"The Works of Fiona Macleod" Volume IV

Iona

Elsewhere I have told how a good man of Iona sailed along the coast one Sabbath afternoon with the Holy Book, and put the Word upon the seals of Soa: and, in another tale, how a lonely man fought with a sea-woman that was a seal: as, again, how two fishermen strove with the sea-witch of Earraid: and, in "The Dan-nan-Ron," of a man who went mad with the sea-madness, because of the seal-blood that was in his veins, he being a MacOdrum of Uist, and one of the Sliochd nan Ron, the Tribe of the Seal. And those who have read the tale, twice printed, once as "The Annir Choille," and again as "Cathal of the Woods," will remember how, at the end, the good hermit Molios, when near death in his sea-cave of Arran, called the seals to come out of the wave and listen to him, so that he might tell them the white story of Christ; and how in the moonshine, with the flowing tide stealing from his feet to his knees, the old saint preached the gospel of love, while the seals crouched upon the rocks, with their brown eyes filled with glad tears: and how, before his death at dawn, he was comforted by hearing them splashing to and fro in the moon-dazzle, and calling one to the other, "We, too, are of the sons of God."

What has so often been written about is a reflection of what is in the mind: and though stories of the seals may be heard from the Rhinns of Islay to the Seven Hunters (and I first heard that of the MacOdrums, the seal-folk, from a Uist man), I think, that it was because of what I heard of the sea-people on Iona, when I was a child, that they have been so much with me in remembrance.

In the short tale of the Moon-child, I told how two seals that had been wronged by a curse which had been put upon them by Columba, forgave the saint. and gave him a sore-won peace. I recall another (unpublished) tale, where a seal called Domnhuil Dhu--a name of evil omen--was heard laughing one Hallowe'en on the rocks below the ruined abbey, and calling to the creatures of the sea that God was dead: and how the man who heard him laughed, and was therewith stricken with paralysis, and so fell sidelong from the rocks into the deep wave, and was afterwards found beaten as with hammers and shredded as with sharp fangs.

But, as most characteristic, I would rather tell here the story of Black Angus, though the longer tale of which it forms a part has been printed before.

One night, a dark rainy night it was, with an uplift wind battering as with the palms of savage hands the heavy clouds that hid the moon, I went to the cottage near Spanish Port, where my friend Ivor Maclean lived with his old deaf mother. He had reluctantly promised to tell me the legend of Black Angus, a request he had ignored in a sullen silence when he and Padruic Macrae and I were on the Sound that day. No tales of the kind should be told upon the water.

When I entered, he was sitting before the flaming coal-fire; for on Iona now, by decree of MacCailein Mr, there is no more peat burned.

"You will tell me now, Ivor?" was all I said.

"Yes; I will be telling you now. And the reason why I never told you before was because it is not a wise or a good thing to tell ancient stories about the sea while still on the running wave. Macrae should not have done that thing. It may be we shall suffer for it when next we go out with the nets. We were to go to-night; but, no, not I, no, no, for sure, not for all the herring in the Sound."

"Is it an ancient sgeul, Ivor?"

"Ay.  I am not for knowing the age of these things. It may be as old as the days of the Finn, for all I know. It has come down to us. Alasdair MacAlasdair of Tiree, him that used to boast of having all the stories of Colum and Brigdhe, it was he told it to the mother of my mother, and she, to me."

"What is it called?"

"Well, this and that; but there is no harm in saying it is called the Dark Nameless One."

"The Dark Nameless One!

"It is this way. But will you ever have heard of the MacOdrums of Uist?

"Ay; the Sliochd-nan-rn.

"That is so. God knows. The Sliochd nan-rn . . . the progeny of the Seal. . . . Well, well , no man knows what moves in the shadow of life. And now I will be telling you that old ancient tale, as it was given to me by the mother of my mother."

On a day of the days, Colum was walking alone by the sea-shore. The monks were at the hoe or the spade, and some milking the kye, and some at the fishing. They say it was on the first day of the Faoilleach Geamhraidh, the day that is called Am Fhill Brighde, and that they call Candlemas over yonder.

The holy man had wandered on to where the rocks are, opposite to Soa. He was praying and praying; and it is said that whenever he prayed aloud, the barren egg in the nest would quicken, and the blighted bud unfold, and the butterfly break its shroud.

Of a sudden he came upon a great black seal, lying silent on the rocks, with wicked eyes.

"My blessing upon you, O Rn," he said, with the good kind courteousness that was his. "Droch spadadh ort," answered the seal, "A bad end to you, Colum of the Gown."

"Sure now," said Colum angrily, "I am knowing by that curse that you are no friend of Christ, but of the evil pagan faith out of the north. For here I am known ever as Colum the White, or as Colum the Saint; and it is only the Picts and the wanton Normen who deride me because of the holy white robe I wear."

"Well, well," replied the seal, speaking the good Gaelic as though it were the tongue of the deep sea, as God knows it may be for all you, I, or the blind wind can say; "well, well, let that thing be: it's a wave-way here or a wave-way there. But now, if it is a druid you are, whether of fire or of Christ, be telling me where my woman is, and where my little daughter."

At this, Colum looked at him for a long while. Then he knew.

"It is a man you were once, O ROn?"

"Maybe ay and maybe no."

"And with that thick Gaelic that you have, it will be out of the north isles you come?"

"That is a true thing."

"Now I am for knowing at last who and what you are. You are one of the race of Odrum the Pagan?"

"Well, I am not denying it, Colum. And what is more, I am Angus MacOdrum, Aonghas mac Torcall mhic Odrum, and the name I am known by is Black Angus."

"A fitting name too," said Colum the Holy, "because of the black sin in your heart, and the black end God has in store for you."

At that Black Angus laughed.

"Why is the laughter upon you, Man-Seal?"

"Well, it is because of the good company I'll be having. But, now, give me the word: Are you for having seen or heard of a woman called Kirsteen M'Vurich?"

"Kirsteen--Kirsteen--that is the good name of a nun it is, and no sea-wanton!"

"O, a name here or a name there s soft sand. And so you cannot be for telling me where my woman is?"

"No."

"Then a stake for your belly, and nails through your hands, thirst on your tongue, and the corbies at your eyne!"

And, with that, Black Angus louped into the green water, and the hoarse wild laugh of him sprang into the air and fell dead upon the shore like a wind-spent mew.

Colum went slowly back to the brethren, brooding deep. "God is good," he said in a low voice, again and again; and each time that he spoke there came a daisy into the grass, or a bird rose, with song to it for the first time, wonderful and sweet to hear.

As he drew near to the House of God he met Murtagh, an old monk of the ancient race of the isles.

"Who is Kirsteen M'Vurich, Murtagh?" he asked.

"She was a good servant of Christ, she was, in the south isles, O Colum, till Black Angus won her to the sea."

And when was that?"

"Nigh upon a thousand years ago."

"But can mortal sin live as long as that?"

"Ay, it endureth. Long, long ago, before Oisin sang, before Fionn, before Cuchullin, was a glorious great prince, and in the days when the Tuatha-de-Danann were sole lords in all green Banba, Black Angus made the woman Kirsteen M'Vurich leave the place of prayer and go down to the sea-sbore, and there he leaped upon her and made her his prey, and she followed him into the sea."

"And is death above her now?"

"No. She is the woman that weaves the sea-spells at the wild place out yonder that is known as Earraid: she that is called the seawitch."

"Then why was Black Angus for the seeking her here and the seeking her there?"

"It is the Doom. It is Adam's first wife she is, that sea-witch over there, where the foam is ever in the sharp fangs of the rocks."

"And who will he be?"

His body is the body of Angus, the son of Torcall of the race of Odrum, for all that a seal be is to the seeming; but the soul of him is Judas."

"Black Judas, Murtagh?"

"Ay, Black Judas, Colum."

But with that, Ivor Macrae rose abruptly from before the fire, saying that he would speak no more that night. And truly enough there was a wild, lone, desolate cry in the wind, and a slapping of the waves one upon the other with an eerie laughing sound, and the screaming of a seamew that was like a human thing.

So I touched the shawl of his mother, who looked up with startled eyes and said, "God be with us"; and then I opened the door, and the salt smell of the wrack was in my nostrils, and the great drowning blackness of the night.

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