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Issue 45 - Spirits of Skye

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 45
June 2009


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Spirits of Skye

The Isle of Skye has a history as dramatic as its geography, and unsurprisingly, more than its fair share of ghost stories. Dominic Roskrow reports.

If all the remote, rugged and rough regions of Scotland, nothing quite matches the Isle of Skye.

Its landscape – harsh, dramatic, stunningly beautiful and awe-inspiring – is almost other-worldly and once experienced is never forgotten. And its lochs, glens and bens, including the challenging Cuillin Mountains, are set firm in time, unchanged by all that the harshest of climates has thrown at them over the centuries.

More than any other part of the British Isles, you can feel the weight of history here, the struggles and battles, the bloodshed and horror are hidden in every rock and crevice, but not very deeply.

And unsurprisingly given the amount of tragedy and heartbreak the island has witnessed, Skye has more than its fair share of ghost stories.

What is perhaps more surprising, though, are the many folk stories of fairies and celestial presences among the tales of tortured and anguished souls roaming the wind-swept landscape.

Take the stories surrounding Dunvegan Castle on the Isle’s Eastern coast. This is the ancestral seat of the Clan MacLeod and makes claim to be Scotland’s oldest inhabited castle, having remained in the hands of the Clan for some 800 years. Parts of the castle are thought to date back 1000 years, and unlike many other castles in the country it has remained in private hands, though it is open to the public for visits and tours.

As you might expect, the castle is haunted, but by relatively soft and gentle ghosts when compared to other old castles in Scotland.

It is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland and one of the most visited, in part at least because of the presence there of the Fairy Flag, the silk remains of a flag possibly dating back to the Crusades and made in either Rhodes or Syria.

But it has an altogether more romantic history and a significant one. There are various versions of the story surrounding its presence at the castle; one has it that a former Chief of the Clan fell in love with a fairy queen and she agreed to marry him and move to Dunvegan, but only for seven years. When she left him, she gave him a son and wrapped the child in the fairy flag.

The clan chief worshipped his wife and was anguished by her departure, but, for his kindness, the fairy queen rewarded him by giving the flag special powers.

It is said that if the Clan is ever in trouble the flag may be waved and help will come, but legend has it that the flag may only be used in this way three times, and a year and a day must pass between each use.

So far the flag has been called on twice: at the Battle of Glendale in 1490 and at Trumpan in 1580. The Clan MacLeod won both battles. It is said that servicemen from Skye took pictures of the flag with them when they flew missions in the Second World War and all of them returned unhurt.

Ghostly activity at the castle is gentle and musical. The room where the flag is kept mounted behind glass sometimes emits ethereal and beautiful music even though it contains no means of making music. And although no-one has ever seen him, a piper sometimes plays the pipes in the castle’s south tower.

The fairy theme is continued at another castle on Skye. Knock Castle, also known as Castle Camus, or Caisteal Camius in Gaelic, is a ruin these days, but contains sprite-like apparitions, known as glaistigs or grugachs. The first is a glaistig which looks after the estates livestock, the other a green lady, who often appears when major news is due, laughing if the news is good and crying if it is bad.

Too soft and wooly for such a rugged place? Then perhaps you should visit the ruins of Duntulm, a castle dripping in horror and anguished ghosts, so much so that the MacDonalds, who had captured the castle from the MacLeods, were forced to flee in 1730. Indeed, if the four principal ghosts were in full cry at the same time one can imagine it would scare even the most courageous warrior.

The remains of the castle sit on a vantage point that would have been a fortress of some type from the iron age. The Norsemen who raided down this coast may well have used it as a stopping point. Eventually a stone fort was built by the MacLeods. The ruins left there now are thought to date from the 17th century and were probably built by The MacLeans.

The dungeons are haunted by Hugh MacDonald, who is alleged to have tried to steal his family’s land and was starved to death in the castle dungeons as a result. He was chained and fed just salt beef and no water, and in the end he went raving mad.

One story has it that he tried to eat his own hands before he died.

His sworn enemy, and the man who captured and starved him, was Donald Gorm Mor, and it is said you can see him brawling with other ghostly figures. Then there is Margaret, who howls in anguish. It is said that she was rejected by her husband after she lost her eye in an accident, and she never recovered from the distress.

And finally, on some nights, you can hear the hysterical screaming of a housemaid who used to hold the son of a clan chief up to the window so he could see the views, but, in a tragic accident, dropped him out of the window and on to the rocks below.

She was punished by being set adrift in a boat, and her restless spirit remains in the ruins to this day.

Such tragedy and drama sits easily with the terrain on Skye and even the idea of celestial waif-like fairies does not seem so fanciful when the mist and fine rain coats the landscape.

What better excuse for a drop of Talisker, the local malt?