Scottish Gaelic Highland Tradition
My father and I were out on the hill to gather township sheep for the Annual dipping. Each year some of the men and women from the township would go out on the hill to gather all the sheep and bring them to the fank to be dipped and for other operations to be carried out. This year my father and I had landed with the furthest out sheep run which meant walking as far as the foothills of MacLeods Tables then coming back gathering sheep as we came. On the long walk to where we would turn and start to gather sheep we came to a place where there were the remains of a wall with behind it a flattened area which could have been a road at some distant time. My father said to me:
‘This is part of the Gearraidh-a-Muigh. It runs all the way from the Tables to Meanish, at Loch Pooltiel. This is the story of it.
‘Now when Haakon was king of Norway he came much to Skye and attacked and harried many places as can still be seen by parts which bear his name.
‘There came a day when his longships sailed into Glendale to Meanish where his fierce sea rovers landed expecting easy pickings and also a place to repair and victual their ships to raid to the Uists.
‘Much to their surprise the men of Glendale did not flee before them but met them boldly in battle. For in their veins was yet the blood of Cuchullin and the Picts! So vigorous and determined was their defence that the Vikings could not prevail. Yet wanted they foothold in the glen.
‘Several times more the Vikings came but could not gain by might of arms what they desired. Then Tiel son of Haakon seeing that neither side gained from the conflict asked to parley with the leaders of the glen. A meeting was arranged on the flat land above the shore at which attended Tiel and his captains and the chiefs of Glendale. The names of the chiefs are lost in time yet some say three there were by name MacSwan, Macpherson, and MacAskill.
‘Long and tedious were the negotiations with heated argument and voices raised in anger. Yet each side to the other had respect and in the end a pact was made and the hands were struck to seal it. No need of written deeds when a man’s word was his bond, not to be broken.
‘Now was made a feast and on the grass above the shore was builded fires of wood and peat and over them were roasted whole bullocks and stags. Barrels of liquor, birch and heather wine and heather ale and corn spirit were brought out. Merry was the company for all were happy at the thought of peace. There in the dark lit by the changing hues of the great fires mixed Norsemen and Dalachs. Clarsachs played and songs were sung in Gaelic and in Norse.
‘The Gaelic bards made rhymes –the seannachies told stories from the mists of time– the Norsemen sang their songs of the sea and wars gone by –the chiefs told their sagas of their boastful deeds. Dancers flung about the green telling by their steps and whirls the stories of love and hate and war. So it went on all through the night till the first rosy hues of dawn brought tiredness and sleep.
‘When next day the tiredness was gone and the people waited to hear the details of the pact it was noted that the day was fine and clear and all the portents good –for the Norsemen were great believers in omens– and a great relief was felt. Had the day been otherwise it would have boded ill for their treaty.
‘The leaders came and stood on the slope of the ground above the flat green sward where the people gathered and proclaimed the details of the pact.
‘The Norsemen of the tribe of Haakon were to be allowed to repair their ships at Meanish and to do this they would be allowed to cut pine trees on Helleval Mhor. The people of the glen would also provide a set amount of beef and venison and fresh water to victual their ships. In return the Norsemen would build a wall with a roadway behind it from Meanish to Helleval Mhor on a mutually agreed line. They would not go into other parts of the Glen than Meanish and the line of the wall. They would also guard the glen from invasion by other tribes of Vikings and would pledge themselves to maintain peace amongst the members of their own tribe when in Glendale.
‘Anyone breaking the pact would be tried by a court of both Dalachs and Norsemen and punished as the court determined. This treaty between Tiel and the chiefs of Glendale was honoured by both sides for many years.’
Adapted by George Macpherson (2020).
Under license Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA.
It is a privilege for The Earth Stories Collection to have an adaptation written by someone as prominent in the world of oral tradition as George (Seoras) Macpherson (b. 1933). Seoras is the seanachaidh –custodian of oral tradition and tribal memory– of the Macpherson and MacLeod clans, on the Isle of Skye.
This is a Celtic tradition which has been passed down from grandfather to grandson for the past 2,500 years. The position of seanachaidh was of great importance, since he was one of the main chiefs in the clan, often being in command of it in absence of the clan chief.
The seanachaidh combined the functions of genealogist, historian and documentalist of events and agreements relating to his clan. In short, he was a kind of mobile library. He was also the custodian of the clan’s traditional stories, which he remembered with extraordinary precision in their purest forms, as something precious that had to be transmitted, intact, to the next bearer of oral tradition.
Seoras says that he was introduced to his training at the age of three, when his grandfather sat him on his knee and told him his first story. He then had to retell it to his grandfather in exactly the same way as he had heard it. If little Seoras did not repeat it in the right way, his grandfather would urge him to start again.
Seoras, as a seanachaidh apprentice, had to memorise more than 300 stories during his first seven years of training. So, by the time he was allowed to tell his first story in public, at the age of 10, he was already able to link up to 300 stories. However, according to Seoras, the seanachaidh learning in Druidic times lasted for more than twenty years.
The Earth Stories Collection is truly honoured to have George Macpherson on our team of cultural advisers.
- Macpherson, G. W. (2001). Highland Myths and Legends. Edinburgh: Luath Press.
Associated text of the Earth Charter
Principle 16b: Implement comprehensive strategies to prevent violent conflict and use collaborative problem solving to manage and resolve environmental conflicts and other disputes.
Other passages that this story illustrates
Principle 16a: Encourage and support mutual understanding, solidarity, and cooperation among all peoples and within and among nations.
The Way Forward: Life often involves tensions between important values. This can mean difficult choices. However, we must find ways to harmonize diversity with unity, the exercise of freedom with the common good, short-term objectives with long-term goals.