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Nether Lochaber
Chapter III


An old Gaelic MS.—"The Bewitched Bachelor Unbewitched"—Fairy Lore—Lacteal Libations on Fairy Knowes.

Ix looking over some old papers the other day [October 1868] we stumbled on some sheets of Gaelic MS. that had lain neglected for years, and ^every existence of which, indeed, we had well-nigh forgotten. One of these sheets contained the original of the following lines. It is in many respects a curious composition, written in a sort of rhythmical alliterative prose rather than in verse, somewhat in the manner of the conversational parts of the Gaelic Sgeulaehdan or fireside tales of the olden time. Its tone throughout is gay and lively, with an occasional admixture of humour and double entendre that is very amusing, while its allusions to the manners and customs and superstitious observances of a past age render it, to our thinking, extremely interesting. The sheet in our possession is only a copy, the original, taken down from oral recitation, we believe, being in a MS. collection of Gaelic poems and tales by Rev. Mr. M'Donald, at one time minister of the parish of Fortingall, in Perthshire. Having only internal evidence to judge from, it is impossible with any confidence to assign even an approximate date to such a production as this, but we are probably not far wrong in placing it as early at least as the middle or close of the last century. It bears no title in the original; we may call it—

The Bewitched Bachelor Unbewitched.

The gudeman mumbled and grumbled full sore
Over the butter-kits, all through the dairy:
Over cheese, over butter, and milk-pails, he swore
'Tis the work, I'll be bound, of some foul witch or fairy.
How can I ever be happy or rich,
If robbed and tormented by fairy and witch,"
Quoth he; and lo, with a sudden turn
He stumbled and spilt the cream-full churn!

He went to his mother (she dwelt in the cot
Amid the hazels down by the linn:
Full well the wild birds loved that spot,
And taught its echoes their merry din)—
He went to his mother, that Bachelor gruff:
He was mild with her, though with others rough.

"Mother," quoth he, "I have not now
One-half the butter or cheese, I trow,
That loaded my dairy shelves when you
Had charge of my household and dairy too:
Tell me mother, what shall I do?
I vow and declare that some fairy or witch
Is robbing me still-sad-doing mo ill—I shall never be rick"

"My son," the mother mild replied,
"See that you pay the fairies their due;
A tribute due should ne'er be denied—
Others don't grudge it, and why should you!
Nor thrive their flocks nor kine, I weon,
Who scorn or neglect the
 shian green."

''But, mother, the witch that lives down i' the glen '"
' A widow, my son, with a fatherless oe,
Who has seen much sorrow and years of woe;
Give her as heretofore, my son,
Of your curds and whey, and let her alone.
And oh, my son, if you would be rich,
And free from dread of fairy and witch.
And happy and well-to-do through life—
Go get thee, my son, a winsome wife!"

The bachelor hied him home full soon—
Ho sent to the widow, far down in the glen,
A kebbuck of cheese as round as the moon,
Of oaten cakes he sent her ten,
With a kindly message, "Come when you may
For curds and whey in the good old way."
He sent her withal, 'tis right you should know,
A braw new kilt for her fatherless oe.

And ever he saw that his maidens paid
To the fairies their due on the
 Fairy Knowl, 
Till the emerald sward was under the tread
As velvet soft, and all aglow
With wild flowers, such as fairies cull,
Weaving their garlands and wreuths for the dance when the moon is full!

And lo ! at last he took him a wife,
A comely and winsome dame, I trow,
Who shed a sunshine over his life,
 And silvered the wrinkles upon his brow.
'Twas well with the kine, and well with the dairy,
Nor dreaded he ought from witch or fairy;
(He had one of his own—she was hight
 Wee Mary!) 
And often they went to the cot by the linn,
Where mavis and merle made merry din.

The English reader will prohahly require to be informed that oe—the Gaelic oglia—signifies a grandchild, while shian (Gaelic sithean) is a fairy knoll. To show what a -power fairies were at one time in the land, and how wide-spread was the belief in them, we have only to consider that there is perhaps not a hamlet or township in the Highlands or Hebrides without itsshian or green fairy knoll so called. Within half a mile of our own residence, for example, there is a Sithean Beag and a Sithean Mor, a Greater and Lesser Eairy Knoll; there is, besides, aGlacan-t' Sliithein, the Fairy Knoll Glade, Tobar-an-t' Sliithein, the Fairy Knoll Well; and a deep chasm, through which a mountain torrent plunges darkling, called Leum-an-t' Shithiche,the Fairy's Leap, with which there is probably connected some very wonderful story, although we have been unsuccessful hitherto in meeting with any one able or willing to repeat it. The truth is, that a belief in fairies and fairyland, or faery—faint, no doubt, and ill-defined now-a-days—still lingers ghostlike, the shadow of its more substantial former living self, in our straths and glens; and, in accordance with the old superstition, it is considered that the " good people " should only be spoken of on rare and unavoidable occasions, and then only in serious and respectable terms. Hence it is that you always find old people reluctant to impart such fairy lore as may be known to them, though garrulous enough on all other subjects; and hence, also, it happens that in oui old Sgenlachdan—the Arabian Nights Entertainments of our Celtic forefathers—although you find giants, and dwarfs, and misbegotten beings of every imaginable shape and size; animals, too, that can speak and reason and lend their superhuman aid to prince and peasant in extremity, as well as genii, kelpies, and spirits of flood and fell, you rarely if ever meet with one of the "good folks," or fairies proper, introduced upon the scene. The people thoroughly believed in them, believed that they had a veritable existence, and although invisible to mortal eye, that they might be at your elbow at any moment; that they disliked being spoken of at all as a rule, and that a disrespectful word about them especially would inevitably be followed by some signal punishment, or "mischance," as it was more cautiously termed in the South—all this they believed, and therefore they held it wisest to sj>eak of fairies, good folks though they were, as seldom as possible. The allusion to paying

"The fairies their due on the fairy knowe,"

has reference to the custom, common enough on the western mainland and in some of the Hebrides some fifty years ago, and not altogether unknown perhaps even at the present day, of each maiden's pouring from her cumanbleoghaia, or milking-pail, evening and morning, on the fairy knowe a little of the new-drawn milk from the cow, by way of propitiating the favour of the good people, and as a tribute the wisest, it was deemed, and most acceptable that could be rendered, and sooner or later sure to be repaid a thousand-fold. The consequence was that these fairy knolls were clothed with a richer and more beautiful verdure than any other spot, howe or knowe, in the country, and the lacteal riches imbibed by the soil through this custom is even now visible in the vivid emerald green of a shian or fairy knoll whenever it is pointed out to you. This custom of pouring lacteal libations to the fairies on a particular spot deemed sacred to them, was known and practised at some of the summer shielings in Lochaber within the memory of the people now living.


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