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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXXVI


Seaweed as a Fertiliser—Homer, Horace, Virgil—November Meteors—Gaelic Folk-Lore— A Curfew Prayer—A Bed Blessing—A Cattle Blessing—Rhyme to be said in driving Cattle to Pasture—"Luath," Cuchullin's Dog—Notes from the Outer Hebrides.

From a utilitarian point of view, at least, the ancients seem to have looked upon the sea and all its products—exclusive, of course, of its myriad inhabitants of finny tribes—as absolutely worthless. Homer in the Iliad constantly speaks of the sea as "unfertile," alos atrugetoio,—literally, the ocean where no harvest can be gathered; and Horace in one of his satires says that a man may be possessed of all the virtues, and all the accomplishments, &c. to boot, but if yet sine re—without means, moneyless, or to use, perhaps, the best equivalent that our language can afford, without substance—he shall be accounted "vilior alga," viler than seaweed, or, as we should say, viler than the dust on which he treads. Even Virgil in the Georgics has no good word for the sea as in any sense, directly or indirectly, subservient to husbandry, or an ally to the tiller of the ground. Had these master-poets of Greece and Rome, gentle reader, lived with us here in Nether Lochaber, in the seventh decade of the nineteenth century, they would have thought and said differently. Homer would have probably selected a more appropriate epithet than that constantly employed by him; Horace Would have cast about for some other fitting dissyllable as a substitute for "alga;" and Virgil would have written, as he alone could write, a score or two of unexceptionable hexameters in praise of seaweed as an excellent manure and fertiliser of the soil. "It is an ill wind," quoth the proverb, " that blows nobody good and disastrous in many a place as was the dreadful storm of the first week of this month [November 1872], here along the western seaboard it only blew us good, in the very tangible and tangly shape of thousands of tons of drift-ware, that, laid on the soil in fair abundance just now, prepares it without any more trouble for the reception of seed, when, ushered in by the vernal equinox, the jocund, jolly spring comes round. Tor the last fortnight, wherever you wandered about the coast, you found the people in every direction—men, women, and children—busy as busy could be gathering and carting afield this really valuable product of the sea— Homer and Horace to the contrary notwithstanding. "We draw attention to the subject at present by reason of its timeousness, and because within recent years we have had it made clear to us beyond all cavil, and in the most practical manner possible, that for potatoes at least there is no manure for a moment to be compared with a heavy blanketing of drift-ware laid on the ground in early winter. On our own land this year a field of potatoes thus treated was a third at least better than another of equal size manured from the farmyard " heap " in the usual orthodox manner. The soil, observe, was the same, the seed the same, the date of planting the same— the only difference being in the manure. In the experience of such of our neighbours, too, as have tried it, the result has been precisely the same. The salts and other essential ingredients of sea ware seem to be really antagonistic to the spread of " blight" among the tubers; and we would strongly advise as many of our readers as have the opportunity to experiment for themselves in the direction indicated during the present winter and spring, and we are ready to wager our good porcupine-shafted "Pickwick" steel pen against the vilest crow-quill, that, on the ingathering of the crop this time twelve months, our advice, in nineteen cases out of twenty, will have been found to be a sound and good one.

Since the cessation of the terrible gales of the early part of the month, the weather has been bright, bracing, and breezy, with occasional snow showers along the uplands, that have already converted the many mountain ridges around each into a veritable Sierra Nevada. On the nights of the 13-14th and 14-15th we sat up till a late, or rather an early hour, keenly on the watch for a meteoric display, in railway nomenclature, then due, but which, up to the date of the present writing, has not yet put in an appearance. Meteors there were, but they were the mere phosphorescent streaks rarely looked for in vain by the student of the heavens on a fairly cloudless night at this season. The lunar eclipse of the early morning of the 15th was well seen, the beautiful orb, like a shield of burnished silver, riding serene in the unclouded blue; but the obscuration was too partial to be in any way interesting or striking to any one who had gazed on the phenomenon in its grander phases as often as we have done.

To our good friend Mr. Carmichael of South Uist we are indebted for the following contributions to our stock of ancient Celtic folk-lore, a subject much neglected, but of very great interest notwithstanding :—

"Which may he rendered into English as follows :—

I will cover tip the fire aright,
Even as directed by the Virgin's own Son.
Safe be the house, and safe the fire,
And safe from harm be all the indwellers.
Who is that that I see on the floor?
Even Peter himself and Paul.
Upon whom shall this night's vigil rest?
Upon the blameless Virgin Mother and her Son.
God's mouth has spoken it.
A white-robed angel shall gleam in the darkness,
An angel (to keep watch and ward) at the door of each house
Till the return of the morrow's blessed light.

Having thus duly covered up the fire, and committed the house and its inhabitants to the Divine protection during the watches of the night, the following "Bed Blessing" was repeated by each as the people retired to rest:—

"Which, fairly translated into English, will stand thus :—

A Blessing to be said at Bedtime.

This night I will lay me. down to sleep
In the companionship of the Virgin and her Son,
Even with the mother of my King,
Who protects me from all evil.
I will not lie down to sleep with evil,
Nor shall evil lie down to sleep with me;
But I shall sleep with God.
And with me shall God lie down.
His good right arm be under my head;
The cross of the Nine Angels be about me,
From the top of my head Even to the soles of my feet.
I supplicate Peter, I supplicate Paul,
I supplicate Mary the Virgin and her Son,
And I supplicate the twelve Apostles,
That evil befall me not this night, with their consent.
Good and ever glorious Mary, And Thou,
Son of the sweet-savoured Virgin,
Protect me this night from all the pains of darkness!
And thou, Michael, ever beneficent, be about for the safe keeping of my soul!

Apart from the appropriateness and almost absolute faultlessness of the rhythm and language in which they are couched, nothing about these old Hebridean "Blessings" seems to us so beautiful and striking as the nearness with which they bring Heaven and its active, ceaseless beneficence, to the very firesides and commonest affairs of men. Nothing is too small or insignificant to be placed, not in a general way observe, but in the most literal particular sense, under the Divine guardianship. "With these old people, in their ocean-girt and storm-swept islands, God was not merely the creator, but the ever present, ever near father, protector, and friend, while to them His angels were in very truth "ministering spirits, sent forth to minister or them who shall be heirs of salvation "— not merely in spiritual matters, we are to remark, but in all the affairs of common, every-day life. Since the days of the ancient Hebrews, nowhere shall we find so firm and fixed a belief in a direct and constant intercourse and communion for good between Heaven and Earth.

The following "Blessing," to be said over cattle when being led to pasture of a morning, is exceedingly interesting :—

In English thus—

A Rhyme to be said in driving Cattle to Pasture.

Wandering o'er uplands, wandering through woods,
Hither and far away wander ye still,
St. Patrick's own milkmaid attend your steps
Till safe I see you return to me again.
The charm that Mary made to her cattle,
Early and late, going and coming from pasture,
Still keep you safe from quagmire and marsh,
From pitfalls and from each other's horns,
From the sudden swelling (of the torrent about) the Red Rock
And from Luath of the Fingalians.
St. Patrick's milkmaid attend your feet,
Safe and scaithless come ye home again.

The reference to "Luath," Cuchullin's matchless dog, so celebrated in the Ossianic poems and old Fingalian tales, is curious. The ghosts of the Fingalian heroes, existing in a sort of middle state— not yet exactly saved nor wholly lost—with those of their famous dogs, were believed to visit at times the scenes of their former exploits for the sake of the hunting, in which they so much delighted, and a cow or other animal, running about excitedly and wildly, and, to all human investigation, causelessly, was supposed to be the work of a passing Fingalian hunting party, invisible to mortal eyes, Luath, unmatched in spirit-land as upon earth, still leading the chase as of old. On the lines about St. Patrick's dairymaid or milkmaid Mr. Carmichael has the following note, which will be read with interest, and which we give in his own words :—

"'Bannchag Phadriug mu'r casan.'
(St. Patrick's dairymaid be around your feet.)

Banachag is the Hebridean form of the Banarcich of the mainland, and BanacTiogach or Banacach is the Hebridean term for the smallpox. You will observe the close resemblance between the Gaelic word for a dairymaid and that for the smallpox. I think the explanation is obvious. Dairymaids were wont to get the cow-pox, and people confounded the cow-pox with the smallpox. Hence, in the Highlands old people will tell you that effects of the cow-pox were known long before Jenner's celebrated discovery. Hence, also, you will rarely meet with a woman in the Highlands disfigured from the effects of smallpox. Not so the men, however. In England, again, in the rural parishes, the case is reversed. There you will see women pox-marked, but seldom men. The reason I take it to be is this :—In the Highlands it is the woman who milk the cattle, and in doing so they get the cow-pox off the cows in milking them. A Highlander would consider it unmanly to milk a cow. I have never seen or heard of one who could or would do this, except a young man in Lismore. Three or four young men, brothers, had a small farm among them. Their mother died and their two sisters married, and probably remembering Calum-Cille's celebrated saying— 

'Far am bi bb bith'dh bean,
S' far am bi bean bithidh buaireadh.'
(Where there is a cow there will be a woman,
And where there is a woman there will be mischief.)

They resolved to do without a woman in their house at all; and they succeeded for a time, hut not for long, for—

'Man, the hermit, sighed, till woman smiled.'

One of them ultimately brought home a wife, who soon became a cause of discord and ill-will among the previously happy and affectionate brothers. But this is digressing. In England it is the men who milk the cows. Most men in rural parishes can milk, and but few women. Consequently in the agricultural districts of England you hardly ever see an elderly man disfigured by the smallpox, but you can see many women so disfigured. These suggestions are simply the results of my own observations in England and in the Highlands. They may be to the purpose or not, I don't know."

We think they are to the purpose, and we are very much obliged to our correspondent for his many interesting contributions from the Outer Hebrides to our stock of "auld-world" folk-lore.


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