Comann Eachdraichd Uig

John Munro and the Saighdeirean Mac a’ Mhinisteir

A series of articles on the Old Soldiers of Uig appeared in the Comann Eachdraidh Uig publication, Sanais, in the 1980s, from which this is an extract.

John Munro, Iain Mac a’ Mhinisteir, was the only son of the Rev Hugh Munro, minister at Bailenacille for fifty years; a son of the manse with a taste for adventure, he obtained a commission in the new battalion of the 78th (Seaforth Highlanders) raised from the Seaforth estates in 1804.  He was an ensign and his commission depended on his bringing a recognised quota of twenty men with him and from the stories extant, it is still very evident that these recruits went willingly and with confidence in his leadership.  His family had an excellent relationship with the people of the parish: Hugh Munro is still remembered for liberality to the poor and his son was to prove a good and caring officer to his men.  He had a strong bond of shared experience with them, he spoke their language and could intercede on their behalf and on one occasion he saved one of their number, Murdo Buchanan of Carnish, from execution.  Murdo was caught at inspection with his bayonet unpolished.  John Munro put forth a strong defence on his behalf, pleading his valour in the previous battle, and saved him from death.  He was also their only link with home’ he gave the battalion’s news in his letters to his father and this was passed on to the Bailenacille congregation from the pulpit.

He was promoted Lieutenant just a year after joining the regiment.  By this time the initial training at Fort George was over and the battalion was at Hythe, where they were trained in a new system of drill invented by General Sir John Moore of Corunna fame, who inspected them before they were posted for foreign service and expressed himself as highly pleased with their appearance.

They spent the best part of a year at Gibraltar and in May 1806 they were part of the expedition to Sicily and Calabria, commanded by Sir John Stuart. The Battle of Maida was fought in hot, sultry July weather and the British army were ordered to drop their equipment to fight unhampered.  It was a hand to hand fight with crossed bayonets with very little gunfire on either side.  French losses were colossal, the British buried 700 enemy dead on the battlefield, but themselves lost 44, seven of which were from the 78th.

Among those were Donald Mackenzie, Dòmhnall Alain Ruaidh, a married man with a family of four daughters whose home was on the island of Pabbay.  He was a native of Lochs but of mainland stock, a relation of Cailean Dearg, who was one of Seaforth’s officials.  His demise in foreign fields left his widow Anne Macleod on Pabbay in dire straits, lacking menfolk to man the boat.  Her army pension allowed her to acquire a holding in the old village of Gisla [her uncle Murdo Macleod, Murchadh mac Iain mhic Thorcuil, was tacksman there] and their descendents in Uig, Bernera and Canada are numerous.  Another soldier in John Munro’s battalion, Malcolm Macarthur from Bernera, was wounded but there seems to be no further mention of his service.  Malcolm Smith, Calum Gobha of Enaclete, and Murdo Macleod, Murchadh Chaluim Rhuaidh, later of Crowlista and a renowned bard, were also both at Maida.

Theories about the Cave of Swords

A mysterious cave full of swords was once discovered on Mealisval, but the could not be found again.  Dave Roberts gave the story of the discovery of the cave in an article for Uig News and here gives a range of possible explanations.

In the Iron Age (2000 years ago) people often deposited weapons made of bronze or iron into water. They also built and used underground passage ways – thought by some to have been routes to the ‘underworld’. In Orkney there are a number of manmade shafts with steps that lead downwards into the ground. Some of these have water in, and could have been wells, but others have no permanent water in the bottom. Could the Mealaisbhal cave with its staircase, be an Iron Age route to the underworld, and were the swords an offering to the gods?

Other people have suggested that the swords are more recent than that. Perhaps they have a connection to a famous and desperate fugitive from justice, who lived in the Uig hills in the mid-nineteenth century. In the stories, Mac an t-Sronaich was supposed to be a very violent man who threatened, accosted and even murdered people. The official records however suggest that this was a gross distortion of the truth. Did he have an arsenal of weapons hidden in a cave? He is reputedly associated with just about every cave in Uig, and many much further afield. Many of the tales about him describe his aggression, but none make any reference to swords.

A much more convincing theory is that the cave was a hiding place in the period immediately after 16th April 1746. In the aftermath of Culloden, and the defeat of the Jacobite army under the command of Charles Edward Stuart – everything ‘Highland’ became forbidden. This included the wearing of the kilt and the bearing of arms. Many of the people hid their now illegal weapons wherever they could. Some secreted claymores in the thatch of their houses. Maybe the Uig upper-enders hid theirs in a cave on Mealaisbhal. Their weapons would have been totally undetectable, but quickly and easily accessible if the need arose.

Recruitment in 1793

From a manuscript by (as far as I can make out) Rev Col AJ Mackenzie, son of Roderick Mackenzie, gamekeeper at Luachair and Uig Lodge.  According to tradition, men were compelled to join the army when Seaforth was raising the 78th Seaforth Highlanders in 1793.  When he arrived in Lewis, the men of Uig took to the hills and established themselves at Cnoc a’Champ, near the site of Uig Lodge, and a boat rowed by women was sent to meet Seaforth at Callanish.  Seaforth was not best pleased and set off with the minister, Rev Hugh Munro, to speak to the men.  Rev Munro persuaded them to be more patriotic, and an assurance was given that only one son would be taken from a family, or two where the family was large.   The minister’s own son, Ensign John Munro, was enlisted in 1804 and subsequently killed at Java.  AJ Mackenzie here looks at the traditions surrounding the giving of the King’s shilling, particularly in light of the assertion by Chamberlain John Munro Mackenzie (grandson to Rev Munro and author of the published Diary of 1851) to the Napier Commission that enlisting was voluntary.

The primary object of Munro Mackenzie’s examination by Lord Napier’s Commission was apparently to discover what were the means employed by Seaforth and his officers in procuring recruits for his regiment – whether recruiting was by compulsion backed by threats of eviction, or by voluntary enlistment backed by promises of future reward.

This is a point on which I have never been able to find definite information. Mackenzie in his evidence was emphatic on the point that there was no compulsion of an sort, and so far as I know there was no recognised authority that could compel a man to join the army. Yet in the traditions of the people themselves there is the definite impression, whether mistaken or not, of a time when men were compelled to send their sons into the army. Again and again I have heard reference to a time when men were compelled by some authority to join the army – “an uair a bha iad ‘gan toirt air falbh do’n arm“. Four incidents bearing on this point occur to me.

There used to be pointed out on Fidean Eristeadh a remarkably wide ditch which was alleged to have been jumped by a young man of the village when pursued by soldiers who were seeking to apprehend him for military service. In this case, however, it is just possible that the man was a deserter, and that his pursuit by soldiers was in accordance with military law.