Donald Heuk

Until the Inverness District Lunatic Asylum was erected in 1864, Highland communities coped with the insane as best as was possible in their home villages or towns.  Most of them were cared for at home and were included as much as possible within the community, although some became butts of jokes and cruel pranks, and others preferred to live alone in caves and other hideouts.  Some of these folks were not easy to handle and, probably for the protection of others, were imprisoned.  The fourth son of the thirteenth laird of Gairloch, John MacKenzie, remembered such a man in Tain.  John was born in 1803.  After his early schooling on the west coast, he was sent to the new academy (founded 1813) in Tain.  When not at his schoolbooks or under the supervision of his landlady, he roamed the streets with the other schoolboys, thinking up mischief.  ‘When I was a boy I went for a short time to school at Tain, and the home of a dangerous lunatic was then the upper cell in Tain Gaol, a square tower in the centre of the town having at its base the Town Cross, on the steps of which the fishwives used to sit and display their wares to purchasers.  Some friend had given Donald, the lunatic, a strong cord with an iron hook at its end.  It used to be thought fun to call on Donald Heuk (Hook), as we named him, to let down his hooked cord, which we fastened to anything movable, from a penny roll to a peat, and on our crying ‘Heuk, Donald!’ up went the prize instantly to the iron cage at the top of the tower.  Donald used to shoot down many queer things from his cell on to the people passing through the street; for though he could not see the cross or things around it, he had a clear view of the street.  Wicked boys were sometimes accused of getting Donald to lower his cord and hook on the coming of the fishwives, and as soon as the creels were uncovered the hook was through a haddock’s or cod’s gills or a skate’s mouth, and ‘Heuk, Donald!’ saw the prize in a minute flying up to the top of the gaol.  It is said that one unlucky day when the hook was down a boy put it through the back of a fishwife’s petticoats, and on his calling out ‘Heuk, Donald!’ up in the air sailed a most unusual kind of fish.  The poor fishwife kicked and screamed furiously, till, the hold giving way, she came to the ground like a shot, and got badly hurt.  After this Donald’s hook was instantly taken away.’

Osgood MacKenzie, A Hundred Years in the Highlands, (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1921, 1965), pp 180-181

ImagePhoto from Creative Commons

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