MacDonald Memories
by Tim Roberton

A 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 desertion.

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 a MacDonald.

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 deer.

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 MacDonald's castle.

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.