NOW Farquhar was one time a drover in the Reay country, and he went from Glen Gollich to England (some say Falkirk), to sell cattle; and the staff that he had in his hand was hazel (caltuinn). One day a doctor met him. "What's that," said he, "that ye have got in y'r hand?" "It is a staff of hazel." "And where did ye cut that?" "In Glen Gollig: north, in Lord Reay's country." "Do ye mind the place and the tree?" "That do I." "Could ye get the tree?" "Easy." "Well, I will give ye gold more than ye can lift, if ye will go back there and bring me a wand of that hazel tree; and take this bottle and bring me something more, and I will give you as much gold again. Watch at the hole at the foot, and put the bottle to it; let the six serpents go that come out first, and put the seventh one into the bottle, and tell no man, but come back straight with it here."
So Farquhar went back to the hazel glen, and when he had cut some boughs off the tree he looked about for the hole that the doctor had spoken of. And what should come out but six serpents, brown and barred like adders. These he let go, and clapped the bottle to the hole's mouth, to see would any more come out. By and by a white snake came rolling through. Farquhar
had him in the bottle in a minute, tied him down, and hurried back to England with him.
The doctor gave him siller enough to buy the Reay country, but asked him to stay and help him with the white snake. They lit a fire with the hazel sticks, and put the snake into a pot to boil. The doctor bid Farquhar watch it, and not let any one touch it, and not to let the steam escape, "for fear," he said, "folk might know what they were at."
He wrapped up paper round the pot lid, but he had not made all straight when the water began to boil, and the steam began to come out at one place.
Well, Farquhar saw this, and thought he would push the paper down round the thing; so he put his finger to the bit, and then his finger into his mouth, for it was wet with the bree.
Lo! he knew everything, and the eyes of his mind were opened. "I will keep it quiet though," said he to himself.
Presently the doctor came back, and took the pot from the fire. He lifted the lid, and dipping his finger in the steam drops he sucked it; but the virtue had gone out of it, and it was no more than water to him.
"Who has done this!" he cried, and he saw in Farquhar's face that it was he. "Since you have taken the bree of it, take the flesh too," he said in a rage, and threw the pot at him--(ma dh' ol thu 'n sugh ith an fheoil). Now Farquhar had become allwise, and he set up as a doctor. [The collector who took this down, grammar and all, here remarks, that Michael Scott got his knowledge by serpent's bree (brigh); and the wisdom of the mouth is said to have belonged to Fingal, who began life as a herd boy on the Shin. Some giants came to him one day and bade him roast a fish for them,
threatening to kill him if he burnt it. He did so, all but one small spot. On this spot he quickly put his finger, and as quickly transferred the hot finger to his mouth, putting it under his teeth: a gift of omniscience was the result, and this became the foundation of his future greatness.
The very same incident with a dragon's heart is in the Volsung tale, see Dasent's introduction, p. 65. It is told in Chambers' Nursery Songs, of some laird in Scotland. Mrs. MacTavish tells it, and I have heard it in the west in various shapes ever since I can remember. Grimm found it in Germany in the story of the White, Snake; and there are varieties of the same incident scattered throughout Grimm; for instance in the TWO BROTHERS, where children eat the heart and liver of a golden bird, and find gold under their pillows; and this story has a relation in Gaelic also. But to return to Farquhar Leech.]
He set up as a doctor, and there was no secret bid from him, and nothing that be could not cure.
He went from place to place and healed men, and so they called him Farquhar Leigheach (the healer). Now he heard that the king was sick, and he went to the city of the king to know what would ail him. "It was his knee," said all the folk, "and he has many doctors, and pays them all greatly; and whiles they can give him relief, but not for long, and then it is worse than ever with him, and you may hear him roar and cry with the pain that is in his knee, in the bones of it." One day Farquhar walked up and down before the king's house. And he cried--
"An daol dubh ris a chnamh gheal."
The black beetle to the white bone.
And the people looked at him, and said that the strange man from the Reay country was through-other.
The next day Farquhar stood at the gate and cried, "The black beetle to the white bone!" and the king sent to know who it was that cried outside, and what was his business. The man, they said, was a stranger, and men called him the Physician. So the king, who was wild with pain, called him in; and Farquhar stood before the king, and aye "The black beetle to the white bone!" said he. And so it was proved. The doctors, to keep the king ill, and get their money, put at whiles a black beetle into the wound in the knee, and the beast was eating the bone and his flesh, and made him cry day and night. Then the doctors took it out again, for fear he should die; and when he was better they put it back again. This Farquhar knew by the serpent's wisdom that he had, when he laid his finger under his teeth; and the king was cured, and had all his doctors hung.
Then the king said that he would give Farquhar lands or gold, or whatever he asked. Then Farquhar asked to have the king's daughter, and all the isles that the sea runs round, from point of Storr to Stromness in the Orkneys; so the king gave him a grant of all the isles. But Farquhar the physician never came to be Farquhar the king, 1 for he had an ill-wisher that poisoned him, and he died.
I am indebted to the kindness of Mr. Cosmo Innes for the following note, which joins a legend to an historical fact.
The names given are a curious instance of old Gaelic spelling. They are evidently spelt by ear, and so spelt as to be easily understood; but they are not spelt according to modern rule.
It is not often we can connect these wild legends with record or charter, but Farchar Leech receives a local habitation from authentic writs.
The "Reay country" of the legend is Strathnaver. One race of Mackays who inhabit it are called by their countrymen clan vie Farquhar--from what Farquhar, was unknown to Sir Robert Gordon and the local historians. The legend points to the man. In 1379 Farquhar, the King's physician (medicus Regis) had a grant from the Prince Alexander Stuart (the wolf of Badenoch) of the lands of Mellenes and hope in that district; and in 1386 King Robert II. granted to the same person, styled Ferchard Leech, in heritage, the islands of Jura (now Alderney), Calwa Sanda (Handa), Elangawne, Elanewillighe, Elanerone, Elanehoga, between Rowestorenastynghe (i.e., the Rowe or point of Store, in Assynt), and Rowearmadale (i.e., Armidale Head in Farr).
The writer of the old statistical account of the parish, speaking of these grants from hearsay or tradition, names the grantee "Ferchard Beton, a native of Isla, and a famous physician." Perhaps he was misled by the celebrity of the Isla Betons, several generations of whom were "mediciners," famous through all the Islands and West Highlands.
Whether Farchar Leech died by poison or otherwise, he seems to have left descendants who inherited his lands; for, so late as 1511, Donald M'Donacy M'Corrochie described as "descendit frae Farquhar Leiche;" resigned Melness, Hope, and all his lands of Strathnaver in favour of the chief family of the Mackays.
The marriage with the King's daughter, as well as the black beetle, want confirmation.
There is a west country version of this story which I have known all my life in part; and which agrees with the account of the writer who spoke from tradition long ago.
Mrs. MacTavish writes:--
2. The OLLADH ILEACH (Islay Doctor).
There were three brothers of the name of Beaton, natives of Islay, famed for their skill in medicine. One of the brothers, called John, went to Mull, and was known as the Olladh Muilleach, or Mull doctor. His tomb is to be seen in Iona., Another called Fergus remained in Islay, and was known as the OLLADH ILEACH. The third, GILLEADHA, was in the end the
most famed of the three; he was the herbalist, and employed by his brother Fergus to gather herbs and prepare them for use.
When boiling a cauldron of herbs, in which a white snake had been put, in stirring, it bubbled up and spattered on his hand, this he licked off, and at once he got such a view of his profession as to make him unrivalled. He was summoned to attend one of the Scotch Kings, who was cured by him; but through the jealousy of other doctors, he never returned to Islay, having been poisoned.
(So far the Islay tradition very nearly accords with the Sutherland account of Farquhar Leech). He was called to see a young lady, daughter of Mackay of Kilmahumaig, near Crinan. When approaching the house, attended by a servant, the latter remarked a sweet female voice which he heard singing a song:--
"S binn an guth cinn sin" ars an gilleadh.
"S binn" ars an t-Olladh, "air uachdar Losguin."
"Sweet is that head's voice," said the lad;
"Sweet," said the doctor, "above a Toad."
The poor young woman had an enormous appetite, which could not be satisfied, but she was reduced to a skeleton. The doctor, on hearing her voice, knew what her disease was, and ordered a sheep to be killed and roasted.
The lady was prevented from getting any food, from which she was in great agony.
She was made to sit by the sheep while it was being roasted, and the flavour of the meat tempted the toad she had swallowed to come up her throat and out of her mouth, when she was completely cured. The reptile she had swallowed was called LON CRAOIS.
Now, something very like this part was told me in Norway as a fact by a Norwegian, the travelling interpreter of an English companion. My old friend Juil has since become a flourishing contractor. He had seen a young woman on board a steamer going with her friends to Christiania for advice. She had been reaping, and had fallen asleep on a sheaf of corn in the field. She slept with her mouth open, and a serpent had run down her throat. She had been in a state of terror and horror ever since, and they were taking her to the capital. "I saw her myself," said my informant; "I heard that the doctors could not cure her
at Christiania, and that she went to Copenhagen. There all the great doctors were beat; but a young doctor made them put her in a dark room, lying on her side on the floor, with a saucer of milk before her. 'Serpents are very fond of milk you see.' The first time they opened the door the serpent had only put his head up, and he drew it in again when he heard the noise. The second time they moved the saucer a little further away, and he came out altogether, and the young doctor killed the serpent and shewed it to the young 'womans,'" and thus she got quite well. "And that is quite true."
Every word of it might be true, if we suppose a clever man and a woman possessed with an idea which had to be coaxed out of her; but the question is, when did that clever man live, and where?--in Copenhagen--in the West Highlands--or in Africa, where the creature swallowed was a baboon, and the bait a banana skilfully administered by a doctor to Anansi (Dasent, Norse Tales, p. 502); or in London, where a clever doctor tempted a serpent out of a patient with a mutton chop, according to a story told to a friend of mine in his childhood; or have there been many doctors and patients who have gone through the same adventure? But to go on with the west country wise men.
"The wife of a man who was suffering from rheumatism consulted the Olladh Muileach. He went to see him, bringing a birch rod, and having got his patient out of bed, ordered his wife to lay the birch rod smartly on his back, and chase him till the doctor would say it was enough. He would not allow her to cease till the poor man perspired freely and became supple, and free from pain."
This again might be true, every word; but when did the doctor live, and where? Was it in the country of King Voonan?
A learned doctor in the Arabian Nights, the sage Dooban, makes King Voonan play at ball till he perspires and absorbs some medicaments from the handle of the "Golfstick."
"Another man went to him for a cure for sore eyes. The doctor examined his eyes, but told him he was likely to suffer in a more serious manner from horns that would soon appear on his knees. The-man seemed much alarmed, and asked if there was any way in which he could prevent such a calamity. 'No way,' said the doctor, 'but by keeping your hands on your knees for three weeks. At the end of that period come to me, that I may
see how you get on.' The man did as he was advised, and went to the doctor."
"Well," said the doctor, "have the horns made their appearance?" "No," said the man.
"Have you attended to my advice?" said the doctor. "Oh, yes," said the patient, "I have kept my hands continually, night and day, on my knees."
"How are your eyes?" said the doctor. "My eyes are quite well," said the man. "Very well," said the doctor, "go home and keep your mind easy about the horns, and don't rub your eyes."
"The descendants of both Fergus and Gilleadh are still in Islay."
The name of Malcolm Bethune is written on a curious old manuscript in the Advocates' Library. It is described at page 295 of the report of the Highland Society on the poems of Ossian, 1805, with this note on the name:--"He was one of a family eminent for learning that supplied the Western Isles for many ages with physicians, whose diligence and skill are gratefully remembered in the traditionary record of their country."
It seems, then, that fifty-five years have not obliterated the popular tales clustered about the name of Bethune or Beaton, stored in the mind of one lady who may well remember the publication of the report, and to whose excellent memory this collection of stories owes so much.
Is the whole of this a remnant of Serpent worship and supposed possession by the god? In the Highlands now, as else. where, and from the earliest of times, serpents have something to do with healing. From the brazen serpent in the wilderness, to Æsculapius, and from Æsculapius to Farquhar Leech and Dr. Beaton, is a long stretch of time and space; but snakes are still associated with healing amongst Spartan shepherds, as well as Highland peasants, as the following extract from my journal will show:--
"1852, May 10.--Having turned some Indian corn out of a loft, took up our quarters for the night at a half-ruined house not far from Sparta. At the door were a lot of fellows in shaggy capotes drinking sour wine and making a row. One of them, dressed in a kind of sheepskin cloak, with a long crook in his hand, astonished me by pulling out a serpent a yard long, which he handled with perfect coolness.
I rattled down the ladder, to the risk of my neck, and found that he had a bag full. There might have been half a dozen. I made him turn them all out, and set the Greeks to catch them again. My friend ended by producing a number of white powders, which made the swallower independent of snake bites. I bought a dozen, and proceeded to test them in the candle. They were vegetable, and I suspect flour."
In Ceylon, according to Sir Emerson Torment (page 193), it is the same.
"There is a rare variety (of snakes) which the natives fancifully designate the King of the Cobras. It has the head and the anterior half of the body of so light a colour that at a distance it seems like a silvery white." . . . "Raja or King."
In the same page it appears that the snake charmers use a certain stone to cure snake bites, and that they also use a certain root. I do not know the word for snake, but Raja is not unlike RIGH, King. Snake charmers are also common in Northern Africa.
The serpent creed then is very widely spread, and the belief in the Highlands is worth illustration.
Widow Mary Calder (in Sutherland) tells, that "The great white snake is not uncommon in Sutherland, and has been sometimes, but not often, killed. It never rests by day or by night, and besides running along the ground, has a revolving motion peculiar to itself, turning over and over through an ivory ring which is loose on its body. This is formed from its own slime, and sometimes slips off, in which case the snake makes another, and the finder of the ring is safe against all diseases and enchantments,"--Vide adder beads in the Gallovidian Encyclopædia.
"Another great serpent has been seen by the natives. The last was nine feet long, and covered with hair; it had a mane, and was a bodily manifestation of the evil one."
It was a common belief in the West that "snakes' eggs" were lucky. I once owned one, but lost it. It was a bead of various colours, blue and white, apparently of glass, very like those figured in Wilson's Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, page 304. These are commonly found in tumuli, and are the adder stones of the Lowlands, and Druid's glass in Ireland. They are supposed by Mr. Wilson to have been worn as charms by women of that unknown prehistoric race which once inhabited Scotland. At all events, the idea that they were produced by snakes is common.
[paragraph continues] Mr. Wilson suggests "the probable means of accounting for their introduction into Britain is by the Phnicians, or by traders in direct communication with that people." If so, the same people may have brought the belief and the tales from the East, where a serpent has had to do with mythology from the earliest of times. (See Rawlinson's Herodotus, under the head Serpent). But besides this white king of snakes, who has a brother Raja in Ceylon, there is the great eel which is always appearing in lakes and in the sea, and which is firmly believed to exist. It has no peculiarity that I know of but enormous size. A keeper used to tell me that he saw it repeatedly in a small but very deep lake. "It was as big as a saik" (sack). I am quite sure the man believed what he said, though I believe his eyes had but realized an old legend.
Mrs. MacTavish writes:--"An old man in Lorn used to tell that he went one summer morning to fish on a rock; he was not long there when he saw the head of an eel pass. He continued fishing for an hour, and the eel was still passing. He went home, worked in the field all day, and having returned to the same rock in the evening, the eel was still passing, and about dusk he saw her tail disappearing behind the rock on which he stood fishing." The old man was nicknamed Donul n' ro; Donald of the reef.
That eel was a bouncer, but not so big as the sea-serpent of the Edda, which went round the world.
A gentleman, in whose house I dined at Tromsoe, near the Arctic circle, told me that "the fishermen often saw the sea-worm in Salten Fjord." All the world have heard of Capt. MacQuae's sea-snake. I have a drawing of him done by a gentleman who was a midshipman on board the Ddulus and saw him. I lately saw a master of a merchant vessel at Liverpool, who calmly and deliberately assured a royal commission that he had seen a large serpent "in the sea about the same place." He said nothing about it in the papers, for no one would believe him; but he had no doubt about it--he saw the sea-snake.
I have no doubt that these men all believed what they said to be true. It is hard to believe that they were all mistaken. Few of them can have heard of Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen; but his book gives pictures of the sea-snake, and tells how it was seen and shot at in Norwegian Fjords in his day. There surely are some such creatures in the sea. Highland stories are full of sea monsters which are called Uille bheist and Draygan, and which have numerous heads. Surely there must be some foundation
for so many fictions. St. George killed a Dragon; Perseus a sea monster; Bellerophon the Chimera; Hercules the Hydra; Apollo killed Pytho; Fraoch killed, and was killed by, a Behir (great snake); Vishnoo killed a serpent in India. "Sin, the giant Aphophis, as 'the great serpent,' often with a human head," was represented pierced by the spear of Horns or of Atmoo (as Re the Sun) in Egypt. 1 In short, I believe that the Gaelic serpent stories, and the Highland beliefs concerning them, are old myths, a part of the history of the oldest feud in the world; the feud with the serpent who was "more subtle than any beast of the field that the Lord had made," for the leading idea seems always to be that the holy, healing power overcomes the subtle destroyer. Thus Mrs. M'Tavish tells that St. Patrick coaxed the last Irish snake into a chest by the promise that he would let him out "to-morrow," and then he put him into Lough Neagh, and there he is still. The serpent is always asking, "is it tomorrow?" but a "to-morrow" is never come; and no serpents are to be found on any place belonging to Ireland to this day.
The same belief extends to numerous small islands on the coast of Scotland, and old ruined chapels with sculptured grave-stones are generally to be found in them. I know one such island where some boys (as I was told) once took a living serpent, and it died. It is named Texa, and this legend is attached to it:--"It is a portion of Ireland which a giant's wife took a fancy to carry across the Channel in her apron. From a rent in the apron, Tarsgier fell through, and the rent getting larger, Texa fell from her, and so by degrees did all the other rocks and islets between Texa, and the point of Ardmore, where she left Eillan a chuirn, which she did not think worth taking any further, being so much annoyed at having lost the rest. Certain it is that neither serpents nor toads are found in these islands, though both are numerous in Islay. It is said that neither can live in any place which St. Columba blessed, or where he built chapels and monasteries, such as in Eillach a Naomh and Iona."
So then, in the West Highlands now, the holy power overcomes the snake, as in mythology over great part of the world, and as seems to me the belief may perhaps be traced to holy writ.
380:1 There is a kind of rhyme here, in Gaelic,--Fearachur Leigh, and Fearachur Righ.
387:1 Rawlinson's Herod., vol. ii., p. 261.