ON the stormy coasts of the Hebrides,
amongst seaweed and shells, fishermen and kelp burners often find certain
hard, light, floating objects, somewhat like flat chestnuts, of various
colours grey, black, and brown, which they call sea nuts, strand nuts, and
fairy eggs. Where they are most common, they are used as snuff boxes, but
they are also worn and preserved as amulets, with a firm or sceptical
belief in their mysterious virtues. Old Martin, who wrote of the Western
Isles in 1703, calls them "Molokai beans," and tells how they were then
found, and worn, and used as medicine; how they preserved men from the
evil eye, and cured sick cattle by a process as incomprehensible as
mesmerism. Practical Highlandmen of the present day call the nuts trash,
and brand those who wear them, like their ancestors a hundred and fifty
years ago, as ignorant and superstitious; but learned botanists, too wise
to overlook trifles, set themselves to study even fairy eggs; and
believing them to be West Indian seeds, (Mimosa scandens, great pod
creeper. Mucuna ureus) stranded in Europe, they planted them, and
some (from the Azores) grew. Philosophers, having discovered what they
were, used them to demonstrate the existence of the Gulf Stream, and it is
even said that they formed a part of one link in that chain of reasoning
which led Columbus to the New World.
So within this century, men have
gathered nursery tales. They set themselves earnestly to learn all that
they could concerning them; they found similar tales common to many
languages; they traced them back for centuries; they planted them in
books, and at last the Brothers Grimm, their predecessors and their
followers, have raised up a pastime for children to be "a study fit for
the energies of grown men and to all the dignity of a science."
So at least says the learned author of
the translation of "Norse Tales," and there are many who agree with him.
Men have now collected stories from most
parts of the world. They have taken them from the dictation of American
Indians, South Sea Islanders, Lapps and Samoydes, Germans and Russians.
Missionaries have published the fables of African savages; learned men
have translated Arabic, Sanscrit, and Chinese manuscripts; even Egyptian
papyri have been dug up, and forced to yield their meaning, and all alike
have furnished tales, very similar to stories now told by word of mouth.
But as some of these are common to races whose languages have been traced
to a common origin, it is now held that nursery stories and popular tales
have been handed down together with the languages in which they are told;
and they are used in striving to trace out the origin of races, as
philologists use words to trace language, as geologists class rocks by the
shells and bones which they contain, and as natural philosophers used
fairy eggs in tracing the Gulf Stream.
The following collection is intended to
be a contribution to this new science of "Storyology." It is a museum of
curious rubbish about to perish, given as it was gathered in the rough,
for it seemed to me as barbarous to "polish" a genuine popular tale, as it
would be to adorn the bones of a Megatherium with tinsel, or gild a rare
old copper coin. On this, however, opinions vary, but I hold my own, that
stories orally collected can only be valuable if given unaltered; besides,
where is the model story to be found?
Practical men may despise the tales,
earnest men condemn them as lies, some even consider them wicked; one
refused to write any more for a whole estate; my best friend says they are
all "blethers." But one man's rubbish may be another's treasure; and what
is the standard of value in such a pursuit as this?
"And what are you going to do with them
stories, Mr. Carnal?" said a friend of mine, as he stood amongst the brown
sea weed, at the end of a pier, on a fine summer's evening, and watched my
departure in a tiny boat.
"Print them, man, to be sure."
My friend is famous for his good
stories, though they are of another kind, and he uses tobacco; he eyed me
steadily for a moment, and then he disposed of the whole matter
monosyllabically, but forcibly,
It seemed to come from his heart.
Said a Highland coachman to me one day,
"The luggage is very heavy. I will not believe but there is stones in the
portmanteaus! They will be pickin' them up off the road, and takin' them
away them; I have seen them myself;" and then, having disposed of geology,
he took a sapient pinch of snuff.
So a benighted Englishman, years ago in
Australia, took up his quarters in a settler's hut, as he told me. Other
travellers came in, and one had found a stone in a dry river course which
he maintained to be partly gold. The rest jeered at him till he threw away
prize in a pet; and then they all devoured mutton chops and damper, and
slept like sensible men.
So these tales may be gold or dross
according to taste. Many will despise them, but some may take an interest
in the pastime of their countrymen; some may be amused; those who would
learn Gaelic will find the language of the people who told the stories;
and those who would compare popular tales of different races, may rest
assured that I have altered nothing; that these really are what they
purport to be - stories orally collected in the West Highlands since the
beginning of 1859. I have but carried drift rubbish from the place where I
found it to a place where it may be seen and studied by those who care to
take the trouble.
The resemblance which the collection
bears to others already made, is a strong argument for the common origin
of the stories, and of the people who tell them. But, as a foundation for
argument, I am bound to give the evidence on which I have formed my belief
in their antiquity, for the stories would be rubbish indeed if they not
This is the account given by Mr. Hector
MacLean, parish schoolmaster at Ballygrant in Islay, whom I have known
from his boyhood, and who, at my request, collected stories last summer in
the Long Island:
"In the Islands of Barra, the recitation
of tales during the long winter nights is still very common. The people
gather in crowds to the houses of those whom they consider good reciters
to listen to their stories. They appear to be fondest of those tales which
describe exceedingly rapid changes of place in very short portions of
time, and have evidently no respect for the unities. During the recitation
of those tales, the emotions of the reciters are occasionally very
strongly excited, and so also are those of the listeners, almost shedding
tears at one time, and giving way to loud laughter at another. A good many
of them firmly believe in all the extravagance of these stories.
"They speak of the Ossianic: heroes with
as much feeling, sympathy, and belief in their existence and reality as
the readers of the newspapers do of the exploits of the British army in
the Crimea or in India; and whatever be the extravagance of the legends
they recite respecting them, it is exceedingly remarkable that the same
character is always ascribed to the same hero in almost every story and by
almost every reciter. Fingal, or rather Fionn, is never called the king of
any country or territory, but the king of the Finn, a body of men who were
raised, according to the traditions current in the Long Island and other
parts of the Highlands, in Ireland and in the Highlands, to defend both
countries against foreign invaders, more especially against the
Scandinavians. The origin these illiterate people assign to them,
according to the traditions handed down to them, is, that the largest and
strongest bodied young men and women were selected and married together in
order to produce a brave and powerful race capable of withstanding and
repelling the incursions of foreign foes. Any hero that came west, east,
north or south, and 'Cothrom na Fîne' (the chance of the Finne), is the
term still used for fair play in the Highlands.
"In no tale or tradition related to me
regarding these heroes have I heard the name, 'Rìgh Mhòr-bheinn' (King of
Morven), ascribed to Fionn; nor have I heard him described as the king of
any territory or country always 'Rìgh na Fînne or Fēinne.'
Fēin or Fìnn is the plural
of Fiann, which is probably derived from Fiadh dhuine; either a wild man,
from his strength and bravery, or else the man of deer, from their
maintaining themselves by hunting deer, extensive tracts of land being
allotted to them for that purpose. The last etymology I believe myself to
be the correct one.
"The most of the people in Barra and
South Uist are Roman Catholics, can neither read nor write, and hardly
know any English. From these circumstances it is extremely improbable that
they have borrowed much from the literature of other nations. In North
Uist and Harris these tales are nearly gone, and this, I believe, to be
owing partly to reading, which in a manner supplies a substitute for them,
partly to bigoted religious ideas, and partly to narrow utilitarian
This clear statement is accompanied by a
description of each of the men who contributed, from which it appears in
detail that the greater number speak Gaelic only, that many of them can
neither read nor write, and that they are clever though uneducated; and
this account I know to be correct in some cases, from my own personal
knowledge of the men. Hector Urquhart, now gamekeeper at Ardkinglas, whom
I have known for many years, agrees with MacLean in his account of the
telling of these stories in other districts in former times. This is his
"In my native place, Pool Ewe, Ross
shire, when I was a boy, it was the custom for the young to assemble
together on the long winter nights to hear the old people recite the tales
or sgeulachd, which they had learned from their fathers before them. In
these days tailors and shoemakers went from house to house, making our
clothes and shoes. When one of them came to the village we were greatly
delighted, whilst getting new kilts at the same time. I knew an old tailor
who used to tell a new tale every night during his stay in the village;
and another, an old shoemaker, who, with his large stock of stories about
ghosts and fairies, used to frighten us so much that we scarcely dared
pass the neighbouring churchyard on our way home. It was also the custom
when an aoidh, or stranger, celebrated for his store of tales, came
on a visit to the village, for us, young and old, to make a rush to the
house where he passed the night, and choose our seats, some on beds, some
on forms, and others on three legged stools, etc., and listen in silence
to the new tales; just as I have myself seen since, when a far famed actor
came to perform in the Glasgow theatre. The goodman of the house usually
opened with the tale of Famhair Mor (great giant) or some other
favourite tale, and then the stranger carried on after that. It was a
common saying, 'The first tale by the goodman, and tales to daylight by
the aoidh,' or guest. It was also the custom to put riddles, in the
solving of which all in the house had to tax their ingenuity. If one of
the party put a riddle which was not solved that night, he went home with
the title of King of Riddles. Besides this, there was usually in such
gatherings a discussion about the Fein, which comes from FIANTAIDH, giant;
the Fiantaidh were a body of men who volunteered to defend their country
from the invasions and inroads of the Danes and Norwegians, or
Lochlinnich. FWNN, who was always called King of the Fein, was the
strongest man amongst them, and no person was admitted into the company
who was less in height than he, however much taller. I remember the old
black shoemaker telling us one night that FIUNN had a tooth which he
consulted as an oracle upon all important occasions. He had but to touch
this tooth, and whatever he wanted to know was at once revealed to him.
"The above is all I can at present
readily call to mind of the way in which the evenings were spent in the
Highlands thirty or forty years ago. The minister came to the village in
1830, and the schoolmaster soon followed, who put a stop in our village
to such gatherings; and in their place we were supplied with heavier
tasks than listening to the old shoemaker's fairy tales. From that
period till I collected the few in this collection, I have not heard a
tale recited. On going to visit my friends last summer, I expected that
I would get some old tales among them, but I found that the most of the
old men who used to relate them in my young days had died, and the few
who were then alive of them were so old that they had lost their
memories, so that I only got but a trifle to what I expected.
March 1860. "HECTOR
John Dewar, a labourer, whom I never
saw, but who has written and sent me many stories, agrees with the others.
These men have never met, and have acted independently; and yet, in many
cases, I have received versions of the same story from each and from other
sources, and I have myself heard the same incidents repeated by their
authorities, and by others whom they had never seen; sometimes even the
The name of every narrator is given with
his story, and I am satisfied on direct evidence that most of these were
known in the Highlands at least forty years ago. Now, for the benefit of
those who know as little of the subject as I did, let me give the theory
of the distribution of popular tales, as I have gathered it from the able
introduction to the Norse Tales and other sources, and then let me point
out the bearing of this collection on that theory.
It is supposed that the races known as
Indo European came from Central Asia at some very early period, and passed
over Europe, separating and settling down as nations; retaining words of
their original language, and leaving the traces of their religion and
history everywhere as popular tales; and that they found the land
occupied. Each wave, it is said, "pushed onwards those who went before,"
but, as it seems to me, each in turn must have stopped as it arrived at
the great sea, and there the waves of this stream of men must have mingled
As the flotsam and jetsam of American
rivers and of the Gulf Stream is constantly drifting northwards and
eastwards, and finds a resting place on some western shore, so the traces
of the great human stream, which is supposed to have flowed westwards,
should be found in greatest abundance stranded at the western sea. If this
be correct, and if the plains of Asia sent migratory hordes eastwards as
well as westwards, the tales and languages of the far East and West should
most resemble each other, and should also resemble more than others the
oldest forms of the myths and languages of those from whom they sprang.
Brittany, Scandinavia, Ireland, and the west of Scotland, from their
geographical position, should contain more of this fight mental debris
than Central Europe; for the same reason that more of the floating rubbish
of American rivers is found on the shores of Europe than anywhere on the
great ocean; and if mankind had a common origin, and started from the
plains of Asia, and if popular tales really are old traditions, then the
tales of Ceylon should resemble those of Barra, and those of Japan should
resemble the others, because men travelling eastwards and arrived at
Japan, could not easily advance further. Mr. Oliphant tells us that both
in China and in Japan groups are commonly seen listening to professional
story tellers in the streets, and it is to be hoped that some one will
enable us to judge of their talents.
Be that as it may, fairy eggs are not
the only foreign products found on the shores of the Hebrides, and the
people who dwell there know stories of larger growth than mere nursery
tales. Great logs of drift wood find their way to shore, and are turned to
use. Such a log I once found, and used myself, long ago. It was half
buried in the sand; it had been long tossed by the sea, and battered
against rocks, for it was heavy with water, splintered and ground. No tree
like it grew like it grew anywhere near. There was no mark of a tool on
it. The stumps of its roots and branches remained, and it seemed as if it
had been tom up and wafted to its resting place by winds and waves alone.
I have no doubt that it came from America. Had it been insignificant and
useless, like a fairy egg, we might have left it, or preserved it as a
curiosity; but it was a useful log, and we were a party of chilled otter
hunters, so, after a few speculations, we hoisted the prize on our
shoulders, carried it to our dwelling, a neighbouring cave, and there we
burned it. I see it often, hissing and spluttering, and lighting up the
bivouac with its red glare. Its ashes may be there still, but that tree is
a tree no longer, its origin and wanderings cannot now be traced; it has
shared the fate of many a popular tale. It was found and used up.
Such a log I lately saw in South Uist.
No tool mark was on it; it had lost its own foliage, but it was covered
with a brown and white marine foliage of seaweed and dead barnacles, and
it was drilled in all directions by these curious sea shells, which are
supposed by the people to be embryo geese. It was sound, though battered,
and a worthy Celtic smith was about to add it to the roof of a cottage,
which he was making of boulders and turf. It was about to share the fate
of many popular tales, and become a part of something else. It may be
recognised as an American production hereafter, and its history is deeply
marked on it, though if forms part of a house by this time. So a genuine
popular tale may be recognised in a play or a romance.
Another such tree I saw in Benbecula,
with bark still on the roots, and close to it lay a squared log, and near
that a mast with white paint and iron bindings, blocks and crosstrees,
still attached to it. A few miles off was a stranded ship, with her cargo
and fittings, a wreck about to be sold, and turned to any use that the new
owners might think fit. All these were about to be changed, and as it was
with drift wood in the Highlands, so, as I imagine, it has been with
popular tales everywhere. They are as old as the races who tell them, but
the original ideas, like the trees from which logs, masts, and ships are
made, have been broken up, cut, carved, and ornamented lost and found
wrecked, destroyed, broken, and put together again; and though the
original shape is hard to find, the fragments may be recognized in books,
and wherever else they may now be found.
But as there are quiet spots in the
world where drift wood accumulates undisturbed, so there are quiet spots
where popular tales flourish in peace, because no man has interfered with
them. In Spitzbergen, according to the accounts given me by Norwegian bear
hunters and adventurous English nobles, trees, such as those occasionally
found in Scotland, are piled in heaps. Trees, logs, broken spars, and
wreck, gather and bleach and decay together, because there are no men on
that wild shore to use them. So in the islands where the western
"wanderers," "Albanich," settled down, and where they have remained for
centuries, old men and women are still found who have hardly stirred from
their native islands, who speak only Gaelic, and cannot read or write, and
yet their minds are filled with a mass of popular lore, as various as the
wreck piled on the shores of Spitzbergen. If such as these get hold of the
contents of a story book, they seem unconsciously to extract the
incidents, and reject all the rest to select the true wood, and throw away
foreign ornament, just as they chip off the paint of a stranded mast, or
scrape the sea weed off a log when they build it into a roof. I have given
one specimen of a story, which I believe to be derived from the "Arabian
Nights," though it is quite impossible that the man who told it to Hector
MacLean, and who told it to me also, in nearly the same words, can have
got it directly from any book; for he cannot read at all, and he does not
I have found very little notice of these
West Highland prose tales in books, but they are referred to. In 1703,
Martin says that his countrymen then told long tales about Fin MacCoul,
but he adds that he will not trouble the reader with them.
In 1780, Dr. Smith, in his book on
Gaelic poetry, says, that prosaic tales should be preserved in the same
manner may seem strange, but so it is. He condemns the "urskels" as "later
tales," unworthy of notice, probably because they were different from the
poetry of which he collected so much.
Gaelic dictionaries mention "legends" as
sources from which words have been taken. Amongst the Gaelic MSS. now in
the Advocates' Library, there are several which contain tales similar to
those now told in the Highlands. One passage about the sailing of boat,
which I have got, with variations, from a great many people living in
various parts of the Highlands, I find in a MS. which was lent to me by
the secretary of the Celtic Society of London. It is Dated 23d December
1808, signed Alexander Stewart, A.M., and marked, Poems of Ossian. It
contains 7721 lines of Gaelic, mostly poetry, which by the references seem
to have been copied from something else. The passage to which I refer,
occurs in a "Fragment of a Tale," p. 17, which occupies thirty seven folio
pages, and treats of carrying off a lady from an island, and her recovery
by her husband.
Dr. MacLeod, the best of living Gaelic
scholars, printed one old tale, somewhat altered, with a moral added, in
his "Leabhar nan Cnoc," in 1834, but even his efforts to persevere and use
this old lore were unsuccessful.
Those, then, who understood Gaelic,
thought popular tales unworthy of notice; those who did not understand
Gaelic, could know nothing about them; and there are many now living in
the Highlands, who speak Gaelic and yet believed, till they searched at my
request, that stories had become extinct in their districts. One good
Highlander, who has helped me much, Mr. James Robertson, living at
Inveraray, so believed, till he heard his own nursemaid repeat No. 17, and
a neighbouring fisherman tell No. 6. In the Highlands, as elsewhere,
society is arranged in layers, like the climates of the world. The dweller
on an Indian plain little dreams that there is a region of perpetual frost
in the air above him; the Esquimaux does not suspect the slumbering
volcano under his feet; and the dwellers in the upper and lower strata of
society, everywhere, know as little of each other's ways of life as the
men of the plain know of the mountaineers in the snow.
Highland stories then, have been
despised by educated men, and they are as yet unchanged popular tales. It
so happened that a piper was the instructor of my babyhood. He was a
stalwart, kindly, gentle man, whose face is often before me, though he has
long since gone to his rest. From him I first heard a few of the tales in
this collection. They had almost faded from my memory, but I remembered
their existence, and I knew where to search, so I began at the beginning
of 1859 by writing to my Highland friends, of all degrees, for stories of
all kinds, true stories excepted; and here let me thank them cordially for
the trouble which they have taken, for they are too numerous to thank in
I begged for the very words used by the
people who told the stories, with nothing added, or omitted, or altered.
Those who could wrote Gaelic, those who could not did their best in
English,- translated, at first or second hand, from Gaelic; and when I had
so gathered many versions of a story, I thought I might safely conclude
that it had been known in the country for many years, and was essentially
a popular tale.
My next step was to go at Easter to a
Highland district, near the lowlands, where a gamekeeper had marked down a
lot of tale tellers, and I was soon convinced that there was plenty of
game, though hard to get.
This difficulty may be worth some
explanation, for it exists elsewhere, and bears on the collection of tales
everywhere. Highland peasants and fishermen, especially those dwelling
near the lowlands, are shy and proud, and even more peculiarly sensitive
to ridicule than peasants elsewhere. Many have a lurking belief in the
truth of the stories which they tell, and a rooted conviction that any one
with a better education will laugh at the belief, and the story, and the
narrator and his language, if he should be weak enough to be on English,
and betray his knowledge of Sgeultachd and creed. He cannot imagine that
any one out of his own class can possibly be amused by his frivolous
pastimes. No one ever has hitherto. He sees every year a summer flood of
tourists of all nations enduring through his lochs and glens, but he knows
as little of them they know of him. The shoals of herrings that enter Loch
Fyne know as much of the dun deer on the hill side, as Londoners and
Highland peasants know of each other. Each gets an occasional at the other
as the deer may see the herrings capering in the loch - each affects the
other slowly but surely, as the herrings do drive away the wild deer by
attracting men to catch them; but the want of a common language here as
elsewhere, keeps Highlands Lowlands, Celt and Saxon, as clearly separate
as oil and water in the same glass.
The first step, then, towards the
acquisition of a story is to establish confidence. It may be that the
would be collector sees before him a strapping lad dressed in the garb of
a west country fisherman a rough blue bonnet, jacket, and trousers. He
steps out ranges up alongside. The Highlander glances from under his bushy
eyebrows, and sees with his sharp grey eyes that the new comer is a
stranger. He looks rather like a Saxon; Highland curiosity is strong, and
he longs to ask whence he comes; but politeness is stronger, and it would
be uncivil to begin questioning at once. So a nervous kick of one foot,
and a quick shy glance, the fisherman jerks out, "It's a fine day." "Tha
n' latha briagh" (the day is fine), replies the stranger; and as he
speaks, the whole face manner of his companion change as if by magic;
doubt and hesitation, suspicion and curiosity, become simple wonder; his
eyes his heart open wide at the sound of his native tongue, and he
exclaims, "You have Gaelic! You will take my excuse by your leave, but
what part of the Gaeldom are you from?" And then having found out all that
is to be discovered, the ice being broken, and confidence established, it
oozes out gradually that the fisherman knows a story, and after much
persuasion he tells it, while he rows gentleman who can talk Gaelic across
a Highland loch. At parting, he adds that he has only told it to please a
"Gael," and that would not have said one word to a Gall (stranger). But
the man is fluent in his boat, is shy and backward when set down to at his
story for transcribing, and it is only when set with one of his neighbours
whom he knows, that his story is got on paper.
Or it may be an old dame in a tall white
mutch with a broad black band, a red cloak, and clean white apron. She is
70, and can walk ten miles; she has known all the neighbouring families
for generations. If you can claim cousinship with any, she is your friend;
but she will praise the ancestors and tell of the adventures of Rob
Roy the Gregorach, the last of the freebooters. "But, Mary, can you say
Murachag and Mionachag?" "Huch! my dear, that is an ursgeul that is
nonsense. The Good Being bless you, I knew your grandmother," etc., etc.
So one must rest contented with the fact, that old Mary knows one tale,
and probably many more, which a week's persuasion might perhaps extract.
Or it may be a pretty lass, whose eye
twinkles with intelligence at every catch word, thrown out as a bait, but
whom nothing will induce to confess that she knows the foolish tales which
the minister has condemned.
Or it is an old wandering vagabond of a
tinker, who has no roof but the tattered covering of his tent. He has
pitched it in a quarry under a giant fir, the knarled roots, half bare,
hardly support the tree on the edge of a red clay bank, and form a kind of
hollow, a "cos," in which the tinker and his tribe have nestled at odd
times for years. A thin blue smoke is curling amongst the blackened roots,
and winding itself about the noble tree. A stately mansion and a wide
domain, and a blue highland loch, with a shoal of brown herring boats, can
be seen through the wood from the door of the tinker's tent; and there he
lies, an old man past eighty, who has been a soldier, and "has never seen
a school" too proud to beg, too old to work, surrounded by boxes and horn
spoons, with shaggy hair and naked feet, as perfect a nomad as the wildest
Lapp or Arab in the whole world. It is easy to make friends with such men.
A kind word in their native language is all that is required, but to get
their stories is another affair. "Donald, did you ever see the like of
this?" Up starts the old man on his elbow - "Och! och! that's a fairy
arrow, I have seen that; och! och! no fairy arrow will ever hit the man
who has that - no fire will ever bum the house where that is. That's
lucky, well! well!" and the old man sinks down on his bed of fern. But the
elf shot has hit the mark, and started a train of thought, which leads at
last to a wild weird story; but before that story can be written, the
whole tribe decamp, and are lost for a time.
The first difficulty, then, was the
nature of the people who knew the stories; and the second, the want of men
able and willing to write Gaelic. It was easy to write English versions of
tales heard in Gaelic, but I wanted the Gaelic as it was told, and I had
neither time nor ability to write it down myself. I therefore sought out
two men on whom I could rely, to collect and write for me, and the largest
share of this book has been collected and written by them. One is Mr.
Hector Urquhart, gamekeeper at Ardkinglas on Loch Fyne; the other, Mr.
Hector MacLean, schoolmaster at Ballygrant in Islay, who has superintended
the printing of the Gaelic. They entered into the spirit of the work at
once, and they have executed their share of it with the greatest fidelity.
But while these are my chief aids, I am largely indebted to many others
for written Gaelic; for example, to one of my earliest friends, Mrs.
MacTavish; to the Rev. Mr. MacLauchlan of Edinburgh; to Alexander Fraser,
Esq., of Mauld, near Beauly; to many of the schoolmasters on the estate of
Sir Kenneth MacKenzie; to Mr. Donald Torrie, Benbecula; and to many
others, including John Dewar, a self educated man of advanced age, whose
contribution does him the greatest credit.
The next step was to spend a summer
holiday in studying the actual condition of this popular lore, where I had
found that it existed in the greatest profusion. I landed at Lochmaddy in
North Uist, and walked with a knapsack to the sound of Barra, and back to
Stornoway; crossing the sound of Harris in a fishing boat. I found a
population differing from that of the mainland, perhaps the least changed
from their old ways of any people in the kingdom. Gaelic is their usual,
often their only language. Every English word which has crept in has a
Gaelic head and tail. Many, I know not how many, "have no English" at all,
and have never been taught to read. In many islands the people are living
undisturbed, where their ancestors have lived time out of mind. They are a
small, active, intelligent race, with dark hair and eyelashes, and grey
eyes; quick, clever, and pugnacious. I had expected to find traces of
Norwegian occupation in the people and their language. I watched carefully
for Norwegian words and features; and I found the people a complete
contrast to Norwegian peasants, whom I know well, who are large, bony,
light-haired fair men, sagacious rather than quick; and generally slow to
I could find nothing Scandinavian,
except certain names of places, and certain ruins, which it is the fashion
to attribute to the Lochliners. Even the houses and the old agricultural
implements, where they are still used, are peculiar. For example, the old
crooked spade still used in islands in the sound of Barra, and elsewhere,
has no resemblance to any agricultural implement that I have ever seen
anywhere out of the West Highlands. It is in fact a foot plough used
without horses. It is remarkable that a steam plough should be at work at
the same time, on the east coast of Cromarty at Tarbert. Every horse I met
on the road stopped of his own accord. Every man asked my news, "whence I
took the walking", where I lived, and why I came? Saddles were often
sacks, stirrups a loop of twisted bent, bridles the same, and bits
occasionally wood. Dresses were coarse, but good; but there was an air of
kindly politeness over all, that is not to be found in homespun dresses in
any other country that I know. When I was questioned, I answered, and told
my errand, and prospered. "I was not a drover come to buy cattle at the
fair;" "Neither was I a merchant though I carried a pack." "I was the
gentleman who was after Sgialachdan." My collector had made my name known.
I spoke Gaelic, and answered questions. I am one of themselves, so I got
Men and women of all ages could and did
tell me stories, children of all sizes listened to them; and it was self
evident that people generally knew and enjoyed them. Elsewhere I had been
told, that thirty or forty years ago, men used to congregate and tell
stories; here, I was told, that they now spend whole winter nights about
the fire listening to these old world tales. The clergy, in some places,
had condemned the practice, and there it had fallen into disuse; stories
seemed to be almost exterminated in some islands, though I believe they
were only buried alive; but in other places this harmless amusement is not
forbidden; and there, in every cluster of houses, is some one man famed as
"good at sgialachdan," whose house is a winter evening's resort. I visited
these, and listened, often with wonder, at the extraordinary power of
memory shown by untaught old men.
It is perhaps beyond the province of a
mere collector of old tales to be serious; but surely Gaelic books
containing sound information would be a vast boon to such a people. The
young would read them, and the old would understand them. All would take a
warmer interest in Canada and Australia, where strong arms and bold
spirits are wanted, if they knew what these countries really are. If they
heard more of European battles, and knew what a ship of war is now, there
would be more soldiers and sailors from the Isles in the service of their
country. At all events, the old spirit of popular romance is surely not an
evil spirit to be exercised, but rather a good genius to be controlled and
directed. Surely stories in which a mother's blessing, well earned, leads
to success; in which the poor rise to be princes, and the weak and
courageous overcome giants; in which wisdom excels brute force, surely
even such frivolities are better pastime than a solitary whisky bottle, or
sleep, or grim silence; for that seems the choice of amusements if tales
are forbidden and Gaelic books are not provided for men who know no other
language; and who, as men, must be amused now and then.
I have never heard a story, whose point
was obscenity, publicly told in a Highland cottage; and I believe that
such are rare. I have heard them where the rough polish of more
modem ways has replaced the polished roughness of "wild" Highlanders; and
that where even the bagpipes have been almost abolished as profane.
I have heard the music of the "Cider
Cellars" in a parlour, even in polished England, when I had failed to
extract anything else from a group of comfortably-dressed villages. A
half-polished human gem is but a spoiled crystal anywhere; and I prefer
the rough diamond or the finished jewel.
But this is foreign to my work; my
visits were to the tellers of old stories, and had nothing to do with
political economy and public morals. I paid my visits, and heard the
stories; and a goodly audience often gathered to share the treat, and all
seemed marvellously to enjoy it. If there was an occasional coarse word
spoken, it was not coarsely meant.
Let me describe one of these old story
men as a type of his kind. I trust he will not be offended, for he was
very polite to me. His name is MacPhie; he lives at the north end of South
Uist, where the road ends at a sound, which has to be forded at the ebb to
get to Benbecula. The house is built of a double wall of loose boulders,
with a layer of peat three feet thick between the walls. The ends are
round, and the roof rests on the inner wall, leaving room for a crop of
yellow gowans. A man might walk round the roof on the top of the wall.
There is but one room, with two low doors, one on each side of the house.
The fire is on the floor; the chimney is a hole above it; and the rafters
are hung with pendants and festoons of shining black peat reek. They are
of birch from the mainland, American drift wood, or broken wreck. They
support a covering of turf and straw, and stones, and heather ropes, which
keep out the rain well enough.
The house stands on a green bank, with
grey rocks protruding through the turf; and the whole neighbourhood is
pervaded by cockle shells, which indicate the food of the people and their
fishing pursuits. In a neighbouring kiln there were many cart loads about
to be burned, to make that lime which is so durable in the old castles.
The owner of the house, whom I visited twice, is seventy-nine. He told me
nine stories, and like all the others, declared that there was no man in
the islands who knew them so well. "He could not say how many he knew;" he
seemed to know versions of nearly everything I had got; and he told me
plainly that my versions were good for nothing. "Huch! Thou hast not got
them right at all." "They came into his mind," he said, "sometimes at
night when he could not sleep, old tales that he had not heard for
He had the manner of a practised
narrator, and it is quite evident he is one; he chuckled at the
interesting parts, and laid his withered finger on my knee as he gave out
the terrible bits with due solemnity. A small boy in a kilt, with large
round glittering eyes, was standing mute at his knee, gazing at his
wrinkled face, and devouring every word. The boy's mother first boiled,
and then mashed, potatoes; and his father, a well grown man in tartan
breeks, ate them. Ducks and ducklings, a cat and a kitten, some hens and a
baby, all tumbled about on the clay floor together, and expressed their
delight at the savoury prospect, each in his own fashion; and three
wayfarers dropped in and listened for a spell, and passed their remarks
till the ford was shallow. The light came streaming down the chimney, and
through a single pane of glass, lighting up a tract in the blue mist of
the peat smoke, and fell on the white hair and brown withered face of the
old man, as he sat on a low stool with his feet to the fire; and the rest
of the dwelling, with all its plenishing of boxes and box beds, dishes and
dresser, and gear of all sorts, faded away through shades of deepening
brown, to the black darkness of the smoked roof and the "peat corner."
There we sat, and smoked and talked for hours, till the tide ebbed; and
then I crossed the ford by wading up to the waist, and dried my clothes in
the wind in Benbecula.
Another man of the same stamp, Patrick
Smith, lives near the sound of Barra; and a third, "Donald MacDonald
MacCharles MacIntyre," in Benbecula; and I heard of plenty more, whom I
had not time to visit. I found them to be men with clear heads and
wonderful memories, generally very poor and old, living in remote comers
of remote islands, and speaking only Gaelic; in short, those who have
lived most at home, furthest from the world, and who have no source of
mental relaxation beyond themselves and their neighbours.
At Gearrloch on the mainland, some old
namesakes of mine are of the same stamp, but in these regions the
schoolmaster has made himself at home. Tales have been forbidden, but
other lore has been provided. There are many well attended English
schools, so old men have access to books and newspapers through their
children. Tradition is out of fashion and books are in.
Farther east stories are still rarer,
and seem to be told rather by women than by men. The long romances of the
west give place to stories about ghosts and fairies, apparitions, and
dreams - stories which would be told in a few words, if at all, in the
islands. Fairy belief is becoming a fairy tale. In another generation it
will grow into a romance, as it has in the hands of poets elsewhere, and
then the whole will either be forgotten or carried from people who must
work to "gentles" who can afford to be idle and read books. Railways,
roads, newspapers, and tourists, are slowly but surely doing their
accustomed work. They are driving out romance; but they are not driving
out the popular creed as to supernaturals. That creed will survive when
the last remnant of romance has been banished, for superstition seems to
belong to no one period in the history of civilization, but to all. It is
as rife in towns as it is amongst the hills, and is not confined to the
I have wandered amongst the peasantry of
many countries, and this trip but confirmed my old impression. There are
few peasants that I think so highly of, none that I like so well. Scotch
Highlanders have faults in plenty, but they have the bearing of Nature's
own gentlemen - the delicate, natural tact which discovers, and the good
taste which avoids, all that would hurt or offend a guest. The poorest is
ever the readiest to share the best he has with the stranger. A kind word
kindly meant is never thrown away, and whatever may be the faults of this
people, I have never found a boor or a churl in a Highland bothy.
Celts have played their part in history,
and they have a part to play still in Canada and Australia, where their
language and character will leave a trace, if they do not influence the
destiny of these new worlds. There are hundreds in those distant lands
whose language is still Gaelic, and to whom these stories are familiar,
and if this book should ever remind any of them of the old country, I
shall not have worked in vain in the land which they call "Tir nam Beann,
's nan Gleann, 's nan Gaisgeach (The land of Hills, and Glens, and
So much, then, for the manner of
collecting the tales, and the people who told them. The popular lore which
I found current in the west, and known all over the Highlands in a greater
or less degree amongst the poorer classes, consists of: -
Ist. That which is called Seanachas na
Finne, or Feinnie, or Fiann, that is, the tradition or old history of the
This is now the rarest of any, and is
commonest, so far as I know, in Barra and South Uist. There are first
fragments of poems which may have been taken from the printed book, which
goes by the name of the History of the Finne in the Highlands, and the
Poems of Ossian elsewhere. I never asked for these, but I was told that
the words were "sharper and deeper" than those in the printed book.
There are, secondly, poetical fragments
about the same persons, which, to the best of my knowledge, are not in any
printed book. I heard some of these repeated by three different men.
Patrick Smith, in South Uist, intoned a
long fragment; I should guess, about 200 lines. He recited it rapidly to a
kind of chant. The subject was a fight with a Norway witch, and Fionn,
Diarmaid, Oscar and Conan, were named as Irish heroes. There were "ships
fastened with silver chains, and kings holding them;" swords, spears,
helmets, shields, and battles, were mentioned; in short, the fragment was
the same in style and machinery as the famous Poems; and it was attributed
to Ossian. The repetition began with a short prose account of what was to
follow. Smith is sixty, and says that he cannot read. He does not
understand English. He says that such poems used to be so chanted commonly
when he was young. The same account of the manner of reciting similar
poems was given me by a clergyman in Argyllshire, who said that, within
his recollection, the "death of Cuchullin" used to be so recited by an old
man at the head of Loch Awe.
Donald Macintyre, in Benbecula, recited
a similar fragment, which has since been written and sent to me. The
subject is a dialogue between a lady and a messenger returning from
battle, with a number of heads on a withy; the lady asks their story, and
the messenger tells whose heads they were, and how the heroes fell. It
sounded better than it reads, but the transcriber had never written Gaelic
John Campbell, generally known as
"Yellow John," living in Strath Gearrloch, about twelve miles west of
Flowerdale, repeated a similar fragment, which lasted for a quarter of an
hour. He said he had known it for half a century. He is a very old man,
and it is difficult to follow him, and the poetry was mingled with prose,
and with "said he," "said she." It was the last remnant of something which
the old man could only remember imperfectly, and which he gave in broken
sentences; but here again the combat was with a Norway witch, and the
scene, Ireland. Fionn, Diarmaid and other such names appeared. Diarmaid
had "his golden helm on his head;" his "two spears on his shoulder;" his
"Narrow pointed shield on his left arm;" his "small shield on his right;"
his sword was "leafy," (?) leaf shaped. And the old man believed that
Diarmaid, the Irish hero, was his ancestor, and his own real name O'Duine.
He spoke of "his chief MacCalain," and treated me with extra kindness, as
a kinsman. "Will you not take some more" (milk and potatoes). "Perhaps we
may never see each other again. Are we not both Campbells?"
I heard of other men who could repeat
such poems, and I have heard of such men all my life; but as I did not see
out to gather poems, I took no trouble to get them.
Two chiefs, I think one was MacLeod,
sent their two fools to gather bait on the shore; and to settle a bet
which fool was the best, they strewed gold on the path. One fool stopped
to gather it, but the other said, "When we are at 'golding,' let us be 'golding,'
and when we are at bait-making, let us be bait-making," and he stuck to
his business. My business was prose, but it may not be out of place to
state my own opinion about the Ossian controversy, for I have been asked
more than once if I had found any trace of such poems.
I believe that there were poems of very
old date, of which a few fragments still exist in Scotland as pure
traditions. That these related to Celtic worthies who were popular heroes
before the Celts came from Ireland, and answer to Arthur and his knights
elsewhere. That the same personages have figured in poems composed, or
altered, or improved, or spoilt by bards who lived in Scotland, and by
Irish bards of all periods; and that these personages have been mythical
heroes amongst Celts from the earliest of times. That "the poems" were
orally collected by Macpherson, and by men before him, by Dr. Smith, by
the committee of the Highland Society, and by others, and that the printed
Gaelic is old poetry, mended and patched, and pieced together, and
altered, but on the whole a genuine work. Manuscript evidence of the
antiquity of similar Gaelic poems exists. Some were printed in 1807, under
the authority of the Highland Society of London, with a Latin translation,
notes., etc., and were reprinted in 1818. MacPherson's "translation"
appeared between 1760 and 1762, and the controversy raged from the
beginning, and is growling still; but the dispute now is, whether the
poems were originally Scotch or Irish, and how much MacPherson altered
them. It is like the quarrel about the chameleon for the languages spoken
in Islay and Rathlin are identical, the language of the poems is difficult
for me, though I have spoken Gaelic from my childhood. There is no doubt
at all that Gaelic poems on such subjects existed long before MacPherson
was born; and it is equally certain that there is no composition in the
Gaelic language which bears the smallest resemblance in style to the
peculiar kind of prose in which it pleased MacPherson to translate. The
poems have a peculiar rhythm, and a style of their own which is altogether
lost in his English translation. But what concerns me is the popular
belief, and it seems to be this - "MacPherson must have been a very
dishonest person when he allowed himself to pass as the author of Ossian's
poems." So said a lady, one of my earliest friends, whose age has not
impaired her memory, and so say those who are best informed, and
understand the language.
The illiterate seem to have no opinion
on the subject. So far as I could ascertain, few had heard of the
controversy, but they had all heard scraps of poems and stories about the
Finne, all their lives; and they are content to believe that "Ossian, the
last of the Finne," composed the poems, wrote them, and burned his book in
a pet, when he was old and blind, because St. Patrick, or St. Paul, or
some other saint, would not believe his wonderful stories.
Those who would study "the controversy,"
will find plenty of discussion; but the report of the Highland Society
appears to settle the question on evidence. I cannot do better than quote
from Johnson's Poets the opinion of a great author, who was a great
translator, who, in speaking of his own work, says:
"What must the world think ... After
such a judgment passed by so great a critick, the world who decides so
often, and who examines so seldom; the world who, even in matters of
literature, is almost always the slave of authority? Who will suspect that
so much learning should mistake, that so much accuracy should be misled,
or that so much candour should be biassed? ... I think that no translation
ought to be the ground of criticism, because no man ought to be condemned
upon another man's explanation of his meaning... ." (Postscript to the
Odyssey, Pope's Homer, Johnson's Poets, pp. 279,280.
And to that quotation let me add this
manuscript note, which I found in a copy of the Report of the Highland
Society on the poems of Ossian; which I purchased in December 1859; and
which came from the library of Colonel Hamilton Smith, at Plymouth.
"The Reverend Dr. Campbell, of Halfway
Tree, Lisuana, in Jamaica, often repeated to me in the year 1709, 1801,
and 1802, parts of Ossian in Gaelic; and assured me that he had possessed
a manuscript, long the property of his family, in which Gaelic poems, and
in particular, whole pieces of Ossian's compositions were contained. This
he took out with him on his first voyage to the West Indies in 1780, when
his ship was captured by a boat from the Santissima Trinidata, flagship of
the whole Spanish fleet; and he, together with all the other passengers,
lost nearly the whole of their baggage, among which was the volume in
question. In 1814, when I was on the staff of General Sir Thomas Graham,
now Lord Lyndoch, I understood that Mr. MacPherson had been at one time
his tutor; and, therefore, I asked his opinion respecting the authenticity
of the Poems. His lordship replied that he never had any doubts on the
subject, he having seen in Mr. MacPherson's possession several manuscripts
in the Gaelic language, and heard him speak of them repeatedly; he told me
some stronger particulars, which I cannot now note down, for the
conversation took place during the action of our winter campaign.
(Signed) "CHARLES HAMN.
SMITH, Lt. Col."
The Colonel had the reputation of being
a great antiquary, and had a valuable library. James MacPherson, a "modest
young man, who was master of Greek and Latin," was "procured" to be a
preceptor to "the boy Tommy," who was afterwards Lord Lyndoch (according
to a letter in a book printed for private circulation). As it appears to
me, those who are ignorant of Gaelic, and now a days maintain that "MacPherson
composed Ossian's Poems," are like critics who, being ignorant of Greek,
should maintain that Pope Wrote the Odyssey, and was the father of Homer,
or, being ignorant of English, should declare that Tennyson was the father
of King Arthur and all his knights, because he has published one of many
poems which treat of them. It was different when Highlanders were
"rebels;" and it was petty treason to deny that they were savages.
A glance at "Johnson's Tour in the
Hebrides," will show the feeling of the day. He heard Gaelic songs in
plenty, but would not believe in Gaelic poems. He appreciated the kindness
and hospitality with which he was treated; he praised the politeness of
all ranks, and yet maintained that their language was "the rude speech of
a barbarous people, who had few thoughts to express, and were content, as
they conceived grossly, to be grossly understood."
He could see no beauty in the mountains
which men now flock to see. He saw no fish in fording northern rivers, and
explains how the winter torrents sweep them away; the stags were "perhaps
not bigger than our fallow deer;" the waves were not larger than those on
the coast of Sussex; and yet, though the Doctor would not believe in
Gaelic poems, he did believe that peat grew as it was cut, and that the
vegetable part of it probably caused a glowing redness in the earth of
which it is mainly composed; and he came away willing to believe in the
second sight, though not quite convinced.
That sturdy old Briton, the great
lexicographer, who is an honour to his country, was not wholly free from
national prejudice; he erred in some things; he may have erred in a matter
of which he could not well judge; he did not understand Gaelic; he did not
believe in traditions; he would not believe in the translations; and
MacPherson seems to have ended by encouraging the public belief that he
was the author of poems which had gained so wide a celebrity.
Matters have changed for the better
since those days; Celt and Saxon are no longer deadly foes. There still
exists, as I am informed, an anti-Celtic society, whose president, on
state occasions, wears three pairs of trousers; but it is no longer penal
to dispense with these garments; and there are Southerns who discard them
altogether, when they go north to pursue the little stags on the ugly
hills, and catch fish in the torrents.
There are Celtic names in high places,
in India, and at home; and an English Duke is turning the Gaelic of
Ossian's poems into English verse.
This, however, is foreign to my subject,
though it bears somewhat on the rest of the traditions of the Finne. I
have stated my own opinion because I hold it, not because I wish to
influence those who differ from me. I have no wish to stir up the embers
of an expiring controversy, which was besprinkled with peculiarly acrid
ink, and obscured by acid fumes. I neither believe that MacPherson
composed Ossian, nor that Ossian composed all the poems which bear his
name. I am quite content to believe Ossian to have been an Irishman, or a
Scotsman, or a myth, on sufficient evidence.
Besides these few remnants of poetry
which still survive, I find a great many prose tales relating to the
heroes of the poems; and as these personages certainly were popular heroes
in Ireland and in Scotland centuries ago, I give what I have gathered
concerning them, with the conviction that it is purely Celtic tradition. (
See page 256 of Scotland in the Middle Ages," by Cosmo Innes, Edmunston
and Douglas, 1860, for evidence taken from "The fathers of our Scotch
literature," and the Report of the Highland Society.)
The Seannachas of the Fine consists,
then, of poetry already printed; fragments which are not in print, so far
as I know, and which are now very rare; and prose tales which are
tolerably common, but rapidly disappearing.
In all these, according to tradition,
Fionn, Diarmaid, and the rest, are generally represented as Irish
worthies. The scene is often laid in Ireland; but there are hundreds of
places in Scotland in which some of the exploits are said to have been
performed. I know not how many Cairns are supposed to contain the bones of
the wild boar, whose bristles wounded the feet of Diarmaid when he paced
his length against the hair; Kyle Reay, in Skye, is named after a giant
warrior who leaped the strait. There are endless mountains bearing
Ossianic names in all parts of Scotland, and even in the Isle of Man the
same names are to be found mixed up with legends. In April 1860, I met a
peasant near Ramsey who knew the name of Fin MacCoul, though he would not
say a word about him to me. In Train's history of the Island, published by
Mary Quiggin, 1845, at page 359, is this note: -
"In a letter, dated 20th September,
1844, from a highly respected correspondent in the Isle of Man, he says
'Are you aware that the septennial appearance of the island, said to be
submerged in the sea by enchantment near Port Soderick, is expected about
the end of this month?' Though the spell by which this fancified island
has been bound to the bottom of the ocean since the days of the great Fin
MacCoul, and its inhabitants transformed in blocks of granite, might,
according to popular belief, be broke by placing a bible on any part of
the enchanted land when at its original altitude above the waters of the
deep, where it is permitted to remain only for the short space of thirty
minutes. No person has yet had the hardihood to make the attempt, lest, in
case of failure, the enchanter, in revenge, might cast his club over Mona
And in Cregeen's Manks dictionary, by
the same publisher, 1835, is this Manks proverb: -
"Ny three geayghn s' feayrey dennee Fion
Geay henneu, as geay huill,
As geay fo ny shiauill."
Which I understand to mean -
The three coldest winds that came to
Wind from a thaw, wind from a hole,
And wind from under the sails.
In short, I believe that the heroes of
Ossian belong to the race, not to any one set of poems, or to any single
branch of the Celtic language.
2d. There are tales, not necessarily
about the Fin, consisting partly of plain narrative and dialogue, which
vary with every narrator, and probably more or less every time the story
is told; and partly of a kind of measured prose, which is unlike anything
I know in any other language. I suspect that these have been compositions
at some time, but at what time I cannot even guess.
These almost always relate to Ireland
and Scandinavia; to boats, knights, swords, and shields. There are
adventures under ground, much battle, generally an island with fire about
it (perhaps Iceland), and a lady to be carried off. There is often an old
woman who has some mysterious vessel of balsam which brings the dead to
life, and a despised character who turns out to be the real hero,
sometimes a boaster who is held up to ridicule. I believe these to be
bardic recitations fast disappearing and changing into prose; for the
older the narrator is, the less educated, and the farther removed from the
rest of the world, the more his stories are garnished with these passages.
"Fin MacCumhal goes go Graffee," published in 1857, from Mayo, is
evidently a translation of a tale of this kind. In all these, the scene is
laid in Eirinn and Lochlan, now Ireland and Scandinavia; and these would
seem to have been border countries. Perhaps the stories relate to the time
when the Scandinavians occupied part of the Western Isles.
3d. There is popular history of events
which really happened within the last few centuries: of this, I have
gathered none, but I heard a great deal in a very short time, and I have
heard it all my fife. It is a history devoid of dates, but with clear
starting points. The event happened at the time of Shamas (James) at the
battle of Shirra Muir; at Inverlochy; after Culloden. The battle was
between MacNeill and MacLeod. MacLeod came from that castle. They
met on that strand. The dead are buried there. Their
descendants now live in such a place. He was the last man hanged in
Harris. That is called the slab of lamentation, from which the
MacLeans embarked for Ireland when the MacDonalds had conquered them, and
taken the land. MacLean exposed his wife on the Lady Rock because she had
made his servant blow up one of the ships of the Spanish Armada, for
jealousy of the Spanish lady who was on board. The history is minute and
circumstantial, and might be very interesting if faithfully collected, but
it is rather local than national, and is not within the scope of my work.
It is by far the most abundant popular lore, and has still a great hold on
the people. The decision of a magistrate in a late case of "Sapaid"
(broken heads) was very effective, because he appealed to this feeling. It
was thus described to me: "Ah! he gave it to them. He leant back in his
chair, and spoke grandly for half an hour. He said you are as wild men
fighting together in the days of King Shamas."
4th. There are tales which relate to men
and women only, and to events that might have happened anywhere at any
time. They might possibly be true, and equally true, whether the incidents
happened to an Eastern sage or a wise old Highlander. Such tales as Nos.
19 and 20. These are plentiful, and their characteristic is sagacity and
5th. There are children's tales, of
which some are given. They are in poetry and prose as elsewhere, and bear
a general resemblance to such tales all over the world. The cat and the
mouse play parts in the nursery drama of the Western Isles, as well as in
"Contes et Apologues Indiens inconnus jusqu' a ce jour," etc.; a
translation into French, by Mr. Stanislaus Julien, in 1860, of Chinese
books, which were translated into that language from Sanscrit in 1565, by
a Chinese doctor, and President of the Ministry of Justice, who composed
"The Forest of Comparisons," in twenty-four volumes, divided into 20
classes, and subdivided into 508 sections, after twenty years of hard
labour, during which he abstracted about 400 works. This is the name of
Let those who call Gaelic hard, try
that; or this: Tchong-king-siouen-tsi-pi-yu-king.
Let those who contemn nursery rhymes,
think of the French savant, and the Chinese cabinet minister, and the
learning which they have bestowed on the conversations of cats and mice.
6th. Riddles and puzzles, of which there
are a very great number. They are generally descriptive, such as, "No
bigger than a barley corn, it covers the king's board" - (the eye). I have
given a few. If any despise riddles, let them bear in mind that the Queen
of Sheba is believed to have propounded riddles to Solomon, and that
Samson certainly proposed a riddle to the Philistines. I am told that
riddles are common in India now.
7th. Proverbs, in prose and in verse, of
which 1515 were printed in 1819, and many more are still to be got. Many
are evidently very old from their construction, and some are explained by
the stories, for example, "Blackberries in February" has no very evident
meaning, but a long story explains that difficulties may by vanquished. A
king's son was sent by a stepmother to get "that which grew, and is
neither crooked nor straight" - (sawdust); "Blackberries in February,"
which he found growing in a charnel-house; and a third thing, equally easy
to find when the way was known.
8th. There are songs, of which there are
a vast number, published and unpublished, of all sorts and kinds, sung to
wild and peculiar tunes. They are condemned and forbidden in some
districts, and are vanishing rapidly from all. These used to be sung
continually within my recollection, and many of them are wild, and, to my
ear, beautiful. There are songs composed in a particular rhythm for
rowing, for washing clothes by dancing on them; songs whose rhythm
resembles a piobroch; love songs; war songs; songs which are nearly all
chorus, and which are composed as they are sung. The composer gives out a
single line applicable to anything then present, and the chorus fills up
the time by singing and clapping hands, till the second line is prepared.
I have known such lines fired at a sportsman by a bevy of girls who were
waulking blankets in a byre, and who made the gun and the dog the theme of
several stanzas. Reid's Bibliotheca Scoto-Celtica, 1832, gives a list of
eighty one Gaelic books of poetry printed since 1785. There are hymn
books, song books, and poetry composed by known and unknown bards, male
and female. Of the former, Mackenzie, in his Beauties of Gaelic poetry,
gives a list of thirty two, with specimens of their works and a short
biography. Of the latter class, the unknown poets, there are many at the
present day; and who is to guess their number in times when men did
nothing but fight and sing about their battles? A very few of these bards
have become known to the world by name, and, in all probability their
merits never will be known. Let any one translate Sir Patrick Spens or
Annie Laurie into French or Greek, or read a French translation of
Waverley, and the effect of translation on such compositions will be
9th. The romantic popular tales of which
this collection mainly consists.
I presume that I have said enough as to
their collection, and that I may now point out what seems to me to be
their bearing on the scientific part of the subject; that I may take them
as tradition, and argue from them as from established facts. I have
endeavoured to show how, when, and where I got the stories; each has its
own separate pedigree, and I have given the original Gaelic, with the
closest translation which I was able to make.
Now, let me mention the works in which I
have found similar tales, and which are within the reach of all who can
read English. First - Tales from the Norse, translated by G. W. Dasent,
published 1859. Many of the Gaelic tales collected in 1859 resemble these
very closely. The likeness is pointed out in the notes.
It is impossible that the book could
have become known to the people who told the stories within the time, but
if it were, a manuscript which has been lent to me by the translator,
proves that the stories were known in Scotland before the translation from
the Norse was made public.
It is a verbatim copy made by a
clergyman from a collection of fourteen tales, gathered by "Peter Buchan,
editor of the Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland." It is
dated 1848, Glasgow; and signed, Alexander B. Grosart. The tales are
written in English, and versions of all except three, had previously come
to me in Gaelic. For example, (No. 2), The Battle of the Birds closely
resembles "The Master Maid" from Norway, but it still more resembles Mr.
Peter Buchan's "Greensleeves," found in Scotland thirteen years before the
Norse tales were translated. The manuscript was sent by Mr. Grosart, after
he had read the Norse tales, and it seems to be clearly proved that these
stories are common to Norway and Scotland.
I have found very few stories of the
kind amongst the peasantry of the low country, though I have sought them.
I find such names as Fingal in Mr. Buchan's stories, and I know them to be
common in the islands where the scene is often laid. The language is not
that of any peasantry, and I have come to the conclusion that this
collection is mostly derived from Gaelic, directly or indirectly, perhaps
from the shoals of West Highlanders and Irishmen who used to come down as
shearers every harvest, and who are now scattered all over Scotland as
farm-servants and drovers, and settled in Edinburgh and Glasgow as
porters. I know from one of these, a drover, who goes every year to the
south with cattle, that he has often entertained lowland farm servants by
telling in English the stories which he learned as child in South Uist. I
know of men in Paisley, Greenock, and Edinburgh, who are noted for their
knowledge of sgeulachd. But while I hold that this particular collection
was not told in this form by lowland Scotch peasants, I know that they
still do tell such stories occasionally, and I also know that Englishmen
of the lower ranks do the same. I met two tinkers in St. James's Street in
February with black faces and a pan of burning coals each. They were
followed by a wife, and preceded by a mangy terrier with a stiff tail. I
joined the party, and one told me a version of "the man who travelled to
learn what shivering meant," while we walked together through the park to
Westminster. It was clearly the popular tale which exist in Norse, and
German, and Gaelic, and it bore the stamp of the mind of the class, and of
the man, who told it in his own peculiar dialect, and who dressed the
actors in his own ideas. A cutler and a tinker travel together, and sleep
in an empty haunted house for a reward. They are beset by ghosts and
spirits of murdered ladies and gentlemen, and the inferior, the tinker,
shows most courage, and is the hero. "He went into the cellar to draw
beer, and there he found a little chap a-sittin' on a barrel with a red
cap on 'is 'ed; and sez he, sez he, 'Buzz’. ‘Wot's buzz?' sez the tinker.
'Never you mind wot's buzz,' sez he. 'That's mine; don't you go for to
touch it,' " etc., etc., etc.
In a less degree many are like the
German stories of the brothers Grimm. That collection has been translated,
and a book so well known may possibly have found its way into the
Highlands. It is impossible to speak with certainty; but when all the
narrators agree in saying that they have known their stories all their
lives, and when the variation is so marked, the resemblance is rather to
be attributed to common origin than to books. I only once heard of such a
book in the Highlands. It was given to a gamekeeper in Sutherland for his
children, and was condemned, and put out of the way as trash.
The Gaelic stories resemble in some few
cases the well known tales of Hans Andersen, founded on popular tales told
And they resemble sundry other books
which are avowedly founded on popular tales collected in various
Some are like the French tales of the
Countess D'Aulnoy which have been translated. One is like part of
Shakespeare, but it is still more like the Italian story in Boccaccio,
from which part of Cymbeline is supposed to be taken. Perhaps Shakespeare
may have founded Cymbeline on a popular tale then current in England as
well as in Italy.
A few resemble the Arabian Nights, and
in some cases I believe that the stories have been derived from early
English translations of that well known book. I used myself to read an
edition of 1815 to my piper guardian, in return for his ursgeuls, but he
seemed more inclined to blame the tyranny of the kings than to admire the
MacLean has himself told the story of
Aladdin in Gaelic as his share of a winter night's entertainment, and I
have heard of several people of the poorer class who know the Arabian
Nights well. But such stories are easily known after a little experience
has been gained. The whole of a volume is run together, the incidents
follow in their order, or in something like it. The difference in style is
as marked as the contrast between a drift tree and a wrecked vessel, but
as it is curious to trace the change from Eastern ways as seen through an
English translation of a French view of the original Arabic, I give
specimens. These contain the incidents embodied in stories in the Arabian
Nights, but the whole machinery and decoration, manners and customs, are
now as completely West Highland as if the tales had grown there. But for a
camel which appears, I would almost give up my opinion, and adopt that of
MacLean, who holds that even these are pure traditions.
In support of his view it may be said
that there are hundreds of other books as well known in England as those
mentioned above, of which neither I nor my collectors have ever found a
trace. Jack and the Bean stalk, and Jack the Giant killer, Beauty and the
Beast, and the Sleeping Beauty in the Woods, as known in England, are
unknown in the Highlands. None of the adventures of Mr. Pickwick, or Sam
Weller, or Jack Shepherd, or Gulliver, or Robinson Crusoe, are mixed up
with the prose tales. No part of the story of Wallace, as told in the
"Scottish Chiefs," or of "Waverley," is to be found in popular history.
There is nothing like "The Mysteries of London." There are none of the
modem horrors of which ballads have been made, such as "Sad was the day
when James Greenacre first got acquainted with Sarah Gale." There are no
gorgeous palaces, and elegant fairies; there are no enchanters flying in
chariots drawn by winged griffins; there are no gentle knights and noble
dames; no spruce cavaliers and well dressed ladies; no heroes and heroines
of fashionable novels; but, on the contrary, everything is popular. Heroes
are as wild, and unkempt, and savage as they probably were in fact, and
kings are men as they appear in Lane's translations of the Arabian Nights.
Eastern tale tellers knew what Haroun al
Raschid must have suffered when he put on the fisherman's clothes, and Mr.
Lane has not scrupled to follow the original Arabic.
If the people of the West Highlands have
added book stories to their traditions, they have selected those only
which were taken from peasants like themselves in other countries, and
they have stripped off all that was foreign to their own manners. The
people have but taken back their own.
Besides books accessible to all English
readers, I find similar stories in books beyond the reach of the people. I
have pointed out in the notes all that were within my reach, and came
under my notice, but this part of the subject is a study, and requires
time to acquire knowledge which I do not possess.
Such, then, is the evidence which bears
on the immediate origin of the stories. I believe them to be pure
traditions, very little affected by modem books, and, if at all, only by
those which are avowedly taken from popular tales. A trip of five days in
the Isle of Man in April 1860 has but confirmed this opinion.
That island, in spite of its numerous
rulers, is still peculiarly Celtic. It has belonged to Norwegians.
English, Scotch, Welsh, and Irish have fought for it. It has a Law Court
with a Norwegian name held on a mound; half the names in the island are
Norse, such as Laxey (Salmon isthmus), Langness, Snafell; but these names
are not understood by the people who live at the places. Peel has a
descriptive Gaelic name, which means island port; a Salmon is Braddan, not
Lax; and of the poorer classes living in the mountain farms, and on the
points and distant comers of the island, there are still many who can
hardly speak anything but Manks. Their hair is dark; the sound of their
voices, even their houses, are Celtic. I know one turf dwelling which
might be a house in North Uist. There was the fire on the floor, the
children seated around it, the black haired Celtic mother on a low stool
in front, the hens quarrelling about a nest under the table, in which
several wanted to lay eggs at once.
"Get out, Polly! Drive her out, John!"
And then John, the son, drove out Polly, the hen, with a stick; and the
hen said "Gurr-r-m;" and ran in under the table again and said, "Cluck,
cluck," and laid the egg then and there. There was the same kindly
hospitable manner in the poorest cottage; and I soon found that a Scotch
Highlander could speak Manks as soon as he could acquire the art of
mispronouncing his own language to the right amount, and learn where to
introduce the proper English word. "La fine" fine day was the salutation
everywhere; and the reply, "Fine, fine." But though nouns are almost the
same, and the language is but a dialect of Gaelic, the foreigner was
incomprehensible, because he could not pronounce as they did; and I was
reduced to English. Now this island is visited every summer by shoals of
visitors from the mainland; steam boats bring them from Liverpool, a
thousand at a time, and they sweep over the whole country. If visitors
import stories, here there are plenty of strangers, and I was a stranger
myself. If stories are imported in books, here are the books also. The
first picture I saw on landing was a magnificent Bluebeard in a shop
window. He was dressed as an Eastern potentate, and about to slice off his
wife's head with a crooked scimitar, while the two brothers rode up to the
gate on prancing steeds, with horror on their faces and swords in their
hands. But there was not a trace of any of that kind of story to be found
amongst the peasants with whom I spoke in the Isle of Man.
I found them willing to talk, eager to
question, kindly, homely folk, with whom it was easy to begin an
acquaintance. I heard everywhere that it used to be common to hear old men
telling stories about the fire in Manks; but any attempt to extract a
story, or search out a queer old custom, or a half forgotten belief,
seemed to act as a pinch of snuff does on a snail.
The Manksman would not trust the
foreigner with his secrets; his eye twinkled suspiciously, and his hand
seemed unconsciously to grasp his mouth, as if to keep all fast. After
getting quite at ease with one old fellow over a pipe, and having learned
that a neighbour's cow had born a calf to the "Taroo ustey," water bull, I
thought I might fish for a story, and told one as a bait.
"That man, if he had two pints, would
tell you stories by the hour," said a boy. "Oh, yes, they used to tell
plenty of stories," said the old man, "Skyll, as we call them."
Here was the very word mispronounced,
"seal," so my hopes rose. "Will you tell me a story now?" "Have you any
churches in your country?" "Yes, and chapels; but will you tell me a
story?" "What you got to sell in your bag?" "What a shame now, for you, an
old Mananach, not to tell me a story when I have told you one, and filled
your pipe and all." "What do you pay for the tobacco?" "Oh, will you not
tell the man a story?" said the boy. "I must go and saw now," said the old
man; and so we parted.
But though this was the usual thing, it
was not always so; and it soon became evident that the stories given in
Train's history of the Isle of Man, are nearly all known to the people
now; and these are of the same nature as some known in the Highlands of
Scotland; some are almost identical; and nearly all the Manks customs are
common to the Western Isles.
Thus I heard of Fairies, "Ferish," who
live in green mounds, and are heard at times dressing mill stones in
haunted mills; of Taroo Ustey, the water bull; of Dinny Mara, the sea man,
and of the Mermaid; of Caval Ustey, the water horse; of Fion MacCooil; of
a city under the waves; of a magic island seen in the far west. I heard of
giants. No one would tell about them; but in a book I found how
Goddard Crovan threw a vast boulder at
his scolding wife, and how a Norman baron, named "Kitter" and his cook; "Eaoch,"
and his magic sword, "Macabuin," made by "Loan Maclibhuin, the dark smith
of Drontheim;" and "Hiallusnan-urd, the one legged hammerman," - are all
woven into a story, and mixed up with such Norwegian names as Olave and
Emergaid, exactly as a story is jumbled together in the Western Isles of
I got some stories which I have not
found in the Manks books, so I give them here, in the hope that some
Manksman may be induced to gather the popular lore of his own country.
This from a woman who lives near the Calf of Man.
"Did you ever hear tell of the Glashan?"
"No; tell me about the Glashan."
"Well, you see, in the old times they
used to be keeping the sheep in the folds; and one night an old man forgot
to put them in, and he sent out his son, and he came back and said the
sheep were all folded, but there was a year old lamb, oasht, playing the
mischief with them; and that was the Glashan.
"You see they were very strong, and when
they wanted a stack threshed, though it was a whole stack, the glashan
would have it threshed for them in one night.
"And they were running after the women.
There was one of them once caught a girl, and had a hould of her by the
dress, and he sat down and he fell asleep; and then she cut away all the
dress, you see, round about this way, and left it in his fist and ran
away; and when he awoke, he threw what he had over his shoulder, this way;
and he said (something in Manks which I could not catch).
"Well, you see, one night the ould
fellow sent all the women to bed, and he put on a cap and a woman's dress,
and he sat down by the fire and he began to spin; and the young glashans,
they came in, and they began saying something in Manks that means 'Are you
turning the wheel? are you trying the reel?' Well, the ould glashan, he
was outside, and he knew better than the young ones; he knew it was the
ould fellow himself, and he was telling them, but they did not mind him;
and so the ould man threw a lot of hot turf, you see, it was turf they
burned then, over them and burned them; and the ould one said (something
in Manks). 'You'll not understand that, now?' 'Yes, I do, pretty nearly'.
'Ah, well.' And so the glashans went away and never came back any more."
"Have you many stories like that,
guidwife?" "Ay," said she, "there were plenty of people that could tell
these stories once. When I was a little girl, I used to hear them telling
them in Manks over the fire at night; but people is so changed with pride
now that they care for nothing."
Now here is a story which is all over
the Highlands in various shapes. Sometimes it is a Brollichan son of the
Fuath, or a young water horse transformed into the likeness of a man,
which attacks lonely woman, and gets burned or scalded, and goes away to
his ends outside. In the islands, the woman generally says her name is
Myself; and the goblin answers, when asked who burned him, "Myself." This
Manks story is manifestly the same, though this incident is left out. I
have heard it in Lewis, and in many places ides, and part of it is best
The Glashan, as I found out afterwards,
frequented neighbouring farms till within a very late period. He wore no
clothes, and was hairy; and, according to Train's history, Phynodderee,
which means something hairy, was frightened away by a gift of clothes -
exactly as the Skipness long haired Gruagach was frightened away by the
offer of a coat and a cap. The Manks brownie and the
Argyllshire one each repeated a rhyme
over the clothes; but the rhymes are not the same, though they amount to
the same thing.
Here then, is a Gaelic popular tale and
belief in Man; and close to it I found a story which has a counterpart in
Grimm. I heard it from my landlady at Port Erin, and I met two Manksmen
afterwards who knew it -
"The fish all gathered once to choose a
king; and the fluke, him that has the red spots on him, stayed at home to
make himself pretty, putting on his red spots, to see if he would be king,
and he was too late, for when he came the herring was king of the sea. So
the fluke curled his mouth on one side, and said, 'A simple fish like the
herring, king of the sea!' and his mouth has been to one side ever since."
It seems, too, that the Manks version of
"Jack the Giant Killer" varies from the English; for
"Jack the Giant Killer,
Varv a Vuchd in the river,"
killed a pig in the river; and the
English hero did nothing of the sort. In short, the Isle of Man has its
own legends, which have their own peculiarities; they resemble others, and
do not seem to be taken from books. The same class of people tell them
there as elsewhere; the difficulty of getting at them is the same; and the
key to the secret is the native language. From what I gleaned in a five
days' walk, I am sure that a good Manksman might yet gather a large
harvest within a very narrow space. And now to return to my own subject.
I find that men of all ranks resemble
each other; that each branch of popular lore has its own special votaries,
as branches of literature have amongst the learned; that one man is the
peasant historian and tells of the battles of the clans; another, a
walking peerage, who knows the descent of most of the families in
Scotland, and all about his neighbours and their origin; others are
romancers, and tell about the giants; others are moralists, and prefer the
sagacious prose tales, which have a meaning, and might have a moral; a few
know the history of the Feni, and are antiquarians. Many despise the whole
as frivolities; they are practical modems, and answer to practical men in
other ranks of society.
But though each prefers his own subject,
the best Highland story tellers know specimens of all kinds. Start them,
and it seems as if they would never stop. I timed one, and he spoke for an
hour without pause or hesitation, or verbal repetition. His story was
Connall Gulban, and he said he could repeat fourscore. He recited a poem,
but despised "Bardism" and he followed me six miles in the dark to my inn,
to tell me numbers 19 and 20, which I have condensed; for the very same
thing can be shortly told when it is not a composition. For example.
In telling a story, narrative and
dialogue are mixed; what the characters have told each other to do is
repeated as narrative. The people in the story tell it to each other, and
branch off into discussions about their horses and houses and crops, or
anything that happens to turn up. One story grows out of another, and the
tree is almost hidden by a foliage of the speaker's invention. Here and
there comes a passage repeated by rote, and common to many stories, and to
every good narrator. It seems to act as a rest for the memory. Now and
then, an observation from the audience starts an argument. In short, one
good story in the mouth of a good narrator, with a good audience, might
easily go rambling on for a whole winter's night, as it is said to do.
The "Slim Swarthy Champion used to last
for four hours." Connall Gulban "used to last for three evenings. Those
that wanted to hear the end had to come back." One of my collectors said
it would take him a month to write it down, but I am bound to add that he
has since done it in a very much shorter time. I have heard of a man who
fell asleep by the fire, and found a story going on when he awoke next
morning. I have one fragment on which (as I am told) an old man in Ross
shire used to found twenty four stories, all of which died with him.
There are varieties in public speakers
amongst the people as amongst their representatives, for some are
eloquent, some terse, some prosy.
But though a tale may be spun out to any
extent, the very same incidents can be, and often are, told in a few
words, and those tales which have been written for me are fair
representations of them as they are usually told. They are like a good
condensed report of a rambling speech, with extraneous matter left out.
One narrator said of the longest story which I had then got "It is but the
contents;" but I have more than once asked a narrator to tell me the story
which he had previously told to one of my collectors, and a collector to
write down a story which I had previously heard, and I have always found
the pith, often the very words. In no instance have I found anything added
by those whom I employed, when their work was subjected to this severe
This is the account which one of my
collectors gives of the old customs of his class he is a workman employed
by the Duke of Argyll; he tells me that he is self educated; and as he
repeats some of the stories which he has written, from memory, his account
of the way in which he acquired them is valuable.
I remember, upwards of fifty years ago,
when I was a boy, my father lived in the farest north house, in the valley
called Glen na Callanach. I also used to be with my grandfather; he lived
near Terbert, Lochlomond side. I remember, in the winter nights, when a
few old people would be together, they would pass the time with telling
each other stories, which they had by tradition. I used to listen
attentively, and hear them telling about the ceatharnaich, or
freebooters., which used to come to plunder the country, and take away
cattle; and how their ancestors would gather themselves togather to fight
for their property, the battles they fought, and the kind of weapons they
used to fight with; the manners of their ancestors, the dress they used to
wear, and different hardships they had to endure.
I was also sometimes amused, listening
to some people telling Gaelic romances, which we called sgeulachds. It was
customary for a few youngsters to gather into one house, and whither idle
or at some work, such as knitting stockings or spinning, they would amuse
each other with some innocent diversion, or telling sgeulachds. Us that
was children was very fond of listening to them, and the servant maid that
was in my father's house would often tell us a sgeulachd to keep us queit.
In those days, when people killed their
Marte cow they keept the hide, and tanned it for leather to themselves. In
those days every house was furnished with a wheel and a reel; the women
spun, and got their webs woven by a neighbouring weaver; also, the women
was dyers for themselves, so that the working class had their leather,
their linen, and their cloth of their own manufacturing; and when they
required the help of a shoemaker, or of a tailor, they would send for
them. The tailors and shoemakers went from house to house, to work
wherever they were required, and by travelling the country so much, got
acquaint with a great maney of the traditionary tales, and divulged them
through the country; and as the country people made the telling of these
tales, and listening to hear them. their winter night's amusement,
scarcely aney part of them would be lost. Some of these romances is
supposed to be of great antiquity, on account of some of the Gaelic words
being out of use now. I remember, about forty years ago, of being in
company with a man that was watching at night; he wished me to stop with
him, and he told me a (sgeulachd) romance; and last year I heard a man
telling the same story, about therty miles distante from where I had heard
it told forty years before that; and the man which told me the tale could
not tell me the meaning of some of the old Gaelic words that was in it. At
first I thought they were foreign words, but at last I recollected to have
heard some of them repeated in Ossian's poems, and it was by the words
that was before, and after them, that I understood the meaning of them.
The same man told me another story, which he said he learned from his
granfather, and Denmark, Swedden, and Noraway was named in it in Gaelic,
but he forgot the name of the two last named places.
It appears likely to me, that some of
these tales was invented by the Druids, and told to the people as sermons;
and by these tales the people was caused to believe that there was fairies
which lived in little conical hills, and that the fairies had the power of
being either visible or invisible, as they thought proper, and that they
had the power of enchanting people, and of taking them away and make
fairies of them; and that the Druids had charms which would prevent that;
and they would give these charms to the people for payment; and maney
stories would be told about people being taken away by the fairies, and
the charms which had to be used to break the spell, and get them back
again; and others, on
account of some neglidgeance, never got
back aney more.
Also that there was witches; people
which had communication with an evil spirit, from which they got the power
of changing themselves into aney shape they pleased; that these witches
often put themselves in the shape of beasts, and when they were in the
shape of beasts, that they had some evil design in view, and that it was
dangerous to meet them. Also that they could, and did, sometimes take away
the produce of people's dairy, and sometimes of the whole farm. The
Druidical priests pretended that they had charms that would prevent the
witches from doing aney harm, and they would give a charm for payment.
When the first day of summer came, the people was taught to put the fire
out of their houses, and to place it on some emince near the house for to
keep away the witches, and that it was not safe for them to kindle a fire
in their house aney more, until they bought it from beil's druide. That
fire was called beil-teine (beils-fire), and the first day of summer was
called beil-fires day; and also when the first night of winter came, the
people would gather fuel and make blazing fire for to keep away the
witches, or at least to deprive them of the power of taking away the
produce of the farm, and then they would go to the Druid and buy a
kindling of what was called the holy fire. 17he Druids also caused the
people to believe that some families had been enchanted and changed into
beasts, and as the proper means had not been used, the spell was never
broken; and that swans, seals, and marmaids had been different beings,
familys that had been enchanted.
Beil or Beul was the name which the
Druids gave their god, and the Druids of Beil pretended to be the friends
of the people; they pretended to have charms to cure different kinds of
diseases, and also charms to prevent fairies, ghosts, and witches, from
arm or harming people. It is a well known fact, that the superstitions of
the Druids has been handed down from generation to generation for a great
maney ages, and is not wholy extinct yet; and we have reason to believe
that some of the tales, which was invented in those days for to fright the
people, has been told and kept in remembrance in the self and same manner.
The priests of Beil was the men that was called Druids, the miracles which
they pretended to perform was called meurbheileachd (beil fingering), and
their magic which they pretended to perform was called druichd (druidisem),
and we have plenty of reason to believe superstitious tales as well as
superstition, originated among the Druids.
"J. Campbell, Esq.
"SIR I hope you will correct aney errors
that you may find on this piece which I wrote."
I have corrected only two or three
errors in spelling, and the writing is remarkably clear, but I have left
some words which express the Gaelic pronunciation of English.
The derivation of MIORBHULL, a marvel,
from the finger of Bel, was suggested by Dr. Smith (see Armstrong's Dic.)
Now let me return to the cottage of old
Macphie, where I heard a version of the Sea Maiden, and let me suppose
that one of the rafters is the drift log which I saw about to be added to
a roof in the same island.
The whole roof is covered with peat
soot, but that may be scraped away, and the rough wood appears. There are
the holes of boring sea shells, filled with sand and marine products. It
is evident that the log came by sea, that it did not come in a ship, and
that it was long enough in warm salt water for the barnacles to live and
die, and for their dwellings to be filled with sea rubbish; that it
floated through latitudes where barnacles live. The fairy eggs, which are
picked up on the same shore, point to the West Indies as a stage on the
way. Maps of ocean currents shew the gulf stream flowing from the Gulf of
Mexico past the Hebrides, but the tree is a fir, for there is a bit of
bark which proves the fact, and it appears that pines grow between 40* and
60' in America. It is therefore possible that the rafter was once an
American fir tree, growing in the Rocky Mountains; that it was swept into
the Mississippi, and carried to the Gulf of Mexico; drifted by the gulf
stream past the West India Islands to the Hebrides, and stranded by a
western gale on its voyage to Spitzbergen. But all this must have happened
long ago, for it is now ,a rafter covered with the soot of generations.
That rafter is a strange ~,fact, it is one of a series, and has to be
accounted for. There it is, and a probable account of its journey is, that
it came from East to West without the help of man, in obedience to laws
which govern the world.
That smoked rafter certainly was once a
seed in a fir cone, somewhere abroad. It grew to be a pine tree; it must
have been white with snow in winter, and green in summer, and glittering
with rain drops and hoar frost in bright sunshine at various times and
seasons. The number of years it stood in the forest can be counted by the
rings in the wood. It is certain that it was tom up by the roots, for the
roots are there still. It may have formed a part of one of these wonderful
natural rafts of the Mississippi, of which one in 1816 was "No less than
ten miles in length, two hundred and twenty yards wide, and eight feet
deep." (Lyell's Principles of Geology, p. 267) It has been to warm seas,
and has worn a marine dress of green and brown since it lost its natural
dress of green branches. Birds must have sat on it in the forest, - crabs
and shells have lived on it at sea, and fish must hawe swam about it; and
yet it is now a rafter, hung with black pendants of peat smoke. A tree
that grew beside it may now be in Spitzbergen amongst walrusses. Another
may be a snag in the Mississippi amongst alligators, destined to become a
fossil tree in coal field. Part of another may be a Yankee rocking chair,
or it may be part of a ship in any part of the World, or the tram of a
cart, bit of a carriage, or a wheel barrow, or a gate post, or anything
that can be made of fir wood anywhere; and the fate of stories may be as
various as that of fir trees, but their course may be guessed at by
running a back scent overland, as I have endeavoured to follow a drift log
Macphie's story began thus: - There was
a poor old fisher in Skye, and his name was Duncan;" and every version of
the story which I have found in the highlands, and I have found many, is
as highland as the peat reek on the rafters. The same story is known m
many districts in Scotland, and it is evident, that it has been known
there for many years. It is a curious fact. It is worth the .trouble of
looking under what is purely highland, to see if its origin can be
First, then, the incidents are generally
strung together in a particular order in the Highlands, but, either
separately or together, every incident in the story is to be found in some
shape in other languages. Norse has it as "Shortshanks." Irish has it.
German has it. It is in the Italian of Straparola as "Fortunio." In the
French of le Cabinet des Feés, 1785. It is in every language in Europe as
"St. George and the Dragon." It is in Mr. Peter Buchan's English of 1847
as part of "Greensleeves." It is in "Perseus and Andromeda." The scene of
that story is placed in Syria, and it is connected with Persia. There is
something in Sanscrit about Indra, a god who recovered the stolen cattle
of the gods, but here the scent is very cold, and the hound at fault,
though it seems that the Sanscrit hero was the sun personified, and that
he had horses of many colours, including red and white, which were always
feminine, as the horses in Gaelic stories are, and which had wings and
flew through the air. These were "Svankas," with beautiful steps. "Rohitas,"
red or brown; Gaelic horses are often described as "Seang," "Ruadh"; and
here seems to be a clue which is worth the attention of Eastern scholars.
There is a mermaid in the story, and
mermaids are mentioned in Irish, and in Arabic, and in Manks, and Italian:
men even assert that they have seen mermaids in the sea within the last
few years, amongst the Hebrides and off Plymouth.
There are creatures, Falcon, Wolf and
Lion. Two of them were natives within historic times, one is still; but
the third is a foreigner. There is an Otter, and a Sea Monster, and in
other tales, there are Bears and Doves, and other animals; but every one
of them, except the monster, is to be found on the road to the land where
Sanscrit was spoken, and all these, and many more, played their part in
popular tales elsewhere, while no real animal is ever mentioned which is
peculiar to lands out of the road which leads overland to India.
Nearly all these have Gaelic names, and
most of them are still living within a few days' journey of the Hebrides
under other names. I saw a live wolf from a diligence one fine morning in
Brittany, and I have seen bears in Scandinavia and in Germany. The only
far fetched animal is the Lion, and in another story a similar creature
appears as "Cu Seang." Here is a fresh scent for Sing is lion in India and
may once have meant lion in Gaelic; for though Leomhan is the word
now used, Seang is applied to anything slender and active. Shune is a dog
in Sanscrit, Siunnach a fox in Gaelic, and there are many other Gaelic
words which point to the "eastern origin of Celtic nations." The story
cannot have crossed the sea from the West. It is therefore probable that
it came from the East, for it is not of home growth, and the question is,
how did get to Barra?
It seems to have been known along a
certain track for many ages. It is possible that it came from the far East
with the people, and that it has survived ever since. It is hard to
account for it otherwise. Those who have most studied the subject so
account for popular tales elsewhere, and therefore, Donald Macphie's story
of the Sea-Maiden acquires an interest not all its own.
Much has been written, and said, and
discovered about the popular migrations which have poured from East to
West, and which are moving on still. Philology has mapped out the course
of the human stream, and here, in the mind of an old fisherman, unable to
read, or to speak any language but his own, is the end of a clue which
seems to join Iran and Eirinn; as a rafter in his hut may link him with
the Rocky Mountains.
Admit that this so-called fiction, and
others like it, may be traditions, which have existed from the
earliest of times, and every word and incident acquires an interest, for
it may lead to something else.
The story certainly grew in the mind of
man, as a tree grows from a seed, but when or where? It has certainly been
told in many languages. It is worth inquiring how many races have told it.
The incidents, like drift trees, have
been associated with people and events, as various as birds, fish,
alligators, walrusses, and men; mountain ranges, and ocean currents. They
have passed through the minds of Ovid and Donald Macphie. They have been
adorned by poets, painted by artists, consecrated by priests, - for St.
George is the patron saint of England; and now we find that which may have
sprung from some quarrel about a cow, and which has passed through so many
changes, dropping into forgetfulness in the mind of an old fisherman, and
surrounded with the ideas which belong to his every-day life. Ideas
differing from those of the people who first invented the story, as the
snow of the Rocky Mountains differs from peat-reek.
Now, to look forwards, and follow in
imagination the shoals of emigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, France,
Ireland, and Scotland, who are settled in clumps, or scattered over
America and Australia; to think of the stories which have been gathered in
Europe from these people alone, and which they have most certainly carried
with them, and will tell their children; and then the route of popular
tales hereafter, and their spread in former ages, can be traced and may be
I have inquired, and find that several
Islanders, who used to tell the stories in Gaelic, are now settled in
Australia and Canada. One of my relatives was nearly overwhelmed with
hospitality in an Australian village, by a colony of Argyllshire Celts,
who had found out that he was a countryman.
I was lately told of a party of men who
landed in South America, and addressed a woman whom they found in a hut,
in seven different languages; but in vain. At last, one of them spoke
Gaelic, which he had not done for many years, and she answered, "Well, it
is to thyself I would give the speech," for she was a native of Strathglas.
There is a Gaelic population in Upper
Canada: there are Highland regiments in India: many of the Arctic
explorers were Highlanders, and most of the servants of the Hudson's Bay
Company still are: Dr. Livingstone is in South Africa; and what is true of
Highlanders is equally true of Germans and Scandinavians, they are spread
over the world. In short, the "migration of races," and "the diffusion of
popular tales," is still going on, the whole human race is mingling
together, and it is fair to argue from such facts, and to try to discover
that which is unknown from that which is proved.
What is true of one Gaelic story is true
of nearly all; they contain within themselves evidence that they have been
domesticated in the country for a long time, and that they came from the
East, but they belong to the people now, wherever they came from; and they
seem also to belong to the language.
Poems and compositions clearly do. In
the prose tales, when animals speak, they talk in their natural key, so
long as they speak Gaelic, and for that reason, among others, I believe
them to be old traditions. The little birds speak in the key of all little
birds (ee); they say, "beeg, beeg." The crow croaks his own music when he
says, "gawrag, gawrag." When driven to say, "silly, silly," he no longer
speaks the language of nature. Grimm's German frog says, "warte, warte,"
he sings, "mach mir auf," and talks his own language. So does his Gaelic
relative, in No. 33, when he says,
"A chaomhag, a chaomhag,
An cuimhneach leat
An gealladh beag
A thug thu aig
An tobar dhomh,
A ghaoil, a ghaoil?"
He then imitates the quarking and
gurgling of real frogs in a pond in spring, in sounds which no Saxon
letters can express; but when he sings,
"Open the door, my hinney, my
Open the door, my ain wee thing,
And mind the words that you and
Down in the meadow, at the well
he is speaking in a foreign tongue,
though the story has been domesticated in the Lowlands of Scotland for
many a long day, and is commonly told there still. The Scotch story has
probably been found and polished by some one long ago, but when the frog
comes "loup, louping," he is at home in Low Country Scotch, and these
words are probably as old as the story and the language.
If Motherwell's beautiful nursery songs
were to be collected from oral recitation anywhere, they would prove
themselves Scotch by this test: The watch dog says, "wouff, wouff;" the
hen is "chuckie;" the chickens, "wheetle, wheeties;" the cock is "cockie-leerie-law;"
the pigeon, "croodle-doo;" the cow says, "moo." And so also the
wood-pigeon who said, "Take two sheep, Taffy take two," spoke English; but
the blackcock, and cuckoo, and cock, in the Norse tales, who quarrelled
about a cow, are easily known to be foreigners when they speak English,
for the original Norse alone gives their true note. The Gaelic stories,
tried by this test, certainly belong to the language as they do to the
people; and now let us see if they can teach us anything about the people,
their origin, and their habits, past and present.
First, the manners are generally those
of the day. The tales are like the feasts of the pauper maniac, Emperor of
the world, who confided to his doctor that all his rich food tasted of
oatmeal brose. Kings live in cottages, and sit on low stools. When they
have coaches, they open the door themselves. The queen saddles the king's
horse. The king goes to his own stable when he hears a noise there.
Sportsmen use guns. The fire is on the floor. Supernatural old women are
found spinning "beyond" it, in the warm place of honour, in all primitive
dwellings, even in a Lapland tent. The king's mother puts on the fire and
sleeps in the common room, as a peasant does. The cock sleeps on the
rafters, the sheep on the floor, the bull behind the door. A ladder is a
pole, with pegs stuck through it. Horses put their noses "into" bridles.
When all Ireland passes in review before the princess, they go in at the
front door and out at the back, as they would through a bothy; and even
the unexplained personage, the daughter of the king of the skies, has
maids who chatter to her as freely as
maids do to Highland mistresses. When the prince is at death's door for
love of the beautiful lady in the swan's down robe, and the queen mother
is in despair, she goes to the kitchen to talk over the matter.
The tales represent the actual, every
day life of those who tell them, with general fidelity. They have done the
same, in all likelihood, time out of mind, and that which is not true of
the present is, in all probability, true of the past; and therefore
something may be learned of forgotten ways of life.
If much is of home growth, if the fight
with the dragon takes place at the end of a dark, quiet Highland loch,
where real whales actually blow and splash, there are landscapes which are
not painted from nature, as she is seen in the Isles, and these may be
real pictures seen long ago by our ancestors. Men ride for days through
forests, though the men who tell of them live in small islands, where
there are only drift trees and bog pine. There are traces of foreign or
forgotten laws or customs. A man buys a wife as he would a cow, and
acquires a right to shoot her, which is acknowledged as good law.
Caesar tells of the Gauls, that "men
have the power of life and death over their wives, as well as their
children." It appears that an Iceland betrothal was little more than the
purchase of a wife; and in this the story may be a true picture of the
Men are bound with the binding of the
three smalls - waist, ankles, and wrists - tightened and tortured. The
conqueror almost invariably asks the conquered what is his "eirig," an old
law term for the price of men's blood, which varied with the rank of the
injured man; and when the vanquished has revealed his riches, the victor
takes his life, and the spoil; his arms, combs, basins, dresses, horses,
gold and silver; and such deeds may have been done. The tales which treat
of the wars of Eirinn and Lochlann, and are full of metrical prose,
describe arms and boats, helmet, spears, shields, and other gear; ships
that are drawn on shore, as Icelandic ships really were; boats and arms
similar to those which are figured on old stones in Iona and elsewhere,
and are sometimes dug out of old graves and peat mosses. I believe them to
be descriptions of real arms, and dresses, manners, and events.
For example, the warriors always abuse
each other before they fight. So do the heroes of Ossian; so do the heroes
of Homer; so do soldiers now. In the Times of the 29th of December 1859,
in a letter from the camp at Ceuta is this passage:
"While fighting, even when only
exchanging long shots, the Moors keep up a most hideous howling and
shrieking, vituperating their enemies in bad Spanish, and making the
mountains resound with the often repeated epithet of 'perros' (dogs).
To this the Spaniards condescend not to reply, except with bullets,
although in the civil war it was no unusual thing to hear Carlist and
Christina skirmishers abusing each other, and especially indulging in
unhandsome reflections upon each others' Sovereign."
Again, the fights are single combats, in
which individuals attack masses and conquer. So were the Homeric combats.
What will be the story told in Africa by the grandson of the Moor here
described, when he sits on his flat roof or in his central court in Tetuan,
as I done with one of the Jews now ruined; he will surely tell of his
ancestor's deeds, repeat the words in which Achmed abused the
unbeliever, and tell how he shot some
mystical number of them a single ball.
"Upon the whole they stood their
ground very stoutly, and some of them gave proof of great courage,
advancing singly along the ridge until they caught sight of the first
Spaniards posted below it, when they discharged their espingardas and
"Stories" had begun in Morocco, by the
9th of January 1860, the next letter appeared: -
"The Moors have been giving out
fantastical histories of their victories over the Spaniards, of their
having taken redoubts, which they might have held had they thought it
worth while, and in which they would have captured guns if the
Christians had not been so prudent as to remove them beforehand. These
are mere fables."
It may be so, but Moors seem to have
fought as wild, brave, undisciplined troops have always fought - as
Homer's Greeks fought, as Highlanders fought, and as Fionn and his heroes
fought, according to tradition. Omit the magic of Maghach Colgar, forget
that Moors are dark men, and this might be an account of Diarmid and Conan
in the story, or of their descendants as they were described in 1745 by
those who were opposed to them:
"The Moors are generally tall
powerful men, of ferocious aspect and great agility, and their mode of
coming on, like so many howling savages, is not calculated to
encourage and give confidence to lads who for the first time find
themselves in action. It seems nearly impossible to make them
prisoners. In one encounter (most of these little actions are made up
of a number of small fights between a few companies of Spaniards and
detached bodies of the Moors, who seem to have no idea of attacking in
battalion or otherwise than irregularly), in which a number of Moors
were killed, one of them was surrounded by four Cazadores, who came
down upon him with fixed bayonets, shouting and signing to him not to
fire, and that they would give him quarter. The Moor took no heed of
their overtures, levelled his long gun, and shot one of them,
whereupon he was, of course, put to death by the others."
So, looking to facts now occurring, and
to history, "traditional fictions" look very true, for battles are still a
succession of single combats, in which both sides abuse each other, and
after which they boast. War is rapine and cruel bloodshed, as described by
old fishermen in Barra, and by the Times' correspondent at Tetuan; and it
is not altogether the chivalrous pastime which poets have sung.
In another class of tales, told
generally as plain narrative, and which seem to belong to savage times, a
period appears to be shadowed out when iron weapons were scarce, and
therefore magical; perhaps before the wars of Eirinn and Lochlann began;
when combs were inventions sufficiently new and wonderful to be magical
also; when horses were sacred, birds sooth-sayers; apples, oak trees,
wells, and swine, sacred or magical. In these the touch of the cold steel
breaks all spells; to relieve an enchanted prince it was but necessary to
cut off his head; the touch of the cold sword froze the marrow when the
giant's heads leaped on again. So Hercules finished the Hydra with iron,
though it was hot. The white sword of light which shone so that the
giant's red haired servant used it as a torch when he went to draw water
by night, was surely once a rare bright steel sword, when most swords were
of bronze, as they were in early times, unless it is still older, and a
mythological flash of lightning.
This CLAIDHEAMH GEAL SOLUIS is almost
always mentioned as the property of giants, or of other super natural
beings, and is one of the magic gifts for which men contend with them, and
fight with each other; and in this the Gaelic tradition agrees with other
Fionn had a magic sword forged by a
fairy smith, according to a story sent me from Islay, by Mr. Carmichael.
King Arthur had a magic sword. The Manks hero, "Olave" of Norway, had a
sword with a Celtic name, "Macabuin," made by a smith who was surely Celt,
- "Loan Maclibhuin," though he was "The dark Smith of Drontheim" in the
story. (Train 's History of the Isle of Man, vol. 2, p. 177)
King Arthur and his sword belong to the
Bretons and to many other languages, besides Welsh; and the Bretons have a
wild war song, "The wine of the Gauls, and the dance of the sword," which
is given in Barzaz Breiz (1846). (The Gaelic word for a sword proves that
English, French, Breton, and Gaelic have much in common (Eng.) glave,
(Fr.) glaive, (Breton) korol ar c'hleze dance of sword, (Gaelic)
claidheamh pronounced, glaive, the first letter being a soft "c" or hard
"g," the word usually spelt, clay more. Languages said to be
From Latin do not follow their model so
closely as these words do one another - (Lat.) gladius, (Spanish) espada,
(Italian) spada; and the northern tongues seem to have preferred some
original which resembles the English word, sword. If "spada" belongs to
the language from which all these are supposed to have started, these seem
to have used it for a more peaceful iron weapon, a spade.)
There is a magic sword in the Volsung
tale, called "Gram," which was the gift of Odin; (Norse Tales,
Introduction, 62.) and a famous sword in the Niebelungen lied; and there
are famous swords in many popular tales; but an iron sword was a god long
ago amongst the Scythians.( At page 54 of Rawlinson's Herodotus, vol. 3,
is the translation of the passage in which this worship is described.) "An
antique iron sword" was placed on a vast pile of brushwood as a temple in
every district, at the seat of government, and served as the image of
Mars. Sacrifices of cattle and of horses were made to it, and "more
victims were offered thus than to all the rest of their gods." Even men
were sacrificed; and it is said that the weapons found in Scythian tombs
are usually of bronze, "but the sword at the great tomb at ketch was
iron." It seems, then, that an iron sword really was once worshipped by a
people with whom iron was rare. Iron is rare, while stone and bronze
weapons are common in British tombs, and the sword of these stories is a
personage. It shines, it cries out the lives men are bound up in it. In
one story a fox changes himself into the sword of light, and the edge of
the real sword being turned towards a wicked "muime," turned all her
spells back upon herself, and she fell a withered fagot.
And so this mystic sword may, perhaps,
have been a god amongst the Celts, or the god of the people with whom
Celts contended somewhere on their long journey to the west. It is a
fiction now, but it may be founded on fact, and that fact probably was the
first use of iron.
Amongst the stories described in the
index to the Gaelic MSS. in Edinburgh is one in which the hero goes to
Scythia and to Greece, and ends his adventures in Ireland. And in the
"Chronicles of the Eri," 1822, by O'Connor, chief of the prostrated people
of his nation, Irish is usually called "the Phœnician dialect of the
Scythian language." On such questions I win not venture. Celts may or may
not be Scythians, but as a collector of curiosities, I may fairly compare
my museum with other curious things; and the worship of the Scimitar, 2200
years ago, by a people who are classed with the Indo-European races,
appears to have some bearing on all magic swords from the time of
Herodotus down to the White Sword of light of the West Highlands.
If iron weapons, to which supernatural
virtues are ascribed, acquired their virtue when iron was rare, and when
its qualities were sufficiently new to excite wonder - then other things
made of iron should have like virtues ascribed to them, and the magic
should be transferred from the sword to other new inventions; and such is
In all popular tales of which I know
anything, some mysterious virtue is attributed to iron; and in many of
them a gun is the weapon which breaks the spells. In the West it is the
A keeper told me that he was once called
into a house by an old woman to cure her cow, which was "bewitched," and
which was really sick. The ceremony was performed, according to the
directions of the old woman, with becoming gravity. The cow was led out,
and the gun loaded, and then it was solemnly fired off over the cow's
back, and the cure was supposed to be complete.
In the story of the hunter, when the
widow's son aims at the enchanted deer, he sees through the spell, only
when he looks over the sight, and while the gun is cocked, but when he has
aimed three times, the spell is broken and the lady is free.
So in a story (I think Irish) which I
have read somewhere, a man shoots from his hip at a deer, which seems to
be an old man whenever he looks over the sight. He aims well, and when he
comes up finds only the body of a very old man, which crumbles into dust,
and is carried away by the wind, bit by bit, as he looks at it. An iron
weapon is one of the guards which the man takes into the fairy hill in the
story of the Smith, No. 28. A sharpshooter fires off his gun to frighten
the troll in "the Old Dame and her Hen;" the boy throws the steel from his
tinder box over the magic horse, and tames him at once in the Princess on
the Glass Hill. (Norse Tales, Nos. 3 and 13). And so on throughout, iron
is invested with magic power in popular tales and mythology; the last iron
weapon invented, and the first, the gun and the sword, are alike magical;
a "bit of a rusty reaping hook" does equally good service, and an old
horse shoe is as potent a spell against the powers of evil as any known;
for one will be found on most stable doors in England.
Now comes the question, Who were these
powers of evil who cannot resist iron? These fairies who shoot stone
arrows, and are of the foes to the human race? Is all this but a dim, hazy
recollection of war between a people who had iron weapons and a race who
had not? the race whose remains are found all over Europe?
If these were wandering tribes they had
leaders, if they were warlike they had weapons. There is a smith in the
pantheon of many nations. Vulcan was a smith; Thor wielded a hammer, even
Fionn had a hammer, which was heard in Lochlann when struck in Eirinn,
according to the story found midway in Barra. Fionn may have borrowed his
hammer from Thor long ago, or both may have got theirs from Vulcan, or all
three may have brought hammers with them from the land where some primeval
smith wielded the first sledge hammer, but may not all these smith gods be
the smiths who made iron weapons for those who fought with the skin clad
warriors who shot flint arrows, and who are now bogles, fairies, and
In any case, tales about smiths seem to
belong to mythology, and to be common property. Thus the Norse smith, who
cheated the evil one, (Norse Tales, 16, 53) has an Irish equivalent in the
Three Wishes, (Carletou. Dublin, 1846. P. 330) and a Gaelic story, "The
Soldier," is of the same class, and has a Norse equivalent in the Lad and
the Deil. There are many of the same class in Grimm; and the same ideas
pervade them all. There is war between the smiths and soldiers, and the
devil; iron, and horses' hoofs, hammers, swords, and guns come into play;
the fiend is a fool, and he has got the worst of the fight; according to
the people, at all events, ever since St. Dunstan took him by the nose
with a pair of tongs. In all probability the fiend of popular tales is own
brother to the Gruagach and Glashan, and was once a skin-clad savage, or
the god of a savage race.
If this theory be correct, if these are
dim recollection of savage times and savage people, then other magic gear,
the property of giants, fairies, and bogles, should resemble things which
are precious now amongst savage or half civilized tribes, or which really
have been prized amongst the old inhabitants of these islands, or of other
parts of the world; and such is often the case.
The work of art which is most sought
after in Gaelic tales, next to the white glave of light, is a pair of
CIR MHIN OIR AGUS CIR GHARBH AIRGIOD, a
fine golden comb and a coarse comb of silver, are worth a deadly fight
with the giants in many a story.
The enchanted prince, when he ceases to
be a raven, is found as a yellow ringletted beautiful man, with a golden
comb in the one hand and a silver comb in the other. Maol a' Chliobain
invades the giant's house to steal the same things for the king. When the
coarse comb is forgotten the king's coach falls as a withered faggot. In
another story which I have, it is said of a herd who had killed a giant
and taken his castle, "He went in and he opened the first room and there
was not a thing in it. He opened another, and it was full of gold and
silver and the treasures of the world. Then he opened a drawer, and he
took a comb out of it, and when he would give a sweep with it on the one
side of his head, a shower of gold would fall out of that side; and when
he would give a sweep on the other side, a shower of silver would fall
from that side. Then he opened another room, and it was full of every sort
of food that a man might think there had ever been."
And so in many other instances the comb
is a treasure for which men contend with giants. It is associated with
gold, silver, dresses, arms, meat, and drink; and it is magical.
It is not so precious in other
collections of popular tales, but the same idea is to be traced in them
all. There is a water-spirit in Grimm which catches two children, and when
they escape they throw behind them a brush, a comb, and a mirror, which
replace the stone, the twig, and the bladder of water, which the Gaelic
prince finds in the ear of the filly, and throws behind him to arrest the
giant who is in pursuit. In the nix of the mill pond an old woman gives a
golden comb to a lady, and she combs her black hair by the light of the
moon at the edge of a pond, and the water-spirit shews the husband's head.
So also in Snow White the wicked queen combs the hair of the beautiful
princess with a poisoned comb, and throws her into a deadly magic sleep.
That princess is black, white, and red, like the giant in No. 2, and like
the lady in Conal; and like a lady in a Breton story; and generally
foreign stories in which combs are mentioned as magical, have equivalents
in Gaelic. For example, the incidents in the French story of Prince
Cherie, in which gifted children comb jewels from their hair, bear a
general resemblance to many Gaelic and German stories. Now there is a
reason for everything, though it is not always easy to find it out; and
the importance of the comb in these stories may have a reason also.
In the first place, though every
civilized man and woman now owns a comb, it is a work of art which
necessarily implies the use of tools, and considerable mechanical skill. A
man who had nothing but a knife could hardly make a comb; and a savage
with flint weapons would have to do without. A man with a comb, then,
implies a man who has made some progress in civilization; and a man
without a comb, a savage, who, if he had learned its use, might well covet
such a possession. If a black haired savage, living in the cold north,
were to comb his hair on a frosty night, it is to be presumed that the
same thing would happen which now takes place when fair ladies or.
civilized men comb their hair. Crackling sparks of electricity were surely
produced when men first combed their hair with a bone comb; and it seems
to need but a little fancy and a long time to change the bright sparks
into brilliant jewels, or glittering gold and silver and bright stars, and
to invest the rare and costly thing which produced such marvels with magic
There is evidence throughout all popular
tales that combs were needed. Translations are vague, because translators
are bashful; but those who have travelled amongst half civilized people,
understand what is meant when the knight lays his head on the lady's knee,
and she "dresses his hair." In German, Norse, Breton, and Gaelic, it is
From the mention of the magic comb,
then, it appears that these legends date from an early, rude period, for
the time when combs were so highly prized, and so little used, is remote.
In Wilson's "Prehistoric Annals of
Scotland," page 424, is a drawing of an old bone comb of very rude
workmanship, found in a burgh in Orkney, together with part of a deer's
horn and a human skeleton; another was found in a burgh in Caithness; a
third is mentioned; and I believe that such combs are commonly found in
old British graves.
At page 554, another drawing is given of
one of a pair of combs found in a grave in Orkney. The teeth of the comb
were fastened between plates of bone, rivetted together with copper nails,
and the comb was decorated with ornamental carvings. With these, brooches
of a peculiar form were discovered. Similar brooches are commonly found in
Denmark. I have seen many of them in museums at Bergen and Copenhagen; and
I own a pair which were found in an old grave in Islay, together with an
amber bead and some fragments of rusted iron.
A bronze comb is also mentioned at page
300, as having been found in Queen Mary's Mount, a great cairn near the
battlefield of Langside, which was pulled to pieces to build stone dykes,
and which was found to contain rude arms, bones, rings of bituminous
shale, and other things which are referred to very early prehistoric ages.
At page 500 Mr. Wilson mentions a great
number of monuments in Scotland on which combs are represented, together
with two-handed mirrors and symbols, for which deep explanations and
hidden meanings have been sought and found. Combs, mirrors, and shears are
also represented on early Roman tombs, and hidden meanings have been
assigned to them; but Mr. Wilson holds that these are but indications of
the sex of the buried person. Joining all this together, and placing it
besides the magic attributed to combs in these Highland stories, this view
appears to be the most reasonable. The sword of the warrior is very
commonly sculptured on the old gravestones in the Western Isles. It is
often twisted into a cross, and woven with those endless knots which
resemble certain eastern designs. Strange nondescript animals are often
figured about the sword, with tails which curl, and twist, and sprout into
leaves, and weave themselves into patterns. Those again resemble
illuminations in old Irish and Gaelic manuscripts, and when the most
prized of the warrior's possessions is thus figured on his tomb, and is
buried with him, it is but reasonable to suppose that the comb, which was
so valued as to be buried with its owner, was figured on the monument for
the same reason; and that sword and comb were, in fact, very highly prized
at some period by those who are buried in the tombs, as the stories now
represent that they were by men and giants.
So here again the popular fictions seem
to have a foundation of fact.
Another magical possession is the apple.
It is mentioned more frequently in Gaelic tales than in any collection
which I know, but the apple plays its part in Italian, German, and Norse
also. When the hero wishes to pass from Islay to Ireland he pulls sixteen
apples and throws them into the sea, one by one, and he steps from one to
the other. When the giant's daughter runs away with the king's son, she
cuts an apple into a mystical number of small bits, and each bit talks.
When she kills the giant she puts an apple under the hoof of the magic
filly and he dies, for his life is in the apple, and it is crushed. When
the byre is cleansed, it is so clean that a golden apple would run from
end to end and never raise a stain. There is a gruagach who has a golden
apple, which is thrown at all comers, and unless they are able to catch it
they die; when it is caught and thrown back by the hero, Gruagach an
Ubhail dies. There is a game called cluich an ubhail, the apple play,
which seems to have been a deadly game whatever it was. When the king's
daughter transports the soldier to the green island on the magic
tablecloth, he finds magic apples which transform him, and others which
cure him, and by which he transforms the cruel princess and recovers his
magic treasures. In German a cabbage does the same thing.
When the two eldest idle king's sons go
out to herd the giant's cattle, they find an apple tree whose fruit moves
up and down as they vainly strive to pluck it.
And so on throughout, whenever an apple
is mentioned in Gaelic stones it has something marvellous about it.
So in German, in the Man of Iron, a
princess throws a golden apple as a prize, which the hero catches three
times and carries off and wins.
In Snow White, where the poisoned comb
occurs, there is a poisoned magic apple also.
In the Old Griffin, the sick princess is
cured by rosy cheeked apples.
In the Giant with the Three Golden
Hairs, one of the questions to be solved is, why a tree which used to bear
golden apples does not now bear leaves? and the next question is about a
So in the White Snake, a servant who
acquires the knowledge of the speech of birds by tasting a white snake,
helps creatures in distress, gets their aid, and procures a golden apple
from three ravens, which "flew over the sea even to the end of the world,
where stands the tree of life." When he had got the apple he and his
princess ate it, and married and lived happily ever after.
So in Wolf’s collection, in the story of
the Wonderful Hares, a golden apple is the gift for which the finder is to
gain a princess; and that apple grew on a sort of tree of which there was
but one in the whole world.
In Norse it is the same; the princess on
the Glass Hill held three golden apples in her lap, and he who could ride
up the hill and carry off the apples was to win the prize; and the
princess rolled them down to the hero, and they rolled into his shoe.
The good girl plucked the apples from
the tree which spoke to her when she went down the well to the underground
world; but the ill-tempered step-sister thrashed down the fruit; and when
the time of trial came, the apple tree played its part and protected the
So in French, a singing apple is one of
the marvels which the Princess Belle Etoile, and her brothers and her
cousin, bring from the end of the world, after all manner of adventures;
and in that story the comb, the stars, and jewels in the hair, the talking
soothsaying bird, the magic water, the horse, the wicked stepmother, and
the dragon, all appear; and there is a Gaelic version of that story. In
short, that French story agrees with Gaelic stories, and with a certain
class of German tales; and contains within itself much of the machinery
and incident which is scattered elsewhere, in collections of tales
gathered in modem times amongst the people of various countries.
So again in books of tales of older
date, and in other languages, apples and marvels are associated.
In Straparola is an Italian story
remarkably like the Gaelic Sea Maiden, and clearly the same in groundwork
as Princess Belle Etoile. A lady, when she has lost her husband, goes off
to the Atlantic Ocean with three golden apples; and the mermaid who had
swallowed the husband, shews first his head, then his body to the waist,
and then to the knees; each time for a golden apple; and the incidents of
that story are all to be found elsewhere, and most of them are in Gaelic.
So again, in the Arabian Nights, there
is a long story, The Three Apples, which turns upon the stealing of one,
which was a thing of great price, though it was not magical in the story.
So in classical times, an apple of
discord was the prize of the fairest; and the small beginning from which
so much of all that is most famous in ancient lore takes its rise; three
golden apples were the prize of one of the labours of Hercules, and these
grew in a garden which fable has placed far to the westwards, and learned
commentators have placed in the Cape Verde Islands.
So then it appears that apples have been
mysterious and magical from the earliest of times; that they were sought
for in the west, and valued in the east; and now when the popular tales of
far west are examined, apples are the most important of natural
productions, and invested with the magic which belongs to that which is
old and rare, and which may once have been sacred.
It is curious that the forbidden fruit
is almost always mentioned in English as an apple; and this notion
prevails in France to such a degree, that when that mad play, La Proprieté
c'est le Vol, was acted in Paris in 1846, the first scene represented the
Garden of Eden with a tree, and a board on which was written "il est
défendu de manger de ces pommes."
And it is stated in grave histories that
the Celtic priests held apples sacred; so here again popular tales hold
Again, supposing tales to be old
traditions, something may be gleaned from them of the past. Horses, for
example, must once have been strange and rare, or sacred, amongst the
Celts, as among other races.
The horses of the Vedas, which drew the
chariot of the sun, appear to have been confused with the sungod of Indian
mythology. Horses decided the fate of kingdoms in Persia, according to
Herodotus. They were sacred when Phæton drove the chariot of the sun. The
Scandinavian gods had horses, according to the Edda. They are generally
supernatural in Grimm's German stories, in Norse tales, in French, and in
many other collections. They are wonderful in Breton tales.
When the followers of Columbus first
took horses to America, they struck terror into the Indians, and they and
their riders were demigods; because strange and terrible.
Horses were surely feared, or
worshipped, or prized, by Celts, for places are named after them. Penmarch
in Brittany, means horse-head or hill. Ardincaple in Scotland means the
mare's height, and there are many other places with similar names.
In Gaelic tales, horses are frequently
mentioned, and more magic properties are attributed to them than elsewhere
in popular lore.
In No. 1, horses play a very prominent
part; and in some versions of that tale, the heroine is a lady transformed
into a grey mare. It is to be hoped, for the hero's sake, that she did not
prove herself the better horse when she resumed her human form.
In No. 3, there is a horse race. In No.
4, there are mythical horses; and in an Irish version of that story, told
me in August 1860, by an Irish blind fiddler on board the Lochgoihead
boat, horses again play their part, with hounds and hawks. In No. 14,
there are horses; in one version there is a magic "powney." In 22, a horse
again appears, and gives the foundation for the riddle on which the story
turns. In 40, a horse is one of the prizes to be gained. In 41, the horse
plays the part of bluebeard. In 48, a horse is to be hanged as a thief. In
51, the hero assumes the form of a horse. In many other tales which I have
in manuscript, men appear as horses, and reappear as men; and horses are
marvellous. In one tale, a man's son is sent to a warlock and becomes a
horse, and all sorts of creatures besides. In another, a man gets a
wishing grey filly from the wind, in return for some meal which the wind
had blown away; and there is a whole series of tales which relate to water
horses, and which seem, more than all the rest, to shew the horse as a
degraded god, and as it would seem, a water-god, and a destroyer.
I had intended to group all these
stories together, as an illustration of this part of the subject, but time
and space are wanting. These shew that in the Isle of Man, and in the
Highlands of Scotland, people still firmly believe in the existence of a
water-horse. In Sutherland and elsewhere, many believe that they have seen
these fancied animals. I have been told of English sportsmen who went in
pursuit of them, so circumstantial were the accounts of those who believed
that they had seen them. The witnesses are so numerous, and their
testimony agrees so well, that there must be some old deeply rooted Celtic
belief which clothes every dark object with the dreaded form of the EACH
UISGE. The legends of the doings of the water kelpie all point to some
river god reduced to be a fuath or bogle. The bay or grey horse grazes at
the lake-side, and when he is mounted, rushes into the loch and devours
his rider. His back lengthens to suit any number; men's hands stick to his
skin; he is harnessed to a plough, and drags the team and the plough into
the loch, and tears the horses to bits; he is killed, and nothing remains
but a pool of water; he falls in love with a lady, and when he appears as
a man and lays his head on her knee to be dressed, the frightened lady
finds him out by the sand amongst his hair. "Tha gainmheach ann." There is
sand in it, she says, and when he sleeps she makes her escape. He appears
as an old woman, and is put to bed with a bevy of damsels in a mountain
shealing, and he sucks the blood of all, save one, who escapes over a bum,
which, waterhorse as he is, he dare not cross. In short, these tales and
beliefs have led me to think that the old Celts must have had a destroying
water-god, to whom the horse was sacred, or who had the form of a horse.
Unless there is some such foundation for
the stories, it is strange to find the romances of boatmen and fishermen
inhabiting small islands, filled with incidents which seem rather to
belong to a wandering, horse riding tribe. But the tales of Norwegian
sailors are similar in this respect; and the Celtic character has in fact
much which savours of a tribe who are boatmen by compulsion, and would be
horsemen if they could. Though the Western islanders are fearless boatmen,
and brave a terrible sea in very frail boats, very few of them are in the
royal navy, and there are not many who are professed sailors. On the other
hand, they are bold huntsmen in the far north of America. I do not think
that they are successful farmers anywhere, though they cling fondly to a
spot of land, but they are famous herdsmen at home and abroad. On the
misty hills of old Scotland or the dry plains of Australia, they still
retain the qualities which made a race of hunters, and warriors, and
herdsmen, such as are represented in the poems of Ossian, and described in
history; and even within the small bounds which now contain the Celtic
race in Europe, their national tastes appear in strong relief. Every
deer-stalker will bear witness to the eagerness of Highlanders in pursuit
of their old favourite game, the dun deer; the mountaineer shews what he
is when his eye kindles and his nostril dilates at the sight of a noble
stag; when the gillie forgets his master in his keenness, and the southern
lags behind; when it is "bellows to mend," and London dinners are
remembered with regret. Tyree is famous for its breed of ponies: it is a
common bit of Highland "chaff" to neigh at a Tyree man, and other islands
have famous breeds also. It is said that men almost starving rode to ask
for a meal in a certain place, and would not sell their ponies; and though
this is surely a fiction, it rests on the fact that the islanders are fond
of horses. At fairs and markets all over the Highlands ponies abound.
Nothing seems to amaze a Highlander more than to see any one walk who can
afford to ride; and he will chase a pony over a hill, and sit in misery on
a packsaddle when he catches the beast, and endure discomfort, that he may
ride in state along a level road for a short distance.
Irish Celts, who have more room for
locomotion, cultivate their national taste for horse flesh in a higher
degree. An Irish hunter is valued by many an English Nimrod; all novels
which purport to represent Irish character paint Irishmen as bold riders,
and Irish peasants as men who take a keen interest in all that belongs to
hunting and racing. There is not, so far as I know, a single novel founded
on the adventures of an Irish or Highland sailor or farmer, though there
are plenty of fictitious warriors and sportsmen in prose and in verse.
There are endless novels about English sailors, and sportsmen, and
farmers, and though novels are fictions, they too rest on facts. The
Celts, and Saxons, and Normans, and Danes, and Romans, who help to form
the English race, are at home on shore and afloat, whether their steeds
are of flesh and blood, or, as the Gaelic poet says, of brine. The Celtic
race are most at home amongst their cattle and on the hills, and I believe
it to be strictly in accordance with the Celtic character to find horses
and chariots playing a part in their national traditions and poems of all
I do not know enough of our Welsh
cousins to be able to speak of their tastes in this respect; but I know
that horse racing excites a keen interest in Britany, though the French
navy is chiefly manned by Breton and Norman sailors, and Breton ballads
and old Welsh romances are full of equestrian adventures. And all this
supports the theory that Celts came from the east, and came overland; for
horses would be prized by a wandering race.
So hounds would be prized by the race of
hunters who chased the Caledonian boars as well as the stags; and here
again tradition is in accordance With probability, and supported by other
testimony. In No. 4 there are mystical dogs; a hound, GADHAR is one of the
links in No. 8; a dog appears in No. 11; a dog, who is an enchanted man,
in No. 12; there is a phantom dog in No. 23; there was a "spectre hound in
Man;" and there are similar ghostly dogs in England, and in many European
In 19, 20, 31, 38, and a great many
other tales which I have in manuscript, the hound plays an important part.
Sometimes he befriends his master, at other times he appears to have
something diabolical about him; it seems as if his real honest nature had
overcome a deeply rooted prejudice, for there is much which savours of
detestation as well as of strong affection. Dog, or son of the dog, is a
term of abuse in Gaelic as elsewhere, though cuilein is a form of
endearment, and the hound is figured beside his master, or at his feet, on
many a tombstone in the Western Isles. Hounds are mentioned in Gaelic
poetry and in Gaelic tales, and in the earliest accounts of the Western
Isles; and one breed still survives in these long legged, rough, wiry
haired stag hounds, which Landseer so loves to paint.
In one story, for which I have no room,
but which is well worthy of preservation, a step mother sends two step
children, a brother and sister, out into the world to seek their fortune.
They live in a cottage with three bare yellow porkers, which belong to the
sister. The brother sells one to a man for a dog with a green string, and
so gets three dogs, whose names are Knowledge, FIOS; Swift, LUATH;
Weighty, TROM. The sister is enraged, and allies herself with a giant who
has a hot coal in his mouth. Knowledge tells his master the danger which
awaits him: how the giant and his sister had set a venomous dart over the
door. Swiftness runs in first, and saves his master at the expense of his
own tail, and then the three dogs upset a caldron of boiling water over
the giant, who is hid in a hole in the floor, and so at the third time the
giant is killed, and the only loss is a bit of the tail of Luath.
Then the king's son goes to dwell with a
beautiful lady; and after a time he goes back to visit his sister, armed
with three magic apples. The sister sets three venomous porkers at him,
and he, by throwing the apples behind him, hinders them with woods, and
moors, and lakes, which grow up from the apples; but they follow. The
three dogs come out and beat the three pigs, and kill them, and then the
king's son get his sister to come with him, and she was as a servant maid
to the prince and the fine woman with whom he lived. Then the sister put
GATH NIMH, a poisonous sting or thorn, into the bed, and the prince was as
though he were dead for three days, and he was buried. But Knowledge told
the other two dogs what to do, and they scraped up the prince, and took
out the thorn; and he came alive again and went home, and set on a fire of
grey oak, and burned his sister. And John Crawfurd, fisherman at Lochlong-head,
told John Dewar "that he left the man, and the woman, and the dogs all
happy and well pleased together." This curious story seems to shew the hog
and the dog as foes. Perhaps they were but the emblems of rival tribes,
perhaps they were sacred amongst rival races; at all events, they were
both important personages at some time or other, for there is a great deal
about them in Gaelic lore.
The boar was the animal which Diarmid
slew, and which caused his death when he paced his length against the
bristles, - the venomous bristles pierced a mole in his foot. It was a
boar which was sent out to find the body of the thief in that curious
story, an gillie currach; and in a great many other stories, boars appear
as animals of the chase. The Fiantaichean or Feen, whomsoever they were,
are always represented as hunting wild boars, as tearing a boar to bits by
main force, or eating a, whole boar. Cairns, said to have been raised over
boars, are shewn in many parts of Scotland still. I myself once found a
boar's tusk in a grave accidentally discovered, close to the bridge at
Pool Ewe. There were many other bones, and a rough flint, and a lot of
charcoal, in what seemed to be a shallow human grave, a kind of stone
coffin built up with loose slabs.
"Little pigs" play their part in the
nursery lore of England. Everybody who has been young and has toes, must
"This little pig went to market,
And this little pig staid at home
This little pig got roast beef,
And this little pig got none;
And this little pig went wee, wee,
wee, all the way home."
There is a long and tragic story which
has been current amongst at least three generations of my own family
regarding a lot of little pigs who had a wise mother, who told them where
they were to build their houses, and how, so as to avoid the fox. Some of
the little pigs would not follow their mother's counsel, and built houses
of leaves, and the fox got in and said, "I will gallop, and I'll trample,
and I'll knock down your house," and he ate the foolish, little, proud
pigs; but the youngest was a wise little pig, and, after many adventures,
she put an end to the wicked fox when she was almost vanquished, bidding
him look into the caldron to see if the dinner was ready, and then tilting
him in headforemost. In short, pigs are very important personages in the
popular lore of Great Britain.
We are told by history that they were
sacred amongst the Gauls, and fed on acorns in the sacred oak groves of
the Druids, and there is a strong prejudice now amongst Highlanders
against eating pig's flesh.
So oak trees are mythical. Whenever a
man is to be burned for some evil deed, and men are always going to be
roasted, fagots of "grey," probably green oak, are fetched. There is a
curious story which the Rev. Mr. MacLachlan took down from the recitation
of an old man in Edinburgh, in which a mythical old man is shut up in an
oak tree, which grows in the court of the king's palace; and when the
king's son lets his ball roll into a split in the tree by chance, the old
man tells the boy to fetch an axe and he will give him the ball, and so he
gets out, and endows the Prince with power and valour. He sets out on his
journey with a red-headed cook, who personates him, and he goes to lodge
with a swine-heard; but by the help of the old man of the great tree,
BODACH NA CRAOIBHE MOIRE, he overcomes a boar, a bull, and a stallion, and
marries the king's daughter, and the red-headed cook is burnt.
So then, in these traditions, swine and
oak trees are associated together with mythical old men and deeds of
valour, such as a race of hunters might perform, and admire, and remember.
Is it too much to suppose that these are dim recollections of pagan times?
DRUIDH is the name for magician, DRAOCHD for magic. It is surely not too
much to suppose that the magicians were the Druids, and the magic their
mysteries; that my peasant collectors are right, when they maintain that
GRUAGACH, the long haired one, was a "professor" or "master of arts," or
"one that taught feats of arms;" that the learned Gruagach, who is so
often mentioned, was a Druid in his glory, and the other, who, in the days
of Johnson, haunted the island of Troda as "Greogaca," who haunted the
small island of Inch, near Easdale, in the girlhood of Mrs. MacTavish, who
is remembered still, and is still supposed to haunt many a desolate island
in the far west, is the phantom of the same Druid, fallen from his high
estate, skulking from his pursuers, and really living on milk left for him
by those whose priest he had once been.
"The small island of Inch, near
Easdale, is inhabited by a brownie, which has followed the Macdougalls
of Ardincaple for ages, and takes a great interest in them. He takes
care of their cattle in that island night and day, unless the
dairymaid, when there in summer with the milk cattle, neglects to
leave warm milk for him at night in a knocking stone in the cave,
where she and the herd live during their stay in the island. Should
this perquisite be for a night forgot, they will be sure in the
morning to find one of the cattle fallen over the rocks with which the
place abounds. It is a question whether the brownie has not a friend
with whom he shares the contents of the stone, which will, I daresay,
hold from two to three Scotch pints."
If the manners and customs of druids are
described as correctly as modem manners really are, then something may be
gathered concerning druidical worship; but without knowledge, which I have
no time to acquire, the full bearing of traditions on such a subject
cannot be estimated.
The horse and the boar, the oak tree and
the apple, then, are often referred to. Of mistletoe I have found no
trace, unless it be the sour herb which brings men to life, but that might
be the "soma," which plays such a part in the mythology of the Vedas, or
the shamrock, which was sacred in Ireland.
Wells are indicated as mysterious in a
great many tales - poison wells and healing wells - and some are still
frequented, with a half belief in their virtue; but such wells now often
have the name of some saint affixed to them.
Birds are very often referred to as
soothsayers - in No. 39 especially; the man catches a bird and says it is
a diviner, and a gentleman buys it as such. It was a bird of prey, for it
lit on a hide, and birds of prey are continually appearing as bringing aid
to men, such as the raven, the hoodie, and the falcon. The little birds
especially are frequently mentioned. I
should therefore gather from the stories that the ancient Celts drew
augury from birds as other nations did, and as it is asserted by
historians that the Gauls really did. I should be inclined to think that
they possessed the domestic fowl before they became acquainted with the
country of the wild grouse, and that the cock may have been sacred, for he
is a foe and a terror to uncanny beings, and the hero of many a story;
while the grouse and similar birds peculiar to this country are barely
mentioned. The cat plays a considerable part, and appears as a transformed
princess; and the cat may also have been sacred to some power, for cats
are the companions of Highland witches, and of hags all the world over,
and they were sacred to gods in other lands; they were made into mummies
in Egypt, together with hawks and other creatures which appear in Highland
tales. Ravens were Odin's messengers; they may have been pages to some
Celtic divinity also. Foxes, and otters, and wolves, and bears all appear
in mythical characters. Serpents were probably held in abhorrence, as they
have been by other races, but the serpent gave wisdom, and is very
Old Macdonald, travelling tinker, told
me a long story, of which one scene represented an incantation more
vividly to me than anything I have ever read or heard. "There was a king
and a knight, as there was and will be, and as grows the fir tree, some of
it crooked and some of it straight, and he was a king of Eirinn," said the
old tinker, and then came a wicked stepmother, who was incited to evil by
a wicked henwife. The son of the first queen was at school with twelve
comrades, and they used to play at shinny every day with silver shinnies
and a golden ball. The henwife, for certain curious rewards, gave the
stepdame a magic shirt, and she sent it to her step son, "Sheen Billy,"
and persuaded him to put it on; he refused at first, but complied at last,
and the shirt was a BEITHIR (great snake) about his neck. Then he was
enchanted and under spells, and all manner of adventures followed; but at
last he came to the house of a wise woman who had a beautiful daughter,
who fell in love with the enchanted prince, and said she must and would
"It will cost thee much sorrow," said
"I care not," said the girl, "I must
"It will cost thee thy hair."
"I care not."
"It will cost thee thy right breast."
"I care not if it should cost me my
life," said the girl.
And the old woman agreed to help her to
her will. A caldron was prepared and filled with plants; and the king's
son was put into it stripped to the magic shirt, and the girl was stripped
to the waist. And the mother stood by with a great knife, which she gave
to her daughter.
Then the king's son was put down in the
caldron, and the great serpent, which appeared to be a shirt about his
neck, changed into its own form, and sprang on the girl and fastened on
her; and she cut away the hold, and the king's son was freed from the
spells. Then they were married, and a golden breast was made for the lady.
And then they went through more adventures, which I do not well remember,
and which the old tinker's son vainly strove to repeat in August, 1860,
for he is far behind his father in the telling of old Highland tales.
The serpent, then, would seem to be an
emblem of evil and wisdom in Celtic popular mythology.
There is something mysterious about
rushes. The fairies are found in a bush of rushes; the great caldron of
the Feen is hid under a bush of rushes; and in a great many other
instances TOM LUACHARACH appears. I do not know that the plant is
mentioned in foreign tales, but it occurs several times in border
If the Druids worshipped the sun and
moon, there is very little direct reference to such worship in highland
stories now. There are many highland customs which point to solar worship,
but these have been treated of by abler pens, and I have nothing to add on
There is yet another animal which is
mythical - the water-bull. He certainly belongs to Celtic mythology, as
the water-horse does, for he is known in the Isle of Man and all over the
There are numerous lakes where the
water-bulls are supposed to exist, and their progeny are supposed to be
easily known by their short ears. When the water bull appears in a story
he is generally represented as friendly to man. I have a great many
accounts of him, and his name in Skye is Tarbh Eithre.
There is a gigantic water bird, called
the Boobrie, which is supposed to inhabit the fresh water and sea lochs of
Argyllshire. I have heard of him nowhere else; but I have heard of him
from several people.
He is ravenous and gigantic, gobbles up
sheep and cows, has webbed feet, a very loud hoarse voice, and is somewhat
like a cormorant. He is reported to have terrified a minister out of his
propriety, and it is therefore to be assumed that he is of the powers of
evil. And there are a vast number of other fancied inhabitants of earth,
air, and water, enough to form a volume of supernatural history, and all
or any of these may have figured in Celtic mythology; for it is hard to
suppose that men living at opposite ends of Scotland, and peasants in the
Isle of Man, should invent the same fancies unless their ideas had some
Besides these animals, there is a whole
supernatural world with superhuman gigantic inhabitants.
There are continual fights with these
giants, which are often carried on without arms at all mere wrestling
matches, which seem to have had certain rules. It is somewhere told of the
Germans that they in their forests fought with clubs, and the Celtic
giants may once have been real men. Hercules fought with a club. Irishmen
use shillelahs still, and my west country friends, when they fight now a
days, use barrel staves instead of swords, and use them well, if not
wisely; but whether giants were men or myths, they are always represented
as strange, lubberly beings, whose dealings with men invariably end in
their discomfiture. There are giants in Herodotus and, I believe, in every
popular mythology known. There are giants in Holy Writ. They spoke an
unknown tongue everywhere. They said "Fee fo fum" in Cornwall. They say "Fiaw
fiaw foaghrich" in Argyll, and these sounds may possibly be corruptions of
the language of real big burly savages, now magnified into giants.
The last word might be the vocative of
the Gaelic for stranger, ill pronounced, and the intention may be to mimic
the dialect of a foreigner speaking Gaelic.
An Italian organ grinder once found his
way to the west, and sang "Fideli, fidela, fidelin lin la." 'Me boys
caught the tune, and sang it to the words, "Deese creepe Signaveete ha,"
words with as much meaning as "Fee fo fum," but which retain a certain
resemblance to an Italian sound.
If the giants were once real savages,
they had the sense of smell peculiarly sharp, according to the Gaelic
tales, as they had in all others which treat of them, and they ate their
captives, as it is asserted that the early inhabitants of Scotland did, as
Herodotus says that Scyths did in his time, and as the Feejee islanders
did very lately, and still do. A relative of mine once offered me a tooth
as a relic of such a feast; it had been presented to him in the Feejee
islands by a charming dark young lady, who had just left the banquet, but
had not shared in it. The Highland giants were not so big but that their
conquerors wore their clothes; they were not so strong that men could not
beat them, even by wrestling. They were
not quite savages; for though some lived
in caves, others had houses and cattle, and hoards of spoil. They had
slaves, as we are told that Scotch proprietors had within historic times.
In "Scotland in the Middle Ages," p. 14 1, we learn that Earl Waldev of
Dunbar made over a whole tribe to the Abbot of Kelso in 1170, and in the
next page it is implied that these slaves were mostly Celts. Perhaps those
Celts who were not enslaved had their own mountain view of the matter, and
looked down on the Gall as intrusive, savage, uncultivated, slave owning
Perhaps the mountain mists in like
manner impeded the view of the dwellers on the mountain and the plain, for
Fin MacCoul was a "God in Ireland," as they say, and is a "rawhead and
bloody bones" in the Scottish lowlands now.
Whatever the giants were they knew some
magic arts, but they were always beaten in the end by men.
The combats with them are a Gaelic
proverb in action:
"Theid seoltachd thar spionnaidh."
Skill goes over might, and probably, as
it seems to me, giants are simply the nearest savage race at war with the
race who tell the tales. If they performed impossible feats of strength,
they did no more than Rob Roy, whose "putting stone" is now shewn to Saxon
tourists by a Celtic coachman, near Bunawe, in the shape of a boulder of
many tons, though Rob Ruadh lived only a hundred years ago, near Inverary,
in a cottage which is now standing, and which was lately inhabited by a
The Gaelic giants are very like those of
Norse and German tales, but they are much nearer to real men than the
giants of Germany and Scandinavia, and Greece and Rome, who are almost, if
not quite, equal to the gods. Famhairan are little more than very strong
men, but some have only one eye like the Cyclops.
Their world is generally, but not
always, under ground; it has castles, and parks, and pasture, and all that
is to be found above the earth. Gold, and silver, and copper, abound in
the giant's land; jewels are seldom mentioned, but cattle, and horses, and
spoil of dresses, and arms, and armour, combs, and basins, apples,
shields, bows, spears, and horses, are all to be gained by a fight with
the giants. Still, now and then a giant does some feat quite beyond the
power of man; such as a giant in Barra, who fished up a hero, boat and
all, with his fishing rod, from a rock, and threw him over his head, as
little boys do "cuddies" from a pier end. So the giants may be degraded
gods after all.
But besides "popular tales," there are
fairy tales, which are not told as stories, but facts. At all events, the
creed is too recent to be lightly spoken of.
Men do believe in fairies, though they
will not readily confess the fact. And though I do not myself believe that
fairies are, in spite of the strong evidence offered, I believe
there once was a small race of people in these islands, who are remembered
as fairies, for the fairy belief is not confined to the Highlanders of
Scotland. I have given a few of the tales which have come to me as
illustrations in No. 27.
"They" are always represented as
living in green mounds. They pop up their heads when disturbed by people
treading on their houses. They steal children. They seem to live on
familiar terms with the people about them when they treat them well, to
punish them when they ill treat them. If giants are magnified, these are
but men seen through the other end of the telescope, and there are such
people now. A Lapp is such a man - he is a little, flesh eating mortal -
having control over the beasts, and living in a green mound - when he is
not living in a tent, or sleeping out of doors, wrapped in his deer skin
shirt. I have lived amongst them and know them and their dwellings pretty
well. I know one which would answer to the description of a fairy mound
exactly. It is on the most northern peninsula in Europe, to the east of
the North Cape, close to the sea, in a sandy hollow near a bum. It is
round say, twelve feet in diameter and it is sunk three feet in the sand;
the roof is made of sticks and covered with turf. The whole structure, at
a short distance, looks exactly like a conical green mound about four feet
high. There was a famous crop of grass on it when I was there, and the
children and dogs ran out at the door and up to the top when we
approached, as ants run on an ant hill when disturbed. Their fire was in
the middle of the floor, and the pot hung over it from the roof I lately
saw a house in South Uist found in the sand hills close to the sea. It was
built of loose boulders, it was circular, and had recesses in the sides,
it was covered when found, and it was full of sand; when that was removed,
stone querns and combs of bone were found, together with ashes, and near
the level of the top there was a stratum of bones and teeth of large
grass-eating animals. I know not what they were, but the bones were
splintered and broken, and mingled with ashes and shells, oysters,
cockles, and wilks (periwinkles), shewing clearly the original level of
the ground, and proving that this was a dwelling almost the same as a Lapp
"Gam" at Hopseidet.
Now, let us see what the people of the
Hebrides say of the fairies. There was a woman benighted with a pair of
calves, "and she went for shelter to a knoll and she began driving the peg
of the tether into it. The hill opened, and she heard as though there was
a pot hook 'gleegashing,' on the side of the pot. A woman put up her head,
and as much as was above her waist, and said, 'What business hast thou to
disturb this tulman, in which I make my dwelling' ". This might be a
description of one of my Lapp friends, and probably is a description of
such a dwelling as I saw in South Uist. If the people slept as Lapps
sleep, with their feet to the fire, a woman outside might have driven a
peg very near one of the sleepers, and she might have stood on a seat and
poked her head out of the chimney.
The magic about the beasts is but the
mist of antiquity; and the fairy was probably a Pict. Who will say who the
Pict may have been? Probably the great Clibric hag was one, and of the
"In the early morning she was busy
milking the hinds; they were standing all about the door of the hut, till
one of them ate a hank of blue worsted hanging from a nail in it."
So says the "fiction," which it is considered a sin to relate. Let me
place some facts from my own journal beside it.
"Wednesday, August 22,1850. Quickjok,
Swedish Upland. In the evening the effect of the sunlight through the mist
and showers was most beautiful. I was sketching, when a small man made his
appearance on the opposite side of the river and began to shout for a
boat. The priest exclaimed that the Lapps had come down, and accordingly
the diminutive human specimen was fetched, and proved to be a Lapp who had
established his camp about seven miles off, near Vallespik. He was about
twenty five years old, and with his high blue cap on could stand upright
under my arm."
I had been wandering about Quickjok for
a week, out on Vallespik frequently, searching for the Lapps, with the
very glass which I had previously used to find deer close to Clibric,
which is but a small copy of the Lapland mountain.
"Thursday, 23rd. Started to see the
deer, with the priest and the Clockar, and Marcus, and the Lapp. The Lapp
walked like a deer himself, aided by a very long birch pole, which he took
from its hiding place in a fir tree. I had hard work to keep up with him.
Marcus and the priest were left behind. Once up through the forest, it was
cutting cold, and we walked up to the 'cota' in two hours and a quarter.
The deer was seen in the distance, like a brown speck on the shoulder of
Vallespik; and with the glass I could make out that a small mortal and two
dogs were driving them home. The cota is a permanent one, made in the
shape of a sugar loaf, with birch sticks, and long flat stones and turf.
There are two exactly alike, and each has a door, a mere narrow slit,
opening to the west, and a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. I crept
in, and found a girl of about fifteen, with very pretty eyes, sitting
crouched up in a comer, and looking as scared as one of her own fawns. The
priest said, that if we had come without our attendant genius, the small
Lapp, she would have fainted, or run away to the hills. I began to sketch
her, as she sat looking modest in her dark comer, and was rejoicing in the
extreme stillness of my sitter, when, on looking up from some careful
touch, I found that she had vanished through the door way. I had to bribe
her with bread and butter before she could be coaxed back. A tremendous
row of shouting and barking outside now announced the arrival of the deer,
so I let my sitter go, and off she ran as fast as she could. I followed
more leisurely to the spot where the deer were gathered, on a stony
hillside. There were only about 200; the rest had run off up wind on the
way from the mountains, and all the other Lapps were off after them,
leaving only my pretty sitter, the boy, and a small woman with bleared
eyes, as ugly as sin, his sister.
"How I wished for Landseer's pencil as I
looked at that scene! Most of the deer were huddled close together; hinds
and calves chewing the cud with the greatest placidity, but here and there
some grand old fellows, with wide antlers, stood up against the sky line,
looking magnificent. I tried to draw, but it was hopeless; so I sat down,
and watched the proceedings of my hosts.
"First, each of the girls took a coil of
rope from about her neck, and in a twinkling it was pitched over the horns
of a hind. The noose was then slipped round the neck, and a couple of
turns of rope round the nose, and then the wild milkmaid set her foot on
the halter and proceeded To MILK THE HIND, into a round birch bowl with a
handle. Sometimes she sat, at others she leant her head on the deer's dark
side, and knelt beside her. I never saw such a succession of beautiful
"Every now and then some half dozen deer
would break out of the herd and set off to the mountain, and then came a
general skurry. The small Lapp man, with his long birch pole, would rush
screaming after the stragglers; and his two gaunt, black, rough, half
starved dogs would scour off, yelping, in pursuit. It generally ended in
the hasty return of the truants, with well-bitten houghs for their pains;
but some fairly made off, at a determined long trot, and vanished over the
hill. It was very curious to be thus in the midst of a whole herd of
creatures so like our own wild deer, to have them treading on my feet and
poking their horns against my sketch-book as I vainly tried to draw them,
and to think that they who had the power to bid defiance to the fleetest
hound in Sweden should be so perfectly tame as to let the small beings who
herded them so thump, and bully, and tease them. The milking, in the
meantime, had been progressing rapidly; and after about an hour the pretty
girl, who had been dipping her fingers in the milk-pail and licking up the
milk all the time, took her piece of bread and butter, and departed with
her charge, munching as she went.
"The blear eyed one, and the boy, and
our party, went into the cota, and dined on cold roast reiper and reindeer
milk. The boy poured the milk from a small keg, which contained the whole
product of the flock; and having given us our share, he carefully licked
up all that remained on the outside of the keg, and set it down in a
corner. It was sweet and delicious, like thick cream. Dinner over, we
desired the Lapp to be ready in the morning (to accompany me), and with
the clocker’s dog, 'Gueppe,' went reiper-shooting. The clocker himself,
with a newly-slaughtered reindeer calf on his shoulders followed; and so
we went home."
A few days afterwards, I was at another
camp, on another hill, where the same scene was going on. "In a tent I
found a fine looking Lapp woman sitting on a heap of skins, serving out
coffee, and handing reindeer cream to the clocker with a silver spoon. She
had silver bracelets, and a couple of silver rings; and altogether, with
her black hair, and dark brown eyes glittering in the fire light, she
looked eastern and magnificent." Her husband had many trinkets, and they
had, amongst other articles, a comb, which the rest seemed much to need.
Her dress was blue, so were most of the
dresses, and one of her possessions was a bone contrivance for weaving the
bands which all wore round their ankles. She must have had blue yarn
somewhere, for her garters were partly blue.
I spent the whole of the next day in the
camp, and watched the whole operations of the day.
"After dinner, the children cracked the
bones with stones and a knife, after they had polished the outside, and
sucked up the marrow; and then the dogs, which did not dare to steal, were
called in their turn, and got the remains of the food in wooden bowls, set
apart for their especial use."
The bones in the hut in South Uist might
have been the remains of such a feast by their appearance.
"The cota was a pyramid of sods and
birch sticks, about seven feet high, and twelve or fourteen in diameter.
There were three children, five dogs, an old woman, Marcus, and myself,
inside; and all day long the handsome lady from the tent next door, with
her husband, and a couple of quaint looking old fellows in deer skin
shirts, kept popping in to see how I got on. It was impossible to sit
upright for the slope of the walls, as I sat cross legged on the ground."
This might be a description of the Uist
hut itself, and its inhabitants, as I can fancy them.
"The three dogs (in the tent), at the
smallest symptom of a disturbance, plunged out, barking, to add to the
row; they popped in by the same way under the canvas, so they had no need
of a door."
So did the dogs in the story of
Seantraigh; they ran after the stranger, and stopped to eat the bones. And
it is remarkable that all civilized dogs fall upon and worry the half
savage black Lapp dogs, and bark at their masters whenever they descend
from their mountains, as the town dogs did at the fairy dogs. In short.,
these extracts might be a fair description of the people, and the
dwellings, and the food, and the dogs described as fairies, and the hag,
and the tulman, in stories which I have grouped together; told in Scotland
within this year by persons who can have no knowledge of what is called
the "Finn theory," and given in the very words in which they came to me,
from various sources.
Lord Reay's forester must surely have
passed the night in a Lapp cota on Ben Gilbric, in Sutherland, when Lapps
were Picts; but when was that? Perhaps in the youth of the fairy of whom
the following story was told by a Sutherland gamekeeper of my
THE HERDS OF GLEN ODHAR. A wild romantic
glen in Strath Carron is called Glen Garaig, and it was through this that
a woman was passing carrying an infant wrapped in her plaid. Below the
path, overhung with weeping birches, and nearly opposite, run a very deep
ravine, known as Glen Odhar, the dun glen. The child, not yet a year old,
and which had not spoken or attempted speech, suddenly addressed his
mother thus: -
S lionmhor bo mhaol odhar, Many a dun
Le laogh na gobhal With a calf below he,
Chunnaic mise ga'm bleoghan Have I seen
Anns a' ghleann odhar ud thall, In that
dun glen yonder,
Gun chu, gun duine, Without dog, without
Gun bhean, gun ghille, Without woman,
Ach aon duine, But one man,
'S e liath. And he hoary.
The good woman flung down the child and
plaid and ran home, where to her great joy, her baby boy lay smiling in
Fairies then milked deer, as Lapps do.
They lived under ground, like them. They worked at trades especially smith
work and weaving. They had hammers and anvils, and excelled in their use,
but though good weavers, they had to steal wool and borrow looms. Lapps do
work in metal on their own account; they make their own skin dresses, but
buy their summer clothes. A race of wanderers could not be weavers on a
large scale, but they can and do weave small bands very neatly on hand
looms; and they alone make these. There are savages now in South Africa,
who are smiths and miners, though they neither weave nor wear clothes.
Fairies had hoards of treasure - so have Lapps. A man died shortly before
one of my Tana trips, and the whole country side had been out searching
for his buried wealth in vain. Some years ago the old silver shops of
Bergen and Trondhjem overflowed with queer cups and spoons, and rings,
silver plates for waist belts, old plate that had been hidden amongst the
mountains, black old silver coins that had not seen the light for years. I
saw the plate and bought some, and was told that, in consequence of a
religious movement, the Lapps had dug up and sold their hoards. Fairies
are supposed to shoot flint arrows, and arrows of other kinds, at people
now. Men have told me several times that they had been shot at: one man
had found the flint arrow in an ash tree; another had heard it whiz past
his ear; a third had pulled a slender arrow from a friend's head. If that
be so, my argument fails, and fairies are not of the past; but Californian
Indians now use arrow heads which closely resemble those dug up in
Scotland, in Denmark, and, I believe, all over Europe. Fairies are
conquered by Christian symbols. They were probably Pagans, and, if so,
they may have existed when Christianity was introduced. They steal men,
women, and children, and keep them in their haunts. They are not the only
slave owners in the world. They are supernatural, and
objects of a sort of respect and wonder.
So are gipsies where they are rare, as in Sweden and Norway; so are the
Lapps themselves, for they are professed wizards. I have known a terrified
Swedish lassie whip her horse and gallop away in her cart from a band of
gipsies, and I have had the advantage of living in the same house with a
Lapp wizard at Quickjok, who had prophesied the arrival of many strangers,
of whom I was one. Spaniards were gods amongst the Indians till they
taught them to know better. Horses were supernatural when they came, and
on the whole, as it appears, there is much more reason to believe that
fairies were a real people, like the Lapps, who are still remembered, than
that they are "creatures of imagination" or "spirits in prison," or
"fallen angels;" and the evidence of their actual existence is very much
more direct and substantial than that which has driven, and seems still to
be driving, people to the very verge of insanity, if not beyond it, in the
matter of those palpable impalpable, visible invisible spirits who rap
double knocks upon dancing deal boards.
I am inclined to believe in the former
existence of fairies in this sense, and if for no other reason, because
all the nations of Europe have had some such belief, and they cannot all
have invented the same fancy. The habitation of Highland fairies are green
mounds, they therefore, like the giants, resemble the "under jordiske" of
the north, and they too may be degraded divinities.
It seems then, that Gaelic tales
attribute supernatural qualities to things which are mentioned in popular
tales elsewhere, and that Gaelic superstitions are common to other races;
and it seems worth inquiry whether there was anything in the known customs
of Celtic tribes to make these things valuable, and whether tradition is
supported by history.
In the first place, then, who are Celts
now? Who were their ancestors? Who are their relations? and where have
Gaelic tribes appeared in history.
I believe that little is really known
about the Gael; and in particular, the origin of the West Highlanders has
been very keenly disputed. One thing is clear, they speak a language which
is almost identical with the Irish of the north of Ireland, and they are
the same people. The dialect of Irish, which varies most from Scotch
Gaelic, is clearly but another form of the same tongue. Manks is another;
and these three are closely related to Welsh and Breton, though the
difference is very much greater. Gaelic, Irish, and Manks vary from each
other about as much as Norse, Swedish, and Danish. Welsh and Breton vary
from the rest about as much as German and Dutch do from the Scandinavian
languages. There are variations in Gaelic, and I believe there are in all
the five surviving Celtic dialects, as there are in the languages of
different countries in England, of every valley in Norway and Sweden, of
every German district, and of every part of France, Spain, and Italy. But
one who knows Gaelic well, can make himself understood throughout the
Highlands, as freely as an Englishman can in England, though he may speak
with a Northumbrian burr, or a west country twang, or like a true Cockney.
These, then, form the Celtic clan, the
people of the west of Scotland, the Irish, the Manks, the Welsh, and the
Breton. Who their relations are, and who their ancestors, are questions
not easily answered, though much has been written on the subject. The
following is a brief outline of what is given as Celtic history by modem
writers whose works I have consulted lately: -
According to Henri Martin, the French
historian, (Histoire de France, par Henri Martin; 1855) the whole of
Central Europe, France, and Spain, were once overrun by a race calling
themselves Gael, and best known as Gauls. This people is generally
admitted to have been of the same stock as Germans, Latins, Greeks, and
Slavonians, and to have started from Central Asia at some unknown epoch.
They are supposed to have been warlike, to have been tatooed like modem
New Zealanders, and painted like North American Indians, to have been
armed with stone weapons like the South Sea Islanders and California
Indians; but shepherd, as well as hunters, and acquainted with the use of
wheat and rye, which they are supposed to have brought with them from
Asia. One great confederation of tribes of this race was known to ancient
historians, as Kελזסį. They were represented as fair and rosy cheeked,
large chested, active, and brave, and they found the Euskes settled in the
south of France, who were dark-complexioned, whose descendants are
supposed to be the Euscualdonec or Basques of the Pyrennees, and who are
classed with the Lapps of the north of Europe, and with tribes now
dwelling in the far north of Asia. I have seen faces in Barra very like
faces which I had seen shortly before at St. Sebastian in Spain. A tribe
of Gauls made their way into Italy, and have left traces of their language
there, in the names of mountains chains and great rivers. There are named
"Amhra," or "Ombres," and Amhra is translated Valliant. This invasion is
calculated to have taken place about 1500 B.C.
The Gael were followed by Kimri or
Cimbri, a kindred people of a darker complexion, speaking a kindred
language, and their descendants are supposed to be the Welsh and Bretons.
These in turn occupied the interior of eastern Europe, and were followed
by the Scyths, and these, says the French historian, were Teutons.
According to the learned author of the
essay on the Cimmerians, in the third volume of Rawlinson's Herodotus, p.
184, it is almost beyond doubt that a people known to their neighbours as
Cimmerii, Gimiri, or probably Gomerini, attained a considerable power in
Western Asia and Eastern Europe within the period indicated by the dates
B.C. 800, 600, or even earlier.
These people are traced to the
inhabitants of Wales and Gael and Cymri are admitted by all to be Kελזסį;
and still keep up their old character for pugnacity by quarrelling over
Celts were undoubtedly the primitive
inhabitants of Gaul, Belgium, and the British Islands, possibly also of
Spain and Portugal; but no word of the language spoken by these ancient
Cimbri has been preserved by ancient authors, except the name, "and
perhaps the name Cimmerii may have included many Celtic tribes not of the
Cymric branch." These Gauls appeared everywhere in Europe; and, in
particular, they who had probably been driven out by the Scythians invaded
Scythia, intermixed with the people, and formed the people known in
history as Celto-Scythians; who the Scyths were (according to the author)
appears to be uncertain. All that remains of their language is a list of
words, picked out of the works of ancient authors; and knowing what modem
authors make of words which they pick up by ear, such a list is but a
narrow foundation on which to build. Still on that list it has been
decided that Scyths spoke a language which has affinity with Sanscrit, and
in that list, as it seems to me, there are several words which resemble
Gaelic more closely than the Sanscrit words given with them. And so,
according to this theory, the Basques were found in Europe by the first
Gael, and these were driven westwards by Kimri, and these again by
Scythians, and these by Teutons, and all these still occupy their
respective positions. The Basques and Lapps pushed aside; The Gael in
Scotland and Ireland, driven far to the westwards; the Kimri driven
westwards into Wales and Brittany; the Scyths lost or absorbed; and the
Teutons occupying their old possessions, as Germans, Saxons, English,
Scandinavians, and all their kindred tribes; and of all these the Basques
and their relatives alone speak a language which cannot be traced to a
common unknown origin, from which Sanscrit also came.
Whatever then throws light on the
traditions of the first invaders of Europe is of interest to all the rest,
for, according to this theory, they are all of the same clan. They are all
branches of the same old stock which grew in Central Asia, and which has
spread over great part of the world, and whatever is told of Gauls is of
interest to all branches of Celts.
Rome was taken by Gauls about 390 B.C.;
Greece was invaded by Gauls about 297 B.C., and they are then described as
armed with great swords and lances, and wearing golden collars, and
fighting savagely. At the end of the third century B.C., according to the
French historian, Gaul might have been a common name for the greatest part
of Europe, for Gauls were everywhere.
Now, what manner of men were these Gauls,
when men saw them who could describe them?
All the Gauls kept their hair untouched
by iron, and raised it like a mane towards the top of the head. As to the
beard, some shaved it, others wore it of a moderate length. The chiefs and
the nobles shaved the cheeks and the chin, and let their mustache grow to
all their length. (Histoire de France, page 33.)
Their eyes were blue or sea-green, and
shone under this thick mass of hair, of which the blond hue had been
changed by limewater to a flaming tint.
Their mustaches were "Rousses," which is
the only word I know which will translate ruadh.
The warrior was armed with an enormous
sabre on his left thigh; he had two darts in his hand, or a long lance; he
carried a four cornered shield, painted of various brilliant colours, with
bosses representing birds or wild animals; and on his head was a helmet
topped with eagles' wings, floating hair, or horns of wild animals; his
clothes were particoloured and he wore "brighis; " he was always fighting
at home or abroad; he was a curious inquiring mortal, always asking
questions; and truly he must have been a formidable savage that old French
Gaul. Men's heads were nailed at the gates of his towns and his houses,
beside trophies of the chase, much as modem Gael now hang up the trophies
of their destructive skill, in the shape of pole-cats and crows.
The chiefs kept human heads embalmed and
preserved, like archives of family prowess, of the Dyaks of Borneo and the
New Zealanders still do, or did very lately. The father had the power of
life and death over his wife and children, and exercised it too by burning
the guilty wife; and, though some chiefs had several wives, and there are
some scandalous stories of the manner and customs of the inhabitants of
the island; women were consulted together with men by the chiefs on
matters of moment, and held a high place amongst the Gauls of France.
Now, this short description of the Gauls,
rapidly gleaned from the pages of two modem books of high authority and
great research, after my Gaelic stories were collected, agrees with the
picture which the Gaelic tales give of their mythical heroes in many
particulars. They have long beautiful yellow hair, Leadanach, Buidh,
Boidheach. They are Ruadh, Rousses. They have large swords, claidheamh,
sometimes duileagach, leaf shaped. They cast spears and darts, Sleadh.
They are always asking questions, and their descendants have not lost the
habit yet. Their dwellings are surrounded by heads stuck on staves, stob.
They have larders of dead enemies. When a man is described as ragged and
out of order, it is almost always added that his beard had grown over his
face; and though beards are coming into fashion now, it is not a highland
fashion to wear a beard; and many a stinging joke have I heard aimed at a
bearded man by modem Highlanders. The shields of the warriors are
Bucaideach, bossed; Balla-bhreachd, dotted and variegated; Bara chaol,
with slender point; "with many a picture to be seen on it, a lion, a
cremhinach, and a deadly snake;" and such shields are figured on the Iona
tombs. The ancient Gauls wore helmets which represented beasts. The
enchanted king's sons, when they came home to their dwellings, put off
cochal, the Rusk, and become men; and when they go out, they resume the
cochal and become animals of various kinds. May this not mean that they
put on their armour. They marry a plurality of wives in many stories. In
short, the enchanted warriors are, as I verily believe, nothing but real
men, and their manners real manners, seen through a haze of centuries, and
seen in the same light as they are seen in other popular tales, but,
mayhap, a trifle clearer, because the men who tell of them are the
descendants of the men described, and have mixed less with other men.
I do not mean that the tales date from
any particular period, but that traces of all periods may be found in them
- that various actors have played the same parts time out of mind, and
that their manners and customs are all mixed together, and truly, though
confusedly, represented - that giants and fairies, and enchanted princes
were men; that Rob Roy may yet wear many heads in Australia, and be a god
or an ogre, according to taste - that tales are but garbled popular
history, of a long journey through forests and wilds, inhabited by savages
and wild beasts: of events that occurred on the way from east to west, in
the year of grace, once upon a time.
Tales certainly are historical in this
sense when they treat of Eirinn and Lochlann, for the islands were the
battlefield of the Celts and Scandinavians, and though they lack the
precision of more modem popular history, they are very precise as to Irish
names and geography. "They went to Cnoc Seannan in Ireland." Conall was
called Gulbanach from Beinn Gulbain in Ireland. There is the "king of
Newry," and many other places are named according to their Gaelic names,
never as they are named in English. The same is true of the manuscript
tales in the Advocates' library. Places about Loch Awe are named, and the
characters pass backwards and forwards between Ireland and Argyll, as we
are told they really did when the Irish Celts invaded and possessed that
part of the west of Scotland, and that invasion is clearly referred to in
more than one popular tradition still current. When Lochlann is mentioned,
it is further off, and all is uncertain. The king's son, not the king
himself, is usually the hero. Breacan Mac Righ Lochlainn is named,
or the son of the king of Lochlann, without a name at all, but the Irish
kings often have a whole pedigree; thus Connall Gulbanach MacIulin MacArt
Mac some one else, king of Ireland, and I lately heard a long story about
This again is like distorted, undated
popular history of true events. They are clearly seen at home, the very
spot where the action took place is pointed to; less clearly in Ireland,
though people and places are named; they are dimly seen in Lochlann, and
beyond that everything is enlarged, and magical, and mysterious and
grotesque. Real events are distorted into fables and magnified into
supernatural occurrences, for the Gaelic proverbs truly say, "There are
long horns on cattle in mist" or "in Ireland," and "Far away fowls have
But whether the stories are history or
mythology, it is quite clear that they are very old, that they belong to a
class which is very widely spread, and that they were not made by living
All story tellers agree in saying that
they learned them as traditions long ago; and if all those whose names are
given had been inclined to tell "stories" in another sense, they could not
have made and told the same stories at opposite ends of Scotland, almost
simultaneously, to different people. James Wilson could not have told
Connall Cra-bhuidhe to Hector MacLean in Islay, about the same time that
Neil Gillies was telling Conal Crobhi to me at Inverary, and a very short
time before Hector Urquhart got No. 8 from Kenneth MacLean in Gairloch. An
old fisherman and an old porter could not have combined to tell a "story"
which was in Straparola, in Italian, in 1567, to Hector MacLean in Barra,
in 1859, and to the Rev. Mr. MacLauchlan in Edinburgh, in 1860, unless
these stories were popular facts, though despised as fictions; and they
are curious facts too, for the frame of Conal is common to old German
manuscripts, and some of the adventures are versions of those of Ulysses.
There are many proverbs which are only explained when the story is known;
for example, "blackberries in February" means nothing; but when explained
by the story, the meaning is clearly the idea which an acquaintance of
mine once embodied in a French toast, as "les impossibilités accomplies."
The stories do not change rapidly, for I have gone back to a reciter after
the lapse of a year, and I have heard him again repeat in Gaelic, what I
had translated from his dictation, with hardly a change (vol. 1).
I have now no doubt that the popular
tales are very old; that they are old "Allabanaich," Highlanders and
wanderers; that they have wandered, settled, and changed, with those who
still tell them; and call themselves "Albannaich," men whose wandering
spirit is not yet extinct, though they were settled in their present
abodes "before the memory of man."
There was and is, a wandering spirit in
the whole race, if Celts are Indo Europeans. In the people who delighted
in the adventures of Ulysses and Æneas, a longing spirit of western
adventure, which was shewn in the fabled Atalantis, and the Island of the
Seven Cities and St. Brandon the spirit which drove the hordes of Asia to
Europe, and urged Columbus to discover America, and which still survives
in "the Green Isle of the great deep," "Eilean uaine an iomal torra
domhain," of which so much is told, which Highland fancy still sees on the
far western horizon, and which as "FLATHINNIS," the Isle of Heroes, has
now been raised from an earthly paradise to mean Heaven.
Much has been said about highland
superstitions, and highlanders of the east and west, like their southern
neighbours, have many, but they are at least respectable from their age;
and because they are so widely spread over the world, I believe them to be
nearly all fictions founded on facts.
Thirteen Highlanders would eat their
potatoes together without fear, and one of them might spill the salt
without a shudder. I never heard of a Celtic peasant consulting his table
as an oracle, or going to a clairvoyant; but plenty of them dream dreams
and see visions, and believe in them as men in Bible history did of old.
A man had been lost in crossing the
dangerous ford, five or six miles of sand or rock, between Benbecula and
North Uist, shortly before I was there in 1859. I was told the fact, and
it was added incidentally, "And did he not come to his sister in a dream,
and tell her where to find him? and she went to the place, and got him
there, half buried in sand, after the whole country side had been looking
for him in vain." Here is a similar story from Manchester: -
"FULFILLMENT OF A DREAM. - An
inquest was held last evening at Sheffield, before Mr. Thomas Badger,
coroner, on the body of Mr. Charles Holmes, button manufacturer,
Clough House Lane, who had been found drowned on Monday morning, in
the Lead mill dam in that town. The deceased left his home on Saturday
night in company with his wife; they walked through the town together,
and about nine o'clock, at which time they were at the top of Union
Street, he said to her, 'I'm going to leave thee here, Fanny.' She
said, 'Are you?' and he replied, 'Yes, I want to see an old friend who
is going to Birmingham on Monday, and he is to be here.' She said to
him, 'Well, Charlie, don't stop long, because I do feel queer about
that dream,' and he replied, 'Oh, don't say that; I'll just have a
glass, and then come home. Go and get the supper ready, and I'll come
directly.' She then left him. When he got into the house he was
invited to drink with his friend, but he exhibited some reluctance,
saying that on the night before his wife had dreamed that she saw him
dead in a public house, and that she had dreamed a similar dream about
a week before. Unfortunately, however, he yielded to the temptation,
got drunk, and did not leave the public house till after twelve. He
was accompanied part of the way home by his friend, and was never
afterwards seen alive. Near his house are the Lead mill dams, and, in
consequence of his not returning home, his wife felt convinced that he
had fallen in and got drowned. A search was made, and on Monday
morning his body was found in the water, and was removed to the Royal
Standard public house, where his wife saw the body, and identified it
as that of her husband; The jury returned a verdict of 'Found
drowned,' and recommended that an opening in the wall, near the dam,
through which it is supposed he had fallen, should be built up."
There are plenty of lowlanders as well
as "ignorant" Highlanders who think that they are seers, without the aid
of a deal board through which to look into futurity, by the help of a
medium, and it is by no means uncommon, as I am told, for the
Astronomer-Royal to receive English letters asking his advice, ex
It may not be out of place to add a word
as to the spoken Gaelic of these tales; the mode of writing it; and the
English of the translation. First, then, it is admitted by all that the
Gaelic of the West Highlands is a branch of the old Celtic stock, that is
to say, the language of some of the oldest invaders or inhabitants of
Europe of whom anything is known. Why it is I know not, but from works on
philology it appears that the Highland dialect has been least studied, and
for that reason, if for no other, it is perhaps best worth the trouble. I
thought it best to ignore all that had been said or written on the
subject, to go direct to those who now speak the language, especially to
those who speak no other tongue; to men who use words as they use their
feet and hands, utterly unconscious of design; who talk as nature and
their parents taught them; and who are as innocent of philology as their
own babies when they first learn to say "Abbi."
I requested those who wrote for me to
take down the words as they were spoken, and to write as they would speak
themselves; and the Gaelic of the tales is the result of such a process.
The names of the writers are given, and I am satisfied that they have done
their work faithfully and well. The Gaelic then is not what is
called "classical Gaelic." It is generally the Gaelic of the people - pure
from the source.
Next, as to orthography. I chose one
man, Mr. Hector MacLean, whom I know to be free from prejudice, and who
knows the rules of Gaelic spelling, to correct the press, and I asked him
to spell the sounds which he heard, according to the principles of Gaelic
orthography, whenever he wrote anything down himself; and in correcting
the press for the work of others, to correct nothing but manifest
mistakes, and this he has done, as it appears to me, very well.
In Gaelic there are certain vowels, and
combinations of them, which represent certain sounds; and they are all
sounded, and always in the same manner, according to theory, but in
practice it is a very different matter. In speaking Gaelic, as is the case
in other languages, various modes of pronouncing the same vowels exist in
various districts. The consonants meet and contend and extinguish each
other, and change the sound of the vowels in Gaelic more than in any other
language which I know; but they fight by rule, and the conquered and the
slain encumber the words which are their battlefields, as dead or dying
consonants standing beside the silent h which kills or controls
them. One difficulty in writing Gaelic from dictation is to ascertain, in
words of doubtful meaning, whether the sound v is to be expressed
by bh or mh. The first letter was once at the head of a
small regiment of letters, and sounded his own note m or b,
and so he regulated the meaning of the rest, but having fallen in with an
h in an oblique case, and being changed thereby to v, the
whole history of the word must be known before it can be settled whether
it should begin with mh or bh, and it is much more difficult
in other cases, where the letter is silenced altogether. My mother, if
Gaelic, might become vy vother - father, ather, but the
sounds would be spelt mhother, fhather. The meaning in a
book depends on the spelling, but in speaking, it is a different matter.
There are shades of sound which an ear used to a language can detect, but
which letters are wholly unfitted to express.
Gaelic scholars, then, who have a
standard for Gaelic writing, and who adhere to it strictly, will probably
find much which will appear to them erroneous spelling.
An English scholar reading Sir Walter
Scott's novels will find plenty of words which are not in Johnson's
Dictionary, and a student of Pickwick will find much in Sam Weller's
conversation which he will not discover in that form in Shakspeare.
Had I found stories in the Isle of Wight
I should have spelt good morning good marnin, because it is so pronounced;
falbh is spelt folbh when a story comes from some of the Western Islands,
because it is so pronounced there; and for the same reason iad is spelt
eud. I have no doubt there are errors. I can only vouch for having chosen
men who did their best in a very difficult matter; for I do not believe
that there are ten men now living who would write a hundred lines of
Gaelic off hand and spell them in the same way. I very much doubt if ten
men ever did live at the same time who would have agreed as to Gaelic
spelling; and I know that I find forms of words in books which I have very
rarely heard in conversation. For example, the plural in IBH (iv)
is very rare; the common form is AN.
The spelling of the first book printed
in the Gaelic language, Bishop Carswell's Prayer book, 1567, is not the
same as the spelling of the Gaelic Bible. The Gaelic names in old charters
are not spelt according to modem rule. The old Gaelic manuscripts in the
Advocates' Library are spelt in various ways. Every man who has written
Gaelic for me, spells words variously. Manks spelling is phonetic. Irish
spelling is different; and where there is so little authority, I hope to
be forgiven if I have ventured to ask men to follow their own own road. I
hope they will be forgiven if they have taken a short cut to obtain a
certain object, and if they have left the beaten path.
For the translation I am responsible,
and I feel that the English needs excuse. It has been the fashion so far
to translate Gaelic freely; that is, to give the sense of the passage
without caring much for the sense of words. One result is, that
dictionaries give so many meanings that they are almost useless to any one
ignorant of Gaelic. There are many words in these tales which were new to
me, and I have repeatedly been driven to gather their meaning from the
context, or to ask for it at the source, because of the multitude of
contradictory explanations given in dictionaries. Let me take one word as
an example. In the first tale the hero meets CU SEANG NA COILL’ UAINE, and
the meaning turned on the word SEANG. To that word the following meanings
are attached: - Slender, slender waisted, hungry, hungry looking, lank,
lean, active, handsome, strong; (applied to a shirt front), fine; "Sad am
I this day arising the breast of my shirt is not seang ," (applied to food
in a proverb), meat makes men "seang;" (applied to hinds in an ode), neat;
(applied to a horse), spirited; also slim, small, small bellied, gaunt,
nimble, agile; (applied to lady), slender waisted. On looking further it
appears that SEANGAN is an ant; that SHUNKA is the Dakotah for all animals
of the dog species, and that the word came to be applied to a horse, as
spirit dog, when horses came first to that country; and it further appears
that there is a word in broad Scotch which nearly fits the Gaelic, SWANK;
that SING means a lion in India; and that the horses of the sun were
swankas with beautiful steps in Sanscrit. It seemed to me that the phrase
might be thus freely translated "The Forest Lion."
But though it seemed to me possible I
might be entirely wrong, so I gave the meaning of the words, about which
there could be no mistake: -
CU SEANG NA COILL'UAINE.
Dog slim of the wood green.
My belief is, that the word was an
adjective, descriptive of the qualities of a lion wherever their likeness
is to be found as strength, activity, high courage, bold bearing, slender
form, hunger, satiety; but I did not venture to translate CU SEANG by
"lion," nor by "grey hound," as I was advised to do. I translated it by
those words which seem to give the present meaning of the Gaelic. CU, a
dog; SEANG, slim; and the phrase stands, "The slim dog of the green wood."
And so throughout I have aimed at giving
the present real meaning of every separate word, but so as to give its
true meaning in the passage in which it occurs. Where I have not been able
to do both, I have tried to keep as close as I could to the original idea
involved. For example, "In the mouth of night" is new to English, but it
is comprehensible, and it is the exact meaning of the phrase commonly used
to express the first coming on of darkness. The expression is poetical. It
seems to refer to some old mythical notion that the sun went into a cave
or a tent to sleep, for "Take thy sleep in thy cave" is a line in Ossian's
"Address to the Sun," and though it was suggested to me to alter this
translation, and make it "good English," I thought it best to adhere to my
original plan. Generally where the phrase occurs it is translated "in the
mouth of night," though I was advised to write, "in the dusk," "in the
evening," "at nightfall," "in the mantle of night," "at twilight," "in the
grey of the evening."
I admit that all these phrases express
ideas which might be attached to the words; but what could an unfortunate
student make of a passage in which a word meaning mouth according
to all dictionaries, should seem to mean mantle, or fall, or
grey. It is very much easier to write naturally and translate
freely; and as I have tried hard to make my translation a close one, I
hope the bad English will be forgiven.
Those only who have tried to turn Gaelic
into English can understand the difficulty. There are in fact many Gaelic
phrases which will not go into English at all. For example, THA SO AGAM (I
have this), is this at me, or with me, or by me, is a phrase which
cannot be rendered for want of a word equivalent to AG or AIG, which
expresses position and possession, and is combined with am, ad, e, inn,
ibh, and changed to aca to express the persons. Gaelic will not bear
literal translation into English, but I have tried to give the real
meaning of every word as nearly as I could, and to give it by using the
English word which most resembled the Gaelic; and thus I have unexpectedly
fallen in with a number of English words which seem to have the same
origin as Gaelic, if they are not survivors of the language of the ancient
Britons. I have translated CLAIDHEAMH, pronounced Claiv, by glave, THRAILL
by thrall, and so throughout wherever I have thought of an English word
that resembled a word admitted to be Gaelic.
It is my own opinion, and it is that of
Mr. MacLean, that the Gaelic language is the same from Cape Clear in
Ireland to Cape Wrath in Scotland, though there are many dialects, and
there is much variety. The language was taught to me by a native of Lorn,
and he was chosen by the advice of men well able to judge, as a
native of the district where the best
Gaelic was then supposed to be spoken. Speaking from my own experience, I
can converse freely in Lorn Gaelic with Scotch Highlanders in every
district of Scotland, and with natives of Rathlin. I can make my way with
natives of the North of Ireland, but I cannot converse with the natives of
some Irish districts. I could not make the Manksmen understand me, but I
can readily understand most of the words in Manks and in Irish, when
There are a very great many words in
Welsh and in Breton which I can understand, or trace when they are
separately spoken, but the difference in these is much wider. Peasants
come from Connaught to Islay, and in a very short time converse freely,
though their accent betrays them; but an Argyllshire Highlander is known
in the north by his accent, just as a Yorkshireman would be found out in
Somersetshire. An Islay man is detected in Mull, and a native of one
parish in Islay is detected when he speaks in another; but though there
are such shades of difference, a Highlander used to hear languages
variously spoken should have no difficulty in understanding any dialect of
Gaelic spoken in Scotland, and most of the Irish dialects. But which of
all these is the best, who is to decide? The author of a very good
dictionary says, under the word COIG, that "in the islands of Argyllshire
every word is pronounced just as Adam spoke it." Dr. Johnson pronounced
the whole to be the rude speech of a barbarous people; and the Saxon knew
as much of Gaelic as the Celt did of Adam. One Gaelic scholar wished to
change the island words; a good Highlander told me that Dalmally was the
best place for Gaelic, another was all for Western Ross. Nobody has a good
word for Sutherland Gaelic, but it is very pure nevertheless in some
districts; north country men are an for Inverness. I have heard excellent
Gaelic in the Long Island. On the whole, I am inclined to think that
dialect the best which resembles the largest number of others, and that is
the dialect spoken by the most illiterate in the islands, and on the
promontories furthest to the west. I will not venture to name any
district, because I have no wish to contend with the natives of all the
The spirit of nationality is one which
has a large development amongst my countrymen, and the subject of language
brings it out in strong relief It is but a phase of human nature, a result
of the quality which phrenologists describe as combativeness, and it seems
to be common to all the races classed as Indo European.
It is a common opinion in England that
one Englishman can thrash three Frenchmen; and I have no doubt that a
similar opinion prevails in France, though I do not know the fact.
Highlanders believe that lowlanders generally are soft and effeminate;
lowlanders think that mountaineers are savages. An Irish Celt detests his
brother Celt over the water. A Scotch Celt calls another Eireannach when
he abuses him, but let a common foe appear and they will all combine.
England, Ireland, and Scotland are up in
arms, with rifles on their shoulders, at a hint of the approach of a
Frenchman; but they joined France with heart and hand to fight the Russian
and the Chinese; and as soon as the battle was over, they came back and
fought at home.
The English lion stirred up the Scotch
lion in the English press, and the northern lion growled over his wrongs.
Ireland began to tell of the tyrant Saxon, and a stranger might think that
the Union was about to fall to pieces. It is not so; it is but a
manifestation of superfluous energy which breaks out in the other "union"
over the water, and makes as much noise there as steam blowing off
I maintain that there is chronic war in
every part of her Majesty's dominions. Not long ago a dispute arose about
a manner of catching herrings. One set of men caught them with drift nets,
another with dragnets, and one party declared that the other violated the
law; blood got up, and at last a whole fleet of fishing-boats left their
ground and sailed twenty miles down to attack the rival fleet in form. A
gun-boat joined the party, and peace was preserved; but it was more the
result of a calm, which enabled the light row boats to escape from the
heavier sailing fleet. Both parties spoke the same language, and on any
subject but herrings, they would have backed each other through the world.
The purchase of an orange, and a box on
the ear, grew into a serious riot in a northern town last year. The fight
spread as from a centre, and lasted three days; but here it developed
itself into a fight between Celt and Saxon. Both sides must have been in
the wrong, and I am quite sure they were both ignominiously defeated,
although they may hold the contrary.
Every election in the three kingdoms is
a shameful riot, according to some public organ, whose party get the worst
There is a regular stand up fight in
Paris periodically, the rest of Europe goes to war in earnest at every
opportunity, and when there are no national or class wars, men fight as
individuals all over the world. I was once at Christmas at a hurling match
in Ireland. The game was played on ice on a lake, and after some hours the
owner of the lake sent down a Scotch butler with bread and cheese and
whisky for the players. They gathered about the cart in perfect good
humour, when suddenly, without cause, an excited banker's clerk shouted, "Hurro
for -----' (the nearest post town), and performed a kind of war dance on
the outside edge of his skates, flourishing a stick wildly, and chanting
his war song, "I'll bet ere a man in England, Ireland, or SCOTLAND." A
knobby stick rose up in the crowd, and the Scotch butler was down; but an
Irish boy who had not opened his mouth was the next. He went head-foremost
into a willow bush amongst the snow, and three men in frieze great-coats
kicked him with nailed shoes. In ten minutes the storm was over, the
butler was up again in his cart dispensing the refreshments, the man in
the bush was consoling himself with a dram, and an was peace. But that
night the country party took up a position behind a stone wall, and when
the others came, they sallied forth and there was a battle royal.
So I have seen a parish shinty match in
the Highlands become so hot and furious, that the leaders were forced to
get two pipers and march their troops out of the field in opposite
directions, to prevent a civil war of parishes.
And so, a part of her Majesty's guards
having gone out to exercise at Clewer, and being stationed as "the enemy"
at some point, obstinately refused to "retreat in disorder;" but stood
their ground with such determination, that the officers had to sound the
retreat on both sides to prevent a serious battle.
So at Eton, shins were broken in my
tutor's football match against my dame's; and boys injured themselves in
rowing frantically for the honour of upper or lower sixes.
Two twins, who were so like, that one
used to skip round a pillar and answer to his brother's name, and who
probably would have died for each other, still fought in private so
earnestly, that one carried the mark of a shovel on his forehead for many
a long day; and so boys fight, and men fight, individually and
collectively, as parties, races, and nations, all over Europe, if not all
over the world.
I decline to state my opinion as to
which Gaelic is the best, for that is a peculiarly delicate subject, my
countrymen having ceased to use their dirks, are apt to fight with pens,
and I would rather see the children of the Gael, in this as in other
matters fighting shoulder to shoulder against foes, and working side by
side with their friends.
The Gaelic language is essentially
descriptive, rich in words, which by their sound alone express ideas. The
thundering sound of the waves beating on the shore is well expressed by
TONN, a wave; LUNN, a heavy Atlantic swell.
The harsh rattling and crushing of
thunder by TAERNEANACH.
The plunge of a heavy body thrown into
deep water by TUNN, plunge.
The noise of small stones and fine
gravel streaming seawards from a beach in the undertow is heard in
The tinkling of shells as they slip and
slide on the sand at the edge of the sea is heard in SLIGEAN, shells.
The hard sharp knocking of stones in
CLACH, a stone, and thence all manner of compound ideas follow as CLACHAN,
a village; CLACHAIR, a mason; CLACHARAN, a stone-chat.
The names of domestic animals usually
resemble their notes. Bo, a cow; gobhar, a goat; caora, a sheep; laogh, a
calf. Words such as barking, growling, squealing, coughing, sneezing,
suggest the idea by the sound, as they do in English. Many names of beasts
and birds, which are not of this class, are descriptive in another sense.
The grouse are the reddish brown cock and hen; the fox, the reddish brown
dog; the wolf, the fierce dog; the sandpiper, the little driolichan of the
strand. The crow is the flayer, the falcon, the darter; the otter the
brown or black beast.
It is a language full of metaphorical
and descriptive expressions. "He went to the beginning of fortune;" "he
put the world under his head;" "he took his own body home;" "he went away"
- that is, he went home sick, and he died. "There were great masses of
rain, and there was night and there was darkness." "Ye must not be out
amidst the night, she is dark."
It is rich in words expressive of war,
by no means rich in words belonging to the arts. CRANN, a tree, means a
mast, the bar of a door, a plough, and many other things made of wood.
BEAIRT means a loom, a block and tackling, and engines of various kinds.
It seems to contain words to express the
great features of nature, which can be traced in the names of rivers and
mountains in a great part of Europe, such as EAS, a rapid (pr. ace); ATH
(pr. A. and Av.), a ford; AMHAINN, OBHAINN, ABHAINN, a river, variously
pronounced, avain, a-wen, ovain, o-in, o-un, o-n. Calais I take to
be CALA, a harbour; the word has no meaning in French. Boulogne might be
BEUL OBHAINN, river's mouth; Donau, the Danube, might mean the brown
river. Tana might mean the shallow, and both are descriptive.
Rhine might mean the division, and there
is a district in Islay whose name is pronounced exactly as the name of the
great German river. Balaclava is exceedingly like the name of an Islay
farm, and might mean kite's town, BAILE CHLAMHAIN; but though such
resemblances can hardly fail to occur to any one who knows the Gaelic
language, it requires time and careful study to follow out such a subject,
and it is foreign to my purpose. There are plenty of Gaelic words which
closely resemble words in other European languages. Amongst the few
Sanscrit words which I have been able to glean from books, I find several
which resemble Gaelic words of similar meaning - JWALA, light flame, has
many Gaelic relations in words which mean shining, fire, lightning, the
moon, white, swan.
DYU, day, is like an diugh, to day;
MIRAH, the ocean, like muir, mara, the sea; but this again is foreign to
My wish has been simply to gather some
specimens of the wreck so plentifully strewn on the coasts of old
Scotland, and to carry it where others may examine it; rather to point out
where curious objects worth some attention may be found, than to gather a
great heap. I have not sought for stranded forests. I have not polished
the rough sticks which I found; I have but cut off a very few offending
splinters, and I trust that some may be found who will not utterly despise
such rubbish, or scorn the magic which peasants attribute to a fairy egg.
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