It was around 30 years ago one very dark and blustery Hallowe’en night. I shall never forget it. The previous week I had received a letter whilst busy conducting research for my latest book on the Campbell Cainntaireachd (my ninth) and had become bogged down on the intricacies of Gaelic irregular verbs. The letter came as a welcome diversion, and I tipped the delivery boy handsomely out of the window with more than ordinary generosity. The letter, if I may expand and expound, was from my dear friend, Domhnall Dhu and read as follows:
“We have been invited to have dinner with old Saunders Dubh MacGillivray next week at his croft on Skye. I shall pick you up at 15:00. We should kill two birds with one stone and use the trip to pay the penny and a piobaireachd feu duty* at Boreraig by Dunvegan. We’ll hitch a lift after visiting Saunders Dhu.”
The day arrived and Domhnall and I boarded the bus at Buchanan Street Bus Station in Glasgow. The journey north passed unremarkably. Prudence had demanded that we leave her behind, so it was only Domhnall and I who made the journey. After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived on The Mistly Isle with the sky over the Cuillin darkening dismally as we neared Sligachan. Shortly after, we arrived at Portree, disembarked and began to walk the five or so miles along the Dunvegan road to Saunders’ shieling.
It was very dark but the lights of Saunders’ croft soon focused our trudge through the heather. At last we arrived, quite wet and exhausted at the dwelling. Domhnall knocked on the large, thick door and we heard footsteps echoing down the hall. The wind whistled through the keyhole and other Gaelic airs.
Our dear friend, Saunders Dhu stood before us resplendent in a chef’s apron. His fingers were as thin as cigarettes. On his back he wore a donkey jacket so thick it looked like he was wearing an actual donkey. Of all the hideously disfigured spectacles I have ever beheld, those perched on the end of his nose remain forever pasted into the album of my memory. The smell of boiling meat wafted in from the kitchen. “Dinner is in half an hour if you would care to change,” said Saunders in that slow, portentous voice of his. “Capon for dinner.”
“Marvellous!” I replied, “How delicious.”
“No …” he replied. “… I insist on my guests putting a cape on for dinner. I trust you have your Inverness cape with you?”
Domhnall and I duly dug out our shin-length, wrinkle-resistant, polyester cloaks that had last been worn at Glenfinnan Games that summer in a typical west highland downpour where the rain fell straight down and to the side.
After our splendid repast, washed down with Saunders’ own hooch, the pipes, inevitably, came out. Just as all three of us had given a tune, the lights went out suddenly; the storm had caused a power cut.
In the dim glow from his trusty old ‘oilie cruizie’, our host poured yet another round before regaling us with local superstitions and folklore dating back centuries to the days of the barbaric warfare between the MacLeods and the MacDonalds. Our heads spun with the gory stories of headless horsemen, church burnings, caves of gold, witches’ cantrips, fairies and limbless warriors. “I was brought up listening to these tales at my grandfather’s knee,” said Saunders pouring yet another round. “He died before I was born but we kept his knee.”
All too soon, it was time for Domhnall and I to leave. We stumbled as we rose due to the effects of the hooch. A dog howled in the distance. “Aye,” Saunders said ominously, “many still believe the night howl of a dog betokens an early demise … be careful on the road, you two.”
The autumnal storm had worsened during our ceilidh with Saunders. The clouds danced and scowled. The rain lashed us. We donned our capes once more, staggered out and found the road, hoping we wouldn’t have to wait too long for a lift. However, no car passed us and the storm was so strong we could hardly see a few feet ahead of us. We became spent rapidly. As we neared Edinbane we resigned ourselves wearily to walking all the way to Dunvegan.
Just then, through the noise of the wind and rain, I heard Domhnall exclaim, “At last!” I turned just as a car was a matter of a few feet from us.
The car stopped. Domhnall, desperate for shelter and without thinking, jumped in the car, pulled me in and closed the door … just for us to realise there was nobody behind the wheel. And the engine wasn’t running!
The car began to move slowly. We froze, staring at the road through our wet spectacles. Through the droplets we could see a bend in the road ahead. We began to pray, begging for our lives. Then, just before we hit the curve, a hand appeared through the dark and turned the steering wheel! Paralysed with terror, the two of us noticed how the hand appeared every time we came to a curve in the road.
Mercifully, the lights of Dunvegan appeared at last. As we passed the graveyard we gathered strength, leapt from the car and ran down to the public bar of the hotel. Soaking wet and out of breath, we rushed inside and asked for two large drams each.
“Are you OK, lads?” asked the barman with concern.
We related our macabre tale, before retelling it to everyone in the bar. A silence enveloped the room. Domhnall began to sob.
Just then, two men walked into the bar. They were also wet and out of breath. Looking around and seeing us standing bedraggled and distressed at the bar, one said to the other, “Look, Alasdair. There are the idiots who jumped into the car while we were pushing it.
“Here lads, you left your pipes in the car.”
• As told to Stuart Letford. Artwork by James Wilson, Buckhaven, Fife.
* The penny and a piobaireachd feu duty was the token annual payment paid by the College of Piping to the Husabost Estate on Skye for the lands and ruins of the MacCrimmon ‘college’ on Skye.