Dunvegan Castle has been the stronghold of the Chiefs of MacLeod for around 850 years and it is said to be the most continuously inhabited castle in northern Scotland. Since 1933 it has been open to the public, the current Hugh MacLeod of MacLeod being the 30th Chief. If you are interested in the castle and its history there are many sources you can go to. Today I only wish to share with you the story of its famous Faery Flag which remains in Dunvegan Castle in a glass case for interested people to view. My version today is only one of those available to explain the mysterious old remnant that has belonged to the Clan Macleod for centuries.
The Tale of the Faery Flag
For many years Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye has been the domain of the MacLeod of MacLeod. The waters of Loch Dunvegan has seen many a MacLeod lead his men against their foe the MacDonalds of Eigg, long called the Lords of the Isles who were a force unto themselves and who lived by their own laws. One possession no MacLeod ever wanted to lose to an enemy was their treasured ‘Faery Flag’.
Long days ago there lived a chief of the Clan MacLeod called Malcolm. On the fairest of days, the weather as fine across the waters of the Loch Dunvegan as it ever could be, Malcolm took to wife a fair lady of the faery folk. The grey castle of Dunvegan was their peaceful home for a little while but faery folk find it a sair trial to live long among men. When the faery wife had borne Malcolm a fine son she felt a longing to rejoin her own people, her love for them stronger than her love for Malcolm, or her child. Sad though he was Malcolm did not want his beloved wife to be so unhappy so he agreed to take her across the Loch, and to the road that would lead to her faery home.
The day around him was just as bright and fair as it had been when he’d brought his new faery wife to his castle yet the waters of the Lock were dark and murky, reflecting the doleful grief that had settled on him. On reaching the far shore Malcolm took his beloved wife in his arms and carried her from the boat. Setting her upon the ground he walked a little way along the path with her till they reached the span of grey stones known as the Faery Bridge where she had him stop and go no further. She never looked back and Malcolm never ever saw his wife again.
That night in the castle Malcolm ordered a feast to celebrate the birth of his son, for it was the tradition, though his heart was heavy. Pibroch music filled the hall that thronged with merry people dancing and feasting. Malcolm joined in as was expected though it was hard to do so, but he was proud of his son and wanted to show it.
High up in a turret the babe who was being feted was fast asleep in his cradle being looked after by a young lass. Though proud of doing a good job with the child she was curious to know what was happening down in the hall, curious to see just the tiniest snatch of the feasting. Slipping down the turret stairs she watched from the back of the hall but when she’d seen enough her heart lurched madly for Malcolm himself saw her trying to sneak away. She feared his anger and was much afraid, a dread coming upon her. But Malcolm had no bad thoughts in his head for he assumed she had left the child with another servant. He called on her to bring down his son to the feasting, wanting to show him off to his guests. The young lass was glad to flee back up to the turret to fetch the child.
Earlier, when the lass had sneaked down to see the feasting, the baby had stayed sleeping for a while, but when an owl had screeched its way past the window it had wakened up in fright and had started to cry. When no one came to calm him the babe cried all the harder. No mortal heard his cries way up in the turret, but the sound of his crying reached his faery mother. By unearthly means she flew to his side but was unable to take her mortal son in her arms again. Instead, to comfort him, she spread a faery covering of grass-green silk embroidered with elf spots over him. The babe settled under the cover and stopped crying.When the young lass who was his nurse reached the turret she was overjoyed to find the babe fast asleep, yet was much afeared when she saw the cover, for she knew the faery folk had visited. Thankful the bairn had not been harmed she vowed never to leave him alone again. Lifting the child, still wrapped in the cover, she bore him down to the great hall. As she approached the hall the lilt of enchanted faery music followed her. It was so loud it drowned out the sound of the pibroch in the hall and made everyone stop in astonishment. As the whole hall listened the faeries sang a song about the faery cover telling Malcolm, and the gathered MacLeods, that the cover was indeed a Faery Flag, and it was a gift from the Faery Folk to the Clan MacLeod. The flag was to remain for ever in the hands of the Clan MacLeod. They foretold that the flag was to be waved on three occasions to save the Clan from great harm-but it was never ever to be waved for trivial reasons.
As the people in the hall listened the Faery song grew sombre. They prophesied that a curse would fall upon the Clan MacLeod if ever the flag was waved in a time that was not dire necessity, and that three dreadful things would happen. The current heir to the Clan Chief would die; the group of rocks at Dunvegan called the Three Maidens would fall into the hands of the Clan Campbell; and a red fox would bear her young in one of the castle turrets whereupon the glory of the Clan MacLeods would be gone, their bulk of their lands and people lost to Dunvegan.
Malcolm and his guests listened in awe as the Faery folk departed as swiftly as they had arrived. Malcolm carefully lifted the flag from his son and instructed that it be placed in a casket of iron that would be borne at the head of the clansmen if they went into battle.Generations passed by, the Faery Flag safe, until came the time when the MacDonalds came to battle against the MacLeods, close by Dunvegan at a place called Trumpan. Though they wielded their claymores and dirks fiercely the MacLeods were falling hard and fast. The Chief of the MacLeods called for the iron casket, lifted out the fragile flag and waved it aloft. A great change came over the MacDonalds for they withdrew from the battle thinking the MacLeods had gained in strength. The first waving of the Faery Flag had indeed saved the Clan MacLeod.
The second use of the Faery Flag was quite different, but yet again proved to be the saving of the clan. A great plague had descended on the cattle of the MacLeods and the people were in dire need for they depended so upon the beasts for their livelihood and welfare. The clan chief pulled forth the flag and called upon the Faery folk to aid his people claiming it was being waved for no trivial reason. No more cattle fell to the disease and indeed many recovered, the people of the clan saved yet again.More years passed till the year 1799 when the Chief of the MacLeods employed a factor called Buchanan. Buchanan knew of the legend of the Faery Flag but was sceptical of its powers. Determined that it was just an old wives’ tale, one day when the Chief of the MacLeods was away from Dunvegan, he paid an English blacksmith to force open the casket. Scorning the legend and the curse he waved the frail piece of silk in the air.
The dire events that followed seemed inevitable to all those people who believed in the powers of the Faery Flag. The current heir to the Clan Chief was blown up in the HMS. Charlotte and the land called the Three Maidens was sold to Angus Campbell of Esnay. And later, a man called Lieutenant MacLean who was staying in the castle, had a tame red fox who bore her cubs in the west turret. From that point the fortunes of the MacLeods began to dwindle and much of their estates were sold and their possessions lost to them. As years passed there were indeed only three MacLeods left in the Chief’s own family, not enough to row a four-oared boat across Loch Dunvegan-just as the Faeries had foretold.The Faery Flag remains in the hands of the Chief of the MacLeods and is guarded well.
(My version of the story adapted from Oxford Fairy Tales from Scotland retold by Barbara Ker Wilson forst published 1954)