Saturday, February 26, 2011

Highland Revenge - An Ancient MacKinnon Tale

As each generation passes the torch to the next, something is always lost.  Some stories and songs do not get passed down, while others only do so in a garbled form.  It is all the more remarkable then when cultural traditions that are centuries old get passed down well into the present day.  One such story that survives involves conflict between the MacKinnons and the MacLeans on the Isle of Mull.  As far as I have been able to ascertain, it was first collected by noted folklorist Mary MacKellar, and first published in volume VII of the Celtic Magazine in 1882.

(click for full-sized readable version) Highland Revenge, scanned from Vol VII of the Celtic Magazine, 1882.

Though it was collected in 1882, the story still survives today, in both the printed form and the oral tradition.  In each case the story itself has changed, whether because it changed as it was passed down to each generation, or from an independent oral tradition.  In some cases the story changed because secondary authors attempted to put it in their own words, or "correct" it to fit more readily within their own historical narrative.

Occasionally the change is subtle, and has little overall impact on the story itself.  For instance, sometimes the Old woman of the clan becomes a White Witch, and that in turn makes her words more powerful.  Usually when she is referred to as a witch, it is MacKinnon who suggests slaying the MacLeans while they sleep, while she instead suggests the planting of the boughs.

In other situations, even the location of the story is changed.  Rather than being set in the south of Mull, it is instead set in the later MacKinnon lands of Mishnish.  Some versions mention the species of tree that is used,   Scots Pine, one of the traditional plant badges of the MacKinnons.

In the end, the tale is a fascinating glimpse into the past.  Unfortunately the incident is not recorded anywhere outside of the oral tradition.  How much the tale has evolved over the centuries, or what incident it specifically refers to, neither question can be satisfactorily answered without venturing into the realm of the highly speculative.  Certainly there have been later additions and changes, and likewise some part has been lost with each retelling.  Whatever the truth of the matter may be, the tale is a living connection of our shared past.


  1. Read this story. A very informative and interesting tale encapsulated by revenge and terrible desires. Do share more of such stories on your blog.