Crodh Mara' image courtesy of Zenna Tagney


tales from barra as told by the coddy (birlinn ltd, 2013). © the estate of john macpherson 1992. reproduced with permission of the licensor through plsclear.

Location: Barra, Mingulay and St Kilda
hiding places, distilling, gaelic language and placenames

Crodh mara - sea cattle

"Once upon a time there lived on the Island of Pabbay a crofter, and when he took over this croft he also took over the stock. And the stock consisted of one cow, and for another thing he was well equipped with a poic dhubh (illicit still). He bad a famous one. He was getting on beautifully - the old cow had a calf every year, and from the story it did not seem to me that the man had a family at all. He was getting on very well in Pabbay, selling the stock and all.

"One night, he and the wife were talking at the fireside. Well Mary,' he says, 'I think we had better sell the old cow this year. Och man,' says Mary, 'no, I don't think we will sell it at all. There is plenty of grazing on the island.' But he insisted on selling the cow. 'Well,' she says, 'Donald, we were very very lucky that the old cow was there before us when we came to the island, and now from that cow we got our stock.' Well, Donald was keen to sell, and, 'If we don't sell it, he says, 'we will kill her and salt her and have her for the winter.' Ah well, the old wife was so fond of the cow she would not hear of that either, but she would rather kill her than see her leave the island altogether.

"Unfortunately the day came when Donald was about to kill the cow, and they were sitting at the fire again a few nights afterwards and they fully decided to kill it. Next day they would go down. Late through the night after they went to bed, they heard a lot of bellowing out in the barns and getting up they discovered that they bad not got one single beast - they had broken loose and left the island. Next day they searched and they searched the island and could not get a sight of any of the stock. Donald came to the mainland of Barra and told the story of his disaster. Then he went round the oldest people in the island to find out what was the matter, and if they could give him enlightenment why he lost the stock. And he discovered that the old cow, very mysteriously, came from a sea-bull who came ashore and had a connection with a cow from whom that cow was descended.

"And when the old cow heard the conversation between the master and the mistress (for it was customary in those days for the barn to be attached to the dwelling and in some cases under the same roof) she gave one loud bellow: and all the cows that were tied in the barn broke their tethers and went back into the sea, and the island was left derelict of cattle.

"Then Donald had to go to the mainland [of Barra] and buy a cow or two himself. And he could well afford it - he had the best poit dhubh on the island and he had a tremendous stock of whisty hidden in a cave in the north-west comer of Pabbay. It was customary in those days for the exciseman to go round and as Donald was knocking about one day putting another cask in, they caught him! and the whole lot that was in the cave that Donald had had there years maturing. The exciseman showed no mercy but hit the casks with the sledge hammer and commandeered the lucky 'black pot'. And the remains of that pot are on the Island of Pabbay still - when I was there I saw it myself."

As told by John MacPherson in his book 'Tales from Barra As Told by the Coddy' (Birlinn Ltd, 2013)

More information on visiting the area can be found here.