In Search of the Red Book of Clanranald by Ronald I. Black, Cataloguer of Gaelic Manuscripts in the National Library of Scotland.

Among the swords, pistols and snuff-boxes of the Clanranald Bequest in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh are two Gaelic manuscripts belonging to the hind-end of the seventeenth century. One is labelled “The Black Book of Clanranald,” the other “The Red Book of Clanranald.” I hope to publish a detailed account of them in the next issue of Scottish Gaelic Studies, in which I will be demonstrating that the “Black Book of Clanranald,” although black all right, is not a Clanranald book and that the “Red Book of Clanranald,” is a Clanranald book all right, but not the Red one. The latter was “The Little Book of Clanranald” at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when its relatively humble status was more fully appreciated. For tradition cried out, and written sources whispered, the existence of a larger, older manuscript, “The Red Book of Clanranald.”

In an article in Vol.12 of Scottish Notes and Queries (3rd Ser.), pp. 43-5, Miss Anne M. Davidson juggled with the written evidence, got many of her equations wrong, yet came up with the inescapable answer. The Little Book, as she says, is not the Red Book. The fact is that it is only too probable that the Red Book existed. Every old Gaelic manuscript surviving today is but the apex of a great cairn of written tradition now lost: every poem, every tale, every charm and every statement in every tract has its source or inspiration in some other manuscript that came before. Nearly everything has gone, for as a culture loses credit through unrelenting oppression its artefacts are destroyed. Clanranald’s poet-historians, the MacMhuirrich, were said to have had seven cartloads of manuscripts, but some were seen in the eighteenth century being cut up by tailors for use as measuring-tapes and now, as represented by the James Macpherson (“Highland Society of London”) collection, they take up a mere foot of steel shelving in the National Library of Scotland.

The Red Book of Clanranald was probably of folio size, consisting of vellum leaves with a cover of some reddish leather such as cowhide or deerskin. It would have been beautifully written in Gaelic script, with decorative initials of a Celtic pattern coloured in a selection of reds, blues, yellows and browns. It would have contained genealogies, annals and other material relating to the Lordship of the Isles, an early version of the Clanranald History which we know from the two extant books, the MacMhuirrich praise-poems, and verse and of a mythological nature dealing mainly with the exploits of the legendary Fionn mac Cumhail. If it still exists, its leaves are smoked brown like herrings, stained with soot and damp and probably snuff and nibbled at the corners by rats and mice. The Ink and colours, however, no matter how much assaulted by these foes, will have faded little and run not at all, for they are based on sheep’s galls and are completely waterproof.

Well, does the book exist? The days when such long-lost items turned up appear to be past, but in this case the scent seems to be a hot one, well worth pursuing to the end. Here, as documented in the National Library’s files, and by permission of the Board of Trustees, is the trail.

The Oban Times Letter.

Towards the end of 1936 an Australian newspaper, the Adelaide Advertiser, carried the following story:

Missing Gaelic Manuscript.

About two years ago Professor R.S. Wallace, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, attempted to locate the Gaelic manuscript known as the “Red Book of Clanranald” (An Leabhar Dearg), supposed to be in Australia.

In a letter to “The Advertiser”, Professor J.L. Michie, professor of classics at the University of Queensland, writes: “The justification for making further enquiries now is that fresh light has been thrown on the history of the manuscript, and that there exists something more definite by way of clue. Miss A.M. Davidson, of Aberdeen, Scotland, on whose behalf I am writing, established the fact that the “Red Book” was in the possession of the Clanranald family in Scotland as late as 1840. She has reason to believe that some time later it was in the possession of a daughter of the elder Clanranald (maiden name would be MacDonald) in Australia. Miss Davidson, I ought to say, has made a name for herself in literary research by her recent discovery of the Boswall papers at Fetteresso. She wishes it to be clearly understood that nobody is claiming the “Red Book”, and that the attempt to locate it is being made purely and solely in the interests of scholarship.”

When the letter was referred to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide (Sir William Mitchell), he said that Professors Michie and Wallace were most anxious to trace this important Gaelic manuscript. By making the matter public it would be a very great help if the manuscript were in South Australia.

Miss Davidson, as I have said, got some things wrong. The manuscript, which her sources showed to be in the possession of the Clanranald family in 1840, was simply the “Little Book.” But this does not necessarily invalidate her information that the “Red Book” was in female Clanranald hands in Australia. Her source for this will become apparent, and in any case Professor Derick Thomson of the Chair of Celtic in Glasgow tells me of a persisting tradition, relayed to him by the late Hugh Laing (a native of South Uist who made his home in Perth, Western Australia), that the Red Book was taken to Australia, its vellum leaves stitched into her petticoats, by a female member of the chiefly house. Laing also said that the manuscript had passed down through the female line ever since, and that when a male Canadian member of the family had attempted to secure it he had been rebuffed.

On 9 January 1937 the Oban Times published the following above a transcript of the Adelaide Advertiser story.

The following letter has reached us from Adelaide:

Sir, Some weeks ago the enclosed cutting appeared in the “Advertiser”, Adelaide, and has been brought under my notice.

Can any of your readers or yourself give me any information regarding the reason for which the manuscripts are wanted and if any of the MacDonalds of Clanranald are interested.

I would like you to point out to your readers that the manuscripts are not missing and have been in my branch of the family for hundreds of years.

I get the Oban Times every week from our newsagent, Mr. O’Shea, Wayville. I thank you very much if you can find this out for me. Australia is a long way from Scotland, and this cutting is rather vague.

I am, etc.


This was the breakthrough that many people had been hoping for. Five days later Scotland’s foremost Gaelic scholar, Professor W.J. Watson of the Chair of Celtic in Edinburgh, wrote to Miss Shonnia MacDonald at her full address, “Cruachan”, 109 Wright Street, Adelaide, South Australia.

I am exceedingly pleased to see your letter to the “Oban Times” in regard to the Red Book of Clanranald. It was I who asked Professor R.S. Wallace to try to ascertain the owner of the manuscript. The late Rev. Angus MacDonald of Killearnan (joint author of the History of Clan Donald) had informed me that the manuscript was in Australia, that he knew of the owner, and that he was in hopes that by and by it would be sent to him. On Dr. MacDonald’s death I found that neither his widow nor his colleague, the Rev. Archibald MacDonald of Kiltarlity, knew the location of the manuscript. So on reflection I wrote to Professor Wallace, as mentioned, with this happy result.

The manuscript is of such importance in respect of Scottish history and of Gaelic literature that we are most anxious to have it safely placed in the National Library of Scotland, here in Edinburgh, where it can be carefully kept and available for reference. If this can be done, it would be a national service, and the same applies to any other papers or manuscripts that go with it. There are here a number of scholars who would most highly appreciate it – I doubt if there are such in Australia.

If necessary I should be ready and glad to raise a sum sufficient to purchase the manuscript and any other documents.

Clearly Watson received a reply, but unfortunately neither it nor a copy of his second letter is preserved among his papers: nearly a year later, on 10 January 1938, he wrote to her again.

You may recall that some time ago I wrote to you in regard to the old Gaelic Manuscript in your possession. I venture now to write again to explain how anxious we are that this manuscript should be placed in the National Library of Scotland here in Edinburgh.

In your letter you mentioned that money does not come into the question, but I may say that any conditions that you might think fit to impose would certainly be readily accepted. In the National Library it would be carefully preserved as is the Book of the Dean of Lismore, the property of the Highland Society of London, while it would be accessible to scholars under the strict rules of the Library.

The late Rev. Angus J. MacDonald, DD, of Killearnan, informed me that this manuscript is the Red Book of Clan Ranald, so long lost, and that he hoped to recover it. We cannot, however, be sure that it is the real Red Book without actually seeing it, or at least having a careful description, including size and number of pages together with some photographs of the text.

What I wish to urge, however, is that in the case of a manuscript of such national importance it is most desirable that it should be in national keeping, available for consultation by scholars who are qualified to read it and to make use of it. My earnest hope is that you will come to take the same view, and do Scotland the signal favour of presenting it with the manuscript.

I should add that I am making this appeal on behalf, not only of myself but of my colleagues in the other Scottish Universities and in Ireland, and of our Gaelic scholars in general. We all await your decision, with strong hope that it may be favourable.

There is no record of a reply or any further correspondence, and unhappily the War intervened. Particularly unhappily from our point of w, because one of

Watson’s sons, Hugh (later Sir Hugh), records in a letter to the Library of 2 April 1948 his impression “that certain information, more or less definite, was obtained that it was in Australia”; because his other son, James, who by then had succeeded him in the Chair of Celtic, and who, according to the Rev. William Matheson, was prepared to go to Australia to look for the book, was last reported “missing presumed killed” while on active service on HMS Jaguar in the Mediterranean, 26 March 1942. The elder Watson died in 1948.

Who Was Shonnia MacDonald?

This, according to the Rev. William Matheson, who is Senior Lecturer in Celtic at Edinburgh University, is the question we must ask. If it can be shown that there is a genealogical relationship between her and the Clanranald family (or some other person likely to have possessed the Red Book), her claim to have the manuscript may have had some foundation. In this connection, it is hard to see as mere coincidence the fact that on Christmas Day, 1897, Allan Douglas MacDonald, 22nd chief of Clanranald, was married in Adelaide, South Australia. His bride was a lady from Victoria, Marion Cecilia Sabelberg, widow of D.F. Connell, Melbourne. The authors of The Clan Donald, who as we have seen included the Rev. Angus J. MacDonald of Killearnan, provide this information (in vol.3, 1904), but mention no offspring; the present Clanranald has kindly given his views by letter, as follows.

I did not know Douglas Clanranald had a daughter. I know he died in South Africa, and my father arranged his funeral and in my father’s papers I have the death certificate … The Black Book passed through Douglas’ brother Angus to the Museum of Scottish Antiquities in Edinburgh, together with all other items of interest. That being so and as these things were kept together, I doubt if a daughter who would have been very young when he died would have come by such a document. My guess is that the book may possibly be somewhere unless it was destroyed as rubbish during the late nineteenth century, and that Miss Shonnia MacDonald is not a daughter of Douglas.

In any case the correspondence of Douglas’s father (Admiral Reginald, 21st chief) shows that in 1873 he did not have the Book, so it is unlikely that his son would have come by it. There are, of course, many puzzling things about Miss MacDonald and her letter. One of the most trivial, perhaps, is her address. Cruachan? The rallying cry of the Campbells? On this, at any rate, I have the following information from Mr. A. Grahame MacDonald of Queensland, Clan Donald Commissioner for Australia, who is himself, I believe, of the Kinlochmoidart branch of the Clanranald.

A Victorian lady once mentioned a Clanranald member of the Clan Macdonald Society of Victoria who named his home “Cruachan”. I have directed further enquiries to this lady but so far I have not received a reply (5.12.1977).

Attempts appear to have been made to trace Shonnia MacDonald and the Red Book once per decade since the war. In the ’50s Hugh Laing, who, it seems, did not personally contact Shonnia Macdonald, was nevertheless able to inform Professor Thomson that she intended to bequeath the Red Book to the University of St. Andrews – ironically, at that time the only university in Scotland not equipped with a Department of Celtic. Feeling in 1975 that Miss MacDonald must by then be deceased, the National Library contacted R.N. Smart, the University’s Keeper of  Manuscripts. His reply was brief and to the point.

Thank you for your letter of 30th July. Alas the short answer is that we do not have the manuscript among our small collection of Gaelic MSS here and I have never heard of Miss MacDonald.

On 28 September 1967 a letter about the Red Book from the Rev. John Mackenzie, a Gaelic scholar who appeared likewise not to have heard of Miss MacDonald, appeared in the Oban Times.

I have information to the effect that the real “Red Book” was taken to Australia. I believe that the late Professor Watson of Edinburgh tried to trace this book that was taken to Australia, but with what success I do not know, Hence my letter: can anyone in Australia or anywhere else give me any information whatever about such a book.

The Present Enquiry.

My own attempts to trace Miss MacDonald and the Red Book on behalf of the National Library began in earnest in 1977, the year of the Clan Gathering in Edinburgh, and have been bolstered by the appearance of articles on the subject in The Scotsman (12.7.77) and the Adelaide Advertiser (26.7.77), as well as the interest of various members of the Clan Donald. My thanks are chiefly due, however, to Professor Thomson and to the staffs of the Australian institutions whose unsparing efforts made the investigation possible – the State Library of South Australia, the Barr Smith Library of the University of Adelaide, and the National Library of Australia. Mr. J.H. love, Principal Archivist of the State Library, wrote to me on 25 July 1977 as follows.

I have checked electoral rolls and Street directories. Number 109 Wright Street was occupied in 1936 by a ‘Mrs. M. Morrow’, in 1937 by ‘Mrs. Smith’ and in 1938 by ‘F.T. Smith, pattern maker’.

The 1937 electoral roll has a ‘Jessie MacDonald, shop assistant, 23 Archer Street, North Adelaide’. The street directory shows ‘W. C. H. MacDonald’ at that address till 1939, after which the name does not appear.

The Registrar tells me there is no record of the death or marriage of a Shonnia MacDonald.

There is no indexed reference to Shonnia MacDonald or to the Red Book of  Clanranald between 1935 and 1940 in the Advertiser.

It seemed to me from this that as Shonnia MacDonald wrote to the Oban Times in 1936 from 109 Wright Street, she must have been a tenant, guest or relative of Mrs. Morrow. Watson received a reply from that address, in 1937,but apparently nothing subsequently, so it seemed likely that she then took up residence with W.C.H. MacDonald (her father or brother) at 23 Archer Street. I felt able to say this as “Shonnia” looks very like an idiosyncratic Anglicised version of the Gaelic name Seonaid, normally translated by the less romantic names Janet or Jessie. I put this to Mr. Love, here is his reply.

It has been possible to trace the W.C.H. MacDonald who was living at 23 Archer Street in the 1930s. It is a false lead. He knows nothing of Shonnia MacDonald or the Red Book. The Jessie MacDonald listed as resident at 23 Archer Street was his wife but her maiden name was Wilson.

Number 109 Wright Street is now incorporated with adjacent buildings and occupied by Rasch proprietary, a plastics firm. An Advertiser reporter has already investigated there without success.

The Legislative Council electoral rolls for 1932-41 for West Adelaide (incorporating Wright St.) record only Emma McDonald, widow, of 20A Wright Street and George William and Vera Irene McDonald, of 63 Wright Street. The Legislative Assembly electoral rolls for Adelaide for 1937 and 1939 record only these and Phalma Louisa and William Albert McDonald, of 31 Wright Street. John Edward McDonald appears in the 1937 roll only, also at 204 Wright Street. 109 Wright Street appears in the directories for 19378 as inhabited by F.T. Smith, pattern maker, and thereafter by V. Cahill.

A search of the records of the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages also failed to provide any further details. Indexes for marriages and deaths, covering the period 1938-76, did not record any person named Shonnia MacDonald or McDonald. Eight persons named Jessie McDonald/MacDonald died in South Australia between 1938 and 1976. Of these only two were single women (Jessie Jane McDonald, died 1.4.44, aged 79, of North Terrace, Mt. Gambler; and Jessie McDonald, died 28.4.41. aged 91, of Grey Street, Mt. Gambier) and both were natives of South Australia born at Penola and Mt. Gambier respectively. These would appear to be the Misses McDonald who are listed as boarding-house keepers, Mt. Gambier, from 1936.

Enquiries to the Probate Office, Supreme Court, also failed to identify any record of Shonnia MacDonald, and only one person named Jessie MacDonald (this the widow of W.C.H. McDonald, already mentioned).

On the present condition of Shonnia MacDonald’s erstwhile residence, the Advertiser concurred, concluding its article (“Has anyone here got ‘Red Book’?”):

A check of 109 Wright Street, city, by “The Advertiser” yesterday, revealed the site is now occupied by Rasch Motors (SA) Pty. Ltd.

It seemed as if Miss MacDonald had left the State of South Australia, so my next enquiry was to the National library in Canberra. The reply was staggering.

As you already know, Miss MacDonald is not listed in Adelaide directories of 1936. As she had an unusual first name, we thought it would be worthwhile checking the 1937 electoral rolls. There were perhaps two or three thousand electoral subdivisions in Australia in 1937 and, as it was a time-consuming task, it is possible that a searcher missed the entry. Nevertheless, it seems fairly certain that no one with the name Shonnia MacDonald was listed in the electoral rolls of any Australian State or Territory in 1937. This is somewhat surprising, as from 1925 onwards voting was compulsory in Australia.

I was by now getting the uncomfortable feeling that there was something very bogus about the elusive Miss MacDonald. It was therefore comforting to receive an unexpected postscript from Mr. Love in Adelaide.

We have at least been able to establish that Miss MacDonald existed if not verify her bona fides in relation to the “Red Book”. Mr. F.D. O’Shea, the newsagent of 82 Rose Tce., Wayville (retired for the last 14 years), remembers delivery of the Oban Times to a Mrs. or possibly Miss MacDonald in Adelaide “many years ago” but did not meet her personally and is unable to recall when he ceased delivery. On his Suggestion we contacted Gordon and Gotch, wholesale newsagents, who Supplied papers to O’Shea and who might have records of the subscription necessary for receipt of the Oban Times. However, the subscription department of Gordon and Gotch does not keep records back to 1937, and this lead is thus exhausted. Mr. O’Shea has promised to call if he remembers anything further, but this does not appear likely.

And there the matter rests. Thousands of documents sifted, but the smoky pages of the Red Book of Clanranald seem further away than ever. Or was it perhaps just a few leaves of transcript from a printed book that she had, or some family traditions scribbled down – mere crumbs, but worth a look? The ghost remains unlaid.

See Also: The Red Book and Black Book of Clanranald by Prof. Willie Gillies (2006), Online Magazine.