The mountainous A93 road through beautiful Glenshee – recently designated as part of the Snow Roads route across the highest passes in Scotland – has many attractions for travellers, but there is one, virtually at the roadside, which is often missed, even by frequent visitors.
It’s the clan gathering place for the colourful and adventurous Clan MacThomas, most of whose descendants bear names like MacThomas, McColm, Thomson, McCombie and others listed on an information board at the site and on the clan website www.clanmacthomas.com.
The clan broke away (peacefully) from the more northerly Clan Chattan Mackintoshes in the 1400s and settled in lands near the Spittal of Glenshee which is about three miles from the gathering place. Spittal means there had always been an ancient safe resting place for travellers at that spot and Glen Shee is the valley of the fairies.
The gathering place is a simple, large stone with a rather dramatic history which dates from the mid 1600s which were desperate and bloody times throughout the Cairngorms.
About a mile from the stone, some tax collectors in the employ of the Earls of Atholl brutally robbed an elderly widow of her only possessions, a cockerel and 8 hens, which were also her only source of food for the winter. The men were entitled to one hen in payment of rent, but they bundled the whole flock into a sack and left the old lady distraught and pleading for help from her MacThomas kinsmen.
At that time, the clan chief was McComie Mor – or Big Tommy – who is still celebrated for his feats of strength and leadership. He was disgusted at the actions of the Atholl men and rode in pursuit, catching up with them near the landmark stone and demanding the return of the widow’s poultry.
In refusing, the mistake the enemy made was to laugh at Big Tommy for bringing his clansmen out on such a small matter (as they saw it).
Single-handed, furious Tommy slew four of the Atholl men in a matter of minutes before the rest of them fled, dropping the sack as they went.
The old lady’s prize rooster escaped from the bag and flew to the top of the stone, where he crowed his heart out, a mocking sound that was joined by the triumphant cries of the MacThomases who felt justice had been done that day for one of their own.
Ever since, the stone has been known as the Clach na Coileach, or Stone of the Cockeral, and every few years the MacThomases join in all their different septs (surnames) to celebrate clan unity, friendship and strength.
I had driven past this special place regularly for more than 20 years before deciding to visit to take photos for a friend from America who is a Thomson. It was a real discovery moment, standing in the snow and visualising the battle scene. The pictures taken back in the Spring are best, however, because they show the stone against the snow.
There is a small, free, car park and lots of information at the start point. You go through the Harold McCombie gate and walk a short distance to the stone, which also has a plaque. The above story is just one of the many legends of Big Tommy and his kinsmen, but the gathering stone gives his clan a sense of place and interest in the peaceful glen that was once under their control and protection, however rough the justice might seem 400 years later.
The Glenshee Road is part of a 90-mile scenic route from Blairgowrie to Grantown on Spey, designated one of Scotland’s Snow Roads. The Spittal of Glenshee hamlet nearby is also near the Cateran Trail, a circular walking route of 64 miles through the heartland hills of Angus and Perthshire. The trail has no beginning and no end, so every walk has a special feel.
Not all Thomsons are descended from the Glenshee clan, but the checks are easy to do.