Finding The Lost Glebe [4] – Mac an t-Sronaich

Perhaps more is imagined than is actually known, but the story goes that Mac an t-Sronaich was a notorious and shadowy murderer and robber of Lewis legend who was active in Lewis in the early 19th century.

He lived in a cave behind Keose in Lochs that is still known as Uamh Mac an t-Sronaich and he was reputedly the first cousin of Lilly Macaulay Linshader, the wife of Rev Robert Finlayson, Keose Manse.

On many occasions he found refuge at the manse at Keose and Lilly would leave food for him in one of the outhouses. Tradition maintains that on occasion he slept in the manse, and the marks in the panelling above his bed show where he would stick his dagger overnight.

A number of Mac an t-Sronaich incidents were said to have happened around Keose. At the house of Norman Munro in the Gleann Tharmoid, at the Keose Mill, at Miavaig, and in the manse itself, and most of the would be victims escaped death and harm in the same way – by merely pretending that they were not alone, and by speaking aloud as though to a companion.

We would be grateful if anyone can point out the location of the cave, and we include some articles — firstly from the Dundee Evening Telegraph of 20th February 1895:

“The Story of Stronach, of the Lews,…a Desperate Outlaw.”

A paragraph in an old newspaper relating to his first escapade mentions that, being mail-gig driver in Lochcarron, Ross-shire, he ran off with and robbed the mails. Being “wanted” by the authorities, he betook himself to Lews, of which island he was a native, and became a tenant of the wilds, where for a year he lived in defiance of justice, hunted in vain by its officers while skulking in such a wide refuge among his kindred in the Lews.

He got from them some help for his subsistence and information to assist in his evasion of his pursuers. But he could not ven-ture to approach human habitation, at least in the daytime, and especially after he had dipped his hands in blood.

His watch-tower was the hill-top; his shelter, the rock; his defence against surprise, the marshes and lochs of the parish of Lochs, so called for their number.

For his maintenance in summer, beside getting food from his kindred, he entered the rude shielings, or little turf huts, of the dairywomen in the wilds many miles from the villages, and took without asking what he wanted. These dairywomen lodging near their pasturing cattle on the hills were in summer his neighbours in the wilds, returning to their homes in the end of the season with the cows. This is the custom of the country. The turf bothies, of the size of a dog-kennel, are re-erected every summer, and a cluster of them descried far up a green hillside as they are either occupied or deserted gives an air of curious animation or of desolation to the lonely scene.

These were Stronach’s “house of call” in the daytime, but no doubt he visited his relatives at dead of night. Indeed, he has been seen at midnight standing for shelter in the byre of the minister of Lochs at the cows head.

The present writer was himself acquainted with some of his relatives, and the spirit of clanship was so strong with them that they ventured to deny it was Stronach at all who was the criminal, and was executed, as he was, at Greenock in 1837 or 1838, after having been taken in Harris.

The person who furnishes this account had something to do with Stronach, and that was to run a race for life with that bloody Arab, who committed three murders before his career ended.

This person was journeying to Stornoway from Calarnish, and was seven miles on upon the lonely road, when his eye sideway caught a seemingly stone-grey pillar on the hill overhanging the road. He would have taken this for a Druid stone, but that it was not there when he took the road before.

Anon the grey (plaided) pillar began to move, crouch, and slink round the hill in a circuit to meet him on the road from the op-posite direction without alarming the traveller by direct descent upon him. Stronach went about armed with a kind of sword.

It was in the bounds of Lochs, a parish about 25 miles long, and there was a loch and marsh extending half a mile in length, but narrow. On each side of the watery strip the race began between the traveller and the robber. They stopped a minute to look at one another face to face, and ran again.

But the traveller, though tired, was fleet, and with the advantage of the turn which the robber had to make out-distanced him.

It was some years after this that the writer himself heard the minister of Uig inform the teacher of the circumstances of Stronach’s capture after three murders and his execution at Greenock.

One of Stronach’s murders was peculiarly cruel, and he expressed at his execution special regret for it. He met a man on the border of Harris returning from Stornoway with a keg of whisky for a certain festivity. The man most freely gave Stronach a draught from the keg; and the murderer, concealing his purpose, from which he relented, let the bearer go on his way.

By an by he turned upon his steps, overtook, and struggled with his victim, who would have prevailed but for the weapon which Stronach carried.”

Petition of the Procurator Fiscal for the Lewis District of Ross-shire, July 1834.

Unto the Honourable the Sheriff of Ross-shire or his Substitute for the Lewis district. The Petition of Thomas Buchanan Drum-mond, Writer in Stornoway, Proc Fiscal for said district. Humbly Sheweth:

That the petitioner has received information of there being a man lurking about the island of Lewis who is suspected of hav-ing committed some serious crimes but for the present has evaded being brought to justice, and as he puts the Inhabitants of the Island in fear of their lives (he being armed with dangerous weapons) besides, as their sheep and other cattle may be destroyed and their goods seized and carried off by that person who at present can have no lawful means of procuring subsist-ence, and hence the petitioner suspects him either to be a criminal escaped from justice, Vagabond or Plunderer, which renders the present application necessary.

May it therefore please your Lordship to consider what is above set forth, and in respect of the peculiar circumstances of the Case, grant warrant to Officers of Court, constables, their Concurrents, and to any of the Natives of the Island to pass search for and apprehend the person before referred to and to bring him before you for examination and thereafter, upon again advising this application with the oration of the accused and other evidence that may be adduced, do and determine in the premises as to your Lordship shall seem proper.

Further in the Meantime grant warrant for citing witnesses to be precognosed in the cause.

According to justice. Sgd. Tho. B. Drummond, Proc Fiscal. Stornoway 8th July 1834”

Cultural Retention & Demographic Change: Studies of the Hebridean Scots in the Eastern Townships of Quebec (1980):

“…Mrs Herbert Mayhew (nee Muriel Macdonald), who has lived in Lennoxville for the past thirty years, also grew up hearing stories of the same Mac an t-Sronaich, told to her as a child in Milan by her mother, the late Annie Macdonald, or “Aunt Annie” as she was called locally.

When she came to Quebec as a young woman in 1910, she brought with her many of the stories she had heard in her home on the Isle of Lewis.

As a young woman, Annie’s grandmother had been walking home one evening from Stornoway to Keose, and she had not gone very far when a man caught up with her on the lonely road. Having done so, he kept pace with her along the road, but without speaking a single word. With no place to take refuge but the moors, she became very frightened, and realised that she was probably in the company of the dreaded Mac an t-Sronaich.

All along the road, she expected him to take her life at any moment, but her silent companion kept her guessing. As he quickened his step to keep up with hers, she could hardly muster enough courage to keep going.

When at last she turned into the gate beside her home, the man leaned over and asked her in Gaelic if she had not been afraid to travel along the road with him. This simply confirmed her great fear that she been walking along-side of the most terrible man known to Lewis.” (Annie above was Ann Maciver of 14 Keose).

From the Caledonian Mercury, June 20th, 1835: “A Strange Visitor”

The inhabitants of a small place called Crossbost, in Lewis Island, were a few days ago greatly surprised by the appearance among them of a person, evidently a stranger, under somewhat suspicious circumstances. He arrived alone in a boat, which he sailed to the place, and had no sooner touched the shore than off he scampered, leaving her in possession of the natives.

Information being sent to Stornoway of the circumstances, a party of constables were immediately sent by the authorities in pursuit of the unknown, who was the same day found in the Manse of Keose and brought to Inverness.

He would say nothing on examination, except the words Campie or Campsie, and Jamie Camp or Campbell in answer to interrogatories as to his place of residence and name, and he has scarcely been heard to speak since. His manner is that of one who is insane, or who pretends to be so.

In the meantime, the authorities have caused him to be properly taken care of, until they hear from Campsie, whither they have written for information regarding him. He is about 25 years of age, and apparently has never been engaged in any toilsome employment.”

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