Tales Sketches and Traditions of the Gael

Tales,  Sketches and Traditions of the Gael

From the Morning Journal
Glasgow, Friday, February 10, 1832

Under the above title it was the intention of the projectors of THE DAY, to give a series of notices connected with the Highlands and Islands of Scotland but, from the multiplicity of subjects which have poured in upon them from various quarters, they have hitherto been presented from carrying this, as well as some other parts of their early arrangements, into effect. Those included under the present head, were also considered as more suitable for that period of the year, when a great portion of our readers will either have emigrated to the coast, or have engaged their days of relaxation in excursions of pleasure among the beautiful scenery which the bountiful hand of nature has lavished, with delightful profusion upon our western shores.

As the season however, is now advancing apace, when the description of reading we have alluded to, will be more request, we take this early opportunity of commencing a series, which we intend shall embrace an unlimited variety, and as these subjects can only make an occasional appearance in our columns, we propose to begin our labours, betimes in order that some of our friends who are fond of visiting the antique and romantic localities of the country, may have the benefit of experience. The subject which we have thought proper to select, as the leading one, has been sent to us by a valued correspondent, and , as we have reason to be satisfied with the accuracy of his details, from our own notes and inquiries, which we had an opportunity of making on the spot, we present it with confidence to our readers.

Tarbet Castle

Many of our "Firth of Clyde" tourists may have seen an ancient square building at East Tarbet on Lochfine, whose moss-cap'd and weather-beaten walls, bear testimony to its antiquity. It is now crumbling into ruins, and the traveler whose mind after his voyage may be more intent on the comforts of the village-hostel, than the contemplation of the picturesque, will throw a careless glance on this relic of "other days," and without farther inquiry, pass on to his destination. But Tarbet Castle was not always thus : often has its ample halls echoed to the pibroch of the Macallister, and never were its hospitable gates shut upon the Seaxac- fmidh* and the bard ; and, although its towering battlements are seen no longer, and each successive winter with unsatiated revenge, tears with impunity its shattered frame, a few pages of its history turned back, and we see it giving shelter to the royal fugitive, while struggling for the cause of his crown, and the freedom of his country.

It is not known by whom or at what precise time it was built, but tradition informs us, that it was fortified in order to curb the power of the MacNicol’s, a fierce untractable Clan, who at that time inhabited the wilds of Cantyre, and whose chief, named Donachadh Dvbh Gruamachft from his savage manner, was an object of universal dread,—no less for his ruthless raids and devoted followers, than his personal prowess and uncompromising spirit. For some time it served as a check upon their lawless pursuits, but they began to be weary of the restraint placed upon them, and again commenced their predatory system with redoubled violence and renewed vigour: Few ships passed the coast, from whom Donachadh Dubh's biorlinn* did not exact tribute, and every day told some new tale of his acts of rapine and cruelty. At length Macallister the governor of Tarbet Castle was roused to action, by the continued daring conduct of his restless neighbour ; but, knowing the enemy he had to cope with, privately summoned his followers, and marching by night, ere MacNicol had time to defend himself against the storm, —his keep was taken, its defenders slaughtered, and himself chained and carried off a captive, to pine in inglorious slavery, till a punishment should be awarded commensurate to his crimes.

The place in which he was imprisoned was a vault under the castle, entirely excluded from the light of day. Here, from morning till night, and from night till morning, he brooded over some means to escape, or a scheme of revenge; and, while he trimmed his little lamp, which dimly illumined the damp walls of his cell, he swore, over its flickering light, deep and eternal enmity to his conquering enslavers; but the threat was vain—six months had now passed since he became a captive, and hunger and confinement began to make fearful inroads on his Herculean frame. He could scarcely move the ponderous chains with which lie was loaded, but his soul was unsubdued, and his spirit untamed ;—and, when the person who daily brought his scanty meals informed him,—while unrivetting his irons, that the morrow was his last, the annunciation was received with a look of disdainful scorn, and answered, with a tone of stern defiance; yet divested of his shackles he felt a sort of freedom to which he had long been unaccustomed, and, as every creature has an instinctive love for life, it was no wonder, now that he knew his days were numbered, that he set in earnest about the means of escape. He tried the door of his prison, but his efforts, in that direction, he found entirely fruitless, and be was about to sit down and abandon himself to despair when his eye rested on a stone in the wall, which seemed loosely set—and a ray of hope darted across his mind, when, on examining farther, he found it give way. With the aid of an iron bar which he found in the corner of his cell, he made an aperture in the wall through which he dragged his emaciated body, but, unfortunately, his lamp, the companion of his bondage, was extinguished, and, having no means to re-light it, he was left to grope his way in darkness and uncertainty. 

From the cold air, which with refreshing vigor, played around his throbbing temples, he knew he had gained the outside of the castle, but whither to wend his steps he knew not. There were numerous caves formed by nature, in the rocks around the castle, and his impression was, that he had entered one of them;—at one time, indeed, be thought he heard the sound of the distant wave, but it might be the echo of his footstep as it slipped on the uneven rock. He followed, however, in the direction whence he thought the sound proceeded, and, advancing with caution, he was convinced he was not mistaken,—for a few paces more brought him to the bay, on which a cloudless moon was shedding her silvery beams, and proclaimed the welcome intelligence that he was once more free. Next day, all was confusion in the castle, the prisoner had escaped, and Macalliser knew he had every thing to dread from his vengeance. The cave through which he made his escape was examined, but no trace of him could be found. The country was scoured, but no word of him beard. It was, therefore, concluded, that, —a proscribed outlaw, without home or followers—he had left his country, and his exploits began to be talked of as something which had more the appearance of the chimeras of romance, than of the deeds of a man, whose re-appearance could be expected. Indeed he would probably have soon been forgotten, but that the anniversary of his capture was held in the Castle as a holiday, to which their friends in the surrounding country were often invited. The fifth anniversary was far more splendid than any of the preceding, McAllister had contracted an alliance for his son, with the daughter of the chief of Islay, and he had made sumptuous preparations to welcome the stranger. The costliest wines were drunk by the vassals. The gates were thrown open for the reception of all who chose to grace the hospitable board, and every luxury which affluence could procure was handed round in careless munificence. The night had now far advanced, and the drowsy warder was performing his duty, when his hand was arrested by a tottering minstrel, on whose beard—which swept his girdle—the snows of many years had shed their whitening influence. He was admitted, and the wassailers gathered round him to listen to his lay, which he accompanied with a small harp, his only companion. Sleep had now overcome the greater part of the rioters, and the minstrel was left to share the couch of Calum Bhig* Macnicol, a boy who was spared at the destruction of Donackadh Gruamach's keep. During the evening he had become much attached to the minstrel, and, from his first entrance, glances of recognition passed between them, unobserved by the rest, who were busily enjoying themselves on the merry occasion. Silence now reigned throughout the castle, each slumbering in security, nor dreading any danger, when they were aroused by the cry of “Fire," which was seen bursting from several quarters at once. The flames raged with uncontrolled violence, the roof fell in with a horrific shock, and, in a few hours, there was not a vestige of the noble structure left, save a confused mass of scorched rubbish. When the terror had partly subsided, they all met in the castle-yard, and only Calum and the minstrel were wanting; but, as they had not been seen since the commencement, it was supposed they had perished in the flames. It need scarcely be remarked that, the minstrel was Donaclutdh Gruamach in disguise, who, having secured one of his clansmen (a domestic in the castle) in his interest, he this night put his horrid plan of revenge into execution, expecting to have involved the whole in one undistinguishable mass of ruin. It is not well known what became of him afterwards: some say that, in attempting to cross over to Ireland, he was lost at sea; others, that he arrived in safety, and associated himself with the manners and customs of that people.

Tarbet Castle was afterwards built, but on a much smaller scale, scarcely any traces of the former remaining, save the extent of its walls; but the cave is still pointed out to the inquisitive stranger, and is known at Tarbet by Donachadh Gruamach's grotto.