“ Yes well now I wonder if you heard the old people talking, telling any stories about Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig? „
“ Oh, Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig was a great man! „
Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig features in a large number of traditional stories from the West Highlands and especially from Morar and neighbouring areas. Some of these stories are connected to his tunes, explaining how the tune was composed. Other stories are about his exploits and adventures, concentrating on his great physical strength or his supernatural abilities.
The best overall summary of the various stories about Ranald is the article written by D.C. MacPherson (Abrach) and published in the periodical An Gaidheal in 1874. Like much of the traditional literature about Ranald, it is all in Gaelic and has never been published in English translation.2
Calum MacLean, brother of the famous poet Sorley MacLean, toured Scotland in the 1950s, and collected some interesting traditional stories. His tape-recordings of the stories are preserved in Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, and some are available to listen to online at the Tobar an Dualchais website. Some of them are translated in summary in his book3.
Other information about Ranald can be found in tales recorded in Nova Scotia, such as those collected from Dan Angus Beaton4, and in other tapes in the School of Scottish Studies. There are also a number of tales and other fragmentary information printed in piping-related books from the late 19th century onwards5.
It interests me that these tales, never having been collected, catalogued and fixed, remain in quite a fluid state as befits oral tradition material. Of course some main themes crop up time and time again, such as the fight with the bull (to explain the title of the tune An Tarbh Breac Dearg), but the details change from one teller to another - sometimes Ranald is visiting Locheil, and his enemies set the bull on him; sometimes Ranald is summoned to visit a treacherous laird who sets the bull as a trap6. Sometimes it is not even Ranald who is the protagonist7.
One of the most popular tales is about the Colainn gun Cheann (the body without a head). This terrifying ghost haunted an area of Morar, usually identified as where the old road passes along the edge of the beach in front of where Traigh House now stands, a few miles south of Cross. Ranald went out and confronted the ghost:
“ An tu’n sid, a Raonuill mhóir? „
Is that you, O great Ranald?
“ Is mi, beannaich a’s coisrig sinn! Có thusa? „
It is I, bless and protect us! Who are you?
“ Is mise Colainn-gun-Cheann. Is mi a mharbh do bhràthair-altruim ’s bidh do bheatha-sa agam an nochd „
I am the body-without-a-head. I killed your foster brother, and tonight I will get you!
However the ghost is no match for Ranald, and he forces it to flee from Morar. It heads for Beinn Eadarrain, a mountain in Trotternish in Skye, and as it flees it sings the song.
There are many other tales as well, about the evil chief of Clanranald who sold his soul to the devil, and was thereafter always haunted by a malevolent toad9; about how Ranald was able to either stop or lift up the mill-wheel, about how Ranald tricked a reforming Protestant minister by taking him out to sea for a musical whisky-fueled boat trip so that the minister became incapable of converting the people away from their catholicism; about how Ranald recognised his long lost son through a feat of strength10 - either because the son had been conceived, born and raised away from home11, or because the son had been kidnapped when young12; about how the funeral procession of Ranald’s piping student, Am Piobaire Mòr, waited while Ranald came on a boat, so that he could play for the procession13.
1. Charles MacDonald, Raghnall mac Ailein Òig recognises his son by his strength, 1954, Edinburgh University School of Scottish Studies tape SA1954.41.3, online at Tobar an Dualchais. This is a lovely conversation in English between Calum MacLean and his informant, Charles MacDonald from Bunacaimb, South Morar. ^
2. D.C. MacPherson (Abrach), ‘Raonull Mac Ailein Oig’, in An Gaidheal, summer 1874, p.72-5. An English paraphrase of some of MacPherson’s text is in Henry Whyte (Fionn), ‘Our Musical Page’, The Celtic Monthly, vol iv, 1896, p.68. ^
3. Calum MacLean, The Highlands, Batsford 1959, p.86-91. ^
4. Dan Angus Beaton, ‘A Gaelic tale: A tale about Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig’ Cape Breton Magazine, issue 43, 1986, p.41-6, online at capebretonsmagazine.com.
Also, Dan Angus Beaton, ‘Colainn gun Cheann’ Cape Breton Magazine, issue 45, 1987, p.39-43, online at capebretonsmagazine.com.
Both tales are given in both English and Gaelic by the storyteller. Audio recordings include
Dan Angus Beaton, Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig agus Colann gun Cheann, Cape Breton Gaelic Folklore Collection, tape no. 262 item A 01, 1980, & tape no. 329 item A 01, 1981 (2 versions), online at gaelstream.ca.
Also two versions of Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig agus Mòr Mhòr, told by Dougall MacDonald, 1980, Cape Breton Gaelic Folklore Collection, tape no. 297 item A 05, and Joe MacIntyre, tape no. 266 item A 03, both online together at gaelstream.ca. ^
5. e.g. Henry “Fionn” Whyte, ‘Historic, Biographic and Legendary Notes’ in David Glen, Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd. See also A.J. Haddow, The history and structure of ceol mor, 1982, 2nd ed. 2003, p.78-81, & p.147. ^
6. Ronald McLean, Raghnall agus an tarbh, 1954, University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies tape SA1954.49.8, online at Tobar an Dualchais. ^
7. Nan MacKinnon, An Tarbh Breac Dearg, 1965, University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies tape SA1965.18.B1, online at Tobar an Dualchais, does not name the protagonist. Keith Norman MacDonald, MacDonald bards from medieval times, 1900, p.113, says that the person who killed the bull was the Keppoch chief. ^
8. D.C. MacPherson (Abrach), ‘Raonull Mac Ailein Oig’, in An Gaidheal, summer 1874, p.73. ^
9. Charles MacDonald, Sgeulachd mu mhàgan a bha a’ leantainn Mac ’ic Ailein agus mar a thàinig crìoch air, 1954, Edinburgh University School of Scottish Studies tape SA1954.44.3, online at Tobar an Dualchais. ^
10. Charles MacDonald, Rinn mac Raghnaill mhic Ailein Òig dà leth de dh’each marbh, 1954, Edinburgh University School of Scottish Studies tape SA1954.41.4+42, online at Tobar an Dualchais. ^
11. Hugh MacKinnon, Naidheachdan mu mhac Raghnaill mhic Ailein Òig, 1964, Edinburgh University School of Scottish Studies tape SA1964.8.B6, online at Tobar an Dualchais. ^
12. Charles MacDonald, Raghnall mac Ailein Òig recognises his son by his strength, 1954, Edinburgh University School of Scottish Studies tape SA1954.41.3, online at Tobar an Dualchais. ^
13. Duncan Ferguson, Raghnall mac Ailein Òig agus am Pìobaire Mòr, 1965, Edinburgh University School of Scottish Studies tape SA1965.124.6, online at Tobar an Dualchais. ^