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Outer Isles
Chapter XII. Prince Charlie in Eriskay


“A! HERE are red cheeks,” says a proverb of the Outer Hebrides, “before the tailor and the fulling women,” their visits being the two occasions when the public is admitted into the intimate domestic life of the family. The tailor is peripatetic, and as he visits from house to house he carries with him the gossip of the neighbourhood. He knows when the meal tub is getting low, and when the whisky bottle is withheld from the guest. So, too, when the cloth is being dressed after it is taken out of the loom. It needs eight or ten women to do the work, and as .many as the house will hold to look on. None may refuse an invitation to a fulling, and as it requires skilled labour, and the work is voluntary, it is an opportunity for the exercise of all possible hospitality: to give less than the best would be, indeed, an occasion for scandal and “red cheeks.”

The “fulling” is a scene of the utmost friendliness: the talk is intimate, and yet a certain ceremony and dignity are observed, and the customs, probably many centuries old, are adhered to rigidly. The songs which accompany the work are preserved orally, and are of the deepest interest; some are love ditties; some are religious, some political, all have a quaint picturesqueness of language, which, like many things in these Islands, is almost oriental. One sees, on such occasions as these, something of the under-current of the life of the people ; in the song, one hears, as it were, the keynotes of the views and the faith which they have inherited. They are an emotional people, but so reticent that one who would know what traditions they still cherish has need of some such opportunity as this.

The scene is almost weird. It is an evening in the early autumn. The house is long and low, it has neither floor nor ceiling; but the walls are thick, and the thatch, of divots, or sods of grass, fastened on with heather ropes, is an excellent protection from cold and draught. A peat fire burns in a hollow in the clay floor, and the smoke seeks escape through an opening in the roof. A kettle, singing gaily, is suspended from an iron chain, and round flat cakes, supported by stones, are arranged in a circle about the fire. The scant furniture of the house has been cleared to one side, and three long planks, supported table-wise at either end, so as to slope towards the door, occupy the open space. Chairs are scarce, but forms and boxes are placed so as to seat the women who are to do the work of the evening. Ten big muscular young women they are, with bare arms, and long coarse aprons over their gowns. They take much heed to the right height and firmness of their seats, as indeed the violent exercise they are about to enter upon requires. The house is already well filled with humanity, and but ill-ventilated, while two or three smoking paraffin-lamps further subtract from the available oxygen. Later we learn to be thankful for the additional reek of peat and tobacco, for the climax of ill savour is not reached till the hostess brings in the web of cloth freshly dipped in some nauseous compound which contends with its original smell of fish and hot sheep,—fish oil and tallow being the most fragrant of the various dressings applied to the wool, from which the process of fulling is to cleanse it.

Five to each side they sit, and the dripping cloth is passed from hand to hand, while the moisture runs down the sloping boards to the floor. The movements of the women, at first slow, are in perfect rhythm, and, like all co-ordinated movement in these islands, their direction is dessil—sunwards. It is only at first that we can observe the details of their operations, for soon the process becomes so rapid that we can distinguish nothing but the swaying of their figures, and the rapid thud of the cloth, keeping time to the rhythm of their song.

And what strange singing it is! Deep-toned and monotonous, the rhythm very marked, the thud of the wet cloth regular as the beat of a drum, the melody seldom extending beyond five notes, each syllable having its separate note, and no pause made from beginning to end of the song, which is necessarily in four time. The verses are couplets, and each is sung first by one woman alone, and then taken up by all.

The course of the web along the board describes a series of zigzags, each woman’s movement forming the letter V, of which she herself is the base, and each point being marked by the loud thud of the cloth upon the board, always in four time. At one she receives the cloth from her neighbour on the right, leaning forward and throwing it down at arm’s length; at two she draws herself upright and brings it down again immediately in front of her, twisting it as she does so; at three she passes it, again at arm’s length, to her neighbour on the left; and at four, once more upright, she brings her hands again in front of her, still beating time, and is thus ready for one, da capo, for the rhythm is ceaseless.

Each song averages about eight minutes, and is about fifty couplets in length. As each one is finished, the women throw down the web and their arms drop. They are exhausted and breathless, as well they may be, for to sing and work as they do, throwing themselves violently forward so that the cloth they are handling becomes absolutely hot in the process, is no light work.

In a minute or two they begin again. A “song-less” web (clo bodaich) is unlucky, and, without any pre^arrangement, another strikes up an air. Like the last, it is a love song, its sentiment of the most florid description. After this we have another in which the rival merits of two adjacent islands are discussed, and then the women, having worked more than half-an-hour, examine the cloth. It is carefully measured: a piece of cloth must always be finished at a sitting, and in course of fulling it should shrink an inch to every foot of length. The women measure on the back of the hand, occasionally verifying their estimate on a half-yard wand—eight feet to the yard being the Highland measurement.

“It will take three or four songs more,” they say, and the picturesque phrase seems in keeping with the scene about us.

While the work has gone on, more visitors have strolled in. The hostess is moving about, now that the cessation of work makes movement possible in the cramped space. The dogs have clustered about the fire, relieved at the stopping of the singing. The hens are complaining on the beams overhead; the cat, who had climbed to the top of one of the cupboard beds, is expressing disgust as only a cat can. With every hair of her fur she protests against the crowd, the smell—above all, the noise; but it is better to bear the ills she has than to run the gauntlet of the dogs.

Now they begin again: the women are rested, and the singing becomes more vigorous,1 the melody is marked and rapid, the aspirates of the Gaelic breathe an audible excitement. Four long and short syllables go to a line, and the accent this time is very definite, and the thud of the cloth takes on a sharper sound as the web dries. The very first couplet reveals why the song is one which they sing with especial gusto. Morag is the old secret name, in Gaelic, for Prince Charlie.

Morag of the flowing hair,
It is of thy love my thoughts are full.
If over seas thou hast gone from us,
May it be soon thou wilt return.
To take with thee a band of maidens
Who will full the red cloth with vigour.

* * * * *

O! I would not let thee to the cattle-fold,
Lest the soil should be on thy raiment.
What! is it thou should be tending the cattle?
It is for the rough lassies to do that.
Pretty is Morag, my maid,
She of the fair ringlets;
Clustering, curling, wreathing
Are the ringlets of the winsome maid.
Thy tresses are bright as the peacock’s neck;
’Twould blind nobles to see their sheen.

Four more couplets describe their colour and luxuriance, and the song continues:

Pennant, describing a similar scene, 1790, writes: “As by this time they grow very earnest in their labours, the fury of the song rises; at length it arrives to such a pitch that without breach of charity you would imagine a troop of female demoniacs to have been assembled.” He found then, as now, that “the subjects of the songs . . . are sometimes love, sometimes panegyric, and often a rehearsal of the deeds of the antient heroes.”

Far we wandered in the land we knew,
And far in a land unknown.
I would follow thee through the world
If thou shouldst but ask it of me.
Many a lover has Morag Between Annan and Morar.
There is many a gay warrior of a Gaul
Who would not shun taking sides with Morag;
Who would go with sword and shield
Boldly to the cannon’s mouth.

Much else would he do, this warrior, here and in Dun Edin, but above all else:

There is who would rise with thee,
Thy own Captain Mac ic Ailein!

It is of their own former chieftain, young Clanranald, they are boasting, and the sad dreary present under the rule of proprietors alien in blood and faith is forgotten, and a century and a half rolls back as their voices ring out loud and clear :

He drew near thee ere now before all the rest,
And again would he do it didst thou return.
Every man that is in Moidart and in Uist,
And in dark blue Arisaig of the birches;
In Canna and Eigg and Morar
Foremost were ever the men of Ailein’s race,
Spirits of terror to the Southrons
In the days of Montrose and Alasdair.

The yellow hair, worn au naturel, recalls the familiar portraits of Prince Charlie, and the miniatures of him seem to be before us as the women continue :

Thy eyes, kindly and level,
Full-round and playful, are upon me.
Many a youth took joy in thee Between Man and Orkney.
In the day of Inverlochy was it felt
Who they were that were sweeping with the blades.
In Perth and Kilsyth and Aldearn
Dead and soulless lay the rebels.

And as the song of triumph rings out, one forgets for the moment all the sad story of loss and failure so little looked for. The song is one of their own bard’s, Alasdair Macdonald, and he, says Professor Blackie, was to the ’45 what Kilmer and Arndt were to the liberation war of the Germans in 1813. Even here and now we catch something of the warmth which he kindled then. Morag is a part of their own story, personal and living, and their love for him means the traditional hatred of a Protestant succession. “In the Highlands,” says J. R. Green, with a perception of facts one should be a Highlander to appreciate—“In the Highlands nothing was known of English government or misgovernment: all that the Restoration meant to a Highlander was the restoration of the House of Argyle. . . . They were as ready to join Dundee in fighting their old oppressors, the Campbells, and the Government which upheld them, as they had been ready to join Montrose in the same cause fifty years before.”

All the Highland chiefs would muster, says the song:

Big Alasdair of Glencoe
And the fierce battle of Glengarry,
As also the chiefs of Sleat,
Though he himself were but a child.

There are several more verses descriptive of the Prince’s adherents; then the melody changes a little —the thud, thud of the cloth becomes more rapid, and the women more breathless and shrill, as they continue:

Ten thousand of them sat at the fulling-table
In the wars of King Charles who lives not.
On many a cloth they raised the pile
Between Sutherland and Annan.
Others there were who fulled not for thee,
But they gathered the people in bands.
O King, good too was their handiwork,
When they came to the drawing of blades.
They too handled the cloth for you,
And stiff it was they left it.
Tight, thick, strong, woven, fulled,
Dyed red of the hue of blood.
Haste across with thy fulling-women,
And the maidens here will go with thee.

The song is finished, and the women, exhausted, lean forward on the table. The sudden cessation of sound and movement is almost painful. The discontented cat shakes a disgusted paw, the dogs look hopefully towards the door. The fulling is over, the cloth lies reeking on the table.

We are once more in the sixty-second year of Victoria; but remembering time, we also remember place, and the place, of all in her Majesty’s dominions, is the island of Eriskay, where Prince Charlie first set foot in the kingdom of his fathers.

The ceremonial is not yet ended. Two of the women stand up and roll the cloth from opposite ends till they meet in the middle, and then, still keeping time, four of them fall upon the roll and proceed to pat it violently, straightening out the creases, and those unemployed strike up another song, this time of different metre. This finished, one standing up calls out, “The rhymes, the rhymes!” And those who have been working reply :

Three rhymes, four rhymes, five and a half rhymes.

This is very mysterious—probably the last remains of some forgotten ceremony.

Then the cloth is unwound, and again very carefully rolled up, this time into one firm bale, and then all rise and stand in reverent silence while the leader of the fulling-women pronounces the quaint, old-world grace with which their work concludes. Laying one hand on the cloth, she says:

Let not the Evil Eye afflict, let not be mangled
The man about whom thou goest, for ever.
When he goes into battle or combat
The protection of the Lord be with him.

And then some man of the party—it would not be etiquette for a woman—turns to the owner and says with emphasis : —

May you possess it and wear it.
And the cloth is fulled.

Whisky of course follows—the merest taste for each; but there is much drinking of healths, with pretty formal speeches which seem to belong to other days. The woman who has led the fulling begins. “Your own health,” she says to her hostess, and then turning to us, she bows and adds, “And the health of the noble ladies, and may they long remain at the top of the Ru Ban.”

The Ru Ban—the White Point—where stands the Presbytery in which we are guests, seems to us for the moment a place in which to spend the rest of our lives, where common things become dramatic, and hard labour is set to music, and our emotions are attuned to the hopes and longings of a century and a half ago.

Even the next morning hardly restores the light of common day. The grey islet, treeless, sea-worn, can look little different this September morning from what it showed to Prince Charlie that 23rd of July, 1745 Thanks to Lowland “sportsmen” and alien proprietors, no eagles hover over the Long Island to-day as the king of birds hovered over the Doutelle to welcome home his royal master; and starving refugees evicted from other islands have perhaps added somewhat to the population of Eriskay. Now, however, as then, one sees little on landing but bare grey rock, rising five hundred feet in height, and sloping gently away from the white sands which surround it. A little bay, outlined with broken rocks, and facing north-west, is known as the Prince’s Bay, and here one finds, still growing luxuriantly, the delicate purple and white blossoms of the convolvulus maritimus, said to have been planted by the Prince on landing. Some years ago one of the Stewarts of Ensay (Harris), who claim royal descent through the Stewarts of Garth, built a low wall for its protection, and to mark the Prince’s landing-place, but little is left of it now. We proposed to have a brief inscription carved upon one of the rocks, but were begged to do nothing that might attract the tourist,—though how the tourist is to get there, or to get food or shelter if he does, is not easy to say.

Now, as then, a few rough stone huts lie in a little hollow just above the bay, scarcely distinguishable from the rocks about them, and among them still stands the hut in which the Prince is said to have sheltered.

“Is not this Prince Charlie’s house?” we ask of a man who stands in the doorway. He laughs at the form of our question. “It’s mine now, in any case,” he answers, hospitably standing aside that we may enter. It is just like a score more within a stone’s throw, and has probably changed little in a century and a half. An iron pot is boiling over the peat fire in the middle of the clay floor, the roof is black with smoke, the family beds are in cupboards concealed by dimity curtains; hens are clucking to call attention to the eggs they have deposited in corners; wooden trunks are ranged along the wall containing all possessions that are not in actual use, and a bench made of a plank supported on rocks is the most noticeable article of furniture. A small dresser, adorned with gay crockery, speaks of relations with the mainland, visits probably to the east-coast fishing, and is the only article which could not have been present when Prince Charlie stood here, coughing at the peat smoke, as we do to-day. “You must be proud of the house in which the Prince slept,” we suggest. “Oh ay, I’m proud of it whatever,” replies our friend.

Across a narrow strait, about two miles to the northwest, on the opposite coast of South Uist, stands Kilbride, the home of Boisdale, brother of Clanranald, onq of the chiefs of the clan Macdonald, [Indeed—pace the Macdonalds of Sleat and Macdonell of Glengarry, who also claimed the chiefdom—the representative of the Lord of the Isles. The whole question turns on the legality of a marriage in 1337, for which the Pope gave dispensation, but as to which, when tired of his bargain, the bridegroom had, like Henry VIII, scruples of conscience at his convenience.] who were among Prince Charlie’s most faithful adherents, although, in common prudence, they at first attempted to dissuade him from his wild attempt. When they met, the morning after the Prince’s arrival, Boisdale advised him to go home. “I am come home, sir,” said the Prince, looking across these wild grey waters. “I am persuaded that my faithful Highlanders will stand by me.” The people of Eriskay tell that the Prince’s foot slipped as he landed on the Kilbride shore, and that he fell on the treacherous seaweed-covered rocks—an ill omen, it was felt, in this land of omen and presentiment.

We are fortunate enough to find some still living who claim kindred with those who served the Prince. There are descendants of one Angus, son of Murdoch, whom history has forgotten, but Eriskay folk remember as the man who carried the Prince ashore from the boat. In a neighbouring island, even more remote and inaccessible than Eriskay, we chance to find the proud descendant of a faithful adherent. The story comes as a matter of fact from the mainland, but we listen to it in especially appropriate surroundings, for here, in hollows and caves, among lofty cliffs, there are still pointed out the hiding-places of fugitives after the ’Forty-five.

Our informant is descended on the mother’s side from the Macraes of Kintail, one of whom, “sure to be a Gilchrist or a Farquhar by his first name,” served as guide to the Prince at some period of his wanderings—it may be during that unhappy time in July, 1746, after his parting from Flora Macdonald and return to the mainland.

The Prince, with his guide and a dog, were resting on a ledge overhanging a mountain pass, screened from below by a projecting rock. “You may fancy it just there,” says our friend, pointing to just such a spot on the hill above. “Suddenly, and never a word, the man—he that was of my kin—took the dog by the throat and laid him strangled on the ground, dead. The Prince was sore afraid, for it seemed to him the man was mad, till he pointed below to where the men of the red army were passing by, just at their feet. And the Prince’s eyes filled with tears.”

Well they might! for he, the fugitive upon whose head was set a great price, had been long enough in the Highlands to know the tie between man and dog, and the worth of such a sacrifice!

It is in Eriskay, however, that we find a wonderful old woman, Mairearad Mhor—big Margaret—so old that we could almost believe that her stories of the last century were contemporaneous. She comes of a long-lived family, and declares that her father’s great-great-grandfather was murdered in the massacre of Glencoe. He was not a Macdonald, but a MacEachan from Morar (“Morar” being in the Islands a generic term for the mainland), and was there only by accident. “He went to see a friend,” she says, “and he hasn’t come back yet.” Another friend who paid a later visit came back not long since. He had stayed in the house of some Campbells. “Why didn’t you get up in the night and murder them?” big Margaret had asked. “Some Campbells may be innocent,” the friend had replied—a suggestion which she offers to us with an air of conscious tolerance.

Prince Charlie remembered Glencoe, she tells us. When he was in Glen Corrodale, in South Uist, he asked a man his name. “Campbell,” said he. “Oh, confound you for a scoundrel!” said the Prince. “That was because of Glencoe,” Margaret explains; but she has the honesty to add that the man Campbell “ferried him about all the same.”

Margaret can speak no word of English, and has never been farther from Eriskay than the island of South Uist, where she was born, in a glen near to Corrodale, at the back of Ben More, the highest point of the mountain range of the Outer Hebrides, where the grass grows sweet, and there is a bonnie loch, and it is sheltered from the south-west, whence have come all floods and storms from the time of Noah, and, such a spot, in the eyes of proprietors, was too good for any but sheep. So Margaret and many another were evicted, and, wandering south, took up their abode on the southern shore of the island. When a few years of hard work had shown that even here a little grass and corn might be raised, they were again evicted, and as there was nothing beyond them but the sea, they crossed it and came to Eriskay. Margaret still speaks affectionately of Corrodale. “When Prince Charlie was there,” she tells us, “he took a drink at the delicious spring which flows there. ‘This is the Well of the Rock of Wine' he said. It is called that still, and,” she adds with conviction, “it will be.” Later we found our way up to Glen Corrodale and identified the nook in the rock where the Prince sheltered, and possibly the well, “Tobar Creag-an-Fhiona.”

Seeing our interest in the subject, Margaret sings us a quaint lullaby, with a refrain about Prince Charlie, dandling an imaginary baby the while, and beating time with her feet. The air is monotonous, but, considering her great age, the musician is wonderfully accurate in time and tune. We try to write down the words, but not even one or two islanders whose aid we invoke can make much of them. Either the sense has been lost, or they are baby-nonsense rhymes pure and simple.

From Prince Charlie to Flora Macdonald is not a far step, and having once lifted up her voice, Margaret proceeds to give us a fulling song, swaying herself backwards and forwards the while as if actually at work, beating time with her feet, and getting terribly out of breath with her efforts. It is quite usual, we are told, for those able to do so to extemporize songs at a fulling (which possibly accounts for the custom of having each couplet sung first by one woman alone), and Margaret’s story is of a certain occasion when Flora Macdonald came back to Uist from Skye, on a visit after her marriage. Entering a house where a fulling was in progress, she improvised as she stood by, watching the workers:

My father sent me to the place of falsehood
he night that he made the marriage for me.
Is it not sad, O God, that it was not the funeral feast,
That they did not bring the red pine for me?

Margaret stops at this point to remark, “That does not look as if she were very happy?” and wanders off into a story of Flora Macdonald's husband—a very fat man, she asserts. On one occasion, having to cross Ben More, and his dimensions not being adapted for climbing, he engaged a sedan chair, and “loud was the cursing,” says Margaret—his at the jolting, and his bearers’ at the weight of the burden.

We recall her to the song, and she continues. The rhythm is now somewhat changed, and though she is perhaps describing the wanderings of the Prince, we think it probable that some stanzas from a different song have crept in:

I was at Mass in the yellow wood with thee;
I was in and I was in Uist with thee;
I was in Kildonan of the pine with thee;
I was in the land of the black nuns with thee.

After a few verses of this kind she reverts to the original, and sings with serious air and without any accompanying movement:

I would not give thee to gentle Mary,
Though she should come, and her hand stretched out;
If I did I would ask thee back again.
I would not give thee to Jesus Christ.

“It was never Flora Macdonald that composed that,” she says with an air of horror. “There’s no knowing what creature it might be, but she was impertinent and she was ignorant.”

The thought is too much for her; Margaret will tell us no more to-day, though on other days she tells us many things,—stories of fairies and enchantments, spoils and divinations, and of what Pennant calls “the antient heroes.”

We learnt to know the island well, we photographed it a score of times, we classified its flora, surprisingly varied in a spot so bare and bleak, learnt its songs and its traditions, and we came to love its simple folk; but no familiarity could banish from our minds the ever-present sense that here were written the opening lines of some of the saddest chapters of our country’s history.


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