the night.

In the early hours of the morning Duncan, or one of his sons, would enter and kill them with a hammer-blow to the head. After stealing whatever possessions their victims had on them, they dragged their naked corpses under cover of darkness, down to a nearby promontory on Loch Arkaig called Rudha Giubhais. There they slipped them into the deep, icy waters, but not before hacking their heads off with an axe on a nearby boulder which became known as the ‘Rock of the Heads’, to prevent them from being recognised should they ever come to the surface.

For years the MacMillans continued to profit by their gruesome work and, despite rumours, they were never caught but, like many criminals the world over, they became bolder and complacent with the passage of time and began to make mistakes. On one occasion they murdered a couple of MacGregor brothers who were on their way to Skye to buy cattle. They were carrying large sums of gold and a considerable quantity of banknotes which were not in general use in Lochaber at the time. The MacMillan sons, being unable to read and not realising their value, hid a bundle of them amounting to several hundred pounds under a stone, keeping only a few out of curiosity.

Sometime later, after a funeral, the son of Duncan Cameron the tenant of Murlaggan, noticed that young MacMillan was lighting his pipe with a bank note and asked, ‘Where did you get these pretty pieces of paper from? I should like fine to buy some’.

‘I can show you where to get plenty of them’, replied the other.

An arrangement was made and the bundle of notes were acquired for a pittance but word went round and fingers began to jab in the direction of the occupants of Caillich.

Donald eventually met his Waterloo, not by the hand of the law, but in killing one of his own sons. The boy, Ewen, who had been in service with a Cameron family in London for some years turned up unexpectedly at Caillich late one night dressed in his footman’s livery. He went into his old room but his father, arriving home in the darkness, mistook him for a wealthy traveller and bludgeoned him to death while he slept. On discovering his awful mistake, the frenzied and guilt-ridden Donald swore to give up his evil ways for ever and from that day on the murders on Loch Arkaigside ceased.

Donald died in 1807, aged 58, not at the end of a rope but from natural causes and, surprisingly, was allowed to rest in hallowed ground amongst his forebears in Kilmallie old graveyard, Corpach where his headstone can still be seen.