Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, is the ancestral home of the Clan MacLeod. The castle has stood guard for 700 years, towering over its beautiful surroundings. Despite the rich history and impressive architecture of the castle, there is something even more ancient and valuable inside the fortress that bridges the separation between known history and myth. This is the home of Am Bratach Sith, the Fairy Flag of Dunvegan.
Am Bratach Sith hangs inside the castle. To look at it today, one could easily dismiss it as an old, worthless scrap of cloth. It is, however, a piece of woven silk that is at least 1,500 years old. It is the most treasured possession of the Clan MacLeod, and they hold on to it not only because of its history but also for its promise for the future.
The origin of Am Bratach Sith is shrouded in legend. According to some accounts, a MacLeod who fought in the Crusades received shelter and food from an old hermit who lived in the area. Before continuing on his journey through a mountain pass, the hermit told him he would have to get past an evil spirit, a destroyer of true believers, who guarded the pass. MacLeod fought the evil spirit, revealing it to be the Daughter of Thunder (“Nein na Pheupere”). The spirit’s last words were a prophecy about the future of his clan, and she told him to take her girdle and make it into a flag and to use her spear as the flagpole.
Another account says that the flag came from a fairy who married a MacLeod chief. The fairy gave the flag as a gift to her husband, telling him that the flag could be used to protect the Clan whenever it was in dire distress. She warned him, however, that it could only be used three times.
Regardless of which origin story you believe, the legends all agree that the flag has been used twice to ward off inevitable destruction. Most agree that it was unfurled at the Battle of Glendale in 1490, allowing the MacLeods to seize victory against the Clan MacDonald. On another occasion, the flag saved the clan from certain starvation when it resurrected all the cattle that had been stricken by disease.
This means the flag has one last gift to offer the MacLeods, so they quite understandably are cautious about when and how to use it. The clan’s motto — “Hold Fast” — is not only a reference to determination but also a word of caution about not being too hasty to let go of a good thing. During World War II, the 28th Chief (Dame Flora MacLeod) offered to brandish the flag over the cliffs of Dover, but British forces were successful in keeping would-be invaders at bay without magical assistance. Even so, members of the clan who served as pilots during the war carried pictures of the flag with them in hopes of gaining an additional measure of protection and success.
Whatever the truth behind the legend, Am Bratach Sith holds a powerful place in the history and hearts of the MacLeods and is a national treasure for all Scots.
Read more fun facts about Scotland.
Read more fun facts about mythology.