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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part II.—Inhabitants of Gairloch

Chapter XIII.—Superstitions generally


IN the hill country of every land superstition and credulity are met with. Here in Gairloch the supernatural is suggested on all sides. Weird mountain forms often veiled in murky mists, frantic ocean waves thundering in gloomy caverns, hoarse rumblings of rushing waters, startling echoes from terrific precipices, curiously gnarled and twisted trees, tangled jungles in green islands, black peat mosses, wild moorlands, bubbling springs, dark caves, deep lochs, moaning winds, lonely paths, long winter nights,—such are the surroundings of man in this wild country. Can we wonder that the Gairloch Highlander has always been superstitious and credulous?

Superstition is still rife here, but with the march of education it is gradually decaying, and, partly from this cause, and partly from the disinclination of the superstitious to tell strangers about their doings and fancies, it is difficult to obtain descriptions of present instances, so that the notices which follow will often relate to circumstances of the past, though not indeed of the remote past. They are all local cases.

Amongst the older superstitions of Gairloch were the sacrifices of bulls at Isle Maree, the resort to the oracular stone with the hole, and the rites for the care of insanity mentioned in the presbytery records (Appendix F, section iv.), and more particularly described in the two last chapters.

Some other notions of a superstitious kind are hinted at in other parts of this book. In the old presbytery records there are notices of marches round "monuments," charmings, libations, and midsummer or Beltane fires in the neighbouring parishes, and no doubt there were similar practices in Gairloch, but most of these are forgotten now.

There was a superstitious belief, scarcely yet dead, that a draught of the waters of Loch Maree was a certain cure for any disease, —a notion akin to that which prompted the friends of the insane to take them to Isle Maree. The modern advocates of hydropathy might have thought this belief in Loch Maree water was far from being superstitious, had it not been for the established fact that the water drinker used always to cast his offering of small money into the loch at the time he imbibed its waters. The Fox point was the usual—perhaps the only—place where the Loch Maree water-cure was practised. They say that when the loch was very low, coins used often to be found among the pebbles in the water surrounding this point. I have been told that a man found five coins here not many years ago, but I have been unable to get a sight of them. In connection with this superstition it may be mentioned, that within recent years invalids have had bottles of Loch Maree water sent to them, with a firm belief in its curative qualities.

Local names are often evidences of superstition. In Gairloch we have Cathair Mhor and Cathair Bheag,—names applied to several places,—and the Sitheanan Dubha on Isle Ewe and on the North Point. There is Cathair Mhor at the head of Loch Maree, and Cathair Beag (the Gaelic name of the place) at Kerrysdale. These names mean respectively the big and little seats of the fairies. There are no stories told now-a-days of these fairy seats, but their names testify to the belief in fairies which was universal not long ago.

The name Sitheanan Dubha signifies the black knowes or hillocks of the fairies. It is applied to two places in Gairloch, viz., to the highest hill tops at the north end of Isle Ewe, and to a low hill and small round loch a full mile due north of Cam Dearg house; both are shown on the six-inch ordnance map.

There is a tradition of a Gairloch woman having spent a year with the fairies; a tale founded on this story is given in the Celtic Magazine', vol. iv., page 15. About midsummer 1878 I went in an open boat from Poolewe to the Shiant Isles, to observe the birds which breed in such numbers there. It was after n p.m. when I landed on the largest island of the group. About a mile distant was a shepherd's house, the only human habitation in these islands. I thought of going to the shepherd's to beg shelter for the night, but my servant, a Gairloch lad, dissuaded me. On my pressing him for a reason, he told me there was a fairy in the house, as he had been informed by a Gairloch fisherman, who had spent a night there not long before. This fairy was said to be a mischievous boy, " one of the family," who, when the rest were asleep, appeared in the rafters of the roof and disturbed the sleepers by bouncing on them. The night (it was but two hours' twilight) was so fine, and the way to the shepherd's house looked so rough, that I decided to sleep in a plaid on the beach, and so I missed the only opportunity that ever presented itself to me of observing the peculiarities of a fairy imp.

Hugh Miller, in "My Schools and Schoolmasters," mentions that, when he was voyaging down Loch Maree in 1823, the boatmen told his companion in Gaelic, "Yon other island (Eilean Suthainn) is famous as the place in which the good people [fairies] meet ever)' year to make submission to their queen. There is a little loch in. the island, and another little island in the loch; and it is under a tree in that inner island that the queen sits and gathers kain [tribute] for the evil one." "They tell me," said Hugh Miller's companion, " that for certain the fairies have not left this part of the country yet."

It was as recently as 1883 that several boys got a great fright when they actually saw (as they narrated) the fairies at the Sitheanan Dubha, at the north end of Isle Ewe. The people at Mellon Charles, on the mainland opposite that end of the island, still assert, with all the earnestness of conviction, that they often see lights and hear music at the Sitheanan Dubha of Isle Ewe, which they believe can only be accounted for by the supposition that they proceed from the fairies. I give these statements on the authority of Mr William Reid, J.P., the lessee of Isle Ewe.

The township of Ormiscaig lies to the east of Mellon Charles, in the heart of this fairy-haunted district. It was at Ormiscaig that William Maclean, a celebrated performer on the bagpipes, was born and brought up. As a boy he was employed in herding cattle on the hill. One evening he returned home with a bagpipe chanter, on which (though he had not previously tried the bagpipes) he could play to perfection. He said he had received the chanter and the power to play it from the fairies. He emigrated some years ago to America, and is now living at Chicago. He has won many prizes for pipe music at competitions in America. His nephews, the three young Macleans, now at Ormiscaig, are all excellent pipers, and are included in the list of living pipers given further on. Similar incidents are related in other parts of the north-west Highlands, where pipers have attributed their talents to the powers conferred upon them by fairies, and in every case a chanter was given along with the faculty of performing on it.

The best known Gairloch fairy of modern times went by the name of the Gille Dubh of Loch a Druing. His haunts were in the extensive woods that still cluster round the southern end of that loch and extend far up the side of the high ridge to the west of it. There are grassy glades, dense thickets, and rocky fastnesses in these woods, that look just the places for fairies. Loch a Druing is on the North Point, about two miles from Rudha Reidh. The Gille Dubh ,was so named from the black colour of his hair; his dress, if dress it can be called, was of leaves of trees and green moss. He was seen by many people on many occasions during a period of more than forty years in the latter half of the eighteenth century; he was, in fact, well-known to the people, and was generally regarded as a beneficent fairy. He never spoke to any one except to a little girl named Jessie MacRae, whose home was at Loch a Druing. She was lost in the woods one summer night; the Gille Dubh came to her, treated her with great kindness, and took her safely home again next morning. When Jessie grew up she became the wife of John Mackenzie, tenant of the Loch a Druing farm, and grandfather of James Mackenzie of Kirkton. It was after this that Sir Hector Mackenzie of Gair-loch invited Sir George S. Mackenzie of Coul, Mr Mackenzie of Dundonnell, Mr Mackenzie of Letterewe, and Mr Mackenzie of Kernsary, to join him in an expedition to repress the Gille Dubh. These five chieftains together repaired to Loch a Druing, armed with guns, with wThich they hoped to shoot the unoffending fairy. They wore of course their usual Highland dress, and each had his dirk at his side. They were hospitably entertained by John Mackenzie. An ample supper was served in the house ; it included both beef and mutton, and each of the chieftains used the knife and fork from the sheath of his own dirk. Knives and forks were not common in Gairloch in those days. They spent the night at Loch a Druing, and slept in John Mackenzie's barn, where couches of heather were prepared for them. They went through all the woods, but they saw nothing of the Gille Dubh.

There are a large number of notions or fancies common in Gairloch that are plainly tinged with a superstitious character, such as that unaccountable noises and moving lights predict a death; that trees and shrubs planted when the moon is waning must die, whereas if the moon be "growing" at the time of the, removal they will live and thrive; that there are several classes of undertakings that will succeed if commenced when the moon is growing, but will be failures if it be waning; that a walking-stick cut from the bird-cherry prevents the bearer of it being lost in the mist; that whales attack new boats or boats newly tarred; that the bite of a dog is rendered innocuous if the saliva (literally, "water from the teeth") of the dog be- immediately applied; that a pledge to give something to a soft person or an idiot, will enable any one to discover a lost article, or will bring good luck ; and that if a stocking be accidentally put on wrong side out it must not be altered, or bad luck will follow. And surely the idea illustrated in some of the stories in Part II., chap, xxv., and which is still current in Gairloch, that Sabbath-breaking brings immediate retribution smacks strongly of superstition.

The existence of water-kelpies in Gairloch, if perhaps not universally credited in the present generation, was accepted as undoubted in the last. The story of the celebrated water-kelpie of the Greenstone Point is very well known in Gairloch. The proceedings for the extermination of this wonderful creature formed a welcome topic for Punch of the period. The creature is spoken of by the natives as the "Beast." He lives, or did live, in the depths of a loch called after him Loch na Beiste, or "the loch of the beast," which is about half way between Udrigil House and the village of Mellon Udrigil. About 1840 Mr Bankes, the then proprietor of the estate on which this loch is situated, was pressed by his tenants to take measures to put an end to the Beast. At first he was deaf to the entreaties of the people, but at length he was prevailed upon to take action. Sandy M'Leod, an elder of the Free Church, was returning to Mellon Udrigil from the Aultbea Church one Sunday in company with two other persons, one of whom was a sister (still living at Mellon Udrigil) of James Mackenzie, when they actually saw the Beast itself. It resembled in appearance a good-sized boat with the keel turned up. Kenneth Cameron, also an elder of the Free Church, saw the same sight another day. A niece of Kenneth Cameron's (some time housemaid at Inveran) told me she had often heard her mother speak of having seen the Beast. It was the positive testimony of the two elders that induced Mr Bankes to take measures for the destruction of the Beast. The proceedings have been much exaggerated; James Mackenzie states that the following is the correct version of them :—Mr Bankes had a yacht or vessel named the Iris; James Mackenzie was a sailor in the Iris, along with another sailor named Allan Mackenzie. For a long time they and others worked a large pump with two horses with the object of emptying the loch. The pump was placed on the burn which runs from the loch into the not far distant sea; a cut or drain was formed to enable the pump to be worked, and a number of pipes were provided for the purpose of conducting the water away. The pipes are now lying in a house or shed at Laide. James Mackenzie often attended the pump. He and others were employed parts of two years in the attempt to empty the loch, or as James Mackenzie puts it, "to ebb it up." It was after this that the Iris was sent to Broadford in Skye to procure lime. James Mackenzie went with her. They brought from Broadford fourteen barrels of " raw lime." They came with the lime to Udrigil, and it was taken up to the " loch of the beast," and the small boat or dingy of the Iris was also taken up. The ground-officers would not go in the boat on the loch for fear of the Beast, so Mr Bankes sent to the Iris for James and Allan Mackenzie, and they went in the boat over every part of the loch, which had been reduced only by six-or seven inches after all the labour that had been spent on it. They plumbed the loch with the oars of the boat; in no part did it exceed a fathom in depth, except in one hole, which at the deepest was but two and a half fathoms. Into this hole they put the fourteen barrels of lime. It is needless to state that the Beast was not discovered, nor has he been further disturbed up to the present time. The loch contained a few good trout above the average size when I fished it in 1873. There are rumours that the Beast was seen in 1884 in or near another loch on the Greenstone Point.

Here is a story of a mermaid; they say it is quite true:—Roderick Mackenzie, the elderly and much respected boatbuilder at Port Henderson, when a young man, went one day to a rocky part of the shore there. Whilst gathering bait he suddenly spied a mermaid asleep among the rocks. Rorie "went for" that mermaid, and succeeded in seizing her by the hair. The poor creature, in great embarrassment, cried out that if Rorie would let go she would grant him whatever boon he might ask. He requested a pledge that no one should ever be drowned from any boat he might build. On his releasing her, the mermaid promised that this should be so. The promise has been kept throughout Rorie's long business career; his boats still defy the stormy winds and waves. I am the happy possessor of an admirable example of Rorie's craft. The most ingenious framers of trade advertisements might well take a hint from this veracious anecdote.


 


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