Thursday 3 June 2010

Loch Up Your Daughters!

Ancient artefacts as well as buildings held a particular fascination for Alexander Carmichael and when the opportunity arose he would ask his many informants if they knew something about them or if they had heard any stories connected with them. In a notebook (CW 90), there are not a few such items and one story which Carmichael picked up, probably taken down from John Pearson or MacPherson (1814–1885), concerns a dun in Loch Nic na Ruaidhe. On modern maps this name is given as Loch Nic Ruaidh which on first impression doesn’t make a great deal of sense. But on earlier maps this geographic feature is referred to as Loch na Nighinn Ruaidh, giving the ‘Loch of the Red-haired Girl’, which lends credence to the following traditional story:

Dun loch
nic na Ruaidh – an Ruai
Mhor a da[ugh]t[er] of Ri Loch Lea’ad
Nam Fear Mora when the loch
used to stand above this dun
W[est]side. Nic na Ruaidh was
sought by many heroes of Loch
lan & here a dun was built to
save her fr[om] them & they would
come to the “Lea’ad” op[posite] & look[ed] on
& wi[th] delight to get a look
at her even at a dist[ance] They live[d] at
Dun a Bhairp. Dun a ghlinne
Auin an Duin Lamruig an Duin

So, according to this story, the dun was built to keep a beautiful princess from her many but distant Viking admirers. In reality, of course, the dun is far older than Viking times for it can be dated back to the Iron Age. The ruin in Loch Nic Ruaidh is described as follows:

A tumbled mass of stones rising some 8ft above the water, the remains of a dun on one of the smaller islets in the North East corner of the loch, with a number of boulders, possibly the commencement of a sunk causeway, stretching out towards it from the North shore.

The site was excavated more than fifty years ago when the following description was given:

The other crannog site, on the Loch of the Red-Haired Girl, Loch nic Ruaidhe, also shows tumbled walling, a causeway leading to the dun from the shore by way of a second and larger island. Mr J. S, McRae reported the find of a worn hammer-stone at a depth of two feet from the surface while cutting peat near the shore of this lochan, in the summer of 1955

An alternative version of why the loch was given such a name is explained by the red colour of the Rowan berries found there in autumn and thus is said to have given Loch Nic Ruaidh its name but we think you’ll agree that Carmichael’s folk etymology of this place-name is far more entertaining if a bit less prosaic.

CW 90 fo. 41v
Macneil, Calum, ‘Carmichael in Barra’ in Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart (ed.), The Life & Legacy of Alexander Carmichael (Ness: The Islands Books Trust, 2008), pp. 44–57.
Young, Alison, ‘Excavations at Dun Cuier, Isle of Barra, Outer Hebrides’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, vol. 82 (1952), pp. 290–95
Image: A dun in a loch

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]