1433 - 50
For some years after the death of his father Neil continued in captivity, and the maintenance of the interests of the Mackays of Strathnaver devolved during the interval upon Ian Aberach. Sir Robert Gordon relates that the Earl of Sutherland was greatly enraged at the news of Drum nan Coup, that he drove Ian Aberach into the western isles, and that on the Aberach's return at Christmas following he pursued him a second time "so eagerlie, that he was constrained to submit himselff, and crave him pardon for his offence, which he obtained upon his submission". That the Earl of Sutherland was angry is likely, but that he carried out these wonderful expeditions, or that Ian Aberach came to Dunrobin to beg pardon for fighting at Drum nan Coup, we are sceptical enough not to believe. This is, in our opinion, fictional history written to support a fictional claim of Sutherland's "superiority" over Mackay.
As Angus Moray, according to Sir Robert Gordon, gathered "a company of Sutherlandmen with Earle Robert his attollerance", we are justified in believing that his force of 1500 men represented the collective strength of that country. It is but reasonable to conclude that on such a hazardous expedition all their available strength would be employed; and judging from its population the country was not capable of turning any more men into the field. But this force was effectually broken to pieces at Drum nan Coup and all its leaders slain. As we do not believe the Earl of Sutherland was able to raise the dead on the slopes of Ben Loyal by the blast of a trumpet, we fail to understand where he got the men to carry out these Munchausen expeditions. We do acknowledge, however, that many attempts were made to assassinate Ian Aberach by Sutherlandmen, who came north in various disguises to avenge the death of fallen relatives, and that consequently he often had to pass the night for safety in a most inaccessible rocky fastness, near Castle Varrich, called to this day Leabaidh Ian Aberich, that is John of Lochaber's bed. [See on this point the Old Statistical Account; Parish of Tongue]
The Mackays had nothing to fear from the men of Sutherland, who got such a severe handling in 1433 that they had to lie low for many a long day thereafter. Their danger lay in an attack from Caithness, which was delivered, although Sir Robert Gordon is silent on the point.
According to local tradition, shortly after the battle of Drum nan Coup and before Neil escaped from the Bass, Ian Aberach engaged the men of Caithness at Tom an Dris, on the west bank of the river Halladale, opposite Tor. The fight seems to have been a bloody one, as is evidenced by the abundance of human remains buried in the sandy slope above the ford at Tor. About 1820 a severe storm blew away the sand and exposed a considerable quantity of human bones, which Major Mackay of Bighouse collected and reburied at the foot of the slope, marking the spot by some stones.
Human bones have also been found on both sides of the river in the neighbourhood of the ford, and for some distance to the east of it on the way to Caithness. From the configuration of the ground and from the position of the slain, it may be concluded that the Mackays were drawn up on the western slope above the ford to contest a Caithness invasion, and that the latter were driven back losing men for a considerable distance from the actual battle-field, as they were endeavouring to make their way home. The tactics practised here were exactly similar to those adopted so successfully at Drum nan Coup: the Mackays stuck to a good strong defensive position and waited for an attack with their backs to the brae. Instead of the Earl of Sutherland pursuing Ian Aberach after the battle near Tongue, it is more reasonable to conclude that the men of Sutherland were saved from further immediate punishment at the hands of Ian by the long-standing feud between the Maekays and the men of Caithness.
In Feb 1436, King James I was murdered at Perth, and shortly thereafter Neil Vass escaped from his prison on the Bass by the help of a kinswoman, the wife of Lauder the governor [Pinkerton and Earldom of Sutherland]. The very next year Neil at the head of his clansmen undertook an expedition into Caithness. As Neil had no military experience - he was confined on the Bass at the tender age of 14 - the captain of the force was undoubtedly the youthful veteran Ian Aberach. The Mackays poured into Caithness by way of Reay, and took the precaution of leaving a strong body posted on Drum Holstein to cover their rear. The main body advanced towards Thurso, plundering and burning as they went. They were met somewhere in the neighbourhood of Thurso by the forces of Caithness, before which the Mackays fell back fighting and carrying their spoil. They retired in good order to Sandside, where they were joined by their reserves from Drum Holstein, and there the real battle began. By skilful tactics Ian Aberach managed to corner the Caithnessmen in a loop of the bay below Sandside House, and to inflict a crushing defeat driving many into the sea. The survivors were chased for some distance along the shore towards Dunreay [Blk. MS.]. Around the ancient fort of Cnoc Stangar, between Sandside House and the sea, where the fight was fiercest, the bones of the slain may yet be dug out of the sandy soil. This conflict is known as Ruaig Handside, Sandside Chase.
[Footnote: Sandside Chase - Often have we listened of a winter's night to this wild tale concerning Sandside Chase.
Alastair Balloch of Skail, Strathnaver, a man of great strength and stature, towards the close of the fight, chanced to encounter a small, lithe, Caithnessman of the name of Gunn, who was bravely lighting and falling back.
After a few smart passes, Gunn with deft swordsmanship managed to hamstring big Alastair and left him lying helplessly wounded.
Alastair's vexation at such an ignominious quietus was very great.
After carrying everything before him during some hours close hand to hand fighting, and bringing down man after man, now to be gravelled by an insignificant little fellow, was a sorer wound to Alastair's pride than the sword-cut on his leg.
As his companions bore him home to Skail, he vowed by all the saints that he must needs settle scores with the little Caithnessman before he could die happy.
In the course of time the wound healed and Alastair Balloch set out limping towards Caithness, where he prowled for many a long day on the look out for the little Caithnessman.
But he was doomed to disappointment; he never met Gunn.
Vexation and anger now gave place to melancholy and so preyed upon his mind that he sickened, took to his bed, and laid his trusty battle-axe between him and the wall.
His soul loathed food; he even ceased to take any notice of visitors.
His only apparent interest seemed to consist in running his hand along the edge of his axe to feel its sharpness.
His friends seeing the end was near sent for the priest to prepare the dying man to meet his Maker.
The priest came and told Alastair that if he would be pardoned of God he must himself forgive any against whom he may have a grudge.
"Surely you don't expect me to forgive everybody", said Alastair.
"Yes, everybody", replied the priest.
"Well I can't and won't forgive that little Caithnessman. Would to God I had met him !"
"Well, well", replied the priest, "you will probably meet him yet if he be a wild savage like yourself".
"Where ?" cried Alastair, springing to his elbow, and grasping his battle-axe, while the old fire blazed forth once more in his eye.
"In hell", said the priest.
"Hell ! So be it. I swear it was never hell till I catch him there", roared the infuriated man, and, with a fiendish shout, he fell back lifeless upon the bed.]
So idolized was Ian Aberach of his clansmen, who had good proof of his qualities during his brother's absence, that they would fain make him their chief, [Earldom of Sutherland] but Ian magnanimously refused to usurp his brother Neil's place, and handed over the government to him on his return from the Bass. This dauntless valour and unselfish chivalry became the heritage and characteristic of the Aberach Mackays, who were ever forward in the fray and but seldom reaped the full fruits of their victories, owing to their devotion to the principal family of Mackay. Neil, however, endeavoured to reward Ian by bestowing upon him lands in Strathnaver, but as there was no sheep-skin charters given or asked the descendants of Ian Aberach afterwards saw these lands pass over their heads to the Earl of Sutherland, in the days of Donald, 1st Lord Reay.
Neil Vass married a daughter of George Munro of Fowlis by his wife, a daughter of Ross of Balnagown [Blk. MS.], and had by her two sons and one daughter: -