Mary, lift my head

The story of a Viking Princess, a white cow and a love death could not part – Craigmonie

This is an ancient site. Not a graveyard in itself but a place of death: Craigmonie, sometimes spelled Craigmony, a small hill at the back of Drumnadrochit.

A beautiful and well-marked walk (1) takes you there. After leaving from the busy car park in Drumnadrochit it rewards you with a view of fertile farmland, diverse woodland, majestic Loch Ness and the small burial ground of the Grants who were Lairds in this area for centuries.

“It is likely that the site of Balmacaan Woods was occupied by humans since the earliest times. Craigmonie is a natural lookout point and it is thought that it was surmounted by a prehistoric fort. Little can now be discerned on the ground, but the area is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The Norse King, Monie, was besieged on the craig in the 11th century, hence its name. He and his men were then defeated on Blar na Geilt – the Plain or Field of Terror – below the cliffs. An account from 1893 describes the events: Monie, son of the King of Scandinavia, landed in Argyle with a large force, accompanied by his sister. His retreat to his ships having been cut off by the natives, he was pursued northward through the Caledonian valley, until he reached Urquhart, where he made a stand on the high rock of Craigmonie, which is still crowned with the remains of ancient fortifications. There he and his companions bravely held their own for a time, his sister taking shelter in a crevice still known as Leabaidh-Nighean-an-Righ, the Bed of the King’s Daughter. Driven at last to the plain below, the Norsemen were forced to give battle, and were defeated with great slaughter. Monie escaped with his sister, but at Corrimony he was overtaken and slain. The people of the Glen took kindly to the hapless princess, and she lived among them for many a day.” (2)

The story of the Viking Princess is one of the romantic if brutal stories Craigmonie tells to this day. Difficult to imagine all this, the viewpoint seems so peaceful.

But it was notorious in the past as a place for executions. Death took its toll here and love played its part. A story that goes back to the 17th century that has one hero: Domhnull Donn Mac Fhir Bohuntuinn. Donald was an adventurer, a rebel, a poet and a very charismatic man. He, like the more famous Rob Roy, took to cattle-lifting. An illegal but rather common sort of income in the Highlands of Scotland in those days and a legitimate means of warfare, too.

“He was the Rob Roy of his generation; but he had more poetry in his soul than the famous Macgregor had, and, although his deeds brought him in the end to the headsman’s block, he died with the reputation of never having injured a poor man, or imbued his hands wantonly in human blood. The scenes of his adventures extended from Breadalbane to Caithness, and his custom was to make rapid journeys with a few kindred spirits, by the least known mountain tracks, and to swoop down upon the cattle of the lairds and tacksmen where he was least expected. He was aided and abetted by the smaller tenants and cottars, to whom he extended his protection and lavish generosity.” (3)

So far so romantic but it gets better. He was a poet, singer and a musician, too, destined to fall in love. Donald met Mary when he was travelling to Glenmoriston. Mary was the daughter of the Laird of Grant, and lived in Urquhart Castle. The two fell desperately in love and wanted to marry. Albeit Donald’s illegal activities, he was still the son of a gentleman, but even so the Laird of Grant would not give him his daughter in matrimony. He went even further and stopped his daughter from seeing the unwanted suitor. But the star-crossed lovers managed to meet anyway, somewhere on the banks of Loch Ness.

“On one of these occasions he left his companions on the farm of Borlum, with a herd of cattle which he had lifted in Ross-shire. During his absence the owners appeared and claimed the cattle, among which was a white cow which they readily identified. The Laird of Grant, called upon to explain how the reivers had found shelter so near his residence, was very angry, and swore, ” Bheir an Diabhal mise a mo bhrogan mar teid Domhnull Donn a chrochadh!”—”The Devil may take me out of my shoes, if Donald Donn is not hanged!” Donald, pursued by the soldiers from the Castle, but still anxious to be near Mary Grant, betook himself to an almost inaccessible cave in Glaic-Ruidh-Bhacain, on the Ruiskich side of Alt-Saigh, which is still known as Uamh Dhomhnuill Duinn Donald Donn’s Cave. There, safe from his pursuers and their sleuth-hounds coin duhh Eadailteach—black dogs of Italy—he passed his time in the company of Glenmoriston’s herdsmen from across the burn of Alt-Saigh, or composing songs in praise of Mary and the wilds that gave him shelter.” (3)

But of course he was discovered and caught. He was sent a fake message, allegedly from his beloved Mary, to meet at the house of a trusted friend. Donald went there and waited for Mary as suddenly 63 men rushed in. Donald put up a brave fight but had to surrender eventually. He was taken to the castle dungeon, convicted of stealing cattle and condemned to death. As a gentleman, he was granted the wish to be beheaded instead of hanged. The place where that was going to happen would have been the same in both cases – Craigmonie. And he composed the following lines:

Bithidh mi maireach air cnoc gun cheann,
‘Us cha bhi baigh aig duine rium
Nach truagh leat fhein mo chaileag bhronach,
Mo Mhairi bhoidheach, mheall-shuileach!

Tomorrow I shall be on a hill, without a head,
Is cha bhi baigh aig duine rium
Have you no compassion on my sorrowful maiden
My Mary, the fair and tender-eyed! (3)

Here Donald died and his last thoughts were of his true love Mary Grant. A love so strong, that according to legend it beat even death. As his severed head rolled down from the block, his mouth cried out the words:

“Tog mo cheann, a Mhairi!”  Mary, lift my head!


sources and further reading

(1) Craigmonie walk


(3) William Mackay: Urquhart and Glenmoriston. Olden Times in a Highland Parish. Inverness; The Northern Counties Newspaper and Printing and Publishing Company; 1914, p. 187 ff

Liked the read? There’s more here...

Scotland is a country full of history, stories and secrets. Often, the three cannot be separated. That is what makes this country so wonderful and unique. The stories of this book have been discovered and gathered for Erkenbach’s blog, Graveyards of Scotland, over many years. 

Scotland for Quiet Moments is available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.

Scotland for Quiet Moments is available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.

The fairy hill in Inverness, a nitrate murder on Shetland, a family of left-handers, wolves, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace shown in a new light, the secret bay of the writer Gavin Maxwell, a murdering poet and so many things you didn’t know about Scotland, its clans and its history.Her main sources were historical travel guides from the 18th and 19th centuries, where the finds were scary, beautiful, funny, and sometimes, cruel.This unusual approach to a country’s history has produced amazing results. You don’t have to share the author’s passion for cemeteries to enjoy this book; only a small number of the stories in this collection take place in graveyards, though they do all end in them, so perhaps it helps.

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