The Central and Eastern Highlands was full of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders until the early twentieth century, when the ethnocidal effects of depopulation and anti-Gaelic educational policies finally came to fruition. Gaels were keen hunters and the deer were frequent prey, but the relations between Gael and deer were not just about slaughter: there is plenty of other lore and tradition that shows affection and symbiotic relations that existed between these “Highland tribes.” I was reminded of this recently when writing an essay about the Gaelic sense of place for a project about The Cairngorms, as well as when reviewing the work of my friend Alec for this project and musing on a blog post by my friend Griogair Labhraidh.
Amongst the remnants of lore that remain of these areas of Gaeldom are stories about a beast called Damh Mór a’ Mhonaidh Liath (‘The Great Stag of Monadh Liath’). I saved a couple references to it in my notebook but have vague memories of having seen others. It may simply be the Highland equivalent of ‘the big fish that got away’, but it is also possible that it has an echo of lore about supernatural beasts. I give the texts I have here in hopes that others may contribute what they know.
An article in The Highlander (27 October 1880) makes reference to an article in Caraid nan Gàidheal (1841, page. 101; the original article is called ‘Thogainn Fonn air Lorg an Fhéidh’).
The eachdraidh air Damh Mór a’ Mhonaidh Liath am Bàideanach air an do loisgeadh leis na sealgairean a b’ fhearr cuimse ’chaidh do’n bheinn, fichead is fichead uair, is dh’fhairtlich orra fuil a tharraing ás. Fad leth cheud bliadhna, bha muinntir na dùthcha sin eòlach air. Agus is iomadh duine tapaidh a chaill cadal na h-oidhche is craiceann nan cas air a thòir gus mu dheireadh an do leònadh e le duine uasail de Chloinn Domhnaill; thuit e ach co-math, co-dhiubh, dh’éirich e is tharr e ás. Deich bliadhna fichead ’na dhéidh sin, mharbhadh a’ cheart damh seo ’m bràigh Bhàideanach is fhuaireadh am peilear a chuireadh ann leis an Domhnallach dà bhliadhna fichead roimhe sin ’na ghualainn! Cha b’ urrainn do Dhamh Mór a’ Mhonaidh Liath bhith fo sheachd fichead bliadhna dh’aois.
There are stories about the Great Stag of Monadh Liath in Badenoch at which the hunters with the best aim who ever went to the mountain shot, scores and scores of times, and they failed to draw any blood out of him. For fifty years, the folk of that region were familiar with him. Many a skilled man lost his night’s sleep and the skin of his feet in pursuit of him until he was finally wounded by a gentleman of the Clan Donald; he fell down, but in any case, he arose and fled away. Thirty years after that, this same stag was killed in the braes of Badenoch and the bullet that the MacDonald put in him twenty-two years before that was found in his shoulder! The Great Stag of Monadh Liath could not be under one hundred and forty years of age.
There is another reference to him in a Gaelic story written by Fionn (Henry White) called ‘Fearchar Òg’ in the volume Sgeulachdan Fìrinneach (True Stories), vol. 2, p. 191:
…air a làimh chlì bha a’ fosgladh ro na glinn tha ruith rathad Loch Tréig, àite-comhnaidh Damh Mór a’ Mhonaidh Liath, a bha cho sean ris a’ cheò is air nach do rinn urchair riamh dolaidh. …
… on his left hand side that was opening before the glens, there is the length of the road to Loch Tréig, the residence of the Great Stag of the Monadh Liath, who was as ancient as the mist and on whom a shot never made an injury. …
This description of the beast sounds a bit less naturalistic and a bit more legendary than the previous. The stag is given a slightly different locality as well. The two items taken together seem to indicate fragments of lore with a wider provenance and great significance. But I hope others can add what they know to this!