Wild Murdoch of Mealista Island

Mealista Island

Mealista Island (on the right) from above Molinish, with Scarp in the distance.

From “Various Superstitions in the North-West Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Especially in Relation to Lunacy” by Arthur Mitchell AM MD, Deputy Commissioner for Lunacy in Scotland, Corresponding Member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  From the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol IV, published in Edinburgh in 1862.  Excuse the non-pc approach:

There is a little island called Mealista, separated by a narrow seaway from the coast of Uig, without any permanent population, but to which, in former times, people resorted for the two or three summer months, to look after cows which they transported to it for the sake of pasturage.  Tradition says of this island that no one was every born on it who was not from birth insane, or who did not become so before death.  In the last generation, three persons had the misfortune for the first time to see the light of day on this unlucky spot, and all three were mad.¹  Of one of them, who is remembered by the name of Wild Murdoch, many strange stories are told.  It is said that his friends used to tie a rope around his body, make it fast to the stern of the boat, and then pull out to sea, taking the wretched man in tow.²

The story goes that he was so buoyant that he could not sink; that they “tried to press him down in the water”; that he could swim with a stone fastened to him; that when carried to the rocky holms of Mealista or Grianan, round which the open Atlantic surges, and left there alone, he took to the water, and swam ashore; and that, when bound hand and foot and left in a kiln, by a miracle of strength he broke his bonds and escaped.  It was thus they are said to have treated him during his fits of maniacal excitement; and there are many still alive [in 1862] who saw it all, and gave a helping hand. 

Not single was this poor man’s misfortune.  To his insanity was added the calamity of living among an unenlightned people, a thousand years removed from the kindly doctrines of the good Pinel [a French doctor of psychiatry].  The further story of Wild Murdoch will astonish no one.  He murdered his sister, was taken south, and died in an asylum; or, as the people say and believe, in the cell of a gloomy prison, under which the sea wave came and went.

I am not detailing here what happened in the Middle Ages.  It is of the nineteenth century – of what living men saw – that I write.  The belief that all born on Mealista are or will be insane, has probably originated in two or three successive births on the island being thus unfortunate.

Notes (from A Mitchell):1. This was asserted to me over and over again, but I think it improbably that this small island was the birthplace of all the three.  2. A Lewis gentlemen, who read this paper in manuscript, here adds: “The reason for towing Wild Murdoch was, because it would not have been safe to have had him in the boat.  This was told to me by one of his relatives.”


8 thoughts on “Wild Murdoch of Mealista Island

  1. Mary Beith offers this from her “Healing Threads”:

    Rutherford MacPhail told his colleagues in the Caledonian Medical Society, how when his father was a pupil at Ullapool (which must have been well before 1850, or thereabouts), one of the bigger boys at the school became mentally deranged:

    ‘His friends took him away by boat to the famous island with its well of virtues in Loch Maree. He was put into the well, and afterwards tied with a rope from the boat and towed round the island three times, but all to no purpose, for he [MacPhail senior] says he can remember vividly the boys waiting on the shore for the return of the boat, expecting to find their schoolfellow all right, but there he was, bound hand and foot, and still a raving maniac.’

    How many successes and how many failures such procedures generated, it is impossible to say, but nothing seemed to dent the esteem in which methods were held. Presumably it always helped to sort out what were seen as the malingerers and the poseurs from the genuine cases (although, in its own right, such behaviour is also often indicative of problems), and may sometimes have worked as shock treatment for certain mental conditions. The fame of Innis Maree for healing epilepsy, where the patient drank the well water from the skull of a suicide, may have owed something to the sense of drama that was created.

  2. Thanks for all the interesting information on this website. I have been trying to find out more about Mealista island following a short visit in 2005.

    The original Mitchell paper cited above is at: http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/PSAS_2002/pdf/vol_004/4_251_288.pdf

    In addition to the attempts to cure Wild Murdoch by forced immersion described above it also includes the following passage near the end, which seems to be about infanticide. The language is contemporary and not pc by current standards.

    Pg 286 says:


    I saw at M————, in Uig, an emaciated, shrivelled, helpless idiot, a dwarf with that puzzling expression of face—a compound of senility and babyhood—which is not rare. He is believed to be a changeling of the fairies, who are supposed to steal away the human child, and leave for it one of their own young-old children to be nursed. The only remedy for this of which I heard, is to place the changeling on the beach by the water side, when the tide is out, and pay no attention to its screams.

    The fairies, rather than suffer their own to be. drowned by the rising waters, spirit it away, and restore the child they had stolen. The sign that this has been done is the cessation of the child’s crying.”

    Would this be about Mealista township, or the Mealista island? The “M_____” form probably means that the rest of the word after the initial capital was illegible in the original manuscript.

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