The Exile Years

Prologue – Colla’s Isle

We are a great family for the storytelling, telling our MacDhòmhnaill history over and again, again and over, like a parable from the Bible. I can see the day in my mind clear enough, as if I was there myself, from the telling of it by my father and brother later, over and again, again and over.

On that day my half-brother Aonghus and my father Colla were returning across the close grassland of our island home. My father carried the long hunting gun balanced over his shoulder; the two hounds trotted a little ahead, their ears pricking interest to every distant bird in the dunes; my brother carried a small sack of oysters that they had gathered from the shallows.

He glanced discreetly at my father. ‘And would you no think about moving back to the house at Loch an Sgoltaire? Might the MacLeans raid again?’ In his thirteenth year, he looked to ask a good question.

My father gazed wide to left and right across a soft landscape populated by slow moving, docile Highland black-cattle. His land by sword; his cattle by cunning. Colla MacDhòmhnaill, my father, laird of Collansay. Colla Ciotach MacDonald, as he was better known, “ambidextrous” or “crafty” Colla.

‘I might,’ he answered eventually, ‘but I think Sabhal Bàn is all that we have need of now. The MacLeans are no as strong as they once were. We can move quick enough, and we have need.’

He cast a satisfied look across the land. Truth was, other clans hadna bothered with Collansay for some time. We had long been an obstacle in the expansion of the MacLeans from the north and the Campbells from the mainland east, but at that time, things were quiet enough.

Aonghus smiled but didna speak, the bond reinforced. Down by the shore, in the muran grass, the head of a heron popped up from her hiding place, sensitive to their passing. She gave one rasping, disgruntled shriek and winged slow and low along the strand, seeking quieter places.

The day was cold and bright, the flowerless heather sprang beneath their feet, the cattle were yet fat. A keen wind cut over the low-lying island and the shush in the muran played a thousand tiny whisperings of what was to come. The year was sixteen hundred and sixteen.

Father and Aonghus came in sight of our home, the tall, thatched Sabhal Bàn, the White Barn. As they entered the door-yard through the enclosing wall, there was a strange silence about the place. No servants were in the kale-yard. Even the animals were quiet. The two men stopped, listening into the stillness. The dogs looked curiously at the house, the heightened awareness of their masters perhaps affecting them. My father scanned out across the pastures and shorn in-by fields but nothing seemed amiss, save the unaccustomed silence. The narrow barn-windows of the house gave out no sign.

Slowly he pushed open the heavy oak door. The dimly lit main room seemed empty, no signs of struggle. Nola’s spinning wheel sat with the rush lamp burned-out beside it; a neatly filled creel of wool skeins stood by; wool was still on the wheel, part-spun. Aonghus followed father quietly into the kitchen. The table had preparations for a meal on it, broken eggs in a large mixing bowl, more yet in the basket beside. The fire glowed brightly in the hearth, its peats left unsmoored as if it were still being used to cook upon. Aonghus put the sack of oysters quietly on the table.

Muffled groans came through the floor from upstairs.

‘Màiri!’ blurted my father and the two of them ran for the staircase, bounding up in a few strides and throwing open the door to the bedchamber.

Màiri, my mother, sat on the birthing chair, her face red with effort. She turned a baleful look upon my father, although she hardly seemed to see him through the pain of her effort. Around her the women of the house spoke quiet comfort, holding her hands, brushing sweat-matted hair from her face. She winced, pushing her head back. She had come early into labour: Bron Trogan, the Burden of the Earth. My father crossed himself, wide-eyed for a moment, then turning, pushed Aonghus back out of the door. They would not be welcome or needed here.

They went down to the kitchen to await the outcome, forgetting all thoughts of Campbells and MacLeans. They sat at an uncluttered end of the large kitchen table, saying little for a while.

Aonghus was as spare as any man at a birth, more so as he looked at our father’s anxious face. He could help neither parent. The younger sisters had evidently been sent off to a neighbour’s house for the duration. Rising, he re-hooked the pot to the slabhraidh over the fire to warm the broth, poking the peats into life again. He might as well get some soup for father.

Minutes passed. Intermittent groans came through the ceiling above, causing the two of them to steal furtive glances towards the stairs, each putting forward a face of calm that they did not feel. My father absent-mindedly fingered the hilt of his sword, his gun now stood against the wall with the other arms. A comforting thought came to him: Màiri had borne many children. This one would be no trouble. Still, she was older now and a prayer wouldna go amiss. He reached for his rosary and began to quietly request the benevolent intervention of Our Lord, covering the sounds of pain from above with his whispering.

Time passed, the fire began to hiss as the broth spat. Aonghus pushed a steaming bowl in front of father and was fetching a spoon when a different sound caused my father to look up. Around the walls of the kitchen, the swords in their scabbards began to rattle where they hung; the small round targes began to swing on their hooks. Then, one by one, the locks of the muskets in their rack began to click and cock into place of their own accord as if readying for battle. The two men paused in wonder at this strangeness, looking at the weapons, the ripples in the soup bowls on the table, then at each other. In a few moments, the rattling of the arms stopped and silence returned, to be replaced by an altogether different sound. Upstairs, someone very small, was none too pleased at the first view of his new home.

I was wailing in the midwife’s arms, chord still attached, when my father burst into the chamber.

‘Did you hear the rattling of the swords and shields as the child was born?! Is it a boy or a girl?’ He seemed unable to decide which of the two important questions to cram through his lips first.

It was my mother, Màiri, that answered. ‘It is a boy,’ she said from the birthing-chair

The servant girl dabbed my exhausted mother’s face with a cold cloth; the midwife was already readying the chord to cut. ‘It is a portent!’ cried my father anxiously. ‘The guns below at the wall cocked themselves.’

Staring down at me he said, ‘It is an evil portent. Indeed it is! Swords rattling at the wall of this house while he was born. Get a bucket! Drown the child at once!’

He made a grab for me from the midwife’s arms and she dropped the chord-cutting knife in surprise, surrendering me to his assertive grasp. I have no doubt he would have killed me in that moment had not my mother spoken up.

‘You’ll do no such thing!’ she demanded, struggling to raise her limp body from the seat. She locked eyes with my father, then the midwife, one of the NicBhiocair women from the lower farm, perhaps expecting her to speak out or retrieve me from him.

‘There’s nothing evil in this portent at all,’ offered the midwife, hesitantly. She turned a knowing smile upon them, one after another, landing it finally upon my father, giving time to collect her thoughts.

‘Tis but the boy will grow to be a great warrior, just like his father. The arms know it well.’ She smiled, reaching for my bloody body wriggling in his hands, held up roughly like a half drowned and wailing cat.

‘Mmph!’ was his grudging acknowledgement after a moment. He thrust me back to the NicBhiocair woman.

‘We’ll call him Alasdair,’ my mother said to my father’s retreating back. She had named me after his uncle, great uncle and great, great grandfather, knowing well, as a daughter of NicDhòmhnaill herself, the family pride that she could call upon for male flattery and manipulation. Having named me, she let out a sigh, closed her eyes and sunk against the hard wooden chair. There was another “Mmph” from my father and he withdrew from the room.

‘I was in great fear the master was for murdering this wee man,’ said the NicBhiocair woman while she cleaned me.

‘Mmmph,’ echoed my mother, her eyes still closed, ‘My husband is in great want of some nourishment in his head.’ She looked at me properly then.

‘Alasdair MacColla Ciotach Mhic Dhòmhnaill,’ she said, giving me my full name. ‘Well, mo bhalaich, you are after being given a warrior’s life. Will you take it?’

NicBhiocair looked up at the question, but it was not to her that my mother was speaking.

‘You’ll be needing it, my son,’ she said, closing her eyes. ‘The Lord and myself know how much you’ll be needing it.’

Anno Domini 1639

I awoke with a start from the grip on my shoulder.

‘Alasdair!’ came a harsh whisper. ‘Wake yourself! Your father is after sending me. He says you must away. Wake you Alasdair!’ The stranger shook my shoulder again as I tried to make sense of what he had said.

‘Wake you, Alasdair. I am to tell you “Remember the night at Smerby when you were a boy, and the game. The answer was ‘a sea pig’.” He said you’d know what that meant.’

The voice in the dark waited, perhaps for a response. I could see him dimly, but I didna think I knew him. I looked to my younger brother’s bed at the other end of the room, but it was silent and in darkness.

‘Aye?’ I croaked, not much awake, my mouth furred with last night’s ale.

‘He said to tell you that you must leave the island, tonight. Go to Antrim, Alasdair. You are in danger. That is his message. Go now.’

My head hurt from the quickness of waking, sleep draining from my blood, and I mumbled to the intruder to repeat his words.

‘Your father says you are to leave the island tonight. There is danger. Go to Antrim. He said you’d know the message was from him when I said “the answer to the riddle at Smerby was muc-mara.” Does it mean aught to ye?’

‘Aye. What has happened?’ I asked, the sense of danger rising in me to join the nausea of a rude awakening. ‘Who are you yourself?’ I could not see his face clearly in the gloom of the bedroom. He carried no light. I could smell the sea air on him though.

‘Just a friend, Alasdair, a friend to your father. Your father and brother have been taken prisoner.’

‘What! By whom?’ I pushed his hand from me and struggled back the covers, my wits sharpening.

‘By the Earl of Argyll. And there’s not a thing that you yourself can do for it and a host is being sent against this very house to take you while ye lie here. Get you up!’ He pulled the covers fully from me and put a hand under my oxter, hauling me upwards. ‘Your father sent a warnin’. Ye must away! Ye’ll know I speak for your father when I say the answer to the riddle at Smerby was muc-mara.’

‘Aye, I hear ye,’ I said. ‘I’m up.’

The shadowy face was close to mine, but still I didna know him, it seemed. He waited only a moment to satisfy himself that I had understood him, then he stepped from me. The quiet sneck of the closing door and his feet on the stairs told of his departure. I couldna imagine how he’d got into the house.

My head clearing, I began to pull on my clothes. The mention of the game we had played at Smerby when I was child told me the message was a true one, for no one beyond our family would have understood it. Muc-mara, a sea-pig, a whale as they cry it in English. I had a vision of my father louping around the drawing room of Smerby House under a big blue plaid, making the strangest noises. We, the young children were squealing with pretended fear and the older ones and the adults rolling about with laughter. The game was one where we had to guess what he was. He was fair worn out by the time we did, his hair matted to his head with sweat. His turn as a muc-mara became a thing often retold in our house, but few others would have known of it.

These memories came to me in my rapidly waking state as I searched darkness for clothing. Whatever reason he’d called that memory to mind, it was important that I believe the messenger to be true. For why had the messenger gone already?

I pulled back the heavy drapes from the small window. It was the middle of the night, but already the June dawn threw a pale ocean-blue light across the fields around the house. There was no sign of the messenger.

Still dressing, I went to the bed of my younger brother Ragnald that lay at the far end of the chamber. I threw back his drapes and as quickly a possible instilled a sense of urgency in him. I gave Ragnald only the simplest knowledge that we had to leave the island and that father had been imprisoned. With no answers to his questions, we gathered some of his belongings by a dim light.

‘Go you and check outside,’ I said to Ragnald as I filled a bag. ‘See if there’s any person about. Go quiet, mind.’ He closed the dorlach he was packing and threw it across his shoulder.

In the kitchen a few minutes later I was grabbing some food supplies with the help of a house-servant that I had wakened.

‘You know what to do?’ I asked of the woman-servant. ‘The valuables, the deeds?’

‘Aye, Master Alasdair. We’ll take care o’ things afore this hour’s passed,’ she confirmed.

‘And the cattle?’

‘I said so,’ she answered with impatience, stuffing a wrapped cheese into my bag.

Ragnald came in the front door, closing it quietly.

‘I can see no one,’ he said. ‘Are ye to tell me what this is about?’

‘Soon as I know myself, brother. For now we must away.’

Ragnald handed me my sea-cape, we took the bags and made for the boatman’s house.

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Cover of the novel Alasdair - The Exile Years

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