Clan MacThomas and the Clach na Coileach

Clach na Coileach (5)Here’s an interesting riddle.   On a summer day in the year 1635, if you were a traveller on the road that winds up from Bridge of Cally into the mountains of Glen Shee, you might have come across a rather gruesome but puzzling sight:   the bodies of four men, one headless, lying at the base of a rock, with a discarded sack full of live chickens at their feet.  From the top of the boulder, an over-excited cockerel is crowing in triumph.

If you were a newcomer to the district, you’d probably be forgiven for suspecting witchcraft and beating a hasty retreat.  But if you were a local, you’d know without a doubt that this was the work of a famous warrior:   John McComie Mor.

Clach na Coileach (9)Renowned for his physical strength and force of character, McComie Mor was the 7th Chief of Clan MacThomas.  The land which he and his clansmen occupied in Glen Shee was owned by the Earls of Atholl, and in exchange for this they paid a rent which was extracted from the poorer tenants in the form of crops or livestock.  This was known as ‘kain’.

A handful of Atholl’s men were responsible for collecting the kain, and on that particular summer’s day they had been beating on the door of an elderly widow.  The woman was living in a cold, comfortless bothy with little to sustain her except the eggs and meat provided by a small flock of chickens.  Ignoring her protests, the rent collectors seized all the chickens and bundled them, squawking, into a sack.

Without her hens, the widow knew she would soon starve to death.  In great distress, she fled to the house of her clan chief, McComie Mor, and begged for help.  John McComie was outraged.   It didn’t take him long to gather a party of loyal kinsmen, and together they set off down the glen, hell-bent on revenge.

Clach na Coileach (3)Near a huge glacial boulder at the foot of Glen Shee, McComie and his men came face to face with the rent collectors.   Claymores were drawn, and sporrans were bristling.  McComie loudly demanded the return of the old woman’s chickens, and the Atholl men just as loudly refused.  But ‘stalemate’ wasn’t in the dictionary of the Highlanders, and McComie Mor was having no nonsense.  With one blow of his sword he severed the leader’s head, and his companions set about the others with such force that three more corpses soon lay at their feet.   The survivors dropped their weapons and ran.

Clach na Coileach (2)In the heat of the moment, no one had bothered to keep an eye on the sack containing the disputed chickens.  From this, the cockerel emerged unnoticed, and in his freedom he discovered himself to be the king of a much larger territory than he remembered.  He flapped up onto the top of the boulder and lost no time in announcing his sovereignty to the world, as McComie Mor and his men sheathed their swords and prepared to depart.

While the hens were returned to their rightful owner, history (or legend) is a little vague as to the fate of the cockerel.  But he bequeathed his name to his rocky throne, which became known as the Clach na Coileach or the Cockstane.

Clan MacThomas

Clach na Coileach (8)McComie’s name evolved from the Gaelic ‘MacThomaidh’, which is pronounced ‘MacHomy’.   The clan can be traced back to the 15th century and a man called Thomaidh Mor or ‘Great Tommy’ of Clan Chattan in Badenoch.   The MacThomas clan have since spread throughout the world, with variants that include Combie, McColm, McComb and MacOmish.

The clan’s symbol, of a wild cat grasping a snake, is displayed on the gate into the enclosure, and the new planting of forestry around the stone includes snowberry, which is the clan’s badge.   The present chief is Andrew MacThomas of Finegand, and every three years the clan holds a gathering at Clach na Coileach.

Clach na Coileach (1)Clach na Coileach (4)

Finding the Clach na Coileach

From Blairgowrie, take the A93 north towards Braemar.  Just after the turning to Glen Isla (B951) look out for a small car park on the left in some forestry.   Go through the ornamental gate and the Clach na Coileach is visible just a stone’s throw beyond.

Clach na Coileach (6)


Photos copyright © Jo Woolf

No Comments

  • Cornel Ap.

    Unfortunately, I am not a huge fan of history so many times I don’t know what to say about some stories but I do enjoy your photos.
    This time, I really love your second photo (glen-shee-etc-10.jpg ) for its colours(those beautiful blue shades) and for its shapes.
    And your last photo is very beautiful, with that river, with those white spots on dried grass and beautiful clouds.

    • Jo Woolf

      That’s OK, Cornel, I don’t expect you to enjoy history – it isn’t for everyone! 🙂 But thank you for your nice comments about the photos. It was lovely lighting when we took those photos in the snow, all the blue shadows – but very cold! And the ground by the river was very boggy indeed!

  • winderjssc

    A fascinating story with beautiful photographs – but I wonder what the final outcome would have been if the tale is based on fact. Would the Earls of Atholl have sought retribution for the four murders?

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you, Jessica! If the Atholl men had taken more than their share (which they did) then maybe there was a feeling that justice had prevailed. But there again, I wouldn’t have slept easy at night. It was a brutal age!

  • mariegm1210

    As a history geek I love your blog for the stories – the photos are a huge bonus! this one sounds more based in legend than fact but that ‘s what a fiction writer like me loves!

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you so much, Marie! I’m so glad you like my blog. It sounds as if you love the same kind of stories. Sometimes I feel there’s such a convoluted blend of history and legend in them that it would be impossible to extricate the two.

    • Jo Woolf

      I know, David, and I only came across it by chance. You can easily drive past it. Yes, that mole looks as if he’s trying to drive a way through or under the stone – he must have a headache by now!

  • Colin MacDonald

    Excellent piece of folk history that I wasn’t previously aware of. Reminds me of the Bloody Stone on Skye. It seems that Iain Mor went on to have an interesting career, including participation in MacColla and Montrose’s campaign of 1644.

  • William N Trousdale

    Last august, 2013, my wife and I were driving up Glen Shee and experienced a break-down with the hired auto. We were stranded from 11:30 am to 5:30 pm. As the hour got later in the day, I told my wife that Glen Shee probably means valley of ghosts and that I expect we may see some. I didn’t realize that I may have spoken the true!

    • Jo Woolf

      Hi William, That’s a long time to be stranded, and I hope that the weather wasn’t too bad at the time! It’s a wild place! Yes, your wife is absolutely right. Glen Shee (or ‘sith’ in Gaelic) can also be interpreted as the ‘valley of the fairies’, but however you see it, there’s a strong link with magic and folklore here! 🙂 Thank you for your comment!

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