In Highland Perthshire in the 1640s the old village of Lawers sat on the north bank of Loch Tay at the foot of Ben Lawers, the highest Munro in Perthshire. There, in a two-story house known as Tigh Ban-tigheaona Labhair, the House of the Lady of Lawers, lived a spaewife, or soothsayer. She was the wife of John Stewart, the second son of the Laird of Appin, and her prophecies foretold everything from the fate of a beloved tree to the advent of the industrial age in Scotland.
One of the Lady’s first prophecies concerned the construction of the village church. When the building was nearing completion, she declared that the ridging stones that were to clad the roof’s apex would never be set on it. The stones had already been brought in by boat from Kenmore and were laid out ready for use, so the builders and the locals laughed off her prediction, but that night there was a terrible storm and the stones were swept into the depths of Loch Tay. They were never found.
After the church was built, the Lady of Lawers planted an ash tree beside its north side and prophesied that ‘the tree will grow, and when it reaches the gable the church will be rent in twain. When it reaches the ridge, the House of Balloch will be without an heir, and whoever would cut this tree down will surely come to an evil end.”
The tree reached the height of the gable in 1843 and a thunderstorm destroyed the west loft of the church, rendering it derelict. 1843 was also the year in which the Church of Scotland split in the Disruption. In 1862, when the tree reached the roof ridge, John Campbell, 2nd Marquess of Breadalbane of the House of Balloch, died with no heir, rendering the barony of Breadalbane, the earldom of Ormelie, and the marquessate of Breadalbane extinct. In the 1870s, local farmer John Campbell chopped the Lady’s ash tree down, against the advice of his neighbours. Shortly afterwards he was gored to death by his own Highland bull, his assistant went mad and had to be committed to the asylum, and his horse dropped dead.
The Lady predicted many economic and social changes in the local area. She spoke of ‘fire coaches‘ to be seen crossing the Pass of Drumochter, where the Highland Main Railway Line would eventually run from the mid-1800s. She foresaw there being ‘a mill on every stream and a plough in every field.’ Flax processing was a major industry in Perthshire by the end of the 18th century, and there were fourteen mills along the lochside and nearly two hundred ploughs in use between Auchmore and Taymouth.
Some of her prophesies were bleak, but accurate. ‘The land will first be sifted then riddled of its people and the homes on Loch Tay shall become so scarce that a cock crowing will not be heard from one to the other, and the jaw of the sheep will drive the plough from the ground.’ The Clearances in the 1830s reduced the population of Loch Tayside by three thousand to about five hundred, and the once heavily cultivated land was given over to flocks of sheep.
J.G. Campbell, in his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, states that the Lady’s prophecies were collected in the Red Book of Balloch, a book shaped like a barrel and secured with twelve iron rings or clasps, which was kept in the Charter Room of Taymouth Castle. I’ve searched high and low but I haven’t been able to find any other mentions of the Red Book anywhere, and unfortunately the usually reliable Campbell doesn’t cite a source for this intriguing snippet.
There is no record of the date of her death but the Lady of Lawers is thought to be buried either under the gateway of the Cladh Machuim graveyard near Lawers, or somewhere under the ruins of the old village itself.
George Henderson, in Survivals In Beliefs Among The Celts, notes that at the turn of the twentieth century the Lady was remembered in the name of a healing spring:
“As is well known, Beltane, or the first day of May, was one of the sacred days of the ancient Highlanders. In my grandfather’s youth it was the custom for the young men and maidens of Lawers to climb to the summit of Ben Lawers on that day to see the sun rise, and it was a race between the young men to see which of them would first reach and drink out of a tobar (spring) called ‘Fuaran Bhain-tighearna Labhair’, the Lady of Lawers’s Well, which in former times was supposed to possess great curative virtues, especially for children, and its fame had spread far and wide.
Sick children were brought from Rannoch and other distant places to be bathed in, or sprinkled with, its water. The sick child was placed between two stones on the brink of the tobar on Beltane eve, and his parents watched through the night by his side. When the sun was visible the child was dipped in the pool, or sprinkled with the water, according as his strength allowed. The parents, on leaving the tobar were mindful to put a coin or some offering in it. Many years ago a shepherd found an old Scots coin in or at the tobar, and it was in his possession for a long time.”
Of the Lady of Lawers’s many predictions, there are three that have yet to come to pass:
1. When the Boar’s Stone at Fearnan is toppled, a strange heir will come to Balloch. 2. A ship driven by smoke will sink in Loch Tay with great loss of life. 3. Ben Lawers will become so cold that it will chill and waste the land for seven miles.
Time will tell.