JOHN Macleod is quite correct when he says that Mac an t-Sronaich, the notorious Lewis outlaw, was a real person (Great bogeyman and the little herd-boy, December 31). He was, in fact, a relative of mine. If John Macleod calls at Smith's Shoe Shop the next time he is in Stornoway, they will show him the window at which my great-grand aunt used to feed the outlaw.

More significantly, he was also regularly fed at Keose Manse by another relative of his, who was married to the Rev Robert Finlayson, one of the leading evangelists of his day, known widely as ``the Bunyan of the North''.

There is no credible evidence that Mac an t-Sronaich ever killed anyone. So far as the records show he was never arrested for murder, or charged with murder, and it is clear beyond any shadow of doubt that he was not executed on Gallows Hill in Stornoway. He was a much more interesting phenomenon than a mere serial killer.

The only reference to him I know of in the Scottish judicial records is a document curiously headed, ``Proc. Fiscal v Bodach no Mondach or Fantom. A Moor Stalker''.

Mac an t-Sronaich was Alexander Sronaich, son of an innkeeper in Garve and grandson of Alexander Sronaich, minister in Lochbroom.

In Lewis he was truly a ``fantom''. He appears to have been on the run for some offence, possibly committed on the mainland, but not so heinous as to deter his ``very respectable'' Lewis relatives from sheltering him.

His significance, which has not so far been adequately researched, or even recognised, arises from the fact that he was operating at the interface between the English island ``establishment'' of the time and the Gaelic majority.

On one side of the line his identity was known and he was given succour because of his connections. On the other side of the line he was a danger to wayfarers. He lived rough, stole and resorted to violence when he needed food.

He passed into the island folklore: old murders were ascribed to him, irrespective of date, and deaths on the moor from natural causes were given the status of murder and chalked up to his account as well.

The tradition was so strong that Margaret Bennett, when researching the transmission across the Atlantic of Gaelic songs, found Mac an t-Sronaich's name being used to frighten naughty children in Canadian families three or four generations removed from the Hebrides.

Most studies of the historic decline of Gaelic are dry statistical records of an ebbing tide. What we really need is a study of the psychological processes at work between a dominant and depressed culture.

Why, for instance, did the tensions at the Gaelic-English interface produce the sterile legend of Mac an t-Sronaich in the 1830s and the poetry of Sorley MacLean a century later?

One possible explanation is that, in the 1830s, the ``English'' establishment were bilingual, enriching their native culture from another source, while the Gaelic majority were monolingual, drawing on a culture in decline.

English eventually ``won'', with the paradoxical result that Gaelic-speakers now became the bilingual element and, in the Hebrides, the richer culture.

James Shaw Grant,


Inshes, Inverness.