True Highlands Blog
Lochaber is blessed with an abundance of churches and more legends than you could investigate in a lifetime, but never before has a combination of the two intrigued as much as the story of Allan nan Creach.
This is a story that takes in a large cast of colourful characters and locations all over the west of Scotland, and is as much a hunt for ancient ruins as it is an attempt to define where exactly the boundaries of myth and history collide.
Allan nan Creach earned his name (Allan of the Forays or Allan of the Spoils) by being a bloodthirsty and merciless warrior who would mount expeditions to plunder his neighbours territory from his home in Tor Castle. By the late 1400s however, his fortunes had waned and beginning to feel his misdeeds had caught up with him, he sought consul from Gorm Shiil, the Blue-Eyed witch. Under her direction and aided by a servant, he went to a corn-kiln just outside Tor Castle, near present day Fort William, to attempt the Taghairm nan Cat, an invocation which consisted in large part, of roasting a cat alive on a spit. Gruesome – we know.
As the servant commenced the process of roasting the cat before a slow fire, Allan stood at the entrance with a drawn sword to keep off all intruders. The creature screamed and wailed but when an army of cats immediately gathered, as it were, to its rescue, they were kept at a distance by Allan’s sword. They would exclaim in Gaelic as they approached, “Sole an carabh cait sin”—“That is bad treatment of a cat.” But Allan would keep them at bay, shouting only to his servant that no matter what he saw or heard he must keep turning the spit.
At last Camdubh, the King of the Cats, appeared and offered his counsel in return for the liberation of the victim on the spit. Once freed, this cat disappeared into what was to be known as Buinne a Chait (The Pool of the Cats on the River Lochy). In return, Allan asked how he may atone for his wicked past. To obtain forgiveness the King of Cats ordered Allan to build seven churches, one for every creach he had raised. Allan commenced his church building immediately and before he died he had indeed kept to his side of the agreement.
An awesome story, but the fun begins when you begin to look into it a bit closer. The ruins of Tor Castle can be easily visited when in Fort William and the Buinne a’Chait or cat pool can still be seen below it. But what of the seven churches?
The first on our road trip was the easiest to find out about. As you can imagine, many churches would not be too eager to advertise their construction as coming directly from a witch, animal torturer or talking cat, so reliable information is somewhat hard to come by.
By the east shore of Loch Laggan there is a graveyard and ruins of what was once St Kenneth’s Kirk. This was where Allan built a new church on the ruined foundations of an original that was dedicated to Saint Kenneth, a consort of Saint Columba and one of the 12 apostles of Ireland. The attached graveyard is full of ancient, intricately carved headstones and makes for an atmospheric diversion.
Cille Choirill church is in a stunning location near Roy Bridge, restored in 1932. It still holds occasional masses today and has been used to film scenes for Monarch of the Glen. The church is named in honour of the Irish Monk and missionary who lived in his cell here in 600 AD. The nearby hill (Cille Choirill) is also named after him. It would seem to have a well-documented and turbulent history over the years, something Allan would no doubt be amused by.
There is little left of the original Kilmodan church as when the current building was erected in 1783 it reused the materials of the original. If you look around though you will find plenty of evidence as to its age. Beside the church lies what was formerly the mausoleum of the Campbells of Auchenbreck. The structure was later roofed as a Lapidarium to house the impressive collection of carved stones from the graveyard, which date back to the 15th century and the time of Allan nan Creach. A curious feature of its interior is its three galleries, each with their own stair and external door. Allegedly constructed so that feuding branches of the Campbell family could attend church without having to pass or speak to each other.
The most inaccessible of our churches lies on an island in the middle of Loch Leven. Eilean Munde is the historical burial island for members of the MacDonalds of Glencoe and the Camerons of Callart. Even when the clans were at war they would share the island and the maintenance of the graveyard. The original chapel here was built by Saint Fintan Mundus who travelled here from Iona in the 7th century and which has been rebuilt and destroyed several times over the years before it held its last service in 1693. The island is overgrown and seldom visited but it’s certainly an evocative spot. The walls of the original chapel still stand and are covered in ivy and distinctly carved headstones are spaced all-round the island. It’s strange to try and imagine the scene when people would arrive here en mass in boats to worship or bury their kin.
The remains of Kilmallie parish church can be found in the graveyard which adjoins the new Kilmallie church building. This was traditionally the burial place of early Cameron Clan chiefs but the origins of this church go back to the early Christian period. The practice of reusing materials from earlier buildings is evident in the use of an incised medieval grave slab as a lintel, making tracing its history very difficult.
One of the most scenic spots on our tour is the uninhabited island of St. Finnans on a remote part of Loch Sheil. As was commonplace in the era, this island was used for burial to avoid scavenging wolves digging up the recently interred. An unmarked boundary runs east to west to divide the island into two parts, Catholic in the north and Presbyterian in the south. A bewitched Celtic bell sits on top of the alter in the chapel, with a legend that warns of distress to anyone who attempts to remove it from the island. Whenever it has been lifted it has always been carried home by a swan. In one version of the legend of Allan Nan Creach, this was the last of the seven churches he started building but never actually finished. Apparently his fortunes recovered to such an extent after his first 6, he abandoned his contract when this one was half finished.
So then, six churches, six sites to go visit and six miniature history lessons. But what of the seventh? In all my research for this amazing story I have found only a scrap of information as to the last church, a transcript of a Gaelic conversation mentions a name and a vague location. No maps or history books at my disposal seem to confirm or deny this churches existence and certainly there is limited information available online. Its location on a modern map would be consistent with the previously identified churches though. Am I going to tell you? Well not just yet. Rather than being a source of frustration at being unable to identify this last piece of the puzzle with any degree of certainty, I’m kind of happy that some mystery remains. Maybe a week in the national library could yield results, but in this age of readily accessible information, it’s comforting that sometimes google doesn’t have all the answers. I’m planning a trip to this secret location very soon – so watch out for some updates!Tags: 7 Churches of Lochaber, Allan Nan Creach, cameron clan, campbell clan, Cat Pool, Celtic religion, celtic slabs, Church History, Churches, Cille Choirill, early christian religion, Eilean Munde, Fort William, Green Isle, kilmallie parish church, Kilmodan church, King of Cats, Loch Laggan, Loch Leven, Loch Sheil, Lochaber, MacDonalds of Glencoe, St Columba, St Finnans, St Fintan Mundus, St Kenneth, Tor Castle