OISEAN was an old man after the (time of the) Feen, and he (was) dwelling in the house of his daughter. He was blind, deaf, and limping, and there were nine oaken skewers in his belly, and he ate the tribute that Padraig had over Eirinn. They were then writing the old histories that he was telling them.
They killed a right big stag; they stripped the shank, and brought him the bone. "Didst thou ever see a shank that was thicker than that in the Feen?" "I saw a bone of the black bird's chick in which it would go round about."--"In that there are but lies." When he heard this, he caught hold of the books with rage, and he set them in the fire. His daughter took them out and quenched them, and she kept them. Ossian asked, with wailing, that the worst lad and dog in the Feen should lay weight on his chest. He felt a weight on his chest. "What's this?"--"I MacRuaghadh" (son of the red, or auburn one). "What is that weight which I feel at my feet?" "There is MacBuidheig" (the son of the little yellow). They stayed as they were till the day came. They arose. He asked the lad to take him to such a glen. The lad reached the glen with him. He took out a whistle from his pocket, and he played it. "Seest
thou anything going past on yonder mountain?"--"I see deer on it."--"What sort dost thou see on it "I see some slender and grey on it."--"Those are the seed of the Lon Luath, swift elk; let them pass."--"What kind seest thou now?"--"I see some gaunt and grizzled."--"Those are the seed of Dearg dasdanach, the red Fierce: let them pass."--"What kind seest thou now?"--"I see some heavy and sleek."--"Let the dog at them Vic Vuiaig!" MacBhuieig went. "Is he dragging down plenty?"--"He is."--"Now, when thou seest that he has a dozen thou shalt check him." When he thought he had them, he played the whistle, and he checked the dog. "Now if the pup is sated with chase, he will come quietly, gently; if not, he will come with his gape open." He was coming with his gape open, and his tongue out of his mouth. "Bad is the thing which thou hast done to cheek the pup unsated with chase."--"When he comes, catch my hand, and try to put it in his gape, or he will have us." He put the hand of Oisean in his gape, and he shook his throat out. "Come, gather the stags to that knoll of rushes." He went, and that is done; and it was nine stags that were there, and that was but enough for Oisean alone; the lad's share was lost. "Put my two hands about the rushy knoll that is here;" he did that, and the great caldron that the Feen used to have was in it. "Now, make ready, and put the stags in the caldron, and set fire under it." The lad did that. When they were here ready to take it, Oisean said to him, "Touch thou them not till I take my fill first." Oisean began upon them, and as he ate each one, he took one of the skewers out of his belly. When Oisean had six eaten, the lad had three taken from him. "Hast thou done this to me?" said Oisean. "I did it," said he I would need
a few when thou thyself hadst so many of them."--"Try if thou wilt take me to such a rock." He went down there, and he brought out the chick of a blackbird out of the rock. "Let us come to be going home." The lad caught him under the arm, and they went away. When be thought that they were nearing the house, he said, "Are we very near the house?" "We are," said the lad. "Would the shout of a man reach the house where we are just now?" 1--"It would reach it."--"Set my front straight on the house." The lad did thus. When he was coming on the house, he caught the lad, and he put his hand in his throat, and he killed him. "Now," said he, "neither thou nor another will tell tales of me." He went home with his hands on the wall, and he left the blackbird's chick within. They were asking him where he had been since the day came; he said he had been where he had often passed pleasant happy days. "How didst thou go there when thou art blind?"--"I got a chance to go there this day at all events. There is a little pet yonder that I brought home, and bring it in." They went out to look, and if they went, there did not go out so many as could bring it home. He himself arose, and he brought it in. He asked for a knife. He caught the shank, he stripped it, and then took the flesh off it. He broke the two ends of the bone. "Get now the shank of the dun deer that you said I never saw the like of in the Feen." They got this for him, and be threw it out through the marrow hole. Now he was made truthful. They began to ask more tales from him, but it beat them ever to make him begin at them any more.
2. A version of this was told to me by an old tinker at Inverary,
but, according to him, the books were destroyed. I took it to be the popular account of the Ossian controversy. Ossian, MacPherson, Dr. Smith, and their party, fused into "Ossian," Dr. Johnson, and his followers, condensed into "Padraig." The famous Red Book of Clanrannald has also become mythical. Its true history will be found in the book by the Highland Society. I was told in Benbecula how a man had found a book, containing the history of the Feen, in a moss; and how he had parted with it to a blind beggar, who had sold part to a clergyman, the rest was in America. "The book was not dug up; it was on the moss. It seemed as if the ancestors had sent it."
3. This story of the Blackbird's bone is common. I heard it myself from several men in South Uist, with variations. According to one, the deer's bone was to turn round on end in the blackbird's shank. Another version has been sent to me from Sutherland. According to J. H. Simpson, a similar tale is now told by the peasantry of Mayo. (Poems of Ossin, Bard of Erin, from the Irish, 1857, page 191.) Mr. MACLEAN very ingeniously suggests that the word which now means Blackbird (Londubh) may originally have meant Black-ELK. Armstrong's Dictionary gives LÒN, a meadow; LÒN, a diet, a dinner, a store, provision, food; LON, an ousel, a blackbird, an Elk; LON, greed, prattle, hunger; also, a rope of raw hides used by the people of St. Kilda. The word, then, may mean almost anything that can be eaten by man or beast in general; and an elk in particular.
There are plenty of elks still living in Scandinavia. Their gigantic fossil bones are found in Irish bogs, and in the Isle of Man; a whole skeleton is to be seen in the British Museum; and it is supposed that men and elks existed together in Ireland. (See Wilson's Pre-historic Annals of Scotland, page 22: 1851.) The story probably rests on a foundation of fact--namely, the discovery of fossil bones-mixed up with the floating traditions about the Feen which pervade both Ireland and Scotland, and which have been woven into poems for centuries in both countries. These may date from the days when men hunted elks in Erin, as they now do in Scandinavia. "Padraig" probably slipped in when that curious dialogue was composed, of which several versions are still extant in old manuscripts.
4. The Sutherland version is as follows:--
The last of the giants lived among the Fearn Hills (Ross-shire,
and within sight of the windows of Skibo); he had an only daughter, married not to a giant, but to a common man.
His son-in-law did not always treat him well, for he was sometimes very hungry, and had to wear a hunger-belt.
One day at dinner his son-in-law said to him, "Did you ever, amongst the giants, eat such good beef, or from so large an ox?"
"Amongst us," said the last of the giants, "the legs of the birds were heavier than the hind quarters of your ox."
They laughed him to scorn, and said, that it was because he was blind that he made such mistakes; so he called to a servant and bid him bring his bow and three arrows, and lead him by the hand to a corrie which he named in the Balnagowan forest.
"Now," said he, "do you see such and such a rock?"
"Yes," said the servant.
"And is there a step in the face of it?"
"Yes," said the servant.
"Are there rushes at the foot of it?"
"Yes," said the servant.
"Then, take me to the steps, and put me on the first of them."
The servant did so.
"Look now, and tell me what comes."
"I see birds," said the fellow.
"Are they bigger than common?"
"No bigger than in Fearn," said the servant.
A little after, "What do you see?"
"Birds still," said the servant.
"And are they no bigger than usual?"
"They are three times bigger than eagles."
A little later, "Do you see any more birds?" said the giant.
"Yes, birds that the air is black with them, and the biggest is three times as big as an ox."
"Then guide my hand to the bow," said the blind giant; and the boy guided him so well that the biggest bird fell at the foot of the rock amongst the rushes.
"Take home a hind quarter," said the giant, and they carried. it home between them.
When they came to the house of his son-in-law, he walked in with it, and aimed a tremendous blow at the place where his son-in-law usually sat. Being blind he did not see that the chair was empty; it was broken to pieces; but the son-in-law lived to repent, and treat the blind giant better.
I have another version written in English by Mr. Hugh MacColl, gardener at Ardkinglass, from which it appears that the blind old giant was Ossian, and that his father-in-law was Paul na nooi clerach, Paul of the nine clerks (whom I strongly suspect to be St. Patrick). They questioned him about deer; and this shows how stories alter, for DAMH means ox and stag, and in Sutherland it has become ox.
5. They would not believe that Ossian's black birds were so large. He got a boy and went to a hill, and pulled a tuft of rushes, and here again is another change in the translation from Gaelic to English; for TOM means a knoll and a bush. Under the tuft they find a yellow dog, and under another, firelocks and spades; which is another curious change from the bow and arrows. Then they go to a hill covered with wood, which suits the country about Stirling; and the lad is made to dig a hole with the spade, and put his head into it. The old giant whistles, and nearly splits the boy's head; and he does this thrice. The first time the boy sees deer as big as peat-stacks; the second, as large as house; the third, as large as hills; and they slip "cue baie mac kill e buiach," the yellow dog after them.
Then they kindle a fire and roast the deer. Here the bettle has dropped out, and the boy eats some, and old giant is furious; for if he had eaten all he could have recovered his sight. Then he took the boy to a wood, and made him shoot a blackbird on its nest, and he took home a leg, which was so heavy that it broke the table.
Then they tried to get the old man to tell them more about the Faen, but he would not, because they would not believe him; and the next day they went with the boy to a well, and wrung his neck, to keep him silent also.
Here, as in all the versions which I have got, the blackbird seems to be hauled in to account for the Gaelic word, which is but rarely used, and whose meaning is forgotten. LON DUBH means blackbird or black Elk; and surely deer as big as hills might have done to prove the wonders of the olden time. These three versions of the same story show, as well as any which I have, how the same tale changes in various localities, and why.
In Stirling and in Sutherland Gaelic is fading rapidly. Elks have ceased to exist in Scotland; and the tradition has changed with the times, and shapes itself to suit the ideas of the narrators, and the country about them.
115:1 A Lapp measure of distance is "a dog's bark."