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Friday 8 July 2016

An Dubh-Ghleannach: The Dark Lady of the Glen

Of all the boats, vessels or ships that sailed the high seas around the coasts of the Highlands and Islands perhaps none are quite so famous as An Dubh-Ghleannach. Not a few traditions were preserved about her and about the poet, Alasdair MacKinnon, who composed a song in praise of her. The following is an anecdote recorded by Calum Maclean on 21st of January 1951 from the recitation of John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, and transcribed shortly thereafter:


Chaidh bàta a thogail leis na Dòmhnallaich shìos ann an Gleann Aladail. Agus ’s iad a thog an tùr thar a bheil am Prionnsa Teàrlach an sin. Agus ’s e An Dubh-Ghleannach a b’ainm dhan bhàta a bha seo. Agus cò rinn òran mu dheidhinn ach Alasdair MacFhionghuin, an corpalair MacFhionghuin, a chaidh a leòn glè dhona san Èiphit, dar a bha e anns an arm. Agus cha d’fhuair e riamh seachad air an dochann a bha sin. Agus bha e a’ dol ga thìodhlacadh comh ri càch. Ach thug a chompach an aire dhà gun robh e beò agus ghiùlan e dhachaigh e. Rugadh an duine seo, MacFhionghuin shìos ann an Bun na Caime an Àrasaig. Agus chaidh a thìodhlacadh anns a’ Chreagan sa Ghearasdan ann an 1814. Agus bha am bàta a bha seo ainmeil na latha, An Dubh-Ghleannach, an t-òran:

Ach bheartaich iad gach ball neo-chearbach
Ullamh, allamh, deas gu fairge.
Tharraing i le gaoth bhon eara-dheis,
Thog i an caol is, a Rìgh, bu doirbh.

’S ann sìos mar sin a chuir e am briathran e agus Gàidhlig mhath air An Dubh-Ghleannach. Bha i aca airson bhliadhnaichean An Dubh-Ghleannach aig Cloinn Ghlinn Aladail airson bhliadhnaichean. Chreic iad i ri fear shìos ann Sròn an t-Sìthein a bha a’ gabhail an aiseadh a-nunn an sin Loch Suaineart, portair. Agus bha e ochd bliadhna fichead a’ gabhail an aisidh a bha sin. Agus bha e air a chunntas na sheòladair cho math agus a bha shìos as na h-àiteachan sin. Ach dè thachair an latha a bha seo ach seann-daoine agus gille òg ag iarraidh an aiseadh. Is dè bh’ annta ach daoine a-mach às na taighean-cusbainn a bha a’ coimhead feuch am biodh feadhainn ris a’ bhriuthas mu na bruachan. Cha robh fhios aig an duine a bha seo cò bh’ annta. Agus dh’fhaighnichd iad am faigheadh iad an t-aiseadh:
Chaidh iad a-nunn leis as a’ bhàta ach cha deach iad fada dar a thoisich i air toirt a-staigh an uisge.Thuirt an gille òg a bha seo:
“Cum tioram i, a laochain,” thuirt e. “Agus tha do mhac tuillidh is lag airson a bhith a’ coimhead as deaghaidh an aodaich.”
“Tha mi a’ dol ochd bliadhna fichead a-nunn an seo,” thuirt e.
“Cha do thill mi riamh. Ach tha an t-eagal orm gun iomair mi tilleadh an-diugh.”
“Is cunnart dhut tilleadh,” thuirt e, “ach thoir dhomhsa am bàta air no bidh sinn fodha.”
Cha robh e toileach seo a dhèanamh, is thug an gille òg bhuaithe am bàta mu dheireadh:
“Coimhead as deaghaidh an aodaich,” thuirt e, “agus oibrichidh mise an ailm.”
Dh’iarr e air pàirt den bhallaiste a chur a-mach is rinn e sin, mar a bha e ag iarraidh air. Ghabh e fhèin an t-eagal gum biodh iad caillte:
“Cuir am ballaiste mar siud is cuir mar seo e is cuir a-mach clach eile is clach eile.”
Is dar a fhuair e ceart i:
“Nì sin an gnothach,” thuirt e. “Dèan suidhe a-nis an sin agus thoir dhomhs’ a-nise am bàta ri làimhseachadh agus chì mise sàbhailte thall sibh.”
’S ann mar seo a bha.
Ghabh am balach òg a bha seo an ailm. Agus thug e nunn i. Agus cha tàinig aon deur a-staigh ’us an d’fhuair e thall. Agus chaidh e a-mach às a’ bhàta agus thuirt e ris mar seo. Chuir e tàmailt glè mhòr air.
“Tha bàta math agad nam b’aithne dhut a h-oibreachadh.”
Agus chan eil fhios aige gus an latha an-diugh cò bha sa bhalach òg ach gun robh e a’ falbh a-measg nan taighean-cusbainn. Agus chreic e i bliadhnaichean an deaghaidh dhith a bhith aige. Agus am forfhais mu dheireadh a chaidh fhaotainn air a’ bhàta sin aig cho ainmeil is gun robh i air an cunntas aig MacFhionghuin, bha bha i air a cuir air beul-fodha air bruaich agus air cladhach foipe. Agus bha i na taigh-chearc. ’S i a bha na mullach air an taigh-chearc.

And the translation may be rendered as follows:


A boat was built by the MacDonalds of Glenaladale. It was they who built the tower where Bonnie Prince Charlie is. And they named the boat An Dubh-Ghleannach [The Dark Lady of the Glen]. And who composed a song about her but Alexander MacKinnon, Corporal MacKinnon, who was severely injured in Egypt when he was serving in the army. He never fully recovered from his injuries. And they were about to bury him with the rest when a companion noticed that he still alive and he carried him home. MacKinnon was born down in Bunacaimbe in Arisaig. He was buried in the Craigs cemetery in Fort William in 1814. This boat was famous in her day and here is the song about An Dubh-Ghleannach:

But they rigged every new rope
Quikly, smartly, ready to go to sea.
She drew the southeasterly wind,
Through the narrows, oh Lord, it wasn’t easy.

That’s how the words went and An Dubh-Ghleannach contains excellent Gaelic. The MacDonalds of Glenaladale owned An Dubh-Ghleannach for many years. They sold her to a man over in Strontian who used her as a ferry in Loch Sunart; he was porter. For twenty-eight years he used her as a ferry-boat. He was reckoned to be one of the best mariners they had over there. But what happened one day was that this old man and a young lad wanted to get over in the ferry and they were from the excise who were trying to find out if there were any illegal stills along the banks [of the loch]. This man didn’t know who they were. And the asked if they could take the ferry across:
They went over in the boat but they hadn’t gone far when it started to take in water. The young lad said:
“Try to keep it dry, my little hero,” he said. “For your son is too weak to look after the sail.”
“I’ve been going across for twenty-eight years,” he replied.
“I’ve never had to return before. But I’m afraid that I’ll have to return today.”
“It’s dangerous for you to return,” he said, “but give me control of the vessel or else we’ll sink.”
He wasn’t too pleased to do this but eventually the young lad took control of the vessel:
“Take care of the sail,” he said, “and I’ll steer with the rudder.”
He asked that some of the ballast be thrown overboard and he did this as was requested.
He took fright that they were going to drown:
“Arrange the ballast like that and place like that with a stone and yet another stone.”
And by the time he correctly arranged it thus:
“That’ll it do,” he said. “Take a seat now and give me back control of the vessel and I’ll see you safely across.”
That’s how things turned out.
The young lad took hold of the rudder and took her across. And not another drop came in until they got her over. And when he got out of the vessel he said something that greatly embarrassed the other man.
“You’ve got a good boat if only you knew how to work her.”
And he wouldn’t have known to this very day who the young lad was other than he travelled around the custom houses. He eventually sold her many years afterwards. And the last thing known about that vessel which was so famous in her day as celebrated by MacKinnon, was that she turned upside down on a shore bank. She was turned into a hen-house and she was its roof.

Perhaps not all of the above it totally accurate as it seems that An Dubh-Ghleannach was not recovered at that time and it seems highly unlikely that she met the ignoble end of becoming the roof of a hen-house. The man who commissioned the boat was Alexander MacDonald, styled Alasdair an Òir (Alexander of the Gold). As a young man Alexander MacDonald had gone to Jamaica where he made a vast fortune and thus acquired his sobriquet. On returning to Scotland, around 1771, with his new found wealth he purchased two estates, namely Glenaladale and Glenfinnan, from a debt-ridden cousin.
His son and successor was called Alasdair Òg (Young Alexander) who financed the building of the magnificent tower, commemorating the failed ’Forty-five Jacobite Rebellion, that stands at the head of Loch Shiel. He died in Edinburgh on 4 January 1825 at the untimely age of twenty-eight.

A Gaelic bard and soldier, Corporal Alasdair MacKinnon (1770–1814), born at Bunacaimbe in Arisaig, composed a eulogy to Alexander MacDonald of Glenaladale’s Loch Shiel pleasure-boat and is a well-wrought sea poem considered to be one of the best nautical songs to have been composed in the language. Joining the army in 1794, he served in the 92nd Gordon Highlanders and also in the company raised by Captain Simon MacDonald of Morar. MacKinnon would later compose a lament for his military patron.
After being raised to the rank of corporal, MacKinnon saw action at the Battle of Egmont-op-Zee or Bergen in 1799. Two years later MacKinnon was serving in Egypt when he suffered severe wounds that were nearly fatal during the Battle of Alexandria in 1801. His seemingly lifeless corpse was found on the battlefield and if it were not for the intervention of his good friend, Sergeant MacLean, then being buried alive—however barely—would have been his fate.
MacKinnon was immediately conveyed to a hospital ship and recovered, though not fully, and on arrival back in Britain was discharged from the army with a pension. On eventually recovering from the effects of his wounds, MacKinnon joined the Royal Veteran Battalion some time afterwards at Fort William where he died in 1814 and was buried in “The Craigs” with full military honours.
Although MacKinnon only composed very few Gaelic songs they are nonetheless remarkable for their quality. He composed at least one other great Gaelic song, namely Blàr na h-Òlaind (The Battle of Holland). It seems that battles were the very thing that stirred his poetic imagination.
John MacGillivray mentioned in the opening of An Dubh-Ghleannach was a piper as well as a fellow-poet who famously penned the still popular song Thug Mi ’n Oidhche Raoir san Àirigh (I Spent Yestreen at the Shieling):

Latha dhomh ’s mi an cois na tràghad
Chuala mi caismeachd nan Gàidheal.
Dh’aithnich mi meòir grinn a’ Bhràthaich
Air sionnsair ùr bu lùthmhor gàirich,
S thuig mi gun do ghluais an t-àrmann,
Fear thogail nan tùr uasal, stàtail.

One day as I walked by the shore
I heard the warlike music of the Gaels.
I knew the nimble fingering of MacGillivray
On a new chanter of vigorous note,
And I knew that the hero had put to sea
The builder of the noble, stately towers.

The opening musical prelude sets the scence as she is launched on her voyage but then a storm is raised against her as she makes hear way along Loch Linnhe, through the treacherous Corran Ferry and up the Sound of Mull:

Nuair ghabhadh i m fuaradh na sliasaid,
S guala n fhasgaidh chasadh dian ris,
Ghearradh i n linn’ air a fiaradh,
N aghaidh gaoithe, sìd’ is lìonaidh
Dh’èignich i Corran an dìorrais,
S leum i air iteig mar ian as.

When the windward took her sternside,
Her bow bend turned keenly,
As she cleaved apart the waves,
Against wind, weather or tide
She wrested through obstinate Corran Narrows
And jumped by as a bird on the wing.

The poet rather effecively then uses a poetical affectation that the very Gods (from the classical Pantheon) are so taken aback by the sight of such a beautiful ship under sail that they are determined to see her destroyed by the elements which they then unleash just as she was about to sail by Ardnamurchan Point:

Mhionnaich Neiptiun agus Aeòlus,
Bhon chaidh gaoth is cuan fon òrdugh,
Nach do mhaslaicheadh cho mòr iad,
Bho linn na h-Àirce a bha aig Nòah,
Gun robh an Rìgh as àirde còmhnadh,
A’ dìon ’s a’ sàbhaladh Chloinn Dòmhnaill.

Neptune and Æolus swore
As they’d control of wind and wave,
That they’d never been so scorned,
Since the time of Noah’s Arc,
As by the King of highest succour,
Protecting and saving Clan Donald.

Given the fate which she was later to meet, there is something rather prophetic when MacKinnon describes the maelstrom that surrounds the faltering ship with only her young captain—Alasdair Òg—managing to keep a cool head and being able to steer her to safety despite the best efforts of divine retribution:

Bha Neiptiun agus Aeòlus eudmhor —
Dh’iarr iad builg nan stoirm a shèideadh,
Dh’òrdaich iad gach bòrd dhith reubadh
’S na siùil a shracadh nam brèidean,
Le borb-sgread is fead na reub-ghaoith,
’Cur siaban thonn na steòil sna speuran.

Neptune and Æolus were jealous —
They ordered the storm-bellows blown,
Commanded each plank of her torn
And the sails to be ripped into shreds,
By the wild howl of whistle of the tearing wind
Sending spindrift of waves in a spout to the heavens.

It is likely that the she took shelter at Kilchoan as it would have been rather foolhardy to have attempted passing by Ardnamurchan Point. MacDonald of Glenaladale was so pleased with the poem that he gave MacKinnon a reward of £5. It is said that a neighbour of MacKinnon’s, on hearing of such a large sum, was so taken aback at such a prize that he said: “It is a bonny song, to be sure, but faith, neighbour, you have been as well paid for it!” “I tell you, sir,” replied the poet, “that every stanza of every timber in An Dubh-Ghleannach’s side is worth a five-pound note!” No doubt this witty retort silenced the other man.
Encountering a sudden squall as she rounded Kildonan point, the ship foundered off the coast of the Isle of Eigg at Bogha nam Partan very near to Sgeir an Taigh’ in 1817. She was on her way back from an autumn cattle sale in nearby Arisaig, drowning her new owner Dr Donald MacAskill of Kildonan as well as the minister of the Small Isles. All hands were lost apart from Angus Òg, the great-grandfather of Hugh MacKinnon, a famous Eigg tradition bearer, and a tailor from Arisaig who managed to escape drowning by catching hold of a cow’s tale and clinging on for dear life until they both made it safely ashore. Ever after the tailor was known as Tàillear a’ Mhairt (The Tailor of the Cow). Hugh MacKinnon, recorded in 1964, describes graphically the exact moment when the ship sank:

And, you know, the ship was coming in Pollnampartan and they were tacking and…darkness had fallen on them and she was taken aback…Here’s the mast. The sail goes from the mast like this – on the side like this. But as she came round she was taken aback and the sail went and struck the mast and turned her over. She was taken aback. And she went down.

After this tragedy, what remained of the ship was allegedly towed to Galmisdale Bay where glimpses of it have been recorded ever since when the tide is exceptionally low. A plank was taken out and revealed to be hard wood, probably oak, with square nail holes and one wooden dowel, also showing evidence of adze work. If the wreck is effectively that of An Dubh-Ghleannach, then what may have been found are the remains of a classic eighteenth-century Hebridean galley or bìrlinn.

Alasdair MacFhionghuin, Dain agus Orain le Alasdair MacFhionghuin, ed. by Alexander Maclean Sinclair (Prince Edward Island: Charlottetown, 1902).
Hugh MacKinnon, ‘An Dubh Ghleannach’, Tocher, no. 15 (Autumn, 1974), pp.  250–57;
Fionn (Henry Whyte), ‘An Dubh-Ghleannach’, The Celtic Monthly, vol. XII, no 10 (July, 1904), p. 189.
SSS NB 2, pp. 148–51

Portrait of John MacGillivray, MacDonald of Glenaladale’s Piper.
Galmisdale Bay, Isle of Eigg.