The Tale of the Shifty Lad, the Widow’s Son – Notes, pp.363-364.

[Popular Tales Stories Contents]

From Kate Macfarlane, in or near the year 1810; A. Campbell, Roseneath, 1860; and J. McNair, Clachaig, 1860. 

Some incidents in this story I have known as long as I can remember. they used to be told me as a child by John Campbell, piper. Some of them were told me in 1859 by Jon Mackenzie at Inverary, who said they were part of a long story of which he could not repeat the rest. Others are alluded to in the Sutherland collection as known in that county. The version given came to me with the pedigree given above, and is unaltered, except in orthography and punctuation here and there. 

 It may be compared with a very great many stories in many languages, but I know none exactly like it. (See Note on No. 40, vol. ii.) 

Some of the incidents are very like part of the story of Rampsintus (Rawlinson’s Herodotus, vil. ii. p. 191), which were told to Herodotus more than two thousand years ago by priests in Egypt, and the most natural conclusion to arrive at is, that these incidents have been spread amongst the people by those members of their families who study the classics at the Scotch universities, and who might well repeat what they had learned over a winter fire in their father’s cottages, as their share of a night’s entertainment. 

But the incidents of this story, which resemble the classical tale, are associated with a great many other incidents which are not in Herodotus. Some of these have a resemblance to incidents in the Norse story of “The Master Thief;” and, according to Mr. Dasent’s introduction, these have a resemblance to Sanscrit stories, which are not within my reading. They have a relation to Italian stories in Straparola, and, according to a note in rawlinson’s Herodotus, the story of Rampsinthus “has been repeated in the Pecorone of Ser Giovanni, a Florentine of the fourteenth century, who substituted a Doge of Venice for the king.” 

I am told that the barrel of pitch and the marks on the men are introduced into an old German story; but there are several incidents such as that of the pig which was to discover the dead body, as pigs now do truffles, and the apple which as usual is mystical, which so far as I know are in Gaelic only. 

On the whole, then, there seems to me nothing for it but to admit this to be the Gaelic version of a popular tale, traditionally preserved for ages, altering as times roll on, and suiting itself to the manners of the narrators of the time. 

To suppose it to be derived from books is to suppose that these books have all been read at some time so widely in Scotland as to have become known to the labouring population who speak Gaelic, and so long ago as to have been forgotten by the instructed, who speak English and study foreign languages. 

Either this is a traditional popular tale, or learning must have been much more widely spread in the west at some former period than it is at present. 

My own opinion is that the tale is traditional, but there is room enough for speculation. On the 25th and 27th of August, I heard parts of the story told by Dewar, and MacNair, and John Mackenzie. Hector Urquhart told me that his father used to tell it in Ross-shire when he was a child. In his version, the storehouse was a treasury full of gold and silver, and the entrance a loose stone in the wall; the man was caught in “CEP,” a gin for catching foxes. The pig was a hungry boar, and the lad killed him with an arrow. Even John the tinker, who was present, knew the story, though not well enough to repeat it. It is manifestly widely spread in the Highlands. 

The Gaelic is somewhat peculiar, and there are some errors in it which have not been corrected. 

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