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Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Candlesticks of Keppoch

Pricking the pomposity of overbearing English nobles or gentlemen seems to have had quite a long pedigree in Gaelic tradition. After all, what culture does not like to get one over the “old enemy”, especially if it involved winning a substantial wager. The following historical anecdote was recorded by Calum Maclean from the recitation of John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, and transcribed shortly afterwards on the 21st of January 1951:

COINNLEIREAN NA CEAPAICH

Bha Dòmhnallach na Ceapaich a-mach ann an Lunnainn a’ coimhead air fìor dhuine uasal. Agus anns an àm san robh e an sin gu dè thàinig a-mach ach coinnleirean sònraichte. Agus bha iad gu math daor anns an àm agus iad eireachdail cuideachd. Agus bha coinnlear aig gach ceann den bhòrd agus iad gam moladh. Agus thuirt e:
“Chan eil coinnlear agad-sa nad dhùthaich fhèin cho brèagha sin.”
“Tha agus fada nas fheàrr na sin na coinnleirean.”
“Tha mi a’ gabhail iongantas,” thuirt e. “Chan eil fad on a thàinig na coinnleirean seo a-mach idir,” thuirt e.
“Ma-tà, beataidh iad iad,” thuirt e, “an fheadhainn a th’ agam-sa, na coinnleirean sin.”
Chaidh geall mòr a chur air – ceud not. Chaidh an geall a chur. Cha robh fhios aig Fear na Ceapaich, cha robh e airson a ligeil fhaicinn gun robh e idir cho fada air ais, ged a thuirt e siud. Ach chaidh e a dh’ionnsaigh caraide an dèidh dhà tighinn dachaigh. Agus bha an duine uasal a bh’ ann an Sasann a’ dol a thighinn a choimhead air an ceann sia seachdain:
“O! tha mi an deaghaidh,” thuirt e, “mearachd glè mhòr a dhèanadh,” thuirt e, Fear na Ceapaich.
“A bheil?” thuirt e an coimhearsnach aige ris. “Dè tha sin?”
Dh’innis e mar a bha mu dheidhinn nan coinnleirean:
“Agus chuir mi an geall ceud not,” thuirt e, “gun robh coinnleirean na b’ fheàrr agam. Agus sin nach eil agam.”
“O! ge-tà, tha. Innsidh mise dhut dè nì sinn,” thuirt e.
“Dè nì mi?” thuirt e.
“Cuiridh sibh dìreach an dà ghille is gasda ann an Loch Abar fo èididh Ghàidhealach agus fear aig gach ceann den bhòrd agus lias mhòr giuthas aige na làmh. Agus mura dèan sinn soillseachadh air bòrd,” thuirt e, “dar a bhios sibh a’ gabhail nar biadh agus ma tha coinnleirean Shasainn coltach ris na gillean a tha sin aig ceann a’ bhùird, tha mi a’ gabhail fìor-iongantas.”
’S ann mar seo a bha. Thàinig an duine-uasal. Cha robh e a’ faicinn coltas coinnleirean na nitheann. Ach dar a thàinig am biadh an àirde, thàinig an dithist a bha seo a-staigh agus sheas iad aig ceann a’ bhùird agus lias mòr de ghiuthas Lianachain aca nan làmh, agus iad a’ soillseachadh leth a’ bhaile – chan e idir an seombar san robh iad nan seasamh. Agus thuirt e:
“Dè do bharail air na coinnleirean a tha sin?” thuirt Fear na Ceapaich.
“O! chan eil leithid sin idir agam. Choisinn thu do gheall. Agus sin agad do dhuais,” thuirt e.

And the translation goes something like the following:

THE CANDLES OF KEPPOCH

MacDonald of Keppoch was out in London visiting a true gentleman. And the time that he was there special candles were taken out. They were quite expensive at that time and the looked beautiful as well. There was a candle placed at each end of the table and they were praising them. And he said:
“You don’t have candles as handsome as that in you own country.”
“Yes we do and they as far better than those candles.”
“I’m amazed,” he said. “It’s not long at all since these candles came out.”
“Well, they’ll beat them,” he said, “the onse I’ve got, than those candles.”
A large bet was wagered – one hundred pounds. The bet was made. MacDonald of Keppoch didn’t know and he didn’t wish to let them see that he was so far behind, althugh he had said what he had said. He went over to see a friend after he had come home. The nobleman in England was to going and visit him at the end of six weeks:
“Oh, I have made a huge, big mistake,” said MacDonald of Keppoch.
“Have you?” said his neighbour to him. “What’s that?”
He told him about the candles.
“I wagered a bet of one hundred pounts,” he said, “that I’ve got better candles. And that is what I don’t have.”
“Oh, but you do. I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” he said.
“What will I do,” he said.
“You’ll send the two most handsome lads in Lochaber wearing Highland dress and each one of the them at the either head of the table and each one will have a big, pine torch in his hand. And if that doesn’t light the table when you take your food and if the English candles are anything like the lads at each end of the table, I’ll be truly amazed.”
That’s how things turned out. The nobleman came and he didn’t see any sign of candles or anything else. And when the food was served, the two lads came in and they stood as each end of the table with a big torch of Lianachan pines held in their hands, and they lit up half the townstead – and not merel the room in which they were standing.
And he asked:
“What do you think of those candles?” asked MacDonald of Keppoch.
“Oh, I don’t own anything like that at all. You have won the best. And here is your prize,” he said.

Nearly a fortnight later Maclean recorded another version of the tale from Archibald MacInnes from Achluachrach, Brae Lochaber, which he transcribed on the 31st of January 1951. It is likely that this other rendition of the historical tale was prompted by John MacDonald’s previous version as it may have been mentioned in the passing. Although the following compares favourably it lacks the betting motif which perhaps takes a little away from the historical narrative:

COINNLEIREAN NA CEAPAICH

Aig aon àm fhuair Mac ’ic Raghnaill na Ceapach iomradh air Sasannach de dhuine a bha uamhraidh math dheth anns an t-saoghal, is e beairteach le òr is le airgead. Is thug e cuireadh do Mhac 'ic Raghnaill a dhol a choimhead air dhan dachaidh aige ann an Sasann. Chaidh Mac ’ic Raghnaill ann. Sheall e dha na bh’ aig dhen a h-uile nitheann bha de rìomhachd uamhraidh aige ann an coinnleirean is ann an solas aige leòr is le airgead. Thuirt e ri Mac ’ic Raghnaill gun robh fhios aige glè mhath nach b’ urrainn comas a bhith aige, is an dòigh san robh e a bhith aige-san de sholast is de rìomhachd leis na coinnleirean brèagha òir a thug e am fradharc airson gu faiceadh Mac ’íc Raghnaill iad. Ach thuirt Mac ’ic Raghnaill ris:
“Thèid thu a choimhead orm. Chì thu a h-uile nitheann a th’ agam, gach solast is gach coinnlear.”
Thairis air tìm nach robh uamhraidh fada chuir Mac ’ic Raghnaill fios air gu tighinn. Is bha fhios aige air an latha is air an oidhche is air an uair is air a’ mhionaid a thigheadh e.
Ach bha dhà dhuine dheug dhe na daoine bu sgairteile is bu choltaiche na chèile, bha iad air a faighinn aige agus air an ‘dressadh’ cho math is a ghabhadh iad le deise Ghàidhealach is le claidheamh rùisgte is le coinneal ghiubhais ann an làimh cheàrr is claidheamh rùisgte anns an làimh dheas. Nuair a thàinig an Sasannach a-staigh air an dorast, ’s ann a chaidh a chridhe na shlugan leis an t-ealladh a chunnaic e roimhe is e a’ coiseachd seachad orra. Is thuirt Mac ’ic Raghnaill ris.
“Cò is beairtiche sin na do chuid-sa, na coinnleirean òir agad-sa?”
“Is beartiche do chuid-sa.”
Cha robh an còrr aig an t-Sasannach ri ghràitinn ach a bhith gu math sàmhach.

And the translation goes something like the following:

THE CANDLES OF KEPPOCH

At one time MacDonald of Keppoch received mention of an Englishman who was very well off and possessed a great deal riches of gold and silver. And he extended an invitation to MacDonald of Keppoch to go and see at his home in England. MacDonald of Keppoch accepted and he showed him all the most beautiful things such as candles which had enough light and were made of silver. He said to MacDonald of Keppoch that he knew very well that he [MacDonald] had nothing to compare to what he had and the way in which he got light was with these beautiful gold candles which he brought to MacDonald of Keppoch to see. But MacDonald of Keppoch said to him:
“You must come and see me. You will see then what I’ve got, each light and each candle.”
Over a very short period of time MacDonald of Keppoch received word that he was coming. He know the day and the night and the very minute on which he would arrive.
And together were carried a dozen men who were impressive specimens and looked alike. They were gathered together and they were dressed as well as could be in Highland dress with a naked short and a pine candle in their left hand and the naked sword in their right hand. When the Englishman came through the door, a lump [literally his heart] appeared in his throat with such a sight he saw before him as he walked by. And MacDonald of Keppoch said
“Who is the richer than that, and you with your golden candles?”
“You are.”
The Englishman could say no more and so he kept quite quiet.

A very similar tale is also attributed to MacLeod of Dunvegan and perhaps could be said to take an even romantic turn when his hand-picked clansmen appear with pine candles in full Highland dress upon MacLeod’s table. Needless to say he won his bet. For the sake of comparison, the following version of the tale, collected in Nova Scotia, is attributed to Alasdair nan Cleas (‘Alexander of the Tricks’), chief of Keppoch:

Coinnlearan Alasdair nan Cleas

Goirid an déidh do’n Rìgh Seumas a Sia dol gu Lunnainn an 1603, agus a nis ’n a rìgh air Sasuinn is Albainn le chéile, dh’éirich aimhreit am measg nan Gàidheal. B’fheudar do Alasdair MacDhòmhnaill, Triath na Ceapaich an Loch Abar, teicheadh do’n Spàin anns a’ bhliadhna 1615.
’S e duine gaisgeil, fóghlumaite, a bh’ ann am fear na Ceapaich, agus ’s e “Alasdair nan Cleas” am farainm a bh’ aca air. Bha na leithid de eòlas aige ’s gun robh cuid a’ saoilsinn gun robh comas buidseachd aige.
Anns a’ bliadhna 1620 thug an rìgh maitheanas do Alasdair nan Cleas, is thill e air ais ás an Spàin. ’N uair a ràinig e Lunnainn rinneadh cuirm mhór dha. Ghléidheadh a’ chuirm an tigh mór, greadhnach, làn saoibhreis. Bha soithichean is truinnsearan òir air a’ bhòrd, is gach biadh a bu bhlasda.
’N uair a shuidh a’ chuideachd mu’n bhòrd thuirt fear-an-tighe ri Alasdair na Ceapaich, “Am faic thu na coinnlearan airgid a th’ agam-sa? Cha cheannaich òr iad. Chan ’eil an leithid anns an dùthaich. Tha mi cinnteach nach ’eil dad idir coltach riutha anns a’ Ghàidhealtachd.
“O thà,” arsa Fear na Ceapaich. “Tha na coinnlearan agad-sa maiseach gu dearbh, ach thig thusa do’n Cheapaich a shealltainn orm-sa, is théid mise an geall gum faic thu coinnlearan agam-sa a tha móran na’s iongantaiche na an fheadhainn agad-sa.” “Glé mhath,” ars’ an Sasunnach.
Beagan mhìosan an déidh sin ràinig an Sasunnach tigh Alasdair nan Cleas anns a’ Cheapaich, is an oidhche sin fhéin bha dinneir mhór aca.
“Càit a bheil na coinnlearan m’an robh thu a’ deanamh bòsd?” ars’ an Sasunnach. “Chì thu sin an tiota,” fhreagair Alasdair. Dh’fhosgail an dorus, thàinig pìobaire a steach, is ’n a dhéidh thàinig dà dhuine dhiag, dorus, fear an déidh fir, gach fear cho mór, eireachdail ’n a dheise Ghàidhealach, is sgolb giuthais an làimh gach fir, is gach sgolb ’n a lasair dhèarssaich.
Chuir iad cuairt air a’ bhòrd trì uairean, is an sin sheas iad ceithir thimchioll ’s an t-seòmar, dòrn-leus lasrach air a thogail gu h-àrd anns gach làimh.
“Sin agad na coinnlearan agam-sa,” arsa Fear na Ceapaich. “Chan ’eil na’s fheàrr air thalamh. ’S e Dia fhéin a tha comasach air an deanamh, agus cha cheannaich òr no airgiod iad.”
“Tha thu ceart,” ars’ an Sasunnach; “is iad as luachmhoire, agus as iongantaiche na na coinnlearan agam-sa.”
Sin agaibh matà coinnlearan Fhir na Ceapaich, fìr threuna, ghaisgeil, gach fear le solus ’n a làimh.

And the translation goes something like the following:

Alexander of the Tricks’ Candles

A short time after King James VI went to London in 1603, when he became the king of both England and Scotland, trouble arose amongst the Highlanders. Alexander MacDonald, Chief of Keppoch in Lochaber had to flee to Spain in the year 1615.
The Keppoch chief was brave and well educated and he was known as Alexander of the Tricks. He had such an amount of knowledge that some thought he possessed magic powers.
In the year 1620 the king pardoned Alexander of the Tricks and he returned from Spain. When he reached London a huge feast was held in his honour. The feast was held in a handsome-looking mansion, full of riches. Place on a table were dishes and plates of gold, with every conceivable tasty morsel.
When the company sat down around the table the host said to Alexander, Chief of Keppoch, “Do you see the silver candles I have? Gold could not by them. There’s nothing like them in the whole country. I’m sure that you’ve got nothing like them in the Highlands.
“Oh, yes we do,” replied the Keppoch chief. “Your candles are stately indeed, but if you come to Keppoch to visit me then I bet that you’ll see my candles are far more wonderful than those you have yourself.”
“Very well,” said the Englishman.
A few months afterwards, the Englishman arrived at Alexander of the Tricks’ house at Keppoch and on that very night there was a great banquet.
“Where are the candles of which you were boating?” asked the Englishman.
“You’ll see them any minute now,” replied Alexander. The door was opened and a piper came in followed by a dozen men, one after the other, and they were all tall and handsome dressed in Highland garb and they had a pine torch in each hand and each of the torches were brilliantly lit.
They circled the table three times, and then stood at each of the four corners of the hall with each of them hold up their torches in each hand.
“That’s my candles,” said the Keppoch chief. “There are no better on this earth. “God himself was able to make them and neither gold nor silver could buy them.”
“You’re quite right,” admitted the Englishman, “they’re far more valuable and wonderful than my own candles.
There you have it then: the candles in the hands of the Keppoch men, brave warriors and each of them with a light in his hand.

Yet another version of the story appeared in The Celtic Monthly:

Alasdair-nan-Cleas was considered one of the most accomplished men of his day. A great friendship is said to have existed between himself and his brother-in-law, MacFarlane of Lus. They used often to visit one another, and Keppoch House, during his time, is said to have been the scene of many a feast graced by the presence of guests from the north and south of the kingdom. In this connection there is a story told of Alasdair which was beautifully illustrated in a picture, exhibited in the Royal Academy some years ago, entitled “The Chieftain’s Candlesticks.” While on his way home from Spain he made a short stay in England, as the guest of an English baron who had been a companion of his during his college days at Rome. The visit was celebrated by a banquet given in Alasdair’s honour, at which there was a gorgeous display of silver plate. Six massive silver candlesticks, of rare workmanship, used on the occasion, became the subject of conversation. The Englishman laughingly challenged Alasdair to produce candlesticks as valuable from among the treasures of his mountain home. Keppoch’s Highland pride was roused, and he accepted the challenge, promising to forfeit three times their value if he did not produce an equal number that would far surpass them in beauty and value. Sometime after the Englishman paid a return visit to Keppoch, and he was received at the entrance of the Highland Chief's home by twelve stalwart clansmen, dressed in their picturesque native garb, and holding flaming pine torches, lighting the way to the banqueting hall. “These,” said Keppoch, “are my priceless candlesticks, and all the wealth of England could not buy them.” The English baron was fain to acknowledge his wager lost.

References:
T. D. MacDonald, ‘Lords of Lochaber: Part X’, The Celtic Monthly, vol. IV, no. 1 (Oct., 1895), pp. 51–53
Calum Iain M. MacLeòid, Sgial agus Eachdraidh (Glaschu: Gairm, 1977), pp. 51–52
SSS NB 2, pp. 111–13
SSS NB, 3, pp. 244–46

Image:
The Chieftain’s Candlesticks by John Pettie, R. A. (1839–1893)

2 comments:

  1. Fascinating, I love seeing how these old clan tales migrated, being adopted and adapted for different regions. Being a MacLeod, I had only ever heard of the Alasdair Crotach table version before. With Calum Maclean having been from the island of Raasay, I wonder if the CM Project has any tales relating to the MacLeods, especially the branch from that island?

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  2. The candlesticks add a sophisticated look to your tableware or ornamental collections. A recipient will surely be delighted after receiving silver plated candlesticks as a gift antiques candlesticks

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