Places of Interest, Dunalastair

By James Irvine Robertson

W

ade's great highway from Crieff crossed the river at Tummel Bridge. To the west there were only paths. This was by human design. Alexander Robertson of Struan (1670-1749), chief of the Clan Donnachaidh, had his seat at Dunalastair on the north side of the Tummel by Schiehallion. An annoyance to the government for his Jacobite politics all his life, he also annoyed his neighbours for doing nothing to discourage those on his lands from cattle theft. The other lairds jocularly referred to him as the Tyrant or the Elector of Rannoch. He distrusted women, was an ineffectual yet enthusiastic soldier, and a mighty toper. He deliberately kept the roads into his domain in bad condition to discourage visitors and agents of authority. On the few occasions that debt collectors managed to penetrate as far as his Hermitage at Dunalastair, his clansmen threw them into the river or bounced them back across Tummel bridge outraged at their temerity in demanding money from their chief.

Plenty of chiefs were barbarians, but Struan was in some respects the most civilised of men. He was a poet - his work may not have stood the test of time but his contemporaries were suitably impressed - not only in English and Gaelic but also in Italian, Latin, and French. Long periods of his life were spent in exile with the Jacobites in St Germains and Avignon. King James called him the first gentleman of his court.

By the time of the '45 Struan was an old man but still led his clan down to the Battle of Prestonpans. After the victory he appropriated the gold chain, the wolf-fur cloak, the brandy, and the carriage belonging to the defeated commander, Sir John Cope. His clansmen escorted him back home. For the last few miles after a wheel had broken, they carried the coach on their shoulders. Inside Cope's coach was a slab of chocolate. This was viewed with deep suspicion and discarded. The chief's portrait depicts him holding a glass and toasting the spectator, an appropriate pose since it is recorded that the duke of Perth was hors de combat when Bonnie Prince Charlie sent his summons in 1745. The duke had been staying with Struan and it took him several weeks to recover from the effect of the drink he had consumed.

In earlier centuries the Robertson chiefs were lords over much of Perthshire. By the time of the poet chief, the clan lands were restricted to the south shore of Loch Rannoch, some parts of Glen Errochty, lands round Fearnan on Loch Tay, and the old man's own home at Dunalastair. Love of his own 'country' was one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Highlander. Struan took this to extremes and was one of the many writers who described this part of Scotland as paradise and, when he left it, would announce that he was descending into the world.

The road to the north of Dunalastair joins up with the Wade road across Tummel bridge. This still winds up the hillside above Trinafour but is now a branch off the route though Glen Errochty to Struan and Calvine. This glen was once dominated by the Clan Donnachaidh but these lands were lost to the earl of Atholl in 1511. A good half of the Robertson lairds were thenceforth supposed to follow the Atholl family rather than their chief. And sometimes they did.