Tales of the West Highlands
Introduction - Part 3
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.
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