The Curious Case of Dubh Sith

Loch Ghruinneart, Isle of Islay

Loch Ghruinneart, Isle of Islay

If you picture troops involved in a 14th Century clan battle, fairies are the last thing you would expect to find among the ranks. However according to legend, a fairy is said to have appeared at the Battle of Traigh Ghruinneart, fought between Clan MacDonald and Clan MacLean in 1598. Although it wasn’t the kind of sweet, tinkerbell-esque fairy you’re probably imagining. According to legend, Dubh Sith (Black Fairy) was named after his dark skin and hairy body, and was an excellent archer. But the thing to remember about fairies is that they make great enemies – so you should never, ever cross a fairy.

In 1598 the Isle of Islay in the Inner Hebrides was held by Clan MacDonald, much to the annoyance of the chief of Clan MacLean, Sir Lachlan Mor MacLean. Sir Lachlan claimed that part of the Isle – the Rhinns – were part of the dowry given to his wife in 1566 by her brother Angus MacDonald, chief of Clan MacDonald. However Angus had also promised the Rhinns to Brian Vicar MacKay, lieutenant to the MacDonalds. For years Sir Lachlan had contested this, and in 1598 he finally decided to seek the lands that he claimed were rightfully his from his nephew, the new chief Sir James MacDonald.

In those days a battle was never fought without consulting a ban-fhaidh (wise woman), so Sir Lachlan sought out words of advice before embarking on his campaign. The ban-fhaidh told him under no circumstances should he go to Islay. Sir Lachlan replied that he was honour-bound to do so, and he must go, so the woman gave him three warnings to heed:

1.) Do not land at Islay on a Thursday

2.) Do not fight on the shores of Loch Ghruinneart

3.) Do not drink from the well known as Tobar Niall Neonaich

Three easy pieces of advice to follow to ensure a MacLean victory. However, upon arrival in Islay it wasn’t as easy to take heed of the ban-fhaidh’s warning. After assembling his forces of about 800-1000 men, Sir Lachlan set sail for Islay on a Wednesday. Unfortunately for him, bad weather meant the ship could not land until Thursday. Sir James rode to meet his uncle on the shores of Loch Ghruinneart and pleaded with him for peace, offering the MacLeans half of the island for Lachlan’s lifetime. Sir Lachlan had since learned he had double the men of Clan MacDonald, and was in no mood to compromise, instead demanding Sir James give him the entire island.

And so the troops from each clan lined up to battle at Traigh Ghruinneart (traigh meaning shoreline), which must have sent shivers down Sir Lachlan’s spine. Just before the battle the fairy from Jura known as Dubh Sith approached Sir Lachlan and offered his services as an archer during the battle. Sir Lachlan laughed in the fairy’s mutilated face, turning his back on the creature. Dubh Sith then approached Sir James, who received the fairy with open arms. Dubh Sith told Sir James to look after the battle, and he would take care of Sir Lachlan.

Unseen by the busy troops, Dubh Sith hid and waited in a Rowan tree near Tobar Niall Neonaich. The battle ensued under the hot August sun, and during a lull Sir Lachlan stopped at the well to take a drink. On removing his helmet, Dubh Sith jumped at the chance and shot Sir Lachlan through the eye with an arrow, killing him instantly.

The battle continued, with MacLean men full of rage upon hearing the news of the death of their chief. The MacDonald forces feigned retreat toward the setting sun then turned around to fight with the sun in the eyes of their enemy. The MacDonalds were victorious and chased the remaining MacLeans back to their boats, with some seeking refuge in the Chapel of Kilnave. The chapel was burnt to the ground, killing all but one of the men inside. According to local legend, this man was a aMacMhuirich (Currie) who managed to climb through a hole in the roof when the burning thatch collapsed. He eventually found refuge on the island, with his ancestors still there today.


Cairn marking the spot where Sir Lachlan MacLean fell

Sir Lachlan’s foster mother heard of his death and came to collect the body shortly after the battle. She made a cairn beside the well where he was shot, and carried the body by cart to the church at Kilchoman where she buried him inside the church. When the new church was built on the old site, it was a smaller building, so today Sir Lachlan lies in the grounds outside the church.

It is not known what became of the mysterious Dubh Sith. Following the battle James VI and I awarded the MacDonald lands of Islay to Clan Campbell, leading to an extension of the feud. Clan MacDonald’s reign in Islay came to an end in 1612 when Angus MacDonald, 8th of Dunnyveg, sold his land holdings to Sir John Campbell of Cawdor of Clan Campbell.


About Nadine Lee

Originally from New Zealand, Nadine is a documentary researcher now based in the north east of Scotland.

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4 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Dubh Sith

  1. Andrew DUFFY

    Dear Nadine,

    As a Clan MacFie Commissioner and as Chairman of the Clan MacFie Nomenclature Committee I thought I should send you the following :-

    The source of the family name MacFie with it’s multiple spellings and derivations is believed to be from the Gaelic Mac Dhuibshithe or Mac Dhubhsith, which means son of Dhuibshithe or Dhubhsith which can be translated as black or dark ( Dubh ) and peace or fairy ( sith ). In Scottish Gaelic the name MacFie with its’ different spellings is pronounced as ‘Macaphi’.

    Dr. George F. Black’s book The Surnames of Scotland states name Macfie is ‘one of the oldest and most interesting personal names we possess’. Dr. Gillies in Place-names of Argyllshire states, about the name Macfie that ‘Its plan and concept go far away beyond those of even our old names’.

    Also there is reference that ‘the Gaelic MacDubhSithe means ‘Son of the Dark Fairy or Elf’ and that this stems from the tradition that the Macfies had been in touch with the fairy folk that lived under the hills and that in many countries the remnants of the original bearers of the name have been conferred with mystic powers’.

    Now since the Clan MacFie hails from the island of Colonsay, not a great distance from Islay, could one of our Clan members be your ‘Fairy’ ?.

    Andrew DUFFY
    or should that be
    Anndra Dhubhsith.

    • Teresa Hall

      Andrew Duffy my Granny was Myrtle McAfee-Vaden. She taught me about the faery folk from an early age. We always made them a garden to play in and I carry on that tradition. It is so interesting the more about the McAfee’s I learn I feel they are who I am most like. Her Dad Luther (Boney) McAfee could talk with the animals and was a root doctor on the mountain here in NW Alabama. I believe this was passed to me. I have always “healed” others. Sometimes I feel as if I step aside and some else takes over. Great Grandpa I hope. Thank you for providing more info. I found some from The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs.

      Teresa Vaden-Hall (McAfee)

    • Susan C

      Islay people (Illich) still know and tell the battle of Traigh Ghruinneart story, in both English and Gaelic, and including the part about the Dubh Sith. Maybe ask one of them? Ionad Chaluim Chille Ìle is the Gàidhlig cultural centre in Islay.

      Susan C

  2. Cynthia McCurry Putman

    I am descended from Malcolm McCourry who was born on Islay in the mid 1700s. I have read elsewhere that the family name indicates they were the bards of the MacDonald clan. Does anyone have any knowledge or references that may show this to be true or not? Thank you!


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