This title bothers me:
It is one of pibroch’s unsolved mysteries. No-one has come up with a convincing interpretation. There are two dogs in Colin Campbell’s Instrumental Book 1797: ‘Samuell’s Black dog’ (PS 108) and ‘McLeod’s Dog Short Tail’ (PS 131), but we know nothing about either of them. In my post Sorley’s Black Dog, I explained why it is more likely that we are dealing with a dog (cù) than with a lament (cumha). But what made these dogs worthy of a musical composition?
Last December, I was in the British Library leafing through a manuscript history of the MacKenzies. I was looking for an account of the Battle of Park (c. 1491), but there was no index and I had no page reference. As I turned the pages, my eye caught this:
British Library, Add. MS 40721, f 54v (a copy of the Allangrange MS)
A thrill fluttered through me: ‘in MacLeod’s own house… Murdoch’s black dog outran all their dogs’. Had I stumbled on a solution to the ‘McLeod’s Dog Short Tail’ enigma? I read the adjacent pages with bated breath, hoping for some mention of a ‘Short Tail’. Sadly, no joy – just a great story. The sort that would be re-told down the generations with delight and might attract a pibroch composition.
Here is the gist of the tale. Murdoch turns up at the house of MacLeod of Lewis, his uncle, but conceals his identity. Thanks to the speed of his black dog, he wins a pipe of wine from MacLeod’s ‘Mr Household’. A pipe is 4 barrels (126 gallons, or 1008 pints) – that’s a lot of wine! Murdoch distributes the wine to the riff raff and poor, which attracts the chief’s attention. After a year is up, this young ‘black dog man’ reveals privately to his uncle that he is MacKenzie of Kintail, later known as Murchadh Dubh nan Uamhag, Black Murdoch of the Little Caves. He had been hiding in little caves since his father’s execution in 1350 (possibly 1346), fearing for his life. His uncle agrees to keep his identity secret until Murdoch has avenged his father’s death and reclaimed his estate.
I set about tracking down other versions of this tale, just in case they contained the name Sorley or anything that might explain the ‘Short Tail’. The earliest surviving version is a 1684 copy of the MacKenzie genealogy known as ‘Applecross A’. The copyist gives us the following information at the end of his manuscript:
collected be John McKenzie of Aplecross in anno 1667, and coppied verbatim of his papers in June 1670 be Lauchlan McKintoshe of Kinrara and of his papers again copied be the wryter hereof in Septr 1684… Murdoch Mackenzie of Ardross, wryter and owner of this book.
National Library of Scotland, Adv.MS.34.6.27, f 2v (a copy of Applecross A)
Here is my transcription of the above excerpt, expanding six abbreviations that were commonly used at the time:
ye = the (N.B. ‘other’ is written oyer)
yt = that
wt = with
qt = what
qr = where
qnce = whence
qlk = which
(6th [MacKenzie of Kintail] Murdoch ‘du’ na nuag) [Murchadh Dubh nan Uamhag, ‘Black Murdoch of the Little Caves’]
This boy did bring him from the innCountrey a black dog which was very good & swift which with the help of his bow keeped him provision. Leod mcGilleandris being informed that he haunted Coaves in kenlochu [Kinlochewe] and that the natives were sending him provision secretlie he did all he could to apprehend him but he being advertised did quite kenlochu & came with his boy and dog to the Laich of Loch broom where he & his boy took Courage & ventured to the Lewes in a fisher boat where he landed in his uncles house at Starnoway, upon pasch day [Easter]. The forme of Mcleods house at that time was so princly that all men that came to it would gett mantainance for year & day befor he would be asked from whence he came. The same verie day that he came to the toun ther came also one, Gillereoch [Gille Riabhach] with twelv men with him so that they lived both in the toun unasked what they were to the nixt pasch day. Befor the nixt pasch day Mcleod went to the hunts where Murdo du his black dogg did kill all the dogges in mcleods companie which made Mcleod & all his companie be the more attentive to the gentleman with the black dog he having no other name at that time but Fer choinn duie [Fear a’ choin duibh, ‘Black dog man’].
Could the boy who brought Murdoch his black dog in Kinlochewe have been called Sorley? The expression ‘kill all the dogges’ I guess means beating them in a race. This version of the story was collected by Iain Molluch, the 2nd laird of Applecross. Applecross is on the west coast, opposite Raasay, about 30 miles south of Gairloch. A similar version was probably known to Iain Dall, the Blind Piper of Gairloch, who was possibly about eleven years old when Iain Molluch wrote down this version in 1667.
If you want to read the whole story, there are two versions online courtesy of Archive.org:
- A verbatim transcription of this 1684 copy of ‘Applecross A’, The genealogie of the Surname of McKenzie since ther coming into Scotland, published in 1916.
- A rendering of the British Library’s ‘Allangrange’ copy into more modern language by Alexander Mackenzie, History of the Clan Mackenzie (1879), pp. 33–39.
If anyone finds a story about a dog with a short tail, or a dog belonging to Sorley/Samuel, please share it with us!