In a previous blog from last year the well-known South Uist tradition regarding the Pipers of Smerclete was given and so, as a kind of reprise, here is another version. Alexander Carmichael was not adverse to take down the same stories – sometimes from the very same reciters – allowing comparisons to be made. This is clearly an advantage when looking at repeated versions of a tale or, for that matter, migratory legends or stories with an international resonance. In this instance, Carmichael neglected to take down the name of the reciter but it seems likely that it was collected in Kilpheder, a village in close proximity to where the action of the story takes place. Basically, as in the previous version of this story given in an earlier blog, as well as many other variants that have subsequently either been printed or collected, a fairy gifts an idiotic son – who was only good for looking after cattle – with such an ability to play music on the pipes that no one else could match his peerless skill. The crux of this particular version of tale hangs on the proverbial phrase: “ealain gun rath” skill without luck, or “rath gun ealain” luck without skill. The choice had to be a wise one, otherwise the fairies would get the upper hand. By making sure that the door of the fairy mound was closed by either a knife or a nail (something made of steel or iron in order to counteract fairy bewitchment), the so-called half-witted son managed to get both luck and skill which stood him in good stead, as he became a celebrated piper.
Sithein a Phiobaire Kil Pheadair
S[outh] Uist. Used to hear pip[ing] ther[e].
Clan[n] an t Saoir Smearcleit wer[e] c[e]lebr[ated]
pip[ers] a mach s a staigh cha
ro[bh] ann a gheo[bhadh] buai[dh] orra. One
son was a “lecheallach” unfit for a pip[er]
So he was sent to faire buaile crui[dh]
He saw the sith[ein] light & he ent[ered]. First
plac[in]g a Knife or nail in the door
aft[er] which the sith[ein] could close it.
“Rath us ealain rath us eal[ain]” said he
& all the sith[ein] pip[ers]. Rath gun eal[ain] rath
gun eal[eain] they rep[eated] & tried to close the door
& keep him but they could [not] so they
were obl[i]g[ed] to give him also the eal[ain] Go you
hom[e] said the sean bod[ach]. sì & send
the bones of the black dead horse
at y[ou]r fath[er’s] door & get a pipe made
& you shall be a pip[er] such as non[e]
of y[ou]r people nev[er] saw. He did & got a pipe & sett[led]
to piob[aireachd] & eclip[sed] them all. We may stop
if you re[frain] said his fath[er] and bro[ther] for no one
will list[en] to you so go you to [sic] out into
the world and not m[e]n[tion?] us. He did so
& he was celebr[ated].
CW 160 ff., 22v–23r.
D.M.N.C., ‘Uamh an Oir’, An Ròsarnach (1917), pp. 159–71.
Ella C. Carmichael, ‘“Never was Piping so Sad, and Never was Piping so Gay”’, The Celtic Review, vol. II (1905–06), pp. 76–84
Fr. Allan McDonald, ‘Pìobairean Smearclait (The Pipers of Smerclait)’, The Celtic Review, vol. V (1908–09), pp. 345–47.
Image: Still from Pìobairean Bhòrnais. Many thanks to Catrìona Black http://www.ambocsa.co.uk/ for permission to use her image.