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Part 2 – Obtaining the Stories, pp.viii-xxiii.

[Popular Tales Introduction Contents]

The name of every narrator is given with his story, and I am satisfied on direct evidence that most of these were known in the Highlands at least forty years ago. Now, for the benefit of those who know as little of the subject as I did, let me give the theory of the distribution of popular tales, as I have gathered it from the able introduction to the Norse Tales and other sources, and then let me point out the bearing of this collection on that theory. 

It is supposed that the races known as Indo-European came from Central Asia at some very early period, and passed over Europe, separating and settling down as nations; retaining words of their original language, and leaving the traces of their religion and history everywhere as popular tales; and that they found the land occupied. Each wave, it is said, “pushed onwards those who went before,” but, as it seems to me, each in turn must have stopped as it arrived at the great sea, and there the waves of this stream of men must have mingled and stagnated. 

As the flotsam and jetsam of American rivers and of the Gulf Stream is constantly drifting northwards and eastwards, and finds a resting-place on some western shore, so the traces of the great human stream, which is supposed to have flowed westwards, should be found in greatest abundance stranded at the western sea. If this be correct, and if the plains of Asia sent migratory hordes eastwards as well as westwards, the tales and languages of the far East and West should most resemble each other, and should also resemble more than others the oldest forms of the myths and languages of those from whom they sprang. Brittany, Scandinavia, Ireland, and the west of Scotland, from their geographical position, should contain more of this light mental debris than Central Europe; for the same reason that more of the floating rubbish of American rivers is found on the shores of Europe than anywhere on the great ocean; and if mankind had a common origin, and started from the plains of Asia, and if popular tales really are old traditions, then the tales of Ceylon should resemble those of Barra, and those of Japan should resemble the others, because men travelling eastwards and arrived at Japan, could not easily advance farther. Mr. Oliphant tells us that both in China and in Japan groups are commonly seen listening to professional story-tellers in the streets, and it is to be hoped that some one will enable us to judge of their talents. 

Be that as it may, fairy-eggs are not the only foreign products found on the shores of the Hebrides, and the people who dwell there know stories of larger growth than mere nursery tales. Great logs of drift-wood find their way to shore and are turned to use. Such a log I once found, and used myself, long ago. It was half buried in the sand; it had been long tossed by the sea, and battered against rocks, for it was heavy with water, splintered and ground. No tree like it grew anywhere near. There was no mark of a tool on it. The stumps of its roots and branches remained, and it seemed as if it had been torn up and wafted to its resting-place by winds and waves alone. I have now no doubt that it came from America. Had it been insignificant, and useless, like a fairy-egg, we might have left it, or preserved it as a curiosity; but it was a useful log, and we were a party of chilled otter hunters, so, after a few speculations, we hoisted the prize on our shoulders, carried it to our dwelling, a neighbouring cave, and there we burned it. I see it often, hissing and sputtering, and lighting up the bivouac with its red glare. Its ashes may be there still, but that tree is a tree no longer; its origin and wanderings cannot now be traced; it has shared the fate of many a popular tale. It was found and used up. 

Such a log I lately saw in South Uist. No tool mark was on it; it had lost its own foliage, but it was covered with a brown and white marine foliage of seaweed and dead barnacles, and it was drilled in all directions by these curious sea-shells, which are supposed by the people to be embryo geese. It was sound, though battered, and a worthy Celtic smith was about to add it to the roof of a cottage, which he was making of boulders and turf. It was about to share the fate of many popular tales, and become a part of something else. It may be recognised as an American product hereafter, and its history is deeply marked on it, though it forms part of a house by this time. So a genuine popular tale may be recognised in a play or romance. 

Another such tree I saw in Benbecula, with bark still on the roots, and close to it lay a squared log, and near that a mast with white paint and iron bindings, blocks and crosstrees, still attached to it. A few miles off was a stranded ship, with her cargo and fittings, a wreck about to be sold, and turned to any use that the new owners might think fit. All these were about to be changed, and as it is with drift-wood in the Highlands, so, as I imagine, it has been with popular tales everywhere. They are as old as the races who tell them, but the original ideas, like the trees from which logs, masts, and ships are made, have been broken up, cut, carved, and ornamented – lost and found – wrecked, destroyed, broken, and put together again; and though the original shape is hard to find, the fragments may be recognised in books, and wherever else they may now be found. 

But as there are quiet spots in the world where drift-wood accumulates undisturbed, so there are quiet spots where popular tales flourish in peace, because no man has interfered with them. In Spitzbergen, according to the accounts given me by Norwegian bear hunters, and adventurous English nobles, trees, such as those occasionally found in Scotland, are piled in heaps. Trees, logs, broken spars, and wreck, gather and bleach and decay together, because there are no men on that wild shore to use them. So in the islands where the western “wanderers”, “Albanich”, settled down, and where they have remained for centuries, old men and women are still found who have hardly stirred from their native islands, who speak only Gaelic, and cannot read or write, and yet their minds are filled with a mass of popular lore, as various as the wreck piled on the shores of Spitzbergen. If such as these get hold of the contents of a story book, they seem unconsciously to extract the incidents, and reject all the rest, – to select the true wood, and throw away foreign ornament, just as they chip off the paint of a stranded mast, or scrape the sea-weed off a log when they build it into a roof. I have given one specimen of a story, which I believe to be derived from the “Arabian Nights,” though it is quite impossible that the man who told it to Hector MacLean, and who told it to me also, in nearly the same words, can have got it directly from any book; for he cannot read at all, and he does not understand English. 

I have found very little notice of these West Highland prose tales in books, but they are referred to. In 1703, Martin says that his countrymen then told long tales about Fin MacCoul, but he adds that he will not trouble the reader with them. 

In 1780, Dr. Smith, in his book on Gaelic poetry, says, that prosaic tales should be preserved in the same manner may seem strange, but so it is. He condemns the “urskels” as “later tales,” unworthy of notice, probably because they were different from the poetry of which he collected so much. 

Gaelic dictionaries mention “legends” as sources from which words have been taken. Amongst the Gaelic MSS. now in the Advocates’ Library, there are several which contain tales similar to those now told in the Highlands. One passage about the sailing of a many people living in various parts of the Highlands, I find in a MS. which was lent to me by the secretary of the Celtic Society of London. It is dated 23d December 1808, signed Alexander Stewart, A.M., and marked, Poems of Ossian. It contains 7721 lines of Gaelic, mostly poetry, which by the references seem to have been copied from something else. The passage to which I refer, occurs in a “Fragment of a Tale,” p. 17, which occupies thirty-seven folio pages, and treats of carrying off a lady from an island, and her recovery by her husband. 

Dr, MacLeod,* the best of living Gaelic scholars, printed one old tale, somewhat altered, with a moral added, in his ‘Leabhar nan Cnoc,’ in 1834, but even his efforts to persevere and use this old lore were unsuccessful. 

Those, then, who understood Gaelic, thought popular tales unworthy of notice; those who did not understand Gaelic, could know nothing about them; and there are many now living in the Highlands, who speak Gaelic and yet believed, till they searched at my request, that stories had become extinct in their districts. One good Highlander, who has helped me much, Mr. James Robertson, living at Inverary, so believed, till he heard his own nursemaid repeat No. 17, and a neighbouring fisherman tell No. 6. In the Highlands, as elsewhere, society is arranged in layers, like the climates of the world. The dweller on an Indian plain little dreams that there is a region of perpetual frost in the air above him; the Esquimaux does not suspect the slumbering volcano under his feet; and the dwellers in the upper and lower strata of society, everywhere, know as little of each other’s ways of life, as the men of the plain know of the mountaineers in the snow. 

Highland stories, then, have been despised by educated men, and they are as yet unchanged popular tales. It so happened that a piper was the instructor of my babyhood. He was a stalwart, kindly, gentle man, whose face is often before me, though he has long since gone to his rest. From him I first heard a few of the tales in this collection. They had almost faded from my memory, but I remembered their existence, and I knew where to search, so I began at the beginning of 1859 by writing to my Highland friends, of all degrees, for stories of all kinds, true stories excepted; and here let me thank them cordially for the trouble which they have taken, for they are too numerous to thank in detail. 

I begged for the very words used by the people who told the stories, with nothing added, or omitted, or altered. Those who could wrote Gaelic, those who could not did their best in English, – translated, at first or second-hand, from Gaelic; and when I had so gathered many versions of a story, I thought I might safely conclude that it had been known in the country for many years, and was essentially a popular tale. 

My next step was to go at Easter to a Highland district, near the lowlands, where a gamekeeper had marked down a lot of tale-tellers, and I was soon convinced that there was plenty of game, though hard to get. 

This difficulty may be worth some explanation, for it exists elsewhere, and bears on the collection of tales everywhere. Highland peasants and fishermen, especially those dwelling near the lowlands, are shy and proud, and even more peculiarly sensitive to ridicule than peasants elsewhere. Many have a lurking belief in the truth of the stories which they tell, and a rooted conviction that any one with a better education will laugh at the belief, and the story, and the narrator and his language, if he should be weak enough to venture on English, and betray his knowledge of Sgeultachd and his creed. He cannot imagine that any one out of his own class can possibly be amused by his frivolous pastimes. No one ever has hitherto. He sees every year a summer flood of tourists of all nations pouring through his lochs and glens, but he knows as little of them as they know of him. The shoals of herrings that enter Loch Fyne know as much of the dun deer on the hill-side, as Londoners and Highland peasants know of each other. Each gets an occasional peep at the other as the deer may see the herrings capering in the loch – each affects the other slowly but surely, as the herrings do drive away the wild deer by attracting men to catch them; but the want of a common language here as else-where, keeps the Highlands and Lowlands, Celt and Saxon, as clearly separate as oil and water in the same glass. 

The first step, then, towards the acquisition of a story is to establish confidence. It may be that the would-be-collector sees before him a strapping lad dressed in the garb of a west country fisherman – a rough blue bonnet, jacket, and trousers. He steps out and ranges up alongside. The Highlander glances from under his bushy eyebrows, and sees with his sharp grey eyes that the new comer is a stranger. He looks rather like a Saxon; Highland curiosity is strong, and he longs to ask whence he comes; but politeness is stronger, and it would be uncivil to begin questioning at once. So with a nervous kick of one foot, and a quick shy glance, the fisherman jerks out, “It’s a fine day.” “Tha n’ latha briagh” (The day is fine) replies the stranger; and as he speaks, the whole face and manner of his companion change as if by magic; doubt and hesitation, suspicion and curiosity, become simple wonder; his eyes and his heart open wide at the sound of his native tongue, and he exclaims, “You have Gaelic! You will take my excuse by your leave, but what part of Gaeldom are you from?” And then having found out all that is to be discovered, the ice being broken, and confidence established, it oozes out gradually that the fisherman knows a story, and after much persuasion he tells it, while he rows the gentleman who can talk Gaelic across a Highland loch. At parting, he adds that he has only told it to please a “Gael,” and that he would not have said one word to a Gall (stranger). But the man who is fluent in his boat, is shy and backward when set down to repeat his story for transcribing, and it is only when set with one of his neighbours whom he knows, that his story is got on paper. 

Or it may be an old dame in a tall white mutch with a broad black silk band, a red cloak, and clean white apron She is 70, and can walk ten miles; she has known all the neighbouring families for generations. If you can claim cousinship with any, she is your friend; but she will praise the ancestors and tell of the adventures of Rob Roy the Gregorach, the last of the freebooters “But, Mary, can you say Murachag and Mionachag?” “Huch! My dear, that is an ursgeul that is nonsense. The Good Being bless you, I knew your grandmother,” etc., etc. So one must rest contented with the fact, that old Mary knows one tale, and probably many more, which a week’s persuasion might perhaps extract. 

Or it may be a pretty lass, whose eye twinkles with intelligence at every catch-word, thrown out as a bait, but whom nothing will induce to confess that she knows the foolish tales which the minister has condemned. 

Or it is an old wandering vagabond of a tinker, who has no roof but the tattered covering of his tent. He has pitched it in a quarry under a giant fir, the knarled roots, half bare, hardly support the tree on the edge of a red clay bank, and form a kind of hollow, a “còs,” in which the tinker and his tribe have nestled at odd times for years. A thin blue smoke is curling amongst the blackened roots, and winding itself about the noble tree. A stately mansion and a wide domain, and a blue highland loch, with a shoal of brown herring-boats, can be seen through the wood from the door of the tinker’s tent; and there he lies, an old man past eighty, who has been a soldier, and “has never seen a school;” too proud to beg, too old to work; surrounded by boxes and horn spoons, with shaggy hair and naked feet, as perfect a nomad as the wildest Lapp or Arab in the whole world. It is easy to make friends with such men. A kind world in their native language is all that is required, but to get their stories is another affair. “Donald, did you ever see the like of this?” Up starts the old man on his elbow, – “Och! Och! That’s a fairy arrow, I have seen that; och! och! No fairy arrow will ever hit the man who has that – no fire will ever burn the house where that is. That’s lucky, well! well!” And the old man sinks down on his bed of fern. But the elf shot has hit the mark, and started a train of thought, which leads at last to a wild story; but before that story can be written, the whole tribe decamp, and are lost for a time. 

The first difficulty, then, was the nature of the people who knew the stories; and the second, the want of men able and willing to write Gaelic. It was easy to write English versions of the tales heard in Gaelic, but I wanted the Gaelic as it was told, and I had neither time nor ability to write it down myself. I therefore sought out two men on whom I could rely, to collect and write for me, and the largest share of this book has been collected and written by them. One is Mr. Hector Urquhart, gamekeeper at Ardkinglas on Loch Fyne; the other, Mr. Hector MacLean, schoolmaster at Ballygrant in Islay, who has superintended the printing of the Gaelic. They entered into the spirit of the work at once, and they have executed their share of it with the greatest fidelity,. But while these are my chief aids, I am largely indebted to many others for written Gaelic; for example, to one of my earliest friends, Mrs. MacTavish; to the Rev. Mr. MacLauchlan of Edinburgh; to Alexander Fraser, Esq. of Mauld, near Beauly; to many of the schoolmasters on the estate of Sir Kenneth MacKenzie; to Mr. Donald Torrie, Benbecula; and to many others, including John Dewar, a self-educated man of advanced age, whose contribution does him the greatest credit. 

The next step was to spend a summer holiday in studying the actual condition of this popular lore, where I had found that it existed in the greatest profusion. I landed at Lochmaddy in North Uist, and walked with a knapsack to the sound of Barra, and back to Stornoway; crossing the sound of Barra, and back to Stornoway; crossing the sound of Harris in a fishing boat. I found a population differing from that of the main land, perhaps the least changed from their old ways of any people in the kingdom. Gaelic is their usual, often their only language. Every English word which has crept in has a Gaelic head and tail. Many, I know not how many, “have no English” at all, and have never been taught to read. In many islands the people are living undisturbed, where their ancestors have lived time out of mind. They are a small, active, intelligent race, with dark hair and eyelashes, and grey eyes; quick, clever, and pugnacious. I had expected to find traces of Norwegian occupation in the people and their language. I watched carefully for Norwegian words and features; and I found the people a complete contrast to Norwegian peasants, whom I know well, who are large, bon, light-haired fair men, sagacious rather than quick; and generally slow to anger. 

I could find nothing Scandinavian, except certain names of places, and certain ruins, which it is the fashion to attribute to the Lochliners. Even the houses and the old agricultural implements, where they are still used are peculiar. For example, the old crooked spade still used in islands in the sound of Barra, and elsewhere, has no resemblance to any agricultural implement that I have ever seen anywhere out of the West Highlands. It is in fact a foot plough used without horses. It is remarkable that a steam plough should be at work at the same time, on the east coast of Cromarty at Tarbert. Every man asked my news, “whence I took the walking,” where I lived, and why I came? Saddles were often sacks, stirrups a loop of twisted bent, bridles the same, and bits occasionally wood. Dresses were coarse, but good; but there was an air of kindly politeness over all, that is not to be found in homespun dresses in any other country that I know. When I was questioned, I answered, and told my errand, and prospered. “I was not a drover come to buy cattle t the fair;” “Neither was I a merchant though I carried a pack.” “I was the gentleman who was after Sgialachdan.” My collector had made my name known. I spoke Gaelic, and answered questions. I am one of themselves, so I got on famously. 

Men and women of all ages could and did tell me stories, children of all sizes listened to them; and it was self-evident that people generally knew and enjoyed them. Elsewhere I had been told, that thirty or forty years ago, men used to congregate and tell stories; here, I was told, that they now spend whole winter nights about the fire listening to these old world tales. The clergy, in some places, had condemned the practice, and there it had fallen into disuse; stories seemed to be almost exterminated in some islands, though I believe they were only buried alive; but in other places this harmless amusement is not forbidden; and there, in every cluster of houses, is some one man famed as “good at sgialachdan,” whose house is a winter evening’s resort. I visited these, and listened, often with wonder, at the extraordinary power of memory shown by untaught old men. 

It is perhaps beyond the province of a mere collector of old tales to be serious; but surely Gaelic books containing sound information would be a vast boon to such a people. The young would read them, and the old would understand them. All would take a warmer interest in Canada and Australia, where strong arms and bold spirits are wanted, if they knew what these countries really are. If they heard more of European battles, and knew what a ship of war is now, there would be more soldiers and sailors form the Isles in the service of their country. At all events, the old spirit of popular romance is surely not an evil spirit to be exorcised, but rather a good genius to be controlled and directed. Surely stories in which a mother’s blessing, well earned, leads to success; in which the poor rise to be princes, and the weak and courageous overcome giants; in which wisdom excels brute force, – surely even such frivolities are better pastime than a solitary whisky bottle, or sleep, or grim silence; for that seems the choice of amusements if tales are forbidden and Gaelic books are not provided for men who know no other language; and who, as men, must be amused now and then. 

I have never heard a story, whose point was obscenity, publicly told in a Highland cottage; and I believe that such are rare. I have heard them where the rough polish of more modern ways has replaced the polished roughness of “wild” Highlanders; and that where even the bagpipes have been almost abolished as profane. 

I have heard the music of the “Cider Cellars” in a parlour, even in polished England, when I had failed to extract anything else from a group of comfortably-dressed villagers. A half-polished human gem is but a spoiled crystal anywhere; and I prefer the rough diamond or the finished jewel. 

But this is foreign to my work; my visits were to the tellers of old stories, and had nothing to do with political economy and public morals. I paid my visits, and heard the stories; and a goodly audience often gathered to share the treat, and all seemed marvellously to enjoy it. If there was an occasional coarse word spoken, it was not coarsely meant. 

Let me describe one of these old story men as a type of his kind. I trust he will not be offended, for he was very polite to me. His name is McPhie; he lives at the north end of South Uist, where the road ends at a sound, which has to be forded at the ebb to get to Benbecula. The house is built of a double wall of loose boulders, with a layer of peat three feet thick between the walls. The ends are round, and the roof rests on the inner wall, leaving room for a crop of yellow gowans. A man might walk round the roof on the top of the wall. There is but one room, with two low doors, one on each side of the house. The fire is on the floor; the chimney is a hole above it; and the rafters are hung with pendants and festoons of shining black peat reek. They are of the birch from the mainland, American drift wood, or broken wreck. They support a covering of turf and straw, and stones, and heather ropes, which keep out the rain well enough. 

The house stands on a green bank, with grey rocks protruding through the turf; and the whole neighbourhood is pervaded by cockle shells, which indicate the food of the people and their fishing pursuits. In a neighbouring kiln there were many cart-loads about to be burned, to make that lime which is so durable in the old castles. The owner of the house, whom I visited twice, is seventy-nine. He told me nine stories, and like all the others, declared that there was no man in the islands who knew them so well. “He could not say how many he knew;” he seemed to know versions of nearly everything I had got; and he told me plainly that my versions were good for nothing. “Huch! Thou hast not got them right at all.” “They came into his mind,” he said, “sometimes at night when he could not sleep, – old tales that he had not heard for threescore years.” 

He had the manner of a practised narrator, and it is quite evident that he is one; he chuckled at the interesting parts, and laid his withered finger on my knee as he gave out the terrible bits with due solemnity. A small boy in a kilt, with large round glittering eyes, was standing mute at his knee, gazing at his wrinkled face, and devouring every word. The boy’s mother first boiled, and then mashed, potatoes; and his father, a well grown man in tartan breeks, ate them. Ducks and ducklings, a cat and a kitten, some hens and a baby, all tumbled about on the clay floor together, and expressed their delight at the savoury prospect, each in his own fashion; and three wayfarers dropped in and listened for a spell, and passed their remarks till the ford was shallow. The light came streaming down the chimney, and through a single pane of glass, lighting up a tract in the blue mist of the peat smoke, and fell on the white hair and brown withered face of the old man, as he sat on a  low stool with his feet to the fire; and the rest of the dwelling, with all its plenishing of boxes and box-beds, dishes and dresser, and gear of all sorts, faded away through shades of deepening brown, to the black darkness of the smoked roof and the “peat corner.” There we sat, and smoked and talked for hours, till the tide ebbed; and then I crossed the ford by wading up to the waist, and dried my clothes in the wind in Benbecula. 

Another man of the same stamp, Patrick Smith, lives near the sound of Barra; and a third, “Donald MacDonald MacCharles MacIntyre,” in Benbecula; and I heard of plenty more, whom I had not time to visit. I found them to be men with clear heads and wonderful memories, generally very poor and old, living in remote corners of remote islands, and speaking only Gaelic; in short, those who have lived most at home, furthest from the world, and who have no source of mental relaxation beyond themselves and their neighbours. 

At Gearrloch on the mainland, some old namesakes of mine are of the same stamp, but in these regions the schoolmaster has made himself at home. Tales have been forbidden, but other lore has been provided. There are many well attended English schools, so old men have access to books and newspapers through their children. Tradition is out of fashion and books are in. 


*  Reverend Norman Macleod, 3 June 1812 – 16 June 1872
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