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Scotland's Book of Romance
Chapter VI. On The Isle of Shona


An Invitation - Shelter at Castle Tirrim - The Blood in the Dungeon -  John of Moidart - The Thrust of a Dirk in Arisaig - To the Island in a Rainstorm - The Kinlochmoidart Bagpipe - When the Devil came for Donald.

IF I had not gone to the chapel at Mingarry that Sunday morning, I would not have seen and handled the old Macdonald bagpipe that is said to have been played at the Battle of Bannockburn, for it was at the door of the chapel that I was invited to take tea in the afternoon at a house on the island of Shona.

Three days before, from the mouth of Wat the Wanderer's cave near the head of Loch Moidart, I had looked across the water to Shona, but I had seen no houses there. Now, however, I learned that Shona was more than a deserted paradise of pines and firs and silver birches. On the isle in Loch Moidart I was surprised to hear there is a population of about fifty, and a dozen children are taught in the little island school at Baramore. The invitation to tea included my two friends at the hotel as well as Campbell himself; but Gillespie decided to fish until dark; so with Campbell and Grant I set out for Loch Moidart.

The road down to the south shore of the sea-loch follows the river beside the wooded shoulder of a hill ; and before we had been a mile on the way, the rain began to fall. The sky had blackened in the west, and it was plain that we were in for what Grant called a snorter of an evening. Half a pace ahead of us, Campbell splashed through the long quivering pools on the road, and when we came round the corner of the hill he stopped and pointed.

"Castle Tirrim," he said briefly.

It was then that I blessed the weather. What a picture the stark old Clanranald fortress made in the gloom of the autumn afternoon. I had caught a glimpse of it coming over the pass from Glenuig, and from the distance it had seemed like the relics of a child's sand-castle that the encroaching tide had begun to eat away. But seen as it was now, in the battering rain, it made a picture not easily to be forgotten.

It was built nearly six hundred years ago; and is older than the Clanranald family itself. No Highland castle has a more thrilling history. A woman made it : a divorced woman. She had been put away by a Lord of the Isles so that he could marry a daughter of the heir to the throne of Scotland. They called him the Good John of Isla, though one doubts his goodness to Amie MacRuari. But Amie had the blood, of Somerled in her veins, and she consoled herself as the walls of Castle Tirrim rose stone upon stone ; and for centuries it remained the chief stronghold of the Clanranalds, the family of which Amie is the mother. I had read somewhere that Castle Tirrim had been impregnable : now I saw why. At low tide a man can cross on a narrow neck of shingle to the huge hummock of rock on which it stands, but there is no cover for an attacking army, and on the north side the grey cliff rises from the water of Loch Moidart. As I approached the gaunt ruin, I felt like lifting my rainsoaked hat to the memory of Amie MacRuari.

The ebbing tide had already uncovered the track ; and crossing to the islet, we climbed up in lashing rain to the castle. Its walls are ten feet thick. Pointing upward, Campbell told us that a few years ago a bed of strawberries had been found growing on the top. Some bird must have dropped the seed which had taken root in that airy bed high among the dirt and moss.

From the terrace that runs round the courtyard you go down into the dungeon and kitchen, and the damp soil of the dungeon floor is red-red with human blood, Campbell explained. A horrible murder was once committed there, and it was said that the blood of the victim would ooze up from that soil for ever. A certain Doubting Thomas actually sent a sample of the soil to a Glasgow analyst, who reported that the red colouring was due to the action of some mineral, and the sneers of the doubting one were heard for many a day in Moidart. "But the Glasgow man was all wrong," declared Campbell. "The stain is blood. You will find it in the soil for as deep as you like to dig."

Only once, according to Father Macdonald, has Castle Tirrim been captured by an enemy. The chief fell foul of the Scots king-a frequent thing in Moidart history--and the Campbells were given leave to carry fire and sword against him. Where a Macdonald was concerned, a wink was as good as a nod for a Campbell; and round the point of Ardnamurchan came the longboats from Argyll. Anchor was dropped in Loch Moidart near the castle walls. A force was sent ashore to cut off Tirrim from the mainland, making retreat impossible if the fortress fell. The Campbells made an assault and failed, so they tried to starve out the garrison. Not until five weeks had passed did they depart, and the jubilant Clanranald men went off to their homes. That night the Campbells stole quickly back to Loch Moidart, rounded Eilean Shona on a flood tide, and battered their way into the now thinly defended Castle Tirrim. Word of the disaster went over all Moidart like wildfire: Tirrim had fallen! Enraged at having been caught napping by so simple a ruse, the Clanranalds came hurrying back to the lochside, retook the castle, and wiped out the stigma with Campbell blood.

Many a dark plot was hatched in Tirrim. Tradition has it that in 1545 Donald Dubh, after spending forty years in prison, came here to meet the seventeen chiefs whom he persuaded to join in a conspiracy with Henry VIII against their own king. They took the oath of allegiance and Henry's money, but the plot fizzled out. And although John of Moidart, the Captain of Clanranald, was pardoned, this did not keep him quiet for long. I doubt if any Highlander or Border chief had a more turbulent life. He was a man of immense strength, brave as a tiger and cunning as a stoat. James IV once managed to get him inside prison walls, but nobody was surprised when John escaped. In spite of all the efforts of the king he was never " dantonit," and he ruled for fifty years in Moidart, to die .peacefully in his bed at Castle Tirrim.

But not all the Tirrim chiefs were so clever as John. Several of them ended their days dangling from a rope's end ; and another was dirked by one of his own clansmen. As we sheltered from the rain in the doorway of the castle, looking out across the grey choppy water of Loch Moidart, Campbell told us the story of this murder. Before he had gone very far, I remembered that I had read about it in Father Charles Macdonald's little book-there were few Moidart stories the old priest had failed to record but to hear it told under the walls of the chief's stronghold gave the legend a new and romantic glow.

Allan-of-the-Knife was the murderer's name, and the folk at the firesides in Moidart still talk about him with a shiver. There was trouble in the clan, and Allan decided to get rid of the chief. With his helpers, he lay waiting for his victim at Glenuig. Somebody warned the chief, however, and he slipped up to the head of Loch Ailort in Arisaig. Allan followed, and the chief went down with an arrow in his back. Rushing forward, Allan finished him off with his dirk, swearing that any man who dared to give the body a Christian burial would get the same knife between his ribs.

Campbell's voice quickened as he told us of the sequel. The dead chief's infant son was hurried away east into Lochaber, where his mother's kinsfolk, the Camerons, brought him up. The Camerons were eager for revenge, and when the boy reached manhood he came with a party of them to bring Allan-of-the-Knife to justice. Allan was living in Arisaig, they learned, and they arrived on a Sunday morning while he and his friends were busy at their devotions, and the young man had great difficulty in preventing the Camerons from setting the church on fire and slaughtering the worshippers : indeed, they were so disgusted at his lack of manly spirit that they returned to Lochaber. Left alone, the murdered chief's son became a wanderer in these glens, finding food and lodging where he could. Among the hills one day, he met a beautiful girl who was herding her father's goats. She gave the handsome young stranger some food and milk, and they fell passionately in love. At length he ventured to go down with the girl to her father's croft, where he disclosed his identity : he was the son of the murdered Clanranald chief. And then to his horror, the girl's father drew his dirk and, with blazing eyes, announced that he was Allan-of-the-Knife. There was a long silence at the door of that thatched house in Arisaig as the young man looked into the face of his father's murderer and then turned to meet the bewildered eyes of Allan's daughter.

The scene, as Campbell described it under the walls of Castle Tirrim, sounded like a passage from one of John Webster's gory dramas. In the end, Allan-of-the-Knife shook hands and gave his blessing to the young couple. Indeed, they made their home with the fierce Allan himself, and for some months all went well. But the girl seemed to have inherited her father's wild spirit, and one day she flew into a temper with her husband. I like the homely realism of the tradition, which asserts that in the heat of their quarrel, he gave his bride a push which nearly sent her into the fire. She drew herself up imperiously. "If my father had seen you treat me like that," she cried, "he would be giving to Dugald's son what he gave to Dugald himself on the shore of Loch Ailort!"

Her reference to that old incident can scarcely be called tactful. Love had stifled the vengeance which had been smouldering in the young man's mind for so many years, and now the old hatred burst into flame. He rushed into the next room, where Allan-of-the-Knife was on his knees at his morning prayers-he seemed to have been a great one for his devotions-and plunged his dagger home into the old man's heart. And so the story ends as it began, with the thrust of a dirk in Arisaig.

Castle Tirrim remained the principal Clanranald stronghold until the call went round to the clans for the Rising of 'Fifteen. The Captain of Clanranald, called Allan the Red, felt in his bones that the affair would end in disaster and that he would never return alive. Before setting out, he drew aside an old follower and told him the sad thoughts that were in his mind. After giving some orders, he marched up the glen with his clansmen and climbed Scardoish Hill. Here he paused to say good-bye to the friends who had come to see him depart, and then he looked back at Castle Tirrim on its rock in Loch Moidart. Great clouds of smoke were rising from the battlements. As the group gazed down in consternation, the place burst into flames. Allan's orders had been obeyed. Never again would Castle Tirrim be in the hands of an enemy ! With a last good-bye, Allan turned resolutely towards the south. He was killed in action at the battle of Sheriffmuir. Castle Tirrim was never rebuilt.

For fully three quarters of an hour we stood talking over old stories in the doorway of the castle, hoping that at any minute the downpour might slacken. But our luck was out. The rain hissed and snarled round the walls, dappling the water of the loch, and from over the Sound of Eigg a black cloud had crept eastward until it hung almost overhead.

"We'd better go," said Campbell at last. "The tide's going out, and we have a long way to haul down the boat."

He buttoned up his macintosh, and I drew around my shoulders the light waterproof sheet that served me as a raincoat. Making our way back to the shore, we followed Campbell by the side of a pine-wood to the place where the boat lay upon the mud and shingle. Grant untied the oars and rowlocks from a thwart while Campbell undid the end of the painter from the long iron chain that reached down from the fringe of the pine-wood. After baling out the rain from the boat, we bent our backs to the task of dragging it down into the water.

Before many minutes had passed, I was cursing the man who built it. It was a new boat, most beautifully made ; but as we hauled it a foot at a time, it felt as heavy as a small barge. The beach was wide and flat, and the harder we slaved the further the ebbing tide seemed to creep. A sea chaunty would have been the thing to sing if any of us had had the breath to spare for upraising his voice in a working-song, though perhaps on second thoughts a battle-tune would have been more appropriate. Campbell's great muscles and joints seemed to crack under the strain as we stooped and hauled, paused and hauled again. We veered the boat this way and that to get it on little patches of seaweed over which it slithered more easily. We fought like tigers with that boat, until suddenly Campbell drew himself up.

"Wait, gentlemen," he said. "Rest yourselves while I get a bit of stick."

Leaving Grant and myself panting against the gunwale, with sweat mingling with the rain on our faces, he turned and hurried up the beach towards the pine trees. When he came back he had three or four pieces of wood under his arm, and these we used as rollers. The boat at last took the water with a low gurgling splash, and we waded out with it for half a dozen yards-our legs were already wet-and clambered aboard.

Round Riska Island we rowed, with the Deer's Island to the east, and slipped up Loch Moidart to the tree-clad Shona Beag.

The house of our hostess stood among pines a little way from the shore, and below it was black deep water. A couple of small boats lay high on a slip-way, and we crept gently in towards a ridge of stones that were covered with brown seaweed. Fastening the painter to a post, we scrambled ashore in the pelting rain, and ten minutes later were seated around a blazing fire with the steam beginning to rise from our wet clothes.

Already the lamp was lit, for the black sky made the afternoon seem like a midwinter evening. Our hostess was a charming white-haired old lady, and her grey eyes melted sympathetically when she saw we had got a wetting. A Scots tea is always a delightful meal, and as was natural our talk was about the 'Forty-five: nor could I have listened to those old tales in a more suitable place than this island, the last bit of Moidart to remain in the possession of a descendant of the Kinlochmoidart family. During tea our hostess told us about her ancestor Donald, one of the finest of the Prince's officers. A cool-headed man, Bishop Forbes called him, fit for either the council-chamber or the battlefield, and he would probably have Walter Scott heard from the lips of his friend Lady Clerk a story which has often been repeated about Donald Macdonald. The hero of the story, however, was not Donald but his younger brother Ranald, a captain in the Clanranald regiment. When the Highlanders crossed into England and were marching to Carlisle, Ranald set out on the evening of 8th November to find food and lodging for his men. Rose Castle struck him as a suitable place, so he went up to the door and demanded quarters. The servant told him that the lady of the house had just given birth to a daughter, and pleaded with Ranald to make as little trouble as possible. He replied that he would take his men off at once, and asked if he might be permitted to see the infant before he departed. Plucking the cockade from his bonnet, Ranald fastened it on the child's breast.

"This will be a token," he said, "that the Macdonalds of Kinlochmoidart have taken the family of Rose Castle under their protection. Show it to any of our people who may come to your door." Mary Dacre was the child's name-her father was Dacre of Kirklinton, a descendant of the old Wardens of the English Marches-and she became the wife of Sir James Clerk of Penicuik. Once a year until her dying day she wore the white cockade from Ranald Macdonald's bonnet, and beside it she pinned a white rose.

It was near Carlisle that Ranald Macdonald performed his act of gentle chivalry, and at Carlisle his eldest brother Donald met his end. From Edinburgh, before the battle of Prestonpans was fought, Donald had been sent north by the Prince to persuade Macleod and Sir Alexander Macdonald to support the Jacobite cause; and after the failure of his mission he was returning to the Prince, who by this time was marching into England, when he was captured at Lesmahagow by a divinity student named Thomas Linning [Chambers and others have said that Linning was appointed to the church in his native parish as a reward for his capture of Kinlochmoidart. This is most unlikely. He did not become minister there until sixteen years afterwards. The Rev. Thomas Linning, his father, had been minister of the second charge since 1740; and the elder Linning's uncle of the same name, a Chaplain in Ordinary to King George, was one of the best-known preachers in Scotland, and had been in the first charge at Lesmahagow since 1691. The Linnings, under the patronage of the Dukes of Hamilton, were almost a tradition in Lesmahagow.] and an armed rabble. At Carlisle he was condemned to death and hanged.

Before the last breath had left his writhing body, he was cut down and disembowelled, and his head was stuck on a spike over one of the Carlisle gates, where it remained for many years. No Highlander passed this grim relic without saluting it in silent reverence, and a Moidart man actually climbed to the top of the gate and kissed it. For this dreadful act of open rebellion against King George, he was arrested and dragged before the governor of the town. The governor, however, was a member of the Lennox family, and his heart was so touched by the Moidart man's devotion that he ordered him to be released, then gave instructions that the head was to be taken down and decently buried. It was a good thing for the peace of Carlisle that this was done, for a little later a Highland regiment was quartered in the town. Many of the younger men who fought for the Prince joined the British army afterwards, and became the loyal soldiers of King George II; but it would have been stretching loyalty a little too far to expect them to gaze unmoved at the head of Donald Macdonald skewered upon a spike and left to shrivel and decay. After describing the ugly fate of her great-great grandfather, our hostess rose.

"Let me bring you the Macdonald bagpipe," she said, and left the room, to return and place in my hands the instrument that is believed to have been played six centuries ago at Bannockburn. The chanter, the square mouth-piece, and the top of one of the drones are part of the original piob mhor, and the wood is smooth and dark with the touch of so many hands. The chanter has an extra hole which was bored on the advice of a fairy, who said that it would enable the pipe to give forth the most marvellous music man had ever heard-music that would inspire the Macdonalds in battle and strike terror into the hearts of their enemies.

"Thanks to the fairy's advice," said our hostess, with a smile, "this bagpipe has never been played at a lost battle. The tone is beautifully mellow. It is good to hear a fine piper playing it. On a calm evening they say the sound will steal across the loch and be heard far away in the Glen of Moidart."

"Then this bagpipe can't have been played at Culloden?" suggested Grant.

"No. At Culloden, I'm afraid, some of the Macdonalds behaved like spoilt children. Theirs was the place of honour on the right flank of the army, but Lord George Murray had promised this to the Atholl men, and the Macdonalds were put on the left. They say some of them hung back until too late. Nobody can doubt their courage, but when a Gael thinks he has been insulted he isn't a very easy man to handle."

Campbell nodded his assent. "And it's still true!" he cried. His eyes strayed across the table, and he addressed me: "Whiles you must be thinking we are a queer lot. But mebby we arc not so bad after all -though the Macdonalds will not be saying very much good about a Campbell." And he glanced towards our hostess, and they laughed together. "But there was no finer man in the Highlands than Donald Macdonald of Kinlochmoidart. And few worse than another Donald I. could tell of," he added. "Donald of the Toad !"

Grant leaned forward in his chair with interest, and Campbell began to chuckle deeply.

"Donald of the Toad!" he repeated. "Ah, he was a bad scoundrel. When he was old and fat he used to sit at the top of Castle Tirrim with his gun, shooting at birds in the loch-ay, and he would fire at a man if he thought he had come for thieving. Donald would shoot anything, but he was afraid to shoot the Toad."

Campbell chuckled again.

"What toad was that?" asked Grant, and Campbell explained that for many years this old Clanranald chief had been haunted by a great black toad-a kind of familiar spirit. He would go on a journey, leaving the toad locked in the dungeon, only to find to his horror that it was waiting for him on his arrival. He believed it had come straight from hell to torment him for his sins. Once he was in his longboat when a storm blew up, and the crew caught sight of the toad in the water, swimming as fast as the boat could sail. As the storm increased the crew were so scared that they pleaded with Donald to take the black brute on board. He refused, but in the end had to give in, so he waved to the toad. It clambered nimbly over the gunwale; and at once the sea became calm. At last Donald got rid of it in an unexpected way. It was eaten by a lion which the Earl of Argyll had sent to Donald as a gift, and a lion figures to-day on the Clanranald coat-of-arms.

But although Donald got rid of his familiar spirit, the devil came to fetch him in the end. He fell ill while on a visit at the island of Canna, and one midnight there sounded a screeching whistle that awoke everyone for miles around and shook the very house where Donald lay dying. When he heard the whistle his friends had to hold him down in his bed. Two of them ventured to look outside, and they saw a dark fearsome figure with pointed ears outlined against the night sky. At that moment a cock in the barn crowed, and at this the tall figure shook his fist in rage and disappointment, then jumped over the precipice into the sea, leaping over the waves with great strides and disappearing in the darkness. When the sick man heard the cock crow he lay back with a sigh of relief and died with a happy smile. But the devil has never forgotten that he failed to get Donald's soul, for he haunts the Sound between Canna and Sanday, and blows up those treacherous squalls that torment the local sailors to this day.

Our talk had strayed far from the old Macdonald bagpipe that lay beside me on a corner of the big teatable. But we returned to it again, and then our hostess laid it reverently away. An hour later we were rowing back across Loch Moidart in the darkness and the rain. Campbell's wife had hot toddy awaiting us beside the peat-fire in the inn at Acharacle.


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