A lack of rats on Morvern

The Oban Times - - DISTRICTS - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com.

I WAS in­ter­ested to read in last week’s Oban Times of the rat that found its way to Soroba.

There is a cu­ri­ous state­ment in the Old Sta­tis­ti­cal Ac­count of Scot­land, writ­ten in 1791, that no rats would live in Morvern.

The writer, the Rev Nor­man Macleod of Fi­u­nary (1745-1824), based this re­mark on lo­cal tra­di­tion and told of huge num­bers com­ing ashore from vis­it­ing ships an­chored in Loch Aline.

Fifty years on, the sit­u­a­tion re­mained un­changed when Nor­man Macleod’s son, John (1801-1882) known as ‘the High Priest of Morvern’, wrote in his con­tri­bu­tion to the New Sta­tis­ti­cal Ac­count, that Morvern had the ad­van­tage over other dis­tricts in Ar­gyll in be­ing rat-free.

The move­ment of rats from one area to an­other was once com­mon. In Wester Ross, there is a place called ‘Bealach na h-im­rich’ (Gaelic – the pass of the flit­ting) named af­ter a well-known oc­ca­sion when a large group was en­coun­tered mov­ing en masse from Gair­loch to Poolewe.

Al­though the Ma­cleods, who were Church of Scot­land min­is­ters in Morvern for more than a cen­tury, thought the lack of rats in the par­ish was wor­thy enough to men­tion in an im­por­tant na­tional pub­li­ca­tion, they of­fered lit­tle in the way of ex­pla­na­tion other than a hint of the mys­te­ri­ous when the staunchly Protes­tant John, an em­i­nent Gaelic scholar and folk­lorist, cau­tiously sug­gested that ‘oth­ers’ might do so.

There is no doubt he was hint­ing to rhyming rats to death, or caus­ing them to mi­grate by the power of in­can­ta­tion.

A be­lief in the ef­fec­tive­ness of this method was com­mon in the past.

Ref­er­ences are to be found scat­tered through­out Gaelic lit­er­a­ture, but none more in­ter­est­ing than in a Gaelic poem com­posed more than a cen­tury ago by John MacDougall (1820-1891) who lived at In­ver­sanda near Ard­gour, of a plague of rats from Rus­sia that came ashore from a ves­sel in Mon­trose and trav­elled across Scot­land to Morvern, end­ing up at Car­saig on Mull.

It is no­table that in such rhyming and satire the de­struc­tion of the rats was never wished for.

The spell, if it was to be suc­cess­ful, had to get them mov­ing to an­other place, usu­ally across a loch, a burn or an arm of the sea.

The satirists took ad­van­tage of their im­mu­nity by singing the praises of their friends and mis­call­ing their en­e­mies, par­tic­u­larly lairds, fac­tors and oth­ers who mis­treated their de­pen­dents.

John MacDougall was no ex­cep­tion and sin­gled out cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als.

For ex­am­ple, he urged the rats to spend a night with Lady Gor­don, the owner of Drimnin, who was in­volved in evict­ing close on 200 souls from her es­tate in the 1800s, mak­ing her the most hated land owner in Morvern at the time.

John Ste­wart, the pop­u­lar miller at the nearby Mun­gos­dail mill, was to be avoided, most likely be­cause he helped to feed those who had been turned off Drimnin Es­tate. So, too, was John Macphail, the Drum­buie farmer, from Kilmodan in Cowal, since he had newly ar­rived in Morvern.

At Salen, on Mull, the rats were told to leave ‘David’ since he was poor, but to spend a night at the inn where they were en­cour­aged to take ev­ery­thing they could eat.

MacDougall told them to spend a night at Pen­nyghael, ‘in the house of the old man with the spec­ta­cles, and leave noth­ing ex­cept limpets and fish bones for him; eat all his but­ter and cheese and all the white meal and fat there. Eat all oats and pota­toes and leave not one grain on an ear of corn’.

Sim­i­lar in­struc­tions were given to the rats when they reached Car­saig.

‘See that you leave noth­ing there, just as the plagues of Egypt did. Let one of you, with his paw, write for him the sen­tence of Bels­haz­zar of the Chaldeans [ Daniel 5:1] and, since I sent you to Car­saig, let Car­saig send you away from him­self.’

The laird of Car­saig at the time was a Maclean who, like Lady Gor­don, was re­spon­si­ble for clear­ing peo­ple off his land, thereby in­cur­ring the bard’s wrath.

Who hasn’t heard of Robert Brown­ing’s poem, Rats?

‘They fought the dogs and killed the cats, and bit the ba­bies in the cra­dles, and ate the cheeses out of the vats, and licked the soup from the cooks’ own la­dles. Split open the kegs of salted sprats, made nests in­side men’s Sun­day hats, and even spoiled the women’s chats, by drown­ing their speak­ing with shriek­ing and squeak­ing in 50 dif­fer­ent sharps and flats.

‘At last the peo­ple in a body to the Town Hall came flock­ing: ‘Tis clear,’ cried they, ‘our Mayor’s a noddy and as for our Cor­po­ra­tion - shock­ing; to think we buy gowns lined with er­mine for dolts that can’t or won’t de­ter­mine what’s best to rid us of our ver­min! You hope, be­cause you’re old and obese, to find in the furry civic robe ease? Rouse up, sirs! Give your brains a rack­ing to find the rem­edy we’re lack­ing, or, sure as fate, we’ll send you pack­ing!’

Is there a mes­sage here for Ar­gyll and Bute’s Oban coun­cil­lors? You might think that. I couldn’t pos­si­bly com­ment.

A West Highland rat.

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