Photo courtesy of Iain Thornber
A friend’s mention of Loch Morar the other day – a phenomenally beautiful place tucked away in the heart of the ‘Rough Bounds’ of the Scottish Highlands – put me in mind of a legend from that district that is not at all well known even to folklorists, but which combines, in an interesting way, two distinct storytelling motifs: those of the ‘loyal pet’ and the ‘harbinger of death’.
The Grey Dog of Meoble (which I have seen given, in the Gaelic in which the story was first told, as an cuth glas Meobhail or an cu glas Mheobail) is a gigantic, shaggy-haired Scottish deerhound whose preternatural appearances are said to presage death to members of the Macdonald clan in the south Morar districts where the tradition first flourished. Tales of the spectral animal’s appearances certainly date to the first half of the nineteenth century; we know that Caraid nan Gaidheal, a renowned Highland piper who died in 1867, had heard the legend (John Gibson, Old and New World Highland Bagpiping (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2002, p.318). They come not only from the tiny crofting hamlet of Meoble (pronounced “Meeble”) – a settlement, now all but abandoned, in an isolated district a mile from the shores of Loch Morar – but from other parts of Scotland and even Canada.
Most tales of the Grey Dog concern the hound’s appearances to Morar MacDonalds who are on the point of death
(the Macdonalds of the district, it’s well worth noting here that, include the local MacDougalls – a variant on the same name – and several knowledgable local informants tell versions of the story in which MacDougalls, rather than MacDonalds, feature.) One typical tradition concerns ‘an old Highland lady who lived in Glasgow in the early 1900s and whose family were closely related to the MacDonalds of Meoble.’ According to this story, the old woman
‘lived alone and had been confined to her room for many years and a friend who lived across the street was in the habit of calling each day to attend to her needs. On one occasion as the friend was leaving the flat, a large dog, of a type she had never seen before, passed her on the stairs. She thought no more about it until the following day when, much to her surprise, she saw it again, this time lying on the old lady’s doorstep. With difficulty she pushed it aside and went in. In the course of the conversation, she happened to mention the dog. Her friend sat up in bed her eyes alight.
‘“Describe it to me,” she said in a low voice.
‘“Well,” replied the other, “it was very big – about the size of a Shetland pony, grey in colour, with a long curly tail.”
‘”Ah!” exclaimed the old lady with a smile of contentment on her lips. “The faithful friend – she came at last.” And with that she sank back on her pillow and passed away.’
The tale of the old lady of Glasgow features several of the characteristic motifs of the Grey Dog canon – the hound’s enormous size (‘the size of a Shetland pony’) and, for all its ghostly attributes, its distinct corporality. The Grey Dog’s other distinguishing features include an unearthly, wailing bark – in fact a vocal trait quite typical of real Scottish deerhounds, as is the ghost’s characteristic rough grey coat.
According to Alasdair Roberts, whose recent Tales of the Morar Highlands (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd, 2006) makes mention of the tradition, the Grey Dog legend has morphed over the years, so that present-day Morar residents think of the hound as ‘a ghostly creature akin to a she-wolf – heard and even seen on stormy nights.’ In its original form, however, the tale is good deal more detailed than that, and bears retelling here.
It may be noted, at this point, that the Grey Dog tradition is something of an archival nightmare to pin down. It makes its earliest known appearance in a manuscript, dating to 1896, by the noted folklorist Father Allan McDonald of Eriskay; the first printed version that I know of features in a little book by a Morar fisherman named James Macdonald, published in Inverness in 1907 and entitled Tales of the Highlands, by a Mod Medallist. (A mod is the Gaelic equivalent of a Welsh Eisteddfod; Macdonald won his medal as a fiddle player at the Oban mod of 1906.) Only two copies of this work are known to survive: one of them in anonymous private hands, and the other in the tiny Heritage Centre in the fishing village of Mallaig. A second key source, detailing the Canadian parts of the tradition (numerous Morar Highlanders emigrated to Nova Scotia in the course of the nineteenth century), lies in a Gaelic manuscript preserved in the Sruth nan Gaidheal collection of the St Francis Xavier University library in Cape Breton. The most recent account of the legend, meanwhile, is in Hungarian, of all impenetrable languages (‘Skot Kisertetserok I: Szellemek’, in EPONA: The Journal of Ancient and Modern Celtic Studies in Hungary, no.1, May 2007). It’s with some relief that the English-speaking historian turns to what is, in fact, the best and most detailed source on the subject, Iain Thornber’s article ‘The legend of the Grey Dog’, published, relatively accessibly, in The Scots Magazine of Dundee in May 1982.
According to Thornber, a renowned Highlands historian who researched his article in the course of several years of hill walking and stalking in the Morar district in the late 70s,
the story of the Grey Dog dates back to the early 1800s at the time of the Peninsular Wars and is associated with a young Highlander by the name of Dugald MacDonald, who owned a magnificent deerhound of which he was very fond. Like many other men of his generation, Dugald went off to the wars and was away from home for several years. When at last he eventually returned he was told that his beloved dog had left home and taken up residence on an island in the middle of a small loch high among the hills and there had given birth to four pups. The pups were now almost fully grown, and he was warned that due to heir lack of human contact they were so savage that it was unsafe to go anywhere near them.
Ignoring the warning, Dugald set out to visit the hill-loch and on reaching its shores swam across to the island. The deerhound was away and her pups, on hearing him approach, emerged from their lair in the heather and tore him to pieces. When the deerhound returned and saw what had happened to her master, her howls of agony brought the folk of the glen to the scene. The pups were speedily hunted out and killed and Dugald’s body was laid to rest in the little burial-ground at the mouth of the Meoble River.
Here the deerhound began a lonely and pathetic vigil, frequently waking the neighbourhood with her mournful howling as she watched over her master’s grave, until one day she was discovered lying stretched out dead beside it.
For long afterwards the story of her watch over the grave was talked about through the district, but gradually, with the passage of time, it was largely forgotten, until one of Dugald’s brothers became seriously ill at Rifern, a small crofting township lying across the river from the grave-yard. One night the ghost of the deerhound appeared at his bedside. It looked at him for several minutes, then gave a terrible cry and disappeared. A little later the man died. The spectre of the Grey Dog had made its first appearance.
What makes Thornber’s account of the legend especially interesting is his identification of the mysterious island where the Grey Dog (MacDonald says the bitch’s name was Elasaid) made her lair. In some versions of the story, the isle is Eilean Allmha, in Loch Morar itself, but Thornber’s researches showed that the people of the district identify the spot as a nameless islet in Lochan Tain Mhic Dhughaill (‘the little lake of MacDougall’s cattle’), which lies, barely visited and well over a mile of rough ground from the nearest mountain path, in the shadow of Sgurr na Plaide on the north shore of Loch Beoraid, some three miles to the east of Meoble. Thornber became obsessed with the desire to see the spot and, eventually reaching it on a desolate New Year’s Eve, found a far more sinister place than the wooded Eilean Allmha:
Suddenly, spread before me, was the loch I’d come to see. In its centre stood the island, rising up like a large dark pyramid.
In my travels throughout the Highlands I have seen many hundreds of loch-bound islands, but none so dramatic as this one. Even at a distance, I had been struck by its shape and colour, but now, viewed so closely against a backdrop of bleak winter hillside, it seemed even more impressive. It was desolate, dismal and frighteningly gloomy and moreover it had an atmosphere which, in every respect, would conjure up a scene of some terrible tragedy even to those not familiar with the saga of the deerhound.
The loch was frozen over and finding a gap of only 50 or so yards separated me from the island, I stepped gingerly onto the ice. As soon as I set foot on the island I saw immediately why it had looked so dark. Not only was it composed almost entirely of peat, but it was also covered with a thick blanket of heather than had probably not been touched since the time of Dugald’s death more than a century and a half before.
Even in black and white, Thornber’s photo of the isle (reproduced at the head of this entry) gives a good impression of its unearthly appearance, and a modern aerial photo (above) confirms the place’s very unusual bulk in proportion to the lake in which it lies. A minor wrinkle, meanwhile, emerges from a study of the Ordnance Survey’s detailed 1876 map of the district, in impressive 1:10,560 scale, which shows that the lochan in question has, rather unusually, acquired a new name since the birth of the Grey Dog tradition: its nineteenth century title was ‘Lochan Feith a Mhath-ghambaa’. This, a Morar local and my trusty OS Glossary of Gaelic Origins of Place Names in Britain combine to inform me, can be clumsily translated as ‘the bog of the fine stirk’.
Tradition has it, anyway, that Dugald MacDonald’s grave still lies in the disused Meoble cemetery near the south shore of Loch Morar, a spot abandoned so long ago and so completely that I cannot even be certain exactly where it once stood. And the strange black islet in the bleak lochan of MacDougall’s cattle is still thick with heather, and perhaps even unvisited since Iain Thornber stepped onto it more than a quarter of a century ago. The picture that he took of it to illustrate his Scots Magazine article was, the author recounts, ‘found to be imperfect. Although the light at the time had been brilliantly clear, the photographs showed an overall and uncanny blue tinge, which I have never seen before – or since. I wrote to the manufacturers, but they too were puzzled and couldn’t offer an explanation. Had the Grey Dog been closer to me than I had imagined? Perhaps. It is said that in this part of the Gaelic-speaking world the veil of the intangible is easily parted.’