Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 09.01.20

The poet Thomas Campbell.

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‘A chieftain to the Highlands bound, cries, boatman, do not tarry; and I’ll give thee a silver pound to row us o’er the ferry. “Now who be ye would cross Lochgyle, this dark and stormy water?” “Oh! I’m the chief of Ulva’s isle, and this Lord Ullin’s daughter”.’

So begins the opening of one of Scotland’s best known 19th-century poems. Lord Ullin’s Daughter tells the tragic story of a young woman who was drowned when pursued by her father and his men. The poem opens with the daughter and her lover arriving on the shores of Lochgyle in a storm. The lover offers the boatman a silver pound to take them to safety. He tells the boatman that he is the chief of Ulva and that if he is caught he will be killed.

The boatman hesitates, then the beautiful daughter pleads with him saying that she is ready to face the raging storm but not her angry father. Finally, the boatman agrees. By the time Lord Ullin and his men arrive the boat has left the shore. Lord Ullin’s anger evaporates when he sees the boat disappearing into the angry sea. He changes his mind and he calls her to return and that he would accept her lover. But it is too late, they can’t hear because of the wind. The little ferry boat capsizes and the three of them are lost.

The author of Lord Ullin’s Daughter was Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), a famous Scottish poet who wrote this when he lived on Mull. For all its popularity, a question mark remained about the principal characters and the places he mentions until a series of letters appeared in this newspaper almost a century after his death.

The Rev D W Mackenzie, the Church of Scotland minister on Ulva for many years, had this to say: ‘In my own mind I have not the slightest doubt that Loch na Keal in Mull is the same Lochgyle mentioned in Campbell’s poems. I think the difficulty with some people arises from the spelling of Loch na Keal. In Gaelic, it is Loch na Ceall (Ceall is pronounced in Gaelic somewhat like gyle. Ceall is the genitive plural of cell (grave). Therefore Loch nan Ceall means the Loch of Graves.

‘Some years ago I was told on good authority that Mr Clark, senior, of Ulva, when he bought the island about the year 1835, wrote to Thomas Campbell asking for further information regarding the incident of the poem, and the poet replied that he knew nothing but what had been related in the poem.

‘Had Campbell meant Loch Goil or any other loch than Loch na Keal in Mull, surely he would say so in his reply to the proprietor of Ulva.

‘Further, the story current in the district that Lord Ullin’s daughter was none else but Laird Allan’s daughter, and the poet, taking poetic licence, changed the latter term to the former. Laird Allan MacLean was proprietor of Knock at the head of Loch na Keal, and the young chief of Ulva was refused Laird Allan’s daughter in marriage, with the result that the young couple resolved to tread the heather through the high hills on the south side of Loch na Keal and get to Ulva by Gribun.

‘Had the lovers chosen to take the near cut to Ulva Ferry on the north side of Loch na Keal there would have been no drowning casualties, as that part of the Sound of Ulva is narrow and safe. But then the pursuers would have overtaken them; and so the lovers had chosen the three days journey through the hills, probably supported in their venture by the inhabitants of the glens, till they arrived at the fatal Gribun Ferry. Why, the very graves of the young couple, covered over by oblong slabs of stone, are still to be seen on the shores of Loch na Keal at a spot where the bodies were washed ashore.’

From Glasgow, ‘Alan Breck’ wrote: ‘As an admirer of the works of the poet Thomas Campbell, I have been keenly interested in the discussion concerning the Lochgyle, mentioned in his poem, Lord Ullin’s Daughter. Those who would identify the loch with Loch Goil base their assertions, firstly, on the fact that it seems unlikely that the poet would speak of anyone wishing to cross Loch na Keal as a chieftain “to the Highlands bound”.

‘Here they are assuming that the poet indicates by the opening line that the loch lies outside the Highlands. But he does no such thing. On the contrary, we gather from the pursued chief’s breathless words that if they were found “in the glen, his blood will stain the heather”. The boatman, also referred to as a “hardy Highland wight”. The loch is therefore spoken of as being situated in the Highlands, and in consequence the phrase, “to the Highlands bound” can do little more than perhaps indicate to us the general direction of the flight.

‘Then the line, “three days we’ve fled together”, would seem to give further support to the shores of Loch na Keal as being the likely locus of the tragedy. Is it not more likely that that at the end of the three days’ chase, at a pace indicated by the rhythm of the poem, the pursued lovers should find them themselves almost on the threshold of safety, rather than on the distant shores of Loch Goil? Surely it is those most dramatic moments, when the lovers, with but one perilous step to make, are driven to their doom in terror of the fast approaching wrath of the pursuers, that would appeal to the poet’s imagination and inspire him to write the poem.

‘These are facts derived from an examination of the poem itself. But perhaps what should be the most weighty evidence in this matter is the fact that this poem was written while Thomas Campbell was in the Island of Mull. He had acquired a thorough knowledge of the surrounding districts and islands, and there is every likelihood that he himself actually sailed across Loch na Keal to Ulva.

‘Finally, when it is known that at the present day the traditional grave of one of the victims of the tragedy can be pointed out by the shores of the loch in Mull, I think there can be little doubt in any unbiased mind that when he wrote the poem the “dark and stormy water” of which the poet was thinking was Loch na Keal.’

The well known historian Alasdair Cameron (1896-1973) of Bunalteachan, Sunart, better known under the pen-name of ‘North Argyll’, whose erudite contributions enriched The Oban Times for almost 50 years, pointed out that a similar tragedy had occurred before Campbell ever set foot on Mull. It began at Rudha an Fhiarain, from where the eloping maiden and her lover set off through Glen More for Gribun closely pursued by an indignant parent. Here they hired a boat with results similar to those described in the tragic poem, and that they were buried near Oskamull on a small promontory which is an islet at high water.

Iain Thornber

The Island of Ulva. Photograph: Iain Thornber

Thomas Campbell, who composed the poem, Lord Ullin’s Daughter.