TO THE uneducated eye the disintegrating cloth hanging in Dunvegan Castle looks more like something used to mop up a beer spill than the "most precious possession of the Clan MacLeod". But if you look closely, you begin to pick out a delicate silk thread, the remains of an intricate pattern. The fabric looks ancient and foreign.
The Clan MacLeod has had its family seat at Dunvegan Castle since about the 12th century. For as long as the clan has been there, so has their flag. No one knows for certain where it came from but the MacLeods have always maintained that it is no ordinary piece of cloth.
For this is no rag but the Fairy Flag of the Clan MacLeod, which came to Dunvegan from "a far away place".
Legend has it that a long time ago a chieftain of the MacLeods met and fell in love with a beautiful woman, who unfortunately, turned out to be a fairy princess. She begged her father to allow her to marry the handsome chief, and he agreed, on condition that she return to her fairy folk at the end of a year and a day.
They were a happy couple, and the year passed all too soon. Before returning to her fairy palace beneath the hills the princess made her husband promise that he would never allow their young son to cry. Through his tears the chief agreed.
His sadness grew and nobody could console him on his loss. A great feast was organised to try to make him forget his fairy-wife. Such was the rumpus and laughter that the baby’s nursemaid crept away from his nursery to see the fun. The small baby awoke and - finding himself alone - began to cry. Nobody was there to hear him, and for ten minutes he wept out loud. When the nursemaid returned she was amazed and not a little startled to see a woman bending over the cradle comforting the infant, wrapping him up in a shawl. The mother, for it was she, then vanished into the black night.
When he could talk, the boy remembered the night his mother visited. He told his father that the shawl could be used by the MacLeods three times when they were in danger and help would come, but on the fourth it would disappear. The chief took this seriously and ordered a casket to be prepared to store the fairy flag.
Hundreds of years later the MacDonalds were harassing the island. One Sunday they locked the doors of the MacLeod church and set fire to the building, killing most of the worshippers. In fear and fury, a small band of MacLeods gathered on the beach. They unfurled the fairy flag and, as if by magic, their number appeared magnified ten times. The MacDonalds were slaughtered and the flag returned to its safety in the casket.
The flag was used a second time when a terrible plague had killed nearly all the MacLeod’s cattle. With starvation on the doorstep they waved the flag once more, and again the fairy host rode down and miraculously restored the herd to health.
Even today it is believed by some that the flag will give protection. During the Second World War, men from the MacLeod clan carried pictures of the flag in their pockets to act as a talisman. Whether this saved them is not known, but the current chief, John MacLeod of MacLeod, freely admits to carrying a picture in his wallet when he fought the Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950s.
There remains a third time for the unfurling of the fairy flag, but it could be that the threat of the power of the flag is enough. It is thought that during the Second World War the clan chief offered to bring the flag to the white cliffs of Dover and wave it if it ever looked like the Germans were invading.
History does not record whether the War Cabinet slept better knowing of this "secret weapon".