In his masterpiece, Macbeth, William Shakespeare introduced his audience to Banquo, Thane of Lochaber, a brave and ambitious general taken directly from Scottish history. To his tale Shakespeare added a trio of colorful yet fictional characters, those ladies whom uttered the memorable line “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” – The Three Witches. While many have taken liberties over the years in their negative portrayals of women labeled as “witches,” there is one lady whose name has been verbally passed down throughout the Clan Cameron’s history, one who has never been portrayed as either evil or destructive – the “good” witch known by the name “Gormshuil.”
Legend remembers Gormshuil (Gorm-hool) as a “kinswoman” of Lochiel, Ewen Macallan/Allanson Cameron, XIII Captain and Chief of Clan Cameron, to be precise. His tenure at the head of the Camerons and the unified Mael-anfhaidh tribes of Lochaber lasted from around 1480 thru 1546, when he was beheaded at Elgin. Also known as The Witch of Moy (a farm some four miles distant from the modern day home of the Lochiel family, Achnacarry), Gormshuil also appears in stories regarding the Clan Cameron during the years that Ewen’s father, Alan Macdonald Dubh Cameron, ruled the clan.
Those tales of Gormshuil that survive are positive in nature, and indicate that this woman may have been a valued advisor of Lochiel. She is said to have counseled Ewen Macallan on how he could receive penance for past misdeeds – how many “bad witches” were consulted for such a purpose? Granted her method, which is reported to have included slowly roasting a live cat on a spit until Cam Dubh, the King of Cats in Lochaber, was forced into appearing and relating the penance to relieve his fellow feline of his agony, are obviously “the stuff of legends.” While cat roasting was common in the Highlands during this time, since superstition dictated that cats were evil, there may be a symbolic correlation between cats and the deadly enemies of the Clan Cameron, the Clan Macintosh, whose symbol was a cat. There is another story relating to Gormshuil that may be slightly more factual. In short, she is said to have once intercepted Ewen (some credit this story to be regarding his father Alan) while on his way to a meeting with another Chief. Ewen was accompanied by just one man, as the rules of the meeting commanded. The Witch of Moy cautioned her chief, telling him to beware, and bring a strong body of men along with him that day. Ewen fortunately followed her advice, and prevented himself from wandering into a staged ambush.
Just who was this Gormshuil? One has to begin with her name, which translates roughly into “blue eyed one.” Some credit the Scots, like their brethren of the North Aryan race, with being tall with hazel, gray and blue eyes, having brown and blond hair, and bearing very fair complexions. Some also claim that there are specific features, such as blue eyes, that are “original” Celtic features, though both theories are debatable. What may be deduced was that either Gormshuil had unusually striking blue eyes, or that those in Lochaber usually had brown or hazel eye color. In most instances from this era, those women accused of witchcraft were middle-aged or elderly. Regardless of whether they were good-natured or not, reputation seems to have been a determining factor in the making of a witch in both Scotland. It took years for a reputation to be built and in Gormshuil’s instance, this may be rightly so, for she appears in Cameron lore for at least the tenure of two chiefs. The majority of those accused in the Highlands accepted their reputation, whether good or bad, and were proud of it, basking in the power that it gave them in the community.
In the early sixteenth century most accused Scottish witches were wives or wdows rather than an unmarried woman. They also maintained a slightly higher status, usually being the wife/widow of a tenant farmer or sub-tenant. There may also be some truth to this assertion in Gormshuil’s instance, for Moy was farmland, and there is little doubt that her kinship with Lochiel had its economic benefits. There is also the fact that in most reported cases the accused witch was in a socially or economically inferior position to the accuser, simply because these women were then unable to defend themselves in legal manners. That Gormshuil appears to have never been accused, points to her status being fairly high in Lochaber.
Those considered “bad” witches were often described as being sharp-tongued, bad tempered and quarrelsome, along with refusing to be subservient and having a habit of cursing. The Scottish witch is also described as having a particular characteristic called “smeddum,” described specifically as being the habit of always having the last word – a refusal to back down. It might be reasoned that Gormshuil had few or none of these traits, which might explain her ability to survive for such a long period of time in relative peace and respect. What she probably had was an unusual intelligence, and a resulting ability to reason far better than her kinsfolk. She may also have had an interest in healing, for many women versed in the medical field fell under suspicion of witchcraft in Scotland, or perhaps functioned as a “seer,” one who predicts (reasons) future events or developments.
There is little doubt that in years gone by Lochaber was an extremely superstitious region. There is the tale of Camerons chasing a plague-causing witch, in the form of a cat, over the brink of Caig Falls to her death below – to this very day the base of these falls is named the “Witch’s Cauldron.” Until recent years there was even a popular “Fairy Hill” in Nether Lochaber, where local residents were said to be able to hear mysterious music. In the folk tale “The Dark Daughter of the Norse King,” as recorded from oral sources by the late Rev. John Gregorson Campbell, Minister of Tiree in the nineteenth century, the aforementioned Norse King sends his witch daughter to Lochaber on a mission to destroy the woodlands. It seems that when the Norsemen came to Scotland to take possession of and sub-divide the land, they had observed that the pine wood of Lochaber was growing so fast, and extending so far, that in time it might supersede and threaten the commerce of the Black Forests of Sweden. The story relates that the King’s daughter arrived over Lochaber (she had the ability to fly) and whirled in the air, sending sparks of fire from her dress “hither and thither” to set the woods on fire, until the whole country was almost in a blaze. She was apparently blackened more than any tree in the forest by the smoke and soot of the fiery furnace which surrounded her, and was known and spoken of by the name of “Dark, or Pitch Pine.” Villagers finally lured her into a trap and shot her from the air, and “to make sure that dead or alive she would do no more injury to them, they buried her in Achnacarry.” This tale also relates that the retaliating King’s fleet was diverted from Scotland by the Lochaber women and their “incantations” – the ships were reported to have been sunk at the entrance to Loch Eil. This is an atypical story related to a “bad witch” in Lochaber – Gormshuil was seldom if never mentioned in such terms.
During this era in Scotland witchcraft stirred the imaginations and fears of many, from commoners to the King himself. James VI (I of England) was an individual with a fixation about the subject. After his marriage in 1589 his life was threatened by a group of witches (motivated by political ends), and they were burned to death as both traitors and witches. He became utterly convinced of the reality of witches after this incident, and wrote a book on the subject entitled “Demonology” in 1597 that became the textbook for future witch-hunters.
Regardless of how history remembers those unfortunate women accused of and in many cases persecuted as witches, Gormshuil stands out as a strong and intelligent lady of her time, willing to deal one-on-one with a powerful clan chief during an era where women were very reluctant to do so. One has to wonder what her true story may have been; how unfortunate it is that no one was able to record her tale accurately. What we are left with is a blue-eyed mystery woman who seems to have been generally protective to both Lochiel and the Clan Cameron. For that reason alone she can be remembered fondly as a misunderstood yet integral part of our early history.
With acknowledgements to Clan Cameron Online : http://www.clan-cameron.org