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Gairloch Golf Course and Beach, Wester Ross by Gordon C. Harrison

The Tollaidh Murders


Loch Tollaidh


By 1480, Allan M`Leod, laird of Gairloch, was living on the island in Loch Thollaidh - in the `fortalice` which the M`Leods had seized when they wrested Gairloch from the Macbeaths about a hundred years previously - with two small sons and his wife, daughter of Alexander The Upright, Sixth Laird of Kintail and sister of Hector Roy.

Allan was, by all accounts, a peaceable man but, Dixon records, an evil day was coming. His two brothers, who resided with their people in the Lews, were unwilling that Mackenzie blood should run in the veins of the heir of Gairloch. They made their way to Gairloch and stayed at Tigh Dige - the moated house - which stood just below where Flowerdale House stands to-day.

On the day of the murder, Allan took his boat and landed at the head of the loch in order to go down to fish the River Ewe. It was warm, the fish were not biting, so he stretched out on a hillock (named to this day Cnoc na Mì-chomhairle or the Hill of Evil Counsel) and slept in the sun. (Unfortunately, nobody I have yet met can now identify this particular Hill of Evil Counsel nor, unlike many of the other sites named by Dixon, is it recorded on the 6" map - although the much more prominent Tòrr a` Mhuilleir - the (round) hill of the mill - is marked.) (see note 2 below)

His brothers discovered the boat, guessed he was fishing, found him and killed him where he lay. They cut off his head and threw it into the mill lead or race between the green hill and the Widow`s house now stands. They took Allan`s boat back across Loch Thollaidh, told the widow what they had done and tore her little boys from her trembling grasp.

Eventually, the mother tried to follow them. When she reached a spot between Achtercairn and the Gairloch Hotel (see note 1 below), she met a loyal old servant of her husband who, fearing for her safety, told her to return home, but promised to go and see whether her brothers-in-law really had killed the children, He went, cautiously, to Tigh Dige where, through an opening, saw by the firelight, the boys` little shirts hanging up. He managed to get possession of the shirts and took them to the harrowed mother.

The reader will be glad to learn, Dixon adds, the two murderers were afterwards routed in a skirmish on the south side of Gairloch by one of the Mac Rae heroes, who pursued them to a spot between South Erradale and Point where he slew them both and they were buried in a hollow there which is pointed out to this day.

However, death of the Tollaidh fratricides was by no means the end of the matter. The grieving widow went to her father at Brahan, who could not credit his daughter`s terrible tale until she presented the blood-caked shirts. Alexander, an old man, sent her brother Hector Roy to Edinburgh. Appalled by the gory evidence of the shirts, James III (1460-1488) gave Hector Roy a Commission of fire and sword for the destruction of the M`Leods. To-day`s Electoral Roll of Gairloch records many Mackenzies, but very, very, few M`Leods.

The veracity of Dixon`s gruesome account of the Tollaidh Murders remained unchallenged until, a year or two ago, when an under-water archaeology team from Edinburgh University (with much experience of surveying and even re-creating crannogs) surveyed the Islet in Loch Thollaidh - marked crannog on the OS map - long supposed to be the site of the fated household, an island so tiny that it was taken for granted extensive remains must lie under water. They found absolutely no evidence to support the belief that this was ever the site of any dwelling of any sort.

Although the absence of MacLeods and the preponderance of Mackenzies on the electoral roll leaves little doubt that something happened to precipitate Hector Roy`s terrible revenge by fire and sword, the absence of material evidence of Allan M`Leod`s island home, which is so central to the story, must render Dixon`s account far less convincing. Was he perhaps having his leg pulled? After all he was not native to the area - but a nineteenth century `incomer`. Of course, one other possibility is that any upstanding remains were subsequently removed and re-used, although this never seems to have been a heavily populated spot - and what about underwater traces? Another is that that the bigger islet was the site of the crannog - but here again there seem to be absolutely no material remains.

However, before condemning Dixon`s account of the Tollaidh murders as a "fairy-tale", it is prudent to reflect on one particular detail of the story he took down from native Gaelic speakers, for it contains two tantalising little anomalies. His account specifies, first, that Allan used a boat to reach the head of the loch; secondly, that the brothers knew that he was fishing when they found this boat, thirdly, that they themselves used the boat to get back and seize the children. Thus a boat seems integral to the narrative - and it is just this sort of incidental detail which is often accurately preserved in oral tradition. (We find exactly the same sort of incidental accuracy in Old Testament archaeology.)

Such emphasis on a boat is puzzling, implying as it does that a boat was necessary, indeed essential, for access to the fortified house when, as we can clearly see from the road, a boat is hardly necessary for anyone wishing to reach the head of the loch from either of the two islets. They are so close to the shore that it would have been (and still is) simpler, quicker and easier to wade ashore from either of them and then walk to the head of the loch. Moreover, in view of the story`s emphasis on the use of a boat by both Allan and his murderous brothers to access the `fortalice`, even more intriguing (and, I suggest, highly significant) is the fact that there is no mention of a boat being used in the abduction of the children.

If the story is anything more than fiction, why was no boat needed to carry off children who lived on an island which, Dixon infers, could be reached only by boat and why wait to slaughter them until they reach the rock of the place of interment?

On the far side of Loch Thollaidh, impossible to see from the road, is a small fat-headed, narrow-necked, peninsula which, when the water-level is high, becomes virtually an island. Such features are characteristic of the `promontory forts` and duns so common to the coastal highlands and islands. (The dun at Gairloch, originally another Macbeath/M`Leod stronghold, is a well-known local example.) About eighteen months ago, I walked round to this little promontory, together with Dr. D.W. Harding, Abercromby Professor of Archaeology at Edinburgh University. We found it a most instructive expedition.


Tollaidh Map


In the first place the situation is tactically significant. AIthough the site would be virtually invisible to any `attacker` approaching from the north, west, or south, the view from the promontory itself, across Loch Thollaidh, is unimpaired. To the north-east and east, hills protect it against the harshest of the weather; even more important, steep, bare, slopes would make it virtually impossible for hostile party to approach unobserved - thus allowing plenty of time to defend the narrow neck of the promontory.

Secondly, the terrain is extremely deceptive; from the head of Loch Thollaidh - where Allan M`Leod left his boat - the little promontory is much further by land than the view from the A832 suggests, because there is a wide hidden bay. Even unencumbered by fishing gear, it takes about 45 minutes to walk round the shore (the higher the water level, the longer the route.) However, it would take only about ten minutes by boat, and thus it would make sense for both Allan and his brothers to use one. Furthermore, this site would also explain why no boat is mentioned in the account of the abduction of the children; they could have been taken on foot - via the narrow neck of the promontory - along the southern shore of Loch Thollaidh. This would also resolve that other gruesome little puzzle - the reason why the murders and burial of the bodies took place at Crag Bhadan an Aisc - for it is about here that a path round the south side of the loch would have met the track which is now the A832. Furthermore the spot is hidden from the promontory, where, no doubt, their anxious mother had watched them until they were out of sight.

Is there any actual evidence on the promontory? Perhaps most significant are two (possibly three) depressions across the narrowest part of the `neck`, which look very much like silted up ditches. Such ditching (defensive against livestock as well as man) is typical of promontory fortlets. There are other hints too. On the north side of the promontory itself there is a hump of natural rock and, immediately south, in its lee, a flat area ideal for a dwelling. On the `nose` of the promontory, a small, sheltered, `harbour` - is ideal for beaching a small boat or two. On the north-east side, several heavy blocks toppled into the water, hint at some sort of `works`. Speculation all this may be, but it does make sense of the repeated references (and that significant non-reference!) to use of a `boat` in Dixon`s account.

Finally, why might he and the cartographers have got it wrong? Probably, over time, the precise location of the `fortalice` had become vague - after all, it cannot be distinguished from the road - and Dixon assumed that `living on Loch Thollaidh` implied `on an island`. Also it must be remembered that Gaelic-speaking areas were first mapped by O.S. Surveyors who `had not the tongue` and we know they frequently misinterpreted local information. It would require careful excavation to test this hypothesis further; perhaps one day the Gairloch Heritage Museum will secure funds to solve the final mystery of the Tollaidh Murders?

© Ian Blake 2001
This article was first published in the Gairloch & District Times.

Additional Notes provided later by N C Hulme:

  1. The place referred to is named by Dixon as Na Clachan Garbh; this is where the house of Mrs Wilkie (wife of former headteacher of Gairloch High School) now stands.
  2. Regarding the location of Cnoc na Mì-chomhairle, the site of the murder of Allen Macleod - reference to Dixon`s book reveals that the writer believed this hill to be situated where a Kenneth Urquhart had built his house. By studying the valuation rolls for the 1880s in the museum, it was found that this man occupied croft no. 9 and on the 1875 Ordnance Survey map, the only house on that croft is on the site of the house currently occupied by Dr Marshall. This research along with other clues from Dixon suggests that this is the location of the Hill of Evil Counsel.