Wednesday 8 June 2011

The Burial Ground of Clanranald

Angus MacLellan, South Uist storyteller
According to a short account noted down by Alexander Carmichael there were only three Clanranald chiefs thought to have been buried at Howmore in South Uist. The last of them is said to have been Dòmhnall mac ’ic Ailein, a man who had an extremely evil reputation and who managed to earn himself the sobriquet Dòmhnall Dubh na Cuthaige (‘Black Donald of the Cuckoo’). This, on first appearance, may seem like a harmless enough nick-name until it is realised that the ‘Cuckoo’ refers to his gun and every time it sang somebody was murdered:

Only 3 of the Clanran[ald] bur[ied] in How[more].
Do[mh]nu[l]l mac ic Ail[ein]. was the last of
bur[ied] in the turn[in]g at Hough. Do[mh]nu[l]l
was fath[er] to Allan of Sherri[fmuir]
& son to Iain Muid[eartach]. He m[arried] da[ugh]t[er]. of heir
of Harris. Bha fear eile ga toirst
a mach he built a pla[ce] for her
in Canna & left 6 men to guard her
while away in the wars. She tied on
the blanket & let herself down & went
with her parmo[u]r. Her
pl[ace] is call[ed] [Blank in MS]
built by him. Do[mhn]u[l]l died in Can[na]
& 12 boatsmen went to fetch home
his corpse. The wind drove them
into Tearmatrai[gh] S[outh] Harris fr[om] where
they travel[led] thro[ugh] N[orth] Uist to Hough.
When teo[gh]l[ach] an taotari got
the oi[gh]reac[hd] they bur[ied them] at Nunton

The story of Dòmhnall Dubh mac ’ic Ailein and his eventual burial is given at great length by Fr. Charles MacDonald in his Moidart or Among the Clanranalds and such was this chief’s reputation that it continued to be a topic for the ceilidh house. John Lorne Campbell recorded a version of this tale from the recitation of the great storyteller Angus ‘Beag’ MacLellan (1869–1966), styled Aonghas Beag mac Aonghais ’ic Eachainn ’ic Dhòmhnaill ’ic Chaluim ’ic Dhòmhnaill, from Loch Eynort, South Uist, on 1 November 1950, and here given in translation:

This Black Donald of the ‘Cuckoo’, one of the Clanranalds, lived at Caisteal Tioram; and I understand that he was not a very good man. He had a gun, which he himself called the ‘Cuckoo’; and he would say to anyone who did anything to him ‘I’ll put the “Cuckoo” to you’. That’s how he was called ‘Black Donald of the “Cuckoo”.’ He hanged an old woman at Caisteal Tioram for stealing a snuff-box; and the spot had been called Tom na Caillich, ‘the Old Woman’s Mound’, every since.

Once Black Donald heard that there was a priest on Canna who wanted to go to Uist. Black Donald went with his boat to Canna. It seems there was an animal that followed the Clanranalds – it followed him, Black Donald, anyway – its picture is on the stone on their grave at Howmore. The animal was following the boat, and the day became very bad. The animal was on top of each wave that followed the boat. One of the crew said it looked as if they wouldn’t manage, that they would be lost. Black Donald himself was steering, and the animal came alongside the boat. At last Black Donald beckoned to it, and it came on board. The sea improved then, and they got to Canna.

Black Donald made a plan to remove a plank from every boat on Canna, so that the priest could not get away to Uist. He kept the priest seven weeks on Canna. One day, when the priest was down on the shore, he saw a boat going past, and he began to beckon to it. The boat kept in to the shore, and the priest got into it, and where it was going to but Loch Eynort! When the boat took off from the land, the priest turned and looked back and said:

‘I am not asking torment for your soul, but that your body may be kept here unburied as long as you’ve kept me.’

When Black Donald was dying on Canna, he was in terrible distress. People were going in to see him. There was a widow’s son there, a brave, strong fellow. A whistle was heard outside the house, and the man who was in the death-throes on the bed got up to go out. Everyone who was there cleared out but the widow’s son, who caught hold of Black Donald and put him back on the bed. Then they heard another whistle, and he tried to get out. The widow’s son caught him at the door, and put him back on the bed. There was someone standing on a knoll opposite the house, and he was so tall that the could see the island of Rum between his legs. This person went away, and they saw him walking on the surface of the sea over to Rum. This has been the worst piece of sea ever since, the sea between Rum and Canna.

As long as Black Donald was alive, he was thanking God and the widow’s son that the widow’s son had kept him in the house; and when he died, there came bad weather; and his body was seven weeks on Canna, before they got away with it to Howmore and the day they went with it, there came such a gale that they had to land at Peterport in Benbecula, and take the body from there overland to Howmore. Black Donald is buried there along with the other Clanranalds, and I understand that he was not the best of them.

CW 90, fos. 34r–34v.
Campbell, J. L., Canna: The Story of a Hebridean Island (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2002), pp. 87–88.
MacDonald, Fr. Charles, Moidart or Among the Clanranalds (Oban: Duncan Cameron, 1889), pp. 82–99.
Angus MacLellan, South Uist storyteller.

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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). [©]