Saturday, April 12, 2014

Morag o' the Hundred Heads

#11in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge

M: Muin, Vine in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet.

If you’re thinking, “Oh, grape vines—but do they grow that far north?” the answer is that in this case, vine means bramble = blackberries, and there’s a wealth of folklore about them! “The fairy fruit” was a hedgerow plant that didn’t stay there, but would invade gardens and just about any kind of soil, with up to 9-foot-long creeping vines.
Watch out for Thorns!
Quite a few people have nastier terms for them, because the barbed thorns are on all parts of the plant, and quite vicious.

The fruit was used for jellies, crumbles and pies; Struan Michael is a special berry cake made on Michaelmas Day (Sept. 29th, or under the old Julian calendar, Oct. 10th), and legend says not to eat any blackberries after that; when St. Michael cast Lucifer out of Heaven, he landed in a bramble patch and cursed it. Some version say he spits on it annually, some say he urinates on it. Certainly, after the frosts that occur about then, the berries do become bitter-tasting.

St. Michael & Lucifer

I’m not sure if there are hedges on the Isle of Barra, or if my great-great-granny Catriona learned about brambles after she left the isle on her journey through the Highland down to Glasgow and the ship to America, but I’ve been thinking  lately about the Barra tale she told to my granny, who told it to me about Morag o’ the Hundred Heads.

That’s a nickname or “by-name,” and this is how a bonny young lass acquired it:

18th Century Lady
A chief of the MacNeills of Barra named Roderick—it’s unclear whether it was Roderick Dhu (the dark one) or Roderick the Dove (for his gentle manner), and very doubtful it was Colonel Roderick (the uncaring), but one of them fell in love with Morag at a time when Clan MacNeill was nowhere near as powerful as the Campbell earl whose daughter she was. However, he gave permission for The MacNeill to propose to her. When he did, Morag, who knew very well that her mother was against her wedding this barbarian from a wee rock at the Back of Beyond far from Society (in other words, Edinburgh), said, “If I say yes, will you promise me you’ll mak’ me happy?” And so deeply besotted was he, that he rashly swore upon his honor to do so.

To his surprise, their betrothal lasted for some months, because of all the preparations and purchases that had to be made before the wedding—even involving a trip all the way to London for the bridal gown.!But finally, all was ready and they married. The next day, with a light heart, he handed her into his personal boat, and off they sailed from the mainland through the Inner Hebrides to Barra in the Outer ones, where they were welcomed by the clan ready and willing to love her.

The next day after breakfast, Morag folded her napkin and rose, saying that she was going to the kitchen. Roderick noted how little she had eaten of the porridge and oatcakes, and asked in concern if aught was wrong. No, she said, she simply wanted to give some instructions about luncheon, for there was a dish, her favorite of all things, that she’d had in London, and he had promised to make her happy…. Cheered by the idea that she didn't think herself above taking an interest in household tasks, he kissed her and went about his own work.

Dinner brought a new dish, served on the best new china, but since there didn’t seem to be a great deal of it, Roderick didn’t have any. When Morag ate all of it, he was glad he hadn’t diminished her portion, and thought no more of it.

She had it again the next day, and the next, saying that the cook was improving in preparing it.

Braised Ox-Tongue
The day after that, the cook appeared in Roderick’s study, scowling. “’Tis aboot yir leddy’s wee dish,” he began indignantly.

“Ach, ‘tis little enough to mak’ her happy,” said the laird.

“D’ ye ken whit it is?” No, he hadn’t asked.

“’Tis ox-tongue! And ye canna hae ox-tongue wi’ oot ye kill the kye! MacNeill, you hae a problem!” and the cook stomped back to the kitchen.

It wasn’t just a problem, it was a very serious one. At the rate Morag was going, she was going to completely rid Barra of all its cattle—mostly kept for dairy products, as beloved members of the family, and the hides and meat only used after the animals died—and cause a drastic shortage for all his people, whom he was sworn to care for and lead, and destroy his honor. No one had a large herd; most had at most two or three cows, including himself. However, he had given his sworn word to keep her happy, and the prospect of telling her she could have no more of her favorite food and thereby compromise his honor made him shudder. It was also clear that the added danger of losing the best cook in the Hebrides loomed.

So Roderick went for a long walk to think what to do. He spent the next day writing messages, which he had his men take throughout the isle and to the other nearest Outer Hebridean isles, and he suggested to his wife’s young maid that she take her mistress to her own cottage home, to meet her family and begin to learn about their way of life.

Two days later, when Morag entered the dining-chamber for luncheon, the table wasn’t set; in  fact, it wasn’t there at all, nor were two of   the chairs. The butler explained that her husband had given orders; on such a fair warm day, they would eat al fresco, as fashionable London picnics were called, and he escorted her to a sunny angle of the house’s exterior, sheltered from the wind, where all was waiting. Roderick seated her himself, asking if she was pleased.

“Oh, yes!” said Morag. “Wait until I write tae Mother aboot our civilized amusements here!”

But as they ate, she became aware that her husband seemed to be preoccupied, as if he was waiting for something. And as they ate their blackberry crumble, a procession came along an edge of the lawn—of cattle, single file, led by a succession of men, who all took off their bonnets to them as they led by cows and calves. Dozens. Scores. Hundreds of the beasts.

Roderick was counting under his breath. “Three hundred and sixty-four,” he muttered, frowning.

Then Morag’s maid came hurrying along, leading her family’s cow and the new wee white cow she’d named for Morag.

“Oh, thaur’s the calf I fed yesterdee,” said Morag. “She’s aye bonny, is she no’?”

“I canna think o’ bonny in this Leap Year,” said Roderick sadly. “I swore tae keep you happy, and I will dae sae, at least for the next year. Pity we dinna hae oxen for you, but they’re sae heavy, oor boaties winna bear them. Ye’ll excuse me; I need tae speak tae the herds.” Rising, he bowed and strode off.

Morag wasn’t stupid, just heedless and spoiled. For the first time, she realized what her whim demanded of the society in which she now lived. She knew from her visits to the crofters how simply they lived, and that most of the luxuries she enjoyed had come to the island with her, provided as part of her dowry by her adoring parents. Roderick loved her; he wouldn’t reproach or command her, but now she knew what a hardship this was. What would she do?

At supper that night, she said to him, “I’ve been thinking. Ma nurse used tae say that enough is sufficient. If I hae that dish every dee, soon I’ll no’ savor it. I think I’d rather ainly hae it sometimes, when we visit ma family.”

Roderick smiled at her. “That soonds like a wise woman,” he said.

So the kye of Barra were saved along with his honor, Roderick solved his dilemma, Morag grew up a little, everyone on Barra and the other isles enjoyed the tale of how he had borrowed their cattle to teach her, the cattle were more traveled than they had been, and it gave her a by-name that’s still known over three hundred years later!

Bramble Cake

Like Roderick's, may your thorny problems be solved by your own creativity!


  1. That story was too long for a blog post but I read all the way through because it was very interesting. Thank you. My thoughts on St.Michael spitting and urinating on the bramble patch? Very unangelic behaviour.

  2. Thanks for your comment! Um, it wasn't St. Michael, it was the Devil; after all, he was the one who landed in the brambles!

  3. Thanks for this story and the lessons on love and courtesy! . . . and not too long at all (this not being Twitter ;-)


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