Morvern Lines – 7.4.22

Robin Maclean, 18th chief of Ardgour, boating between Glensanda and Kingairloch in the wake of his famous ancestor, Donald the Hunter. Photograph: Iain Thornber.

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What Cairn Toul is to the Cairngorms, Sgurr Dhomhnuill is to Lochaber.

At just under 3,000 feet this conspicuous peak lies between Strontian and Ardgour and, although it lacks the crags and precipices of lofty Ben Nevis lying 17 miles to the east, it is, nevertheless, one of the grandest mountains in Scotland.

Its Gaelic name means ‘Donald’s Peak’ and takes its name from Donald Maclean, the first of the Maclean chiefs 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 we know Donald was offered a charter of Ardgour, Kingairloch and the island of Carna in Loch Sunart if he got rid of the MacMasters who had settled there sometime previously. They ran the important ferry over the Corran Narrows and were no friends of the Lordship.

Sgurr Dhomhnuill – the highest hill lying between Strontian and Ardgour named after Donald Maclean. Photograph: Iain Thornber.

Donald married the girl next door who was a daughter of Cameron of Lochiel. He loved hunting deer, foxes and wild boar in the surrounding glens and for this he was 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’, referring to the flights on his 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 at close quarters by the waiting chief and his friends armed with dirks, arrows and spears.

It was a dangerous business. According to tradition, it was on one such occasion, high in Glen Scaddle on the eastern flanks of Sgurr Dhomhnuill, that Donald was fatally wounded. The details are sketchy but it is likely he slipped and was gored or trampled by a stag.

He was buried in the ancient graveyard of St Modan’s Church at the foot of Beinn na Cille, where his descendants are still laid to rest, and such was his popularity, his name was given to the hill on which he died.

Sometime in the early 1880s, the composer Harold Boulton (1859-1935), most famously author of the lyrics to the ‘Skye Boat Song’, passed through Ardgour and heard an old Gaelic poem about Donald the Hunter. He was so taken by the legend, 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, 18th in direct line from Donald the Hunter, still lives in Ardgour in company with the Boyds. He has left the high ground to a younger and fitter generation and has replaced his rifle, knife and deer hound with a Labrador, an old cromach and a pair of binoculars.

Although he still takes an interest in the pleasures of his ancestor through the stalking adventures of his siblings and ghillies, his sporting and natural history activities are confined to watching wildfowl on Loch Gour, a few days affable pheasant shooting on the stubble fields of Moray, hunting foxes with legendary huntsman Roy Newton in the Lochaber shrubberies and counting adders in Glen Gour.

The Lament for the Maclean of Ardgour from an old Gaelic ballad. Words by Sir Harold Boulton.

‘Wail loudly ye women, your coronach doleful,

Lament him ye piper 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

There 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’.