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Monday 9 November 2020

Cutters and Gaugers: A Sea-Song of Whisky Smuggling

Recorded by Calum Maclean along with James Ross on 22 March 1957 from the singing of Angus Campbell, a native of Kilmory, Ardnamurchan who, by the time of putting the item on tape, was then staying in Lanarkshire, is a remarkable smuggling song full of vim and vigour with a very catchy melody and given a powerful rendition by the singer:

Mo Thruaighe Lèir Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe

Mo thruaigh lèir thu, ’ille bhuidh’,
’S ann an-diugh tha ’n dèidh ort!
Mo thruaigh lèir thu, ’ille bhuidh’.

Chuir sinn croinn sa bhàta
Dà latha mun d’fhàg sinn Èirinn.

Mo thruaigh lèir thu, ’ille bhuidh’…

Chuir sinne na croinn ùr innte
’S fhuair sinn smùid na dèidh leinn.

Bha cutteran is gàidsearan
Gar sàrachadh le chèile.

Bha fùdar is luaidhe Shasannach
’Toirt faram air a dèile.

Bha sinn sa Chuan Iar leith’,
Mun d’rinn a’ ghrian ach èirigh.

Nuair a dh’àt an fhairge
’S i ’n Earbag a bha treubhach.

Bha ’n Earbag ’s i cho dìonach
Ri botal fìon is cèir air.

Dol seachad Maol na h-Òighe
Gun dh’òl sinn air a chèile.

Dh’òl sinne slàint’ an sgiobair
Nach robh idir anns an èisdeachd.

’S dh’òl sinn buaidh don bhàta
Thug sàbhailt’ sinn à Èirinn.

Seachad Caisteal Dhubhairt leith’
Gun robh ar turas rèidh leinn.

’S bha sinne an Loch Àlainn
Mun d’rinn ach pàirt dhiubh èirigh.

And the translation may be rendered as follows:

Alas For You, Yellow-haired Lad

Alas for you, yellow-haired lad,
’Tis today that they’ll be after you!
Alas for you, yellow-haired lad.

We put masts into the boat
Two days before we sailed from Ireland.

Alas for you, yellow-haired lad…

Cutters and gaugers
Were harassing us together.

English powder and lead
Making her planks rattle.

We were in the Western Sea with her
Ere the break of day.

When the sea swelled
The Earbag [Young Roe] held strong.

The Earbag was as watertight
As a wine bottle sealed with wax

Going past the Mull of Oa
We toasted each other’s health.

We drank to the health of the skipper
Who wasn’t there to hear us.

And we drank to the health of the boat
Which carried us safely from Ireland.

Going past Castle Duart
Our course held steady.

And we arrived in Lochaline
Before most of the crew were up.

The performer, Angus Campbell (1898–1965) was born and brought up in Kilmory, Ardnamurchan, to John Campbell and Ann Cameron. His parents were married in 1891 in Kilmory. Campbell became a shipwright and later married Catherine MacLean Kennedy in St Columba’s Church, Glasgow, with issue. He predeceased his wife and he himself passed away in Glasgow in 1965.

The song refers to the lucrative trade in illicit whisky maintained between Ireland and the Scottish Highlands which was to the fore particularly during the mid-nineteenth century. The boat, so it would appear, had gone to Ireland for the express purpose of procuring some whisky and the skipper, for some reason or another, had gone ashore in search of water. During his absence the crew, observing that the gaugers were in hot pursuit in their cutter, set sail leaving the captain behind. That is the gist of the song.

Writing in The Oban Times, North Argyll, or Alastair “Sandy” Cameron (1896–1973), attributes the song’s composition to Donald Cameron, a son of Samuel Cameron known Somhairle Sgoilear, from Keil, Morvern. Samuel Cameron, who died in 1843, was a parochial schoolmaster of the parish of Morvern and features in the Gaelic dialogues of the Rev. Norman MacLeod (Caraid nan Gàidheal, 1783–1862). On entering the mercantile service as a young man, Donald eventually attained the rank of master. On retiring from his post, Donald became a storekeeper and postmaster of Strontian, and also the owner of the sailing brig Roe, mentioned in the song. The captain of the boat is referred to as Archibald Cameron (Gilleasbuig Mòr a’ Tenant), a native of Glenborrodale. North Argyll also adds that Donald Cameron later emigrated to America where he is thought to have died. Other correspondents, Alexander MacDiarmid and Donald Currie, maintain that the song was composed by another son of Samuel Cameron, namely Alexander Cameron (Alasdair a’ Mhaighstir Sgoile), who died in London in 1881, and was buried in the Churchyard of Keil, Morvern. According to local tradition, Alexander Cameron was known to have composed other songs but none of them seem to have survived.
Another version of the song was also recorded by Alan Bruford from the recitation of Colin Fletcher (1907–1996) from Torloisk, Mull, on 6 July 1967. He had learnt the song from Roderick MacNeill of Ulva who had the following additional or alternative verses:

’S thog sinn a cuid acraichean
Am Belfast an Èirinn.

Seachad Maol Chinn-tìre
Bha siaban oirr’ ag èiridh.

Cruaidh lèir gun tachradh e
Nan càillear sinn le chèile.

We hoisted our anchors
In Belfast in Ireland.

Going past the Mull of Kintyre
The sea-spray was splashing her.

A hard fate it would have been
If we had all been lost.

As mentioned in the above song summary, a number of letters appeared in The Oban Times from 1918, offering more information about the composer and the evolution of the song. Such newspaper sources are instrumental in gaining a social context for such songs as well as providing, in some instances, an authoritative account of some of those talented songmakers:

Mo Thruaigh Leir Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe


The following quaint melody I noted down from the singing of a very old Mull man. The song refers to the days of smuggling. The boat in question seems to have gone to Ireland to procure whisky, and when they arrived the captain went ashore in search of water. During his absence the crew, observing the Excise boat or cutter coming in pursuit, had to set sail and leave the captain behind. Perhaps some readers of the “Oban Times” could give particulars regarding authorship.
A. C. W.

Mo Thruaigh Leir Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe

Mo thruaigh lèir thu, ’ille bhuidhe,
’Sann an diugh tha’n deigh ort
Mo thruaigh lèir thu, ’ille bhuidhe!

Chuir sinn croinn ’sa bhàta
Dà là mu’n d’fhàg sinn Eirinn.

Chuir sinn na croinn ùr innte
’S gun d’fhuair sinn smùid na déigh leinn.

“Cutteran” a’s gàidsearan
Ga’r sàrachadh le chéile.

Fùdar ’s luaidhe Shasunnach
’Toirt farum air a déile.
Bha sinn ’s a’ Chuan-iar leatha,
Mu’n d’rinn a’ ghrian ach éirigh.

’N uair a dh’at an fhairge
’S i ’n “Earbag” a bha treubhach.

.    .    .    .    .

Seachad Maol na h-Oa
Gu’n d’ol sinn air a chéile.

Dh’òl sinn slàint’ an sgiabair
Nach robh idir anns an éisdeachd.

.    .    .    .    .

Seachad Caisteal Duairt leath’
Gu’n robh air turas réidh leinn.

Bha sinn an Loch-Alainn
Mu’n d’ rinn ach pàirt dhiubh éirigh.

A. C. W., ‘Clarsach nan Gaidheal: Mo Thruaigh Leis Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe’, The Oban Times, no. 3314 (1 Jun., 1918), p. 5

Mo Thruaidhe N’ Ille Bhuidhe

[to the editor of the “Oban Times.”]
                    June 6, 1918

Sir,—In reply to the question as to the authorship of this song, it was composed by Donald Cameron, a son of “Somhairle Sgolair,” Keil, Morven, an individual whose name is familiar to all readers of Dr. Norman Macleod’s writings.
    In early life Donald entered the mercantile service, where he attained the rank of master. After leaving the mercantile marine service, he became storekeeper and postmaster of Strontian, and also owner of the sailing brig Roe, mentioned in his song.
    It seems that he carried on an extensive trade with smugglers. The Government cutters were always on the lookout for the Roe’s appearance, but her trusty crew generally managed to elude their pursuers.
    The captain of the vessel on the occasion referred to by Miss Whyte was Archibald Cameron, “Gilleasbuig Mor a tenant,” a native of Glenborrodale. After leaving Strontian, the author emigrated to America, where he must have died.—I am, etc.,
                                NORTH ARGYLL.

Mo Thruaidhe N’ Ille Bhuidhe

[to the editor of the “Oban Times.”]
                    U.F. Manse
Morven, 11th June, 1918.

Sir,—Your esteemed correspondent, “A. C. W.” desires to know particulars of the author of the song, “Mo Thruaigh Leir thu, ’ille Bhuidhe,” the music of which was given by “A. C. W.” in a recent issue of the “Oban Times.” The author of the song was Alexander Cameron, youngest son of Samuel Cameron, for many years parochial schoolmaster of the parish of Morven. Samuel Cameron figures largely in “Caraid nan Gaidheal’s” well-known Gaelic dialogues. He died in 1843.
    Alexander Cameron was the author of one or two other songs, but these, I fear, are now lost. He died in London in 1881, and his remains are buried in the Churchyard of Keil, Morven. The song is about a boat that went to Ireland for whisky. While the captain was ashore for water, a Government cutter was seen approaching, and the men on board had to make off, leaving the captain behind. The song is of average merit, and we are glad to have the music of it by your correspondent.—I am, etc.,
                        ALEXANDER M’DIARMID

[to the editor of the “Oban Times.”]
                    Glenetive, 11th June, 1918.

Sir,—In response to my request for information regarding the authorship of the above song which appeared in “Clarsach nan Gaidheal” a few weeks ago, I have received the following interesting note from my friend, Mr Donald Currie, Glasgow:—

I learned his song when a mere boy in Lochaline, and for your information I rejoice to be able to tell you that it is the composition of Alexander Cameron, known to Morvenites as “Alasdair a’ Mhagaister [sic] Sgoil,” son of Samuel Cameron (“Somhairle Sgoileor”), Parish Schoolmaster, Session Clerk, Precentor and Sub-Postmaster. He lived at Kiel, Morven, at the same time of the first Macleods. He is referred to in “Caraid nan Gaidheal’s” works and also in the “Reminiscences of a Highland Parish” by Dr. Norman Macleod, of the Barony, father of Mr J. M. Macleod, M.P. The old schoolmaster is buried in Kiel Churchyard, and a suitably inscribed tombstone marks the spot. His son, the author of the verses in question, was inclined to be of a seafaring disposition, and the name of his vessel was the Roe. The old people, and especially my father, told me many interesting stories regarding his romantic career. I understand he composed many other verses of local connections. I tried a few years ago to collection some of them, but none of the old people alive knew them, so could not make any progress.—I am, etc.
                                    A. C. W.

The earliest version of the song to appear in print stems from Archibald Sinclair’s An t-Òranaiche (1879), pp. 97–98:


Mo thruaigh léir thu, ille bhuidhe,
’S ann an diugh tha ’n déigh ort,
Mo thruaigh léir thu, ille bhuidhe!

Chuir sinn croinn ’s a bhàta
Dà là mu ’n d’ fhàg sinn Eirinn.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Chuir sinn na croinn ùr innte,
’S gu ’n d’ fhuair sinn smùid na déigh leinn.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Cutteran a’s gàidsearan,
Ga ’r sàrachadh le chéile.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Fùdar ’s luaidhe Shasunnach
’Toirt farum air a déile.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Bha sinn ’s a’ Chuan-iar leatha,
Mu ’n d’ rinn a’ ghrian ach éirigh.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

’N uair a dh’ at an fhairge,
’S i ’n “Earbag” a bha treubhach.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

An “Earbag” ’s i cho dionach
Ri botal fion a’s céir air.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Seachad Maol na h-Oa,
Gun d’ òl sinn air a chéile.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Dh’ òl sinn slàint’ an sgiobair
Nach robh idir anns an éisdeachd.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Dh’ òl sinn buaidh do’n bhàta
Thug sàbhailt’ sinn á Eirinn.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Bha uisge ’s clacha-meallainn ann,
A’s canvas g’a reubadh.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Seachad Caisteal Duairt leath’,
Gu ’n robh ar turas réidh leinn.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Bha sinn an Loch-Alainn
Mu ’n d’ rinn ach pàirt dhiubh éirigh,
Mo thruaigh, etc.

The Rev. Alexander Stewart, or Nether Lochaber as he was better known to readers of the Inverness Courier, made the following observation about the song in a his review of Sinclair’s An t-Òranaiche:

The author...of the song on page 97, was Donald Cameron, son of the late Mr Samuel Cameron, parish schoolmaster of Morven. He was owner and skipper of a sloop called the “Roe”―the “Earbag” of the song―when smuggling had not yet entirely ceased, and when revenue cruisers or cutters, as they were termed, still found occasional employment in chasing and capturing, if they could, the light-heeled craft that, in the face of every obstacle, pursued an illicit traffic too profitable and exciting to be either voluntarily abandoned or easily suppressed by force. Cameron was the author of several other little song or “luinneags” that in our boyhood were very popular in Morven and the neighbouring districts.

Alasdair Cameron [North Argyll], ‘Mo Thruaighe ’n ille Bhuidhe’, The Oban Times, no. 3317 (15 June 1918), p. 3
Angus Campbell, ‘Mo Thruaighe Lèir Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe’, SA1957/6/B3 which is available to listen to on Tobar an Dualchais []
Colin Fletcher (Torloisk, Mull), ‘Mo Thruaigh Léir Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe’, Tocher, no. 2 (Summer 1971), pp. 67–68
Alexander M’Diarmaid, ‘Mo Thruaidhe ’n ille Bhuidhe’, The Oban Times, no. 3316 (15 June 1918), p. 5
Doiminic Mac Giolla Bhríde & Griogair Labhruidh, Guaillibh a’ Chéile (Dunach Records: DUN1001, 2010)
Gilleasbuig Mac-na-Ceàrdadh, An t-Oranaiche: Comhchruinneachadh de Orain Ghaidhealach, a’ Chuid Mhor Dhiubh a Nis air an Clo air son na Ciad Uaire (Glasgow: Archibald Sinclair, 1879), pp. 97–98
(Rev.) Alexander Stewart [Nether Lochaber], ‘Nether Lochaber Column’, The Inverness Courier, no. 3073 (5 October 1876), p. 2
A. C. Whyte, ‘Clarsach nan Gaidheal: Mo Thruaigh Leis Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe’, The Oban Times, no. 3314 (1 June 1918), p. 5

Various illustrations of cutters

Friday 27 March 2020

Wrecking and Salvaging: The Weaver of the Stack

For many years the topic of piracy (as well as the interrelated subject of smuggling) in a Scottish context has been a fruitful area of research as witnessed by such books and studies given in the bibliography below. Nevertheless, there has not been a great deal of research regarding the rather fascinating and related subject of wrecking, at least in relation to the Hebrides.
The following historical legend was taken down by Calum Maclean on 23 June 1958 from the recitation of Captain Donald Joseph MacKinnon, known as An Eòsag, a man who knew a thing or two about sailing boats. Although more renowned as a fantastic singer with a distinctive style, MacKinnon clearly knew a great deal of stories and possibly one which intrigued him more than others concerns the Weaver of the Stack.


Well, a nist, mar a chuala mise naidheachd air Creag a’ Bhreabadair, ’s ann mar seo a bha i. ’S e breabadair, ’s e fear do Chlann Nèill a bha sa Bhreabadair, agus mar a chuala mise is coltach gun robh e car…car…fuasgailte sa cheann mar a chanas sinn, air neo, cha robh e cho inbhich ri duin’ eile sa cheann, agus bha iad a’ faighinn a leithid a thrioblaid sa chaisteal aig an àm sin agus gun tuirt na còrr dha bhràthairean gum b’ fheàrr a’ chlìreadh a-mach às a’ chaisteal air fad, gun e bhith cuir nàire sam bith air MacNèill fhèin, a chionn nuair a bhiodh iad an uair ud a’ suidh aig bòrd mòr ’s uaislean à tìr mòr còmh’ riutha, bhiodh esan a’ dèanamh a leithid a ghnothaichean mun bhòrd, agus nach robh e freagairt idir ann, agus bha air fàs suas na dhuine mòr calma agus ’s esan a Dhia bh’ ann an sin calm’ tha chance – agus ’s ann a smaoinicheadh gun cuireadh, gun cuir a Chreag a’ Bhreabadair e, agus gu toirte dhà beairt ann a shin fhèin agus e bheò-shlàin’ a dhèanamh ann a shin fhèin. Well, ’s e sin a rinneadh: chuireadh sìos a Chreag a’ Bhreabadair e, agus ’s e chiad rud a rinn e, ’s taigh a thogail dha fhèin agus dhen bheairt. Fhuair e sin a dhèanamh co-dhiù, agus nuair a dh’fhàs e eòlach air na caolais, ’s ann ’iodh a dol a-null dha na h-eileanan eile, dh’Èirisgeidh, ’s bhiodh cho fad ri GilleBhrìghde. Agus aig an àm sin, bha nighean bhrèagh’ aig fear GhilleBhrìghde, no fear Bhaghasdail, ’s e fear a bh’ ann, cha ’reid mi; agus, ’s ann a thuit mo laochan na tacsa dha na trì dh’uaireannan, agus dh’fhàs is’ i fhein gu math miadhoil air, agus ’s ann ag obair air fheadh na h-oidhcheadh a bhiodh iad the chance. Bhiodh esan a’ dol ga coimhead air fheadh na h-oidhcheadh, ’s cha bhiodh fhios aig duin’ air, agus bhiodh e tilleadh air n-ais dhan chaisteal a bh’ aige. Well, a-nist, bha feadhainn eile far tìr mòr uamhasach man, bha iad uamhasach mun nighean a bha seo cuideachd – tha chance gur h-e nighean bhrèagha bh’ innte. Agus ’s ann mar a rinn mo laochan, scheme an oidhche bha seo gun goideadh e nighean a bha seo agus rinn e sin ’s thug e dhan chaisteal i. Agus cò smaointicheadh gun robh i ann a shiud, an nighean?
Ach, co-dhiù, air rèir choltais gun do rinn iad pòsadh air choreigin an sin, agus ’s ann a bha teaghlach math aca – bha ceathrar mhac aca. Agus tha chance gun robh na mic na bu chalma na ’n athair fhèin, chionn mar a chuala mise ’s mar a chunna mi sgor neo sgeilp as am biodh e glèidheadh a’ bhàta, feuma’ gur h-iad a bha calma, nuair a thogadh iad am bàt’ às an uisge, agus a chuireadh iad ann a shin i airson na h-oidhcheadh.
Well, a-nist, aig an àm a bha sin, bhiodh, bhiodh soithichean a’ tighinn a dh’ionnsaigh na h-àltracha mòradh, agus bhiodh iad ag acrachadh ann a shin, airson an seòl sruth a chuir seachad, air neo an seòl sìde chuir seachad. Agus, air fheadh na h-oidhche bhiodh mo laochan a’ falbh leis na mic, agus bhiodh iad a’ geàrradh a’ chàpl’ aice – mar tha fhios agaibh fhèin, ’s e càpla bh’ aca nuair sin ’s e ròpa, chan e seinneachan a bh’ aca nuair sin mar a th’ aca ’n-diugh idir ach ròpa.
Bha iad a’ cumail na sgothadh as an fhalaidh, bha iad ga togail beò slàn dìreach dhan fhalaidh, agus chì sibh, mar a chanas sinn an-duigh an sgeilp ann a shiud san fhalaidh fhathast aig duine sam bith ri dhol – ri faicinn. Agus, a shiorrachd, nach iad a bha làidir!
Well, an latha bha seo, bha iad a-muigh air an Oitir Mhòr, eadar iasgach ’s brith gu dè còrr a bhiodh aca, agus thill iad, a dh’ionnsaigh an àit’ aca fhèin gu a dh’ionnsaigh an stac. Agus nuair a ràinig iad an staca, nach robh criudh bàta cogaidh romp’ ann a shin, well pàirt dhan chriudh ’s e bu chòir dhomh ràdha. Agus, air choltas armachd orra. Well, cha robh armachd sam bith aig a’ bhreabadair na aig na mic, ach thuirt e ris na mic gu rachadh esan go tìr – esan a chur gu tìr co-dhiù. Agus ’s e fear – Captain MacKenzie, shuas a Loch…Loch Dubhaich ann a shin, ’s e bha ceannard Mair…air a’ bhuidhinn a bh’ air tìr. Agus air rèir choltais gun robh e as deaghaidh na, na mnathadh aig a’ bhreabadair e fhèin, uaireigin dhan t-saoghal, agus thachair iad air a chèile air an laimrig dìreach fo thaigh a’ bhreabadair. Sheas na gillean aige ann a sheo, dìreach air an laimrig, agus brith gu dè, chan urrainn mise ag ràdh, an e ’n claidheamh a bh’ aig’ a bh’ aig’ a’…criudh’ an t-soithich, neo na mosgaidean, ach cha d’fhuair iad chance a thàine riamh air an ùsaideachadh. Thàinig ise a dh’ionnsaigh a’ [blank] shuas taigh, ’s chuir i bodha ri sùil, ’s rinn i brac do Chaptein MacKenzie air an laimrig. Bha batail ullamh. Cha robh ach dh’fhalbh iad le corp – thug iad leotha a corp aig MacCoinnich, dhan bhàta ’s chaidh am breabadair ’s a chlann dhachaigh mar a b’ àbhaist.
Agus air rèir choltais, cha robh breabadair ullamh dhan obair a bh’ aige, mar a bha, mar tha fhios agaibh, robaigeadh soithichean ’s gnothaichean dhan t-seòrsa sin, cha robh e ullamh dhan obair idir ged a thachair seo, agus cha do sguir e dheth idir, agus leis an sin, bliadhna na dhà an deaghaidh sin, chuir iad bàt’ eile a-mach a dh’ionnsaigh a’ chaisteil; agus mar a b’ àbhaist, bha esan air falbh nuair a thàinig am bàta. Ach an triop-sa, bha cruidh na bu làidire roimh air an laimrig nuair a ràing e. Agus tha chance nach dèanadh an saighead aice-se mòran cuideachadh. Agus ràinig e e cheart àit’ as do ràinig a’ chiad thriop, agus bha iad roimhe. ’S mar a b’ àbhaist cha robh armachd aig an duine thruagh sa bhàt’ ann – cha robh ach breith air. ’S cheangail iad e, e fhèin ’s e ’s na mic, ’s thug iad leotha dhan bhàt’ iad, bhàta-chogaidh. Am feasgar air tighinn agus an oidhche teannadh – tharraing iad sìos gu cladach Uibhist – go tuath, ’s chaidh iad a-staigh a Loch Sgiobhart. Agus dh’acraich iad ann a shin airson na h-oidhcheadh, agus bha esan shìos, as an rùm iarrainn, e fhèin ’s na mic, air an ùrlar, air an ceangal cas as làmh. Agus chaidh am bàta gu tàmh an sin. Ach, air rèir choltais, cha robh mo laochan na thàmh. Thòisich e air ithe ròpa bh’ air, cheann eadar a chasan, agus dh’ith e an ròpa bh’ air a chasan an toiseach, ’s nuair a fhuair a chasan ma rèir, dh’ith e nuair sin an ròpa bh’ air a làmhan, agus nuair a fhuair e làmhan ma rèir, dh’fhuasgail a nuair sin na gillean aige fhein. ’S choimhead iad ma cuairt an uair sin feuch de ghabhadh deanamh, na dè ghabhadh bristeadh. Agus, dè thachair dha na gillean eile – gillean a’ bhàta ach sgealb mhòr, mhòr iarrainn, fhios agaibh, mar a chì sibh dol tarsaing na doraist, fhàgail gun a chuir air an dorast. Agus, bha, bha t-iarrann a bha seo mòr, trom uamhasach, agus thuirt e ris na gillean gu feumadh iad a bhith grad, agus aon bhuille, an dorast a chuir a-mach, air neo gun robh iad deiseil air fad. Dh’fhalbh clann m’ eudallach ’s thog iad an t-iarrann, agus ri aon bhuille, chuir iad a-mach an dorast, agus cha robh fuireach ann ach dìreach far na cliathaich, ’s shnàmh iad gu tìr. Shnàmh iad go tìr is choisich iad à Loch Sgiobart, ro Uibhist, agus ann an èirigh na grèine bha breabadair ’s a chlann air n-ais anns a’ chaisteal san stac. Ach tha, as deaghaidh sin, air rèir mar a chuala mise, sguir a’ mhèirl’ aig a’ bhreabadair, ’s bha e math gu leòr dheth, e fhèin ’s a mhic.


Well, now, I heard the story about the weaver’s stack which goes like this. He was a weaver and he was one of the MacNeils, and as I heard it he wasn’t quite right in the head as we say, or, he wasn’t quite mature and they were facing so many problems in the castle at the time and it would be best to clear the rest of the querns[?] out the castle, that he shouldn’t be able to embarrass MacNeil himself for when they were sitting around the great table with the nobles from the mainland together, he’d be doing things around the table that wasn’t at all acceptable and he grew up to be a big, strong man and by God, he was a strong man – and he then thought that he’d exile him to the weaver’s stack and that he’d be given a loom so that he could make a living for himself there. Well, that was done: he was lowered onto the weaver’s stack and the very first thing he did was to build a house for himself and his loom. He managed to do that and once he got to know the narrows around he’d travel over to the other islands such as Eriskay and he’d go far as Kilbride (South Uist). And at that time there was a bonnie lass, a daughter of the Tacksman of Kilbride or Boisdale, I believe, and my little hero fell in with her two or three times and she grew very fond of him and this happened at night whenever they got the opportunity. He’d go to see her at night-time and no-one else knew about it and then he’d return to his castle. Well, now, there were a few others from the mainland who were very fond of this lass too – it so happened she was very bonnie. And so my little hero thought up a scheme this night that he would kidnap the lass and so he did and took her to the castle. And who’d ever think that you’d be here, lass?
Apparently they were married by some method or another, and they had a big family of four sons. And it so happened that the sons were even stronger than their own father for, as I heard it, there was a gap of a shelf on which they’d tie the boat and they’d have to be very strong in order to lift the boat out of the water and to keep it there overnight. Well, now, at that time, the vessels used to make their way towards the big rocks and they would anchor there to wait for the strong currents going by or until they could wait for favourable weather. And throughout the night, my little hero left with his sons and they’d cut the cables – as you know, the cables then were made of rope as they didn’t have chains back then as they do today.
They kept the vessel in the hidden crevice[?], and so they kept themselves going just from that, and you can still see, as we say ourselves, the shelf there in the hidden crevice[?] for anyone who cares to take a look. And by Heavens, weren’t they strong! Well, this day, they were out on the Oitir Mhòr, fishing and whatever else they were up to and afterwards they were making their way home to their own place on the stack. And when they arrived at the stack, they was a crew from a warship before them, well, a part of the crew I should say. And they looked as if they were well armed. Well, neither the weaver nor his sons had any armour, but he said to them that he’d go ashore – he at least would go ashore. And there was a Captain MacKenzie from Lochduich overbuy who was in command of the crew on shore. And it appears that he had been after the weaver’s wife, at some point, and they met one another at the jetty just below the weaver’s house. And the lads stood there just at the jetty, and whatever happened I cannot say whether the crew of the vessel had swords or muskets but if they did then they never had the chance to use them. She came to towards the house and she took aim with the bow and left Captain MacKenzie for dead on the jetty. The battle was over. So they then took the corpses, including that of Captain MacKenzie and placed them in the boat and with that the weaver and his children then went home.
And apparently the weaver had not quite quit his work, such as it was, and as you know, from robbing vessels and other such things, and he had not quite finished with this sort of work although it had all happened and he never stopped and because of that, a year or two later, they sent another boat to the castle; and, as usual, he happened to be away when the boat arrived. But on this occasion, there was a far stronger crew set before him when he reached the jetty. And it so happened that an arrow from his wife wasn’t going to be of much help. And he arrived at the very place as had the first time round and they were before him. And as usual this poor man in the boat wasn’t armed – they only had to catch him. And so they tied him and his sons up and they stowed them away in the warship. It was evening and night was drawing near – they made their way northwards to the shores of Uist and they went in at Loch Skipport. And they weighed anchor for the night, and he and his sons were down below in the iron-clad brig shackled to the floor by their legs and hands. And the boat was at rest there but, apparently my little hero wasn’t himself at rest. He began to chew the rope between his legs and then he began to chew on the first rope and he got his leg free, and then he chewed through the rope on his hands and got them free, and then he let his sons free. And then they all looked around to see what could be done or what could be broken. And look what happened to the other lads – the crew but they had had left the huge iron bolt, you know, that you see going across the door, from it. And this piece of iron was very heavy, and they said to him that if they struck the door with one strike at great force then they could get out or else they’d be done for. The lads lifted up the iron and with one great strike they broke down the door and they jumped over the side of the deck and swam ashore. They got ashore and walked from Loch Skipport through Uist until at sunrise the Weaver and his sons arrived back home at the castle on the stack. But after that, as I heard, the Weaver ceased plundering and he and his sons were fairly well off.

Another good source of local historal tales and legends was, of course, The Coddie (or The Coddy), who was extensively recorded by both Calum Maclean and John Lorne Campbell. The following account is exceprted from his book entitled Tales from Barra Told by the Coddie:

The weaver of the castle

The Weaver was banished from Barra to the Stack islands. He took with him a small boat and an ancient cas chrom and other implements for cultivating the island. The first thing he did was to go across to Eriskay and get hold of a fair pony, or làir bhàn as it was called. He then started to build the castle, with stones collected from the shore at the foot of the cliff. He then started to carry the stones by every means he could use, including his back, up the cliff. And to this day you can see where be tipped the pack of stones with the white pony. It took him a long time carrying the stones and building the castle, living on fishing and fowling and what he could produce from the island. And when that failed, he went ashore and helped himself –raiding was common enough in those days.
Now it came to the end of the tether – the castle was finished and the Weaver decided to take a wife to himself. This was in the month of July, when it was the custom in those days of the crofters in South Uist to go to the hills, taking with them the various kinds of cattle, from the milking cows to the small calves. During this period most of the butter and cheese was made for the winter use. The wives and daughters who acted as dairymaids followed them to the shielings, and when the Weaver had a conference to himself where to look for a wife, he decided to go to the nearest shieling to him – which was Loch Eynort, South Uist. At sunrise, maybe before, the Weaver left the Stack Islands, and was at the shieling among a gay crowd of good-looking ladies, with their wooden buckets, getting ready to start the milking. The Weaver made a quick decision for a choice and without much debating he flung this young lady on his shoulders and made a bee-line for the boat, which carried them both safely to the castle.
We now leave the Weaver in the castle with his wife, whom he trained to be equal to himself in raiding. She used to go fishing and raiding with him. In those days it was all cable and hawsers that were used instead of chains, and the Weaver and his wife used to cut the hawsers and let the ships drift to the shore, and themselves getting the benefit of the wreckage. This was the routine until the boys [were born and] grew up one by one and helped him with the piracy, which was now getting to a dangerous point.
Now an order was passed to destroy the Weaver, or apprehend him. One day the Weaver was fishing with his three sons from the castle. The mother was at home with her youngest boy. They both could see the boat fishing. Later on in the day she saw a sailing ship off the Island of Gigha. The ship was a cutter, manned by oarsmen. At first she thought they were making for the castle and she got ready to go to the top of the cliff where there was always a cairn of stones ready for anybody attempting to climb the cliff.
Unfortunately they made for the boat that was fishing. As soon the Weaver picked up the cutter he made a bee-line for Eriskay. The Weaver and the boys pulled well and hard to make for a point land on Eriskay. If they could manage to land there he could hide safety. He did manage to land, but the cutter was there immediately. The commander landed without delay and with his sword slew the Weaver and his three sons, and ordered that the blood of the Weaver should remain on the sword to dry, as proof that was the sword with which he killed the Weaver. To this day that landing-place is called ‘The Cove of Disaster’ (Sloc na Creiche).
The news circulated from the Island that the Weaver and his three sons were killed on the Island of Eriskay by the commander of the ship. Little did the mother know of the sad event at the time, though she did see the cutter passing out. The next stage was the funeral of the Weaver and the sons. When all was completed, her father went to the castle to take his daughter home and the little grandson. That day and since, the castle has not been occupied. It stands on an island, commands a magnificent view of the Minch, Barra, South Uist and Eriskay.

The life story of the little weaver

His grandfather, with whom the boy was living, dearly loved the boy, and his activity at an early age much interested the old man. At early age of twelve he used to be wonderful in attending with his grandfather on the croft, about the sheep, cattle and horses. When he grew to the age of fourteen he often wondered why his mother used to cry every day. He became so interested that he inisisted on his mother telling him the reason why. His poor mother told him the story about the sad end of his father and three brothers. Pausing for a bit, and taking a long and deep breath, he said, ‘I am going to sea, and I shall never stop until I meet the man who killed my father and my three brothers.’ His mother at this stage broke down worse than ever.
However, the time was moving along and John was daily making up his mind to go. One day he decided to have a meeting with his mother and grandfather, and told them he was going. This was a very sad parting.
In those days there were no conveyances. John had to walk all the way from mid-Uist to Lochmaddy, over two fords, The only connection to the southern isles was a ferrybaot from Lochmaddy to Dunvegan. However, he assisted the boatman, and in return the ferryman was very kind to him and give him his food and passage charge free. The passage across to Dunvegan was quite good and, landing there, he was must interested in the number of trees he saw, whereas there were none in the land he left behind him.
John stayed with a crofter, working in the croft, and the crofter assisting him a lot as to the right road to Kyle. On his departure he charged him nothing and give him a little money of the very small amount he had himself.
John was moving across Skye. Until one day he landed in Kyle and got the ferry across to the mainland. John stayed a week in Kyle, working with an old carpenter who was once upon a time a ship’s carpenter. John MacNeil overstayed his time, listening to the carpenter’s stories. John was keen to find out from the carpenter where was Greenock, as it was at Greenock he intended to get a ship. The carpenter told John he did sail several times from Greenock,and encouraged him by saying he would have no difficulty in getting a ship from there. From the time John left Dunvegan till he arrived at Greenock he covered a full year, walking and working, just as he found convenient. However, the day he arrived at Greenock he was thrilled with the sight of the ships, with their high masts, yards, sails, et cetera. He walked straight down to the harbour and nobody even spoke to him. Having saved a few shillings, he was able to take a night’s lodging. Next day he got up early and went down to the harbour. He was not long there when the captain came on deck. Having seen John MacNeil there yesterday, he hailed in English, ‘Do you want to go to sea?’
John could not speak but very little English, and did not reply. Immediately then the captain spoke in Gaelic and John replied immediately, ‘Yes, I want to go to sea.’
‘Come on board,’ the captain replied.
The captain was a very good Gaelic speaker, and into the bargain a native of Arran. He asked John what part did he come from and he replied that his father came from the Island of Barra but that he was born on the Stack Islands. The captain then asked his name. He replied: ‘My name is John MacNeil.’ Then both MacNeils shook hands and ever since that they were the best of friends.
This voyage was to be from Scotland to Vancouver Island, round Cape Horn – quite a long voyage in the sailing-ships of those days. The ship was taken to the Tail of the Bank and the cargo was sugar. She anchored on the Tail of the Bank and the boys got ready to go aloft to bend the sail and get ready for sailing, whenever everything was ready.
John was the youngest on board. Never mind, the material was in him and he was not long picking up. The captain patted him on the shoulder when he came down on deck and told him to take care of himself. ‘One day you shall be master of a ship yourself.’
At this stage it took them a few days to get ready. When all was in order, with wind and weather favourable, the order came to stand by and heave the anchor. This was, and used to be, a great time in the old sailing ship, heaving the anchor: no definite time where or when they would hear again the order ‘Let go the anchor?’

*           *           *

As time was getting on, the captain was getting fonder of MacNeil. He used to watch him with pride and admiration – how very handsomely he would walk the plank, or in other words, walk the decks. Watching him daily he could see how handsomely and skillfully he could run up the shrouds. Before MacNeil was very long in the ship, the captain used to send him up the rigging right to the royals, where he would stand on the yard and put his hand on the the top mast and wave to them all on deck.
The whole voyage out Captain and John MacNeil became great friends, so much that latterly the captain took in hand to teach him the alphabet. Not a long period passed before John could read and write. The captain’s ambition was to teach John all the schooling he could. As for the seamanship part of it, John had it all on his finger-ends already. When the ship returned on this voyage the captain sent him to school and left him behind the next one. On the ship’s return, John sat the exam and passed straight out. He was pleased to be sailing the next voyage as second mate along with his good friend Captain MacNeil. John very much enjoyed his first job as an officer, and I could vouch with safety that nothing was left undone. A few voyages after that John sat another examination and got First Officer’s. One day the captain said: ‘Now be getting ready, John. I shall soon be retiring, and you shall be taking over full command. But I am not going to take this step until we both agree that all is in order.’ The day, alas, arrived and Captain John took over command of the ship and the faithful friends went out and sailed together for the last time. After the voyage was completed the captain and John parted. The good captain went on his knees and kissed John’s hands and wished every good wish in his new career – that is how two most dutiful friends and good sailors parted.

*           *           *

Now that is the little Weaver in full command of a full-rigged ship after completing his time. Captain MacNeil was now sailing in me same company for several years but did not seem to meet or bear any news of the man who killed his father and three brothers. Coming home on this voyage he wondered a lot if ever he was going to meet him.
On arriving in London he went to a club. There he found a lot of old veterans telling stories and drinking whisky. It suddenly grasped on him that among this crowd he might meet the man who he was rally looking for – the man who so brutally killed his father and three brothers.
Suddenly one veteran stood up and told the story of how be destroyed a very destructive raider and his three sons on one of the western islands off the west coast of Scotland. One could imagine the thrill Captain John got when the sad story was renewed to him.
The veteran got a lot of cheering. Captain MacNeil went over to him and specially thanked him for his great bravery. In turn the old man cordially thanked him, and invited him to tea next evening at 5 p.m. and told him that the bloodstains were still on the sword with which he slew the raider and his three sons. John left the club and returned to his ship and trying to decide how he would destroy the commander without the use of arms. So he finally decided that with one good blow of his fist he would do the job.
The appointed time arrived. Captain John arrived. The veteran answered the bell and both entered the house. Plenty of food and drink was prepared. Captain MacNeil said he would not eat drink until he would see the sword with which he destroyed the dangerous man in the Western Isles of Scotland. The old man immediately invited him to his parlour. He opened the cupboard and took out the sword, and bloodstains were still on it as he described. Captain John gave him time to return the sword, at same time he decided not to kill him with the sword with which his father and three brothers had been slain. As the old man was stretching himself, Captain John struck him right in the ear and the old man never breathed another.
This put an end to Captain John’s ambition. Now there nothing for it but to face the return journey home to Uist. Off he set and left the ship and cargo there. The return journey did not take him so long and one day he found himself landing in Lochmaddy. It happened to be a fine summer day when he arrived home. Sitting outside the door was an old lady who he took to be his mother – and he was right. When she saw the boy dressed in blue approaching the house she rose to meet him and when she came within speaking range she asked him: ‘Are you a sailor? Or did you ever meet my boy?’ At this stage John jumped to and kissed his mother, who was speechless for a time.
Captain John stayed with his mother in Uist for over two years – until times calmed down; then sailed out of Liverpool, where his descendants still flourish.

[There is a long and circumstantial version of this story in the papers of the late Fr. Allan McDonald of Eriskay. It was probably taken down in 1893. The name of the reciter is not given and the story is told in Fr. Allan’s own words.
In this version the Weaver is said to have come from the mainland and to have acquired his nickname from having married a weaveress from Kildonan in South Uist. It describes how he took the white mare to Stack to carry the stones to build the ‘castle’ and how the mare fell dead from exhaustion with the last load, the contents of the panniers remaining as two cairns, as can still be seen. In this version the Weaver had three sons, and the only stranger who ever visited the castle was the midwife who was brought to deliver them. In consequence of the Weaver’s depredtions the king sent a boat to capture him. He and his two eldest sons were caught by a ruse and put to death.
When the youngest son, John, grew up, he resolved to avenge his father. He made his way to Dunvegan via Lochmaddy, and there learnt that the man who had killed his father was captain of a ship sailing between Dunvegan and Tobermory. He waited until this ship entered Dunvegan harbour, boarded it, found the captain in possession of the bloodstained sword with which the deed had been done, and killed him.
At this point the story takes a fantastic turn and becomes mixed up with events which belong purely to the folklore of the old Gaelic stories. John took a job with an inn-keeper, was told to guard the garden against deer, aimed his gun one night at a deer which turned into a woman, who told him she had been be-spelled by the inn-keeper. An assignation was made, but three times frustrated by a sleeping-apple which John was persuaded to eat when smitten by thirst. At the last encounter the lady left John a ring and a knotted handkerchief, and wrote with her fingernail on the stock of his gun that her name was on the ring and that whenever he unloosed a knot in the handkerchief he could get a wish.
After waking, John set out in search of her, and eventually learnt she was in the Kingdom of the Great World (Rìoghachd an Domhain Mhóir of folk-tales). He arranged to get carried there in an oxskin by a griffin. He escaped from the griffin’s net by unloosing a knot in the handkerchief, and, learning there was to be a celebration at the palace that night, attended it, was recognised by the lady (who was the King’s daughter) through the ring, married her and lived splendidly ever after.
There is an inferior version of this second part of the story printed in More West Highland Tales, p. 394, the annotator of which has been handikapped by ignorance of Uist traditions, dialect and topography. This was taken down from Patrick Smith of South Boisdale in 1859. It is difficult, indeed, to believe that Patrick Smith, who was a famous tradition bearer, did not really know this story in full.
As regards the main part of the tale, it is very probably founded on fact.
The Stack Island, which I visited with the Rev. John MacCormick in 1951, is shaped like the figure 8. The isthmus which joins the two halves is very narrow and on the south side is faced by a cliff up which there is only one path, easily defended. There is good grazing on the island. At the top of this path are the two small cairns said in the story to be the last load of the white mare. On top of the Stack, commanding a magnificent view north and south up and down the Minch, and over Barra Sound out to the Atlantic, are the ruins of a small stronghold and of a small house wall. The ‘castle’ is made of very strongly mortared stone and its appearance suggests that it was destroyed by gunpowder.
Ships used to anchor in Barra Sound in the lee of the small islands of Hellisey and Gigha, and it was these of which the cables were cut by the Weaver and his sons rowing out under cover of darkness. When the ships were driven ashore, they would be plundered.
That this kind of thing did occur in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is proved by various references in the register of the Privy Council of Scotland. In 1611 the Barramen were in trouble over the pirating of a ship, laden with Bordeaux wines, belonging to one Abell Dynes. In 1636 there was similar trouble over an English ship, the Susanna, which had been bound for Limerick with a cargo of wines, fruit, coin, etc. Gales had driven her out of her course into the waters of an island (not named). She had lost mast and small boat, so she signalled to the islanders who came out to her armed to the teeth. They agreed to tow the Susanna into safe harbour in consideration of a butt of ‘seck’ (?sack) and a barrel of raisins; but it was alleged that, after they had cut the anchor cable and brought her into harbour, Clanranald and about three hundred others took casks and barrels down to the shore and daily drew of the cargo of wine, and took all else besides, robbing the crew even of their clothes, and that then they made some ship’s lad sign a document to say that he was owner of the cargo which he thereby sold at a certain price (which amount he did not in any case receive), and under threat of handing the whole company over to the ‘savages that dwells in the mayne,’ the captain was forced to sell for £8 the barque worth £150 sterling.
So that the activities of the Weaver and his sons, his death and the revenge exacted by his youngest son, are perfectly probable. The folkloric elements are likely to have been tacked on to the story of young John by later storytellers in order to entertain their audiences. They are found in quite a number of tales.]

As the above indicates, that in addition to oral accounts there are a number of historical documents that mentions wrecking and piratical activites taking place in the Southern Outer Hebrides. In contrast to wrecking or salvaging, piracy did and continues to have many romantic connotations as anyone familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island knows and there are quite a few Scottish pirates who became world famous, with perhaps Captain Kidd being the most notorious of them all. Nevertheless, the Hebrides also had a fair number of unsavoury characters who saw nothing wrong in taking raiding and stealing from ships or aother vessles that crossed the Minch. Of Hebridean pirates, the most famous is probably Ruairidh Òg or Ruairidh an Tartair, chief of the MacNeils of Barra, who was active at the end of the sixteenth century. The MacNeil chief was cunning and frecious and even raided as far as the west coast of Ireland and also ranged into the broad Atlantic. Spanish and French treasure galleons seemed to have been a favourite target as well as English ships. In short the MacNeil chief became a thorn in the side of the authorities who were determined to put a stop to his activities and he was repeatedly ‘put to the horn’. The remoteness of Kisimul Castle, his strongold that gives Castlebay its name, was such that he could flout goverment directives with near impunity. Pressurised by Queen Elizabeth I, King James VI was forced into action and through subterfuge with the connivance of MacKenzie of Kintail the MacNeil was eventurally captured. Far from being totally repentent, when the MacNeil chief was brought into the king’s presence his charm and conviviality brought him his freedom. Although his estates made forfeit no one seems to have carried through the action. Other Hebridean pirates of note were Neil MacLeod of Bresary, Isle of Lewis, and also Ailean nan Sop, both of whom where active in the early seventeenth and early sixteenth centuries respectively. Although wrecking is no longer practiced in Scotland as it once was there was certainly an air of salvaging going on when the SS Politician famously struck the rocks near Eriskay, within clear sight of the Weaver’s Stack, in 1941. Bad weather and lack of an expertese of navigating through unfamiliar waters―two factors favoured by wreckers or salvagers―both combined to offer what islanders saw as a God-given gift that eventually gave rise to Compton Mackenzie’s wonderfully comedic novel Whisky Galore! and, of course, the Ealing comedy classic of the same name.

Bella Bathurst, The Wreckers: A Story of Killings Seas, False Lights and Plundered Ships (London: HarperCollins, 2006)
James D. G. Davidson, Scots and the Sea: A Nation’s Lifeblood (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2003) 
J. F. Campbell, More West Highland Tales, vol. 1, ed. John G. MacKay, W. J. Watson & H. J. Rose (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1994), pp. 394–409
David Ditchburn, ‘Piracy and War at Sea in Late Medieval Scotland’, in T. C. Smout (ed.), Scotland and the Sea (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1992), pp. 35–53
Eric J. Graham, Seawolves: Pirates and the Scots (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2007)
Jim Hewitson, Skull and Saltire: Stories of Scottish Piracy, Ancient and Modern (Edinburgh: Black and White Publishing, 2005)
Captain Donald Joseph MacKinnon, ‘Breabadair an Stac’, CIM I.I.23: pp. 1766–71; SA1958/31/B3
John MacPherson, Tales from Barra Told by the Coddie, ed. John Lorne Campbell (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1992), pp. 59–66
Steve Murdoch, The Terror of the Seas?: Scottish Maritime Warfare, 1513–1713 (Leidin: Brill, 2010)
Richard Platt, Smuggling in the British Isles: A History (Stroud: History Press, new. ed., 2011)
Gavin D. Smith, The Scottish Smuggler (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2003)

Captain Donald Joseph MacKinnon, known as An Eòsag

Weaver’s Stack / Stac a’ Bhreabadair, Eriskay