An excerpt from
The story was told in the crofts of Glencullen for years afterwards. On a cold winter night, the people of the strath would gather in one or another of the rude mud-and-wattle huts, where a warm fire in the center of the large central room would send its peaty smoke rising to the hole in the thatched roof. The women would gather on one side, knitting, sewing, mending and catching up on gossip; while the men sat on the other side of the fire, smoking their pipes, passing their flasks back and forth, and discussing the weather. At one end of the long narrow croft, the cows and horses and chickens would make themselves comfortable in the straw, glad for a chance to be out of the cold wind that howled down from the rocky peaks of Ben Cullen and rifled through the river valley. On the other side of the croft, the children would play quietly in the sleeping quarters, or climb up into the rafters, beneath the thatched roof, waiting for the music and the stories to begin.
There was never a schedule. After the gossip had been exchanged and the pipes emptied and filled again, someone would haul out a battered old fiddle and begin to play. The mournful notes would help drown out the sounds of the wind outside, and fill the croft with ageless melodies they all knew. Perhaps someone would hum along, or one of the women with a nice voice might begin to sing the words, telling of lost love, long journeys, or the heroic battles of days long gone by.
And when the fiddler had put down his instrument and picked up his pipe again, one of the men would clear his throat and beckon the children to gather near. It was time for the story of the blind bard and the soldiers at the Battle of Culloden Moor, where the warriors of the Highlands had met their final defeat just fifty years ago at the hands of the Butcher of Cumberland, the hated brother of the English King.
Every teller of the tale had his own version, and would add his own personal dramatic flourishes to add emphasis to the story and hold his listeners’ interest. But it was not necessary to exaggerate the basic facts of the tale. The women would quietly work at their mending, their fingers moving deftly as they listened. The children would be wide-eyed, hanging on every word. Even the animals seemed to listen to the story, the cows gently chewing their cuds, their large black eyes limpid and wide with interest.
This is how the story went.
The day was cold at Culloden Moor that day, when the men of the Highlands gathered to stop the English army and protect our Bonnie Prince. No Highlander ever shrank from his duty to God and his Prince because of a wee bit of rain or snow, and they did not on this day either. The MacDonalds held the left, Monaltrie and Lady MacIntosh’s regiments the center and Lord Lovat and Lochiel’s men were on the right flank.
But our brave troops were tired and hungry and cold. They had marched all the way to Nairn the night before, close enough to Cumberland’s camp to hear the English officers snoring in their tents. But our generals decided not to press the attack, and the men turned and marched all the way back to Drumossie before the dawn. They had not had so much as a piece of bread to eat for two long days.
But when the English troops arrived on the field of battle at the noon hour, our brave Highlanders were ready. They were singing of victory and glory and thinking that once they had put that Butcher Cumberland to route, sending him back to his brother the King, they would return in freedom to their glens and mountains. They would be welcomed as heroes in the arms of their families, their wives and their children. They would prepare to take the cattle to the summer shieling and plant the spring crops of barley and oats. The days would pass as they always do, bringing good tidings and bad. And they would dwell in peace once again, with the memories of this final battle to keep them warm when the winter wind turned cold and harsh.
Now one of our own was there that day. Iain Ban Mackay, born of this very village, had gone to join the army of the Bonnie Prince when the call had come the year before. He was then in his eightieth year and had been blind since birth, but he was no less brave than a man of twenty with both his eyes. Iain Ban had taken with him his young granddaughter Margaret, a wee girl of perhaps twelve years, to help him in the camp of the army. She cooked his meals and prepared his bed and helped him get where he needed to go. And Iain Ban was a great comfort to the clansmen. He recited the ancient poems and sang the songs of battle at night round the campfire. He reminded the brave men of their duty and told them the tales of the heroic warriors who had battled before and gone to the summerlands of heaven laughing in the face of death. Iain Ban was known throughout the army of the Prince as the keeper of the stories of old and the singer of the songs of death. It is said even Prince Charlie himself heard of the bard’s fame and came one night to hear his poetry and his songs.
Now as the two armies prepared to fight on the cold and snowy fields of Culloden Moor, Iain Ban felt the presence of death in the cold rain and the sleet that came down. He took Margaret and hid her in a thick patch of gorse at the rear of the battlefield and told her to stay there and make not a word nor sound no matter what might happen. And then he stood nearby, singing of the victorious battles of old, and calling on the forefathers of generations past to protect the clans on this day and bring victory to Scotland once again.
Then the English began to fire their cannons, of which there were many. Oh, so many. From the left and the right, the big guns roared and roared again, pouring out smoke and fire and sending ball after ball across the empty plain. Oh, the bloodshed was piteous to behold! Our brave men stood in their formations, brother next to brother, father next to son, silent and strong. And many died where they stood. A young McLeod holding the reins of the Prince’s white steed was laughing at the sound of the cannons when his own head was suddenly removed from its shoulders.
He was just one of many who went home to their fathers that day. The English cannonade was relentless, and it continued unceasing for what seemed like hours. And one of the balls found its way to the place where Iain Ban was standing and singing his songs and it took off his very leg at the knee. Margaret, watching from the darkness of her thorny shelter within the gorse cried out to him, but he motioned her to stay where she was, and he sat painfully down against a rock and continued to sing of the glory to come, in this life or the next.
It was as if the loss of Iain Ban’s leg was the signal to advance. For the generals finally gave the word to the Highlanders, and with a mighty shout that must have startled the Blessed Virgin in Heaven, they charged across the moor, swords drawn, shields at the ready.
Alas, alas. It was a sad day. The saddest that has ever been in fair Scotland. Where before the English bastards had turned and run at the first sight of our brave and glorious warriors, on this day they stood and fought. Their muskets cut down the first wave of our men, and then they used their bayonets on the next, and the next, and the next after that.
The bodies of our brave men piled up, one upon another. The MacDonalds and the Grants and the Campbells and the Colquohons. Died all. The ground ran red with blood that froze into red ice. There are still old men alive who can remember the day the ice turned red with the blood of Scotland’s finest.
Iain Ban was not killed by the cannon ball which removed his leg. Oh, no. He was a strong man, even in his eightieth year. He sat back against a rock, just next to the patch of gorse wherein Margaret huddled, weeping silently as she watched her grandfather bleeding upon the same cold ground. He spoke to her calmly, telling her that his day of death had arrived, as it must for all men. He was happy that the Father in Heaven had allowed him to die on the field of battle. It was honorable to die in this way. While the battle raged, he told her many things that he had not before. She spoke not a word in reply. Had he not told her to remain silent no matter what? She wept, in fear and fright and sadness; but she wept silently, making no noise.
The battle was as short as it was fierce. When the last wave had come to naught against the English bayonets, and the English reinforcements came up from the rear with freshly loaded muskets, the Highlanders left alive knew the day was lost, and they turned and ran for their lives. The English cavalry began attacking from the flanks, chasing after the fleeing Highlanders and cutting them down without mercy. And the other English troops began to march across the blood-red field, finishing off the wounded of our men without mercy. There was no mercy that cold, cold day on Culloden Moor.
Soon, a troop of the English arrived at the spot where Iain Ban sat, his life slowly ebbing away. He made no sign and asked no quarter. Iain Ban knew his earthly life was over, and he began to sing of the glories of the next life. He heard the men coming and he uttered a prayer—some say a curse, others say an incantation of magic—that his little granddaughter Margaret might remain silent as the grave as the Englishmen came.
The captain of the troop ordered one of his men to finish off the man singing his dirge against the rock. The soldier unsheathed his sword and prepared to kill the old man. Then he leaned down and took a closer look.
“Captain!” the man cried out. “This bloody bastard is blind! And as old as these hills! And he’s bloody mad—he’s singing!”
“We haven’t got all day, soldier!” the captain cried. “Get on with it!”
The soldier shrugged and did his duty, running his sword through the chest of Iain Ban Mackay. May his name be remembered as long as there are people in this valley and as long as Scotland remains one nation and one people.
But the soldier stopped after doing his merciless deed. “Did you hear something?” he asked. He looked around. There was no one else near at hand. Just a thicket of impenetrable gorse, dark with shadow. He took his bloody sword and stabbed once, twice, into the thicket. And he was about to stick his head inside the branches, when the captain called out to him again.
“Come on then,” the captain said, irritated. “We’ve got them on the run. We can’t stay here and chase after every ghost. Move out!”
And so the soldiers left. There were more, of course, who followed. Many of them. The army of the Highlands was routed and the English began the chase to find the stragglers that has not stopped to this very day.
Day passed into night and night into day again. And all that time, the young girl named Margaret huddled inside the thicket of gorse, wrapped in her tartan. But her wool was now red with her own blood. The soldier had caught a part of her arm with one of his thrusts and sliced the skin from elbow to wrist. It was not a deep wound, but the girl’s blood ran free for quite a while. She was glad to see the blood and feel the hurt, for it matched the pain in her heart. She would peer out from time to time and look at the body of her grandfather, and begin to weep again. But she stayed in her hidden place for three days and nights, until she heard friendly voices, Scottish voices again. The townspeople from Nairn and Inverness had finally come to remove the dead from the field of death, and when Margaret was sure that the English soldiers had gone, she crawled out from the thicket, and stood up on her shaky legs.
She leaned over and kissed the forehead of Iain Ban and she reached inside his cloak and took out a small leathern bag which she knew he carried with him always. He had told her of the secrets it held and the powerful spells, and he had taught her the songs and poems. He had known that she, too, had the gift of second sight and the power to connect with those of the spirit world, and he had taken her on his journey to death so he could teach her more of these things that he knew. And he knew that Margaret Mackay of Glencullen would one day become a greater bard than even he had been. He had known these things from the very day of her birth.
And when the teller of the tale was finished, the croft was silent as the grave, and the sound of the cold north wind could be heard pushing at the door and the roof. And finally one of the children would ask, “But what happened to Margaret? Did she become a famous bard?”
And the story teller would smile, and wink at the other adults gathered around the warm smoky fire. Aye, he would say. She had the gift. She somehow managed to make the journey back to the Highlands, despite the roadblocks and the soldiers who flooded through all of Scotland, searching for those who had served in the army of the Bonnie Prince. Those were dark, dark days, children, when many a man and woman were killed, or beaten, or arrested. Margaret was just a wee lass, but she was as strong as Iain Ban and had his red Scottish blood in her veins.
But from the moment she came forth from the thicket of gorse after that terrible day, she never spoke another word. She returned to this very village and she lives here yet today. You know her as Mute Meg, who lives in the rude hut beside the River Cullen. She is now almost as old as Iain Ban on the day he died.
Mute Meg? The children gasped, even though they had heard this tale a hundred times before. But she’s a witch! one of the children would say.
Nae, the storyteller would shake his head. Mute Meg has the second sight and knows the recipes to ward off sickness and cast out the evil fairies. But she is nae a witch. She may not speak, but her wisdom is deep, deeper than that of any man. I will hear no words against Mute Meg, granddaughter of Iain Ban Mackay, bard of Glencullen and martyr of Scotland.
The children would think…Mute Meg? That tiny old white-haired crone lived by herself at the edge of the River Cullen. The children had heard all the stories about Mute Meg and the spells she could cast. They knew to give her a wide berth, even though she rarely ventured outside of her small dusty yard. People came to her with their troubles and maladies. Mute Meg the Witch? It was hard to imagine that she had once been a wee girl, not unlike themselves. It was not possible that she had once been a teller of tales and singer of songs.
But that was the story that the old men of Glencullen told, night after night, year after year. So it must be true.