Dreams, by Fiona Macleod
The man who told me this thing was Coll McColl, an islander
of Barra, in the Southern Hebrides. He spoke in the Gaelic, and it was while he was
mending his net; and by the same token I thought at the time that his words were like
herring-fry in that net, some going clean through, and others sticking fast by the gills.
So I do not give it exactly as I heard it, but in substance as Coll gave it.
He is dead now, and has perhaps seen the Archer. Coll was a poet, and the island-folk said
he was mad: but this was only because he loved beyond the reach of his fate.
There were two men who loved one woman. It is of no mere girl
with the fair looks upon her I am speaking, but of a woman, that can put the spell over
two men. The name of the woman was Silis: the names of the men were Seumas and Ian.
Both men were young; both were of the strong, silent, island-race, but Ian Macleod was the
taller. He had, too, the kiss of Dermid on his brow, the fire of Angus in his heart, and
was a poet.
Silis was the wife of Seumas. So Seumas had his home, for her breast was his pillow when
he willed it: and he had her voice for daily music: and his eyes had never any thirst, for
they could drink of her beauty by day and by night. But Ian had no home. He saw his home
afar off, and his joy and his strength failed, because the shining lights of it, were not
One night the two men were upon the water. It was a dead calm, and the nets had been laid.
There was no moon at all, and only a star or two up in the black corner of the sky. The
sea had wandering flames in it: and when the big jellyfish floated by, they were like the
tidelamps that some say the dead bear on their drowned faces.
"Some day I may be telling you a strange thing, Seumas," said Ian, after the
long silence there had been since the last net had sent a little cloud of sparkles up from
"Ay?" said Seumas, taking his pipe from his mouth, and looking at the spire of
smoke rising just forward o' the mast. The water slipped by, soft and slow. It was only
the tide feeling its way up the sea-loch, for there was not a breath of wind. Here and
there were dusky shadows: the boats of the fishermen of Inchghunnais. Each carried a red
light, and in some were green lanterns slung midway up the mast.
No other word was said for a long time.
"And I'm wondering," said Ian at last: "I'm wondering what you'll think of
Seumas made no answer to that. He smoked, and stared down into the dark water.
After a time he rose, and leaned against the mast. Though there was no light of either
moon or lamp, he put his hand above his eyes, as his wont was.
"I'm thinking the mackerel will be coming this way to-night. This is the third time
I've heard the snoring' of the pollack . . . away yonder, beyond Peter Macallum's
"Well, Seumas, I'll sleep a bit. I had only the outside of a sleep last night."
With that Ian knocked the ash out of his pipe, and lay overagainst a pile of rope, and
shut his eyes, and did not sleep at all because of the sick dull pain of the homeless man
he was---home, home, home, and Silis the name of it.
When, an hour or more later, he grew stiff he moved, and opened his eyes. His mate was
sitting at the helm, but the light in his pipe was out, though he held the pipe in his
mouth, and his eyes were wide staring open.
"I would not be telling me that story, Ian," he said.
Ian answered nothing, but shifted back to where he was before, for all his cramped leg. He
closed his eyes again.
At the full of the tide, in the deep dark hour before the false dawn, as the first glimmer
is called, the glimmer that comes and goes, both men got up, and moved about, stamping
their feet. Each lit his pipe, and the smoke hung long in little greyish puffs, so
dead-still was it.
On the Brudhearg, John Macalpine's boat, young Neil Macalpine sang. The two men on
the Eala could hear his singing. It was one of the strange songs of Ian Mòr.
O, she will have the deep dark heart, for all
her face is fair,
As deep and dark as though beneath the shadow of her hair:
For in her hair a spirit dwells that no white spirit is,
And hell is in the hopeless heaven of that lost spirit's kiss.
She has two men within the palm, the hollow of her hand:
he takes their souls and blows them forth as idle drifted sand:
And one falls back upon her breast that is his quiet home,
And one goes out-into the night and is as wind-blown foam.
Seumas leaned against the tiller of the Eala, and
looked at Ian. He saw a shadow on his face. With his right foot the man tapped against a
loose spar that was on the starboard deck.
When the singer ceased, Ian raised his arm and shook menacingly his clenched fist, over
across the water to where the Brudhearg lay.
There were words on his lips, but they died away when Neil Macalpine broke into a love
song, "Mo nighean donn."
"Can you be telling me,
Ian," said Seumas, who was the man that made that song about the homeless man?"
of the Hills?"
"They say he had the shadow upon him?"
"Well, what then?"
"Was it because of love?"
"It was because of love."
"Did the woman love him?"
"Did she go to him?"
"Was that why he had the mind-dark?"
"But he loved her, and she loved him?"
"He loved her, and she loved him."
For a time Seumas kept silence. Then he spoke again.
"She was the wife of another man?"
"Ay; she was the wife of another man."
"Did he love her?
"Yes, for sure."
"Did she love him?"
"Yes . . . yes."
"Whom, then, did she love? For a woman can love one man only."
"She loved both."
"That is not a possible thing: not the one deep love. It is a lie, Ian Macleod."
"Yes, it is a lie, Seumas Maclean."
"Which man did she love?"
Ian slowly shook the ash from his pipe, and looked for a second or two at a momentary
quiver in the sky in the northeast.
"The dawn will be here soon now, Seumas."
"Ay. I was asking you, Ian, which man did she love?"
"Sure she loved the man who gave her the ring."
"Which man did she love?
"O for sure, man, you're asking me just like the lawyer who has the trials away at
Balliemore on the mainland yonder."
"Well, I'll tell you that thing myself, Ian Macleod, if you'll tell me the name of
"I am not knowing the name."
"Was it Mary . . . or Jessie . . . or mayhap was it Silis, now?"
"I am not knowing the name."
"Well, well, it might be Silis, then?
"Ay, for sure it might be Silis. As well Silis as any other."
"And what would the name of the other man be?"
"The man whose ring she wore?
"I am not remembering that name."
"Well, now, would it be Padruig, or mayhap Ivor, or or . . . perhaps, now,
"Ay, it might be that."
"Ay, as well that as any other."
"And what was the end?"
"The end o' what?"
"The end of that loving?
Ian Macleod gave a low laugh. Then he stooped to pick up the pipe he had dropped. Suddenly
he rose without touching it. He put his heel on the warm clay, and crushed it.
"That is the end of that kind of loving," he said. He laughed low again as he
Seumas leaned and picked up the trodden fragments.
"They're warm still, Macleod."
"Are they?" Ian cried at that, his eyes with a red light coming into the blue:
"Then they will go where the man in the song went, the man who sought his home for
ever and ever and never came any nearer than into the shine of the window-lamps."
With that he threw the pieces into the dark water that was already growing ashy-grey.
"'Tis a sure cure, that, Seumas Maclean."
"Ay, so they say. . . . and so, so: ay, as you were saying, Ian Mòr went into the shadow because of that home he could not
"So they say. And now we'll take the nets. 'Tis a heavy net that comes out black, as
the sayin' is. They're heavy for sure, after this still night, an' the wind southerly, an'
the pollack this way an' that."
"Well, now, that's strange."
"What is strange, Seumas Maclean?"
"That you should say that thing."
"And for why that?"
"Oh. just this. Silis had a dream the other night, she had. She dreamed she saw you
standing alone on the Eala: and you were hauling hard a heavy net, so that the
sweat ran down your face. And your face was deadwhite pale, she said. An' you hauled an'
you hauled. An' someone beside you that she couldn't see laughed an' laughed: an' . .
With a stifled oath, Ian broke in upon the speaker's words:
"Why, man alive, you said he, the man, myself it is, was alone on the Eala."
"Well, Silis saw no one but yourself, Ian Macleod."
"But she heard some one beside me laughing an' laughing."
"So she said. And you were dead-white, she said: with the sweat pouring down you. An'
you pulled an' you pulled. Then you looked up at her and said: 'It's a heavy net that
comes up black, as the sayin' is.' "
Ian Macleod made no answer to that, but slowly began to haul at the nets. A swift
moving light slid hither and thither well away to the north-east. The sea greyed. A new,
poignant, salt smell came up from the waves. Sail after sail of the smacks ceased to be a
blur in the dark: each lifted a brown shadowy wing against a dusk through which a flood of
myriad drops of light steadily oozed.
Now from this boat, now from that, hoarse cries resounded.
The Mairi Ban swung slowly round before the faint dawn-wind, and lifted her bow
homeward with a little slapping splash. The Maggie, the Trilleachan, the Eilid,
the Jessie, and the Mairi Donn followed one by one.
In silence the two men on the Eala hauled in their nets. The herring made a sheet
of shifting silver as they lay in the hold. As the dawn lightened, the quivering silver
mass sparkled. The decks were mailed with glittering scales: these, too, gleamed upon the
legs, arms, and hands of the two fishermen.
"Well, that's done!" exclaimed Seumas at last. "Up with the helm, Ian, and
let us make for home."
The Eala forged ahead rapidly when once the sail had its bellyful of wind. She
passed the Tern, then the Jessie Macalpine, caught up the big, lumbering Maggie,
and went rippling and rushing along the wake of the Eilid, the lightest of the
Off shore, the steamer Osprey met the smacks, and took the herring away, cran by
cran. Long before her screw made a yeast of foam athwart the black-green inshore water,
the Eala was in the little haven and had her nose in the shingle at Craigard point.
In silence Seumas and Ian walked by the rock-path to the isolated cottage where the
Macleans lived. The swallows were flitting hither and thither in front of its low,
whitewashed wall, like flying shuttles against a silent loom. The luminous, pale gold of a
rainy dawn lit the whiteness of a corpse. Suddenly Ian stopped.
"Will you be telling me now, Seumas, which man it was that she loved?"
Maclean did not look at the speaker, though he stopped too. He stared at the white
cottage, and at the little square window with the geranium-pot on the lintel.
But while he hesitated, Ian Macleod turned away, and walked swiftly across the wet bracken
and bog-myrtle till he disappeared over Cnoc-na-Hurich, on the hidden slope of which his
own cottage stood amid a wilderness of whins.
Seumas watched him till he was out of sight. It was then only that he answered the
"I'm thinking," he muttered slowly, "I'm thinking she loved Ian Mòr."
"Yes," he muttered again later, as he took off his sea-soaked clothes, and lay
down on the bed in the kitchen, whence he could see into the little room where Silis was
in a profound sleep: "Yes, I'm thinking she loved Ian Mòr."
He did not sleep at all, for all his weariness.
When the sunlight streamed in across the red sandstone floor, and crept toward his wife's
bed, he rose softly and looked at her. He did not need to stoop when he entered the room,
as Ian Macleod would have had to do.
He looked at Silis a long time. Her shadowy hair was all about her face. She had never
seemed to him more beautiful. Well was she called "Silis the Fawn" in the poem
that some one had made about her.
The poem that some one had made about her? . . . yes, for sure, how could he be forgetting
who it was. Was it not Ian, and he a poet, too, another Ian Mòr they said.
"Another Ian Mòr." As he
repeated the words below his breath, he bent over his wife. Her white breast rose and
fell, the way a moonbeam does in moving water.
Then he knelt. When he took the slim white hand in his she did not wake. It closed
lovingly upon his own.
A smile slowly came and went upon the dreaming face---ah, lovely, white, dreaming face,
with the hidden starry eyes. There was a soft flush, and a parting of the lips. The
half-covered bosom rose and fell as with some groundswell from the beating heart.
"Silis," he whispered. "Silis . . . Silis. .
She smiled. He leaned close above her lips.
"Ah, heart o' me," she whispered, "O Ian, Ian, mo rùn, moghray, Ian, Ian,
Seumas drew back. He too was like the man in her dream, for it was dead-white he was, with
the sweat in great beads upon his face.
He made no noise as he went back to the hearthside, and took his wet clothes from where he
had hung them before the smoored peats, and put them on again.
Then he went out.
It was a long walk to Ian Macleod's cottage that few-score yards: a long, long walk.
When Seumas stood on the wet grass round the flagstones he saw that the door was ajar. Ian
had not lain down. He had taken his ash-lute, and was alternately playing and singing low
Maclean went close up to the wall, and listened. At first he could hear no more than
snatches of songs.
Then suddenly the man within put down his ash-lute, and stirred. In a loud vibrant voice
O far away upon the hills at the lighting of
I saw a stirring in the fern and out there leapt a fawn:
And O my heart was up at that and like a wind it blew
Till its shadow hovered o'er the fawn as 'mid the fern it flew.
And Silis! Silis! Silis! was the wind-song on the
And Silis! Silis! Silis! did the echoing corries fill:
My hunting heart was glad indeed, at the lighting of the dawn,
For O it was the hunting then of my bonnie, bonnie Fawn!
For some moments there was dead silence. Then a heavy sigh
came from within the cottage.
Seumas Maclean at last made a step forward, and before his shadow fell across the doorway
Ian breathed a few melancholy notes and began a slow, wailing song:
O heart that is breaking,
O for the home that I canna, canna win:
O the weary aching,
The weary, weary aching
To be in the home that I canna, canna win!
Seumas' face was white and tired. It is weary work with the
herring, no doubt.
He lifted a white stone and rapped loudly on the door. Ian came out, and looked at him.
The singer smiled, though that smiling had no light in it. It was dark as a dark wave it
"Well?" he said.
"May I come in?
"Come in, and welcome. And what will you be wanting, Seumas Maclean?"
"Sure, it's too late to sleep, an' I'm thinking I would like to hear now that story
you were to tell me."
The man gave no answer to that. Each looked at the other with luminous, unwinking eyes.
"It will not be a fair thing," said Ian slowly, at last. "It will not be a
fair thing: for I am bigger and stronger."
"There is another way, Ian Macleod."
"That you or I go to her, and tell her all, and then at the last say: 'Come with me,
or stay with him."'
"So be it."
So there and then they drew for chance. The gaining of that hazard was with Seumas
Without a word Ian turned and went into the house. There he took his feadan, and played
low to himself, staring into the red heart of the smouldering peats. He neither smiled nor
frowned; once only he smiled, and that was when Seumas came back, and said Come.
So the two walked in silence across the dewy grass. There was a loud calling of skuas
and terns, and the raucous laughing cry of the great herring-gull, upon the weedy shore of
Craigard. The tide bubbled and oozed through the wilderness of wrack. Farther off there
were the cackling of hens, the lowing of restless kye, and the bleating of the sheep on
the slopes of Melmonach. A shrewd salt air tingled in the nostrils of the two men.
At the closed door Seumas made a sign of silence. Then he unfastened the latch, and
"Silis," he said in a low voice, but clear.
"Silis, I've come back again. Dry your tears, my lass, and tell me once again for I'm
dying to hear the blessed truth once again---tell me once again if it's me you love best,
or Ian Macleod."
"I have told you, Seumas."
Without, Ian heard her words and drew closer.
"And it is a true thing that you love me best, and that since the choice between him
and me has come, you choose me?"
"It is a true thing."
A shadow fell across the room. Ian Macleod stood in the doorway.
Silis turned the white, beautiful face of her, and looked at the man. He smiled. She was
no coward, his Silis: that was the thought which sang in his mind.
"Is---it---a---true---thing, Silis?" he asked slowly.
She looked at Seumas, then at Ian, then back at her husband.
"It might kill Seumas," she muttered below her breath, so that neither heard
her: "it might kill him," she repeated.
Then, with a swift turn of her eyes, she spoke.
"Yes, it is a true thing, Ian. I abide by Seumas."
That was all.
She was conscious of the wave of relief that went into Seumas' face. She saw the rising of
a dark, strange tide in the eyes of Ian.
He stared at her. Perhaps he did not hear? Perhaps he was dreaming still? He was a
dreamer, a poet: perhaps he could not understand.
"A ghraidh mo chridhe---dear love of my heart," he whispered hoarsely.
But Silis was frozen.
Ian stood awhile, strangely tremulous. She could see his nerves quivering below his
clothes. He was a big, strong giant of a lover: but he trembled now like a fawn himself,
she thought. His blue eyes were suddenly grown cloudy and dim. Then the deadly frost of
her lie slew that in him without which life is nothing.
Ian turned. He stumbled through the blinding white light beyond the door. In his ears the
faint lapsing noise of the tide stormed in the doorway. Seumas did not look at Silis. They
listened, till they no more heard the sound of lan's feet across the shingle that led to
He was quite white and still when they found him three days later. He seemed a giant of a
man as he lay, face upward, among the green flags by the water-edge. The chill starlight
of three nights had got into the quiet of his face.
That night, resumed Coll McColl, after a long pause-that
night he, Coll, was walking in the moonlight across the hither slope of Melmonach.
He stood under a rowan-tree, and watched a fawn leaping wildly through the fern. While he
watched, amazed, he saw a tall, shadowy woman pass by. She stopped, and drew a great bow
she carried, and shot an arrow. It went through the air with a sharp whistling
sound---just like Silis-Silis-Silis, Coll said, to give me an idea of it.
The arrow went right through the fawn.
But here was a strange thing. The fawn leapt away sobbing into the night: while its heart
suspended, arrow-pierced, from the white stem of a silver birch.
"And to this day," said Coll at the last, "I am not for knowing who that
archer was, or who that fawn. You think it was these two who loved? Well, 'tis Himself
knows. But I have this thought of my thinking: that it was only a vision I saw, and that
the fawn was the poor suffering heart of Love, and that the Archer was the great Shadowy
Archer that hunts among the stars, For in the dark of the morrow after that night I was on
Cnoc-na-Hurich, and I saw a woman there shooting arrow after arrow against the stars. At
dawn she rose and passed away, like smoke, beyond those pale wandering fires.