DONALD THE SAILOR
The tale of Donald the Sailor is narrated in “Tales of the North Coast” by Alan Temperley and the pupils of Farr secondary School, published around 1973, and appears (in more detail) in “Sketches of Sutherland” by Alexander Mackay, Treasurer of the Sutherland Association, christened Swordly 20 September 1828 to Peter and Mary Mackay nee Mackay, published 1889. This is the gist of Donald`s story.
Donald lived in Armadale and was 12 in 1786 when enticed onto a ship lying anchored offshore near Tongue belonging to MacIvers from Stornoway who conducted coastal trade in Scottish waters. He escaped in 1792 at Loch Eriboll when another MacIver vessel on which he was serving as cook anchored to fill casks of fresh water. Arriving home after 3 days` walking, Donald, now grown and tanned, saw his father sitting by the fireside and asked if he might have lodgings for the night. His father, not recognising him, said he would be welcome, particularly as his own son was a sailor if still alive, provided the woman of the house agreed. The mother was fetched, and she stood looking at the sunburnt stranger until he burst out “O! mo mhatheir! Nach eil sibhe gu`m aithneachadh?” (“O! my mother! Do you not recognise me?”)
According to Mackay, Donald, whom he knew well until he (the author) left the district in 1844, died in October 1849 and is buried in “the clachan churchyard, at the north end of the church, close to the Standing Stone”. That can only mean Farr churchyard, which has a pictish stone. [ The burial place also accords with my own recollection of being shown Donald`s grave by a local man, Donald Morrison, in the early 1960s.] Two of Donald`s grandsons erected a memorial to him some years later.
This must be the table stone inscribed “Donald Mackay tenant Swordly 1849 age 75” as described in “Pre-1855 Tombstone Inscriptions in Sutherland Burial Grounds” by Cowper and Ross pub.1989.
Mackay says tantalisingly little about Donald`s family, but we learn that before his abduction he had visited relatives in Kirkiboll, near Tongue, with his mother. He married a wife he always referred to as “the damsel” before enlisting in the Sutherland Fencibles in 1774 along with 249 other Mackays, 104 of whom were called William. Donald was always known as “the Sailor. He was of a prankful disposition., so that when anything went wrong the cry would go up “bhan sailor an sud” – “the sailor was here!” In the Fencibles, Sailor learned `English and Scotch`, as Mackay quaintly puts it, and was encamped at one time on Musselburgh Links outside Edinburgh. He was a believer in the medicinal qualities of whisky which on one occasion he used to treat the wounds of a fellow soldier.
In 1797 the company was sent to pacify the rebelling Irish which they appear to have done with a light hand. By all accounts they conducted themselves in a civilised manner, and the presence of fellow Celts whose Gaelic being related to the Irish language was comprehensible after a fashion appears to have had a pacifying effect upon the Irish. Indeed, several Mackays returned home with Irish brides who settled in well to the local community. Sailor himself said that he would have married one, a cook in a household who saved his life during a violent altercation in which swords were drawn, had he not already been wed. His close friend married her instead.
Mackay`s account is difficult to follow but it seems that Sailor and other Fencibles were disbanded at Fort George, near Inverness, in 1803. He walked north and “took up his abode at the north end of Swordly”. Thereafter he moved to Armadale where he spent the happiest ten years of his life. Mackay also mentions that Sailor lived in Crask, thereafter in Swordly where he built himself a new house. What the precise order of these events was, one is left to guess.
Donald had a sister-in-law called Eoraidh (Dorothy), a cook in Captain Gordon`s house at Clerkhill by Bettyhill. He is described as genial, kind-hearted and benevolent, and the Sailor`s house was “Far am faigheadh coigreacg baigh/Agus an t-anrach bochd a ten (?) [where the stranger would find a welcome/And the wandering poor their food] .
It is a pity that, apart from disclosing in passing that Sailor had a wife and more than two grandsons, Mackay has nothing to say about his family. The fact that Mackay nowhere disclose his own relationship to Sailor, if any, probably does not mean much given his style of writing. Born in 1828, he was too young to be Sailor`s son so was he a grandson, nephew or great nephew? And, given that Mackay`s own parents were both Mackays, on which side? I hope someone reading this has the answers we need.
I believe Alexander was a senior employee of the Caledonian Insurance Company in St Andrews Square, Edinburgh and died in 1916. Among other writings he left an account of the workings of the mill at Kirtomy and the social life which attended itwhich has been of considerable interest to twentieth century scholars.
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