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Part 8 – Human-Like Character Origins, pp.xcii-civ.

[Popular Tales Introduction Contents]

Besides these animals, there is a whole supernatural world with superhuman gigantic inhabitants. 

There are continual fights with these giants, which are often carried on without arms at all – mere wrestling matches, which seem to have had certain rules. It is somewhere told of the Germans that they in their forests fought with clubs, and the Celtic giants may once have been real men. Hercules fought with a club. Irishmen use shillelahs still, and my west country friends, when they fight now-a-days, use barrel staves instead of swords, and use them well, if not wisely; but whether giants were men or myths, they are always represented as strange lubberly beings, whose dealings with men invariably end in their discomfiture. There are giants in Herodotus and, I believe, in every popular mythology known. There are giants in Holy Writ. They spoke an unknown tongue everywhere. They said ‘Fee fo fum’ in Cornwall. They say ‘Fiaw fiaw foaghrich’ in Argyll, and these sounds may possibly be corruptions of the language of real big burly savages, now magnified into giants. 

The last word might be the vocative of the Gaelic for stranger, ill pronounced, and the intention may be to mimic the dialect of a foreigner speaking Gaelic. 

An Italian organ-grinder once found his way to the west, and sang ‘Fideli, fidela, fidelin-lin-la.’ The boys caught the tune, and sang it to the words, ‘Deese creepe Signaveete ha,” words with as much meaning as ‘Fee fo fum,’ but which retain a certain resemblance to an Italian sound. 

If the giants were once real savages, they had the sense of smell peculiarly sharp, according to the Gaelic tales, as they had in all others which treat of them, and they ate their captives, as it is asserted that the early inhabitants of Scotland did, as Herodotus says that Scyths did in his time, and as the Feejee islanders did very lately, and still do. A relative of mine once offered me a tooth as a relic of such a feast; it had been presented to him in the Feejee islands by a charming dark young lady, who had just left the banquet, but had not shared in it. The Highland giants were not so big but that their conquerors wore their clothes; they were not so strong that men could not beat them, even by wrestling. They were not quite savages; for though some lived in caves, others had houses and cattle, and hoards of spoil. They had slaves, as we are told that Scotch proprietors had within historic times. In ‘Scotland in the Middle Ages,’ p.141, we learn that Earl Waldev of Dunbar made over a whole tribe to the Abbot of Kelso in 1170, and in the next page it is implied that these slaves were mostly Celts. Perhaps those Celts who were not enslaved had their own mountain view of the matter, and looked down on the Gall as intrusive, savage, uncultivated, slave-owning giants. 

Perhaps the mountain mists in like manner impeded the view of the dwellers on the mountain and the plain, for Fin MacCoul was a “God in Ireland,” as they say, and is a “rawhead and bloody bones” in the Scottish lowlands now. 

Whatever the giants were they knew some magic arts, but they were always beaten in the end by men. 

The combats with them are Gaelic proverb in action:- 

“Theid seoltachd thar spionnaidh.” 

Skill goes over might, and probably, as it seems to me, giants are simply the nearest savage race at war with the race who tell the tales. If they performed impossible feats of strength, they did no more than Rob Roy, whose ‘putting stone’ is now shewn to Saxon tourists by a Celtic coachman, near Bunawe, in the shape of a boulder of many tons, though Rob Ruadh lived only a hundred years ago, near Inverary, in a cottage which is now standing, and which was lately inhabited by a shepherd.  

The Gaelic giants are very like those of Norse and German tales, but they are much nearer to real men than the giants of Germany and Scandinavia, and Greece and Rome, who are almost, if not quite, equal to the gods. Famhairan are little more than very strong men, but some have only one eye like the Cyclops. 

Their world is generally, but not always, under ground; it has castles, and parks, and pasture, and all that is to be found above the earth. Gold, and silver, and copper, abound in the giant’s land; jewels are seldom mentioned, but cattle, and horses, are all to be gained by a fight with the giants. Still, now and then a giant does some feat quite beyond the power of man; such as a giant in Barra, who fished up a hero, boat and all, with his fishing-rod, from a rock, and threw him over his head, as little boys do ‘cuddies’ from a pier-end. So the giants may be downgraded gods after all. 

But besides “popular tales,” there are fairy tales, which are not told as stories, but facts. At all events, the creed is too recent to be lightly spoken of. 

Men do believe in fairies, though they will not readily confess the fact. And though I do not myself believe that fairies are, in spite of the strong evidence offered, I believe there once was a small race of people in these islands, who are remembered as fairies, for the fairy belief is not confined to the Highlanders of Scotland. I have given a few of the tales which have come to me as illustrations in No. 27

They” are always represented as living in green mounds. They pop up their heads when disturbed by people treading on their houses. They steal children. They seem to live on familiar terms with the people about them when they treat them well, to punish them when they ill treat them. If giants are magnified, these are but men seen through the other end of the telescope, and there are such people now. A Lapp is such a man – he is a little flesh-eating mortal – having control over the beasts, and living in a green mound – when he is not living in a tent, or sleeping out of doors, wrapped in his deer-skin shirt. I have lived amongst them and know them and their dwellings pretty well. I know one which would answer to the description of a fairy mound exactly. It is on the most northern peninsula in Europe, to the east of the North Cape, close to the sea, in a sandy hollow near a burn. It is round – say, twelve feet in diameter – and it is sunk three feet in the sand; the roof is made of sticks and covered with turf. The whole structure, at a short distance. Looks exactly like a conical green mound about four feet high. There was a famous crop of grass on it when I was there, and the children and dogs ran out at the door and up to the top when we approached, as ants run on an ant hill when disturbed. Their fire was in the middle of the floor, and the pot hung over it from the roof. I lately saw a house in South Uist found in the sand hills close to the sea. It was built of loose boulders, it was circular, and had recesses in the sides, it was covered when found, and it was full of sand; when that was removed, stone querns and combs of bone were found, together with ashes, and near the level of the top there was a stratum of bones and teeth of large grass-eating animals. I know not what they were, but the bones were splintered and broken, and mingled with ashes and shells, oysters, cockles, and wilks (periwinkles), shewing clearly the original level of the ground, and proving that this was a dwelling almost the same as a Lapp ‘Gam’ at Hopseidet. 

Now, let us see what the people of the Hebrides say of fairies. There was a woman benighted with a pair of calves, “and she went for shelter to a knoll, and she began driving the peg of the tether into it. The hill opened, and she heard as though there was a pot hook ‘gleegashing,’ on the side of the pot. A woman put up her head, and as much as was above her waist, and said, ‘What business hast thou to disturb this tulman, in which I make my dwelling.’ ” This might be a description of one of my Lapp friends, and probably is a description of such a dwelling as I saw in South Uist. If the people slept as Lapps sleep, with their feet to the fire, a woman outside might have driven a peg very near one of the sleepers, and she might have stood on a seat and poked her head out of the chimney. 

The magic about the beasts is but the mist of antiquity; and the fairy was probably a pict. Who will say who the Pict may have been? Probably the great Clibric hag was one, and of the same tribe. 

“In the early morning she was busy milking the hinds; they were standing all about the door of the hut, till one of them ate a hank of blue worsted hanging from a nail in it.” So says the “fiction,” which it is considered a sin to relate. Let me place some facts from my own journal beside it. 

“Wednesday, August 22, 1850. Quickjok, Swedish Lapland. – In the evening the effect of the sunlight through the mist and showers was most beautiful. I was sketching, when a small man made his appearance on the opposite side of the river and began to shout for a boat. The priest exclaimed that the Lapps had come down, and accordingly the diminutive human specimen was fetched, and proved to be a Lapp who had established his camp about seven miles off, near Vallespik. He was about twenty-five years old, and with his high blue cap on could stand upright under my arm.” 

I had been wandering about Quickjok for a week, out on Vallespik frequently, searching for the Lapps, with the very glass which I had previously used to find a deer close to Clibric, which is but a small copy of the Lapland mountain. 

“Thursday, 23rd. – Started to see the deer, with the priest and the Clockar, and Marcus, and the Lapp. The Lapp walked like a deer himself, aided by a very long birch pole, which he took from its hiding place in a fir tree. I had hard work to keep up with him. Marcus and the Priest were left behind. Once up through the forest, it was cutting cold, and we walked up to the ‘cota’ in two hours and a quarter. The deer was seen in the distance, like a brown speck on the shoulder of Vallespik; and with the glass I could make out that a small mortal and two dogs were driving them home. The cota is a permanent one, made in the shape of a sugar loaf, with birch sticks, and long flat stones and turf. There are two exactly alike, and each has a door, a mere narrow slit, opening to the west, and a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. I crept in, and found a girl of about fifteen, with very pretty eyes, sitting crouched up in a corner, and looking as scared as one of her own fawns. The priest said, that if we had come without our attendant genius, the small Lapp, she would have fainted, or run away to the hills. I began to sketch her, as she sat looking modest in her dark corner, and was rejoicing in the extreme stillness of my sitter, when, on looking up from some careful touch, I found that she had vanished through the door-way. I had to bribe her with bread and butter before she could be coaxed back. A tremendous row of shouting and barking outside now announced the arrival of the deer, so I let my sitter go, and off she ran as fast as she could. I followed more leisurely to the spot where the deer were gathered, on a stony hillside. There were only about 200; the rest had run off up wind on the way from the mountains, and all the other Lapps were off after them, leaving only my pretty sitter, the boy, and a small woman with bleared eyes, as ugly as sin, his sister. 
“How I wished for Landseer’s pencil as I looked at that scene! Most of the deer were huddled close together; hinds and calves chewing the cud with the greatest placidity, but here and there some grand old fellows, with wide antlers, stood up against the sky line, looking magnificent. I tried to draw, but it was hopeless; so I sat down, and watched the proceedings of my hosts. 
“First, each of the girls took a coil of rope from about her neck, and in a twinkling it was pitched over the horns of a hind. The noose was then slipped round the neck, and a couple of turns of rope round the nose, and then the wild milkmaid set her foot on the halter and proceeded to milk the hind, into a round birch bowl with a handle. Sometimes she sat, at others she leant her head on the deer’s dark side, and knelt beside her. I never saw such a succession of beautiful groups. 
“Every now and then some half-dozen deer would break out of the herd and set off to the mountain, and then came a general skurry. The small Lapp man, with his long birch pole, would rush screaming after the stragglers; and his two gaunt, black, rough, half-starved dogs would scour off, yelping, in pursuit. It generally ended in the hasty return of the truants, with well-bitten houghs for their pains; but some fairly made off, at a determined long trot, and vanished over the hill. It was very curious to be thus in the midst of a whole herd of creatures so like our own wild deer, to have them treading on my feet and poking their horns against my sketch-book as I vainly tried to draw them, and to think that they who had the power to bid defiance to the fleetest hound in Sweden should be so perfectly tame as to let the small beings who herded them so thump, and bully, and tease them. The milking, in the meantime, had been progressing rapidly; and after about an hour the pretty girl, who had been dipping her fingers in the milk-pail and licking up the milk all the time, took her piece of bread and butter, and departed with her charge, munching as she went. 
“The blear-eyed one, and the boy, and our party, went into the cota, and dined on cold roast reiper and reindeer milk. The boy poured the milk from a small keg, which contained the whole product of the flock; and having given us our share, he carefully licked up all that remained on the outside of the keg, and set it down in a corner. It was sweet and delicious, like thick cream. Dinner over, we desired the Lapp to be ready in the morning (to accompany me), and with the clocker’s dog, ‘Gueppe,’ went reiper-shooting. The clocker himself, with a newly-slaughtered reindeer calf on his shoulders, followed; and so we went home.” 

A few days afterwards, I was at another camp, on another hill, where the same scene was going on. “In a tent I found a fine-looking Lapp woman sitting on a heap of skins, serving out coffee, and handing reindeer cream to the clocker with a silver spoon. She had silver bracelets, and a couple of silver rings; and altogether, with her black hair, and dark brown eyes glittering in the fire-light, she looked eastern and magnificent.” Her husband had many trinkets, and they had, amongst other articles, a comb, which the rest seemed much to need. 

Her dress was blue, so were most of the dresses, and one of her possessions was a bone contrivance for weaving the bands which all wore round their ankles. She must have had blue yarn somewhere, for her garters were partly blue. 

I spent the whole of the next day in the camp, and watched the whole operations of the day. 

“After dinner, the children cracked the bones with stones and a knife, after they had polished the outside, and sucked up the marrow; and then the dogs, which did not dare to steal, were called in their turn, and got the remains of the food in wooden bowls, set apart for their especial use.” 

The bones in the hut in South Uist might have been the remains of such a feast by their appearance. 

“The cota was a pyramid of sods and birch sticks, about seven feet high, and twelve or fourteen in diameter. There were three children, five dogs, an old woman, Marcus, and myself, inside; and all day long the handsome lady from the tent next door, with her husband, and a couple of quaint-looking old fellows in deer-skin shirts, kept popping in to see how I got on. It was impossible to sit upright for the slope of the walls, as I sat cross-legged on the gorund.” 

This might be a description of the Uist hut itself, and its inhabitants, as I can fancy them. 

“The three dogs (in the tent), at the smallest symptom of a disturbance, plunged out, barking, to add to the row; they popped in by the same way under the canvas, so they had no need of a door.” 

So did the dogs in the story of Seantraigh; they ran after the stranger, and stopped to eat the bones. And it is remarkable that all civilized dogs fall upon and worry the half-savage black Lapp dogs, and bark at their masters whenever they descend from their mountains, as the town dogs did at the fairy dogs. In short, these extracts might be a fair description of the people, and the dwellings, and the food, and the dogs described as fairies, and the hag, and the tulman, in stories which I have grouped together; told in Scotland within this year by persons who can have no knowledge of what is called the “Finn theory,” and given in the very words in which they came to me, from various sources. 

Lord Reay’s forester must surely have passed the night in a Lapp cota on Ben Gilbric, in Sutherland, when Lapps were Picts; but when was that? Perhaps in the youth of the fairy of whom the following story was told by a Sutherland gamekeeper of my acquaintance. 

THE HERDS OF GLEN ODHAR. – A wild romantic glen in Strath Carron is called Glen Garaig, and it was through this that a woman was passing carrying an infant wrapped in her plaid. Below the path, overhung with weeping birches, and nearly opposite, run a very deep ravine, known as Glen Odhar, the dun glen. The child, not yet a year old, and which had not spoken or attempted speech, suddenly addressed his mother thus:- 

“S lionmhor bo mhaol odhar, 
Le laogh na gobhal  
Chunnaic mise ga’m bleoghan 
Anns a’ ghleann odhar ud thall, 
Gun chu, gun duine, 
Gun bhean, gun ghille, 
Ach aon duine,
‘S e liath.
“Many a dun hummel cow, 
With a calf below he, 
Have I seen milking  
In that dun glen yonder,
Without dog, without man 
Without woman, without gillie,  
But one man,  
And he hoary.”

The good woman flung down the child and plaid and ran home, where, to her great joy, her baby boy lay smiling in its cradle. 

Fairies then milked deer, as Lapps do. They lived under ground, like them. They worked at trades especially smith work and weaving. They had hammers and anvils, and excelled in their use, but though good weavers, they had to steal wool and borrow looms. Lapps do work in metal on their own account; they make their own skin dresses, but buy their summer clothes. A race of wanderers could not be weavers on a large scale, but they can and do weave small bands very neatly on hand-looms; and they alone make these. There are savages now in South Africa, who are smiths and miners, though they neither weave nor wear clothes. Fairies had hoards of treasure – so have Lapps. A man died shortly before one of my Tana trips, and the whole country side had been out searching for his buried wealth in vain. Some years ago the old silver shops of Bergen and Trondhjem over-flowed with queer cups and spoons, and rings, silver plates for waist belts, old plate that had been hidden amongst the mountains, black old silver coins that had not seen the light for years. I saw the plate and bought some, and was told that, in consequence of a religious movement, the Lapps had dug up and sold their hoards. Fairies are supposed to shoot flint arrows, and arrows of other kinds, at people now. Men have told me several times that they had been shot at: one man had found the flint arrow in an ash tree; another had heard it whiz past his ear; a third had pulled a slender arrow from a friend’s head. If that be so, my argument fails, and fairies are not of the past; but Californian Indians now use arrow-heads which closely resemble those dug up in Scotland, in Denmark, and, I believe, all over Europe. Fairies are conquered by Christian symbols. They were probably Pagans, and, if so, they may have existed when Christianity was introduced. They steal men, women, and children, and keep them in their haunts. They are not the only slave owners in the world. They are supernatural, and objects of a sort of respect and wonder. So are gipsies where they are rare, as in Sweden and Norway; so are the Lapps themselves, for they are professed wizards. I have known a terrified Swedish lassie whip her horse and gallop away in her cart from a band of gipsies, and I have had the advantage of living in the same house with a Lapp wizard at Quickjok, who had prophesied the arrival of many strangers, of whom I was one. Spaniards were gods amongst the Indians till they taught them to know better. Horses were supernatural when they came, and on the whole, as it appears, there is much more reason to believe that fairies were a real people, like the Lapps, who are still remembered, than that they are “creatures of imagination” or “spirits in prison,” or “fallen angels;” and the evidence of their actual existence is very much more direct and substantial than that which has driven, and seems still to be driving, people to the very verge of insanity, if not beyond it, in the matter of those palpable-impalpable, visible-invisible spirits who rap double knocks upon dancing deal boards. 

I am inclined to believe in the former existence of fairies in this sense, and if for no other reason, because all the nations of Europe have had some such belief, and they cannot all have invented the same fancy. The habitation of Highland fairies are green mounds, they therefore, like the giants, resemble the “under jordiske” of the north, and they too may be degraded divinities. 

It seems then, that Gaelic tales attribute supernatural qualities to things which are mentioned in popular tales elsewhere, and that Gaelic superstitions are common to other races; and it seems worth inquiry whether there was anything in the known customs of Celtic tribes to make these things valuable, and whether tradition is supported by history.

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