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Part 5 – Evolution & Travel of Stories, pp.xlix-lviii.

[Popular Tales Introduction Contents]

I find that men of all ranks resemble each other; that each branch of popular lore has its own special votaries, as branches of literature have amongst the learned; that one man is the peasant historian and tells of the battles of the clans; another, a walking peerage, who knows the descent of most of the families in Scotland, and all about his neighbours and their origin; others are romancers, and tell about the giants; others are moralists, and prefer the sagacious prose tales, which have a meaning, and might have a moral; a few know the history of the Feni, and are antiquarians. Many despise the whole as frivolities; they are practical moderns, and answer to practical men in other ranks of society. 

But though each prefers his own subject, the best Highland story-tellers know specimens of all kinds. Start them, and it seems as if they would never stop. I timed one, and he spoke for an hour without pause or hesitation, or verbal repetition. His story was Connall Gulban, and he said he could repeat fourscore. He recited a poem, but despised “Bardism;” and he followed me six miles in the dark to my inn, to tell me (two stories), which I have condensed; for the very same thing can be shortly told when it is not a composition. For example. 

In telling a story, narrative and dialogue are mixed; what the characters have told each other to do is repeated as narrative. The people in the story tell it to each other, and branch off into discussions about their horses and houses and crops, or anything that happens to turn up. One story grows out of another, and the tree is almost hidden by a foliage of the speaker’s invention. Here and there comes a passage repeated by rote, and common to many stories, and to every good narrator. It seems to act as a rest for the memory. Now and then, an observation from the audience starts an argument. In short, one good story in the mouth of a good narrator, with a good audience, might easily go rambling on for a whole winter’s night, as it is said to do. 

The “Slim Swarthy Champion used to last for four hours.” Connall Gulban “used to last for three evenings. Those that wanted to hear the end had come back.” One of my collectors said it would take him a month to write it down, but I am bound to add that he has since done it in a very much shorter time. I have heard of a man who fell asleep by the fire, and found a story going on when he awoke next morning. I have one fragment on which (as I am told) an old man in Ross-shire used to found twenty-four stories, all of which died with him. 

There are varieties in public speakers amongst the people as amongst their representatives, for some are eloquent, some terse, some prosy. 

But though a tale may be spun out to any extent, the very same incidents can be, and often are, told in a few words, and those tales which have been written for me are fair representations of them as they are usually told. They are like a good condensed report of a rambling speech, with extraneous matter left out. One narrator said of the longest story which I had then got – “It is but the contents;” but I have more than once asked a narrator to tell me the story which he had previously told to one of my collectors, and a collector to write down a story which I had previously heard, and I have always found the pith, often the very words. In no instance have I found anything added by those whom I employed, when their work was subjected to this severe test. 

This is the account which one of my collectors gives of the old customs of his class – he is a workman employed by the Duke of Argyll; he tells me that he is self-educated; and as he repeats some of the stories which he has written, from memory, his account of the way in which he acquired them in valuable. 

I remember, upwards of fifty years ago, when I was a boy, my father lived in the farest north house, in the valley called Glen-na-Callanach. I also used to be with my grandfather; he lived near Terbert, Lochlomond side. I remember, in the winter nights, when a few old people would be togather, they would pass the time with telling each other stories, which they had by tradition. I used to listen attentively, and hear them telling about the ceatharnaich, or freebooters, which used to come to plunder the country, and take away cattle; and how their ancestors would gather themselves togather to fight for their property, the battles they fought, and the kind of weapons they used to fight with; the manners of their ancestors, the dress they used to wear, and different hardships they had to endure. 
“I was also sometimes amused, listening to some people telling Gaelic romances, which we called sgeulachds. It was customary for a few youngsters to gather into one house, and whither idle or at some work, such as knitting stockings or spinning, they would amuse each other with some innocent diversion, or telling sgeulachds. Us that was children was very fond of listening to them, and the servant maid that was in my father’s house would often tell us a sgeulachd to keep us quiet. 
“In those days, when people killed their Marte cow they keept the hide, and tanned it for leather to themselves. In those days every house was furnished with a wheel and a reel; the women spun, and got their webs woven by a neighbouring weaver; also, the women was dryers for themselves, so that the working class had their leather, their linen, and their cloth of their own manufacturing; and when they required the help of a shoemaker, or of a tailor, they would send for them. The tailors and shoemakers went from house to house, to work wherever they were required, and by travelling the country so much, got acquaint with a great maney of the traditionary tales, and divulged them through the country; and as the country people made the telling of these tales, and listening to hear them, their winter night’s amusement, scarcely aney part of them would be lost. Some of these romances is supposed to be of great antiquity, on account of some of the Gaelic words being out of use now. I remember, about forty years ago, of being in company with a man that was watching at night; he wished me to stop with him, and he told me a (sgeulachd) romance; and last year I heard a man telling the same story, about therty miles distante from where I had heard it told forty years before that; and the man which told me the tale could not tell me the meaning of some of the old Gaelic words that was in it. At first I thought they were foreign words, but at last I recollected to have heard some of them repeated in Ossian’s poems, and it was by the words that was before, and after them, that I understood the meaning of them. The same man told me another story, which he said he learned from his granfather, and Denmark, Swedden, and Noraway was named in it in Gaelic, but he forgot the name of the two last-named places. 
“It appears likely to me, that some of these tales was invented by the Druids, and told to the people as sermons; and by these tales the people was caused to believe that there was fairies which lived in little conical hills, and that fairies had the power of being either visible or invisible, as they thought proper, and that they had the power of enchanting people, and of taking them away and make fairies of them; and that the Druids had charms which would prevent that; and they would give these charms to the people for payment; and maney stories would be told about people being taken away by the fairies, and the charms which had to be used to break the spell, and get them back again; and others, on account of some neglidgeance, never got back aney more. 
“Also that there was witches; people which had communication with an evil spirit, from which they got the power of changing themselves into aney shape they pleased; that these witches often put themselves in the shape of beasts, and when they were in the shape of beasts, that they had some evil design in view, and that it was dangerous to meet them. Also that they could, and did, sometimes take away the produce of people’s dairy, and sometimes of the whole farm. The Druidical priests pretended that they had charms that would prevent the witches from doing aney harm, and they would give a charm for payment. When the first day of summer came, the people was taught to put the fire out of their houses, and to place it on some emince near the house for to keep away the witches, and that it was not safe for them to kindle a fire in their house aney more, until they bought it from beil’s druide. That fire was called beil-teine (beils-fire), and the first day of summer was called beil-fires day; and also when the first night of winter came, the people would gather fuel and make blazing fire for to keep away the witches, or at least deprive them of the power of taking away the produce of the farm, and then they would go to the Druid and buy a kindling of what was called the holy fire. The Druids also caused the people to believe that some families had been enchanted and changed into beasts, and as the proper means had not been used, the spell was never broken; and that swans, seals, and marmaids had been different beings, familys that had been enchanted. 
“Beil or Beul was the name which the Druids gave their god, and the Druids of Beil pretended to be the friends of the people; they pretended to have charms to cure different kinds of diseases, and also charms to prevent fairies, ghosts, and witches, from annoying or harming people. It is a well-known fact, that the superstitions of the Druids has been handed down from generation to generation for a great maney ages, and is not wholy extinct yet; and we have reason to believe that some of the tales, which was invented in those days for to fright the people, has been told and kept in remembrance in the self and same manner. The priests of Beil was the men that was called Druids, the miracles which they pretended to perform was called meur-bheileachd (beil-fingering), and their magic which they pretended to perform was called druichd (druidisem), and we have plenty of reason to believe superstitious tales as well as superstition, originated among the Druids. 
“J. Campbell, Esq. 
“SIR – I hope you will correct aney errors that you may find on this piece which I wrote.” 
I have corrected only two or three errors in spelling, and the writing is remarkably clear, but I have left some words which express the Gaelic pronunciation of English. 

The derivation of MIORBHUIL, a marvel, from the finger of Bel, was suggested by Dr. Smith (see Armstrong’s Dictionary) J.F.C. 

Now let me return to the cottage of old MacPhie, where I heard a version of the Sea-Maiden, and let me suppose that one of the rafters is the drift log which I saw about to be added to a roof in the same island. 

The whole roof is covered with peat soot, but that may be scraped away, and the rough wood appears. There are the holes of boring sea shells, filled with sand and marine products. It is evident that the log came by sea, that it did not come in a ship, and that it was long enough in warm salt water for the barnacles to live and die, and for their dwellings to be filled with sea rubbish; that it floated through latitudes where barnacles live. The fairy eggs, which are picked up on the same shore, point to the West Indies as a stage on the way. Maps of ocean currents shew the gulf-stream flowing from the Gulf of Mexico past the Hebrides, but the tree is a fir, for there is a bit of bark which proves the fact, and it appears that pines grow between 40° and 60° in America. It is therefore possible that the rafter was once an American fir tree, growing in the Rocky Mountains; that it was swept into the Mississippi, and carried to the Gulf of Mexico; drifted by the gulf-stream past the West India Islands to the Hebrides, and stranded by a western gale on its voyage to Spitzbergen. But all this must have happened long ago, for it is now a rafter covered with the soot of generations. That rafter is a strange fact, it is one of a series, and has to be accounted for. There it is, and a probable account of its journey is, that it came from East to West without the help of man, in obedience to laws which govern the world. 

That smoked rafter certainly was once a seed in a fir-cone, somewhere abroad. It grew to be a pine tree; it must have been white with snow in winter, and green in summer, and glittering with rain drops and hoar-frost in bright sunshine at various times and seasons. The number of years it stood in the forest can be counted by the rings in the wood. It is certain that it was torn up by the roots, for the roots are there still. It may have formed a part of one of these wonderful natural rafts of the Mississippi, of which one in 1816 was “no less than ten miles in length, two hundred and twenty yards wide, and eight feet deep.1 It has been to warm seas, and has worn a marine dress of green and brown since it lost its own natural dress of green branches. Birds must have sat on it in the forest, – crabs and shells have lived on it at sea, and fish must have swam about it; and yet it is now a rafter, hung with black pendants of peat smoke. A tree that grew beside it may now be in Spitzbergen amongst walrusses. Another may be a snag in the Mississippi amongst alligators, destined to become a fossil tree in a coal field. Part of another may be a Yankee rocking chair, or it may be part of a ship in any part of the World, or the tram of a cart, or bit of a carriage, or a wheel-barrow, or a gate post, or anything that can be made of fir wood anywhere; and the fate of stories may be as various as that of fir trees, but their course may be guessed at by running a back scent overland, as I have endeavoured to follow the voyage of a drift log over sea. 

MacPhie’s story began thus:- “There was a poor old fisher in Skye, and his name was Duncan;” and every version of the story which I have found in the Highlands, and I have found many, is as highland as the peat-reek on the rafters. The same story is known in many districts in Scotland, and it is evident, that it has been known there for many years. It is a curious fact. It is worth the trouble of looking under what is purely highland, to see if its origin can be discovered. 

First, then, the incidents are generally strung together in a particular order in the Highlands, but, either separately or together, every incident in the story is to be found in some shape in other languages. Norse has it as ‘Shortshanks.’ Irish has it. German has it. It is in the Italian of Straparola as ‘Fortunio.’ In the French of le Cabinet des Fées, 1785. It is in every language in Europe as ‘St. George and the Dragon.” It is in Mr. Peter Buchan’s English of 1847 as part of ‘Greensleeves.’ It is in ‘Perseus and Andromeda.’ The scene of that story is placed in Syria, and it is connected with Persia. There is something in Sanscrit about Indra, a god who recovered the stolen cattle of the gods, but here the scent is very cold, and the hound at fault, though it seems that the Sanscrit hero was the sun personified, and that he had horses of many colours, including red and white, which were always feminine, as the horses in Gaelic stories are, and which had wings and flew through the air. These were ‘Svankas,’ with beautiful steps. ‘Rohitas,’ red or brown; Gaelic horses are often described as ‘Seang,’ ‘Ruadh;’ and here seems to be a clue which is worth the attention of Eastern scholars. 

There is a mermaid in the story, and mermaids are mentioned in Irish, and in Arabic, and in Manks, and Italian: men even assert that they have seen mermaids in the sea within the last few years, amongst the Hebrides and off Plymouth. 

There are creatures, Falcon, Wolf and Lion. Two of them were natives within historic times, one is still; but the third is a foreigner. There is an Otter, and a Sea Monster, and in other tales, there are Bears and Doves, and other animals; but every one of them, except the monster, is to be found on the road to the land where Sanscrit was spoken, and all these, and many more, play their part in popular tales elsewhere, while no real animal is ever mentioned which is peculiar to lands out of the road which leads overland to India. 

Nearly all these have Gaelic names, and most of them are still living within a few days’ journey of the Hebrides under other names. I saw a live wolf from a diligence one fine morning in Brittany, and I have seen bears in Scandinavia and in Germany. The only far-fetched animal is the Lion, and in another story a similar creature appears as “Cu Seang.” Here is a fresh scent – for Sing is Lion in India – and may once have meant Lion in Gaelic; for though Leomhan is the word now used, Seang is applied to anything slender and active. Shune is a dog in Sanscrit, Siunnach a fox in Gaelic, and there are many other Gaelic words which point to the “eastern origin of Celtic nations.” The story cannot have crossed the sea from the West. It is therefore probable that it came from the East, for it is not of home growth, and the question is, how did it get to Barra? 

It seems to have been known along a certain track for many ages. It is possible that it came from the far East with the people, and that it has survived ever since. It is hard to account for it otherwise. Those who have most studied the subject so account for popular tales elsewhere, and therefore, Donald Macphie’s story of the Sea-Maiden acquires an interest not all its own. 

Much has been written, and said, and discovered about the popular migrations which have poured from East to West, and which are moving still. Philology has mapped out the course of the human stream, and here, in the mind of an old fisherman, unable to read, or to speak any language but his own, is the end of a clue which seems to join Iran and Eirinn; as a rafter in his hut may link him with the Rocky Mountains. 

Admit that this so-called fiction, and others like it, may be traditions, which have existed from the earliest of times, and every word and incident acquires an interest, for it may lead to something else. 

The story certainly grew in the mind of man, as a tree grows from a seed, but when or where? It has certainly been told in many languages. It is worth inquiring how many races have told it. 

The incidents, like drift trees, have been associated with people, and events, as various as birds, fish, alligators, walrusses, and men; mountain ranges, and ocean currents. They have passed through the minds of Ovid and Donald MacPhie. They have been adorned by poets, painted by artists, consecrated by priests, – for St. George is the patron saint of England; and now we find that which may have sprung from some quarrel about a cow, and which has passed through so many changes, dropping into forgetfulness in the mind of an old fisherman, and surrounded with the ideas which belong to his every-day life. Ideas differing from those of the people who first invented the story, as the snow of the Rocky Mountains differs from peat-reek. 

Now, to look forwards, and follow in imagination the shoals of emigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, France, Ireland, and Scotland, who are settled in clumps, or scattered over America and Australia; to think of the stories which have been gathered in Europe from these people alone, and which they have most certainly carried with them, and will tell their children; and then the route of popular tales hereafter, and their spread in former ages, can be traced and may be guessed. 

I have inquired, and find that several Islanders, who used to tell the stories in Gaelic, are now settled in Australia and Canada. One of my relatives was nearly overwhelmed with hospitality in an Australian village, by a colony of Argyllshire Celts, who had found out that he was a countryman. 

I was lately told of a party of men who landed in South America, and addressed a woman whom they found in a hut, in seven different languages; but in vain. At last, one of them spoke Gaelic, which he had not done for many years, and she answered, “Well, it is to thyself I would give the speech,” for she was a native of Strathglas. 

There is a Gaelic population in Upper Canada: there are Highland regiments in India:*

many of the servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company still are: Dr. Livingstone is in South Africa; and what is true of Highlanders is equally true of Germans and Scandinavians, they are spread over the world. In short, the “migration of races,” and “the diffusion of popular tales,” is still going on, the whole human race is mingling together, and it is fair to argue from such facts, and try to discover that which is unknown from that which is proved. 

What is true of one Gaelic story is true of nearly all; they contain within themselves evidence that they have been domesticated in the country for a long time, and that they came from the East, but they belong to the people now, wherever they came from; and they seem also to belong to the language. 

Poems and compositions clearly do. In the prose tales, when animals speak, they talk in their natural key, so long as they speak Gaelic, and for that reason, among others, I believe them to be old traditions. The little birds speak in the key of all little birds (ee); they say, “beeg, beeg.” The crow croaks his own music when he says, “gawrag, gawrag.” When driven to say, “silly, silly,” he no longer speaks the language of nature. Grimm’s German frog says, “warte, warte,” he sings, “mach mir auf,” and talks his own language. So does his Gaelic relative, in No. 33, when he says, – 

“A chaomhag, a choamhag, 
 An cuimhneach leat 
 A thug thu aig 
 An tobar dhomh, 
 A ghaoil, a ghaoil?” 

He then imitates the quarking and gurgling of real frogs in a pond in spring, in sounds which no Saxon letters can express; but when he sings, –

“Open the door, my hinney, my heart, 
 Open the door, my ain wee thing, 
 And mind the words that you and I spak’, 
 Down in the meadow, at the well spring,”

He is speaking in a foreign tongue, though the story has been domesticated in the Lowlands of Scotland for many a long day, and is commonly told there still. The Scotch story has probably been found and polished by some one long ago, but when the frog comes “loup, louping,” he is at home in Low Country Scotch, and these words are probably as old as the story and the language. 

If Motherwell’s beautiful nursery songs were to be collected from oral recitation anywhere, they would prove themselves Scotch by this test: The watch-dog says, “wouff, wouff;” the hen is “chuckie;” the chickens, “wheetle, wheeties;” the cock is “cockie-leerie-law;” the pigeon, “croodle-doo;” the cow says, “moo.” And so also the wood-pigeon who said, “Take two sheep, Taffy take two,” spoke English; but the blackcock, and cuckoo, and cock, in the Norse tales, who quarrelled about a cow, are easily known to be foreigners when they speak English, for the original Norse alone gives their true note. The Gaelic stories, tried by this test, certainly belong to the language as they do to the people; and now let us see if they can teach us anything about the people, their origin, and their habits, past and present. 

First the manners are generally those of the day. The tales are like the feasts of the pauper maniac, Emperor of the world, who confided to his doctor that all his rich food tasted of oatmeal brose. Kings live in cottages, and sit on low stools. When they have coaches, they open the door themselves. The queen saddles the king’s horse. The king goes to his own stable when he hears a noise there. Sportsmen use guns. The fire is on the floor. Supernatural old women are found spinning “beyond” it, in the warm place of honour, in all primitive dwellings, even in a Lapland tent. The king’s mother puts on the fire, and sleeps in the common room, as a peasant does. The cock sleeps on the rafters, the sheep on the floor, the bull behind the door. A ladder is a pole, with pegs stuck through it. Horses put their noses “into” bridles. When all Ireland passes in review before the princess, they go in the front door and out at the back, as they would a bothy; and even that unexplained personage, the daughter of the king of the skies, has maids who chatter to her as freely as maids do to Highland mistresses. When the prince is at death’s door for love of the beautiful lady in the swan’s down robe, and the queen mother is in despair, she goes to the kitchen to talk over the matter.


1  Lyell’s Principles of Geology, p. 267.
See Willing Hands for India.
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