Carmina Gadelica, Volume 2, by Alexander Carmicheal, , at sacred-texts.com
THE figwort is known as 'farach dubh,' 'farach donn,' 'farum,' 'forum,' 'fothlus,' 'fotlus,' 'lus nan cnapan,' 'lus nan clugan,' 'clugan,' 'cluganach,' 'lus an torranain,' 'torranach,' and 'torranan.' The names are descriptive:--'farach dubh'--black mallet, 'farach donn'--brown mallet; 'farum' and 'forum' are probably forms of 'farach.' 'Fothlus' and 'fotlus'--crumbs, refuse, scrofulous, 'lus nan clugan'--plant of the clusters, 'lus an torranain'--plant of the thunderer. Probably 'tarrann,' 'torrann,' 'torranan,' 'tarranan,' are variants of Taranis, the name of the thunder god of the Gauls.
On the mainland the figwort is known for its medicinal properties, and in the islands for its magical powers. On the mainland the leaf of the plant is applied to cuts and bruises, and the tuber to sores and tumours. In the islands the plant was placed on the cow fetter, under the milk boyne, and over the byre door, to ensure milk in the cows.
Having intoned the incantation of the 'torranan,' the reciter said--'The "torranan" is a blessed plant. It grows in sight of the sea. Its root is a cluster of four bulbs like the four teats of a cow. The stalk of the plant is as long as the arm, and the bloom is as large as the breast of a woman, and as pure white as the driven snow of the hill. It is full of the milk of grace and goodness and of the gift of peace and power, and fills with the filling and ebbs with the ebbing tide. It is therefore meet to cull the plant with the flow and not with the ebb of the restless sea. If I had the "torranan" it would ensure to me abundant milk in my cow all the year. Poor as I am, I would rather than a Saxon pound that I had the blessed "torranan." I went away to John the son of Fearachar, who knows every plant that comes through the ground, to see if he would get me the "torranan" of power. But John's wife said "No," and that I was only an "oinig," a silly woman. The jade!'
John Beaton, known as John, son of Fearachar, son of John, son of 'Niall Dotair,' Neil the Doctor, was a shepherd by occupation but a botanist by instinct. He knew Gaelic only, and he knew no letters, but probably he knew more about plants and plant habitats and characteristics than any other man in Scotland. He lived in close communion with Nature, and loved plants as he loved his children--with a warm abiding love which no poverty could cool and no age could dim. A Gaelic proverb says:--'Bu dual da sin'--that was hereditary to him: and:--'Sgoiltidh an dualchas a chreig'--heredity will cleave the rock;
and again:--'Theid dualchas an aghaigh nan creag'--heredity will go against the rocks. John Beaton was a striking confirmation of these sayings, being descended from a long line of botanists and botanical doctors who left their impress on the minds and on the language of their fellow-countrymen. He was descended from the Beatons of Skye, who were descended from the Beatons of Islay. They in turn were descended from the Beatons of Mull, who are said to have come down from Beatan, the medical missionary of the Columban Church of Iona. These Beatons produced many eminent men, among them James Beaton, Archbishop of Glasgow, and his still greater nephew David, the Cardinal Archbishop of St Andrews, and, through the Barons Livingstone of Bachuill, Lismore, David Livingstone, physician, missionary, traveller and explorer. Mary Beaton, mentioned in the song of the Queen's Four Maries, was also of these Beatons:
[paragraph continues] The people of Mull say that this Mary Beaton was of the Mull family, but the distinguished scholar, the late Hector Maclean, and other Islay men, claimed that she was of the Islay Beatons. The Beatons were hereditary 'leighean,' physicians, to the Lords of the Isles and to other great insular and mainland chiefs. They were also physicians to the Kings of Scotland, whom they visited periodically. Payments for some of these visits are recorded in the Exchequer Rolls.
The Beatons left many MSS. on medicine and on medicinal plants. Some of these are in the Advocates' Library, some are in private possession, and many are known to have been lost. Some of the most beautiful sculptured stones in Iona, Mull, Islay, and elsewhere, are over the tombs of Beatons.
Several of the Beatons of Mull and Islay went to Paris and other Continental cities to complete their medical and theological studies. Some of these remained abroad and rose to positions of distinction. The name is still to be met with in France in the French form of Bethune. One of the Beatons on returning to Scotland retained that form of the name. He settled in Fife. A descendant of his settled in Skye as leech to Macleod of Macleod, founding the Skye branch of the family. One of this family was known as 'Fearachar Leigh,' 'Fearachar Lighiche,' Farquhar the Physician. He held the small estate of Husabost, near the mouth of Dunvegan Loch, for his services. He had a medical MS. valued at sixty milch cows; and so careful was he of this manuscript, that when he himself came up to Dunvegan by boat he sent a trusted man-servant on horse-back round by land with the manuscript. John Beaton, the shepherd of Uist, was descended from this 'Fearachar Leigh.'
John Beaton was too old and too rheumatic to move from home, but he
described the 'torranan,' its flower, leaf, stalk, and root, and its situation in Benmore, to his son and the writer, with marvellous fullness and accuracy, though he had not been to Benmore nor seen the 'torranan' for many years previously. He said that there were only two plants of it there, and that these were near one another on Benmore and overlooking the sea. He explained the various medicinal uses of the plant, but smiled at its alleged magical powers.
This was in 1877. John Beaton died in 1881, aged 92, one of nature's scientists and of nature's gentlemen. In 1896 his son, Fearachar, sent me the two plants from Benmore in South Uist. One of them I gave to Professor Bayley Balfour of the University of Edinburgh, who kindly identified the plant for me.
The following tradition is current in Uist:--The Pope sent Torranan to teach the people of Ireland the way of salvation. But the people of Ireland would not receive Torranan, whom they beat and maltreated in various ways. Torranan prayed to God to deliver him from the Irish, and shook the dust of Ireland off his feet. He betook himself to his coracle and turned it sun-wise, in name of God, and in name of Christ, and in name of Spirit, praying the 'Teora Naomh,' Holy Three, to send him when and where and whichever way they listed and had work for him to do--but not again to Ireland. The man was driven about hither and thither on the wild waves in his frail coracle no one knows how long or how far. But an Eye was on his prow, and a Hand was on his helm and the tide, and the wind, and the waves combined to take him into the little creek of Cailigeo in Benbecula.
The Island of Benbecula is situated between the islands of South Uist and North Uist, its axis being at right angles to the axis of these islands--one end on the Minch, the other on the Atlantic. It is fordable on both sides when the tide is out, hence the Gaelic name 'Beinn-nam-faoghla'--ben of the fords. The hill indicated in the name is near the centre of the island and nearly in a direct line between the fords. It is called 'Ruaidhbhal,' 'Ruaival'--red hill, from the Gaelic 'ruadh'--red, and the Norse 'fell' a hill. Ruaival is the only hill in Benbecula. It is cone-shaped, flat and level on the top, and 409 feet in height. The sloping sides are flushed with heather, while the flat summit is green and grassy. The summit commands an extraordinary view of fords and channels, islands, peninsulas and mainlands, seas and lakes, and of moors and machairs broken up and dotted over in the most marvellous manner with shallow pools, tarns, and lakes scattered broadcast beyond count, beyond number. Probably the world does not contain anything more disorderly than the distribution of land and water in and around Benbecula.
When Torranan was ascending the round red hill of Ruaival to survey his surroundings and to ascertain his whereabouts, his breast was sore from thirst, for he had had no water to drink since leaving Ireland. And Torranan prayed to God for water to quench his thirst, and lo! the red rock before him rent
asunder, and from the fissure a clear rill of cold water issued. Torranan thus pre-experienced the truth of Goethe's words:--
The water was fair to see and pleasing to taste, and Torranan drank his 'seachd sath'--seven satiations, and he blessed the rill from the rent rock and called it 'Gamhnach'--farrow cow. 'Agus ghuidh Torranan air Dia mor nan dul nach d’reathadh a Ghamhnach gu brath an diosg'--'And Torranan beseeched the great God of the elements that the "Gamhnach" might never go dry.' And ever since then all pilgrims who go to the 'Gamhnach' and drink of the rill give a choice green leaf to the 'farrow cow' in memory of its refreshing drink to the holy man who came to teach the people of 'Innis Cat'--Isle of the Caty--the way of salvation.
The man rejected of the people of Ireland became the accepted missionary of the people of Uist. He wished to build his prayer-house on 'Cnoc Feannaig,' the knoll of the hooded crow, within sight and hearing of the wild waves of Cailigeo where he had been driven ashore from his perilous voyage. Accordingly he began to gather stones to build himself a prayer-house on the knoll. But the stones that Torranan collected on the knoll during the day, the spirits transferred by night to the island in the lake adjoining. After a time Torranan gave up the unequal contest, saying that it was not meet for him to set his will against the will of God as revealed by His angels. Then Torranan built his prayer-house on the little island within hearing but not within seeing of the green seas and white waves of Cailigeo. And when the house was made Torranan dedicated the labour of his hands and the subject of his prayers to God and to Columba.
The lake containing the islet on which the seafarer built his oratory is now lowered, and what was formerly an island is now a peninsula jutting into the lake. The oratory said to have been built by Torranan is a ruin. The ruin shows an extension of the original building. This extension is said to have been made by Amie, daughter of Ruairi mac Allan, High Chief of Lorn, and wife of John of Islay, Lord of the Isles. Shell lime is used in the extension ascribed to the Lady Amie, but not in the original structure ascribed to Torranan. Captain Thomas, R.N., to whom the antiquities and archæology of the Outer Hebrides owe much, said that the part of the church ascribed to Torranan might well belong to the Columban period. The Columban churches are believed to have been usually constructed of wattles. But there were no wattles nor wood of any kind in Uist so late as Columba's time. Consequently, in this and similar situations the Columban brethren and followers had to depart from their usual practice, and build of stone.
The lake containing the peninsula on which Torranan built his prayer-house, dedicated to Columba, is called 'Loch Chaluim-chille'--Columba's Loch. It only
covers an area of some few acres and is of no great depth. Cairns and crosses studded the many knolls and hillocks surrounding the lake. But no trace of cairn nor of cross now remains. These pious offerings of a grateful people and of a bygone age to the memory of the saint have been secularised and utilised in making roads and in building culverts.
A religious house was afterwards built on Cnoc Feannaig, where Torranan had wished to build his prayer-house. It is now, and has been for centuries, a dwelling-house, and is probably the oldest inhabited house in Scotland.
Torranan is represented on the West in the island of 'Tarransey,' Tarran's island. In this small rocky glaciated island of the Atlantic there were two small churches, of which nothing now remains but the foundations, with a small burying-ground attached to each. The churches are beautifully situated on the sea-shore near one another, and look across to the ice-rounded mountains of Harris and Uist, while in the far-away blue distance are seen the serrated calcined hills of Skye. One of these simple churches with its burying-ground was dedicated to Saint Tarran and called 'Teampull Tharrain'--the Temple of Tarran, and 'Cladh Tharrain'--the burial-place of Tarran. The other church and burying-ground were dedicated to Saint Ce, or Keith, and were called 'Teampull Che'--the Temple of Ce, and 'Cladh Che'--the burial-place of Ce. The temple and burying-ground of Tarran were exclusively for the use of women, while the temple and burying-ground of Ce were exclusively for the use of men. This rule could not be violated with impunity. If the body of a man were buried in St Tarran's, or the body of a woman in St Ce's, the guardian spirits of the temples and burying-grounds thrust forth the obtruded corpse during the night, and it was found in the morning lying stiff and stark above-ground. In North Uist there is a tall obelisk called 'Clach Che'--the stone of Ce. Saint Ce is represented on the East by 'Beinn Che'--Benachie, the hill of Ce, 'Innis Che'--Inchkeith, the island of Ce, and 'Dail Che'--Dalkeith, the plain of Ce.
Palladius is the name usually assigned to the missionary sent by the Pope to the Irish and rejected by them. Skene thinks that Ternan was a disciple of Palladius, with whom he is confounded. 'Ternan was buried at Liconium or My Toren of Tulach Fortchirn, in Ui Felmada, and Druim Cliab in Cairbre.' Skene thinks that Liconium was the old name of Banchory-Ternan on the river Dee in Aberdeenshire.
The feast of St Ternan is the 12th of June. Like St Brendan of Clonfert, St Ternan was a seafarer, visiting many countries. He is spoken of as 'Torranan buan bannach darler lethan longach'--'Torranan lasting, deedful, over a wide shipful sea.' Many popular stories and distinctive names attach to him.
The plant named after him is popularly supposed to grow only near the sea which Torranan loved. The small rill from which Torranan obtained a drink is named 'Gamhnach,' farrow cow--a cow that does not carry a calf, but which
gives milk of good quality and continuous but small in quantity. At present the blade of any grass or the leaf of any plant is given to the 'Gamhnach' in offering. Probably it was permissible for pilgrims who came to drink the water and to worship the 'Gamhnach,' to offer only the leaf of the 'torranan' to the rill. Another curious thing is that two streams into which the 'Gamhnach' runs are called 'na Deathachan,' the Dees, and that two lakes into which these streams flow are called 'Loch nan Deathachan fo dheas,' the Loch of the Dees to the south, and 'Loch nan Deathachan fo thuath,' Loch of the Dees to the north. 'Dee' and 'Deathachan' are plurals of 'dia,' god. Were these rivers worshipped as gods?
St Ternan forms a connecting-link between the Dees of Benbecula and the Dee of Aberdeen.