XVIIa. Fables, pp.275-288.

[Popular Tales Stories Contents]


From J. MacLeod, fisherman on the Laxford, Sutherland.

ONE day the fox succeeded in catching a fine fat goose asleep by the side of a loch, he held her by the wing, and making a joke of her cackling, hissing and fears, he said, – 

“Now, if you had me in your mouth as I have you, tell me what you would do?” 

“Why,” said the goose, “that is an easy question. I would fold my hands, shut my eyes, say a grace, and then eat you.” 

“Just what I mean to do,” said Rory, and folding his hands, and looking very demure, he said a pious grace with his eyes shut. 

But while he did this the goose had spread her wings, and she was now half way over the loch; so the fox was left to lick his lips for supper. 

“I will make a rule of this,” he said in disgust, “never in all my life to say a grace again till after I feel the meat warm in my belly.”

The wild goose in the Highlands has her true character; she is one of the most wary and sagacious of birds, and a Gaelic proverb says:- 
Sealgair thu mara mharbhas thu Gèadh a’s Crotach. 
Sportsman thou, when killest thou goose, and heron, and curlew? 
Rory is a corruption of a Gaelic proper name, which means, one whose hair is of the colour of the fox “Ruadh.” The fox is called by various descriptive and other names. BALGAIR, he with the “BALG,” bag or quiver, from which the shape of the quiver may be surmised to have resembled the foxes’ brush. MADADH RUADH, the red-brown dog. GILLE MARTUINN, the servant of Martin, or perhaps the Martinmas lad, but the true Gaelic, according to my instructor, a Lorn man, is SIONNACH, pronounced Shunach, which is surely the same as the Sanscrit SVAN, dog. SUNUH SHUNI, dog-bitch.


From John Campbell, piper; and many other sources lately.

The fox is much troubled by fleas, and this is the way in which he gets rid of them. He hunts about till he finds a lock of wool, and then he takes it to the river, and holds it in his mouth, and down he goes slowly. The fleas sun away from the water, and at last they all run over the fox’s nose into the wool, and then the fox dips his nose under and lets the wool go off with the stream.

This is told as fact. The place where an “old grey fellow” was seen performing this feat, was mentioned by one of my informants. The fox was seen in the sea near the Caithness hills.


“Tha biadh a’s ceol an seo,” as the fox said when he ate the pipe bag.

This saying I have known from my childhood, and the story attached to it is that the fox being hungry one daya, found a bag-pipe, and proceeded to eat the bag, which is generally, or was till lately, made of hide. There was still a remnant of breath in the bag, and when the fox bit it the drone gave a groan, when the fox surprised but not frightened, said:- 
“Here is meat and music!”


From D. M. and J. Macleod, Laxford, Sutherland.

One day the fox chanced to see a fine cock and fat hen, off which he much wished to dine, but at his approach they both jumped up into a tree. He did not lose heart, but soon began to make talk with them, inviting them at last to go a little way with him. “There was no danger,” he said, “nor fears of his hurting them, for there was peace between men and beasts, and among all animals.” At last after much parleying the cock said to the hen, “My dear, do you not see a couple of hounds coming across the field?” 

“Yes,” said the hen, “and they will soon be here.” 

“If that is the case, it is time I should be off,” said the sly fox, “for I am afraid these stupid hounds may not have heard of the peace.” 

And with that he took to his heels and never drew breath till he reached his den.

This fable is very well known, and is probably derived from Æsop, though the narrator did not know the fact. I give it because the authority cannot be impeached, and because equally well-known fables are found in old Chinese books, and are supposed to be common property. This may be pure tradition, though I suspect it to be derived indirectly from some book. I myself lately told the fable of the Monkey and the Cats, in Gaelic, to a highlander who was going to law; and it is impossible to be sure of the pedigree of such well-known fables. 
The next two are of the same kind, and were new to me when they arrived.



Once upon a time a Tod-hunter had been very anxious to catch our friend the fox, and had stopped all the earths in cold weather. One evening he fell asleep in his hut; and when he opened his eyes he saw the fox sitting very demurely at the side of the fire. It had entered by the hole under the door provided for the convenience of the dog, the cat, the pig, and the hen. 

“Oh! ho!” said the Tod-hunter, “now I have you.” And he went and sat down at the hole to prevent Reynard’s escape. 

“Oh! ho!” said the fox, “I will soon make that stupid fellow get up.” So he found the man’s shoes, and putting them into the fire, wondered if that would make the enemy move. 

“I shan’t get up for that, my fine gentleman,” cried the Tod-hunter. 

Stockings followed the shoes, coat and trousers shared the same fate, but still the man sat over the hole. At last the fox having set the bed and bedding on fire, put a light to the straw on which his jailor lay, and it blazed up to the ceiling. 

“No! That I cannot stand,” shouted the man, jumping up; and the fox taking advantage of the smoke and confusion, made good his exit.

Note by the Collector. – This is the beginning of Reineke Fuchs in the Erse. I cannot get any one to write them down in Gaelic, which very few people can write. Most of the tales are got from my guide, the gamekeeper; but I have got them from many others. 
C. D.  
Having told this story to a man whom I met near Oban, as a bait, I was told the following in return. 
J. F. C.  


“The fox is very wise indeed. I don’t know whether it is true or not, but an old fellow told me that he had seen him go to a loch where there were wild ducks, and take a bunch of heather in his mouth, then go into the water, and swim down with the wind till he got into the middle of the ducks, and then he let go the heather and killed two of them.”



A fox had noticed for some days, a family of wrens, off which he wished to dine. He might have been satisfied with one, but he was determined to have the whole lot, – father and eighteen sons, – and all so like that he could not tell one from the other, or the father from the children. 

“It is no use to kill one son,” he said to himself, “because the old cock will take warning and fly away with the seventeen. I wish I knew which is the old gentleman.” 

He set his wits to work to find out, and one day seeing them all threshing in a barn, he sat down to watch them; still he could not be sure. 

“Now I have it,” he said; “well done the old man’s stroke! He hits true,” he cried. 

“Oh!” replied the one he suspected of being the head of the family, “If you had seen my grandfather’s strokes, you might have said that.” 

The sly fox pounced on the cock, ate him up in a trice, and then soon caught and disposed of the eighteen sons, all flying in terror about the barn. 

C. D.  

This is new to me, but there is something like it in the Battle of the Birds, where the wren is a farmer threshing in a barn. Why the wren should wield the flail does not appear, but I suppose there was some good reason for it “once upon a time.”
J. F. C.  


From John Dewar, Inverary, August 27, 1860.

A fox one day met a cock and they began talking. 

“How many tricks canst thou do?” said the fox? 

“Well,” said the cock, “I could do three; how many canst thou do thyself?” 

”I could do three score and thirteen,” said the fox. 

“What tricks canst thou do?” said the cock. 

“Well,” said the fox, “my grandfather used to shut one eye and give a great shout.” 

“I could do that myself,” said the cock. 

“Do it,” said the fox. And the cock shut one eye and crowed as loud as ever he could, but he shut the eye that was next the fox, and the fox gripped him by the neck and ran away with him. But the wife to whom the cock belonged saw him and cried out, “Let go the cock; he’s mine.” 

Say thou, “’SE MO CHOILEACH FHEIN A TH’ ANN” (it is my own cock), said the cock to the fox. 

Then the fox opened his mouth to say as the cock did, and he drop[ped the cock, and he sprung up on the top of a house, and shut one eye and gave a loud crow; and that’s all there is of that sgeulachd.

I find that this is well-known in the west.



One day the wolf and the fox were out together, and they stole a dish of crowdie. Now the wolf was the biggest beast of the two, and he had a long tail like the greyhound, and great teeth. 

The fox was afraid of him, and did not dare to say a word when the wolf ate the most of the crowdie, and left only a little at the bottom of the dish for him, but he determined to punish him for it; so the next night when they were out together the fox said: 

“I smell a very nice cheese, and (pointing to the moonshine on the ice) there it is too.” 

“And how will you get it?” said the wolf. 

“Well, stop you here till I see if the farmer is asleep, and if you keep your tail on it, nobody will see you or know that it is there. Keep it steady. I may be some time coming back.” 

So the wolf lay down and laid his tail on the moonshine in the ice, and kept it for an hour till it was fast. then the fox, who had been watching him, ran in to the farmer and said: “The wolf is there; he will eat up the children, – the wolf! the wolf!” 

Then the farmer and his wife came out with sticks to kill the wolf, but the wolf ran off leaving his tail behind him, and that’s why the wolf is stumpy tailed to this day, though the fox has a long brush. 

C. D.  

This is manifestly the same as the Norse story, – “Why the bear is stumpy tailed?” and it errs in ascribing a stumpy tail to the wolf. There was not time for the “Norse Tales” to become known to the people who told the story, so perhaps this may be a Norse tradition transferred from the bear to the wolf. There is another wolf story in Sutherland, which was told to me by the Duke of Sutherland’s head forester in 1848. It was told in Gaelic by a fine old Highlander, who is now dead. His sons have succeeded him, and will probably remember this story which I quote from recollection. 
J. F. C.  



There was once a time when there were wolves in Sutherland, and a woman that was living in a little town lost one of her children. Well, they went all about the hills looking for the lad, but they could not find him for three days. Well, at the end of that time they gave up, but there was a young lad coming home late through a big cairn of stones, and he heard the crying of a child, and a kind of noise, and he went up to the cairn, and what should he see, in a hole under a big stone, but the boy and two young wolves with him. 

Well he was frightened that the old wolf would come, so he went home to the town, and got two others with him, and in the morning they went back to the cairn and they found the hole. 

Well, then, one of the lads stopped outside to watch, and the other two went in, and they began to kill the young wolves, and they were squealing, and the old one heard them, and she came running to the place, and slipped between the legs of the lad who was watching, and got her head into the hole, but he held her by the tail. 

“What,” said the lad who was inside, “is keeping the light from us.” 


“If the root of Fionn (or if the hairy root) breaks, thou wilt know,” said the man outside. 

Well, he held on, and the lads that were inside killed the wolf and the young ones, and they took the boy home to his mother, and his family were alive in the time of my grandfather, and they say they were never like other people.

This is manifestly the same as the story of Romulus and Remus, but it appears on very strong evidence that wolves really carry off and suckle children in Oude now, and that these children grow up to be half savages. It is either a fact in natural history, or a tradition, believed to be a fact in Sutherland and in Oude. I have heard the same story told in the Highlands of a wild boar, but the boar’s tail would be but a slippery hold. 
J. F. C.
According to Innes (Scotland in the Middle Ages, p. 125), in 1263, there was an allowance for one hunter of wolves at Stirling; and there were wild boars fed at the King’s expense in 1263, in Forfarshire. There are plenty of wolves now in Scandinavia, and in Brittany, and wild boars in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe. the Gaelic names for wolf are MADADH ALLUIDH, commonly used; FAOL CHU, ALLA MHADADH, all of which are composed of an epithet, and a word which now means dog. Dic. etc, MAC TIRE, Earth’s son; FAOL, Armstrong. 
The fox appears as a talking creature in several stories. So does the bear in No. IX., and the Wolf and Falcon, No. IV. The Dog appears in No. XII.; the Sheep, Cat, Cock, Goose, Dog, and Bull, in No. XI.; the Frog in No. XXXIII.; the Cat and the Mouse in No. XLIX. The Rat and the Lion, and the Dove, appear in a story to which I have referred in No. IV. Other creatures, also, not mentioned in stories, are gifted with speech, but their speech is generally but a translation of their notes into Gaelic.


BI GLIC, BI GLIC, Bee-Gleechk, be wise, say the Oyster-catchers, when a stranger comes near their haunts.


GÒRACH, GÒRACH, Gawrach, “silly,” says the Hoodie, as he sits on a hillock by the way side and bows at the passengers.


Here is another bit of a crow language, – a conversation with a frog. When it is repeated in Gaelic it can be made absurdly like the notes of the creatures. 

“Gille Criosda mhic Dhughail cuir a nois do mhàg.” 

Christ’s servant, son of Dugald, put up they paw. 

“Tha eagal orm, tha eagal orm, tha eagal orm.” 

I fear. 

“Gheibh thu còta gorm a’s léine. Gheibh thu còta gorm a’s léine.” 

Thou shalt have a blue coat and a shirt. 

Then the frog put up his hand and the hoodie took him to a hillock and began to eat him, saying, 

“Biadh dona lom! ‘s bu dona riabh thu.” 

Bad bare meat and bad wert thou ever. 

“Caite bheil do ghealladh math a nis?” said the frog. 

Where is thy good promise now? 

“Sann ag ol a bha sinn an latha sin. Sann ag ol a bha sinn an latha sin.” 

It is drinking we were on that day. 

“Toll ort a ruid ghrannda gur beag fecla tha air do chramhan.” 

“Toll ort!” said the hoodie. 

A hole in thee, ugly thing! how little flesh is on thy bones.

Why the frog is called Gilchrist MacDugald, unless the story was made to fit some real event, I do not know. The story used to be told by an old Islay man, Donald Macintyre, to Hector MacLean; and I remember to have heard part of it in my childhood. 
The Hoodie has appeared in many places already, and he and his family, the Crows, have been soothsayers time out of mind, and in many lands. A more mischievous, knowing bird does not exist, or one that better deserves his character for wisdom. 
The old fable of the bird which dropped a tortoise on a stone, is enacted every day by Hoodies. Any one who will take the trouble to watch, may see hoodies on the shores of the Western Isles, at low tide, flying up into the air and dropping down again. 
It will be found that they are trying to drop large stranded mussels and other shells, on the stones on the beach; and if left to their own devices, they will go on till they succeed in cracking the shell, and extracting the inhabitant. 
Keepers who trap them most successfully, do it by beating them at their own weapons. They put a bait into a pool of water, and make a show of hiding it, and set the trap on a knoll at some distance. The Hoodie makes a gradual approach, reconnoitering the ground as he advances, and settling on the knolls which command a view, perhaps repeating his song of silly, silly, till he settles on the trap, and next morning his head is on the kennel door with the mortal remains of other offenders. 
I suspect that the Hoodie was made a soothsayer because of his natural wisdom.


The Grouse Cock and his wife are always disputing and may be heard on any fine evening or early morning quarrelling and scolding about the stock of food. 

This is what the hen says, – 


See thou yonder day, and yon other day. 

And the cock, with his deeper voice, replies, – 


See thou yonder hill, and yon other hill.

Of all the stories I have gathered and heard, this is all I have about the Grouse. It is remarkable; for if these stories were home-made, and in modern times, they would surely treat of the only bird whose births, deaths, and marriages are chronicled in the newspapers, – and which is peculiar to the British Isles.


The eagle and the Wren once tried who could fly highest, and the victor was to be king of the birds. So the Wren flew straight up, and the Eagle flew in great circles, and when the Wren was tired he settled on the eagle’s back. 

When the Eagle was tired stopped and 


“Where art thou, Wren?” said the Eagle. 


“I am here above thee,” said the Wren. 

And so the Wren won the match.

This was told to me in my childhood, I think, by the Rev. Mr MacTavish. there is a much better version of the story in Grimm’s “King Wren,” in which the notes of many creatures are made into German; but this describes the flight of eagle and wren correctly enough. I lately, Sept. 1860, heard it in Skye.



Thou hast ravens’ knowledge, is commonly said to children who are unusually knowing about things of which they have no ostensible means of gaining knowledge.

Odin had two ravens whose names meant Mind and Memory, which told him everything that passed in the world.




Nest at Christmas, egg at Inid, bird at Pash. 

If that hath not the Raven, death he hath.

This is rather a bit of popular natural history than anything else, but it shews that the raven is at least as important a personage amongst Celts as the grouse is amongst Saxons.



Thou’rt lessened by that, said the Wren, when he dipped his beak in the sea.

There are a great number of similar stories current in the islands, but it is very hard to persuade any one that such trifles can be of any value. I have lately heard of a number of stories of the kind. For example –


John Mackinnon, stable-boy at Broadford in Skye, tells that “a man was one day walking along the road with a creel of herrings on his back, and two foxes saw him, and the one, who was the biggest, said to the other, ‘Stop thou here, and follow the man, and I will run round and pretend that I am dead.’ So he ran round, and stretched himself on the road. The man came on, and when he saw the fox, he was well pleased to find so fine a beast, and he picked him up, and threw him into the creel, and he walked on. but the fox threw the herrings out of the creel, and the other followed and picked them up; and when the creel was empty, the big fox leaped out and ran away, and that is how they got the herrings. 

“Well, they went on together till they came to a smith’s house, and there was a horse tied at the door, and he had a golden shoe, and there was a name on it. 

“ ‘I will go and read what is written on that shoe,’ said the big fox, and he went; but the horse lifted his foot, and struck a kick on him, and drove his brains out. 

“ ‘Ghill’ ghill’ ars an siunnach beag cha sgolair mi ‘s cha ‘n aill leam a bhi.’ 

“ ‘Lad, Lad,’ said the little fox, ‘no scholar me, nor wish I to be;’ ” and, of course, he got the herrings, though my informant did not say so.


A boy, Alexander Mackenzie, who walked with me from Carbost, in Skye, told that a bee (seillean) met a mouse and said, 

“Teann a nall ‘us gun deanamaid tigh.” 

Come over till we make a house. 

“I will not,” said Luchag, the mousie. 

“Fear dha ‘n dug thusa do mhil shamraidh, 

 Deanadh e tigh gheamhraidh dhuit. 

 Tha tigh agamsa fo thalamh, 

 Nach ruig air gallian na gaoith. 

 Bith tusa an ad isean pheallach 

 A ruidh air barradh nan craobh.” 

He to whom thou gavest thy summer honey, 

Let him make a winter house for thee; 

I have a little house under the ground, 

That can reach neither cold nor breeze, 

Thou wilt be a ragged creature, 

Running on the tops of the trees.


The same boy told that there was a mouse in the hill, and a mouse in a farm. 

“It were well,” said the hill mouse, “to be in the farm where one might get things.” 

Said the farm mouse, “’S fhearr an t-sith.” 

Better is peace.


The following is not strictly speaking a fable, but it is a sort of moral tale, and may be classed with fables. It seems to inculcate a lesson of self-reliance and self-help. I wrote it in English from the Gaelic repetition of John Mackenzie at Inverary in 1859, and made him repeat it in 1860, when I made up several omissions. Other versions have come to me from other sources, and the tale seems to be well known in the Highlands. If it is in any book, I have not been able to find it. Mackenzie says he learned it from a native of Uist, and I have a very well written version of it, told by Macintyre in Benbecula, to Mr. Torrie. It is called the “Provost of London,” and begins with the family history of the hero of the tale. A great lady fell in love with a poor Highland lad, and he was ashamed of the love she had taken for him, and went away to an uncle who was a colonel, and who got him made a major. the lady took to black melancholy, and he was sent for, and they married. He went to the wars, bought a small estate, was killed, and his brother-in-law brought up his son. Then comes the dream, the journey for three years in Scotland, Ireland, and England; the meeting with “one of the people of Cambridge,” and the rest of the incidents nearly as they were told to me by Mackenzie, but in different words.