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
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
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
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
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
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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