Exploring the history of when the wolf last roamed Scotland

The famous folk tale of Dougal MacQueen tells the story of a wolf being slain in 1743. Some natural historians don’t think it’s much more than a good yarn, but rewilder and author Derek Gow believes it and makes the case for it in his new book about the mythology, mystery and history of wolves in Britain

Like a ribbon of silver, the River Findhorn flows from the massif of the Monadhliath Mountains to its mouth, wide open and foaming in the spume of the Moray Firth.

As you drive up the A9, before turning left into the glen of Coignafearn, you pass a sign on your right for the Cairngorms National Park. Blink and you will miss it.

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Behind it, on a slope standing tall against the sky, is the stone erected to commemorate the end of a wolf’s life. One of the last of a dying race.The hunt took place in the short dark days of winter. Though a ruin, the hero’s house still stands. Firm on the Findhorn facing its fortune.

Wolves are thought to have survived in Scotland into the 18th centuryWolves are thought to have survived in Scotland into the 18th century
Wolves are thought to have survived in Scotland into the 18th century

Dougal MacQueen, who farmed at Pall-a’-Chrocain, was the most celebrated bard of the Findhorn. Although he died in 1797, as a child he would have known of the old wolf pits at Moy, no distance from his home. Dug into a steep-sided, natural ridge, which the packs had followed forever, those that remain are overlain with vegetation of all sorts. Ferns and mosses in the higher stone clefts within reach of a deer stretching down. Seedling trees lower still where the light still allows.

MacQueen was well over six feet in height and, like all heroes of legend, remarkable for his strength, courage and celebrity. He was, as his father had been before him, a stalker who maintained the best ‘long dogs’ or deer hounds in the country. One day in the winter of 1743, he received a message from his lord, the Laird of Mackintosh, that a large ‘black beast’, supposed to be a wolf, had appeared in the glen and that it had killed two children the day before who were crossing the hills from Cawdor with their mother. In response to this, a ‘tainchel’ – a gathering of hunters – had been summoned at a location called Fi-Giuthas. MacQueen was invited to attend with his hounds and, after clarifying where the children had been killed and looking for the wolf’s tracks, promised his assistance.

The laird and his retinue had assembled early for the tainchel but by mid-morning were still waiting for MacQueen to arrive. At last, through the mist, he appeared like a wraith striding towards them with his hounds trotting at his side. The laird spurred his horse forward to meet him and expressed his disappointment.‘Ciod e a’ chabhag?’ (‘What’s the hurry?’) asked MacQueen.

Mackintosh and his companions chorused impatient and angry replies.From beneath his plaid, MacQueen withdrew the black wolf’s bloody head and tossed it to the ground.‘Sin e dhuibh!’ (‘There it is for you!’) he said.

Ecstatic and full of respect for his champion, Mackintosh bestowed upon MacQueen some land called Seanachan so that he would always have means to feed himself and his dogs.It’s a great story, and while the naturalist David Stephen felt that it ‘ought to be true, and may well be’, MacQueen’s wolf has been disparaged by others.

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Jim Crumley, in his book The Last Wolf, considered that, ‘It was too late in time ... they had been done to death a century or more before. There were not and never have been any black wolves in Britain.’ Others have gone as far as to call it a lie, but this, I think, is very wrong. As we shall see, there are sober accounts of surviving wolves right up until the early 1700s and plausible tales long after 1743. Although we will never know what hue his wolf was for sure, there may also be an entirely reasonable explanation for its dark colouration. I believe now that wolves lingered on in mainland Britain well into the 18th century and that in Ireland they survived for perhaps a little longer. And I believe the account of MacQueen’s bold fight.

The Gaelic tradition of oral tale-telling in the Highlands was once very strong. Although weakened, like Irish Gaelic and Welsh, by the onslaught of English, a story of this sort of consequence is unlikely not to have had some basis of truth. While the foregoing in slightly varying forms was the only version I had ever seen until I began to assemble my material for this book, it transpires that corroboration exists. It comes from Duthil parish near Elgin and is contained in The New Statistical Account of Scotland, Volume XIII published in 1845. While it does not specifically name MacQueen, it states that the wolf killer lived in the eastern part of the parish of Moy, which is where his home was. Its background detail is absorbing.

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In the early 1700s, the forest of Duthil was destroyed by a great forest fire. Only a single wolf from the several that escaped survived the hunters that pursued them. The account tells of how an ‘overgrown animal’ fled to Moy before making its presence known:

The inhabitants had a fearful warning of its being among them, by its killing a woman and her infant child. As soon as the laird of Mackintosh heard of this melancholy event, he summoned his vassals ... Their intentions were, however, anticipated by a daring fellow, that lived in the eastern extremity of the parish, who, as he was on his way to join the rest of his clansmen, was met by the very animal in question, in an exceedingly narrow path in the face of a rock, called Creig a chrochdan ... The man, by a well-directed stroke of his club, brought his foe to the ground ... Thus perished the last of the native inhabitants of the forest of Glenchearnich.

Names change with ease and the modern map name of Creag a’ Chrocain, which means ‘craig of the crook’, is simply a reflection of this. The hill, with its narrow footpath, has moved not at all from its foundations and remains where it always was above MacQueen’s old farm. Between Fi-Giuthas, which means ‘bog stream of the fir tree’, where the clansmen met, and MacQueen’s home at Pall-a’-Chrocain, is a place called Caochan a’ Ghubhais that translates as ‘wee moor stream almost hidden by heather or the undergrowth of the fir’.

Although Gaelic is a language of poetic flamboyance, Caochan a’ Ghubhais and Fi-Giuthas in essence differ not much in meaning at all.Was Caochan the point where Dougal’s battle occurred?

Whatever others think, the modern MacQueens still believe Dougal’s story and retain on their clan crest three dark wolf heads with long crimson tongues.Factual or fictional character, his wolf will never die and he remains their hero forever.

Some years ago, on an unusually idle afternoon, Roy Dennis, the great restorer of raptorial birds to Britain, was watching an international rugby match in the comfort of his front room in Abernethy. One commentator shouted, ‘Bloody well done, dogcatcher,’ as the Australian captain scored a try to wild applause. His assistant on air asked, ‘Why did you call him dogcatcher?’ And he replied, ‘Because he’s a MacQueen, mate, and his ancestor killed the last wolf in Scotland.’

​Hunt for the Shadow Wolf by Derek Gow is published by Chelsea Green at £20 in hardback

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