Clan Warfare & Local Clans

The Neishes

Neishes’ Isle stands close into, but not too close, to the shore of Loch Earn in Perthshire and here in 1612 a memorable event occurred. To call this lot a clan is a misnomer. They were the dregs of society and nothing better than a band of vandals, robbers, and even murderers.

One could describe them as a gang and they stayed together for expediency and basic survival. They were classified as “broken men” from various clans. Some carried the name Neish, whereas others may have been MacGregors or McInnes’s. On the little island they had built a fortified house, no more than fifty yards in diameter. The island originally was a “Crannog”, an artificial island created by Stone-Age man for reasons of protection against local enemies, of which there were quite a few! Access to the site consisted of a stone causeway built out from the lochside. In times of danger the stones of the causeway could be rolled away making access very difficult. The outline of the causeway can still be seen under the waters of the loch on a quiet day; however, by the time of our story, the causeway had long disappeared. The only way to access it was by boat.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Neishes had sided with, and then fallen out with, just about everyone of their neighbours at one time or another. The “falling-in” was, no doubt, much appreciated by all as everyone had a wee rest, but the “falling-oot” was somewhat vicious and not refined! They were involved in the ebb and flow of current affairs and, one supposes, had a place amongst their more powerful neighbours, the Stewarts of Ardvorlich, the Drummonds of Drummond Castle, the McGregors of Balquhidder, the MacLarens of Strathyre, and the Murrays of Ochtertyre. They may even have acted as their mercenaries (for a fee or part of the plunder.) Their particular nemesis was the clan MacNab of Killin.

During one of the latter periods around 1520, the Neishes and the MacNabs met in Glen Boltachan high above Loch Earn. There they undertook a pitched battle. The eventual winners of this bloody encounter were the MacNabs with barely a Neish surviving although old Neish, the clan Chief, did rather well and was able to put several notches on his claymore! He was killed though and the MacNab’s put his head in a bag, along with the heads of at least three of his sons. The reality of this outcome, however, was that the male Neishes were reduced substantially as a force to be reckoned with, and for the next few decades became, to a large extent, freebooters and a general nuisance in the community.

Their strength and survival rested on the fact that they possessed a boat; in fact the only boat on the loch and this they put to good use. They would raid their neighbours and even kill them. They were always in search of booty and no-one that lived close by, or further afield for that matter, was really safe.

Shortly before Christmas in 1612, the Neishes intercepted a group of MacNabs returning to Killin via Loch Earn, from Crieff. The MacNab’s were laden down with supplies of meat and other “goodies” of Christmas cheer. Seeing this heaven sent opportunity the Neishes decided to “lift” this windfall from the MacNab’s and did so, and withdrew to their stronghold in the loch, there to make merry. For some inexplicable reason the Neishes also decided to let the MacNab party go free (possibly a Christmas gift!) On their crestfallen return to Killin they recounted their tale to their chief, Findlay MacNab. Findlay was the seventh Chief of the Clan MacNab, and he had sired twelve sons of which the weakest was said to have only been able to drive his dirk through a two-inch thick board! As an experiment the modern aficionado may wish to try this exercise! Another son, who was of a rather rough and ready disposition (one might say brute...but only quietly!) was called Ioin mion Mac’an Appa which means “Smooth” John MacNab.

Monemore, Killin

Sometime shortly after the incident had occurred the Neishes decided to consult an old woman who lived in a cave set in the hills above Derry, near Lochearnhead. She had magical powers and was known by all and sundry as “The Witch of Glen Beach” (Glen Beich). She was one of those strange creatures who possessed a mystical air about her, used potions of one sort or another, and had the gift of the “second sight.” Possibly she may have been like Cyclops and had an eye in the middle of her forehead! She certainly could put a hex on your coo!

Her counsel to Dhonuil Dhu, the chief of the Clan Neish, was to warn him about vengeance saying that he should be “beware of the time when there should be two boats in the loch,” and declined any payment from him for her services. The Neishes on hearing this prediction laughed, and felt very secure, because they alone, had a rowing boat in the loch.

Neish Island

In the meantime in Killin, Findlay MacNab, as Chief, decided that he must take aggressive action against the Neishes. Cryptically, he addressed his twelve sons who possessed great strength and courage, skill with weapons and cunning, “Bhi’n oiach an oidhch, na’m bu ghillean na ghillean - The night is the night, if the lads were but lads” or “the night is the night of the men, were they men.”

On hearing this statement the sons of MacNab under the command of “Smooth” John MacNab took a rowing boat and rowed down Loch Tay to Ardeonaig where they lifted the boat out of the water. Heaving it on their shoulders they then proceeded to carry it over the hills to Loch Earn coming down to the lochside by way of Glentarken to Little Port, now St. Fillans. Once at the lochside they rested and could hear across the stillness of the water on the loch, the sounds of raucous laughter coming from the island. The Neishes kept geese to warn of any visitors, and these were quietly done away with. They then quietly organised themselves and when it was dark rowed across the loch arriving at the island. All the Neishes were having a jolly good time with singing, playing bagpipes, drinking and gorging themselves unaware, and unsuspecting, that they had visitors. It was a high festival and no doubt they were well pleased with their booty and, also no doubt, not quite sober. Hearing the door of the house being battered in, they called out to find out who was there, and what was going on. The reply struck fear into all of them, “Co bhu dorra leat a’ bhi ann? ----Who would you like worst were here?” The old besotted Chief of the Neishes replied, “Ioin mion Mac’an Appa.” The MacNab replied, “If he has hitherto been smooth, you’ll find him rough for this one night.”

The door was battered down, and rushing in to the house they slew all the Neishes within, save one lad. He only had his arm lopped off with a claymore but managed to hide. Once the killing was done the MacNabs gathered themselves together leaving Dhonuil Dhu’s body minus his head, along with his fellow thieves, under a large stone on the island, and then set the house on fire destroying everything.

Carrying the head of Dhonuil Dhu, which they put in a sack, and the boat that had carried them on their journey, they proceeded to return to Killin by the same way they had come. After carrying the boat well up into the hills in Glen Tarken, they tired of its weight, and abandoned it, eventually returning to Killin. There they greeted old Finlay with their grisly prize in the sack, the head of Dhonuil Dhu, saying “Na boidh fromgh oirbh - Be in fear of nothing.” This became their clan slogan, “Dreadnought.” And as a further mark they incorporated the head of the dead Neish chieftain into their clan insignia where it can still be seen today.

MacNab Crest

The surviving Neish boy founded the Clan McIldowie or MacIlduie (the dark haired one) and the remains of the boat were still visible in Glentarken until the late nineteenth century. It is said amongst local folk that the ghost of Dhonuil Dhu still haunts the island and when it is dark, stormy and rainy, and the wind whistling through the trees, one can hear the ghostly death-cry of the Neishes who were killed at that spot! The Stewarts of Ardvorlich eventually took over the ruins of the old house on the island and used it for storage and then, like so many other places, it collapsed under its own weight and left as Carthage...a heap of stones!

A friend of mine once camped on it with a party of Boy Scouts some time ago. In getting ready for bed they were aroused by the sound of a high speed motor-boat engine. In their pajamas they could see in the gloaming the last hurrah of a young man in the speed boat. He would alternatively speed up going down the loch, and when returning and approaching the island cut his engines. He did this several times so the younger lads could not get to sleep. Ronnie watched the wash from the power of the movement of the boat come in wavelets, and waited for an appropriate moment. The opportunity arose when the young man stopped his engines and lit a cigarette. There was stillness upon the loch. Seizing the moment Ronnie bawled across the water, “What the Hell are you doing at this time of night disturbing the rest of honest folk?” The young man on hearing this from this “deserted” island was seen to be startled and moved quickly to restart his engine. He then took off in his boat at top speed and never returned. No doubt he has been bragging ever since about his encounter with the departed on Neishes’ Island!

This is an example of a Crannog near Kenmore in Loch Tay.