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Monday 4 February 2013

Iain Lom and the Duke of Argyll

Another tradition surrounds the aftermath of the Battle of Inverlochy, 1645, concerning Iain Lom MacDonald when he is alleged to have visited Inveraray Castle.  It seems, if the story is taken at face-value, that bards at that time still enjoyed a kind of diplomatic immunity which, perhaps, partially absolves Iain Lom from the charge of cowardice levelled at him from Sorley MacLean who wrote, commenting on the Bard’s words to Alasdair MacColla before the commencement of the battle: “I consider [it] disgusting, however expedient they might have been to the exigencies of the situation, and however wise he might have been in the long run.” To confront the very man who placed the bounty on Iain Lom’s head was not merely an act of folly, but one of bravery. John MacDonald of Highbridge relates this well-known anecdote as follows:              

Bha airigead cinn a mach aig Earra-Ghàidheal air a shon na faigheadh e an ceann aig Iain Lom, bheireadh e airigead do dhuine ’s am bith a bheireadh dhà e.  Chaidh Iain Lom a sìos a choimhead air:
“Tha mi fhìn is mo cheann a seo,” thuirst Iain Lom.
Dar a chunnaic e mar a chaidh an duine sìos ’s ann a ghabh e bàidh ris agus cha b'fhiach leis dad a dhèanamh air.
“Ach trobhad a seo, Iain,” thuirst e ris. “Bha sinn aig sealg an dé agus a faic thu a’ sealladh brèagha a tha seo.”
Thug e ma’n cuairt ann a’ seòmbar a sin e agus dé bh’ ann ach coilich dhubha:
“Am fac(hc)a tu uibhir sin de choilich dhubha riamh, Iain?” thuirst e.
“Chunnaic,” thuirst Iain. “Is mi a chunnaic.”
“C’ àite?  Tha mi a’ gabhail iongantas ma chunnaic.”
“Chunnaic aig Blàr Inbhir Lòchaidh,” thuirst e, “na bha marabh de na Caimbeulaich.”
“O! cha do sguir thu riamh,” thuirst e, “a’ cagnadh nan Caimbeulach.”
“’S e is dorra liom,” thuirst Iain Lom, “nach urrainn domh an sluigeadh.” 

And the translation goes something like this although it has to be admitted that something of Iain Lom’s word-play is lost in the process: 

The Duke of Argyll had placed a bounty so that he’d get Iain Lom’s head: hed give money to anyone who would give it to him. Iain Lom went down to visit him:
“I’m here as well as my head,” said Iain Lom.
When he saw that the man himself had come down he became friendly towards him and it wouldn’t have been worth doing any harm to him.
“Come here, Iain,” he said to him. “We were hunting yesterday and you’ll see a beautiful sight here.”
He took him around the room and what was it but black cocks.
“Have you ever seen such an amount of black cocks before now, Iain?” he asked.
“I have,” said Iain Lom. “It is I who has seen.”
“Where? I’m amazed that you have.”
“I saw them at the Battle of Inverlochy,” he said, “that amount of dead Campbells.”
“Oh, you’ll never ever stop,” he said, “chewing [critisising] the Campbells.”
“It’s just a pity,” said Iain Lom, “that I can’t swallow them.”

The latter dialogue appears in MacKenzie's Sar-Obair nam Bard Gaelach almost word for word. This may indicate that the story re-entered Lochaber tradition from this very source. Charles W. Dunn commenting upon the effect of MacKenzie’s Sar-Obair nam Bard Gaelach upon oral tradition trenchantly notes: “Though the volume was a product of the machine-culture, the Gaels turned its contents into a folk-possession.” Once again Iain Lom’s sharp tongue and audacious nerve saved him on the day when it could so easily have been otherwise. However, one may be sceptical regarding the actual veracity of the story. Would the same Iain Lom so careful to avoid battle, in order to praise the victors in 1645, have risked his own life in such a fool-hardy enterprise? And even if the great Argyll was so magnanimous would not there have been other Campbells only too willing to claim the reward that Argyll had offered in the first place? The problem with stories of this kind is that their truth or otherwise can probably never be determined with any degree of certainty.  Nevertheless their inherent value as an entertaining piece of oral narration remains.  Or, in other words, they simply make good yarns.  And even if the story’s veracity can be questioned it is still an exploit which would befit the Bard of Keppoch.
Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
SSS NB 2, pp.118–19

Inveraray Castle

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