"The Works of Fiona Macleod" Volume IV

Iona

When I was a child I used to throw offerings--small coins, flowers, shells, even - a newly caught trout, once a treasured flint arrow-head--into the sea-loch by which we lived. My Hebridean nurse had often told me of   Shony, a mysterious sea-god, and I know I spent much time in wasted adoration: a fearful worship, not unmixed with disappointment and some anger. Not once did I see him. I was frighted time after time, but the sudden cry of a heron, or the snort of a pollack chasing the mackerel, or the abrupt uplifting of a seal's head, became over-familiar, and I desired terror, and could not find it by the shore. Inland, after dusk, there was always the mysterious multitude of shadow. There too, I could hear the wind leaping and growling. But by the shore I never knew any dread, even in the darkest night. The sound and company of the sea washed away all fears.

I was amused not long ago to hear a little girl singing, as she ran wading through the foam of a troubled sunlit sea, as it broke on those wonderful white sands of Iona--

"Shanny, Shanny, Shanny,
  Catch my feet and tickle my toes!
  And if you can, Shanny, Shanny, Shanny,
  I'll go with you where no one knows!"

I have no doubt this daintier Shanny was my old friend Shony, whose more terrifying way was to clutch boats by the keel and drown the sailors, and make a death-necklace of their teeth. An evil Shony; for once he netted a young girl who was swimming in a loch, and when she would not give him her love he tied her to a rock, and to this day her long brown hair may be seen floating in the shallow green wave at the ebb of the tide. One need not name the place!

The Shanny song recalls to me an old Gaelic alphabet rhyme, wherein a Maigh-deann-M'hara, or Mermaid, stood for M, and a Suire (also a mermaid) stood for S; and my long perplexities as to whether I would know a shuera from a midianmara when I saw either. It also recalls to me that it was from a young schoolmaster priest, who had come back from Ireland to die at home, that I first heard of the Beth-Luis-Nuin, the Gaelic equivalent of "the A B C." Every letter in the Gaelic alphabet is represented by a tree, and Beithe and Luis and Nuin are the Birch, the Rowan, and the Ash. The reason why the alphabet is called the Beth-Luis-Nuin is that B, L, N, and not A, B, C, are its first three letters. It consists of eighteen letters and in ancient Gaelic seventeen, for H (the Uath, or Whitethorn) does not exist there, I believe: and these run, B, L, N, F, S (H), D, T, C, M, G, P, R, A, O, U, E, I--each letter represented by the name of a tree, Birch, Rowan, Ash, etc. Properly, there is no C in Gaelic, for though the letter C is common, it has always the sound of K.

Since this page first appeared I have had so many letters about the Gaelic alphabet of to-day that I take the opportunity to add a few lines. To-day as of old all the letters of the Gaelic alphabet are called after trees, from the oak to the shrub-like elder, with the exception of G, T, and U, which stand for Ivy, Furze and Heather. It no longer runs B, L, N, etc., but in sequence follows the familiar and among western peoples, universal A, B, C, etc. It is, however, short of our Roman alphabet by eight letters J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y and Z. On the other hand, each of these is represented, either by some other letter having a like value or by a combination: thus K is identical with C, which does not exist in Gaelic as a soft sound any more than it does in Greek, but only as the C in English words such as cat or cart, or in combination with h as a gutteral as in loch--while v as common a sound in Gaelic as the hiss of s in English exists in almost every second or third word as bh or inh. The Gaelic A, B, C of to-day, then, runs as follows: Ailm, Beite, Coll, Durr, Eagh, Fearn, Gath, Huath, Togh, Luis, Muin, Nuin, Oir, Peith, Ruis, Suil, Teine, Ur--which again is equivalent to saying Elm, Birch, Hazel, Oak, Aspen, Alder, Ivy, Whitethorn, Yew, Rowan or Quicken, Vine, Ash, Spindle-tree, Pine, Elder, Willow, Furze, Heath.

The little girl who knew so much about Shanny knew nothing about her own A B C. But I owe her a debt, since through her I came upon my good friend "Gunainm." From her I heard first, there on Iona, on a chance visit of a few summer days, of two of the most beautiful of the ancient Gaelic hymns, the Fiacc Hymn and the Hymn of Broccán. My friend had delineated them as missals, with a strangely beautiful design to each. How often I have thought of one, illustrative of a line in the Fiacc Hymn: "There was pagan darkness in Eiré in those days: the people adored Faerie." In the Broccán Hymn (composed by one Broccán in the time of Lugaid, son of Loegaire, A.D. 500) is one particularly lovely line: "Victorious Bride (Briget) loved not this vain world: here, ever, she sat the seat of a bird on a cliff."

In a dream I dream frequently, that of being the wind, and drifting over fragrant hedgerows and pastures, I have often, through unconscious remembrance of that image of St. Bride sitting the seat of a bird on the edge of the cliff that is this world, felt myself, when not lifted on sudden warm fans of dusk, propelled as on a swift wing from the edge of a precipice.

I would that we had these winds of dream to command. I would, now that I am far from it, that this night at least I might pass over Iona, and hear the sea-doves by the ruins making their sweet mournful croon of peace, and lift, as a shadow gathering phantom flowers, the pale orchis by the lapwing's nest.

One day, walking by a reedy lochan on the Ross of Mull, not far inland from Fionnaphort, where is the ferry for Baile-Mòr of Iona, I met an old man who seemed in sorrow. When he spoke I was puzzled by some words which were not native there, and then I learned that he had long lived in Edinburgh and later in Dunfermline, and in his work had associated with Hollanders and others of the east seas.

He had come back, in his old age, to "see the place of his two love's"--the hamlet in Earraid, where his old mother had blessed him "forty year back," and the little farm where Jean Cameron had kissed him and promised to be true. He had gone away as a soldier, and news reached them of his death; and when he came out of the Indies, and went up Leith Walk to the great post-house in Edinburgh, it was to learn that the Earraid cottage was empty, and that Jean was no longer Jean Cameron.

There was not a touch of bitterness in the old man's words. "It was my name, for one thing," he said simply : "you see, there's many a 'J. Macdonald' in the Highland regiments; and the mistake got about that way. No, no--the dear lass wasna to blame. And I never lost her love. When I found out where she was I went to see her once more, an' to tell her I understood, an' loved her all the same. It was hard, in a way, when I found she had made a loveless marriage, but human nature's human nature, an' I could not but be proud and glad that she had nane bu puir Jamie Macdonald in her heart. I told her I would be true to her, and since she was poor, would help her, an' wi' God's kindness true I was, an' helped her too. For her man did an awful business one day, and was sentenced for life. She had three bairns. Well, I keepit her an' them--though I ne'er saw them but once in the year, for she had come back to the west, her heart brast with the towns. First one bairn died, then another. Then Jean died."

The old man resumed suddenly: "I had put all my savings into the Grand North Bank. When that failed I had nothing, for with the little that was got back I bought a good 'prenticeship' for Jean's eldest. Since then I've lived by odd jobs. But I'm old now, an' broke. Every day an' every night I think o' them two, my mother an' Jean."

"She must have been a leal fine woman," I said, but in Gaelic. With a flash he looked at me, and then said slowly, as if remembering, " Eudail de mhnathan an domhain," "Treasure of all the women in the world."

I have often thought of old "Jamie Macdonald" since. How wonderful his deep love! This man was loyal to his love in long absence, and was not less loyal when he found that she was the wife of another; and gave up thought of home and comfort and companionship, so that he might make life more easy for her and the children that were not his. He had no outer reward for this, nor looked for any.

We crossed to Baile-Mòr together, and when I came upon him next day by the Reilig Odhrain, I asked him what he thought of Iona.

He looked at the grey worn stones, "the stairway of the kings," the tombs, the carved crosses, the grey ruins of the wind-harried cathedral, and with a wave of his hand, said simply, "Coinunn mo ghaoil," "'Tis a companionship after my heart."

I do not doubt that the old man went on his way comforted by the grey silence and grey beauty of this ancient place, and that he found in Iona what would be near him for the rest of his days.

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