By James Irvine RobertsonH
ere at the northern end of Atholl lies the heartland of Clan Donnachaidh. The name means 'Children of Duncan' who was the first great chief, descended from the kindred of St Columba and the old Celtic earls of Atholl. In the Clan Museum at Bruar is the sacred jewel of the clan, the rock crystal 'Clach na Brataich' - the Stone of the Standard - said to have come out of the ground attached to the pole of the chief's standard at the Battle of Bannockburn. An earlier account, written before 1780, gives a different origin, stating that it emerged near Loch Errochty when the same chief was chasing the MacDougalls of Lorne. Since the former story is more romantic it is increasingly gaining verisimilitude.
By the time of the fourth chief, Robert, the earldom of Atholl was held by Walter Stewart, son of Robert II. He wanted his grandson to be king and took part in the assassination of James I at Blackfriars monastery in Perth in 1436. Walter was soon captured, but his grandson and Sir Robert Graham fled to Atholl where they led a gang of outlaws preying upon the countryside round their stronghold in the forests, now long gone, behind Schiehallion. The Donnachaidh chief captured the traitors, for which he was granted the charter of the lands of Atholl as far south as Perth. In honour of this chief, many clansmen took the name Robert-son.
The capture of Graham took place by the burn Alt Ghramaich which runs into Loch Bhac high on the moorland between Strathgarry and Strathtummel. There beneath a shelter stone, which still makes an excellent picnic site, the chief found the fugitive and handed him over to suffer the dreadful fate dreamed up by James's vengeful queen - a week of flogging, a red-hot iron crown on the head, hanging, drawing, and quartering.
The site of the clan centre at Bruar is at the base of one of those spectacular gorges carved through soft rock by a burn in spate. There are many round about although this, and the Moness at Aberfeldy, are the best known. As at Moness, Robert Burns came here during his peregrination of 1786 and produced a poem in its praise. He also petitioned the duke of Atholl, requesting him to make more of this beauty spot and his Grace responded by laying out walks and bridging the tumbling cascade where the most satisfactory views of it might be observed. The short walk round the falls draws thousands each year. These streams have their headwaters on the moors above and respond almost instantaneously to heavy rain. It is after any such downpour that the full spectacle of the peaty, foaming torrents are best appreciated.
Thirty years after Burns, the painter William Turner did much the same tour in Atholl with his sketch book and produced exquisite water colours of many of the finest features. Some of these are now in the Tate Gallery, others are at Yale University. He was precursor of a host of Victorians landscape painters who came to Atholl to paint and feed the public appetite for the spectacular Highland scenery. Landseer was, perhaps, the doyen of this school but many artists were inspired by the lochs and mountains and most seemed to find view points with a conveniently placed Highland cow or two in the middle distance. One, Joseph Farquharson, preferred sheep to cattle, often in snow. His contemporaries nicknamed him Frozen-mutton.
Adjacent to the clan museum is the House of Bruar, the Harrods of the Highlands. Built in 1994 in the Scots baronial style this spectacular retail development markets the best of Scotland's foods and textiles. The haggis served in the restaurant is consistently excellent.
Within a mile or two of Bruar are the small villages of Struan and Calvine both ancient strongholds of the Clan Donnachaidh. The old church at Struan had an ancient Celtic bronze bell, one of three that survived down the centuries, which is now in Perth Museum. On the banks of the Garry, a couple of hundred yards upstream of the church, sits the mound which used to be topped with the stronghold of the Clan Donnachaidh. Struan means stream and this is the territorial title still used by the clan chief.