In the years after the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the terrible reputation of the government troops or ‘Redcoats’ as they sought to finally put down once and for all the brave highland clans was spread throughout the North of Scotland. One story concerning a poor milkmaid and a wicked redcoat sergeant passed into highland folklore and became known as the story of the Appin Dirk.
It was June 1746, only a few months after the disastrous battle of Culloden, Government troops were still engaged in a frenzy of looting and burning as they carried out Cumberland’s order of ‘No Quarter’ beyond what was expected of them. One such detachment was passing through Lochaber and Appin on their way to the barracks at Inveraray. On the way they had burned small cottages, casting highlanders from their homes for nothing more than their own wicked amusement.
On one particular evening, as the troops moved through the Strath of Appin they encountered a young woman milking her cow in a nearby field. Overcome by their own bloodlust and some even more base instincts besides the sergeant who commanded the detachment leapt over the small wall into the field and with no warning shot the cow dead. With the cow dead he then advanced on the young woman – his intentions almost certainly dishonourable.
The young woman fought off the wicked sergeant bravely and ran off towards the Appin shore however she was pursued by him. In a last desperate attempt to make good her escape she picked up a good sized stone from the shore and hurled it at the sergeant with all her might. Whether by great accuracy or sheer luck the stone struck the sergeant square on the forehead, stunning him and knocking him to the ground. Her good shot gave her the few precious seconds she needed to make it to the shore where she knew a small boat lay moored. As the other soldiers tried to pursue her she managed to quickly row out of range and off to a small island where she sheltered for some time.
The sergeant was less fortunate, the blow had been more serious than the soldiers had at first realised. He was taken to a nearby place where they could stop for the night but as the evening wore on his condition became worse – almost as if the stone itself had been cursed. During the night he died from his wound. The other soldiers decided to bury him in the nearby churchyard; the old churchyard of Airds and move on.
The hatred for the government troops in this corner of Scotland was so great that the local men felt appalled that such a beast should contaminate their churchyard. As soon as the detachment had gone they stole into the churchyard and dug up his body. They carried him down to the sea but were stopped on the way by the brother of the young woman who had been attacked. He pulled out a knife and tore the skin from the arm of the wicked sergeant. This he took away with him. The corpse was then, with no ceremony cast into the sea.
The milkmaid’s brother dried and cured the skin and used it to make a sheath for his dirk.
Legends of the ‘Appin Dirk’ spread around the area, becoming a symbol of the highlanders continued resistance to occupation. In 1870 the Rev. Alexander Stewart who was in the area was shown a dirk by a local man which he claimed was ‘The Appin Dirk’ He described the sheath as having a dark-brown colour, limp and soft in appearance, with no ornament except a small piece of brass at the point, and a thin edging of the same metal round the opening. Around the brass rim there was a small inscription. The initials D.M.C. and a date; 1747.
This gruesome relic has long since vanished but the inscription does bear some clue into its possible whereabouts:
According to the story the young woman’s name is given as Julia MacColl, the ‘M.C.’ of the inscription would suggest that this was the case as MacColl was a common name in that area at the time. Some years after the last sighting of the dirk many MacColls immigrated to New Zealand, among them were a few ‘Julias’. It is highly possible that the descendants of Julia MacColl of her brother held on to the dirk and that it now lies undiscovered in New Zealand.
We know we have many readers in this part of the world so if you’re name is MacColl or if you have any descent from this name maybe its time to have a search around your attic. It could be that that old chest handed down from your great great great grandmother may hold a grim secret!