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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
IV. Notes on Folk Lore


WILLIAM MACDONALD, who died about fifty years ago, was a native of Glenmore, where the family had resided for several generations. Like his father, he was a wright or cooper, and was commonly called Ullleam Saor, William the Carpenter. William was strongly built, with good features, and dark eyes that glowed like coals under shaggy brows, and shocks of dark snaky hair. He had an irritable temper, and when badly teased, as he sometimes was by boys, he would break out into violent rages. At Christmas he used to make a round among his friends, selling cogs and tubs. On such occasions he was a welcome guest at the fireside, especially with the young, from his store of Gaelic songs and legends. William had one strange custom. There was a little grassy mound near his workshop, and to this he used to resort in the morning for his devotions. The first thing he did was to bow towards the sun, and then he said his prayers. He was once asked what he meant by bowing to the sun. His answer was that he did as his fathers had done before him. William Saor might therefore be called the last of our Sun worshippers, though with him the worship was simply the survival of an old custom which had lost its meaning. It may be mentioned that Sir Edwin Landseer, who was a frequent visitor at the Doune of Rothiemurchus when it was rented by the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, was much struck by William’s figure, and that he has introduced him into his picture of "The Bringing Home of the Deer."

Beltane, or May-day, was one of the chief days of the year. It is generally explained as Beil-teine, Belus, or Baal fire; but the word means, more probably, bright-fire, or luck-fire. At Beltane the Gael used to kindle two fires, and to drive their cattle between them for purification and good luck. Hence the saying: Eadar dà theine Bhealltuinn, between the two fires of Beltane. Some modern authorities hold that Beltane, being the first day of May (Céitein, the first of summer), was properly the beginning of the year, and that Earrach (eàrr, end). Spring, was the end of the year, when the old was passing into the new. Beltane was the day when young people used to roll bannocks, also for luck. The sunny slopes of the Nethy, and the old mill-bank at Balnagown were favourite places for the sport. The bannochs were made of oatmeal, round as the moon, about an inch and a half thick, well baked, and covered with a rich coating of cream and egg. Certain figures were cut on the surface, generally a cross on the one side, and a cipher on the other. Bannocks were baked for every member of the family. The absent were remembered as well as those present. "No distance breaks the tie of blood." The game was to roll the bannocks from a height, and when they settled, to mark which side was uppermost. If it was the side with the cross, this was a sign of good fortune; if it was the cipher that came up, this indicated that the year would be unlucky. The bannocks were rolled thrice, and when the play was over, they were broken and eaten, and the fragments left were thrown up into the air, with the Gaelic words

SealI‘s do na h’ uile eun beag th'anns an adhair
Ach Dobhrag an t-shleibh,
Ach gum b’ ann a bhriseas ise leth-cas
Dol stigh air dorus a Maighstir fein."

i.e., "Here’s to every little bird of the air, save the snipe, but may she break her one foot going in at the door of her master." Why the snipe should have been thus singled out and put under ban is not known. One peculiar thing about the snipe is the number of names it has in Gaelic. It is called Naosga, Sgreuch-an-lòn, gvbhar-adhair, Croman-lòn, eun-ghabhrag; rneannan-adhair and so on. These names are descriptive, and refer to some peculiarity in the cry, mode of flight, and habits of the animal, It is sometimes said in derision of a man with many names, Tha uiread de ainmeanan air ris an naosg - " He has as many names as the snipe." There are survivals, which seem connected with Bull-worship. On New Year’s Eve the old people used anxiously to scan the sky for the appearance of what was sometimes called the Candlemas Bull. It was believed that from the size and aspect of this cloud the weather for the year might be predicted. The first night of the year was called oidche dàir na coille, the night of the impregnating of the wood, when life was everywhere being renewed. The Church seems to have taken up this notion, and to have connected it with the birth of Christ. The old Latin legend bore that the bees woke at Christmas from their winter sleep, and hummed a song of praise. The birds, and other animals after their kind, joined in the concert. The Cock crowed Christus naius est, Christ is born. The Raven croaked Ouando? when? The Crow cawed Hac necte, this night. The Ox asked Ubi? where? The Sheep replied, Bethlehem; and the Ass cried Eamus, let us go.

On the first day of the year it was once customary to burn juniper in byres, stables, and house fire-places. This was done sixty years ago at the Dell, by Donald Cameron, grieve, a faithful old servant, who was indulged in his harmless ways. The burning of juniper may have been originally for sanitary purposes, but it had also to do with old Church beliefs. In manv parts of France and Italy the juniper is used instead of the holly at Christmas (G. Nollaig, from nova, nouvelles, noel), and is hung in stables and cattle sheds. There is a legend that the Holy Family hid in a juniper bush from their pursuers when on the way to Egypt. Hence it is called by some "The Madonna’s Bush." In China it is said to be an emblem of immortality. Some other plants were supposed to possess special virtues. The Stonecrop was set in the thatch of houses, and the Rowan or Mountain Ash, was planted round dwelling-houses as a protection against the fairies. The Rowan is one of the commonest of our native trees. The fir woods teem with myriads of little plants that have sprung up from seeds carried by birds, but few of them survive. In the struggle for existence they have no chance against the heather and the pine. But in more favourable circumstances they thrive well. Sometimes single trees are found growing among the rocks, or by the water-side, and in antumn they glow with beauty. Wordsworth has painted such a scene with much felicity: —

"No eye can overlook, when ‘mid a grove
Of yet unfaded trees, she lifts her head
Decked with antumnal berries, that outshine
Spring’s richest blossoms ; and ye may have marked
By brookside or solitary tarn,
How she her station doth adorn; the pool
Glows at her feet, and all the glowing rocks
Are brightened round her."

Among wild animals some were loved and some were hated; some were cherished, and others cursed. The Wren, the Robin, the Cross-bill, and the Snow-bunting were held sacred. The Wren was called by the Celts the King of Birds. According to the old legend, the Birds, after consultation, agreed to make King the one that should fly the highest. The Eagle, of course, expected to win, but the Wren challenged it to the trial. Up, up, far beyond the rest, the Eagle soared, till it was lost to sight in the brilliance of the sun. Then it cried in scorn, Cait am bheil thu nis a Dhreathan duinn? "Where are you now, little Wren?" But the Wren had cunningly perched on the Eagle’s hack, and at this call took a further flight, crying out in triumph, Fad,fad, os do cheann, "Far, far above you." So the Wren won the crown. The Robin was hallowed for its red breast, which had caught some of the blood from the Cross and the Cross-bill for its bill, which had been maimed by its loving endeavours to free our Lord from the accursed tree. The Snow-bunting (G. Gealag ‘n t ‘sneachdaidh) was also regarded as sacred, perhaps from its whiteness. The following legend is curious:— A certain man went one day to a Saint’s Well (in Duthil) for water, when he saw a strange sight. There was a fire with a brazen pot hanging over it. The fire was made of dried horse-dung, like as is done in the East with camel-dung to this day, and the pot was filled with snow-buntings. Around the fire were seated a number of tacharans—spirits of unbaptized children—-clothed in white. The pot took the man’s fancy, and he asked for it, but was refused. He repeated his request thrice, with certain forms, and then he was allowed to take the pot, but with a curse attached that it would bring ill-fortune along with it— Nach seasadh an coinneamh Shraspe, ach aon bhonaid, gu ruidh tre àl, dheih na thigeadh na dheigh, "That there would not stand in the Gathering of Strathspey but one bonnet, for three generations, of those who should come after him." The man took the pot to Clury, and for long Clury was believed to be an unlucky place. In recent times, however, it is evident the ban has passed away. At Clury, as elsewhere, "The hand of the diligent maketh rich." The little Black Beetle used to be held in abhorrence. The legend was that when the Holy Family were in flight to Egypt, the Virgin asked some people who were busy in a field to say to the pursuers, if they asked questions, that Joseph and his party had passed when the field was being sown. During the night the corn sprang up, and next day was ready for the sickle. When the pursuers came and put their question, they were answered as the Virgin directed. Then said the Captain, "We need go no further." Whereupon the Beetle rose and called out, An dé, an dé, chaidh Mac Dhé seachad, "Yesterday, yesterday, the Son of God passed this way." For this baseness— the many suffering for the crime of the one— the Beetle is abhorred, and whenever he puts forth his black head, he is at once crushed, with the words of doom, A dhaolag, dhaolag, chan fhaic thu an là màireach, "Beetle, beetle, you won’t see to-morrow." In this ancient legend we have embodied the undying hatred of all true Highlanders to meanness and treachery.

The Woodpecker (G. snag: the tapper, from its light audible knock. The Creeper is called Snàig, from its creeping habit) was, in the memory of people still living, common in the pine-woods. Its brain was believed to be a cure for epilepsy. Perhaps this may have been on the principle of similia similibus. The brain of the bird that could balance itself and keep its head at such great heights, and with so little foothold, must have had some special virtue. The Woodpecker among the Romans was the bird of Mars, and sacred to Romulus. The patch of crimson on its head has been variously accounted for. Longfellow gives the legend current among the North American Indians in the Song of Hiawatha, where the grateful hero is said to have

"Called the Mama, the Woodpecker,
From his perch among the branches
Of the melancholy pine-tree,
And in honour of his service,
Stained with blood the tuft of feathers
Of the little head of Mama.
Even to this day he wears it,
Wears the tuft of crimson feathers
As a symbol of his service."

Charms of various kinds were in use till recently. Infants were passed through the smoke, and had a scarlet thread with three knots tied round the left arm for a protection (cf. Virgil, Eelogue, viii.). Little crosses of rowan, and brooches in the form of a heart, were sewn into children’s clothes for the same purpose. Certain persons had Charms, believed to have been inherited, for the cure of ophthalmia, jaundice, ring-worm, and other diseases. The Evil Eye was greatly dreaded. This malign power descended in families. It was an inherited and not a voluntary possession. An old lady of the Clan Allan Grants is well remembered who would never enter a house or approach a child without first craving a benediction to avert all bad results. Lord Bacon, in his essay on ‘‘ Envy " (from Lat. invidia = in and video, to look upon), says:- There be none of the aftections which have been known to fascinate or bewitch but love and envy; they both have vehement wishes; they frame themselves readily into imaginations and suggestions, and they come easily into the eye, especially upon the presence of the objects which are the points that conduce to fascination, if any such there be. We see, likewise, the Scriptures calleth envy an Evil Eye." Perhaps Bacon refers to Mark vii., 21, 22, " Out of the heart of men proceedeth deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye." But there are many other allusions to the Evil Eye in the Bible. The following texts may be mentioned :—Deut. xv., 9 xxviii., 54; I. Sam. xviii., 9; Prov. xxiii., 6 ; xxviii., 22 ; also Gal. iii., 1, "Who hath bewitched you?" In this last text the Vulgate has fascinavit for "bewitched," which may be compared with the famous passage in Virgil (Ecc. iii., 103), Nescio quis teneros oculus mihi fascinat agnos, "Some evil eye bewitches my tender lambs." The Latins called the Evil Eye " Fascinum " ; the Greeks, " Bascanion " ; the Celts, "Suil-ghonaidh." It is referred to in Shakespeare. Biron says to Rosalind (" Love’s Labour Lost," Act v., Sc. 2):-—

Write, Lord have mercy on us, on those three:
They are infected, in their heart it lies;
They have the plague, and caught it of your eyes."

And again, "There’s an eye wounds like a leaden sword." Portia says to Bassanio ("Merchant of Venice," Act iii., Sc. 2), "Beshrew your eyes, they have overlooked me." In some parts of the country you may still hear sayings and forms of speech which imply this old belief. If praise be given, or if it be said, " I am glad to see you looking so well," it is often added, "May I not forespeak you," as a guard against evil consequences. There were many devices for defence against the Evil Eye. The Gaelic proverb says, Fluich do skuil mu ‘n gabh i air, "Wet your eye, lest it light on him.‘ The spittle was supposed to have a counteracting virtue. When baiting a hook, it used to be a common thing to spit on the worm for luck. We read in the Book of Judges (viii. 21) that Zebah and Zalmunna had moon-like ornaments on their camels, doubtless as amulets or charms ; and we have a survival of this custom in the crescent or half-moon still commonly used in the decoration of horses (cf. Isaiah iii, 18, " Round tires like the moon"; and Jer. xliv., 17-20, where cakes, round like the moon, were offered to the Queen of Heaven, similar to the minchah in the Mosaic ritual, the Neideh in the Egyptian worship of the goddess Neith, and Artemis among the Greeks). In Roman Catholic countries the sign of the cross is used as a protection; and in Rome, where the belief in the Evil Eye is common, the hand amulet, i.e., the index and little finger thrust out, with the thumb clasping the others, is the constant defence. F. Marion Crawford says, in his novel "Pietro Cherleri":- It is a strange fact that at the present day such things should be believed, and well-nigh universally, by a cultured society of men and women. And yet it is a fact, and an undeniable one. Let it once get abroad that a man or woman ‘projects’ (to translate the Italian, jetta) the baneful influence which causes accidents of every description, and he or she may as well bid farewell to society for ever. Such a person is shunned as one contaminated at his approach every hand is hidden to make the sign of defence; no one will speak to him who can help it, and then always with concealed fingers kept rigidly bent in the orthodox fashion, or clasped upon a charm of proved efficiency. Few indeed are those brave enough to ask such an one to dinner, and they are esteemed almost miraculously fortunate if no misfortune befalls them during the succeeding twenty-four hours, if their houses do not burn, and their children do not develop the measles. Incredible as it may appear to northern people, a man or woman may be socially ruined by the imputation of 'projecting’ when it is sustained by the coinciding of the very smallest accident with their presence, or with the mention of their names." The late Pope, Pius IXth, was said to have inherited this gift, which caused him much trouble. Of Omens, Fore-goes, Corpse-candles and such like, it is unnecessary to say anything. The Corpcreadha has been practised in the present century—in Inverness-shire thirty years ago, and in Ross-shire later still. The belief in Changelings, once common all over Europe (cf. Luther’s, "Table Talk "), existed till lately, and you may still hear old people cite instances in proof of the practice. In the "Chiefs of Grant," a curious custom as to Fire is referred to as existing in Abernethy:- "When any disease broke out among the cattle of a davoch, the fires in all the dwellings of that davoch had to be extinguished. This was supposed to aid in stamping out the disease. The fires were afterwards rekindled by the rubbing of sticks against the cupples of the byres in which the diseased cattle were kept." Shaw refers to this custom.

Certain legends and sgeulachds are to be found, in some form or other, all over the Highlands. The belief in the virtues of the White Serpent is not peculiar to Sutherland. In Abernethy the serpent is said to have been found in the Slochd of Bachdcharn. The legend of Fingal’s heroes asleep in the cave, referred to by Sir Walter Scott and others, is still told amongst us, and it is connected with Poll-na-h’ Inchrach, "The Pool of the Key," on the Avon, into which the key was said to have been thrown by the craven adventurer, who failed to draw the sword before he blew the horn, and therefore left the Braves in a worse condition than that in which he found them. Michael Scott figures in Gaelic tales, and the story of how he rode to Rome (through the air) on his black mare and won the secret of the proper way of counting Fastern’s E’en froni the Pope, was often told. The story of the adventure with the Fairies, where the man who had entered the sithan, and taken part in the dance, found when he was rescued that the reel had lasted a twelvemonth, is also common. Another weird story—told with much graphic power by Hugh Miller in his " Legends of Cromarty "—" The Wild Wife," is one of the favourite stories on Speyside. Miller connects it with Kirkmichael, in Ross-shire, but with us it has a local habitation and a name as the "Legend of the Wife of Laggan," and the Kirkyard of Dalarossie, in Moy.

As showing the connection of one part of the Highlands with another, the following incident may be mentioned. Talking with an old man, the late Peter Smith, Rinuigh, some thirty years ago, reference was made to flittings. Yes, he said, flittings are expensive. Mar thuirl an Leanabh Ileach, as said the Childe of Islay when he was eating his piece, and his stepmother made him move from one side of the fireplace to the other. Chan eil an t-imrich is lugha, gun chall, "The least flitting is not without loss." He quoted also other sayings of the "Leanabh," whose fame is in all the Highlands. Another saying savouring of the West, obtained from the late John Stewart, Achgourish, commonly called "Gowrie," may he noted, which is significant in more ways than one:— Seachd sgadain, sàth bradain; seach bradain sàth ròin; seachd ròin sàth na lMuic Mara; seachd Mhuc-Mhara sàth an Cinnlan-Crò; seach Cinnlan Cro, sàth an Fhir-nach-Còir, "Seven herring a salmon’s feed or meal (sath: sufficient; cf. Lat. sat, satis: enough); seven salmon a seal’s feed; seven seal the feed of the sea-pig, or whale; seven whales the feed of the Cinnlan Cro; seven Cinnlan Cros the feed of the Fhirnach Coir." The last two names are untranslateable. Perhaps the first means, from the reference to the head full of eyes, or folds, the cuttlefish or octopus. The other may mean, "He that is not good," i.e., the Evil One ; or, "He that ought not to be named." an euphemism for the Devil. The climax is very suggestive. There is an air of mystery about the subject, a shrinking from the actual name, as if it were too horrible to be mentioned.

Aubrey, in his book on " Hermetick Philosophy," 1696, gives a letter from a student in divinity in Strathspey concerning the second- sight, which contains some curious stories. The following are extracts:-

"The most remarkable of this Sort, that I hear of now, is one Archibald Mackeanyers, alias Mackdonald, living in Ardinmurch within Ten or Twenty Miles, or thereby, of Glencoe, and I was present my self, where he fore-told something, which accordingly fell out in 1683 ; this Man being in Strathspey, in John Mackdonald of Glencoe his Company, told in Balachastell before the Laird of Grant, his Lady, and several others, amid also in my Father’s House ; that Argyle, of whom few or none knew then where he was, at least there was no Word of him then here; should within two Twelve Mouths thereafter, come to the West-Highlands, and raise a Rebellious Faction, which would be divided among themselves, and disperse, and he unfortunately be taken and beheaded at Edinburgh, and his Head set upon the Talbooth, where his Father’s Head was before him; which proved as true, as he foretold it, in 1685, thereafter. Likewise in the Beginning of May next after the late Revolution, as my Lord Dundee return’d up Speyside, after he had followed General Major MacKay in his Reer down the Length of Edinglassie, at the Milatown of Gartinbeg the Machleans joined him, and after he had received them, he marched forward, but they remained behind, and fell a Plundering: Upon which, Glencoe and some others, among whom was this Archibald, being in my Father’s House, and hearing that MacLeans and others were Pillaging some of his Lands, went to restrain them, and commanded them to march after the Army; after he had cleared the first Town, next my Father’s House of them, and was come to the second, there standing on a Hill, this Archibald said, Glencoe, If you take my Advice, then make off with your self with all possible Haste, e’re an Hour come and go, you’ll be put to it as hard as ever you was : Some of the Company began to droll and say, what shall become of me? Whether Glencoe believed him, or no, I cannot tell but this I am sure of, that whereas before he was of Intention to return to my Father’s House and stay all Night, now we took leave, and immediately parted: And indeed, within an Hour thereafter MacKay, amid his whole Forces, appeared at Culnakyle in Abernethie, Two Miles below the Place where we parted, and hearing that Cleaverhouse had marched up the Water-side a little before, but that MacLeans, and several other Straglers, had stayed behind, commanded Major Aeneas MacKay, with Two Troops of Horse after them ; who finding the said MacLeans at Kinchardie, in the Parish of Luthil, chased them up the Morskaith; In which Chase Glencoe happened to be, and was hard put to it, as was foretold. What came of Archibald himself, I am not sure I have not seen him since, nor can I get a true Account of him, only I know he is yet alive, and at that Time one of my Father’s Men whom the Red-coats meeting, compell’d to guide them, within Sight of the MacLeans, found the said Archibald’s Horse within a Mile of the Place where I left him. I am also inform’d, this Archibald said to Glencoe, that he would be murthered in the Night-time in his own House three Months before it happen’d."

"There was one James Mack Coil-vicalaster alias Grant, in Glenbeum near Kirk-Michael in Strathawin, who had this Sight, who I hear of several that were well acquainted with, was a very honest Man, and of right blameless Conversation. He used ordinarily by looking to the Fire, to fore-tell what Strangers would come to his House the next Day, or shortly thereafter, by their Habit and Arms, and sometimes also by their Names; and if any of his Goods or Cattle were missing, he would direct his Servants to the very place where to find them, whether in a Mire or upon dry Ground; he would also tell, if the Beast were already Dead, or if it would Die e’re they could come to it; and in Winter, if they were thick about the Fire-side, he would desire them to make room for some others that stood by, tho’ they did not see them, else some of them, would be quickly thrown into the midst of it. But whether this Man saw any more than Brownie and Meg Mullach, I am not very sure; Some say. he saw more continually, and would often be very angry-like, and something troubled, nothing visibly moving him: Others affirm he saw these two continually, and sometimes many more."

"Meg Mullack, and Brownie mentioned in the end of it, are two Ghosts, which (as it is constantly reported) of old, haunted a Family in Strathspey of the Name of Grant. They appeared at first in the likeness of a young Lass; the second of a young Lad."

The words "of old" are very significant. Meg Mollach and Brownie were still hidden in the dim and distant past two hundred years ago.


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