So, talking of forbears, my grandmother, without being inconvenienced by the possession of any relevant information (as I assumed), boldly told me that James Macpherson, the freebooter hanged at Banff in 1700 – of Macpherson’s Rant and immortal Burnsian fame – was “one of your grandfather’s forbears”. Such boldness – like Thomas Carlyle’s, in hailing Macpherson, “one of the Nimrods and Napoleons of the earth”! – characterizes the whole story. Grannie had a life-long habit of always being right. The discovered facts that I now enumerate, however, prove nothing.
- Look at the panoramic view above. From left to right, it goes from the Braes to the Woods of Abernethy. The latter are described as “one of the haunts of Macpherson” by the revered author of the famous history of the united parishes of Abernethy and Kincardine, In the Shadow of Cairngorm (1900, p. 366). Alas, the Reverend Dr. Forsyth says nothing more on the subject.
- “According to the tradition of the country” (so stated by only one source, William Thomson (1746-1817)), the “Browns of Kincardine” were the first players of “Strathspey reels”, such as can be classified the tune associated with Macpherson’s name. The Kincardine hills are at the right of the photograph.
- We cannot be sure that Peter Brown, captain of the gypsy band, comrade of Macpherson, and fellow prisoner at the 1700 trial, was one of those Browns; but he certainly was a paid musician in whom the Laird of Grant took an interest – and his Highland Majesty’s Strathspey estate had included some of Kincardine parish since 1606. As Brown (in English, Scots, or Gaelic) was never a common name in the district, and paid musicians are always rare in a general population, it is probable that Peter Brown was connected with a musical race in Kincardine (if the statement about the “tradition of the country” is worth trusting).
- Since the New Statistical Account article on Banff was published in 1836, it has been invariably asserted that Macpherson was the illegitimate son of a gypsy woman and a Macpherson of Invereshie. The head of that house is chieftain of the lineage of Gillies. Yet the great genealogist, Sir Aeneas Macpherson of Invereshie, who lived until 1705, and recorded some illegitimate sons in his genealogies, says nothing about any connection with this renowned contemporary. Meanwhile, that Peter Brown and Macpherson spoke to each other in a peculiar language which witnesses deponed they could not understand makes the truth of the statement about Macpherson’s mother seem probable.
- In the 18th century a family named Lisach, a very rare form of Gillies, lived right in the Woods of Abernethy (firstly within Tulloch, Kincardine parish, and near to Rymore, where John, son of Donald, grandson of Gillies, the known ancestor of the Invereshie Macphersons, first settled in Badenoch in 1431). These Lisachs were vassals of the Laird of Grant. One may wonder if Macpherson was of this tribe, since that would explain why his story associates him both with the Laird of Grant and with the Clan Macpherson’s Sliochd Ghilliosa.
- There is little documentary evidence about the Lisachs, but one of them in the 1730s, a woman, is recorded in the minutes of the kirk session of Abernethy and Kincardine as “a vagabond”.
- In Macpherson’s “Last Words” he rages at the Laird of Grant’s attempt to repledge Peter Brown to Grant’s own jurisdiction but his doing nothing to extricate Macpherson from the Sheriff at Banff’s court. Here is an explanation fitting the circumstances: Macpherson protests that he and Brown, both vagabonds, both having sometimes peacefully dwelt within the regality of Grant, far from their places of plunder, should have been treated by its lord exactly the same.
- No one knows if Macpherson left bairns – but that he did is suggested (one can say no more) by Sir Walter Scott’s piece in the first number of the Quarterly Review (1809). “At the time the Waverley Novels were issuing from the press”, wrote James Imlach (probably alluding to a date not many years after 1814), such was the antiquarian or romantic interest to get information about Macpherson that his remains “at the foot of the gallow’s-tree where he suffered” were disinterred on Imlach’s instructions. But I am unaware of attempts by genealogists in the 19th century to dig up Macpherson’s family tree.
There is only one old headstone in Kincardine churchyard to commemorate the name Macpherson. In 1813 died one James Macpherson – whose alias was indeed Lisach. The elaborate carvings date from the 1820s and include a central thistle (included not as a national symbol, but as a religious one).
Two gold thistles were chosen as charges when arms were granted in 1985 in memory of my grandfather, Alexander Macpherson, messenger-at-arms. He was great-great-grandson of the 1813 James Macpherson alias Lisach. (The photograph shows the painting of the late Mrs. Jenny Phillips, Herald Painter; the “baton Sable tipped Argent”, in the cat’s paw, is indeed a wand of peace.)
Having presented you with a mystery which, while it can be elucidated, is unlikely ever to be solved, you might like to look at a very curious illustration of two thistles, each “in base”, by visiting the National Library of Scotland: http://digital.nls.uk/broadsides/broadside.cfm/id/14482. And do particularly note the verse, “The Laird of Grant, that Highland saint”.