I should imagine that no
country in the world is richer in folk-lore than the West Highlands. The
ceilidh was an institution, and our people loved to gather together on a
winter's evening, and to tell each other again and again the old stories
which they had received from their forbears.
Many of these traditions
are of great historical interest. They record, more or less accurately,
events which really happened in the past, and, indeed, the history of
every clan largely depends on information obtained from this source. Many
of the old stories which relate to my own clan have been recorded in my
two volumes on the History of the MacLeods. One or two of those which
follow I have heard since these books were written, and two or three more,
which are specially interesting because they throw so much light on the
superstition of our forefathers, I have ventured to repeat. I am under the
impression that some of them have never been published.
Some of the traditions were
given to me by the late Miss Emily MacLeod, some by my venerable friend,
Miss Tolmie, and a great many by Mr John Mackenzie, the factor at Dunvegan,
all three of whom got them from old people who had often heard them told
These old stories are
worthy of careful study, for they reveal to us the character of the people
who loved to tell them, and enable us to form an idea concerning their
beliefs, their ideals, and their fancies.
There are two methods of
telling these traditions. The first is the one adopted by J. F. Campbell,
in his "Popular Tales of the West Highlands." In this he gives a literal
translation of the Gaelic in which he heard them. A single short story
told in this manner has a charm of its own, but, when many stories are
told, I think that this method becomes tiresome and monotonous. I have,
therefore, arrived at the conclusion that it is better to tell the stories
in my own words, only occasionally preserving a quaint bit of phraseology.
The first two tales in my collection are love stories. They show how
highly our fathers valued the great qualities of constancy and fidelity.
A TALE OF TRUE LOVE.
There was great joy at
Dunvegan. The bridal morning of the Chief's daughter had arrived. The
cooks in the great kitchen of the castle were busy preparing the bridal
banquet, troops of glad clansmen came singing along, the sound of the
pipes filled the air, the bards were serenading the maiden, she herself
was being attired for the occasion with joy in her heart, for she dearly
loved the young, fair-haired Chief, who was coming from Lewis to claim his
fair bride, and to stand at the altar with her at his side.
The bridegroom might arrive
at any minute. Even now they knew that his galley was speeding across the
Minch to bring him to his bride. But, fine as the early morning had been,
there suddenly sprang up a tremendous gale of wind, one of those appalling
storms which we West Highlanders know so well. The sounds of rejoicing
were hushed, fear gripped every heart. Could any boat live in such a sea?
was the sad question which men asked of each other. Time passed, the
bridegroom did not come. The maiden kept hoping against hope that his
galley would weather the storm. but at last a sickening fear turned to a
dreadful certainty, They knew that they would never see him again; for he
must have been lost in the Minch, with the whole of his train.
The maiden was
heart-broken. As the leaden-footed days passed by, she slowly pined away,
and at length the last day of her life dawned. She knew that she was
dying, and she made one last request before she passed away. She besought
her father that she might be buried in the sea, so that she might lie
beside her true love till the crack of doom. Her father gave her his
promise, and soon after she died.
The Chief had promised, but
could he fulfil his word? It seemed a dreadful thing to cast his
daughter's body into the cold, cruel sea. It seemed a shocking thing that
no memorial stone should stand over her grave, to tell future generations
how a maiden of their race had died for love. He felt that he could not do
it, and in spite of the promise which he had given, he resolved to take
her remains to Rodel, and lay her in the sacred earth where already
reposed so many scions of his ancient line.
The galley put to sea, and
started on its sad voyage across the Minch in fine weather. But before
they had got beyond Dunvegan Head, again a fierce and sudden gale sprang
up. They could not go on; they must put back. But, the Chief asked
himself, was this gale a mere chance? Was it not a message from heaven,
which bade him fulfil the solemn promise which he had made to his
daughter? He decided that this was what the gale meant.
He reverently took the
shrunken form of his daughter in his arms, and, his heart filled with
sorrow, cast her on the waves.
Then there was seen a
strange and wondrous sight. A grand majestic form, the figure of him the
maid had loved so well, rose from the sea. He clasped his love in his
arms, and those two, whose fair young lives had been blighted on earth,
sank together beneath the waves, there in the ocean's caves to lie till
the sea shall give up her dead, and death be finally conquered.
Nature herself preserves
the memory of this strange bridal. However wild the seas which break upon
our Northern shores, there is ever one spot where perfect calm for ever
reigns. That is the place where these faithful lovers, separated by death,
were in death re-united.
In 1566, Torquil Oighre,
the heir of the Lewis branch of the MacLeods, was drowned, with his train
of sixty men, when crossing over from Lewis to Skye. It is quite likely
that he was on his way to Dunvegan to claim his bride, and that this story
has some foundation in fact. In that case the maiden must have been a
daughter of Tormod, the 11th of the Dunvegan Chiefs.
MARY OF MARRIG.
Mary, the daughter of the
farmer at Marrig, in Harris, was a very lovely girl, and being, moreover,
an heiress in a small way, she had a great many suitors. Among them was
their neighbour, the tenant of Hushinish. He had won her father's
good-will, but as he could not obtain Mary's, his wooing was no more
prosperous than that of the other aspirants to her hand.
In course of time a new
candidate for Mary's favour appeared on the scene, who succeeded in
winning her affection, and who himself became devotedly attached to her.
This was Archibald, a younger son of the Earl of Argyll. This young man
had killed one of the Frasers of Aird in a duel, and had sought refuge in
Harris from the revenge of his adversary's kindred. This proved to be a
fatal bar to the success of his suit. When Mary's father heard that he had
killed a Fraser, to which clan his loved wife had belonged, he absolutely
refused to sanction the match, and insisted that Campbell should leave
Harris, and never see his daughter again. Before Archibald left he had a
farewell interview with his lady love. He declared that he would wait for
any length of time, if only he could make her his wife in the end, and
she, giving him a knot of blue ribbon as a token of constancy, vowed that
she would marry no other man while he lived. He then went away, and took
up a seafaring life.
For some years nothing was
heard of him, but Mary remained faithful, and refused to listen to any
other suitor. At last a vessel put into Marrig Bay. On board of this ship
were three sailors, who said that they had known and loved Archibald, and
that he had been drowned some time before, to their great sorrow. When
this became known, the farmer of Hushinish again began to press his suit.
Mary's father used all his influence to induce her to accept him, and at
last, though she could not forget Archibald, she agreed to marry Hushinish,
and a day was fixed for the wedding.
Mary's father found that
his cellar was insufficiently supplied with wine for the bridal feast, and
he sailed away to Loch Seaforth, hoping to find a vessel there, from the
captain of which he could purchase some wine. In the harbour of Loch
Seaforth a Dutch trader, laden with wine, was lying at anchor. A bargain
was soon struck, and the captain and mate made themselves so agreeable
that Marrig asked them to come back with him and be present at the
wedding. They arrived just before the ceremony was to begin. The mate went
up to the bride and handed her a small parcel, saying in a low tone, "As a
token of my undying devotion." The parcel contained her own knot of blue
ribbon. She looked up, and, recognising him, flung herself into his arms,
crying, "My own beloved Archie."
The consternation of the
wedding party was great. The bridegroom, realising that he had no chance,
went away home, bitterly disappointed, and old Marrig, touched by the
constancy and devotion of the lovers, withdrew his opposition to their
union. "The feast is ready," he said, "the minister is here, we may have a
wedding after all." So Archibald stepped into the bridegroom's place, the
ceremony which made him and Mary one was performed, and the feast which
followed was the merriest ever known in Harris.
It is said that all the
Campbells in Harris are descended from Archibald Campbell and Mary of
A HIGHLAND WILLIAM TELL.
A man, named Fearchar Dubh,
who seems to have been a very lawless sort of person, killed a sheep
belonging to a neighbour, and when the owner of the sheep objected, killed
him too. He then fled in his boat, intending to go to Harris, but a gale
sprang up, and he was forced to land on an island near Vaternish. Here
MacLeod, who had been told of the crime, and was pursuing Fearchar in his
galley, found him. Fearchar let off an arrow, which passed through
MacLeod's leg, and pinned him to the mast, saying as he did so, "I could
as easily have shot you through the body as through the leg. I have spared
your life; I beseech you, let me escape."
Rightly or wrongly, the
Chief agreed, and Fearchar went to Harris. Here he lived for some years,
but wearying of exile from Skye, he returned, and going to Dunvegan,
implored the Chief to pardon him.
MacLeod agreed on a
condition. He sent for Fearchar's brother, and ordered his men to place an
egg on the brother's head. Then, addressing Fearchar, he said—"You are a
famous shot with the bow; if your arrow strikes the egg off your brother's
head, you will be pardoned; if you fail to do so, you will die." Fearchar
shot his arrow, and struck the egg, so winning his pardon, but he said to
MacLeod—"I have two arrows; had I missed the egg and killed my brother,
the second one was for you."
The reader will notice the
resemblance of this story to that of William Tell.
A WISE MAN'S JUDGMENT.
In the old days there was
living in every district a "wise man," possibly one or two wise men, to
whom the people were wont to refer their difficulties and disputes. I
imagine that they had no learning, but they were remarkably shrewd, and
some of them, I fancy, practised, or pretended to practice, the black
arts. One of the most famous of these was Aodh or Hugh MacQueen, who lived
in the latter part of the 17th century It was he, whose decision in a
difficult case, is related in the following story:—
A cow, belonging to a man
named Donald, fell over a cliff into a boat, which happened to be lying
below the rock, and which was the property of a man named Tormod. The cow
was killed, and the boat was damaged. Tormod claimed the cost of repairing
the boat on the ground that it had been injured by Donald's cow ; the
latter claimed the value of the cow on the ground that, if the boat had
not been where it was, his cow would have fallen into deep water, and have
escaped with its life.
MacLeod, to whom the matter
was referred, found some difficulty in coming to a decision, and
accompanied the men to a "wise" man who lived near. This was rather a
famous person, named Aodh (or Hugh) MacQueen. The sage only asked one
question, "Who was the owner of the rock from which the cow had fallen?"
He was told that MacLeod owned the rock. "Then," said the sage, "MacLeod
must pay for both the cow and the boat; for if MacLeod's rock had not been
there the cow would not have fallen over it, and the boat would not have
been injured." MacLeod good-naturedly assented, and so the dispute was
Quite often tales were told
at the Ceilidhs about the old Ossianic heroes. One of these will be found
in the story about the fairies' house on Hallaval Mor. Another follows:—
A LEGEND OF LOCH DUNVEGAN.
At one time Fionn, the
famous Ossianic hero, was living, with his six sons, on an island in Loch
Dunvegan. One day they saw a tall woman, with one eye in the middle of her
forehead, walking on the sea towards them. She attacked them, and they had
great difficulty in keeping her at bay. At last Diarmid, Fionn's eldest
son, said—"I will keep her occupied while you dig a hole, and, when it is
finished, we can put her into it." So they dug the hole, the woman was
thrown in, and, I suppose, buried alive.
The next day they saw the
fairy blacksmith coming over the hill, accompanied by his black cat. He
was very tall, and, though he had only one leg, covered ten yards of
ground at each hop. He asked if they had seen the woman with one eye, and
when he heard what they had done with her, told them that they could only
kill her if they put her at the bottom of the sea. He then went away,
travelling so fast that they found it difficult as they followed to keep
him in sight; but Diarmid, who was the swiftest runner of them all,
succeeded in doing so, and saw him enter the fairy smithy.
Diarmid followed him, and
found several fairy smiths, each with four hands, at work making a sword,
singing a song as they did so, just as the makers of Siegfrid's sword did.
"There is only one way to temper the sword," said the fairy blacksmith,
"and that is to run it through the first person who enters the smithy."
Diarmid was much afraid that one of his brothers, who he knew must be at
hand, might come in; but as it happened, the fairy blacksmith's own mother
was the person who appeared at the door. Her son, without any compunction,
ran her through, and thus the sword was tempered. He gave it to Diarmid,
and he passed it on to his father, who thus became possessed of his magic
sword, with which he could reach out three yards every way.
This and one or two of the
other stories which are related in this chapter also appear in Mr Seton
Gordon's book, "The Charm of Skye."
Perhaps our fathers
delighted in tales of the supernatural more than in any others.
Innumerable tales are told about persons who possessed the second sight.
The following story is
related by Martin, who says that Sir Norman MacLeod, of Bernera, with whom
he was well acquainted, vouched for its truth.
A gentleman, who lived in
Harris, was constantly being seen by men who had the gift of the second
sight with an arrow in his thigh. They expected that he would be wounded
in his thigh in some fray; but he died without anything happening to him.
It chanced on the day when his body was brought to St Clement's at Rodel
for burial, not in a coffin, but lying on a bier, that the remains of
another gentleman reached the church-yard at the same time. A quarrel
arose between the two parties as to which funeral should take place first;
a fight ensued, and some arrows were let loose. Sir Norman succeeded in
quelling the disturbance; but when it was ended, it was found that an
arrow had pierced the thigh of the dead man as he lay on his bier.
It is an extraordinary fact
that the predictions of men and women who possessed the second sight so
often were fulfilled.
But sometimes a seer drew a
mistaken inference from what he had seen. One of these men once saw in a
boat a corpse, and a number of men whom he recognised as MacLeod's
relations. From this he inferred that MacLeod was going to die. MacLeod
did not die, but MacLean of Torloisk did. MacLeod, with a number of his
relations, happened to be in Mull when Torloisk died. MacLeod and his
relations attended the funeral, the former going by land, the latter going
by sea with the corpse in a boat. What the seer had seen happened, but he
had drawn the wrong conclusion from it.
Another belief which was
universally accepted amongst the Highlanders in the old days was that
certain gifted mortals amongst them possessed the power of foretelling the
future. The most famous of these prophets was Coinneach Odhar, or Kenneth
Ouir, the Brahan Seer, who lived on the Mainland in the 17th Century. But
a namesake of his, another Coinneach Odhar, who was born at Ness, in
Lewis, at some period in the first quarter of the 16th Century, and lived
in the island during the whole of his life, was no less remarkably gifted.
Some writers have maintained that the two Coinneach Odhars were one and
the same person, but, as one of them lived on the mainland in the 17th
Century, and was burnt as a sorcerer, while the other lived in Lewis in
the 16th Century, and was drowned, I do not see how this theory can be
maintained. I have taken the following story of the Island seer from the
Bannatyne MS. History of the MacLeods.
In my History of the
MacLeods I have related the remarkable fulfilment of Kenneth's prophecy
about the waving of the fairy flag for the third time at Dunvegan, and I
need not repeat it here; but the story which relates how Kenneth got his
remarkable powers is so interesting that I think it will bear repetition.
The following is the
correct version of how he obtained his supernatural powers:—
There was and still is an
idea among Highlanders that the grave of a stranger ought to be purchased,
otherwise the soul has no rest, and assumes its original corporeal
appearance in its wanderings.
It being the duty of
Kenneth's mother, on a particular night some time before he was born, to
watch the corn-fields, as was always done in harvest, to prevent cattle
from getting into the unenclosed fields, she sat down on an eminence
overlooking a burial ground, and, having a rake and spindle with her,
commenced her usual occupation of spinning. To her terror she saw a grave
open, and the figure of a female in a strange garb issue from it. The
figure proceeded to the sea, here close by, stretched her hands towards
the ocean, and by her gestures seemed to express grief and woe.
Kenneth's mother, who was
possessed of good nerves, soon recovered her presence of mind, and
instantly resolved to become better acquainted with the unfortunate
apparition. She signed herself with the sign of the Cross, and spoke the
religious words most familiar to her. She hastened to the grave, laid her
distaff across it, and sat down close by to await the return of its
The figure soon returned,
and, finding it impossible to pass the earthly staff which was laid across
the grave, addressed the mortal in most pathetic terms, and asked to be
allowed to enter the grave. The other replied that she must first learn by
what power she was enabled to leave it. The answer to this was as
follows:—"I am a princess of a far-off and foreign land. I was lost at
sea, and my body was thrown up upon this shore. It was found and deposited
in this grave by the people of the country. As the earth has never been
ransomed, my spirit cannot rest, and I am nightly obliged to wander down
to the seashore and visit the spot where my body first touched the land.
If you will purchase the earth in which my bones rest great will be your
reward, and your name will descend to after ages as the mother of the most
wonderful man of his time; a handful of corn from one of your own fields
The woman immediately cut a
sheaf of corn and laid it in the grave. Before the apparition descended
into her grave she put a small black and beautiful pebble into the woman's
hand, saying—"Give this to the child which will be born to you when he is
exactly seven years of age." She then went into the grave, which closed,
and showed no appearance of having been opened. The woman kept the matter
a secret, and shortly after became the mother of a boy, who was named
Years passed, and nothing
out of the common occurred. On Kenneth's seventh birthday his mother, who
had forgotten about her ghostly friend's admonition, wished the boy to go
and call his father, who was at work in the fields some distance away, to
his mid-day meal. Kenneth was unwilling to go, till his mother,
remembering the pebble, gave it him as the reward of his compliance with
He took it in his hand,
looked at it, and said—"A large whale is ashore in the Raven's Cave." This
was the first instance he gave of possessing supernatural powers, for it
turned out that what he said was the case, and that a whale was actually
ashore at the place he named, and from thenceforward his fame spread far
When he was about 50 years
of age he prophecied the downfall and utter ruin of the MacLeods of Lewis,
This so enraged some of that Chief's followers that they waylaid him on a
moor near the lake of Cangenvale, with a view to depriving him of the
pebble, without which he could not prophecy. He at once flung himself,
still grasping the pebble, into the loch, preferring to lose his life
rather than see his precious talisman fall into the hands of strangers.
Fairies were intensely real
beings to the West Highlanders in old days. I summarise their ideas about
Vast number of fairies
inhabited the country. They were "wee, wee people," I imagine about two
feet high. They lived in fairy mounds or hillocks. Those who had the sight
would see these mounds open, and the fairies come out. They also had their
homes in the old duns and brochs, which are so nummerous in our country,
and could be heard by persons passing by, busily engaged on the churning
of butter and weaving of cloth inside.
Fairies were very fond of
wandering, and used to haunt the houses of human beings, sometimes
considerably outstaying their welcome; but they were very attached to
their homes, and people, who wanted to get rid of them, found it was a
good plan to get some one to come in and say, "The dun is on fire." On
hearing this the fairies would rush off to try and save their dwellings
On the whole, the fairies
were well disposed to their human friends, and often did them deeds of
kindness. A housewife would get up in the morning, and find that they had
done all her housework for her during the night. The reader will remember
that a similar idea as to the good offices of fairies occurs in "The Merry
Wives of Windsor."
But the fairies were
extremely capricious, and ready to take offence. When they did take
anything amiss, they would punish the offenders with great severity,
sometimes keeping them prisoners in their fairy mounds for years.
They often stole cattle to
furnish food for their banquets, leaving the skins of the stolen animals
on the ground. Some of the fairies were wicked, malicious creatures, and
would steal a mother's only child without pity or remorse.
In spite of these
unpleasant traits in their characters, they were always spoken of as "the
gude people." No one could tell that a fairy was not listening to what
they said, and a few disrespectful words concerning them might be severely
THE FAIRIES' HOUSE ON
In the old days the fairies
possessed an enormous underground house near the summit of Hallaval Mor,
the larger of the two hills known as the MacLeod's Tables in Skye. Here
once came Fionn or Fingal, the famous hero of Ossian, seeking winter
quarters for the 900 men who accompanied him. The fairies extended their
hospitality to him, and, so large was the house, his men were easily
accommodated on one side of it. Soon after, one by one, the Kings of
Greece and Spain, and another unnamed King arrived, each of them with 900
men, and room was found for the 2700 men on the other side of the house.
At Fionn's request the
fairies brought in a bullock roasted whole for his men. The other men in
the house wanted their share, and tried to pull away the tables on which
the food was placed, but Fionn said that the whole bullock was not more
than enough for his followers, and ordered them to hold the tables with
one hand, while they ate with the other. Before long the 2700 men attacked
Fionn, and he, with his 900 men, had to fight for their dinner. They
completely defeated their assailants, and it is said that Fionn's dogs,
Bran and Jaroch, killed even more men than he did with his magic sword.
The fairies' house continued to exist through the ages, and fairies were
often met on the hill. One day a man from Osdale met a very beautiful
fairy, about three feet high, and some love passages passed between them.
He, however, left her, and married the daughter of a neighbour.
In course of time his wife
was expecting to become a mother, but was very far from well, so her
husband, remembering his fairy friend, went off to ask her advice. Fearing
that she might be jealous if she knew he had married another, he told her
that it was his cow that was about to calve, and that it was ailing.
The fairy told him to rub
his hand over the cow, and that that would be an effectual cure. She also
gave him a bag of gold. This was so heavy that he could not even lift it,
but the fairy said, "I will carry it for you," picked it up with the
greatest ease, and carried it to his house. He rubbed his hand over his
wife, she was completely cured, and soon after bore him a son.
The fairy found out the
truth about his marriage, and, meeting him on the hill one day, told him
that, to punish him for his deceit, she would take his son away from him.
That very night the boy disappeared.
Ten years afterwards the
man again met the fairy. She offered to let him see his son, and took him
up to the house. Here he found his son, alive and well, and the fairy's
parents, each of whom was a thousand years old. She told him that in
another ten years she meant to marry his son, and gave him another bag of
gold, once more carrying it home for him.
At the end of the ten years
the man received an invitation to be present at the marriage of the fairy
with his son. In the house he found a great assemblage of handsome men and
beautiful women, and, though the narrator does not describe it, we may
assume that the wedding took place. When her guest was leaving, the fairy
gave him two bags of gold, carrying them home for him as before, and after
that he saw her no more.
LURRAN AND THE FAIRIES.
Two brothers, who were on
very bad terms, were joint tenants of the farm of Luskintire, in Harris.
One of these was the foster son of a witch, who lived in a cottage on the
farm. She had a son named Lurran, who possessed some of his mother's
magical power, and could see things which were not revealed to the sight
of ordinary mortals. He was also the swiftest runner in the country.
As the cornfields were not
fenced, it was necessary that the cattle should be watched night and day,
to prevent them from doing injury to the crops. One night Lurran, with
some other young men, was employed on this work.
None of the others could
see what he saw. A fairy mound opened, the fairies came out, and danced
for a time on the green grass. They then came to the herd. The witch had
put a charm on her foster son's cattle, and the fairies could not hurt
them; but they selected two beasts belonging to the other brother, killed
them, skinned them, and, leaving the skins full of offal on the ground,
held a great feast in the fairy mound.
This happened again and
again. Almost every morning the skins of two beasts were found, and they
were always the animals belonging to one brother which were taken. Lurran,
who alone could have explained the mystery, held his tongue, but the
farmer who had lost so heavily was firmly persuaded that it was his
brother who had done the mischief, and, brooding over his injuries,
resolved to revenge himself when an opportunity came.
One night Lurran did a bold
thing. He followed the fairies into the hill, and, sitting close to the
entrance, partook of the fairies' banquet. When the feast was over, a cup
filled with wine was passed round. When the cup came to Lurran, he seized
it, spilt the contents, knowing that it was death to a mortal to drink the
fairies' wine, and fled for his life. The infuriated fairies pursued him,
but his swiftness of foot stood him in good stead, and he gained a stream
which flowed down the hill near the fairy mound. Having crossed this, for
the moment he was safe, for no fairy can cross running water. He made his
way to his mother's cottage. She cast potent spells over the house, and
this made it impossible for the fairies to enter. For some time Lurran
never ventured to go out unless his mother had put a protecting spell on
him, but one day he forgot, and went out with no charm on him. The fairies
found him and killed him, and so avenged the theft of the cup.
A FAIRY TALE OF RHUANDHUNAN.
One hot summer day two
women chanced to be walking by the Dun on the promontory at Rhuandhunan.
They heard the fairies busily at work churning butter inside the Dun. One
of the women, who was very hot and thirsty, said to her companion, "How I
should like a glass of the buttermilk they have in there!"
The words were scarcely out
of her mouth, when a wee, wee woman appeared, carrying a jug of buttermilk
in her hands. She smiled pleasantly on the thirsty woman, and invited her
to drink. I do not know whether the woman suspected some treachery, or
whether she was merely frightened; anyhow, she somewhat churlishly refused
the kindly offer which had been made to her, and would not drink the
Naturally, the fairy was
much offended. She summoned a number of other fairies to her aid, and they
dragged the woman into the dun, and took her into a subterranean chamber.
In this room was a great quantity of wool, a spinning wheel, and a girnal
full of meal. The fairy said to the woman, "You see the wool, the spinning
wheel, and the meal? You will remain a prisoner here till you have spun
all the wool, and eaten all the meal. When you have done this, you will be
set free, but not before." The woman was then left to set about the tasks
which she had to accomplish.
For days she ate all the
meal she could, and spun wool unceasingly, but neither the meal nor the
wool seemed to decrease in quantity. The more wool she spun, the more
there was to spin; the more she ate, the fuller the girnal seemed to grow.
She began to fear that she was a prisoner in the Dun for life.
There was, however, another
human being in the Dun, an old, old man, who had given some offence to the
fairies years before, and who had grown grey in his captivity. He knew the
pleasant little ways of the fairies, and he told the woman that, if she
anointed her left eye with saliva before beginning her work, she would
soon finish the meal and spin all the wool. She took the hint, and very
soon the masses of wool and meal began to diminish, and, ere long, the
woman's task was done.
The fairy had given her
word, and fairies always keep their promises, so she had to set the woman
at liberty, but, as she did so, she said savagely, " My curse be on the
mouth that gave you the knowledge which enabled you to fulfil your task."
The tale does not tell what she did to the old man.
A SECOND FAIRY TALE OF
An old crone was lying fast
asleep in her chair. Firmly clasped in her arms was a new-born babe. The
mother was lying on a bed watching her infant. Her thoughts were sad.
Three times a child of hers had been stolen by the fairies, and she could
not forget her sorrows, but there, in the old woman's arms, was her
consolation. She resolved that she would save this child from a similar
fate at all costs.
But, as she lay and mused
over the past, her heart sunk within her. Three tiny, hideous, wrinkled
women appeared. The mother tried to leap up, tried to scream, but some
magic spell kept her quiet. She watched the intruders with fear in her
heart. They approached the chair where the sleeping nurse sat, and the
oldest and ugliest of the three stretched out her arms to seize the child.
One of her sisters, whose expression was kinder than that of the others,
interfered. "Oh, spare this child," she said, "we have had three of her
bairns; may we not leave her this one?" The old and ugly fairy turned
savagely on her sister, and hissed out the words, "We will not take the
babe, as you wish it, but the boon I grant is a small one." She pointed to
the fireplace, and added, "When that brown peat on the hearth is burnt to
grey ashes, the babe will die." Thus speaking, she left the room, followed
by her sisters.
With their departure the
spell which lay upon the mother was removed. She sprang to her feet, she
seized the smouldering peat, she soaked it in water, and, wrapping it in a
cloth, laid it in a chest where she kept her most precious possessions.
Years passed, the child
grew up, and the mother had almost forgotten the visit of the fairies; but
still she kept the peat safely locked up in her chest. The maiden was
often curious as to what her mother so carefully guarded in this box, but
she could never induce her to say anything about it.
When the girl was about 20,
she was engaged to be married to a young neighbour, and the day of the
wedding was drawing near. On the Sunday before the appointed day, the
maiden did not accompany the rest of the family when they went to kirk. It
is an old Highland custom that maidens should not appear at the kirk on
the Sunday before their wedding day. She had nothing to do, and was
wondering how she would put away the time till they all came back, when
she noticed that her mother had accidentally left the carefully-guarded
chest unlocked. She knew that she had no business to pry into her mother's
secrets, but the curiosity of years was too strong for her, and she
proceeded to turn out the contents of the chest.
At the very bottom was a
linen cloth, carefully tied up with string. She cut the string, she opened
the parcel, and found in it a half-burnt peat. She was lost in wonder at
her mother so carefully preserving such a worthless thing. As she was
examining the peat, it slipped from her fingers, and fell into the fire,
which was burning on the open hearth in the middle of the room. She heard
her relations returning, and, anxious to hide what she had been doing, she
began to pack the things which she had taken out back into the chest. But,
before she could finish, the peat had caught fire ; she felt a sudden pain
at her heart, and fell fainting on the floor. Her parents came in ; she
gasped out the tale of what she had done. The mother rushed to the fire,
hoping even yet to save a fragment of the peat. Alas ! it was too late.
The peat had become grey ash, and, as it did so, the maiden died. Thus the
prophecy uttered by the wicked fairy twenty years before was fulfilled.
Fairies were not the only
mythical beings in which the people firmly believed. Water kelpies were
also to them extremely real.
The water kelpies, or water
horses, were most hateful creatures. Their homes were in the lochs, whence
they sallied forth to prey on human beings. They possessed the power of
assuming the human form, but were often detected by their having much hair
on their chests, and much sand in their hair. Strange as it seems, they
possessed the gift of song in a remarkable degree. Beautiful singing was
frequently heard on the lochs which they frequented, and mothers often
used their songs to soothe a restless child.
A LEGEND OF GLEN BRITTLE.
A maiden, who lived at Glen
Brittle, went one fine summer day to Tote-a-Bhain to bring home some peats.
She reached the peat stack, filled her creel, and started on her homeward
way. The day was hot, the creel was heavy, and, feeling tired, she sat
down in the heather to rest.
While she was resting a
stranger came by, a singularly attractive-looking young man. He stopped,
entered into conversation with the girl, and presently sat down beside
her. After a little talk, somewhat to his companion's surprise, he laid
his head upon her knees, asked her to braid his hair, and, without waiting
for an answer, fell asleep. Ashe did so, his shirt, which lacked a button,
fell open, and she saw that on his chest was a mass of tangled hair. As
she ran her fingers through his hair, she found that it was full of sand.
She knew the signs, and she realised, with horror, that this pleasant
looking youth was a water kelpie.
She gently laid his head on
a tuft of heather, sprang to her feet, and fled. The kelpie woke, resumed
his natural shape, and came after her in hot pursuit, uttering the most
dreadful yells. Fear lent the maiden wings. She kept ahead ; she reached
her father's house, but, overcome with the haste she had made, and with
the awful terror which she felt, she fell upon the threshold, dead.
A LEGEND OF BEN SGATH.
On Ben Sgath, a hill
between Loch Bracadale and Loch Snizort, stood in olden days a shieling.
This gave shelter, during a summer years ago, to eight maidens, who had
come up from Totarder to tend the cattle, and to make butter and cheese.
These maidens slept on a great bed of fragrant heather. They were just
about to lie down to rest one evening, when an old woman came up, bent
with age, and weary with travel. She asked to be allowed to share their
bed. The maidens at once agreed, but, when the question arose as to where
the old woman should lie, they found that it was very difficult to please
her. They suggested that she should sleep at the foot of the bed, at its
head, at its sides, but none of these proposals satisfied their guest. In
each of these places, she said, a beast would come and kill her in the
night. She must lie in the middle of the bed, with the girls on the
outside of her. To this at last they agreed. They all lay down, and all,
excepting two, were soon asleep.
By chance one of the maids,
who was lying on the outside of the bed, could not sleep that night. As
she lay, restlessly tossing from side to side, she heard sounds which
convinced her that the old woman was as wakeful as she was. In the dim
light of a Highland summer's night she saw enough to show her what their
guest was doing. She was sucking the blood of the sleeping maidens. The
old woman was a vampire, a water kelpie in disguise.
The terrified maiden rose,
silently slipped out of the hut, and sought safety in flight. The kelpie
saw her go, and, casting off his disguise, followed her at tremendous
speed. Fast as the maiden went, and though a stern chase is a long chase,
the kelpie gained steadily. At last he was so near that she could feel his
hot breath on her neck. Though she was now near her home at Totarder, she
gave herself up for lost.
With one frantic, final
effort she stumbled across a running burn, and, as she did so, she heard a
cock crow in the hamlet below. She fell exhausted on the further side of
the burn, and waited for her dreadful fate.
But, though she scarcely
realised it, she was saved. A crowing cock affords a mysterious protection
against evil spirits, and since no kelpie can cross running water, as she
lay gasping in the heather, her dreaded foe stood beside the burn which
had arrested his progress, saying in self-pity, "Duilich, duilich"
("Difficult" or "Hard" in Gaelic). The name of this burn is even now "Duilich."
When the maiden had recovered a little, she made her way to her home, and
told her father what had happened. He and some of his neighbours went up
to the sheiling, and, on the great heather bed, they found the seven
maidens lying dead. It is said that to this day, on the warmest summer
day, a chill breeze blows across Ben Sgath, to remind us all of this
TWO LEGENDS OF LOCH DUAGRICH.
Loch Duagrich, a broad
sheet of water among the hills to the north-east of Loch Bracadale, was a
favourite haunt of the water kelpies. Upon its shores a maiden, named
Morag, met one day a young man, who found much favour in her eyes. They
met again and again, the acquaintance ripened into love, and in due course
the couple were married. Strange to say, they lived happily together for
Then some accident broke
the charm which disguised her husband, and she discovered that he was a
kelpie. She got safely away from him, but the whole of her after life was
overshadowed by the thought that for months she had been the wife of a
A young water kelpie, who
lived with his parents in Loch Duagrich, did not come off so well in one
of his adventures. Having assumed the appearance of a somewhat
loutish-looking young man, he came one day to a cottage, and found the
gude wife stirring porridge in a large pan. He asked the woman her name.
This she did not feel inclined to give, so she answered, "Mifhein us
mifhein" ("Myself and Myself.") He then asked her what she was doing, and
she told him that she was making porridge. Meanwhile the woman was
watching her guest closely. She saw how brown his chest was, and how full
of sand was his hair, so she made up her mind that he was a kelpie.
Presently he asked her to
give him some of the porridge which she was making. "Yes," she cried, "you
shall have it all," and, so speaking, she seized the pot, and poured its
boiling contents on his head. The heat broke the spell which had worked
his disguise. He rushed from the cottage roaring with pain. He told his
parents that he had been most frightfully scalded. They asked him who had
injured him. "Mifhein us mifhein has done it," he answered. "Oh, well,"
said his father, "if you have done it yourself we cannot do anything to
punish your enemy." Thus the woman suffered no harm, but she was ever
afterwards very suspicious of any strangers who chanced to enter her
A LEGEND OF BEN FROCHDAIDH.
A farmer who lived beneath
the shadow of Ben Frochdaidh, a hill between Talisker and Drynoch, once
mortally offended a kelpie, whose home was in a loch in Glendale.
Determined to be revenged, the kelpie, in the form and dress of a serving
man, sought out the farmer, and asked for employment. This the farmer,
suspecting no evil, gave him, and the disguised kelpie served him
faithfully and well for seven years. But all the time he was waiting for
his opportunity, and, when at last it came, he ruthlessly killed his
master, and returned to his loch in Glendale.
Yet another mysterious
person in whom the people believed, was the gruagach. He was a handsome
lad, with golden hair and a white chest, which was generally bare. He was
to be found in byres and sheilings, and wherever the cattle were. He had
the greatest love for them, and would punish any injury done to them with
the rod which he always carried. The merest touch of this rod was
sufficient to cause death.
A LEGEND OF GLEN MACCASKILL.
In the olden times a woman
and her daughter were living in a sheiling, which stood in Glen MacCaskill.
One night they heard that the cattle were very disturbed and restless, and
the daughter went out to see what was the matter. She could discover no
cause, but there was no doubt that, for some hidden reason, all the cattle
were perturbed about something. One cow especially seemed to be possessed
with an evil spirit. The girl lost her temper, and swore at the cow.
Then she discovered the
cause of the trouble—the gruagach was there. Though it was all his own
fault, he was furious at the words the maiden had spoken to the cow. He
struck her with his rod, and she fell dead at his feet.
The mother saw her daughter
fall. It was some time before she realised that the girl was dead, but,
when she did, she flung herself down beside her child, and spent the whole
night in bitter lamentations.
The gruagach was filled
with remorse. Till daylight came he stood beside the door, grasping the
lintel beam in his hand, and gazing down on the sad scene before him, on
his victim's body and on her mourning mother. He then slowly and sadly
departed, and went no man know where.
The sea had its mysterious
beings as well as the mountains and fresh-water lochs. One old man used to
tell how his grandfather had once found a young mermaid, about ten or
twelve years old, entangled in his long lines when he took them up one
morning. It resembled a human being as far as the waist, but below that it
was like a fish. The poor thing was dead when it was brought to the
surface, and the fisherman left it on the shore. To his surprise, even
after it had lain there for some time, it remained quite fresh, and
finally he took it out to sea in his boat, and consigned the poor dead
mermaid to her native element in the Minch.
Even in recent times
mermaids have been occasionally seen. Not very long ago some boys went
down one Sunday morning to bathe in Loch Dunvegan. As they were taking off
their clothes previous to entering the water, they saw someone swimming
towards them with extraordinary grace and skill. At first they thought
that it was a boy from a neighbouring township, but, when she came nearer,
they saw that it was a very beautiful mermaid. They watched her till she
swam away out of sight, and, being thoroughly frightened, resolved that
they would never again break the Sabbath by bathing upon the holy day.
The following story
indicates that the universal belief in witchcraft was shared by the West
A LEGEND OF ULLINISH.
The gude man of Ullinish,
as he thought, was happily married. He had lived for years with his wife,
and never suspected that all the time she was a witch, and was practising
the black art in secret. At last his eyes were opened to the terrible
truth. One day his serving man came to him, and gave him notice that he
wished to leave his service. The farmer asked him his reason, saying that
he did not think that he had been a bad master. "Oh, no," said the man,
"it is not the gude man I am complaining of, but the gude wife. You do not
know it, but I know it too well. She is a witch, and every night she comes
out, she speaks some spell, and turns me into a horse. Then she rides me
all over the country; sometimes she has ridden me to places in France. I
cannot stand it any longer. That is my reason for wishing to leave."
The gude man of Ullinish
was horrified, and did not know what to do. At last a thought occurred to
him. One of the "wise men," who were always to be found in the Highlands,
lived in the neighbourhood, and the best plan was to go and tell him. So
master and man went off together to consult the wise man. He was quite
equal to the occasion, and told the serving man what to do. "When next she
comes out," he said, "be ready with a bridle and bit in your hands, as she
speaks her spell, throw the bridle over her head, and she will become a
mare; her spell will recoil on herself."
That very night the gude
wife came out; the serving man implicitly obeyed the sage's directions,
and the witch was turned into a mare. They took her to a smith, and, by
their directions, he placed iron horse-shoes on her hind feet. The next
morning the gude wife was very ill, and died in the afternoon. When they
laid out her body for burial, horse-shoes were found on her feet. This
conclusively proved the truth of the story.
Two other superstitions are
dealt with in the following stories:—
PUTTING DEATH PAST ONESELF.
A man named Donald MacQueen
was fishing one day with a companion, when he heard a voice calling him—
"Donald MacQueen, Donald MacQueen." He immediately cried out, "It is no me
you are meaning; it's Donald MacQueen of Ose."
Some days afterwards they
came home, and, as they neared the shore in Loch Bracadale, they saw a
funeral procession leaving the house at Ose. Donald's companion said to
him, "Donald, you have killed that man." "Maybe I have," said Donald, "but
a man will do a great deal to put death past himself."
This story illustrates a
superstition that if a man hears his name called at sea, it means that he
is going to die, but that, if he can think of a namesake, and shout, as
Donald MacQueen did, that it is not himself who is meant, he will put
death past himself, and his namesake will die.
THE BLEEDING BONE—A LEGEND
The following story is a
curious variant of the well-known belief that the wounds of a murdered man
will break out bleeding afresh on the approach of his murderer.
The tenant of Drynoch moved
a shepherd, named MacMillan, who had previously lived at Meidle, to
Drynoch, and repaired an old ruined cottage for his reception. One fine
winter night, soon after MacMillan had taken up his quarters in the old
cottage, he and his wife were disturbed by someone knocking at the door.
MacMillan got up, went to the door, and found that an old man was there,
who wanted shelter for the night. He willingly acceded to the old man's
request. Mrs MacMillan got up, supplied the old fellow with something to
eat, told him that he could sleep on some heather, which she piled up in
the corner of the living room, and gave him a plaid to keep him warm. The
old man lay down on the shake-down which they had prepared for him, and
MacMillan and his wife went back to bed.
But they were not long
undisturbed. The old man kept complaining that "wet soot" was falling on
him from the wall beneath which he was lying. MacMillan got up again, and
lighted a candle. He found that there was really something pouring down
the wall, but it was not wet soot; it was blood.
The terrified old man then
made a dreadful confession. Years before he had quarrelled with a
neighbour here at Drynoch; he had killed his adversary, and concealed the
body in the wall of an old ruined cottage, piling up some stones to
conceal the evidence of his guilt. He had fled the country, and been a
wanderer on the face of the earth for a long time. Now he had been
impelled, by some strange, irresistible impulse, to re-visit the scene of
his crime. "Now let me go," he said, and stumbled out into the darkness,
and was never seen again.
The next morning MacMillan
told his master what had happened. They examined the cottage, and, in the
wall, they found the bones of the murdered man. From these bones had
poured the stream of blood which had terrified the murderer.