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  • Writer's pictureGreg Stewart

The Well of the 7 Heads

At first glance, a stone obelisk which stands at the side of the road overlooking Loch Oich in the Scottish Highlands appears to be similar to many other such monuments and memorials found across the country. A closer look however gives a glimpse into the sinister events which it represents.

In 1663, Alexander MacDonnell of Keppoch, a branch of the Clan MacDonald, returned to Scotland with his brother, Ranald, having completed their education abroad. Alexander was the 13th Chief of the Keppoch Family (sometimes cited as the 12th chief) yet events in September of the year of his return would mean he would never have the opportunity to take up his role. There are various versions of what happened, some say that the brothers got into a fight with their cousins during a celebration to mark their return after their cousins began to mock their accents. Others say their Uncle had yielded much authority in the absence of Alexander, and did not want to give that up and so planned their murder. It is also said that Alexander sought to bring reforms to the clan which were unpopular. Whatever the true events were, the result was the two young men were attacked and murdered, stabbed to death by their cousins and their Uncle.

Despite the killers being known, there seemed to be little appetite to bring them to justice. Despite Alexander being the Chief, the two young men were largely unknown to the clansmen. One man, Iain Lom, was not however willing to let the matter lie. Iain was a relative and poet to the family, and appealed to the Chief of Glengarry, a neighbouring family, to take action, yet he too was relatively uninterested in what had happened and chose not to become involved. Undeterred, Iain turned to Sir James MacDonald of Sleat. He initially wrote some poetry for Sir James, before asking for help, and this approach worked. In July, 1665, Sir James issued a Commission of Fire and Sword, naming Alexander's uncle along with his six cousins as those to be brought to justice. These commissions were often used in the Highlands and although the wording differed, they would allow those named to be captured, dead or alive, by whatever means including burning down property should they resist. Once captured, and assuming they were still alive, they were to be executed.

Sir James sent around 50 of his men, to be guided by Iain, to find the murderers. Again there are some variations, some versions state that upon the presentation of the Commission of Fire and Sword, the men were brought forward by the clansmen to face justice, while other versions state they were found hiding in a property and were forcibly taken. All seven men were beheaded, with most versions of the story saying Iain Lom carried out this deed himself, using the dirk (a traditional name for a type of dagger) that was used in the murder.

Lom then had the task to take the heads to Glengarry Castle to show that the deed had been done, and while travelling there he reputedly stopped at a natural spring at the side of Loch Oich to wash the heads clean from the dirt and blood. Although it had taken two years, Iain Lom had successfully avenged the murder of Alexander and Ranald.

With varying versions of the story, it is difficult to determine the exact facts, yet according to reports a discovery made close to Tulloch railway station on the Glasgow to Fort William line provided verification. It is said when a nearby mound was excavated, the remains of seven corpses were found, all headless. In 1812, Col. Alasdair Ranaldson Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry, had a monument built at the site of the well. The plaque on the monument reads:

'As a memorial of the ample and summary vengeance which in the swift course of feudal justice, inflicted by the orders of the Lord McDonnell and Aross, overtook the perpetrators of the foul murder of the Keppoch family, a branch of the powerful and illustrious clan, of which His Lordship was the chief. This monument is erected by Colonel McDonnell of Glengarry XVII. MacMhicAlaister his successor and representative in the year of our Lord 1812. The heads of the seven murderers were presented at the feet of the noble chief in Glengarry Castle, after having been washed in this spring: and ever since that event, which took place early in the sixteenth century, it has been known by the name of "Tobar-nan-Ceann", or the Well of the Seven Heads'. At the top of the obelisk is a gory reminder, with 7 severed heads carved, and a hand holding a dagger above. Although there are no specific ghost stories connected to the Well of the Seven Heads, many people report a feeling of apprehension and being watched when walking along the tunnel to the well, and there are some suggestions that, on occasion, the water in the loch is seen to turn red.

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23 août 2023
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It really is a surreal feeling when you are standing there surrounded by the beauty of the landscape looking at this monument. It was worth stopping at. Excellent write up Greg. Thank you.

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