"The Works of Fiona Macleod" Volume IV

Iona

Two or three years ago I heard a boatman using a singular phrase, to the effect that a certain deed was as kindly a thought as that of the piper who played to St. Micheil in his grave. I had never heard of this before, or anything like it, nor have I since, on lip, or in book. He told me that he spoke of a wandering piper known as Piobaire Raonull Dall, Blind Piper Ronald, who fifty years or so, ago used to wander through the isles and West Highlands; and how he never failed to play a spring on his pipes, either to please or to console, or maybe to air a lament for what's lost now and can't come again, when on any holy day he stood before a figure of the Virgin (as he might well do in Barra or South Uist), or by old tombs or habitations of saints. My friend's father or one of his people, once, in the Kyles of Bute, when sailing past the little ruinous graveyard of Kilmichael on the Bute shore, had come upon Raonull Dall, pacing slowly before the broken stones and the little cell which legend says is both the hermitage and the grave of St. Micheil. When asked what he was playing and what for, in that lonely spot, he said it was an old ancient pibroch, the Gathering of the Clerics, which he was playing just to cheer the heart of the good man down below. When told that St. Micheil would be having his fill of good music where he was, the old man came away in the boat, and for long sat silent and strangely disheartened. I have more than once since then sailed to that little lonely ancient grave of Kilmichael in the Kyles of Bute, from Tignabruaich or further Cantyre, and have wished that I too could play a spring upon the pipes, for if so I would play to the kind heart of "Piobaire Raonull Dall."

Of all the saints of the west, from St. Molios or Molossius (Maol-Iosa? the servant by Jesus?) who has left his name in the chief township in Arran, to St. Barr, who has given his to the largest of the Bishop's Isles, as the great Barra island-chain in the South Hebrides used to be called, there is none so commonly remembered and so frequently invoked as St. Micheil. There used to be no festival in the Western Isles so popular as that held on 29th September, "La' Fheill Mhicheil,"  the Day of the Festival of Michael (Note); and the Eve of Michael's Day is still in a few places one of the gayest nights in the year, though no longer is every barn turned into a dancing place or a place of merrymaking or, at least, a place for lovers to meet and give betrothal gifts. The day itself, in the Catholic Isles, was begun with a special Mass, and from hour to hour was filled with traditional duties and pleasures.

The whole of the St. Micheil ceremonies were of a remote origin, and some, as the ancient and almost inexplicable dances, and their archaic accompaniment of word and gesture far older than the sacrificial slaying of the Michaelmas Lamb. It is, however, not improbable that this latter rite was a survival of a pagan custom long anterior to the substitution of the Christian for the Druidic faith.

The "Iollach Mhicheil"--the triumphal song of Michael--is quite as much pagan as Christian. We have here, indeed, one of the most interesting and convincing instances of the transmutation of a personal symbol. St. Michael is on the surface a saint of extraordinary powers and the patron of the shores and the shore-folk: deeper, he is an angel, who is upon the sea what the angelical saint, St. George, is upon the land: deeper, he is a blending of the Roman Neptune and the Greek Poseidon: deeper, he is himself an ancient Celtic god: deeper, he is no other than Manannan, the god of ocean and all waters, in the Gaelic Pantheon: as, once more, Manannan himself is dimly revealed to us as still more ancient, more primitive, and even as supreme in remote godhead, the Father of an immortal Clan.

To this day Micheil is sometimes alluded to as the god Micheil, and I have seen some very strange Gaelic lines which run in effect:--

"It was well thou hadst the horse of the god Micheil
  Who goes without a bit in his mouth,
  So that thou couldst ride him through the fields of the air,
  And with him leap over the knowledge of Nature"--

presumably not very ancient as they stand, because of the use of "steud " for horse, and "naduir" for nature, obvious adaptations from English and Latin. Certainly St. Michael has left his name in many places, from the shores of the Hebrides to the famous Mont St. Michel of Brittany, and I doubt not that everywhere an earlier folk, at the same places, called him Manannan. In a most unlikely place to find a record of old hymns and folk-songs, one of the volumes of Reports of the Highlands and Islands Commission, Mr. Carmichael many years ago contributed some of his unequalled store of Hebridean reminiscence and knowledge. Among these old things saved, there is none that is better worth saving than the beautiful Catholic hymn or invocation sung at the time of the midsummer migration to the hill-pastures. In this shealing-hymn the three powers who are invoked are St. Micheil (for he is a patron saint of horses and travel, as well as of the sea and seafarers), St. Columba, guardian of Cattle, and the Virgin Mary, "Mathair Uain ghil," "Mother of the White Lamb," as the tender Gaelic has it, who is so beautifully called the golden-haired Virgin Shepherdess.

It is pleasant to think of Columba, who loved animals, and whose care for his shepherd-people was always so great, as having become the patron saint of cattle. It is thus that the gods are shaped out of a little mortal clay, the great desire of the heart, and immortal dreams.

I may give the whole hymn in English, as rendered by Mr. Carmichael:

I

Thou gentle Michael of the white steed,
Who subdued the Dragon of blood,
For love of God and the Son of Mary,
Spread over us thy wing, shield us all!
Spread over us thy wing, shield us all!

II

Mary beloved! Mother of the White Lamb,
Protect us, thou Virgin of nobleness,
Queen of beauty! Shepherdess of the flocks!
Keep our cattle, surround us together,
Keep our cattle, surround us together.

III

Thou Columba, the friendly, the kind,
In name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
Through the Three-in-One, through the Three,
Encompass us, guard our procession,
Encompass us, guard our procession.

IV

Thou Father! Thou Son! Thou Holy Spirit!
Be the Three-One with us day and night,
On the machair plain, on the mountain ridge,
The Three-one is with us, with His arm around our head,
The Three-One is with us, with his arm around our head."

I have heard, a paraphrase of this hymn, both in Gaelic and English, on Iona; and once, off Soa, a little island to the south of Icolmkill, took down a verse which I thought was local, but which I afterwards found (with very slight variance) in Mr. Carmichael's Governmental Uist-Record. It was sung by Barra fishermen, and ran in effect "O Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! O Holy Trinity, be with us day and night. On the crested wave as on the mountain-side! Our Mother, Holy Mary Mother, has her arm under our head; our pillow is the arm of Mary, Mary the Holy Mother."

It is perhaps the saddest commentary that could be made on what we have lost that the children of those who were wont to go to rest, or upon any adventure, or to stand in the shadow of death, with some such words as

"My soul is with the Light on the mountains,
Archangel Micheil shield my soul!"

now go or stand in a scornful or heedless silence, or without remembrance, as others did who forgot to trim their lamps.

Who now would go up to the hill-pastures singing the Beannachadh Buachailleag, the Herding Blessing? With the passing of the old language the old solemnity goes, and the old beauty, and the old patient, loving wonder. I do not like to think of what songs are likely to replace the Herding Blessing, whose first verse runs thus:

"I place this flock before me
As ordained by the King of the World,
Mary Virgin to keep them, to wait them, to watch them.
On hill and glen and plain, On hill, in glen, on plain."

In the maelstrom of the cities the old race perishes, drowns. How common the foolish utterance of narrow lives, that all these old ways of thought are superstitious. To have a superstition is, for these, a worse ill than to have a shrunken soul. I do not believe in spells and charms and foolish incantations, but I think that ancient wisdom out of the simple and primitive heart of an older time is not an ill heritage: and if to believe in the power of the spirit is to be superstitious, I am well content to be of the company that is now forsaken.

But even in what may more fairly be called superstitious, have we surety that we have done well in our exchange?

A short while ago I was on the hillside above one of the much-frequented lochs in eastern Argyll. Something brought to my mind, as I went further up into the clean solitudes, one of the verses of the Herding Blessing:

"From rocks, from snow-wreaths, from streams,
  From crooked ways, from destructive pits,
  From the arrows of the slim fairy women,
       From the heart of envy, the eye of evil,
            Keep us, Holy St. Bride."

"From the arrows of the slim fairy women."And I--do I believe in that? At least it will be admitted that it is worth a belief; it is a pleasant dream; it is a gate into a lovely world; it is a secret garden, where are old sweet echoes; it has the rainbow-light of poetry. Is it not poetry? And I--oh yes, I believe it, that superstition: a thousand-fold more real is it, more believable, than that coarse-tongued, ill-mannered, boorish people, desperate in slovenly pleasure. For that will stay, and they will go. And if I am wrong, then I will rather go with it than stay with them. And yet--surely, surely the day will come when this sordidness of life as it is so often revealed to us will sink into deep waters, and the stream become purified, and again by its banks be seen the slim fairy women of health and beauty and all noble and dignified things.

This is a far cry from Iona! And I had meant to write only of how I heard so recently as three or four summers ago a verse of the Uist Herding Chant. It was recited to me, over against Dn-I, by a friend who is a crofter in that part of Iona. It was not quite as Mr. Carmichael translates it, but near enough. The Rann Buachhailleag is, I should add, addressed to the cattle.

"The protection of God and Columba
  Encompass your going and coming,
  And about you be the milkmaid of the smooth white palms,
  Briget of the clustering hair, golden brown."

On Iona however, there is, so far as I remember, no special spot sacred to St. Micheil but there is a legend that on the night Columba died Micheil came over the waves on a rippling flood of light, which was a cloud of angelic wings, and that he sang a hymn to the soul of the saint before it took flight for its heavenly fatherland. No one heard that hymn save Colum, but I think that he who first spoke of it remembered a more ancient legend of how Manannan came to Cuchullin when he was in the country of the Shee, when Liban laughed.

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