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December 29th 1823

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Tales of the unexpected

Highlanders were always willing to believe in wizards, witches, second sight, the evil eye and other manifestations of the supernatural. Alexander Stewart details some of the traditions and folklore from Glen Lyon and Rannoch.

“When the MacFarlanes, who had been blacksmiths and armourers at Innerwick for many generations, left the district, they were succeeded by a man from the Lowlands. The new smith’s fair-haired daughter was subject to epileptic fits. Her parents were so distressed by her affliction that they called in the aid of a beggar who was supposed to be a wizard. He agreed to cure the girl, on condition that she should be left to sleep until the morning and that her affliction should be transferred to the first living thing, be it human or animal, that she should see when she awakened. Unfortunately, the first animate thing to appear was the girl’s bosom friend and playmate, Kate Brown, who lived in one of the neighbouring cottages. This girl became an epileptic, and the smith’s daughter, though cured of her epilepsy, was very distressed that she should be the cause of her friend’s trouble. Kate Brown became morose and melancholy and committed suicide while still a comparatively young woman. According to the superstitious practices of the times, the unfortunate girl was buried by torchlight outside the Brenudh churchyard. No suicide remains were then allowed into consecrated ground. Campbell in his book of Garth and Fortingall, mentions that he himself was present at Kate Brown’s funeral.

Rannoch and Lochaber have given us many strange ghost stories, one of the best known of which is that of Domhnul Ban a Bhocain, or Fair Donald of the Spectre. Domhnul Ban was a Macdonald of Lochaber, and had fought at Culloden on the side of the Prince. From that time onwards he was subjected to some mysterious influence. Stones and mud were thrown at him by an unseen agency, and on one occasion an apparition was seen by him. The persistence of these ghostly attentions almost distracted him, and at last, in order to escape them, he emigrated to America. For a time the change of scene brought him relief, but after he had been in America for some time, one day, while he was walking through an American town, the apparition met him in broad daylight. Much depressed that his pursuer had found him again, and thinking that there was no escape from his unwelcome attentions, he returned to this country, but was still followed by his adversary.

At last, so goes the story, Donald summoned up sufficient courage to address the riochd, or wraith, and to enquire why he insisted on following him everywhere. To this came the reply that the sole purpose of this persistent pursuit was to get an opportunity to speak to him and tell him something on which depended his own peace in the abode of shades. ‘I belonged to Rannoch,’ continued the wraith, ‘I fought by your side at Culloden but I fell, but you escaped. I fixed on you as the right man to convey a message from me to persons still living, whose interest it is to hear it. Hence my constant pursuit of you. Before joining the Prince’s army, I got the loan of a plough from a neighbour. Uncertain as to the result of the Rising, I hid the plough beside the Inerchadden Burn. If you will tell this man where he will get his plough, I will not trouble you again.’ He gave the man’s name. And Donald conveyed the message and enjoyed a peaceful life for the remainder of his days. Donald, a pious, prayerful man, composed a Gaelic hymn, which appears in Macdonald’s Gaelic Bards.” 

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