Traditional stories passed by word of mouth can be wonderful vehicles for transmitting culture and discussing history. They are a far more sophisticated genre than many people realize.
There is a legend that still circulates in oral tradition amongst the Gaels of Nova Scotia that originates in the western Highlands and purports to explain the manadh bàis (“death omen”) of a branch of the MacDonalds (the Sìol Dhùghaill of Mórar). Before the death of one of this family, Cù Glas Mheòbail (“the Grey Hound of Meoble”) makes an appearance to someone. This legend gained greater recognition amongst anglophones due to being worked into the short story “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” by the Canadian author Alistair MacLeod.
Such compelling narratives naturally cause us to ask questions: What does the legend mean? What themes does it discuss and how might have contemporary Gaels understood it? Where does it come from? Exploring this seemingly simple legend allows us to see how complex such oral narratives can be, how they are transformed and adapted by successive storytellers, how they carry culturally-specific allusions and how they offer particular functions and meanings to the audiences that keep them alive.
It seems that the earliest recorded text of the legend was published in a small and very rare book entitled Tales of the Highlands published in 1907 by James MacDonald, who grew up near Mallaig. Unfortunately, his English adaptation of the tale does not at all reflect Gaelic storytelling style even if is a useful reference point for the tale.
When Meoble and other places were fecundated [fertilized] by man and cattle and sheep instead of the antlered tribe [deer] that presently inhabit these noble hills and glades, there lived a shepherd at Ruigh Fheàrna who had a hound that, on looking into his master’s face, or on giving ear to his voice, would read the latter’s slightest wish.
Young MacDonald, after growing weary of smearing, clipping, gathering and whistling [work associated with sheep], betook himself to soldiering. So, after saying goodbye to Ealasaid his dog, he donned the scarlet coat and the tartan trews [of the army] while the plaidie [of shepherding] was hung on the barn rafters.
After a seven-year ordeal in the fighting of Inkerman , Balaclava , and sundry other [military] engagements, young MacDonald retraced his steps [home]. The dog was nowhere to be found.
Shortly after the disappearance of its master, the faithful canine grew disconsolate, refusing all sustenance and eventually disappearing altogether. The soldier, however, obtained an inkling that a dog answering to the description of the lost Ealasaid had taken up its abode on a certain island in the middle of a hill-lake called Dubh-Lochan, two or three miles beyond Meoble. On reaching the banks of the lake, he swam for the island.
No sooner did he effect a landing than he was attacked by old Ealasaid’s progeny. These by now had waxed [grown] into huge and ferocious beasts, and ere the mother could interfere the ill-fated man was gruesomely masticated [chewed up].
On discovering the identity of her master before he was quite dead, she gave vent to an agonizing howl.
Years passed, but the Meoble people were mostly every night at the same hour startled by the dolorous bark and shrill howl of the Cù Glas alternatively reverberating from different corries in the mountains.
One night, however, as the family and their visitors at Ruigh Fheàrna beguiled the wintry night with those tales and legends peculiar to sons of the glens, including the fate of the shepherd-soldier MacDonald, what should appear in the middle of the floor but the Cù Glas itself. After slowly eyeing each member present, the dog wagged its tail, and after most sonorous howling, turned and disappeared.
Calum Maclean was a folklorist who collected materials from all around Scotland from 1946 to 1960. In his book about the Highlands and the people and traditions there, he provided a short summary of the legend, based on several variants which he collected in Morar himself.
The Grey Dog of Meoble makes its appearance when any one of the MacDonalds of Morar, the seed [descendants] of Dugald, is about to die. There are several people still living who maintain that they have really seen the mysterious dog. It appears only before the death of members of that particular branch of the MacDonalds.
Over two hundred years ago, a MacDonald of Meoble had a greyhound. He had to leave home to take part in some [military] campaign and at the time of his leaving, the hound was in pup [i.e., pregnant].
When he left, the bitch swam out to an island on Loch Morar and there gave birth to a litter. Months went by and MacDonald returned home again, but his greyhound was missing. He happened to go to the very island where the bitch had her litter. The pups had now grown up into huge dogs, and not recognising their master, attacked and killed him before the mother appeared on the scene. Ever since that time, the Grey Dog has appeared as an omen of death.
The narrative in Nova Scotia, as collected by John Shaw (and others), has been somewhat simplified, as we might expect from the growing distance in time and space between Scotland and Canada in the generations subsequent to emigration. Not only does the incident get shifted in time to the Battle of Culloden (which loomed larger on the historical horizon than these other battles), but folklore motifs from other legends entered the retelling of the tale and began to reshape it.
So, how do we approach a story like this and understand what it may have meant to Gaels who told it and heard it? It should be understood, first, that like any text, there is no single and definitive meaning to a story. It can have multiple meanings for every individual let alone audience. We can appreciate new layers and aspects of these narratives as we learn more about the historical settings and cultural allusions in these tales. Even the semantic fields of the specific words used to convey the tale can impart meanings and resonances that add to its message(s).
The hound is a particularly significant animal in the lore of Celtic peoples, including the Gaels. There were many personal names and collective names (tribes, families…) that included terms indicating canine species, the most famous being that of the Ulster warrior Cú Chulainn.
The dog appears to be the first species that humans ever domesticated. People sought to harness the aggressive power of canines to threaten and attack potential enemies or hunt mutual prey, so some element of “wildness” had to be retained in order for dogs to remain effective partners. The somewhat ambiguous status of dogs – both within the human community but not entirely of it, domesticated enough to be honorary members of it but potentially dangerous if their wildness reasserted itself – is frequently remarked upon in folklore and mythology. These aspects of canines provided powerful imagery and symbolism for warriors who exhibited these same kinds of traits, as they needed to be ferocious and aggressive to enemies, but they were dangerous to their home community itself if violence was not controlled and directed properly.
Two primary themes of these aspects of the history of the domestication of the hound – the boundaries of the in-group (us) and the out-group (them), and the unstable boundary between wildness and domestication – appear in much Gaelic folklore and tradition. I believe that these two themes are key to understanding the legend of the Grey Hound of Meoble.
It is also relevant to note that cú glas (“grey hound”) was a technical term in early Gaelic law denoting someone who came into the kin-group (particularly through marriage) from outside of it but was not fully protected and enfranchised because of his external origin (Kelly, A Guide to Irish Law, 6). The resonance of this term is clearly relevant in unlocking the meaning of the story, which seems to have taken shape in the 19th century during the time that the Highland élite were abandoning their former kinsmen (of lower rank) by assimilating to the norms of Anglo-British society. Service in the military was a common career path for those wishing to find and climb such socio-economic ladders.
Structurally and symbolically, then, the legend represents a young man who was born as an insider to his kin-group. When he left his home and kin-group, he became an outsider and exile. Perhaps to protect themselves from hostile external forces, the local inside-group took shelter on an island (see the usage and symbolism of the crannog, for example). When the young veteran returned, he was no longer recognizable to the next generation of other insiders, and thus it was inevitable that he be attacked as an external threat. His death was also a tragic loss, doubly so.
It is relevant that the ferocious ghosts of grey hounds were also associated with the MacDougalls (Clann MhicDhùghaill) of Lorne (see Campbell, Records of Argyll, 166-69). The similarity between these groups’ names may have easily allowed these motifs from Clan Dougall legend to be transferred to the Sìol Dhùghaill branch of the Clan Donald in Mórar.
This set of legend variants, then, is a window into the mental and literary world of 19th-century Gaels. By examining such materials, we can begin to understand and appreciate the way in which Gaels represented and discussed their history and culture, using their own symbolic resources and literary techniques. There is no shortage of such Gaelic materials in both North America and Scotland – what there is is a shortage of support for scholars to explore and interpret them.
Lord Archibald Campbell. Records of Argyll. Edinburgh: Blackwood and Sons, 1885.
Fergus Kelly. A Guide to Irish Law. 1988.
Finbar McCormick. “The Dog in Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland.” Archaeology Ireland 5.4: 7-9.
James MacDonald. Tales of the Highlands. 1907.
Calum I. Maclean. The Highlands. London: Batsfords, 1959.
Calum Maclean Project blog. “The Grey Dog of Meoble.” 14 July 2015.
John Shaw. Na Beanntaichean Gorma / The Blue Mountains. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007.