LEGENDS AND FOLK-LORE
Tidal Current off Vaternish—Scotch Bagpipes—Associations—Dunvegan
Castle—Legend of Somerled—MacLeods and MacDonalds—Ancetral Relics—Fate of
Lady Grange—Summer Nights—Seals--Cormorants--Star-Fish—Fish accounted fit
for Food—Eels—Turbot—Of Scaleless Fish —Forbidden Meats—Drawing the
Nets—Lump-Fish—Jelly-Fish—Barnacle Geese—Families who claim Descent from
Seal-Maidens or Mermen —Corn-crakes.
ONCE more the beauty of bright summer days tempted us
to a further cruise; this time to MacLeod's country, in the west of Skye.
If you glance at a map of the Isle, you will perceive
that Uig, which was always our starting-point, isa small harbour on Loch
Snizort, while Dunvegan lies on Loch Fohlart. These two sea-lochs are
separated by a great headland—Vaternish Point—off which flows the most
singular tidal current I have ever encountered.
On either side of the headland the sea was perfectly,
glassily calm, and the little yacht flew on her way so steadily, that we
were scarcely conscious of motion. Suddenly we entered a belt of tossing,
raging waters, breaking in great three-sided waves, which came dashing right
over the deck—very grand and beautiful. The steersman, who but a moment
before could have guided our course with one finger, now found that he had
work enough on hand. This battlefield of the waves is about two miles in
width. Having crossed' it safely, we once more found ourselves in calm
water, gliding smoothly along, before a favouring breeze.
The sunset was one of never-to-be-forgotten
loveliness. Intensely brilliant gold and yellow, with soft misty clouds,
giving place to brightest rose-colour, ere yet the blue ground-work of the
sky had paled. And the hills were flooded with softened crimson, and every
tint was reflected in the waters, till twilight crept on, and the whole
surface of ocean became like clear green liquid glass. Then, in the
beautiful clear moonlight, we rounded Dunvegan Point, and at midnight
anchored in the quiet harbour just below the Castle, which, with its
foundation of grey rock, lay reflected as in a glassy mirror.
Long before the rosy flush of morning had faded into
the wan grey day, I was off in the wee boat, and got a sketch of the old
historic Castle; then, landing, I roamed about the woods, and noted the
wealth of wild flowers, more especially the golden mimulus, which was
growing in rank profusion.
Laden with dewy treasures, I returned on board, just
as the morning pipes were tuning up with the usual "Hi! Johnnie Cope," to
which in due time MacLeod's piper gave answer from the Castle terrace.
I must say that those who object to pipe music as
being discordant, can never have heard it with the right accompaniments of
time and place; and if there be one corner of Scotland more than another,
where its wailing pathos is thoroughly in keeping with the wild beauty of
nature, it is in these isles, where, I grieve to say, it is much discouraged
by some of the ecclesiastical authorities, who imagine that "the mirth of
tabrets and the joy of harp" are in some mysterious manner the parents of
evil, and that the bagpipes are the very incarnation of mischief. Evidently
the tradition which tells how the shepherds played their pipes at Bethlehem
finds small favour with them, and the Christmas piping of the Italian
pfifrrari in memory thereof, would doubtless be held criminal indeed.
I believe that in Barra, and South Uist, where the
majority of the people are Roman Catholics, the merry-hearted still have a
fair share of "music and dancing." In Skye, Harris, and North Uist, however,
these vanities are discouraged to such an extent, that the mirth of the land
is gone. No longer do we hear of a piper following the reapers in the
harvest-field, and keeping behind the slowest workers to cheer and animate
them. The pipes are being put down most effectually, or, at least, are being
subjected to a most unfair persecution. Would that it might work its usual
result, and that the persecuted pipes might sound once more on every
hill-side in Scotland! Meanwhile, I hear of one instance after another in
which the luckless musicians have refused to tune up as of old, in
accordance with promises extorted by their wives and other spiritual guides.
Even the public-houses have in divers cases ejected
the piper (though perfectly sober) the moment he volunteered a tune.
Whiskey, he and his companions might have in abundance, but such ungodly
mirth was not to be tolerated in a Christian man's house. The dismal history
of the dancing elder of North Knapdale, in Argyleshire, who in 1868 was
formally excommunicated from the Free Kirk for the sin of dancing a reel at
his son's wedding, is an instance which happens to have become public,
because the worthy farmer, whose minister had declared "that dancing was a
scandal, a am and bitter provocation to the Lord," had the courage to appeal
to a higher court, and succeeded in getting the first sentence reversed.
I fear that excellent minister must; have had a very
low opinion of those old Hebrew prophets who made use of such metaphors as
to promise the Virgin of Israel that she should again go forth adorned, with
her timbrels in the dances of them that make merry, and that both old men
and young should rejoice together with her in the dance. Moreover, he must
find a dire stumbling-block in those sounds of music and dancing which
followed the killing of a certain fatted calf. Probably, like that elder
brother, he would have turned away from the door.
But though the voice of song is silenced, the light
wine of the country is by no means at a discount; whether in the street or
the bothy, it holds full sway, and whatever noise of rejoicing may greet
your ear, probably owes its origin to the barley bree.
There was formerly a piper's college in Skye, which
gave regular diplomas to its beat men. It was under supervision of the.
MacCrimmons, who from generation to generation held office as MacLeod's
hereditary pipers. There was a certain cave where MacCrimmon's disciples
were wont to study, alone and unheard. A rock overhanging the sea was the
piper's seat, where he might practise unmolested to his heart's content,
with such wild surroundings, waves, cliffs, and echoes, as might best teach
him to interpret Nature's own rare melodies. The college endowment was a
farm, which Macleod gave rent-free. When the value of land rose, ho ventured
to reclaim a portion of the ground, an insult which the minstrels could not
brook, so they arose and went their ways, leaving their rock music-hall to
the seals and cormorants.
MacDonald's pipers, the MacCarters, had a similar
college at Peingowen. Their practising-ground was a green hillock called
CnocphaiL Various other families were noted for their hereditary talent as
pipers, but the names of these two are well-nigh as historical as those of
their masters. That pipers golden age is now, alas! a thing of the past. Not
past, however, is the inspiring power of the shrill notes which stir the
inmost heart of every true- born Highlander. So well did the English know
their influence, that when, after the dispersion of Prince Charlie's troops,
the unhappy pipers tried to plead that they had not carried arms against the
King, it was decided that their pipes were truly instruments of war. And so,
in truth, they may be called, for no Highland regiments would advance to
battle without the war-pipe of the Gael to inspirit them, and often the
piper has fallen in the thickest of the fire while cheering his comrades to
victory with his most soul-inspiring music.
There have been instances (as in the case of the 78th
Highlanders at Argaum) when it has been necessary to silence the pipes as
the only means of restraining the men from breaking the line and rushing
upon the foe before the time. In various other cases, the sudden burst of"
the gathering" has been the signal for such a charge as has caused the foe
to fly utterly discomfited. Among the stories of old days are several
memories of the pipers at Waterloo; how the pipe major of the 92nd stood on
a hillock where the shot was flying like hail, without thought of danger,
only bent on cheering his comrades with the inspiriting notes. One of his
brother pipers received a shot in the drone at the beginning of the battle,
whereupon, half mad with rage, he drew his broadsword, and rushed into the
thickest of the fight to wreak vengeance on the destroyers of his precious
pipes, whose fate he soon shared.
When the piper of the 71st was advancing at the battle
of Vimiera, he was wounded in the leg by a musket-ball, and utterly
disabled. Nevertheless, he swore his pipes should do their work, and sitting
on the ground, he managed, in spite of his pain, to keep up such warlike
notes as might best inspire his brethren, and well they fought that day.
At the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo it is recorded that
McLauchlan, piper to the 74th Highlanders, being foremost in the escalade,
marched calmly along the ramparts, playing "The Campbells are coming," till
a shot, piercing his bagpipe, silenced its music. He quietly sat down on a
gun-carriage, and, amid a storm of shot and shell, repaired the damage, and
speedily tuned up again, to the entire discomfiture of the foe, for as Scott
has it—"When the pibroch bids the battle rave," "'Where lives the desperate
foe that for such onset staid?"
" . . For with the breath which fills
mountain pipe, so fill the mountaineers
With the-fierce daring, which
The stirring memory of a thousand years,
fame, rings in each clansman's ears!"
You remember Napier's high praise of the brave
Highland regiments, who rushed to the charge "with colours flying, and pipes
playing, as if going to a review." Those who have led them in our own day,
can best say how well this character has been kept up.
However little a Southron may be able to enter into
this passionate enthusiasm for what, to his ear, seems shrill discord— he
must bear in mind that, just as in him, the scent of a flower, or a few
chords of old melody, will sometimes waken up a long train of forgotten
memories; so, to one whose earliest love has been for the wild mists and
mountains, these strains bring back thoughts of home, and the memory of the
dead and of the absent comes floating back as on a breath from the moorland,
mingling with a thousand cherished, early associations, such as flood the
innermost heart with hidden tears.
How often we have heard of men whose lives have been
spent toiling in far-away lands till all home memories seemed dimmed; yet to
whom, in hours of weakness, and pain, and death, the dear mountain-tongue
came back, and with it, the longing that the wild music they loved in
boyhood, might soothe their last hours.
I truly may bear witness how, twice within one year,
while watching the last weary sufferings of two of the truest Highlanders
that ever trod heather, I noted the same craving for "the dear old pipes,"
and the satisfied calm that drove away the tossing restlessness, as shrill
pibroch, and wild, wailing lament succeeded one another, and at last brought
sweet, peaceful sleep, which doctors' opiates had failed to procure.
Nor can I ever again listen to those piercing notes,
without a vision of an early morning, when a dark funeral procession sailed
up a misty loch, and thrilling pibrochs re-echoed from hill to hill,
awakening the sea-birds, which circled round the boat with plaintive cries,
as though they too were wailing for the" going away " of one who loved all
wild and beautiful things and creatures.
* * * * * * *
Dunvegan is the quaintest medley of the architecture
of every age; each proprietor, from the ninth to the nineteenth century,
having left his mark on the old castle. The oldest portion is a square
tower, with walls of immense thickness (from nine to twelve feet), supposed
to be the work of Norwegians. Its position is very fine, with surroundings
of wood, Skye's rarest treasure, and standing on a mass of grey rock, which
jute out into the sea; landlocked, —and, on this morning, calm as a mirror,
reflecting each line of the old building, as the water lips round the foot
of the crag. When the tide ebbs, there is revealed a broad belt of the
richest brown and gold tangle, and yellow sand.
Before we had finished breakfast, the young master of
Macleod came alongside in his canoe to bid us welcome; and the pleasant
greetings of old friends soon consoled us for the pitiless rain which now
As we landed, and passed up the steep ascent to the
castle, visions of Viking came over us, and of the turbulent feasts and
frays which these old walls have witnessed in a thousand successive years.
Few homes possess so long a continuous history. We entered by a drawbridge,
which spans the moat—an object always suggestive of days of sudden danger
and of siege. And there are dungeons, of course, in the thickness of the
wails—so-called dungeons at least—though, like those at Gordonstown, where,
in the dear old days of our childhood, we played such merry games at
hide-and-seek, I fancy these were rather devised for the safety of their
inmates, than for the imprisonment of their foes.
The foes of the Macleoda were generally the Macdonalds;
for, in spite of frequent intermarriages, the two clans were perpetually at
feud, "putting wedding rings on each other's fingers, and dirks into each
Thus, the old Norse and the Celtic nature are fully
combined in these races; for the MacLeods were originally pure Norsemen,
bearing such names as Torquil and Thorruod (who were the two eons of the
original ancestral Leod), while the Macdonald who built the old castle was a
Celt. He gave his daughter (his only child) in marriage to Macleod of
Harris; and on one occasion, when rowing across the Minch to meet his
son-in-law and grandchild, the two galleys came into collision in a thick
mist. Tradition says that the dutiful daughter bade her husband steer on and
strike her father's smaller ship. Be that as it may, the little galley did
sink, and Macdonald was drowned. Then MacLeod rowed over to Dunvegan, and
took possession of it in the name of his wife.
Above the doorway of one of the offices, there is an
old stone carving, where the arms of Macdonald are quartered with those of
MacLeod, commemorating one of those strange political marriages which
resulted in so little peace.
Through these, the Macleeds, as well as the Macdonalds,
claim descent from that old hero of many legends, the great Somerled, whose
ruined castle we marked at Saddell, in Cantyre. He was the youngest and
fairest son of Godfrey, lord of Argyle—a mighty hunter, to whom the men of
the Western Isles made offer of their homage, if he would come over to Skye,
and be their chief. Sonierled was standing beside a dark river, when the
Islesmen found him. He pondered for awhile on their words, then made answer,
that if in yonder dark pool he caught a clean run salmon, he would go with
them. If not, he would remain where he was.
In a few moments, a silvery fish lay on the bank, and
a shout of joy from his new subjects proclaimed him their chief. Then he
forsook his father's halls, and his beloved chase, and led his men to
conquer neighbouring isles. Wild deeds of valour by land and sea, soon made
his fame ring far and near; and in due time he became both Thane of Argyle
and Lord of the Hebrides.
At his death, his eldest son Ronald became Lord of the
Isles, while Dougal, the second son, succeeded to the territories on the
mainland, and founded the family of MacDougal of Lorne; making his chief
stronghold at the Castle of Dunstaffnage; thence ruling his country with an
iron hand. Not that he was allowed to hold it undisturbed. On the opposite
shore of Loch Awe, the Campbells were already established, and Cailean Mbr,
the great Cohn, Knight of Lochow, was not one tamely to own any superior. So
there were fights and forays, fire and bloodshed, even till the days of the
Bruce, against whom MacDougal fought with desperate hate, to avenge the
murder of his wife's father, the Red Comyn.
Then the misty heights of Ben Cruachan, its dark
passes, and the darker lake below, re-echoed the shouts of conflict, on many
a hard-fought day. Dunstaffnage was besieged and taken, and the broad lands
of Argyle were forfeited, and, after being held for awhile by the Stewarts,
were conferred on the Campbells, who had proved staunch supporters of the
Bruce in his dark hours of trouble.
On Sir Neil Campbell, who had fought "shouther to
shouther" with the King at Bannockburn, he bestowed the hand of his sister,
the Lady Mary Bruce; nor was it long before the Chieftainship of Argyle and
the Lordship of Lorne likewise passed into the same strong keeping. By a
wise stroke of policy in love, Cohn, the first Earl of Argyle, wooed and
wedded the Lady Isabel, daughter of the Lord of the Isles, and consequently
a direct descendant of Somerled, thus sealing the peace between the boar's
head of the Campbells and the galley of the isles.
To return to the MacLeods in their sea-girt fortress.
Among the treasures of Dunvegan is a green fairy flag, which some
materialists believe to be only a relic of the Crusades—a consecrated banner
of the Knights Templars, but which all true Highlanders affirm to have been
a gift to some ancestral MacLeod, from a fairy maiden. She promised that on
three distinct occasions when he or his clan were in danger, he might wave
the flag with certainty of relief.
MacLeod proved false to his fairy, and married a mere
commonplace human maiden, whereupon his spirit wife waxed wroth, and
ordained that every woman in the clan should give birth to a dead child, and
that all the cattle should have dead calves. Then a loud and bitter wail
rang through the green valleys, and along the shores, and MacLeod, in sore
tribulation, bethought him of the flag. The fairy proved more true to her
words than her lover had been to his, so she withdrew her spell, and the
clan once more flourished.
Then came a terrible battle, when MacLeod and his men
were well-nigh routed, and again, though he must have been sorely ashamed of
himself, he waved the flag, and the victory was his. Why the flag was not
waved for the third time, when the isles were ruined by the failure of the
kelp trade, or during the potato famine, MacLeod best knows. Perhaps he
thought it well to save one "last tune in the old fiddle." At all events the
green flag still lies in its old case, and is such a treasure as no other
laird can show.
There is also a precious drinking cup, bearing date
A.D. 993. It stands about ton inches high, on silver feet, and is curiously
wrought in wood with embossed silver, once studded with precious stones, and
still retaining some bits of coral. It bears an inscription, telling how
certain old Norsemen died, trusting in Christ's mercy; and within the cup,
the letters IHS are four times repeated. Hence we infer its original use as
a chalice—though for many a long year it has crowned the wildest scenes of
revelling and drunkenness; such as were held in these wild fastnesses up to
very modern days.
Another drinking trophy is Rorie Mhor's horn; an ox's
horn with silver rim, which holds about five English pints; the old custom
was that every young chief should prove his mettle by draining this horn,
filled to the brim with claret, at a draught— but in this degenerate age of
shams, a false lining within the horn enables the chieftain to pledge his
vassals in a much shallower goblet.
Big Sir Roderick was one of James VI.'s knights, and
his royal master seems to have taken an amiable interest in his sobriety,
for we find his name in an order of the Privy Council for 1616, when it was
enacted that MacLean of Duart, and Sir Rorie MacLeod, should not use in
their houses, more than four tun of wine each; Clanranald was limited to
three tun, and Coil, Lochbuy, and Mackinnon, were allowed but one—an attempt
at compulsory reformation, which must have encouraged smuggling to an
The horn is not the sole remaining trace of the Big
Knight. Part of the castle was built by him, and a waterfall close by is
still known as Rorie Mhor's nurse, because he loved its lullabies to bush
his slumbers! On the opposite side of the loch are two high hills, known as
MacLeod's Tables; and on their broad flat tops, the pure white snow lies
unmelted, for long months, as though it were some spotless fairy napery.
MacLeod has his maidens also, three dark rocks rising
from the sea, which, when seen through foam and mist, bear some fanciful
likeness to the mermaids, whose murmurous songs should soothe the dreams of
the old sea kings.
Near these rock-maidens is a cave, which for some time
was the prison of the unhappy Lady Grange, wife of the Lord Justice Clerk;
whose sad history is stranger than any fiction. In an evil hour she became
aware that her husband and many of his friends were in league with the
Jacobites in 1715. MacLeod and Macdonald agreed, for their mutual safety, to
remove her to some distant district and announce her death. So violently was
this effected, that two of her teeth were knocked out in the struggle.
The unhappy lady was conveyed to Durinish, and kept in
this dreary nave, whence she was removed to Uist; and then to St. Kilda,
where she remained seven years. Just imagine this! Seven years in St.
Kilda!! Dreading lest any clue to her existence might be discovered, her
persecutors now brought her back to Uist, and to Skye, whence she contrived
to despatch a letter to England, rolled up in a hank of wool.
The chance purchaser of this wool forwarded the
letter, which thus reached its destination safely, and deliverance seemed at
hand. A government boat was despatched in search of her, but failed in its
quest, and her jailors carried her back to Innis fada, the Long Island,
carrying in the boat with her, a rope with noose and heavy stone attached,
wherewith to sink her to the lowest depth of the sea, rather than suffer her
to be rescued. The poor lady finally died in Skye, and was buried in the old
kirkyard of Trumpan.
Gladly must she have welcomed the close of her sad
life, for surely few of Eve's daughters have paid so dear for the
acquisition of forbidden knowledge. Truly hateful in her ears must have been
the ceaseless moaning of the wild waves—for ever singing the requiem of her
To us, however, rejoicing in the glorious liberty, and
in the blessed summer sunlight, no day seemed half long enough; and we
sought to lengthen each, by lingering on sea or on land, far into the
beautiful night,—which in truth, in these Isles, means, in summer, no night
at all, but one prolonged, dreamy twilight.
Endless was the delight of quietly exploring each bay
and headland for miles round—never hurried,—for the very ideal of life in
the Isles is to ignore Time. So we wandered where fancy prompted, seeking
out strange wild creatures in their chosen homes, and trusting that our
human presence might not too rudely scare them.
Sometimes, as we rowed very quietly along these broken
shores, we caught glimpses of seals basking on favourite rocks; or else
travelling along by a succession of jerks, wriggling as they move, and
displaying their wonderful flexibility of spine. If a seal is in the water,
notice how rapid and graceful are his movements, and with what strength he
swims; but he is so shy, that he will probably have vanished before you have
well made him out. If wounded, however, and compelled to meet a foe at close
quarters, a grip from his powerful jaws proves him not altogether a helpless
I cannot imagine what peculiar fancy can lead him to
swallow stones of quite a large size, which he does freely—indeed some seals
which have been shot, have been found to contain quite a gravel bed. It
really seems as if they had swallowed it for ballast —perhaps to counteract
their own oily tendency to float!
Another marked peculiarity is the seal's peculiar
deliberation in breathing. About two minutes elapse between each breath,
even when he is basking on dry rocks, so that when he dives and wishes to
remain under water, he can do so, with wonderful facility.
I believe it is a common error to suppose that it is
to this seal that we are indebted for our beautiful soft brown seal-skin
coats. The fur seal (Genus Otary; so called from possessing an external ear)
is found only in the Pacific and Southern Oceans, chiefly in the
neighbourhood of the Falkland and South Shetland Isles; its silky brown fur
underlies a compact coat of soft brownish-grey hair. Some of our coats are
also made from the fur of the sea-otter, which is a native of Behring's
Straits, twice the size of the common otter; its fur is a rich black tinged
with brown. Nevertheless, our own seal possesses a silvery coat hidden
beneath his rough grey hair, which is in great demand; this, together with
his warm inner coating of blubber, has proved fatal to his peace, and he is
now comparatively rare, greatly to the satisfaction of the salmon fishers,
whose nets he often destroys in pursuit of the fish, to say nothing of his
actually frightening the latter away from the coast.
The cormorants, too, are keen fishers; you will see
them pounce on their silvery prey, and gluttonously struggle to swallow it
alive, though it may be twice too big a mouthful, and wriggles most
piteously during the process. Vast numbers of these weird black birds (scarts,
we call them,) live in every cave along this rocky shore. They choose some
quiet nook, where they heap up a mass of seaweed for their nest, and, with
the unerring instinct of all sea-birds, select a spot where the highest
spring-tide cannot touch them. Here they sit, guarding their homes, or else
stand solemn and immovable on the rock ledges, and never stir as we 1enter
the cavern, till, as we come close to them, a sudden flap from their dusky
wings startles us, as though some spirit of darkness would resent our
invasion. Then they dart to and fro with wild piercing cries, just as they
do before stormy weather, when they come forth from their caves, as birds of
ill omen to all sea-farers.
There is something so demoniacal about the bird, that
the sight of it always recalls Milton's legend of its form, having been the
first selected by the Arch-Fiend, when, perched on the Tree of Life, he
overlooked with envious eye that fair garden, and plotted how to wreak his
malice on the blissful pair. They are, however, capable of being trained as
useful servants, and I often wonder why their fishing propensities are not
turned to account in this country, as well as in the Celestial Empire, where
vast numbers of boats are employed solely for this fishery. In olden days,
when cormorant-fishing was an English sport, and at the present time in
Holland, a ring or leathern strap is fastened round the lower part of the
throat, and the bird swallows as many fish as it can catch, and, on
returning to its keeper, disgorges them.
On some parts of our own coast the cormorant is
considered rather good eating; a happy combination of fish and fowl. Its
fishy taste, however, is reduced by burying the bird in sand for
four-and-twenty hours, and then skinning him, when he makes a tolerable
The deep-sea fishing here is excellent. White fish of
all sorts are abundant. There is one poacher, however, who proves sorely
annoying to the toiling fishers. This is the little star-fish, which at once
makes for the lines, and eats the bait, and though he pretty often gets
hooked himself, as the penalty of his indiscretion, his useless death gives
small satisfaction to the men whose night's labour has been wasted. Not
content with this, he destroys vast quantities of bait by attacking the
mussel scalps, of which he makes sad havoc, destroying thousands of young
The inhabitants of the various islands have each their
peculiar notions as to what fish are good for food. Some will eat skate,
some eat dog-fish. Some eat limpets and razor-fish, and, as a matter of
course, those who do not, despise those who do. In olden times certain
Highlanders used to cure hams of the seal, and I believe that in the Orkney
Isles young seals are still esteemed a great delicacy. Whale was also
occasionally eaten in these isles with certain herbs,—tolerably coarse food,
but useful in the victualling of ships. That which was sent to bring over
the Maid of Norway is especially stated to have had fifty pounds of whale
among her provisions. Porpoises were also in much repute at that time; and
at the coronation of Queen Catherine of France, wife of Henry V., the bill
of fare included porpoise, garnished with minnows I Another most dainty bill
of fare is recorded, of swans, cranes, and sea-gulls, eaten with bread
sweetened with honey, and flavoured with spices.
On one point, however, I believe all agree, namely, in
their abhorrence of eels, which they look upon as a sort of water-serpent To
this day the prejudice exists, and though large quantities of great
conger-eels are caught on the Argyleshire coast, and elsewhere, they are all
at once despatched to London (with very much the same feeling as a
Mahommedan servant provides an abhorred ham for the infidel dog, his
master!) The fishers who capture these unclean monsters would rather starve
than eat one themselves, regarding them as direct descendants of the Old
Serpent of Eden.
If they are such, we might suspect their wily ancestor
of having pursued his researches in the garden farther than we wot of,
inasmuch as nothing short of having tasted the life-giving tree could
account for the horrible vitality of the whole race; a race which utterly
defies all common modes of death, as you may see any day, by turning out a
basketful of eels, hours after you believe them to have been thoroughly
killed,—still the thrill of life shoots with wave-like undulation along each
fold of the writhing mass. Nay, you think you have secured death by severing
the head from the body; yet woe betide the incautious finger that dares to
examine that head too closely, for the sharp white teeth have lost none of
their power, and can still inflict a vicious bite on the rash intruder.
Speaking of eels, I cannot resist telling you of the
latest combination of the forms serpentine and satanic. On the occasion of a
fancy bail, a gentleman, who shall be nameless, determined to appear iii the
form popularly ascribed to the Prince of Evil. A well-known Jew supplied the
desired dress, but it was found that, as in the case of little Bo-Peep's
celebrated sheep, the tail had been left behind. How to supply a new one was
Suddenly a brilliant idea occurred to the poor
tail-less demon. He repaired to the nearest umbrella shop, where he invested
in the strongest, shiny, umbrella-skin. Thence passing on to the
fishmonger's, he selected a fine healthy eel, in most active condition, just
large enough to slip into the umbrella case, the ring at the further end
allowing him breathing room. The said case being then attached to the dress,
presented the appearance of a most lively tail in perpetual motion,
wriggling and writhing;—now twined round the wearer's neck, now round his
waist, his arm, his leg—now moving aimlessly in mid-air, or darting suddenly
towards some startled passer-by. In short it was a complete success and
matter of amazement to all beholders, but to none more so than to the Jewish
owner of the costume, who stood gazing in rapt admiration, offering free
bribes if only this wonderful secret might be revealed to him.
The prejudice against eating eels is partly due to the
fact that, although denizens of the sea, they are generally supposed (by men
who only use their own natural eyes, and have not brought powerful
microscopes to bear on the eel's fine coat of scaly armour) to be devoid of
scales,—a form of animal life which, to the Cult, was particularly
This is a curious point for consideration, inasmuch as
we know that the ancient Egyptians prohibited the use of scaleless fish on
the ground of their being unwholesome; and the Romans in like manner were
forbidden to sacrifice such to their gods. The Israelites, too, were
commanded by the Levitical law, "Whatsoever hath no fins, nor scales, in the
seas and in the rivers, of all that moveth in the waters, that shall be an
abomination unto you" (Lev. Xi. 10).
So real is this prejudice on the part of the Celt,
that it led to the total rejection of turbot, as being unmistakably
scaleless. So, even in the last generation, the poorest folk would not
receive these despised dainties into their houses, and until very recent
years, all the turbot taken even on the coast of Fife and Aberdeen were
thrown away, as there was no sale for them, till the Saxon came north, and
found that he could rescue fish, fit for an alderman's feast, almost for the
trouble of taking them.
Strange indeed it is that such a prejudice as this
should have led to the rejection of such an immense supply of good food.
When you consider that 30 lbs. is not an uncommon weight for a turbot, and
that some are even captured of more than double this weight,—. and that,
moreover, they are so prolific that one turbot, the roe of which weighed 5
lbs. 9 ozs., has been found to contain no less than 14,311,200 eggs,—it is
evident that it ought to form a serious item in the general food-supply, as
indeed it does further north, where a recent report from the coast of
Jutland tells of the capture of 240,000 turbot, weighing on an average
upwards of 1 lb. each.
Our Scotch fishers have learnt wisdom now, so far as
supplying the market is concerned, but the would-be purchasers must remember
to ask for "Roden Fluke" if he is on the east coast, as true turbot are
known only by that name. Should he ask for turbot, he would be served with
halibut, a very coarse fish of the same family, which occasionally attains
an enormous size. One was captured at Wick a few years ago which weighed 231
lbs., and measured 7 feet 1 inch in length! Another, caught on the
Northumbrian coast, weighed 294 lbs.
Doubtless the lack of scales was the true reason why
many of the Islanders would on no account eat seal, dog-fish, or porpoise.
That some very marked prejudice with regard to fish
existed among our ancestors, is evident from the assertion of an ancient
author that the people of Caledonia never ate fish.
It certainly is remarkable that in all Ossian's songs
of the chase, when he skims over flood and field, rivers and seas, no
allusion whatever is made to the catching of fish. Yet we find these, rudely
carved on many holy stones, together with the mystic divining- mirror, which
the sea-faring folk to this day declare to be always seen in the hands of
mermaids. Their very realistic description of these fishy maidens and mermen
answer precisely to the old accounts of the fish god and goddess, Dagon and
Derceto, which were worshipped by the Syrians and Phcnnicians, who, for
their sakes, would eat no fish.
It certainly is very strange still to find among the
people of these Isles traces of religious objection to the use of certain
meats,—and then to note the identical prejudice in full force in far-distant
To begin with,—all the creatures prohibited as unclean
by the Levitical law were likewise abhorrent to the Celt, and though, in
these modern, degenerate days, he may occasionally (not without serious
qualms) be induced to eat hare or pig, he undoubtedly looks on both with
repugnance. But of the birds pronounced unclean, none is ever eaten, save an
But Celtic prejudice goes beyond theprohibitions of
the Levitical law. Till very recent years, it extended to the goose and
other poultry; cocks, and occasionally hens, were reserved for sacrifice;
but apparently here, as in many other countries, the goose was deemed too
sacred for food—hence, doubtless, we find it carved on sacred stones, beside
A very curious point in connection with the meats
deemed clean or unclean, is the fact that while domestic pork was held in
abhorrence, the flesh of the wild boar was much esteemed.' In all old Gaelic
lore the mighty hunters are described as feasting on the wild boars they
have slain in the chase—as when Fingal and his son Ossian, and their band of
heroes, devoured the boar Scrymmer.
I am not sure whether the Celtic objection to
scaleless fish extends to flounders. Probably it does, as some of the
fishers on the west coast believe the flounder (or, as they call it, fluke)
to be a young turbot.
Drawing the salmon nets in the early morning was
always a point of attraction to me. I was generally astir by 4 am.—the
loveliest hour of a summer morning--and the sailor who had been on watch all
night was glad enough to give me my lesson in rowing till it was time to
return and awaken the crew at 6 a.m. So to the salmon nets I generally made
my way, and a very exciting moment it is when the nets are hauled in
---sometimes with a prize of bonnie silvery Fish—which of course means
salmon exclusively, for tQ apply that sacred word to any less noble species
would mark you ignorant indeed. I'd like to see old Lauchian's face if you
used it with reference to the lean, dark, long-nosed article he has just
thrown back into the river. "Fish! indeed! On!I it wasna a Fish! It was
no-but a kelt!"
But fish or no fish, the nets are safe to draw up some
curious treasures of the deep. Creatures such as you will see nowhere else,
for they are so useless, that they are at once thrown back to Mother Ocean.
Sea hedgehogs, and sea-urchins, and sea-hens, and queer beads all head and
fins, and young sea-serpents, and all manner of odd monsters. The gulls well
know their chance of securing these prizes, and always follow the drawing of
the nets; black-headed gulls, and kittiwakes, and graceful sea-swallows with
their sharp wings and forked tails, hover expectantly around, with wild,
musical cries. Gradually the line of floating corks narrows, and, as the net
is drawn in, great agitation prevails among the captives, who flop about,
and tumble over and over in dire dismay. Now a great fin appears, now a
tail, now a nose, and quick flashes of silver tell what treasures will
reward the fisher's toil.
Then, as the meshy prison is hauled in, an eager
discussion goes on in Gaelic, and the silvery Fish are laid aside with
honour due. After th.t their fellow-prisoners are sorted. White fish of all
sorts —flounders, saithe, lythe, rock-codlings, skate, cuddies, which are
young lythe, mackerel, and many another are judged worthy of human
consumption, and the fishers teach us to call them by names unknown to
ichtbyologists, sometimes, perhaps, with a sly laugh at our ignorance. We
point out something that we mistake for a haddock, and the skipper gravely
says, "Na, it isna a haddock. I'm thinking it will be "—a pause reflective,
so long that we wonder what is coming next. . . . "Wed, likely it will
be—the son of a cod—or it may be the daughter! !"
But it is by no means all fish that comes to the net,
for, as I before said, all the quaintest, and, to you or me, the most
interesting sea creatures, are thrown away with infinite contempt, when they
give a shake and a wriggle, and dive into their beloved depths with all
speed, provided they can escape the rapid swoop of rapacious, hungry-eyed
gulls, who watch vigilantly over the nets, hoping for their share of the
Their reflections on the tenderness of the lords of
the creation are probably highly subversive of discipline in our sea realms;
for the fishers are not tender in their handling, and generally administer
such a parting blow on the head as ought to kill them, but unfortunately
does not do so; so they sink down "through their dim water world" with eyes
battered, and bruised heads —perhaps, if they are big enough, with a gash
from a clip in their side, and all this, because they are just what Heaven
made them; and enjoy dining off their lesser fellow-creatures just as much
as we do ourselves.
One of the foes most hated by the fisher folk, is the
dog-fish, with its sharp shark-like teeth and rough skin, like coarse
sandpaper. It generally gets an extra blow, and wriggles away very sorely
and sadly to its rock home. In some of the outermost isles, even this little
shark is made available for human food, as it also is in West Cornwall,
where the species known as rough-hound is made into morghi soup; morghi
being an ancient British word meaning sea-dog. (To an old Indian it might be
suggestive of chicken-broth!)
Another creature which receives small pity from the
fishers is known as the sea-pig. He is armed with sharp prickles down the
back which make him rather an unpleasant customer.
Crabs too of all sorts and kinds come in, clinging to
their dinner of fine large half-eaten fish, of which they make very short
work; and once in the boat, how they do run from side to side giving each of
their companions in misery a vicious nip as they pass!
Then there was a very odd fish, with a huge head and
gaping jaws, in wonderful disproportion to his small lean body. He was like
a Brobdingnagian species of the little miller's thumb of our fresh-water
streams; or still more like the sting-fish, which, however, is said only to
grow four or five inches lung, whereas this creature was fully eighteen.
One queer animal that we occasionally caught was the
lump-fish, a hideous, fatty creature, singularly grotesque in form.. It is
covered all over with rows of hard, rough lumps; and on its under-side is a
hard, lumpy mass, whence it derives its name. Its flesh is soft and oily;
hence it is esteemed one of the dainties of Greenland, and such cold,
oil-loving regions. In this country we resign the delicious morsel to the
seals, who are said to be marvellously expert in flaying their rough-skinned
prize, just as you would do a fine ripe peach, and swallow it with equal
It seems that this fish, in the course of his little
life, passes through changes more numerous and quits as remarkable as the
development of frog's spawn into tadpoles and full-grown frogs. When first;
he escapes from his tiny egg, he strongly resembles the said tadpole, with
large head and slim body. The next transformation shows him still
large-headed and smooth-skinned, and duly provided with fins. In his last
stage he becomes the bloated creature I described, with head and fins alike
buried in fat, and his whole body covered with coarse, rough tubercles. The
fishers, who are apt to be somewhat hazy in their notions as to the changes
undergone by various creatures, call this ludicrous fish a sea-ben; and they
firmly believe it to be either the parent or child of the common
jelly-fish---a statement which I was not in a position to disprove, so
listened with polite, if incredulous, attention.
I did not then know through what strange and beautiful
transformations some of these exquisite medu8w (sea-butterflies we might
call them) pass in the course of their short summer-life.' How, when the
autumn days draw on, and the mother jelly-fish knows that the time has come
when she must melt away, and lose herself in ocean-foam, she lays thousands
of tiny eggs, each covered with invisible hairs—movable hairs like the
spines of the sea-urchin whereby the little living eggs paddle their way to
some safe hiding- places in the crannies of the rock, and there moor
themselves. Thus anchored, and secure from winter storms, they wait to see
what will happen next.
Soon from each egg there grows a tiny stem, and from
it spring delicate branches, and every branch is covered with minute cups,
edged with little dainty arms—living ariur, that float on every Side. And
when spring changes to summer, each graceful flower-like cup develops a new
life, and buds and blossoms, and each fairy blossom proves to be a living
rose,—a tiny jelly-fish, with thousands of fringe-like fingers; and the
little creature frees itself from the stem, and floats away in the warm
summer sea to commence its own life of gladness and independence.
The fishers will tell you of many a strange
transformation, if you care to listen. Many of them still believe that the
barnacles which cluster on old ships, or any old wood, are really the young
of the barnacle goose—a faith by no means confined to the Isles. Even in
France this legend of a marine birth has led to this goose being eaten on
fast days, though so foul a fish has met with some opposition from
ecclesiastical authorities. So late as the twelfth century, we find a great
'Welsh divine 1 warning the priests of Ireland against such Lenten fare. For
though he himself evidently fully believes the fable, he declares that fowl
born of fish is no more fit food for fast (lays, than might be "a leg of
Adam," who was not born of flesh either.
A trace of this curious discovery in natural history,
is retained in the scientific name which describes the ship barnacle as the
Anatior goose-bearer. The account of its transformation into a great winged
fowl is given most circumstantially by divers old writers, together with
minute illustrations of the creature in its various stages. Thus Gerard
writes, in 1636: "What our eyes have seen and hands have touched we shall
declare." And he goes on to tell how, on various old timbers cast up by the
sea, is found "a certaine froth, which in time breedeth into certaine
shells, whence commeth the shape and form of a bird. When it is perfectly
formed, the shell gapoth open, and the first thing that appeareth is the
aforesaid lace or string; next come the legs of the bird hanging out, and as
it groweth greater, it openeth the shell by, degrees, till at length it is
all come forth, and hangeth only by the bilL In short space after, it cometh
to full maturitie, and falleth into the sea, where it gathereth feathers and
groweth to a fowle."
Various other learned ornithologists have left us the
most minute description of the gradual development of this long-legged shell
fish, and the growth of its feathers, till it becometh a fowl bigger than a
mallard. Even Southey speaks of "The barnacle, a bird breeding upon old
ships." Not content with this simple transition from fish to fowl, divers of
our most learned forefathers taught (and the vulgar, of course, believed)
that the barnacles themselves were indeed the 1?lossoms of the old wood on
which they were found clustering so abundantly.
One renowned scholar says: "We find trees in Scotland
which produce a fruit enveloped in leaves, and when it drops into the water
at a suitable time, it takes life, and is turned into a live bird, which
they call a tree-bird I" Of this curious tree he gives a faithful picture,
with loaves and blossoms, and half-ripe fruit, whence issues forth the head
of the young duck, while fully-developed birds swim in the pool below.
Another celebrated ornithologist favours us with a yet
more elaborate picture of the duck-bearing tree, whereon each fruit is a
carefully-drawn barnacle, whence newly-hatched ducks fall into the water,
and there joyously disport themselves. When such strange fables were gravely
discussed by the naturalists of the day, we need scarcely wonder to find
traces of the sane folly among the ignorant fishers. As to the loose
reasoning which admitted this goose to the rank of Lenten fare, it became
weaker still in the case of the otter, which was also eaten on the lesser
fast days, its flesh being so fishy as to allow room for the quibble.
A quaint trace of the old Celtic belief in some forms
of transmigration, long lingered in some of these isles, where it was fully
believed that those who were drowned assumed the form of seals, and
disported themselves joyously in ocean depths, or else passed onward to "the
realm beneath the waves "—a world with an atmosphere of our own, where
Vikings, and all brave pirates, sailors, dwelt in a beautiful world, in
pearl and coral caves world over which the blue sea arched, as the blue
heaven does this earth; and it was only when a craving for old ocean, or
mother earth, came over these denizens of that mysterious land, that they
needed to wear their seal-skin coats to enable them to return to the upper
Once a month they were allowed to lay aside their
seal-skin raiment, and, resuming mortal form, might dance and sing all night
upon the shore; but, ere the sun rose, they must resume their amphibious
character, and plunge once more into the green waves. Strange legends were
told of how venturesome mortals had found and stolen the seal-skins as they
lay on the rocks, and had thus won back fair wives and friends from their
It is thus that the MacPhees of Isle Colonsay are
descended from a drowned maiden, whose seal-skin the chief found one day
upon a rock. When the weeping damsel came to search for her lost raiment, he
shrouded her in his plaid, and rowed her ashore to his castle, when she
became his wife. Sometimes, however, the brides thus captured found their
seal-skins again among their lords' treasures, and, having tried them on,
could not resist plunging once more into the sea, whence they never
Another form of this myth tells how men and women were
transformed into wild swans. Such is the story of the Children of Lir, told
by Campbell of Islay, which records how an ill-woman worked spells whereby
two brothers and a sister were condemned to assume this form, and haunt the
Mull of Cantyre. There they sang plaintive Gaelic laments, but those who
heard them said it was the cry of the wild swans.
At length they flew to an Irish lake,-where a holy man
had made his cell. The swans drew near, and took part in the service, and
the saint espied gold chains around their necks, and knew that they were
human beings bewitched. So St. Patrick himself was summoned to their aid,
and the spell was broken, and the wild swans resumed their human form.
Akin to this story is one from Islay, which tells how
a man saw a flight of swans alight, and they cast off their feather robes,
and became beautiful women. He stole a swan-skin (a cuc/zal, as the disguise
is called), and when the owner returned, she sought for it in vain, and her
companions flew away, and she was left alone. So she wedded the mortal, and
became the mother of many children. After some years, the bairns found an
old swan's skin hidden in an out-house, and showed it to their mother. She
wept bitterly, but she put on the skin, and stretched the white wings and
flew far away from her wondering little ones.
But when many days had gone by, a flight of wild swans
came to the house, bearing a swan's skin for for the father, and he too was
transformed into a white swan and flew away. Centuries elapsed, and then
once more he returned to Islay, but it seemed to him as though he had only
been absent for a night.
The transformation myth has its place in the legend of
Osian'a birth, for by magic his mother had been changed into a hind, and
when her son was born, her deer's instinct made her lick his brow, and so
deer's hair grew on the child's temple. Then the woman- nature prevailed,
and she ceased licking the child; so lie grew up human, with only a
hair-spot on his temple.
The existence of mermen and mermaids is a matter of
implicit credence. There are men and women now living on our coasts who
believe in these curious compounds as truly as did the Syrians and
The story goes, that these maidens and men of the sea
possess a magic belt., 'without which they cease to be amphibious. Any one
finding this treasure could keep the owner captive on the dry land for so
long as he should please. There is a family now living at Hilton of Cadboll,
in the parish of Fern, Easter Ross, who claim descent front merman, whose
belt a human girl had stolen.
At Tarbert, in Easter Ross, lives another family, who
believe that wind and tempest can never harm their boat; for their father,
James Môr (who is still living to tell the tale), once found a mermaid's
belt, and would on no account restore it to her till she promised that none
of his family should ever be drowned—it promise which she has faithfully
What with fantastic legends, and records of strange
old customs, and the daily delight of exploring bautiful scenes,—to say
nothing of the charm of a prolonged spell of blessed summer weather
(somewhat a rare boon beneath these often weeping skies), the days glided by
far too quickly.
We would fain have prolonged our cruise, but that
tyrant of the age, the post, recalled us once more to Uig, where all was
calm and peaceful as usual. There were the same picturesque lassies, whose
one short "coatie" and bare legs were seen running along the wet shore,
while head and shoulders were lost beneath the great creel, overflowing with
such a pile of green grass, and pink clover, with large white hemlocks and
daisies, as seemed only a huge nosegay, with a sickle stuck in the middle of
If you speak to one of these little foragers, a bright
face will glance up from under a scarlet handkerchief—but she will not
attempt to answer, for though the lassies, as well as the lads, are taught
in English at the "schule," and a few can read it pretty well, hardly one
can translate a sentence, or understand the simplest remark; and the girls,
living in Gaelic homes, do not find that use for English which induces a few
of their brothers to pick it up.
These were our last days in the sunny bay; and they
recall pleasant memories of rowing and fishing—and of long beautiful
evenings when ofttimes we wandered up to some green headland, thence looking
across the calm sea to the distant isles, all wrapt in that deep peace which
specially belongs to the gloaming—the hour.
"When sweet and slumb'rous melodies o'er land and water creep,
sits with half-shut eyes, singing herself to sleep."
Thence returning to the little lodge, we skirted
fields of tall brown rye grass and sweet clover, the chosen home of the
corn- crake, who, through all the dewy night, watches among the long
grasses, guarding the nest where sleep her brood of quaint, black,
long-legged little ones, and uttering her harsh, grating cry—a cry jarring
to unfamiliar ears, but to others very dear through association with lovely
summer nights and country homes.