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Wednesday 22 May 2013

Clach na h-Aidhrinn / The Mass Stone

During the winter of 1951 Calum Maclean visited Bohuntine, Glenroy, to collect material from Donald MacDonald, then a retired soldier aged around seventy. In his diary of the 30th of March 1951, Maclean gives the following description of MacDonald in Scottish Gaelic but here given in translation:

From there I began to walk out to Glenroy. It was a beautifully dry, spring afternoon with a sprinkling of snow on the high mountains. The glen was beautiful with the trees blooming on each side of the river. I walked two miles before I reached the first house. Then I went past the bridge before I reached Bohuntine. There were about five or six homesteads cheek by jowl. I walked past them a little and then I went back. I climbed up towards the first house. A woman answered the door and she appeared to be kindly. I asked where Donald MacDonald’s house was. She told me and I climbed up to that house. These kindly folk made me welcome. They had expected me for a long while. The goodman of the house was sitting by the fire. He was unable to walk for he suffered from a bad type of rheumatism. He was a grey-haired, handsome fellow. Black-haired Donald they called him. His wife, two daughters and his son were at home with him. This man has stories without a shadow of doubt. He has a good style of telling stories. He was born in England at Carlisle and he came back to Bohuntine when he was eleven years of age. He learned to speak Gaelic. He told me a good few stories and I took a note of these. I’m going to return again with the Ediphone. These kindly folk gave me food and his son Duncan accompanied me all the way to Roybridge.

The following short anecdote would appear to been recorded sometime after Maclean’s first visit and then transcribed as follows on the 20th of April 1951:

Tha clach taobh an rathaid ris an abair iad Clach na h-Aidhrinn. Tha e shuas mu choinneamh àite ris an abair iad Creithneachan ann an Gleann Ruaidh. Bha uaireigin a siod agus bha fear a dol dhachaigh ris an abradh iad Aonghas Mór. ’N uair a bha e mu choinneamh Creithneachan a bha seo, thàinig na sìdhchean a chur stad air (F235.3.). Bha leth dhiubh a’ glaodhaich:
“Cha leig sinn seachad Aonghas Mór.”
Bha leth eile air an taobh thall ag ràdha:
“Leigidh sinn seachad Aonghas Mór.”
Ach chunnaic Aonghas Mór gun robh an t-aon chunntas air gach taobh. Agus mu dheireadh thuirst e:
Tha mise fear a chòrr agus leigidh sibh seachad mi.”
Agus fhuair e seachad. Chaidh sagarst (P426.) an ùine ghoirid an deaghaidh sin agus chaidh e suas a dhèanadh Aidhrinn.
Agus rinn e Aidhrinn air a’ chlach a tha seo. Agus gus an latha an-diugh ’s e Clach na h-Aidhrinn a their iad rithe.

And the translation goes something like this:

There is a stone besides the road called Clach na h-Aidhrinn (‘The Mass Stone). It’s up opposite a place called Cranachan in Glenroy. There was once a man going home called Big Angus. When he was opposite Cranachan, the fairies stopped him (F235.3). One half of them were shouting:
“We won’t let Big Angus go by.”
The other half on the other side were saying:
“We’ll let Big Angus go by.”
But Big Angus saw that there was the same number [of fairies] on each side. And at last he said:
“I am the extra man and you’ll let me go by.”
And he got past. A short time afterwards, a priest (P246.) went there to celebrate Mass.
He celebrated Mass at this stone and to this day they call it Clach na h-Aidhrinn (‘The Mass Stone’).

A version of the above tale which would appear to be a folk etymology at the time of the suppression of the Roman Catholic faith in Brae Lochaber and elsewhere. The following is another published version of the story:

Two of the oldest residents in the neighbourhood give two versions of the association of this stone with the celebration of mass. Eighty-year old Mr. Alexander Mackintosh of Bohuntin (who as a young man had helped to transfer the stone to a safer position on the other side of the road), states that he had heard it said that only one mass was celebrated at the Cranachan Road Mass Stone and that was done to lay a ghost that had been heard in the burn. The ghost story is a tradition of a type not uncommon in the West Highlands: it tells of a certain Aonghas Mór MacDonald (a well-known local personality, born in the early years of the nineteenth century), who happened on one occasion to pass this spot on his way home to Cranachan. Passing near the stone, he heard voices saying: We won’t let Aonghas Mór pass”; and there were other voices crying:  “We will let Aonghas Mór pass.” Aonghas Mór, coming to the shrewd conclusion that the parties were equally divided and that he presumably had the casting vote, shouted: “If there are as many with me as are against me, Aonghas Mór will go past.” Thereupon he made his way past the stone with great difficulty and reached home in a state of extreme exhaustion.

Local historians Ann MacDonell and D. R. Roberts had the following to say about the Cranachan stone:

Just over three miles north of Roy Bridge Post Office, where the Cranachan Road meets the road through Glen Roy, there stands the second Mass Stone of the Lochaber district. This stone is not in its original position and it is only a fragment of a much larger boulder. The stone stood originally on the right hand side of the Cranachan Road on a steep bank, overhanging the burn. By the erosion of the burn, the stone was undermined, fell into the burn and was broken. The present large fragment of the stone was lifted out of the burn and replaced on the original site, whence it had fallen. Towards the end of last century, the burn again threatened to undermine the stone and some strong men of the neighbourhood (one of whom was Alexander Mackintosh who, at 81 years of age, still resides at Bohuntin) lifted the stone and placed it in a safer position on the other side of the Cranachan Road, where it now stands. About 1870, Donald Campbell Macpherson (1842–80), a native of nearby Bohenie, a librarian at the Advocates’ Library and a noted Gaelic scholar, carved a chalice and host on the front of this stone to perpetuate the local tradition of its use for the celebration of mass during the Penal Days. Old people in the glen can remember that the stone used to be protected by a wooden fence and, as children, they were not allowed to touch this “Clach na h-aifrinn” or play near it.

The authors end their interesting article by making the valid point that further research on the topic would increase our understanding of Roman Catholicism in the Highlands during the times in which it was undergoing a widespread and systemic attack from the establishment:

There is need for much further research into the conditions in which the practice of the Catholic Faith was maintained in the north and west of Scotland throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the history of the Catholic Church in Scotland the early seventeenth century is especially a twilight period and needs much more investigation. Some facts do stand out against the prevailing obscurity, like the great cross marked boulder, looming up against the mists on the summit of Maol Doire. The Maol Doire “Clach na h-aifrinn,” weathered by the sunshine and storms of the passing years, is surely the perfect memorial of the harsh laws and the steadfast people of those difficult centuries.
Ann MacDonell, & D. R. McRoberts, ‘The Mass Stones of Lochaber’, The Innes Review, vol. 17 (1968), pp. 71–81 
NLS MS.29795, 1r–162v
SSS MS 7, p. 654

Clach na h-Aidhrinn or Clach na h-Aifrinn, Cranachan, Glenroy


  1. For the avoidance of doubt, the photo used to illustrate this article is available for use under a Creative Commons Licence and there should be a link back to it. The original photo can be found here

  2. The stone in theimage is the Cranachan stone rather than the Meall Doire one.