A lack of rats on Morvern
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.