Assuming that stories do really contain the debris of ancient beliefs, this particular collection should contain fragments of the ancient Celtic creed. They seem to me to point to an astronomical pantheon at war with meteorological, aqueous, and terrestrial powers.
The early religion of the Vedas seems to have been mixed up with solar worship; so was that of Egypt,
[paragraph continues] Greece, and Rome. In the second century, in the days of Apuleius, who was a native of Northern Africa and manifestly a collector of North African popular tales, it was necessary, in order to propitiate the good powers, to "put the best foot foremost," as we say; to start with the right foot, not the left, as Apuleius explains, and in these days men still swore by the divinity of the Sun.
Irishmen will have it that they are of Milesian descent, and came from the Mediterranean. Scotchmen will have it that they, too, have a like origin-from Pharaoh's daughter--and Apuleius calls his "Milesian" tales, whatever he means thereby. It seems pretty certain, at all events, that Phoenician traders visited Britain at a very early date, whether the Celtic Britons first came overland or by sea. To secure a prosperous result in the days of Martin, in the Western Isles in 1703, it was requisite to take a turn sunwise at starting. A boat was rowed round sunwise; an old Islay woman marched sunwise about the worthy doctor, to bring him good luck; the fowlers, when they went to the Flannen Islands, walked sunwise thrice about the chapel, saying prayers. Sometimes fire was carried round some object, sometimes they rode in procession. They made forced fire for mystical purposes by rubbing planks together. In short, there were then a number of superstitious observances connected with fire, and with moving in a circle from left to right if the back is to the centre, from right to left if the centre is faced; sunwise, east, south, west, north, and so thrice. Every English sailor coils a rope sunwise; but I have never been able to find out that he alters the direction of his coil when he crosses the line, and ought to coil it the other way. When a sailor faces about, he goes right
about face; when boys play at rounders, so far as I can remember, they always run first to the stance on the left of the circle within which they stand. Girls dance in a circle, and all England commonly dances in a circle about the mistletoe when we dance the old year out and the new year in; and, so far as I can remember, the dancers face the centre, and move to the left, which is sunwise, and planetwise, if the earth be the centre intended. Long ago, when in Greece, I came upon a lot of peasants dressed in their white kilts, performing their dances. Men and women held hands in a circle, advanced and retreated, and moved slowly round to a very monotonous music, while every now and then one of them broke out into a fit of violent twirlings and eccentric whirlings in the midst, which, if originally astronomical, must have symbolized a comet.
This summer I saw the national dance of the Faroe islanders. A great number of men and women, boys and girls, joined hands and walked round a room singing old heroic ballads in their old Norse tongue. They walked sunwise. When we waltz we go sunwise round the ball-room, when we go round in a reel we do the same, and start with the right foot. The wine bottle and the whisky noggin both circulate sunwise about the table. Lawyers in their revels used to hold hands and dance thrice round the seacoal fire in the Inner Temple Hall, according to ancient usage. Boys hold hands and dance round bonfires. Men and maidens still dance round the Maypole in some benighted parishes in England. In short, this system of dancing, and doing things in circles, sunwise, is almost universal in the north.
Mons. de la Villemarqué tells us of a game which he saw played by children in Brittany. A small boy was
seated on an isolated stone, and a circle of small Breton peasants revolved about him thrice, prostrating themselves thrice with their faces to the earth, and singing--
Roue Arzur me ho salud,
Me ho salud Roue a Vrud;
O! Roi Arthur, je vous salue
Jo vous salue, Roi de renom.
The hill known as the "Cobbler," in Argyllshire, is called "Aite suidhe Artair." The seat of Arthur, the hill above Edinburgh, is called Arthur's Seat, and Art is one Gaelic word for a god. Art adhair would mean god of the air, which would be a fit name for the sun.
There is a childish game played in the Highlands called "uinneagan àrda," high windows, in which a circle of children dance round one who tries to escape.
Another amusement is to whirl a lighted stick so as to produce a circle of fire, but that is forbidden by old dames, who say, "Tha e air a chrosadh," "It is crossed," or forbidden. There are plenty of crosses on stones which seem to have pagan symbols on them.
There are several "knocking-out games," which are played in circles, or a half circle, round the peat fire in the middle of the floor.
A string of words is repeated by a performer with a stick in his hand, who strikes a foot of one of the players as he says each word, and at the end of the performance he says, "Cuir stochd a staigh," and the last player sticks his right foot into the circle. The game goes on sunwise till all the right feet are in, and then all the left, and the last has either to take three mouthfuls of ashes, or go out and repeat certain quaint disagreeable phrases, one of which is--
"My own mother burned her nails scraping the sowen's pot."
"Loisg mo mhathair fhéin a h-ìnean a sgrìobadh na poite cabhraich."
Another is, to light a stick and pass it quickly round while it is red. The player who has the stick says--
"Gill' ite gochd." The next to the left replies--
"Cha 'n fhìor dhuit e;" and the fire holder repeats as fast as ever he can--
"Cha 'n 'eil clach na crann.
San tigh, mhor 'ud thall,
Nach tuit mu d' cheann'
Ma leigeas tu ás Gill' ite gochd,"
and when that is said he passes the stick to his left-hand neighbour as fast as he can. When the fire goes out the holder of the stick pays some forfeit. I have played this game myself as a child. The words mean--
"Servant of ite gochd."
Untrue for thee.
There's neither stock nor stone
In yonder great house,
But will fall on thy head,
If thou lettest out the servant of ite gochd."
[paragraph continues] What the last word may mean I cannot say.
Now, if a man anywhere north of the equator will face the sun all day, and the place where he is all night, he will revolve right-about-face in twenty-four hours, and meet the rising sun in the morning with his
right hand to the south, his back to the west, his left hand to the north, and his face towards his object of worship, if he worships the sun. If he walks round the gnomon of a dial on the sunny side, seeking light and avoiding shade, he will describe a portion of a circle from left to right, and if he crosses the arctic circle he may so perform a whole circle in a summer's day; but if an Asian or European walks continually towards the sun at an even pace, whenever he can see him, he will necessarily walk westwards and southwards, in the direction in which Western Aryans are supposed to have migrated.
The Gaelic language points the same way. Deas means, south, and right, and ready, dexterous, well-proportioned, ready-witted, eloquent. Consequently to go south, and to go to the right; to coil a rope dexterously, or southwards; to be dexterous, southern, and to be prepared to set out are all expressed by the same Gaelic words--"Deas," "Gu deiseal," etc. Now all this surely points to a journey from east to west with the sun for a leader; to a camp awakening at sunrise and facing the great leader in the morning, watching his progress till noon, and setting off westwards when "DIA," 1 god of day, was south;--Deas, ready to lead them westwards on their pilgrimage. Surely all these northern games, dances, and ceremonies, and thoughtless acts, point to astronomical worship, and an imitation of the march of the stars round the world, or round the sun, if men had got so far in their astronomy.
A short ballad, taken down from the recitation of an old tailor in South Uist, who is utterly illiterate, and has hardly ever worn a shoe or a bonnet, begins thus
Gun d' dhùbhradh an Ràth soluis;
Fuamhair mor anns an iadh-dhorus;
Fuamhair mor a' tighinn o'n tràigh,
B' fhear an t-eug na 'dhol 'na dhàil.
Seachainn mi gu direach deas
S nach ann air do thì a thainig.
The light circle was shadowed;
A great giant in the wheeling door;
A great giant coming from the strand,
Better were death than to go to meet him.
Pass me bye straight and south (right readily,)
For it was not on thy track I came.
So here is poetry, which is not to be found in any book that I know, and which is highly mythological. Caoilte, one of the Fenians, sees the circle of light (pronounced RA, spelt RATH; English RAY; Egyptian, according to Sir Gardiner Wilkinson, RA or RE, the sun god) shadowed by a great giant with five heads, who was in the wheeling door, that is, I presume, the sun, the door in the Zodiac, whence light emerged: and the giant desires him to pass him straight, south, and avoid him; but Caoilte will do nothing of the sort; they fight, and he slays the giant with a "brodan," a short spear, according to the reciter; but Caoilte was sore wounded in the fight; and Graidhne, the daughter of the King of Connachdaidh (Connaught) carries his shield to "Dun Til."
"Cha lotadh i 'm feur fo 'cois,
S cha mhò a lùbadh i meangan."
She would not hurt the grass under foot,
No more would she bend a sprig.
The following is an air to which a song about Caoilte used to be sung. I have not got the old tailor's air, but it was very pretty and wild. I have but three lines of the other version.
DAN CHAOILTE, from Mrs. MACTAVISH.
A Chaoilte laoich a teannragan
Annir og an or-fhuilt reidh
Cireadh a cinn le cir airgiod.
. . . . .
Caoilte hero from battle.
Young maiden of smooth golden hair
Combing her head with a silver comb.
. . . . .
Villemarqué holds that Arthur and his knights are but Celtic gods in disguise. Surely the Fenians are but another phase of the same astronomical worship of f be host of heaven.
Again it appears in many ways that the dead were supposed to live; but far away to the westward, where the Sun God seemed to go to his rest. Ossian Fionn, The heroes innumerable, were gone before towards the
setting sun, and dwelt in a green island, where all the mysterious objects in Gaelic popular tales abound. The mystic fountain, which in the story of Cupid and Psyche is the river Styx, and flowed from a lofty mountain; the mystic apples which changed men into animals, and cured them; (in the Golden Ass a rose did the same); the mighty smiths who forged "Dure Entaille," for Arthur. "Avalon," the earthly paradise, and "Eilean iomallach an domhain," "Island uttermost of the lower earth," were surely the same mysterious country over which the Sun God was supposed to preside. 1
All these strange matter of fact stories which pervade the whole of the western islands, from north Ronaldshay to the South of Ireland, about seals which turned out to be men and women, who came from their home in the west to visit the world; all these strange semi-heathen practices of taking the sick to the shore; all these accounts of strange islands occasionally seen in the far west, are surely traces of the ancient Celtic notions of a future state; and the chapels perched upon the most distant western rocks on the coast of Europe, were surely set up to counteract and take advantage of this ancient heathen Celtic tendency to western worship, and the belief in an earthly paradise. Surely the same idea is expressed in the African fable of the hyæna and the weasel.
The one, who was a priest in other stories, pointed to the setting sun, and said, "there is fire, go and fetch it." The other went as fast as he could towards the sun, till it set, and then it came back, for the hyæna was a fool, and be lost his food and his tail; but
the weasel was the wisest of all creatures, he was the philosopher, and got the prize.
But beyond the Green Island beneath the western waves, there was still something unknown and unexplored. When Diarmid had found his princess under the waves, he had to cross a great strait to get the cup of the king who ruled over the dead. And there was more beyond.
"They believe," says Giraldus Cambrensis, 1 "that the spirits of the dead pass into the company of the illustrious, as Fin MacCoul, Oskir MacOshin, and the likes, of whom they preserve tales and traditionary songs." Beyond the Green Isle and the land of the dead was the Island of Youth, which was further off, and harder to get to, according to a story got from Skye.
It would be tedious to point out all the mythology which is scattered through Gaelic stories, and it is impossible to unravel the details of the system without a thorough knowledge of the oldest Irish mythical tales, but this much appears--there is more foundation in Gaelic mythology for the Mediterranean, Phoenician, Trojan, Egyptian, and Milesian stories than is, generally supposed.
Taking Sir Gardiner Wilkinson's names of Egyptian gods, and his account of their attributes to be correct, a great many of the names have a resemblance to Gaelic words of appropriate meaning.
Thus, NEPH is the equivalent to Jupiter, and father of all gods. Neùmh-(nêv) means heaven; and naomh, often pronounced nêv, means holy.
AMUN was a name of the god who presided over inundations. Amhain, avon, etc., are words which mean river, and can be traced over great part of Europe.
AMUN RE was the ramheaded god, who was also the sun. Reith, pronounced răy, means a ram. Rath, pronounced rA, means a circle, and is applied to the sun in the ballad above quoted. Ré means the moon; roth, pronounced răw, means a wheel or circle.
PASHT was Diana Lucina. Paisde means a child.
RA or RE, was the sun god of Egypt, and represented as a hawk; he was supported by lions "which are solar animals," and he is the equivalent of BAAL. Beul means the mouth, the front, the opening, the dawn of day, the mouth of night, the beginning. Every one has heard of bealltainn, the 1st of May, old style, and "belten-fires," when branches of the tree which bears red rowan berries were very lately placed over the cow-house doors in the west, and when all sorts of curious ceremonies were performed about the cattle. Birch branches, primroses, and other flowers, were placed upon the dresser, tar was put upon the cattle, snails were put upon a table under a dish, and were expected to write the first letter of a lover's name, holes were dug in the ground and fortunes foretold from the kind of animals which were found in them. People used to get up early on the morning of Easter Sunday and go to the tops of hills before sunrise, in the full belief that they would "see the sun take three leaps, and whirl round like a mill wheel" for joy, which seems to be a mixture of Paganism and Christianity. The ram, the hawk, the lion of Manus, and all that tribe of mythological beings may be derived from astronomical symbols, and those of Egypt and the far East may perhaps explain those on the sculptured stones of Scotland.
ATHOR presided over Egyptian night. Adhar means the sky. Athair means father, and night according to the ancients was the mother of all things.
OSIRI was the greatest of Egyptian gods. O-shiorrigh, king from everlasting, would be something like the sound.
Arabic popular mythology, as given by Lane (Arabian Nights, vol. i., p. 37), also bears upon that of the west.
GHOOL is a species of demon, and DELKAN is another. Djeeoul is the sound of the Gaelic for a demon, though the modern spelling rather points to a Latin derivation for the word.
SEALAH is a species of demon which haunts an island in the China sea; the Gaelic name for a seal is Ròn, but the seals are supposed to be uncanny everywhere.
GHADDAR is another demon of hideous aspect; Gadhar is a hound; Gobhar a goat; and there are plenty of stories of demons appearing as goats and dogs; Boc is a buck goat, and Bòcain are bogles.
SHIKK is a demoniacal creature, having the form of half a human being, like a man divided longitudinally.
THE NESNAS is described as having half a head, half a body, one arm, and one leg, with which it hops with much agility. No such creatures appear in German or Norse tales, but the smith, in the Lay of the Smithy, had one leg and one eye. In a very wild version of No. XXXVIII., got from old MacPhie, the DIREACH GHLINN EITIDH MHICCALAIN, the desert creature of Glen Eiti, of the son of Colin, is thus described:--"With one hand out of his chest, one leg out of his haunch, and one eye out of the front of his face." He was a giant, and a wood-cutter, and went at a great pace before the Irish king Murdoch MacBrian, who had lost sight of his red-eared hound, and his deer, and Ireland.
[paragraph continues] In the same story a "FACHAN" is thus described:--"Ugly was the make of the Fachin; there was one hand out of the ridge of his chest, and one tuft out of the top of his head, it were easier to take a mountain from the root than to bend that tuft."
DJINNEE is a term for all sorts of magical creatures; Djeeanan is the sound of the Gaelic for "Gods."
Direach Ghlinn Eiti, or Fachan (as described).
And, on the other hand, no sort of Gaelic meaning can be extracted from names in other mythologies; for instance, from that of the nearest race, the Norsemen. HAR and OSKEE, which resemble Athair, father, and Oscar, are almost the only names in the Edda which seem to bear any likeness to a Gaelic word. When so many old fables point towards the eastern shores of the
[paragraph continues] Mediterranean as the cradle of the Celtic race, it is surely worth considering such resemblances as are pointed out above, however far-fetched they may seem to be. The Scotch pleaded a descent from Scota, Pharaoh's daughter, against Edward's claim, founded on his descent from Brutus of Troy; the Pope was umpire, and Bannockburn the final action in the case, so this is no new idea.
If Celts be Aryans, and these followed the sun from central Asia, some of them would reach the shore about TYRE, if others made their way to Scotland, and called it "Tir nam Beann," the shore of hills.
It is at least certain that the groundwork of several popular tales now current amongst the peasantry of the West Highlands, were written by Apuleius in the second century, and it is probable that these were current about Carthage some seventeen hundred years ago. Nearly the whole of the story of Cupid and Psyche, as told by Apuleius, will be formed in these volumes, though in a very rough dress, Nos. II., III., XII., XXXIII., XXXIX, and the story abstracted above. It is all over Europe in all sorts of shapes, and it was in India as a tale of the love of the sun for an earthly maiden, who was also the dawn. It was part of classical mythology, though Venus had surely begun to lose her power when Apuleius made her a scolding mother-in-law. It seems hopeless to speculate on the origin of the story anywhere short of the dawn of time; but if there be any truth in the "eastern origin of Celtic nations," it is reasonable to look eastwards for the germ of Celtic mythology.
On the other hand, the bodily forms, which the
creatures of Gaelic mythology bear, often seem to have a foundation in fact.
The WATER-BULL is like a common bull, though he is amphibious and supernatural, and has the power of assuming other shapes. He may have been a buffalo, or bison, or bos primogenious long ago; or even a walrus, though mythology may have furnished his attributes. There were human-headed bulls at Nineveh, and sacred bulls in Egypt, which had to do with inundations. Bulls are sculptured on ancient Scotch stones; and there is a water-bull in nearly every Scotch loch of any note. Loch Ness is full of them, "but they never go up to the Fall of Foyers."
Here are some conversations which took place on the hill-side and elsewhere.
D. "Water bulls! Did not the uncle of that man see him!"
C. "Well, what was he like?"
D. "Well, my father's brother was a herd, and he was herding at the end of that loch, and he saw the water-bull coming out of the water; he was close to him. He was a little ugly beast, not much more than the size of a stirk, and rough, and 'gorm-ghlas'--blue gray, * * * and my uncle marked down the day, and the hour, and all about it." (Here some details omitted.) "Now, my uncle was not a man to think he saw a thing when he did not see it; he was a quiet, steady man, and he told his master all about it."
E. Oh, yes; that's true enough."
D. I would not give a snuff for what a man sees in the night; he might go wrong. Many a time have I gone to look at a thing which I saw in the night, and it was but a stone or a tree. But what a man sees in the bright, clear white day-light, that is another thing.
[paragraph continues] There's my brother, he was working one day at the end of that loch. I remember the day chosen well. It was a choice fine day; I was working myself, at the end of Loch -, and it was so calm, and still, and quiet, not a breath of wind moving. Well, my brother saw that loch with great waves breaking all round it, from the middle on the shores, and that is certain sure; a thing which a man sees by the white light of day, in the light of the sun, is not like what a man sees in night. Well do I mind that day."
C. "And did you ever hear that the bull did harm to any body?"
D. "No, never; but it cannot be a good thing, or, in a small loch like that it would be seen oftener. It could not keep hid."
C takes a mental note of the narrator's earnest poetical figurative language and features, which tell of firm belief in the mystic bull, and proceeds to ask questions of other inhabitants.
Boy, "Oh, yes, they see water-bulls often about that loch. My father has been herd there for fourteen years and he has never seen anything, but there was a woman one evening coming across Loch ------ in a boat, and she heard him blowing and snorting, and she turned back, and left the boat, and stretched out home. That was the water-horse, not the bull."
C thinks of the rules of evidence and the blowing of an angry otter, and smokes gravely.
Boy No. 2, carrying knapsack along a road distant some twenty miles from boy 1. "There are no waterbulls down here (the sea), but up at the small loch which is in that glen there are plenty of water-horses. Men have seen him walking about the shore of the lake. He is just like another horse, but much wilder
like. He is gray. There was an old soldier up at that loch last summer; he was living in a booth with his wife, fishing trout, and getting small white things out of shells that he finds there. He says he gets eighteen shillings and a pound for them; they will be setting them in rings."
"One night he heard the water-horse blowing and splashing in the loch, and he got such a fright that he stretched out and left the place, and he would not go there again."
C smokes, and sees a vision of a pearl fishery guarded by the water-horse-guards, of a knowing old genius whom he had met on the road, moving his camp to the south.
Man, a hundred miles away in another island, declares "that he has often seen bulls feeding about the lake sides with the cattle, and the cows often had calves. They are 'corcach,' short-eared, a cross between the water-bull and a land-cow. They are easily known. No one has ever seen a water-cow."
"Loch Aird na h-uamh is famous for water-horses. They have been ridden to market. Some men who mounted them have been drowned, others had very narrow escapes. The other water-horses sometimes tore the one that had been ridden to pieces. They are just like other horses, but live tinder water."
Boy in another island. "There are no water-bulls here, but in a loch near B------, where I come from, they are seen very often. I saw a man that saw one in that loch. He saw nothing but his back, but the loch was all in waves, though it was a calm day. That has been seen not once or twice, but various times.
Audience suddenly remembers that Scotland was shaken by a slight earthquake some years ago.
Boy in another island. "That is not the lake where the water-horse was seen. It was down south. It is a large lake where there might be many a thing that a man might not know; but the man saw, as it were, the likeness of a man rising up out of the water, and that must have been a bad spirit."
As this was a place where the telling of stories, and music ar interdicted, and the poor, mild water-bull had now become a bad spirit, it seemed worth finding out what change had followed in the popular manners.
C. "Will there be many people at the market?"
B. "There will be a great many."
"Do they all come to buy and sell?"
"Oh! no; they just come."
"Will there be music there?"
"There will not."
"Will there be drinking?"
"Oh! that there will indeed."
L. "They will be so wild after the market that I cannot let you take the gig, unless a big man goes with it; they would kill the boy and the horse."
C meets a most quiet, orderly, decorous set of polite, civil men and women going to market with their beasts, and wonders. He remembers the old fun and frolic of a Highland fair. the dancing, the games, the shinny, the processions, the races, the happy faces, the sober family parties returning home; and if he does remember to have heard of a drunken riot now and then amongst the wilder spirits, that was not the prominent feature of a Highland fair thirty years ago. At night
he is told that if he persists in asking a man to play the fiddle, the neighbours will certainly "commit a breach of the peace." Wonders still more. A few days after he is overtaken by some very noisy, drunken, uncivil, riotous, quarrelsome creatures, who have not enough brains left to whistle a tune or to tell a story withal, and therefore the suppression of innocent amusement does not appear to him to have done much good. Here are men naturally polite, full of fun, wit, imagination, and poetry, forced to let off all the steam at once, and making beasts of themselves in consequence.
Within a few miles, men who had not been to market were sober, pleasant, and amusing, repeating good poetry to a pleased audience, but they too were very glad to have a dram. More's the pity.
Why should not the uneducated be taught with a liberal spirit?
But to return to the water-bull. The following story shews him as the friend of man, and the foe of the savage water-horse, and that is his usual character in popular mythology.
No. 383--In one of the islands here (Islay), on the northern side, there lived before now a great farmer, and he had a large stock of cattle. It happened one day that a calf was born amongst them, and an old woman who lived in the place, as soon as ever she saw it, ordered that it should be put in a house by itself, and kept there for seven years, and fed on the milk of three cows. And as every thing which this old woman advised was always done in the "baile," this also was done. (It is to be remarked that the progeny of the water-bull can be recognised by an expert by the shape of the ears.)
A long time after these things a servant girl went
Click to enlarge
Highland Family Party returning from the Fair after a Dance. From a sketch from nature, 1829.--Page 303.
with the farmer's herd of cattle to graze them at the side of a loch, and she sat herself down near the bank. There, in a little while, what should she see walking towards her but a man (no description of him given in this version), who asked her to "fàsg" his hair. She said she was willing enough to do him that service, and so he laid his head on her knee, and she began to arrange his locks, as Neapolitan damsels also do by their swains. But soon she got a great fright, for, growing amongst the man's hair, she found a great quantity of "Liobhagach an locha," a certain slimy green weed that abounds in such lochs, fresh, salt, and brackish. (In another version it was sand.) The girl knew that if she screamed there was an end of her, so she kept her terror to herself, and worked away till the man fell asleep, as he was with his head on her knee. Then she untied her apron strings, and slid the apron quietly on to the ground with its burden upon it, and then she took her feet home as fast as it was in her heart. (This incident I have heard told in the Isle of Man and elsewhere, of a girl and a supernatural.) Now when she was getting near the houses she gave a glance behind her, and there she saw her "caraid" (friend) coming after her in the likeness of a horse.
He had nearly reached her, when the old woman who saw what was going on called out to open the door of the wild bull's house, and in a moment out sprang the bull.
He gave an eye all round about him, and then rushed off to meet the horse, and when they met they fought, and they never stopped fighting till they drove each other out into the sea, and no one could tell which of them was best. Next day the body of the bull was
found on the shore all torn and spoilt, but the horse was never more seen at all.
The narrator prefaced this story by remarking that it was "perfectly true," for he had it from a lobster fisher, who heard it from an old man who witnessed the whole scene. It was suggested to him that the "old woman" was a witch, but he would have his story told in his own way, and said, "Well, I suppose she was a witch, but I did not hear it."
Mr. Pattison, who wrote down this version, regrets that he did not get a fuller description of the animals. I have a fuller description of them, and of the girl, with all the names of the people, and the places, fully set forth. The bull was large and black, be was found groaning in a peat hag, and was helped by the girl's lover, who brought him food, though he suspected him to be the water-bull. The girl was dark-haired and brown-eyed, and the farmer's daughter. Her lover was an active Highland lad, and a drover, who went by the name of "Eachan còir nan òrd," "Gentle Hector of the hammers," and he was fair-haired.
There was a rejected rival suitor who takes the place of the water-horse, who threw his plaid over the girl's bead when she is at a shieling, and carried her off, but the black water-bull rushed in just at the nick of time, crushed the wicked wooer to the earth, invited the lady to mount on his back, and carried her safely home, when he disappeared, singing--
Chaidh conadh rium le òigear caomh,
S ri òigh rinn mise bàigh
Déigh tri cheud bliadhna do dh' aosa chruaidh
Thoir fuasgladh dhomh gun dàil.
Aid came to me by a gentle youth,
And to a maiden I brought aid; p. 307
After three hundred years of my hard age,
Give me my freedom without delay.
This clearly then is as mythical a bull as the "black bull o' Norroway," and Mr. Peter Buchan's bull in Rashencoatie, and the dun bull in Katie Woodencloak, the Candlemas bull which was looked for in the sky, and the sign Taurus; and perhaps the "Tarbh uisge," is of the same breed as that famous Egyptian bull who was the god of the land of Scota, Pharoah's daughter.
The WATER-HORSE is generally but a vicious, amphibious, supernatural horse; and there is a real sea-creature whose bead may have suggested that there were real horses in the sea. But there were sacred horses every where in the East, so the attributes of water-horses are probably mythological. But the water-horse assumes many shapes; he often appears as a man, and sometimes as a large bird. In this last form he was "seen" by a certain man, who described him. The narrator waded up to his shoulders one cold day in February, in a certain muir loch, to get a shot at him; but when he got within "eighty-five yards" of him, the animal dived, and the sportsman, after waiting for "three quarters of an hour," returned to shore. There he remained for more than "five hours and a half," but the creature never rose. In form and colour he was very like the Great Northern Diver, with the exception of the white on his neck and breast; the wings were of the same proportion, the neck was "two feet eleven inches long," and "twenty-three in circumference;" bill about "seventeen inches long," and hooked like an eagle's at the end; legs very short, black, and powerful; feet webbed till within five inches of the toes, with tremendous claws. Footprints, as measured in
the mud at the north end of the lake, cover a space equal to that contained within the span of a pair of large antlers; voice like the roar of an angry bull lives on calves, sheep, lambs, and otters," etc. If that "eyewitness" had only taken his long bow with him instead of his gun, I have no doubt he might have secured a specimen of the "Boobrie." Nevertheless, I have heard of the Boobrie from several people who were beyond the reach of this "eye-witness;" so he has a real existence in the popular mind.
The dragon which haunts Highland sea lochs and Gaelic stories surely had the same origin as the Norse sea-serpent, figured in the wood-cut, and the great sea-snake of the Edda, which encircled the whole world. The bodily shape might have been that of a survivor of an extinct species, the attributes those of a sea-god. The creature figured by Pontippidan has relations at the Crystal Palace, and in geological museums; and yet the bishop knew nothing of geology a hundred years ago.
Even the FAIRIES seem to have a foundation in fact. If the Dean of the Isles told the truth in his book of statistics, quoted above, the bones of pigmies have been found; and the ancient habitations of a diminutive race are still found occasionally in the sand hills of South Uist, and elsewhere. In a "Sithchean," near Sligechean in Skye, piping used to be commonly heard, according to some of my informants. One of my acquaintance is commonly reported to fly with the fairies. They take him to certain churchyards, and bring him back again. A lout of a boy, who informed me that stories were very wicked, nevertheless added--
"That fairies are, is certain. I know two sisters--
Click to enlarge
The Great Sea-Serpent, according to different descriptions. ''The Walrus,'' and ''The Sea-Horse,'' Copied from ''The Natural History of Norway,'' by Pontippidan, Bishop of Bergen.
one of them is a little deaf--and they heard a sound in a hill, and they followed the sound; and did they not sit and listen to the piping there till they were seven times tired! There is no question about that."
A worthy antiquary shewed me, amongst a lot of curious gear, a stone arrow head, and said--
"That is a fairy dart, which a man brought me a few days ago. He said he heard a whistling in the air, and that it fell at his feet in the road, and he picked it up, and brought it away with him."
A tinker assured me, with evident belief, that a man had taken such an arrow from an ash-tree, where he had heard it strike.
A doctor told this anecdote--
"Do you see that kind of shoulder on the hill? Well, a man told me that he was walking along there with another who used to "go with the fairies," and he said to him--
"'I know that they are coming for me this night. If they come, I must go with them; and I shall see them come, and the first that come will make a bow to me, and pass on; and so I shall know that they are going to take me with them."
"'Well,' said the man, 'we had not gone far when the man called out, 'Tha iad so air tighin.' These are come. I see a number of 'sluagh' the people; and now they are making bows to me. And now they are gone.' And then he was quiet for a while. Then he began again; and at last he began to cry out to hold him, or that he would be off.
"Well," said the doctor, "the man was a bold fellow, and be held on by the other, and he began to run, and leap, and at last (as the man told me) be was fairly lifted up by the 'sluagh,' and taken away from him,
and he found him about a couple of miles further on, laid on the ground. He told him that they had carried him through the air, and dropped him there. And," said the doctor, "that is a story that was told me as a fact, a very short time ago, by the man whom I was attending."
Not far off I was told this in a house full of people, all of whom knew the story, and seemed to believe it implicitly.
"There was a piper in this island, and he had three sons. The two eldest learned the pipes, and they were coming on famously; but the youngest could not learn at all. At last, one day, he was going about in the evening, very sorrowfully, when he saw 'bruth,' a fairy hillock, laid open." (There was one close to the house, which had been exactly like the rest of its class. It was levelled, and human bones were found in it, according to the minister). "He went up to the door, and he struck his knife into it, because he had heard from old people that if he did that, the 'sluagh' could not shut the door. Well, they were very angry, and asked him what he wanted, but he was not a bit afraid. He told them that he could not play the pipes a bit, and asked them to help him. They gave him 'Feadan dubh,' a black chanter, but he said--
'That's no use to me, for I don't know how to play it.'
Then they came about him, and shewed him how to move his fingers; that he was to lift this one and lay down that; and when he had been with them a while, he thanked them, and took out his knife, and went away, and the 'Bruth' closed behind him.
"Now that man became one of the most famous pipers in ------, and his people were alive till very lately. I am sure you all know that?
Chorus--"Oh yes." "Yes, indeed." " It is certain that there were such people, whether they are now or not." "O yes, that is sure "--
"Do I not know a man who was in the island of ------, and he was sitting by himself in a hut, with a fire lit; and it was a wild night. The door was pushed open, and a gray horse put in his head. But the man was not afraid, and put up the palm of his hand this way to the horse's nose, and he said, 'You worthy horse, you must go away from this;' and the horse went out backwards." "And were there no horses in the island? " "No; never, never." Chorus--"Never, never." "That was the water-horse." "That's sure."
A boy, some hundreds of miles away, told me that there was a man who built a house, and as often as it was built it was burned down; but they told him to put a bit of ivy into it, and he did that, and the house was not burned that time.
All England was dressing its churches and dinner tables with Christmas ivy a short time ago, but few will think that this is a Celtic charm against the fairies, or that ivy was planted against houses to guard them from fire.
An old Welsh dairymaid, from near Shropshire, denied all knowledge of King Arthur. "She had never heard of him, not she." She did not know of her own knowledge that the fairies carried people away, but she had heard that a woman, who lived some distance from her father's house, had two children carried off by fairies. They left her two others, which were just like her own; but they were always crying. She went to a wise woman, and she told her to go to a river where there was a bridge--a single plank like--and to take one of the children in each hand, and drop them in the middle.
"Well, I cannot say if it is true. I can only tell it as I heard it; but I heard that the woman did take the two children, and drop them into the middle of the stream; and when she got home she found her own two children, quite safe and well, in the house before her."
There must be some foundation for all this widespread belief in the existence of a small people. A woman lately described their dress and appearance as seen in Islay. "They were dressed in green kilts, and green coats, and green conical caps--sharp caps like the "Clogadan," helmets which children make of rushes." A rim is woven into a kind of basket-work coronet, and the points are gathered together and make a high cone. Swedish Lapps now wear caps of the same shape. Fairies thus dressed have been seen marching "like a wedding," with a piper playing before them; and such a procession goes by the name of "Banais shith," a fairy wedding.
"And did they ever wear arms?"
"No; they had not pith enough to bear arms; they were but spirits."
Nevertheless, they had bodily strength, and worked hand mills, if all tales be true.
This class of stories is so widely spread, so matter-of-fact, hangs so well together, and is so implicitly believed all over the united kingdom, that I am persuaded of the former existence of a race of men in these islands who were smaller in stature than the Celts; who used stone arrows, lived in conical mounds like the Lapps, knew some mechanical arts, pilfered goods and stolen children; and were perhaps contemporary with some species of wild cattle and horses, and great auks, which frequented marshy ground, and are now
remembered as water-bulls, and water-horses, and boobries, and such like impossible creatures.
I leave it to ethnologists and geologists to say, whether this popular supernatural history has any bearing upon modern discoveries; whether it may not be referred to the same period as the lake habitations of Switzerland, Denmark, Ireland, and the Scotch. Isles; the sepulchral chambers containing human remains, and surrounded by bones which appear to be those of animals now extinct; the works of art in the drift; and the relics of fossil men.
And here, with an apology for this lengthy postscript, I will leave Highland Tales for the consideration of learned men well read in mythology and like subjects.*
*NOTE To AVALON, on Page 242.
Another explanation of this ancient British tradition may perhaps be found in the discovery of America by the Northmen in the tenth century, described in the abstract of evidence taken from Icelandic Sagas, and published by the Society of Northern Antiquarians in 1837.
It there appears that in 986 Eric the Red emigrated from Iceland to Greenland, and in subsequent years other voyagers made their way down the coast of America, and named one part of the country VINLAND, from the vines which a German who was of the party found there.
In 1006 a certain THORFINN, who was sprung from " Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Irish, and Scottish " ancestors, some of whom were kings of royal descent, effected a settlement in Vinland.
In 1003, an exploring party had fallen in with a place called "Irland it Mickla," which was inhabited by white men, who had iron implements, and it seems to be implied that these were Irishmen settled in Florida. The stories of the voyages of Biörn Asbrandson, and Gudleif Gudlaugen, are extremely like the traditions now current in the west, about voyagers who discover a mysterious western land, and there find ancient heroes still living in their old way.
Some Norse traders; as it is said, after a trading voyage to Dublin, were driven far to the South West, and found an unknown land, where inhabitants spoke Irish, and who seized and bound them. A man of distinguished appearance, with gray hair, and with a banner carried before him, came riding down to the shore, addressed the strangers in the Norse language, and after some time the natives, who paid him great respect, agreed that he should decide the fate of the strangers.
He was Biörn Asbrandson, and he, after taking counsel with twelve of the natives, sent his countrymen away with gifts for his friends in Iceland. The voyagers returned to Dublin, and next year to Iceland. Now, if this is not a Celtic myth in an Icelandic dress, the Celtic myth now current has a foundation in fact. If the Sagas are to be depended upon, America was discovered by Icelanders, but by men who frequented the Hebrides and Ireland; and it is expressly stated in these Sagas that Hebridians and Irishmen accompanied some of these American expeditions. It seems quite possible that the real event may now be remembered as a legend in the countries whence voyages were made. There is a resemblance between Fionn and Thorfinn, and Fionn's land and Vinland, and apples are now common enough in America, whether they grew there. Avalon is like Avlan (apples), as written by one of my correspondents.
291:1 Pronounced Djee-A. Djâys.
294:1 See Note, page 344.
295:1 West of Scotland Magazine. 842. (1858.) I have not found the names or the passage in the author quoted, but he describes an island which rose from the sea, and sank, and became firm on shooting a fiery arrow Into it.