This story came to me from four sources. First, the one which I have translated, into which several passages are introduced (in brackets) from the other versions. this was written down by Hector MacLean.
A version got by the same collector from Flora Macintyre, in Islay; received June 16, 1859. In this the whole of the first part if omitted; it begins at the giant’s house. The incidents are then nearly the same till she runs away, when she leaps the river with her sisters under her arms. The farmer or king is omitted. She returns, is caught by the giant, tied to a peat-stack, and a rock, which she takes away, and she makes the giant kill; the three cropped red girls: and she kills the cropped rough-skinned gillie: she steals the white glave of light, a fine comb of gold, and a coarse comb of silver. She makes the giant kill his mother, and his dog and cat enticed into a sack; at last she sets the giant to swill the river; he bursts, and she goes home with the spoil. The bit about the sack is worth quoting. She puts the crone in the pock, and a cat, and a dog, and a cream-dish with her. When the giant and his men came, they began laying on the pock. The crone cried out, “It’s myself thou hast;” and the giant said, “I know, thou she rogue, that it’s thou.” When they would strike a stroke on the dog, he would give out a SGOL; when they would strike a stroke on the cat, he would give out a MIOG; and when they would strike a stroke on the cream-dish, it would give out a STEALL (a spurt).
I have a version very prettily told, at Easter 1859, by a young girl, nursemaid to Mr. Robertson, Chamberlain of Argyll, at Inverary. It was nearly the same as the version translated, but had several phrases well worth preservation, some of which will be found in brackets; such as, “but her mother’s blessing came and freed her.” The heroine also stole a golden cover off the bed, which called out; and a golden cock and a silver hen, which also called out. The end of the giant was thus: At the end of the last scolding match, the giant said, “if thou wert here, and I yonder, what wouldst thou do?” “I would follow thee over the bridge,” said she. So Maol a chliobain stood on the bridge, and she reached out a stick to him, and he went down into the river, and she let go the stick, and he was drowned. “And what became of Maol a chliobain? did she marry the farmer’s youngest son?” “Oh, no; she did not marry at all. there was something about a key hid under a stone, and a great deal more which I cannot remember. My father did not like my mother to be telling us such stories, but she knows plenty more,” – and the lassie departed in great perturbation from the parlour.
The 4th version was got by John Dewar from John Crawfort, herring-fisher, Lochlonghead, Arrochar, and was received on the 2d of February 1860. Dewar’s version is longer than any, but it came too late. It also contains some curious phrases which the others have not got, some queer old Gaelic words, and some new adventures. the heroine was not only the youngest, but “maol carrach” into the bargain, and the rest called her Maol a Mhoibean; but when they went on their travels she chose the little cake and the blessing. The others tied her to a tree, and a cairn of stones, which she dragged away. then they let her loose, and she followed them till they came to a burn. “Then the eldest sister stooped to drink a draught from the burn, and there came a small creature, named Bloinigain, and he dabbled and dirtied the burn, and they went on. the next burn they came to the two eldest sisters stooped, one on each side of the burn, to drink a draught; but Bloinigain came and he dabbled and dirtied the burn; and when they had gone on another small distance, they reached another burn; and the youngest sister, whom the rest used to call Maol a Mhoibean, was bent down drinking a draught from the burn, and Bloinigain came and stood at the side of the burn till she had drank her draught, and the other two came; but when they stopped to drink their draught, Bloinigain dabbled the burn, and they went on; and when they came to another burn, the two eldest were almost parched with thirst. Maol a Mhoibean kept Bloinigain back till the others got a drink; and then she tossed Bloinigain heels over head, CAR A MHUILTEAN, into a pool, and he followed them no more.”
This Bloinigain plays a great part in another story, sent by Dewar; and his name may perhaps mean “fatty;” BLONAG, fat, suet, lard; BLOINIGEAN-GARAIDH, is spinnage.
The next adventure is almost the very same. The giant’s three red-haired polled daughters had PAIDIREANAN of gold about their necks (which word may be derived from pater, and a name for a rosary), and the others had only strings.
When they fled they came to a great EAS, cataract, and “there was no way of getting over it, unless they could walk on two hairs that were as a bridge across the cataract; and their name was DROCHAID AN DA ROINEAG, the two-hair bridge; and Maol a Mhoibean ran over the eas on the two hairs; but her sisters could not walk on the two hairs, and Maol a Mhoibean had to turn back and carry her sisters, one after one, over the eas on the two-hair bridge.” The giant could not cross, and they scolded each other across the river as in the other stories. The giant shouted, “Art thou yonder, Maol a Mhoibean?” and she said “AIR MO NODAIG THA;” and when she had told her deeds, she said, “I will come and go as my business brings me;” and the three sisters went on and took service with the king.
This two-hair bridge over the fall may possibly be a double rainbow; many a time have I sat and watched such a bridge over a fall; and the idea that the rainbow was the bridge of spirits, is old enough.
“Still seem as to my childhood’s sight
A midway station given,
For happy spirits to alight
Betwixt the earth and heaven.”
The Norse gods rode over the bridge, Bif-raust, from earth to heaven; and their bridge was the rainbow which the giants could not cross. There is also a bridge, as fine as a hair, over which the Moslem pass to Paradise; and those who are not helped, fall off and are lost.
The sisters took service; one was engaged to sew, the other to mind the house, and the youngest said she was good at running errands; so at the end of a day and year she was sent for the giant’s CABHRAN full of gold, and CABHRAN full of silver; and when she got there the giant was asleep on a chest in which the treasure was.
“Then Maol a Mhoibean thought a while, in what way she should get the giant put off the chest; but she was not long till she thought on a way; and she got a long broad bench that was within, and she set the bench at the side of the chest where the giant was laid; she went out where the burn was, and she took two cold stones from the burn, and she went in where the giant was, and she would put one of the stones in under the clothes, and touch the giant’s skin at the end of each little while with the stone; and the giant would lay himself back from her, till bit by bit the giant went back off the chest on to the bench; and then Maol a Mhoibean opened the chest on to the bench; and then Maol a Mhoibean opened the chest, and took with her the cabhran of gold, and the cabhran of silver.” The rest of the adventure is nearly the same as in the other versions; and the eldest sister married the king’s eldest son.
The next was the Claidheamh Geal Soluis, white glave of light.
She got in and sat on a rafter on a bag of salt; and as the giant’s wife made the porridge, she threw in salt. Then the giant and his son sat and supped, and as they ate they talked of how they would catch Maol, and what they would do to her when they had her; and after supper they went to bed. then the giant got very thirsty, and he called to his son to get him a drink; and in the time that the giant’s son was seeking a CUMAN (cup), Maol a Mhoibean took with her the fill of her SGUIRD (skirt) of salt, and she stood at the outside of the door; and the giant’s son said to him “that there was no water within;” and the giant said “That the spring was not far off, and that he should bring in water from the well;” and when the giant’s son opened the door, Maol a Mhoibean began to throw salt in his face; and he said to the giant, “That the night was dark, and that it was sowing and winnowing hailstones (GUN ROBH AN OIDHCHE DORCHA AGUS CUR ‘S CABHADH CLACH-A-MEALLAIN ANN); and the giant said, “Take with thee my white glave of light, and thou wilt see a great distance before thee, and a long way behind thee.”
When the young giant came out, it was a fine night; and he went to the well with the bright sword, and laid it down beside him; while he stooped to take up the water, Maol followed him, and picked up the sword, and SGUIDS I AN CEANN, she whisked the head off the giant’s son. Then came the flight and pursuit, and escape, and scolding match, and the second son of the king married the second sister.
the next adventure was the theft of BOC CLUIGEANACH, the buck with lumps of tangled hair and mud dangling about him. She went over the bridge and into the goats’ house, and the goats began at BEUCHDAICH, roaring; and the giant said, “Maol a Mhoibean is amongst the goats;” and he went out and caught her; and he said, “What wouldst thou do to me if thou shouldst find me amongst thy goats, as I found thee?” And she said, “It is (this) that I would kill the best buck that I might have, and I would take out the paunch, and I would put thee in the paunch. and I would hang thee up till I should go to the wood; and I would get clubs of elder, and then I would come home, AGUS SHLACAINN GU BAS THU, and I would belabour thee to death.” “And that is what I will do thee,” said the giant.
Then comes the bit which is common to several other stories, in various shapes; and which is part of a story in Straparola.
When she was hung up in the goat’s paunch, and the giant gone for his elder-wood clubs, Maol a Mhoibean began to say to the giant’s wife, “Oh! it’s I that am getting the brave sight! Oh! it’s I that am getting the brave sight!” as she swayed herself backwards and forwards; and the giant’s wife would say to her, “Wilt thou let me in a little while?” and Maol a Mhoibean would say (I will) not let (thee in) CHA LEIG, and so on till the wife was enticed into the paunch, and then Maol took the belled buck and went away with him. “AGUS AN UAIR A’ B’ AIRD ISE B’ ISLE EASAN, S’ AN NUAIR A B’ AIRD ASAN B’ ISLE ISE;” and the time she was highest he was lowest, and the time he was highest she was lowest, till they reached the two-hair bridge. The giant came home and belaboured his wife to death, and every blow he struck the wife would say, “IS MI FHEIN A THA ANN, O ‘S MI FHEIN A THA ANN – It is myself that is in it: Oh! it is myself that is in it;” and the giant would say, “I know it is thyself that is in it.”
[And in this the giant is like the water-horse in another story, and like the cyclop in the Odyssey, and like all other giants throughout mythology. he was a great, strong, blundering fool, and his family were as stupid as himself.]
Maol married the king’s third son, and the king said, “There is one other thing yet of what the giant has that I want, and that is, A SGLIATH BHALLABHREAC AGUS A BHPGHA S A DHORLACH – his lumpy bumby shield, and his bow and his quiver, or in poetical language, his variegated bossy shield, and his bow and quiver – and I will give thee the kingdom if thou wilt get me them.”
This is a good instance of what may happen in translating Gaelic into English, one language into another, which is far removed from it, both in construction and meaning. BHALLABHREAC applies to almost anything that is round or spotted. The root of the epithet is BALL, which, in oblique cases, becomes BHALL, vall, and means a spot, a dot, and many other things. it is the same as the English word ball. A shield was round, and covered with knobs; a city wall was round, and it was the shield of the town; and egg was round, and the shell was the shield or the wall of the egg; a skull is round, and the shield of the brain, and a head is still called a knob in English slang; a toad-tool is round, – and so this word ball had given rise to a succession of words, which at first sight appear to have nothing to do with each other, and the phrase might be translated speckled-wings. the epithet is applied to clouds and to many things in Gaelic poetry, and has been translated in many ways, according to the taste of each translator. Those who felt the beauty of the passages used the words which they found applicable. those who do not, may, if they choose, search out words which express their feeling; and so a poem which stands on its own merit, in its own language, is at the mercy of every translator; and those who work at Gaelic with dictionaries for guides, may well be puzzled with the multitude of meanings assigned to words.
So Maol went, and the giant’s dog barked at her, and the giant came out and caught her, and said he would cut her head off; and she said she would have done worse to him; and “What was that?” “Put him in sack and roast him;” so he said he would do that, and put her in, and went for wood. She got her hand out, untied the string, and put in the dog and cat, AGUS BHA AM MADADH AN ‘S AN SGALAILLE AGUS AN CAT ANNS AN SGIABHUIL – and the dog was in, and the squalling; and the cat (was) in, and the squealling, and the giant would say, “FEUCH RUIT A NIS – Try thyself now.” When he found out the trick, he pursued, and when they got to the bridge, his hand was on her back, and he missed his step and fell into the EAS, and there he lay. And the king’s son and Maol a Mhoibean were made heirs in the kingdom, and if they wanted any more of the giant’s goods, they got it without the danger of being caught by the giant.
The Gaelic given in Dewar’s version is spelt as it came, and is somewhat Phonetic. The writer knows his own language well, but has had very little practise in writing it. As he spells in some degree by ear, his phonetics have their value, as they have in his English letter given in the introduction.
A gentleman at the inn at Inverary remembered to have heard a similar story “long ago about a witch that would be running in and out of a window on a bridge of a single hair.”
“Kate ill Pratts” is referred to in a review of Chambers’ Nursery Rhymes, at page 117, vol. 10; 1853 – Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine. The story is mentioned as told in Perthshire, and seems to be of the same kind; with a bit of Cinderella, as known in the west, with the advice of the hoodie in Murchadh and Mionachag put in the mouth of a little bird –
“Stuff wi’ fog, and clem wi’ clay,
And then ye’ll carry the water away.”
These sounds are not imitations of any bird’s note, and the Gaelic sounds are; so I am inclined to think the Gaelic older than the low country version.
The story is well known as Little Thumb. It is much the same as Boots and the Troll, Norse Tales, p.247. It is somewhat like part of Jack and the Bean-stalk. Part of it is like Big Peter and Little Peter, Norse Tales, p.395; and that is like some German stories, and like a story in Straparola. The opening is like that of a great many Gaelic stories, and is common to one or two in Grimm.
There is something in a story from Polynesia, which I have read, in which a hero goes to the sky on a ladder made of a plant, and brings thence precious gifts, much as Jack did by the help of his bean-stalk. In short, this story belongs to that class which is common to all the world, but it has its own distinctive character in the Highlands; for the four versions which I have, resemble each other much more than they do any other of which I know anything.