Episode 56: The Curse of Mathair nan Uisgeachan by Angus Wolfe Murray

Angus Wolfe Murray

Angus Wolfe Murray was born in 1937 and now lives at Traquair in the Scottish Borders. With his late wife he founded Canongate Publishers. He comes from a celebrated Scottish family and his details can be found in the peerage. Edcated at Eton and working as a journalist and latterly a film critic. 

He is still alive, and while I am glad of that, I am slightly embarrassed that I thought he had died. I had been asked to do a Scottish story and I was keen to use my Scottish accent (my father was a Scot), and I found this story in an anthology of Scottish ghost stories. We have holidayed in the Highlands the past two years and it also gave me a chance to say some words in Gaelic.

My first degree was in Celtic and I spent a summer in Stornoway learning Gaelic many years ago. I can’t really speak it any more though. 

After I had recorded the story and started researching it, I found Angus Wolfe Murray was alive and I have tried to contact him via Twitter and I see he has a dormant Facebook page. I went ahead with the reading but if anyone can contact him, and he would like the episode removed, then of course I will do that. 

Mathair nan Uisgeachan

Scottish Gaelic for The Mother of the Waters. The name of the whirlpool in the loch.

The story begins as a very naturalistic tale of an idealistic young man from the Scottish upper classes who returns to the family estate and appreciates the history of the Highlands. He comments on the empty glen and alludes to the Highland Clearances and the remaining Highlanders wily ways and tenacity to keep to tradition. Tradition when the clan owned everything in common and Chief was not a feudal lord, but the father of the tribe. Hugh, coming back from Toronto is a reminder of the change in attitudes where the Gaelic Clan Chiefs were Anglicised and transformed themselves into property owners as per the standard European model.

Hugh is not a sympathetic character, but his Canadian wife Anne is and our unnamed narrator falls for her. A love triangle evolves, though not as far or with as grisly outcome as in last weeks’s story, Oscar Cook’s Boomerang.

The narrator goes to see his aunt Magda in Aberdeenshire, talks late and falls asleep. Though the fact he has fallen asleep is not stated specifically. We believe he has gone back to the castle as he says, but the story gets weirder until he in fact states that he must be dreaming. It is difficult at first to disentangle which is dream and which is waking. The weirdness of the dream is full of symbols and ends with the legend of the death of Lochlann, murdered by the man who thought he was his father. 

The story is conveyed in dream, but the ghost Lochlann appears in the real world too. First he is seen by Magda when he is with her sister Fiona, who died, and then he is seen by the narrator himself when he is with Anne. Though probably a ghost, he has some of the flavour of the fairy folk.

It seems that the curse affects women who have a child and are unfaitful to their husbands. In the legend the wife Shona was unfaithful and her child was not her husbands. I think it is possible that Anne’s child was not Hughe’s but was in fact conceived that day of the fishing trip, though this is not specifically mentioned.

Ten-year old Fiona was drowned, presumably as part of the curse, though she had not been unfaithful and her body was found in the river, not the whirlpool.

All in all though, Angus Wolfe Murray conjures the Highlands wonderfully and I kept thinking of the landscape off the A9 road that we travelled through last year on our trip to Inverness. He also manages to convey the feel of this fairy haunted land and say something about the tragic history of the Highland folk who were cleared to make way for sheep by the people who should have been looking out for them most — their clan chiefs. 

And then Aunt Magda wakes him and he realises Anne has not died. He can save her. He travels back to the castle and is told by Hugh that Anne has already gone fishing on the loch with Lochlann…

Bean Nighe

Scottish Gaelic tradition has legends of The Washing Woman or the Washer at the Ford. She washes the blood from the linen of those who are about to die. I was reminded of this legend by the old woman he sees in his dream and by the descriptions of the long white shirt of Lochlann as he drowns in the whirlpool

The woman feels like a fairy woman because she warns him he must never touch her, and she relates the Highland legend that was the start of the Curse of Mathair nan Uisgeachan.

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Music by The Heartwood Institute

You can listen to the album from which this is taken here

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