Tales of the West Highlands
Introduction - Part 4
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 Phnician 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 Wolfs 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
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