Oral tradition gives us the facts of history dressed in a tale

The child in the cradle was Kirsty Matheson, whom the little boy knew.
The child in the cradle was Kirsty Matheson, whom the little boy knew.

This article relates how oral tradition is able to capture and relay people’s stories down the decades.

The article was first featured in our sister publication The Hebridean in September 2004.

A little boy and his grandmother walked by a stream in the village of Reef in 1924. Passing the ruins by the stream, granny informed him that this was the ruin of Angus Maciver’s house, in what remained of the old village of Reef.

That boy innocently remarked that he didn’t know who Angus Maciver was, grandmother replied with urgency, “Sit down there a bhalaich, till I tell you.”

Angus Maciver lived in that house, a very bright and godly child and after he went out into the world, he gained employment with the Hudson Bay Company in Canada.

He later became a mission ary (ceistear) and went to Sutherlandshire amongst other places, till eventually he came to Conon Bridge near Dingwall.

There Angus Maciver was married and he and his wife had a child in the cradle.

It was a wooden cradle and that child is now, the wife of Hector Matheson in Valtos.

Shortly after the child was born, the disease yellow fever came to Conon Bridge and everybody was scared. When people died of the fever the neighbours stayed away, fearing they would get the dreaded disease.

The people of Conon Bridge didn’t visit the sick or the dying, it was all done by Angus Maciver the Ceistear. He went around the neighbourhood comforting, doing what he could for families and preparing the dead for burial.

Eventually Angus Maciver succumbed to yellow fever. He came home and was unable to minister any more.

When he passed away, his widow was alone with her husband’s body, a child in the cradle and no hope that anybody would come and help her.

Shortly a man came into the house and said “I understand you have trouble”.

“Yes”, she replied: “Death has come.”

The stranger said he had been sent to help. On asking where the body of her late husband lay, he asked for water and then garments to dress the deceased.

He then said he would see to the cart and the burial in the morning and then he left. Two men duly arrived with a cart in the morning and took the remains away to be buried.

As time passed the community mourned the loss of the Ceistear.

Then they realised that the man who had come to the poor widow’s aid had never before been seen in Conon Bridge and he was never ever, seen again.

The Conon Bridge people said that man never existed. The Uig people said he had been an angel.

The boy sitting by the stream in 1924 memorised the story. The child in the wooden cradle in the story, was somebody he knew.

She was now Mrs Hector Matheson, an old lady living in a white house just up from Valtos pier.

In good weather she was taken out to the end of the house with a tartan shawl on her shoulders.

By her side she had a small table with two very large books on it. One of the books was the Gaelic Bible, the other a Gaelic translation of The Devine Works by a local minister.

Her own brother Rev Angus Maciver had been a minister in Baile na Cille church in Uig. In 2004 the story is still remembered word for word by the boy, Reverend Donald Angus Macrae a retired minister who lives in Tarbert, Isle of Harris.

Rev Macrae was delighted to hear the story told by his grandmother in Uig was identical to the account, given in a recent publication of stories from Easter Ross.

It’s incredible that oral tradition gives us an account of events surrounding the death of Angus Maciver, the catechist born in Reef in Uig in 1799.