Gather around, pull up a pew, take a seat and make yourselves comfortable — I’d like to tell you a story.
In Scotland, to the west of Perth, past Creiff and beyond “The Crocodile” — a painted boulder that has for centuries borne the face of some ambiguous, toothsome beast — lies Neish country.
In 1522, after years of petty feuding over forgotten grievances, Clan Neish of Loch Earn, a sept of Clan MacGregor, finally met Clan Macnab of Loch Tay in battle at Glen Boultachan. Having fought with strength and bravery, the Neishes were eventually overwhelmed, their brave chief slain against the boulder at which he had struggled “like a lion at bay”.
The Neishes, defeated, retreated to their island at Loch Earn where they remained for almost a hundred years. Then, in the winter of 1612, when they once again felt strong enough to antagonise the Macnabs, the clan ambushed their rival’s messenger at Glen Lednoch and relieved him of the Macnab’s Christmas provisions.
Incensed by his AWOL festive feast, the chief ordered his eldest son, known as “Smooth John Macnab”, to pay the Neishes back in kind. Procuring a boat, he and his brothers proceeded to carry it the twenty or so miles over the hills to Loch Earn — all while the Neishes slept off their hijacked hangovers.
Asked who he would like to see least, the clan leader offered Smooth John’s own name. “Then I am he”, came the enemy heir’s most likely apocryphal reply, “but rough enough I’ll be this night.” The Neishes, having thought their island impenetrable, were caught by surprise and quickly slain. One survivor, a young boy, survived the massacre, and it is from he that all remaining Neishes are thought to descend.
I tell you this because two reminders are believed to remain from this little-known chapter of Scottish history — three if you include “The Crocodile”, which has been repeatedly repainted in the years since. The stone at which the Neish’s leader fought is still said to carry his blood, while fragments of the boat abandoned by the Macnabs on their return from Neish Island are rumoured to still litter the hillside.
Arriving at St Fillans — a village founded in the 18th Century as Port of Lochearn and later renamed in 1817 — we left the car on the bank of Loch Earn and set about exploring the surrounding area. Using as our guide an article from The Courier dated January of this year, we retraced the author’s proffered route past the power station, over the former Comrie, St Fillans & Lochearnhead Railway line and on to Glen Tarken.
Reading historic accounts of Loch Earn, as well as the aforementioned travelogue, it’s amazing how little the area appears to have changed in the intervening years. In his 1912 book Annals of St Fillans, Alexander Porteous reproduces an observation made by a Mr John Brown as to the local houses being “invariably stocked with the choicest flowers and shrubs.” This June afternoon was no different.
Soon, however, the houses surrounding Loch Earn — believed to translate, rather counter-intuitively, as Lake Of Ireland — were mere specks in the distance. As we ascended Creag Odhar the flower beds and cultivated gardens gave way to exposed rock and open moorland. Sheep grazed the purple heather, as clumps of once-yellow gorse stood burned next to the track.
After what felt like hours of strenuous to moderate ascent — alone but for sheep in the surprisingly empty wilderness — the way finally leveled out as we crested the creag. Below, at the centre of a shallow basin, was Allt an Fhionn, a burn which feeds into Loch Earn approximately one and a half kilometres below. Stopping for a packed lunch, we picnicked by a small section of the watercourse that was absolutely teeming in newborn tadpoles.
From here we carried on through a slight valley piled high with quarry-like detritus. A sizeable sluice stood out amongst the rubble into which a steady stream deposited its contents, presumably acting as an intake for the St Fillans hydro-electric facility we had passed earlier. Today, however, it merely emitted a trickle of water onto the concrete platform below.
After around two hours of almost constant ascent, it was finally time to make our way downhill back to the Loch. To do this, we had to cross a number sprawling sheep enclosures; each field afforded near-panoramic views over Loch Earn and the various boaters taking advantage of the steadily improving weather. The clouds had finally given way to glorious sunshine, highlighting further the truly stunning scenery.
Passing a series of cottages and farm buildings of varied repair, we left the bleak and barren (but nevertheless beautiful) highlands behind and returned once more to the Loch. With no option but to skirt the A85 back to the car, we stuck to the grassy verge at the side of the road and trekked the mile back to St Fillans. With the temperature now pushing 20 degrees, the Loch was abuzz with activity: fishermen cast out along its banks, a water-skier trailed behind a bouncing speedboat and a seaplane circled above before making its descent onto the water.
Before leaving, we walked a few minutes east of the Four Seasons Hotel where the trail began in order to look out over Neish Island. The island used to be substantially larger, but artificial damming caused a rise in the water level that claimed much of the island, as well as the causeway which had once linked it to the mainland. Boatless and unable to reach its shores, I contented myself with a long look out at what was once possibly my ancestral home.
Neish country is only 50-odd miles away from my current residence just outside Dundee, and I’m sure I’ll be back at some point in the future. After all, I still have a blood-soaked boulder and a broken-down boat to find (and we never did see The Crocodile). Not to mention a niche.