East of Durness one can visit Smoo Cave, the largest of three ajoining caves. Similar to Fingal's Cave it echoes the sounds of the water falling into its deep pool. Smoo, is thought to have derived from the Norse word smjugg or smuga which means hole/ hiding place. It's believed that the use of the cave dates as far back as the Mesolithic age.
Allegedly it was often used as a smugglers cove. It was even thought to lead to the Nether world, another Scottish Never Land.
One legend recounts how the devil, seeking revenge against Lord Donald Reay, also known as the Wizard of Reay, waited in this cave convinced that the Wizard would come.
Donald was supposed to have lost his shadow to the devil. This too is said to have been the fate of Wizard Laird of Skene, Aberdeen, but that's another story.
During a sojourn in Venice, Italy, Donald made the acquaintance of the devil. He even became one of his best students in philosophy, metaphysics, alchemy, Venetian disguises and carnal pursuits.
What Donald was unaware of, despite his wisdom, wantonness and Latin worldliness, was that it was a custom for the devil to claim the soul of the last student to leave the class at the end of each term.
Donald was sharp enough however to avoid this terrible fate. He may well have anticipated the devil's unseemly advances in trying to take advantage of their being alone. For when the devil suddenly made an eager rush towards him, Donald immediately pointed to his own shadow and cried out the magical 16th century proverb, 'De'il tak' the hindmost!' Whereupon the devil only took Donald's shadow leaving him otherwise free to return to Scotland.
That Donald no longer had a shadow, added to his charm and mystery, so perhaps he didn't miss it as much as he should have. The devil was furious however, for he wasn't used to being outdone, even by wizards.
He was quite certain that Donald would eventually arrive at the cave, and time was of no consequence to him in any case. To keep him company he had summoned three evil old witches, one of whom liked to believe she was a flying mermaid. She would swim in the pool smiling toothlessly up under the water, and let her scraggy hair swirl about like slimy, dead marsh weed whilst the other two light-heartedly threw heavy pebbles at her.
Sure enough, the day came when Donald and his dog Duncan were strolling across the moors near Smoo Cave. It was late in the day. The weather was changing for the worst. Indeed wet winds blew and fearful storm clouds gathered. Donald and his dog decided to shelter in the cave. Duncan wandered off ahead to explore, but moments later he returned trembling, yelping and totally hairless.
Donald immediately surmised that the devil was somewhere lurking in the darkness of the cave waiting for him. As he prepared to meet his fate, for he knew that without his shadow it would be hopeless, the sky fortunately cleared allowing the setting sun to shine gloriously, and then a cock crowed loudly and clearly.
In view of these Heaven-sent occurrences, the devil and his assistants had no other choice but to leave immediately. Perhaps this was because dark deeds are best done in the dark, provided noisy cocks remain silent.
They were in fact so eager to get away that the devil blew great holes in the roof of the cave through which the four of them flew up and away shrieking in a hideous manner.
So if you ever visit Smoo Cave in Sutherland, Scotland, and are told that the holes in the caves' ceiling were made by natural erosion caused by the infiltration of sea water combined with the Smoo burn (Allt Smoo), you now know that such an explanation would be a lot of nonsense.
*In the 16th century the much feared highwayman McMurdo murdered his victims by throwing them down the main blowhole into the cave. Although the name McMurdo sounds suspiciously like an invention, his tomb can actually be seen at Bainakeil Church overlooking the Bainakeil Bay.
*Around the year 1720 when Durness was attacked by the Clan Gunn, the surprised inhabitants took refuge in Smoo Cave. The aggressive Clan foolishly followed them into the darkness where they were totally overcome by the villagers who knew the caves very well. Naturally they were able to use this knowledge to their advantage.
At that particular time the cave was flooded and the gaugers were apprehensive about the idea of continuing, but Donald managed to allay their fears. The legend recounts that the highlander, who no doubt appreciated his regular wee dram, rowed under the heavy falls (20m high) in order to capsize the boat before swimming to safety.
The unfortunate Inland Revenue inspectors drowned in the deep, turbulent waters, and only one of the bodies was later found. The ghost of the other inspector is said to appear in the bubbling foam just below the waterfall of the second chamber of Smoo Cave during high flood conditions of the burn. Perhaps his spirit, obsessed with finding the still that produced other, more warming spirits, is doomed to haunt the cave for ever.
But if so it would be hopelessly in vain, because shortly after this tragic and naturally totally unanticipated accident, the alambic was discreetly removed to a new location.
Scottish myths 25
Scottish myths 25
Scottish myths 23
Retellings © Mirino (various sources). Photo of Smoo Cave by Philipp Klinger.
With many thanks. February, 2013
With many thanks. February, 2013