As already said, the new Castle of Balvenie was built as a jointure by the second Earl of Fife to his Countess the daughter of Sinclair, or perhaps more correctly St Clair, Earl of Caithness. This lady is represented to have had great personal attractions, but was unfortunately possessed of a sour and sometimes ungovernable temper, and the conjugal life is said to have been any­ thing but a happy one. What perhaps tended more than anything to embitter the union was the want of issue—a circumstance all the more keenly felt by his Lordship, that his title was but of recent creation, and therefore the more necessary to be directly perpetuated; and he is said to have yearned with an intensity that showed itself in many foolish guises for a son and heir, on whom he might leave the gilded burden of his name and honours. At a baptismal rejoicing at Bog of Gight, on the occasion of his Lordship’s health being proposed, someone added by way of rider to the toast— “and a son and heir to him.” His Lordship, in replying, in­tended playfully to allude to the addition when he said, “I will require to change my partner first;” but the bitterness of his feelings overcame his attempt at mirth, and the indignant Countess, deeming herself publicly in­sulted by his Lordship, left the table and returned to the Castle of Balvenie, where she remained for a consider­able time sunk in the deepest melancholy. Day after day she brooded over the supposed affront, and refused to be consoled or companied with, till her health gave way, and she required to be removed from the Castle. When news of the illness of the Countess, and the state of matters between her and her lord, reached Caithness, the whole northern blood was up and clamorous for vengeance for the supposed indignity offered to the daughter of their chief; and had not the humiliating defeat of Culloden been fresh in the Highlanders’ me­mory, and the repressive measures adopted by the Government to keep down rebellion yet in force, there would in all probability have been a highland raid, spreading ruin and devastation by way of reprisals for the affront to their kinswoman. As it was, the wrath of the Caithness men spent itself in deep and fearful, though impotent, imprecations upon the Thane of Fife, and all that belonged to him. Among the followers of the Earl of Caithness, was one named John Donald Sin­clair. In him the desire for vengeance became a pas­sion too deep and determined to be wasted in words or curses, or to be satiated with anything short of death or conflagration. He is described as a man of low stature, but broad-shouldered and of athletic build, with an im­mense covering of long carroty hair upon his head, all matted and woven together in such a manner as to raise serious doubts whether dressing-combs had found their way to Caithness at that period. Whether he had com­municated the dark design he meditated to any one, or whether it had been suggested to him by some of the chieftain’s more immediate relations, as some affirm, cannot now be known; but late in the evening, when his companions had all gone to rest, this wild, savage-looking fellow emerged from his squalid hut, and, had an ob­server been present, perhaps the flickering moonbeams might have shown the big tear glistening in his eye, as he took a long, and, as he thought, a last look of his native glen. 

Dressed in the garb of a beggar, but with the agile and firm step of a mountaineer, and with the dark purpose of his vengeful spirit strong within him, he wandered southward like a disguised fury in search of house or lands belonging to the hated Earl of Fife. For­tunately his stock of English was small, and his knowledge of the geography of Moray and Banff less, so that it was not until after many wanderings that he found himself half sure of being upon his enemies’ ground. About nightfall he arrived at Bogbuie, over against the castle; and having collected some fuel, soon had a blazing fire, which he had kindled from the dying embers of a fire that had been lighted by some children while tending their cattle in the former part of the day; and wrapping himself in his plaid, he lay down beside it, as if he intended to quarter there for the night, but waiting only for an opportunity to set the whole valley on fire. The light at such an hour and place was observed, but little thought of, and the inhabitants of the Howe retired to rest with their usual confidence- -never even dreaming of the frightful doom that was hanging over them. – And one can fancy with what fiend-like rapture the avenger must have witnessed the fading flicker of the latest light that told of waking watchfulness in the valley. When at last all was quiet, and the last light extinguished, Sinclair, seizing a burning peat from his fire, descended the hill, crossed the Fiddich, and intending to begin at the castle, held in that direction; but having passed it in the dark, he applied his burning brand to the houses and stacks of Cantlie, the gardener, in several places, so that in a very short time he had the satisfaction of wit­nessing the whole in one sheet of flame. From this he sped his way to the next town—the Milton; and, intent upon his work of destruction, observed not a figure be­fore him, but deliberately kneeled down and applied his peat to the first stack he came to. The figure before him however, by good fortune, was Mr Thomson, the tenant of the farm—who, being a young man, and at that time somewhat under the guidance of the blind god, had been following some of his behests rather later than usual, and fortunately arrived in time to seize the rascal as he was rising to set fire to another stack. At first, he showed symptoms of fight; but feeling the firm grasp of Thomson, and knowing that the alarm was given, he gave no re­sistance, but coolly asked to be set at liberty, repeating “She no burn, man; she no burn”—even though he stood with the burning peat in his hand.

While Thomson was securing the culprit, his servants had risen and given the alarm, and the whole neighbourhood soon flocked to the melancholy scene. Luckily, a portion of the stack­ yard at Milton was saved; but at the gardener’s, where the fire had got longer time, everything was consumed, and the inmates only with great difficulty escaped with their lives. The sight of a fire broken loose, when as with fiend-like fury it seizes upon every surrounding object—scorching, shrivelling, and consuming, and with appetite whetted and spurred with every victim, march­ing resistlessly onward with the exulting crackle of de­ vastation—is at all times sufficiently appalling; but when the devouring element takes hold upon the homes and habitations of human beings—when the very walls are crackling and crumbling beneath it, and its yellow fangs shooting through the crevices, ere the inmates can be removed, it is at once the most horrible and harrowing scene that man can witness. But on this occasion the feeling was even more terrible; for while many were periling their lives in seeking to save the poor and help­ less infants, whose quiet slumbers had been broken, and their very bed surrounded by the flames of death, and others spending their strength in unavailing efforts to save the least a portion of the chattels of the family — the terrible suspicion was upon all that the next moment might witness their own homes and all that they possessed in the world, in the same state of conflagration. Mothers were gathering and counting their children, and clasping the younger one, with terror-strengthened fondness to their breasts, lest the caterans of the ferry should despoil them of their darlings; and the sternest and most courageous heart in all the glen felt a quaking and sinking of the spirit within him, as from time to time he sought to peer through the dark and secret-keeping gloom. For when it was known where the incendiary came from, and considered that the same motive that urged him to the commission of the deed was equally powerful with all who bore the name or lineage of St Clair, no one might tell when or where their vengeance might fall; and the horrors of a Highland raid were too dreadful, not to fill the stoutest heart with alarm. Of the home and effects of Cantlie, the gardener, nothing was left. Himself and family only escaped, and lodged for a time in a neighbour’s dwelling. Thomson’s steading was saved, though a considerable portion of his corn-yard was destroyed; but long before the embers had died out, or even the fire had been consumed, so strong was the sense of danger that a confederacy was entered into among the whole of the tenantry on the estates in that district, to form themselves into a militia for mutual protection, with Thomson at their head; and long ere the shadows of the following evening had fallen, there was a furbishing of weapons and a warlike ardour among them sadly at variance with the peaceful aspect of the place. Boxes were placed at the more exposed places, where sentinels had to stand; and hill-top and glen were nightly watched with careful vigilance for many a long day, till the fear of the ferrymen gradually died away, and men began once more to lie down to rest with something like a hope of rising safe and sound in the morning.  Meanwhile, the culprit who was the cause of all this terror and alarm had been conveyed to Banff, and from thence was carried to Aberdeen to await his trial for the then capital crime of wilful fire-raising; but affecting imbecility with a grace worthy of a “Dougal Creature,” he so imposed upon the wary citizens of Aberdeen that they bad serious doubts about his fitness for punishment. Trusting for acquittal from this deception, he carried it with him to the court; and after conducting himself in the strangest manner, gave the crowning evidence to those who were inclined to believe in his imbecility by exclaiming, when candles were brought into court dur­ing the trial—“ Och, ye’ll surely no hang her wi’ candle licht!” Neither judge nor jury, however, were so imposed upon, and he was sentenced to be executed for two separate acts of wilful fire-raising. It seems, how­ever, that he still had hopes of escape from the supposi­tion that he had succeeded in engendering a belief in his mental weakness; for we find that the learned and indefatigable author of that most interesting and moral production, “The Aberdeen Black Kalendar,” gravely relates;— “It is about this man that the story is told that he believed that if he ate meat enough, the hang­ing would not kill him; and accordingly, during the time that the attending clergyman was employed in de­votional exercises, he kept saying on— “Och, never mind your prayers ; bit, poys, hand up the shibbery,’ ”

But it does not appear to have occurred to that chronicler of crime that Sinclair was but acting the only part by which he had any hope of escape, and that his apparent levity and carelessness for the consolations of religion are explainable from the circumstance of the clergyman being a Protestant, while he was a Catholic—so that the well-meant services were distasteful to him in the extreme. There is also another circumstance which might have warranted a pretty fair guess at his sanity, when viewed in connection with his crime, viz.—his re­fusal to tell his name, though he had no objection to allow them to guess at it as best they might; and he was so willing to adopt any one they might choose to give him, save the name of Sinclair—which he always ener­getically repudiated that even in the aforesaid interest­ing memorial of Aberdeen worthies, the author, with all his acquaintance with the history of criminals and crime, failed to obtain his proper name, and calls him “ John McDonald, alias Donald, alias Alexander Glen, alias M’Kraw.” Sinclair or St Clair he, however, refused to be called, for the simple reason that, had he acknow­ledged his connection with the enraged ferrymen, a motive would have been attributed that would have deepened the evidence against him; and this of itself goes far to prove the popular belief that he was a veri­table Sinclair of the true Highland breed, who could brave sufferings and death with stoical indifference for vindicating the honour or wreaking the vengeance of his chief. Another version of the story is, that Donald was his real name, and that he was a beggar hired by the ferrymen, as they were then called, for the purpose. Whichever he was, he died with the lie in his mouth, denying the crime to the last, even though caught in the very act.

After this event, the new Castle of Balvenie seems never to have been again inhabited. Balls occasionally were held in it, when the late Lord Fife came to his fa­vourite city of Dufftown, and these are described as being of the choicest and happiest description; but they have passed away, and the huge and ungainly building is running with rapid steps to ruin. Leaving the new Castle, then, and returning to the road, we proceed southward; and before we have gone many hundred yards we come upon the “Mains Well”— a not very pretending place, to be sure—a square built opening in the side of the dyke, covered over with a flat slab-stone, to which is attached by a chain a large iron ladle, and under which a clear and copious spring flows. But it is worthy of notice as being one of those spirit-haunted fountains where the water-nymphs of the poet reside in all their spiritual beauty, and chant their soft and bewitching airs to his favoured ear. We suspect, however, that the fair naides who frequent this well are not much accustomed to chant in rhyme, as the follow­ing, which, according to James Sellar, was delivered to him, is something like a first attempt; —

“A’ ye that thirst, come tak’ a jugfu’,
Ye needna gang by me sae ugfu’;
Tho’ I (the water) be neither beer nor ale,

I’ll haud ye langer wise an’ hale;
Gif ye win right afore the flood,

Fouk langer dwalt wi’ flesh an’ blood,
An’ had mair pith an’ health—that’s clear—

Ere they made whisky out o’ bere.

But lest ye dinna me believe—

In fact I dinna you deceive—
Turn o’er the best buik that ye hae,

’Twill prove the truth o’ what I say.”

Those not given to flattery will probably say that the message has suffered considerably in James’ hands; and we certainly think if it has not, that these enticing creatures would be better for the future to confine them­ selves to prose, or remain silent. But while we despise the poetry, we need not despise the well, and so let us drink a willy-waught for the sake of the fair beings that inhabit it—regretting, if you will, the want of Manfred’s “written charm,” or “tyrant spell,” to conjure them up before us, for who would not say with him,

“I would behold yo face to face.”


Leaving the well then, and continuing southward, we pass the large farm steading of the Mains of Balvenie, (belonging to Mr Findlater, and arrive at the malt kiln where once stood Meg Dallachie’s howff; but of it and [other matters connected therewith, the reader will learn more particularly next time.