Tuesday, August 30, 2016

‘Wicked Ferrymen’ - Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days

Article XIV written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign 30 June, 1881 - Part D


The Highland Ferryman by William Dyce (1806 – 1864 )

“I wonder whether the ferrymen I once crossed over with were lineal descendants of these murderers; for when about halfway across, one of them took up a heavy piece of wood which lay in the boat, and without the least provocation, or any previous warning, threatened to break the heads of all the passengers, four in number. It was not a very safe place to begin a fight, and while the four of us could have easily overcome the two of them, we rather preferred peaceable means, which was not at all appreciated by the wild ferryman, who brought down his formidable bludgeon into rather uncomfortable proximity to our heads." 

"What mania seized the fellow that caused him to act in this way, and his companion acquiesced in all he did, we could not divine. They did not appear to be drunk, or, as far as we could see, under the influence of liquor; and whether they expected to exhort money from us as a ransom for our lives, or not, I cannot tell; but one thing is certain, if that idea entered their calculations, they were sadly disappointed. We might, and would have defended ourselves to the very last, had any of our number been actually assaulted; but, while the aspect of affairs looked truly serious, there were no blows given." 

"Ferry-men, as a rule, were (I do not say are, for it is now about forty years since I crossed these ferries) a very rude, illiterate and wicked class of men; but I have no doubt, and would fain hope at least, that the present men are much improved.”

A Native of Badea - To be continued.

My Comments:

To close this article Alexander Gunn indignantly relates a bad experience he once had with a couple of ferrymen. Ferrymen were the backbone of travel in the Highlands for hundreds of years and it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that the life of a ferryman was often miserably cold and wet, as well as being constantly at the mercy of wind and tides. It’s no wonder that some took to warming themselves with whisky. While there are probably hundreds of stories of bad-tempered and drunk ferry-men I rather like Dyce’s portrait of a Highland Ferryman, who has his bottle sure enough, but looks trustworthy and calm.

Back to the Miekle Ferry disaster - these two pictures made me reflect.

A postcard showing travellers at Kyle of Lochalsh waiting to cross over to Skye. The photograph was taken by George Washington Wilson c1880s. The caravan on the ferry is a good reminder that ferry-men often took heavy and awkward loads – including animals. No doubt with great risk to all on board.
 Source:  Am Baile Facebook

A crowd of people wait on the jetty at Kyle of Lochalsh to catch the ferry over to Kyleakin while the paddle steamer ‘Fusilier’ heads to Broadford. 1930s. I counted approximately thirty people in the line-up. It is amazing to think that more than 3 times as many people crammed on what was just a large rowing boat making it so low in the water it took on water and capsized. Source:  Am Baile Facebook

I have done some cut and paste with the above picture to show about 120 people all waiting to clamber on the one boat! Sheriff McCulloch entreated the people not to overcrowd the boat but they would not listen. Pity he didn't disembark himself. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Meikle Ferry Fund - Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days

Article XIV about the Meikle Ferry Disaster written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign 30 June, 1881 - Part C

Meikle Ferry Disaster Fund

On 16 August 1809, ninety nine people drowned in the Meikle Ferry disaster with twelve passengers being saved.

The Courier, 21 November  1809

Many of the bereaved were left in severe hardship. From young children orphaned, to widows, widowers, and old parents, many were left without any ways of sustaining themselves. Not only had lives been lost but some folks who were going to the fair to trade had all the spare money they owned with them.

An appeal fund was formed to aid the families of those drowned.

Total fund of £2909

The Meikle Ferry Fund distributed £509 to widows, husbands and children and parents of the dead on 14 December 1809. On 29 March 1810 another £1000 was distributed and a further £1400 was distributed on 11 December 1811. The total fund amounted to £2909 which was a huge amount of money for that time. 
Source: www.ambaile.org.uk

I note that while Alexander Gunn heaped such righteous anger on the heads of the ‘wicked’ ferrymen, the detail of the distributions of the fund includes £10 to the bereaved parents of Donald Chisholm, Ferryman, and £26 to the widow and nine children of Ferryman, Wm Sutherland. 

The following are pages from the reports of the Appeal Fund committee.
Source: http://www.ambaile.org.uk

Sheriff Hugh McCulloch - Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days

Article XIV written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign 30 June, 1881  - Part B

Sheriff Hugh McCulloch

“Samuel Matheson, as I have already stated composed a beautiful poem on the Sheriff, and also several others, all written in a religious strain. They were published in a pamphlet form, and used to be sung by the good people at their social and religious gatherings. Deep and poignant was the sorrow felt by all classes of the community at the death of the Sheriff, who was respected by all with whom he came in contact, and his memory is still cherished in the district.” 
Memorial to Sheriff Hugh McCulloch. 
This memorial was built in 1914. It is in Proncy Croy, near Dornoch. 
Source: http://www.historylinksarchive.org.uk/picture/number3107.asp
There is no doubt that the death of highly respected Sheriff McCulloch of Dornoch was regarded as particularly tragic. This eloquent inscription says it all. 
Source: http://www.historylinksarchive.org.uk/picture/number3096.asp

Rev Donald Sage in Memorabilia Domestica wrote:

The Sheriff’s body was among the last that was found. The particular spot where it lay “under the flood” was uncovered in a dream. A fellow-Christian and an acquaintance deeply affected by his death, dreamed of his departed friend. In the dream the Sheriff appeared, spoke of his sudden call to the other world, and told him where his earthly remains lay, adding that, whilst the fish of the seas were permitted to mangle at pleasure the bodies of his fellow-sufferers, they were restrained from putting a tooth upon his, which would be found entire. The dream was realised in every particular. The Sheriff’s wife and daughter long survived him, and they, together with the rest of the surviving relatives of the victims of the catastrophe, were ample sharers of a fund set on foot for their support, and called the “Meikle Ferry Fund.” Captain Robert Sutherland, Dr Bethune’s son-in-law was one of the leading members of this charitable association.
Memorabilia Domestica by Rev Donald Sage pg 247 

My Comments:

Note : In the preceding paragraph of Sage’s article he states that the ferry disaster happened at night but that is not correct as the newspaper reports in my previous blog show. People were on their way to attend the Tain market. 

Farmland, Proncycroy

I have not been able to locate the memorial with any certainty. The Ordnance Survey map that accompanies the geograph picture of 'Farmland Poncycroy' shows a memorial stone near to the front of the house on private land. I am guessing that is the memorial to Sheriff McCulloch.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Meikle Ferry Disaster - Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days

Article XIV published in the Northern Ensign 30 June 1881 Part A

"I might give your readers another chapter on Highland poets, but I fear that I have trespassed rather too much on their patience already. I have omitted some well known and talented poets, whose productions are very popular and much cherished in the Highlands; but there are several Gaelic poets whose names are not mentioned either by Mackenzie or Blackie, such as Duncan Bhan McIntyre, Murdoch Grant, and Samuel Matheson, with whose songs we were tolerably well acquainted, the latter more especially. His song on good Sheriff McCulloch, who was the instrument of his conversion, was very popular, and the tragic end of that good man made the song all the more thought of."

Morning Post London, 25 August 1809

The Meikle Ferry (aka Muckle Ferry) Disaster

"The Sheriff was drowned in the Dornoch Firth in crossing over from Muckle Ferry to Tain, where he was going on the Thursday of a communion there, and a boat-full of Sutherland people with him. He had occasion to cross over frequently to Ross-shire, and to reprove the ferrymen for their profanity and wicked conduct. For this they hated the Sheriff and declared that all the heaven they wished for was to get a boat-load of Sutherland Christians, and Sheriff McCulloch in the middle of them, drowned in the ferry. This fearful language was no mere empty words, as these wicked men deliberately set to work to accomplish their diabolical design. They knew the sacrament was to be held in Tain on a particular week, and that on the fast-day the Sheriff and other people would be crossing over. They also knew the time of day the people would be there to get across, and they laid their plans accordingly. The Sheriff and about 50 [111] people, men and women, arrived at the Ferry, and all entered the boat, a large one. The day was fine, and while the stream of the tide ran past them with great velocity, no one suspected that anything serious would happen." 

Ferry Point
View of the Dornoch Firth from Edderton Hill. This narrowing was once the ferry route.

"They proceeded on their way, and when the boat was about the centre of the Firth, which is perhaps about three quarters of a mile broad, one of the fiendish crew pulled the plug out of the bottom of the boat and flung it into the sea. The water rushed in at once and great consternation prevailed among the poor doomed passengers. Some of them attempted to stop the water by pressing their jackets against the hole, but the fiendish crew (only two in number) attacked them with maddening fury, and pulled them away from their work of mercy.  By this time the boat was nearly full of water, and the poor passengers cried out for help from the shore. The people on the shore saw them sinking, and ran to launch a boat to try and save the drowning passengers when they found there was no plug in that boat either, but after some delay this was remedied; but where were the oars? There were none to be had." 

"So deliberately did these murderers set about their work that they took the plug out of the boat and also hid the oars, so as to make it impossible to render any help or assistance to the drowning passengers, and they succeeded but too well. The people on shore ran frantically in every direction in search of the missing oars, and could find none. They saw their fellow creatures perish before their eyes and almost within grasp of them, and yet they could render them no assistance, and they had the mortification of seeing the last of that boat-load of human beings sink into a watery grave before their eyes, the wicked ferrymen among the rest."

Morning Chronicle 2 September 1809

"It was an awful calamity. It cast a gloom of horror and deepest sorrow over the northern counties. Most of the bodies were recovered in the course of time, the godly Sheriff’s among the rest, after being six weeks in the water. It was said there was not a broken bit on the body when found, and that during the whole of the time it lay in the water, at night a light shone over it. The bodies of the ferrymen were also found, but it was said they were so mutilated that, but for their clothing, they could not have been identified. Be that as it may, they got their wish. They lost their lives as suicides, and it is to be feared their happiness ended by the accomplishment of their Satanic plot."

 My Comments:

The incident of the Meikle ferry that Alexander Gunn relates happened on 16 August 1809, 11 years before he was born, and by the time he related the story in 1881 it was over seventy years after the event so it is perhaps unsurprising that he has some of his facts wrong. There had been probably hundreds of retellings of the Meikle Ferry disaster in that time with every new telling adding another layer to the narrative.

There were many reports in newspapers at the time of the Meikle ferry disaster and all are clear that the people were travelling to a market in Tain not to a communion.

The story has clearly impressed the imaginations of decades of people who were both superstitious and very religious. Some myths I have uncovered:

An old crofter who was believed to be able to predict death had foretold of a time when the young would wear seaweed in their hair and the shores of the Firth would resound with the keening of the bereaved - a prediction now accepted as the Meikle Ferry disaster.

Alexander Gunn tells of the body of the godly Sheriff being unmutilated after six weeks in the water, and having a light shining over it. The bodies of the ‘wicked’ ferrymen were said to be recognisable only from their clothes.

Another similar story says the spot where the sheriff lay was uncovered in a dream.

Several reports suggest that the ferrymen were intoxicated and negligent but in no report (other than this one) is there any suggestion that the ferrymen actually pulled the plug on the ferry or vandalised the other ferry on shore. There are reports that the boats were ill-equiped and the ferrymen unconcerned about deficiencies such as missing tholepins (a wooden peg in a rowing boat to support oars), torn sails, frayed ropes, and even broken rudders.

Northern Times 8 September 1910
Source: http://www.historylinksarchive.org.uk/picture/number10059.asp

Part B: The Meikle Ferry Relief fund

Friday, August 19, 2016

Highland Bards: Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days

Article XII written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign 26 May 1881
Article XIII written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign 23 June 1881

In the above two articles Alexander Gunn continues with the discussion of Highland Bards that he began in Article XI. On reading his text and comparing it to the lengthy volume of John Mackenzie it is clear that much of the content of all the bard articles, including articles XII and XIII, is taken directly from Mackenzie.

In article XIV Gunn begins by saying he might give his readers another chapter on Highland poets but “I fear that I have trespassed rather too much on their patience already.”  I suspect he was correct and rather than do the same thing myself I am going to omit articles XII and XIII from this blog. I have scans of the originals if anyone wants them. Just ask. 

The full title of Mackenzie’s book is:


It is freely available on-line in a variety of forms including PDF.


To conclude the bard articles here is a farewell message for his readers from Mackenzie.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Highland Bards: Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days

Article XI written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign 24 March 1881 – Part C

Dorothy Brown

Dearbhail nie a Bhunthaim (in English, Dorothy Brown) belonged to the island of Leung, in the west of Argyle, between Oban and the Crinan Canal. She was contemporary with Ioin Lom , and, like him, hated the Campbells and loved the Stuarts. Long after her death, one Colin Campbell came and trampled upon her grave, and called down upon her memory the curse of heaven. This was seen by one Duncan McLellan, who pulled Campbell away, and, fetching some whisky, drank “deach slainte” to the injured ghost of the departed poetess.

Kilchatton graveyard, Luing

Killchatton - ruins of a medieval church

Silis or Cicily McDonald

Silis or Cicily McDonald, daughter of McDonald, a member of that part of the clan in Keppoch, flourished in the time of Charles II and on to George I. She married one of the family of Lovat; and her husband brought her to Inverness, which place did not suit her poetic genius. Her happiness was terminated by her husband dying in a fit of intoxication; but this did not prevent her from singing the “marbrann” or death song. It began  -

S’i so bliadhna’s faid a claoidh mi,
Gu’n cheol gu’n aighear gun fhaiolteas;
Mi mar bhat air traigh air sgaoileadh
Gun stiur, gun seol, gun ramh, gun toaman

“Tis a year and a day since I learned to pine
Nor music, nor mirth, nor joy is mine
Like a pilotless boat on a lonely shore
I drift without a rudder, or sail, or oar

Neill MacMhuorich

Neill MacMhuorich, born about the beginning of the 17th century, belonging to the clan Ronald branch of the Macdonald family, and as such had his patrimony in South Uist, under the name of Baele bhaird – “the bard’s farm.” He was the family genealogist, local historian and bard of the clan.

The Red Book of Niall MacMhuirich

The Red Book was composed by Niall MacMhuirich, a member of the MacMhuirich bardic family, who wrote the clan history in the book and was responsible for the collection of some of the manuscripts other poetical material

 Ioin Dubh MacIan MacAilein

Ioin Dubh MacIan MacAilein, Black John, son of John, the son of Allan, belonged to the Clan Ronald family. He was born about 1665 and his head quarters was Gulean, in the parish of Eigg.

Aosdon MacMhathain

Aosdon MacMhathain (the old singer MacMathie) flourished in the 17th century. He lived in Loch Ailsh, in Perthshire, was the family bard of the earls of Seaforth, and had free lands from his lordship in that capacity. He, like many Highland poets, committed nothing to paper, and only two poems remain, which have been imitated by Sit Walter Scott in his “Farewell to Mackenzie,” high chief of Kintail.

Aosdan MacIllean, or Maclean

Aosdan MacIllean, or Maclean, flourished in the same century. He was the bard of Sir Lachlan Maclean, and left only two fragments.

 MacKinnon of Strath

The next is one of the MacKinnons of Strath, in Skye. He was a good musician, as well as a poet. He died in 1734, aged 69 years.

Roderick Morrison

Roderick Morrison (an clairsair dall) the blind harper, was born in Lews in 1646. Lost his eyes through small-pox. He acted as harper in the Highlands, Ireland and Edinburgh. In Edinburgh he became acquainted with John Macleod of Harris, but after his death, Roderick retired to his own native isle, and died at a good old age. 

John Mackay or Iain Dall Mackay 

John Mackay aka Iain Dall Mackay  Piper and poet, was also blind, but his blindness was inherited from his father. He was born in Gairloch in 1666 [1656]. He was sent to the college of pipers in Skye, at the head of which was MacCroimmein. Here he soon outshone the eleven pipers there. One, Patreig Caogach, or Winking Peter, had composed a piece of music, but it was deficient in one of the parts. Mackay put in a proper one, and called it “Lasan Phadraig Chaogaich.” Caogach looked upon this as a piece of impertinence, and attempted to put an end to the poet. He, along with some other pipers, induced Mackay to take a walk with them. They brought him to a precipice 24 feet high, and gave him a push, but he fell upon his feet like a cat, and the place has since been pointed out as “Liam an doell” (the devil’s leap aka The Blind Man’s Leap). After completing his seven years apprenticeship there, he became piper to Mackenzie of Gairloch, and produced pibruchs, strathspeys, reels, jigs, laments, eulogies etc. He died at Gairloch, aged 98.

For a fascinating story about the chanter of Blind John Mackay see link below

Memorial to Iain Dall MacKay near Gairloch
The memorial stands close to a footpath through the woods south of the Abhainn Ghlas. The inscription is in English and Gaelic, and reads (in English) 'Iain Dall MacKay, 1656 - 1754, Blind Piper of Gairloch'.

Detail of memorial

Alexander McDonald of Ardnamurchan

Alexander McDonald of Ardnamurchan (Mac-Master), received a college education and was a fair classical scholar. His father who was a Presbyterian clergyman, a man of great strength, wished him to be educated in the church but Alasdair did not think himself fitted for this. He published in Gaelic vocabulary the first dictionary in Gaelic, which was printed in 1741.  While at college he married, and this destroyed his social position. As he had to do something he became a schoolmaster at Ardnamurchan and besides had the farm at Corri-Mhuilinn opposite the harbour of Tobermoray.  It does not appear that Alasdair shone as a teacher. He joined the army of the Pretender in 1745 and became a soldier. After the battle of Culloden, he and Angus his brother, also a man of great strength, escaped. He lived to a good old age.

The Highlanders talk of Macdonald “vigourous, masculine, and most accomplished” of their poets. They especially laud his large command of the language. He exhibits a love of scenic writings. He wrote a poem concerning suppression of the Highland dress, which he thought of –

He an clo dubh,
He an clo dubh
He an clo dubh
B’fearr leam am breacan

Give me the plaid, the light, the airy
Round my shoulders, under my arms
Rather than English wool the choicest,
To keep my body tight and warm.

Good is the plaid in the day or the night time
High on the Ben, or low in the glen;
No king was he, but a coward, who banned it
Fearing the look of the plaided men.

A coward was he, not a king, who did it,
Banning with statutes the garb of the brave,
But the breast that wears the plaidie,
Ne’er was a home to the heart of a slave

A Native of Badbea

(To be continued)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Ioin Lom - Highland Bards: Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days

Article XI written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign 24 March 1881 – Part B

Ioin Lom aka Iain Lom

"Ioin Lom (aka Iain Lom) took an active part in the struggles of Charles I and II. Bane John (how so called is not very clear) belonged to the Keppoch family, who dwell on the Spean behind Ben Nevis. His connection with the best blood in the country brought him into public notice, which was increased by his poetical talent, great vigour, and decision of character. The young heir of Keppoch had been sent abroad for his education; but in 1663 he was foully assassinated. Ioin Lom, standing on a hill-side, condemned the murderers and then fled to Sir Alexander McDonald, of Skye, and here he wrote a denunciation against them."

"He gave the Royal Commander information regarding the Campbells from the east. All poets are not soldiers, and neither was Ioin. When he was asked to be guided by the commander to the battle, as he had guided him to the enemy, Ioin stood first dumb for a moment, then said “Fight, of course, Sir Alexander; that’s only natural, but if I go along with them to-day and fall in battle, who will sing the victory to-morrow?” “Though art in the right, John,” said the chief, “let the shoemaker stick to his last. I will fight the battle today and you will sing the victory to-morrow.” The chief of the Campbells offered a reward for his head, because his satires had been so stinging. Ioin went to Inverary, marched to the audience hall of the Marquis, announced himself as John McDonald and claimed his reward."

Iain Lom’s memorial
Although the bard Iain Lom died in the the early 18th century, his memorial in Cille Chorille kirkyard was erected only in 1873. It was designed by John Rhind and features a tall cross and elaborate ornamentation in the Celtic style, with a brief Gaelic inscription at the foot.

This is the base of the memorial
Iain Lom's grave / Uaigh Iain Luim
John MacDonald, more usually known as Iain Lom the Gaelic bard of Keppoch, lived from around 1624 to 1710 and is buried in the churchyard at Cille Choirille.

Translation of the inscription:

Here in Dun-aingeal ("the stronghold of the angels") in Brae Lochaber
The Bard of Keppoch is sleeping heavily:
His name was Ian Lom ("bald John") MacDonald
But some would call him Ian Mann...

More Noted Poets

"Mackenzie mentions about a dozen noted poets who flourished before Alister McDonald of Ardna-murchan, who took part in the rebellion of ’45. 

The first, Archibald McDonald or Gilleasping (Bishops Boy).  

Ruadh McDombmull, surnamed “An ciaran Mabach,” was the illegitimate son of Sir Alex McDonald, sixteenth baron of Sleat, in Skye. Mabach means “stutterer” (cearan brawn). He was contemporary with Bane John, and he helped him to bring the murderers to justice. His father gave him an estate in North Uist for this and other public services."

My Comments:

A Google search will find a lot more information about Iain Lom. 

The hand witten page above, which is a page of a poem, has an informative commentary with it:
While historical documentary evidence on his life is nearly non-existent, what we do know is largely based on oral tradition. Much of the information on this site is based on 'Orain le Iain Lom Mac-Dhomhnaill. Poems by John Lom Macdonald' by Maclean Sinclair. A page of the poem.
 After being involved in the notorious events commemorated in 'Murtadh na Ceapaich', Iain Lom was forced to flee from Lochaber and seek protection under the MacKenzies of Seaforth in Kintail. Once the hostility against him had cooled down and after living a dangerous life full of political and domestic troubles, he finally returned from exile but died in extreme poverty in about 1710. He was buried in Cille Choirill in a place named 'Tom Aingeal' in the braes of Lochaber. In the early 20th century a monument was erected to commemorate him but unfortunately, it was mistakenly placed over the grave of another Lochaber bard, Dòmhnall Mac Fhionnlaigh nan Dàn.
Iain Lom's grave lies further up on the hill known but it's been largely forgotten now. The grave has been verified by the information that the renowned folklorist and ethnologist Calum Maclean collected which he later wrote about it in his book 'The Highlands' published in 1959:
'Farther on to the right is the church of St Cyril (Cille Choirill). It stands high on the slope of a hill overlooking the railway line. Here it is that lain Lom, the Bard of Keppoch, has found his last resting-place. The tradition is that he expressed a wish to be buried with his face towards his beloved Corrour.
A stone taller than all others in the graveyard has been raised in his honour. All other headstones face due east; lain Lom's headstone looks southwards to Corrour. The actual spot where his remains lie is not known now. It will never be known, for the last tradition bearer who knew for certain is long dead. My kind friend, Mr Archibald Maclnnes, caretaker of the graveyard and the most accurate authority on the history of Lochaber, does not know where lain Lom lies although he knows every other grave marked and unmarked in St Cyril's.'
Source: http://digital.nls.uk/learning/gaelic-bards/en/the-keppoch-murder/biography-of-iain-lom-macDonald/

Cille Choirille Church and Graveyard Looking west.
The memorial stone can be seen to the left of the church.