• Dòmhnall Cam and Alasdair na Saile Bige

    by  • 13 January 2010 • History, People, Tales & Traditions • 1 Comment

    Cha robh cam, nach robh crosda.

    The following is an account of a familiar tale of the island – perhaps the most famous told of Donald Cam, the chief of the Macaulays in Uig, as given by Capt FWL Thomas in his Traditions of the Macaulays of Lewis (1880).

    In 1597 some degree of peace was enjoyed in Lewis under the government of Torquil Dubh Macleod, son of Old Rory. Torquil Dubh had been fostered in Uig under the guard of Donald Cam and twenty-eight stout Macaulays. Torquil Dubh was hunding for rabbits in his nightshirt, on the sandy holm of Siarem, a little island opposite Valtos, when a message came from John Morrison, Brieve of Lewis, inviting Torquil Dubh, Donald Cam and their friends to a feast at Ness, on board a foreign vessel which he had captured. But the Brieve treacherously concealed a party of the best warriors of his clan in the ship, of whom the doughtiest was John Roy Mackay, who lived at North Bragar in Barvas.

    The guests were seated round the table and enjoyed themselves for some hours, their arms having been deposited elsewhere. It was getting dark, and everything being ready, the ship’s cable was silently cut and she drifted out into the open sea. Presently the ship began to roll; Donald Cam jumped on deck, and, seeing the state of matters cried out to Torquil Dubh that they were betrayed. He rushed to where his arms had been laid, but they had been removed, and then the Brieve’s party, who had been concealed, stood forth with swords and daggers. The gigantic Mackay seized Donald Cam, and, while others stood by with their swords at his breast, lashed him to the mast. Torquil Dubh was bound by another party of ruffians, and the ship was steered for Ullapool, the residence of the pseudo-brother of Torquil Dubh. The prisoners were landed; Donald Cam and his son-in-law, Alasdair na Saile Bige (Small-heel) Macleod, were fettered by a heavy chain to a large block like an anvil, which weighed eleven Dutch stones. It is told that the prisoners were chained in pairs sitting with their backs to the wall, Torquil and another being at the top, and Donald Cam and Alasdair were last. While sitting in this disconsolate matter a man suddenly entered, having in his had a bunch of twigs of sycamore, in Gaelic called fior-chrann.  He walked along the row, beginning at the top, presenting the bunch in passing as if he meant that each should help himself from it. Being absorbed in anxiety and despair, they took little notice of the man, and perhaps thought he had come to mock their misery. But when the bunch was proffered to Donald Cam, although he was in as forlorn a condition as any of the rest, he was so irascible by disposition, that he clutched at it and snatched away some of the twigs, and Alasdair followed his example, and they noted afterwards that they were the only two who escaped with life.

    While Donald Cam and his companion were brooding over their misfortunes, Alasdair suddenly remembered that one of his feet was smaller than the other, and this is was the small one that was in the fetter. With little difficulty he extricated himself, helped to place the block and chain on the back of Donald Cam, and both got away.

    They lurked in the woods all the next day, but the boats were everywhere turned upside down, and not an oar was left outside a house. but the fugitives succeeded in reaching Applecross, and there found an old boat, but so leaky they had to stop the seams with clay, and their only oars were the bars from the gate of a cattle pen. They started in the direction of Skye, but by this time Donald Cam was far spent by misery and the intolerable weight of his chain, that, rendered desperate by his misfortunes, he gave up rowing and baling when but half way across, and sat gloomily down in the stern of the boat.

    At this failure on the part of Donald Cam, Alasdair did not say one word, but awhile he rowed and awhile he baled, till at last they reached Skye.  When they got to land Alasdair asked Donald Cam why he had given up rowing when they were but half way across. Donald said he was so called by his chains and irritated by his misfortunes that he thought by sitting idle in the leaky boat he would provoke Alasdair to quarrel, that then they would fight and both would perish together. Alasdair suspected such was his intention, and, knowing the danger, avoided offending him, and rowed and baled as best he could. They were kindly received at Dunvegan, and a smith took off the chain which was linked round Donald Cam’s neck and leg.

    The iron chain was kept for many years at Dunvegan as a convincing proof of the strength and endurance of Donald Cam; but once, when Macleod was from home, a blacksmith converted it to some domestic use. The late Rev Hugh Munro of Uig saw the chain at Dunvegan when it weighed eleven Dutch stone.

    After the adventurers had recruited their strength and procured new arms, they crossed the sea to Harris and came on to Uig, their native place. There was much joy on their safe arrival among their friends and relations, who had had no hope of ever seeing them again.

    When the Brieve of Lewis found that Donald Cam and Alasdair na Saile Bige had escaped, he hastened home in much alarm, dreading invasion from the Macaulays, and prepared for defence by endeavouring to procure the attachment and assistance of the ablest of the Ness warriors.

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    One Response to Dòmhnall Cam and Alasdair na Saile Bige

    1. 6 May 2010 at 2:52 pm

      It is worth noting that Dutch weights might have been in use due to the introduction of commercial herring fishery round Lewis by the Dutch at around the time of this incident.
      A listing of ancient units of weight, in use in the Low Countries in centuries gone by, shows a bewildering array. Each city would have its own definition of (e.g.) a pound or a stone!

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