Friday 29 July 2011

Some Prophecies of the Brahan Seer

Howbeg, South Uist
Many traditional tales of Coinneach Odhar or the so-called Brahan Seer were floating around the isles when Alexander Carmichael was collecting there in the early 1870s. One typical tale, noted down on 3 January 1872, from an unnamed reciter in Gramsdale, Benbecula, tells of how the seer came by his powers of prophecy and then how he eventually threw this stone into Loch Ness. It is said that when this stone is eventually rediscovered that all his prophecies will come true. The reciter then goes on to relate a number of prophecies especially those with a connection to Uist and Barra including the presence of grey geese and white sheep; that a battle would be fought at Claddach Kyles after which the raven would drink the blood of the fallen men from the hill at Clach Mhòr a Che and about MacNeil of Barra and the ‘maor nan òrdagan mòr’ who wrote with his left hand:

Coinneach Odhar is said to have
been born at Howbeag – the son of a
widow. He dreamt & got up & dug the
sand on the strand. Twas tho[ugh]t that he got
derg[?]. He wro[ugh]t hard at this for a long time.
He then got a box & in the box a stone
& in the stone all the prophecy – buai[dh]
He kept the stone & as long as he kept
it he proph[esy]ng. He threw fr[om] him[self] the stone
in a lake at near Lochness. When
this lake is drain[ed] the stone will be
found & then many things will c[o]m[e]
to light. He heard a voice when
he was lifting the box on the strand
Prophecies – Uist (N[orth]) will be fo
gheoi[dh] ghlas us caor[aich] gheala which
is true. A battle will be fo[ugh]t at Clad[d-]
ach & the fi[th]each will drink his fill
of the blood of the slain on the top
of Clachamhor a che Passing
a lake at Oban-cinn lianacleit
he said that Lake (Dig mhor[)]
would yet be the best croce feam[ad]
in Uist. There he proph[esied] about
the Macneills of Barra & the duin[e]
mor 24 meoir, & maor nan ordagan
mora a sgri[obhadh] leis an lai[mh] chearr
This maor went to Barra to sequester
Macn[e]ill. He said a coit bheag
would yet carry all the Macdonalds
in S[outh] Uist when the whole country
was full of these.
Calum Bōdach in N[orth] Uist had
tai[bh]searac[hd] & confirmed many of C[oinneach] Odhars.
The man re[a]p[ed] Clai[dh] Chorcail & then
threw at Ioc[hd]ar] the sheaf of corn at the cow
which began eat[in]g & he left & the owner
of the sick cow was d[y]ing. C[oinneach] Odhar
is the seer me[a]nt in S[aint] Clair of
the Isles.

Clach Mhòr a' Che, North Uist

CW90/94, ff. 9v–10r.
Howbeg / Tobh Beag, South Uist / Uibhist a Deas.
Clach Mhòr a’ Che, North Uist / Uibhist a Tuath.

Thursday 28 July 2011

A Colonsay Marriage Custom

Wedding Rings
Tucked in between a proverb – rinn e sùilean na cait rium with the meaning ‘growing wild at me’ – and a fragmentary pibroch song Bodach nam Briogais, Alexander Carmichael noted down a short item about how marriages were negotiated in the isle of Colonsay. Presumably, though it is not explicitly stated in any way, Carmichael got this information from a native of the place. It may also be noted, judging from the tenor of the opening, that such customs were no longer in use but clearly that they must have lingered long enough in living memory in order for them to be written down. In many ways such customs made a lot of sense and this is perhaps why pre-nuptial agreements have become in a similar fashion more usual when marriages are nowadays being negotiated:

About the beginning of this century it
was customary in Colonsay to meet
on two hillocks to arrange marriage
preliminaries. On the farm of
[ ] they met – the bride’s
party on one knoll (cnoc) and
the groom’s party on another. Then
one man from each party
descended the valley and came
within speaking distance of one
another. They conversed in solemn
tones and then retired to their respective
parties. They descended the valley
a second time and came nearer
than before and talked again in
a formal manner and then
went back up the hill as before.
The two men met again for
the third and last time and on
this occasion came quite close
to each other and after a third
and final and formal negociation [sic] they

If either party with-drew the
party withdrawing paid the tochar
agreed upon to the other. In case the
girl withdrew, her father had to pay
his daughter’s tochar; if the man
withdrew he paid the equivalent of
the girl’s tochar to the girl and there
was an end to it. Neither lost

CW120/341, ff. 99v–100r.
Image: Wedding Rings.

Friday 22 July 2011

Nine Nines: A Sacred Number

Another short anecdote, dating from 14 January 1895, about fairy lore from the pen, or rather pencil, of John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury, from Torlum, Benbecula, concerns a sacred number in the shape of nine.

Nine, Naodh
The fairies are said
to be nine nines of y[ea]rs
sucking the bre[a]st.
Nine nines in boyhood, Nine
nines in younghood
Nine nines in Middle
man hood Nine nines
in old manhood, and
Nine nines to the bre[a]st
of death “ri uchd bais”

On the following folio Alexander Carmichel himself appends a Gaelic version of the above but from whom he got his he does not say. As well as this, Carmichael has added another stage to the six others mentioned in the above indicating that he may have heard his version from a different source:

Naogh naoghanan a deo[ghai]l
nan cioch naoi 9 a nam corrachadh
naogh naoigh na oganach
naogh naogh na fhear
agh naogh naogh na dhann
fear (dol leis a bhiuthadh) naogh
naogh na dhean fhearagh
naogh naogh ri uc[hd] bais
is duile dhomh nan a
naoghannan D bha = 567 years.

The sum of 9 x 9 is, of course, 81. Adding all these six stages (9 x 9 x 6) gives the total life expectancy of a typical fairy to be 486. The sum of nine nines would seem to have a connection with the sacred number 432 (the so-called cycle of time) that Joseph Campbell came across during his studies of comparative mythology. This, however,  falls rather short of 486. Perhaps it may be stretching things out a little to far to suggests there might well be some sort of connection between this pithy anecdote and the cosmic cycle of time. However, within a more specific Celtic context, nine maidens and nine virgin attended Bridget, while the sacred Beltane fire rites were attended by a cycle of nine groups of men consisting each of nine men. And, of course, when looking for other nines there are a great many: nine months for the period of human gestation, nine muses, nine planets and, if we want to look smart, then we all get dressed to the nines.

CW1/71 & 72, f. 38v & f. 39r.
Image: 81.

Thursday 21 July 2011

The Gaels Have a Word for It

John Ewen MacRury (1853–1909)
John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury, from Torlum, Benbecula, and the various materials that he collected for Alexander Carmichael has been the subject of numerous blogs on previous occasions. Here, for example, are a couple of very useful words if you ever get into a dispute and are looking for just the right words:

Feicheantas a common word
in olden times for an arugment [sic]
between man and wife about
paltry dispuits [sic], especially when
such dispute took place regarding
each other’s people.

Cramhan is a continual
low murmuring complaint
by any person kept up for
no other purpose than to keep
on grumbling and dissatisfy[ing]

Both these words can be found in Dwelly’s dictionary where they are glossed as ‘friendly dispute’ under the heading féicheanas and as ‘unceasing, vexatious talk’ under the heading cnàmhan. MacRury’s definitions are certainly more colourful that those given by Dwelly and reflect the intricate nuances of a rich Gaelic vocabulary.

CW1/106 & 107, f. 111r.
Dwelly, Edward, The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary (Glasgow, 1994), p. 217 & p. 426.
Image: John Ewen MacRury (1853–1909). Reproduced with the kind permission of Calum Laing.

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.

Monday 18 July 2011

The Satirical Wit of Gille na Ciotaig (Archibald MacDonald)

Boleskine Cemetery
The use of satire, especially in poetry or song, was a common phenomenon in Gaelic tradition. Such was the very great fear of being satirised that it was believed that it caused blisters to erupt on the skin or could even cause death! A skilled poet was to be admired as well as feared for in his or her hands words spoken or sung had the power to influence by either praising or dispraising. A good reputation was highly sought after in the Gaelic world and this is why powerful people would pay bards generously to make sure that they would be well thought of and even be remembered to posterity. There are a great many examples of praise songs or poetry. Those who had the temerity to be put in the black books of any given bard would pay the hefty price of being satirised. Aside from any individual bard probably the most famous group of these, of which Alexander Carmichael collected and wrote about, were the Cliar Sheanchain, a wandering band of performers. From whom Carmichael took down this song narrative and satire, he does not say, but in all likelihood it would have been collected in North Uist sometime in 1877 when Carmichael was on his rounds. The bard in question, Gille na Ciotaig – so-called for he probably had a shrivelled or stumped hand – was Archibald MacDonald (c. 1750–c. 1815), a North Uist bard. By refusing to let the bard graze his horse Gille na Ciotaig “lampooned the inhospitable farmer, and thus had his revenge. He gave him the horrible description of being the ugliest man in the sherrifdom, and predicted that there were terrible things in store for him.” It is said that while on his way to Inverness to get his works published he fell gravely ill in Fort Augutus and he was subsequently buried in nearby Boleskine cemetery though his grave remains unmarked. A plaque was raised to his memory in 1988 by members of the Gaelic Society of Inverness:

Gille na Ciotaig was a native of North
Uist but having satirized the factor or
proprietor there for some act of oppression
he was obliged to leave the place. He went to
South Uist and lived at Lochaoineart or
Lochboisdale – uncertain which – . He
travelled much about throughout the
Highlands and Islands and being highly
connected being a near relation of Lord
Macdonald he had access to the best society
in his travels. He travelled on horseback.
Upon one occasion when going through
Bearnasdail in Skye he called at a
friends house and tied his pony at the door.
The pony broke loose and found his way into
the corn of the tacksman of Bearnasdail,
a miser and a churl. The poet’s pony
was poinded and when the poet came
out he found his pony poinded and
would not be released except upon pay-
ment of the damage – miastadh, domail –
done by him to the corn of Fear Bhearnas-
dail. Gille Na Ciotaig put down the half
crown on the wall of the poind – the legal
mode – and got his pony. He then
sang or recited the following satire
which so stung the miserly tacksman
that he begged him to take up his half-
crown and never to repeat his satire,
and besides that he was welcome to
cuid oi[dh]che us la[tha] to himself and his
gearran whenever he came the way.
The poet, however, would not be
thus silenced and he left singing the
satire as he went his way.

Bodach Bhearnasdail an Innis (Uinis?)
Duine is grainnde tha ’s an t-siorrac[hd]
Bodach Bearnasdail an Innis
Ceann-cinne [fine] gach déisdin – èigin

Tha do ghruaidh gu’n aona mhir bithidh
Do chom lac[hd]un[n] cartaidh ruighinn
Coltach ri bian beiste-duibhe
Ga ruitheadh air dile.

Bodach Bhearnasdail an Innis
Duin is grainnde tha ’s an t-siorrac[hd]
Bodach Bhearnasdail an Innis
Ceann-fine gach déisdin [Ceann-uidhe]

Do cheann urrad ri brìg mhoine
Do chluas urrad ri lòban
Do bhial mar gu’m biodh òbar
Le gran eorn air leighinn!

Amhach chaol na corra-ghrithich
Ni thu fathast cainb a ruitheadh
Croich a feitheamh ort na suidhe
Gheobh na fithich fèasd ort!
Bodach Bhearnasdail an Innis
Duin is grainnde tha ’s an t siorrac[hd].

Memorial Plaque to Archibald MacDonald / Gille na Ciotaig

CW108/81, ff. 23r –24r.
MacDonald, Archibald (ed.), The Uist Collection (Glasgow: Archibald Sinclair, 1894).
Images: Boleskine Cemetery © Copyright Steven Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence and the Memorial to Archibald MacDonald / Gille na Ciotaig.

Friday 15 July 2011

Cod Liver Supper, Anyone?

Cod / Bodach Ruadh or Trosg
Very rarely does Alexander Carmichael take the trouble to write down recipes but here is one interesting example of presumably a local delicacy. It would appear that Carmichael took down the instructions in order to prepare cod liver from the recitation of Anthony Campbell (1825–1907) who belonged to Kentangaval in Barra. As is well known cod liver oil – though perhaps not to everyone’s taste – is a common nutritional supplement that is beneficial as it is full of vitamins that help to maintain good health. Carmichael doesn’t mention whether he ever tried the recipe but it seems that he probably did given that he was intrigued enough to have even bothered to have taken it down. Perhaps the resulting dish was rather tasty and it certainly would have been full of very healthy nutrients given that the Hebridean diet then, as now, includes fish such as cod, halibut or turbot and ling:

Gnuan [Gruthan] nam bodach, the liver is washed & put
in clean cold water & all[owed] to stand there for 3 or 4 hours
when it becomes nearly snow white. Then put in a
basin agus ga thaosna[dh] agus toirt as a chuile
riamhach a th ann. Then put puts [sic] a small
grain of salt, soda & pepper & then oat
meal or bere & baked & put in a say a pudding
plate. Puts this in a Poot [sic] of boiling water & if at
hand flounders soles Crog or Crogabhaigean
or piece of cod or skate. Nearly an hours or ¾
takes out allows it to cool little warmer
than cold. Like butter them & delicious
2 put in the goile of the trost & used as a
marrag. The gnuan [gruthan] of the langa is stronger
again. first boiled like fish & then fried.
But only the liver of the ling with the iuchair is
safe. If the gnuan [gruthan] of a ling is taken it causes
for 3 days a heaviness & then the skin peels
of & casts. He is troubled with musgaid, ruai,
trom or sac. The bradan leathan's gnuan [gruthan]
if with iuchar does the same. When the fish[erman]
wants a gruan [gruthan] langa he puts a X of the
gnuan [gruthan] of the ling that has an iuchair & upon
no account touches another.

CW108/22, ff. 7r–7v.
Cod / Bodach Ruadh or Trosg.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Otters and Eels

Otter / Bèist D(h)ubh or Dòbhran
It is perhaps not a well-known fact about Alexander Carmichael that he planned to publish a natural history of the Hebrides. Somewhat like a few of his other plans, this project for whatever reason never saw the light of day. Every so often Carmichael took the opportunity to note down something about the beasts and creatures that he would encounter on his ‘beat’ around Uist as well as other islands. A typical example of this is a short note concerning the reproductive cycle and animal behaviour of otters and was probably taken down from the recitation of Anthony Campbell (1825–1907) who belonged to Kentangaval in Barra:

Otters bring forth end of Sep[tember] or beg[inning] of Oct[ober]
two pups – a male & female each time.
In swimming about pups go on each
side of dam. They eat muca-rua – eels
they prefer. They have the head half of the
eel & eat the tail half. They catch the
eel by the tail & allow it to drag the otter till
the eel gives up dead. The eel lives in a faic[he]
in a cairn with a clear morghan in
front & round it. Faic[he] = sloc under
a big stone in a sea cairn. The same
with the lobster.

CW108/16, f. 6r.
Image: Otter, called Bèist D(h)ubh or Dòbhran in Scottish Gaelic.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Druidic Lore in the Hebrides

It may come as something of a surprise, given that Alexander Carmichael was so immersed in the spiritual and religious life of the Gaels, that it would appear that he did not gather a great deal of oral traditions about druids. Perhaps the real reason behind all of this is that there was not a great amount to be had. The age old connection of the Druids with fairy mounds is made apparent as well as their important rituals that were held during the quarter days. Carmichael, it seems, was rather intrigued for he notes down a woman called Beathag in Berneray whose name, it may be presumed, was passed on to him as someone who knew more about these traditions and may have also been an authority on local lore in Berneray itself. It remains unclear whether Carmichael ever managed to visit this woman for if he had then presumably he would have taken down a great deal more material about this fascinating subject:

Duns in L[ong] Isle erected by the
Druids not tilling – nothing but
siothan & iasg. Worship at
end of each quart[er] met not at
the baile but in a glen & kind[led]
a fire upon a sithein far
fr[om] houses & they went round
the brudh. They held each others
hands & cont[inued] for a trath[?] then
one of the no [number] wou[ld] put into the fire
an iobradh. La[tha] Beall[tainn] La[tha]
Luineasdal La[tha] Samhna La[tha] Ille
Bride. Hence arose the naming of sith
ein & the supposed fires & sup[erstition]. A
Sithein at Fī-leum Stronind. A
mound green in a moss
Croc-sonari a sithein See Beathag
in Bearnara. This is in Bear[nar]y.

CW90/58, f. 22v.
Image: Sketch of a Druid.

Monday 11 July 2011

Rockall: An Islet on the Edge of the World

Rockhall / Rocabarraigh
The tiny rocky islet of Rockall or Rocabarraigh lying some 188 miles from Soay, the easternmost island of the St Kilda archipelago, has been claimed by United Kingdom on a number of occasions. The ownership of the islet is still a matter of dispute as it is claimed by Denmark (for the Faroe Islands), Iceland, Ireland and, as mentioned, the United Kingdom. In the following tradition, noted down by Alexander Carmichael around 1872 from, it would seem, an anonymous source, the tale has all the hallmarks of a mythological island – the title probably refers to a sandy isle – that had been mistaken for the rather rocky and extremely isolated islet practically in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean:

Eilean Gaineacha
A man coming fr[om] abro[oad] & he saw
a black spot bad om[en] & he near[ed] & what was
this but & iallain an t sao[gha]il &
f[indin]g above a small isl[e]. He put out
the punt A large ford ran
across the isl[e] & a stac of fish
bones on the ea[st] side ford. He del[iberated]
that he sh[oul]d have some for din[ner] in
such a pl[ace] He left with the int[ent]
of ret[urnin]g He came to Engl[and] Ere
he could ret[urn] went came in &c
know[ing] the wild[ness] of the pl[ace] with
out anchorage ex[cept] the ford
He & oth[er]s ret[urned] & when th[e]y came
no isl[e] was vis[ible]. They were mock
ing him & they began sounding &
found nothing but rock
& this they called Rockall.

CW90/71, f. 29r.
Image: Rockall or Rocabarraigh taken from Harvie-Brown, J. A. & Buckley, T. E., A Vertebrate Fauna of the Outer Hebrides (Edinburgh: David Douglas, Edinburgh, 1899), facing p. lxxxvi.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Rain-Goose: A Weather Forecaster

Rain-goose or Red-throated diver or loon
Reflecting perhaps the eclectic mixture of items to be found in Alexander Carmichael’s fieldwork notebooks is an example of a verse about a rain-goose, so-called for its ability to predict weather patterns. There is, however, no indication from whom Carmichael got this item but he may have heard it at different times from a variety of reciters and also in various localities. Rain-goose is the name given to the bird in the Western Isles as well as in Orkney and Shetland but perhaps it is better known and perhaps even more familiar as a red-throated diver or loon. It may also be of interest to note that Forbes in his book Gaelic Names of Beasts (1905) does not give the same name (bir-ghia or perhaps better understood as biorra-ghiadh) as Carmichael which may or may not indicate that it is in fact a ghost-word. In the final volume of Carmina, however, rain-goose is mentioned but with an alternative name: giadh gob, and also in the second volume of Carmina with a slightly different spelling: giadh gaob.

Bir-ghia Birghia = Rain Goose
from bir = water and geadh = goose
Bir! bir! bir!
An lin[n] a traghadh
Bir! bir! bir!
An lin[n] a traghadh
Bir! bir! bir!
An lin[n] a traghadh
M’ urlagann {muirlagan {muragan
M’ eoneagan
M’ uibheanagan
M’ ulaidh agus
M’ auradh

To this Carmichael appended a close translation which eventually found its way into print in the second volume of Carmina:

Rain! rain! rain!
The lake drying
Rain! rain! rain
The lake drying
Rain! rain! rain!
My little gifts / presents
My little cheeks
My little eggs
My treasures
thy troubles!

In a fairly long note Carmichael states that ‘‘giadh gaob, rain goose…is in reference to the belief that certain peculiarities in the cry and flight of the bird indicate rain. The bird is familiar in the West of Scotland, although rare or unknown in other parts of Britain.’ Carmichael then provides a version of the above making a general statement about its origin:

Should draught occur, and the water subside below her reach, the bird flies about hither and thither uttering cries of concern. The people have rendered these utterances of the bird in human language:–

‘Deoch! deoch! deoch!
An loch a traghadh!
Deoch! deoch! deoch!
An loch a traghadh!
Burn! burn! burn!
Mo luth ’m fhagail!
Burn! burn! burn!
Mo luth ’m fhagail!’

Drink! drink! drink!
The loch is drying!
Drink! drink! drink!
The loch is drying!
Water! water! water!
My strength failing me!
Water! water! water!
My strength is failing me!

Not content with giving only one version Carmichael then proceeds to give one more with particular relevance to Harris and Lewis than the immediate one above which prevailed in North and South Uist:

‘Bir! bir! bir!
An lir [sic] a deabhadh!
Bir! bir! bir!
An lir [sic] a deabhadh!
Burn! burn! burn!
Burn! burn! burn!
Burn! burn! burn!
Mo luth ’m threigsinn.’

Rain! rain! rain!
The lake is drying!
Rain! rain! rain!
The lake is drying!
Water! water! water!
Water! water! water!
Water! water! water!
My strength’s failing me!

As can be readily seen the manuscript version differs slightly from that which Carmichael based his printed long note with regard to the rain-goose and if that is the case then this is but one example of his editorial method by which he wished to improve things and so to present his fieldwork notes as more a literary endeavour than a literal rendition.

CW122/89, ff. 17r–17v.
Carmina Gadelica, ii, pp. 336–37.
Image: A red-throated diver or loon as known as a rain goose.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

An Appin Fairy Story

Glencreran, Appin
A fairy story, collected in 1883 by Alexander Carmichael probably from his namesake, Mary, who was then aged around seventy-one and who resided in and probably belonged to Druim a’ Bhuic in Glencreran, has all the classical ingredients of this genre. In the story, the man, from Blar nan Laogh, Ach-nan-Con, Appin drags his wife by the ankle through a fire and discovers the fairies had replaced her with the trunk of an oak tree ‘black stoc daraich’. The story states that the fairies are keen to take women for their milk in order to feed their fairy children. A summary of this story may be given as follows as a foiled abduction of a woman. The fairies are forestalled in their attempt to steal her (usually she is heavy with child and, of course, indicating a liminal status) and they leave a wooden image of her behind which would have been put in her place. It may also be of interest to note that urine or in Gaelic maistir – presumably human as well as animal – has apotropaic qualities and which could be used to avert any danger that fairies posed for they are said to take great offence at strong smells. Presumably, then, a fairy waulking or luadhadh would be out of the question!

The fairies carried her away from her
lea[baidh]-shiula. There was a man in Blar
nan laogh Ach-nan-con, Appin.
He went to Duror for whisky. In ret[urn]ing he
laid down the jar & made water. This
Chuala e “ocaid” eir sgioblachadh
a bhreacain. He looked down & saw his own
wife whom he carried home – & plac[ed]
in the barn. When he went in his
own mother & his wife[’s] moth[er] were
in great distress about his un-returned
wife. He cau[gh]t her by caol nan cas
& dragged her thro[ugh] a large fire & she was
a black stoc daraich in the door.
This was what the sith plac[ed] in his
wife[’]s bed when they carried her away.
He placed his wife in her bed. She
was deliv[ered] before he left. That is why they
are so keen to take women for their
milk to feed the clann nan sith.
Urine stops fairy cantrips.
‘Is meirg a leigeadh uc[hd] ri tailean.’
When the old black fairy was thrown in the
glumag was by the woman. When
the tailor told her he was a fairy
when he made the fuarag.

Black, Ronald (ed.), The Gaelic Otherworld (Edinburgh, 2005), pp. 19–20.
CW120/82, ff. 28r–29r.
Image: Glencreran, Appin © Copyright Alan Partridge and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Monday 4 July 2011

A Cure for Syphilis

Fr. George Rigg
Folk cures taken down by Alexander Carmichael form not an inconsiderable part of his fieldwork notebooks. Book-ended between a song and a note about North Rona, a cure for syphilis is related, whereby the healing power of ‘Sugh brist lus-nan-laogh and the Meacal’ [the sap from bruised golden saxifrage and its root] is noted as ‘ordered by’ Fr. James MacGregor (c. 1790–1867) who was a priest in Iochdar, South Uist, for many years.

Sugh brist Lus-nan laogh
and the Meacal ordered
by Rev. Father MacGrigor
Ioc[hd]ar the man in S[outh] Uist
for cure of syphilis.

Irrespective of whether such a cure was effective or not, it reflects the fact that such cures were known about and perhaps even used in the absence of a qualified practitioner. Medical assistance in South Uist even in Carmichael’s own day would have been difficult to come by and there are eyewitness accounts of disease wiping out many of the poor. One such outbreak of typhus, similar to the one mentioned recently regarding Lismore, carried away Fr. Alan McDonald’s close friend (and successor at Daliburgh) Fr. George Rigg who died from the disease in 1897:

News has been received of the death of the Rev. George Rigg, priest at St. Peter’s, Dalibrog, in South Uist, one of the Outer Hebrides, in the diocese of Argyll and the Isles. Father Rigg met his death owing to a devotion not less that that of Pere Damien. The family of one of his parishioners, a Hebridean cottar, consisting of a man, his wife and child, were all attacked by typhus fever at one and the same time. The neighbours were loathe to approach the cottage in which the stricken family lay ill, and for weeks, with the exception of the doctor, who paid his daily visit, the priests unassisted nursed the sick household, cooking for them, and performing all the necessary and unpleasant menial offices attached to this self-imposed task. As a result he contracted the fever in its worst form, and died, after terrible sufferings, a few days ago, in the presence of his sister and the priest of the other South Uist parish, who had nursed him devotedly.

Such was impact of such a loss that not only did Fr. Allan compose a Gaelic elegy for him but so did Donald MacCormick and Donald Patterson.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries syphilis was common throughout Europe but with the advent of modern antibiotics such as penicillin has subsequently seen the rate decline rapidly. If left untreated syphilis in its tertiary stage of development is severe and may result in syphilitic insanity as well as death.

CW120/303, ff. 84 v–85r.
Laments composed for George Rigg can be heard here:
Image: Fr. George Rigg (1860–1897).

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). [©]