Cailleach an Deacoin, an Entertainer From Gravir

Murdo Matheson from Gravir, South Lochs was well-known throughout Lewis as the entertainer Cailleach an Deacoin.
Listen to the Cailleach entertaining the crowds at Stornoway Town Hall :
The name Murdo Matheson doesn’t instantly conjure up any particular images in the mind, but mention the name ‘Cailleach An Deacoin‘ and you can be assured that a smile and a chuckle of remembrance will emerge from your audience.

The Cailleach in all her finery
Born on the 4th January 1904 Murdo Matheson was the seventh child of a family of 13, in the village of Gravir, Pairc. He went to school like most of his contemporaries at that time where he faired averagely. He left at the age of 14 to seek employment. Between the ages of 15 and 18 he held a variety of jobs including kipper making and road building.
Around 1925, Murdo decided to emigrate to Canada and was due to sail on the ‘Marloch’ but contracted measles which delayed his passage. Luckily for him he was able to travel a fortnight later. Several years were spent there where he laboured on farms. However, his luck was to change when he heard that there was good money to be made working on the production line of a motorcar company called ‘Briggs Bodies’ in the American city of Detroit.

After six years working for Briggs, Murdo returned to Gravir for a six-week holiday with a return ticket in his pocket. He intended to go back, get married and lease a farm, not necessarily in that order, but Briggs advised him to delay his return due to the depression. After two winters at home Briggs offered him a job at Dagenham car works in Glasgow but this was to last only eight months due to a recession in 1936. It was during this time that his father passed away and Murdo took the decision to return home for a time.
In 1939 he went back to Glasgow to work in a shipyard where he worked for seven years. He was called up twice during the war but the shipyard refused to release him. He then returned to Gravir where he worked the land – crofting and weaving until he retired at the age of sixty-seven.
  The Cailleach entertains in the Lewis Retirement Centre
Before the outbreak of war a committee was set up to organise concerts to raise funds for the local hospital in Stornoway. Murdo was actively involved and they staged two concerts a year. It was here that the Cailleach was born. The Cailleach was based on a local housewife and was first introduced to the public in sketches. The Gravir school was one of his early venues in the late 1940s and early 1950s and it would be packed to capacity on a Friday night, with a dance to follow the performance.
Before long the Cailleach was playing to a packed Town Hall, and many other venues where she became quite famous and much sought after. Murdo took his stage roll very seriously and it is said that he kept notes on the back of his handbag as prompts. It was difficult to get him to perform but if the cause was good then he could usually be persuaded. Cailleach An Deacoin’s clothes came from a variety of places – the skirt from a friend in Marvig, the blouse from a lady in Crossbost, the shawl from a lady in Gravir, the umbrella was a walking stick with black cloth round it, the petticoat was a piece of lace sewn to the inside of the skirt. He made the wig himself and the shoes were Wellingtons that had been cut.
Besides his considerable talents as an entertainer, Murdo, as the seventh son of a seventh son, was known to be a healer. Chrissie (Chisholm) Morrison remembers him:

He was very much in demand as a natural healer and people used to ask him to wash his hands in silver and then come to lay his healing hands on someone suffering from Tineas an Righ (a type of carbuncle) or some such. I was surprised that, when he died, no-one mentioned this side of his personality as it was supposedly a well-known fact with people going to the Gravir bus-driver with an empty bottle for the driver to give to Murdo to effect the cure. I often heard of those stories and thought that perhaps silver has some healing properties and could help in some cases, even without a natural healer!

Murdo remained a bachelor; sometimes he would be asked how he would feel if there were a woman in the house, to which he would reply, “She would only upset things”. When he would be told of the benefits of having a woman at home to do his cooking, cleaning etc he would say “well that would be great as long as she went home afterwards.”

In 1983 Murdo died suddenly at his home. The whole Island mourned his passing and that of his alter ego. Cailleach An Deacoin was more than a character – she was a legend!
© Pairc Historical Society