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The Last of the MacLeods

AS the immediate family of old Ruari were the last of the Siol Torquil who were chiefs of the Lews, it may be interesting to trace their extirpation, for scarcely one of this restless and headstrong race seems to have died a natural death.

We have seen that Torquil Eir, the only son by the first wife, was drowned in a tempest; Torquil Connanach was disowned by his father and his title handed over to the Mackenzies; Torquil Dhu was executed by the Mackenzies, while his brother Tormad, the only remaining legitimate son, was imprisoned for ten years in Edinburgh, and only released to die in Holland. John, son of Connanach, was killed by Rory Oig, his reputed illegitimate uncle, while the three sons of Torquil Dhu, by a sister of Macleod of Harris, all died without legal issue.

Of the illegitimate sons, Normand Uigach was slain by his brother Donald; Murdo was handed over to the Fife men by his brother Neil, and executed at St. Andrew's; Donald was seized by Connanach and executed at Dingwall; Rory Oig, captured by Torquil Dhu, was imprisoned by Maclean, but escaped only to perish in a snow-storm.

Having thus destroyed each other like Kilkenny cats, we must follow the fortunes of the only remaining brother, Neil, who seems to have had the most ferocious energy of any of old Ruari's sons.

During his conflicts with the Fife colonists Neil had been driven out of his castle of Ness; he then took refuge on the rocky islet of Berissay, at the entrance to Loch Roag. This he strongly fortified, and from it issued periodically to harass the settlers, assisted by Macleod of Harris and others.

When the colonists had finally been driven from the country and the titles handed over to Kintail, the latter landed with a commission of fire and sword against the turbulent islanders. The whole country was soon overrun, and the natives submitted, with the exception of Neil, who had always stubbornly opposed the pretentions of Torquil Connanach and the Mackenzies of Kintail. Retiring to his stronghold of Berissay along with Malcolm, William, and Rory—three sons of Rory Oig—Torquil Blair, and his four sons, and a following of thirty, he held it in security for three years. During this period an English pirate, named Peter Love, visited him in a vessel richly laden, and the two outlaws proposed to recapture the Lews. Love supplied Neil with guns to fortify the rock, and otherwise assisted him, while at the same time the island was well supplied with store of provisions.

It seems that the pirate had fixed his affections on a beautiful niece of Neil’s, who was with him in Berissay, and a day being appointed for the marriage, Love landed with his officers and a party of his men for the festivities, while Macleod sent a body of his retainers on board the pirate vessel in order to be regaled by them in return. Such an opportunity could not be let slip, even on such an occasion, by this savage freebooter. Neil arranged previously that his flag flying on shore would be the signal that he had secured the captain and his officers, that his men on board might then capture the vessel and the intoxicated pirates. This effected, all valuables were removed and the ship set on fire.

He now sent his prisoners to Edinburgh in hopes not only of receiving the reward that had been placed on Love's head, but also of obtaining his own pardon and the liberation of his legitimate brother Tormad. For, in all the details of these ferocious times, Neil and his illegitimate brothers seem ever to have remained constant unto death in their allegiance to him they considered the rightful heir. But if Neil expected pardon he was disappointed. The pirate and his crew were hanged at Leith, and Neil and his band were no better off than before.

Their close and dangerous neighbourhood and frequent incursions at length decided the Mackenzies to secure them at any cost, and this they effected eventually through an expedient whose barbarity would have done credit to their opponents. Assembling together all the women and children to be found on shore belonging to Neil and his followers, and all in any way related to them, they placed them on a rock opposite Berissay at ebb tide. Neil was then notified that, unless he and his followers yielded before the return of the tide, all who were near and dear to them would be left at the mercy of the waves. The laments of the women and children as the waters advanced and threatened their destruction, and the prospect of such a harrowing spectacle before their eyes, were only too convincing arguments. The ruthless desperadoes who could feel nothing for an enemy were deeply moved at this terrible sight, and forced most reluctantly to deliver up the fort.

Most of his followers now submitted to the Mackenzies; but Neil himself, with a few men, retired into Harris under hiding, until he was forced at last to give himself up to Ruari Macleod of Harris. Macleod of Harris promised to convey him to the English king, but on the way south he was forced to yield up his prisoner to the Privy Council, along with Neil’s son Donald. Neil endeavoured, with the aid of the treasure secured from the English pirate, to bribe Sir Rory to intercede on his behalf, but the catalogue of crime brought against him effectually prevented the possibility of pardon. After a life that is one long list of deeds of daring lawlessness, the robber-chief was executed on the sands of Leith, April, 1613.

His son Donald, after three years spent in England with Sir Robert Gordon, died eventually in Holland. There still remained the three sons of Rory Oig, who had been with Neil on Berissay, and who seem to have imbibed their uncle’s hostility to the clan which had obtained the Lews more by fraud than right of succession. The Tutor of Kintail at length managed to seize them, when Rory and William were executed, and Malcolm was retained a prisoner. The latter, however, managed to escape, and long harassed the Mackenzies. Joining Sir James Macdonald in 1615, he made frequent incursions among the Mackenzies, and even in 1616 returned from Flanders to his shooting-ground, and killed two gentlemen of the usurping clan. He afterwards joined Sir J. Macdonald in Spain, where he remained till 1620, his further history being contained in the pregnant notice, that in 1622 and 1626 Lord Kintail and his clan were granted “commissions of fire and sword against Malcolm Mac Ruari Macleod.” A worthy pendant this to the record of a race who ever “smack of the wild Norwegian,” alike regardless of their own or their neighbours' lives, and dying anywhere but in their beds.

In the Lews a tale is told of the burial of the last of the race in the old church on Broad Bay, before the Mackenzies had obtained secure possession. According to the popular account, the funeral procession was on its way, when the Mackenzies appeared in force, and were about to attack the attendant Macleods. An aged islander then stepped from the cortege, convinced his adversaries of the folly of fighting over a dead chief, and, in exchange for freedom to deposit their honoured dead beside his stalwart ancestors, offered fealty to the invading clan. Is not a living dog better than a dead lion?

In the church of Knock, near Stornoway, may be seen the rudely sculptured figure of a warrior in a plaided kilt, with cross-hilted sword and dagger, and beneath it is popularly supposed to rest the remains of one who never knew repose in life, The Last of the Macleods.

The End.

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