23 May 2009

Balnakeil: Death of a Highwayman

There should be a word for a saga which time has faded into myth and obscurity. It has taken more than 400 years, but the details of the life of Donald McMurdo (aka Domhnull MacMhurchaidh) seem to be all but washed away. Even the spelling of his name - which my Scotland guidebook lists as “MacMurchow,” - seems to be in some dispute.

What remain of the specifics of his life twist meekly in the wind beneath his title of “highwayman and contract killer.” Contract killer seems straight forward enough, but “highwayman” comes storming through the mind in a veil of mist and legend.

In this case the “highways” are narrow roads located in the north of Scotland in what is now the district of Sutherland, a world of deadly moorland, strong winds and wild seas. Claw your way back through the years to the 1600s and you’re looking at a soggy horse track through an endless vista of bog and peat.

McMurdo is said to have killed 18 people, often tossing them down the “blow hole” at Smoo Cave near Durness. I imagine a dramatic swoop of a black cape as he hurls his screaming victims over the edge before mounting his dark horse and riding off with his spoils.

McMurdo is buried in the churchyard at Balnakeil, his grave indicated on the south wall by a skull and crossbones. The elements are slowly wearing away the ruins of the 17th century church, and as many times as we circled we could not find the promised marker.

According to my research, we should have turned left into the little nook below. There we would have found his tomb and read "Donald Makmurchou here lies low/ Was ill to his friend, and worse to to his foe/ True to his master in prosperity and woe. DMMC 1623"

It is said that the clergy of the church had not wanted to bury such an evil man in sacred ground.

A compromise was reached, spurred on by payment (one source says it was his employer who paid, another says McMurdo himself prearranged his burial in the churchyard to guard against those who would desecrate his grave).

McMurdo’s grave was positioned “half in and half out” of the ground, protecting him within the church walls but leaving his eternal soul partially exposed, like a shiny thing for the eye of the Almighty.

During our wanderings we found some graves whose moss-covered skulls drew our attention far more than the desire for historical accuracy. For us, these rubbed-out and sinking monuments spoke more convincingly of a long-ago story of darkness, thievery, death and a timeless descent into spiritual rot.

Long before Balnakeil church, the first place of worship is thought to have been built some 1200 years ago (in Gaelic Balnakeil means “bay of the church”). The spot is also the final resting place of Gaelic poet Rob Dunn.

The church still looks out over to Balnakeil Bay, which leads to Faraid Head. It was there that an emigrant ship sank in 1849, killing all on board. Their bodies are housed in an unmarked mass grave, their combined bulk creating a small raised area in the south corner of the churchyard.
The whole scene is overlooked by the worn and stoic Balnakeil House. Built in 1744, it resembles a home from an atmospheric thriller, in which a harmless holiday to the seaside turns into something ghastly, as the walls begin to seep with the memories of past evil deeds. But perhaps it is just my imagination…

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