The French Boy at Tealasbhaigh

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From DDC Pochin Mould’s West over Sea, another telling of the familiar story of the ship’s boy who was murdered for the Lewis Chessmen by an Uig gillie.  The story as told by Rev Col AJ Mackenzie, brother of Roderick Mackenzie, the keeper mentioned below, is also given by Dolly Doctor in his Tales and Traditions, which suggests that it’s the Reverend who found the bones in the 1920s.  As we’ve just been to Tealasbhaigh, it’s worth having again.  The composite above shows the entrance to Tealasbhaigh, the boulders at the head of the loch and the start of the track through Bealach Raonasgail from Hamnaway.

There came, so the tale went, a French ship into the fiord at Loch Tealasavay on the west coast of Lewis, her high craggy hills on either side of her, the narrow mouth of the fiord leading out into the Atlantic behind her, and a small single beach with a shieling on it at the head of the inlet.

Now a man from Uig came over the hills to Tealasavay to look after his master’s cattle which were out at the summer grazings. When he saw the ship he sat down and began to watch her.  Suddenly a lad came on deck, slipped over the side into a small boat and rowed ashore. The Uig man dodged round the rocks so as to come face to face with the lad, and began to question him.

The boy said they had had to run for shelter into the loch and were mending their sails and repairing damage before setting out again. He himself was sick of the ship and wanted to get home to France as soon as possible. Would the Uig man guide him to the nearest port? The Uig man agreed to do this, but asked how the boy was going to pay for all his trouble and for his passage home. The boy pointed to a bundle under his arm and said that it contained enough and more for all these things.

Together they set off over the hummocky country that lies between the fiord and Loch Tealasavay and the fiord Loch Tamanavay. It was slow going, over boggy hollows and up craggy little faces.  They came down to the cleft of the Tamanavay River; in front were the grey rounded masses of the Uig mountains, the great hills of the West of Lewis, cut through by a deep north-south pass, the Bealach Raonasgail. When night was coming, the Uig man pointed to the hills. “See yonder great mountains,” he exclaimed, “We cannot cross them in darkness. We must seek shelter here and wiat for the morning light.”

The boy was already tired with the rough going and was only too ready to rest. As soon as the Uig man was sure he was asleep, he struck him on the head and killed him, and hastened off with the bundle through the pass to Uig.

When he got there, he was disgusted to find only chessmen in the boy’s bundle. He buried them in a dune and went on to Uig to announce to his master that there was a ship ripe for plundering in Loch Tealasavay. Furious as such a suggestion, the master dismissed him, and the man left Uig for Stornoway. After several further crimes, he was caught and hanged on the gallows hill outside Stornoway, but before he died he confessed to the murder of the French lad.

Some versions of this story give the date as seventeenth century [and the master as George Mackenzie, Bailenacille -ed.], others as 1745-46, when French ships were in Hebridean waters in connection with Princes Charles. It is a contradictory little tale; how for instance did the French boy and the Uig man manage to talk so easily to each other, and why was the find unearthed on Ardroil sands connected with the boy’s bundle?

Roderick Mackenzie of Uig was keeper at Tamanavay and discovered there a great series of rock shelters and caves which had obviously once been inhabited. Wandering amongst them one Sunday afternoon, he took shelter under a great rock from a passing shower. Something white attracted his attention; he reached his hand under the rock and drew out a human skull. The story flashed across his mind– the murdered Frenchman!