One of the four great quarter-days in the Gaelic calendar is Latha Fhèill Brìghde, or St Bride’s/Brigid’s Day, celebrated on the very first day of February. Alexander Carmichael recorded in a transcription notebook the following anecdote concerning Mrs Major MacLeod, Anne MacLeod (1754–1834), wife of Major MacLeod of Stein, and a daughter of the Highland heroine, Flora MacDonald:
Mrs Major MacLeod a daughter of the celebrated
Flora MacDonald was on a visit to Mr Tolmie
Uiginnish Skye. One day while at breakfast
some person remarked that the day
was La[tha]-fheil[l]-Bri[gh]de St Brigit’s day. On hear-
ing which Mrs Major MacLeod started up
got a stocking put some thing in it pro-
bably a piece of peat and proceeded
to pound it down with a mallet saying as
she did so – La-[tha]-fheil[l]-Bri[gh]de thig ni[gh]ean I[o]mh[a]ir as an toll
Cha bhoin mise do ni[gh]ean I[o]mh[a]ir
’S cha bhoin ni[gh]ean I[o]mh[a]ir rium.”
There is a belief among the old Highlanders that
if the serpent under the name of nighean I[o]mh[a]ir
is pounded in effigy on La[tha] fheil[l] Bri[gh]de the day
on which it is believed it emerges from
its winter retreat it cannot sting that person
during the whole year again.
Elsewhere in Carmina Gadelica, Carmichael has a long entry headed ‘Sloinntearachd Bhride’ (Genealogy of Bride) where he expands upon the subject matter in some detail, an extract from which throws some light upon the above anecdote:
The serpent is supposed to emerge from its hollow among the hills on St Bride’s Day, and a propitiatory hymn was sung to it. Only one verse of this hymn has been obtained, apparently the first. It differs in different localities:–
‘Moch maduinn Bhride,
Thig an nimhir as an toll,
Cha bhoin mise ris an nimhir,Cha bhoin an nimbhir rium’
Early on Bride’s morn
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.
Carmichael then offers three different versions of the hymn before explaining that the “‘daughter of Ivor’ is the serpent; and it is said that the serpent will not sting a descendant of Ivor, he having made ‘tabhar agus tuis,’ offering and incense, to it, thereby securing immunity from its sting for himself and his seed for ever.”
CW112/48, fos. 119v–120r.
Carmina Gadelica, i, pp. 164–75; iii, pp. 154–63.
Image: Adder or Rìghinn (one of the its many names in Gaelic).