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History of the Island of Mull
Chapter VIII - Folk Lore


Folklore was the school of primitive people. The curriculum of this school embraced everything relating to ancient observances, customs, notions, beliefs, traditions, superstitions and prejudices. Folklore represents the struggle for intellectual existence, exhibiting the tortuous byway through which the mind of man has struggled to attain its present state of civilization. In this chapter the term Folk Lore is limited to the weird tales of Mull, and only to those positively identified to have been current among the natives. The published stories stated to have been current in the West Highlands are passed over, unless specified to have been also narr rated in Mull. The tales belong to the higher grade in the College of Progress, being several degrees removed from ordinary superstitions.

The Death of Fraoch: This tale is one of the oldest in the world, for its rudiments are found in the folklore of many nations. It is widely circulated in the Highlands. An excellent review of it is given in Henderson’s Campbell’s Celtic Dragon Myth. The earliest known record of it is in The Book of the Dean of Lismore, written before 1551, and published in Gaelic and English in 1862. The earliest publication, given in English, verse, is in the Scot’s Magazine, for 1756, by Jerome Stone. In 1887, J. MacCormick and W. Muir published in Iona the Gaelic version of Stone, with their own translation, and a paraphrase, with the music of fifty years previous. It was reprinted in 1888, but both editions are now rare. In the preface it is stated that:

“The events narrated in the following poem occurred in Mull, in the district surrounding Loch Laich, which probably is a corruption of Loch Maidhe (the lake of Mev). The local tradition is that Fraoch lived at Suidhe near the village of Bunessan. Opposite him in an oblique direetion on the other side of the loch lived Mev, through whose treachery Fraoch was slain; the place is still known as ‘larach tigh Meidhe.’ It is close by the farm Ardfenaig. Mev’s only child was Main, a girl of exquisite grace and beauty. The island where the rowan tree grew is called after her Eilean Mhain. It is right opposite to Bunessan.”

The Iona edition thus renders the Death of Fraoch:

“As sobs a man bowed down with grief, and the newly-made bride who is loud in her wails, even so a friend should sob for the death of Fraoch; for a hero reclining in his narrow bed. There in the west is the tomb where reclines Fraoch, son of Medich of the soft hair; he who did a favor for Mev.. It was called the cairn of Fraoch.- The women weep on the hill in the east. Distressful is the cause which makes a woman weep. She who heaved a heavy sigh; ‘twas for Fraoch, son of Medich of the ancient swords. ’Tis the sweet virgin who shall weep as she comes unknown to her to the grave of Fraoch; she the auburn nymph of the beautifully-curling hair, Mev’s only daughter the object of the love of heroes. The only daughter of Corul of prettiest hair and Fraoch side by side to-night are placed. She was admired by many an one, yet, she loved none but Fraoch. When she discovered her friendship with the hero of purest nature, it was because he refrained from sinning with her that his body was mangled. She sent him to the battle of death. Side with a woman and sin not with her. ’Tis grevious. that thou hast fallen by a monster. I could tell thee without guile how ’twas done. On an isle in the lake, far away from the south, there grew a rowan tree. Every season and every month, the tree did bear ripe fruit. The red fruit possessed a virtue; sweeter than soft honey was its taste. The rowans, when ripe could keep a person without food for three days. The life of each man is prolonged by a year. I could tell thee this to prove that by the virtue of the fruit when ripe, infirm people were healed. There was great danger in procuring the fruit, though healing powers it did possess; for a fierce moster slept round the trunk of the tree, forbidding any one to pluck the fruit. The daughter of Omich of the hospitable cups fell sick of a grievous sickness; she sent for Fraoch, and the hero asked her what she wished. She said she would not be hale unless she could get as many as would fill her soft hand of the rowans that grew on the cool lake, plucked by none but Fraoch. I shall not return’ thought the son of Medich of the red cheeks. ‘Yet though I should never return,’ said Fraoch, ‘I will pluck the rowans for Mev.’ Fraoch went on his blessed errand, and swam across to the isle. He found the monster in a sound sleep, and her horrid mouth laid against the tree. Fraoch son of Medich of the sharp blades, escaped from the monster. He took with him a bunch of the red rowans that Mev wished for in her house. ‘Good as all thou hast done,’ said Mev of whitest breast. ‘But it is useless to me dear Fraoch, unless the tree be pulled from its roots.’ Fraoch went forth and no laggard’s part did he act. He swam again on the soft water of the lake. It was difficult for him though it was a great pity to shun the death he did. He seized the top of the rowan tree and wrenched it from its roots. He made for the shore. The monster pursued him. The monster overtook him on the beach; and in her horrid mouth seized his hand. Fraoch seized her by the jaw; 0 God! how unhappy that Fraoch lacks his lance. The monster tore his fair skin. She mangled his hand. Main the youthful maid of the white palms, speedily brought him a lance. The combat was short. He cut off her head,. 0 God! how unhappy that Fraoch son of Medich and the monster had fought. They fell side by side on the beach of the brown pebbles. When the frank maiden saw him she fell down in a swoon on the beach. When she awoke from the swoon she seized his hand. Though to-night thy body is food for birds, great is the deed thou hast done. Would that thou hadst fallen in the battle of heroes with their golden breas.t-plates. How grievous that thou hast fallen by a monster! 0 pity those that live after thee! Blacker than the plumage of the raven were his locks. His cheeks were redder than the blood of swans. Softer than the foam of eddying streams, and whiter than snow, was the body of Fraoch. His shield was stronger than the frame of a door.. Many a chief is sheltered. His hand and lance were of equal length. Broader than the plank of a ship was his sword. His spear was taller than the mast to which sails are set. His voice was more melodious than the strain of the harp. A better swimmer than Fraoch never laid breast on water. Great was the strength of his arm, and greater still the strength of his legs. His disposition excelled that of kings. He ne’er delayed when challenged. People wish for the love of their chief. The red cheek is admired. Those lips are loved, that deny not friendship, and that the young maidens love to kiss. The body 'of the hero was laid in the narrow house, the quiet resting place of Fraoch. Wretched are those that live after thee. A prouder woman my eyes have never beheld. She that sent Fraoch to pull the tree after the fruits had been brought to her. After his death the lake where the monster lived, with her horrid mouth laid against the trunk, shall be called the lake of Mev.”

 

The Two Brothers:    In the long ago the island of Mull was uninhabited, save by a few families who lived on the south side at Carsaig, in that part known as the Ross of MulL These families were isolated from the rest of the world, and none had ever seen any other persons, and had never left the place. They had no boats, and believed the islets about were other worlds. One day they saw an object approaching them from the mainland, and as it drew near, they compared it to a horse with a tree standing on its back, but as it neared the shore it proved to be a boat covered with hides, with one man on it, with some drink with him and a quantity of hazel nuts for food. On account of his wicker-boat being covered with hides they called him “The cowhide man”. He informed them that he had left home out of curiosity to see other places, and that was the first place reached. He had come from Ardencaple in the district of Lorn. As he was treated kindly and they were much pleased with him, he staid with them a long time. He became an instructor, teaching them new ways that were useful, and he promoted their welfare in various ways. They had the art of making butter, and he taught them how to make cheese by putting stalks of marsh marigold in the milk it was turned into curds and whey. This was said to be the first cheese ever made in Mull. A year later another boat came making shore at Loch Spelve, which also had one man in it, and he was named “The one in the skin coverings”. He was the brother of the one who had previously arrived, and was in search of him. The two strangers and the people fared well together. When the brothers found that wood was abundant in Mull, they began to build a boat, and when it was finished they named it “the six-oared boat”, and when it was placed in condition for a voyage, the brothers took a crew with them, and set off in it to go to one or other of the worlds (islets) that were in view, and reached Jura, but the natives refused to let them land, as they had never seen a boat before. They then went to Colonsay, but were prohibited from landing. They attacked them, and tried to throw sand in their eyes. Then they went to Islay; no one was at the shore; they drew the boat upon the land, and then went in search for people, desiring to be directed to a house. The first person met was an old man watching cattle. He thought they belonged to the island, as no one was ever known to leave or come there. The first brother asked information about the place, and then the old man remarked, “How curious your speech is, if you were born on this island.” “No, I am not a native of this island.” The old man said, “And if not, what has brought you here?” “The reason of my coming is, to ask what you can give, and give what I may.” As it was nightfall the old man kindled a fire, and they sat with him till daylight, when men and houses were to be seen. The Islay men were hospitable, and the strangers remained a full year and built boats for them. The elder brother married a native woman, and after a time prepared to leave for Mull, and then set off, taking with him his wife and the others, setting his course northwards. They had not gone far when a thick mist came on and darkened the world; and as they had no compas and could see no land, they drifted until the boat went ashore. This was the first appearance of land since setting out on the voyage. A big man, whose size they never saw equalled, came down and caught the forepart of the boat and drew it above high water mark, with all in it. He invited them to go to his house, and made them welcome. His daughter, on being asked by the elder brother for a drink, brought a two-hooped wooden dish full of milk, set it on the floor beside them and went away. One of the strangers tried to lift the dish but failed. Then three made the effort, and also were disappointed. The daughter returning found the dish as she left it, and said, ‘r.If you have quenched your thirst it is not awanting from the measure.” The cowhide one replied, “We have not. been accustomed to stoop like cattle when we take a drink, and we could not lift the dish.” At that she caught the wooden bowl by the ear, in her left hand, and held the drink to all, saying, “Where have you come from, or, where are you going?” “We came from the dark-blue sea-isle and are going to the hilly isle.” “That is Mull,” she said, “Mull of my love, Mull of little men.” They passed the night cheerfully, and next morning started to leave; but when they tried to float the boat, they could not move it. Then said the young wife who came from Islay, “I know where we are; we are in the green-isle that is under spells, but I have a gift that will let us leave it.” She then said her mother, at parting, had given her a cap, remarking, “If you are ever in a strait, put it on, and you must at the same time bend your head to the ground as low as your feet seven times.” She had the cap in her belt, and told all to sit in the boat and take the oars. She then stood in the midst, touched the cap, bent her head, and it went up to her breast; the next time it went up to her neck; the third time to her chin; then, as she bent her head, at the fourth time, it went up past her mouth to her nose; the next time, it reached her eyes, then her forehead, and at last the top of her head, and the boat was off. The mist was still there. The eldest brother was asked what direction they should take. He told them to follow the flight of birds, as they went shore-wards in the evening, which would guide them to land. During the night the younger brother called out there was a mound before them. His brother who was in the after part said, “It is torr without grass” (and ever since has been called, Torrens.) When it was day they reached the Mull shore, and ran the boat in at a narrow strait, like an opening in a dyke, breaking the oars. The place is still known as the narrow strait of broken oars. Having landed all went home and told of their adventure.

The Two Sisters: This story has been told as a continuation of that of the Two Brothers, and occured during the time of their absence. It has also been claimed to belong to a later period. It has been thus translated from the Gaelic:

“Two sisters were living in the same township on the south side of Mull. One of them who was known as lovely Mairearad had a fairy sweetheart, who came where she was, unknown to anyone, until one day she confided the secret to her sister, who was called Ailsa, and told her how she dearly loved her fairy sweetheart. ‘And now, sister,’ she said, ‘you will not tell any one.’ ‘That story will as soon pass from my lips as it will from my knee;’ but she did not keep her promise; she told the secret of the fairy sweetheart to others, and when he came again, he found that he was observed, and he went away and never returned, nor was he seen or heard of ever after by any one in the place. When the lovely sister came to know this, she left her home and became a wanderer1 among the hills and hollows, and never after came inside of a house door, to stand or sit down, while she lived. Those who herded cattle tried frequently to g-et near her and persuade her to return home, further than to hear her crooning a melancholy song in which she told how her sister had been false to her, and that the wrong done to her would be avenged on the sister or her descendants, if a fairy has power. On hearing that Ailsa was married she repeated, ‘Dun Ailsa is married and has a son Torquil, and the evil will be avenged on her or on him.’ What she hummed in her mournful song was:

My mother’s place is deserted, empty and cold,
My father, who loved me, is asleep in the tomb,
Friendless and solitary I wander through the fields,
Since there is none in the world of my kindred
But a sister without pity.
She asked and I told, out of the fulness of my joy;
There was none nearer of kin to know my secret;
But I felt, and this brought the tears to my eyes,
That a story comes sooner from the lip than from the knee.    .
She was then heard to utter these wishes:
May nothing on which you have set your expectations ever grow,
Nor dew ever fall on your ground.
May no smoke rise from your dwelling,
In depth of the hardest winter,
May the worm be in your store,
And the moth under the lid of your chests.
If a fay-being has power,
Revenge will be taken though it may be on your descendants.

Ailsa married, and had one son. In some way her afflicted sister heard of this, and she then added to her song:

Dun Ailsa has married,
And she has a son Torquil.
Brown-haired Torquil who can climb the headland
And bring the seal off the waves,
The sickle in your hand is sharp,
You will in two swaths reap a sheaf.

Whatever gifts the brown-haired, only child of her sister was favored with, besides others, he was a noted reaper, but this gift proved fatal to him. When he grew up to manhood, he could reap as much as seven men, and none among them could compete with him. He was then told that a strange woman was seen coming- to the harvest fields in autumn, after the reapers had left, a-nd that she would reap a field before daylight next morning, or any part of the ripe corn that the reapers could not finish that day, and in whatever field she began, she left the work of seven reapers, finished, after her. She was known as the Maiden of the Cairn, from being seen to come out of a cairn over opposite. One evening then brownhaired Torquil, who desired to see her at work, being later than usual of returning home, on looking back saw her beginning in his own field. He returned, and finding his sickle where he had put it away, he took it with him, and after her he went. He resolved to overtake her and began to reap the next furrow, saying, ‘You are a good reaper or I will overtake you;’ but the harder he worked, the more he saw that instead of getting nearer to her, she was drawing further away from him, and he then called out to her, ‘Maiden of the cairn, wait for me, wait for me,

She said answering him, ‘Handsome brown-haired youth, overtake me, overtake me.’

He was confident that he would overtake her, and went on after her till the moon was darkened by a cloud; he then called to her, ‘The moon is clouded, delay, delay.’

‘I have no other light but her, overtake me, overtake me.’ He did not, nor could he overtake her, and on seeing again how far she was in advance of him, he said, ‘I am weary with yesterday’s reaping, wait for me, wait for me.’ She answered, ‘I ascended the round hill of steep summits, overtake me, overtake me;’ but he could not. He then said, ‘My sickle would be the better of being sharpened, wait for me, wait for me.’ She answered, ‘My sickle will not cut garlic, overtake me, overtake me.’ At this she reached the head of the furrow, finished reaping, and stood still where she was, waiting for him. When he reached the head of his own furrow, he caught the last handful of corn, to keep it, as was the custom, it being the ‘Harvest Maiden,’ and stood with it in one hand and the sickle in the other. Looking at her steadily in the face, he said, ‘You have put the old woman far from me, and it is not my displeasure you deserve.’ She said, ‘It is an evil thing early on Monday to reap the harvest maiden.’ On her saying this, he fell dead on the field and never more drew breath. The maiden of the Cairn was never afterwards seen, nor heard of; and that was how the sister’s wishes ended.


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