IN THE late 19th century a grave was dug up. Inside were the skeletal remains of seven people, all of them without their skulls present. These were the men convicted of the Keppoch murders.

Around 1649 Donald Glas Macdonald, known as Donald Glas of Keppoch, the chief of Clan Macdonald of Keppoch, died.

He was twice married; his first wife was Jean Robertson of Struan but when she died there were no male surviving issue from this marriage.

He broke with tradition when he married a second time to ‘a woman from the south’ rather than a young woman from within the clan.

She was the daughter of Mr Forrester of Kilbagie, near Clackmannan, and when her sons were born, they were not seen the rightful heirs to the lordship because of it.

Their sons were Alexander Macdonald, 13th Chief, and Ranald Macdonald, both of whom returned to Keppoch in 1661 from France to reclaim Keppoch Castle from their uncle Alasdair Buidhe, who had risen to power in the area.

The boys had been fostered by Sir James Macdonald of Sleat at Duntulm and been sent to the continent to finish their education.

On their return, Alexander brought with him new ideas and wanted to force them on the clan.

Clansmen were not enamoured with this new style of leadership, and in fact, many resented his arrogance.

When Alasdair asked the chief what his reward would be for taking over the reins of the clan while he was abroad, he replied that being in charge had been enough reward.

He was overheard saying ‘If that is how it is, we shall remember you’. This was a thinly-veiled threat.

Their Uncle Alasdair was not happy at being effectively evicted back to his own house and tensions rose between the men.

His son Ailean Dearg believed he was the rightful heir to Keppoch due to an old custom.

Alexander flexed his muscles against these rivals as he tried to improve the conduct of the clan, one that was used to being predatory. It was too much for Alasdair.

The Macdonald brothers also had issues regarding the way they ran their lands. The lands of Inverlair were held by Alasdair Ruadh Macdonald since coming to the area from Sunart.

The land at Keppoch had been leased to him by the Huntly clan while Alexander was away, and now he wanted to reclaim it.

Despising the Huntly family, the chief raided the land of Inverlair with sixty men, destroying property and driving away the cattle and horses.

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IN JANUARY 1662 a formal complaint was made against Alexander Macdonald for his actions at Inverlair with the Privy Council.

He was summoned before them but countered the complaint and in March and June 1662 sought a suspension of the Council’s case against him. This in part led to the brothers’ downfall.

On September 5, 1663, Alexander and Ranald were murdered. Usually Alexander, 35 and Ranald, 28, slept with swords by their bedsides but on that night, they had left them downstairs.

As one of them ran down on hearing men enter the house, a sword was pulled out and he was killed. His brother was also murdered.

Around 30 men ‘broke into the palace of Keppoch armed with swords, dirks and other weapons.’ The brothers had no chance against that number, and their fate was sealed.

Later that morning the gruesome location was visited by Iain Lom who recorded the sight before him. Terrible wounds had been inflicted on the brothers in a frenzied attack.

The assailants escaped, and it is said they made an oath at Torran nam Mionn, Hillock of Oaths, at Glen Roy with their dirks, stating they would never reveal their part in the deed.

Two years later the seven men were tracked down and accused of being complicit by the Macdonalds of Sleat. Sir James had been furious and sought retribution for the murder of his former charges and on June 19, 1665, the Privy Council gave him permission to track the assailants down.

They were duly killed, and Iain Lorn decapitated them.

It is said he used the same murder weapon on them they had used to kill Alexander.

He took the heads to a well where he washed them before presenting them to Lord MacDonnell of Glengarry, who had failed in the interim to find them.

Locally there was no period of mourning for the former chief, such was the dislike of him from some of his clansmen.

More importantly they probably had no wish to fight against Alasdair either, the man they believed behind the deed.

The well, used to wash the heads, is opposite Invergarry station and is known as ‘tobar nan ceann’ or well of the heads. It is marked by a monument.

According to tradition Alasdair Buidhe was indeed behind the murders, if not the instigator in the first place. He was re-elected clan chief, thus vindicating him, but not entirely exonerating him for his part in the crime.

Glas’s daughter survived, but never married, and the castle was demolished shortly after the murders.