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Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend

The myths and legends of Scotland are full of what is called "local colour". They afford us not only glimpses of ancient times and of old habits of thought and life, but also of the country itself at different times of the year. In the winter season the great mountain ranges are white with snow and many inland Iochs are frozen over, but along the west coast, which is washed by the warm surface waters of the Atlantic and bathed in mild moist breezes from the south-west, there may be found sheltered and sunny spots where wild flowers continue to bloom. The old people believed that somewhere in the west the spirit of Spring had its hiding-place, and they imagined this hiding-place to be a green floating island on which the sun always shone and flowers were always blooming. During the reign of Beira, Queen of Winter, the spirit of Spring, they thought, was always trying to visit Scotland, and they imagined that Beira raised the storms of January and February to prolong her reign by keeping the grass from growing. Beira was regarded as a hard and cruel old woman, and the story of her exploits is the story of the weather conditions in winter and early spring. She rouses the dangerous whirlpool of Corryvreckan, she brings the snow, she unlooses the torrents that cause rivers to overflow. According to folk belief, it was she who formed the lochs and the mountains. In the days when the people had no calendar, the various periods of good and bad weather were named after the battles of Beira and the victories of the spirits of sunshine and growth. Gaelic-speaking people still refer to certain gales in February and March by their ancient namesóthe "whistling wind", the "sweeper", and so on, as set forth in the second chapter. On the northeast coast even those fisher folks, who are not Gaelic speakers, still tell that the fierce southwesterly gales of early spring are caused by the storm-wife whom they call "Gentle Annie". This Annie may be the same old deity as Black Annis of Leicestershire and Anu of Ireland, whose name lingers in the place name, the "Paps of Anu", a mountain group in County Kerry. In Scotland the story of the winter goddess, Beira, has a strictly local setting. She is, in consequence, a local deity. Bride, the lady of summer growth, is still remembered also, and there are beautiful Gaelic songs about her.

Other stories have likewise a local character. Those who know the west coast will be familiar with the glorious transparency of the hill-surrounded lochs in calm weather. When the old people saw the waters reflecting the mountains and forests, the bare cliffs and the bright girths of green verdure, they imagined a "Land-under-Waves" about which they, of course, made stories. The "Northern Lights" (aurora borealis), which are a feature of northern winters, also stirred their imaginations. They called these vivid and beautiful streamers "Nimble Alen" and "Merry Dancers", and believed they sometimes danced and sometimes waged war. In the red-spotted green stones called " blood stones " they saw the blood-drops of the wounded. When the streamers are particularly bright a red cloud often appears below them; this the old people called "the pool of fairy blood".

In like manner they accounted for the restlessness of the waters of a strait between the island of Lewis and the Shant islands by imagining that Blue Men were always swimming up and down this haunt of theirs, trying to sink boats and ships. As the Gaelic people have ever been great lovers of poetry, they made the Blue Men poets, and told that they spared those seafarers who were able to complete the half verses they shouted to them, by way of challenge, for trial of skill. The "Blue Men" are peculiar to Scotland, and especially to the north-western area.

In other stories we find female water spirits who wait at fords, threatening travellers with disaster. They also could be thwarted by those who had the necessary knowledge which made it possible for them to secure protection.

Almost all the rivers of Scotland were abodes of goddesses, but about many of them there are no surviving stories. The character of a goddess was suggested by that of a river. The goddess of the river Forth, for instance, was "the deaf or soundless one", because the Forth is a comparatively silent river; the goddess of the Clyde, on the other hand, was "the purifying one", because the old people knew it as a river which scoured the country it passed through, and carried much mud and clay seaward when in flood.

Many old stories have been lost, of course, and those which remain are mere fragments of an ancient mythology. In different parts of Scotland there are variations of legends, because the local conditions are of varying character.

Readers may ask how the stories of ancient beliefs happen to be preserved in Christian times. One reason is because they are connected with place names; another because certain of them were recorded centuries ago by early writers. One of the early Scottish collectors of old legends and poems was Sir James MacGregor, Dean of Lismore, who lived in the sixteenth century. His manuscript volume is still in existence, and the most of it can be read without difficulty. It is called "The Dean of Lismore's Book ".

The greater number of collected legends, however, have been taken down from reciters in recent times. In the days when there were no books, poets and story-tellers committed their compositions to memory. These they repeated to their students, who in turn repeated them to others. In this way poems and stories were handed down from generation to generation. Even in our own day it is possible to find not a few Gaelic-speaking men and women who can repeat compositions many thousands of words in length which they have learned by rote. The writer knew an old woman whose stories would have filled a volume quite as large as this one. Some of the poems collected by the Dean of Lismore in the sixteenth century were still repeated about a generation ago, almost word for word, by old reciters in the Highlands, certain of whom could neither read nor write.

Men and women able to repeat popular poems and stories have always been greatly thought of in the Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland. On long, dark winter nights it is still the custom in small villages for friends to collect in a house and hold what they call a "ceilidh" (pronounced kay'lee). Young and old are entertained by the reciters of old poems and legendary stories which deal with ancient beliefs, the doings of traditional heroes and heroines, and so on. Some sing, old and new songs set to old music or new music composed in the mariner of the old. In this way some of the ancient poems, stories, and music of the early inhabitants of Scotland have been preserved till our own times.

The wonder tales of Scotland do not afford a very clear indication of the attitude of worshippers towards their deities. So far as can be gathered, they loved and admired some deities, especially those that brought them good luck and plenty, and they hated and feared those deities who were supposed to cause suffering and disaster. At the same time they believed that there were mysterious Powers, or a Power, greater than the gods and goddesses.

Beira, the winter queen, might raise storms and bring snow and frost, but when the spring season came on she could not prevent the grass growing or the trees budding. The Powers which caused the seasons to change were never named; they were not even given human attributes. When we study the customs and search through the stories for traces of religious beliefs and practices, we find that there were many ceremonies, some of which still survive. The old people appear to have been greatly concerned about the earth, the water supply, and the weather. When they took oaths they swore by the earth. In one old story, for instance, a hero is insulted and badly treated by his enemies. He complains to his companions. "When", this story runs, "he rehearsed to them the tale of his wanderings, and told of the insults and of the bad treatment he had received, and the hardships he had endured since they had separated, they lifted a little piece of earth and they shouted 'Vengeance'." That is, they swore by what was holiest to them. In various parts of Scotland there are earth mounds which used to be sacred to the old people. They held regular assemblies upon them, at which new laws were made and law-breakers were judged. Religious ceremonies were also performed. When Christianity was introduced, the sacred mounds and the lands surrounding them were in many cases, taken over as church-lands. The Gaelic name for "church-lands" is derived from the name of an earth goddess, and rendered in English as "Navity" or "Navie". No doubt Beira, who was a goddess of the mountains, lochs, and rivers, as well as of the weather, had sonic connection with the earth spirit. She kept herds of wild animals, like the Greek Artemis. At the same time she found the "Powers", which caused the grass to grow, were opposed to her when spring came on. The period of her reign was limited to winter, and during winter the "Powers" favoured her.

The earth Power, or Powers, may also have had control over the fairies who were usually clad in green, which was a supernatural colour. It is still regarded unlucky for ladies to wear green dresses. An old Scottish saying is:

A Graham in green
Should never be seen.

In Wales one of the names of the fairies is Y Mamau, which means "The Mothers". It may be the fairies represent the ancient group of "Earth Mothers" who caused the grass to grow, the corn seeds to sprout in the earth, the trees to bud, blossom, and bear fruit. The fairies are always represented as busy workers; they teach human beings how to compose music and make musical instruments, how to make implements and weapons, and so on; and they sometimes assist them to spin and weave, to sow seeds, to plough and to reap. The people made food offerings to the fairies, who were very fond of meal. Mothers used to put meal in children's pockets to protect them against the fairies.

Certain animals were connected with the earth spirit or spirits. One was the boar, and there are references in Gaelic stories to a "green boar" and a fierce "black boar". In the northern and southern Highlands there long existed a prejudice against pork, because pigs were, it seems, sacred animals. The devil is sometimes called the "Black Pig", because the early Christians regarded the Pagan gods as demons. Another sacred animal was the serpent. All winter long it slept secure from storms and cold. When, however, Beira, the winter goddess, was overthrown, and Bride, the goddess of growth, began her reign, the serpent came forth from its winter abode. The people then chanted a hymn, of which the following is a verse:-

To-day is the Day of Bride,
The serpent shall come from his hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
And the serpent will not molest me.

The serpent was sometimes called "Daughter of Ivor", and MacIvors were supposed to be safe from attack by her and all other serpents. She was also referred to as "noble queen". It is possible she was a form of the Earth spirit in spring-time. Another verse of a Bride's Day hymn is:-

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.

A white serpent was supposed to give skill to physicians. A part of the body was cooked, and he who first tasted the juice of the serpent obtained power to cure diseases. This belief will be found in the story about Michael Scott.

The salmon was a sacred fish, and he who likewise first tasted the juice of a certain salmon obtained the power to foretell events. When the first salmon grilse of the season is caught, salmon fishers on the east coast make merry and celebrate the event, as probably did their pagan ancestors in ancient times. On several of the old standing stones of Scotland there are drawings of salmon. Serpents are also depicted.

How did the old people worship the earth and other spirits? The answer is that they made offerings to them, and performed ceremonies to secure luck and protect themselves against attack. Instead of prayers they used magical verses. Various charms were repeated to cure diseases and ward off trouble. Here is an extract from a charm against the "evil eye":-

The eye that went over,
And came back,
That reached the bone,
And reached the marrow,
I will lift from off thee
And the King of the Elements will aid me.

The person who repeated the charm believed that the injurious influence of the "evil eye" would be "lifted off" with the aid of the "King of the Elements". We do not have any stories about this god. He is often referred to, and is one of the vague Powers without a personal name.

On "Bride's Day", the first day of the Gaelic Spring, offerings were made to earth and sea. Milk was poured on the ground, and the fisher people made porridge and threw it into the sea so that the sea might yield what was sought from itólots of fish, and also seaweed for fertilizing the soil. In some parts of the Hebrides the sea deity to whom the food offerings were made was called "Shony".

It will thus be seen that the old stories are not only interesting as stories, but are worthy of study as helping us to know something about the beliefs of the people of olden time.

Certain stories appear to be very ancient. It is possible that one or two have come down from the Late Stone Age, which, in these islands, closed probably about 3000 years ago. There are hints of very ancient beliefs, for instance, in the story about "Finlay and the Giants". The hero obtains a magic wand which transforms stone pillars into human beings. It was believed by the old people that the spirit of the dead entered the stone erected over a grave. Another story of special interest is the one about "Heroes on the Green Isle". A princess is confined in a tower, waiting for a hero to win her as his bride by taking her down. A similar story is found in an ancient Egyptian papyrus. It may be that the Scottish and Egyptian versions of this legend came from the same source in remote times. A string of Egyptian beads has been found in a grave near Stonehenge. It came from Egypt about 3000 years ago, along the old trade routes. If far-travelled wanderers, or traders, brought beads, they may also have brought some stories. The ancient Egyptians had, like the ancient folk of Scotland, a wonder tale about a floating island which vanished beneath the waves.

Another interesting Scottish story is "The Vision of the Dead". The woman who acts as a nurse to a fairy child sees the spirits of the dead cutting corn. In Egypt it was believed that the dead were thus employed in the Paradise of Osiris, who was, among other things, a corn god.

The gods and goddesses of Scotland were never depicted by sculptors like the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. They are not therefore so well known. They would have been entirely forgotten long ago had not the old bards sung songs about them, and the old story-tellers composed "wonder tales", such as are retold in this volume from fragments that survive.

Of special interest at the present time are the references in some stories to "red moss";. that is, the red "sphagnum" which was used to dress wounds. Apparently the ancient people knew from experience that it had cleansing and healing properties, and esteemed the red as superior to green sphagnum. They also used tar water for skin troubles, and to cure diseases they used certain herbs from which some modern-day medicines are manufactured.

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