Galleys at Kishorn by Donald J. MacDonald of Castleton FSA Scot.

Kishorn has been much in the news for the last two years. There, one of the largest and most modern pieces of floating equipment has been built, launched into a specially constructed dock, and towed away to a site many miles from Kishorn.

Yet, just 470 years ago galleys were being built there by our Sleat ancestors, who were competent designers of those craft, so important in the life of the Islesmen in peace and war. It is not without significance that our motto (Air Muir ‘s Air Tir) puts the sea first in importance. But we must go back a few years to tell how galleys being built there led to foul crime and tragedy.

Hugh, founder of the Sleat family (Clann Uistein), who lived in the latter part of the 15th century, was third son of Alexander, Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross (d. 1449), and half-brother of John, last Lord of the Isles (d. 1503). Early in his life Hugh, with sundry other young gentlemen of the Isles, carried out a highly successful raid on the Orkney Islands. On their way home, laden with spoil, they stopped in Caithness and were entertained by Gunn, the Crowner (local Government official) of that county. By the daughter of Gunn, Hugh “got” a son whom he named Donald Gallach. Caithness (called Gallaobh by the Gaels) was the origin of his soubriquet “Gallach”.

By a daughter of MacLeod of Harris, Hugh had another son, ‘called Donald Hearach: and not content with these two, he had another four sons by extramarital adventures. Of these disreputable characters, Gilleasbuig Dubh (Black Archie) was undoubtedly the worst. He was determined to murder the two Donalds, his half-brothers and thus inherit the lands of their father, Hugh. The Sleat seannachie, also named Hugh, writing later relates, with all the gory details, how Donald Hearach was eliminated. Black Archie went at once to seek Donald Gallach who had succeeded the ineffectual John, eldest son of Hugh, in the estates in 1502.

We take up the story as told by the seannachie. Black Archie, with his two bastard brothers, Angus Collach and Angus Dubh:

“went to the Isle of Sky where, hearing that their brother Donald Gallach was at Kishorn building two galleys, one for himself, the other for Donald Hearach. They went there in the night time and coming to the place where Donald lodged early in the morning, they went in where he was, and after discoursing on different subjects, Donald Gallach came out with a plaid wrapped round him and his nightcap on where the galleys were building on the stocks. Archibald bowed under the quarter of one of the galleys and said that the carpenter had placed a plank there in a very crude manner. Donald Gallach, stooping to see the plank was stabbed by Archibald with his long skean or knife. Donald Gallach leaning over a little rivulet near the place, turning about, said he was sure his brother Donald Hearach was not in life. Archibald leaping over the same rivulet, said he was not, neither would he be any longer, and stabbed him a second time. Ordering his brothers to lay on that they might be equally guilty, which they obeyed and came back to Strath the very same day. MacKinnon being informed of the murder of Donald Gallach brought his corpse from Kishorn and buried it in Kilchrist.” (Highland Papers, Vol.1, pp. 66/67).

Here it may be interesting to note that Hugh of Sleat, the seannachie, states that “Donald Gruamach succeeded his father Donald Gallach in the lands of Trotterness, Sleat, North Uist, Canna, Loch­broom and Kishorn” (ibidem p. 72).

It is satisfactory to relate that the sons of the murdered Donalds at last caught up with the bloody Archie and killed him, but that is another story.