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Issue 25 - Fondest memories of a legendary Highlander

Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006


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Fondest memories of a legendary Highlander

Holiday brochures wax lyrical about locations and sunsets, but there is nothing to compete with first-hand memory. That is why I was so very delighted to discover that an anthology of the essays of Seton Gordon has been compiled.

Gordon was, one of those legendary Scotsmen of the last century, and, indeed, the century before, who wrote passionately about a Highlands and Hebrides of the mind and soul.

He died in 1977, but 10 years earlier I had the good fortune to be taken to visit him at his home at Duntulm, in the north of Skye, by his grandson.

It was an autumn day, and the old man took us for a walk in the hope of sighting a golden eagle. And sight one we did, circling high above us. It was a thrill I shall remember all my days, together with the memory of those shining clifftop summits facing across the Little Minch and Sound of Shiant towards the landmass of Harris and Lewis.

It had rained earlier, and the long grass on the cliff edge looked as if it was made of silk and decorated with tiny flowers, blue and pink and yellow, sparkling like gemstones in the afternoon sunshine.

Wearing a kilt and tweed jacket, and resembling a wise old owl, Gordon was almost a caricature Highlander in appearance. You sometimes still see them walking along a pavement in Inverness, but none share his unselfconscious style.

I remember thinking he must have been very old at the time, and, as if to confirm this, he showed me a stick he had been given by Queen Victoria at Balmoral. I

In his chaotic library were papers and books and accumulated treasures of the past. He must have been around 81 when we met, with another 10 years to live, and thankfully he carried on writing in his lyrical fashion almost to the day of his death.

Had he not, much of the Hebridean folklore which we nowadays take for granted would have been lost forever.

In 1926, he visited the St Kilda island group, Scotland’s most westerly outpost before the Atlantic Oceans meets the coastline of America. This was two years before the inhabitants were evacuated, and the photographs he took of them and their hard existence are an enduring record.

Exploring the forests of Cairmgorm, he recalled the polecat, native capercaillie and kite, now rarely seen.

He recorded the narrative of Domhnall Mór Eileanach telling of a battle of giants off the coast of Pabbay, a day cutting peats in Trotternish on Skye, the romance of the old summer sheilings, the seasonal harvest of gugas, or gannets, for food, and the making of the original ‘hand-carded, hand-spun, hand-woven and vegetable-dyed Harris tweed.’

His powerful descriptions of Hebridean islanders and their beliefs and customs are the best on record.

In one tale, an islander spots his wife among a party of witches sailing in egg shells past Ceann a’Barra en route to Ireland.

Suspecting that she had been kidnapped and bewitched, he wishes them Godspeed, whereupon the eggshells sink and his wife is drowned. I wonder what a judicial enquiry would make of that nowadays? Elsewhere, colonies of fairies were traditionally driven off by throwing horse dung into the breeze, but only when wind and rain are in opposite directions.

And what of the Kintail prince who understood the language of birds having, as a child, been given his first drink from the skull of a raven?

Gordon’s vivid sense of history, coupled with his respect for the supernatural, brings his forays into Scotland’s wilderness enchantingly to life. A renowned piper and revered judge of Highland bagpiping, he was once playing outside of a remote stalker’s bothy when a herd of stags appeared and began to dance for him. Perhaps they were thanking him for immortalising the old ways of a rapidly disappearing world.

Thankfully, the landscape which Seton Gordon described so meticulously has not changed overmuch, albeit its inhabitants have. On South Uist, he visited an old lady who had lived out her four score years and 10 in a tenant croft in perfect contentment, having never left native island. In those days that was commonplace. Today, I think, unlikely.

Which puts me in mind of the story of an upper crust English lady in conversation with a ghillie on a fishing expedition. On being told that he was a native of the island, born and bred, she rather patronisingly enquired if he had ever been anywhere else.

“I did leave the island once,” he confided.

“Oh where did you go?” she asked, expecting him to identify a town or village on the mainland.

“Well, let me see,” he said. “There was America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I was away for 35 years.”