Just off the North West coast of Scotland lies the Isle of Skye. On the west side of this beautiful island, looking out across to the remote islands of North Uist, Harris and Lewis, is Loch Dunvegan. On a rocky headland, half way down the loch, is Castle Dunvegan which has been the home of the chiefs of the Clan Macleod since the 12th century. If you visit the castle you will see the famous Fairy Flag of Macleod.
Legend has it that a long time ago a handsome chieftain of the Macleods fell in love with a with a fairy princess, one of the Shining People. She also fell in love with him. They begged the Fairy King to let them get married. At first he refused, saying it would break his daughter’s heart as her husband would grow old and die while she would live forever. Moved by her tears, the King eventually agreed but on one condition; at the end of a year and a day she must return forever to her fairy folk.
The happy couple had a wonderful ceremony and within the year a bonny son was born. Alas, the year and one day passed all too quickly and the time came for her to keep her promise and return to her father, the Fairy King, who waited for her on the bridge, now known as 'The Fairy Bridge'.
Before she left, the princess hugged her son and husband for the last time and made the chieftain promise that he would never allow their young son to be left alone and to cry, for she would hear his cries, even far away in the fairy kingdom under the hills.
The chief of the Macleod was heartbroken after his beautiful wife left and, as time went on, his sadness grew. Finally his friends organised a great birthday feast for him, to try to cheer him up. There was singing and dancing and piping and harping, and soon the chief began to enjoy himself too.
There was so much music and laughter that the baby’s nursemaid slipped out of the nursery to watch the fun from the top of the stairs. The baby boy awoke and began to cry. The nursemaid did not hear him and he was left to cry pitifully, all alone.
When the nursemaid did return, she was surprised to see a beautiful woman wrapping the baby in a shawl and singing softly to him. The nursemaid knew she would never forget such a beautiful tune. When the baby stopped crying, the woman put him gently back into his cradle, kissed him and vanished into the night.
As the Laird’s son grew older, he told his father of the night his mother visited him. He said that the shawl was magic and could be used by the Macleods when they were in great danger, to summon the Fairy Knights to their side. But the flag could only be used three times. The chief immediately ordered a special casket to be made to hold the fairy flag and he carried it with him at all times.
Hundreds of years later there came a time of great danger. An enemy clan, the McDonalds, raided the island and, one Sunday, they attacked the MacLeod church and set it afire, killing the people praying inside.
The angry Macleod warriors who were left, were hopelessly outnumbered. They gathered on the beach and unfurled the fairy flag. Magically, the band seemed to grow to ten times its size. Their terrified enemies turn and ran, never to return. The flag was carefully put back safely in the casket.
Many years later, a terrible plague swept through the islands and the cattle and sheep lay dead and dying. Faced with utter famine, the Macleods waved the flag once more, and the fairy host rode out and touched the animals with their swords. Immediately the cattle and sheep became healthy once again and the clan were saved from starvation.
The Flag has not be used been used for a third time, but it is said that during the Second World War, when the threat of invasion was at its greatest, the clan chief of the Macleod offered to bring the Fairy Flag to the white cliffs of Dover. We don’t know what Churchill thought of this generous offer.
The song the fairy mother sang to her child, that was overheard by the nursemaid, is still sung on Skye; it is known as The Cradle Spell of Dunvegan.