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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter XVI - Local Superstitions


How well do I remember our country when all the lunatics were at large ! There were no asylums, and there was no cure except the great and only possible one of Loch Maree. The cure was still in vogue in my time. The patient was brought to the loch and put into a boat, which made at once for the Holy Island (Eilean Maree). Then a long rope was tied round the unlucky person’s waist, and he or she was suddenly dropped into the water and dragged behind the boat three times round the island, taking the car deasal (the way of the sun) being a very important part of the cure ! The crew rowed for all they were worth, and if the patient was still alive and capable of swallowing anything he was landed on the island, and as if he had not got already more than sufficient water inside him, he was made to swallow a lot more from Naomh Maolruaidh’s (Saint Malrubas) Holy Well. The awful shock and the fear of having it repeated did, I believe, occasionally subdue some of the most violent cases, but it was a cruel ordeal, and quite an example of “kill or cure.”

We had two mad Marys always going about Gairloch —Mairi Chreagan (Mary of the Rock) and Mairi Sganan. Each one thought the other very mad and herself quite sane, and whenever they met they fought like wild cats.

Then we had Eachainn Crom (Bent Hector) and the Oinseach bheag (the little she-idiot), and all sorts and sizes of lunatics, some of whom were often quite amusing. Our favourite was Iain Bait (Drowned John) from Loch Broom. He was more often called Bathadh (drowning). He was a singer, and could go on singing Gaelic songs for ever at the top of his voice. On one occasion he fell into the Ullapool River when it was in flood, and commenced yelling out “Bdthadh, bathadh, a Dhia gle mise" (“Drowning, drowning! O God, save me!”); but when he got hold of some heather or a bush on the bank of the river and felt himself a little safer he called out, “Ah! fhaodadh noch ruigeadh iu a leas" (“ Oh ! perhaps now Thou need not take the trouble ”). He was quite sharp in some ways. On one occasion when the Ullapool people had offended him he avenged himself very cleverly. Seeing a long line with many hundreds of hooks baited with fresh herring lying in some outhouse ready to be set in the sea the following day, he waited till everyone was in bed and asleep and then set it right along the village front. As Ullapool indulged largely in ducks in those days, and as ducks, unlike hens, are night-feeders, the long line was doing its work all night, and endless operations, many of which proved fatal, had to be performed in the morning on the ducks.

There was also a famous mad Skye woman who used to go round the country, called Nic Cumaraid. She was accompanied by a big drove of pigs. She always slept outside in the heather, and the pigs lay close up round her and kept her warm, but I only used to hear of her and never actually saw her.

Fearacliar a Gliunna (Farquhar of the Gun) was a very well known character all over the eastern side of the county. He always carried an old blunderbuss of a gun with him, and collected every conceivable horror, such as old bones and skins and filthy rags. He lived in a bothy on the Redcastle glebe, and as the smell from Farquhar's accumulations became quite unbearable, the minister applied to the Sheriff to have Farquhar ejected from his hovel. It seems the minister had been long in Canada, and came to Redcastle only when he got the call to the parish. On being examined by the Sheriff, Farquhar suggested that the minister must have a peculiarly sensitive nose when he was able to smell the stipend of Redcastle all the way from America!

My uncle gives the following instances of the manner in which dangerous lunatics were treated in pre-asylum days, the misery the unfortunates suffered, and the scandal that occurred from having even harmless lunatics running all over the country. He says:

“When I was a boy I went for a short time to School at Tain, and the home of a dangerous lunatic was then the upper cell in Tain Gaol, a square tower in the centre of the town having at its base the Town Cross, on the steps of which the fishwives used to sit and display their wares to purchasers. Some friend had given Donald, the lunatic, a strong cord with an iron hook at its end. It used to be thought fun to call on Donald Heuk (Hook), as we named him, to let down his hooked cord, which we fastened to anything movable, from a penny roll to a peat, and on our crying "Heuk, Donald!* up went the prize instantly to the iron cage at the top of the tower.

Donald used to shoot down many queer things from his cell on to the people passing through the street; for though he could not see the cross or things around it, he had a clear view of the street. Wicked boys were sometimes accused of getting Donald to lower his cord and hook on the coming of the fishwives, and as soon as the creels were uncovered the hook was through a haddock's or cod's gills or a skate's mouth, and ‘Heuk, Donald!' saw the prize in a minute flying up to the top of the gaol. It is said that on one unlucky day when the hook was down a boy put it through the back of a fishwife's petticoats, and on his calling out 'Heuk, Donald!' up in the air sailed a most unusual kind of fish. The poor fishwife kicked and screamed furiously, till, the hold giving way, she came to the ground like a shot, and got badly hurt. After this Donald's hook was instantly taken away.

“The Inverness Court House, where the Judges sat, was a mere box in size and attached to the present town steeple, which was part of the gaol. Such places as the gaols and asylums then in Britain would not be credited now but by those who had seen or been in them. Our northern dangerous lunatics were locked up in our gaols, a most unenviable berth, as I can vouch from personal inspection. We had no asylums then in the north, where we were overrun with lunatics. One of that tribe, who was harmless except that he believed he was a calf, went about driving people nearly mad by imitating the cry of a calf from morning till night with the lungs of a bull, till at last he had to be caged in the gaol, where he sang out unceasingly ‘Baa-a-o-u! Baa-a-o-u!’ The town folks got used to this noise, but once when our father took us over to a Circuit Court, the Court had hardly begun ere the Judge asked what unearthly noise was that. He could hear nothing for it, and ordered the noise to be removed. We happened, luckily, to be on the loose, and soon twigged there was . fun ahead, for there were the gaoler and the town officers in full rig dragging ‘ Baa-a-o-u ’ down the gaol stairs and off to the old bridge that was washed away in the 1848 flood. The ingenious builders had contrived to build a wee cell in the spring of one of its arches, with a foot square iron grated hole for air and light. On shovelling away the road gravel above, an iron-plated padlocked door appeared in a few minutes. The door was thrown open, e Baa-a-o-u * was rammed by force into the cell, and the door relocked and gravelled over. Everything was just the same as before, except for the incessant *Baa-a-o-u-ing’ issuing from the grated cell window. The sound gave far more pleasure to us boys,

I really believe, than a band of music would have done, and I have no doubt that *Baa-a-o-u’ remained in that cosy cell till the judges left Inverness.

“Before asylum times one of the many wandering lunatics belonging to the district used to prowl about Dingwall groaning, a martyr to toothache. Good-natured Dr. Wishart persuaded Jock to come to his surgery in town, though he himself lived at his farm of Uplands, near Tulloch, and offered to cure Jock’s malady. So Jock was brought to the surgery and persuaded to show the wicked tooth. In a second it was extracted, but the doctor, nippers and tooth in hand and hatless, had only just time to spring into the street. He fled along it, pursued by Jock, uttering loud threats to take the doctor's life, till some friend put out a foot and upset Jock and let Dr. Wishart disappear.

“Jock's appetite was quite abnormal. In those happy times no door was ever locked at night, front or back, in summer or winter, for at Conon every soul in the district was bound to sleep between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless sick. Jock, however, was one of those who was bound by no rules. His dress was a very short kilt, and he had bare legs and feet summer and winter, so he made little noise on his travels. The Conon pantry was close to the back-door, and on getting up one morning the housekeeper was shocked to find her pantry door open and a cold pudding she had put away the previous night gone, dish and all. The mystery as to who could have stolen it was explained by the clean dish being found next day in one of the recesses of Conon Bridge, with the words ‘The pudding was goot' chalked by Jock above it, for ere his reason fled poor Jock had been at school. He would gladly fill his huge stomach with anything he could cram into it. I admit that one advantage of the new county police over our old rural constables, who, being only paid by the job, cost a mere fraction of the thousands now paid to the semi-military gentlemen that parade the public roads in fine weather, is that tinkers and others are not allowed to leave their dead horses at the roadsides, to the joy of all dogs and the horror of travellers. In Jock’s day we managed matters after the manner of the ancients, to his great delight, as he was devoted to high horse venison. He was sure to be found near every dead horse till its bones had been picked clean by him and the doggies, who, aware of Jock’s unfair competition with them for horse-flesh, never could see him without an uproar and a try at his bare legs; and but for his great skill in pelting them with stones they would have made Jock give up eating their beloved banquet. I was once assured by a looker-on that as he was passing by a dead horse at the roadside he saw Jock’s bare legs in the air, their owner’s head and shoulders out of sight feasting on some tit-bits far up inside the horse’s ribs. I quite believe this disgusting story, which probably helped to promote the building of our present asylum palaces and the gathering into them of all poor insane Jocks and Jimmies.”

In the sixties I had an old acquaintance of the name of Colin Munro, who was a very well educated man and had practised as a solicitor for many years in our county town of Dingwall. Somehow or other he came into money, and invested it in a very large sheep farm near me, called Innis an Iasgaich (Eisher Field). He had not taken up his abode there very long, and had got a nice byre of cattle, when suddenly the cows went all wrong, and instead of milk all that could be drawn out of their udders was a horrid mixture of blood and pus.

His servants declared some old woman had bewitched the cows, and that the only way to counteract the harm done was to get a still more powerful witch from a distance, who would undo what the local witch had done-So they told Colin Munro the name of a competent woman, who lived in the township of Achadh Ghluinachan, in the big strath of Loch Broom. To please and pacify his servants, and as there was no veterinary surgeon to be had in those days, he sent a messenger for the cailleach (old woman), and in due course she arrived.

Colin Munro sat up all that night (there was really no night, as it was June) so that he might watch the movements of the witch. About three in the morning he saw her sneak out of the house and make for the hill, instead of going to the byre, as he supposed she would have done. So he followed, stalking her very carefully, as if she had been an old hind, and watched her from some little distance. The first thing she did was to light a small fire. Then he saw her hunting about for lusan (herbs or plants) and putting them on the fire until the smoke rose up heavenwards. After a bit she returned, and Colin ordered the milkmaids to go and try the cows in his presence, which they did, and, wonderful to relate, the milk of every cow was as perfect as it was before they were bewitched. He could not do otherwise than give the Banablmidseach (witch) a handsome present. He never could account for this miraculous cure of the cows.

My uncle writes: “Our old keeper Cameron hated the sight of a hare. He looked on it as an unclean, *no canny" brute, only fit for mad people to eat, as witches frequently turned themselves into hares especially when they were employed stopping the milk of cows. Indeed, little more than twenty years ago the Tarradale gamekeeper, hearing me scoffing about witches, asked me in private if I really believed they did not exist. *Well", says he, "that's extraordinary. Everyone round here knows that Jock Maclean's wife is a witch. My own cow had her milk stopped last winter. One morning at dawn I went to the byre, and on opening the door out sprang a hare and ran through my legs, and away straight down to Jock Maclean’s door, which she entered, that being, of course, her home.' Mackenzie, the keeper, was a well-educated man, more intelligent than most of his position, but a firm believer in witchcraft."

I shall add another superstition, very prevalent in the east country, against pulling down an old house and building a new one. This did not meet me at Gairloch, but it did at Redcastle, on the east coast. When dividing a field into crofts there, I told the crofter he would need to build the house on his own ground, as his present house was on somebody else's. There was so much shrugging of shoulders and humming and hawing about it that a neighbour whispered to me, “ It's about the black cock." <£ The black cock ?" said I; “ what had it to do with his house ?" But seeing that there was something secret about it, I waited a little, and learnt that some years ago one of Colin Macdonald's sons took the “ falling sickness "—i.e., epilepsy—the only cure for which according to the old belief, is burying a jet black cock alive in a grave dug in the clay floor of the family kitchen I believe the very centre is the proper place. While the cock is undisturbed the epilepsy keeps away, but if it is dug up, as it probably would be if the house were removed, woe to the family of the disturber from the evil spirit of epilepsy!

The people on the west coast used firmly to believe that events which were going to happen were often foretold by supernatural sounds and sights.

On our purchasing Inverewe and deciding to make our home on the neck of the Plocaird, I began to make enquiries as to what special use had been made of that promontory in the old days, when the Mackenzies of Lochend, who were offshoots of our family, owned the place. I was told by the old people round about us, whose parents at least had lived in those days, that the Plocaird was where Fear cheannloch (the man or laird of Lochend) kept his cows at night, for at that time most of the cattle in the Highlands had no roofs to shelter them summer or winter. There still remained the old dyke from sea to sea across the neck of the peninsula for keeping in the cows, and there was one bright green little oasis among the heather where had stood the bothy of the herd, Domhnall Aireach (Donald the Cowman). Into this green spot I at once dibbled a lot of the good old single Narcissus Scoticus, which I had got from my great-uncle at Kerrysdale. How they still bloom there every spring, though I planted them nearly sixty years ago!

Among the old stories in connection with the Plocaird and its sole inhabitant, Domhnall Aireach, I was told that the old herd and his wife used to be much troubled by certain uncanny sounds and apparitions, and that the place was said by them to be haunted. The sounds they were said to hear were just as if there had been a blacksmith’s forge on the shore below their bothy, and there appeared at night to be a continuous hammering of iron and steel going on. Moreover, every now and then, in the gloaming, a couple of coin mhora bhreaca (big spotty dogs) tied together would rush past their door !

Some years after our house was finished we decided to build an addition to it, and instead of quarrying the stones for it in a distant quarry, as had been done before, we thought we could get the material we required by breaking up some big boulders .of good quality just below the site of the old herd's bothy. So for many weeks there was a continuous din of iron and steel, and of hammers and crowbars and jumpers boring into and breaking up these boulders. At the same time I had started a big kennel of black-and-white setters about half a mile away, and these fifteen or twenty dogs were let out on couples for exercise on the shore twice a day.

Now, the dogs knew quite well that since the Plocaird point had been enclosed and planted there were more hares and grouse, etc., in it than anywhere else near at hand, so whenever the keeper's attention was taken off them for a moment a couple of the older and more cunning ones would give him the slip, and make tracks for the Plocaird, and in their regular course would rush past the very site of Domhnall Aireach's bothy on their couples. Does it not seem, therefore, that these events which were to take place, and did actually happen, had been supernaturally heard and seen by old Donald and his wife more than a hundred years beforehand?

The best-known Gairloch fairy of modern times went by the name of the Gille Dubh of Loch a Druing. How often did I hear of him when I was a boy! His haunts were in the birch-woods that still cluster round the southern end of that loch and extend up the sides of the high ridge to the west. There are grassy glades, dense thickets, and rocky fastnesses in these woods that look just the very place for fairies. Loch a Druing is on the north point, about two miles from the present Rudha Reidh lighthouse. The Gille Dubh was so named from the black colour of his hair. His dress, if dress it could be called, was merely leaves of trees and green moss. He was seen by very many people and 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 anyone 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 Loch a Druing farm, and grandfather of the famous John Mackenzie who collected and edited the Beauties of Gaelic Poetry.

It was after this that Sir Hector Mackenzie of Gairloch invited Sir George Mackenzie of Coul, Mackenzie of Dundonnell, Mackenzie of Letterewe, and Mackenzie of Kernsary, to join him in an expedition to repress the Gille Dubh. These five lairds repaired to Loch a Druing armed with guns, with which they hoped to shoot the fairy. Most of them wore the Highland dress, with dirks at their side. They were hospitably entertained by John Mackenzie, the tenant. An ample supper was served in the house. It included both beef and mutton, and they had to use their dirks for knives and forks, as such things were very uncommon in Gairloch in those days. They spent the night at Loch a Dming, and slept in John Mackenzie's barn, where couches of heather were prepared for them. They went all through the woods, but they saw nothing of the Gille Dubh!

The existence of water-kelpies in Gairloch, if perhaps not universally credited in the present generation, was accepted as an undoubted fact in the last. The story of the celebrated water-kelpie—it was sometimes spoken of as the Each Uisge, and at other times as the Tarbh Oire—of the Greenstone Point is very well known in Gairloch. The proceedings for the extermination of this wonderful creature formed a welcome topic even for the Punch of the period. The creature is spoken of by the natives sometimes as “The Beast." He lives, or did live in the fifties, in the depth of a loch, called after him Loch na Beiste, or Loch of the Beast, which is about half-way between Udrigil House and the village of Mellan Udrigil.

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, and at length was prevailed upon to take action. Sandy Macleod, an elder of the Free Church, was returning to Mellan Udrigil from the Aultbea church on Sunday in company with two other persons, one of whom was a sister (still living at Mellan Udrigil in 1886) of the well-known John Mackenzie of the Beauties, when they actually saw the “Beast” itself. It looked something like a big boa-with its keel turned up. Kenneth Cameron, also an elder of the Free Church, saw it another day, and a niece of his told a friend of mine she had often heard her mother speak of having seen the Beast. Mr. Bankes had a yacht named the Iris, and in her he brought from Liverpool a huge pump and a large number of cast-iron pipes.

For a long time a squad of men worked this 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 deep cut or drain was formed to take the pipes for the purpose of conducting the water away. I have myself more than once seen the pipes stored in a shed at Laide. But, unfortunately, it was forgotten that the burn which came into the loch brought a great deal more water into it than the pump and the pipes carried out; consequently, except in very dry weather, the loch never got any less.

When this plan failed, it was proposed to poison the Beast with lime, and the Iris was sent to Broadford in Skye to procure it. Fourteen barrels of hot lime were brought from Skye and taken up to the Loch, along with a small boat or dinghy. None of the ground officers of the estate would go in the boat for fear of the Beast r so Mr. Bankes sent to the Iris for some of the sailors, and they went in the boat over every part of the loch, which had only been reduced by six or seven inches after all the labour and money that had been spent on it. These sailors plumbed the loch with the oars of the boat and 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 emptied the fourteen barrels of hot lime.

It is needless to say that the Beast was not discovered, nor has it been further disturbed up to the present time. There are rumours that the Beast was seen in 1884 in another loch on the Greenstone Point. There was one curious fact about this kelpie hunt—viz., that the eccentric English laird who started it was cam (oneeyed), the tinker who soldered the pipes together was cam, so was the old horse which worked the pumps, and it was altogether such a gnothacli cam (one-eyed business) that people began to wonder whether, if the Each Uisge were ever captured, it might not prove to be cam also!

So angry was the laird at his failure to capture the kelpie that he was determined to avenge himself on something or someone; and at last he decided to wreak his vengeance on the unfortunate crofters whose townships were in the vicinity of the loch. Unlike the kelpie they, poor wretches, could not escape him, so he fined them all round a pound a head, which in those days, when money was so scarce, meant a great deal to them!


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