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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

A Brief History of Foyers
by the late Gordon Wilson

Foyers, on the banks of Loch Ness, one of the Highlands most inspiring and magnificent lochs, must owe its origin to the presence of the loch and there can be no better way to introduce this short account than with the origin of Loch Ness.

Legend of Loch Ness-side records that at one time the Great Glen in which the loch now lies was a place of rich pasture, a land of milk and honey with plenty of corn, fish, deer and game for its numerous people. In the Glen there was a well which had been blessed by Daly, the Druid, under the condition that whosoever drew water from the well must always replace its cover. Many years later a woman was drawing water from the well when she heard that her child had fallen into the fire. The poor mother immediately rushed home forgetting to replace the well's cover. The water of the well overflowed and flooded the whole glen and the escaping inhabitants lamented "The loch nis ann" (there is a lake now). From this saying (nis is pronounced Neesh in Gaelic) Loch Ness took its name.

Leaving legend aside there is the more acceptable origin of Loch Ness that it took its name from "An Eas" (the Falls) which referred to the Falls of Foyers.

Legend plays a part in the history of any place and none more so than Foyers and Loch Ness-side but that Foyers existed and was inhabited in pre-historic times is shown by the presence of the vitrified fort on Dun Dearduil (hill of Deidre, also of legendary fame) at Inverfarigaig near Foyers. These forts, built on top of easily defended hills, were made of rings of stones all molten together with the heat of great fires. The local inhabitants would use these forts for their protection and defence when attacked by other tribes and invaders. Archaeologists are unable to date these structures accurately but believe they were built between the years 2000 B.C. and 0.

The original inhabitants of the Foyers district were Neolithic Iberians thereafter the fierce Pictish tribes and as these settled down to a more peaceful existence, the ancient Pictish Kingdom with its capital in Inverness, was formed.

Christianity came early to the district - followers of St. Ninian in the 4th and 5th centuries converted many of the Picts to Christianity, but after the death of the Saint they soon reverted to paganism. In the middle of the sixth century (565 A.D.) St. Columba visited the area from his Christian community at Iona to see King Brude and to try and persuade the Picts to throw aside their pagan ways once again.
St. Columba, with his disciples, came from Iona in neighbouring Dalriada, the country of the Scots, by coracle along the chain of lochs in the Great Glen and after passing Foyers landed at Dores from where he walked and arrived at King Brude's palace in Inverness just as the funeral of a man killed by a fierce water monster was taking place on the opposite side of the River Ness. Unfortunately, on the Saint's bank of the river there was no boat to ferry him across to the palace, so a companion monk of St. Columba's offered to swim across and bring one back. When the poor monk was halfway across, the monster appeared with a roar and raced to attack the terrified man. When St. Columba saw what was happening, he made the sign of the cross in the air and shouted to the monster to stop. The monster stopped only six feet away from the monk, swam quickly away and disappeared. So ended the first legendary sighting of the still legendary monster.

St. Columba and his followers remained in the district for a long time preaching the Gospel and again turned the Pictish people into Christians. The first church of the Celtic Faith in the Foyers district was founded shortly after St. Columba, by St. Moluag, another Iona saint, who built the church of St. Moluag at nearby Inverfarigaig. The first Roman Catholic Church in Foyers itself was probably founded in the 12th century by David I, that "sair Sanct tae the croon" whose gifts to the church left the Scottish Crown quite impoverished. In 1115, the bishopric of Moray was instituted and shortly after this, in David's reign, the parish church of Foyers and Boleskine was founded when many other parishes in the district were set up.
Between the time of St. Moluag and the 12th century, the history of Foyers can only be pieced together by conjecture. During this time the Scots King Kenneth McAlpine succeeded to the Pictish throne (in 844 A.D.) and Scotland took on what is now almost its present shape. The dispersal of the Pictish people took place as a result of this Scots infiltration together with the frequent Norse invasions which took place along the Moray Firth. Gaelic eventually replaced Pictish as the language of the North, the Celtic Church gave way to the Roman Catholic and only small pockets of Picts remained in places like Foyers, Stratherrick and Glen Urquhart - many of whose descendants are still living in these districts today.

Also during this time the Scottish feudal system and clans began to take on the shape which lasted until well past the 1745 rebellion. It is not quite clear which was the first clan to own lands in Foyers but the Mormaers or Lairds of Moray, who more often than not rebelled against the Scottish king and set up an independent kingdom of their own, had the feudal rights over the people and lands in Foyers and Stratherrick in the 11th and 12th centuries. After the Mormaers of Moray (whose family gave King MacBeth to Scotland) had been subdued for a while in the 13th century, the Grants had large estates in the Foyers and Stratherrick districts. Gradually the Grants' influence and possessions in Foyers dwindled whence they migrated to Glen Moriston and Strathspey and in 1420, the Frasers acquired their first lands in Stratherrick by marriage with a daughter of Patrick Le Grant.

The Fraser clan, which moulded the shape of events over Foyers for centuries, was of Norman stock, not Celtic, and was first established in the South of Scotland during the reign of William I (the Lion) and did not settle in Lovat until the 14th century and Foyers until the 15th.

As the Grants lost more and more of the lands about Foyers, the Frasers increased their possessions until 1479, when the district saw the last of the Grants, who lost his lands in the following unusual way. Laurence Grant of Foyers and Boleskine, who held these church lands by Charter from the Bishop of Moray, insulted the young bride of Gruer Mor (Big Gruer), Laird of Port Clair (Fort Augustus), while on a visit to Foyers. Gruer was so incensed at this that he gathered his clan together and set out in galleys to Foyers determined to extirpate Laurence Grant and his clan. The two clans met in their galleys at a bay about a mile west of Foyers and the battle of Camus Mharbh Dhaoine (Bay of the Dead Men - so called to this day) ensued, in which Laurence Grant was defeated and slain after trying to escape on the other side of Loch Ness at Ruskich.

Clan feuds and battles, such as the Battle of the Camus, were a foremost feature of the history of the Highlands and which proved to be a thorn in the flesh of many Scottish sovereigns and British ones after the accession of James VI to the English throne. The pattern of life of the tenants of Highland estates and clans was thus greatly affected by these feuds and Foyers was no exception with repeated plunderings and raids taking place in the district.

The first Fraser of Foyers was Hugh, an illegitimate son of Hugh, 3rd Lord and 8th Laird of Lovat, who was given the estate of Upper Foyers, consisting of Easter and Wester Aberchalder, by his father at the end of the 15th century (about 1480).  Hugh Fraser, first of Foyers, was called in the district "Uisdean Frangach" (French Hugh) because of his long residence and marriage in France whence he had fled after killing his half-brother, John Fraser of Lovat, in a duel above Loch Ruthven in Stratherrick.

Uisdean Frangach's son William, 2nd of Foyers, added several other estates such as Garrogie, Mussady and Melagie, all in Stratherrick, to those he already possessed. In 1537 an apostolic warrant was issued by Pope Paul III granting William the feu of the church lands in Foyers and Boleskine and these he duly received in 1541 from the Bishop of Moray. On receipt of the Lower Foyers estate, William began to build the mansion house of Foyers on the west bank of the river below the Falls which was to be the home of the Frasers of Foyers for over 3 more centuries. William, 2nd of Foyers, died in 1544 as a result of wounds received in the battle of 'Blar-na-leine," (the Field of the Shirts). This battle was fought at Kinlochlochy between the whole of the Clan Fraser and Clan Ranald over a dispute of the chieftainship of Clan Ranald and received its name as it was fought on a hot July day when the clansmen stripped off their plaids and fought in their shirts. Foyers was said to be the only gentleman of the Clan Fraser to survive the battle; he was saved by an attendant, Norman Gow, who although wounded himself, carried Foyers on his back ten miles from the scene of the battle before dying. The family of Foyers granted, for all time, the descendants of Gow, a rent free croft for this heroic feat.

Life on a Highland estate, such as Foyers then was, has remained very much the same to this day. The mansion house was the centre of the community where large numbers of retainers were employed and the crofts of the laird's tenants and clansmen, from which he drew his income would be scattered all over the estate. Smaller portions of the estate would have a smaller mansion house with its accompanying crofts in which the different close relatives of the laird would live. The tenants (serfdom was abolished very early in Scotland) had a very simple croft of an acre or two of land, a "black" house built of birch sticks and turf, possessing only one or two slits in the walls for windows and a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape, and one or two cows or oxen for which there was common grazing. The laird of the estate had complete power over the whole estate and the people on it. William, 2nd of Foyers, had a gallows at Tomvoit (Knoll of the Meeting Place) in Stratherrick, where law breakers were hanged and an unconsecrated burial place was situated at nearby Mussady for those offenders. Lord Lovat also had a gallows on Tom-na-Croiche (Knoll of the Gallows) near his residence at Torness in Stratherrick. The Highland lairds had this right of "pit and gallows" (furca et fossa) until as late as 1745. For all the seemingly harsh justice of these times the tenants and clansmen were always very loyal to their laird and would always answer any call to arms the laird made of them - this was made quite often for all the squabbles, feuds and rebellions in which the clansmen participated.

It was in another one of these feuds that Hugh Fraser, 5th of Foyers, was concerned. The battle Lan-na-Fala (Meadow of Blood) took place in 1603 on Mealfuorvonie, a mountain on the opposite side of Loch Ness to Foyers, between the Clan MacKenzie and the MacDonalds of Glengarry. The MacDonalds were defeated and the notorious Allan of Lundie, their leader, who had previously set fire to a church full of MacKenzie women and children, escaped down the mountain but found his retreat cut off. Foyers saw Lundie jump into the loch and came across in a boat and rescued him, whence he escaped to Glengarry.
In 1650 Hugh Fraser, 7th of Foyers, joined with his clansmen and tenants in Foyers, Lord Lovat's Army which invaded England together with other clans, in support of King Charles II who landed in Scotland after Cromwell had executed his father, Charles I. The decisive battle of Worcester brought disaster to the Scots and many gentlemen of the Clan Fraser were captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Foyers escaped and returned to his estates but his warring activities left him in debt and he was sued on various accounts for payment of these debts. In Cromwell's invasion of Scotland following the Scots' defiant support of Charles II in 1655, the Commonwealth leader managed to subdue the warring factions of Loch Ness-side by having garrisons of troops at Inverness and Inverlochy (Fort William) and a warship on Loch Ness for carrying troops and patrolling the loch.
It was about this time that an Inn at Foyers was first built and in those days it was mainly used by cattle drovers taking their cattle to and from the markets in the South. The site of the building, under a variety of names, has been used almost continuously as an inn to present day. The present building of the Foyers Hotel was built about 1863.

The Highlands from the time of the revolution when William of Orange usurped the throne of James VII, became even more restless and disturbed and often rebelled against the new king. In the Jacobite rising of the Georgian Succession in 1715, William Fraser, 8th of Foyers, however, took the side of the Government i.e. George I, much to his own cost. By doing this he invoked the wrath of his neighbouring clans including other septs of the Clan Fraser, which burned and plundered his estates, while Foyers himself and his tenants sought refuge in the surrounding hills. After the rebellion Foyers sued the government for compensation incurred in its name to the sum of 3040 Scots* with no apparent result, although his claim was officially recognised.

The clan feuds, plundering and general lawlessness, still common after the 1715 Rising, was the cause of Fraser of Foyers, together with several others Frasers in Stratherrick, signing a bond in 1721 with the MacTavishes and other clans in Stratherrick for mutual defence and protection of their properties.
The state of the Highlands also brought General Wade to restore law and order, which he did in the way Cromwell had done, by building forts along the Great Glen at Fort William, Fort Augustus and Inverness; but he also built roads connecting these forts to each other and to the south so that troops could be brought quickly to any trouble spot. The first road, built in 1726, connecting Fort Augustus and Inverness came through the Foyers estates in Stratherrick but not through the village itself until 1732, when the road was being remade. At this time the bridge at Inverfarigaig was built, together with the General's Hut, a provisioning centre for troops on the road and for officers' accommodation. General Wade himself stayed in the Foyers Hut on occasions. After the construction of the road had been completed, the hut was used as an inn for many years afterwards, although the Foyers Inn (then called the King's House) was only less than a mile away.

James Fraser, 9th of Foyers, was on very friendly terms with Simon, 13th Lord Lovat, later to be executed for his part in the 1745 Rising, and on that account, Foyers joined Lovat in supporting Prince Charles during his short reign in Edinburgh as King James VIII. After the disastrous battle of Culloden in 1746 the ill-fated Prince Charles fled westwards and took refuge in Gorthleck farmhouse on the Foyers estate but was soon alarmed by a party of Red Coats and effected his escape by jumping out of a window. Foyers also escaped from the battlefield and his efforts to elude capture were every bit as romantic as those of Prince Charles.

Foyers was excluded from the Act of Parliament pardoning treasonable offences committed in the rebellion, and was forced to live in hiding for seven years after the rebellion. One of his favourite haunts was a cave, a mile to the west of the Falls of Foyers. One day, on looking out of the cave, the laird saw a Red Coat secretly following a girl bringing food for him and, as to avoid capture was a matter of life and death to him, the laird shot the soldier who was buried where he fell. So Foyers's whereabouts could be kept secret, the inhabitants used to speak of him by the nickname "Bonaid Odhair" (Dun Coloured Bonnet).

After the Battle of Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland's troops brought much misery and brutality to the district. The estates were plundered and burnt on a scale never before known on account of the proximity of Foyers to Fort Augustus, where Cumberland and his troops were garrisoned. Many people starved to death and many outrages were committed on their persons. At a change-house, An Ire Mhor (a large piece of arable land), on the road to Inverness near Foyers, a group of soldiers, including an officer, raped a young girl living there with her grandmother and, when the old woman tried to defend her grandchild, she was strangled to death. At a funeral, taking place in Foyers cemetery, one of the starving mourners grabbed a loaf of bread off a passing provisions cart heading for Fort Augustus - uproar followed. The offender was arrested and the troops fired indiscriminately into the funeral party, killing at least one and wounding many others. The bullet holes in the grave stone of Donald Fraser of Erchit, buried in 1730, can still be seen to this day. Another outrage was committed on a boy taking a cask of beer to Foyers in his hiding place - when the boy refused to tell of his master's hiding place, the soldiers cut off his hands.

Gradually the country returned to near normal and peace eventually came to these troubled lands, but life was very different. Gaelic, the inhabitants' native tongue, was forbidden in public as was the wearing of the kilt and national dress and all arms had to be surrendered to the government, but with peace, came the opening of the Highlands to tourists and among the visitors to view the magnificence of the Falls of Foyers were Doctor Johnson and James Boswell, Robert Southey, Robert Bums, Sir Walter Scott and Lord Colchester who opened a fund so that the road to the Falls could be improved.

1773 saw the visit to Foyers of the famous Dr. Johnson and James Boswell who, in spite of the proximity of the King's House, stayed at the General's Hut, and were not dissatisfied with their fare. "We found," Boswell said "the house not ill-stocked with provisions". An amusing incident is reported when the two men visited the change-house, An Ire Mhor. The house was a Highland black house and the two men wished to look over it - the first black house they had seen. The present occupant, a relation of the woman murdered there in 1746, became very agitated when these two strange English-speaking men wanted to see her bedroom. The poor woman thought she was going to receive the same fate as her predecessor.

Sadder times were again coming to the Highlands - the approach of the end of the 18th century brought the "Clearances", when countless thousands of innocent people were evicted from their crofts to make way for sheep, being more profitable to the land owners. The "Clearances" also took their toll, but to a lesser extent, on the Foyers estates. The area surrounding the mansion house was cleared to make way for one large farm, Foyers Mains, and in Stratherrick several families were moved.

Sadder times were also ahead for the Frasers of Foyers. The fortunes of the family began to ebb when the management of the estates was handed over by Hugh, 10th of Foyers, to his son Simon, who, unfortunately, had no knowledge of finance whatsoever, so that on the death of his father in 1790 when the estates legally became his, he was in debt to the sum of 2000 sterling. Other misfortunes befell Hugh, 10th of Foyers, when all his sons, except Simon, and all of them potential heirs of the estate in case Simon had no children, predeceased him - one of Hugh's sons was killed in a feud with the MacGillivrays of Dumnaglass in 1776. In 1790, on the death of his father , Simon became the 11th laird of Foyers, and as it turned out, to be the last of the Frasers of Foyers, for he only had one daughter, Jane, who predeceased him in 1817. Jane died of a broken heart after her fiancee, Patrick Grant, her cousin from Glenmoriston, was killed when he accidentally fell out of a tree. Jane, although she married, died soon afterwards - a monument to her memory stands on the loch shore, below the site of Foyers Mansion House.

Simon Fraser, a very easy living and generous person, unfortunately quarrelled, at the beginning of the 19th century, with his relation, the Honourable Archibald Fraser of Lovat, a son of Simon, the 13th Lord Lovat, who continued the quarrel under the most unusual circumstances. Archibald Fraser built Boleskine House on the site of the manse of Boleskine which he had obtained from the Church Authorities by building them a new Church and Manse in Stratherrick nearer the bulk of the population. The sole reason for building the house, was that Fraser of Lovat could live near his neighbour, Simon of Foyers, to continue the quarrel by arguments and actions concerning boundaries, fences and other objects of contention.

In 1843 Simon Fraser, the last proprietor of the Frasers' lands in Foyers died and left the estate to his nephew, the laird of Glenmoriston. The estates by this time were in debt to the sum of 14,000 and the trustees had to sell them to pay off these debts. At the displenishment sale, Simon's piper composed and played the pibroch, "Race of Dogs come here and you'll get flesh", being bitter at heart to see his master's possessions sold.

There are now very few people living in Foyers itself, there being only one or two crofts on the east bank of the river and the empty mansion house on the west bank. The farm of Foyers Mains was still run as a farm and in 1865, Mr. Fountain Walker, an Edinburgh business man, who had bought the whole estate in 1859, enlarged and improved the farm by building the farm steading. About this time the bridge across the River Foyers to the mansion house was built and the building that is now Foyers Hotel was enlarged to its present day state. In 1871 the whole estate was again sold and bought this time by John Charles Cunninghame of Craigends, Lanarkshire. The estate was then used mainly as a sporting one for grouse shooting, deer stalking and fishing. In 1895 Cunninghame sold the estates with the exception of Garrogie and its shooting lodge to the B.A. Company.

With the arrival of the British Aluminium Company, there came a new era in the life of Foyers and the last link with the past was severed with the demolition of Foyers mansion house, the home of the Frasers of Foyers, who had controlled the destinies of its people for so many centuries.
*1 In view of the numbers of people of the same name owning estates, it was (and is still) the Scottish custom to call the proprietor by the name of his estate.
*2 About 4/6 Sterling to 1 Scots.

History of the Frasers .......Alex MacKenzie
Urquhart and Glenmoriston ......W. MacKay
Wade in Scotland ......J.E. Salmond
Journals of a Tour to the Hebrides .....James Boswell
Tales of Old Days on the Aldourie Estate ....N. Fraser Tytler
Story and Song from Loch Ness-side .....A. MacDonald
The Highland Note Book .......R. Carruthers

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