by Tim Roberton
walk up the glen to the headwaters of a little river takes in
a view of the traces of earlier habitation up and down its course.
Today the MacDonalds may be gone, but their memory lives on
It was a day
of sunshine and showers. Up on the hill I had a twenty mile view. Between
me and the horizon spread the blueness of the Minch with the fingers and
fiords of the west coast scenery probing into it. At the bottom lay the
long arm of Ardnamurchan stretching out into the Atlantic. I stood in
a clump of soggy bog cotton which bobbed as the breeze riffled and jumped
across the waterlogged ground.
As I gazed to the west, the sea seemed a long way off, but I realised
that this was the destination of the little patch of water at my feet.
In the windswept silence of the upper glen, I watched it as it wandered
quietly in and out of clumps of coarse grass, every now and then smeared
with little patches of iridescence. It glinted with the sunlight on its
surface, like northern wetlands seen from an aeroplane. Its course would
take it through the narrow fissure half a mile beyond me, into the big
open glen below. And ten miles later it would run into the sea close to
the ruin of the ancient seat of the MacDonalds.
The imprint of the MacDonalds was everywhere along the course of this
little river. Nowadays the glen is used for a stalking and grazing the
hill with hardy beasts, but there was a time, not long ago, when a traditional
people with a culture of their own lived up here too. The place was deep
within "The wild bounds" as they used to be called. Here was a land of
inaccessibility, occupied by a people who revelled in their individuality;
a land of ancient chivalry and custom. To an extent, even then it lived
in the past. Only two and a half centuries ago, there existed an almost
medieval code, where honour and loyalty were more important than life
and material possessions. The MacDonalds rose twice to the Jacobite cause
in response to their clan chief. Indeed, in 1745, it was to this glen
that Bonnie Prince Charlie came and, it was with the MacDonalds from this
glen that he went over the hill, to raise his standard at Glen Finnan.
And in the years afterwards, it was the call of these ancient traditions
and a deep and almost mystical love for their land which kept the MacDonald
families here, close to the headwaters of the little river where I stood.
Here they stayed for generation after generation, packed into small groups
of houses in townships, until being eventually forced out. There is no
simple single reason as to why they moved on and woe betide anyone offering
one. Records show that shiploads left from the mid eighteenth century
and continued to do so for the next hundred years. John MacDonald of Glenaladale
just over the hill took more than one hundred with him in the brig Alexander
in 1772 and sailed to Prince Edward Island. The 1790 census reports a
further 250 people emigrating to America from the district. Ships carrying
MacDonalds sailed to North America and, later to Australia throughout
the nineteenth century, with a peak being reached in 1852 as a terrible
consequence of the potato blight.
Slowly the villages on the flanks of the hills overlooking the glen, on
the levels in between and also down by the river, fell into disrepair
And although the emotional wrench of leaving must have been numbing, there
was a certain inevitability about it all. During this period, major changes
had been taking place in clan relationships. Agricultural practices were
at odds with the old system. There were too many people living off an
impoverished land and, although the introduction of the potato from the
mid seventeen hundreds had improved crop yields, it was a two edged weapon.
On the one hand, there was the benign effect of being able to support
at least three times as many people off the same amount of ground, but
on the other, the malign vulnerability of exposing them to the catastrophe
of crop failure.
After the people left, bracken invaded their houses. The head-dykes and
the walls to the kale yards and the in-by fields became broached by grazing
animals. The lazy beds streaking the hillside lost their green tops and
reverted to hollow ribs. In the consequential emptiness, sheep, looked
after by a single lowland shepherd, wandered all over the abandoned ground
in the glen.
This was the scene which struck my eye over a hundred years later as I
looked down from my eyrie in the bog cotton. It was an unchanged view
frozen in a time-frame, with the writing of the centuries before, still
visible. I could see in the foreground, following the line of the little
river, a small collection of ruined buildings. These were rough squares
and circles of rough local stone, shot with sprouts of green bracken.
It was the green that drew my eye, but I knew what I was looking for.
Finding ruins is not always straightforward, for they are often well camouflaged
against the mountainside. The bracken is a tell-tale, because it often
shows where man has been before.
And if I looked beyond and above these houses in this village, I could
see the amazing rolling uplands of the lazybeds. They went surprisingly
far up the mountain on its south-facing slopes and were distinctively
picked out by the sunlight, like the Atlantic ocean swell running sideways
across the hillside.
I knew too, from my vantage point above, that the ruins that I was looking
at were the village of Ulgary, home in 1745 to the piper John MacIntyre.
When Bonnie Prince Charlie came, it was he who composed the pibroch "My
King Has Landed In Moidart" (Thaing mo Righ air Tir am Muideart).
It was also in Ulgary that Alexander MacLaughlin paid his rent in 1747
to obtain what was described as "the field of bearded grass" and, where
later records show of rents being paid by eight crofting tenants, including
But, I was also aware, as I watched from above, that although the setting
was romantic, it was an extremely hard life living there two hundred years
ago. It must have been no surprise when in 1812 most of the occupants
left and emigrated en masse for a new life in America. The reason cited
was, that "whilst they could live comfortably for six months in the year,
they had to endure for the other six months in downright starvation".
The terrible potato blight of 1850 was the final nail in the coffin.
By 1873, the record of place names compiled by the Ordnance Survey shows
Ulgary to be "ruins". Later census returns show that the only human inhabitants
were solitary shepherds; and then only until the turn of the twentieth
century, when even the sheep were cleared from the hill, to make way for
But even as these thoughts floated across my mind, I also recalled that
the little river which started at my feet and tumbled down the hill to
Ulgary had flowed long before the township was established, let alone
abandoned. For the little river began in the last Ice Age. The occupation
of the MacDonalds along its course had merely been an intermission in
its long history. For a short millennium it was they who watched it emerge
from its headwaters near MacDonald of Glenaladale's land and cascade westwards
down the glen through Ulgary. From there, they could witness it passing
the township of Assary before turning the corner southwards to sweep beneath
Inchrory, undulating and meandering across the broad U-valley floor before
pausing to rest five miles later in the reedy lochan. Here, at the house
of the bailiff to the MacDonald of Lochshiel it slowly swirled and sank.
But, finding itself eventually on the far side and, sensing the sea, would
awake and rush for the exit. From here it bubbled and burbled its way
through John MacDonald of Moidart's lands with renewed energy, born again
as a youngster, dancing off rocks and sweeping past his house down to
the incoming tide where it would vanish into the vast Atlantic near Clanranald
The course of the river was evocative of the MacDonalds themselves, for
many over the centuries had done the very same journey, to the Atlantic's
edge and beyond.
There were salmon in the Sea Pool of the river from the end of June onwards.
There were salmon in the bailiff's lochan shortly afterwards. In late
summer, there were salmon in the quiet meandering stretches past Inchrory
and Assary all the way up to Ulgary. The fish were all intent on the same
goal; to pair up and then to spawn. Their nuptial destination was the
headwaters of the river and the little tributaries. Here they would mate
and dance during the winter months, just as they had always done, when
the MacDonalds were there.
On that summer afternoon, as I stood looking westwards over the lazybeds
running down the glen, I could imagine at that very moment, the salmon
in the river. I could see them in my mind's eye swimming against the invigorating
spate of fresh water which had come off the hill two days earlier, making
their way into the lochan and the long flat stretches above. And as I
stood there, I imagined them later as evening drew in, long after I had
gone home off the hill. Now the sun would dipping below the Ardnamurchan
skyline. It would be nearly midnight in the gloaming.
Here only the salmon can see the shadows dance. And in the shadows the
door of one of the houses is half open. Inside, flickering beyond the
smoke, a face can be seen amongst a sea of faces. It is singing a Gaelic
song. Of long ago and departed families, of those who went down to the
Atlantic for a new life in Prince Edward Island or in Victoria. And how
the next wave of MacDonalds is about to follow.
In Canada and Australia today, it is their children and their children's
children who sing the same Gaelic songs heard by the salmon. High in the
glen on this warm summer night, the MacDonald soul has never left.