Wednesday 20 July 2011

Never Refuse a Drink from a Fairy

Shawbost, Isle of Lewis
Perhaps one of the best defining characteristics of the fairly folk is their moral ambivalence towards people. Whatever else may be said about them it was downright foolhardy to insult them in any way for they took umbrage at any perceived slight and would then immediately exact revenge. Here, for example, is one such story collected by Alexander Carmichael from a reciter in South Uist in September 1872:

Two were pas[sing] a si[thein] & hea[r]d mais
readh with[in] glug us glag. They
were plough[ing] near the Sith[ein]. I wish
I had a drink of what she is maist
to cais[g] mo iota[dh]. Thainig bean
chaol chota uain[e] mach agus
deoch aic[e] ann an corn. & she
off[ered] it to him & he refused it.
Fhir a shìn mo dheoch s nach
do gha[bh] mo dheoch galar na te duie
a chir Chiad-aoine na ceann
orst. She then of[fered it] to the other & he took [it]
Fhir a gha[bh] mo dheoch ’s nach do dh iarr
mo dheoch rath is buai[dh] gam bi eir
a cheann.

This fairy legend must have been fairly common as there is evidence for plenty variants. A contemporary example collected by Rev. Malcolm MacPhail, a colleague of Carmichael’s, was printed in the journal Folklore, entitled Sìthichean Chaipighill, named after a place in Shawbost, Isle of Lewis:

The fairy legend associated with the two Caipighill knolls is the following. A woman who happened to be passing between these two hillocks one hot summer day heard the sound of churning in the fairy knoll (chuala i fuaim maistreaidh anns an t-sitheain). She said (sotto voce): “Is truagh nach robh mo phathadh air bean a’ ghlugain” (“It is a pity my thirst was not on the churning woman”). (“Glug” is the noise of fluid in motion, but confined in a vessel.) No sooner had the words escaped her lips than a fairy woman (a ’bean shith) attired in green came out of the “sithean” with a drinking cup (a ’cuach) of buttermilk in her hand, and offered it to the woman to drink. At this sudden and unexpected answer to her wish she felt a good deal put out, and declined the fairy’s hospitality, giving as her reason for so doing that she was not thirsty. “Why then did you wish for it?” said the fairy woman (“Carson mata a dh’ iarr thu i,” arsa’ bhean shith). Observing the woman’s embarrassment, she said : “Are you afraid it will injure you?” (“Thubhairt i am bheil eagal ort gu’n dean i cron dhuit”). “Yes,” she said (“Tha,” ars’ ise). “The misfortune of her who put the first comb in her head on Wednesday be mine if it will do you any harm” (“Galar na te a chuir a’cheud chir cheud-aoin ’na ceann armsa ma ni i cron ort).  What misfortune is that?" said she. “The misfortune of having neither son, nor daughter, nor grandchild, nor great-grandchild” “Coid an galar a tha’n sin?” ars ise. “Tha arsa’ bhean-shith, galar a bhi gun mhac, gun nighean, gun odha, gun iar-odha”). This legend is of some interest philologically, as it indicates that Wednesday (Di-ciadain) was the day of the first fast. Thursday (Diar-daoin) the day after the fast. Friday (Di-h-aoine) the fast-day. The legend clearly shows that these days of the week derived their names from “aoin” (a fast), and that these fastdays were considered so sacred that the first woman who ventured to comb her hair on a Wednesday was believed to have been punished with sterility for her profanity. (I was acquainted with some people in my young days who would not comb their hair on Sunday.) This view is strongly corroborated by a Lewis proverb: “O aoin gu h-an-aoin,” i.e. “From the calmness of sacred fast to the most admired disorder.” It was considered unlucky to marry on Friday, and even at the present day Thursday is the day usually selected for “tying the nuptial knot.” In reading the Apostolical Constitution a few months ago I discovered that Wednesday and Friday were held as sacred fast-days, as the subjoined note shows:
“Wednesday and Friday Fasts.—The reason for fasting on the days specified is given in the Apostolical Constitution thus because on the fourth day judgment went forth against the Lord, Judas then promising his betrayal for money, and on the preparation (fast), because the Lord suffered on that day the death of the cross.” (The Church of the Sub-Apostolic Age, by Professor Heron, p. 185.)

CW108/89, f. 23r.
MacPhail, Malcolm, ‘Folklore from the Hebrides II’, Folklore, vol. 8, no. 4 (1897), pp. 380–86.
Menefee, S. P., ‘A Cake in the Furrow’, Folklore, vol. 91, no. 2 (1980), pp. 173–92.
Image: Shawbost, Isle of Lewis.

1 comment:

  1. What a unique treasure you have archived! I will share this in my Cabinet of Curiosities for others to discover. Http://

    More art would be a fantastic addition!


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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]