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Behold the Hebrides
The Faery Flag
The Art of the Macrimmons

AWAY in the west of the misty Isle of Sky; where to the rhythm of a mysterious ceol-mara, or sea-music, the eternal surge of the wild Atlantic sweeps into Loch Follart, stands the ancient and historic castle of Dunvegan.

For more than ten centuries Dunvegan has been the residence of the MacLeods of MacLeod; and the old castle which was described as ‘an amorphous mass of masonry of every conceivable style of architecture, in which the ninth century jostles with the nineteenth,’ has witnessed many scenes of war and chivalry—scenes which to this day are recounted in the copious store of tales and legends and superstitions, that are associated with Dunvegan.

Exactly when the earliest foundations of the castle were laid is, indeed, very arbitrary, and really interests us very little. The oldest portion, we are certain, is the seaward side, and dates roughly from about the ninth century. Its walls are of immense thickness; and it is supposed by some to have been constructed by the early Northmen as a fortress, when they were masters of the Western Isles.

Some hundreds of years afterwards was added the lofty tower of Alasdair Crotach, the hunchback, who, dying at a great age in the reign of Queen Mary, found a last resting-place at Rodil (Rowardill), in Harris.

Further improvements and alterations were made by Ruairaidh Mor, or ‘Big Roderic,’ who was knighted by James VI. Under Roderic’s instructions was built a long, low edifice; and since his time several additions have been made. Dunvegan Castle is situated on a precipitous rock, at the base of which the sea rolls incessantly. Its turrets and battlements, which rise immediately above the waves, frown upon the sea below, and lend to the whole structure a massiveness, and make it one of the most imposing and interesting castles in Scotland. It is certainty one of the oldest, if not actually the oldest, inhabited castles in the country.

Sir Walter Scott tells us that the more ancient parts of the castle belong to an age ‘whose birth tradition notes not’; and that by the time of his visit MacLeod of Dunvegan had substituted a drawbridge as a means of access, the old sea-entrance on Loch Follart, which led up a dark, eerie stair, having fallen into disrepair and decay through lack of use.

In the olden days many footsore and weary wayfarers among the Western Isles sought to rest themselves at Dunvegan, and received within its historic walls that hospitality with which the MacLeods were long associated. Among such wayfarers were Dr Johnson and his companion, who were munificently and lavishly entertained, and who found their weariness and fatigue more than compensated for by the reception they received here, because their hostess, having lived for many years in England, ‘knew all the art of southern elegance.’ Johnson informs us further that, though he and his friend were detained for some time on account of stormy weather, he was careful not to spoil the present hour with restless thoughts of departure.

It was at Dunvegan, too, that he first tasted lotus, ‘and was in danger of forgetting that he was ever to depart till Mr Boswell sagely reproached him with sluggishness and softness,’ after which they pursued their journey together through the Isles.

In the autumn of 1814, as is recorded in his diary of that year, Scott awoke one morning under the gray walls of Dunvegan Castle, having sailed there during his tour with the vessel of the Lighthouse Commissioners. He narrates that, before he was dressed, MacLeod came out of his stronghold and invited him over to breakfast. Needless to say, Scott availed himself of this golden opportunity, and accepted MacLeod’s hospitality with that dignity and graciousness which distinguished him from most of the men of his time; and we read that he was pleasantly surprised at Dunvegan to find himself in the company of ‘polished society.’ That Scott made the most of his invitation is evinced by the account he has given us of all he saw and heard during his sojourn there.

In Dunvegan has long been preserved the famous drinking cup to which Scott refers in The Lord of the Isles, when he writes:

‘Fill me the mighty cup,’ he said,
‘Erst owned by royal Somerled.’

This cup, which is a most interesting piece of art, is an exceedingly fine illustration of early Irish workmanship, and bears the date A.D. 1493. (With all due deference to Scott, let me state, parenthetically, that the great author woefully misread the inscription on the cup; and that the date which occurs in one of his footnotes in The Lord of the Isles is incorrect.) The cup stands some ten or eleven inches in height; and upon it is engraved a somewhat intricate and elaborate inscription; while the letters, I.H.S., are repeated four times within the mouth of the cup. From this, and from other circumstances intimately connected with the cup, it would seem to have been used as a chalice long ago.

But Dunvegan in bygone days was renowned for its revelries and festivities; and it is extremely probable, as Scott, himself, suggests, that this cup was actively employed in the somewhat rude and ready hospitality of the period.

Another noteworthy trophy preserved in the family of the MacLeods at Dunvegan is the drinking horn of Ruairaidh Mor, to whom I alluded earlier. This treasured heirloom is referred to by Dr Johnson; but in interest it can in no way be compared with the aforesaid cup ‘erst owned by royal Somerled.’

The horn, which is silver-tipped, holds about five pints, and it was considered that every young heir ought to be able to prove his worth and prowess by drinking to the lees, and at one draught, the overflowing horn. Otherwise, his capacity to represent so ancient a clan and to bear arms was seriously challenged. In later days the sometimes trying ordeal of swigging the entire goblet at one mighty gulp was alleviated by the insertion of a temporary lining within the horn, thus affecting the volume available for wine.

Burns, in a bacchanalian song, mentions this drinking horn of Ruairaidh Mor. Ruairaidh, who died in the Chanonry of Ross, was much lamented; and on a recumbent slab in Fortrose Cathedral are inscribed the words:—‘Heir lyes the Richt Worshipfull Sir Rorie MacLeod of Dunvegan, Knicht, 1626.’

By far the most interesting relic associated with Dunvegan is the green Faery Flag which furnished Scott with the material for the last of his Letters on Demonology. It is supposed by some to have been part of the raiment of the faery bride of an early chief; but more generally it is thought to have been a banner captured by one of the MacLeods from a Saracen chief during the Crusades.

The Faery Flag has been described as ‘the hinge on which MacLeod’s fortune turns’; and we know that the chiefs of MacLeod were in the habit of displaying it only on three specific occasions. In virtue of its miraculous properties, it was, first of all, waved in battle in order to multiply the numbers of the MacLeods, and so terrify their enemies; then, it was spread on a nuptial bed to ensure fertility, when there was no heir; and, lastly, it was used in the belief that it encouraged great shoals of fish to enter Loch Follart.

Scott spent a night in the Faery Room, and rather enjoyed his stay in this haunted chamber, for he writes: ‘I took possession about the witching hour. Except, perhaps, some tapestry hangings, and the extreme thickness of the walls, which argued great antiquity, nothing could have been more comfortable than the interior of the apartment; but if you looked from the windows the view was such as to correspond with the highest tone of superstition.’ The rest of Scott’s description of the haunted room, and of what he observed from its windows, may be more graphic and picturesque than it is true; but it is a description that only one with a keen sense of atmosphere could have penned.

However, the comfortable bed appears to have attracted Scott’s attention, and to have met with his entire satisfaction, because he assures us that the old superstitions did not trouble him, and that he slept soundly, in spite of all the ghosts and goblins that haunted the chamber of the Faery flag.

Long ago in the Misty Isle there was a school for pipers. It was here that the famous MacCrimmons, the hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Skye, taught and gave certificates of merit to those of their pupils, who attained a high standard of proficiency in the art of the piobaireachd and ceol-mor. The MacDonalds, for generations the fiercest enemies of the MacLeods, also had a distinguished line of hereditary pipers, who conducted a somewhat similar college; but the teaching of the MacArthurs was never considered quite so efficient as that of the MacCrimmons.

Notwithstanding the many intermarriages between the MacDonalds and the MacLeods, they were continually at variance with one another. It is said that they were constantly ‘putting rings on each other’s fingers, and dirks into each other’s hearts.’ After the MacCrimmons had opened a regular school, and were in the habit of receiving pupils from far and near, MacLeod endowed them with a farm at Boreraig, a township which lies opposite Dunvegan, on the other side of the loch. It was here that they conducted most of their tuition.

We are told that, though MacLeod gave the farm rent-free, he was tempted, when the value of land increased, to take back a portion of the territory he had granted them. This ingratitude for their services the MacCrimmons could not endure; and so the pipers deserted Boreraig, ‘leaving their rock music-hall to the seals and cormorants.’ You see, it was in a large cave nearby that the pupils of the MacCrimmons were accustomed to practise with the feadan and bagpipes, because here they neither disturbed their neighbours, nor were they, themselves, disturbed.

It is in moonlight that one should visit Dunvegan, when at the ebb tide your nostrils may be filled with the scent of the salten sea-tangle, and when—as on the Blue Cuhullins, many miles away—the driving mists are laying cloths upon ‘MacLeod’s Tables’; while far out in the loch his ‘Maidens’ are being drenched in the spume and spray of the wild billows, that rush in disorder and confusion before a western gale.

And around the turrets and battlements of the ancient castle, where the music of the waves is intermingled with the sea-bird’s cry, and the mysterious wail of MacCrimmon’s Lament, as it steals across the loch from Boreraig, cling the traditions and superstitions of Viking and Celtic days.

And the stately tower of Alasdair Crotach stands out against the moonlight like a cold, gray sentinel amid the ceaseless swirl of the tides of eternity.

Surely the very essence of all Hebridean poetry and romance is to be found at Dunvegan!

Cha till e gu brath gu latha na cruinne.

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