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Friday 9 August 2013

The Beast of Barrisdale I

The following is a rather lengthy supernatural anecdote taken down by Calum Maclean on  the 20th of May 1952 from the recitation of Fr Andrew MacDonell (1870–1960) about the Beast of Barrisdale:
This is the story of the Beast of Barrisdale that I got some years ago, when I was in Inverie, and I was taking the place of the priest for a time, for a week or two or a month. And I got a sick call to Inverguseran. I was riding on horseback and Alan MacMaster was walking beside me. And, of course, it was not a very swift journey, as you can understand. But Alan began to tell me of an extraordinary thing that happened away up at a smearing burn at the end of Loch Hourn. Something wild began roaring there, in that part of the world, and frightened the people, the whole of the people, I believe that lived along the north side of Loch Hourn, were in terror for many weeks and months. But the story of the smearing house was this.
The men were in at their dinner one day and then came out and began telling stories on the stone dykes round the barn. And they are as a rule, you know, when the men are gathered together at a smearing place, there are many good stories and songs, and in fact when they are gathering them in for the work they generally get one a two who are good at that, telling stories or singing songs and so forth, And they were listening to their jokes and so on, when suddenly this terrific roaring commenced.
And every man was immediately silent and there was no trying who would be first. Right they went into the barn and every man on his own seat. And now the extraordinary thing about it was this: all the dogs were more frightened than the men and got under the seats hiding for all they were worth. Well that’s one side of it.
Now I must tell you: this wild roaring, whatever it was, commenced, in the year 1845 and Macdonald – I think he was Alasdair Macdonald – told me that he was there at Arnisdale; near Arnisdale, on the north side of Loch Hourn and a number of them had got together to push a boat out to go fishing. And they had just got the boat on its keel and were ready to shove, when the wild roaring was heard. The boat was dropped and every one of the men went away into the house frightened, terribly frightened. Now that, I said, was in 1845. The thing went on, heard frequently all along the south side of Loch Hourn mostly and sometimes over to Loch Nevis but not so commonly.
Now I had service at Barrisdale one day and after service we had breakfast together quite a number of us. Among other there was MacMaster – Ronald MacMaster particularly. He was the gamekeeper at Barrisdale. And he told me his experience.
He had to go up to the moor above Barrisdale to get some blackcock or grouse or some bird of that kind to send to the people who had the shooting there, to send it down to London. He got up very early in the morning so as to be at the moor just as day was breaking. There was a little snow in the ground, about half an inch, and when he got close, got up towards the top of the moor, the level of the moor, he heard the crooning of some birds, the very birds that he was after. So he backed a little to get the shelter of a rock because he knew that there was some snow coming – what you might call a shower of snow, translating the Gaelic. And he waited there with his gun ready.
And then suddenly without any warning off the birds go with a shriek of fright. He had some few words to say then, but he sat down on the rock. He took out of his pipe and had a smoke because “My shot is lost today.” He sat there for a time. And then when daylight came after the snow was over he walked out to where the birds had been. And there he saw the tracks of the birds all round and showing on the snow. And right through the middle of the snow. He thought it was a fox that had frightened them, but it wasn’t the tracks of a fox at all. The tracks are very interesting as described by him and described by another later on, us I shall tell you.
The tracks left were about four inches each way, across each way. And there were four blunt toes towards the front and then in the centre where there would be the ball of the lost there was left a cone of snow - showing that there was no ball there. And then – most extraordinary – four inches behind that was the mark of a great claw that went in through the snow and when coming up picked up little specks of peat “Huh!” he said, “this is the wild beast – Biast Mhór Bhàrasdail. It spoilt my shot today and I’m going to give him something before I finish with him.”
So he got his gun ready, followed in for several hundred yards. The thing was going one step after the other. The hind foot mark was going into the fore foot and it looked almost as if it was something with only two legs. But then he got to a fault in the hillside. It was a rock going right away down and facing him as he come to it. It was a fault. Part of the mountain was lower, the other part higher. He said, "That rock there was at least fourteen feet high.” Well now I often say “Leave it at twelve.” And when he followed on the track there was no halt or pause or looking at it but four marks of four paws at the top of the rock cleared the leap.
“Huh! I don’t like this. I think I’ll go home.” And he put, his gun away and made straight down the hill. He was away down some hundreds of yards when a shepherd whistled to him. “Raghnaill, come here The wild beast has gone into the wood just below.” 
“Huh, tha gu leòr agam-sa ri dhèanamh ris a Bhiast Mhòr an-diugh.” [I’ve had enough to do with the Wild Beast today]
And marched home. The shepherd had been there taking sheep out of the corrie, afraid that the snow was going to come heavy and perhaps get his sheep buried. But Ronald didn’t pay any attention – went home. Now he told me the story and there was a John MacMaster there too, a gamekeeper, a nice fellow too. And Ronald said something: he thought it was something preternatural, not of this world at all because the marks of the paws were only seen on the beautiful heavenly snow that had come down. “Oh!” John MacMaster says, “No, I saw it in the peat.”
Then he described how he was one day going up a hill in the usual way of the men with his stick across his back under his arms or something, and he passed a place where the peat was bare of heather. And there was a mark of a paw and he went on and: “Huh! That’s bigger than a dog’s paw.” And came back and measured it and found the same measurements as Ronald had given in the snow. “Oh, well,” he says, “this is rather out of the ordinary.” But nothing happened.
Now on that same day after the men stopped speaking Mrs. MacMaster began talking. And she and someone else there began recounting the tale of a day on which the Wild Beast had come from the mountain top to the east and had come right down the valley past the house and away up on the other side. That was about two o' clock in the morning when her husband was away towards Mallaig for a doctor, because she was very sick upstairs and some other women with her. And they were mortally terrified. The house seemed to shake with the roaring of this animal. And then another thing. They said to me that when a girl who was working in the house, an oldish maid, she went out, and they said to me: “That girl was sixteen years in the Inverness Mental Hospital with the fright she took when this creature was heard at the village of Airor on the west coast.
The people were around. It was about mid-day. The people were about their houses and some working and women gossiping over their fences and so on. And the cows were around the different crofts and so on, when suddenly about mid-day this creature, whatever it was, began roaring on a small hill just above the houses. Then everybody was into the house terrified. And this is the extraordinary thing: all the cows gathered together and the bigger the older cows put the young cattle into the middle of a ring. And there they were with their heads out bellowing for all they were worth in mortal terror. And that girl was one of those who was terrified and, as I said, she was in the Mental Hospital in Inverness for sixteen years after.
Now it was one of the things that was very noticeable, the terror of dogs, yet the deer were not afraid.
Now I’ll tell you one part of the story that’s not first hand. What I am saying to you I heard from the people who heard the creature, but this is only second hand. Murdoch Maclennan. I am told, saw a certain creature that he was rather alarmed at. And a friend of his was there with him. They were both fox-hunters, brocairean. And the friend had a gun and said: “I’m going to fire at this creature.”
Murdoch tried to prevent him, but it was no good. The man fired and apparently missed, because the wild beast went off with the deer. He was with deer at the time and he ran away roaring for all he was worth and the deer went with him as companions.
Now another instance that is only second hand was that a man was walking along a road going towards the west along the north side of Loch Hourn, Arnisdale way. And he came almost to a point where the road was turning round and there coming up the other way was the Wild Beast. They both gazed at one another and then began to back each of them. As soon as the man got out of sight he ran for all he was worth, went to bed and was in bed for a week with the fright. Now those are the two points – that I have got – of second hand sight.
But the end of the whole thing comes like this. As I said, it began in 1845. The last time it was heard was in 1903, when John MacMaster and John MacGillvary were away up on a mountain towards the east end of Loch Hourn. I can’t now remember the name of the mountain. I knew it some time ago. And they were well up-over – two thousand feet. And below them there was a mountain barn and green pasturage beside the loch, this little loch. And in that there were a number of deer feeding. They were sufficiently far away to have their spy-glasses out. And they were looking at the deer. Some of the deer were lying down, others were standing up and feeding and so on: And then a thing that happens any time at all; if a raven crosses from one mountain top to another and goes over a bunch of deer, the deer, each ear will go up and try to place the raven, find out. Now, at that time the two men were lying on the ground with their spying-glasses watching the deer.
There were about six little dogs that they had. They were sitting on the grass beside them. And this wild creature began its roaring in a corrie about three miles across the valley. That’s what they thought. And the deer didn’t notice it at all. There was not a movement in the ear of any deer. But the dogs, the dogs tried to get under the legs of the two gamekeepers, hiding with their hair standing on end, frightened out of their wits. And then after a time it stopped. And that’s the last time it was heard. Both these gamekeepers promised to send me a telegram, if it was ever again heard, and we were going out after it.
The description that was given to me by many of the people. As I said before I did not meet the two who actually saw it, but it was well known among the people what it looked like. The description given to me was this. It was about the size of a donkey but with a mane and a tail like a horse. The head was broad at the top like that of a wild boar but there was no snout. It was a heavy over-hanging jaw and terribly, terribly ugly. The Beast did not attack anyone and nobody knows what it fed on.
MacMaster and MacGillvary would not tell me a lie. That I knew. None of those would. I knew them well and as God is my witness, what I tell you is true. That was the usual thing.
Father MacDonell died in a Glasgow nursing home in 1958. Three years earlier – aged eighty-five – he had received an MBE in recognition of a lifetime’s involvement in the recruitment of emigrants to Canada. He had connections with Aird and Invergarry and his pen-name when contributing to newspapers such as The Oban Times was Creagan-an-Fhithich.
Creagan-an-Fhithich [Fr Andrew MacDonell], ‘The Wild Beast of Barrisdale’, The Oban Times (1906)
Andrew MacDonell, ‘The Beast of Barrisdale’, Tocher, vol. 56 (Summer, 2000), pp. 407–11
SSS NB 16, pp. 1397–1408
Loch Hourn / Loch Shubhairne, Knoydart / Cnòideart

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