NATURAL HISTORY SOCIETY
One of the most interesting indigenous Kintyre surnames is Omey. Four hundred years ago there were a number of surnames here with the Irish Gaelic prefix "O". It seems Omey is the only one to survive. The Obrolochans dropped the "O" and finally became Brodies. By the same process the Oloynachans became Langs. The Odrains changed their names to Hawthorn and the Macoshenoigs became McShannons, while some who went to the Lowlands became plain Shannons. The Okaldies of Machrihanish and Knockhanty give rise to the Okellys who in due course became Kellys. What became of the Ocolchans and the. Obrenans the Ocholtans and the Ocoynes, the Odowans and the Odimans. mentioned along with the Obrianns (as well as Mcbrionns) in the 1636 list of tenants? None of these latter names are even mentioned in Black's "The Surnames of Scotland."
The name Omey is believed to be from the Gaelic Miadhaigh which means esteemed or honourable, the "O" implying descent. Prior to the 17th Century, it is only found in Kintyre. It is found spelt Ofey, Omay Omey, O'May and a branch which settled in Perthshire appears to have dropped the prefix.
Prior to the 17th Century written evidence of any sort is extremely scarce, especially in relation to remoter parts like Kintyre but the name occurs in the earliest Royal record of Kintyre tenants, made on the instruction of King James IV in 1505, where John Ofey is. noted as the occupier of the four merkland of Dalnaeccleis (now Dalimore) Crislag and Kilquhattan in Kilblaan Parish.
Andrew McKerral on whose work this article is almost wholly based suggests that Dalnaeccleis and Crislag (now Christlach) from their names were probably church lands and this is particularly interesting in view of the strong connection of the family with the church both before and after the Reformation.
In the rental of 1506 Gilchrist Ofey is shown as joint occupier of the lands with John. Master Duncan Omey was in 1531 appointed by King James V to the benefice of Kilberry vacant on the death of Sir Cornelius Omey, prebendary of Kilberry in Knapdale. This, as Andrew McKerral points out, cannot be the same Cornelius Omey who graduated at St. Andrews in 1528 and who was holding the Rectory of Kilblaan in 1560.
He suggested the following family tree
Cornelius died 1531. (2)Master Duncan, the
King's surgeon was his son. (3)Cornelius,
Rector of Kilblaan 1560 son of Duncan. (4)Duncan
who was granted a Charter of Kilcolmkill in 1622
being the son of Cornelius (3).
The unusual Christian name Cornelius persisted in the family and one of that name described as a sailor was admitted a burgess of Campbeltown on 12th October 1707 (on payment of £6 Scots as against £3 charged to others.) The higher payment probably indicates he was not resident in the Burgh.
Master Duncan Omey or Omay whom McKerral identifies as the one appointed to Kilberry in 1531 had been appointed principal surgeon to King James V on 3rd July 1526 along with a gift of £40 Scots. The King gave other gifts including a black satin gown, a quantity of red, velvet and a sum of money for his wife's sister, Katherine Weir. Weir appears to be an early, Kintyre surname as there was a Gillicallum Weir in Borgadale in 1636.
In 1531 the King was making preparations for his expedition to the Western Isles and he gave Master Duncan £20 for the help given to him. In 1533 he awarded him the Customarship, that is, the right to collect the customs dues at the Port of Perth and three years later he received a gift of the lands of Rednoch in Menteith. From this time on Omays or Mays are found in Perthshire and several of them were Protestant Ministers in the 17th Century.
Master Duncan attended the Queen Mother, Margaret Tudor (sister of Henry VIII) on her deathbed and received from the King three months later on 31st. December 1541 a letter thanking him "for his gude and thoughful service done to our soverane lord and to his derrest moder quhon God Assoilye - off the gift of xxy markis money of this realm to he to him yeirlie be our soverane Lordis Comptrollare now, present and being for the time of the reddiest of his Grace's customes of the burgh of Perth during the said M. Duncan's lifetime, his entrie of payment of the said twenty markis yeirlie to begin at the fest of Martymas last by past."
The surgeon seems to have died about 1577. Andrew McKerral admits there is no direct proof that he was a Kintyre man but feels as I do that the facts as disclosed make any other supposition unlikely.
In 1542 James Omey a priest was presented by the Crown to the Rectory of Kilquhoman in Islay which he held till 1547, He is described as son of the deceased Duncan Omey whom McKerral supposes to have been the surgeon and it is suggested he was a brother of Cornelius who graduated B. A. at St. Andrews in 1528.
Cornelius is described as a "dives" or one who could pay his own fees without finding a surety. In 1547 he was rector of Kildalton, 1550 rector of Kilberry and rural Dean of Kintyre. In 1555 he was practising as a notary and was a canon of Lismore Cathedral. As late as 1577 he was witness to a charter to Angus MacDonell of Dunnyveg. He was rector of Kilblaan as early as 1554 but had died by 1580 when the King presented Donald Campbell to Kilblaan, vacant by Cornelius Omay's decease.
Duncan Omey or, as the English speaking scribe wrote his name "of May" was tacksman of the 3 merklands of Glendaharvie in 1596 and as such appeared before the King's Lieutenant at Lochhead in that year. He was probably the same as the tacksman of Kilkivan and the two Ineans in 1605 and 1609 and possibly the same man who in 1622 received a charter of the lands of Kilcolmkill. The charter states that the Omeys were native tenants of these lands which would indicate that they had been there long before 1622.
Before tracing the Kilcolmkill family over 200 years following the grant it may be remarked that in the first detailed list of Kintyre tenants in 1636, there are no longer Omeys in Kilkivan but in Colinlongart, Ballivenane and Dalsmirren appear Evin Omey and Duncan Orney while Donald Omey appears as one of the tenants of Conachan and again one of the ten tenants of Kilchrist. Presumably it was Duncan in Colinlongart who was an elder in Southend in 1643. A later Duncan Omey was in Colingart in 1710 when he was a member of the jury at a Justiciary Court held in Campbeltown. Most of the jury were local landowners. After this and apart from Colinlongart I cannot trace any other Omey tenants in the Argyll Estates in Kintyre though McKerral states that the connection with Kilkivan lasted for many years and that the Omeys had a burial place there. James Omey was tacksman of the teinds of Kilkivan Parish in 1635.
Duncan Omey was appointed by the Bishop of Argyll to be minister of the Parish of Kilcolmkill in 1611. He was also made Commissary of the ecclesiastical court and agreed with the Bishop to accept a fixed sum in exchange for the Court dues. After 1617 Kilblaan too was included in his charge which he held till 1640 when he demitted office on account of old age and infirmity. Not long before his retirement he became involved in national affairs almost unwittingly.
In April 1638 the Marquis of Lorne (who was virtually the head of the family since his father had become a Catholic and fled to Spain) was called to London by the King. He was so outspoken to Charles I about the people's religious and other grievances that they quarrelled. Lorne's enemies hoped to profit and the Earl of Antrim, a Macdonnell and kinsman of the expropriated McDonalds of Islay and Kintyre, in particular hoped to recover for himself the former McDonald lands. He had married the widow of Charles' favourite, the Duke of Buckingham and was in touch with the King.
The earliest evidence of Antrim's intentions comes in a formal statement made by the Southend Minister to Lord Lorne, Sheriff of Argyll and Justice General of Argyll and the Isles on 31st July 1638. He stated that in the previous month the illiterate MacDonald of Sanda had sent for him, desiring him to read to him certain letters. One was from Sir James Stewart, Sheriff of Bute (his brother in law). It enclosed two others from Archibald Stewart of Ballintoy (Antrim's factor and a kinsman of Sir James) - one for Sanda and another to be forwarded to Colkitto. Omey read the letters to Sanda. They had been sent from London earlier in the month. Antrim had told the King that no MacDonald had signed the National Covenant. This pleased the King for none who signed the Covenant would ever get his favour. Charles told Antrim to thank his MacDonald kinsmen while as for Lorne "When he next comes to Court he will do you no harm thereafter." Sanda had taken Omey further into his confidence. The exiled Chiefs of the O'Neill and O'Driscolls were to join in an Irish rising as soon as the Civil War in Scotland began. The Earl of Antrim would cross with an army of McDonnells and all of Clan Donald would rise and join him in a war against the Campbells to recover "their old patrimonie and whatever more they might." Ranald Angus Og MacDonald - a nephew of Sir James and a grandson of old Angus of Dunnyveg (whom Sir James had burned out of his House of Askomil) was thought to have a good claim to the Chieftainship of Clan lain Mor.
No doubt this information made a considerable contribution to Lorne's decision to throw in his lot with the Covenanters at the momentous Glasgow Assembly later in the year. He had further information from sympathisers at Court and as a result summoned the barons and gentlemen of Argyll and drew up plans for the defence of the shire. He bought a frigate and other arms in Holland and constructed a fortified camp at Lochhead under the distinguished soldier, Sir Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck. The fortifications are remembered in the place names Fort Argyll and Trench Point.
Donald Omey who graduated M. A. at Glasgow University in 1622 is said to have been a brother of Duncan, the Southend Minister. In 1624 he was appointed to Ardnamurchan where an armed man sent by Clanranald broke up his Church service ordering him to leave the Parish and "have him hame if he valued his life." He had to leave and was later appointed to Kingarth in Bute and Kilkerran in Kintyre. The bishop described him as "ane learned modest and good teacher." In 1632 he was granted a Charter by the Earl of Argyll for a feu in the Main Street of Campbeltown. The Charter, perhaps uniquely for a minister, allowed him to market a tun (232 gallons) of wine yearly and to sell all kinds of merchandise in Lochhead and all the bounds of Kintyre.
He attended the first meeting of the Synod of Argyll in 1634 but was dead by October 1640, when the Synod discussed arrangements for his widow and children. He had two sons, James, from whom the later Kilcolmkill Omeys were descended, and Duncan who was one of those recommended by the Synod in 1648 to be educated by the Presbytery for the Ministry. James and his wife were threatened with excommunication in 1653 for "obstinacie."
John Omey An M.A. of Glasgow was excommunicated by the Synod in 1646 for consorting with the rebels i.e. the army under the command of Major General Alastair Mac Colla MacDonald who were acting in support of the Royal interest against the Covenanters and the Campbells. He was in good company with the heads of many old Kintyre families, and the other Argyllshire chieftains.
The Kilcolumkill Omeys were as follows:-
I. Duncan Omey who may have been the father of the two ministers, Duncan of Kilcolmkill and Donald of Kilkerran. His title runs as follows: "Sasine of the 20/- land of Kilcolumkill in the Parish of Eikollumkill and Lordship of Kintyre given by Colin Stirling burgess of Rothesay as baillie to Duncan Omey native tenant of said land on a charter thereof by Andrew, Bishop of Argyll with consent from the Dean and Chapter but reserving 4 acres of glebe to the Minister of Kilcolumkill." Andrew McKerral points out some interesting points about this charter. Part of the revenues of Kilcolumkill had been erected into a prebend to support a canonry in Lismore and McKerral suggests this is why the consent of the Chapter was needed. The mistake, a common one, was made of substituting in the deed Icolumkill (i.e. Iona) for Kilcolumkill. A similar mistake a century later had resulted in these lands going wrongly to Iona. The witness es to the, Sasine included Donald Omey indweller in Kilcolumkill. The description of native tenant implies that the Omeys had been there for at least 81 years, the equivalent of three generations - described as a time beyond the memory of man. The charter subject to the same reservation of Glebe Land was confirmed by King Charles 1 on 6th July 1635.
II. James Omey who succeeded Duncan appears to have been a grandson and the son of Rev. Donald Omey, Minister of Kilkerran. He granted a Bond in which he is described as "elder in Kill," for 300 marks in favour of George Bruce in Lochheid on 23rd May 1659. If he was the same James who was threatened with excommunication in 1653 he must have made a swift reformation.
III. James Omey doubtless the son of the previous James was granted a Charter of the lands of Kilcolumkill in 1682. Bishops had been abolished in 1638 and the superiority of the lands passed to the Argyll who apparently tore up the earlier Bishop's charter because in 1669 he let the lands to the Laird of Ralston with a reservation however to James Omey (probably the elder) during his lifetime. Argyll himself was forfeited in 1681 and presumably the restored Bishop again claimed the Superiority.
It is of interest that in the Kelburne correspondence there is a 'letter dated at Machribeg 14th November 1692 from W. Hamilton, probably a subfactor, to Boyle of Kelburne stating -
"Besyd Insherall that John McVicar of Carrine is infeft in there is one James Omey infeft in the 20s. land of Kilcolumkill and Marksharne (McEachran) in the 2 merkland of Kilblan and ane Farquhar Mackay in a merkland of Crossibeg. They have set their lands already to tenants and will presently fall a ploughing of them. They say they have a warrant from the Bishop. Hamilton hopes he need not entreat Kelburne 'to prevent their daring in wrongin Ralston's interest and ruining the tenant' which unless Kelburne interferes cannot be prevented."
It is all rather strange in that Ralston, like Argyll, was a Covenanter and bitterly opposed to the Stuarts and to Bishops. Kelburne and his servants were appointed by the Stewart Marquis of Athole who was as bitterly opposed to the Covenanters and the Campbells.
I mentioned earlier that in 1636 there had been Omeys in Colinlongart. Their relationship to the Keil family is confirmed by the terms of the Bishop's Charter of 1692. It was granted by Hector, Bishop of Argyll, to James Omey in Collinlongart his heirs and assignes etc. of all and haill the 20 shilling land of Kilcolumkill lying in the Parish of Kilcolumkill, Lordship of Kintyre and Sheriffdom of Argyle. To be holden of the said Bishop for payment of 40 shillings Scots at Whitsunday and Martinmass proportionally and doubling the feu duty the first year of the entry of every heir."
It may be remarked that the feu duty has double in comparison with the 1635 Charter and the reservation of the glebe land is not repeated. This led to a litigation in the following century. The glebe land was the flat area in front of the old Keil School. James Omey Junior's wife was Barbara MacAllester and in 1686 she was given a liferent of half of Kilcolumkill.
IV. Duncan Omey was probably the son of James Junior. He married Mary McNabb and the marriage contract is dated 15th September 1725. Following on this contract she was seised on 12th July 1749 in a yearly annuity of 100 merks Scots to be paid all the days of her, life after the decease of her husband. In 1748 Duncan was served heir to a cousin James Omey in Collinlongart which marks the end of the male line there. In 1754 he sold the Lochheid feu granted in 1632 to his great grandfather the Rev. Donald Omey, to Cambell of Skipness and in 1765 he made up title as heir to the Rev. Donald. Duncan Omey and Mary McNabb had three sons, James, Archibald and John. Their only daughter Isobel married John Pickan, ships carpenter in Campbeltown. Archibald became a shipmaster in Greenock.
V. James Omey the eldest son of Duncan became infeft on a charter of Confirmation by the Duke of Argyll in the 20/- lands of Kilcolmkill reserving his father's liferent and a power to the Duke to abrogate the Charter without James' consent. It appears that James died before his father. He left a son Archibald.
VI. Archibald Omey got a sasine on 29th December 1772 in which he is described as grandson of Duncan Omey of Kilcolumkill and only surviving of the deceased James Omey, Duncan's eldest son. It provides that Archibald shall pay £10 to Archibald Omey, Duncan's eldest surviving son, £10 to John his youngest son and £40 to Isabel, his daughter. A witness was Peter Stewart, Writer in Campbeltown. After becoming Provost, this Peter Stewart emigrated to Canada where he became Lord Chief Justice of Prince Edward Island. Duncan appears to have been alive when this sasine was taken but he died before 1778 when a fresh sasine was taken on a Precept of Clare Contract. In 1778 Archibald granted a Bond for £260 to the Relief Kirk in Campbeltown on which he paid interest of £13 per annum. He died before 1781 and was succeeded by his cousin Archibald, son of the Greenock Shipmaster, who was impliedly dead by then.
VII. Archibald Omey. He died on September 6 1786 when the estate passed to his brother.
VIII. Samuel Omey remained proprietor till 1819 when he sold the estate to Dr. Colin McLarty who had made a fortune in the West Indies. He went to live in Edinburgh and was still alive in 1835 but nothing further has been heard of the direct line.
A few other Omeys have been noted:
John Omey, no doubt the youngest son of the Fourth Laird joined the Masonic Lodge in Campbeltown in 1777. Archibald McNabb and James McNabb, perhaps cousins, entered in 1778.
Donald Omey appears in a list of inhabitants of Campbeltown in 1685 described as Nocholas Todd his man." Neill Omey appears in the same list.
Duncan Omey was recorded as a fencible man in the Drum and Ballergies in 1692. Mary Omey, wife of Farquhar McIlchere who died in 1695 is commemorated on a Kilkerran tombstone.
Patrick Omey was one of the tenants of Kilcolumkill, Gartvaich and Lepenstra in the same year, and Hew Omey was in Dalbhradden and the two Gartlochans.
Duncan Omey is shown as in Collinlongart in 1692.
Captain Omey, Master of the Jean is mentioned in 1806 in a letter from Alexander Shannon, Merchant in Greenock.
Citizens who adopt a cynical attitude to the medical profession but believe in heredity may find food for thought (in relation to the Royal Surgeon of King James V) that amonst the most prominent Omeys (or O'May as they now spell it ) left in Kintyre are a butcher and a plumber.
This article is founded entirely on a Manuscript of the late Andrew McKerral in the Society's Library, to whom any credit should be given. The original article contains references to the sources. I am indebted for the information about the Revd Donald Omey to the recently published "Alasdair Mac' Colla" by Dr. David Stevenson of Aberdeen University, a volume of great interest to anyone interested in the history of Kintyre.
SASINE: is from the same root as Seizing. It is
taking possession of the land when the title is
INFEFT: is from the same root as feu and fief. It is used when the title to the land is completed.
PRECEPT OF CLARE CONSTAT: is a deed or writ by which a Feudal Superior confirms his vassel's successors on the lands.
In a previous number we saw that Flora MacDonald, who as every Campbeltown schoolboy knows, sailed from Campbeltown for Cape Fear in 1774 was for a time in North Carolina where many from Scotland had settled in the region of the Cape Fear River, in the eighteenth century. A town formerly called Campbeltown was renamed Fayetteville in the aftermath of the American War of Independence after a hero of the time, the Marquis de Lafayette who had aided the Americans against the British.
From 1739 onwards, the upper Cape Fear River had been settled by Highlanders, many from Kintyre and the Argyllshire islands. In 1756 the Reverend Hugh McAden on a journey from distant Pennsylvannia found that these Highlanders had no pastor, and he persuaded James Campbell, because of his ability as a Gaelic preacher, to settle among them. He did so willingly and soon founded three churches in the vicinity of the modern Fayetteville. James Campbell was licensed by the Presbytery of Kintyre and shortly afterwards emigrated to Pennsylvannia.
Opposite the church of Old Bluff, white painted and wooden, some fourteen miles from Fayetteville, stands an obelisk inscribed:
Rev. James Campbell, a native of Campbeltown, Argyleshire, Scotland, rests near this spot. He died in 1780 in the 75th year lf his age and the 50th year of his ministry. He was a wise and pure patriot, a faithful defender of the principles of the Presbyterian Church, a zealous preacher of the Gospel, a devout and humble Christian. The churches which he founded and the Presbytery in the bounds of which he laboured 22 years have erected this monument to honour his name and perpetuate his memory. Bluff, Long Street and Barbecue Churches were organised by Rev. James Campbell, October 18th 1758. Hector Duncan McNeill, Ferquhard Campbell and Alexander McAlister were the earliest elders of the Bluff Church. Malcolm Smith, Duncan Ray and Archibald McKay were the earliest elders of Long Street Church and Gilbert Clark, Daniel Carneron and Archibald Buie were the earliest elders of Barbecue Church. A little bronze plate bearing a Gaelic inscription has been added which may be roughly translated as "Let us not forget the deeds of our ancestors."
This worthy minister is not buried in the peaceful kirkyard but in a lonely spot on his 200 acre farm across the river. Tradition has it the flooded river prevented a crossing for the burial.
In his later years Mr. Campbell was assisted by the Rev. John MacLeod and the Old Bluff Church's most prized possessions are two beautiful sterling silver communion cups inscribed "To the Presbyterian Congregation in Cumberland County N.C. under the care of Rev. John MacLeod."
On the outbreak of the American Revolution most of the Highlanders, many of whom had suffered greatly in the '45 supported King George. Mr. Campbell took the American side and this move was so unpopular with the majority of his flock that he had to leave the district. Mr. MacLeod sided with the loyal Highlanders who were almost immediately routed. Mr. MacLeod, like Flora MacDonald's husband, son and, son-in-law, was imprisoned. Mr. Campbell's intervention secured his release. He took ship, to Scotland, but it is believed, he was lost on the voyage. When things quietened down, Mr. Campbell returned to live and die surrounded by his flock.
The beautiful kirkyard at Bluff is still neatly maintained although the Church is only occasionally used for weddings, and contains the graves of many Kintyreans. Among these notably are " Duncan McNeill, the son of Neill McNeill of Kintyre, Scotland, the pioneer and friend of the Scottish emigration to the Cape Fear Region, was born in Kintyre, Scotland, in 1728 and died near Bluff October 2, 1791, leaving to his children the legacy of an honest and upright character. This tribute of filial affection to the memory of a venerated father is erected by his youngest son Duncan." It also commemorates "Loveday, the wife of Duncan McNeill of the Bluff and daughter of Rev. James Campbell, died October 22 1786 aged 33 years. Her children that survived her were Isabella, Grisella, James and infant son Duncan."----
Ignorance of conditions in remote corners of the world is not suffered by a generation brought up on T.V., films, and illustrated books. It was different in the eighteenth century when a large part of North Carolina was settled by immigrants from Argyll. A highland woman landing at Willington was delighted to hear two men on the wharf talking in Gaelic. She approaohed them and finding they were negroes felt that her worst forebodings of the Southern climate were justified. She cried in horror, "A Dianan fras am fas sinn vile mar sin?" - Oh God of mercy are we all going to turn black like that?
In the History of Kintyre" by Peter MacIntosh (1786-1876) published in 1861, several vague references are made concerning a musician and poet called William McMurchy. According to MacIntyre's account McMurchy was one of the pipers to MacDonald of Largie in 1145. Largie raised his men and set out to join the Prince but the majority of the Kintyre proprietors. were supporters of the Government side and Largie was persuaded to change his mind and sent his men with the rest to Inveraray. The account relates how when the Kintyre party reached Inveraray, MacDonald's pipers played alternately. McMurchy played "The Campbells are Coming,'" but the Duke of Argyle being in the company of other gentlemen at the time took no notice of the tune. However when McLeolan (Largie's other piper) played "Fir Chinntire" the Duke immediately recognised it and said to the gentlemen present "'Come we must go and welcome the Kintyre men." · McMurchy was grieved that the Duke did not take notice of him and that he had not played "Fir Chinntire."
He is mentioned again by MacIntosh who relates how William McMurchy, who lived at Largieside about a century ago was a superior piper and poet, and how he was visited by a learned gentleman who came in disguise to test McMurchy's power of poetry, this gentleman being himself a poet. McMurchy received him in a respectful manner and entertained him with a few tunes on his pipes. The gentleman was musing over a verse of poetry, and observing some scones of bread, toasting over the fire, got up hurriedly and making for the door uttered the following:-
Piobaireachd is aran tur,
'S miosa leam no guin a bhais,
Fhir a bhodhair mo dh chluais,
Na boidh agad duais gu brach.
"Piping and raw bread, worse to me than
pangs of death.
Ye can who deaved both my ears, may you never get a reward. "
McMurchy dropping the pipe out of his mouth rapidly said:-
Stad a dhuine fan ri cial,
'Solc an sgial nach boin ri bun,
Tha mo bhean a t-eachd on chill,
Is ultach d'on im aria muin.
"Stop man give ear to reason, bad is the story that has no foundation. My wife is coming from Chil with a load of butter on her back."
The gentleman finding that he had met his match returned and a friendly conversation took place till McMurchy's wife came home with the butter. The gentleman partook of the toasted bread and butter and came away wondering that such a man as McMurphy could be found in such a sequestered spot.
A similar verse and story are also attributed to one of the Rankin family of pipers on Mull. Given Gigha's reputation for dairy products and that anyone returning from Cill on Gigha by ferry would be quite visible from Largieside, the evidence for authorship would seem to tilt in McMurchy's favour. Similar versions of these incidents involving McMurchy are found in "Glencreggan" by Cuthbert Bede (Edward Bradley). These were probably obtained from Peter Mac Intosh who was one of Bradley's informants.
The Rev. John Smith of Campbeltown in a letter written in 1802 quoted in the Highland Society Report on Ossian in 1805 says that an old Gaelic poem and a collection of proverbs had been got about 1780 by him from Captain Alexander Campbell, then Chamberlain of Kintyre, who had them from William McMurchy, a musician and an amateur of ancient poetry. The poem survives in the Stewart Collection and a case has been made based on the internal evidence of the poem that at the time of composition, somewhere between 1750-1768, McMurchy had enlisted in the army and was serving overseas, in an area where French was spoken.(1) The date is further narrowed to around 1761 with the probability that he was serving with either the 77th Regiment - Montgomery's Highlanders raised in 1757 and disbanded 1763, or in the 100th Regiment commanded by Major Colin Campbell of Kilberry, raised in 1761, and disbanded 1763.
It may be significant that Alexander Campbell, appointed Chamberlain and Bailie of North and South Kintyre by the Duke of Argyle on 11th November 1767 was a Lieutenant, late of the 77th Regiment of Foot, having engaged as an ensign in an additional company of Montgomery's Highlanders in 1759 and reaching a position as Adjutant by August 1763. Montgomery's Highlanders were credited with over thirty pipers and drummers and a set of miniature pipes bearing the inscription "1st Highland Battn Jan 4 1757 Hon ColI Montgomery" were still in existence in 1937.
Further information about McMurchy can be found in the correspondence of the Highland Society about the beginning of the 19th Century. The Society was still being influenced by the ripples following Macpherson and the Ossian controversy and through the offices of Sir John Sinclair were trying to trace old Gaelic Manuscripts containing Ossianic verse. The Society had heard of McMurchy manuscripts and dispatched several letters in an attempt to trace them. From the replies to this correspondence it would seem that William was the oldest of three brothers and died about 1778, the second brother James was described at the time of the correspondence as having died a considerable time since, and the youngest brother, Neil, died in 1807. William is described as a musician in Campbeltown, a remarkable writer of ancient poetry and of being in possession of a Gaelic manuscript collection. After his death his collection passed to his brother Neil, who was also said to have a manuscript collection. Neil appears to have been schoolmaster at Whitehouse in the Parish of Kilcalmonel from 1766 to 1779, before becoming a weaver in Paisley. Neil passed the manuscripts to a grandson of William. When the remainder of the manuscripts were recovered for the Highland Society through the offices of Neil's son James, a Paisley manufacturer, James expressed his disappointment since he thought that there should have been a great many more of them. One reply in particular, dated 20 November 1808 at Limecraigs, from Duncan Stewart of Glenbuckie, who was by then Argyle's Chamberlain in Kintyre, contains the interesting comment "The eldest of them (the McMurchy brothers) William who was a great genius put all the pibroch and many highland airs to music." This would imply that William was one of the earliest notators of Piobaireachd music.
McMurchy's surviving manuscripts are now in the National Library of Scotland. They do not contain any music but consist mostly of poems, including many of William's own, and proverbs. Many of the poems concern music, and include two of particular interest to pipers. They are Moladh no pioba by lain MacAilein and Ascaoin Molaidh na Pioba by Lachlan MacLean. There is also a satire on McMurchy composed by a merchant called Bostain MacCairbe in which he is described as a piper, a fiddler, a harper, a tailor and schoolmaster as well as a bard, and a man who according to his reviler was enjoying undeservedly the confidence of the Laird of Largie. Among the miscellaneous material McMurchy includes are: the dimensions of a harp, a large low headed wire strung Celtic harp apparently similar in size and shape to the so-called "O'Carolan" harp in the museum in Dublin, a short poem in English on the death of Handel (d. 1759) and a rather potent medical recipe for an unspecified ailment.
In the years following the '45 Rebellion the position of a professional piper would have become precarious leading possibly to the circumstances causing McMurchy's enlistment in the army:
With looking back on my folly
Full of grief and of horror
That I sold my freedom
My family and my peace.
Heavy is this yoke on my neck
It is beyond my power to endure it
oooooooooo. (one line missing)
The whip of bondage wounding me
My tender children and my partner
Without my making provision for their shelter
Driven to homeless destitution
That is the pang that pierced me through and through
It is not guile nor trickery
On the part of gentle or simple
But poverty and hardship
That drove me into the net
And the thought that I could support
With my earnings my dear ones.
Or never had I left them
In the charge of the country.
(Translation taken from a poem in the Stewart Collection.)
In the paper just quoted it is suggested that McMurchy was about 21 years old at the time of the "45 and in his thirties at the time of his enlistment.
William McMurchy was probably born around 1700. It has been suggested, based on a similarity of Gaelic script, that he may have been a pupil of Hugh McLean, a schoolmaster of Kilkenzie in Kintyre circa 1699 (2). McMurchy is a common name in Kintyre but the only family using the name William that I have encountered about that period seem to be at Auchaleck near Campbeltown around 1669-71. Unfortunately, the Parish registers for Kintyre are not complete for that period, but that for Campbeltown parish commences in 1659 for Births, and 1681 for Marriages. The first William McMurchy noted was a marriage on 14th March 1728 to Agnes Robertson who subsequently gave birth to a daughter Ann on 29 December 1728. There were either no further children, which seems unlikely, or the family had removed to another parish as they do not feature again in the births register. The only other William McMurchys to feature in Campbeltown parish register are both marriages in 1765 and 1769.(3)
There is an ambiguous entry in the Campbeltown Kirk accounts. Under the date 1769 is listed "William McMurchy musitioner dead 12 shillings." The list consists of debt vouchers to the Kirk passed over to the new treasurer in 1782 and the entry confirms that William died some time between incurring the debt in 1782 and the balance sheet of 1782. It is tempting to suggest on available evidence that McMurchy could be identified with the William married in 1728 in the Campbeltown; parish and he subsequently moved. to serve his Patron Macdonald of Largie. This assumption would place William's age around 50 at the time of enlistment in the army, an age for which there are precedents, as a musician and poet, his position as a soldier would have been relatively privileged.
From the evidence to date the picture of William McMurchy which emerges is that of a professional musician, a literate Gaelic poet and a collector and recorder of poetry and probably music.
1. A Poem in the Stewart Collection - W. M. Conley - Scottish Gaelic Studies. Vol. II.
2. N.L.S. Catalogue. of Gaelic Mss. complied by R. Black.
3. SRO OPR 507/14
4. SRO CH2/50/5
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