Murdoch’s Black Dog

This title bothers me:

McLeods Dog Short Tail

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 () 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:

Allangrange MS - BL copy

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.

collected by John McKenzie of Applecross in 1667

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

  1. A verbatim transcription of this 1684 copy of ‘Applecross A’, The genealogie of the Surname of McKenzie since ther coming into Scotlandpublished in 1916.
  2. 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!


4 thoughts on “Murdoch’s Black Dog

  1. The name, ‘MacLeod’s Dog Short Tail’, has the hallmark of the laconic, indirect reference or allusion  to some momentous occasion which can be found in the names of other pibroch: ‘Black Wedder White Tail’ ,’Slan gun Till’, ‘Siubhal Shemais’, ‘MacCeaich’s Fire’. ‘Cill Chriosd’, etc.

    Campbell of Kilberry, in his notes for the tune in PS book 2. remarked “this grotesque title is presumably a translation oThis f some gaelic phrase…”

    To attempt a reconstruction of the gaelic phrase which Kilberry thought to be the origin of the name ‘MacLeod’s Dog Short Tail’, using words from the dictionary, may fall short of an actual idiomatic expression, but is suggestive. ‘Dog’ = Cu; ‘Tail’ = earr, earball; ‘Short’ = gearr, cutach.

    Thus, the putative ‘original’ might have been something like ‘Cu MhicLeoid earr cutach/earball gearr’. Interestingly, the words ‘gearr’ and ‘cutach’ both contain meanings of ‘cut’, and ‘docked’, which reinforce the idea of a mutilated dog being the instigation of a chain of misfortunes, while the wider issue remains an allusion.

    The tune  ‘Macleod’s Dog Short Tail’,  recorded in the Campbell Canntaireachd, is also called ‘An Ann a Mhire Tha Sibh’, or ‘Salute on the Birth of Rory Mor’ by Angus MacKay.

    The former name has a possible explanation:

    Around the end of the 16th century, a war between the Macleods and the MacDonalds in Skye broke out, which was known as ‘Cogaidh na Caillich Caim’, or ‘The War of the One-Eyed Woman’. This happened because Donald Gorm Mor, the MacDonald chief living in Duntulm had married Margaret MacLeod, the sister of Rory Mor, but did not find her adequate and so returned her to Dunvegan. It was a ‘handfast marriage’, a now extinct custom in which a couple were free to separate after a year and a day. Margaret had only one good eye, and Donald Gorm Mor sent her back at the end of that period, mounted on a one-eyed horse, led by a one-eyed man, and with a one-eyed dog. This was taken as an insult by Rory Mor, and a series of destructive incidents ensued, culminating in King James VI demanding a reconciliation take place.

    It is the detail of the dog which is significant. It was customary for Norman aristocrats to have a hunting preserve or deer forest in which only they were allowed to hunt; all dogs belonging to persons in that area had to have their tails docked, so if seen they could quickly be identified as intruders; only the dogs of the estate owner went uncurtailed. To have the tail of one’s dog cut off was a mark of inferior status, and insulting.

    It is likely MacLeod, being a knight, had become integrated into the customs of the ruling class in Scotland, and had his own deer forest, with the accompanying restriction on dogs in force. Thus, for his dog to have a short tail would indicate it had been mutilated by someone else.

    As this story was recorded from oral tradition, one might expect some distortion; and possibly the idea of an insulting mutilation shifted from the tail to an eye, in the storyteller’s imagination. A parallel case is the pibroch ‘Black Wedder White Tail’, with its alternative ‘White Wedder Black Tail’, both presumably referring to the same incident in which a sheep with distinctive marking was used as evidence to hang two MacGregors, leading to a decisive battle between the relatives of the hanged men and those who had executed them, the outcome of which was the disastrous outlawing of the entire clan Gregor. The titles of the tunes are a cryptic or understated allusion to a much larger incident. A similar technique could have ‘MacLeod’s dog short tail’ an ironic understatement for a larger event.

    The Gaelic name ‘An Ann Air Mhire Tha Sibh’ does not specifically refer to the birth of Rory Mor, but asks, rhetorically, ‘Are you in a state of excitement?’ This could mean rage; and it is worth asking whether the birth of a child would likely be celebrated in so memorable a fashion, long before he achieved fame. It may be the English version of the title is one of Angus MacKay’s ‘tweaks’ to make his pibroch collection more appealing to the upper class patrons of his day.


  2. I would agree that looking at the possible Gaelic original leading to the implication of the dog’s tail being ‘docked’ is a clue. The fact that the dog was a hunting dog is implicit in the story that the boy survived through his bow and the dog but whatever the Normans may have done docking a dogs tail was usual practice to avoid damage to the dog chasing its prey through dense growth. Although now illegal in Scotland (but not England), that law is currently under revision in the Scottish Parliament for working dogs, since damaged tails actually cause the dogs much suffering.

    However, another possible explanation for the short tail is also provided by the reference to the dog ‘killing all the other dogs’, your idea of a ‘dog race’, Barnaby is hard to imagine how? There would have been no dog-tracks chasing an imitation hare and coursing in highland landscape would not be easy.  While that is a sanitized interpretation, dog fighting is as old as the use by mankind of dogs and it is much easier though possibly less pleasant to settle for the literal interpretation of the battle  hardened black dog bearing scars, the damaged tail for example, from other fights winning albeit on a one fight at a time against all the other dogs. An event that would certainly merit remembering through a tune.

    The reference to the dog having been brought from the ‘inn countrey’ is curious. It is not clear what to make of the contraction mark over ‘countrey’. The use at that time of ‘country’ usually had the meaning of this place. As in one reference to Charles MacArthur having ‘left the country’ ie. Skye but not meaning he had left the UK. (He then appears as a piper in a 1793 muster roll of Major Murdoch MacLean’s Company in the Argyleshire Fencible Regiment).

    The whole attitude at the time to  the local ‘geography’ especially what comprised the ‘Highlands’ was somewhat nebulous. I have always found it amusing that in numerous letters referring to people having ‘moved on’ they were described as ‘having gone to the highlands’ when the letter writer themselves was writing from what would be considered the highlands. For example Grant of Grant writing from Castle Grant or Breadalbanes Chamberlain writing from Finlarig.

  3. The idea of a dog race is not mine, it comes from the Allangrange MS. The BL copy (reproduced above) explains that ‘Murdoch’s black dog outran all their dogs’. Compared to the Applecross MS, is this difference a ‘sanitised’ version (or creative retelling) with a different meaning? Or did the writer of the Allangrange version understand ‘kill all the dogges’ as an idiomatic expression, meaning ‘beat all the dogs’ (in a race)? I guessed the second, but am not sure I am right.

    The squiggle over the letter u is not a contraction – it distinguishes u from n. See ‘Fer choinn duie’ on the last line of the Applecross A illustration above.

  4. A rather idiosyncratic flourish by that scribe then as it seems unnecessary as nobody at the time it was written would have had any problem with u and n while in that last example even less so as the dotted ‘i’ makes for a clear distinction.

    If the original MS was written in Gaelic then an idiomatic translation would work but from what you say the difference is a change between two MS written in Scots/English? There would not have been all that many dogs in the original event as they were well controlled in terms of who could own a dog. Or to re-phrase that dogs equaled hunting and only the very top of society took part. The dogs often feature in the various estate accounts including their own food allowances in the ‘oatmeal’ lists. Rather odd in fact since dog guts are not best able to deal with carbohydrates.

    I would still lean towards ‘kill’ meaning ‘kill’ as the nearest similar idiomatic usage I can think of is Scots not Gaelic where in the Black Book of Taymouth there is a listing of the lands ‘conquered’ by Black Duncan which includes the Barony of Lude. However it is clear from other material in the Breadalbane papers that Lude and the other ‘lands’ were peacefully purchased by Duncan rather than ‘conquered’ which implies taking by force.

    Well today’s amusing story comes from the Robertson of Kindease papers which I am still picking at having been persuaded by Roddy Cannon that sorting out the tune title fell into my ambit. It was a small notebook of 1695 which also contained an inventory of the furnishings, presumably at Kindease. Among the items in one room were ‘ane chamberpot’ immediately followed in the list by ‘ane dry stool’.

    Not I think quite as it reads though as I have come across something similar before and the ‘stool’ was probably some sort of raised seat that sat over the ‘pot’. As for Kindease it appears to have been in two parts going back to the days of the Lords of the Isles. Wester Kindease is mentioned among the Lords Charters and became ‘Meikle Kindeace’ then the modern Bayfield, while ‘Cinn Deis Bhig’ or Easter Kindeace which was the part held by Robertson became the modern Ankerville.

    Confusion sets in however as the Ross family who held Wester Kindease and the Robertson family simply tended to call themselves Ross of Kindease and Robertson of Kindease.

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