MacGregor on the Isle of Skye, August 1861

Dunvegan Castle by William Daniel (1769-1837) date unknown MacGregor’s journal records him landing at Dunvegan from the paddle-steamer Caledonia on August 3, 1861. With him were his wife, Lady Helena, his manservant, Jock Strange and an unnamed maid for Lady Helena. Their intention, so far as it can be gleaned from MacGregor’s journal, was to spend a week with Lord Macleod at Dunvegan before travelling on to Portree and thence to Lord MacDonald’s estate on the Sleat Peninsula in the south-west of Skye. From there a decision would be made (presumably based on the weather) to sail west to the Outer Islands or return to the mainland via Kylerhea. However, events back in Edenborough overtook MacGregor before they reached that point.Jock StrangeMacGregor was not a horseman; indeed, so far as we know he never rode a horse or made any attempt to learn. This was highly unusual in an age when the horse was the principal means of transport in the greater part of Scotland where railroads and canals had made little impact. We know he kept horses at Arbinger and maintained two carriages so it is certain he had no difficulty riding in a conveyance drawn by a horse, but carriages require suitable roads and in the highlands and islands such roads were infrequent. We must also bear in mind that MacGregor’s left leg was permanently weakened after his childhood struggle with polio and walking any distance or in rough terrain would have severely strained him.
Duntulm CastleNevertheless, he saw as much of Skye as he was able and as he travelled he made notes and sketches and small maps in his journal which would later form the world of Bheathain Somhairle and Lord MacDonald. As remarked elsewhere, a Parliamentary Road ran south from Dunvegan to Portree and on to Kyleakin and extended north far enough to give him sight of the remains of Duntulum Castle; however, the Eastern portion of the island between Portree and Duntulum was rather less accessible, being served only by a drover’s track unsuitable for carriages. Nevertheless, MacGregor’s journal has extensive notes on the Staffin district, including the inn and the curious rock formations of the Quiraing, so he must have had some means of access. It is possible he hired a driver with a cart capable of taking the drover’s track (a carriage with its narrow wheels would have been impractical) but it is conceivable he was carried in a sedan chair. In any event, while the story of Bheathain Somhairle did not arrive until sometime after his return to Edenborough, I submit that we can see in MacGregor’s journal on the Isle of Skye the first inkling of an idea that would become that story. Certainly, something in the Skye landscape or in the company he kept inspired him.
The Quiraing, c1886After a week in Lord Macleod’s company the party travelled south to stay at the Royal Hotel in Portree, remaining there for four days. From Portree he took a carriage south via Broadford to view the ferry at Kyleakin, though he did not at that time cross the strait, and also a short boat trip to the neighbouring island of Raasay. Of this excursion he noted “catch seals here” and then heavily underlined the phrase, suggesting he was already thinking of how his observations might fit into a narrative.Trotternish PeninsulaOn the morning MacGregor and his party were preparing to leave Portree for Lord MacDonald’s estate in Sleat a telegram arrived from Edenborough stating that MacGregor’s father had fallen gravely ill. Plans were immediately changed and they left hurriedly for Kyleakin, stayed overnight in Lochalsh and then travelled to Edenborough via Invermoriston and the Great Glen, thus taking much the same route as Lord MacDonald follows in Acts of the Servant. He would not return to Skye until 1866, a year after publication of Acts of the Servant, and on that occasion would do so alone, save for Jock Strange, for Lady Helena had then a young family to care for.Portree HarbourJournal entries for that second visit show that his primary intent was to furnish background for Works of the Master and Devices & Executions, the second and third books in This Iron Race.

Isle of Skye Accordion & Fiddle Club


Bard of Tweeddale

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