Updated: Dec 19, 2020
The Grey Dog of Meoble - The Cù Glas Mheobail
The Grey Dog of Meoble or in the Gaelic, the Cù Glas Mheobail, or the Cu Glas for short is a legend that goes back to the early nineteenth century that sends shivers up and down the spine, especially if you are a descendant of the MacDonalds of this area.
First, however, I would like to acknowledge and thank some luminaries on this subject, notably Alister McLeod, an informed local on the subject, Alasdair Roberts, a local author who wrote the Tales of the Morar Highlands. Also Iain Thornber, Dane Love and Mike Dash who also wrote on the subject, and others who answered my request for local information.
Alasdair Roberts, says in its original form, the Grey Dog tradition is something of an archival nightmare to pin down. Of course this is matter of local legend and indeed folklore, but in exploring this issue it is clear that a spectral dog is ubiquitous, popping up right across these islands, called different things but involved in the same subject matter: omens of death or the conveying of souls to the afterlife.
Generally, a mythological hound is to found throughout Scotland and the Hebrides and is frequently called the Cù Sith, the fairy dog, or the Cù Tabhse, the ghost dog. Locally, of course, in Morar they have our own spectral hound, the Cù Glas, the Grey Dog of Meoble.
Elsewhere across the UK, there is the Dullahan, or the Malak al-Mat, the Angel of Death and the Black Shuck. The legend of a large spectral dog even inspired the Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle, where a large dog-like creature haunted a family estate, making use of folktales where spectral dogs symbolize death. The tale behind the spectral hound’s hauntings is to be found in many cultures around the world.
Generally, the Cu Sith is feared as a harbinger of death and would appear to bear away the soul of a person to the afterlife, similar to the manner of the Grim Reaper. In this role the fairy dog holds in Scottish folklore a function similar to that of the banshee in Irish folklore. According to legend, the creature was capable of hunting silently, but would occasionally let out three terrifying bays, and only three, that could be heard for miles by those listening for it, even far out at sea. Those who hear its baying must reach safety by the third howl or be overcome with terror to the point of death.
According to Scottish folklore, The Cù Sìth is said to be the size of a young bull with the appearance of a dog. Its fur is shaggy and usually cited as being dark green though sometimes white, but many report it as having a colour somewhere between white and black, as the ash of an ember. Its tail is described as being long and either coiled up or plaited, and its paws are described as being the width of a man's hand. It is thought to make its home in the clefts of rocks in these parts and also to roam the moors and glens.
This is a general depiction of the Cu Sith, the Fairy Dog of the highlands, but let’s consider more specifically the Grey Dog, the Cu Glas.
My first reference point for a local spectral Grey Dog is to be found In the Arisaig Hotel, in Arisaig, on the wall just before the stairs, where a framed poem may be found by Roy Ferguson, The Grey Dog of Rhu Arisaig. This is an interesting poem, which gives an insight into this hound. It says:
When the islands fade in the dark grip of night, look about you. -- Watch and listen. On the road just above the ruined croft a shadow flits past – you may hear the whimper of loneliness. The grey dog is running. He searches alone. He scents for the peat reek. He whines for the rough hand on his coat and the voice that commands. He will crouch in the dark heather, sniff and prick his ears. His patience is long. Did he not run the flock on the hill in panting-hot summer - or with the bitter storm off the winter sea and hail in his eyes? He will run on. On till moonrise. On till the rocky headlands stand like black strongholds and the bays hold silver mirrors to the shore. Night will pass and moonset, - and at dawn he will herd his flock in the high hills where mists dew the rowan and waterfalls speak softly to one another. Unseen, he crouches awaiting the high sharp whistle, the far voice and the brittle outline of dusk. Along the shore road the grey dog is running to his vigil.
This is a poignant description of something tragic: running to his vigil … being ever awake … watching his flock … searching, lonely, looking for his master, waiting for his whistle, his rough hand on his coat.
There is a note that accompanies the poem, which says that it so happened that at the time of the Highland Clearances at Rhu Arisaig one of the families that were evacuated by boat accidentally left behind a favourite collie. Afterwards, it was often said locally that, at dusk on certain evenings, the ‘grey ghost’ searches the shore.
Another ‘collie’ story comes from Dane Love, who gives a version of a Grey Dog story which she said was passed down through the years at Arisaig, where a crofter’s wife left her child in a cot at the door of their cottage as she went to draw water from the well. Their collie dog lay by the side of the cot, but when the woman returned she was horrified to find the child dead, its body chewed and ripped to pieces. The collie was covered in blood, some of which was dripping from its mouth. The wife screamed to her husband, who, in a rage, killed the dog by beating it to death with a stick. After making sure it was dead, he found the corpse of a wolf at the end of the croft house and realized the wolf attacked the child but that the dog, too late, forced it away and managed to kill it. Filled with remorse the crofter had his dog buried decently.
I’m slightly confused about these accounts, which refer to a grey dog but then talk about a collie. As we know collies are normally black and white or tricolour, and only occasionally grey, a meryll. So I am not sure whether these are separate stories in themselves or conflated with the Grey Dog of Meoble story.
Looking more intently at The Grey Dog of Meoble, there are also differing versions of the story. Loch Morar is, of course, as described by Dash, a phenomenally beautiful place tucked away in the heart of the Rough Bounds of the Scottish Highlands. In his writing on the subject, it put him in mind of a legend from there which combines, in an interesting way, two distinct storytelling motifs: those of the ‘loyal pet’ and the ‘harbinger of death’.
Dash describes the Grey Dog of Meoble as a gigantic, shaggy-haired, Scottish deerhound whose preternatural appearances are said to presage death to members of the Macdonald clan in the south Morar districts where the tradition first flourished. Tales of the spectral animal’s appearances certainly date to the first half of the nineteenth century. He talked of Caraid nan Gaidheal, a renowned Highland piper who died in 1867, who had heard the legend.
Alistair Roberts said the Grey Dog makes its earliest known appearance in a manuscript dating to 1896, by the noted folklorist Father Allan McDonald of Eriskay. He said the first printed version that he knew of features in a little book by a Morar fisherman named James Macdonald, published in Inverness in 1907 and entitled Tales of the Highlands, by a Mod Medallist. Macdonald won his medal as a fiddle player at the Oban mod of 1906. Only two copies of this work are known to survive: one of them in anonymous private hands and the other is in the Heritage Centre in Mallaig. Macdonald also said the bitch’s name was Elasaid, Elizabeth in English.
Roberts explained a second key source, detailing the Canadian parts of the tradition, in a Gaelic manuscript preserved in the St Francis Xavier University library in Cape Breton. The most recent accounts of the legend, however, and probably the most detailed source on the subject are Iain Thornber’s article ‘The Legend of the Grey Dog’, published in The Scots Magazine of Dundee in May 1982 and Mike Dash’s blog on 24 July 2010.
Their stories relate to the tiny crofting hamlet of Meoble, a settlement, now all but abandoned, in an isolated district a mile from the shores of Loch Morar, but also to be found in other parts of Scotland and even Canada, where the MacDonalds settled.
Significantly most tales of the Grey Dog concern the hound’s appearances to Morar MacDonalds who are on the point of death. However, it is worth noting this also includes the local MacDougalls, a variant on the same name.
One story concerns an old Highland lady who lived in Glasgow in the early 1900s and whose family were closely related to the MacDonalds of Meoble. According to this story, the old woman lived alone and had been confined to her room for many years and a friend who lived across the street was in the habit of calling each day to attend to her needs. On one occasion as the friend was leaving the flat, a large dog of a type she had never seen before, passed her on the stairs. She thought no more about it until the following day when, much to her surprise, she saw it again, this time lying on the old lady’s doorstep. With difficulty she pushed it aside and went in. In the course of the conversation, she happened to mention the dog. Her friend sat up in bed her eyes alight.
‘“Describe it to me,” she said in a low voice.
‘“Well,” replied the other, “it was very big, about the size of a Shetland pony, grey in colour, with a long curly tail.”
‘”Ah!” exclaimed the old lady with a smile of contentment on her lips. “The faithful friend – she came at last.” And with that she sank back on her pillow and passed away.
The tale of the Glasgow Cailleach features several of the characteristic motifs of the Grey Dog, the hound’s enormous size, the size of a Shetland pony, and, for all its ghostly attributes, its distinct physicality. The Grey Dog’s other distinguishing features include an unearthly, wailing bark, in fact a vocal trait quite typical of real Scottish deerhounds, as is the ghost’s characteristic rough grey coat.
According to Alasdair Roberts, the Grey Dog legend has morphed over the years, so that present-day Morar residents think of the hound as a ghostly creature akin to a she-wolf heard and even seen on stormy nights.
Dane Love in her book Scottish Ghosts calls it a phantom hound that haunts the countryside around Arisaig. It is supposed to terrorise humans. In my analysis I have no reports of people being terrorised, scared perhaps, as described by a local lass Margaret MacQueen who remembers feeling afraid of the thought of it in her childhood in Arisaig (Druimindarroch), but terrorised, no.
Love said the ghost of the dog is said to wander the wooded glens of the parish of Arisaig. It tends to appear to those who are on their deathbeds, no matter where they are, so long as they are related to the MacDonalds, also materialising in front of descendants in Canada.
Alister McLeod, former owner of the Morar Hotel, tells a convincing and consistent story, although there are differing accounts to be consdered. Alaister’s account concerns a man, Dugall, of the MacDonald clan of Meoble, Rifern and Arisaig. According to Alister, Dugall went away to fight in the Napoleonic wars (1803 to 1815) and left behind a dog bitch he was very fond of, a large grey stag hound that used to chase the deer down the hill. When he was away the bitch went onto an island and had pups.
When Dugall returned he heard the bitch had gone onto the island and he went there, whereby the stag hound in excitement came running towards him. When the pups, now fully grown, saw this they thought it was attacking him and they attacked him and killed him. He was buried at the graveyard at Meoble pier where the flat stones are.
This is similar to Thornber’s account, where Dugall set out to visit the hill-loch and on reaching its shores swam across to the island. The deerhound was away and her pups, on hearing him approach, emerged from their lair in the heather and tore him to pieces. When the deerhound returned and saw what had happened to her master, her howls of agony brought the folk of the glen to the scene. The pups were speedily hunted out and killed, and similar to Alister’s account, Thornber also said Dugall’s body was laid to rest in the little burial-ground at the mouth of the Meoble River.
Turnign to Thornber account, Thornbur, a renowned Highlands historian, researched his article in the course of several years of hill walking and stalking in the Morar district in the late 70s. He said the story of the Grey Dog dates back to the early 1800s at the time of the Peninsular Wars and is associated with this young Highlander by the name of Dugald MacDonald, who owned a magnificent deerhound of which he was very fond. Like many other men of his generation, Dugald went off to the wars and was away from home for several years. When at last he eventually returned he was told that his beloved dog had left home and taken up residence on an island in the middle of a small lochan high among the hills and there had given birth to four pups. The pups were now almost fully grown. He was warned that due to their lack of human contact they were so savage that it was unsafe to go anywhere near them. However, he did and was killed.
In Thornber’s research, the man’s first name was Dugald, but in other accounts he is Dugall, and as we have heard the legend also affects the local MacDougalls, a variant on the same name, and of course ‘sons of Dugall’.
Thornber said that tradition has it that Dugald MacDonald’s grave still lies in the disused Meoble cemetery near the south shore of Loch Morar, a spot abandoned so long ago and so completely overgrown that it cannot even be certain exactly where it once stood. He said for long afterwards the story of the Grey Dog’s watch over the grave was talked about through the district. Gradually, with the passage of time, it was largely forgotten, until one of Dugald’s brothers became seriously ill at Rifern, a small crofting township lying across the river from the grave-yard. One night the ghost of the deerhound appeared at his bedside. It looked at him for several minutes, then gave a terrible cry and disappeared. A little later the man died. The spectre of the Grey Dog had made its first appearance.
Love’s account also tells a similar story that Dougall went off to fight and his dog was left with his wife. After a while the dog ran off and made its den on an islet in Loch Tain Mhic Dhugall. There it brought up four pups which were extremely wild due to their lack of human training.
When the master returned he was told of the dog’s whereabouts. He set off to look for it, but on landing on the islet he found the hound away from its lair. The four wild dogs attacked him and ripped his body into little pieces. The mother later returned to the island and saw its master’s body. So distressed was she that she howled for hours on end. The noise attracted the locals who, on investigating, also found the body of MacDonald. He was buried at Rifern on Loch Morar. The pups were killed by local hunters. The hound survived, and for many months it lay on its master’s grave, baying in grief, a local Greyfriers Bobby. After a time the dog itself died. All was quiet for a time until the brother of Dugall was ill in bed. Just before he died the hound made an appearance at his croft, howling loudly. It disappeared after a short time and the brother died.
Thornber’s work chimes with this saying the deerhound began a lonely and pathetic vigil, frequently waking the neighbourhood with her mournful howling as she watched over her master’s grave, until one day she was discovered lying stretched out dead beside it.
According to Alister McLeod, since that day, the descendants of Dugall are either dying or at risk of dying when the Cu Glas is seen. Alister said the Cu Glas may still be out there but with street lights and people not going out so much it isn’t seen. He said his mother came from Scarmadale and she saw the Cu Glas heading towards a local area where there was a man who was very ill and dying and subsequently he died. He said the Grey Dog has been seen in Glasgow and in Cape Breton, anywhere the MacDonalds of Meoble settled.
Alister explained he had an experience of a local sighting in the Morar Hotel, when two women saw the Cu Glas. His cousin was sitting at the fire in the lounge when she turned and said she just saw the Grey Dog move into the dining room. Alister and his cousin moved through to the dining room in search of the hound. There was a bus party there and one of the ladies, a spiritualist, also said she saw the Grey Dog moving from the dining room into the kitchen. No one else, including the cook, saw the dog, which was visible only to the two ladies, one a spiritualist and the other his cousin, two reliable witnesses Alister maintains.
Other locals answered my request for information on the Grey Dog. One said she lived on the Meoble Estate for five years and often heard dogs barking at night but never saw them. Another said she is from Meoble and says the dogs were on an island in a lochan up the top of the meffin (Meth Bheinn?) and when a MacDonald dies the dog howls. Another said her dad is from Meoble and told her about it this whilst out walking at Loch Beoraid, saying the island the dog was on is in a small lochan over the hill.
Another person’s description is about a man who went off to the First World War and left his croft uninhabited. He got rid of all his stock but didn’t want to get rid of his favourite dog, a wolf hound, he believed. The dog fended for itself and bred with another wild dog. Their pups were wild and never had contact with humans. At the end of the war the soldier returned to his croft and was greeted by his old dog. The pups, now fully grown, thought that something was amiss and attacked the soldier killing him. The dog and the pups were later destroyed. He confirmed the Grey Dog of Meoble is seen the night before a MacDonald dies.
Another gave a story about the Hound of Polnish, which his father used to tell him. He remembered a rock slide formation on the old road at Polnish, up from the car park for the Peanmeanach bothy at Ardnish, where you could see the image of a wolfhound or lurcher type of dog running in the headlights approaching the cutting from the Fort William side. He said it was partially lost when the new section of road was constructed. He tried to find it recently and explained that it is now totally overgrown and covered over by the construction of the new road. He recalled a link to the Grey Dog of Meoble, suggesting that it might have been one of its offspring that wasn’t destroyed after the killing. Another thought the island is just adjacent to Meoble on Loch Morar and had also been told a story that it has been near the Drochaid e Wan bridge on the way up to Bracara on the north side of Loch Morar.
So there are varying accounts, some more consistent than others.
As for the island where Dugall was killed by the dogs, Alister McLeod says it is in a lochan locally called Lochan Cu Glas. In some versions of the story, the isle is Eilean Allmha, in Loch Morar itself, but Thornber’s research showed that the people of the district identify the spot as a nameless islet in Lochan Tain Mhic Dhughaill, the little lake of MacDougall’s cattle, which lies, barely visited and well over a mile of rough ground from the nearest mountain path, in the shadow of Sgurr na Plaide on the north shore of Loch Beoraid some three miles to the east of Meoble. Thornber provides a very informative drawing, giving locations of the islet near Loch Beoraid and Meoble close to Morar Loch:
Thornber also provides an interesting aerial photo of the Grey Dog islet, showing its exceptional size relative to the body of water that surrounds it.
Thornber became obsessed with the desire to see the spot. Eventually reaching it on a desolate New Year’s Eve, he found a far more sinister place than the wooded Eilean Allmha. He said, “Suddenly, spread before me, was the loch I’d come to see. In its centre stood the island, rising up like a large dark pyramid. In my travels throughout the Highlands I have seen many hundreds of loch-bound islands, but none so dramatic as this one. Even at a distance, I had been struck by its shape and colour, but now, viewed so closely against a backdrop of bleak winter hillside, it seemed even more impressive. It was desolate, dismal and frighteningly gloomy and moreover it had an atmosphere which - in every respect would conjure up a scene of some terrible tragedy even to those not familiar with the saga of the deerhound. The loch was frozen over and finding a gap of only 50 or so yards separated me from the island, I stepped gingerly onto the ice. As soon as I set foot on the island I saw immediately why it had looked so dark. Not only was it composed almost entirely of peat, but it was also covered with a thick blanket of heather than had probably not been touched since the time of Dugald’s death more than a century and a half before.”
Thornber’s photo of the isle (below) gives a good impression of its unearthly appearance, and a modern aerial photo (also below) confirms the place’s very unusual bulk in proportion to the lochan in which it lies. He said its nineteenth century title was ‘Lochan Feith a Mha ghambaa’. This, a Morar local and the OS Glossary of Gaelic Origins of Place Names in Britain, combined to inform him, could be clumsily translated as ‘the bog of the fine stirk’. A stirk is a young bullock.
Apparently the strange black islet in the bleak lochan of MacDougall’s cattle is still thick with heather, and perhaps even unvisited since Iain Thornber stepped onto it. The picture that he took of it to illustrate his Scots Magazine article was, the author recounts, found to be imperfect. Although the light at the time had been brilliantly clear, the photograph showed an overall and uncanny blue tinge, which he had never seen before. He wrote to the manufacturers, but they too were puzzled and couldn’t offer an explanation. Had the Grey Dog been closer to him he had imagined?
To consider another account of a Grey Dog, described here as the Grey Dog of Death, this story comes from the short story of Alistair MacLeod a Canadian, which is not so dissimilar to our local Alister McLeod’s account (different spelling of McLeod and MacLeod). In the Canadian MacLeod’s story As Birds Bring Forth The Sun, there is a man who saves a grey puppy after it is run over by a carriage. He nurses the puppy back to health and then keeps it as a pet. The puppy has a habit of jumping up on him, and as she gets larger and larger, she is eventually able to touch his shoulders with her paws, and he himself is quite tall. When the man decides to breed her, he finds the biggest dog he can, which is still not as big as his puppy. At the height of her pregnancy, the dog runs away, across the ice to an island, and gives birth there.
Thornbur talked about the lochan icing over in winter. A year or so later, after the ice has melted, the man and two of his seven sons sail to the island and he sees the dog again. She runs down to greet him and he calls her something like "my dear" or "my beloved." whereby she jumps up on him - as she used to when she was a puppy - but due to him being in the water, she knocks him over. Her own pups come running over, thinking she is attacking something, and rip the man to pieces. The dog is furious and runs the pups off.
The sons gather around the man, and feel that the dog has always been a symbol of death. Since then, all those in that line are suspicious of grey dogs. When one of the ancestors was on his death bed, his sons, all grey-haired middle-aged men, came to see him, and one mentioned avoiding the Grey Hound Bus and all its assigned stops, just in case. The old man claimed to see a grey dog, and all the sons fear their father is on the brink of death. The Grey Hound Bus is legendary of couse.
A local woman’s grandfather saw the Grey Dog at the Green Gates, which at that time led down to the glen in Arisaig. He lived at Borrodale at the time. It bared his teeth at him and he threw a stone at it and it ran off. He’d be taking no souls that night.
I would like to mention the ‘faire-chlaidh’ here, the fairy graveyard watch in Sccottish folklore, or the church grim in other cultures, which takes the shape of a large mostly black dog that guards churchyards, including from the devil himself. It had once been the custom to bury a dog alive under the cornerstone of a church as a foundation sacrifice so that its ghost might serve as a guardian. When a new churchyard was opened it was believed that the first person to be buried there had to guard it against the devil. In order to prevent a human soul from having to perform such a duty a black dog was buried in the north part of the graveyard as a substitute. Such a ghostly black dog may be found in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series: the Grim, a giant, spectral dog that haunts churchyards is the worst omen of death.
I wondered if, given the age of the old church in Arisaig (1641), whether there is faire-chlaidh in the old graveyard there. Not that I expected to find anything, I checked out the inscriptions on the old church wall. On the MacDonald Armorial Panel set into the burial recess, dated 1641 (see below), there is a shape of a ‘beast’ there. I am sure it is the lion rampant, but it bears an uncanny resemblance to the description of the Cu Sith, ‘the size of a young bull, appearance of a dog, fur shaggy, tail long either coiled up or plaited, paws are described as being the width of a man’s hands’.
Alister McLeod also talked of the grave yard watch. The old tradition locally was that the last person to be buried in a grave would guard it until the next person was buried. There was an old graveyard down in Keppoch, before the church graveyard was opened which went back to the 1600s. Alan O’Cork, a local clan chief of the time, lived down there. There was poor widow’s son who had died and she buried his remains in the Keppoch graveyard in the knowledge that Alan’s son had also died and would soon be buried there, so she thought her son would have a ‘short watch’. However, realising his son would be the long graveyard watch, Alan O’ Cork closed the Keppoch graveyard and opened the new graveyard at the church and interred his son. This was opened in 1641, so the widow’s son would have ‘the long watch’ in the ancient Keppoch graveyard.
So the story of the Grey Dog of Meoble is alive and well in the tradition and culture of Arisaig and Morar, confirmed both by local personal accounts passed down the generations and by renowned historians and writers. There are variations and inconsistencies, however, in the story, but most have a central consistent theme of Dougall or Dugald MacDonald. It is also alive in myth and legend of a ghost dog, which as we know is open to interpretation.
The true, accurate and confirmed account may never be known, but I believe that doesn’t matter, it is about belief, which is subjective and true as to the faith of the individual. It is clear the many MacDonald’s of the area and descendants of Dugald - MacDonalds and MacDougalls - believe it to be true so much to fear the visit of the Grey Dog, but also others similar to the Glasgow Cailleach in may find comfort in knowing ‘the faithful friend’ has come at last.
Tom O. Keenan (2020)