Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Mac Mhaighstir Alastair
Alexander MacDonald

Presbyterial notices of Mac Mhaighstir Alastair, and some of his contempories in Ardnamurchan and Morven

Through the courtesy of the reverend members of the Presbytery of Mull, I was recently enabled to peruse the earlier records of that Court; and I propose this evening to give you a few gleanings from them concerning our great Gaelic bard, Alexander Macdonald (better known as Mac Mhaighstir Alastair), and some of his associates, and throwing considerable light on the state of society in the Western Highlands during the first half of last century.

Macdonald is first mentioned in these records in September 1729, when he appears as teacher and catechist in the service of the Society for Propogating Christian Knowledge, and the Committee for managing the Royal Bounty, in his native parish of Ardnamurchan. This post he has apparently occupied for some time. His father was minister of Ardnamurchan in the days of Episcopacy, but refusing to conform when Presbyterianism was established, he was deprived of his living in 1697. He still continued to labour in the parish, however, and the bard was born there about the year 1700. The child early displayed signs of that intellectual vigour which distinguished him in after life; and, as he approached manhood, his father dreamed of future eminence for him in the Church, while his chief, Clanranald, harboured the more worldly intention of educating him for the Scottish bar. The youth was sent to the University of Glasgow, which he attended for some sessions; but an early marriage made it difficult for him to prosecute his studies, and, like many another poor Highland student, he lapsed into a charity-teacher, supported by the Society and Committee which I have mentioned.

The Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge had its origin in the design of a few private gentlemen, who met in Edinburgh in the year 1701, to establish charity schools in the Highlands. Their first school was started at Abertarff, which was then “the centre of a country where ignorance and popery did greatly abound but the teacher was so harshly treated by the people, that he fled the parish in less than two years, and no successor was appointed. The Edinburgh philanthropists were, however, not discouraged. They planted schools in other parts of the Highlands, secured the co-operation of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, collected money throughout the kingdom, and, in 1709 obtained letters-patent from Queen Anne, erecting certain of their number into a corporation under the title which it still bears.

In 1725 King George the First gave a donation of 1000 to the General Assembly, “to be employed for the reformation of the Highlands and Islands, and other places where popery and ignorance abound.” This donation, being annually repeated by the First George and his successors, was placed under the control of a Committee nominated by the General Assembly, and called the Committee for managing the Royal Bounty; and it was this Committee that joined, as we have seen, with the Society in supporting the teacher and catechist of Ardnamurchan.

The times in which Macdonald lived were wild and unsettled, and the people among whom he laboured prone to war and factious disputation; but catechist and teacher, and elder though he was, he was no peace-at-any-price man, and into the quarrels and disputes of his time he threw himself with all the energy of which his fiery spirit was capable.

Early in 1732 Mr James Stevenson, the minister of Ardnamurchan, was (to quote from the Presbytery records) “carried off by the Presbytery of Lorn to the parish of Ardchattan, within the bounds of the said Presbytery, and fixed minister there, without ever acquainting the Presbytery of Mull or parish of Ardnamurchan, to both which he was related.” The Presbytery of Mull and parishioners of Ardnamurchan were naturally indignant; but the latter speedily recovered their equanimity and looked round for another parson, and at a meeting of the Presbytery held at Tayinlone, in Mull, on 6th December 1732, the bard appeared “as Commissioner from said parish, with a petition signed by the gentlemen, heritors, and elders of said parish, directed to the Presbytery of Mull, craving one of their number to moderate a call for a minister to them.” The Presbytery granted the prayer of the petition, and appointed Mr Archibald Campbell, minister of Morven, to supervise a call. This duty was performed, however, not by Mr Campbell, but by the Rev. John Maclean, of Kilninian and Kilmore; and on 9th May 1733, the bard appeared before the Presbytery in order to prosecute a call to Mr Daniel Maclachlan, a probationer. Mr Maclachlan being present, and the call having been offered to him, “he submitted himself to the Presbytery,” who forthwith ordered him to be prepared at next meeting with an exegesis on the Infalibility of the Church, and a sermon on the text, “Not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men, that turn from the truth.” The probationer passed these “trials” to the satisfaction of the Presbytery, and the 15th of August was appointed for his Ordination; but before that day arrived rumours reached the Synod of Argyll that the young man’s moral character was not of a particularly high order, and the Presbytery was requested not to proceed with the ordination until the truth of these reports was inquired into. A libel, charging him with the odious crimes of drunkenness, swearing, and singing of indecent songs, was duly drawn up5 and on 25th April 1734, the case came on for trial at Knock, in Morven, the principal witness being John Richardson, accountant to the York Buildings Company, who, at the time, were working the lead mines of Strontian; and among the other witnesses being “Collector Campbell,” and “Robert Bowman, Officer of Excise”—names proving that even at that early period wild Ardnamurchan was not beyond the reach of the “resources of civilisation.”

The case against Maclachlan broke down through insufficiency of evidence; and on 18th September 1734 he became minister of Ardnamurchan, to the great satisfaction, no doubt, of Mac-Mhaighstir Alastair, the Commissioner who prosecuted his call.

But, alas for the poor parish! In less than two months the new incumbent applied to the Presbytery for permission to go to Edinburgh for the purpose, as he alleged, of obtaining a Decreet for his stipend, and arranging for the erection of a second charge within his extensive bounds. Leave of absence was cordially granted. “The Presbytery having much at heart the desolate condition of that spacious parish, and highly approving the design, did not scruple to allow Mr Maclachlan sufficient time for that purpose, even the whole winter session.” The winter session, however, passed away, and Mr Maclachlan did not return. After a time reports reached the Presbytery that he left Edinburgh without making any attempt to get the Decreet, or arrange for the new erection; and that, after visiting Ireland, he made his way to London, where he filled the cup of his iniquity, by “ writing and publishing a profane and scandalous pamphlet intituled, ‘An Essay upon Improving and Adding to the Strength of Great Britain and Ireland by Fornication.’ Enquiry was set on foot; the reports were found to be too true; and the ambitious Essayist was deposed, and “excommunicated from the fellowship and society of Christians, as one unworthy to be counted a member thereof, to the example and terror of others.” In these circumstances, the Presbytery, on 16th July 1735, appointed a Committee to visit the Charity School of Ardnamurchan, “and to recommend earnestly to Alexander Macdonald, schoolmaster and catechist there, to be more than ordinary painful in catechising the people in the different corners of the said parish, and report his diligence by certificates from the places where he was employed.” It is possible that Macdonald had incurred the suspicion, if not the displeasure, of the Presbytery in connection with the Maclachlan fiasco.

In addition to the loss of his living in Scotland, and his excommunication, Maclaehlan’s pamphlet brought him into trouble in England, where he was arrested, prosecuted at the King’s instance before the Lord Chief-Justice, and imprisoned. Having, however, renounced and recanted his extraordinary doctrines before the Bishop of Rochester, he was in 1737 dismissed from prison, and allowed to go “over seas to Jamaica,” where, a few years afterwards, he died.

The call to Maclachlan, and the subsequent proceedings against him, give rise to another fama clamosa in the neighbouring parish of Morven—that “Highland parish” which has become so famous for its clerical race of Macleods, and whose “Annals” have been so charmingly recorded by one of them. We have seen that the Rev. Archibald Campbell of Morven, was aj(pointed to supervise the Ardnamurchan call, but that he failed to do so. Campbell, it was suspected, was opposed to Maclach-lan’s settlement, and rumour pointed to him as the one who reported the young probationer’s drunkenness, swearing, and singing of indecent songs, to the Synod. The latter resolved to have his revenge by fighting the minister of Morven with his own weapons, and at his instigation his relative, Alexander Maclachlan, tacksman of Lawdell, appeared before the Presbytery on 27th June 1733, and lodged an “information” against Mr Campbell, “charging him with the odious crime of intemperate drinking, swearing, and squabbling, and the neglect of his ministerial functions” —charges wonderfully like those preferred against Maclachlan himself, only that Campbell apparently had not the gift of singing. These charges could not be ignored, and on 15th August, the Presbytery met at Kill in Morven, and opened a preliminary enquiry which extended over three days, and ended in the following libel being given in at the instance of the said Alex. Maclachlan, and of Dugald Maclachlan in Glen, and Archibald Cameron in Rahuoy:— “Forasmuch as we are well assured from undoubted evidence, that upon the 21st of April, or the first Wednesday after Easter last, betimes in the morning, the Rev. Mr Archibald Campbell, minister of the gospel in Morven, in company with John Maclean, Esquire, in Achaforce, and Mr Charles Campbell, now preacher in Ardnamurchan, set himself down to drink at the Change House of Knock, in Morven, after having drank a considerable quantity of cold drams and ale, they got some punch. Mr Campbell, being toast master, called for Mr Maclean’s toast, who answered, sir, I give you your Lady-Mistress, which Mr Archibald taking amiss, told him he was impertinent, and gave him some very bad language. To this Mr Maclean answered he would take no notice of him, as he was but a silly fellow. Upon this Mr Archibald struck him violently upon the breast with his fist. Mr Maclean returned the blow ; and they were then separated from one another by Mr Charles and his servant. Mr Maclean fancying himself affronted by this un-gentlemanly treatment, told Mr Archibald if he was not a minister he should know how to use him, and get satisfaction. Upon this Mr Archibald said, God damn you, sir, if you let anything pass with me on that score; and God damn me if I let anything pass with you upon that consideration; for, by God, I am ready to fight you by to-morrow morning, anyhow you will. The sederunt having continued from about eight o’clock in the morning till six in the afternoon, the gentlemen were all very merry, especially Mr Archibald, who exposed himself quite drunk, to Allan Mclan vie Evven vie Alastar and Donald Bane his brother; John Macintyre, servant to Lachlan Maclean, Esquire, in Kinlochalin; and John Macwilliam, now beadle to the said Mr Archibald. As he attempted to make the best of his way home lie always staggered, stumbled, and fell down, and could never have made it out if Mr Charles and his servant had not come to his assistance, one under each arm. He, finding himself thus supported, told them he was not at all drunk. They allowing him to take his own swing, he immediately turned down, and, endeavouring to recover himself, cursed furiously, and damned the place. He at length got home ; asked his wife for his supper. She answered she was in no great hurry to give him any, for that she fancied he had got his dinner pretty well wherever he was. Upon this he kicked her furiously several times.........Mr Charles reprimanding him was obliged to defend himself with one chair, he coming on with another, and, violently struggling, tumbled down in each other’s arms. They both recovering, stript, got two sticks, and so cudgelled strongly, with great fury, for a great while. But being at last struck with a sense of their extravagance, they both sat down, mourned, wept, called the family to prayers, and so went to bed. . . . We, therefore, do hereby charge you, the said Reverend Mr Archibald Campbell, Minister of the Gospel in Morven, with the odious sins of drunkenness, swearing, squabbling, beating, and offering to fight with sword; and we desire the Reverend Presbytery of Mull may proceed against you with censure, according to the Discipline of the Church, by summoning immediately before their Judicatory, there solemnly to be sworn (as to the narrative of this our libel) the following witnesses, to wit. ... In confirmation, therefore, of what we have hereby undertaken and desired as above specified, we subscribe ourselves, reverend sir, your obedient humble servants,

The Presbytery having considered the libel, admonished and exhorted the accused to glorify God by an open and ingenuous confession of the crimes libelled but he failed to see the force of the strange exhortation, and refused to plead guilty. The case was accordingly sent to trial, and on 7th November the Presbytery met at Morven, and commenced to take evidence. For days the trial proceeded from morn to night, and on 12th November the Court was adjourned sine die, without closing the proof.

Mr Daniel Maclachlan, who had hitherto contented himself by assisting his kinsmen to conduct the prosecution on their own behalf, now got a “Commission upon stamped paper” from them, authorising him to act for them, and to press the complaint to a decision. But he was in bad odour himself, and his progress as prosecutor was slow ; and, although subsequent meetings resumed the proceedings, and took further evidence, it was only on 16th July 1735—after Maclachlan had deserted his own charge—that the debate on the evidence took place. Campbell’s pleadings were able and ingenious. “The first article [Drunkenness, Swearing, and Fighting] is not proven, nor any part in it. . . . Swearing, no doubt, is a very great fault; but then it is certain that some may be excited to it by provocations and passions, when sober enough. But are the oaths libelled proved] Far from it. Does not Mr Charles and Mr Maclean agree that there passed but one oath 1 But they do not agree in the expression. One says one thing, and one another. If any asseveration that was swearing dropt from me, I am heartily sorry for it. But it was, I am sure, insensibly, and I cannot recollect any such thing.”

It was stated in evidence against him that, when on one occasion, at the inn at Rahuoy, baptizing a child of the landlord of that establishment, he was “touched with liquor,” went to bed without family worship, complained of the scarcity of the bedclothes, and called the landlord balach and a liar. These charges he disposed of in the following manner :—“Allan Cameron alleges three reasons for which he believed me the worse of liquor, but he submits the weight of them to judgment. The first is no reason at all, it being certain that if I had not scarcity of bed-clothes I would not have used my big coat, which I used to give my servant when abroad, because however the master is served, he gets no supply. The second, calling the landlord Balach, has, I am convinced, been mistaken for Allaich, which in other countries is a familiar word, and never gives offence. But if I called him so, several will subscribe my opinion who know the man, and though I had called him a great deal worse. I travelled in a most boisterous, wet, and cold evening, over mountains and rocks, to oblige him, when I might have made him come my length ; and everybody may see I had but a coarse and unkind reward. As for the third reason, my neglecting to pray, I own it to be a very great fault; but I am afraid ’tis one which I and others of my reverend brethren might have fallen into when far enough from liquor. Ministers of the most unsuspected temperance have been known to neglect prayer—sometimes a psalm even—in divine service on a Lord’s Day. Whatever fault this be, I hope charity, nay, justice, will attribute to forgetfulness. For, the deponent being asked if he thought this neglect being owing to my incapacity at the time, declared he did not, for that I discoursed articulately and freely enough on other subjects.”

One of the witnesses having described Mr Campbell’s state on a certain occasion by the word corghleus, which the Presbytery translated “the worse of liquor,” the accused delivers himself of the following delicious dissertation:—“Corghleus, or the word inverted, Gleus-cor, shows no more than that cheerful humour which a moderate glass puts one in, which humour or temper is not his ordinary, or which he did not fully discover at first sitting down. That was the term the deponent used to express my disposition that night; but wrongously translated in the minutes. I appeal still to the deponent, with whom I was conversing, with some others, if this be not the notion he affixes to it. But further, this phrase, ‘the worse of liquor,’ admits of a great latitude ; for if one exceeds the due measure that suffices nature, which with most constitutions is a single dram, he oppresses it, and is indisposed in his health —and in proportion as he exceeds this strict measure; so that he may be said to be the worse of liquor in both cases. Yet, is it not true that at every sitting, most exceed the precise measure] Notwithstanding of what I have been obliged to advance here in my own vindication, I am always obliged to acknowledge, and now do with concern, that a false modesty, with a mistaken notion of agreeableness, and an ill-placed confidence in my company, might, about this time [that is, before this prosecution was commenced], have inclined me sometimes to comply, beyond what I now and since condemn in strict duty and decency. I bless God for it, I can want liquors absolutely. I can boldly avow that I never did incline to them for their own sakes.”

But these amusing pleadings, which I must not follow further, were of no avail. Poor Campbell was found guilty, and suspended for a year; and, although he resumed his ministerial functions at the end of that period, the wicked did not cease from troubling him, and he demitted or resigned in 1741. He died in 1754, in the twenty-fifth year of his ministry. His stipend as minister of Morven was 50 a-year.

Early in 1744 another great clerical scandal began to agitate the bounds of the Presbytery of Mull; and, as usual, Macdonald, the bard, had a finger in the pie. At a meeting of the Presbytery held at Aros in March of that year, and attended by the Bard, Macdonald of Kinlochmoidart, and “ Doctor Macdonald, brother to the Laird of Morar, commonly known by the name of Bishop Macdonald,” appeared and lodged a complaint against Mr Francis Macdonald, Presbyterian preacher at Strontian, and at one time Roman Catholic priest in Moidart, accusing him of incest with his sister, and other crimes. They gave in a circumstantial and well drawn “information,” extending to twenty-five foolscap pages, and written “by John Stewart, drover in Knock, in Mull, and Alexander Macdonald, schoolmaster at Ardnamurchan.” The prosecutors being of the Romish Church, the first questions which the Presbytery had to consider were—“ How far Kinlochmmoidart, a professed Papist, should be received as an accuser against a minister, while lie is actually under process for adultery before the Kirk Session of Ardnamurchan ; and whether Doctor Macdonald, who is well known to us all, not only to assume the character, but also to exercise the functions of a Popish Bishop, should be sustained by us as a party in this question;” and “in case a process shall commence, how far Popish evidences shall be admitted, considering the known principles of that party, the slavish subjection in which they are known to be, particularly in that corner [Moidart], to the Bishop and lairds, and the rough and unpolished manners of the ignorant populace, who even already, as we are informed, threatened to destroy Mr Francis, who is become the object of their resentment, by his coming over from them, and having the impudence, as some of them term it, to live under their eye and act the Protestant minister;” and, “whether, if Mr Francis can make it appear that he had a moral character while a Popish priest, and that he was well liked as such by those who now hate him, this should not be sustained as a sufficient exculpation, especially seeing that she [his sister], is still a professed Papist, continues firm in giving one of the children she brought forth to the Bishop, and the other to Kinlochmoidart, who was suspected, even by his own lady, of going astray from the marriage-bed in that instance.”

These were questions too weighty for decision by the Reverend Court, and a memorial embodying them was sent to the Procurator for the Church, Mr William Grant, subsequently Lord Advocate during the troubles at and after the Rebellion, aud thereafter a Judge of the Court of Session under the title of Lord Preston grange. “I am very apt,” replied the Procurator, “to believe, or to apprehend, or suspect, that this accusation may proceed from malice or the resentment of Papists and Highlanders against one whom they look 011 as an apostate from the true Church. At the same time, I can’t take it for granted beforehand, that the accusers are all villains, or that their witnesses will be all perjured, and, therefore, I think it concerns the interest of religion in general, and the credit of the Church of Scotland, to give this matter a fair and full trial, that Mr Francis Macdonald may be vindicated, if he is innocent, as I hope he is, and, if otherwise, that he may be dismissed from his station in this Church.....It is, in my humble opinion, no good objection against Dr Macdonald, for which he should not be sustained an accuser or complainer, that he is a Papist, or that he is a Bishop, or of whatever denomination in that persuasion, for he is still a Scotchman and a Christian ; and I would be inclined even the rather to give a fair hearing and trial to his accusation, by reason of the singularity of his character as a pursuer before the Ecclesiastical Courts in Scotland.” With reference to the other questions, Mr Grant advises the Presbytery “to examine all the witnesses whom the accuser shall adduce, who are liable to no other objection than their religion. At the same time,” he adds, “I am very sensible that the circumstances mentioned in the papers I have read, of Mr Francis Macdonald’s being what they call an apostate, and the visible marks of resentment conceived against him by persons who formerly appeared to esteem and cherish him, are such as may justly affect the credibility of these witnesses when the proof comes to be weighed, and advised, and compared with the exculpatory evidence.”

Mr Francis Macdonald was in the pay of the Committee for managing the Royal Bounty, who requested the papers connected with the case to be sent to them for consideration. This was done; and in March 1745 it was recorded by the Presbytery that the accused had been removed by the Committee to Skye, and that the “clerk was appointed to signify to Kinlochmoidart that Mr Francis has left our bounds, so that we are no further judges of the controversy betwixt him and them.’'

The Sound of Sleat having thus been placed between Mr Francis and his accusers, it is not likely they followed him further; and, indeed, they were soon engaged in more exciting scenes. In July Prince Charles arrived at Lochnanuagh, resolved to conquer the kingdom; and his cause was immediately espoused by Kinlochmoidart, Bishop Macdonald (the Mr Hugh Macdonald of history), and Mac Mhaighstir Alastair. The Bard’s later experiences as Presbyterian catechist and teacher had not been encouraging. When we first meet him in 1729 his salary is 16 a year. In 1732 it is raised to 18, whereof 3 is contributed by the Society, and 15 by the Committee; and it continues at this figure till 1738, when it drops to 15, being 3 from the Society and 12 from the Committee, ‘‘because the funds can bear no more.”

Next year the Committee—“because the funds are exhausted”— give 11 only, and in November their contribution is further reduced to 9, making the total salary 12. That this remuneration did not keep the wolf from the door appears evident from the Presbytery’s minute of 28th April 1741—the very year in which Macdonald gave to the world his Gaelic and English Vocabulary. “The visitors of the Charity School of Ardnamurchan report that when they attended there in order to visit said school, Alexander Macdonald, schoolmaster thereof, sent an apology to them for absence, viz., that through the great scarcity of the year he was under immediate necessity to go from home to provide meal for his family. The appointment is therefore renewed upon said visitors.”

In the Beauties of Gaelic Poetry, as well as in the sketches of Macdonald’s life prefixed to the recent editions of his poems, he is said to have been parochial schoolmaster of Ardnamurchan. This, however, is not correct. In his day there was no parochial school in that parish, and throughout his teaching career he was in the service of, and exclusively supported by, the Society and Committee. On account of the great extent of the parish, his school was, as it was termed, “ transported ” from time to time. For the first few years he taught at Eilean Finnan; in March 1738, he was ordered to “ set-up his school with his first conveniency, and as soon as may be at Killechoan and next year he and his school were “transported” to Corryvullin, where he closed his pedagogic career in 1745. Hitherto he has been supposed to have given up his school after the landing of Prince Charles ; but at a meeting of Presbytery held on 15th July, four days before the Prince cast anchor in Lochnanuagh-—the minister of Ardnamurchan reported “that the charity school in this parish has been vacant since Whitsunday last by the voluntary desertion of Alexander Macdonald, the former schoolmaster of this country.” In the same way it has been assumed that he joined the Church of Rome to please the Prince; but the part he took with prominent Roman Catholics against the ex-priest in 1744, seems to indicate that secretly, if not openly, he believed in the doctrines of that Church even before he ceased to be catechist and teacher. At the same time it is right to note that in the preface to the Gaelic and English Vocabulary, published in 1741, he speaks in the highest terms of the work of the Protestant Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and places “Popish Emissaries” among the evils from which the Highlands then suffered.

“In the Highland army Macdonald held a commission, and was looked upon as a kind of poet-laureate to the Prince. “He was,” observes Mackenzie of the Beauties, “the Tyrtseus of his army. His spirit-stirring and soul-inspiring strains roused and inflamed the breasts of his men. His warlike songs manifested how heartily he enlisted in, and how sanguine he was of the success of the undertaking.” After Culloden he concealed himself for a time in the recesses of his country; and on the passing of the Indemnity Act, he received from Clanranald the office of Bailie of the Island of Canna—a position which he occupied when, in 1751, he published the first edition of his poems. He subsequently resided in Knoidart, and thereafter in Arisaig, where he is said to have closed his mortal career at a good old age. If we may credit Dr Scott’s Fasti Ecclesice Scoticance (part V. p. 81), he was addicted to the use of opium, and died in a lunatic asylum; but in his day neither opium nor lunatic asylums were plentiful in the Highlands, and this story is highly improbable.

I have now fulfilled the object which I placed before me in commencing this paper ; and if some of the circumstances which, in the interests of truthful historical enquiry, I have considered it necessary to relate, are unsavoury and unpleasant, they throw considerable light on the state of society in the Western Highlands during the first half of the eighteenth century; and for that reason, if for no other, they ought not to be suppressed. But in considering them we must keep in view that these presbyterial records, however accurate, only exhibit the worst phases of life. So long as a man lived without reproach no notice was taken of him; but if he chanced to lapse from the paths of rectitude, he was cited before the Church Courts, which faithfully chronicled the particulars of his sin. And that there was much goodness, and kindliness, and true chivalry within the bounds of the Presbytery of Mull, even in the stormy times of which I have been speaking, is not difficult to prove. When, for instance, the Church of Scotland was in the heat of that ecclesiastical conflict with Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, the most momentous event of which was the secession of 1733, the Presbytery of Mull showed an example of Christian charity and tolerance which it is unfortunate others did not follow: they instructed their Commissioners to the General Assembly to “ side the most moderate party with respect to Mr Erskine’s affair, as it is our opinion that if he be chargeable with nothing but defending the rights of the Christian people in the choice of their pastor, he ought to be treated with all tenderness and charity by such as differ from him and his adherents.”

Then the Laird of Kinlochmoidart, who prosecuted Mr Francis Macdonald, and who, in 1746, laid down his life for Prince Charles, on the Gallows flill of Carlisle, was the hero of the beautiful story thus told by Sir Walter Scott in his first note to the “Monastery.” “In the civil war of 1745-6, a party of Highlanders, under a chieftain of rank, came to Rose Castle, the seat of the Bishop of Carlisle, but then occupied by the family of Squire Dacre of Cumberland. They demanded quarters, which, of course, were not to be refused to armed men of a strange attire and unknown language. But the domestic represented to the captain of the mountaineers, that the lady of the mansion had been just delivered of a daughter, and expressed her hope that, under these circumstances, his party would give as little trouble as possible. “God forbid,” said the gallant chief, “that I or mine should be the means of adding to a lady’s inconvenience at such a time. May I request to see the infant1?” The child was brought, and the Highlander, taking his cockade out of his bonnet, and pinning it on the child’s breast: “That will be a token,” he said, “ to any of our people who may come hither, that Donald Macdonald of Kinlochmoidart has taken the family of Rose Castle under his protection.” “The lady,” adds Sir Walter, “who received, in infancy, this gage of Highland protection, is now Mary, Lady Clark of Pennycuik; and on the 10th of June still wears the cockade, which was pinned on her breast, with a white rose as a kindred decoration.”

And, without further multiplying examples, you will find in the poems which Mac Mhaigstir Alastair wrote amid the hardships and distractions of his life, a grandeur of conception, a nobleness of sentiment, a power and felicity of language, and a richness of description, which would do credit to any nation in any age.

After the above paper was read before the Society, Mr Colin Chisholm communicated with the Rev. Charles Macdonald, C.C., Moidart, regarding the bard’s place of burial, &c., and in reply he received the following letter :—

Mingarky, Moidart, 1st June 1885.

My Dear Sir,—The constant tradition here, and in Arisaig, is that the bard, Alastair Mac Mhaighstir Alastair, was buried in Arisaig. After leaving Knoydart he settled in Arisaig. For some time he was living at Strath-Arisaig; then at a place between Camus-an-talamhainn and Rliu; finally he removed to Sanntaig, and it was at Sanntaig that he died. His remains were buried in the Arisaig Church-yard, close by the present Catholic Church of St Mary’s.

John Macdonald, an old man, living near me, tells me that he was born on the very spot where the bard died, but not in the same house. This house, being probably a turf one, had fallen down, but John’s grandfather, or father, built another of the same kind on the identical spot. I have examined into this account, and find that there is no reason to doubt it.

The old people add that on the night preceding the bard’s death, two young men, belonging to Arisaig, had been sent to watch by his bedside, and to assist him in his last moments. These young persons were rather disappointed at the duty imposed upon them, because it prevented them from taking part in the rejoicings connected with a wedding which was taking place that night at Strath-Arisaig, and at which most of the country people were present. To relieve the monotony of their duty, they began reciting songs, and made an attempt at composing something of their own. The bard, who had been listening to their efforts, made some remarks upon their want of success. Fearing, however, that they might feel hurt or ashamed at what he had said, he helped them with a few verses of his own making. He had scarcely done this when he fell back on the pillow and expired.

The bard’s father, Maighstear Alastair, is buried at Eilean Fhionan. Miss Bell Macdonald, Dalelea, who lived at Dalelea House before the Rhu Family came to Moidart, used to tell the younger people that the minister’s body was under a monument having a skeleton (hideous enough) sculptured on it. This Miss Bell knew more of our local traditions than any other person in her time, and I have no doubt that she was correct in this.— Yours faithfully,

Charles Macdonald.

  Return to Scottish Regiments


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus