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Behold the Hebrides
The MacLeods of Raasay


UNDER the blue shadow of the Cuhullins, and ‘twa myle off sea fra the ile of Scalpay lyes ane ile callit Raarsay.... with pairt of birkin woods, maney deires with twa castles, to witt, the castle of Killmorocht and the castle of Brolokit pertaining to McGyllychallan of Raarsay be the sword. This same McGyllychallan shud obey McCloyd of the Lewis.’ Thus reads a quaint, medieval reference to Raasay.

For centuries the island was in the possession of the MacLeods of Raasay, a branch of the MacLeods of Lewis. Martin informs us that the MacLeods, whose seat was at the village of Clachan, were held in great esteem and veneration by the natives; and we learn from contemporary documents that the sojourner and the stranger received in Castle Raasay that kindliness and hospitality which were never found wanting in the home of a Hebridean chieftain, for they were among the unfailing characteristics of his race. It was at the hands of the MacLeods of Raasay that Boswell and Johnson received such lavish entertainment in 1773.

Raasay was long noted for the survival among its inhabitants of peculiar laws and customs to which the Islesfolk strictly adhered at all times. The old law which comes to my mind at the moment concerned fishing-lines, and was observed only on the west side of the island. It required that all fishing-lines should be of the same length, for ‘the longest is always supposed to have the best access to the fish, which would prove a disadvantage to such as might have shorter ones.’

It was to Raasay that Prince Charlie fled when he parted with Flora MacDonald and on the way to the boat which was to conduct him across, he said, ‘Pray, MacDonald, give this piece of sugar to our lady, for I am afraid that she will get no sugar where she is going,’ commanding the boatsman at the same time to tell no one of his whereabouts. It was from Raasay that the prince crossed over to Skye, where he found the protection of the MacLeods and the MacKinnons. Indeed, the MacLeods of Raasay also sheltered the prince, and raised men of valour to assist him in his cause.

Now, in the seventeenth century there dwelt in Raasay a valiant warrior who The was known locally as lain Garbh, or John the Athlete, as we might be permitted to call him in the language of the Sassenach. lain belonged to the Mac-’ille-Chalum family; and it is said that of all the MacLeods of Raasay he was the most loved and respected. This is evinced by the fact that several laments to him survive, five of which are comparatively well known, although the authorship of two of them has long been disputed. The most popular lament is called Cumha Mac-’ille-Chalum Rarsaidh, and its authorship is attributed to lain’s sister, who, like the Islesfolk, was devoted to her brother, and mourned his loss with abundant tears.

Stornoway, in those far-off days, was the market for the northern Hebrides; and lain Garbh lost his life while returning to Raasay after a few days’ absence in Lewis. But the Islesfolk would not be believing that the stormy Minch could overpower one who was so daring and so brave; and so they attributed his disappearance to the schemings of one who was skilled in the ‘Black Art.’ There are, of course, many tales and legends associated with his death.

At all events, lain Garbh returned to Raasay no more. And at night there sat alone by the sorrowful sea one whose heart was filled with a tragedy—one who was so heavy-laden that she could not raise a song since the Friday on which the sad news of lain had been conveyed to her. However, she composed this beautiful lament already referred to—in Gaelic, naturally—and it is still considered one of the classics of our language.

‘S mi am shuidh’ air an fhaodhlinn,
‘S mi gun fhaoilte, gun fhuran!

. . . . .

Alan lain Og MacLeod of Raasay,
Treasure of mine, lies yonder dead in Loos,
His body unadorned by Highland raiment,
Trammelled, for glorious hours, in Saxon trews.
Never man before of all his kindred
Went so apparelled to the burial knowe,
But with the pleated tartan for his shrouding,
The bonnet on his brow.

Such is the opening stanza of the ‘Lament for MacLeod of Raasay’ by a living writer, of whom old Scotland has every reason to be proud,

Mo thruaighe!
My grief! that Alan should depart so sadly,
When no wild mountain pipe his bosom wrung,
With no one of his race beside his shoulder
Who knew his history and spoke his tongue.

This lament is far too complete to admit of any unnecessary explanation, because it speaks for itself; and so I cannot do better than quote a line or two of it here and there :—

Beside him, when he fell there in his beauty,
MacLeods of all the islands should have died;
Brave hearts his English! but they could not fathom
To what old deeps the voice of Alan cried,
When in that strange French countryside, war-battered,
Far from the creeks of home and hills of heath,
A boy, he kept the old tryst of his people
With the dark girl Death.

The whole picture is an intense one; and the reader is transported unconsciously from the wildness of this lonely Hebridean isle to the battlefields of France, and thence back again to Raasay, that hides itself under the blue shadow of the Cuhullins. Try to visualise this island set in a sea of blue and emerald, where the tiny houses, that are perched on the summits of the tall cliffs, seemed to Dr John MacCulloch to be better adapted for the retreats of the innumerable birds that hover round them than for human habitations.

Gone in the mist the brave MacLeods of Raasay,
Far furth from fortune, sundered from their lands,
And now the last grey stone of Castle Raasay
Lies desolate and levelled with the sands;
But pluck the old Isle from its roots deep planted
Where tides cry coronach round the Hebrides,
And it will bleed of the MacLeods lamented,
Their loves and memories!

This is an extremely fine piece of work; and is it not comforting to know that there are still a few Celts who are saturated with the fragrance of their race, and around whom this web of mysticism is woven?

. . . .

Righ! cha tog mi fonn aotrom bho DhI-h-aoine mo dhunalch!

I will not raise a song since the Friday of my grief!


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