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Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend
Chapter XV. Friends and Foes of Man


In ancient days the dog was looked upon as man's best friend, and the enemy of all supernatural beings: fairies, giants, hags, and monsters of the sea and the Underworld. When the seasons changed on the four "quarter days" of the year, and the whole world, as the folks believed, was thrown into confusion, the fairies and other spirits broke loose and went about plundering houses and barns and stealing children. At such times the dogs were watchful and active, and howled warning when they saw any of the supernatural creatures. They even attacked the fairies, and sometimes after such fights they returned home with all the hair scraped off their bodies.

A story is still current in Edinburgh about a piper and his dog, and their meeting with a monster of the Underworld. This monster haunted an underground passage, which is said to run from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace, and was called Great-Hand, for no one ever saw aught of it except its gigantic grisly hand with nails like an eagle's claw.

In days of long ago the underground passage was used by soldiers when the enemies of the King of Scotland invaded the kingdom and laid siege to Edinburgh Castle, his chief stronghold. The soldiers could leave the castle and fall upon the besiegers from behind, and through it reinforcements could be sent to the castle. When, however, the spirit called Great-Hand began to haunt the tunnel, it could not be used any longer, for every man who entered it perished in the darkness.

The piper was a brave man, and he resolved to explore the tunnel with his dog. "I shall play my bagpipe all the way through," he said to his friends, "and you can follow the sound of the piping above the ground."

There is a cave below the castle which leads to the tunnel, and the piper entered it one morning, playing a merry tune. His faithful dog followed him. The people heard the sound of the bagpipe as they walked down High Street, listening intently, but when they reached the spot which is called the "Heart of Midlothian" the piping stopped abruptly, as if the pipes had been torn suddenly from the piper's hands. The piper was never seen again, but his dog, without a hair on its body, came running out of the cave below the castle.

There are other strange passages below hills, and even below the sea, about which stories have been told. The longest of these is one that is supposed to stretch from a cave in Oban to another cave in the Island of Mull. A Gaelic legend tells that a piper once entered the cave at Oban to explore the tunnel, but was never seen again. His dog returned with every hair torn from its body, and died soon afterwards.

It is said that most of these passages have been made by fairies for the monster with the gigantic grisly Hand, and there are two stories about men who once caught glimpses of the Hand inside caves, and yet managed to escape from it.

The first story is about an underground passage, over three miles long, that is said to connect the Dropping Cave, near Cromarty, with another cave in the fairy-haunted dell of Eathie, which is situated beside Navity Moor, where in ancient times the Earth Goddess was worshipped within a grove. It is told that when fires are lit in one of the caves the smoke conies out of the other.

The Dropping Cave is so called because drops of water are constantly falling from its ceiling, which bristles with long tapering stalactites that look like icicles. There are lots of strange stories about this cave. Fishermen have told that they have seen blue lights hovering near it in the darkness, and also that often, on moonlight nights, a mermaid sits on a rock below it, combing her long yellow hair with her fingers and singing a low sad song.

Once upon a time a little old man, with a pale wrinkled face and long grey beard, was seen sitting near the cave, gazing over the sea. lie did not move for three days. People crept along the lonely shore to watch him from a distance, and fishermen, passing in their boats, stared at him with wondering eyes. No one dared to go near him except a half-witted lad, who first walked round the little old man, and then spoke, saying: "Why are you sitting here? Are you not tired yet?"

The little old man made no answer, but shivered all over. Terrified by his appearance, the lad turned at once and fled homeward, crying: "He is shivering now, he is shivering now."

On the evening of the third day the little old man disappeared. Soon afterwards a terrible storm broke out. It raged fiercely for several days, and, when it was over, the shores were strewn with wreckage and the bodies of drowned sailors. The people believed that the little old man was one of the inhabitants of the Underworld, and some have declared he was no other than Thomas the Rhymer.

A Cromarty man, named William Millar, who lived over a hundred years ago, is said to have entered the Dropping Cave and explored part of the underground passage. When he returned he told that he had caught a glimpse of the great Hand.

Before he entered the cave, Millar sewed sprigs of rowan and witch hazel in the hem of his vest. Into one of his pockets he put a Bible, and in his right hand he held a staff of blackthorn which he had cut on a calm night when the moon was full, and had dressed without using anything made of iron. With the aid of these charms he hoped to be able to protect himself against the spirits of the Under-world.

Having lit a torch, Millar climbed up to the mouth of the dark wet cave, and entered it just as the sun was beginning to rise. He walked forward until the passage became so low and narrow that he had to crawl on his hands and knees. He crawled for some distance until the cave began to widen, and at length he found himself in a big underground chamber which was full of blue mist. A small and beautiful rainbow appeared round his flaming torch. For a time he stood gazing around him and above. The roof seemed to be very high, and the rocky walls were rough and bare. He walked onward, and as he did so the sound of his footsteps awoke many echoes loud and faint. It seemed as if a hundred people were walking through the cave.

Suddenly Millar heard a curious humming noise. He stopped to listen, and when he did so the humming grew louder. He peered through the blue mist for a time, fearing to advance farther into the depths of that fearsome place. Then a fierce gust of wind blew in his face. The flames of the torch were swept backward, flickered, and went out. Just as this happened, Millar caught a glimpse of many dim forms flitting round about him. A cry of fear came from his lips, and he turned to run away, but stumbled over a stone, fell heavily, and became unconscious.

How long he lay there he never could tell. When he woke, the chamber was no longer dark, for a red light shone through it. The humming noise had grown very loud, and seemed to be the noise of falling water. Thinking he was not far from the waterfalls of Eathic burn, he rose up and hastened forward. The passage grew narrow, and led to another large chamber, where he saw a great fire of fir logs burning fiercely, and a waterfall dashing over a rock into a deep pool beneath. In front of the pool was a big stone chest. The floor of the rocky chamber was strewn with human bones.

Millar crept forward cautiously until he saw a big iron mace, red with rust and blood, lying at one end of the stone chest, and a horn dangling on a chain which came down from the rocky ceiling.

He gazed at the horn for a minute; then he grasped it in his hands and blew a single blast which awoke a hundred echoes.

No sooner did he do so than the waters ceased to fall. Millar was astonished, and thought he would blow the horn once again to see what would happen. But when he leaned forward to grasp it, he saw the lid of the stone chest rising slowly. He stepped back at once, for a sudden fear struck him, and he began to tremble like an aspen leaf.

The lid rose and rose, and suddenly fell backward with a crash. Then out of the chest came a gigantic grisly Hand which grasped the big rusty mace. Millar shrieked and fled out of the rocky chamber. A fierce yell broke out behind him, and, turning round, he saw the Hand throwing down the mace, the lid of the chest rising, and the waterfall beginning to pour again over the rocks into the deep pool.

With hasty steps he ran into the chamber in which he had lain in a swoon, and having found his torch, lit it again, and crept forward until he reached the narrow passage through which he had crawled. When at length he got out of the Dropping Cave, he found that the sun was setting over the western hills. He vowed never again to attempt to explore the underground passage to Eathie.

Another cave story is told about a west-coast man named MacFadyen, who had a wonderful black dog which he had got from a fairy. This animal was very lazy, and used to sleep a great deal, and eat huge quantities of food. MacFadyen's wife hated it, and often said to her husband: "Your black dog is quite useless; it eats much food, and never does anything to help you. I think it should be drowned."

MacFadyen would not drown it, however. "Leave it alone," he would say; "the dog will have its day."

One morning many of the villagers went out to hunt the wild deer on the mountains. They roused a great fleet-footed stag which ran towards the village. All the dogs were behind it in full chase, except MacFadyen's dog, which lay sleeping in the sunshine at the corner of his house. The stag was heading for the loch, over which it could swim, and so escape from its pursuers, but it had first to pass MacFadyen's dog. Someone said: "Now the dog's great day has come at last."

The hunters shouted and their dogs bayed aloud. MacFadyen's dog was awakened by the tumult, and, rising up, stretched itself and looked round about. It saw the great stag, but never moved to attack. Instead, it just lay down again and closed its eyes, and the stag entered the water and swam across the loch.

"Kill that lazy dog of yours, MacFadyen," the hunters cried out; "it is of no use."

Said MacFadyen: "Leave the dog alone; the dog will have its day."

One morning MacFadyen and other two men went out to fish round the shores of a lonely island. When the boat was launched the dog walked down the beach, and leaping into it, stretched itself at Mac Fadyen's feet and went to sleep.

"We do not require a dog when we go fishing," one of the men said. "Put your dog ashore, MacFadyen."

Said Mac Fadyen: "Leave the dog alone; the dog will have its day."

The men fished round the island all day, and when evening was coming on they landed and went to a cave. They lit a fire there and cooked some fish. MacFadyen's dog ate as much fish as did the three men together.

Night came on, and the men lay down to sleep. MacFadyen had his dog beside him, and in the middle of the night the dog woke him with its growling. MacFadyen sat up. The fire was burning low, and in the silence he heard a dripping sound. He threw some dry twigs on the fire, and when the flames from them lit up the cave, he saw that both his friends were dead. The dripping he heard was the dripping of their blood flowing over the flat stones. The light went out, and MacFadyen sat trembling in the darkness while the dog kept growling angrily. Then MacFadyen heard a rustling sound, and saw, passing over the embers of the low fire, a great grisly Hand. It was feeling round about the cave for something, and MacFadyen shrank back to escape from it. Suddenly his dog leapt up and attacked the giant Hand. A fierce struggle followed. The Hand tried to grasp the dog, and the dog tried to tear the Hand to pieces. For several minutes the fight was waged with fury, and then the Hand was withdrawn. The dog followed it, and scampered out of the cave, and Mac Fadyen, trembling in the darkness, heard a great stamping overhead.

He waited until the dawn began to break. Then he rose and left the cave, and ran down the beach. With a great effort he launched the boat, and, leaping into it, began to row away from the haunted island.

He had not rowed a hundred yards when he saw two bright lights following him in the dusk of the dawn. Terrified by the lights, he bent himself to the oars and rowed faster and faster. The boat went quickly through the water, but the lights came quickly after him. In the growing brightness of early morning, MacFadyen saw at length that the lights he dreaded were the flaming eyes of his dog, which was swimming from the island and endeavouring to reach the boat. The fury of the fight had roused all the slumbering energy of the dog, and MacFadyen was afraid of it. He did not wait for it, but kept on rowing until the dog became exhausted and, sinking below the waves, was drowned.

"The dog has had its day," said Mac Fadyen. "It saved my life."

There are many Gaelic stories about faithful dogs, and some examples of these are as follows.

A man named Colin Cameron had once a great fleet-footed greyhound. He went out to hunt with it on a September morning, and lost his way among the mountains. Night carne on, and he allowed the dog to go ahead and followed it. In time he came to a lonely shieling on a hill-side, and saw a light issuing from it. The door was open, and he looked in. He saw an old woman clad in green sitting on the floor. She looked up and spoke, saying: "Are you not coining in, Colin Cameron?"

Colin suspected that the woman was an evil spirit, and answered: "Not just now."

"You have lost your way," she said.

"Perhaps I shall find it ere long," he told her.

"If you do not come in," she said next, "I had better go with you and show you the way to your house."

"Do not trouble yourself," he answered; "I shall find my way myself."

Having spoken thus, Colin turned and ran down the hill-side. Soon he found that his dog was not following him, and he stopped to call it. As he did so, the sound of a fierce struggle fell on his ears, and he began to run again. He ran a great distance. Then the moon rose up, and he found himself in a glen he knew, and turned his face homewards. He reached his own house in safety, and soon after he entered it his dog came in. The animal had not a hair left on its body except on its ears. It was panting with exhaustion and pain. Lying down at Colin's feet, it licked his hand, and then fell over on its right side and died.

Colin realized at once what had happened. His faithful greyhound had waited behind at the shieling to prevent the green woman from following him.

Another story is told about three men who once crossed a lonely moor in the night-time. They had a dog with them, and when they were halfway on their journey it began to run round and round them in ever-widening circles. At length the men heard the Sound of fairy music, and one said to another: "The wee folk are dancing and making merry somewhere near us."

They hastened on their way, fearing to meet the fairies. At length the sound of the dog howling and barking mingled with the music. Suddenly the music stopped abruptly, and they heard the trampling of many feet on the dark moor. They ran as fast as they were able until the sounds died away in the distance, and they reached in safety the house to which they were going. Early next morning the dog made its appearance. All the hair on its body had been scraped off as if with long nails, and soon after it entered the house it lay down and died.

A man named Malcolm MacPhee was once walking along a lonely rocky beach in Islay when a mermaid seized him. She thrust him into a cave, and there kept him a prisoner.

Now MacPhee had a big black dog, and his wife sent it out to search for its master. The wise animal at once ran towards the cave on the beach, where it found MacPhee. No sooner did it arrive, however, than the mermaid rose out of the sea to prevent her prisoner escaping. The dog growled fiercely when it saw her, and she tried to drive it away.

Said MacPhee: "You had better let me go, or my dog will attack you."

The mermaid laughed, and answered: "I shall keep you here until you die."

No sooner did she say that than the dog sprang at her. A fierce struggle took place, and the mermaid tried to escape by leaping back into the sea. The dog followed her, and fought until it killed the mermaid, but was itself so severely wounded that it was drowned before it reached the shore. MacPhee hastened homeward, lament-in; the loss of his faithful dog.

It is told that dogs can see the spirit messenger of death coming nigh in the darkness. When they catch sight of it they begin to howl. People who hear dogs howling at night fear that someone they know will meet with a fatal accident or die suddenly while asleep.

The Banshee is dreaded by dogs. She is a fairy woman who washes white sheets in a ford by night when someone near at hand is about to die. It is said she has the power to appear during day-time in the form of a black dog, or a raven, or a hoodie-crow.

The following is a Highland poem about the Banshee, who is supposed to sing a mournful song while she washes the death-clothes of one who is doomed to meet with a sudden and unexpected death:

Knee-deep she waded in the pool
The Banshee robed in green
Singing her song the whole night long,
She washed the linen clean;
The linen that must wrap the dead
She beetled on a stone;
She washed with dripping hands, blood-red,
Low singing all alone:

The Banshee I with second sight
Singing in the cold starlight;
I wash the death-clothes pure and white,
For Fergus More must die to-night.

'T was Fergus More rode o'er the hill,
Come back from foreign wars;
His horse's feet were clattering sweet
Below the pitiless stars;
And in his heart he would repeat:
"0 never again I'll roam;
All weary is the going forth,
But sweet the coming home."

The Banshee I with second sight,
Singing in the cold starlight;
I wash the death-clothes pure and white,
For Fergus More must die to-night.

He saw the blaze upon his heart
Bright-gleaming down the glen;
O, he was fain for home again !-
He'd parted with his men.
`'T is many a weary day," he'd sigh,
"Since I did leave her side;
I'll never more leave Scotland's shore
And Una Ban, my bride."

The Banshee I with second sight,
Singing in the cold starlight;
I wash the death-clothes pure and white,
For Fergus More must die to-night.

With thought of Una's tender love
Soft tears his eyes did blind,
When up there crept and swiftly leapt
A man who stabbed behind.
"'T is you," he cried, "who stole my bride.
This night shall be your last." . . .
As Fergus fell, the warm, red tide
Of life came ebbing fast.

The Banshee I with second sight,
Singing in the cold starlight;
I wash the death-clothes pure and white,
For Fergus More must die to-night.


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