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Wednesday 17 February 2016

Take the Hindmost: MacDonald of Keppoch and the Devil

Supernatural legends are but one genre that was (and to a certain extent still are) very popular with Gaelic storytellers, especially, it would seem, those that focus upon a well-known personality or protagonist such as a clan chief. For instance, the following tale was recorded from the recitation of John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, and was shortly afterwards transcribed by Calum Maclean on the 2nd of February 1951, which involves MacDonald of Keppoch (usually but not exclusively ascribed to Alasdair nan Cleas) as the main character:


Bha Fear na Ceapaich agus caraide dha a’ cumail comann ris an Donas, mar tha an naidheachd a’ dol. Agus ’s e ’n co-dhùnadh a bh’ ann gum faigheadh an Donas am fear mu dheireadh dhiubh a’ dol a-mach air an dorast. Bha iad a’ faotainn air adhart leis na cumhnantan a bha seo glè mhath. Agus bha am fear a bha seo [...] chaidh e a-mach agus e a’ tarrainn uisge agus cha stadadh e. Smaointich e gun robh cuideigin a’ gabhail beachd air agus choimhead e gu h-àrd. Bha Fear na Ceapaich agus a cheann a-mach air an uinneig. Dh’fhalbh am fear a bha a’ tarraing uisge agus chuir e cròcan fèidh air an fhear a bha gu h-àrd aig an uinneag is chan fhaigheadh e a cheann a-staigh. Bha iad mar sinn ann an nàthan le chèile. Thuirt am fear a bha gu h-ìosal ris an fhear eile:
“’S fheàrra dhut mise a leigeal às an seo, feuch am faigh mi caoidhte ’s a bhith a’ dèanamh m’ uisge.”
“Cha leig gus an toir thu dhìom na cròcan.”
“Is tu fhèi’ a thug orm-sa tòiseachdainn an tòiseach air an ealaidh a tha seo agus thoir orm stad. Agus bheir mise na cròcan dhìot.”
’S ann mar seo a bha. Nuair a fhuair e cuidhte ’s bhith a’ dèanadh uisge, thug e na cròcan don fhear a bha gu h-àrd. Nuair a bha iad cuidhte ’s an uair seo agus an sgoil dhubh aca cho fad is a ghabhadh i cur, bha iad a’ fàgail na sgoil a bh’ aig an Donas. Agus mar a thuirt mi riubh, ’s e na cumhnantan a bh’ ann: am fear a bhiodh air deireadh gur h-e bhiodh aig an Donas.
“Theirig thusa air thoiseach agus nì mise rudeigin deth,” thuirt Fear na Ceapaich.
Chuir e am fear eile air thoiseach. Bha latha grianach ann agus iad a’ dol a-mach agus:
“Is tusa an duine mu dheireadh,” thuirt an Donas, is e a’ dèanadh leum airson beireachd air.
“Chan e; shin agad e a’ tighinn na mo dheaghaidh.”
Is dè bha seo ach am faileas aige. Agus leum an Donas agus rug e air an fhaileas aige. Agus chan fhaca iad faileas aig Fear na Ceapaich riamh an deaghaidh sin. Theich an Donas leis.

And the translation may be given as follows:


MacDonald of Keppoch and a boon companion were keeping communion with the Devil, or so the story goes. And the outcome was that the Devil would get the last of them going out the door. They were getting on with this compact very well. One of these men […] went out to draw water [to urinate] but he was unable to stop. He thought that he noticed someone watching him and so he looked up. MacDonald of Keppoch was there with his head sticking out of the window. The man who was drawing water then put deer antlers on the man at the window and so he was unable to get his head back inside. So there they were entangled together. The man below said to the other man:
“It's better for you to get me out of this, so that I’ll get relief from urinating.”
“I’ll do no such thing until you take these antlers off.”
“It was you who started this ditty so you’d better make me stop and then I’ll take the antlers off you.”
And so it was. When he was relieved from urinating, he then took the antlers off the man above. They were both released then and as they had taken the black art as far as they possibly could they were ready to leave the Devil’s school. And, as I told you, they had this compact: the Devil would get the hindmost man.
“You go first and I will do something,” said MacDonald of Keppoch.
He sent the other man out first. It was a sunny day and as they were going out:
“You’re the hindmost man,” said the Devil as he leapt to catch hold of him.
“No, I’m not: there’s one coming behind me.”
And what was this but his shadow. The Devil leapt and caught hold of his shadow. After that MacDonald of Keppoch didn’t have a shadow. The Devil ran off with it.

The very same story has a wide distribution not only in Scotland but in Norway as well as Iceland where it is attributed to a certain Saemund Sigfusson, who, was born around 1056 and is “credited with having written a Latin History of the Kings of Norway, which has since been lost.” In Gaelic tradition it is attributed to Donald Duival [Diabhal] MacKay, the Wizard of the Reay Country. Miss Dempster presented the Sutherland tradition as follows: “Donald-Duival learned the black art in Italy. The devil sat in the professor’s chair of that school, and at the end of each term he claimed as his own the last scholar. One day as they broke up there was a regular scramble, for none wished to be last. Donald-Duival really was so; but just as Satan snatched at him, Donald Duival, pointing to his shadow, which fell behind him, cried, “Take the hindmost!” and his shadow being seized, he himself escaped. When he returned to Scotland he was never seen to have a shadow.”
Another version of this supernatural legend makes its appearance in the Rev. Somerled MacMillan’s Bygone Lochaber (1971):

Alexander (Alasdair nan Cleas), 10th of Keppoch, who was better known as “Alexander of the Tricks”, because, according to some, while studying in Italy, he became a master at playing tricks with cards. He is said to have studies the “Black Art”, of which he was reckoned to be the greatest exponent ever known in the Highlands. Tradition has it that while in Rome he studies the Black Art under Satan himself, and so proficient did he become that he ultimately outwitted his teacher. At the story goes, Satan’s reward was that at the end of the days’ teaching he carried off the last student who remained in the room. Alasdair usually managed to be bout among the foremost, but the other students being jealous of him formed a plot to block his way and keep him back. In this they proved successful, and just as he was going out last Satan caught hold of him and claimed him as his lawful fee. Alexander of the Tricks was equal to the occasion however, and said in Gaelic―“Tha fear ’nam dhéidh” (“There is another man after me”), at the same time pointing to his shadow, which the bright sunshine threw on the wall. Satan instantly let him go and grabbed at the shadow, so Alasdair escaped “that time” and at once returned to Lochaber, but no matter how bright the sun, his shadow was not to be seen as Satan had gone off with it.

As has already been hinted at this tale is identified as not only an international tale (ATU 810, The Snares of the Evil One) but also a migratory legend (ML 3000, Escape from the Black School). Such were their allure, that such legends knew no boundaries and would seem to have spread in a similar type of viral fashion as popular trends tend to do on the internet.

Campbell, John G., Gaelic Otherworld, ed. by Ronald Black (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2005) p. 157
Dempster, Miss, ‘The Folk-lore of Sutherlandshire’, The Folk-Lore Journal, vol. VI (1888), pp. 149–89
Hanford, Mark, ‘Demonic Magic in the Icelandic Wizard Legends’, Northern Studies: The Journal of the Scottish Society of Northern Studies, vol. 29 (1992), pp. 24–31
MacMillan, Somerled, Bygone Lochaber: Historical and Traditional (Glasgow: Privately printed, 1971), pp. 147–48
SSS NB 3, pp. 212–13

Shadow Man

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