The Battle of the Birds – Notes, pp.38-63.

This version of the Battle of the Birds was recited by John Mackenzie, April 1859, and written in Gaelic by Hector Urquhart. The reciter is a fisherman, and has resided for the last thirty-four years at Ceanmore, near Inverary, on the estate of the Duke of Argyll. He is a native of Lorn. He says he has known it from his youth, and he has been in the habit of repeating it to his friends on winter nights, as a pastime, “He can read English and play the bagpipes, and has a memory like Oliver and Boyd’s Almanac.” He got this and his other stories from his father and other old people in Lorn and elsewhere. He is about sixty years of age, and was employed, April 1859, in building dykes on the estate of Ardkinglas, where Hector Urquhart is gamekeeper. In reciting his stories he has all the manner of a practised narrator; people still frequent his house to hear his tales. I know the man, and I have heard him recite many. The Gaelic has some few north country words.

There is another version of this tale current in Islay. It was taken down from the recitation of Ann Darroch by Hector Maclean. It is called the “Widow’s Son.”

He goes to seek his fortune, and comes to a giant’s house, where he engages himself as servant for a peck of gold and a peck of silver. He is sent first to cleanse the seven byres that have never been cleansed for seven years. All he puts out at one door comes in at the other. The giant’s daughter comes; he promises to marry her, and she says, “Gather, oh shovel, and put out, oh grape,” and the tools work of themselves, and clear the byres. Next he has to thatch the byres with feathers, no quills to be upwards. He gets only one feather, and the giant’s daughter takes three grains of barley, and throws them on the roof. The birds of the air gather, and thatch the byres in a minute. Next day he has to catch the steed that had never seen a blink of earth or air. The girl gives him a little rusty bridle, and the steed comes and puts her head into it. She makes six little cakes, which she places at the fire, the foot water, the door of the chamber, the side of the bed, and the kitchen door, and they mount the steed and ride off. The giant lies down and calls to his daughter. The cakes answer till there are none left to reply. Then he rises, takes his clothes, his boots, and his sword of light; he makes seven miles at each step; he sees seven miles by the light of the sword – he follows; they hear him coming; the girl gives the widow’s son a golden apple, and tells him to throw it at a mole on her father, where alone he is vulnerable; he fears that he will miss so small a mark, so she throws it herself, and the giant is dead in an instant.
They reach a big town. He is told to kiss nothing or he will forget the girl and his promise. A big dog comes to meet him, and puts his paws on his shoulder and kisses him. He takes service with the king, and at last he is to be married to the king’s daughter.
She takes service with a smith, disguised as a man, and “comes on famously.” The smith’s daughter falls in love with her, and wants to marry her. She tells, at last, that she is a girl in search of her own lover. On a day of days the smith and his daughter and his servant are invited to the wedding of the widow’s son with the king’s daughter. They go, and the giant’s daughter sets a golden cock and a silver hen on the board before the bridegroom. She takes a grain of barley from her pocket and throws it before them. The cook pecks the hen and eats the barley; and the hen says, “Gog, Gog, if thou hadst mind when I cleansed the seven byres for thee, thou wouldst not do that to me.” She does this three times, and the birds remind him of what has been done; then he knows her, leaps over the board, catches her by the arm, leaves the king’s daughter, and marries her.

There is another version current at Inverary, repeated to me by a stable boy who was then employed at the ferry of St. Katharines, and who repeated it in Gaelic while rowing the boat to Inverary. It began thus:-

I will tell you a story about the wren. There was once a farmer who was seeking a servant, and the wren met him, and he said, “What art thou seeking for?” “I am seeking a servant,” said the farmer. “Wilt thou take me?” said the wren. “Thee, thou poor creature; what good wouldst thou do?” “Try thou me,” said the wren. So he engaged him, and the first work he set him to was threshing in the barn. The wren threshed (what did he thresh with? – a flail to be sure), and he knocked off one grain. A mouse came out and she eats that. “I’ll praise thee, and don’t do that again,” said the wren. He struck again, and he knocked off two grains. Out came the mouse and she eats that. “So they arranged a contest that they might know which was the strongest, and there was neither mouse nor rat on earth that did not gather, nor was there bird under heaven that did not come to the battle. The son of a gentleman heard of the fight, and he came also, but he slept before it was over, and when he awoke there was neither “mouse nor rat to be seen; there was but one great black raven.” The raven and the man agreed to travel together, and they come to an inn. The gentleman goes in, but the raven is sent to the stable, because the porters and waiters object to the like of a raven. Here he picks out all the horses’ eyes, and in the morning there is a disturbance. The gentleman pays and scolds, and they go to another inn, where the raven is sent to the byre, and picks out all the cows’ eyes. Then they part. The raven takes out a book, and gives it to his companion with a warning not to open it till he gets home to his father’s house. He breaks the charge, looks, and finds himself in a giant’s house. There he takes service, and is sent to clean the byre. It had seven doors, it had not been cleaned for seven years, and all that he put out at one door came in at the other. Then came the giant’s red-haired daughter, and said, “If thou wilt marry me I will help thee.” He consents; and she sets all the grapes and forks about the place to work of themselves, and the byre is cleansed. Then the giant sets him to thatch the byre with feathers, and every feather he put on the wind blew away. Then came the giant’s girl, and the promise was repeated; and she played a whistle that she had, and he laid his head in her lap, and every bird there was came, and they thatched the byre.
Then the giant sent him to the hill to fetch the gray horse that was seven years old; and she told him that he would meet two black dogs, and she gave him a cake of tallow and half a cheese, and a tether; and she said that the dogs and the horse would kill him unless he gave the dogs the food, and put the tallow in the mouth of one, and the cheese in the throat of the other; and when the horse came down the hill to kill him with his mouth open, he put the tether in his mouth and he followed him quietly home. “Now,” said she, “we will be off.” So they mounted and rode away, but first she took four apples, three she placed about the house, which spoke as in the other tales, the fourth she took with her. When the last of the apples had spoken, the giant rose and followed. Then the girl felt her father’s breath on her back, and said, “Search in the horse’s ear.” And he found a twig. “Throw it behind you,” said she; and he threw it, and it became the biggest wood that ever was. The giant came, and returned for his “big axe and his little axe,” and he hewed his way through; and the red-haired girl said that she felt her father’s breath. “Now,” said she to the king’s son (here the narrator remembered that he was a prince instead of a young farmer), “see in the filly’s ear” (here he remembered that it was a filly). So he looked, and found a bit of stone, threw it, and it became a mountain. The giant came, looked for his big hammer and his little hammer, and smashed his way through the hill, and she felt his breath again. Then he sought in the ear, and found a (something) of water, and threw it, and it became a loch of fresh water. The giant came, and returned for his big scoop and his little scoop, and baled the water out, and he was after them again. Then she said, “My father is coming now, and he will kill us. Get off the filly, king’s son,” and he got off, and she gave him the apple, and she said, “Now put it under the filly’s foot.” And he did so; and the filly put her foot on it, and it smashed to bits; and the giant fell over dead, for his heart was in the apple. So they went on to his father’s house, and she was made house-keeper, for they were not married; then in a short time she became house-maid, then kitchen-maid, and then hen-wife; and then the king was to be married (he had now become a king); and then first the porter, then the head waiter, and then some other servant, came and courted her. They promise to let her in to the wedding, and give her a fine dress each; and each in turn is admitted into the hen-wife’s room; but the first goes to put the lid on the kettle, and is fast by the hands all night; the second is, in like manner, fast to a window which he goes to shut; and the fe4et of the third stick to the floor. Then she comes to the porter in her dirty dress. He drives her away, but he is at last obliged to give her a fine dress, and let her in. Then she comes to the head waiter, who does the same. Then she comes to the servant, who does the same, but is forced to let her in to the wedding. Then she takes out a golden cock and a silver hen, which she had brought. She sets them on the floor, and they talk. “Dost thou remember how I cleansed the byre? Dost thou mind how I thatched the barn? Dost thou remember how I saved thy life?” And so on, till they repeat the whole story, reminding the king how she had been the house-keeper, house-maid, and hen-wife, and faithful throughout. And the king said, “Stop, I will marry thee.” And when she said that, she showed the fine dresses that she had got from the porter, and the headwaiter, etc., and they were married; and if they have not died since then, they are alive, merry, and rich.
The stable boy said that he had learned this from a very old man, now living near Lochgilphead, who could tell it much better than he could. A gentleman at the inn said that an old woman, now dead, used to tell something like this, and that her raven was the son of the king of Lochlin. The old woman lived near Dalmally, and her daughter is said to be there still, but I have been unable to find her out. On asking for her, and giving my reason, I was told by a waiter that “light had dawned in that district, and that ignorance was banished.”

A very similar story is well known in South Uist, and a fragment of it is still told in Sutherland.

The Uist story told to me by Donald MacCraw, as we walked along the road last September, is called “Mother’s Blessing.”

The lad, so called because he is so good, goes to seek his fortune. He plays cards, and wins from some gentles; then stakes seven years’ service against so many thousands, and loses to a black dog who comes in with a looking-glass on every paw. He goes to serve the dog, and is shown a cave where there are a hundred stakes and ninety-nine heads on them. He is set to cleanse the byre, to catch the steed, and to rob the nest. The black dog’s daughter helps. She throws out one spadeful, and the litter flies out, “seven spadefuls at each of the seven doors for every one he throws out.” She gives a rusty bridle for the steed. She strikes the sea with a rod, and makes a way to the island where the nest is, and gives her toes to make a ladder to climb up. He leaves one, and offers one of his own instead. She refuses, because “her father always washes her feet himself.” They ride off on the horse – the dog and his company follow. A wood grows and a river flows from things found in the horse’s ear, and the dog is defeated but not killed. She gives the lad a treasure which is found under a tuft of rushes. He goes home, speaks to his mother, and forgets all. He builds a palace, and is to be married to a lady, but she is so proud that she will have the widow’s hut pulled down. Mother’s Blessing will not, so the match is off, but after a time it is on again. The door opens, and in walks the black dog smoking a pipe. He goes to the priest and forbids the ceremony. The priest says, “Begone to thine own place down below.” “It’s many a long day since thou art wanted there,” says the dog. The priest defies all fieds, and will marry the pair. The dog says, “If I tell all I know thou wilt not.” Then he whispers, and the priest is silenced. Then he brings in a fine gentleman, and says to the bride – “There is thy first lover; marry him.” And they are married then and there. The dog brings his own daughter; Mother’s Blessing marries her, and the dog danced at the wedding with the priest.

MacCraw said there was something left out which his informant would not tell.

I have received yet another version of this tale, very well written in Gaelic, from JOHN DEWAR, who, according to his own account of himself, is now (October 1859) residing in Glendaruail, and is about to proceed to Roseneath, where he used to get employment in making stobbs for the fences. He heads his story – “Tales of the Gael in the Winter Nights,” and promises to send more. UIRSGEALN NAN GAEL S’ NA OIDHCHENAN GEAMHRAIDH. – His Gaelic spelling is rather phonetic –

He heard it from his mother, told nearly as the stable-boy gave it; and has heard it lately in Glendaruail. He first heard an abridgement four or five years before 1812 or 1813, when he learned this from Mary MacCalum, a native of Glen Falloch, at the head of Loch Lomond.

It begins with a quarrel between a mouse and a wren in a barn about a grain of oats, which the mouse will eat. The wren breaks it with his flail. The creatures of the plain and of the air all joined the quarrel, and there was a pitched battle on a set day. They fought the battle in a field above a king’s house; and the fight was so fierce, that there were left but a raven and a snake. The king’s son looked out of a window, and saw the snake twined round the raven’s neck, and the raven holding the snake’s throat in his beak – GOB – and neither dared to let go. Both promised friendship for help, and the king’s son slew the serpent – NATHAIR.
The raven lived for a year and a day in the palace, then took the king’s son hunting for the first time, and when he was tired, carried him. “And he put his hands about the raven before his wings, and he hopped with him over nine Bens, and nine Glens, and nine Moors.” They go to the three sisters, and the king’s son gets hospitality, because he comes from the land where the birds set the battle, and brings news of the raven, who is yet alive, and lived with him for a year and a day. Each day the number of glens, and hills, and moors passed over, falls from nine to six and three. The same thing is said by each of the three sisters: “That is a year and a day for thee in this place, and a piece in thy purse on the day when thou goest;” but he keeps tryst, and returns to the raven. On the third day came a mist, and the raven was not to be found; but when the king’s son was nearly beat, he looked over a rock, and saw FEAR LEADANACH BUIDHE BOIDHEACH AGUS CIR OIR ANSA N’ DARNA LAIMH, AGUS CIR AIRGID SAN LAIMH EILE, a beautiful yellow ringletted man, with a golden comb in the one hand, and a silver comb in the other, who asked if he would take him instead of the raven. He would not, “nor half-a-dozen such.” So the yellow ringletted man told him that he was the FITHEACH CROM DUBH – the black humpy raven that was laid under spells by a bad DRUIDH that knew how to put under spells. He had been set free by coming to his father’s house with the king’s son. Then he gave him a book, and told him to go with the wind the way it might blow, and to look in the book when he wished to see his father’s house, but always from a hill top.
The king’s son soon got tired, and looked in the book at the bottom of a glen, and saw his father’s house at the bottom of a peat hag, with all the doors and windows shut, and no way to get to it.
Then came a giant, who shewed him the way for the promise of his first son. He shewed him his father’s house on the top of a hill, with each door and window open, and got the promise. “And it was the giant who had cast DRUIDHEACHD upon him, that he might see his father’s house in the bottom of a peat hag.”
“Long after that the old king died, and the son got the kingly chair. He married; he had a son; and he was coming on to be a brave lad, and they were dwelling happily in the castle. The giant came to them, and he asked that the king’s son should be sent out to him there, and they were not very willing to do that; but the giant said, unless they sent him out, that the highest stone of the castle would be the lowest presently; and they thought of arraying the cook’s son bravely, and sending him out; and they did that. The giant went away with him, and he had a rod in his hand, and when they were a little bit from the house, the giant asked the cook’s son – ‘What would thy father do with this little rod if he had it?’ ‘I don’t know myself,’ said the cook’s son, ‘unless he would beat the dogs away from the meat.’ With that the giant understood that he had not go the right one, and he turned back with him, and he asked that the king’s son should be sent to him. Then they put brave clothes on the son of the STIUARD, and they sent him out to the giant, but the giant was not long till he did to him as he had done to the cook’s son, and he returned with him full of heavy wrath. He said to them, unless they sent out to him there the king’s son, that the highest stone in the castle would be the lowest presently, and that he would kill all who were within; and then they were obliged to send out the king’s son himself, though it was very grievous; and the giant went way with him. When they were gone a little bit from the castle, the giant showed him the rod that was in his hand and he said – ‘What would thy father do with this rod if he were to have it?’ And the king’s son said – ‘My father has a braver rod than that.’ And the giant asked him – ‘Where will thy father be when he had that brave (briagh) rod?’ And the king’s son said – ‘He will be sitting in his kingly chair;’ and the giant understood that he had the right one. [This passage is translated entire, because, as I am told, there is a similar passage in the Volsung tale.] The giant took him home, and set him to clean the byre that had not been cleansed for seven years; and in case of failure, threatened ‘S E T’ FHUIL URAR ALUIN GHRINN A BHITHIS AGUM A CHASGA M’ IOTADH AGUS T’ FHEOIL UR GHRINN MAR MHILLISTAIN FHIACAL. It is thy fresh, beautiful flesh as sweetening of teeth;” and he went to bed.
The king’s son failed of course; all that went out at one door came in at another. Then came MARI RUADH, Auburn Mary, the giant’s daughter, and made him promise to marry her, and he gave his hand and his promise. She made him set all the CAIBE and shovels in order, waved her hand, and they worked alone, and cleaned the byre. “She took an apple from her pocket – a golden apple – and it would run from end to end, and would raise no stain in any place, it was so clean.”
The daughter “had been in sewing all day,” when her father came home from hunting, and asked his housewife. Next came the thatching of the barn with “the feathers of all the birds the giant had ever killed, to be laid as close as ever they lay on the back of a heather hen or a black cock.” The wind blew them a new promise, “CHATHUDH,” she shook them as chaff (is shaken on hill tops now), with the wind, and the wind blew them straight to their own place. The giant came home from his hunting as usual, and asked – “Housewife, was Auburn Mary out at all to-day?” “no, she was within sewing.” He went out, and brought in SRIAN BHRIAGH SHOILEIR DEARRSACH, a brave, clear, shiny bridle, and ordered the king’s son to catch the FALAIRE, filly, on yonder hill, and tie her in the stable, or else, &c.
The fine bridle would not do. Then the daughter brought from the stable, SEAN SRIAN DUBH MEIRGACH, and old, black, rusty bridle that was behind one of the turf seats, and shook it, and the filly came and put her nose into it.
The giant had the usual talk, but gave no more orders, and his daughter told the king’s son that he would kill him that night, but that she would save him id he would promise to marry her.
“She put a wooden bench in the bed of the king’s son; two wooden benches in her own bed. She spat at the front of her own bed, and spat at the side of the giant’s bed, and spat at the passage door, and she set two apples above the giant’s bed, ready t fall on him when he should wake and set him asleep again.” And they mounted and rode away, and set the filly “running with might.”
The giant awoke, and shouted – “Rise, daughter, and bring me a drink of the blood of the king’s son.” “I will arise,” said the spittle, in front of his bed; and one of the apples fell and struck him between the two shoulders, and he slept. The second time it was – “Rise, wife;” and the same thing happened. The third time he shouted – “Art thou rising to give me a drink of the blood of the king’s son, Oh wife?” “Coming with it,” said the spittle, “behind the door of the cabh.”
Then he lay a while, and got up with an axe, and struck it into the bench in the bed of the king’s son. [So did a giant to Jack the giant-killer, and so did Skrymir to Thorr in Gylfi’s mocking. Edda (translated by G. W. Dasent, page 54)]. And when he saw what he had, he ran to his daughter’s bed, and struck his axe into the two things which he found there. Then he ran into the stable, and then he ran after the fugitives. At the mouth of day, the daughter said – “I feel my father’s breath burning me between the two shoulders;” and the king’s son took a drop of water from the filly’s right ear, and threw it over his shoulder, and it became a lake which the giant could not cross. Then he said – This is a part of my own daughter’s tricks; and he called out, FIRE FAIRE, A MHARI RUADH, AGUS NA THUG MISE DHUITSA DO DH’ FHOLUM AGUS DO IONNSACHADH, N’ E SO MAR A RINN THU ORM MA DHEIREADH. “Feere Faire, Auburn Mary, and all the learning and teaching I have given thee, is it thus thou hast done to me at last?” And, said she, CHAN EILE AGUD AIR ACH A BHI NAS GLIC A RITHISD. “Thou hast for it but to be wiser again.” Then he said, if I had MO BHATA DUBH DIONACH FHEIN NACH FACA GAOTH NA GRIAN O CHEAN SEACHD BLIADHNA. My own tight black boat that saw neither wind nor rain since seven years’ end. And his daughter said – “Thou has for it but to go and fetch her then.”
Next time it was a little stone that was found in the left ear which became a great crag, and was broken through with the big hammer and the little hammer, ORD MOR AGUS ORD BEAG, which broke and pounded a breach through the rock in an instant by themselves. The third time it was the seed of a tree which became a wood, and was cut through by the axes TUATHAN of the giant, which he set to work, and his wife brought up the black dogs.
The fourth time it was a very little tiny drop of water that was found in the left ear, which became a narrow loch, but so deep that the giant could not cross it. He had the usual talk with his daughter, and got the same reply; tried to drink the water, but failed, for a curious reason, then he thought he would leap it, but his foot slipped and he was drowned.
Then came the incident of the kiss and the old greyhound.
She went to the house of a seamstress, and engaged herself, and was a good workwoman. When the king’s son was to be married to another, the cook sent one of his underlings to the well for water. She stood on a branch of the tree above the FUARAN cold spring, and when the maid saw her shadow in the well she thought she had grown golden herself, for there was “golden weaving” on the dress of Auburn Mary. And she went back to the cook and said: “Thou art the lad to send me to fetch thee water, and I am a lump of gold.” He sent another, with the same result, so he went himself and saw Mary go to the house of the seamstress. The cook told, and they asked about the stranger, but no one knew anything about her, till the hen wife went to the seamstress and found out “that she had come from a shore afar off; that she never saw her like for sewing nor for shape, and is they had her at the wedding, she would make FEARTAN miracles that would astonish them.”
The hen wife told the queen, and she was engaged to help to make the dresses, They were pleased with her, and asked her to the wedding, and when there they asked her to show some of her wonderful tricks.
“Then she got a pock, and showed that it was empty; and she gave it a shake, and it grew thick, and she put in her hand and took out a silver hen, and she set it on the ground, and it rose and walked about the house. Then came the golden cock, and the grain of corn, and the pecking, and the hen said –
“Leig ma choir leam,
Ma chuid do n’ eorna.”
Leave me my right, my share of the corn; and the cock pecked her; and she stood out from him, and said –
Geog Geog Geōa.
Geog Geog Geōa.
An cuimhne leat an latha chuir mi m’ bathach falamh air do shon? 
Dost thou remember the day that I emptied the byre for thee? 
‘S an cuimhne leat an latha a thubh mi n’ sabhal air do shon? 
Dost thou remember the day that I thatched the barn for thee? 
‘S an cuimhne leat an latha ghlac mi n’fhailair air do shon? 
Dost thou remember the day that I caught the filly for thee? 
‘S an cuimhne leat an latha bhàth mi m’athair air do shon? 
Dost thou remember the day that I drowned my father for thee? 
Then the king’s son thought a little and he remembered Auburn Mary, and all she had done for him, and he asked a voice with her apart, and they had a little talk, and she told the king and the queen, and he found the “gin” kin good, and he turned his back on the other one, and he married Auburn Mary, and they made a wedding that lasted seven years; and the last day was no worse than the first day –
S’ma bha na b’fhearr ann, bha, 
S’mar robh leig da

 

And if there were better there were, 
And if not, let them be.

 

The tale is ended. 
Tha crioch air ‘n sgeul. 

This version is probably the oldest. It is the most picturesque; it contains nearly all that is in the others, and it is full of the quaint expressions which characterize the telling of Gaelic tales. The quarrel is remarkably like a fable aimed at the greedy castle mouse and the sturdy country wren, a fable from the country side, for the birds beat the beasts of the plain, the raven beat the snake.

 I have still another version, told by Roderick Mackenzie, sawyer, Gairloch, and written by Hector Urquhart. It is called, NIGHEAN DUBH GHEAL DEARG, The Daughter of Black-white Red. 

Three sons of the king of Erin were on a day playing shinny on a strand, and they saw birds whose like they had never seen, and one especially. Their father told them that this was MAC SAMHLADH NIGHINN DUBH GHEAL DEARG, and the eldest son said that he would never rest till he got the great beautiful bird for himself. Then his father sent him to the king of France (NA FRAINGE), and he struck palm on latch, and it was asked who it was, and he said that he was the son of Erin’s king, going to seek the daughter of Black-white Red. He was entertained, and next day set off to the king of Spain (NA SPAINDE), and did the same; and thence he went to the king of Italy (NA H’EADILT). He gave him an old man, BODACH, and a green boat, and they sailed (and here comes in a bit of the passage which is common to so many stories about hoisting the sails, etc., with one or two lines that I have found nowhere else, and here the three kings seem to replace the three old women, who are always appearing, for they know where the lad is going, and help him on). The old man sailed the boat on shore, and up to the door of Black-white Red, a giant, who as usual said FIU FA FOAGRAICH, and threatened to make a shinny ball of his head, and eat him unless he performed the tasks set him. The giant’s eldest daughter came, and he knew her at once, and they played at cards all night. She gave him a tether to catch the little dun shaggy filly, which he would lose unless he put it on the first time. 
Next he had to kill, TARBH MOR NA TANICH, the great bull of the cattle (or perhaps of the earth, TAN). The daughter gave him her father’s BOGHA SAIGHEAD, arrow bow, with which he pushed at the bull, and he followed him. He put the big black arrow in his forehead when he got to the house. 
The third task was to cleanse the great byre of the seven stalls that had not been cleansed for seven years, or his head to be a football. The daughter came at night as usual and gave him BARA agus CROMAN, a barrow and a crook, and told him to say CAB CAB A CHROMAIN, CUIR AIR A BHARA A SHLUASAID, CUIR A MACH A BHARA, and the tools worked of themselves. 
Then he had three more tasks set. The three daughters put three needles through three holes in a partition, he caught the one without “CHRO.”(?) They put out three great pins, and he caught the one that had two “Philoc” heads. Then they pushed out their little fingers, and he took the one with, CAB AS AN IONGA, a notch in the nail. 
“Hugh! huh!” said the giant, “thou hast her now, but to Erin thou goest not; thou must stay with me.” At last they got out the barge (BIRLINN). The giant awoke and asked, what was that sound? One of the daughters answered, that it was a OIDHCHE UAMHASACH LE TEIN-ADHAIR ‘S TAIRNEANACH, a fearful night with heaven-fire and thunder. “It is well to be under the shelter of a rock,” said the giant. The next scrape of the boat it was the same thing, and at the third the barge was out and under sail, but the giant was on foot, and he threw A CHEARTLEADH DHUBH, his black clue, and the boat sailed stern foremost. The giant sat down in the gravel to haul the boat, and the daughter shot an arrow, ANN AM BONN DUBH AN FHAMHAIR, into the giant’s black sole, and there he lay. 
Then they got to Erin. He went home first; she staid in the barge, till tired of waiting, she went to a smith’s house where she staid with the smith and his mother. 
One day the smith heard that the RIDIR was going to be married, and told her. She sent him to the palace to tell the cook that the finest woman he ever saw was living with him, and would marry him is he would bring her part of the wedding feast. 
The cook came, and when he saw her, brought a back load of viands. Then they played the same trick to the butler, and he brought a back load of wine every day. Then she asked the smith to make her a golden cock, and a silver hen; and when he could not, she made them herself. Then she asked the butler if she could get a sight of the king’s son and the bride, “and the butler was very much pleased that she had asked him, and not the cook, for he was much afraid that the cook was looking after her also.” When the gentles saw her they asked her to the dancing room, and then came the cock and the hen play, in which the hen said – A CHOILICH DHURDANICH DHUIBH, Thou black, murmuring cock, dost thou remember, etc. The prince remembers, married the true girl, “and there I left them.”

This version varies considerably from the others. It is very well told, and I much regret that space will not allow me to give it entire, the more so because the reciter has braved the prejudices of some of his neighbours who object to all fiction. I hope I have said enough to show that this story is worth preservation.

If stories be mythological this contains a serpent. NATHAIR, pronounced Na-ir, and a raven, FITHEACH, pronounced Feeach, who seem like transformed divinities, for they appear only to start the other characters, and then vanish into some undescribed kingdom. There is one passage (referred to) which resembles Norse mythology.

So far as I can make it out, it seems to be best known near Cowal in Argyllshire, though it is known throughout the Highlands.

It would have been easy to construct one version from the eight here mentioned, but I have preferred to give the most complete, entire, and full abstracts of the rest. Many more versions can be got, and I shall be grateful to anyone who will throw light on the story and its origin.

One of the tasks resembles one of those imposed on Hercules. It might have been taken from classical mythology if it stood alone, but Norwegian peasants and West Highlanders could not so twist the story of Hercules into the same shape.

All the Gaelic versions are clearly versions of the same story as the Master Maid, in Dasent’s Norse Tales; and there are other traits in other Norse stories, which resemble the Gaelic.

Of the forty-three heroes called Hercules, and mentioned in ancient lore, one, at least, is said to have made long voyages in the Atlantic beyond his own pillars. Another, or the same, was prevented from being present at the hunting of the Caledonian boar, having killed a man in “Calydo,” which, by the way, is Gaelic for Black Forest. Another was an Indian, and this may be one of the same clan.

If stories be distorted history of real events, seen through a haze of centuries, then the giants in this tale may be the same people as the Gruagach and his brother in the last. They are here described as a wise learned race, given to magic arts, yellow or auburn haired (RUADH). Possessing horses, and knowing how to tame them – able to put the water between them and their pursuers – able to sew better than the others – better looking – musical – possessing treasure and bright weapons – using king’s sons of other races as slaves, and threatening to eat them. If the raven was one, they were given to combing their own golden ringlets with gold and silver combs and the giant maidens dressed the hair of their lovers who laid their heads in their laps, as I have often seen black haired Lapland ladies dress the hair of Lapland swains, and as ladies in popular tales of all lands always do. I will not venture to guess who this race may have been, but the race who contended with them would seem to have been dark complexioned. Nearly all the heroines of Gaelic songs are fair or yellow haired. Those are dark who now most admire yellow locks. A dark Southern once asked if a golden haired youth from the north had dyed his hair, for nothing natural could be so beautiful. Dark Celts and fair northmen certainly met and fought, and settled and intermarried, on the western isles and coasts, where this tale is current, but I am told that it has traits which are to be found in Eastern manuscripts, which were old long before the wars of the Northmen, of which we know, began. The task I have undertaken is to gather stories, not to account for them, but this much is sure, either Norway got this from Scotland or Scotland from Norway, when they were almost one country, or both got it from the same source. The Gaelic stories resemble each other about as much as they all resemble the Norse. The translation was published in 1859, and this story has been current in the islands at least for 40 years. I can remember to have heard part of it myself more than 20 years ago. I believe there is an Irish version, though I have not met with it in any book. I have traced the story amongst Irish labourers in London, who have told me that they used, in their young days, to sit about the fire whole winter nights, and tell about the fight between the raven and the snake; about the giants, Fin MacCoul and Conan Maol, “who had never a good word for any one,” and similar tales. My informants were from Cork, their language, though difficult, could be made out from a knowledge of Gaelic only.

The bridle described seems to be the old Highland bridle which is still common. It has no bit, but two plates of wood or iron are placed at right angles to the horse’s mouth, and are joined above and below by a rope, which is often made of horsehair, leather, or twisted bent. The horse’s nose goes INTO IT.

The ladder is also the Highland ladder still common in cottages. It consists of a long stick with pegs stuck through it.

There are many stories in Grimm’s German collection which resemble the Battle of the Birds. They have incidents in common, arranged somewhat in the same order; but the German stories, taken together, have a character of their own, as the Gaelic versions have: and both differ from the Norwegian tale. Each new Gaelic version which comes to me (and I have received several since this was written), varies from the rest, but resembles them; and no single version is like any one of the German tales, though German, Norse, and Gaelic all hang together.

2 thoughts on “The Battle of the Birds – Notes, pp.38-63.

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