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The Apparent Blue-Green Sheen of a Crow Flying Against the Sun


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Two Oral Histories of Captain “Donnull Gorm” Macdonell, 78th Foot (Fraser’s Highlanders)”
By Ian McCulloch

Donull Gorm” Macdonell, of Benbecula (c.1728-1760) was the second and natural son of Ranald Macdonell, 17thOld” Clanranald, and a half-brother to the 18thYoung” Clanranald.  His younger half-brother, William, also served in the 78th Foot.  “Donull Gorm” had joined the French Army before the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 and had fought at Stirling where he was wounded and subsequently went into hiding on Uist. 

When he heard of the surrender of his regiment after Culloden, he acted swiftly to ensure he was treated as a French officer vice a rebel as Britain had a cartel with France and Spain for the exchange of prisoners of war.  After giving himself up, he wrote from his cell in Edinburgh Castle, 15 December 1746: “I went to France in year 1742 and served as Cadet in Booth’s Regmt. till I got a Company in Drummond’s Regmt. [Royal Ecossais] the year 44 and came along with it to Scotland in Novr. 45, and being wounded before Sterling, I returned to my father’s country, where I remained till hearing that all my Regmt. surrender’d themselves prisoners of War at Inverness, after the Battle of Culloden, I was desirous of doing the same, and I surrendered myself to Capt. John Mackdonald [yr of Glenlyon, 43rd Foot, and brother of “Archie Ruadh (Roy)” MacDonald, who also served in the 78th Foot]  as soon as he came to the Country I was in, in July last….” 

In 1756, the Duke of Argyll said of him: “brother to Clanranald was sent into the French Service when a boy, & had a Company several years, which he quitted some months ago upon the late Act of Parliament & took the Oaths to the Government; for these facts, as well as for his Character, he appeals to My Lord Holderness & undertakes on this occasion to raise 100 men.

Captain Macdonell was accepted as one of the original company commanders of the newly-raised 78th Foot and raised his company quickly by draconian methods on the outer isles of Skye (Macdonells, MacLeods), Uist (Clanranald Macdonells) and Barra (MacNeils).

Heart-breaking is the lament that has been passed down from generation to generation of the long-suffering Clanranald Macdonells of the sea-girt Isles of Uist to the west of Skye.  Donull Gorm is remembered on both sides of the oceans as a taker of widow’s sons, and thus cursed forever, “swarthy and diabolical… man of violence and not to be crossed”.  Attributed to a South Uist widow who lost, not one, but four sons, to the Donald with “the blue-green sheen of a crow against the Sun”, it was still being sung along the eastern lochs of Bras Dor in Cape Breton Island, Canada, in the late 1950’s where it was recorded in the original Gaelic by noted song collector, Dr. Helen Creighton.

I huiraibh O-o, I am not well;
Hug ora inn o, I cannot stay at rest,
I huiraibh O-o, I am not well;

Chorus*

I am sad cutting the flax,
The tears from my head are streaming to the ground.*
If you dealt with me unjustly, Dhomhnaill Ghuirm
I treated you like other women.*
I did not beseech God to destroy you although
You brought ruin to my household.*
Although you gave me a holding enough for one cow,
I gave you a more valuable gift.*
Although you took the three men from me,
Their father decaying in the sod.*
Although you took John and Donald, and
Alistair of the fair ringlets, from me.*
If you had left Hector, I would not have complained
So much about the others.*
It would have been better for you to have taken
The cattle from the glen than have to face
The piercing cries of widows about their families.*
It is a pity that I cannot assume the shape of a seagull,
Then lightly swim away.*
I would swim over the channel in order to ascertain whether the boys were treated well.*
Parting from John and Donald has shed my tears with good reason*
May the blessing of God follow you Hector,
You were my choice over all others.*
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Donull Gorm replaced Charles Baillie as Captain of Grenadiers, the latter killed at the Louisbourg landings, 8 June 1758 and, was wounded himself six weeks later on the night of 21 July 1760 in the approach trenches.  He was killed at the Battle of Sillery outside the walls of Quebec on April 28, 1760.

Donald “Gorm” was not well-liked by the Highlander rank-and-file, according to Grenadier Sergeant James Thompson who unabashedly styled him “a surly cross dog”, and in his Memoirs hints that Macdonell was intentionally wounded or “fragged” by his own men at the siege of Louisbourg on 21 July 1758: “Our Captain had a ball passed through his left wrist and nobody could tell how it came and afaith he immediately shifted his position to the other end of the ground.”

Thompson was rebuked on several occasions by “Donull Gorm” for being too familiar with the men and finally during the winter of 1760-61 they had a face to face meeting.

After we had taken Quebec, he one day sent for me to his Quarters in the lane leading to the Esplanade, I accordingly went and found him sitting at a table with another officer.  “Jim, you have all along thought that I was hard upon you.”

 “Aye Sir,” I replied, “I did indeed think that you were harsh to me when there was not a great necessity for it.” 

“I treated you,” says the Captain, “in that manner because you were too familiar with the private men.”

“Sir,” I replied again, “how came you to think that to be wrong in me, when you yourself know that it is impossible to act otherwise? Our men, you know, are not like those of other Regiments – they were all acquaintances before they became soldiers, and many of the private men are from as good families as the officers themselves.”

Captain Macdonell offered Thompson a drink, which he accepted and the grenadier sergeant soon learned that he had been summoned because his company commander had “found that I had a friend somewhere, who had got wind of his harsh treatment of me, and he wished by all means to wipe off the scores” with Thompson.  The captain offered him a second drink which Thompson also took but he departed with “no better opinion of his friendship after all”.  Thompson was a highly respected Freemason in the garrison, as was his Colonel, Simon Fraser, who was elected a grandmaster of the first Grand Lodge of Quebec.  No doubt, Thompson’s “friend” was the Mc Shimi himself, Colonel Simon Fraser.

Markedly, at the battle of Sillery, 28 April 1760, none of Macdonell’s volunteers were drawn from the 78th Foot.  Oral tradition in the Highlands of Cape Breton, where several Fraser soldiers returned to settle on the eastern Bras Dor Lakes of Cape Breton (Barra MacNeils, MacEacherns, and Clanrald Macdonells) maintains that it was at this 1760 battle that “the de’il finally got him”, and that the cursed Captain finally got his due reward by succumbing to one of the oldest Gaelic curses, “May you die amongst strangers.”

Harper, in his book The Fraser Highlanders, did not include Thompson’s somewhat satisfied description of his nemesis’ gory end - “a stronger body of French overpowered and completely butchered his whole party, and he himself was found cut and hack’d to pieces in a most shocking manner.  There was an end of him!”

 According to Thompson, “Donull Gorm” was a marked man by the Indians and Canadien militia who had been harried ruthlessly all winter long.  Many French-Canadians had watched helplessly as he indiscriminately burnt several of their farms during winter raids and sorties against the outlying countryside of Quebec, leaving the occupants to freeze and starve.  Retribution was final and ghastly, and to the Gaelic mind, necessary for the restoration of the balance of nature. 

Here then are two versions that evolved in the Gaelic oral tradition: one in the Highlands of Cape Breton along the shores of the finger lochs of Bras D’or, a vast inland sea abounding with shellfish, waterfowl and forest; the other, by the hearths of cottars in the sea-girt isle of South Uist, who watched their young men pressed into “Donull Gorm’s” company.

Note the more fanciful and superstitious rendition that lingered in the Outer Isles of Scotland, his legacy not one of honour, but of infamy.  He became the bogeyman, the evil one of Gaelic story telling tradition, the embodiment of everything that was not proper, right or just.  In essence, he was the antithesis of what a Highland war chieftain should be.

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Sources CBs; SBs; BALs; Stewart, Sketches, II, 20-1; “Donald McDonald” PRO, WO64-12; CU 49/5; William Amherst’s Journal, 29; GD 201/4/81; Muster Roll of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Army 1745-46; Harper, Fighting Frasers, 101-2, Thompson’s Memoirs.

Cape Breton Version (as told by J.J.MacEachern)

      “In Gaelic I am called Iain Macdhomhnuill ‘ic seon aidh Dhomhnuill Oig,” states J.J. MacEachern, a noted local historian & genealogist, sitting in the An Drochaid (The Bridge” Museum of Mabou, Nova Scotia, also home to the Mabhu Gaelic & Historical Society. “In English that would be: John MacEachern, son of Donald, son of John, son of younger Donald and this is my sloinneadh (family tree)”:

My traditions came to me from my grandmother, Mary Ann MacVarish, her male line coming from the Morar-Arisaig district of western Inverness in Scotland.  Her mother was a Campbell from South Uist and her mother a Macdonell from the same island.  Mary Ann MacVarich married John MacEachern whose male line also came from Arisaig and before that South Uist.  His mother’s people also came from the island, thus most of my paternal forbears were of Uist stock.

Our family tradition is that MacEacherns and others fought at Louisbourg with Captain Donull Gorm Macdonell in Colonel Fraser’s regiment.  On a patrol between the East Bay arm of the Bras d’or Lake and Louisbourg my ancestors saw the land they hoped to get after war’s end.  Donull Gorm, for so he is usually called, is remembered in my grandfather’s time (1890’s to 1980’s) as a cruel man, caring little for his men.  Nevertheless, he did bring his men to this land, my grandmother would say.

The Gaelic word “ghuirm” or “ghorm” as applied to Donull Gorm Macdonell is a strange one.  Literally it means blue-green, but it may also mean the apparent green sheen on a crow flying against the sun.  Others say it is the colour of the sea in twilight.  Whatever the word may mean, the connotation is not good.  For Donull Gorm, it meant swarthy and diabolical, a man of violence and one not to be crossed.

Donull Gorm’s recruiting was done in the area of Uist, Benbecula and Barra and his pressing of men by force or enticement was the core of many a fireside tale. In Gaelic tradition a curse is put upon one when he takes a widow’s son, and the fulfilment of the curse restores the balance of nature.

Now it was some years before Cape Breton was open to settlement.  The men of Louisbourg did not see their new lands in their own times* but their descendants did.  It is not clearly known if the descendants who came were children, grandchildren or nephews.  According to tradition the lands granted in the 1790’s were on the basis of military service. Whatever the story, Donald MacEachern’s sons, Angus, Allan and John took land along East Bay in the very area travelled by Donull Gorm’s soldiers

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* Author’s Note: Four MacEachern’s appear on the disbandment rolls of the 78th Fraser Highlanders dated December 1763 in Quebec; all four soldiers shown as returning home to Scotland to be mustered out.  Their names, interestingly enough, were Angus, Angus, Allan and John.  It is therefore not impossible that these discharged Fraser soldiers did return in the 1790’s when the Highland Clearances were in full swing, for they would have only been in their fifties (given that the average age of most young recruits of joining the 78th Foot in 1757  was eighteen). They may have come via Prince Edward Island for Allan Macdonnell, Laird of Glenaladale, sold his estate on Uist in 1772 and brought over 250 Catholic Highlanders to settle on Prince Edward Island.  Many of these men then joined the Royal Highland Emigrants for the duration of the American Revolution, some of their officers former Frasers, Montgomerys and Royal Highland officers who had remained in North America.  Many were given land grants in Nova Scotia in recognition of their services, in addition to the land they already had farmed in PEI.  The Barra MacNeils of Iona, Cape Breton, claim that four MacNeil soldiers of Donull Gorm’s initial company went home to Scotland on disbandment of the regiment, gathered their families and kinsmen and returned to the Bras d’Or lakes after the French and Indian War and settled at Iona.

South Uist version (as told by Major R. Gillis)

Among Simon Fraser’s officers was one Donald McDonald, generally referred to as “Donull Gorm” having a peculiarly swarthy countenance with a bluish cast.  He was cruel and heartless, but brave and clever as a soldier.  In his younger days, he was head of a press gang whose duties were to go through the Highland districts impressing all eligible young men for service in the army, paying no heed to the conditions of the families of those men, whether they were the sole support of aged and infirm parents or not.  Great hardships and cruelties were inflicted on poor people in this way, but Donald seemed to have no heart for their afflictions nor paid any heed to their wailings.

On one occasion he visited the shealing of a poor widow with an only son as her sole support. The son was at once seized and despite the pleadings and wailings of the woman the young man was taken away. The mother at first pleaded, but when she found that was of no avail she poured the most terrible curses on Donald, ending with the prophecy that he would never die a natural death, but would be taken away body and soul into the infernal regions.

Many years passed and Donald went through all the hardships and dangers of battles and engagements of all kinds, but escaped without a wound.

After the wars were over and peace restored, Fraser’s men were at Quebec waiting for a transport to carry them back to their homes.  One evening just about dusk a group of officers were resting in front of their quarters enjoying the beautiful spring weather, when a man was seen coming up the steep hill on which they were lounging.  Just as the man came near enough for them to see all above his waist over the skyline he halted and hailed the group of officers, asking if Donald Gorm was present.  Donald replied in the affirmative, asking him what did he want of him.  The stranger said he wanted a private interview which would have to be at the foot of the hill.  The other officers advised Donald to have nothing to do with the stranger but his reply was that he never feared man or devil and would meet the stranger  as requested, and he immediately got up and went towards him, when both of them walked down the hill apparently in deep controversy of some kind.  Hours passed and Donald did not return, when searching parties were sent in all directions, but no trace could be found, dead or alive, and to this day the Highlanders firmly believe that the prophecy of the widow was literally fulfilled and Donald Gorm was carried off by the evil one into the infernal regions.   

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Source: Major R. Gillis, Stray Leaves from Highland History, (Sydney, NS, 1918), 22-3.


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