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Alastair Cam and the Battle for Brux

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Alastair “Cam” is generally considered to be the fourth and youngest son of Sir John “of the Black Lip” (c. 1350 - c.1387) but mystery surrounds his true relationship due to his given name. The name “Alastair” (also spelled Alister and Alistair) is the Gaelic version of “Alexander,” the same as his older “brother.” Gaelic families often give the same name to another child if the first has died. However, naming two children the same within a family is relatively unknown. He is likely not a “natural” (illegitimate) son of Sir John since genealogist Walter Macfarlane specifically identifies Sir John’s natural sons as Duncan, Malkome (Malcolm), and John. (Macfarlane, Walter. 1750, republished 1900. Macfarlane's Genealogical Collections Volume II. Scottish History Society Volume XXXIV.) Macfarlane notes “His 4th Son Who Was Alester Came Forbes Or Glyed Alester.” (Glyed is “squint-eyed.”)

Another mystery surrounds the date of this birth, which genealogies note as either 1383 or 1388. Since the first Alexander was born in 1380, William in 1385, and John in 1390, Alastair would either be the second or the third son — and not the fourth and youngest son. The mystery deepens since Alastair is not mentioned in any of the documents in which the first Alexander speaks of his other brothers. (Tayler, Alistair and Henrietta. 1937. House of Forbes. Edinburgh: Third Spalding Club.) Most likely, Alastair may have been a cousin or other relation who was fostered by Sir John, a common practice at the time.

What is not in doubt is that he married Catherine, daughter and heiress of Sir Ewen Cameron of Brux and Drumallachie, in 1409. This may be how he received the second epithet of “Cam” as the contraction of Cameron, so as to differentiate him from Alexander, who was to become the first Lord Forbes. Also not in doubt is that Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar and Garioch, granted “to his kinsman Alexander Forbes, lord of Brux, of the lands of Glencarwie, Glenconre and the Orde, in the lordship of Strathdon” on December 24, 1409. This was later confirmed by King James I in 1426. However, the story behind Alastair gaining a wife and an estate involved treachery, massacre, and single combat.

In about 1365, Thomas, Earl of Mar, granted Ewen (John) Cameron the estate of Brux and Wester Drumallochy (Drumallachie.) (Simpson, W. Douglas. 1947. The Earldom of Mar. Aberdeen University Press.) This caused great deal of agitation with the Mouats (also spelled Muat or Mowat) of Abergeldie: “The Muats in days of yore possessed the Castle of Abergeldie, and that of Badenyon in Glen Bucket; and you would have thought that there was room enough in the world for them and the Cameron of Brux” but “it was not so.” (Grant, John. 1876. Legends of the Braes o’ Mar. Aberdeen: A. King & Company.) They agreed to settle their ongoing feud in 1409, by conducting a battle between “twelve horse” on either side in a glen behind Drumgowdrum Hill, in the parish of Kildrummy. “But the treacherous Mowat appeared on the field with two men mounted on each steed. Pride forbade the Donside men to decline the unequal strife, which resulted in the death of the Laird of Brux and all his sons. .” (Simpson, W. Douglas. 1947. The Earldom of Mar. Aberdeen University Press.)

Ruins of Kildrummy Castle

Cameron’s daughter, Catherine Cameron, fled to Kildrummy Castle, and placed herself under the protection of Alexander Stewart, then the Earl of Mar. “Catherine, sole heiress of Brux, under the guardianship of Mar, grew up ‘fair to the eye’ like other sweet flowers or fruits, and was sought after by all the Donean youth.” (Grant, John. 1876. Legends of the Braes o’ Mar. Aberdeen: A. King & Company.) One such youth who lived near the River Don, was Alastair, son of Sir John of the Black Lip, 5th laird of Forbes. However, in the Legends of the Braes o’ Mar he is inexplicably known as “Robert” and identified as the “second son” of “Lord Forbes.”

Catherine issued a challenge that she would marry and grant the estate of Brux to the man who should avenge her father's and brothers' deaths. Smitten with “fair Kate,” Alastair accepted the challenge and agreed to fight the Mouat chief at the field of Badenyon (Badaneoin) where the Water of Buchat flowed into the River Don, an area known as Glenbuchat. “After a long struggle Forbes prevailed, and brought his rival's head in triumph to Kildrummy, where, in the beautiful chapel of this celebrated castle, he was married to Kate Cameron, and so became the founder of the family of Forbes of Brux." (Ibid.)

At this place was erected a monument called “Clachmuat” or Mouat's Stone and the hill on the opposite side of the Water is still called Ladylea, where Catherine Cameron was said to have watched the battle. (MacDonald, James. 1849. Place Names of West Aberdeenshire. Aberdeen: New Spalding Club.) Historian and author W. Douglas Simpson visited the site of the Mouats' Stone in 1960, but it was no longer visible. In his notes, he reports that Mr Webster, game keeper at the Glenbuchat Lodge, informed him that it had disappeared in a landslide in 1953.

Simpson also noted in 1947, “About eighty years ago Alexander Walker, gardener at Castle Newe, a shrewd and keen student of local antiquities, made some digging around Clochmuat, and unearthed a dagger, which is now in the Banff Museum.” (Simpson, W. Douglas. 1947. The Earldom of Mar. Aberdeen University Press.) He observes that the dirk “can be dated with confidence to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century” and that “the date assignable to our Glenbuchat dagger corresponds well with that of the Homeric contest, and there does not seem any reason against its being a genuine relic of the affray.” (Ibid.)

The story of how Alastair gained a wife and a title has echoed through the centuries in an epic poem first published in the mid 17th century and republished a hundred years later and in a swashbuckling romance novel in 1900.

“Don: A Poem” was initially penned by Arthur Forbes (born about 1630), half-brother to William, 11th Lord Forbes. One source noted that “he is the only member of the family, at that time, who has left any trace of having possessed the rhyming faculty.” (Walker, William. 1887. The Bards of Bon-Accord 1375 - 1860. Aberdeen: J. & J.P. Edmond & Spark.) The 1,500-line poem was first published in London in 1655 and republished 1742 with “several beautiful seats on the Don, which were omitted in the former edition.” Here is his account of the challenge made by Catherine Cameron:

The lovely heiress of the Cameron race,

In ancient days was mistress of this place;

A tender virgin, she alone was left,

Of father and of brothers all bereft.

By the base Muat, who possess'd Braemar

And 'gainst the Donean youth engaged in war.

Kildrummy's lord was guardian to the fair,

And brought her up with a paternal care;

The virgin vow'd, none should possess her charms,

But he who, for her love, in glittering arms,

Should own her quarrel in the dusty field,

And there revenge her cause with sword and shield.

Drimminor's son, with warlike heat inspir'd

To serve the nymph by whom his heart was fir'd.

The dang'rous task with ardour took in hand,

To free the country from the treach'rous band.

Alastair, or here referenced as “Drimminor's son,” agreed to the terms of single combat and they commenced the battle:

Their shining helmets were in pieces torn,

And all their shields with blows in tatters shorn;

But Forbes, mad to be in conquest slow,

Invok'd his goddess' name, and grasp'd his foe;

With his keen skien, he through every part,

Pierc'd his steel jacket, till he reach'd his heart:

Squeez'd in his arms, he gasped still for breath,

Till his wing'd soul past thro' the gates of death.

The lifeless carcass from his arms he flung,

Which stretch'd along, the brook with murmurs rung:

At which the Muats' sorrow pierc'd the skies.

With doleful bowlings and with dismal cries;

Whilst Forbes' clan receiv'd the warlike boy,

With songs of praises, and with shouts of joy.

Illustration from "Kate Cameron of Brux" by J.E.Muddock, 1900

“Don: A Poem,” published in Bards of Bon-Accord in 1887, may have well caught the eye of James Edward (J.E.) Preston Muddock (1843 – 1934). In that same year, this prolific British journalist and author of mystery and detective stories began a serialization of Kate Cameron of Brux: Or, True Love Tested - A Legend of Donside in the Dundee Weekly News. This was later published in 1900 as Kate Cameron of Brux or The Feud, with the long but descriptive subtitle “A story of wild doings and strange people based upon legends and traditions current in the locality in which the scenes are laid.” (Muddock, J.E. 1900. Kate Cameron of Brux or The Feud. London: Digby, Long & Co.)

As in the Legends of the Braes o’ Mar, Alastair is called “Robert” but here is called the third and youngest son of “Lord Forbes,” who was in fact Sir John, laird of Forbes. He makes his first appearance in chapter 10, “A Lovesick Swain:” “In personal appearance he was tall and handsome, with a lithe wiry frame, but extremely youthful looking, although at this time he was turned twenty, but he might well have passed for a youth of sixteen.” (Ibid.)

In this “historical novel,” the young Forbes sends his knight Walter Duncan to challenge the Laird of Abergeldy: “He challenges thee in the name of truth, honour and justice. He challenges thee in order that bloodshed may cease between thy people and the Camerons, for Robert Forbes appears as the champion of the Camerons. He is pledged to win Kate Cameron as his bride.” (Muddock, J.E. 1900. Kate Cameron of Brux or The Feud. London: Digby, Long & Co.)

The final chapter called “True Love Tested” relates the climactic battle in heroic terms: “At length the Muat with one mighty swing of his sword struck Rob's sword from his hand ; it was dripping with blood and spinning high in the air, it fell many yards behind him.” (Ibid.) However, “Robert” did not hesitate: “There was no time to be lost ; he drew his long dirk, and shouting again, ‘God, and Kate Cameron,’' he sprang on his adversary like a lion. Then they were locked in a deadly grip and in the desperate struggle, both fell, Abergeldy underneath. With one tremendous and overpowering effort, Rob managed to raise himself, and the next moment his dirk was buried to the hilt in Muat's heart.” (Ibid.)

The novel concludes: “It was indeed a happy night for Kate and Rob, and with the close of that eventful day the house of Cameron was merged into that of Forbes, and the Forbeses of that ilk were destined to become a numerous line, and even at the present day the songs of the people in the glens celebrate the loves of the first Laird and his bonnie wife. His love had been sorely tested, but it had survived the ordeal, and proved itself true, and, it was admitted on all sides, a happier couple than Rob Forbes and his sweet Kate Cameron never existed. The Muats faithfully respected their vow, and from that day forth there was peace between the two houses. The End.” (Ibid.)

The real Alastair “Cam” of Brux and his Catherine had three sons: Arthur, who died young; John, 2nd of Brux, who was nicknamed “with the slick hair” and the “White Laird;” and Duncan of Drumallachie. He also had a natural son called John who married Katherine Coutts, and acquired the lands of Cults. The later cadets, or younger sons, established the branches Forbes of Skellater, Inverernan, Ledmacoy, Belnabodach, Kildrummy, Towie, and Echt — with many descendants as honored for their skills in battle as was their progenitor, Alastair “Cam” of Brux.

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