In my childhood I well recall meeting in Iona an old man who had come from the glens of Antrim, to me memorable because he was the last Gaelic minstrel of the old kind I have seen. "It was a poor land, Antrim," he said, "with no Gaelic, a bitter lot o' protestantry, an' little music."
I remember, too, his adding in effect:
"It is in the west you should be if you want music, an' men and women without coldness or the hard mouth. In Donegal an' Mayo an' all down Connemara-way to the Cliffs of Moher you'll hear the wind 'an' the voices o' the Shee with never a man to curse the one or the other." I asked him why he had come to Iona. It was to see the isle of Colum, he said, "St. Bridget's brother, God bless the pair av' thim." He was on his way to Oban, thence to go to a far place in the Athole country, where his daughter had married a factor who had returned to his own land from the Irish west, and was the more dear to the old man because his only living blood-kin, and because she had called her little girl by the name of the old harper's long-lost love, "my love an' my wife."
The last harper, though he had not his harp with him. He had come from Drogheda in a cattle-boat to Islay (whence he had sailed in a fishing-smack to Iona), and his friend the mate had promised to leave the harp and his other belongings at Oban in safe keeping. He had with him, however, a small instrument that he called his little clar. It was something between a guitar and a cithern, suggestive of a primitive violin, and he played on it sometimes with his fingers, sometimes with a short bit of wood like a cliild's tipcat; and, he said, could make good music with a hazel-wand or "the dry straight rod of a quicken when that's to be had." He said this quaint instrument had come down to him through fifty-one generations literally, (eleven and twice twenty sheanairean (grandfathers, or elders or forebears)," of whom he could at any moment give the pedigree of ceithir deug air 'fhichead," four and ten upon twenty"--that is, to translate the Gaelic method of enumeration, "thirty-four."
This was at the house of a minister then lodging in the island, and it was he who hosted the old harper. He told me, later, that he had no doubt this was the old-world cruit, the Welsh cruith of to-day, and the once colloquial Lowland "crowther," akin to the Roman canora cythara, the "forebear" of the modern Spanish guitar. To this day, I may add, Highlanders (at least in the west) call the guitar the Cruit-Spànteach. There seems to have been four kinds of "harp" in the old days: the clar or clarsach, the kairneen (ceirnine), the kreemtheencrooth (cream-thine-cruit), and the cionar cruit. The clarsach was the harp proper; that is, the small Celtic harp. The ceirnine was the smaller hand-harp. The "creamthine cruit" had six strings, and was probably used chiefly at festivals, possibly for a strong sonance to accentuate chants; while the cionar cruit had ten strings, and was played either by a bow or with a wooden or other instrument. It must have been a cionar-cruit, ancient or a rude later-day imitation, that the old harper had.
Poor old man, I fear he never played on his harp again; for I learned later that he had found his Athole haven broken up, and his daughter and her husband about to emigrate to Canada, so that he went with them, and died on the way--perhaps as much from the mountain-longing and homesickness as from any more tangible ill.
I have a double memento of him that I value. In Islay he had bought or been given a little book of Gaelic songs (the Scoto-Gaelic must have puzzled him sorely, poor old eirionnach), and this he left behind him, and my minister friend gave it to me, with much of the above noted down on its end-pages. The little book had been printed early in the century, and was called Ceilleirean Binn nan Creagan Aosda, literally Melodious Little Warblings from the Aged Rocks"; and it has always been dear to me because of one lovely phrase in it about birds, where the unknown Gaelic singer calls them "clann bheag' nam preas," the small clan of the bushes, equivalent in English to "the children of the bushes." This occurs in a lovely verse--
"Mu'n cuairt do bhruachaibh ard mo glinn,
Biodh luba gheuga's orra blath,
's clann bheag' nam preas a' tabhairst seinn
Do chreagaibh aosd oran graidh."
(Along the lofty sides of my glen let there be bending boughs clad in blossom, and the children of the bushes making the aged rocks re-echo their songs of love")--truly a characteristic Gaelic wish, characteristically expressed.
And though this that I am about to say did not happen on Iona, I may tell it here, for it was there and from an islander I heard it, an old man herding among the troubled rocky pastures of Sguir Mòr and Cnoc na Fhiona, in the south of that western part called Sliav Starr--one translation of which might be Wuthering Heights, for the word can be rendered wind-blustery or wind-noisy; though I fancy that starr is, on Iona, commonly taken to mean a strong coarse grass. (Fhiona here I take to be not the genitive of a name, nor that of "wine," but a misspelling of fionna, grain.)
When he was a boy he was in the island of Barra, he said, and he had a foster-brother called Iain Macneil. Iain was born with music in his mind, for though he was ever a poor creature as a man, having as a child eaten of the bird's heart, he could hear a power o' wonder in the wind.¹
¹ An allusion to the Hebridean proverb, Ma dh' itheastu cridh an còin, bidh do chridhe ri d' bheò ("If you eat the bird's heart, your heart will palpitate forever.)
He had never come to any good in a worldly sense, my old herdsman Micheil said; but it was not from want of cleverness only, but because "he had enough with his music." "Poor man, he failed in everything he did but that--and, sure, that was not against him, for is ann air an tràghadh a rugadh e-- wasn't he born when the tide was ebbing?" Besides, there was a mystery. Iain's father was said to be an Iona man, but that was only a politeness and a play upon words ("The Holy Isle ot the Western Sea" could mean either Iona or the mystic Hy-Bràsil, or Tir-na-thonn of the underworld); for he had no mortal father, but a man of the Smiling Distant People was his father. Iain's mother had loved her Leannan-shee, her fairy sweetheart, but that love is too strong for a woman to bear, and she died. Before Iain was born she lay; under a bush of whitethorn, and her Leannan appeared to her. "I can't give you life," he said, "unless you'll come away with me." But she would not; for she wished the child to have Christian baptism. "Well, goodbye," he said, "but you are a weak love. A woman should care more for her lover than her child. But I'll do this: I'll give the child the dew, an' he won't die, an' we'll take him away when we want him. An' for a gift to him, you can have either beauty or music." "I don't want the dew," she said, "for I'd rather he lay below the grass beside me when his time comes: an' as for beauty, it's been my sorrow. But because I love the songs you have I sung to me an' wooed me with, an' made me forget to hide my soul from you--an' it fallen as helpless as a broken wave on damp sand--let the child have the binn-beul an' the làmh clarsaireachd (the melodious mouth an' the harping hand)."
And truly enough Iain Macneil "went away." He went back to his own people. It must have been a grief to him not to lie under the grass beside his mother, but it was not for his helping. For days before he mysteriously disappeared he went about making a ciucharan like a November wind, a singular plaintive moaning. When asked by his foster-brother Micheil why he was not content, he answered only "Far am bi mo ghaol, bidh mo thathaich" (Where my Love is, there must my returning be). He had for days, said Micheil, the mournful crying in the ear that is so often a presage of death or sorrow; and himself had said once "Tha 'n Eabh a' m' chenais"--the cry is in my ear. When he went away, that going was the way of the snow.
It is no wonder that legends of Finn (Note) and Oisein, of Oscur and Gaul and Diarmid, of Cuchullin, and many of the old stories of the Gaelic chivalry survive in the isles. There, more than in Ireland, Gaelic has survived as the living speech, and though now in the Inner Hebrides it is dying before "an a' Beurla," the English tongue, and still more before the degraded "Bheurla leathan" or Glasgow-English of the lowland west, the old vernacular still holds an ancient treasure.
The last time I sailed to Staffa from Ulva, a dead calm set in, and we took a man from Gometra to help with an oar--his recommendation being that he was "cho làidir ri Cuchullin," as strong as Coolioolin. But neither in Iona nor in the northward isles nor in Skye itself, have I found or heard of much concerning the great Gaelic hero. Fionn and Oisin and Diarmid are the names oftenest heard, both in legend and proverbial allusion. An habitual mistake is made by writers who speak of the famous Cuchullin or Cuthullin mountains in Skye as having been named after Cuchullin; and though sometimes the local guides to summer tourists may speak of the Gaelic hero in connection with the mountains north of Coruisk, that is only because of hearsay. The Gaelic name should never be rendered as the Cuthullin or Cohoolin mountains, but as the Coolins. The most obvious meaning of the name Cuilfhion (Kyoolyun or Coolun), is "the fine corner," but, as has been suggested, the hills may have got their name because of the "cuillionn mara" or sea-holly, which is pronounced Ku' l'-unn or coolin. This is most probably the origin of the name.
In fine weather one may see from Iona the Coolins standing out in lovely blue against the northern sky-line, their contours the most beautiful feature in a view of surpassing beauty. How often I have watched them, have often dreamed of what they have seen, since Oisin passed that way with Malvina: since Cuchullin learned the feats of war at Dûn Scaaiali, from that great queen whose name, it is said, the island bears in remembrance of her; since Connlaoch, his son, set sail to meet so tragic a death in Ireland. There are two women of Gaelic antiquity who above all others have always held my imagination as with a spell: Scathach or Sgathàith (sky-ah), the sombre Amazonian queen of the mountain-island (then perhaps, as now, known also as the Isle of Mist), and Meave, the great queen of Connaught, whose name has its mountain bases in gigantic wars, and its summits among the wild poetry and romance of the Shee.
My earliest knowledge of the heroic cycle of Celtic mythology and history came to me, as a child, when I spent my first summer in Iona. How well I remember a fantastic legend I was told: how that these far blue mountains, so freaked into a savage beauty, were due to the sword-play of Cuchullin. And this happened because the Queen o' Skye had put a spear through the two breasts of his love, so that he went in among her warrior women and slew every one and severed the head of Sgàyah herself, and threw it into Coruisk, where to this day it floats as Eilean Dubh, the dark isle. Thereafter, Cuchullin hewed the mountain-tops into great clefts, and trampled the hills into a craggy wilderness, and then rushed into the waves and fought with the sea-hordes till far away the bewildered and terrified stallions of the ocean dashed upon the rocks of Man and uttermost shores of Erin.
This magnificent mountain range can be seen better still from Lunga near Iona, whence it is a short sail with a southerly wind. In Lunga there is a hill called Cnoc Cruit or Dun Cruit, and thence one may see, as in a vast illuminated missal whose pages are of deep blue with bindings of azure and pale gold, innumerable green isles and peaks and hills of the hue of the wild plum. When last I was there it was a day of cloudless June. There was not a sound but the hum of the wild bee foraging in the long garths of white clover, and the continual sighing of a wave. Listening, I thought I heard a harper playing in the hollow of the hill. It may have been the bees heavy with the wine of honey, but I was content with my fancy and fell asleep, and dreamed that a harper came out of the hill, at first so small that he seemed like the green stalk of a lily and had hands like daisies, and then go great that I saw his breath darkening the waves far out on the Hebrid sea. He played, till I saw the stars fall in a ceaseless, dazzling rain upon Iona. A wind blew that rain away, and out of the wave that had been Iona I saw thousands upon thousands of white doves rise from the foam and fly down the four great highways of the wind. When I woke, there was no one near. Iona lay like an emerald under the wild-plum bloom of the Mull mountains. The bees stumbled through the clover; a heron stood silver-grey upon the grey-blue stone; the continual wave was, as before, as one wave, and with the same hushed sighing.
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