Lament for an old deer hunter

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Morvern Lines

What Cairn Toul is to the Cairngorms, Sgurr Dhomhnuill is to Lochaber.
At just under 3,000ft, this conspicuous peak lies between Strontian and Ardgour and, although it lacks the crags and precipices of lofty Ben Nevis, 17 miles to the east, it is one of the grandest mountains in Scotland.
Its Gaelic name means ‘Donald’s Rocky Peak’ and is named in honour of Donald Maclean, the first Chief of Ardgour who was killed by a stag when hunting in its foothills more than 600 years ago. Donald was the natural son of Lachlan Maclean of Duart and Margaret Maclean of Kingairloch.
The story of how he and his henchmen, the Boyds, invaded Ardgour in 1410 is well told by the late Sir Fitzroy Maclean in his wonderful book, West Highland Tales. From this source we know that Donald was offered a charter of Ardgour, Kingairloch and the island of Carna by the Lord of the Isles at Ardtornish Castle, Loch Aline, if he repatriated a family of MacMasters who had settled there sometime previously.
Donald married the girl next door who was a daughter of Cameron of Lochiel. He loved hunting deer and foxes in the surrounding glens and for this became known in Gaelic as ‘Dhomhnuill na Sealgair’, Donald the Hunter. His son Ewen must have been a renowned archer as he was called ‘Ewen of the Feathers’, in reference to the flights of the arrows.
Long ago deer were not stalked and shot with rifles as they are today. Instead they were driven into turf and stone enclosures called,’Tigh n Sealg’, literally, ‘hunting houses, where they were slaughtered by the waiting chief and his guests using dirks, arrows and spears. According to tradition, it was on one such occasion, high in Glen Scaddle on the eastern slopes of Sgurr Dhomhnuill, that Donald was fatally wounded. The details are unknown but it is likely that he slipped and was gored by an antlered stag.
He was laid to rest in the ancient graveyard of St Modan’s Church at the foot of Beinn na Cille where his descendants are still buried and such was his popularity, his name was given to the hill on which he died.
Sometime in the early 1880s the song-writer Harold Boulton (1859-1935), who gave the world the famous Jacobite song, Over the Sea to Skye, passed through Ardgour and heard an old Gaelic poem about Donald the Hunter. So taken was he by the legend that he translated it into English and included it in his Songs of the North, calling it The Lament for the Maclean of Ardgour.
The present chief, who is 18th in direct line from Donald the Hunter, still lives there surrounded by numerous members of the Boyd clan.
The old chief has left the high ground to the whipper­snappers and has replaced his rifle, knife and deer hound with a labrador, a trusty stick and a pair of binoculars. Although he still takes an interest in the pleasures of his ancestor through the stalking adventures of his siblings, his sporting and natural history activities are confined now to some sedate pheasant shooting on the stubble-fields of Moray, hunting foxes in the Kingairloch woods, or adder-watching at the foot of Glen Gour.

‘Wail loudly ye women, your coronach doleful, lament him ye pipers, tread solemn and slow; mown down like a flower is the chief of Ardgour, and the hearts of the clansmen are weary with woe.
‘In peacetime, he ruled like a father amongst us, unconquered in battle was the blade that he bore, but the chase was the glory and pride of his manhood, strong Donald the Hunter, Macgillian More (The son of the Big Maclean).
‘Low down by yon burn that’s half hidden with heather he lurked like a lion in the lair he knew well; ’twas there sobbed the red deer to feel his keen dagger, their pierced by his arrow the cailzie-cock fell. How oft when at e’ven he would watch for the wild fowl, like lightening his coracle sped from the shore; but still, and for aye, as we cross the lone lochan, is Donald the Hunter, Macgillian More.
‘Once more let his war-cry resound in the mountains, MacDonalds shall hear it in eerie Glencoe, its echoes shall float o’er the Braes of Lochaber, till Stewarts in Appin that slogan shall know; and borne to the waters beyond the Loch Linnhe, ’twixt Morvern and Mull where the tide eddies roar, Macgillians shall hear it and mourn for their kinsmen, for Donald the Hunter, Macgillian More.
‘Then here let him rest in the lap of Sgurr Dhomhnuill, the wind for his watcher, the mist for his shroud, where the green and the grey moss will weave their wild tartans, a covering meet for a chieftain so proud. For, as free as the eagle, these rocks were his eyrie, and free as the eagle his spirits shall soar, o’er the crags and the corries that erst knew the footfall of Donald the Hunter, Macgillian More’.

Iain Thornber
iain.thornber@btinternet.com