The Sea-Maiden – Notes, pp.85-104.

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Written, April 1850, by Hector Urquhart, from the dictation of John Mackenzie, fisherman, Kenmore, near Inverary, who says that he learned it from an old man in Lorn many years ago. He has lived for thirty-six years at Kenmore. He told the tale fluently at first, and then dictated it slowly.

The Gaelic is given as nearly as possible in the words used by Mackenzie, but he thinks his story rather shortened.

Another version of this was told to me in South Uist, by DONALD MACPHIE, aged 79, in September 1859.

There was a poor old fisher in Skye, and his name was Duncan. He was out fishing, and the sea-maiden rose at the side of his boat, and said, “Duncan, thou art not getting fish.” They had a long talk, and made a bargain; plenty of fish for his first son. But he said, “I have none.” Then the sea-maiden gave him something, and said, “Give this to thy wife, and this to thy mare, and this to thy dog, and they will have three sons, three foals, and three pups,” and so they had, and the eldest son was Iain. When he was eighteen, he found his mother weeping, and leaned that he belonged to the mermaid. “Oh,” said he, “I will go where there is not a drop of salt water.” So he mounted one of the horses and went away. He soon came to the carcass of an old horse, and at it a lion (leon), a wolf (matugally), and a falcon (showag). LEÒMHAN, MADADH-ALLUIDH, SEABHAG or SEOBHAG.
The lion spoke, and she asked him to divide the carcass. He did so, and each thanked him, and said, “When thou art in need think of me, and I will be at thy side (or thou wilt be a lion, a wolf, or a falcon, I am uncertain which he meant), for we were here under spells till some one should divide this carcass for us.”
He went on his way and became a king’s herd. He went to a smith and bade him make him an iron staff. He made three. The two first bent, the third did well enough. He went a-herding, and found a fine grass park, and opened it and went in with the cattle. FUATH of the seven heads, and seven humps, and seven necks, came and took six by the tails and went away with them (so Cacus dragged away cows by the tail). “Stop,” said the herd. The FUATH would not, so they came to grips. Then the fisher’s son either thought of the lion, or became one, but at all events a lion seized the giant and put him to earth. “Thine is my ly8ing down and rising up,” said he. “What is thy ransom?” said the herd. The giant said, “I have a white filly that will go through the skies, and a white dress; take them.” And the herd took off his heads.
When he went home they had to send for carpenters to make dishes for the milk, there was so much.
The next day was the same. There came a giant with the same number of heads, and took eight cows by their tails, and slung them on his back. The herd and the wolf (or as a wolf) beat him, and got a red filly that could fly through the air, and a red dress, and cut off their heads. And there were still more carpenters wanted, there was so much milk.
The third day came a still bigger giant and took nine cows, and the herd, as, or with a falcon, beat him, and got a green filly that would go through the sky, and a green dress, and cut his heads off, and there was more milk than ever.
On the fourth day came the Carlin, the wife of the last giant, and mother of the other two, and the fisher’s son went up into a tree. “Come down till I eat thee,” said she. “Not I,” said the herd. “Thou hast killed my husband and my two sons, come down till I eat thee.” “Open thy mouth, then, till I jump down,” said the herd. So the old Carlin opened her gab, and he thrust the iron staff down her throat, and it came out at a mole on her breast [this is like the mole of the Gruagach in No. 1], and she fell. Then he sprung on her, and spoke as before, and got a basin, and when he washed himself in it, he would be the most beautiful man that was ever seen on earth, and a fine silver comb, and it would make him the grandest man in the world; and he killed the Carlin and went home.
[So far this agrees almost exactly with the next version, but there is a giant added here and a coarse comb left out].
When the fisher’s son came home, there was sorrow in the king’s house, for the DRAYGAN was come from the sea. Every time he came there was some one to be eaten, and this time the lot had fallen on the king’s daughter.
The herd said that he would go to fight the draygan, and the king said, “No; I cannot spare my herd.” So the king’s daughter had to go alone. [The incident of the cowardly knight is here left out]. Then the herd came through the air on the white filly, with the white dress of the Fuath. He tied the filly to the branch of a tree and went where the king’s daughter was, and laid his head in her lap, and she dressed his hair, and he slept. When the draygan came she woke him, and after a severe battle he cut off one head, and the draygan said, “A hard fight to-morrow,” and went away. The herd went off in the white filly, and in the evening asked about the battle, and heard his own story. Next day was the same with the red filly and the red dress, and the draygan said, “The last fight to-morrow,” and he disappeared. On the third day she scratched a mark on his forehead when his head was in her lap: he killed the draygan, and when he asked about it all, there was great joy, for now the draygan was dead. Then the king’s daughter had the whole kingdom gathered, and they took off their head clothes as they passed, but there was no mark. Then they bethought them of the dirty herd, and when he came he would not put off his head gear, but she made him, and saw the mark, and said, “Thou mightest have a better dress.” He used his magic comb and basin, and put on a dress, and was the grandest in the company, and they married. It fell out that the king’s daughter longed for dulse, and he went with her to the shore to seek it.  The sea-maiden rose up and took him. She was sorrowful, and went to the soothsayer and learned what to do.
And she took her harp to the sea shore and sat and played and the sea-maiden came up to listen, for sea-maidens are fonder of music than any other creatures, and when she saw the sea-maiden she stopped. The sea-maiden said, “Play on;” but she said, “No, till I see my man again.” So the sea-maiden put up his head. (Who do you mean? Out of her mouth to be sure. She had swallowed him.) She played again, and stopped, and then the sea-maiden put him up to the waist. Then she played again and stopped, and the sea-maiden placed him on her palm. Then he thought of the falcon, and became one and flew on shore. But the sea-maiden took the wife.
Then he went to the soothsayer, and he said, “I know not what to do, but in a glen there is TARBH NIMH, a hurtful bull, and in the bull a ram, and in the ram a goose, and in the goose an egg, and there is the soul of the sea-maiden.”
Then he called on his three creatures, and by their help got the goose, but the egg fell out in the loch.
Then the lion said she knew not what to do, and the wolf said the same. The falcon told of an otter in an island, and flew and seized her two cubs, and the otter dived for the egg to save her cubs. He got his wife, and dashed the egg on the stones, and the mermaid died. And they sent for the fisher and his sons, and the old mother and brothers got part of the kingdom, and they were all happy and lucky after that.

I asked if there was anything about one brother being taken for the other and the naked sword, and was told that the incident was in another story, as well as that of the withering of the three trees. These incidents were in the version of the stable boy; and as they are in Mackenzie’s, they probably belong to the story as it was known in Argyllshire.

Another version of this was told in April 1859, by John MacGibbon, a lad who was rowing me across Loch Fyne, from St. Katharine’s to Inverary; he said he had heard it from an old man living near Lochgilphead, who could tell many stories, and knew part of the history of the Feine.

The hero was the son of a widow, the youngest of ten; black-skinned and rough “carrach.” He went to seek his fortune, and after adventures somewhat like those of the heroes in the other versions, he became like them a king’s herd, and was in like manner beset by giants who claimed the pasture. Each fight was preceded by a long and curious parley across a ditch. The giants got larger each day, and last of all came the wife of one, and mother of the other two, who was worst of all.
He got spoil from each, which the conquered giant named as his ransom, and which, as usual, the herd took after killing his foe. From the mother he got a “golden comb, and when he combed his hair with the fine side, he was lovely, and when he combed it with the coarse side, he was hideous again,” and a magic basin which made him beautiful when he washed in it. And he got wonderful arms, and dresses, and horses from the giants.
Then the king’s daughter was to be given to a giant with three heads who came in a ship. When he leaped on shore, he buried himself to the waist, he was so heavy. The herd was asleep with his head in the lap of the princess, and dressed in the giant’s spoil, combed with the fine gold comb, and washed in the magic basin, and beautiful, but nevertheless the princess dressed his hair.
He was awakened each day by biting a joint off his little finger – cutting a patch from the top of his head – and a notch from his ear. Each day he cut off a head, and the giant, when he leaped from the ship on the third day, only sunk to his ankles in the sand, for he had lost two heads.
The third head jumped on again as fast as it was cut off, but at last, by the advice of a hoodie, the cold steel of the sword was held on the neck till the marrow froze, and then the giant was killed, and the herd disappeared as usual.
A red-headed lad, who went to guard the princess, ran away and hid himself, and took the credit each day, but he could not untie the knots with which the heads were bound together on a withy by the herd. Then when all the kingdom had been gathered, the herd was sent for, but he would not come, and he bound three parties of men who were sent to bring him by force.
At last he was entreated to come, and came, and was recognized by the marks, and then he combed his hair, and washed in the magic basin, and dressed in the giant’s spoils, and he married the princess, and the Gille Ruadh was hanged.

Here the story ended, but so did the passage of the ferry.

I have another version written by Hector Maclean, from the dictation of a woman, B. Macaskill, in the small island of Berneray. Aug. 1859. – MAC A GHOBHA, The Smith’s Son. 

A smith takes the place of the old fisherman. The mermaid rises beside his boat, gets the promise of the son, and sends him fish. (The three mysterious grains are omitted.) One son is born to the fisher, and the mermaid lets him remain till he is fourteen years of age.
The lad was now so big at the end of the 14 years! His like was not to be found, so big, so rugged, so formidable as he.
Then he asked his father not to go in the wind of the shore or the sea, for fear the mermaid should catch him, and to make him a staff in which there should be nine stone weight of iron; and he went to seek his fortune. His father made him the staff, and he went, and whom should he meet but MADADH RUADH the fox, MADADH ALLUIDH the wolf, AGUS AN FHEANNAG, and the hoodie, AGUS OTHAISG ACA GA H’ITHEADH, and eating a year old sheep. He divided the sheep, and the creatures promised to help him, and he went on to a castle, where he got himself employed as a herd, and was sent to a park; “no man ever came alive out of it that ever went into it.”
A big giant came and took away one of the cows, and then (SABAID) a fight began, and the herd was undermost, AGUS DE RINN AM BUACHAILL’ ACH CUIMHNEACHADH AIR A MHADADH ALLUIDH AGUS GHRAD! BHA ‘M BUACHAILL AN AIRD AGUS AM FUAMHAIR FODHA AGUS MHARBH E ‘M FUAMHAIR, and what did the herd but remember the wolf, and swift! the herd was above and the giant below, and he killed the giant, and went  home with the cattle, and his master said to the BANACHAGAN, “Oh, be good to the herd.” (The spoil, the dresses, and the horses are here all left out). The second day it was the same, and he again thought of the wolf, and conquered after he was down.
The third day it was again the same. On the fourth day CAILLEACH MHOR a great carlan came. They fought, and he was undermost again, but thought of the wolf and was up. BAS AS DO CHIONN A CHAILLEACH ARS AM BUACHAILLE DE’ T’ EIRIG?1
“Death on thy top, Carlin,” said the herd, “what’s thy value?” “That is not little,” said the Carlin, “if thou gettest it. I have three TRUNCANNAN (an English word with a Gaelic plural) full of silver. There is a trunk under the foot-board, and two others in the upper end of the castle.” “Though that be little, its my own,” said he as he killed her.
On the morrow the king’s daughter was to go to the great beast that was on the loch to be killed, and what should the herd do but draw the cattle that way, and he laid his head in her lap and slept, but first told the lady, when she saw the loch trembling, to take off a joint of his little finger. She did so. He awoke, thought of the fox, and took a head, a hump, and a neck off the beast, and he went away, and no one knew that he had been there at all. Next day was the same, but he had a patch cut from his head.
The third day she took off the point of his ear, he awoke, was again beaten by the beast, thought of the fox, and was uppermost, and killed the beast (S’ BHA I NA LOCH UISGE N’ UAIR A MHARBH E I) and she was a fresh water lake when he had killed her.
(The cowardly general, or knight, or lad, or servant, is here left out.) Then the king’s daughter gave out that she would marry the man whose finger fitted the joint which she had cut off and kept in her pocket. Everybody came and cut off the points of their little fingers, but the herd staid away till it was found out by the dairymaids that he wanted the joint, and then he came and married the lady.
After they were married they went to walk by the shore, and the mermaid rose and took him away. “It is long since thou wert promised to me, and now I have thee perforce,” said she. An old woman advised the lady to spread all her dresses on the beach, and she did so in the evening, and the mermaid came, and for the dresses gave back her companion, “and they went at each other’s necks with joy and gladness.”
In a fortnight the wife was taken away, “and sorrow was not sorrow till now – the lad lamenting his wife.” He went to an old man, who said, “There is a pigeon which has laid in the top of a tree; if thou couldst find means to break the egg ANAIL, the breath of the mermaid is in it.” SMAOINTICH E AIR AN FHEANNAIG ‘S CHAIDH E NA FHEANNAIG ‘S LEUM E GO BARR NA CRAOIBHE. He thought on the hoodie, and he became a hoodie (went into his hoodie), and he sprang to the top of the tree, and he got the egg, and he broke the egg, and his wife came to shore, and the mermaid was dead.

It is worth remarking the incidents which drop out of the story when told by women and by men. Here the horses and armour are forgotten, but the faithful lover is remembered. The sword is a stick, and the whole thing savours strongly of the every-day experience of the Western Isles, which has to do with fishing, and herding sheep and cattle. It is curious also to remark the variations in the incidents. The hero seems to acquire the qualities of the creatures, or be assisted by them.

I have another version from Barra, but it varies so much, and has so many new incidents, that I must give it entire, if at all. It most resembles MacGibbon’s version. It is called AN ‘T IASGAIR the fisher, and was told by Alexander MacNeill, fisherman.

I have a sixth version told by John Smith, labourer, living at Polchar in South Uist, who says he learned it about twenty years ago from Angus Macdonald, Balnish. It is called AN GILLE GLAS, the Grey lad. He is a widow’s son, goes to seek his fortune, goes to a smith, and gets him to make an iron shinny (that is a hockey club), he becomes herd to a gentleman, herds cattle, and is beset by giants whom he kills with his iron club; he gathers the skirt of his grey cassock (which looks like Odin), he gets a copper and a silver and a golden castle, servants (or slaves) of various colour and appearance, magic whistles, horses, and dresses, and rescues the daughter of the king of Greece. The part of the cowardly knight is played by a red headed cook. The language of this is curious, and the whole very wild. Unless given entire, it is spoilt.

In another story, also from Berneray, the incident of meeting three creatures again occurs.

There is a lion, a dove and a rat. And the lion says:- “What, lad, is thy notion of myself being in such a place as this?”

“Well,” said he, “I have no notion, but that it is not there the like of you ought to be; but about the banks of rivers.”

It is impossible not to share the astonishment of the lion, and but for the fact that the rat and the dove were as much surprised at their position as the lion, one would be led to suspect that Margaret MacKinnon, who told the story, felt that her lion was out of his element in Berneray. Still he is there, and it seems worth inquiring how he and the story got there and to other strange places.

1st. The story is clearly the same as Shortshanks in Dasent’s Norse Tales, 1859. But it is manifest that it is not taken from that book, for it could not have become so widely spread in the islands, and so changed within the time.

2d. It resembles, in some particulars, the Two Brothers, the White Snake, the Nix of the Mill Pond, the Ball of Crystal, in Grimm; and there are similar incidents in other German tales. These have long been published, but I never heard of a copy in the west, and many of my authorities cannot read. It is only necessary to compare any one of the Gaelic versions with any one German tale, or all together, to feel certain that Grimm’s collection is not the source from which this story proceeded.

3d. A story in the latest edition of the Arabian Nights (Lane’s, 1839), contains the incident of a genius, whose life was not in his body, but in a chest at the bottom of the Circumambient Ocean, but that book is expensive, and quite beyond the reach of peasants and fishermen in the west, and the rest of the story is different.

4th. There is something in Sanscrit about a fight for cattle between a herd and some giants, which has been compared with the classical story of Cacus. – (Mommsen’s Roman History).

5th. I am told that there is an Irish “fenian” story which this resembles. I have not yet seen it, but it is said to be taken from a very old Irish MS. (Ossianic Society).

6th. It is clearly the same as the legend of St. George and the Dragon. It is like the classical story of Perseus and Andromeda, but Pegasus is multiplied by three, and like the story of Hercules and Hesione, but Hercules was to have six horses. On the whole, I cannot think that this is taken from any known story of any one people, but that it is the Gaelic version of some old myth. If it contains something which is distorted history, it seems to treat of a seafaring people who stole men and women, and gave them back for ransom, of a wild race of “giants” who stole cattle and horses, and dresses, and used combs and basins, and had grass parks; and other people who had cattle and wanted pasture, and went from the shore in on the giants’ land.

If it be mythical, there is the egg which contains the life of the sea-monster, and to get which beast, bird, and fish, earth, air, and water, must be overcome. Fire may be indicated, for the word which I have translated SPINDRIFT, LASAIR, generally means flame.

I am inclined to think that it is a very old tale, a mixture of mythology, history, and every-day life, which may once have been intended to convey the moral lesson, that small causes may produce great effects; that men may learn from brutes, Courage from the lion and the wolf, Craft from the fox, Activity from the falcon, and that the most despised object often becomes the greatest. The whole story grows out of a grain of seed. The giant’s old mother is more terrible than the giants. The little flattering crone in the black castle more dangerous than the sea monster. The herd thought of the wolf when he fought the giants, but he thought of the fox when he slew the dragon. I can but say with the tale tellers, “dh’ fhàg mise n’ sin eud.” “There I left them,” for others to follow if they choose. I cannot say how the story got to the Highlands, and the lion into the mind of a woman in Berneray.

1 EIRIG, a fine for bloodshed, a ransom. Fine anciently paid for the murder of any person. Scottish Laws – Regiam Majestatem (Armstrong dic.) The Laws of the Brets and Scots, in which every one was valued according to his degree (Innes’s “Scotland in the Middle Ages” [Sketches].

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