West Highland Stories, pp.286-299.

[Popular Tales Contents]

Assuming that stories do really contain the debris of ancient beliefs, this particular collection should contain fragments of the ancient Celtic creed. They seem to me to point to an astronomical pantheon at war with meteorological, aqueous, and terrestrial powers. 

The early religion of the Vedas seems to have been mixed up with solar worship; so was that of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In the second century, in the days of Apuleius, who was a native of Northern Africa, and manifestly a collector of North African popular tales, it was necessary, in order to propitiate the good powers, to “put the best foot foremost,” as we say; to start with the right foot, not the left, as Apuleius explains, and in these days men still swore by the divinity of the sun. 

Irishmen will have it that they are of Milesian descent, and came from the Mediterranean. Scotchmen will have it that they, too, have a like origin – from Pharaoh’s daughter – and Apuleius calls his “Milesian” tales, whatever he means thereby. 

It seems pretty certain, at all events, that Phœnician traders visited Britain at a very early date, whether the Celtic Britons first came overland or by sea. To secure a prosperous result in the days of Martin, in the Western Isles in 1703, it was requisite to take a turn sunwise at starting. A boat was rowed round sunwise; an old Islay woman marched sunwise about the worthy doctor, to bring him good luck; the fowlers, when they went to the Flannen Islands, walked sunwise thrice about the chapel, saying prayers. Sometimes fire was carried round some object, sometimes they rode in procession. They made forced fire for mystical purposes by rubbing planks together. In short, there were then a number of superstitious observances connected with fire, and with moving in a circle from left to right if the back is to the centre, from right to left if the centre if faced; sunwise, east, south, west, north, and so thrice. Every English sailor coils a rope sunwise; but I have never been able to find out that he alters the direction of his coil when he crosses the line, and ought to coil it the other way. When a sailor faces about, he goes right about face; when boys play at rounders, so far as I can remember, they always run first to the stance on the left of the circle within which they stand. Girls dance in a circle, and all England commonly dances in a circle about the mistletoe when we dance the old year out and the new year in; and, so far as I can remember, the dancers face the centre, and move to the left, which is sunwise, and planetwise, if the earth be the centre intended. Long ago, when in Greece, I came upon a lot of peasants dressed in their white kilts, performing their dances. Men and women held hands in a circle, advanced and retreated, and moved slowly round to a very monotonous music, while every now and then one of them broke out into a fit of violent twirlings and eccentric whirlings in the midst, which, if originally astronomical, must have symbolized a comet. 

This summer I saw the national dance of the Faroe islanders. A great number of men and women, boys and girls, joined hands and walked round a room singing old heroic ballads in their old Norse tongue. They walked sunwise. When we waltz we go sunwise round the ball-room, when we go round in a reel we do the same, and start with the right foot. The wine bottle and the whisky noggin both circulate sunwise about the table. Lawyers in their revels used to hold hands and dance thrice round the seacoal fire in the Inner Temple Hall, according to ancient usage. Boys hold hands and dance round bonfires. Men and maidens still dance round the Maypole in some benighted parishes in England. In short, this system of dancing, and doing things in circles, sunwise, is almost universal in the north. 

Mons. de la Villemarque tells us of a game which he saw played by children in Brittany. A small boy was seated on an isolated stone, and a circle of small Breton peasants revolved about him thrice, prostrating themselves thrice with their faces to the earth, and singing – 

Roue Arzur me ho salud, 
Me ho salud Roue a Vrud; 
O! Roi Arthur, je vous salue 
Je vous salue, Roi de renom. 
[O! King Arthur, I salute you 
Hail, King of Renown.] 

The hill known as the “Cobbler,” in Argyllshire, is called “Aite suidhe Artair.” The seat of Arthur, the hill above Edinburgh, is called Arthur’s Seat, and Art is one Gaelic word for a god. Art adhair would mean god of the air, which would be a fit name for the sun. 

There is a childish game played in the Highlands called “uinneagan àrda,” high windows, in which a circle of children dance round one who tries to escape. 

Another amusement is to whirl a lighted stick so as to produce a circle of fire, but that is forbidden by old dames, who say, “Tha e air a chrosadh,” “It is crossed,” or forbidden. There are plenty of crosses on stones which seem to have pagan symbols on them. 

There are several “knocking-out games,” which are payed in circles, or a half circle, round the peat fire in the middle of the floor. 

A string of words is repeated by a performer with a stick in his hand, who strikes a foot of one of the players as he says each word, and at the end of the performance he says, “Cuir stochd a staigh,” and the last player sticks his right foot into the circle. The game goes on sunwise till all the right feet are in, and then all the left, and the last has either to take three mouthfuls of ashes, or go out and repeat certain quaint disagreeable phrases, one of which is – 

“My own mother burned her nails scraping the sowen’s pot.” 
“Loisg mo mhathair fhéin a h-ìnean a sgrìobadh na poite cabhraich.” 

Another is, to light a stick and pass it quickly round while it is red. The player who has the stick says – 

“Gill’ ite gochd.” 

The next to the left replies – 

“Cha ‘n fhìor dhuit e;” 

and the fire holder repeats as fast as ever he can – 

“Cha ‘n ‘eil clach na crann. 
 ‘San tigh, mhor ‘ud thall, 
 Nach tuit mu d’ cheann, 
 Ma leigeas tu ás Gill’ ite gochd,” 

and when that is saiud he passes the stick to his left-hand neighbour as fast as he can. When the fire goes out the holder of the stick pays some forfeit. I have played this game myself as a child. The words mean – 

“Servant of ite gochd.” 
 Untrue for thee. 
“There’s neither stock nor stone 
 In yonder great house, 
 But will fall on thy head, 
 If thou lettest out the servant of ite gochd.” 

What the last word may mean I cannot say. 

Now, if a man anywhere north of the equator will face the sun all day, and the place where he is all night, he will revolve right-about-face in twenty-four hours, and meet the rising sun in the morning with his right hand to the south, his back to the west, his left hand to the north, and his face towards his object of worship, if he worships the sun. If he walks round the gnomon of a dial on the sunny side, seeking light and avoiding shade, he will describe a portion of a circle from left to right, and if he crosses the arctic circle he may so perform a whole circle in a summer’s day; but if an Asian or European walks continually towards the sun at an even pace, whenever he can see him, he will necessarily walk westwards and southwards, in the direction in which Western Aryans are supposed to have migrated. 

The Gaelic language points the same way. Deas means south, and right, and ready, dexterous, well-proportioned, ready-witted, eloquent. Consequently to go south, and to go to the right; to coil a rope dexterously, or southwards; to be dexterous, southern, and to be prepared to set out; are all expressed by the same Gaelic words – “Deas,” “Gu deiseal,” etc. Now all this surely points to a journey from east to west with the sun for a leader; to a camp awakening at sunrise and facing the great leader in the morning, watching his progress till noon, and setting off westwards when “DIA,”1 god of day, was south; – Dead, ready to lead them westwards on their pilgrimage. Surely all these northern games, dances, and ceremonies, and thoughtless acts, point to astronomical worship, and an imitation of the march of the stars round the world, or round the sun, if men had got so far in their astronomy. 

A short ballad, taken down from the recitation of an old tailor in South Uist, who is utterly illiterate, and has hardly every worn a shoe or a bonnet, begins thus:-  

Gun d’ dh ùbhradh an Ràth soluis; 
Fuamhair mor anns an iadh-dhorus; 
Fuamhair mor a’ tighinn o’n tràigh, 
B’ fhear an t-eug na ‘dhol ‘na dhàil. 
Seachainn mi gu direach deas 
‘S nach ann air do thì a thainig. 
The light circle was shadowed; 
A great giant in the wheeling door; 
A great giant coming from the strand, 
Better were death than to go to meet him. 
Pass me bye straight and south (right readily,) 
For it was not on thy track I came. 

So here is poetry, which is not to be found in any book that I know, and which is highly mythological. Caoilte, one of the Fenians, sees the circle of light (pronounced RA, spelt RATH; English RAY; Egyptian, according to Sir Gardiner Wilkinson, RA or RE, the sun god) shadowed by a great giant with five heads, who was in the wheeling door, that is, I presume, the sun, the door in the Zodiac, whence light emerged: and the giant desires him to pass him straight, south, and avoid him; but Caoilte will do nothing of the sort; they fight, and he slays the giant with a “brodan,” a short spear, according to the reciter; but Caoilte was sore wounded in the fight; and Graidhne, the daughter of the King of Connachdaidh (Connaught) carries his shield to “Dun Til.” 

“Cha lotadh i ‘m feur fo ‘cois, 
 ‘S cha mhò a lùbadh i meangan.” 
 She would not hurt the grass under foot, 
 No more would she bend a sprig. 

The following is an air to which a song about Caoilte used to be sung. I have not got the old tailor’s air, but it was very pretty and wild. I have but three lines of the other version. 


Villemarque holds that Arthur and his knights are but Celtic gods in disguise. Surely the Fenians are but another phase of the same astronomical worship of the host of heaven. 

Again it appears in many ways that the dead were supposed to live; but far away to the westward, where the Sun God seemed to go to his rest. Ossian Fionn, the heroes innumerable, were gone before towards the setting sun, and dwelt in a green island, where all the mysterious objects in Gaelic popular tales abound. The mystic fountain, which in the story of Cupid and Psyche is the river Styx, and flowed from a lofty mountain; the mystic apples which changed men into animals, and cured them; (in the Golden Ass a rose did the same); the mighty smiths who forged “Dure Entaille,” for Arthur. “Avalon,” the earthly paradise, and “Eilean iomallach an domhain,” “Island uttermost of the lower earth,” were surely the same mysterious country over which the Sun God was supposed to preside.2

All these strange matter of fact stories which pervade the whole of the western islands, from north Ronaldshay to the South of Ireland, about seals which turned out to be men and women, who came from their home in the west to visit the world; all these strange semi-heathen practices of taking the sick to the shore; all these accounts of strange islands occasionally seen in the far west, are surely traces of the ancient Celtic notions of a future state; and the chapels perched upon the most distant western rocks on the coast of Europe, were surely set up to counteract and take advantage of this ancient heathen Celtic tendency to western worship, and the belief in an earthly paradise. Surely the same idea is expressed in the African fable of the hyæna and the weasel. 

The one, who was a priest in other stories, pointed to the setting sun, and said, “there is fire, go and fetch it.” The other went as fast as he could towards the sun, till it set, and then it came back, for the hyæna was a fool, and he lost his food and his tail; but the weasel was the wisest of all creatures, he was the philosopher, and got the prize. 

But beyond the Green Island beneath the western waves, there was still something unknown and unexplored. When Diarmid had found his princess under the waves, he had to cross a great strait to get the cup of the king who ruled over the dead. And there was more beyond. 

“They believe,” says Giraldus Cambrensis,1 “that the spirits of the dead pass into the company of the illustrious, as Fin MacCoul, Oskir MacOshin, and the likes, of whom they preserve tales and traditionary songs.” Beyond the Green Isle and the land of the dead was the Island of Youth, which was further off, and harder to get to, according to a story got from Skye. 

It would be tedious to point out all the mythology which is scattered through Gaelic stories, and it is impossible to unravel the details of the system without a thorough knowledge of the oldest Irish mythical tales, but this much appears – there is more foundation in Gaelic mythology for the Mediterranean, Phœnician, Trojan, Egyptian, and Milesian stories than is generally supposed. 

Taking Sir Gardiner Wilkinson’s names of Egyptian gods, and his account of their attributes to be correct, a great many of the names have a resemblance to Gaelic words of appropriate meaning. 

Thus, NEPH is the equivalent to Jupiter, and father of all gods. Neùmh-(nêv) means heaven; and naomh, often pronounced nêv, means holy. 

AMUN was a name of the god who presided over inundations. Amhain, avon, etc., are words which mean river, and can be traced over great part of Europe. 

AMUN RE was the ramheaded god, who was also the sun. Reith, pronounced răy, means a ram. Rath, pronounced rA, means a circle, and is applied to the sun in the ballad above quoted. Ré means the moon; roth, pronounced răw, means a wheel or circle. 

PASHT was Diana Lucina. Paisde means a child. 

RA or RE, was the sun god of Egypt, and represented as a hawk; he was supported by lions “which are solar animals,” and he is the equivalent of BAAL. Beul means the mouth, the front, the opening, the dawn of day, the couth of night, the beginning. Every one has heard of bealltainn, the 1st of May, old style, and “belten-fires,” when branches of the tree which bears red rowan berries were very lately placed over the cow-house doors in the west, and when all sorts of curious ceremonies were performed about the cattle. Birch branches, primroses, and other flowers, were placed upon the dresser, tar was put upon the cattle, snails were put upon a table under a dish, and were expected to write the first letter of a lover’s name, holes were dug in the ground and fortunes foretold from the kind of animals which were found in them. People used to get up early on the morning of Easter Sunday and go to the tops of hills before sunrise, in the full belief that they would “see the sun take three leaps, and whirl round like a mill wheel” for joy, which seems to be a mixture of Paganism and Christianity. the ram, the hawk, the lion of Manus, and all that tribe of mythological beings may be derived from astronomical symbols, and those of Egypt and the far East may perhaps explain those on the sculptured stones of Scotland. 

ATHOR presided over Egyptian night. Adhar means the sky. Athair means father, and night according to the ancients was the mother of all things. 

OSIRI was the greatest of Egyptian gods. O-shior-righ, king from everlasting, would be something like the sound. 

Arabic popular mythology, as given by Lane (Arabian Nights, vol. i., p. 37), also bears upon that of the west. 

GHOOL is a species of demon, and DELKAN is another. Djeeoul is the sound of the Gaelic for a demon, though the modern spelling rather points to a Latin derivation for the word. 

SEALAH is a species of demon which haunts an island in the China sea; the Gaelic name for a seal is Ròn, but the seals are supposed to be uncanny everywhere.

GHADDAR is another demon of hideous aspect; Gadhar is a hound; Gobhar a goat; and there are plenty of stories of demons appearing as goats and dogs; Boc is a buck goat, and Bòcain are bogles. 

SHIKK is a demoniacal creature, having the form of half a human being, like a man divided longitudinally. 

THE NESNAS is described as having half a head, half a body, one arm, and one leg, with which it hops with much agility. No such creatures appear in German or Norse tales, but the smith, in the Lay of the Smithy, had one leg and one eye. In a very wild version of No. XXXVIII., got from old MacPhie, the DIREACH GHLINN EITIDH MHICCALAIN, the desert creature of Glen Eiti, of the son of Colin, is thus described:- “With one hand out of his chest, one leg out of his haunch, and one eye out of the front of his face.” He was a giant, and a wood-cutter, and went at a great pace before the Irish king Murdoch MacBrian, who had lost sight of his red-eared hound, and his deer, and Ireland. In the same story a “FACHAN” is thus described:- “Ugly was the make of the Fachin; there was one hand out of the ridge of his chest, and one tuft out of the top of his head, it were easier to take a mountain from the root than to bend that tuft.” 

DJINNEE is a term for all sorts of magical creatures; Djeeanan is the sound of the Gaelic for “Gods.” 


And, on the other hand, no sort of Gaelic meaning can be extracted from the names in other mythologies; for instance, from that of the nearest race, the Norsemen. HAR and OSKE, which resemble Athair, father, and Oscar, are almost the only names in the Edda which seem to bear any likeness to a Gaelic word. When so many old fables point towards the eastern shores of the Mediterranean as the cradle of the Celtic race, it is surely worth considering such resemblances as are pointed out above, however far-fetched they may seem to be. The Scotch pleaded a descent from Scota, Pharaoh’s daughter, against Edward’s claim, founded on his descent from Brutus of Troy; the Pope was umpire, and Bannockburn the final action in the case, so this is no new idea. 

If Celts be Aryans, and these followed the sun from central Asia, some of them would reach the shore about TYRE, if others made their way to Scotland, and called it “Tir nam Beann,” the shore of the hills. 

It is at least certain that the groundwork of several popular tales now current amongst the peasantry of the West Highlands, were written by Apuleius in the second century, and it is probable that these were current about Carthage some seventeen hundred years ago. Nearly the whole of the story of Cupid and Psyche, as told by Apuleius, will be formed in these volumes, though in a very rough dress, Nos. II., III., XII., XXXIII., XXXIX., and the story abstracted above. It is all over Europe in all sorts of shapes, and it was in India as a tale of the love of the sun for an earthly maiden, who was also the dawn. It was part of classical mythology, though Venus had surely begun to lose her power when Apuleius made her a scolding mother-in-law. It seems hopeless to speculate on the origin of the story anywhere short of the dawn of time; but if there be any truth in the “eastern origin of Celtic nations,” it is reasonable to look eastwards for the germ of Celtic mythology.


1  Pronounced Djee-A. Djâys. 
2  See Note, page 344. 
3  West of Scotland Magazine. 842. (1858.) I have not found the names or the passage in the author quoted, but he describes an island which rose from the sea, and sank, and became firm on shooting a fiery arrow into it.