Scottish myths 6

Coluinn gun Cheann, The Headless Trunk.

It seems there are two versions of this macabre legend. The more absurd is about a decapitated ghost. His name, in both versions, was Coluinn gun Cheann. Apparently he carried his severed head around with him and threw it at his victims, mostly travellers, to stun them before murdering them. He was supposed to have done this in the Trottenish region.
Later, he left the Isle of Skye, and somehow made his way to the mainland choosing Arisaig where apparently there were more victims for his diabolical and horrendous, head hurling attacks.
Eventually fate led him, or more literally he headed towards a fatal culmination point, by choosing the wrong victim.
When Coluinn's head was thrown at a young soldier, the young man was sharp enough to catch it on the point of his sword.
In order to retrieved his head, Coluinn had to promise to return to Skye, and to never return to the mainland again. A promise which is said he kept.

The other version depicts Coluinn gun Cheann as a 'Bauchkan' (hobgoblin, ghost, etc.) who for many centuries acted as loyal protector of the Macdonalds of Morar. He was often seen in the vicinity of the Macdonald residence, Morar House, not far north of Arisaig, on the mainland opposite the Point of Sleat of the Isle of Skye.

For some reason Coluinn gun Cheann was very aggressive towards travellers and even the neighbours of the Macdonalds. He would take on the strongest men, and haunted 'Mile Reith' where many of his murdered victims were found badly mutilated. Everyone avoided the area after sunset, but it's said that Coluinn never attacked women or children.
One day he made the mistake of choosing a distant relative but good friend of Raasay's as his victim. When Ian Garbh, Big John, the son of M'Leod of Raasay learnt of this, he sought the advice of his step-mother, as was his wont, for although he was famous for his great strength, he may have been less endowed regarding his capacity of reasoning. Without hesitation she advised him to avenge the death of his friend.

He thus set out after sunset and met Coluinn on the Mile Reith.
It must have been a terrible fight between the headless giant and Big John, for it lasted the whole night. Ian had the advantage however, because Coluinn, being a ghost, had to avoid the sunrise. When Ian was confident of winning he got a tight grip on Coluinn and prevented him from escaping. He wanted to see what the ghost looked like in daylight. Coluinn had never been known to speak (which wasn't surprising), but somehow he managed to shout out 'Leig as mi' (Let me go). But Ian refused to let go. 'Leig as mi, agus chan fheachear an so mi gu brath tuileadh' (Let me go, and I shall never be seen here any more).
Ian replied, 'Ma bhoidachais thu air a leobhar, air a chonail, agus air a stocaidh dhubh, bi falbh!' (If thou swear that on the book, on the candle, and on the black stocking, begone!). Ian let him go only after forcing him to kneal down before him to make the solemn promise. Coluinn then howled off into the early morning mist endlessly repeating the following lament which was obviously remembered for posterity- 'S fada uam fein bonn beinn Hederin, s fada uam fein bealach a bhorbhan.' This is the translation-

'Far from me is the bill of Ben Hederin
Far from me is the pass of murmuring.'

These words have been handed down and women of that beautiful region still sing them to their children, to a particular melody which is said to be exactly that of Coluinn's final lament.

Although we know that myths and legends are deeply embedded in the culture and history of the Highlands, it's difficult to associate any of the above ghoulishness with this particularly beautiful part of Scotland.

The top picture of the sunset, for example, was taken at Arisaig, mentioned in the above legends. We were at the pub, the Cnoc-na-Faire, having dined on beef-pie with a pint of their best, chased down with a wonderful Islay malt tauby Scotch. 
There was another, apparently well travelled couple there who we chatted with. At the same time we were all suddenly conscious of the beautiful, warm, evening light, and we grabbed our cameras to see the most splendid of sun-sets. An unforgettable evening.

The lower picture was also taken from Arisaig, looking across the bay towards the Isle of Eigg. It was taken quite a few years earlier, well before digital cameras had reached their high performance. I had walked down from where we were staying, because I knew there would be a wonderful sunset. Having taken a few pictures with my trusty old Nikkormat, (that I would never part with, even today) I started climbing back up the bank. Suddenly I turned round to see this swan come regally paddling into the bay towards me, then it veered gracefully to its left, as if it knew what a fine picture it would make.

I regard this picture, that I call The Swan of Scotland, as particularly significant, also for personal reasons due to the unfurling of tragic events at that time. Yet these have far more to do with the beauty of life, its realities, with wonderful examples and memories, than with any myths or legends, including the most fabulous.

 Scottish myths 7
 Scottish myths 5

Retelling and photographs © Mirino (PW) Sources- Popular tales of the West Highlands. Scotland Myths and Legends (Beryl Beare) with grateful thanks. August, 2011

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