Alexander Carmichael wasn’t the only person writing about Morag in the early 1900s. The life of the subject of our third blog in this series – a fisherman, poet, fiddler, dancer, swimmer, Mod medallist, and newspaper columnist – is narrated in the first two chapters of Alasdair Roberts’ fascinating Tales of the Morar Highlands (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006). According to his own account, James MacDonald (1872–1908) of Sandbank Cottage, 17 Mallaig Bheag, took to writing down stories – probably English elaborations of Gaelic originals – which he would tell his fellow crew members to pass the time at sea. These stories formed the basis of a monthly column of local lore, stories, and autobiographical pieces which appeared in the West Coast edition of the Highland News. Unfortunately, as we saw in the previous blog, it doesn’t appear as if a run of that particular edition of the paper is preserved. What we do have, however, is Tales of the Highlands, by a Mod Medallist (Inverness, 1907), a collection of his columns which MacDonald had printed for friends and family. Today the little book is exceptionally rare: only two copies of it are known.
Among the writings in Tales of the Highlands, composed in the romantic, flowery style favoured by Victorian journalists with a column to fill, is a piece about Morag. This item has been reprinted in full in the book by Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell with David Solomon, The Search for Morag (London: Tom Stacey, 1972), pp. 109–10. In it, MacDonald writes that:
The Mhorag as a rule only shows herself on Loch Morar whenever a member of a certain clan is about to die. We durst not name the clan, but the clan there be, and woe betide someone on the night when the Mhorag detaches herself upon the surface in three distinct portions – one portion representing death, another a coffin, and the third a grave.
When the Mhorag appears in her normal state she is, as far as one can judge, a most attractive creature. The face is fair and prepossessing as that of the most winsome maid. Her blue eyes and wreaths of yellow hair, which are the most prominent proofs of her assumption to beauty, come upon the onlooker as a glad surprise, and thus confronting her she very much resembles a mermade, only the Mhorag’s body is more cumbrous than that of the latter. In fact, it is more in affinity to the sea serpent’s than the ‘Mhoighdin Mhara’s’.
MacDonald claims that he himself met Morag one winter’s night in January 1887, while crossing Loch Morar to stalk a deer at Rhetland. He continues:
A man from Brinincory [i.e. Brinacory] told me that the Mhorag once chased a boat from Scamadale all the way to Romasaig, and, after swimming in front, she raised herself almost clean out of the water, and on revealing a snowy bosom she afterwards began shaking a cluster of yellow hair with such magic grace that every time the tresses discurled themselves they rained showers of gold on the lucky wights that stood gazing in bewilderment hard by.
After this unprecedented lavishness of the miraculous metal having continued for some time, a young man, a member of the forbidden clan, who, being in the boat, grew so enamoured of the clustering locks that contained so much of intrinsic value in them, enhanced by the glow of the saintly violet eyes, dainty mouth, and teeth, that he plunged into the water to embrace the alluring creature, which, we may add, reciprocated to the length of enfolding the glamoured swain in her arms after the most endearing fashion conceivable, and like Tommie Hood’s ‘Hero and Leander’.
The outcome was that the two sailed down, down, down towards the maiden’s submarine palaces below, in that terrific depth between Swordland and Meoble… Hence, however, we believe the ‘Mhorag’s’ special predeliction for her periodical visits to the domain of Swordland, the scene of her wooing, winning and widowhood.
Blog readers will remember how Alexander Carmichael’s third and later piece about Morag rather differs from the first two. Instead of the cnap dubh or ‘black lump’ of earlier descriptions, the creature has now become something much more like a conventional mermaid, ‘half human half fish’. It may well be that in the interim Carmichael had met none other than James MacDonald; a likely occasion is the Oban Mod held on 26–28 September 1906.
The Oban Mod of 1906 was the gathering where James MacDonald won his prizes. On Thursday 27 September he finished in second place, winning £1, in in the competition ‘Seann Sgeulachd – Folk Tale (preferably unpublished) – narrated in the traditional style’. Incidentally, the first prize (£3) was carried off by David B. Fletcher, Morvern, and the adjudicators were the landowner Osgood H. MacKenzie of Inverewe (1842–1922), the Gaelic scholar the Rev. Neil Ross (1871–1943), and the Skye poet Neil MacLeod (1843–1913). James MacDonald also won another second prize, this time a silver medal, in playing of a Gaelic song on the violin.
Here are a few guesses and possibilities. Though we have as yet no direct evidence, it is probable that Alexander Carmichael also attended the Oban Mod. A piece of circumstantial evidence is that the folklorist does appear to have visited the Ross of Mull in September 1906, recording the fairy story ‘Dùn Bhuirg ’na theine’ from a fisherman John MacInnes at Bunessan [CW368 fo.278]: it is most likely that he’d have travelled out there from the ‘Charing Cross of the Highlands’. If Carmichael was at the Mod, he would surely have attended the Folk Tale recitation. If he did, he would have talked to James MacDonald about his visit to MacDonald’s native district four years previously, and about the mysterious creature of Loch Morar. Maybe it was Morag herself who was the subject of MacDonald’s seann sgeulachd. One way of cutting through all this guesswork and finding out, of course, might be to consult James MacDonald’s column about the Oban Mod printed in his book – but the only available copy is in Mallaig. We’ll keep you posted!
In addition to his other talents, James MacDonald was a fine swimmer. For saving the lives of three girls on board his boat when it capsized in Mallaig Bay in 1901, he was awarded a silver medal by the Royal Humane Society. On 24 February 1908, however, MacDonald was drowned, apparently while making an accustomed swim across Loch Moidart to Eilean Shona, where he was staying at the time, after giving a dancing lesson on the mainland. Family tradition says that following the tragedy the local doctor rowed around the island every night for six weeks until MacDonald’s body was found.
James MacDonald’s column about Morag demonstrates that many more Gaelic speakers than just Alexander Carmichael, people from all walks of life, were engaged in translating, adapting, and elaborating Gaelic stories in print for an English-speaking audience. Part of the problem these writers faced was how to make Highland beliefs comprehensible, accessible, and appealing to those outside the region, yet at the same time to preserve – or even introduce – some distinguishing traits. Note how James MacDonald – or even his original source – appears to have altered the creature of Loch Morar into a mermaid, but at the same time has given her a ‘more cumbrous’ body, ‘more in affinity to a sea serpent’s’.
To conclude: many still believe that the supposed growth of modern rationality, secularisation, and a scientific world-view has led to the ‘disenchantment’ of the world, as old superstitions and magical and mystical beliefs everywhere wither and die. The case of ‘The Morag’ suggests that in certain circumstances this might not exactly be the case. Supernatural ‘water deity’ though she might have been, Morag in Alexander Carmichael’s day seems to have been for many locals a surprisingly straightforward kind of creature, even rather prosaic: people generally knew what she looked like, and what her function was: to foretell the death of a member of a local family (Morar tradition states that it was the Gillies of Loch Nevis side rather than the MacDonalds, as Carmichael wrote).
Contrast Morag as was with Morag in our scientific age: a dimly perceived and fleetingly glanced unknown creature, an enigma, an inexplicable anomaly, a ‘monster’. This Morag has in the relatively recent past been the elusive object of considerable scientific research involving exhaustive biological surveys of the chemistry of the loch, its botany and fauna; painstaking correlations of sightings; and even diving expeditions and a submarine observation chamber. Nothing was found. Which is the more enchanted? The wailing and ‘much disliked’ creature known as Mòrag dhuibhre and the Mòrag odhar ghrànnda of the Morar of a hundred years ago, or the elusive crytozoological mystery of our present?
Campbell, Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell with David Solomon. The Search for Morag (London: Tom Stacey, 1972), pp. 81, 108–10.
Mod Report, 1906: An Deo-Ghréine, ii, 2 (Samhuinn, 1906), p. 30.
Roberts, Alasdair. Tales of the Morar Highlands (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), pp. 3–28, 117–33.
Image: Loch Morar (many thanks to Iain Thornber for the magnificent photograph)