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Social History of the Highlands

The Highlanders, in common with most other nations, were much addicted to superstition. The peculiar aspect of their country, in which nature appears in its wildest and most romantic features, exhibiting at a glance sharp and rugged mountains, with dreary wastes - wide-stretched lakes, and rapid torrents, over which the thunders and lightnings, and tempests, and rains, of heaven, exhaust their terrific rage, wrought upon the creative powers of the imagination, and from these appearances, the Highlanders "were naturally led to ascribe every disaster to the influence of superior powers, in whose character the predominating feature was malignity towards the human race."

The most dangerous and most malignant creature was the kelpie, or water-horse, which was supposed to allure women and children to his subaqueous haunts, and there devour them. Sometimes he would swell the lake or torrent beyond its usual limits, and overwhelm the unguarded traveller in the flood. The shepherd, as he sat upon the brow of a rock in a summer's evening, often fancied he saw this animal dashing along the surface of the lake, or browsing on the pasture-ground upon its verge.

The urisks, who were supposed to be of a condition somewhat intermediate between that of mortal men and spirits, "were sort of lubbary supernaturals, who, like the brownies of England, could be gained over by kind attentions to preform the drudgery of the farm; and it was believed that many families in the Highlands had one of the order attached to it." The urisks were supposed to live dispersed over the Highlands, each having his own wild recess; but they were said to hold stated assemblies in the celebrated cave called Coire-nan-Uriskin, situated near the base of Ben-Venue, in Aberfoyle, on its northern shoulder. It overhangs Loch Katrine "in solemn grandeur", and is beautifully and faithfully described by Sir Walter Scott.

It was a wild and strange retreat,
As e'er was trod by outlaw's feet.
The dell, upon the mountain's crest,
Yawned like a gash on warrior's breast;
Its trench had staid full many a rock
Hurl'd by primeval earthquake shock
From Ben-Venue's grey summit wild,
And here, in random ruin piled,
They frowned incumbent o'er the spot,
And formed the rugged sylvan grot.
The oak and birch, with mingled shade,
At noontide there a twilight made,
Unless where short and sudden shone
From straggling beam on cliff or stone,
With such a glimpse as prophet's eye
Gains on thy depth, Futurity
No murmur wak'd the solemn still,
Save tinkling of a fountain rill;
But when the wind chafed with the lake,
A sullen sound would upward break,
With dashing hollow voice, that spoke
The incessant war of wave and rock.
Suspended cliffs, with hideous sway,
Seem'd nodding o'er the cavern grey.

Grey Superstition's whisper dread,
Debarred the spot to vulgar tread;
For there, she said , did fays resort,
And satyrs hold their sylvan court,
By moon-light tread their mystic maze,
And blast the rash beholder's gaze.
Lady of the Lake c.iii.s.26


The urisks, though generally inclined to mischief, were supposed to relax in their propensity, if kindly treated by the families which they haunted. They were even serviceable in some instances, and in this point of view were often considered an acquisition. Each family regularly set down a bowl of cream for its urisk, and even clothes were sometimes added. The urisk resented any omission or want of attention on the part of the family; and tradition says, that the urisk of Glaschoil, a small farm about a mile to the west of Ben-Venue, having been disappointed one night of his bowl of cream, after performing the task allotted him, took his departure after day-break, uttering a horrible shriek, and never again returned.

Daoine Shith

The Daoine Shith, or Shi' (men of peace), or as sometimes called, Daoine matha (good men), come next to be noticed. Dr. Graham considers the part of the popular superstitions of the Highlands which relates to these imaginary persons, and which is to this day retained, as he observes, in some degree of purity, as "the most beautiful and perfect branch of Highland mythology."

Although it has been generally supposed that the mythology of the Daoine Shi' is the same as that respecting the fairies of England, as portrayed by Shakespeare, in the Midsummer Night's Dream, and perhaps, too, of the Orientals, they differ essentially in many important points.

The Daoine Shi', or men of peace, who are the fairies of the Highlanders, "though not absolutely malevolent, are believed to be a peevish repining race of beings, who, possessing themselves but a scanty portion of happiness, are supposed to envy mankind their more complete and substantial enjoyments. They are supposed to enjoy, in their subterraneous recesses, a sort of shadowy happiness, a tinsel grandeur, which, however, they would willingly exchange for the more solid joys of mortals." Green was the colour of the dress which these men of peace always wore, and they were supposed to take offence when any of the mortal race presumed to wear their favourite colour. The Highlanders ascribe the disastrous result of the battle of Killiecrankie to the circumstance of Viscount Dundee having been dressed in green on that ill-fated day. This colour is even yet considered ominous to those of his name who assume it.

The abodes of the Daoine Shi' are supposed to be below grassy eminences or knolls, where, during the night, they celebrate their festivities by the light of the moon, and dance to notes of the softest music.1 Tradition reports that they have often allured some of the human race into their subterraneous retreats, consisting of gorgeous apartments, and that they have been regaled with the most sumptuous banquets and delicious wines. Their females far exceed the daughters of men in beauty. If any mortal shall be tempted to partake of their repast, or join in their pleasures, he at once forfeits the society of his fellow-men, and is bound down irrevocably to the condition of a Shi'ich, or man of peace.

"A woman", says a Highland tradition, "was conveyed, in days of yore, into the secret recesses of the men of peace. There she was recognised by one who had formerly been an ordinary mortal, but who had, by some fatality, become associated with the Shi'ichs. This acquaintance, still retaining some portion of human benevolence, warned her of her danger, and counselled her, as she valued her liberty, to abstain from eating or drinking with them for a certain space of time. She complied with the counsel of her friend; and when the period assigned was elapsed, she found herself again upon earth, restored to the society of mortals. It is added, that when she had examined the viands which had been presented to her, and which had appeared so tempting to the eye, they were found, now that the enchantment had been removed, to consist only of the refuse of the earth."

Some mortals, however, who had been so unhappy as to fall into the snares of the Shi'ichs, are generally believed to have obtained a release from Fairyland, and to have been restored to the society of their friends. Ethert Brand, according to the legend, was released by the intrepidity of his sister, as related by Sir Walter Scott in the fourth Canto of the Lady of the Lake:-

"She crossed him thrice that lady bold:
He rose beneath her hand,
The fairest knight on Scottish mould,
Her brother, Ethert Brand !"

A recent tradition gives a similar story, except in its unfortunate catastrophe, and is thus related by Dr. Patrick Graham in his "Sketches of Perthshire."

The Rev. Robert Kirk, the first translator of the Psalms into Gaelic verse, had formerly been minister at Balquidder, and died minister of Aberfoyle, in 1688, at the early age of 42. His gravestone, which may be seen near the east end of the church of Aberfoyle, bears the inscription which is given underneath. He was walking, it is said, one evening in his night-gown, upon the little eminence to the west of the present manse, which is still reckoned a Dun-shi'. He fell down dead, as was believed; but this was not his fate :-

"It was between the night and day,
When the fairy king has power,
That he sunk down (but not) in sinful fray
And, twixt life and death, was snatched away,
To the joyless Elfin bower."

Mr. Kirk was the near relation of Mr. Grahame of Duchray. Shortly after his funeral, he appeared in the dress in which he had sunk down, to a mutual relation of his own and of Duchray. "Go," said he to him, "to my cousin Duchray, and tell him that I am not dead; I fell down in a swoon, and was carried into Fairy-land, where I now am. Tell him, that when he and my friends are assembled at the baptism of my child- for he had left his wife pregnant- I will appear in the room, and that if he throws the knife which he holds in his hand over my head, I will be released, and restored to human society." The man, it seems, neglected for some time, to deliver the message. Mr. Kirk appeared to him a second time, threatening to haunt him night and day till he executed his commission, which at length he did. The day of the baptism arrived. They were seated at table. Mr. Kirk entered, but the Laird of Duchray, by some unaccountable fatality, neglected to perform the prescribed ceremony. Mr. Kirk retired by another door, and was seen no more. Ir is firmly believed that he is, at this day, in Fairy-land.

Another legend in a similar strain is also given as communicated by a very intelligent young lady:-

"A young man roaming one day through the forest, observed a number of persons, all dressed in green, issuing from one of those round eminences which are commonly accounted fairy hills. Each of them, in succession, called a person by name, to fetch his horse. A caparisoned steed instantly appeared; they all mounted, and sallied forth into the regions of the air. The young man, like Ali Baba in the Arabian Nights, ventured to pronounce the same name , and called for his horse. The steed immediately appeared; he mounted, and was soon joined to the fairy choir. He remained with them for a year, going about with them to fairs and weddings, and feasting, though unseen by mortal eyes , on the victuals that were exhibited on those occasions. They had, one day gone to a wedding, where the cheer was abundant. During the feast the bridegroom sneezed. The young man, according to the usual custom, said, 'God bless you'. The fairies were offended at the pronunciation of the sacred name, and assured him, that if he dared to repeat it they would punish him. The bridegroom sneezed a second time. He repeated his blessing; they threatened more than tremendous vengeance. He sneezed a third time; he blessed him as before. The fairies were enraged; they tumbled him from a precipice, but he found himself unhurt, and was restored to the society of mortals."

The Shi'ichs, or men of peace, are supposed to have a design against new-born children, and women in childbed, whom, it is still universally believed, they sometimes carry off into their secret recesses. To prevent this abduction, women in childbed are closely watched, and are not left alone, even for a single moment, till the child is baptized, when the Shi'ichs are supposed to have no more power over them.

The following tradition will illustrate this branch of the popular superstition respecting the Shi'ichs: A woman whose new-born child had been conveyed by them into their secret abodes, was also carried thither herself, to remain, however, only until she should suckle her infant. She one day, during this period , observed the Shi'ichs busily employed in mixing various ingredients in a boiling cauldron; and as soon as the composition was prepared, she remarked that they all carefully anointed their eyes with it, laying the remainder aside for future use. In a moment when they were all absent, she also attempted to anoint her eyes with the precious drug, but had time to apply it to one eye only, when the Daoine Shi' returned. But with that eye, she was henceforth enabled to see everything as it really passed in their secret abodes; she saw every object, not as she had hitherto done, in deceptive splendour and elegance, but in its genuine colours and form. The gaudy ornaments of the apartment were reduced to the naked walls of a gloomy cavern. Soon after, having discharged her office, she was dismissed to her own home. Still, however, she retained the faculty of seeing with her medicated eye, every thing that was done, anywhere in her presence, by the deceptive art of the order. One day, amidst a throng of people, she chanced to observe the Shi'ich, or man of peace, in whose possession she had left her child, though to every other eye invisible. Prompted by maternal affection, she inadvertently accosted him, and began to inquire about the welfare of her child. the man of peace, astonished at thus being recognised by one of mortal race, sternly demanded how she had been enabled to discover him. Awed by the terrible frown of his countenance, she acknowledged what she had done. He spat in her eye, and extinguished it for ever.

As the Shi'ichs are supposed to be present on all occasions, though invisible, the Highlanders, whenever they allude to them, do so in terms of respect. This is, however, done as seldom as possible; and when the Shi'ichs are casually mentioned, the Highlanders add some propitiatory expression of praise to avert their displeasure, which they greatly dread. This reserve and dread on the part of the Highlanders, is said to arise from the peevish envy and jealousy which the Shi'ichs are believed to entertain towards the human race. Although believed to be always present, watching the doing of mortals, the Shi'ichs are supposed to be more particular in their attendance on Friday, on which day they are believed to be especially jealous of what may be said concerning them; and if they are at all spoken of on that day, which is never done without great reluctance, the Highlanders uniformly style them the Daoine matha, or good men.

According to the traditionary legends of the Highlanders, the Shi'ichs are believed to be of both sexes; and it is the general opinion among the Highlanders that men have sometimes cohabited with females of the Shi'ich race, who are in consequence called Leannan Shi'. These mistresses are believed to be very kind to their mortal paramours, by revealing to them the knowledge of many things both present and future, which were concealed from the rest of mankind. The knowledge of the medicinal virtues of many herbs, it is related, has been obtained in this way from the Leannan Shi'. The Daoine Shi' of the other sex are said, in their turn, to have sometimes held intercourse with mistresses of the mortal race.

Martin relates, that the natives of South Uist believed that a valley called Glenslyte, situated between two mountains on the east side of the island, was haunted by spirits, whom they called the Great Men, and that if any man or woman entered the valley without first making an entire resignation of themselves to the conduct of the great men, they would infallibly grow mad. The words by which they gave themselves up to the guidance of these men are comprehended in three sentences, wherein the glen is twice named. This author remonstrated with the inhabitants upon this "piece of silly credulity", but they answered that there had been recently an instance of a woman who went into the glen without resigning herself to the guidance of the great men, "and immediately after she became mad; which confirmed them in their unreasonable fancy." He also observes, that the people who resided in the glen in summer, said, they sometimes heard a loud noise in the air like men speaking.

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