The Tale of Connal – Notes, pp.152-160.

[Popular Tales Stories Contents]

From HECTOR URQUHART, June 27, 1859. Recited by KENNETH MACLENNAN of Turnaig, Pool Ewe, Ross-shire, aged 70, who learned it from an old man when he was a boy.

Another story, which seems to be a fragment of this tale made reasonable, forms part of a collection very well written in the Gaelic of Gearrloch, Ross-shire, from the telling of old men, by Mr. Thomas Cameron, schoolmaster, at the request of Osgood H. MacKenzie, Esq., July 1859.

ALEXANDER MACDONALD, INVERASDALE, tells how Uisdean Mor MacIlle Phadraig, a local hero, famous for slaying “Fuathan” (bogles), in a winter that was very cold, on a day of hailing and snowing (sowing and winnowing) was taking the way of “ABHRAIGHE MHOIR” (the great top), and was determined to reach as far as Lochbhraoin. Coming through a place called Lead Leachacachan mu Thuath (na Fuath?), he fell in with a woman, and he soon fell in with a new-born child. No house was near, so he killed his horse, pu thte mother and child inside, and left them in the snow. He went for help, and when he came back he found them warm and well. He took care of them till the woman could do for herself, and the child grew to be an able lad. He was named “MacMhuirich a curach an Eich,” which name has stuck to his race to this day.

After this uisdean came to poverty. On a cold winter’s night of hailing and snowing, he was going on a street in Dun Edin (Edinburgh), a woman put her head out of a window and cried, “It is cold this night on Leathad leachachan mu Thuath.” “It is,” said he. When she heard his Gaelic, she thought she was not far wrong, and asked him in. “What is the hardest ‘Cath’ that ever befel thee?” said the woman. he repeated the story, and ended with, – “And though I am this night in Dun Edin, many is the hard fight that I have wrestled with.” “I am the woman that was there, and this is the child,” said she; and she offered him shelter for the rest of his days.

Surely these are Connal, the robber; and the king and his mother; and the king’s horse put to a new use, transferred to the Cowgate from Eirinn and Lochlann, and the forests of Germany; brought down from the days of Sindbad, or of Ulysses, or from the fifteenth century, from the age of romance to the nineteenth century and to prose.

I have another version of this story, called AN GADAICHE DUBH, The Black Robber, told by Alexander MacNeill, fisherman in Barra, and written by Hector MacLean in August 1859. It varies much from the others. the outline is nearly the same, but the pictures are different. I hope to find room for it.

The story resembles –

1st. The Robber and his Sons, referred to in Grimm’s third volume, as taken from a MS. of the fifteenth century. An old robber desires to become an honest man, but his three sons follow their profession, and try to steal the queen’s horse. They are caught, and the old robber tells three stories of his own adventures to rescue them.

In the first he is caught by a giant and about to be eaten, but escapes by putting out the giant’s eyes with “destructive ingredients.” He gets out of a cave by putting on the skin of a sheep. He puts on a gold ring which the giant gave him, which forces him to call out “here I am.” He bites off his own finger, and so escapes.

Next – In a wilderness, haunted by strange creatures, he finds a woman about to kill her child as a dinner for some wild men. he makes her cook a hanged thief instead; hangs himself on a tree in place of the cooked thief, and has a slice cut from his side.

Lastly, the giants, frightened by a clap of thunder, run away; he returns to a civilized country, and the queen, as a reward for his stories, liberates the three sons.

2d. Part of this is manifestly the same as the Adventures of Ulysses in the Cave of the Cyclop. – (Odyssey, book ix.)

3d. And the adventures of Sindbad with the giants and dwarfs, on his third voyage (Arabian Nights). the Cat adventure, in the Islay version, may be compared with Sindbad’s meeting with the serpents and with the elephants. And

4th. With a Highland story, of some laird of Rasa, whose boat was upset by a company of cats, headed by one large black cat; supposed to be a troop of witches headed by their master.

The incident of being buried in a treasure cave with the dead, is common to the Arabian Nights. See Sindbad’s Fourth Voyage, and Aladdin; and also,

To the Decameron, second day, novel 5; where a man, after a number of adventures, is lowered into a well by two thieves. He is hauled up with a wheel and a rope by the watch, who are frightened and run away, leaving their arms.

The three meet once more; go to the cathedral, and raise up a marble slab laid over the grave of an archbishop. When “Andreuccio” has gone in and robbed the grave, they send him back for a ring, and drop the slab. The priests come on the same errand as the thieves; he frightens them, gets out with the ring, and returns to Perugia from Naples – “having laid out his money on a ring., whereas the intent of his journey was to have bought horses.”

In all these, greek, Italian, Arabic, German, and Gaelic, there is a general resemblance, but nothing more.

I have given three versions of the same story together, as an illustration of the manner in which popular tales actually exist; and as specimens of language. the men who told the story live as far apart as is possible in the Highlands, I heard one of them tell it; each has his own way of telling the incidents; and each gives something peculiar to himself, or to his locality, which the others leave out. Ewan MacLachlan, in discussing the MSS. in the Advocates Library in 1812, referring to Dean MacGregor’s MS., written about 1526, says:- “MacDougall is compared to MacRuslainn, the Polyphemus of out winter tales.” It would seem, then, that this story has been long known, and it is now widely spread in the Highlands.

The manners and customs of the king and his tenant are very highland, so far as they can be referred to the present day. Probably they are equally true pictures of bygone days. The king’s sons probably visited their vassals, and got into all manner of scrapes. The vassals in all probability resented insults, and rebelled, and took to the wild woods and became outlaws. So the mill was probably the resort of idlers and the place for news, as it still is. The king, in all likelihood, lived very near his own stable, for there are no ruins of palaces; and it seems to have been the part of a brave man to submit, without flinching, to have his wrists and ankles tied to the small of his back, and be “tightened” and tortured; and then to recite his deeds as an Indian brave might do.

It seems, too, that “Lochlann,” now Scandinavia, was once within easy sail of England and Ireland; and that the King of Lochlann knew the tenants of the neighbouring king. From the history of the Isle of Man, it appears that there really was a king called “Crovan,” who is also mentioned by Worsaae (page 287) as the Norwegian Godred Crovan who conquered Man, A.D. 1077. And in this, the stories are probably true recollections of manners and events, so far as they go. When it comes to giants, the story is just as likely to be true in the same sense. there probably was a race of big man-eating savages somewhere on the road from east to west, if not all along the route; for all popular tales agree in representing giants and wild men as living in caves, hoarding wealth, eating men, and enslaving women.

In these stories the caves are described from nature. When Conal walks along the top of the high shore, “rough with caves and goes,” and falls into a cave which has an opening below, he does that which is not only possible but probable. I know many caves on the west coast, where a giant might have walked in with his goats from a level sandy beach, near a deep sea, and some where a man might fall into the further end through a hole in a level green sward, and land safely; many are full of all that belongs to a sheep-fold, or a shelter used by goats and cattle, and by the men who take care of them.

I know one where a whole whisky distillery existed not very long ago; I first landed in it from a boat to pick up a wild pigeon; I afterwards scrambled into it from the shore; and I have looked down into it from smooth green turf, through a hole in the roof, into which there flowed a little stream of water. An active man might drop into the far end on a heap of fallen earth.

And here again comes the notion, that the so-called giants had swords so bright, that they shone in the dark like torches, and that they owned riches his underground in holes.

Perhaps we may believe the whole as very nearly true. It may be that there were really such people, and that they were miners and shepherds; when those who now tell stories about them, were wandering huntsmen armed with stone weapons.

The third version is remarkable as an insatnce of the way in which poems of greater merit used to be commonly, and still are occasionally recited. “Cuchullin” was partly told, partly recited, by an old man near Lochawe, within the memory of a clergyman who told me the fact. I heard Patrick Smith, in South Uist, and other men, so recite stories in alternate prose and verse, in 1859; and it appears that the Edda was so composed. Pems of the same nature as “the poems of Ossian,” if not the poems themselves, were so recited by an old man in Bowmore more than sixty years ago, when my friend Mr. John Crawford, late Governor of Singapore, and a well-known linguist, was a school boy, who spoke little but Gaelic; and when it was as rare to find a man amongst the peasantry in Islay who could speak English, as it is now remarkable to find one who cannot.

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