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Popular Tales of the West Highlands
Introduction - Part 2


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 Feene.

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 before.

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 also."

And in Cregeen's Manks dictionary, by the same publisher, 1835, is this Manks proverb: -

"Ny three geayghn s' feayrey dennee Fion M'Cooil,

Geay henneu, as geay huill,

As geay fo ny shiauill."

Which I understand to mean -

The three coldest winds that came to Fion M'Cooil,

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 hidden meaning.

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 one; Fo-choue-kiun-nieou-pi-king.

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 evident.

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.


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