Who was Black Duncan with the cloven feet?

He was a cloven footed he-goat who would gatecrash card games, haunt buildings and cause unspeakable terror across the Highlands with his presence known by the sound of a clanking chain.

Tuesday, 11th April 2017, 1:22 pm
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 7:05 pm
Black Duncan was often portrayed as a he-goat, a common manifestation of the devil. A he-goat is depicted here in Francisco Goya's Witches Sabbath (the Great He-Goat). PIC: Wikimedia.

Black Duncan was one of the many names given to the devil across the north of Scotland, where he was also referred to as “the one who I will not mention” and the “big grizzled one”.

John Gregorson Campbell’s The Gaelic Otherworld, first published in 1900, gives a detailed account of several sightings of Black Duncan, his physical appearance and his dark deeds which were often executed just for the fun of it.

Campbell wrote: “He has made his appearance in the shape of a he-goat, but his horns have not attracted so much attention (or inspired such terror) as his voice, which bears a horrible resemblance to the bleating of a goat.

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“A native of the island of Coll, Niall na Buaile, who lived in a house along several miles from any other house, is said to have got a good view of him in a hollow called Sloc an Tailisg, and was positive that he was crop eared. He often had a chain clanking after him.”

Black Duncan is said to have appeared in a bodily shape at meetings of witches and when summoned by masons and magicians.

His form also appears at card games - with playing cards known as the devil’s books - where he usually arrives cloven-feet first down the chimney.

One of Campbell’s accounts of a card game gives the devil’s feet as resembling those of a horse.

He said: “A party of young people were playing cards, a stranger joined them and took his hand.

“A card fell below the tables, and the youth who stooped to lift it observed the stranger to have a horse’s hoof.

“The devil, on thus being detected, went up the chimney in smoke.”

Campbell added: “When going away he disappears in smoke, and neighs horrible in the chimney.”

Black Duncan is also recorded as haunting buildings which are soon to be the scene of “calamities”.

He added: “He sometimes comes in unaccountable shapes and in lonely places for no conceivable purpose but to frighten people.”

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The only trade the devil has been unable to learn is that of tailoring because every tailor left the room when he entered.

With no one to teach him how to sew, Black Duncan was unaware to knot thread and “he gave up the trade in despair.”

“It is presumed that he wanted to learn the trade to make clothes for himself as no one would undertake the making of them,” Campbell added.

A feared ceremony to summon the devil was performed in the Highlands on at least three reported occasions before Campbell’s book was published in 1900.

Those who performed the taghairm were regarded for their extreme bravery with a successful ceremony allowing them to make the devil their servant who could grant any wish they asked for.

Campbell described it as an “awful ceremony” which consisted of roasting cats alive on spits until the arch-fiend appears in a bodily shape.

It was supposedly performed by Allan the Cattle Herder in The Cat’s Field in Lochaber and by Dun Lachlan at Pennygowan on Mull. The third ceremony was executed by Children of Quithen, a small sept in Skye, who gathered at Make Believe Cave on the east side of the island.

Dun Lachlan’s exploits on Mull have become the stuff of legend on Mull.

After finally conjuring Black Duncan following the horrendous burning of cats, Dun Lachlan, who was there with a friend, asked for “property and prosperity and a long life to enjoy it,” with his accomplice requesting prosperity and children.

Camppbell wrote: “The devil rushed out through the door crying conach! conach! conach! Prosperity! Prosperity! Prosperity!”

Some have claimed the two had to perform the ceremony every year to maintain their good fortunes.