Sons Of Arthur

The Pass of Brander
By James E.M. MacArthur of that Ilk, FSA Scot, Chief of Clan Arthur

My father took me one year by road from Dunoon to the Argyllshire Gathering (Highland Games) held annually at Oban. That was well before the Cruachan hydroelectric power station was built in 1964. As we drove along the side of Loch Awe, approaching the Pass of Brander, I was told about the battle that took place there in August 1308 between the army of Robert the Bruce and the MacDougalls. Coming out of the gorge I was shown where the actual battle occurred, and where the heavily defeated MacDougall clansmen were immediately buried, because there were so many of them slain. If anyone wishes to see the site it is still there to this day, almost 700 years on.

Looking West to The Pass of Brander
Loch Awe - Looking West to The Pass of Brander
Photograph by Hugh DP McArthur

Leaving the gorge and passing the small modern dam holding back the waters of the loch from the River Awe, look to your left as you start down a slope to a petrol station on the left 200 yards further on, before the bridge over the river. If you can, stop and get out, for you are now on the battleground, and some people say they can feel something strange about the area where so many men died. Now look again left, down the sloping field to the River Awe, and across it to the area beyond. There you will see many loose stone mounds, which mark the MacDougall graves. But ... how did this all happen?

Robert the Bruce (Robert I of Scotland) was crowned as King at Scone in March 1306. He then set about trying to build the country into a governable whole, and this meant controlling many of the leading Clans. In the summer of 1308 it became the turn of the MacDougalls of Lorne to be dealt with, and so Bruce, gathering together an army, marched on their Clan lands to the west of Loch Awe. He wished to capture their strong point, Dunstaffnage Castle, on the cost a few miles north of Oban, commanding the sea entrance to Loch Etive, but the only short way to make the approach was through the Pass of Brander. The weather was good in the middle of that August, so Bruce was able to advance quickly. The MacDougalls however, were ready for him and had blocked the narrow road with a small fort in the Pass of Brander with steep hillside to their left and the loch to their right.

Bruce was not going to make progress easily. But he was not a commander of men for nothing. He halted his column, which was obvious to the scouts of the fort. Then, under cover of darkness, he sent a strong but mobile party of men up the hillside and forward to await developments. At first light, when the MacDougall scouts could view Bruce's halted force strung out along the roadway, they were astonished t o see the rear start to march eastwards, shortly followed by the centre.

They assumed that Bruce was in retreat, and reported to the fort accordingly, who stood down.

At the noise of the battle, the party which had been sent higher up the hill by Bruce in the night and which had remained hidden in the morning mist on the hilltop, now fulfilled their roll. They charged into the flank of the MacDougalls and the combined pressure drove those Clansmen down the slope into the River Awe, where many died. The way was now open to advance on the Castle of Dunstaffnage, about 15 miles further west.

First Published in The Round Table 104th Edition December 2000

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