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

Chapter XIV.—Witchcraft and Magic

THE name of Rudha Chailleach, the long blue point jutting into Loch Maree to the south of Ardlair, suggests the ancient belief in witchcraft, but there are no stories of witches connected with it now extant. Yet the belief in witchcraft is by no means dead in Gairloch, and to the stranger the very appearance of some withered old women almost proves them to be witches.

Jessie the cripple, an example of whose second-sight is given in the next chapter, was a reputed witch; the story of her being ducked will be found there.

Witchcraft and magic are still said to be exercised by a number °f people in Gairloch. Cases actually occurred in 1885 where persons were charged with the practice of these arts in connection with poultry. It seems better not to give details of them here, especially as it is said the poor folk are yet under suspicion.

The following are examples of the use of the arts of witchcraft and magic in Gairloch :—

There is a curious superstition that the substance, or staple or "fruit," of milk can be taken away by witchcraft, or by the employment of magical arts. In the records of the Presbytery of Loch-carron are minutes relating to a case which occurred at Kenlochewe. On 23d November 1791 the presbytery had examined a candidate for the appointment of catechist for the district of "Ceanlochew," and had been satisfied as to his knowledge, but "in consequence of stories rather detrimental to his private character," had arranged for an inquiry whether such stories had any foundation. On 3d April 1792 a petition on the subject was laid before the presbytery. One of the petitioners, Mr Murdo M'Kenzie, yr. of I^etterewe, declared, " that he thought he had heard the candidate use such words as that he wished the devil had the soul of Mr Mackintosh, the parish minister; that he was in the habit of taking back the substance of milk by magical arts, for he himself (the declarant) and his brother were present when the candidate had recourse to certain herbs and an iron key, which were thrown into the declarant's milk in order to restore the fruit of it. Roderick M'Lennan, smith at Ceannlochew, stated that he knew the candidate from his infancy, * * * that he was much addicted to swearing in common conversation, and that he had heard him say that he had restored the substance of deponent's milk by means of certain arts. The candidate being present, and questioned, admitted that he did actually restore the substance of the milk as stated by Mr M'Kenzie, yr. of Letterewe; all which being considered by the presbytery, they deemed him totally disqualified for the office of catechist, and declined to recommend him for such office to the Committee of the Royal Bounty."

Our next example of this strange superstition belongs to a more recent date. In the time of the late Sir Francis Mackenzie the parish schoolmaster of Gairloch was one Kenneth Mackenzie, who was a notorious master of witchcraft. He was always called the "maighstair sgoil." In his youth he had been taught many magical arts, and people who had been bewitched resorted to him from far and wide to obtain relief and advice. He lived in the present schoolmaster's house at Achtercairn, and kept several cows. On one occasion he himself was a sufferer from witchcraft. The milk of his cows was destroyed; if they gave any at all it was fruitless and useless. By his own skill in magic he discovered the woman who had done him this mischief; she lived at or near Strath, and was reputed to have some knowledge of witchcraft. This is how he punished her. There is a little burn runs by the side of the road at Achtercairn, just in front of the present police-station. One Sunday morning as the people from Strath, including this woman, were going to church, she was obliged, by the occult power of the maighstair sgoil, to remain behind ; and as soon as the others were out of sight she tucked up her dress above her knees and fastened it so, then she commenced jumping violently backwards and forwards across this little burn, unwillingly enough, as we may well suppose, and she was compelled by the unseen maighstair sgoil to continue the severe exercise until the people came out of church. After the woman had suffered her well-merited punishment, the fruit returned to the milk of the maighstair sgoil's cows. Moral:—You should not meddle with one who possesses magical powers!

Here is a case of injury to milk which occurred within the last ten years. For obvious reasons I suppress the names of the persons concerned, who are all known to me and are now living. The erection of a house was undertaken, and the builders took up their abode in a temporary hut or barrack. Requiring milk to take with their porridge, they applied to a neighbouring farmer, but he was unable at the time to supply them. They fancied that the farmer withheld the milk from some spite he had to them, and they told him he would suffer for it; one of the builders is commonly believed to have some knowledge of witchcraft. What next occurred is kept secret, but the milk of the farmer's cows immediately afterwards lost its fruit; nothing but a viscous fluid, mingled with a little blood, came from the teats when the cows were milked. The farmer called to his aid the services of a woman living in the northern part of the parish known to be skilled in such matters, and she soon restored the substance to the milk. A still more recent case has come under my notice in the spring of 1886. A cow died at a farm with which I am well acquainted; its death was firmly believed to be the result of witchcraft, exercised by an adversary. Soon afterwards a cow at the same farm lost the substance of its milk ; as in the case last described, only blood and water came from the cow; this also was believed to be the consequence of witchcraft. A man from Aultbea was sent for, and by his magical arts soon effected a cure. These latter cases are different from the old Kenlochewe case in one respect, viz., in the older case the substance of the milk was influenced after it had been taken from the cow, whilst in the subsequent cases the "fruit" of the milk was destroyed in the cows.

There are plenty of people in Gairloch in the present day who believe in the magical power of the charm or spell called the "sian" or "seun." By means of an incantation, sometimes coupled with the use of some visible medium, any object which it was desired to conceal could be rendered invisible, either for the time being only or for all time, subject in the latter case to brief periods of visibility recurring either at the end of each year, or more commonly at the end of each succeeding term of seven years. The medium, if any, employed along with the incantation, was usually a piece of vellum or stout skin of some sort, which in process of time became as hard and tough as wrought iron. James Mackenzie says he has seen a specimen preserved as a curiosity at Glamis Castle.

Duncan M'Rae lived in Isle Ewe and had the gift of the sian. We have seen, in Part I., chap, xiv., Duncan's fidelity to the unfortunate Prince Charlie. He accompanied the prince to Edinburgh, and there composed a well-known Gaelic song called Oran na Feannaige, i.e. "the song of the hoodie-crow;" it related an imaginary dialogue between himself and the crow, suggested by his seeing one of those birds in the busy capital. After the fatal field of Culloden, Duncan M'Rae assisted in covering the prince's escape ; he hovered around the prince, and used every means in his power to baffle the pursuers. Funds were sent from France to be conveyed by the faithful Highlanders to their beloved Prince Charlie, as circumstances might admit. A small cask or keg filled with gold pieces was entrusted to the charge of Duncan M'Rae, to be concealed until a chance should occur of delivering it to the prince. Duncan M'Rae and two other men brought the keg of gold in a boat across Loch Ewe from Mellon Charles to Cove. From Cove they carried the cask up to the Fedan Mor, the larg;e deep corrie or hollow on the hill above Loch a Druing; there the£\vput the cask of gold into the ground, and it is the universal belief in Gairloch that it remains there to this day. Duncan M'Rae made use of the sian to render the cask invisible; he laid his amulet upon the head of the cask while he pronounced the magic words he knew; upon this the cask became invisible for all time, with this exception, that at the end of each period of seven years the effect of the spell is suspended during a very brief interval on one day only, when for a few moments the cask of gold becomes again visible to mortal eyes.

It was about 1826, the year that Sir Hector Mackenzie died, that the wife of Rorie Mackenzie, shepherd at Loch a Druing, called the Cibear Mor, or " big shepherd," was herding the cows in the Fedan Mor. She was spinning worsted, when suddenly she saw the head of the cask of gold close to where she sat. She stuck the distaff into it to mark the spot, and then ran down to Loch a Druing for help to remove the long-lost treasure. When the people came to the Fedan Mor to fetch the cask of gold, neither it nor the distaff could after the most diligent search be discovered.

A sian of a similar nature, and with similar effect, is said to have been used many years ago by some persons who hid a large quantity of arms and weapons of all kinds in a cave at Meallan na Ghamhna. Both the cave and the weapons became invisible, but once in every seven years they may again be seen if any one be lucky enough to be on the spot at the right moment. It is not many years since the wife of Murdo Cameron of Inverasdale, and some other women, were gathering lichens from the rocks at Meallan na Ghamhna, when they suddenly saw the cave and weapons. They ran to tell others, and soon returned with several helpers, intending to remove the arms ; but it was too late, no trace could be found of either weapons or cave. They say an exactly similar case of weapons being hid in a cave, or rather rocky fissure, by means of the sian, occurred on the shores of Loch Maree. The spot is at the edge of the loch below the county road on the south-west side of the loch just opposite to Letterewe. In this case also the weapons are visible once in every seven years.

There was a man living in Gairloch named Alastair Mor an 't Sealgair, or " big Alexander of [the race of] the hunter." He had the magic power of the sian. JHe died since 1850, and his grandsons were lately living at Charleston, and were called Gillean an tJ Sealgair, or "the hunter's lads." One of them is still living at Charleston. Alastair was a dealer in illicit whisky, and was constantly employed in running cargoes of it from Gairloch to Skye and the Long Island. He is still remembered in those islands. At that time Captain Oliver was sent by the government to put down this smuggling. In his schooner he cruised up and down the Minch, keeping a sharp look-out; he had a tender, a smaller vessel, of which Robert Clark was master, and which was employed in the sea-lochs, so that Gairloch might well be said to be blockaded. Alastair continually ran the blockade by the use of the sian. Whenever a government vessel hove in sight, he pronounced the magic words and applied his unfailing amulet, and his boat became at once invisible under the mysterious spell. One day he had brought several casks of whisky in a boat down Loch Maree. When in the Narrows near the place where Tollie burn falls into the river Ewe, he landed and hid the casks in the wood on the Tollie side of the Narrows. He made some passes over them with his hands, and the casks became invisible ; the next day he sent over from Gairloch the men who had seen him hide the casks, to bring them away, but they could not be found, and it was not until Alastair went himself that the casks became visible. This was a usual form of the sian, but Alastair had another spell or magical process which was a variation of its ordinary application. Sometimes when a revenue vessel appeared upon the scene he would take a thole-pin from the boat and whittle it with his knife, when each of the chips as it fell into the water would appear to the crew of the preventive vessel to be a fully-manned boat. This wonderful magician was well-known to many people now living, including Mr O. H. Mackenzie. There are many other stories current in Gairloch, showing that Alastair could render his boat, or indeed anything else, invisible, even without the use of any special formula. There were three fishermen, named respectively Macpherson, Watson, and Fraser, all living on the south side of Gairloch, who were partners in a large decked fishing-boat. At that time Glen Dubh, to the north of Stoir Head in Sutherlandshire, was an important herring fishing-station. The " south side " men were there fishing. Alastair was also at Glen Dubh, selling whisky amongst the fishermen. His boat was an open undecked craft, and the Gairloch south side men had him to spend the Sabbath in their larger vessel. On Sunday morning Alastair proposed to fill some bottles with whisky out of a small cask that he carried for offering drams to friends. As he and Macpherson were beginning to draw the whisky from the cask, Alastair asked his companion if he saw the revenue cutter. Macpherson said her boat was just coming round a headland near them. Alastair said, "They don't see us." He proceeded with the business on hand; they were on deck. As the cutter's boat approached, Macpherson wished to put the whisky cask out of sight. Alastair said, " Never fear; they cannot see us." The revenue boat then passed close to them, and apparently did not see them. Had the preventive men seen Alastair before he saw them, he would have been unable to render the boat invisible. At another time, the same "south side" men had a good take of flounders in the sound between the Island of Longa and Big Sand. They had occasion to take their fish ashore at Big Sand, and having piled them in a heap left them for a short time; on returning they could not see their fish anywhere. Alastair was there, and they concluded he had played a trick upon them. After keeping up the joke some time, Alastah admitted that he had concealed the fish. He drew a ring on the sand with his stick, and said, "The fish are within this circle." The fishermen could not find them, until Alastair withdrew the spell and the fish became visible.

His father, Ruaridh an t' Sealgair, also had the magical power of the sian. Both Rorie and Alastair were—like their ancestor whose soubriquet they bore—great hunters and poachers. When they wanted venison they would go to the mountains. As soon as they saw a deer they would, by the exercise of magic, cause the animal to stand or to go where they pleased, so that they could easily get within range. If the deer saw the magician first, the spell failed; it was necessary that the hunter should spy his quarry before he was himself observed. Instances of Alastair's exercise of this power are said to have occurred during the time of the late Sir Francis Mackenzie, Bart, of Gairloch. They say too that Alastair, when sitting at the roadside, could by the sian render himself invisible to persons who passed close to him.

Our next and last example is of a different application of magic. Every detail of the case is firmly believed by many natives of Gair loch now living to be absolutely true. In the chapter of James Mackenzie's " Gairloch Stories," given further on, is an account of the death by drowning at the head of Loch Maree of John M'Ryrie. His grandfather was the hero of the following adventure. At the time of its occurrence he had a large open boat, in which he used to carry the mails between Poolewe and Stornoway. He lived at Pool-ewe. One Donald M'Lean helped to work the boat. It was before the smack was put on this service. On one occasion M'Ryrie was kept several days at Stornoway by a contrary wind. He was going about the place two or three days grumbling at the delay. He met a man in the street, who advised him to go to a certain woman and she would make the wind favourable for him. In the morning he went to her, and paid her some money. She gave him a piece of string with three knots on it. She told him to undo the first of the knots, and he would get the wind in his favour; if the wind were not strong enough for him, he was to undo the second knot, but not until he would be near the mainland; the third knot, she said, he must not untie for his life. The wind changed whilst he was talking to her; and he set sail that same morning. He undid the first knot on the voyage, and the breeze continued fair; the second knot he untied when he was near the mouth of Loch Ewe, and the breeze came fresh and strong. When he got to Plocard, at the head of Loch Ewe, he said to M'Lean that no great harm could happen to-them if he were to untie the third knot, as they were so near the shore. So he untied the third knot. Instantly there was such a hurricane that most of the houses in Poolewe and Londubh were stripped of their thatch. The boat was cast high and dry on the beach at Dal Cruaidh, just below the house of Kirkton; her crew escaped uninjure.d. It is said that at that time there were several women about Stornoway who had power by their arts to make the wind favourable.


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