HIGHLAND FOLKLORE. – Parts 1 & 2., D. MacRitchie (Jul. 1895), pp.383-397.


“IT seems almost a hopeless task to make romance reasonable,” observed the late J. F. Campbell of Islay, with reference to his West Highland Tales, “and yet I am convinced that these are semi-historical romances… We believe the Sagas, so far as they are reasonable; not truth be sifted from these romances also?”1 While sharing Mr. Campbell’s conviction “that these are semi-historical romances,” the present writer is very far from regarding as “hopeless” the task of extracting from them the elements of truth. This, of course, cannot be done in a single article, or with absolute success by a single writer; but a continuous study of such stories, with this ain in view, must eventually lead to definite conclusions which will commend themselves to “the common-sense of most.” And as a step in that direction, some attention may here be paid to the legend which gave rise to Mr. Campbell’s remark.

But, for the sake of convenience, it will be as well to quote first from a version differing in several respects from the one just spoken of, which has been put on record by another Campbell, the late minister of Tiree, also well known as a Gaelic scholar. This story he calls “Na Amhuisgean – The Dwarfs or Pigmies,” with the sub-title of “The Three Soldiers.”2 In it, he remarks, “the existence of the pigmies in some unknown region bordering upon, if not forming part of, the ‘kingdom of coldness,’3 is of interest as indicating some of the connection between smallness of person and cold climate, and so leading to the speculations as to the first dispersion of the human race and connection of tribes that are now far removed from each other in appearance, dress, mode of life, and dialects.” 

A word in passing may be said with reference to this assumed “connection between smallness of person and cold climate.” That there is no such connection may be seen by comparing the giant natives of inclement Patagonia with certain dwarf tribes in tropical Mexico and Brazil, or by reflecting that the smallest existing people in the Old World are found in the equatorial regions. Nevertheless, Mr. Campbell’s “kingdom of coldness” fits in well with his suggestion that the Gaelic term Lapanach, applied to a certain “little, thick-set, insignificant man,” who figures in another tale, may be connected with the name “Lapp.” In this latter instance, also, he obviously follows the same train of thought as in the above passage from “The Pigmies,” when he observes: “There are many traditional tales in the Highlands of much interest… in which little men of dwarfish, and even pigmy, size figure as good bowmen, slaying men of large size and powerful make by their dexterity in the use of the bow and arrow.”4 But, in spite of their small size, those little people of tradition are understood to have been of very considerable strength. “Lapanach does not mean that he [the dwarf specially indicated above] was undersized in the same way that children are, but that he was a full-grown individual, undersized and sinewy, or muscular.”

To return, then, to the story of “Na Amhuisgean5 – The Dwarfs or Pigmies.” It tells how Three Soldiers were travelling together, and how, as they rested beside a knoll, a big red dog came to them. One of the soldiers followed the dog, which led him to a “fine castle” in which there was a beautiful woman. (As the “castle” had only one door, and that door low and narrow, one is led to suspect that its equivalent in fact may have been the building known to us as a “broch.”) Next day, the second soldier followed the dog to the castle with its lovely occupant; and thereafter the story is silent as to these two warriors, devoting itself to the fortunes of the remaining soldier who, on the third day, was also conducted by the dog to the castle and the beautiful woman. And here the story itself must be quoted at some length:

“When night came and he laid [sic] down, but could not get a wink of sleep. Next morning he said to her, ‘What men are those making music and merriment that did not let me rest or sleep all night?’ She said to him, ‘I am in the same way for a year and a day, those who are at that work are the Awisks6 (Dwarfs or Pigmies).’  ‘Are you only here a year and a day?’ He asked. ‘I am not more’ she said, ‘I am the daughter of a king in the kingdom of coldness. The Awisks stole me away and left me here.’
“At any rate, the next night he tried to sleep as he had previously done. The music and merriment began. The room next to him was full of them as it was before, and he could not get a wink of sleep. When he was tired listening to them, and his patience was exhausted, and he could not endure any longer, he went where they were to see what they were all about, or if they meant to stop their noisy merriment at all. On seeing him in the door they all laughed in his face. ‘What are you laughing at?’ He said. ‘It is that your own head will be a football to us for the rest of this night.’ He laughed in their faces. ‘What are you laughing at yourself?’ they said. He said that was that he would take the man of them who had the biggest head and the slenderest legs and lay about amongst them with it till there was nothing of it left but the shank. He began on them and he put out every one that there was from the first to the last, and emptied the room of them, and he was alone in peace and quietness. In a while the same noisy work began. He went down where they were and did as before, he took hold of the one with the biggest head and the slenderest legs and attacked them with him until he wore him to the shank, and they were put out and the place was empty.”
Then the king’s daughter announced that she would go home, to return again with her father and her maidens and marry the soldier. In the interval, however, the soldier passes through some hard adventures; but finally he reaches “the kingdom of coldness.”  “The daughter saw him, and she called out to her father, ‘O father, that is the soldier who took me from among the Awisks.’ ” And then the two were married amid great rejoicings.

Now, it will presently be seen that the main episode in the Tiree tale is duplicated in Campbell of Islay’s “Story of Conall Gulban.”7 Conall Gulban was a son of the famous Neil or Nial who was surnamed Naoighiallach (i.e., “of the Nine Hostages”), ancestor of the O’Neills of Ulster; and the territory which was owned by Conall’s descendants was the modern county of Donegal, long known as Tyrconnell, or “Connall’s Country.”8 According to one genealogy Conall was the paternal grandfather of Fedlimidh, the father of St. Columba9; and this circumstance may induce some to take an interest in his doings who might otherwise be inclined to regard him with apathetic indifference. Assuming, then, that the story related to Campbell of Islay, and recorded by him, is historical in its origin, the “young king in Eirinn” of whom mit speaks was the founder of the Cinel-Conaill branch of the O’Neills, and his adventures open in the north-west of Ireland, somewhere in the dawn of the fifth century.10 The interval between the date of these hypothetical adventures and the time when they appeared in the “West Highland Tales” is, of course, enormous. But before dismissing as impossible the idea that a tale could be transmitted for fifteen centuries and yet be historical – if only in a slight degree – it ought to be remembered that the oral transmission of history and genealogy, with the most careful attention to language and details, was a perfect science among the Gaelic-speaking peoples.

Young Conall Gulban, then, after various experiences, lands in “the realm of Lochlann,” a country generally held to be Scandinavia (itself a term of vague and varying meaning). And as he goes along he asks his guide, “What pointed house is there, Duanach?” Whereupon Duanach replies, “That is the house of the Tamhasg, the best warriors that are in the realm of Lochlann.”  “I heard my grandfather speaking about the Tamhaisg,” observes Conall, “but I have never seen them; I will go to see them.”  “it were not my counsel to thee,” was Duanach’s significant remark.

This word “Tamhasg,” it may be observed, is simply the “Amhuisg” of the Tiree story. Although found in such excellent Gaelic dictionaries as O’Reilly’s and Armstrong’s (with the meaning of “dwarf” in each case), the form “Tamhasg” clearly owes its origin to the Gaelic custom of inserting a euphonic “t” in certain combinations, whereby “an-t-Amhasg” has become “an Tamhasg.”11 Campbell himself, in this very story, occasionally drops the unnecessary “t”. It has to be borne in mind, therefore, that the “T” of one form indicates nothing more than an eccentricity of spelling.

Disregarding his companion’s advice Conall proceeded to the palace of the King of Lochlann, where, in answer to his challenge of combat, he was told that 

          “he should get no fighting at that time of night, but he should get lodging in the house of the Amhusg, where there were eighteen hundred amhusg, and eighteen score… He went, and he went in, and there were none of the amhuish12 within that did not grin. When he saw that they had made a grin, he himself made two. ‘What was the meaning of your grinning at us?’ said the amhusg. ‘What was the meaning of your grinning at me?’ said Conall. Said they, ‘Our grinning at thee meant that thy fresh royal blood will be ours to quench our thirst, and thy fresh royal flesh to polish our teeth.’  ‘And,’ said Conall, ‘The meaning of my grinning is, that I will look out for the one with the biggest knob and slenderest shanks, and knock out the brains of the rest with that one, and his brains with the knobs of the rest.’ [Each of the ‘amhusgs’ having then ‘put a stake of wood against the door,’ Conall asks them why they did so.] ‘Well, we will tell thee,’ said they, ‘what reason we had for that: we have never seen coming here [one] a gulp of whose blood, or a morsel of whose flesh could reach us, but thou thyself, except one other man, and he fled from us; and now every one is doubting the other in case thou shouldest flee.’  ‘That was the thing that made me do it myself likewise, since I have got yourselves so close as you are.’ [answered Conall, who had followed their lead in this action]. Then he went and he began upon them. ‘I feared to be chasing you from hole to hole, and from hill to hill, and I did that.’ Then he gazed at them, from one to two, and he seized on the one of the slenderest shanks and the fattest head; he drove upon the rest sliochd! slachd! Till he had killed every one of them; and he had not a jot of the one with whom he was working at them, but what was in his hands of the shanks.”

It is unnecessary to follow the story in detail, but the following features may be noted. “Word reached the young King of Lochlann that the big man who came off the ocean13 had gone to the house of the ‘Tamhasg’; that they had set a combat, and that the ‘Tamhasgan’ had been slain.” Whereupon he despatched four of his best warriors to kill Conall. The latter being sound asleep when they arrived, his henchman Duanach, by way of stratagem, told them “that their swords were not sharp enough, that they should go out to the Tamhasg stone to sharpen them. They went out, and they were sharpening their swords on the smooth grinding-stone of the Tamhasg;” and it was while they were engaged in this operation that Conall “went out with his blade in his hand, and he took off their heads, and he left two heads on each side of the stone of the Tamhasg.” 

But this was not Conall’s last encounter with Awisks (Amhuisgean); for a later portion of the tale describes a similar adventure, this time in France. Here, again, we read of “the house of the Tamhaisg, the best warriors that the King of France had; and the Tamhaisg were proud and merciless to any over whom they might gain victory. Conall 

           “reached on forward to where the Tamhasgan were, and they began gnashing their teeth, making ready to spring upon him. He took sure notice of them, for the thick knobbiest one and the thinshankiest of them. He compassed them, under them, over them, through and throughout them; and he seized on the two shanks of the thinshankiest one amongst them, and he was driving out the brains of the rest with the knob of that one, and the brains of that one with the knobs of the rest, till the part that was thickest of them was thinnest, and the lot that was thinnest they were the most ill-scattered.”

Such, then, are the leading incidents, in connection with the “Awisks,” in the stories preserved to us by the two Campbells, him of Tiree and his more famous clansman of Islay. Not that these two are the only versions of the story. For example, in the tale called “The Lad of the Skin Coverings,” as heard by the Rev. J. MacDougall in Ardnamurchan, the hero is victorious over “eighteen score and eight Avasks” in the same absurd way, and the combat is preceded by the same absurd exchange of laughs and questions.14 But to consider this and other variants, still further removed from the two here quoted, would only lead us from the point under consideration, viz., the “Awisk” incident.15 And, before considering it, it is of course to be understood that the passage as it stands is as impossible as it is ludicrous. But this does not interfere with the assumption that the basis of the story may be an actual encounter between men of tall stature and a race of dwarfs; the excessive number of the latter, and the ease with which the hero swings them about, being merely the embroidering of the tale-tellers in later times.”

1 West Highland Tales, vol. iii. pp. 232-3.
2 Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. xvi. 1889-90, pp. 110-122.
3 “Rioghachd na Fuarachd” in the original.
4 The Fians; London, D. Nutt, 1891, pp. 239-240.
5 More correctly, Na h-Amhuisgean.
6 In the Gaelic original:- ” ‘s iad tha ris an obair ud na h-Amhuisgean.” “Awisk” is merely the Gaelic amhuisg written according to English phonetics.
7 Otherwise guilbeinach or gulbairneach.
8 Similarity the county of Tyrone was so named because it was the County of Eoghan, a brother of Conall’s; the O’Neills having divided into two great septs, the Race of Conall and the Race of Eoghan or Owen.
9 Skene’s Celtic Scotland, vol. ii. p. 473.
10 Probably this was understood by all of the people from whom Campbell of Islay got the story; but it may be mentioned that one of them (himself a MacNeill) specially refers to Conall Gulban as “son of Neill of the Nine Hostages.” (West Highland Tales, vol. iii. p. 222.)
11 For some interesting remarks upon this tendency to transform the euphonic “t” into the initial letter of the word it precedes, see the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. xiv. p. 57. A similar tendency in English has transformed “an eke-name” into ” a nick-name,”  “an eft” into “a newt,” and (by the reverse process) “a nadder” into “an adder.”
12 Those various spellings no doubt reproduce the enunciation of the narrator of the tale.
13 Afterwards referred to as “the big man that came out of the outer land (an fhoirs tir).”
14 Folk and Hero Tales from Argyllshire, London, D. Nutt, 1891, pp. 38 and 52.
15 Other references, connecting Conall Gulban with “The Lad of the Skin Coverings,” and suggesting, if only slightly, the “Awisk” adventure. – Curtin’s Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland, pp. 244-269; The Folk-Lore Journal, vol. vi. pp. 173-178; West Highland Tales, vol. iii. p. 147n; and J. G. Campbell’s Fians (D. Nutt, London, 1891), pp. 260-277. This last, again, links the hero with a certain “Ceudach,” or “Ciuthach,” who figures in several other tales. It may be added that in the first and second of these references, the hero is respectively styled “Césa MacRi na Tulach” and “Fach-Mòhr [Fathach Mòr] MacRigh na Lirriach.” In Larminie’s West Irish Folk-Tales (London, 1893, p. 77), Ceudach is again seen in the encounter with the awisks, whose name is here spelt “owas,” a phonetic rendering of amhus or amhas.

THE PIGMIES. – Part 2.

“IT has been sent the Gaelic Na h-Amhuisgean is translated “The Dwarfs or Pigmies by the minister of Tiree, and that in two Gaelic dictionaries (one Irish, the other Scotch) the corrupt form Tamhasg has the same meaning. Each of these lexicographers gives also the variants amhach and abhac or abhag, all signifying “dwarf”; and these, again, are extensions of the earlier form amh, or abh. There is thus no doubt that the “awisks” who figure in those traditional tales were understood to be dwarfs.1 But Campbell of Islay, who seems to have overlooked the commonest meaning of the word, endeavours to explain amhuisg by means of other definitions, which he thus quotes:-

Amhas, a madman, a wild ungovernable man; also a dull, stupid person (Armstrong). Amhasan, a sentry (ditto); also, a wild beast, according to the Highland Society Dictionary. Perhaps these may have something to do with the Baresarks [Berzerkers?] of the old Norsemen, who were ‘public pests,’ great warriors, half crazy, enormously strong, subject to fits of ungovernable fury, occasionally employed by saner men, and put to death when done with. The characters appear in many Highland tales; and an Irish blind fiddler told me a long story in which they figured. I suspect this guardhouse of savage warriors has a foundation in fact.”

All this, while not incompatible with dwarfish stature (even when their “enormous strength” is considered), is in close agreement with the ferocity ascribed to the “awisks” in all of the three tales specially cited. In the Tiree and Ardnamurchan stories, the cause of the dwarfs’ glee was the thought that the unhappy hero’s head was destined to become their football. In Campbell of Islay’s version, they laugh at the immediate prospect of devouring Conall’s flesh and drinking his blood; – a veritable race of cannibals. This, also, may have been a belief held with regard to a certain race, whether the belief was justified by fact or not. Even during the seventeenth century it was believed in France, although erroneously, that the Samoyeds were pronounced cannibals, who ate unlucky strangers, and to whom the Grand Duke of Muscovy sent his criminals, in order that they might be devoured by those “awisks” of that “Kingdom of Coldness.” Incorrect although this belief was in the seventeenth century, it is not improbable that it had its origin in a previous state of things in Northern Europe.2 Nor is there any reason why the British Isles should be excluded. Jerome’s reference to the anthropophagous Attacotti is daily quoted; and, founding upon a passage in Strabo, Mr. G. L. Gomme observes that “the inhabitants of Ireland were cannibals.”3 (This latter statement is of course too comprehensive, since it takes for granted that Ireland was inhabited by one homogeneous people, and not – as there is every reason to believe – by races of the most opposite degrees of civilisation.) Further, in the course of his “General Remarks on the Dwellings of Prehistoric Races in Orkney,” Dr. William Traill observes:4 “From Mr. Watt’s5 extensive experience in such explorations [as that of a certain “underground house” near Skaill], his sagacity and accuracy of judgment as to the habits of that early race were seldom at fault and only on one point did I feel disposed to differ from him. He was strongly impressed with the belief that the ‘Picts’ were cannibals, but I could not find that he had any proof of this further than the occasional presence of human bones in the heaps of bones of animals used as food.” Dr. Traill thereupon introduces a very opposite comparison between the ways of the Eskimoes and the early peoples of North-Western Europe, which clearly shews that the mixture of human and brute bones need not imply cannibalism. But, on the other hand, it appears to the present writer that in such cases Dr. Traill’s view is too readily assumed to be the correct one, without any consideration of the possibility of Mr. Watt’s deduction being well founded. The underlying motive is an uneasy feeling that those people may have been, in some measure, “our ancestors,” and the idea of their having been cannibals is too shocking to contemplate. But, in the first place, it is by no means certain that such hypothetical cannibals did not become extinct as many a cannibal population in other parts of the world; and, in the second place, the only way to ascertain something about our forerunners in these islands is to regard them quite impartially, whether they were our ancestors or not.

The assumption that those traditional “awisks” were really cannibals is thus not without support. But is it reasonable to suppose that a race of dwarfs could supply “the best warriors” and bodyguard of the king of a taller people? In a recent interesting work by Professor Windle of Birmingham,6 there are two or three references which bear out this idea. Professor Windle, in the course of an extensive survey of dwarf races, quotes the Greek historian, Ctesias, to the effect that “Middle India has black men, who are called Pygmies, using the same language as the other Indians.. Of these Pygmies, the king of the Indians has three thousand in his train; for they are very skilful archers.”7 And again he remarks:- “There seem to have been near Lake Zerrah, in Persia, Negrito [“pigmy black”] tribes who are probably aboriginal, and may have formed the historic black guard of the ancient kings of Susiana.”8 These observations of Professor Windle’s occur in connection with a  treatise on “The Pygmies of the Ancients,” the work of a London doctor of the name of Tyson, who flourished in the seventeenth century. And Dr. Tyson introduces a certain quotation from the book of the prophet Ezekiel which bears upon his and the present theme, observing that “Talentonius and Bartholine [with whom we need not here concern ourselves] think that what Ctesias relates of the Pygmies, as their being very good Archers, very well illustrates this Text of Ezekiel.”9 In the Vulgate, the passage referred to runs thus (as quoted by Tyson):- “Filij Arvad cum Exercitu tuo supra Muros tuos per circuitum, & Pygmaei in Turribus tuis fuerunt.” [“Son of Arvad with your army on your walls all around, and in the towers were Pygmi.”] In the latest English version it goes as follows (chap. xxvii. ver. II):- “The men of Arvad with thine army were upon thy walls round about, and the Gammadim were in thy towers”; Gammadim being also glossed “valorous men.” King James’ Translation, as also the Genevan translation printed at Edinburgh in 1579, has “the Gammadims”; while, on the other hand, the English Bishops’ Bible of 1572 and 1575 has “the Pygmenians.” Tyson quotes Sir Thomas Browne to the effect that “in the Septuagint it is no more than Watchman,” and he adds the same writer’s further reference to “the Exposition of Jerom; not taking Pygmies for Dwarfs, but stout and valiant Champions.” In these pages it is impossible to enlarge upon Tyson’s various references and discussions upon this theme; but enough has been said to shew that the Gaelic story of a guard of dwarf warriors is by no means a solitary one. Indeed, there are several curious reminiscences of the Ezekiel passage in Campbell’s identification of “awisks” with fierce, war-like “sentries.” Nor is it necessary to assume that “Gammadim” and “Pygmaei” are a contradiction in terms any more than “Wambutti” and “Dwarfs.”

It is a far cry from these references of the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. to the Conall Gulban of a thousand years later; but the passages are introduced by way of illustration. A quotation nearer home is the following, which describes a half-traditional, half-historical people, formerly inhabiting the Netherlands:-

“The Fenlanders (a race dwelling in our country prior to the Kelts) were little, but strong, dexterous, and good swimmers; they lived by hunting and fishing. Adam of Bremen in the eleventh century thus pictures their descendants or race: ‘They had large heads, flat faces, flat noses, and large mouths. They lived in caves of the rocks, which they quitted in the night-time for the purpose of committing sanguinary outrages.’ The Keltic people, and later those of German race, so tall and strong, could hardly look upon such little folk as human beings. They must have regarded them as strange, mysterious creatures. And when these negroes10 or Fenlanders had lived for a long enough time hidden, for fear of the new people, in their grottoes, especially when they at length fell into decay through poverty, or died out, they became changed in the imagination of the dreamy Germans into mysterious beings, a kind of ghosts or gods.”11 

These dwarfish “Fenlanders,” therefore, might easily enough be regarded as the originals of the “awisks” in the Gaelic stories. But it would not be necessary to assume that adventures such as those credited to the fifth-century Conall Gulban must really have occurred long before his time, and outside of the British Islands. In the Orkney Isles, for example, a tradition was current in the fifteenth-century which offers a counterpart to the Flemish account just quoted. The following statement is made in an account, De Orcadibus Insulis, ascribed to a certain Thomas Tulloch, who was Bishop of Orkney sometime in the first half of the fifteenth century:- “Istas insulas primitus Peti et Pape inhabitabant. Horum alteri scilicet Peti parvo superantes pigmeos statura in structuris urbium vespere et mane mira operantes, meredie vero cunctis viribus prorsus destituti in subterraneis domunculis pre timore latuerunt.” [“That these islands are inhabited first is the request of the Pope. The structures of these to the other of the cities, to wit, in the evening and the morning were Petus a wonderful small people exceeding the pigmies upright posture not at all, on the South part entirely deprived of all the other forces in the account of the fear of the underground without realizing it.”]12 With regard to those pigmy Peti, it is stated (Barry’s Orkney, p. 115) that “they are plainly no other than the Peihts, Picts, or Piks… The Scandinavian writers generally call the Piks Peti, or Pets: one of them uses the term Petia, instead of Pictland (Saxo-Gram.); and, besides, the firth that divides Orkney from Caithness is usually denominated Petland Fiord in the Icelandic Sagas or histories.” The period to which Bishop Tulloch refers is that of the invasion of the Orkneys by Harald Haarfagr, in the ninth century. 

Thus, we have a tradition, prevalent in Orkney in the fifteenth century, that the inhabitants of the archipelago, six centuries earlier, consisted of certain Pape and a race of dwarfs, identified with the Picts of history. Who, then, were those Pape?

That they were Irish priests is the generally accepted answer to the question. They are frequently mentioned in the Norse records. In the Islendingabok,13 it is stated that when Harald Haarfagr was only sixteen, a Northman named Ingolf visited Iceland. “Then were there Christian men, whom the Northmen call Papa, but afterwards they went away because they would not remain with the heathens, and left behind them Irish books, and croziers and bells, from which it could be seen that they were Irishmen.”  “But besides these Icelandic traditions,” says Sir George Dasent, “we have positive evidence of the fact. Dicuilus, an Irisk monk who, in the year 825, wrote a work, De Mensurâ Orbis, relates that at least thirty years before he had seen and spoken with several monks who had visited the island of Thile, as they called it [proved to be Iceland]… The common name for all those anchorites among the Northmen was Papar [i.e., popes, or priests]. Under this name we find them in Orkney and Shetland, in the Faroe Islands, and in Iceland, and to this day the name ‘Papey,’ in all those localities, denotes the fact that the same pious monks who had followed St. Columba to Iona, and who had filled the cells at Enhallow, and Egilsha, and Papa in the Orkneys, were those who, according to the account of Dicuil, had sought Thile, or Iceland.”14 

It will be seen that there is a certain consistency running through these references. St. Columba was a great-grandson of Conall Gulban, who is traditionally said to have had fierce battle with a race of dwarfs. And St. Columba’s followers, presumably Irishmen (as all the Scottish Gaels originally were), are described as living in Orkney in association with a race of dwarfs, famous as builders, and whose labours were very probably utilised by the Gaelic monks. No doubt these latter were missionaries, but missionary enterprise is not easily dissociated from racial conquest. One never reads, for example, of any modern missionary becoming the servant of the people he is trying to convert; nor is it ever proposed that the converts should hold the controlling power. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that the “pape” were the representatives of Gaelic conquest over the “Peti.” Indeed, we know as a fact that, in the sixth century and subsequently, when Columba and his followers were carrying on a religious war against the Picts of Scotland, Columba’s kinsmen were struggling against and subduing by force of arms these same people. Nor was the scene of this conflict of races confined to Scotland, for the north of Ireland shows a similar state of things. Thus, we read in the Annals of the Four Masters15 that in the year 557 the race of Conall Gulban, along with the “Cinel Owen” branch of the O’Neills, gained a great victory over the Cruithné or Cruithnechs, otherwise the Picts of Ireland.

According to the belief current in Orkney in the fifteenth century, and still existing there and in other parts of Scotland,16 those Picts were “awisks.” So that the story of Na h-Amhuisgean may reasonably be regarded as a memory of the struggle between the Gaels and the Picts. In assuming this, it is not necessary to believe that every detail of the story has a historical foundation. The variants are many, and their statements are often inconsistent. For example, the fact that Conall Gulban is sometimes identified with “The Lad with the Skin Garments” leads one to suspect that the latter title really denotes a certain “Muircheartach of the Leather Cloaks” who lived five centuries after Conall Gulban. But it is to be noticed that this Muircheartach was also a famous chief of the O’Neills; and, assuming the stories to be historical in their origin, it may well be that the deeds of the ancestor have become confused with those of his descendant. This, probable in itself, is doubly probable when it is remembered that, if the story originated in the time of Conall Gulban, it has come down as an oral tradition for fourteen centuries.

To examine the var. The deduction made in the above paragraph – that the story is a memory of the struggle between the various versions in detail would be as troublesome as it is unnecessary. The deduction made in the above paragraph – that the story is a memory of the struggle between the Gaels and the Picts – is interesting enough, and importantif well-founded. Of course it is conjecture; but it is by speculating upon such matters that one eventually reaches a definite conclusion. As the Dutch proverb says: “By asking questions one gets to Rome.” 


1 In MacDougall’s version of “The Lad with the Skin Garments” (op. cit. pp. 38 and 52) the position appears at the first glance to be reversed; for the “awisks” are made to address the intruder as “O little man,” while he in return calls them “big man all.” But these terms are evidently used in irony, for the hero is able to employ an inverted “awisk” as a war-club, as in the other stories, and with him to dash out the brains of several hundred other “awisks.” Thus the action is quite in agreement with the meaning of the word. 
2 Compare the old saying in the northern sagas, “to give to the trolls.”This ndoubtedly came  igify death in any shape; but that fact does not interfere with the belief that the expression originated in a practice  as thatasibed to the Grand Dukeof Muscovy. In modern times, Mr. F. C. Selous tells us, the chiefs of Matabeleland simply say “give him to the hyenas,” or “throw him to the crocodiles,” when they order a man to be killed. The order means instant execution, by means of a club or other weapon, and the ultimate fate of the corpse is a matter of indifference to the chief. 
3 Ethnology in Folklore, London, 1892, p. 120. 
4 Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. vii.; first series, p. 439. 
5 Mr. William Watt of Skaill, Orkney. 
6 Introduction to Tyson’s “Essay concerning the Pygmies of the Ancients,” London, D. Nutt, 1894. 
7 Op. cit. pp. xlii.-xliii. 
8 Ibid. p. xxvii. 
9 Op. cit. p. 68. 
10 I am not aware on what grounds this author speaks of them as black people. 
11 See the Flemish folklore journal, Ons Volksleven, June 1895, p. 104.
12 “Extracts from a Manuscript Volume of Chronicles in the possession of the Right Honourable Lord Panmure,” Bannatyne Miscellany, 1855, p. 33. 
13 Chap. 1: here quoted from Du Chaillu’s Viking Age, vol. ii. p. 517. 
14 The Story of Burnt Njal, Edinburgh, 1861, vol. i. pp. vii.-viii. 
15 Here quoted from Dr. Hayes O’Grady’s Silva Gadelica, English anslation, p. 516.
16 “A common description of the Picts” in the Strathbogie district of Aberdeenshire, forty or fifty years ago, was that “they were unco wee bodies, but terribly strong and wickit.” This information, which I owe to the Rev. R. H. Smith, Duncanstone, tallies with other accounts throughout Scotland. The term “wicked,” it may be added for the benefit of some of the readers of SCOTS LORE, is used in such a connection, in Scotland, to signify “ferocious” or “savage.” Thus, a snarling dog, or a wolf at bay, would be described as “wicked.”
[I absolutely love J. F. Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’. I have the 4 volume set published by the Islay Association (1890-93).
‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’, J. F. Campbell, vols.1-4 spines (1890 [1&2], 1892 [3], & 1893 [4]) and vol.4 front cover (1862).
This article from the last edition of Scots Lore is based purely on whether there is fact in the old Gaelic folktales that relate to the “Awisks” (Amhuisgean) or “Pigmies”. When I first read J. F. Campbell of Islay’s version I ended up buckled in the corner of the office. I immediately related the tale to Alex who just found it all absurd. The passages that got me only did so due to the way it had been translated from the original Gaelic. They read:
“… said Conall, ‘The meaning of my grinning is, that I will look out for the one with the biggest knob and slenderest shanks, and knock out the brains of the rest with that one, and his brains with the knobs of the rest.’…”
“Conall ‘reached on forward to where the Tamhasgan were, and they began gnashing their teeth, making ready to spring upon him. He took sure notice of them, for the thick knobbiest one and the thinshankiest of them. He compassed them, under them, over them, through and throughout them; and he seized on the two shanks of the thinshankiest one amongst them, and he was driving out the brains of the rest with the knob of that one, and the brains of that one with the knobs of the rest, till the part that was thickest of them was thinnest, and the lot that was thinnest they were the most ill-scattered.’ “
In case you’re at all confused, Conall’s taking one of the wee men most useful to him as a club (skinniest legs and biggest head) then setting about the rest with said club until there was nothing left. Certainly not the image conjured by the version in Popular Tales…]

Popular Tales 2

Conall using a wee “Tamhasgan” guy as a club by Alex Eeles.

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