Thursday 22 December 2011

Morag, the monster of Loch Morar - 1

For our festive blogs, we thought we’d give the red water charms a little rest and turn to quite another phenomenon altogether. Alexander Carmichael probably spent only a couple of days in the district of Morar, in the heart of the rugged Garbh Chrìochan or Rough Bounds of the western Highlands. Among the items he recorded there is some fascinating material concerning the mysterious ‘monster’ of Loch Morar.

Writing to Father Allan Macdonald of Eriskay on 9 September 1902, Alexander Carmichael describes how recently ‘I was in Canna, Eigg, Skye, Morar, Arasaig, and Lochaber. I have much to tell you but must defer.’ He had already been recording in the Hebrides since the middle of June. Carmichael goes on to tell Father Allan how he had returned home to Edinburgh with his daughter Ella the previous Friday – that is, the 5 September.

This letter, then, gives us a likely year for the recordings Carmichael made in Morar. In Carmina Gadelica iii we have a (suspiciously) lengthy Ùrnaigh Mhadainn or Morning Prayer taken down from Mary Gillies there on ‘1 September 190-‘ [CG iii, 40–7]. Carmichael’s 1902 expedition would tally perfectly with this date. It was probably on the same trip that Mary Maclellan née MacDonald, Beòraid, gave him a Moladh Moire or Praise of Mary [CG iii, 126–33: again, perhaps untrustworthily long as it is printed], while Ann Maclellan, crofter, Mallaig Mhór, gave a prayer to be recited on first glimpsing the new moon, A’ Ghealach Ùr [CG iii, 288–9].

This blog, however, is devoted to material the collector appears to have recorded from a Eòghan Dùghallach. Although the name Eòghan is often translated as Hugh, a couple of references in local census records available online might suggest that in English Carmichael’s informant was called Ewan MacDougall. In one text Carmichael describes him as living in Mallaig Bheag, while in another he is from Beòraid Bheag: the latter is named as his home village in an anecdote printed in CG iv, 230–1. This particular story tells of how Mary Macmillan from Sgiathairigh on the shores of Loch Hourn relieved MacDougall’s brother of a very painful fish-scale in his eye by using Eòlas a’ Chaimein or the Charm of the Mote, and how the folklorist made an epic journey to her remote village to try to record the charm from a descendant, Mary Cameron. Although ‘a pleasant and hospitable woman’:

on no account would she repeat to me ‘Eòlas a’ Chaimein’, though I tried every possible means to persuade her. She said that the ‘eòlas’ was entrusted to her for no foolish purpose, and she was not going to impart it for any foolish purpose to any person.

Alexander Carmichael had to return to Edinburgh empty-handed.

There are three separate texts in Carmichael’s manuscript collection about Mòrag, the mysterious creature which supposedly inhabits the depths of Loch Morar. As noted, it looks as if Eòghan Dùghallach was the principal source for his information. Judging from style and handwriting, it looks as if there are two earlier items and a later one. One is a series of notes, probably transcribed some time after the original recording:


Morag is always seen before a death and before a drowning especially before the death of the proprietor.
When Iain Ruadh was drowned she was seen by Coll MacColl a native of Tiree. She was seen about six years ago before a man was drowned.
Eoghan Dughallach saw the Morag several times in his long life.
The Morag came to a man in Gleann Loch an aineach [i.e. Gleann an Lochain Eanaiche] and spoke to him. [CW493 fo.35]

The second text is more expansive:

A’ Mhòrag / Mòrag

Tha creatair ann an Loch Morar agus is e a Mhorag / Morag a theirear rithe – There is a creature in Lochmorar and she is called Morag. She is never seen save when one of the daoine duchasach – of the hereditary people of the place dies. The last time she was seen was when Aonas na Traigh, Aeneas Macdonnell, died in 1898 (?).
  The Morag is peculiar to Loch Morar. She is seen in broad daylight and by many persons – including church persons – parsons. [note in margin: She has been seen by the narrator Eoghan Dughallach and by many others including pearsachan eaglais.]
  She appears in a cnap dubh – a black heap or ball slowing and deliberately rising in the water and moving along like a boat water logged.
  The Morag is much disliked and is called by many uncomplimentary terms – Morag dhubh – black Morag – morally not physically – Morag Odhar – dun Morag. Morag dhuibhre – dusky Morag. Morag Ghran[n]da – ugly Morag. As sure as Morag is seen as surely a ‘duchasach’ [above: heredient] dies immediately thereafter. She is not seen when one of the common people dies but is always seen when one of the duchasaich – heredients – dies – One of the native chiefs or relatives of one of the native chiefs. The last time Morag was seen was immediately before the death of Aongas na Traigh – Aonas of Traigh – in 1898.
  Eoghan Dughallach Beoraid bheag – Beoraid Mhic Shimi – firmly believed in the Morag and gave many vivid descriptions of its appearance and occurrence. [CW493 fos.38–9]

Any further information from local historians or genealogists about the people mentioned in Carmichael’s accounts would be very much appreciated. In our next blog we shall take a look at a third text concerning ‘the Morag’.

References: CW493 fos. 35, 38–9.
Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell with David Solomon, The Search for Morag (London: Tom Stacey, 1972).
Alasdair Roberts, Tales of the Morar Highlands (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), 122–33.

Image: A lovely photograph of Loch Morar from the blog ‘The Adventures of Murpharoo’.

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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). [©]