AWAY in the west of the misty Isle of Sky; where to the
rhythm of a mysterious ceol-mara, or sea-music, the eternal surge
of the wild Atlantic sweeps into Loch Follart, stands the ancient and
historic castle of Dunvegan.
For more than ten centuries Dunvegan has been the
residence of the MacLeods of MacLeod; and the old castle which was
described as an amorphous mass of masonry of every conceivable style of
architecture, in which the ninth century jostles with the nineteenth, has
witnessed many scenes of war and chivalryscenes which to this day are
recounted in the copious store of tales and legends and superstitions,
that are associated with Dunvegan.
Exactly when the earliest foundations of the castle
were laid is, indeed, very arbitrary, and really interests us very little.
The oldest portion, we are certain, is the seaward side, and dates roughly
from about the ninth century. Its walls are of immense thickness; and it
is supposed by some to have been constructed by the early Northmen as a
fortress, when they were masters of the Western Isles.
Some hundreds of years afterwards was added the lofty
tower of Alasdair Crotach, the hunchback, who, dying at a great age in the
reign of Queen Mary, found a last resting-place at Rodil (Rowardill), in
Further improvements and alterations were made by
Ruairaidh Mor, or Big Roderic, who was knighted by James VI. Under
Roderics instructions was built a long, low edifice; and since his time
several additions have been made. Dunvegan Castle is situated on a
precipitous rock, at the base of which the sea rolls incessantly. Its
turrets and battlements, which rise immediately above the waves, frown
upon the sea below, and lend to the whole structure a massiveness, and
make it one of the most imposing and interesting castles in Scotland. It
is certainty one of the oldest, if not actually the oldest, inhabited
castles in the country.
Sir Walter Scott tells us that the more ancient parts
of the castle belong to an age whose birth tradition notes not; and that
by the time of his visit MacLeod of Dunvegan had substituted a drawbridge
as a means of access, the old sea-entrance on Loch Follart, which led up a
dark, eerie stair, having fallen into disrepair and decay through lack of
In the olden days many footsore and weary wayfarers
among the Western Isles sought to rest themselves at Dunvegan, and
received within its historic walls that hospitality with which the
MacLeods were long associated. Among such wayfarers were Dr Johnson and
his companion, who were munificently and lavishly entertained, and who
found their weariness and fatigue more than compensated for by the
reception they received here, because their hostess, having lived for many
years in England, knew all the art of southern elegance. Johnson informs
us further that, though he and his friend were detained for some time on
account of stormy weather, he was careful not to spoil the present hour
with restless thoughts of departure.
It was at Dunvegan, too, that he first tasted lotus,
and was in danger of forgetting that he was ever to depart till Mr
Boswell sagely reproached him with sluggishness and softness, after which
they pursued their journey together through the Isles.
In the autumn of 1814, as is recorded in his diary of
that year, Scott awoke one morning under the gray walls of Dunvegan
Castle, having sailed there during his tour with the vessel of the
Lighthouse Commissioners. He narrates that, before he was dressed, MacLeod
came out of his stronghold and invited him over to breakfast. Needless to
say, Scott availed himself of this golden opportunity, and accepted
MacLeods hospitality with that dignity and graciousness which
distinguished him from most of the men of his time; and we read that he
was pleasantly surprised at Dunvegan to find himself in the company of
polished society. That Scott made the most of his invitation is evinced
by the account he has given us of all he saw and heard during his sojourn
In Dunvegan has long been preserved the famous drinking
cup to which Scott refers in The Lord of the Isles, when he writes:
Fill me the mighty cup, he said,
Erst owned by royal Somerled.
This cup, which is a most interesting piece of art, is
an exceedingly fine illustration of early Irish workmanship, and bears the
date A.D. 1493. (With all due deference to Scott,
let me state, parenthetically, that the great author woefully misread the
inscription on the cup; and that the date which occurs in one of his
footnotes in The Lord of the Isles is incorrect.) The cup stands
some ten or eleven inches in height; and upon it is engraved a somewhat
intricate and elaborate inscription; while the letters, I.H.S., are
repeated four times within the mouth of the cup. From this, and from other
circumstances intimately connected with the cup, it would seem to have
been used as a chalice long ago.
But Dunvegan in bygone days was renowned for its
revelries and festivities; and it is extremely probable, as Scott,
himself, suggests, that this cup was actively employed in the somewhat
rude and ready hospitality of the period.
Another noteworthy trophy preserved in the family of
the MacLeods at Dunvegan is the drinking horn of Ruairaidh Mor, to whom I
alluded earlier. This treasured heirloom is referred to by Dr Johnson; but
in interest it can in no way be compared with the aforesaid cup erst
owned by royal Somerled.
The horn, which is silver-tipped, holds about five
pints, and it was considered that every young heir ought to be able to
prove his worth and prowess by drinking to the lees, and at one draught,
the overflowing horn. Otherwise, his capacity to represent so ancient a
clan and to bear arms was seriously challenged. In later days the
sometimes trying ordeal of swigging the entire goblet at one mighty gulp
was alleviated by the insertion of a temporary lining within the horn,
thus affecting the volume available for wine.
Burns, in a bacchanalian song, mentions this drinking
horn of Ruairaidh Mor. Ruairaidh, who died in the Chanonry of Ross, was
much lamented; and on a recumbent slab in Fortrose Cathedral are inscribed
the words:Heir lyes the Richt Worshipfull Sir
Rorie MacLeod of Dunvegan, Knicht, 1626.
By far the most interesting relic associated with
Dunvegan is the green Faery Flag which furnished Scott with the material
for the last of his Letters on Demonology. It is supposed by some
to have been part of the raiment of the faery bride of an early chief; but
more generally it is thought to have been a banner captured by one of the
MacLeods from a Saracen chief during the Crusades.
The Faery Flag has been described as the hinge on
which MacLeods fortune turns; and we know that the chiefs of MacLeod
were in the habit of displaying it only on three specific occasions. In
virtue of its miraculous properties, it was, first of all, waved in battle
in order to multiply the numbers of the MacLeods, and so terrify their
enemies; then, it was spread on a nuptial bed to ensure fertility, when
there was no heir; and, lastly, it was used in the belief that it
encouraged great shoals of fish to enter Loch Follart.
Scott spent a night in the Faery Room, and rather
enjoyed his stay in this haunted chamber, for he writes: I took
possession about the witching hour. Except, perhaps, some tapestry
hangings, and the extreme thickness of the walls, which argued great
antiquity, nothing could have been more comfortable than the interior of
the apartment; but if you looked from the windows the view was such as to
correspond with the highest tone of superstition. The rest of Scotts
description of the haunted room, and of what he observed from its windows,
may be more graphic and picturesque than it is true; but it is a
description that only one with a keen sense of atmosphere could have
However, the comfortable bed appears to have attracted
Scotts attention, and to have met with his entire satisfaction, because
he assures us that the old superstitions did not trouble him, and that he
slept soundly, in spite of all the ghosts and goblins that haunted the
chamber of the Faery flag.
Long ago in the Misty Isle there was a school for
pipers. It was here that the famous MacCrimmons, the hereditary pipers to
the MacLeods of Skye, taught and gave certificates of merit to those of
their pupils, who attained a high standard of proficiency in the art of
the piobaireachd and ceol-mor. The MacDonalds, for
generations the fiercest enemies of the MacLeods, also had a distinguished
line of hereditary pipers, who conducted a somewhat similar college; but
the teaching of the MacArthurs was never considered quite so efficient as
that of the MacCrimmons.
Notwithstanding the many intermarriages between the
MacDonalds and the MacLeods, they were continually at variance with one
another. It is said that they were constantly putting rings on each
others fingers, and dirks into each others hearts. After the
MacCrimmons had opened a regular school, and were in the habit of
receiving pupils from far and near, MacLeod endowed them with a farm at
Boreraig, a township which lies opposite Dunvegan, on the other side of
the loch. It was here that they conducted most of their tuition.
We are told that, though MacLeod gave the farm
rent-free, he was tempted, when the value of land increased, to take back
a portion of the territory he had granted them. This ingratitude for their
services the MacCrimmons could not endure; and so the pipers deserted
Boreraig, leaving their rock music-hall to the seals and cormorants. You
see, it was in a large cave nearby that the pupils of the MacCrimmons were
accustomed to practise with the feadan and bagpipes, because here
they neither disturbed their neighbours, nor were they, themselves,
It is in moonlight that one should visit Dunvegan, when
at the ebb tide your nostrils may be filled with the scent of the salten
sea-tangle, and whenas on the Blue Cuhullins, many miles awaythe driving
mists are laying cloths upon MacLeods Tables; while far out in the loch
his Maidens are being drenched in the spume and spray of the wild
billows, that rush in disorder and confusion before a western gale.
And around the turrets and battlements of the ancient
castle, where the music of the waves is intermingled with the sea-birds
cry, and the mysterious wail of MacCrimmons Lament, as it steals across
the loch from Boreraig, cling the traditions and superstitions of Viking
and Celtic days.
And the stately tower of Alasdair Crotach stands out
against the moonlight like a cold, gray sentinel amid the ceaseless swirl
of the tides of eternity.
Surely the very essence of all Hebridean poetry and
romance is to be found at Dunvegan!
Cha till e gu brath gu latha na cruinne.