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Iain Dubh, The Wizard of the North

Iain Dubh Dhomhnaill nan Òran, Black John, son of Donald of the Songs, was born in Glendale, Isle of Skye in 1844, a most unusual child of most unusual parents. Black of hair and swarthy of skin in a community of fair-haired Celts, it was natural that he would acquire the nickname, Iain Dubh - Black John.

But several years later, the nickname took on a new and ominous significance when Iain Dubh was accused of being skilled in the Black Arts, and in cahoots with the Devil himself. That is when he became known as the Wizard of the North.

Iain Dubh's father, Domhnall nan Òran was a bard of quite some talent, and Iain's older brother, Neil, went on to become one of nineteenth century Gaeldom's best-known bards, publishing Clarsach an Doire, a collection of his songs that went into several printings.

Domhnall nan Òran emigrated to America as a young man but returned to Skye where, at age 60, he married a woman of nineteen who was but an infant in the cradle when he'd left. They went on to have ten children, four sons and six daughters. Besides Iain and Neil, other members of the family had the bardic gift but their songs have not survived.

Iain went to sea at age 15 and, much later, on one of his visits back to Glendale he composed Gillean Òga Tapaidh. It was in Peter MacKinnon's shop one night that the local lads surrounded Iain, bombarding him with questions about what life at sea was really like. He told them that he would tell them in a song, which he proceeded to sing, composing Gillean Òga Tapaidh as he went along

There are dozens of compelling accounts of the wizardry of Iain Dubh, and whether he was a superb hypnotist or conjurer, or both, or whether his talent really came from supernatural sources, is still debated. Many of these reports came from deeply religious people and from the ministers of the church, who were constantly after him to change his ways.

 

Chicken Thief

One such encounter with a minister took place on a summer day outside Iain Dubh's mother's house where Iain, home on leave between voyages, was idly watching a mother hen teaching her newly hatched brood how to scratch for a living. Ready for battle, the minister came through the gate and lost no time in challenging Iain about his evil ways, soundly berating him for his liason with Satan.

Iain listened till the minister stopped for a moment to catch his breath, and quietly did some accusing of his own. "You have never seen me doing any of those things of which you accuse me," he told the minister, "and you, of all people have no right to challenge me. You are nothing but a chicken thief! You stand there and preach to me with your pockets full of my poor mother's chickens."

The minister stood there, sputtering to find new words while Iain pointed to the pockets of the reverend man's long black frock coat. Sure enough, each pocket contained three or four of the broody hen's flock, and there could be no denying what both men could see. The minister left then, but he would be back to continue his crusade against Satan's henchman.

 

Dancing Potatoes

The incident closest to being actually documented describes Iain on another journey home, visiting a neighbor's house. As usual, his presence there attracted several of his contemporaries from the village, and they sat yarning as "bean an taighe" the woman of the house, was boiling potatoes in a large pot hung above the open fire.

Suddenly, one by one, the potatoes began to leap from the pot into the fire and on to the floor. Iain had not gone near them at any time, but when the poor woman, aware of his reputation, declared him to be the culprit, all the potatoes jumped back into the pot.

Aboard ship, Iain was not popular with tyrannical officers, and were it not for his superb seamanship he would have been declared persona non grata on every ship afloat.

They had good reason to avoid Iain Dubh's wizardry as one of his favorite stunts was to make his antagonists sprout horns which all but the victim could see - definitely a no-no in the rigid realms of good order and discipline.

 

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