Stories By the Fireside:

Loch na Claidhean,
The Loch of the Swords

The two most common causes of clan dispute were cattle-lifting and land boundaries. For feuds over cattle the only settlement was a retaliatory raid, but the question of land boudaries might be negotiated to a peaceful resolution by the chiefs of the clans involved. One such negotiation took place at the juncture of Inverness-shire, Perthshire and Argyllshire.

Two mighty clans, Cameron of Lochiel and Murray of Atholl, had been feuding over the boundaries between their properties. Lochiel, Chief of the Camerons, arranged to meet the Earl of Atholl, the Murrays' Chief, on the shore of a small loch. Each chief had promised to come alone -- just to talk. It was a fine day in late summer. The sky was very blue and the water sparkled in the sun. Lochiel walked along the track bordered by purple heather, accompanied only by his collie-dog. He was, as he had promised, alone and unarmed.

As Lochiel passed from his own country of Lochaber into the borderlands of the Cameron territory he met an old Cameron woman who stood blocking the path. She studied him for a few moments before she spoke. "Ach, c'àite bheil do fhir?" she asked. ("Where are your men?)

Lochiel laughed and replied that he needed no men today.

The old woman stood her ground, her eyes boring through him steadily. "C'àite bheil do fhir, a' Lochiel?" she asked more insistently.

"Peace, old hag!," he answered sternly. "What need have I of attendants when I go openly to meet Atholl, my brother chief?" When the old woman stared only and did not reply, Lochiel swept past her and continued toward the meeting place by the lake.

The old woman hobbled after him, this time catching him by his red-lined cloak and pulling him to face her again. "C'àite bheil do fhir?"

Lochiel stood there, considering the uncanny dame and her persistence in the question. Uneasy, he turned about and returned to the nearest village in his own lands, gathering sixty-five men to follow him to the loch. The men moved stealthily and when they finally reached the meeting place they hid in the deep heather above the loch. They were to remain unseen unless Lochiel gave them a prearranged signal. After a short wait, Lochiel watched as the Earl of Atholl came striding through the heather, very much alone. Lochiel felt ashamed of his hidden men and his suspicions.

Lochiel walked down the hill to greet Atholl and they shook hands, then fell to talking about the disputed land. Nearly half an hour passed before they started arguing loudly. Atholl waved his hand in the air and behind him some twenty Atholl clansmen sprang up from the heather, fully armed. "Có tha íad?" Lochiel demanded. ("Who are they?")

"Atholl sheep come to graze on Lochiel's pastures," replied the Earl with a menacing tone.

There was a flash of red as Lochiel whipped his cloak about him and down the hill bounded the sixty-five men he had hidden in the heather. Startled, Atholl asked, "Agus có tha íadsan?"

"Lochaber hounds," Lochiel replied, grinning. "They're sharp-toothed and very hungry. They love the flavour of Atholl sheep. Shall I let them feed?" Atholl stood dumb-founded. "Come, my Lord Earl. You must give up your claim to the land for these hounds are many and your sheep but few. I cannot promise how much longer I can hold the leash!"

There was a long tense moment, but presently Atholl smiled and extended his hand which Lochiel clasped. At the sign of peace both hounds and sheep sank back into the heather and the Chiefs returned to a friendly discussion of the boundary. When at last a settlement was reached, the Earl of Atholl drew his sword, kissing it as he renounced his claim to the disputed land. He whirled the sword over his head and flung it far out into the loch, proclaiming that until the sword be found again the land would remain Lochiel's land.

And so the peace was kept for over 200 years, until one day a young boy was fishing in the loch and drew up a rusty broadsword with a basket hilt. He took his strange catch to the parish minister. But when the Lochaber men heard of the find they were alarmed and demanded that it be returned immediately to the loch, and so it was. Then could all of Lochaber sleep well once the sword was again in it watery sheath.

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