Saturday, March 4, 2023

Stac Dhomhnaill Chaim

The Mangarstadh cliffs looked particularly stunning in the early morning sunshine as I climbed up from the golden sands of Traigh Mhangarstadh, split by the gently flowing water of Allt Loch a' Ghlomaich.

From the beach a gradual ascent led to the headland of Rubha Thisgeis, where the undulating cliff top was followed farther north to a point opposite Stac Dhomhnaill Chaim: the precarious stack-top fort of Domnhnaill Chaim Macaulay, one-eyed Donald Macaulay.

Donald was chief of the Macaulays of Uig in the early 1600s. He died around 1640, but still lives on in Uig history and legend. (Donald was the grandson of John Roy Macaulay, whose tale was told in Chapter 17 of Skye & Tiree to the Outer Isles.) In his youth, Donald joined some of the Macleods of Lewis working as mercenaries in Ireland, fighting for the O'Neill earl of Tyrone. On his return to Lewis, Donald carried on with the only career he knew. Fighting. Some of his foes were the 'Fife Adventurers', sent to Lewis by James VI. The Adventurers came in 1599, bringing over 500 troops to tame the natives. Aside from fighting off the invaders, Donald had a long-running feud with the Morrisons of Lewis. During one incident, Donald set out to kill a band of Morrisons who were using the Broch of Carloway as a base. After dispatching the sentry, and blocking the one doorway, Donald scaled the wall of the forty-foot-high broch.

So, just how do you climb a broch? It was something out of Mission Impossible. Donald used knives, one in each hand, that he inserted in gaps in the stonework to inch his way to the top. Once there, he heaved burning bales of heather into the fort. The Morrisons, trapped inside, were smothered. One incident in Donald's conflicts gave him his nickname. It occurred during a struggle with the blacksmith of Cnip, the Gobha Bàn. The fair-haired smith wielded a red-hot poker and blinded Donald in one eye. (Lesson learned: if your opponent has a red-hot poker, run away.) I do not know who won the fight. Did Donald manage to wrest away the hot poker or not? And if so, what did he do with it? The fate of Edward II comes to mind.

Donald Cam participated in an attack on Stornoway Castle in 1607, which made him, even more, an enemy of the state. As such, he lived like Osama Bin Laden, changing his location from one remote spot to another, always on the run. One of his hideouts was a roundhouse, Dùn Camus na Clibhe—also called Valtos Castle, high above the beach of Traigh na Clibhe. Another of his hidey-holes was an island-fort in Loch Bharabhat, reached by a 100-foot-long causeway. Donald may also have spent time at a remote shieling on the east shore of Loch Seaforth, where you will find the ruins of Airigh Dhomhnuill Chaim at the foot of Sidhean an Airgid, the hill of wealth.

Now that you know something of Donald Cam, you'll understand why I'd come to the cliffs of Mangarstadh to see Stac Dhomhnaill Chaim, One-Eyed Donald's most fantastic hiding place. The nearest I could get was a dramatic precipice looking across to the narrow stack, which was barely 100 feet wide and jutted 500 feet into the sea. There had been a fort on the stack long before the days of Donald Cam. It had been reached by a narrow land bridge, one that has since crumbled away, leaving an airy, sixty-foot gap. Although you can't get there without climbing gear, the fortifications can be seen from the mainland. They consist of a D-shaped wall enclosing an area forty by twenty feet in size. And at its centre stand the walls of a ruined cottage that Donald occasionally called home. The description of the fort in Donald MacIver's Place Names of Lewis and Harris says:

This is the rock where this warlike hero was hiding after dealing severely with his betrayers. His daughter, Anna, brought him food at night.

It is also mentioned by Bill Lawson in Lewis: The West Coast:

Domhnall Cam is the folk hero of the MacAulays in Uig, and having allied himself to the old MacLeod chiefs against the Scottish king and the MacKenzies, he was being pursued even more than usual. So he fortified the stack, where he was attended by his daughter Anna, who brought provisions and water up the cliff-face. She is said to have been so sure-footed that she could climb the stack with a pail of  milk in each hand.

Even though I'd read the stack was inaccessible, I was hoping to find a way across. But those hopes vanished the moment I stood at the edge of the cliff. Not even a sure-footed, dedicated daughter, like the fearless Anna trying to help her father, could climb the stack these days. You would need ropes and a lot of courage. (With a pail of milk in each hand you'd need a helicopter.) I don't know how Donald Cam met his end—maybe he fell off the stack—but some sources say he died at the ripe old age of eighty and is buried at Balnacille, the sanctuary on whose threshold his grandfather, John Roy Macaulay, killed the Macleods of Pabbay.

Note: The above story is an excerpt from the upcoming Second Edition of Skye & Tiree to the Outer IslesFor a complete account of Donald Cam Macauley see Chapter 4 of Michael Robson's Someone Else's Story (Acair Books, 2018).

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