Tuesday, 12 April 2016


(The Gaelic Dialect of Assynt)


I left Mealanais (Melness) feeling decidedly better than when I arrived. If nothing else, I had been there, spent time with two wonderful people who spoke from out of the marrow of the place and even if heaven forbid a revival of the dialect never took place I could say with certainty that I drank of the Melness spring while it still ran, trickle or no.

My next priority was to get myself a room for the night and spend an hour furiously scribbling everything I could remember into my notebook. It might all come out turach air tharach (topsy-turvy) as they say in Lios Mór (Lismore), but I didn’t think Nan and Nellie would mind.

We spoil our sons. Their words rang in my ears as I traversed grey mountain and rusty moor on the road to Diùranais (Durness). There was incredible warmth in that statement and it helped to further allay the cultural alienation which has been the last 100 years of my own family’s history.

Geodh' an Sgadain agas Eilean Choraidh
It had started to rain. I flicked the car wipers up a notch and took it easy along the single track road, meeting barely a soul on the way. I have been in many places where the rain was no hindrance to the beauty of the landscape, but there are few places in the world which seem to claim the rain as their own. The MacKay Country is one of them. The swirling mist round the tops of resolute peaks and stacks is as expressive of the Gaelic mindset as our music and song. It’s all one rhythm. And it makes me feel completely at home.

But you’re not a Highlander (read: "Gael") a girl from Lewis who couldn’t speak Gaelic once said to me. The memory of that statement has remained something to make me chuckle, albeit ironically. Despite the fact that I didn't rise to it at the time, I could have scrabbled through all manner of circumstantial evidence as to why it was not true. At any table of born and bred Highlanders I could sit very comfortably and count myself among them as my people hail almost exclusively from Ireland and Highland Caithness. I grew up in Argyll which if not a Highland county would struggle to be categorised otherwise. We kept hens, fished in the loch, and grew potatoes at the side of the house.  However when it comes right down to it, let’s just spit it out… It's really got nothing to do with where you were born or whether your blood runs black and yellow checks. It's a distinct mindset and it is learned from spending time around people who can't think any other way and treating them and their wisdom like they matter. That's when they open up, begin to share and you feel your soul growing by the minute just being in their presence. The problem is that mindset and language have become almost irreparably severed from identity, allowing people with nothing more than a MacSomething surname and a Teuchter accent to claim ownership over being Highland, as they bend over backwards to avoid having to speak Gaelic. Just as well I can chuckle about it, bheireamh e na deòir ort! (it would bring the tears on you!).

I pulled into Durness and made for the Smoo Cave Hotel, where the Morrisons would make me welcome as always. A few pints of leann (ale) were most definitely in order while I put down my notes. I had a grand bar meal, began to sup and the lines flowed.

Tràigh na h-Uamhag, Diùranais
During my early teens my grandmother realised that I was becoming increasingly interested in history and geneology. She explained that we belonged to the MacLeods, that they were our “clan”. I know now of course that this was a modern, romantic perception of things, but there were some interesting family traditions associated with it nonetheless.

Our MacLeods of Latheron were originally from Assynt, gran used to say. Looking back into geneological records from Caithness, there were indeed very few MacLeods in Caithness, perhaps only one other lot over and above ourselves being resident there during the mid 19th century. The story was that we were cleared out of Srath Nabhair (Strathnaver), that the MacLeods came down to Caithness from the Sutherland glens during na Fuadaichean (the Clearances) and settled on the coast. Not only that, but they were said to hail from Assynt originally. It’s difficult to imagine why there wouldn’t be at least some truth in this, although I haven’t managed to look deeply enough into it just yet.

I suppose this had left a fascination with me. Who were these MacLeods of Assynt? I quickly learned that their main stronghold during the 16th and 17th centuries was Àrd Bhreac (the speckled bluff, Ardvreck) on Loch Asaint (Loch Assynt). Delving into the history of the castle, one incedent sticks out above all. This was where Montrose had alegedly been betrayed to the Covenanters by one Niall MacLeòid (Neil MacLeod), Laird of Assynt.

I woke up late the next day. The first few hours of it had already passed and I hobbled down the hotel stairs for some scrambled egg and toast. Far, far too many drams last night. Too many pints. Whatever the heck else had been going. I had strapped on my guitar and sung my heart out. Classics from the 60s and 70s and a few Gaelic songs too. I hadn’t bought a drink all night. The folk up there know how to look after a singer. One or two on the house for the troubador and a good few from about the room too. Fella from Glasgow who thought he was a Patter-merchant. Heckling. Gave just as good as I got. Head alright. Stomach needing filled. Not quite legal to drive yet. Toast, egg and pan-fried mushrooms choked down. Half a cigarette someone had rolled me still in my pocket from the previous night, flat and flaky, puffed out the side door. Straightening out. Beag air bheag (little by little).

I had taken forward a slight sense of shame in my MacLeod ancestry from this incedent between The Laird of Ardvreck and Montrose. There is no doubt that he and Alasdair mac Colla chiotaich (Alasdair MacColla) were a formidable team and easy to admire despite the ego and brutality respectively. It is frankly criminal how little MacColla is celebrated in comparison to the likes of Wallace. Because he doesn’t fit in with the Lowland conception of what a Scottish hero should be, he is blithely ignored. Montrose fits in fine and is celebrated. In all fairness, rightly so. To think that my ancestors had turned him over to the enemy filled my teenage self with resentment. It’s all about good and bad at that age, and complicated politics flies overhead without so much as a nod. Growing up with American cartoons as a constituent of your moral compass certainly leaves its legacy.

I eventually made it out to the car after copious amounts of coffee and as the air struck me, realised that my head was clear. Since the zero tolerance policy kicked in, I have not been willing to take any chances. It was wet again and I hadn’t much time. I wanted to make it into Assynt proper and assess the situation. I made off out of Durness, having had a cracking night’s entertainment and hospitality and took the long road round the north-west corner of Sutherland. The county had been good to me so far once again.

Loch Asaint
There is something incredibly dramatic about the situation of Ardvreck Castle. You hit the road that runs along the shores of Loch Assynt having emerged out of MacKay Country and have to take a left back towards the hinterland of Sutherland to reach the castle. Today was one of those days when despite the lack of blue sky, the colours that remained through the rain and mist were just right for my mood and inclination. The water of the loch was a solid slate colour with the slumbering mountains rising from behind its shores and the shattered tower of MacLeod on a little outcrop on the northern side; no doubt the àrd bhreac that gave the castle its name. I got out of my car in the parking area and passed a number of Germanic-speaking tourists as I approached Ardvreck with whom I exchanged pleasantries in Dutch and Swedish.

Neil MacLeod the betrayer of Montrose. I had never looked under the surface of this tale, never affirmed nor disaffirmed its veracity. Looking into it 20-odd years later and it seems that the real story of Montrose's betrayal was well-known amongst the Gaels of Assynt. In 1650, Montrose was a fugitive after the disastrous Battle of Carbisdale and was starving. He had arrived in Assynt broken and exhausted and had given himself up to some locals who proceeded to bring him to Ardvreck.

There is not another settlement to be seen from the castle; it is today entirely isolated. As I wandered without a jacket, letting the misty smùgraich (light rain) soak into my t-shirt and the chilly osnaich (breeze) envelop me, I imagined what it must have been like for the shattered, strung-out Montrose to arrive at this desolate outpost. That said, things would have been different in the past. As a Gael, I am in full knowledge of just how many smallholdings there would have been right along the shores of the loch. Just west of the castle were the settlements at Acha’ Mór (Big Field), which would have housed some dozens of Gaelic-speaking people before they were cleared to the coast between 1812 and 1821. This would not have been an “isolated” spot at all for a visiting Gael, it would have been a community into which a man would arrive and be shown just the same hospitality I had found in Melness.

Caisteal Àrd Bhric ri taobh an loch
There were however two differing factors for Montrose. The first was that his identity would have been cast into immediate question due to his -at best- broken Gaelic and most certainly his attire, however ragged by that point. He was born in Edinburgh in 1612, in the reign of James VI and in an age when Highlanders were looked upon as no more integral to Scotland than a migraine in the head of its sufferer. Montrose would have stuck out like a sore thumb as he dragged his failing carcass into Assynt. While he would have been well-adjusted to Highland ways after his months serving alongside MacColla –the Gael par excellence- and would no doubt have picked up some conversational Gaelic, he would not have gone unnoticed as at the very least a Gall (Lowlander) in the depths of the Highlands.

The second problem for the Marquis was that he was politically-speaking hot property. Upon arriving at the house of one of the Assynt smallholders, it would have been folly for Montrose’s host not to consult the laird over what to do with his guest. Any attempt to conceal his identity would have been hindered not only by the factors discussed above but perhaps by a plea from Montrose himself in the hope of assistance from potentially sympathetic Gaels. The only way his host’s hands would not have been tied would have been if Montrose had stumbled by chance on the home of a staunch Royalist.

Àrd Bhreac ri linn Niall MhicLeòid
Ardvreck Castle is more or less rent from top to bottom. It appears as if some of its stone was utilised for the building of An Taigh Geal (The White [Calda] House) nearby.  When Montrose arrived, it would have been in its heyday, but still fairly small in comparison with some of the more famous edifices to the south. When the loch is high, the castle can occasionaly become cut off from the mainland and as I walked round the building, it was clear that the waves often lapped close to the foundations. It is said that Montrose was brought across the moors to the building by his host, who had promised to take him to the MacKay Country. We do not know if Montrose really expected hospitality from the MacLeods as the very fact that Neil had not come out for him –he had only just come of age- suggests that he expected at the very least a neutral reception.

The lady of the house –a Munro who had married into the MacLeods- was a Calvinist and somewhat hostile to Royalists. Her husband Neil is said to have been some sixty miles away when the Marquis arrived. It was known that Montrose had suffered defeat at Carbisdale and one of the enemy number was a Captain Munro who happened to be the brother of Lady MacLeod and in regular communication with his sister. Whether Neil MacLeod was directly involved in subsequent events is not altogether clear, but it is certainly known that he suffered the reputation of a traitor ever after.

What does appear to be very clear is that in general, Neil MacLeod was in a sticky position at the time. He was being more or less coerced into partnership with the Earl of Sutherland and the encroaching MacKenzies of Ross-shire had already begun usurping MacLeod lands in Lewis with Assynt soon to follow. Whatever his role in events, what Neil did not have was a clean choice on his hands and it is in truth pretty likely that he had no choice at all. The life that followed the Montrose scandal was a very tough one for MacLeod and I now believe that the title of traitor is nothing if not a little harsh.

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