Mac an t-Srònaich: Not as Bad as All That

James Shaw Grant, in one of his many books about the folk and tales of the Islands, reckoned that the evidence available does not support the idea that Mac an t-Srònaich was the vicious murderer of popular legend.  Mac an t-Srònaich was a native of Garve on the mainland, and is reckoned to have killed a girl (perhaps his sister) at his family’s inn in Ullapool before fleeing to Lewis, where he hid out in the hills of Uig and terrorised the population before being hanged, according to tradition, about 1836.  The following is from The Gaelic Vikings (J Thin, Edinburgh, 1984).

The one thing we now with some certainty about Mac an t-Srònaich is that he was not executed on Gallows Hill [in Stornoway] as I had fondly believed.  Local execution in Lewis had come to an end long before the period in which he flourished. It seems equally unlikely that he was executed in Inverness, which is the venue of his death-bed speeches in many of the versions of the tale.

It is always difficult to prove a negative but a careful study of the Inverness Courier for the relevant period reveals no record of a mass murderer being hanged for crimes committed in Lewis.  Nor is there any reference to a reign of terror in the island or a spate of unexplained murders or even assaults…

If there is no evdience that Mac an t-Srònaich was arrested, and hanged, for a merder committed in Lewis, is it possible that he was on the run for a murder committed elsewhere, before he sought refuge in the Lewis bogs?  Again, the most one can say is that there is nothing in the Courier files which points in that direction.

Grant gives details of a couple of murders in Grantown and Invergordon, not too far from Mac an t-Srònaich’s father’s inn at Garve.  The latter crime was reported as the first of its kind in Easter Ross for twenty years, and Grant found no evident of a ‘hue and cry’ that would have precipitated Mac an t-Srònaich’s fleeing to Lewis.

Sadly I have been driven to the conclusion that the innumerable murders attributed to my relative by my fellow islanders existed only in their imaginations.  Alex Urquhart, I think, put his finger on the truth when he was preparing a paper for the Gaelic Society of Inverness.  In Stornoway Sheriff Court he unearthed a warrant, dated 1834 (which seems in the right time bracket) for the arrest of a man, said to be ‘lurking about the island of Lewis’ putting the inhabitants of the island ‘in fear for their lives.’ Terrorising, it would appear, but not killing.

The warrant apparently disappeared in a spring-cleaning of the Sheriff Clerk’s office, but we have the petition that preceded it here.  The text of the warrant itself appeared in a letter to the Gazette about 1960 and from Grant’s report, it follows closely the wording of the petition.

The warrant from which [the letter] quotes is a curious document.  Very unlegal in its phraseology.  It is headed, “Proc Fiscal v Bodach no Mondach or Fantom.  A Moor Stalker.”  A Fantom!  That seems to be precisely what Mac an t-Srònaich was.  The warrant mentions no specific crime committed either before he came to Lewis or while he was on the island.

The Procurator Fiscal in his application asked for authority to apprehend the ‘Fantom’ to be given not only to the officers of the court and constables but ‘to any of the natives of the island.’  The purpose of this is not at all clear.  Was the threat so serious that the appointed representatives of the law had to be reinforced by vigilantes, or was the Fiscal, by inference, challenging the people of Lewis actually to produce the ‘Fantom’ about whom they were making so much fuss?  In any event, when the Sheriff granted the warrant he did not include ‘the natives of the island’. And there is no evidence that the warrant was ever executed.

My own guess is that Mac an t-Srònaich  was on the run for a much less serious crime than murder, and was being protected by his many influential relatives in Stornoway and rural Lewis [including Lily Macaulay, wife of the Rev Finlayson at Keose Manse] , because of the savage sentences imposed in these days even for trivial offenses.  Any family with a ‘black sheep’ on the run had good reason to shield him, whether they approved of his conduct or not.

Any thoughts on this?  The stories about Mac an t-Srònaich run deep in Lewis and Harris, and several of his crimes are retold in detail.  Two of his purported hideouts are here and here.  Grant also speculated that Mac an t-Srònaich may have been a smuggler – more of which soon.