Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, by Alexander Carmicheal, , at sacred-texts.com
THIS work consists of old lore collected during the last forty-four years. It forms a small part of a large mass of oral literature written down from the recital of men and women throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, from Arran to Caithness, from Perth to St Kilda.
The greater portion of the collection has been made in the Western Isles, variously called 'Eileana Bride,' Hebrid Isles, Outer Hebrides, Outer Isles, 'Eilean Fada,' 'Innis Fada,' Long Island, and anciently 'Iniscead,' 'Innis Cat.' Isle of the Cat, Isle of the Catey. Probably the Catey were the people who gave the name 'Cataibh,' Cat Country, to Sutherland, and 'Caitnis,' Cat Ness, to Caithness.
The Long Island is composed of a series of islands, separately known as Barra, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, and Harris and Lewis. This chain is one hundred and nineteen miles in length, varying from a few yards to twenty-five miles in width. Viewed from the summit of its highest link, the Long Island chain resembles a huge artificial kite stretched along the green Atlantic Ocean, Lewis forming the body, the disjointed tail trending away in the blue haze and terminating in Bearnarey of Barra.
This long series of islands is evidently the backbone of a large island, perhaps of a great continent, that extended westward beyond the Isle of the Nuns, beyond the Isle of the Monks, beyond the Isle of St Flann, beyond the Isle of St Kilda, beyond the Isle of Rockal, probably beyond the storied Isle of Rocabarraidh, and possibly beyond the historic Isle of Atlantis.
This backbone is now disarticulated like the vertebra of some huge fossil fish, each section having a life of its own. These joints are separated by rills and channels varying from a few feet to eight miles in width.
The Atlantic rushes through these straits and narrows into the Minch, and the Minch rushes through the straits and narrows into the Atlantic, four times every twenty-four hours. The constant rushing to and fro of these mighty waters is very striking.
Many of the countless islands comprising the Outer Hebrides are indented with arms of the sea studded with rocks and islands dividing and ramifying into endless mazes, giving in some cases a coast-line of over four hundred miles within their one-mile entrance. No mind could conceive, no imagination could realise, the disorderly distribution of land and water that is to be seen in those Outer Islands, where mountain and moor, sand and peat, rock and morass, reef and shoal, fresh-water lake and salt-water loch, in wildest confusion strive for mastery. Viewing this bewildering scene from the summit of Ruaival in Benbecula, Professor Blackie exclaimed:--
The formation of the Long Island is Laurentian gneiss, with some outcrops of Cambrian at Aoi, Lewis, and four examples of trap at Lochmaddy, Uist. The rocks everywhere show ice action, being smoothed and polished, grooved and striated from hill to sea--the grooves and striæ lying east and west or thereby.
There are no trees in the Long Island except some at Rodail, Harris, and a few at Stornoway, Lewis. The wind and spray of the Atlantic are inimical to trees under present climatic conditions. There are evidences, however, that there were trees in historic and prehistoric times.
It is said that a prince of Lewis forsook a Norse princess and married a native girl. The princess vowed by Odin, Thor, and Frea, and by all the other gods and goddesses of her fathers, to avenge the insult, and she sent her witch to burn the woods of Lewis. The tradition of the burning of these woods is countenanced by the presence of charred trees in peat-moss in many places. It is on record that a Norse prince married a native Barra girl, but whether or not this was the prince of Lewis is uncertain.
There are many evidences that the sea has gained upon the land in the Long Island. In the shore and in the sea, peat-moss, tree-roots, sessile reeds, stone dykes, dwellings and temples may be seen, while pieces of moss, trees and masonry have been brought up from time to time by hooks and anchors in from ten to twenty fathoms of water. I do not know anything more touching yet more fascinating than these submerged memorials of bygone times and of bygone men.
Immense stretches of sandy plains run along the Atlantic border of the Outer Hebrides. These long reaches of sessile sand are locally called machairs--plains. They are singularly bleak, barren, and shelterless in winter, giving rise to the saying:--
'Is luath fear na droch mhnatha
Fast goes the man of the thriftless wife
The inference is that the man is ill clad. In summer, however, these 'machairs' are green and grassy, comforting to the foot, pleasing to the eye, and deliciously fragrant, being covered with strongly aromatic plants and flowers.
But the charm of these islands lies in their people--goodly to see, brave to endure, and pleasing to know.
The population of the Long Island is about forty-four thousand. Of these, about forty-four families occupy two-thirds of the whole land, the crofters, cottars, and the poor who exist upon the poor, being confined to the remaining third. These are crowded upon one another like sheep in a pen:--
Na biasta mar ag itheadh nam biasta beag,
The big beasts eating the little beasts,
There are no intermediate farms, no gradation holdings, to which the industrious crofter might aspire, and become a benefit to himself, an example to his neighbour, and a lever to his country.
The people of the Outer Isles, like the people of the Highlands and Islands generally, are simple and law-abiding, common crime being rare and serious crime unknown among them. They are good to the poor, kind to the stranger, and courteous to all. During all the years that I lived and travelled among them, night and day, I never met with incivility, never with rudeness, never with vulgarity, never with aught but courtesy. I never entered a house without the inmates offering me food or apologising for their want of it. I never was asked for charity in the West, a striking contrast to my
experience in England, where I was frequently asked for food, for drink, for money, and that by persons whose incomes would have been wealth to the poor men and women of the West. After long experience of his tenants, the late Mr John Gordon said:--'The Uist people are born gentlemen--Nature's noblemen.'
Gaelic oral literature was widely diffused, greatly abundant, and excellent in quality--in the opinion of scholars, unsurpassed by anything similar in the ancient classics of Greece or Rome.
Many causes contributed towards these attainments--the crofting system, the social customs, and the evening 'ceilidh.' In a crofting community the people work in unison in the field during the day, and discuss together in the house at night. This meeting is called 'ceilidh'--a word that throbs the heart of the Highlander wherever he be. The 'ceilidh' is a literary entertainment where stories and tales, poems and ballads, are rehearsed and recited, and songs are sung, conundrums are put, proverbs are quoted, and many other literary matters are related and discussed. This institution is admirably adapted to cultivate the heads and to warm the hearts of an intelligent, generous people. Let me briefly describe the 'ceilidh' as I have seen it.
In a crofting townland there are several story-tellers who recite the oral literature of their predecessors. The story-tellers of the Highlands are as varied in their subjects as are literary men and women elsewhere. One is a historian narrating events simply and concisely; another is a historian with a bias, colouring his narrative according to his leanings. One is an inventor, building fiction upon fact, mingling his materials, and investing the whole with the charm of novelty and the halo of romance. Another is a reciter of heroic poems and ballads, bringing the different characters before the mind as clearly as the sculptor brings the figure before the eye. One gives the songs of the chief poets, with interesting accounts of their authors, while another, generally a woman, sings, to weird airs, beautiful old songs, some of them Arthurian. There are various other narrators, singers, and speakers, but I have never heard aught that should not be said nor sung.
The romance school has the largest following, and I go there, joining others on the way. The house of the story-teller is already full, and it is difficult to get inside and away from the cold wind and soft sleet without. But with that politeness native to the people, the stranger is pressed to come forward and occupy the seat vacated for him beside the houseman. The house is roomy and clean, if homely,
with its bright peat fire in the middle of the floor. There are many present--men and women, boys and girls. All the women are seated, and most of the men. Girls are crouched between the knees of fathers or brothers or friends, while boys are perched wherever--boy-like--they can climb.
The houseman is twisting twigs of heather into ropes to hold down thatch, a neighbour crofter is twining quicken roots into cords to tie cows, while another is plaiting bent grass into baskets to hold meal.
'Ith aran, sniamh murari,
Eat bread and twist bent,
The housewife is spinning, a daughter is carding, another daughter is teazing, while a third daughter, supposed to be working, is away in the background conversing in low whispers with the son of a neighbouring crofter. Neighbour wives and neighbour daughters are knitting, sewing, or embroidering, The conversation is general: the local news, the weather, the price of cattle, these leading up to higher themes--the clearing of the glens (a sore subject), the war, the parliament, the effects of the sun upon the earth and the moon upon the tides. The speaker is eagerly listened to, and is urged to tell more. But he pleads that he came to hear and not to speak, saying:--
'A chiad sgial air fear an taighe,
The first story from the host,
The stranger asks the houseman to tell a story, and after a pause the man complies. The tale is full of incident, action, and pathos. It is told simply yet graphically, and at times dramatically--compelling the undivided attention of the listener. At the pathetic scenes and distressful events the bosoms of the women may be seen to heave and their silent tears to fall. Truth overcomes craft, skill conquers strength, and bravery is rewarded. Occasionally a momentary excitement occurs when heat and sleep overpower a boy and he tumbles down among the people below, to be trounced out and sent home. When the story is ended it is discussed and commented upon, and the different characters praised or blamed according to their merits and the views of the critics.
If not late, proverbs, riddles, conundrums, and songs follow. Some of the tales, however, are long, occupying a night or even several nights in recital. 'Sgeul Coise Cein,' the story of the foot of Clan, for example, was in twenty-four parts, each part occupying a night
in telling. The story is mentioned by Macnicol in his Remarks on Johnson's Tour.
The hut of Hector Macisaac, Ceannlangavat, South Uist, stood in a peat-moss. The walls were of 'riasg,' turf, and the thatch of 'cuilc,' reeds, to the grief of the occupants, who looked upon the reed as banned, because it was used on Calvary to convey the sponge with the vinegar. The hut was about fifteen feet long, ten feet broad, and five feet high. There was nothing in it that the vilest thief in the lowest slum would condescend to steal. It were strange if the inmates of this turf hut in the peat-morass had been other than ailing. Hector Macisaac and his wife were the only occupants, their daughter being at service trying to prolong existence in' her parents. Both had been highly endowed physically, and were still endowed mentally, though now advanced in years. The wife knew many secular runes, sacred hymns, and fairy songs; while the husband had numerous heroic tales, poems, and ballads.
I had visited these people before, and in September 1871 Iain E. Campbell of Islay and I went to see them. Hector Macisaac, the unlettered cottar who knew no language but his own, who came into contact with no one but those of his own class, his neighbours of the peat-bog, and who had never been out of his native island, was as polite and well-mannered and courteous as Iain Campbell, the learned barrister, the world-wide traveller, and the honoured guest of every court in Europe. Both were at ease and at home with one another, there being neither servility on the one side nor condescension on the other.
The stories and poems which Hector Macisaac went over during our visits to him would have filled several volumes. Mr Campbell now and then put a leading question which brought out the story-teller's marvellous memory and extensive knowledge of folklore.
It was similar with blind old Hector Macleod, cottar, Lianacuithe, South Uist, and with old Roderick Macneill, cottar, Miunghlaidh, Barra. Each of those men repeated stories and poems, tales and ballads, that would have filled many books. Yet neither of them told more than a small part of what he knew. None of the three men knew any letters, nor any language but Gaelic, nor had ever been out of his native island. All expressed regret in well-chosen words that they had not a better place in which to receive their visitors, and all thanked them in polite terms for coming to see them and for taking an interest in their decried and derided old lore. And all were courteous as the courtier.
During his visit to us, Mr Campbell expressed to my wife and to myself his admiration of these and other men with whom we had come in contact. He said that in no other race had he observed so many noble traits and high qualities as in the unlettered, untravelled, unspoiled Highlander.
In 1860, 1861, and 1862, I took down much folk-lore from Kenneth Morrison, cottar, Trithion, Skye. Kenneth Morrison had been a mason, but was now old, blind, and poor. Though wholly unlettered, he was highly intelligent. He mentioned the names of many old men in the extensive but now desolate parish of Minngnis, who had been famous story-tellers in his boyhood--men who had been born in the first decade of the eighteenth century. Several of these, he said, could recite stories and poems during many nights in succession--some of the tales requiring several nights to relate. He repeated fragments of many of these. Some of them were pieces of poems and stories published by Macpherson, Smith, the Stewarts, the MacCallums, the Campbells, and others.
Kenneth Morrison told me that the old men, from whom he heard the poems and stories, said that they had heard them from old men in their boyhood. That would carry these old men back to the first half of the seventeenth century. Certainly they could not have learnt their stories or poems from books, for neither stories nor poems were printed in their time, and even had they been, those men could not have read them.
Gaelic oral literature has been disappearing during the last three centuries. It is now becoming meagre in quantity, inferior in quality, and greatly isolated.
Several causes have contributed towards this decadence--principally the Reformation, the Risings, the evictions, the Disruption, the schools, and the spirit of the age. Converts in religion, in politics, or in aught else, are apt to be intemperate in speech and rash in action. The Reformation movement condemned the beliefs and cults tolerated and assimilated by the Celtic Church and the Latin Church. Nor did sculpture and architecture escape their intemperate zeal. The risings harried and harassed the people, while the evictions impoverished, dispirited, and scattered them over the world. Ignorant school-teaching and clerical narrowness have been painfully detrimental to the expressive language, wholesome literature, manly sports, and interesting amusements of the Highland people. Innumerable examples occur.
A young lady said:--'When we came to Islay I was sent to the
parish school to obtain a proper grounding in arithmetic. I was charmed with the schoolgirls and their Gaelic songs. But the schoolmaster--an alien like myself--denounced Gaelic speech and Gaelic songs. On getting out of school one evening the girls resumed a song they had been singing the previous evening. I joined willingly, if timidly, my knowledge of Gaelic being small. The schoolmaster heard us, however, and called us back. He punished us till the blood trickled from our fingers, although we were big girls, with the dawn of womanhood upon us. The thought of that scene thrills me with indignation.'
I was taking down a story from a man, describing how twin giants detached a huge stone from the parent rock, and how the two carried the enormous block of many tons upon their broad shoulders to lay it over a deep gully in order that their white-maned steeds might cross. Their enemy, however, came upon them in the night-time when thus engaged, and threw a magic mist around them, lessening their strength and causing them to fail beneath their burden. In the midst of the graphic description the grandson of the narrator, himself an aspirant teacher, called out tone: of superior authority, 'Grandfather, the teacher says that you ought to be placed upon the stool for your lying Gaelic stories.' The old man stopped and gasped in pained surprise. It required time and sympathy to soothe his feelings and to obtain the rest of the tale, which was wise, beautiful, and poetic, for the big, strong giants were Frost and Ice, and their subtle enemy was Thaw. The enormous stone torn from the parent rock is called 'Clach Mhor Leum nan Caorach,' the big stone of the leap of the sheep. Truly 'a little learning is a dangerous thing'! This myth was afterwards appreciated by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
After many failures, and after going far to reach him, I induced a man to come to the lee of a knoll to tell me a tale. We were well into the spirit of the story when two men from the hill passed us. The story-teller hesitated, then stopped, saying that he would be reproved by his family, bantered by his friends, and censured by his minister. The story, so inauspiciously interrupted and never resumed, was the famous 'Sgeul Coise Cein,' already mentioned.
Having made many attempts, I at last succeeded in getting a shepherd to come to me, in order to be away from his surroundings. The man travelled fifty-five miles, eight of these being across a stormy strait of the Atlantic. We had reached the middle of a tale when the sheriff of the district came to call on me in my rooms.
[paragraph continues] The reciter fled, and after going more than a mile on his way home he met a man who asked him why he looked so scared, and why without his bonnet. The shepherd discovered that he had left his bonnet, his plaid, and his staff behind him in his flight. The remaining half of that fine story, as well as much other valuable Gaelic lore, died with the shepherd in Australia.
Ministers of Lewis used to say that the people of Lewis were little better than pagans till the Reformation, perhaps till the Disruption. If they were not, they have atoned since, being now the most rigid Christians in the British Isles.
When Dr William Forbes Skene was preparing the third volume of Celtic Scotland, he asked me to write him a paper on the native system of holding the land, tilling the soil, and apportioning the stock in the Outer Hebrides. Being less familiar with Lewis than with the other portions of the Long Island, I visited Lewis again. It was with extreme difficulty that I could obtain any information on the subject of my inquiry, because it related to the foolish past rather than to the sedate present, to the secular affairs rather than to the religious life of the people. When I asked about old customs and old modes of working, I was answered, 'Good man, old things are passed away, all things are become new'; for the people of Lewis, like the people of the Highlands and Islands generally, carry the Scriptures in their minds and apply them in their speech as no other people do. It was extremely disconcerting to be met in this manner on a mission so desirable.
During my quest I went into a house near Ness. The house was clean and comfortable if plain and unpretending, most things in it being home-made. There were three girls in the house, young, comely, and shy, and four women, middle-aged, handsome, and picturesque in their homespun gowns and high-crowned mutches. Three of the women had been to the moorland pastures with their cattle, and had turned in here to rest on their way home.
'Hail to the house and household,' said I, greeting the inmates in the salutation of our fathers. 'Hail to you, kindly stranger,' replied the housewife. 'Come forward and take this seat. If it be not ill-mannered, may we ask whence you have come to-day? You are tired and travel-stained, and probably hungry?' 'I have come from Gress,' said I, 'round by Tolasta to the south, and Tolasta to the north, taking a look at the ruins of the Church of St Aula, at Gress, and at the ruins of the fort of Dunothail, and then across the moorland.' 'May the Possessor keep you in His own keeping, good
man! You left early and have travelled far, and must be hungry.' With this the woman raised her eyes towards her daughters standing demurely silent, and motionless as Greek statues, in the background. In a moment the three fair girls became active and animated. One ran to the stack and brought in an armful of hard, black peats, another ran to the well and brought in a pail of clear spring water, while the third quickly spread a cloth, white as snow, upon the table in the inner room. The three neighbour women rose to leave, and I rose to do the same. 'Where are you going, good man?' asked the housewife in injured surprise, moving between me and the door. 'You must not go till you eat a bit and drink a sip. That indeed would be a reproach to us that we would not soon get over. These slips of lassies and I would not hear the end of it from the men at the sea, were we to allow a wayfarer to go from our door hungry, thirsty, and weary. No! no! you must not go till you eat a bite. Food will be ready presently, and in the meantime you will bathe your feet and dry your stockings, which are wet after coming through the marshes of the moorland.' Then the woman went down upon her knees, and washed and dried the feet of the stranger as gently and tenderly as a mother would those of her child. 'We have no stockings to suit the kilt,' said the woman in a tone of evident regret, 'but here is a pair of stockings of the houseman's which he has never had on, and perhaps you would put them on till your own are dry.'
One of the girls had already washed out my stockings, and they were presently drying before the bright fire on the middle of the floor. I deprecated all this trouble, but to no purpose. In an incredibly short time I was asked to go 'ben' and break bread.
Through the pressure of the housewife and of myself the other three women had resumed their seats, uneasily it is true. But immediately before food was announced the three women rose together and quietly walked away, no urging detaining them.
The table was laden with wholesome food sufficient for several persons, There were fried herrings and boiled turbot fresh from the sea, and eggs fresh from the yard. There were fresh butter and salt butter, wheaten scones, barley bannocks, and oat cakes, with excellent tea, and cream. The woman apologised that she had no 'aran coinnich'--moss bread, that is, loaf bread--and no biscuits, they being simple crofter people far away from the big town.
'This,' said I, taking my seat, looks like the table for a "reiteach," betrothal, rather than for one man. Have you betrothals in Lewis?'
I asked, turning my eyes towards the other room where we had left the three comely maidens. 'Oh, indeed, yes, the Lewis people are very good at marrying. Foolish young creatures, they often marry before they know their responsibilities or realise their difficulties,' and her eyes followed mine in the direction of her own young daughters. 'I suppose there is much fun and rejoicing at your marriages--music, dancing, singing, and, merry-making of many kinds?' 'Oh, indeed, no, our weddings are now quiet and becoming, not the foolish things they were in my young days. In my memory weddings were great events, with singing and piping, dancing and amusements all night through, and generally for two and three nights in succession. Indeed, the feast of the "bord breid," kertch table, was almost as great as the feast of the marriage table, all the young men and maidens struggling to get to it, On the morning after the marriage the mother of the bride, and failing her the mother of the bridegroom, placed the "breid tri chearnach," three-cornered kertch, on the head of the bride before she rose from her bed. And the mother did this "all ainm na Teoire Beannaichte," in name of the Sacred Three, under whose guidance the young wife was to walk. Then the bride arose and her maidens dressed her, and she came forth with the "breid beannach," pointed kertch, on her head, and all the people present saluted her and shook hands with her, and the bards sang songs to her, and recited "rannaghail mhora," great rigmaroles, and there was much rejoicing and merrymaking all day long and all night through. "Gu dearbh mar a b’e fleadh na bord breid a b’fhearr, chan e gearr bu mheasa"--Indeed, if the feast of the kertch table was not better, it was not a whit worse.
'There were many sad things done then, for those were the days of foolish doings and of foolish people. Perhaps, on the day of the Lord, when they came out of church, if indeed they went into church, the young men would go to throw the stone, or to toss the cabar, or to play shinty, or to run races, or to race horses on the strand, the young maidens looking on the while, ay, and the old men and women.' 'And have you no music, no singing, no dancing now at your marriages?' 'May the Possessor keep you! I see that you are a stranger in Lewis, or you would not ask such a question,' the woman exclaimed with grief and surprise in her tone. 'It is long since we abandoned those foolish ways in Ness, and, indeed, throughout Lewis. In my young days there was hardly a house in Ness in which there was not one or two or three who could play the pipe, or the fiddle, or the trump. And I have heard it said that there were men, and
women too, who could play things they called harps, and lyres, and bellow-pipes, but I do not know what those things were.' 'And why were those discontinued?' 'A blessed change came over the place and the people,' the woman replied in earnestness, 'and the good men and the good ministers who arose did away with the songs and the stories, the music and the dancing, the sports and the games, that were perverting the minds and ruining the souls of the people, leading them to folly and stumbling.' 'But how did the people themselves come to discard their sports and pastimes?' 'Oh, the good ministers and the good elders preached against them and went among the people, and besought them to forsake their follies and to return to wisdom. They made the people break and burn their pipes and fiddles. If there was a foolish man here and there who demurred, the good ministers and the good elders themselves broke and burnt their instruments, saying:--
"Is fearr an teine beag a gharas la beag na sithe,
Better is the small fire that warms on the little day of peace,
[paragraph continues] The people have forsaken their follies and their Sabbath-breaking, and there is no pipe, no fiddle here now,' said the woman in evident satisfaction. 'And what have you now instead of the racing, the stone-throwing, and the cabar-tossing, the song, the pipe, and the dance?' 'Oh, we have now the blessed Bible preached and explained to us faithfully and earnestly, if we sinful people would only walk in the right path and use our opportunities.'
'But what have you at your weddings? How do you pass the time?' 'Oh! the carles are on one side of the house talking of their crops and their nowt, and mayhap of the days when they were young and when things were different. And the young men are on the other side of the house talking about boats, and sailing, and militia, and naval reserve, perhaps of their own strength, and of many foolish matters besides.
'And where are the girls? What are they doing?' 'Oh, they, silly things! are in the "culaist," back-house, perhaps trying to croon over some foolish song under their breath, perhaps trying to amble through some awkward steps of dancing on the points of their toes, or, shame to tell, perhaps speaking of what dress this or that girl had on at this or that marriage, or worse still, what hat this girl or that girl had on on the Day of the Lord, perhaps even no the Day of the Holy Communion, showing that their minds were
on the vain things of the world instead of on the wise things of salvation.'
'But why are the girls in the "culaist"? What do they fear?'
'May the Good Being keep you, good man! They are in the "culaist" for concealment, "ages eagal am beatha agus am bais orra gun cluinnear no gum faicear iad"--and the fear of their life and of their death upon them, that they may be heard or seen should the good elder happen to be passing the way.' 'And should he, what then?' 'Oh, the elder will tell the minister, and the good minister will scold them from the pulpit, mentioning the girls by name. But the girls have a blanket on the door and another blanket on the window to deafen the sound and to obscure the light.'
'Do the young maidens allow the young men to join them in the "culaist"?' 'Indeed, truth to tell, the maidens would be glad enough to admit the young men were it not the fear of exposure. But the young men are so loud of voice, and so heavy of foot, and make so much noise, that they would betray the retreat of the girls, who would get rebuked, while the young men would escape. The girls would then be ashamed and downcast, and would not lift a head for a year and a day after their well-deserved scolding. They suffer most, for, sad to say, the young men are becoming less afraid of being admonished than they used to be.'
'And do the people have spirits at their marriages?' 'Oh yes, the minister is not so hard as that upon them at all. He does not interfere with them in that way unless they take too much, and talk loudly and quarrel. Then he is grieved and angry, and scolds them severely. Occasionally, indeed, some of the carles have a nice "frogan," liveliness, upon them and are very happy together. But oh, they never quarrel, nor fight, nor get angry with one another. They are always nice to one another and civil to all around them.'
'Perhaps were the minister to allow the people less drink and more music and dancing, singing and merry-making, they would enjoy it as much. I am sure the young girls would sing better, and dance better, with the help of the young men. And the young men themselves would be less loud of voice and less heavy of heel, among the maidens. Perhaps the happiness of the old people too, would be none the less real nor less lasting at seeing the joyousness of the young people.'
To this the woman promptly and loyally replied: 'The man of the Lord is untiring in work and unfailing in example for our good, and in guiding us to our heavenly home, constantly reminding us of
the littleness of time and the greatness of eternity, and he knows best, and we must do our best to follow his counsel and to imitate his example.'
A famous violin-player died in the island of Eigg a few years ago. He was known for his old style playing and his old-world airs which died with him. A preacher denounced him, saying:--'Tha thu shios an sin cul na comhla, a dhuine thruaigh le do chiabhan liath, a cluich do sheann fhiodhla, le laimh fhuair a mach agus le teine an diabhoil a steach'--Thou art down there behind the door, thou miserable man with thy grey hair, playing thine old fiddle with the cold hand without, and the devil's fire within. His family pressed the man to burn his fiddle and never to play again. A pedlar came round and offered ten shillings for the violin. The instrument had been made by a pupil of Stradivarius, and was famed for its tone. 'Cha b’e idir an rud a fhuaradh na dail a ghoirtich mo chridhe cho cruaidh ach an dealachadh lithe! an dealachadh rithe! agus gun tug mi fhein a bho a b’fhearr am buaile m’athar air a son, an uair a bha mi og'--It was not at all the thing that was got for it that grieved my heart so sorely, but the parting with it! the parting with it! and that I myself gave the best cow in my father's fold for it when I was young. The voice of the old man faltered and a tear fell. He was never again seen to smile.
The reciters of religious lore were more rare and more reticent than the reciters of secular lore. Men and women whom I knew had hymns and incantations, but I did not know of this in time. The fragments recalled by their families, like the fragments of Greek or Etruscan vases, indicated the originals.
Before dictating, the reciter went over the tale or poem, the writer making mental notes the while. This was helpful when, in the slow process of dictating, the narrator lost his thread and omitted passages. The poems were generally intoned in a low recitative manner, rising and falling in slow modulated cadences charming to hear but difficult to follow.
The music of the hymns had a distinct individuality, in some respects resembling and in many respects differing from the old Gregorian chants of the Church. I greatly regret that I was not able to record this peculiar and beautiful music, probably the music of the old Celtic Church.
Perhaps no people had a fuller ritual of song and story, of secular rite and religious ceremony, than the Highlanders. Mirth and music, song and dance, tale and poem, pervaded their lives, as
electricity pervades the air. Religion, pagan or Christian, or both combined, permeated everything--blending and shading into one another like the iridescent colours of the rainbow. The people were sympathetic and synthetic, unable to see and careless to know where the secular began and the religious ended--an admirable union of elements in life for those who have lived it so truly and intensely as the Celtic races everywhere have done, and none more truly or more intensely than the ill-understood and so-called illiterate Highlanders of Scotland.
If this work does nothing else, it affords incontestable proof that the Northern Celts were endowed, as Renan justly claims for Celts everywhere, with 'profound feeling and adorable delicacy' in their religious instincts. 1
The Celtic missionaries allowed the pagan stock to stand, grafting their Christian cult thereon. Hence the blending of the pagan and the Christian religions in these poems, which to many minds will constitute their chief charm. Gaelic lore is full of this blending and grafting--nor are they confined to the literature of the people, but extend indeed to their music, sculpture, and architecture. At Rodail, Harris, is a cruciform church of the thirteenth century. The church abuts upon a broad square tower of no great height. The tower is called 'Tur Chliamain,' tower of Clement, 'Cliaman Mor Rodail,' Great Clement of Rodail. Tradition says that the tower is older than the church, and the masonry confirms the tradition.
There are sculptures within the church of much originality of design and of great beauty of execution, but the sculptures without are still more original and interesting. Round the sides of the square tower are the figures of birds and beasts, reptiles and fishes, and of men and women representing phallic worship. Here pagan cult joins with Christian faith, the East with the West, the past with the present. The traveller from India to Scotland can here see, on the cold, sterile rocks of Harris, the petrified symbols of a faith left living behind him on the hot, fertile plains of Hindustan. He can thus in his own person bridge over a space of eight thousand miles and a period of two thousand years.
There are observances and expressions current in the West which savour of the East, such as sun, moon, star, and fire worship, once prevalent, nor yet obsolete.
Highland divinities are full of life and action, local colour and individuality. These divinities filled the hearts and minds of the
people of the Highlands, as their deities filled the hearts and minds of the people of Greece and Rome. The subject of these genii of the Highlands ought to be investigated and compared with those of other lands. Even yet, on the verge of disappearance, they would yield interesting results. Though loving their haunts and tenacious of their habitats, the genii of the Highlands are disappearing before the spirit of modernism, as the Red Indian, once bold and courageous, disappears before the white man. Once intrusive, they are now become timid as the mullet of the sea, the shrew of the grass, or the swift of the air--a glimpse, a glint, and gone for ever. They are startled at the crack of the rifle, the whistle of the steamer, the shriek of the train, and the click of the telegraph. Their homes are invaded and their repose is disturbed, so that they find no rest for their weary feet nor sleep for their heavy eyes; and their native land, so full of their love, so congenial to their hearts, will all too soon know them no more. Let an attempt be made even yet to preserve their memories ere they disappear for ever.
Whatever be the value of this work, it is genuine folk-lore, taken down from the lips of men and women, no part being copied from books. It is the product of far-away thinking, come down on the long stream of time. Who the thinkers and whence the stream, who can tell? Some of the hymns may have been composed within the cloistered cells of Derry and Iona, and some of the incantations among the cromlechs of Stonehenge and the standing-stones of Callarnis. These poems were composed by the learned, but they have not come down through the learned, but through the unlearned--not through the lettered few, but through the unlettered many--through the crofters and cottars, the herdsmen and shepherds, of the Highlands and Islands.
Although these compositions have been rescued chiefly among Roman Catholics and in the islands, they have been equally common among Protestants and on the mainland.
From one to ten versions have been taken down, differing more or less. It has been difficult to select. Some examples of these variants are given. Several poems and many notes are wholly withheld, while a few of the poems and all the notes have been abbreviated for want of space.
I had the privilege of being acquainted with Iain F. Campbell of Islay during a quarter of a century, and I have followed his counsel and imitated his example in giving the words and in recording the names of the reciters. Some localisms are given for the sake of
[paragraph continues] Gaelic scholars. Hence the same word may be spelt in different ways through the influence of assonance and other characteristics of Gaelic compositions.
With each succeeding generation Gaelic speech becomes more limited and Gaelic phraseology more obscure. Both reciter and writer felt this when words and phrases occurred which neither knew. These have been rendered tentatively or left untranslated. I can only hope that in the near or distant future some competent scholar may compare these gleanings of mine with Celtic writings at home and abroad, and that light may be shed upon what is to me obscure.
I have tried to translate literally yet satisfactorily, but I am painfully conscious of failure. Although in decay, these poems are in verse of a high order, with metre, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, and every quality to please the ear and to instruct the mind, The translation lacks these and the simple dignity, the charming grace, and the passionate devotion of the original.
I see faults that I would willingly mend, but it is easier to point to blemishes than to avoid them--
'Is furasda dh’an fhear eisdeachd
It is easy for the listening roan
Again and again I laid down my self-imposed task, feeling unable to render the intense power and supreme beauty of the original Gaelic into adequate English. But I resumed under the inspiring influence of my wife, to whose unfailing sympathy and cultured ear this work owes much.
My daughter has transcribed the manuscripts and corrected the proofs for press, and has acted as amanuensis throughout; while my three sons have helped in various ways.
The Celtic letters in the work have been copied by my wife from Celtic MSS., chiefly in the Advocates' Library. This has been a task of extreme difficulty, needing great skill and patient care owing to the defaced condition of the originals. The letters have been prepared for the engraver with feeling and insight by Mr John Athel Lovegrove, of H.M. Ordnance Survey.
The Rev. Father Allan Macdonald, Eriskey, South Uist, generously placed at my disposal a collection of religious folk-lore made by himself. For this I am very grateful though unable to use the manuscript, having so much material of my own.
Mr John Henry Dixon, Inveran, Lochmaree, offered to publish the work at his own expense. That I have not availed myself of his
generous appreciation does not lessen my gratitude for Mr Dixon's characteristic liberality.
The portrait is the friendly work and generous gift of Mr W. Skeoch Cumming, and is inserted at the request of friends outside my family.
My dear friend Mr George Henderson, M.A. Edin., Ph.D. Leipsic, B.Litt. Oxon., has helped and encouraged me throughout.
These, and the many others whose names I am unable to mention through want of space, I ask to accept my warm, abiding thanks.
Three sacrifices have been made--the sacrifice of time, the sacrifice of toil, and the sacrifice of means. These I do not regret. I have three regrets--that I had not been earlier collecting, that I have not been more diligent in collecting, and that I am not better qualified to treat what I have collected.
These notes and poems have been an education to me. And so have been the men and women reciters from whose dictation I wrote them down. They are almost all dead now, leaving no successors. With reverent hand and grateful heart I place this stone upon the cairn of those who composed and of those who transmitted the work.
St Michael's Day, 1899.
xxvi:1 On Sunday, the 21st July 1875, Professor Blackie, Mr William Jolly, and I ascended the hill of Ruaival, in Benbecula. From the summit of this hill, 409 feet high, we had an extensive view of our extraordinary surroundings, striking to the eye and instructive to the mind. On returning home to Creagorry, where we then lived, Professor Blackie wrote the lines composed on Ruaival on the flyleaf of Burt's Letters, which he gave to me. The day that Professor Blackie and Mr Jolly were to have left our house some mishap befell their linens, and these had to be rewashed. Mr Jolly alleged that I had bribed the servant in charge of the linens to bring about the accident in order to prolong the stay of our well-beloved guests!
xxxix:1 Poetry of the Celtic Races, and Other Studies. By Ernest Renan.