Dark Beira was the
mother of all the gods and goddesses in Scotland. She was of great
height and very old, and everyone feared her. When roused to anger
she was as fierce as the biting north wind and harsh as the
tempest-stricken sea. Each winter she reigned as Queen of the Four
Red Divisions of the world, and none disputed her sway. But when the
sweet spring season drew nigh, her subjects began to rebel against
her and to long for the coming of the Summer King, Angus of the
White Steed, and Bride, his beautiful queen, who were loved by all,
for they were the bringers of plenty and of bright and happy days.
It enraged Beira greatly to find her power passing away, and she
tried her utmost to prolong the winter season by raising spring
storms and sending blighting frost to kill early flowers and keep
the grass from growing.
Beira lived for
hundreds and hundreds of years, The reason she did not die of old
age was because, at the beginning of every spring, she drank the
magic waters of the Well of Youth which bubbles up in the Green
Island of the West. This was a floating island where summer was the
only season, and the trees were always bright with blossom and laden
with fruit. It drifted about on the silver tides of the blue
Atlantic, and sometimes appeared off the western coasts of Ireland
and sometimes close to the Hebrides. Many bold mariners have steered
their galleys up and down the ocean, searching for Green Island in
vain. On a calm morning they might sail past its shores and yet
never know it was near at hand, for oft-times it lay hidden in a
twinkling mist. Men have caught glimpses of it from the shore, but
while they gazed on its beauties with eyes of wonder, it vanished
suddenly from sight by sinking beneath the waves like the setting
sun. Beira, however, always knew where to find Green Island when the
time came for her to visit it.
The waters of the Well of Youth are most
potent when the days begin to grow longer, and most potent of all on
the first of the lengthening days of spring. Beira always visited
the island on the night before the first lengthening day—that is, on
the last night of her reign as Queen of Winter. All alone in the
darkness she sat beside the Well of Youth, waiting for the dawn.
When the first faint beam of light appeared in the eastern sky, she
drank the water as it bubbled fresh from a crevice in the rock. It
was necessary that she should drink of this magic water before any
bird visited the well and before any dog barked. If a bird drank
first, or a dog barked ere she began to drink, dark old Beira would
crumble into dust.
As soon as Beira tasted the magic water,
in silence and alone, she began to grow young again. She left the
island and, returning to Scotland, fell into a magic sleep. When, at
length, she awoke, in bright sunshine, she rose up as a beautiful
girl with long hair yellow as buds of broom, cheeks red as rowan
berries, and blue eyes that sparkled like the summer sea in
sunshine. Then she went to and fro through Scotland, clad in a robe
of green and crowned with a chaplet of bright flowers of many hues.
No fairer goddess was to be found in all the land, save Bride, the
peerless Queen of Summer.
As each month went past, however, Beira
aged quickly. She reached full womanhood in midsummer, and when
autumn came on her brows wrinkled and her beauty began to fade. When
the season of winter returned once again, she became an old and
withered hag, and began to reign as the fierce Queen Beira.
Often on stormy nights in early winter
she wandered about, singing this sorrowful song:-
O life that
ebbs like the sea!
I am weary and old, I am weary and old—
Oh! how can I happy be
All alone in the dark and the cold.
I'm the old Beira again,
My mantle no longer is green,
I think of my beauty with pain
And the days when another was queen.
My arms are withered and thin,
My hair once golden is grey;
'T is winter—my reign doth begin—
Youth's summer has faded away.
Youth's summer and autumn have
I am weary and old, I am weary and old.
Every flower must fade and fall dead
When the winds blow cold, when the winds blow cold.
The aged Beira was
fearsome to look upon. She had only one eye, but the sight of it was
keen and sharp as ice and as swift as the mackerel of the ocean. Her
complexion was a dull, dark blue, and this is how she sang about it:
Why is my
face so dark, so dark?
So dark, oho! so dark, ohee!
Out in all weathers I wander alone
In the mire, in the cold, ah me!
Her teeth were red as
rust, and her locks, which lay heavily on her shoulders, were white
as an aspen covered with hoar frost. On her head she wore a spotted
mutch. All her clothing was grey, and she was never seen without her
great dun-coloured shawl, which was drawn closely round her
is told that in the days when the world was young Beira saw land
where there is now water and water where there is now land.
Once a wizard spoke to her and said:
"Tell me your acre, O sharp old woman."
Beira answered: "I have long ceased to
count the years. But I shall tell you what I have seen. Yonder is
the seal-haunted rock of Skerryvore in the midst of the sea. I
remember when it was a mountain surrounded by fields. I saw the
fields ploughed, and the barley that grew upon them was sharp and
juicy. Yonder is a loch. I remember when it was a small round well.
In these days I was a fair young girl, and now I am very old and
frail and dark and miserable."
It is told also that Beira let loose
many rivers and formed many lochs, sometimes willingly and sometimes
against her will, and that she also shaped many bens and glens. All
the hills in Ross-shire are said to have been made by Beira.
There was once a well on Ben Cruachan,
in Argyll, from which Beira drew water daily. Each morning at
sunrise she lifted off the slab that covered it, and each evening at
sunset she laid it above the well again. It happened that one
evening she forgot to cover the well. Then the proper order of
things was disturbed. As soon as the sun went down the water rose in
great volume and streamed down the mountain side, roaring like a
tempest-swollen sea. When day dawned, Beira found that the valley
beneath was filled with water. It was in this way that Loch Awe came
had another well in Inverness-shire which had to be kept covered in
like manner from sunset till sunrise. One of her maids, whose name
was Nessa, had charge of the well. It happened that one evening the
maid was late in going to the well to cover it. When she drew near
she beheld the water flowing so fast from it that she turned away
and ran for her life. Beira watched her from the top of Ben Nevis,
which was her mountain throne, and cried: "You have neglected your
duty. Now you will run for ever and never leave water."
The maiden was at once changed into a
river, and the loch and the river which runs from it towards the sea
were named after her. That is why the loch is called Loch Ness and
the river the river Ness.
Once a year, when the night on which she
was transformed comes round, Ness (Nessa) arises out of the river in
her girl form, and sings a sad sweet song in the pale moonlight. It
is said that her voice is clearer and more beautiful than that of
any bird, and her music more melodious than the golden harps and
silvern pipes of fairyland.
In the days when rivers broke loose and
lochs were made, Beira set herself to build the mountains of
Scotland. When at work she carried on her back a great creel filled
with rocks and earth. Sometimes as she leapt from hill to hill her
creel tilted sideways, and rocks and earth fell from it into lochs
and formed islands. Many islands are spoken of as "spillings from
the creel of the big old woman".
Beira had eight hags who were her
servants. They also carried creels, and one after the other they
emptied out their creels until a mountain was piled up nigh to the
the reasons why Beira made the mountains was to use theca as
stepping stones; another was to provide houses for her giant sons.
Many of her sons were very quarrelsome; they fought continually one
against another. To punish those of them who disobeyed her, Beira
shut the offenders up in mountain houses, and from these they could
not escape without her permission. But this did not keep them from
fighting. Every morning they climbed to the tops of their mountain
houses and threw great boulders at one another. That is why so many
big grey boulders now lie on steep slopes and are scattered through
the valleys. Other giant sons of Beira dwelt in deep caves. Some
were horned like deer, and others had many heads. So strong were
they that they could pick up cattle and, throwing them over their
shoulders, carry them away to roast them for their meals. Each giant
son of Beira was called a Fooar.
It was Beira who built Ben Wyvis. She
found it a hard task, for she had to do all the work alone, her hag
servants being busy elsewhere. One day, when she had grown very
weary, she stumbled and upset her creel. All the rocks and earth it
contained fell out in a heap, and formed the mountain which is
called Little Wyvis.
The only tool that Beira used was a
magic hammer. When she struck it lightly on the ground the soil
became as hard as iron; when she struck it heavily on the ground a
valley was formed. After she had built up a mountain, she gave it
its special form by splintering the rocks with her hammer. If she
had made all the hills of the same shape, she would not have been
able to recognize one from another.
After the mountains were all formed,
Beira took great delight in wandering between them and over them.
She was always followed by wild animals. The foxes barked with
delight when they beheld her, wolves howled to greet her, and eagles
shrieked with joy in mid-air. Beira had great herds and flocks to
which she gave her protection— nimble-footed deer, high-horned
cattle, shaggy grey goats, black swine, and sheep that had
snow-white fleeces. She charmed her deer against the huntsmen, and
when she visited a deer forest she helped them to escape from the
hunters. During early winter she milked the hinds on the tops of
mountains, but when the winds rose so high that the froth was blown
from the milking pails, she drove the hinds down to the valleys. The
froth was frozen on the crests of high hills, and lay there
snow-white and beautiful. When the winter torrents began to pour
down the mountain sides, leaping from ledge to ledge, the people
said: "Beira is milking her shaggy goats, and streams of milk are
pouring down over high rocks."
Beira washed her great shawl in the sea,
for there was no lake big enough for the purpose. The part she chose
for her washing is the strait between the western islands of Jura
and Scarba. Beira's "washing-pot" is the whirlpool, there called
Corryvreckan. It was so named because the son of a Scottish king,
named Breckan, was drowned in it, his boat having been upset by the
waves raised by Beira.
Three days before the Queen of Winter
began her work her hag servants made ready the water for her, and
the Corry could then be heard snorting and fuming for twenty miles
around. On the fourth day Beira threw her shawl into the whirlpool,
and tramped it with her feet until the edge of the Corry overflowed
with foam. When she had finished her washing she laid her shawl on
the mountains to dry, and as soon as she lifted it up, all the
mountains of Scotland were white with snow to signify that the great
Queen had begun her reign.
Now, the meaning of this story is that
Beira is the spirit of winter. She grows older and fiercer as the
weeks go past, until at length her strength is spent. Then she
renews her youth, so that she may live through the summer and autumn
and begin to reign once again. The ancient people of Scotland saw
that during early winter torrents poured down from the hills, and in
this Beira fable they expressed their belief that the torrents were
let loose by the Winter Queen, and that the lochs were, at the
beginning, formed by the torrents that sprang from magic wells. They
saw great boulders lying on hillsides and in valleys, and accounted
for their presence in these places by telling how they were flung
from mountain tops by the giant sons of Beira.
In the next chapter the story will be
told of the coming of Angus and Bride, the King and Queen of Summer
and Plenty, and of the stormy conflicts waged during the closing
weeks of winter and the early weeks of spring between Beira and
Angus-the-Ever-Young, who comes from the fabled Green Isle of the
West—the land of eternal summer and perpetual youth.