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The territories of the sons of Leod, Tormod and Torcuil, centered on the north minch. The descendants of Torcuil possessed Lewis, and later established themselves also on the isle of Raasay. The branch of Tormod were known as the MacLeods of Harris, although they lived across the water from there in their clastle of Dunvegan on Skye. Other branches were settled in Assynt and Gairloch on the Scottish mainland. Here they were backed by mountains through which no roads penetrated, so that their nearest neighbours were the islanders across the Minch in the days when the most convenient means of travel was by sea.
Lewis-Harris and Skye, Scotland’s two largest islands, had remained within the kingdom of Man after those further south had been conquered by King Somerled. Consequently they had remained more distinctively Norse, although today there are bastions of the Gaelic language. As late as 1304 an Earl of Ross described them as the ‘foreign isles’, despite the fact that they had passed to the Scottish Crown with all the western isles in 1266.
A unique souvenir of the MacLeods’ Norse past is the Fairy Flag of Dunvegan. It is a piece of silk of Syrian origin, that has been dated to at least as early as the eleventh century. Probably it was a sacred relic brought back by Vikings from the Middle East, and there are plausible grounds for identifying it as the sacred talisman that they carried into battle, calling it Land Ravager. King Orry of Man took part in an unsuccessful invation of England with the King of Norway in 1066, when Land Ravager may have come into his possession, to be handed on as an heirloom to Leod.
The gradual integration of the inhabitants of the MacLeod islands into the world of Gaelic culture can be climpsed at a popular level in their fireside entertainments. From the thirteenth century the ballad craze swept through Europe, a retelling of folk legends in sung verse. The Norse themes were those of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and other heroes of Norse mythology. Thraces of them remain in the folklore of the northern isles, but with the Gaelic language it was the Ossianic heroes who supplanted them in the MacLeod islands. The leader of these was Finn, or Fingal, the father of Ossian. He was supposed to have lived in the time of Saint Patrick in the fifth century, though this does not prevent him from fighting King Magnus of Norway in the eleventh, so timeless is oral tradition. The ballad makers were generally anonymous, and their verses were often sung to a chain-dance, as they still are in the Faroe islands to this day.
Among all of the ballads of Europe, the Gaelic ones are notable for the antiquity and seriousness of their themes. In no other is there any equivalent of the conversations in which Ossian the son of Finn discusses the relative merits of Christian and pagan standards of behaviour with Saint Patric. While the Lords of the Isles savoured the classical metres of the MacMhuirich bards, this more popular form of poetry was carrying their culture to the Butt of Lewis.
The MacLeod Chiefs themselves stood at the fountain-head. They attended the Council of the Isles at Finlaggan in Islay with their peers. After the Lords of the Isles had become Earls of Ross, Torcuil of Luwis obtained a charter in 1433, by which he held his island not from the Crown, but ‘for homage and service’ to MacDonald in his capacity as Earl. This helps to explain the loyalty of the MacLeods of Lewis to the Chiefs of Clan Donald.
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