Loch Etive and The Sons of Uisnach
Chapter VI - The
Sons of Uisnach
"Who but the sons of
Usnoth, chief of streamy Etha?"
"Blessed are the rocks of Etha."
[Macpherson's Ossian is here quoted. Etha does not occur in old
writings; it is Etie, so far as I know, and Usnoth is not the name
of a man. It is evidently intended to be a soft form of Uisnech or
journey will be to Dun Uisnach. That is the chief point in the
district, and it has been a point of interest and dispute for
centuries, more especially for one century. It has been called
Beregonium, Dun Mac Uisneachan, Dun Mhic Uisneachan, Dun Mac
Sniochan, and Dun Mac Snichan; the name has even been dissolved into
Usny, and twisted at times into Uiston. Then by some perverse
persons the favourite k has been added, so as to become Houston and
Mac Houston, until others have believed in nothing. For simplicity I
prefer the oldest forms, Uisnech and Uisnach, but may use others. It
is really pronounced Uisnyach, the y being a consonant. This
spelling makes it simple for English ears, which are afraid of Dun
mac Uisneachan, as being long and outlandish to them.
There are many
stories about it. It has been called the beginning of the kingdom of
Scotland, the palace of a long race of kings; also the halls of
Selma, in which Fingal lived; the stately capital of a Queen Hynde,
having towers and halls and much civilization, with a Christianity
before Ireland ; whilst it has also been considered to be that which
the native name implies, simply the fort of the sons of Uisnach, who
came from Ireland, and whose names are found over all the district,
and who in the legend are reported to have come to a wild part of
Alban. This latter view, I may say, seems to be the common-sense
one, raising no obstacles; but every other view may be discussed,
and let us give them all fair play.
Now, first, for the
story which makes it interesting. It is romantic and old, and
creates its own interest; and before we look at the spot we shall
ask Mr. O'Keefe to tell it.
considered that he was in a region peculiarly interesting to
Irishmen, because the sons of Uisnach came from Ireland and lived
about Loch Etive for a long time; so before any visit was made to
the ruins of their house, he told the story, "one of the three
sorrowful tales of Ireland," using the version printed by the Dublin
Society in i8o8, but not giving word for word.
is no story better known in Ireland than "The Death of the Children
of Uisnach." We have songs belonging to it and music also, that
sounds well on the Irish pipe. It is an old Milesian story, for
these sons were of old and good Milesian blood, and had lived at
Uisnach, which is in the middle of Ireland. Uisneach or Usnagh was a
fine place in old Ireland, because the council of all the provinces
met there, and every year the fresh fire was lighted that was
conveyed to all Ireland; this was before Christianity. There is a
large stone on the hill where the provinces met, or at least there
was, and many other things; but St. Patrick did not like the place,
and much was destroyed, and no wonder, since it was thoroughly
pagan. The stones lately found may be some of those which were
cursed. I do not know why the three heroes of the piece came to
Ulster; probably it was for the same reason that people go to
London; they became important men at the capital in Emania, near
Armagh. The place had the name Caen-druim, the head of the ridge, in
very old time, but now it has become Usny by a common piece of
carelessness. Old habits keep up, and even "in 1111 the Synod of
Uisneach met, with fifty bishops, three hundred priests, and three
thousand ecclesiastics." [Cambrensis Eversus, cap. 31.] It was a
convenient spot for Christians, as it had been for pagans, seeing
the means of locomotion were the same. Conor (Concobliar) was king
of Ulster: he was the son of Fatna the Wise, son of Ross the Red,
son of Rory, and his mother was Nessa, as I told you. He lived in
the splendid Eman or Emania, that great city that was built by Macha
of the Red Tresses (Macha Mongruadla). She took the golden brooch
from her neck, and marked the bounds of the rath; and I assure you
it was no obscure spot in which the king lived, and large it was, as
the ruins to-day testify.
I fear I cannot give
you an exact description of the palaces at Emania, but I have one at
hand that may suit the purpose equally well, giving the idea of a
fine house of those days. It is from the Irish book of Lismore.
[Manuscript Materials of Irish History. O'Curry, p. 309.] Crede was
a great beauty, and she was very rich. She built a palace on the
Boyne, and she would not marry any one whose soul was not great
enough to comprehend its beauty and taste, and to sing of it in
suitable poetry. Many tried, and all failed but Coel O'Neamhain (O'Naevan),
who succeeded by means of this poem:-
Happy the house in
which she is,
Between men and children and women,
Between Druids and musical performers,
Between cupbearers and doorkeepers.
Between equerries who are not shy,
And distributors who divide (the fare);
And over all these the command belongs
To fair Crede of the yellow hair.
It would be happy for me to be in her dun.
The colour (of her dun) is like the colour of lime:
Within it are couches and green rushes,
Within it are silks and blue mantles,
Within it are red gold and silver cups.
Of its grianan (sunny chamber, say drawing-room) the corner-stones
Are all of silver and of yellow gold;
Its thatch in stripes of matchless order
Of (birds') wings of brown and crimson red.
Two door-posts of green I see;
Nor is its door devoid of beauty;
Of carved silver, long has it been renowned,
Is the lintel that is over the door.
Credo's chair is at her right hand,
The pleasantest of the pleasant it is,
All of a blaze of Alpine gold,
At the foot of her beautiful couch.
The household which are in her house,
To the happiest conditions have they been destined:
Grey and glossy are their garments,
Twisted and fair is their flowing hair.
Wounded men would sink in sleep,
Though ever so heavily teeming with blood,
With the warblings of the fairy birds
From the eaves of her sunny chamber.
An hundred feet spans Crede's house
From one angle to the other;
And twenty feet are fully measured In the breadth of its noble door.
Its portico is thatched
With wings of birds both blue and yellow;
Its lawn in front, and its vell
Of crystal and of cormogal.
Four posts to every bed,
Of gold and silver finely carved;
A crystal gem between every two posts
They are no cause of unpleasantness,
There is in it a vat of royal bronze,
Whence flows the pleasant juice of malt;
An apple tree stands overhead the vat
With the abundance of its weighty fruit.
That is enough. You
see it is a fancy house, and the writer had very narrow ideas of
comfort; still he had the idea of barbaric grandeur, and at least
the comfort of soft pillows. And now we shall go on with the story,
as this is quite a digression.
King Conor's house, I
may tell you, is now only a set of mounds near Armagh, but at the
time of which I speak many nobles were assembled there. They had
music and poetry, and pleasant histories of great deeds and tales of
their ancestry; they had philosophers—the name is shortened to
Fileas ; and they had wise and cunning Druids that were acquainted
with magic. Conor was proud of his house; and in old times people
who were great were expected to boast and show their superiority to
others in unpleasant ways. There were one thousand six hundred and
sixty-five persons belonging to the household, and the king thought
of this, and instead of allowing others to drink his health, he
raised his voice and said, "Did you ever see a mansion better than
my mansion?" "No," they said. "Do you know anything that it wants?"
"No," they said. But the king thought differently, and said, "I know
of a great want which presseth, that the three renowned and exalted
youths, the three luminaries of the valour of the Gaels--that is,
the three noble sons of Uisnach—should be absent from us." Every one
agreed with this sentiment, because these three nobles—Naisi, Ainli,
and Ardan—had defended a district and a half of Alba, [Now Scotland.
I do not know how much a district was.] and their power was lost to
their own country, "for sons of a king are they who would assert
high sovereignty from the princes of Ulster" (Uladh).
Then Conor proposed
to send messengers to Loch Etive to bring them back. He asked Conall
Carnach to go and also Cuchullin, but he did not promise good
security for the lives of the three nobles, and the two heroes
refused. Fergus MacRoy who had given Conor the kingdom agreed to go,
and he vowed to kill any man but Conor himself that would do the
Uisnachs injury, but the pledge of the king to give them safety is
And now it is clear
that these sons of Uisnach were men of great importance, when their
return was so much longed for by the whole court of Ulster, and I
must tell you why they were absent.
DEIRDRE (OR DARTHULA).
Feilim was a teller
of stories; I suppose a historian and "filea," and he must have had
a high position and been very agreeable. He invited the king to an
entertainment, and many important men were there. Entertainments
were long in those days, and we hear of them lasting for weeks,
months, or even a year. During the time the king was there a
daughter was born to Feilim, and I suppose all the company looked at
her. We hear nothing of Feilim's wife; she could not have been
pleased when Caffa a Druid, who was there, said that this daughter
would be the cause of much loss and mischief to Ulster, and the
nobles proposed therefore to kill her at once. Conor objected, and
said he would take care of her and bring her up as his own wife. He
sent her into a retired lios or small fort with a nurse, and in time
a tutor and Lavarcam, who was perhaps a gossip; she is called a
speech or conversation woman, but I think it more likely that she
was a singer (cainte) at the court.
Time passed, and
Deirdre was looking out on the snow; her tutor killed a calf, and a
raven cane to feed on the blood, when the young lady said to her
nurse that she would like a husband with these three colours: the
hair as black as the raven, the cheek as red as the blood, and the
skin as white as the snow. This is quite against the opinion that
Naisi was a Milesian, but it was a common way of marking beauty in
Ireland, and it is put here rather thoughtlessly. Naisi must have
had brown hair and not black like a Firbolg ; on the other hand I
have seen him called a Firbolg.
It so happened that
Lavarcam brought Naisi, quite unaware of the trick and playing
innocently, on a pipe I think, within sight of Deirdre, and I fear
she made love to him, and by some adjuration compelled him to go
with her. Woman had great rights in old Ireland. "Naisi was quite
alone; sweet truly was the music of the sons of Uisnach. Every cow
or other animal that heard it used to milk two thirds more than
usual; every human being that heard it was overcome with the delight
of its harmony. Their valour, too, was transcendant."
Deirdre threw herself
in Naisi's way, and he said, "Mild is the dame that passeth by." "It
is natural for damsels to be mild where there are no youths," said
she. I don't quite understand all the conversation, and perhaps you
won't, but she threw a ball at him and it struck his head, and she
said, "A stroke of disgrace is this through life's extent if you
take me not." "Depart from me, woman," said he. "Thou wilt be in
disgrace," said she; then she took his instrument and played. This
music caused great commotion, and the "sons of Uslinn" (another
spelling) remonstrated with their brother who knew of the terrible
prophecies about Deirdre. But it was fated; Naisi was bewitched or
in honour compelled, and the brothers went off with a hundred and
fifty men and their wives and servants and greyhounds: they were
pursued round Erin to Ballyshannon, Howth, Rathlin, and at last to a
wild place, Loch Etive. They chased deer on the mountain, and when
these failed they took to harrying and raised enemies, but the King
of Alba required their help, and soon they became important and
powerful. Some people say that the King of Alba, whoever he was,
wanted to kill Naisi so as to steal Deirdre on account of her great
beauty, and that they ran away to a sea-girt isle, but we hear that
they were living at Loch Etive, when they were sent for, and they
seem to have been happy. The great fort which is still called by
their name, the Fort of the sons of Uisnach, is in a pleasant
situation, and there are numerous proofs of some population all
around. They fished as we hear, and they had a boat which took them
up to the top of the loch when they wished to hunt among the wild
hills of Glen Etive, and they left their names well remembered on
the fields and the rocks. We can go up to the fort and see one of
the finest views in Scotland from it, and we can go up the loch to
Eilean Uisneachan, the island of the Uisnachs, and see remainders of
their little hunting lodges where they had three
apartments—considered to be a luxury. We can see the great
project-in- rock half way up Glen Etive, called Deirdre's drawing
room, as a kind of joke, one very old out of all record. We can also
see the field not far below it called after Deirdre.
It is also pleasant
to go to the wood near Taynuilt and hear it still called the wood of
Naisi (coille naish) where the family must have had a settlement,
and to hear stories about them opposite Bunawe on a projecting rocky
land called Ruadh nan Draighnean.
As they were a whole
clan they would cover much ground, and we are not surprised that
they have left their name
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