This story has some relation to “The man who travelled to learn what fear was;” but I know nothing quite like it in Gaelic, or in any other language. Ann Darroch, who told it to Hector MacLean in May 1859, learned it from an old woman, Margaret Conal, of whom MacLean writes –
“I have some recollection of her myself; she was wont to repeat numerous ‘ursgeuln’ (tales). Her favourite resorts were the kilns, where people were kiln-drying their corn; and where she was frequently rewarded, for amusing them in this manner, by supplies of meal. She was paralytic; her head shook like an aspen leaf, and whenever she repeated anything that was very exciting, her head shook more rapidly; which impressed children with great awe.”
Some of the phrases are evidently remembered, and said by heart; the maid’s wages, for instance; and the creatures that came to the wandering daughters. The vessel of Balsam occurs often in Gaelic stories, and I cannot make out what it really means. BALLAN IOCSHLAINT [cordial medicine], teat, of ichor, of health, seems to be the meaning of the words.
In former days the kilns were not always used for drying corn. It is related that one of the first excisemen who went to the West, found and caught a large party of men kiln-drying malt. He made a seizure of course, and was not a little surprised when he was seized himself, and his arms fast tied behind him. His eyes were bound also; and then he was led to the kiln and set down near the fire; and they gave him the malt to smell and taste; and then they gave him a drop, and then a dram, till the gauger was so drunk that they left him there, and departed with their malt kiln-dried and ground.
This I have heard told of the very place which Margaret Conal used to haunt, and of a time when she might have been a little girl; I cannot vouch for the truth of my story, but the kiln and the men about it may be seen now; and such scenes may well account for the preservation of wild stories. A child would not easily forget a story learned amongst a lot of rough farmers, seated at night round a blazing fire, listening to an old crone with palsied head and hands; and accordingly, I have repeatedly heard that the mill, and the kiln, were the places where my informants learned their tales.
There is a word in this tale which the narrator, the translator, the transcriber, the dictionary, and the “old men,” have failed to explain.
SREATH [?] [Series] SOIGH, a bitch (ross-shire, etc.) CHUILEANACH means some kind of bird, and she has twelve “puppies,” DA CHUILEAN DEUG [two puppies]. The narrator maintains that the words are right as she heard them.