The suggested ”Coffin Road” to St Kenneth’s, Kinlochlaggan from Whitebridge, near Loch Ness. By Graham Grant
There is a growing tradition or legend that funeral parties carrying the body of a loved one or friend, crossed south from Whitebridge over the Monadhliath hills, 22 miles to the River Spey plus a further 3.5 miles for burial at St Kenneth’s, Kinlochlaggan. It Is not known if this long journey was carried out due to personal choices, or for ecclesiastical or superstitious reasons.
The area at the north end of Loch Laggan has long been considered a particularly sacred site. St Kenneth set up his cell here in the 7th century and even before the 15th century when Allan Cameron is said to have built the present structure, there was a place of worship here. Perhaps it is from those far off times that the tradition of carrying bodies from afar originated.
By 1791, in the 1st Statistical Account, the Rev James Grant, husband of Mrs Grant of Laggan, wrote of St Kenneth’s that its burying ground ‘is still more used than any other’.
Dr IF Grant, founder of what is now the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore,states in ‘Highland Folk Ways’, ‘When roads were few and the traditional desire to be buried with their kinsfolk was strong in Highland people, great distances, sometimes over rough country, had to be covered’.
Rev T Sinton tells us in his fine book ‘By Loch and River’ 1910, ‘bodies were always carried shoulder high to their last resting place. They were often enclosed in cases of wickerwork [known as geimhlichean] or perhaps merely surrounded by long saplings placed side by side and withe-bound’. ‘Huge companies of people from the Braes of Badenoch and Braes of Lochaber, who journeyed to St Kenneth’s carrying thither their dead with the wail of the pibroch and cry of the coronach…’.
Rev AE Robertson, champion and latterly President of the Scottish Rights of Way Soc in 1930/40’s, contended that ‘a coffin road might be identified by the number of little cairns upon it where the coffin had rested’.
Rev Sinton again – on cairns – ‘A strangely impressive group of these weird memorials of generations gone by stand by themselves on the route taken by burial parties to St Kenneth’s from the valley of the Spey’. Also, T Radcliffe Barnett in ‘The Land of Locheil and the Magic West’ 1927, tells ‘You can see heaps of coffin stones today on Glensherra road between Loch Crunachdan and Loch Laggan..’.
Perhaps it is one of these cairns which can still be found in the trees close to the road just east of Loch Crunachdan. Others may have been destroyed during construction of the hydro electric tunnel to Loch Laggan in the 1940’s and of the recent Beauly/Denny pylon line.
To the west of L Crunachdan, the early OS maps show Cnocan nan Cisteachan – hillock of the coffins. Sapper Robert Kane, RE, the surveyor who had consulted Rev A Campbell, the RC priest and 2 Crathie crofters, noted ‘coffins were frequently laid down to rest the persons carrying them’.
It is thus understandable that folks from Crathie and Drummin and even from Glen Roy would regularly have carried their dead over from the valley of the Spey to their local burial ground at St Kenneth’s. The additional distance of 22 miles from over the high, remote Monadhliaths is more difficult to comprehend. Rev T Sinton(above), in spite of being born and spending his early years at Aberarder Farm, Lochlagganside, and latterly being minister of Dores, just north of Whitebridge, does not mention anything of funeral parties crossing thro’ the hills.
A track, however, was indeed used for general communication. From Whitebridge, travellers would journey south up the River Fechlin to Garrogie, along Loch Killin, past Stronelarig and via the Crom Alt, cross the watershed above Loch na Larig. The route then descends the Piper’s Burn to Glen Markie, passing the long forgotten townships of Reanuallanich and Achnashellach and the mystery burial ground of Rapag or Reballick, allegedly containing the graves of a Montrose soldier; unbaptised children(O Blundell) ; a Black Watch sergeant(I Richardson). This ground was consecrated in Oct 1995 by Fr Vernon Butellier, RC priest from Nova Scotia.
On reaching Crathie, burial parties would cross Spey and perhaps pausing at a cairn shown on early maps near the present mooring place for the fishing boats at Sherrabeg, would join the track already discussed leading over from Glenshero to St Kenneth’s.
Alister Chisholm, Lochgarthside, Gorthleck, near Whitebridge, tells that his great grandfather, Alexander 1840-1929, a mason to trade, walked over to work at Ardverikie around the time of its rebuilding by Sir JW Ramsden in c1873. He would leave Lochgarthside very early on Monday, after the Sabbath, arriving at lunchtime for work. After up to a month’s building, he would return after working Saturday morning to ensure arrival home before the Sabbath at midnight.
The ‘Press & Journal’ 2-5-1885, reported the death of pedlar Tom Harris (better known as ‘Fine Day’ !). He had been caught out in a storm in the hills above Stronelarig while travelling from Badenoch to Stratherrick.
Rosemary Gibson tells in her shinty book ‘The Boys of the Eilan’, of John Macpherson, born Newtonmore, who when a young shepherd at Crathie in 1887, took a drove of sheep across the Monadhliaths for sale at Inverness mart. John eventually became proprietor of the very well-known Macpherson’s Sporting Stores, latterly in Inglis Street, Inverness. He held important positions in Shinty heirachy, being always supportive and generous to the game in his native Badenoch.
Alister Chisholm(see above) heard tell of Stratherrick shinty enthusiasts at the turn of the 20th century, walking over for games against Badenoch teams. He also recalls that his father (also Alister- the wee boy in the photo above) had spoken to an old man whose shoulders were still sore one month after carrying a coffin from Dell, Whitebridge, to Laggan.
In the mid 1990’s Gaynoll Craig organised a ‘coffin walk’ to raise money for improvements to the RC chapel in Kingussie. A crowd of local folk walked the last short section from Glenshero, but Bill Cook was one of a pair who covered the total distance from Whitebridge. In the section around the watershed he noticed probably one of the 4 cairns marked on early OS maps. He writes ‘It was a fascinating walk, felt really remote in the middle and difficult to imagine how they managed to carry coffins so far’. Today much of this area has been accessed by roads to the more recent, large renewable-energy projects – hydro and wind.
In conclusion, it is certain that an access route was used from Laggan to Stratherrick (and beyond to Inverness). From this it would seem reasonable to assume that the coffins, of those who for whatever reason required to be buried at St Kenneth’s, could have been transported thro’ the Monadhliaths, perhaps from very early times. GG.
Copywrite Graham Grant 2019