Tales; Their Origin and Meaning
IN a very delightful book which has already been mentioned, Campbell's "Popular Tales of the West Highlands," there are many curious stories of fairy folk and other creatures of the like kind, described in the traditions of the west of Scotland, and which are still believed in by many of the country people. There are Brownies, for instance, the farm spirits. One of these, so the story goes, inhabited the island of Inch, and looked after the cattle of the Mac Dougalls; but if the dairymaid neglected to leave a portion of milk for him at night, one of the cattle would be sure to fall over the rocks. Another kind of Brownie, called the Bocan, haunted a place called Moran, opposite the Isle of Skye, and protected the family of the Macdonalds of Moran, but was very savage to other people, whom he beat or killed. At last Big John, the son of M'Leod of Raasay, went and fought the creature in the dark, and tucked him under his arm, to carry him to the nearest light and see what he was like. But the Brownies hate to be seen, and this one begged hard to be let off, promising that he would never come back. So Big John let him off, and he flew away singing:-
"Far from me is the hill of Ben Hederin;
and the common story says that the tune is still remembered and sung by the people of that country. It is also told of a farmer, named Callum Mohr MacIntosh, near Loch Traig, in Lochaber, that he had a fight with a Bocan, and in the fight he lost a charmed handkerchief. When he went back to get it again, he found the Bocan rubbing the handkerchief hard on a flat stone, and the Bocan said, "It is well for you that you are back, for if I had rubbed a hole in this you were a dead man." This Bocan became very friendly with MacIntosh, and used to bring him peats for fire in the deep winter snows; and when MacIntosh moved to another farm, and left a hogshead of hides behind him by accident, the Bocan carried it to his new house next morning, over paths that only a goat could have crossed.
Another creature of the same kind is a mischievous spirit, a Goblin or Brownie, who is called in the Manx language, the Glashan, and who appears under various names in Highland stories: sometimes as a hairy man, and sometimes as a water- horse turned into a man. He usually attacks lonely women, who outwit him, and throw hot peats or scalding water at him, and then he flies off howling. One feature is common to the stories about him. He asks the woman what her name is, and she always replies "Myself." So when the companions of the Glashan ask who burned or scalded him, he says "Myself," and then they laugh at him. This answer marks the connection between these tales and those of other countries. Polyphemos asks Odysseus his name, and is told that it is Outis, or "Nobody." So when Odysseus blinds Polyphemos, and the other Kyklopes ask the monster who did it, he says, "Nobody did it." There is a Slavonian story, also, in which a cunning smith puts out the eyes of the Devil, and says that his name is Issi, "myself;" and when the tortured demon is asked who hurt him, he says, "Issi did it;" and then his companions ridicule him.
Among other Highland fairy monsters are the water-horses (like the Scandinavian and Teutonic Kelpies) and the water-bulls, which inhabit lonely lochs. The water-bulls are described as being friendly to man; the water-horses are dangerous-when men get upon their backs they are carried off and drowned. Sometimes the water-horse takes the shape of a man. Here is a story of this kind from the island of Islay: There was a farmer who had a great many cattle. Once a strange-looking bull-calf was born amongst them, and an old woman who saw it knew it for a water-bull, and ordered it to be kept in a house by itself for seven years, and fed on the milk of three cows. When the time was up, a servant-maid went to watch the cattle graze on the side of a loch. In a little while a man came to her and asked her to dress or comb his hair. So he laid his head upon her knees, and she began to arrange his hair. Presently she got a great fright, for amongst the hair she found a great quantity of water-weed; and she knew that it was a transformed water-horse. Like a brave girl she did not cry out, but went on dressing the man's hair until he fell asleep. Then she slid her apron off her knees, and ran home as fast as she could, and when she got nearly home, the creature was pursuing her in the shape of a horse. Then the old woman cried out to them to open the door of the wild bull's house, and out sprang the bull and rushed at the horse, and they never stopped fighting until they drove each other out into the sea. "Next day," says the story, "the body of the bull was found on the shore all torn and spoilt, but the horse was never more seen at all."
Sometimes the water-spirit appears in the shape of a great bird, which the West Highlanders called the Boobrie, who has a long neck, great webbed feet with tremendous claws, a powerful bill hooked like an eagle's, and a voice like the roar of an angry bull. The lochs, according to popular fancy, are also inhabited by water-spirits. In Sutherlandshire this kind of creature is called the Fuath; there are, Mr. Campbell says, males and females; they have web-feet, yellow hair, green dresses, tails, manes, and no noses; they marry human beings, are killed by light, are hurt by steel weapons, and in crossing a stream they become restless. These spirits resemble mermen and mermaids, and are also like the Kelpies, and they have also been somehow confused with the kind of spirit known in Ireland as the Banshee. Many stories are told of them. A shepherd found one, an old woman seemingly crippled, at the edge of a bog. He offered to carry her over on his back. In going over, he saw that she was webfooted; so he threw her down, and ran for his life. By the side of Loch Middle a woman saw one-"about three years ago," she told the narrator-she sat on a stone, quiet, and dressed in green silk, the sleeves of the dress curiously puffed from the wrists to the shoulder; her hair was yellow, like ripe corn; but on a nearer view, she had no nose. A man at Tubernan made a bet that he would seize the Fuath or Kelpie who haunted the loch at Moulin na Fouah. So he took a brown right-sided maned horse, and a brown black-muzzled dog, and with the help of the dog he captured the Fuath, and tied her on the horse behind him. She was very fierce, but he pinned her down with an awl and a needle. Crossing the burn or brook near Loch Migdal she grew very restless, and the man stuck the awl and the needle into her with great force. Then she cried, "Pierce me with the awl, but keep that slender hair-like slave (the needle) out of me." When the man reached an inn at Inveran, he called his friends to come out and look at the Fuath. They came out with lights, and when the light fell upon her she dropped off the horse, and fell to the earth like a small lump of jelly.
The Fairies of the West Highlands in some degree resembled the Scandinavian Dwarfs. They milked the deer; they lived underground, and worked at trades, especially metal-working and weaving. They had hammers and anvils, but had to steal wool and to borrow looms; and they had great hoards of treasure hidden in their dwelling places. Sometimes they helped the people whom they liked, but at other times they were spiteful and evil minded; and according to tradition all over the Highlands, they enticed men and women into their dwellings in the hills, and kept them there sometimes for years, always dancing without stopping. There are many stories of this kind; and there are also many about the fondness of the Fairies for carrying off human children, and leaving Imps of their own in their places- these Imps being generally old men disguised as children. Some of these tales are very curious, and are like others that are found amongst the folk-lore of Celtic peoples elsewhere. Here is the substance of one told in Islay:-
Years ago there lived in Crossbrig a smith named MacEachern, who had an only son, about fourteen; a strong, healthy, cheerful boy. All of a sudden he fell ill, took to his bed, and moped for days, getting thin, and odd-looking, and yellow, and wasting away fast, so that they thought he must die. Now a "wise" old man, who knew about Fairies, came to see the smith at work, and the poor man told him all about his trouble. The old man said, "It is not your son you have got; the boy has been carried off by the Dacorie Sith (the Fairies), and they have left a sibhreach (changeling) in his place." Then the old man told him what to do. "Take as many egg-shells as you can get, go with them into the room, spread them out before him, then draw water with them, carrying them two and two in your hands as if they were a great weight, and when they are full, range them round the fire." The smith did as he was told; and he had not been long at work before there came from the bed a great shout of laughter, and the supposed boy cried out, "I am eight hundred years old, and I never saw the like of that before." Then the smith knew that it was not his own son. The wise man advised him again. "Your son," he said, "is in a green round hill where the Fairies live; get rid of this creature, and then go and look for him." So the smith lit a fire in front of the bed. "What is that for?" asked the supposed boy. "You will see presently," said the smith; and then he took him and threw him into the middle of it; and the sibhreach gave an awful yell, and flew up through the roof, where a hole was left to let the smoke out. Now the old man said that on a certain night the green round hill, where the Fairies kept the smith's boy, would be open. The father was to take a Bible, a dirk, and a crowing cock, and go there. He would hear singing, and dancing, and much merriment, but he was to go boldly in. The Bible would protect him against the Fairies, and he was to stick the dirk into the threshold, to prevent the hill closing upon him. Then he would see a grand room, and there, working at a forge, he would find his own son; and when the Fairies questioned him he was to say that he had come for his boy, and would not go away without him. So the smith went, and did what the old man told him. He heard the music, found the hill open, went in, stuck the dirk in the threshold, carried the Bible on his breast, and took the cock in his hand. Then the Fairies angrily asked what he wanted, and he said, "I want my son whom I see down there, and I will not go without him." Upon this the whole company of the Fairies gave a loud laugh, which woke up the cock, and he leaped on the smith's shoulders, clapped his wings, and crowed lustily. Then the Fairies took the smith and his son, put them out of the hill, flung the dirk after them, and the hill-side closed up again. For a year and a day after he got home the boy never did any work, and scarcely spoke a word; but at last one day sitting by his father, and seeing him finish a sword for the chieftain, he suddenly said, "That's not the way to do it," and he took the tools, and fashioned a sword the like of which was never seen in that country before; and from that day he worked and lived as usual.
Here is another story. A woman was going through a wild glen in Strath Carron, in Sutherland-the Glen Garaig-carrying her infant child wrapped in her plaid. Below the path, overhung with trees, ran a very deep ravine, called Glen Odhar, or the dun glen. The child, not a year old, suddenly spoke, and said:-
"Many a dun hummel cow,
Then the woman knew that it was a fairy changeling she was carrying, and she flung down the child and the plaid, and ran home, where her own baby lay smiling in the cradle.
A tailor went to a farm-house to work, and just as he was going in, somebody put into his hands a child of a month old, which a little lady dressed in green seemed to be waiting to receive. The tailor ran home and gave the child to his wife. When he got back to the farm-house he found the farmer's child crying and yelping, and disturbing everybody. It was a fairy changeling which the nurse had taken in, meaning to give the farmer's own child to the fairy in exchange; but nobody knew this but the tailor. When they were all gone out he began to talk to the child. "Hae ye your pipes?" said the Tailor. "They're below my head," said the Changeling. "Play me a spring," said the Tailor. Out sprang the little man and played the bagpipes round the room. Then there was a noise outside, and the Elf said, "Its my folk wanting me," and away he went up the chimney; and then they fetched back the farmer's child from the tailor's house.
One more story: it is told by the Sutherland-shire folk. A small farmer had a boy who was so cross that nothing could be done with him. One day the farmer and his wife went out, and put the child to bed in the kitchen; and they bid the farm lad to go and look at it now and then, and to thrash out the straw in the barn. The lad went to look at the child, and the Child said to him in a sharp voice, "What are you going to do?" "Thrash out a pickle of straw," said the Lad, "lie still and don't grin, like a good bairn." But the little Imp of out of bed, and said, "Go east, Donald, and when ye come to the big brae (or brow of the hill), rap three times, and when they come, say ye are seeking Johnnie's flail." Donald did so, and out came a little fairy man, and gave him a flail. Then Johnnie took the flail, thrashed away at the straw, finished it, sent the flail back, and went to bed again. When the parents came back, Donald told them all about it; and so they took the Imp out of the cradle, put it in a basket, and set the basket on the fire. No sooner did the creature feel the fire than he vanished up the chimney. Then there was a low crying noise at the door, and when they opened it, a pretty little lad, whom the mother knew to be her own, stood shivering outside.
A few notes about West Highland giants must end this account of wonder creatures in this region. There was a giant in Glen Eiti, a terrible being, who comes into a wild strange story, too long to be told here. He is described as having one hand only, coming out of the middle of his chest, one leg coming out of his haunch, and one eye in the middle of his face. And in the same story there is another giant called the Fachan, and the story says, "Ugly was the make of the Fachan; there was one hand out of the ridge of his chest, and one tuft out of the top of his head; it were easier to take a mountain from the root than to bend that tuft." Usually, the Highland giants were not such dreadful creatures as this. Like giants in all stories, they were very stupid, and were easily outwitted by cunning men. "The Gaelic giants (Mr. Campbell says) are very like those of Norse and German tales, but they are much nearer to real men than the giants of Germany and Scandinavia and Greece and Rome, who are almost, if not quite, equal to the gods. Their world is generally, though not always, underground; it has castles, and parks, and pasture, and all that is found above on the earth. Gold, and silver, and copper abound in the giants' land, jewels are seldom mentioned, but cattle, and horses, and spoil of dresses, and arms, and armour, combs, and basins, apples, shields, bows, spears, and horses are all to be gained by a fight with the giants. Still, now and then a giant does some feat quite beyond the power of man, such as a giant in Barra, who fished up a hero, boat and all, with his fishing-rod, from a rock and threw him over his head, as little boys do 'cuddies' from the pier end. So the giants may be degraded gods, after all." In the story of Connal, told by Kenneth MacLennan of Pool Ewe, there is a giant who was beaten by the hero of the tale. Connal was the son of King Cruachan, of Eirinn, and he set out on his adventures. He met a giant who had a great treasure of silver and gold, in a cave at the bottom of a rock, and the giant used to promise a bag of gold to anybody who would allow himself to be let down in a creel or basket, and send some of it up. Many people were lost in trying it, for when the giant had let them down, and they had filled the creel, the giant used to draw up the creel of gold, and then he would not let it down again, and so those who had gone down for it were left to perish in the deep cavern. Now Connal agreed to go down, and the giant served him in the same way that he had done the rest, and Connal was left in the cave among the dead men and the gold. Now the giant could not get anybody else to go down, and as he wanted more gold, he let his own son down in the creel, and gave him the sword of light, so that he might see his way before him. When the young giant got into the cave, Connal took the sword of light very quickly, and cut off the young giant's head, Then Connal put gold into the bottom of the creel, and got in himself, and covered himself over with gold, and gave a pull at the rope, and the giant drew up the creel, and when he did not see his son, he threw the creel over the back of his head; and Connal took the sword of light, and cut off the giant's head, and went away home with the sword and the gold.
There was a King of Lochlin, who had three daughters, and three giants stole them, and carried them down under the earth; and a wise man told the King that the only way to get them back was to make a ship that would sail over land or sea. So the King said that anybody who would make such a ship should marry his eldest daughter. There was a widow who had three sons, and the eldest of them said he would go into the forest and cut wood, and make the ship; and his mother gave him a large bannock (oat cake), and away he went. Then a Fairy came out of the river, and asked for a bit of the bannock, but he would not give her a morsel; so he began cutting the wood, but as fast as he cut them down, the trees grew up again, and he went home sorrowful. Then the next brother did the same, and he failed also. Then the youngest brother went, and he took a little bannock, instead of a big one, and the Fairy came again, and he gave her a share of the bannock; and she told him to meet her there in a year and a day, and the ship should be ready. And it was ready, and the youngest son sailed away in it. Then he came to a man who was drinking up a river; and the youngest son hired him for a servant. After a time, he found a man who was eating a whole ox, and he hired him too. Then he saw another man, with his ear to the earth, and he said he was hearing the grass grow; so he hired him also. Then they got to a great cave, and the last man listened, and said it was where the three giants kept the King's three daughters, and they went down into the cave, and up to the house of the biggest giant. "Ha! ha!" said the Giant, "you are seeking the King's daughter, but thou wilt not have her, unless thou hast a man who will drink as much water as I." Then the river-drinker set to work, and so did the giant, and before the man was half satisfied, the giant burst. Then they went to where the second giant was. "Ho! ho!" said the Giant, "thou art seeking the King's daughter, but thou wilt not get her, if thou hast not a man who will eat as much flesh as I." Then the ox-eater began, and so did the giant; but before the man was half satisfied, the giant burst. Then they went on to the third Giant; and the Giant said to the youngest son that he should have the King's daughter if he would stay with him for a year and a day as a slave. Then they sent up the King's three daughters, and the three men out of the cave; and the youngest son stayed with the giant for a year and a day. When the time was up the youngest son said, "Now I am going." Then the Giant said, "I have an eagle that will take thee up;" and he put him on the eagle's back, and fifteen oxen for the eagle to eat on her way up; but before the eagle had got half way up she had eaten all the oxen, and came back again. So the youngest son had to stay with the giant for another year and a day. When the time was up, the Giant put him on the eagle again, and thirty oxen to last her for food; but before she got to the top she ate them all, and so went back again; and the young man had to stay another year and a day with the giant. At the end of the third year and a day, the Giant put him on the eagle's back a third time, and gave her three score of oxen to eat; and just when they got to the mouth of the cave, where the earth began, all the oxen were eaten, and the eagle was going back again. But the young man cut a piece out of his own thigh, and gave it to the eagle, and with one spring she was on the surface of the earth. Then the Eagle said to him, "Any hard lot that comes to thee, whistle, and I will be at thy side." Now the youngest son went to the town where the King of Lochlin lived with the daughters he had got back from the giants; and he hired himself to work at blowing the bellows for a smith. And the King's oldest daughter ordered the smith to make her a golden crown like that she had when she was with the giant, or she would cut off his head. The bellows-blower said he would do it. So the smith gave him the gold, and he shut himself up, and broke the gold into splinters, and threw it out of the window, and people picked it up. Then he whistled for the Eagle, and she came, and he ordered her to fetch the gold crown that belonged to the biggest giant; and the Eagle fetched it, and the smith took it to the King's daughter, who was quite satisfied. Then the King's second daughter wanted a silver crown like that she had when she was with the second giant; and the King's youngest daughter wanted a copper crown, like that she had when she was with the third Giant; and the Eagle fetched them both for the young man, and the smith took them to the King's daughters. Then the King asked the smith how he did all this; and the smith said it was his bellows-blower who did it. So the King sent a coach and four horses for the bellows-blower, and the servants took him, all dirty as he was, and threw him into the coach like a dog. But on the way he called the eagle, who took him out of the coach, and filled it with stones, and when the King opened the door, the stones fell out upon him, and nearly killed him; and then, the story says, "There was catching of the horse gillies, and hanging them for giving such an affront to the King." Then the King sent a second time, and these messengers also were very rude to the bellows-blower, so he made the eagle fill the coach with dirt, which fell about the King's ears, and the second set of servants were punished. The third time the King sent his trusty servant, who was very civil, and asked the bellows-blower to wash himself, and he did so, and the eagle brought a gold and silver dress that had belonged to the biggest giant, and when the King opened the coach door there was sitting inside the very finest man he ever saw. And the young man told the King all that had happened, and they gave him the King's eldest daughter for his wife, and the wedding lasted twenty days and twenty nights.
One story more, of how a Giant was outwitted by a maiden. It is told in the island of Islay. There was a widow, who had three daughters, who went out to seek their fortunes. The two elder ones did not want the youngest, and they tied her in turns to a rock, a peat-stack, and a tree, but she got loose and came after them. They got to the house of a Giant, and had leave to stop for the night, and were put to bed with the Giant's daughters. The Giant came home and said, "The smell of strange girls is here," and he ordered his gillie to kill them; and the gillie was to know them from the Giant's daughters by these having twists of amber beads round their necks, and the others having twists of horse-hair. Now Maol o Chliobain, the youngest of the widow's daughters, heard this, and she changed the necklaces, and so the gillie came and killed the Giant's daughters, and Maol o Chliobain took the golden cloth that was on the bed, and ran away with her sisters. But the cloth was an enchanted cloth, and it cried out to the Giant, who pursued them till they came to a river, and then Maol plucked out a hair of her head, and made a bridge of it; but the Giant could not get over; so he called out to Maol, "And when wilt thou come again?" "I will come when my business brings me," she said; and then he went home again. They got to a farmer's house, and told him their history. Said the Farmer, who had three sons, "I will give my eldest son to thy eldest sister; get for me the fine comb of gold and the coarse comb of silver that the Giant has." So she went and fetched the combs, and the Giant followed her till they came to the river, which the Giant could not get over; so he went back again. Then the farmer said he would marry his second son to the second sister, if Maol would get him the sword of light that the Giant had. So she went to the Giant's house, and got up into a tree that was over the well; and when the Giant's gillie came to draw water, she came down and pushed him into the well, and carried away the sword of light that he had with him. Then the Giant followed her again, and again the river stopped him; and he went back. Now the farmer said he would give his youngest son to Maol o Chliobain herself, if she would bring him the buck the Giant had. So she went, but when she had caught the buck, the Giant caught her. And he said, "Thou least killed my three daughters, and stolen my combs of gold and silver; what wouldst thou do to me if I had done as much harm to thee as thou to me?" She said, "I would make thee burst thyself with milk porridge, I would then put thee in a sack, I would hang thee to the roof-tree, I would set fire under thee, and I would lay on thee with clubs till thou shouldst fall as a faggot of withered sticks on the floor." So the Giant made milk porridge and forced her to drink it, and she lay down as if she were dead. Then the Giant put her in a sack, and hung her to the roof tree, and he went away to the forest to get wood to burn her, and he left his old mother to watch till he came back. When the Giant was gone Maol o Chliobain began to cry out, "I am in the light; I am in the city of gold." "Wilt thou let me in?" said the Giant's mother. "I will not let thee in," said Maol o Chliobain. Then the Giant's mother let the sack down, and Maol o Chliobain got out, and she put into the sack the Giant's mother, and the cat, and the calf, and the cream-dish; and then she took the buck and went away. When the Giant came back he began beating the sack with clubs, and his Mother cried out, "Tis I myself that am in it." "I know that thyself is in it," said the Giant, and he laid on all the harder. Then the sack fell down like a bundle of withered sticks, and the Giant found that he had killed his mother. So he knew that Maol o Chliobain had played him a trick, and he went after her, and got up to her just as she leaped over the river. "Thou art over there, Maol o Chliobain" said the Giant. "I am over," she said. "Thou killedst my three bald brown daughters?" "I killed them, though it is hard for thee." "Thou stolest my golden comb, and my silver comb?" "I stole them." "Thou killedst my bald rough-skinned gillie?" "I killed him." "Thou stolest my glaive (sword) of light?" "I stole it." "Thou killedst my mother?" "I killed her, though it is hard for thee." "Thou stolest my buck?" "I stole it." "When wilt thou come again?" "I will come when my business brings me." "If thou wert over here, and I yonder," said the Giant, "what wouldst thou do to follow me?" "I would kneel down," she said, "and I would drink till I should dry the river." Then the poor foolish Giant knelt down, and he drank till he burst; and then Maol o Chliobain went off with the buck and married the youngest son of the farmer.
 Popular Tales of the West Highlands,
vol. i., Introduction, p. c.
Bunce, John Thackray. Fairy Tales; Their Origin and Meaning with Some Account of Dwellers in Fairyland. London: Macmillan and Co., 1878.