Lost Horizon or Living Landscape: Place, Time and People in Gaelic Scotland by Virginia Blankenhorn

James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, set in the mountains of Tibet, created the fictional ‘Shangri-La’ – a place of the spirit, seemingly outside time, where people lived long lives in a fastness far removed from a world beset by war. For most visitors and many Scots, the Highlands of Scotland – the Gaidhealtachd – seem to suggest a similar refuge. And today, the Gaidhealtachd – like Shangri-La – is for the most part a safe place. You won’t see anyone remotely like William Wallace and his blue-painted, half-naked clansmen, pursuing vengeance across the mountainsides, as portrayed in films like Braveheart.

This might actually be a relief.

Virginia Blankenhorn
Virginia Blankenhorn

Neither, however, will you see people working the land as they did for centuries. You won’t see crofters spreading seaweed on their land to fertilize it before planting a crop of potatoes. You won’t witness their wives and daughters singing at the waulking-board, hand-fulling the homemade tweed cloth, to thicken and strengthen it before making it into stout, weatherproof clothing for people who worked outdoors in all weathers. You won’t be able to share, as I did as recently as the 1970s, the self-sufficient lives of people who milked their own cows, made their own butter, kept chickens for the eggs and for the pot, slaughtered a wether twice a year for the deep-freeze, cut and saved their own peat for fuel, and sheared over 200 sheep the hard way, by hand.
With the old lands of the Gaidhealtachd for the most part empty, and the former habitations of the Gaels in ruins, the Highlands of Scotland have become a blank canvas, a playground for the imagination of visitors and native Scots alike. For today’s Gaels, as for the rest of us, the Gaidhealtachd represents a ‘lost horizon’ – a place redolent of indistinct memory, of ineffable mystery, a place which we feel we should know, but which we cannot know because the people who lived there, who could tell us about it all, have gone away – and all their descendants have gone away, too. Imagine Africa, but without any Africans.

For that matter, imagine your grandparents’ home, but without your grandparents, or any of their neighbours, or their neighbours’ descendants, or any people at all.


Virginia Blankenhorn Scottish Tourism

Scottish Tourism

Today, tourists come to the Highlands of Scotland for a variety of reasons: to play golf and experience extreme water-sports; to climb mountains (or ski down them); to look for their ancestral roots, and find out what tartan they might be able to lay claim to; to hear Scottish music and see authentic highland dancing; or to see where their favourite television program or movie was made (think not just Braveheart, but Outlander, Rob Roy, Local Hero, and that scene in Harry Potter with the steam locomotive travelling over the Glenfinnan Viaduct). Many people hope to catch a glimpse Scotland’s iconic wildlife – red squirrels, golden eagles, ospreys, otters, puffins – while others come to hunt for deer, shoot grouse, or fish for salmon in our rivers and lakes.
(Here I should confess that my own first impressions of Scotland – and my initial desire to visit – came from reading the works of John Buchan, especially my all-time favourite John MacNab, which is set in a fictional corner of Wester Ross and features a series of memorable characters, including some Gaelic- speakers. The plot involves game-poaching by people who knew better, and is full of daring exploits aswell as a good deal of information about the arts of fly-fishing and deer-stalking. Unfortunately I am still waiting for some grandee to invite me to his hunting-lodge so I can put all this useful knowledge to the test.)
The Gaidhealtachd has always, I am assured, been full of sportsmen – including those who don’t necessarily throw their catch back. Hugh MacEachan, a native Gaelic-speaker from Ardnamurchan told an anecdote about how a so-called ‘fool’ outwitted the local gamekeeper. I’ve translated the tale for you; if you want to hear the original in Gaelic, go to www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/70992/1. Here’s the story:

In most villages, there’s someone whom most people regard as being a bit simple-minded. But in this particular glen, the local ‘fool’ wasn’t nearly as foolish as some people thought. This day he went out with the intention of poaching some trout. The local gamekeeper, however, was quite certain that the man was a half-wit, and wasn’t too worried when he saw him fishing in the local rivers. Anyway, this day the gamekeeper went off and encountered the ‘fool’ – and when the ‘fool’ saw the gamekeeper coming, he baited a safety-pin with a potato and flung his line into the water. The gamekeeper asked him, ‘What are you doing?’

‘Fishing,’ the man replied.
‘Do you expect to catch a fish with that thing you have there?’
‘Well, I don’t know,’ he said, ‘but I’ll give it a try anyway.’
The gamekeeper went off, leaving him at the riverside. When evening came, didn’t he see the ‘fool’ going home with a full basket of fish. So he went up to him again and said to him, ‘Did you catch all those fish with the potato and the safety-pin?’
‘O not at all,’ said the Fool to him, ‘You’re the only one I caught with the potato.’


The Authentic ‘Scottish Experience’

The tour operators tell us that most people come here for a ‘Scottish experience’. Tour companies promise to deliver landscapes that are ‘awe-inspiring’, ‘romantic’ and ‘remote’, full of ‘archaeological wonders and prehistoric history’. They tell us they can provide the definitive ‘Scottish castle experience’, take us to ‘magical Ullapool’ (a fishing village on the northwest coast), help us ‘escape to the Western Isles’, or guide us on a tour of Scottish distilleries (and drive us home afterwards).
Indeed, whisky-making is another of those time-honoured occupations, and many of its practitioners have polished skills when it comes to outwitting the exciseman – the ‘gauger’. Donald Sinclair of Tiree tells how a maker of illicit whisky got the exciseman to buy him a new still (www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/60254/1):

This man, he had a small pot of his own, you know; and the pot was leaking. And here it comes this day an exciseman; and he would pay any man that would show him where a stilling-pot was. And this man says to him, ‘Well, I could show it to you, but I’m afraid. I don’t like to do it.’

‘Well,’ he says, ‘you show me the pot, and I’ll smash the pot, and I won’t ask who the pot belongs to.’
‘So,’ he says, ‘I went with him and I showed him my own pot – she was leaking. And he told me to smash the pot, and so I did. And he gave me five pound for my work. That got me a new pot, and a few pounds in my pocket! ’
That’s the way he deceived [the exciseman]; he was none the wiser!


‘Massacres, mountains and monsters’

The most popular tours inevitably take in ‘Eerie Glencoe, the Weeping Glen’. Indeed, one of the tour outfits includes Glencoe in a package labelled ‘Massacres, mountains and monsters’; and there is no doubt that the events of February 1692 – the Massacre of Glencoe – are notorious. Thirty-eight members of the Macdonalds (MacIains) of Glencoe were murdered in their houses; and an equal number of others, mostly women and children, died of exposure when their houses were torched.
The orders were carried out by soldiers under the command of Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, whose troops had been billeted upon the MacIains for a fortnight or so before the event. Mort Ghlinne Comhainn has become a byword not just for its brutality but especially for its betrayal of the Gaelic code of hospitality – a code that would have been held sacred not just by the hosts but equally by Campbell’s soldiers – many of whom were themselves Gaels – who had spent many nights enjoying the hospitality and presumably the company of the people they were then ordered to murder. Indeed, there is evidence that some of these soldiers found their orders too onerous to bear. A number of anecdotes illustrate just how awful they felt.
The first centres around a stone known as ‘Henderson’s Stone’ (Clach Eanruig in Gaelic) that can be seen to this day at the site of the massacre. One soldier – his name may have been Henry, or Henderson, we’re not certain – upon receiving the orders that the killing was to begin, took one of his hosts outside, and put his hand on a big stone that protruded from the earth. He addressed the stone, saying: ‘A chloich a tha seo, tha thusa air a bhith a’ seo o thdisich tim, ach nan robh mise nadaite cha bhithinn-se a’ seo a- nochd. ’ (‘You have been here since the beginning of time; but if I were in your place I wouldn’t be here tonight.’) The story goes that this veiled warning enabled the host and his family to leave the house before the bloodshed began.
Another anecdote tells how, on the night of the massacre, one of Campbell of Glenlyon’s officers and a few men – perhaps half a platoon – were going from house to house, carrying out their orders to kill all within. As they passed over a stone bridge in the upper part of the glen, they heard a cry. ‘Somebody’s down there,’ said the officer. Addressing one of his men, he said ‘Theirig thusa sios a’ sin, agus ma tha duine sam bith a’falach a’ sin, marbh e. ’ (‘You go down there, and if anybody’s hiding there, kill them.’) The young soldier went down the bank, and below the bridge he found a young woman with a child – it was the child who had cried out. She had her hands over the child’s mouth, to try to keep it quiet. He said to her: ‘Tha ordugh agam a h-uile duine a tha sa ghleann a mharbhadh. ’ (‘I have orders to kill every person in the glen.’) She replied: ‘Marbh mise, ma tha, ach sabhail an gille beagagam. ’ (‘Kill me, then, but spare my little boy.’) At that moment he spotted a terrier at her feet, and signalling to the woman to stay still, he killed the dog with a single blow. He returned to the road, and showed the officer the blood on his sword, as proof that he had done as he had been ordered.
Thirty years later, an elderly tramp appeared on a winter’s night at the door of an inn at the top of Glencoe. After making him welcome, the people inside asked where he was from. ‘Glenlyon’, he replied.
‘Were you ever here before?’ they asked him.
‘Not only was I here,’ the tramp said, ‘but I was one of the soldiers Campbell of Glenlyon brought with him.’
At this, two men who had been listening from a corner of the room exchanged glances, and then went out into the night. They had long knives with them.
The young man who appeared to be in charge of the place then asked the tramp: ‘Nach eil e air do chogais, a’ ruda rinn sibh an oidhche sin? ’ (‘Isn’t it on your conscience, the thing you did that night?’)
‘We had our orders,’ said the man. ‘But I was never able to do anything right after that night. Nothing I turned my hand to was any good, and I’ve been a tramp like this ever since. Now I’m getting old, and I am hoping, in spite of what we did, that my soul will find redemption.’
‘Why would it?’ asked the landlord.
‘I did one thing that gives me hope.’
‘What was that?’
So the tramp told him all that had happened that night, when his platoon heard the infant crying below the bridge, and how he had spared the life of the mother and child he had found hiding there.
When he had finished, the landlord – a young man, no more than thirty years of age – was staring at him with tears in his eyes. He threw his arms around the tramp, and said to him: ‘Is mise a’gille beaga bha sin. Fuirichidh tusa a’ seo afhad ‘s beo, ‘s bheir sinne a h-uile goireas ‘s cothrom dhutgu latha do bhais. ’ (‘I was that little boy. You’ll stay here as long as you live, and you shall have every thing you need from us until the day of your death.’)

The Loch Ness Monster

Another predictable item on the tourist itinerary is, of course, the Loch Ness Monster. There have been rumours of an unnatural-looking animal in the waters of Loch Ness for a long time. Indeed, the Gaidhealtachd was full of legends about supernatural beasts which lived in caves or in bodies of water or in lonely hilly spots, and which appeared in various guises to attack people, or at the very least to scare them to death. But the Loch Ness monster is different in that some people still think there might actually be such an animal. In Gaelic it is referred to as ‘BeistLoch Nis’ – the Beast of Loch Ness. The late Alec Campbell, who lived on Loch Ness-side, told how on a particular night an old fellow was walking from Inverness along a footpath that ran alongside the Loch, when he saw this queer-looking creature in the water. He was familiar with the stories about the ‘Beist’, so when he reached home he went to see the local school-master and described what he had seen. The schoolmaster produced a book illustrated with pictures of various animals, and the old man turned the pages. “Oh, not that one; not that one” he said, until he came to the picture of the salamander. “Siude!” he cried. “That’s the animal I saw!”
“O, ged-ta,” said the schoolmaster, “chan eil ann an salamander ach beothach beag – Oh, but the salamander is only a tiny creature!”
“A, ma-tha,” ars esan, “’s e a’ salamander mor a chunnaic mise – even so, it’s the big salamander that I saw.” And ever after that he never called the Loch Ness Monster anything but ‘A’ Salamander Mor’ .

Human Monsters

Whatever the truth about the Loch Ness Monster, it is undoubtedly true that there were monsters in the Gaidhealtachd. Human monsters. Never mind Braveheart; some people in the history of Gaelic Scotland remind me of characters in The Godfather.
One of the worst of these warlords – for that’s what they were – was Hugh Macdonald of Sleat , known in Gaelic as Uisdean Mac ‘Illeasbaig Chleirich. Clan Donald – the Macdonalds of Sleat, in Skye – were among a number of clans who seized any opportunity of expanding their territory at the expense of other families. Domhnall Gorm Macdonald of Sleat, Hugh’s uncle, coveted lands long held by the MacVicars in North Uist, and in 1581 he hatched a plan to obtain them, using his nephew Hugh as his weapon.
Having persuaded the chief of the MacVicars to leave North Uist and travel to Edinburgh on a pretext, Hugh and his men landed at Lochmaddy and made for Carinish, where Donald, MacVicar’s eldest son, was living with his family. Hugh murdered Donald, and set fire to his houses and possessions.
Next, Hugh lured Donald’s younger brothers to a banquet at Macdonald’s headquarters at Dun a’ Sticir, whose remains you can still see from the main road in North Uist today. Under the pretense of hospitality, Hugh murdered them in cold blood. Some three hundred years later this event was still recalled in song; listen to Mrs Annie Arnott of Kilmuir, Skye (www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/9811/1). Translated from Gaelic, some of the verses go as follows:

A thousand curses on you, fellow,
Heavy your blows, though light your footsteps;
My curses on your foster-mother,
For not laying on you her knee or elbow,
Before you killed all our people.
Uisdean ’ic ‘ill’ Easbaig Chleirich,
Where you lie down, may you not arise whole!
Since I have seen your wrongdoing,
Women running, cattle lowing,
The reivers parting the spoil!
Uisdean ’ic ‘ill’ Easbaig Chleirich,
Where you lie down, may you not arise whole! May the women of Sleat get news of your death, And may I myself get my double share of it.

Interestingly, this story has a sequel.
Hugh MacDonald was indeed a villain – but in the end his instinct for treachery got the better of him. As Donald Gorm Macdonald’s next of kin, Hugh coveted the chieftainship of Clan Donald. He plotted with a like-minded fellow, Iain Dubh MacLeod, of Dunvegan in Skye, who had similar ambitions for himself. If Iain Dubh would help Hugh kill Domhnall Gorm, Hugh would help Iain Dubh unseat the MacLeod chieftain. So Hugh wrote two letters: one to Donald Gorm, swearing allegiance; and another to Iain Dubh, seeking his help in killing Domnhall Gorm. The letters were sent off by couriers; but Hugh made the mistake of sending the letter meant for MacLeod to his uncle, Domhnall Gorm, in Duntuilm Castle, while the one meant for Domhnall Gorm went to his friend MacLeod in Dunvegan.
Donald Gorm responded by inviting Hugh to a banquet at Duntuilm. The feast began with a course of excessively salty meat. When Hugh had devoured the meat, Domhnall Gorm’s men seized him and threw him into a dungeon. When he called for water, a pewter jug was lowered to him – but it was empty. When the dungeon was opened some weeks later, it appeared that Hugh had gnashed the vessel to fragments with his teeth. His bones were displayed in Kilmuir churchyard for a century after his ugly death.

A Living Landscape

Some years ago, Gaelic scholar John MacInnes wrote an article for The Listener in which he said: ‘What to the casual observer may look like a stretch of desolate moorland is, to the native Gael, redolent of myths and legends, stories of clan feuds and lovers’ trysts, and accounts of natural and supernatural happenings. This is a living landscape.’

Putting it more prosaically, I think it’s fair to say that to people who live in a place and get about on foot, every tree-stump and boulder has the potential to become part of a narrative.

Virginia Blankenhorn Living Landscape

Some – like Clach Eanruig in Glencoe – are significant for historical reasons, while others are associated with mythological characters. Another stone, Clach Ossian, in Glenalmond, in Perthshire, was no doubt deposited there by some glacier thousands of years ago. It is one of a number throughout the Gaidhealtachd that has been identified as the burial-place of Ossian, the longest-surviving member of the Feinne – the band of warriors and adventurers who followed legendary giant strongman Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Other important bits of geography associated with Fionn include the Giant’s Causeway on the coast of County Antrim in Ireland, and Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa.
Another stone with mythological associations is Clach a’Bhainne – the ‘Milking Stone’. There are actually several of these ‘milking stones’ to be found throughout the Gaidhealtachd. They were the object of offerings of milk – a ladleful perhaps – from milkmaids who believed that the God of Milk – ‘Dia a’ Bhainne’ resided in the stone, and had the power to increase the yield from their cows.
Captain Dugald MacCormick tells a story about a milking-stone in Iona (www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/46103/1):

Two local women had been milking their cows at the usual place, near where the milking-stone stood. One of the women refused to leave an offering for the milk-god, ‘Dia a ’ bhainne ’, and her companion asked why. She replied: “Och, I’m not going to bother with that. I’ve seen birds drinking the milk that people leave there. I don’t believe in that stuff. There’s no ‘god’ in it, and it’s not doing the cattle any good, I’ll bet you.” Whereupon a huge voice could be heard the length of the whole island: “Woman! Your descendents will be known throughout the world as people who can’t leave well enough alone. They’ll be the people who come into your house and have to seize a poker and stir the embers.” And to this day, whenever somebody comes into a house and starts stirring the fire, people will say that they’re descended from the woman who refused to leave an offering at the milking-stone.

Virginia Blankenhorn Milking Stone

Cattle: Cornerstone of the Gaelic Economy

Cattle were a crucial part of the economy of the Gaidhealtachd. Not only were they important at the household level for dairy products, but they were also currency.
Professional cattle-drovers made a living by gathering beasts from a number of owners and taking them south to market in places like Crieff and Falkirk, after which they would return home with the money to settle up with the owners of the beasts. Donald Morrison of Mull told a story about a fellow named Donald MacGillivray – DomhnallDrdbhair (‘Donald the Drover’) – and what happened when a robber tried to steal the money he was taking home after a sale at Falkirk Tryst (www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/82411/1):

A fine man he was, and a good neighbour. He was living in the Ross of Mull, and he was a cattle-drover. He used to buy a lot of cattle in the Ross of Mull and round about the country, and he herded them over the Sound of Mull, and took them to Falkirk Tryst. And on this occasion he went to Falkirk Tryst, everything went alright with him…. He sold the cattle at Falkirk Tryst, and he was making his way home – he had another man with him, a comrade. And when they were on the way, the first night they left Falkirk, they intended to turn in to an inn that was beside the road – they knew the place very well. But when they came along the road they had to pass through a place where there were a lot of trees on both sides of the road. And during the time when they were walking there, a man came out of the wood with a gun, and he pointed it at Donald MacGillivray, and he said ‘Your money – or your life!’

Donald said, ‘I have no money! It’s other people’s money that I have got.’

He wouldn’t listen to that, and he lifted the gun and put it on full-cock. This was to shoot him. And when Donald seen this he took the purse out of his pocket of the big coat. And the purse – it was an old stocking – and he threw it on the road. And the robber bowed down to catch it, lift it; and when he was catching it, Donald came on him on the head with his stick, as hard as he could draw it, and he was knocked out. And he searched him, and took three purses out of his pockets. And he walked on, and left him there.

And he turned in to the hotel beside the road, and he was put into a room there, and before him in there were two men – one on each side of the fireplace. And one was crying; and the other had his chin on his hand. Donald asked the one that was crying, ‘Have you got any bad news, my man?’

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I was met by the robber and he was going to shoot me unless I gave up everything I had, my purse and everything. ’
And the other said, ‘The same has happened to me.’

And Donald said to them, ‘Would you know your own purse, supposing you would see it?’ And he drew out the three purses he took from the robber when he searched him, before he left him, and he threw them on the table. And one of them said, ‘That’s mine!’ and the other said, ‘That’s mine!’

But there was a third purse, in which there was £8. And nobody claimed this; and it was settled among them that the hotel-keeper was to keep his eye on everyone that came and went, and ask them was there anybody that lost money round about here. And in the event of not anybody putting in a claim for the money, Donald was to keep the purse and the £8 for his bravery.

This story illustrates how essential trust and honest-dealing were to the droving trade.
At the same time, cattle-rustling was also a common event in the Gaidhealtachd. Sometimes a mock cattle-raid or creach would be arranged for sport; but just as often raids were undertaken in earnest – with dire consequences, as in this account of a raid by some MacLeods from Assynt on a herd of cattle in MacKay country in Sutherland, told by George William Mackay of Bettyhill (www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/16610/1):

And then there used to be great raids at that time – cattle-raiding, you know. On one occasion, the MacLeods from the west, from the Assynt way, they came into this country and raided some cattle off the sheilings and the hills then. The Mackays heard of it, and they chased after them. And they got their cattle back, and killed all the MacLeods, bar one. There was one, of course, always let off back to tell the tale! That happened at a place called Tuiteam, on the road between Rosehall and Oykel Bridge…. ‘Tuiteam’ means ‘the Fall’ – of the MacLeods. That’s how I heard the place was called that name.

Indeed, the most honourable way of acquiring wealth appears to have been by stealing somebody else’s cattle or sheep. In one love song, Bothan Airigh am Braigh Raithneach, a young woman praises her lover, describing him in fond detail, praising the nobility of his appearance, telling how he provides for her. The singer is Joan MacKenzie, from Lewis (www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/88138/1):

Why would we be without treasure, and so many cattle in the Lowlands?
We’ll get cattle from the Mearns, and sheep from Caithness.
And we’ll rear them in a shieling on the brae of Rannoch,
In the bothy of love-making, sheltered by brushwood.
The cuckoo and the wood-pigeon will sing for us in the trees;
And we’ll be wakened in the morning by the bellowing of the brown stag.

What may not be immediately obvious is that the cattle and sheep that this young woman wants to nurture are to be brought from the Lowlands and from Caithness by her lover, who will raid the herds and flocks belonging to other people. All perfectly normal and acceptable to a woman in love.

Place Names

Virginia Blankenhorn place names

For many places we visit in the Gaidhealtachd, the closest we can get to their history is to be found in their names. On the west coast, some of the place-names are of Gaelic origin, such as Loch nam Madadh, ‘Lochmaddy’, the largest town in North Uist. The name means ‘the loch of the dogs’, and it’s one of many places in which the names of animals are incorporated into the name of a place. In this case, the ‘dogs’ are three large rocks protruding dangerously from Lochmaddy harbour.
Many other west highland place-names, however, are of Norse origin, and can be traced directly back to place-name elements found in Norway to this day. The names provide a clue to the history or Norse settlement, or to the way they were seen by the Norse settlers who gave them their names. The element -siadar, for example, denotes somebody’s farm or landholding, the owner’s name appearing first, thus Ungisiadar – ‘Ungi’s Farm.’

Virginia Blankenhorn Rocky Outcrop

Similarly, the term -cleit describes an even piece of land with, perhaps, a rocky outcrop; it is usually found in the names of towns, like Malacleit in North Uist, or Breascleit in Lewis. In St Kilda, by contrast, a cleit was a man-made ‘outcrop’ – a small stone structure, roofed with turf, that was used to store food.
Another Norse placename element is -ay, denoting an island – think of Grimsay, Eriskay, Flodaigh, Colonsay, Berneray, Raasay, Scalpay, Vatersay, Mingulay and many others. One of the more interesting is ‘Pabbay’. There are several islands named ‘Pabbay’, which we may translate ‘Monks Island’; and if an island is named ‘Pabbay’ you can be sure that it is a pleasant island with good soil – the sort of place that would have been chosen for a monastery, where monks living by themselves would be able to cultivate all that they would need to support life.
Some Gaelic place-names seem to suggest an otherworld association. One of these is Strontian (Srdn an t- Sithein) – literally, ‘the nose of the fairy hill’ or ‘fairy dwelling’. A sithean was a hill or mound within which the fairy folk lived. Many stories tell of people who were lured into these fairy dwellings, from whence they might eventually emerge possessing some remarkable gift – such as the ability to play extremely well on the fiddle or the bagpipes – or at least a wonderful story to tell. These fairy mounds are all over the place, and have always been significant for the people living nearby.

Virginia Blankenhorn Fairy Mounds

Here is an example. Years ago, my own encounter with Gaelic-speaking Scotland began in the Hebridean island of South Uist. A friend and I went to stay at the small youth hostel at Howmore in 1971. Immediately below the hostel lie the ruins of an important monastic site. Above the youth hostel, overlooking both the hostel and the monastic ruins, is the Church of Scotland’s parish church – one of the few protestant churches in this largely Roman Catholic island. Beyond this church, rising gently to the rear, is a sithean – a large, gentle hill, which people told me was never tilled because it would not be a good idea to disturb those who lived within it. Finally, beyond the sithean, lies the mouth of the salmon-rich Howmore River, the only river that reaches the sea on the west side of the island. The photograph on the next page shows the Church, with the sithean lying between it and the river.

Virginia Blankenhorn Otherworld

It seems clear to me that the entire history of this place is bound up in beliefs about the otherworld – ideas that formed a great part of the belief-system of the Gaidhealtachd, notwithstanding the Christian piety of the vast majority of Gaels for centuries past. It seems very likely, to me, that the combination of the river mouth – with the associated plentiful supply of food – and the sithean would have given this particular spot enormous significance from well before the coming of Christianity; and that the subsequent establishment of a monastic settlement and, eventually, of a protestant church, represents the efforts of Christian missionaries to re-code the place as ‘Christian’ and subdue its pagan associations.
The local people, however, appear to have continued their belief in otherworld apparitions until quite recently. Here is a story – again, it’s a story about poaching – this time in the Howmore river. The story was told by Morag Morrison of South Uist about an old man from Howbeg, a townland slightly upstream from Howmore, who went out fishing one night by himself on this same river (www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/36040/1):

It was apparently considered unwise for someone to go out fishing alone, but this old man, whose name was Donald Macdonald, did anyway. He had started to catch a few fish, when a big, dark man appeared on the opposite bank of the river. He didn’t say a word, but began fishing himself. Donald began to catch more fish, and more fish; and when he had a good catch of fish lying next to him on the bank, the man opposite shouted out to him, ‘Imich roinn a Dhomhnaill ‘ic Dhomhnaill! ’ (‘Go away, Donald Macdonald!’).

‘It’s early yet,’ said Donald, and he carried on fishing.
But in a wee while, the stranger shouted again, ‘Imich roinn a Dhomhnaill ‘ic Dhomhnaill! ’.
Again, Donald replied that it was still early. But he was beginning to become uneasy; he didn’t like the look of the man on the opposite bank at all.

In any case, they carried on like this until the moor-cock crowed at three o’clock in the morning; whereupon the black-looking man on the other side vanished in a ball of fire, and Donald made tracks for home and never went fishing again.

The Cailleachs

Otherworld figures are associated with many geographical features in the Gaidhealtachd. Certain mountains, for example, are reckoned to be frequented by a creature called the cailleach – usually translated ‘hag’ – a female spirit – who is found not just in Gaelic Scotland but also in Ireland, where the best-known such figure is the Cailleach Bheara – the Old Woman of Beare. In Scotland, a number of mountains are known habitations for the cailleach, including Beinn na Caillich in Skye; Beinn Bhreac, near Corrour in Inverness-shire; and Ben Cruachan in Argyll and Bute. The cailleach has been interpreted as a creation deity, also as a deity connected with weather – the word may derive from a word for ‘veil’ which might suggest the sort of mist that often shrouds the mountains – and particularly with the winter months. In a song recorded from Donald Sinclair in Tiree, Cailleach Bheinn a’Bhric – the Cailleach of Beinn Bhreac – is a goddess responsible for the welfare of the deer. According to the legend, there is a well at the top of the mountain where the deer were encouraged to drink (www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/61456/1):

Cailleach Bheinn a ’ Bhric, ho-ro

Great cailleach of the high spring well.

“I would not allow my herd of deer

To feed on shellfish from the strand.

“They prefer the green watercress

That grows beside the high spring well. ”


Virginia Blankenhorn Gàidhealtachd

The Gaidhealtachd Today

Today’s visitors to the Gaidhealtachd, if they go to the right places, may catch a glimpse of how some Gaels lived in the north of Scotland as recently as thirty or forty years ago. This photo was taken recently on the main street of a restored village of ‘blackhouses’ – traditional thatched houses – in Gearannan in the Isle of Lewis.
More often, however, visitors will see ruins – the crumbling walls of small croft-houses, their thatched roofs gone, their hearths cold, their fields abandoned to the wild creatures. Gaelic-speaking people no longer inhabit many of the places that we know of from their stories, songs and poems – and it’s an unhappy fact that many of them left, not of their own accord, but because they were driven out.
The Gaelic poet Somhairle MacLean was a native of Raasay, where the landowner George Rainy, who acquired Raasay from the last of its MacLeod chieftains in the mid-19th century, ‘cleared’ several villages of the people who had lived there for centuries. Some of them were removed to the inhospitable island of Rona to the north of Raasay, but many of them were put on ships and sent to Australia. One of the villages hollowed-out in this manner was Hallaig, on the east side of Raasay. Hallaig was the subject of one of Sorley MacLean’s best-known poems. The first two stanzas, translated from Gaelic, go like this:

Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig.

The window is nailed and boarded

through which I saw the West

and my love is at the Burn of Hallaig,

a birch tree, and she has always been

between Inver and Milk Hollow,

here and there about Baile Chuirn:

she is a birch, a hazel,

a straight, slender young rowan.

Much of Scotland is an uninhabited landscape today – a landscape which we are actively encouraged to re-invent as we see fit – whether as a sporting paradise, or as the background to romantic events full of swash and buckle and derring-do, or as an echo-chamber for our own fantasies. We delight in the sheer emptiness of it – emptiness that we cannot imagine in our everyday lives. We treat this part of Scotland, in short, as an accessible ‘Shangri-La’.
Even so, we will do well to remember why it is empty – and the poetry of Sorley MacLean, not to mention the countless poems and songs composed by homesick Gaels transplanted to Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, help us to remember the people who, in their own turn and in their own way, took delight in the lands they called home.

Virginia Blankenhorn lands they call home

Much has changed in today’s Gaidhealtachd. Those people who remain live in the sorts of houses that everyone lives in these days. Some still farm, or fish, or keep a few sheep or cattle; a few even make their own whisky; and judging by the ever-presence of vigilant gamekeepers, some still engage in the sport of poaching. Many of them depend upon the tourist industry. They may speak Gaelic at home, but they speak English to the visitors who arrive every year with the longer days and the better weather.

And in the winter evenings, instead of gathering round the peat fire to sing songs or tell the old stories, today’s Gaels watch TV – just like the rest of us.


Text and photographs © 2016 Virginia Blankenhorn.


The author would like to thank the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, where a version of this talk was first delivered in October 2014 in honour of the late Alan Bruford, folklorist, ethnologist and Celtic scholar at the University of Edinburgh. In addition, thanks are due to the School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh, which generously facilitated access to recordings and other resources used in preparaing this overview of life in the Gaidhealtacht.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge the friendship and support of Dr John MacInnes, who devoted forty years to collecting, teaching, and writing about Gaelic culture and heritage as a senior researcher and lecturer at the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh; it was Dr MacInnes who related to me the stories about the Massacre of Glencoe which are recounted here.

Resources for further information:

  • Gaelic culture online: A significant amount of material from the School of Scottish Studies Archive, as well as from the BBC and from the National Trust for Scotland, has been made available online at www.tobarandualchais.co.uk, a fully-searchable website available since 2010.
  • Genealogical Enquiries: For information about your Scottish forebears, start your search at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/.
  • Glencoe Massacre: For a good account of the Massacre and what lay behind it, go to www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/unioncrownsparliaments/massacreofglencoe/
  • Inter-clan strife: A fuller account of the battle that followed the cattle-raid at Tuiteam in Sutherlandshire, described here by George William Mackay, is available at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle of Tuiteam Tarbhach.
  • School of Scottish Studies Archives: The originals of all of the recordings used in this talk are among the many thousands of audio, video, print, and manuscript resources held in the Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh (www.ed.ac.uk/literatures-languages-cultures/celtic-scottish-studies/archives). The Archives are open to the public, and staff are available by pre-arrangement to help visitors locate information about Gaelic Scotland – geography, history, and all aspects of popular culture including song, music-making, storytelling, anecdotes, tales of the supernatural, and local lore. Please note, however, that the Archives are unable to help with genealogical enquiries.
  • Highland Living: A number of museums in the Highlands document the homelife of families in the Gaidhealtachd. Among these are the Arnol blackhouse museum in Lewis (www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/the-blackhouse-arnol), the restored blackhouse village at Gearrannan, also in Lewis (http://www.gearrannan.com/), and the Skye Museum of Island Life (www.skyemuseum.co.uk) at Kilmuir, Isle of Skye.
  • Place Names: Place-names provide a fascinating window on Scotland’s history. A valuable overview can be found at www.gaelicplacenames.org/index.php.
  • Tourism: Tourism is important to Scotland’s economy, and there are any number of tour companies competing for your business. A good place to start is www.visitscotland.com.
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