The Vision of Dark Finlay and the Boy in the Snow
More often than not feuds happened between the clans because of a dispute over livestock. Cattle and sheep owned by different Clans would roam freely and would often graze together. The animals were marked by small cuts on their ears to show who owned them. Even to this day in areas like Lewis the ear marks vary from village to village
The MacLeods of Pabbay kept some of their livestock on the fertile lands of the Valtos Peninsula on the Isle of Lewis. The animals would roam graze on the rich grass by the sandy shore. But this was the territory of the MacAulays, another powerful clan at the time.
Old Norman MacLeod, of Pabbay was a brother of the MacLeod clan chief, so carried some weight. Once Old Norman was looking upon his herdsmen as they drove a beast or two onto the boat they used to take livestock to and from the island. A large bull would sometimes be towed along to swim behind, on a calm day. At this time the herdsmen of the MacAulays were also on the shore. One of the MacAulay herdsmen noticed that one of their animals was being herded along with the MacLeod stock. At first he politely asked to see the earmarks, just to make sure. But Old Norman’s eyesight and hearing were not the best and he immediately grew defensive and then aggressive. The MacAulay herdsman had a hand on one horn of the beast and Old Norman MacLeod had his hand on the other. The MacAulay man gave the beast a yank and Old Norman got pulled over and fell to the ground. He arose howling in pain, his mouth full of blood. Two of his teeth had been knocked out.
Old Norman went home to bed, probably after a dram or two. His wife, a strong willed woman was furious, how dare someone accuse her family of being common cattle thieves. After her five sons returned home she demanded that they take revenge for this insult to their father. The strong young men took their longswords and their daggers and crossed the mainland while their father slept. The only light was that of the moon, the men divided themselves as they approached the MacAulay houses. Each house was struck, they targeted the young able men of the clan and slaughtered them as they awoke. The MacAulays were caught completely by surprise and were defenceless. When the light of the new day came up the extent of the massacre was discovered and the MacAulays had no idea why they had been attacked in such brutal way. There was not one able bodied young man of that extended family left alive, in Valtos.
But the brothers had not managed to slay every single MacAulay who could avenge their act. There was one of that family who had been taken away from Valtos, an orphan fostered out to a childless couple at Mealasta, further down the coast.
When Old Norman realised what his son’s had done, he was furious. Norman met with his brother, the chief, fearful that a never ending feud had begun, that would claim more and more lives. They agreed that his murderous sons had forfeited their rights to land and stock. The chief suggested one more thing, the MacAulay lad who had been fostered out to these poor people should be given a proper education. This would be a sign that the elder clan members were not implicated in the deed. The young MacAulay boy would also be taken into their own family and treated with respect. The chief decided that this was the only way to break the cycle of revenge and atone for what had happened.
The fostered boy was called John Roy MacAulay, he was taken into the MacLeod household and cared for while the murderous MacLeod sons had to make their own way in the world. John’s foster father at Mealasta was a man known as Dark Finlay, he truly loved John Roy like a son and was heartbroken at the parting. But he knew that the boy would have far more advantages in life going with the MacLeods, so let him go.
Old Norman doted on the growing lad. John Roy was taught to fish and to herd deer. Old Norman’s wife was bitter and resented the boy who seemed to her to be taking the place of their own sons. When the sons visited they took every chance to mock John Roy and were constantly playing cruel tricks on him. Meanwhile Dark Finlay would lie awake wondering how his foster-son was faring at the hands of the MacLeods.
Old Norman did his best and tried his hardest to make his sons see that the only way they could make amends for their hasty action was to show kindness to young John Roy but his sons weren’t listening. He urged them to take the lad along the next time they went hunting deer. The boy was already strong enough to run with them and could ride a horse and control hunting dogs with the best of them. He also had a keen eye and could use a bow and arrow.
So the brothers took him with them up over the hills beyond Mealasta to hunt deer. There was a small bothy they would usually use at shelter on these hunts. The young boy knew nothing of the history and was happy to be initiated, this hunt would be like a coming of age. Old Norman had them swear to look after him and not place him at risk.
They left with excited dogs and plenty of provisions. The route they took went by the home of Dark Finlay, the previous home of young John Roy. The day was bright but the wind had a chill which promised a flurry of snow. They stayed over night in the bothy with a peat fire to keep them warm, but the murderous sons hatched a plan to rid themselves of this boy who had replaced them. Snow as the wind had predicted fell during the night.
Dark Finlay at his simple house in Mealasta woke from his sleep. Looking out to see the snowfall, he had the strongest feeling that his foster son, John Roy was in danger. His wife urged him to return to the warmth of the bed but he couldn’t shake the feeling. He had the image of the young boy bound outside somewhere, freezing and alone. So strong was this vision that he got up and found warm clothes and skins then milked the cow for fresh, warm milk, then he set off into the frozen night. He was still a fit man for his age. When he came to the snow covered track he walked backwards to suggest to those seeing the footprints that they were coming from the other direction. At last, striding backwards, he came to the bothy. It was there he heard a faint cry. He found the pitiful scene, John Roy had been taken out and bound to a rock, with hardly any clothes on, the by was near death. No doubt the five brothers had planned to return with the story that the young lad had got separated in a blizzard.
Dark Finlay warmed the boy in the skins, the warm milk was placed to his lips to revive him. The the foster-father carried the boy over his shoulder and walked home, retracing the footsteps he had already made. He knew that these murderous young men would stop at nothing. It would seem from the footsteps that the young John Roy had escaped and fled, there would be no clue to where he had gone once the tracks faded under fresh snow fall.
Dark Finlay sought out Old Norman MacLeod. The old man was heart broken at the actions of his sons. They were cast out from MacLeod lands there and then, but both men knew that John Roy would not be safe. Together they arranged for him to be taken by sea to relations on the island of Mull. Here he would receive the best education and learn to speak other languages and to read and write.
John Roy did flourish on Mull, returning from time to time to visit Dark Finlay and his wife. The man who’s dreams and love had saved his life.
This epic tale of revenge is told across The Western Isles, passed on from generation to generation, by word of mouth. How much if anything is true, we will never know. There is a version of it in the Morrison manuscript which says that it was August 1460 when the MacLeod sons committed the massacre.