Part 4 – All in How You Tell it, pp.xxxviii-xlix.

I presume that I have said enough as to their collection, and that I may now point out what seems to me to be their bearing on the scientific part of the subject; that I may take them as traditions, and argue from them as from established facts. I have endeavoured to show how, when, and where I got the stories; each has its own separate pedigree, and I have given the original Gaelic, with the closest translation which I was able to make. 

Now, let me mention the works in which I have found similar tales, and which are within the reach of all who can read English. First – Tales from the Norse, translated by G. W. Dasent, published 1859. Many of the Gaelic tales collected in 1859 resemble these very closely. The likeness is pointed out in the notes. 

It is impossible that the book could have become known to the people who told the stories within the time, but if it were, a manuscript which has been lent to me by the translator, proves that the stories were known in Scotland before the translation from the Norse was made public. 

It is a verbatim copy made by a clergyman from a collection of fourteen tales, gathered by “Peter Buchan, editor of the Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland.” It is dated 1847, Glasgow; and signed, Alexander B. Grosart. The tales are written in English, and versions of all except three, had previously come to me in Gaelic. For example, (No. 2), The Battle of the Birds closely resembles ‘The Master Maid’ from Norway, but it still more resembles Mr. Peter Buchan’s ‘Greensleeves’ found in Scotland thirteen years before the Norse tales were translated. The manuscript was sent by Mr. Grosart, after he had read the Norse tales, and it seems to be clearly proved that these stories are common to Norway and to Scotland. 

I have found very few stories of the kind amongst the peasantry of the low country, though I have sought them. I find such names as Fingal in Mr. Buchan’s stories, and I know them to be common in the islands where the scene is often laid. The language is not that of any peasantry, and I have come to the conclusion that this collection is mostly derived from Gaelic, directly or indirectly, perhaps from the shoals of West Highlanders and Irishmen who used to come down as shearers every harvest, and who are now scattered all over Scotland as farm-servants and drovers, and settled in Edinburgh and Glasgow as porters. I know from one of these, a drover, who goes every year to the south with cattle, that he has often entertained lowland farm-servants by telling in English the stories which he learned as a child in South Uist. I know of men in Paisley, Greenock, and Edinburgh, who are noted for their knowledge of sgeulachd. But while I hold that this particular collection was not told in this form by lowland Scotch peasants, I know that they still do tell such stories occasionally, and I also know that Englishmen of the lower ranks do the same. I met two tinkers in St. James’s Street in February with black faces and a pan of burning coals each. They were followed by a wife, and preceded by a mangy terrier with a stiff tail. I joined the party, and one told me a version of “the man who travelled to learn what shivering meant,” while we walked together through the park to Westminster. It was clearly the popular tale which exists in Norse, and German, and Gaelic, and it bore the stamp of the mind of the class, and of the man, who told it in his own peculiar dialect, and who dressed the actors in his own ideas. A cutler and a tinker travel together, and sleep in an empty haunted house for a reward. They are beset by ghosts and spirits of murdered ladies and gentlemen, and the inferior, the tinker, shows most courage, and is the hero. “He went into the cellar to draw beer, and there he found a little chap a-sittin’ on a barrel with a red cap on ‘is ‘ed; and sez he, sez he, ‘Buzz.’ ‘Wot’s buzz? sez the tinker. ‘Never you mind wot’s buzz,’ sez he. ‘That’s mine; don’t you go for to touch it,’ “ etc. etc. etc. 

In a less degree many are like the German stories of the brothers Grimm. That collection has been translated, and a book so well known may possibly have found its way into the Highlands. It is impossible to speak with certainty; but when all the narrators agree in saying that they have known their stories all their lives, and when the variation is so marked, the resemblance is rather to be attributed to common origin than to books. I only once heard of such a book in the Highlands. It was given to a gamekeeper in Sutherland for his children, and was condemned, and put out of the way as trash. 

The Gaelic stories resemble in some few cases the well-known tales of Hans Andersen, founded on popular tales told in Denmark. 

A few resemble the Arabian Nights, and in some cases I believe that the stories have been derived from early English translations of that well-known book. I used myself to read an edition of 1815 to my piper guardian, in return for his ursgeuls, but he seemed more inclined to blame the tyranny of the kings than to admire the Eastern stories. 

MacLean has himself told the story of Aladdin in Gaelic as his share of a winter night’s entertainment, and I have heard of several people of the poorer class who know the Arabian Nights well. But such stories are easily known after a little experience has been gained. The whole of a volume is run together, the incidents follow in their order, or in something like it. The difference in style is as marked as the contrast between a drift tree and a wrecked vessel, but as it is curious to trace the change from Eastern ways as seen through an English translation of a French view of the original Arabic, I give specimens. These contain the incidents embodied in stories in the Arabian Nights, but the whole machinery and decoration, manners and customs, are now as completely West Highland as if the tales had grown there. But for a camel which appears, I would almost give up my opinion, and adopt that of MacLean, who holds that even these are pure traditions. 

In support of his view it may be said that there are hundreds of other books as well known in England as those mentioned above, of which neither I nor my collectors have ever found a trace. Jack and the Bean-stalk, and Jack the Giant-killer, Beauty and the Beast, and the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, as known in England, are unknown in the Highlands. None of the adventures of Mr. Pickwick, or Sam Weller, or Jack Shepherd, or Gulliver, or Robinson Crusoe, are mixed up with prose tales. No part of the story of Wallace, as told in the ‘Scottish Chiefs,’ or of ‘Waverley,’ is to be found in popular history. There is nothing like ‘The Mysteries of London.’ There are none of the modern horrors of which ballads have been made, such as ‘Sad was the day when James Greenacre first got acquainted with Sarah Gale.’ There are no gorgeous palaces, and elegant fairies; there are no enchanters flying in chariots drawn by winged griffins; there are no gentle knights and noble dames; no spruce cavaliers and well-dressed ladies; no heroes and heroines of fashionable novels; but, on the contrary, everything is popular. Heroes are as wild, and unkempt, and savage as they probably were in fact, and kings are men as they appear in Lane’s translations of the Arabian Nights. 

Eastern tale tellers knew what Haroun al Raschid must have suffered when he put on the fisherman’s clothes, and Mr. Lane has not scrupled to follow the original Arabic. 

If the people of the West Highlands have added book stories to their traditions, they have selected those only which were taken from peasants like themselves in other countries, and they have stripped off all that was foreign to their own manners. The people have but taken back their own. 

Besides books accessible to all English readers, I find similar stories in books beyond the reach of the people. I have pointed out in the notes all that were within my reach, and came under my notice but this part of the subject is a study, and requires time to acquire knowledge which I do not possess. 

Such, then, is the evidence which bears on the immediate origin of the stories. I believe them to be pure traditions, very little affected by modern books, and, if at all, only by those which are avowedly taken from popular tales. A trip of five days in the Isle of Man in April 1860 has but confirmed this opinion. 

That island, in spite of its numerous rulers, is still peculiarly Celtic. It has belonged to Norwegians. English, Scotch, Welsh, and Irish have fought for it. It has a Law Court with a Norwegian name held on a mound; half the names in the island are Norse, such as Laxey (Salmon isthmus), Langness, Snafell; but these names are not understood by the people who live at the places. Peel has a descriptive Gaelic name, which means island port; a Salmon is Braddan, not Lax; and of the poorer classes living in the mountain farms, and on the points and distant corners of the island, there are still many who can hardly speak anything but Manks. Their hair is dark; the sound of their voices, even their houses, are Celtic. I know one turf dwelling which might be a house in North Uist. There was the fire on the floor, the children seated around it, the black haired Celtic mother on a low stool in front, – the hens quarrelling about a nest under the table, in which several wanted to lay eggs at once. 

“Get out, Polly! Drive her out, John!” And then John, the son, drove out Polly, the hen, with a stick; and the hen said, “Gurr-r-m;” and ran in under the table again and said, “Cluck, Cluck,” and laid the egg then and there. There was the same kindly hospitable manner in the poorest cottage; and I soon found that a Scotch Highlander could speak Manks as soon as he could acquire the art of mispronouncing his own language to the right amount, and learn where to introduce the proper English word. “La fine” – fine day – was the salutation everywhere; and the reply, “Fine, fine.” But though the nouns are almost the same, and the language is but a dialect of Gaelic, the foreigner was incomprehensible, because he could not pronounce as they did; and I was reduced to English… The first picture I saw on landing was a magnificent Bluebeard in a shop window. He was dressed as an Eastern potentate, and about to slice off his wife’s head with a crooked scimitar, while the two brothers rode up to the gate on prancing steeds, with horror on their faces and swords in their hands. But there was not a trace of any of that kind of story to be found amongst the peasants with whom I spoke in the Isle of Man. 

I found them willing to talk, eager to question, kindly, homely folk, with whom it was easy to begin an acquaintance. I heard everywhere that it used to be common to hear old men telling stories about the fire in Manks; but any attempt to extract a story, or search out a queer old custom, or a half-forgotten belief, seemed to act as a pinch of snuff does on a snail. The Manksman would not trust the foreigner with his secrets; his eye twinkled suspiciously, and his hand seemed unconsciously to grasp his mouth, as if to keep all fast. After getting quite at ease with one old fellow over a pipe, and having learned that a neighbour’s cow had borna calf to the “Taroo ustey,” water bull, I thought I might fish for a story, and told one as bait. 

“That man, if he had two pints, would tell you stories by the hour,” said a boy. “Oh yes, they used to tell plenty of stories,” said the old man, “Skyll as we call them.” 

Here was the very word mispronounced, “sgeul,” so my hopes rose. 

Campbell: “Will you tell me a story now?”  
Old Man: “Have you any churches in your country?” 
Campbell: “Yes, and chapels; but will you tell me a story?” 
Old Man: “What you got to sell in your bag?” 
Campbell: “What a shame now, for you, an old Mananach, not to tell me a story when I have told you one, and filled your pipe and all.” 
Old Man: “What do you pay for tobacco?” 
Boy: “Oh will you not tell the man a story!” 
Old Man: “I must go and saw now;” 

And so we parted. 

But though this was the usual thing, it was not always so; and it soon became evident that the stories given in Train’s history of the Isle of Man, are nearly all known to the people now; and these are of the same nature as some known in the Highlands of Scotland; some are almost identical; and nearly all the Manks customs are common to the Western Isles. 

Thus I heard of Fairies, “Ferish,” who live in green mounds, and are heard at times dressing mill-stones in haunted mills; of Tarro Ustey, the water bull; of Dinny Mara, the sea man, and of the Mermaid; of Caval Ustey, the water horse; of Fion MacCooil; of a city under the waves; of a magic island seen in the far west. I heard of giants. No one would tell about them; but in a book I found how Goddard Crovan threw a vast boulder at his scolding wife, and how a Norman baron, named ‘Kitter’ and his cook; ‘Eaoch,’ and his magic sword, ‘Macabuin,’ made by ‘Loan Maclibhuin, the dark smith of Drontheim;’ and ‘Hiallusnan-urd, the one-legged hammerman,’ – are all woven into a story, and mixed up with such Norwegian names as Olave and Emergaid, exactly as a story is jumbled together in the Western Isles of Scotland. 

I got some stories which I have not found in the Manks books, so I give them here, in the hope that some Manksman may be induced to gather the popular lore of his own country. This is from a woman who lives near the Calf of Man. 

Woman: “Did you ever hear tell of the Glashan?” 
Campbell: “No; tell me about Glashan.” 
Woman: “Well, you see, in the old times they used to be keeping the sheep in the folds; and one night an old man forgot to put them in, and he sent out his son, and he came back and said the sheep were all folded, but there was a year-old lamb, oasht, playing the mischief with them; and that was the glashan. 
“You see they were very strong, and when they wanted a stack threshed though it was a whole stack, the glashan would have it threshed for them in one night. 
“And they were running after the women. There was one of them once caught a girl, and had a hould of her by the dress, and he sat down and he fell asleep; and then she cut away all the dress, you see, round about, this way, and left it in his fist and ran away; and when he awoke, he threw what he had over his shoulder, this way; and he said (something in Manks which I could not catch). 
“Well, you see, one night the ould fellow sent all the women to bed, and he put on a cap and a woman’s dress, and he sat down by the fire and he began to spin; and the young glashans, they came in, and they began saying something in Manks that means ‘Are you turning the wheel? Are you trying the reel?’  
Well, the ould glashan, he was outside, and he knew better than the young ones; he knew it was the ould fellow himself, and he was telling them, but they did not mind him; and so the ould man threw a lot of hot turf, you see, it was turf they burned then, over them and burned them; and the ould one said (something in Manks). ‘You’ll not understand that, now?’ ‘Yes, I do, pretty nearly.’ ‘Ah well.’ And so the glashans went away and never came back any more.” 
Campbell: “Have you many stories like that, guidwife?” 
Woman: “Ah, there were plenty of people that could tell these stories once. When I was a little girl, I used to hear them telling them in Manks over the fire at night; but people is so changed with pride now that they care for nothing.” 

Now here is a story which is all over the Highlands in various shapes. Sometimes it is a Brollichan son of the Fuath, or a young water horse transformed into the likeness of a man, which attacks a lonely woman and gets burned or scalded, and goes away to his friends outside. In the islands, the woman generally says her name is Myself; and the goblin answers, when asked who burned him, “Myself.” This Manks story is manifestly the same, though this incident is left out. I have heard it in Lewis, and in many places besides, and part of it is best omitted. 

The Glashan, as I found out afterwards, frequented neighbouring farms till within a very late period. He wore no clothes, and was hairy; and, according to Train’s history, Phynodderee, which means something hairy, was frightened away by the gift of clothes – exactly as the Skipness long-haired Gruagach was frightened away by the offer of a coat and a cap. The Manks brownie and the Argyllshire one each repeated a rhyme over the clothes; but the rhymes are not the same, though they amount to the same thing. 

Here, then, is a Gaelic popular tale and belief in Man; and close to it I found a story which has a counterpart in Grimm. I heard it from my landlady at Port Erin, and I met two Manksmen afterwards who knew it – 

“The fish all gathered once to choose a king; and the fluke, him that has the red spots on him, stayed at home to make himself pretty, putting on his red spots, to see if he would be king, and he was too late, for when he came the herring was king of the sea. So the fluke curled his mouth on one side, and said, ‘A simple fish like the herring, king of the sea!’ And his mouth has been to one side ever since.” 

It seems, too, that the Manks version of ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ varies from the English; for 

“Jack the Giant Killer, 
Varv a Vuchd in the river.” 

killed a pig in the river; and the English hero did nothing of the sort. In short, the Isle of Man has its own legends, which have their own peculiarities; they resemble others, and do not seem to be taken from books. The same class of people tell them there as elsewhere; the difficulty of getting at them is the same; and the key to the secret is the native language. From what I gleaned in a five days’ walk, I am sure that a good Manksman might yet gather a large harvest within a very narrow space. And now to return to my own subject.

4 thoughts on “Part 4 – All in How You Tell it, pp.xxxviii-xlix.

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