As a child I had some wise as well as foolish instruction concerning the nations of Faerie. If, in common with nearly all happy children, I was brought up in intimate, even in circumstantial, knowledge of "the fairies"--being charitably taught, for one thing, so that I have often left a little bowl of milk, a saucerful of oatcake and honey, and the like, under a wooden seat, where they would be sure to see it--I was told also of the Sìdhe, often so rashly and ignorantly alluded to as the fairies in the sense of a pretty, diminutive, harmless, natural folk; and by my nurse Barabal instructed in some of the ways, spells, influences, and even appearances of these powerful and mysterious clans.
I do not think, unless as a very young child, I ever confused them. I recollect well my pleasure at a sign of gratitude. I was fond of making little reed or bulrush or ash flutes, but once I was in a place where these were difficult to get, and I lost the only one I had. That night I put aside a small portion of my supper of bread and milk and honey, and remember also the sacrifice of a gooseberry of noble proportions, relinquished, not without a sigh, in favour of any wandering fairy lad.
Next morning when I ran out--three of us then had a wild morning performance we called some fantastic, forgotten name, and ourselves the Sun-dancers--I saw by the emptied saucer my little reed-flute! Here was proof positive! I was so grateful for that fairy's gratitude, that when dusk came again I not only left a larger supper-dole than usual, but, decked with white fox-glove bells (in which I had unbounded faith) sat drenched in the dew and played my little reed. Any moment (I was sure) a small green fellow would appear, and with wild indignation I found myself snatched from the grass, and my ears dinned now with reproaches about the dew, now with remonstrances against "that frightfu' reed-screeching that scared awa' the varry hens."
Ah, there are souls that know nothing of fairies, or music!
But the Sìdhe (Note) are very different people from the small clans of the earth's delight.
However (though I could write of both a great volume), I have little to say of either just now, except in one connection.
It is commonly said that the People of the Sìdhe dwell within the hills, or in the underworld. In some of the isles their home, now, is spoken of as Tir-na-thonn, the Land of the Wave, or Tir-fo-Tuinn, the Land under the Sea.
But from a friend, an Islander of Iona, I have learned many things, and among them, that the Shee no longer dwell within the inland hills, and that though many of them inhabit the lonelier isles of the west, and in particular The Seven Hunters, their Kingdom is in the North.
Some say it is among the pathless mountains of Iceland. But my friend spoke to an Iceland man, and he said he had never seen them. There were Secret People there, but not the Gaelic Sìdhe.
Their Kingdom is in the North, under the Fir-Chlisneach, the Dancing Men, as the Hebrideans call the polar aurora. They are always young there. Their bodies are white as the wild swan, their hair yellow as honey, their eyes blue as ice. Their feet leave no mark on the snow. The women are white as milk, with eyes like sloes, and lips like red rowans. They fight with shadows, and are glad; but the shadows are not shadows to them. The Shee slay great numbers at the full moon, but never hunt on moonless nights, or at the rising of the moon, or when the dew is falling. Their lances are made of reeds that glitter like shafts of ice, and it is ill for a mortal to find one of these lances, for it is tipped with the salt of a wave that no living thing has touched, neither the wailing mew nor the finned sgAdan nor his tribe, nor the narwhal. There are no men of the human clans there, and no shores, and the tides are forbidden.
Long ago one of the monks of Columba sailed there. He sailed for thrice seven days till he lost the rocks of the north ; and for thrice thirty days, till Iceland in the south was like a small bluebell in a great grey plain; and for thrice three years among bergs. For the first three years the finned things of the sea brought him food; for the second three years he knew the kindness of the creatures of the air; in the last three years angels fed him. He lived among the Sidhe for three hundred years. When he came back to Iona, he was asked where he had been all that long night since evensong to matins. The monks had sought him everywhere, and at dawn had found him lying in the hollow of the long wave that washes Iona on the north. He laughed at that, and said he had been on the tops of the billows for nine years and three months and twenty-one days, and for three hundred years had lived among a deathless people. He had drunk sweet ale every day, and every day had known love among flowers and green bushes, and at dusk had sung old beautiful forgotten songs, and with star-flame had lit strange fires, and at the full of the moon had gone forth laughing to slay. It was heaven, there, under the Lights of the North. When he was asked how that people might be known, he said that away from there they had a cold, cold hand, a cold, still voice, and cold ice-blue eyes. They had four cities at the four ends of the green diamond that is the world. That in the north was made of earth; that in the east, of air; that in the south, of fire; that in the west, of water. In the middle of the green diamond that is the world is the Glen of Precious Stones. It is in the shape of a heart, and glows like a ruby, though all stones and gems are there. It is there the Sìdhe go to refresh their deathless life.
The holy monks said that this kingdom was certainly Ifurin, the Gaelic Hell. So they put their comrade alive in a grave in the sand, and stamped the sand down upon his head, and sang hymns so that mayhap even yet his soul might be saved, or, at least, that when he went back to that place he might remember other songs than those sung by the milk-white women with eyes like sloes and lips red as rowans. "Tell that honey-mouthed cruel people they are in Hell," said the abbot, and give them my ban and my curse unless they will cease laughing and loving sinfully and slaying with bright lances, and will come out of their secret places and be baptized."
They have not yet come.
This adventurer of the dreaming mind is another Oran, that fabulous Oran of whom the later Columban legends tell. I think that other Orans go out, even yet, to the Country of the Sidhe. But few come again. It must be hard to find that glen at the heart of the green diamond that is the world; but, when found, harder to return by the way one came.
Once when I was sailing to Tiree, I stopped at Iona, and went to see an old woman named Giorsal. She was of my own people, and, not being Iona-born, the islanders called her the foreigner. She had a daughter named Ealàsaidh, or Elsie as it is generally given in English, and I wanted to see her even more than the old woman.
"Where is Elsie?" I asked, after our greetings were done.
Giorsal looked at me sidelong, and then shifted the kettle, and busied herself with the teapot.
I repeated the question.
"She is gone," the old woman said, without looking at me.
"Gone? Where has she gone to?"
"I might as well ask you to tell me that."
"Is she married? . . . had she a lover . . .or . . . or . . . do you mean that she . . . that you . . . have lost her?"
"She's gone. That's all I know. But she isn't married, so far as I know: an' I never knew any man she fancied: an' neither I nor any other on Iona has seen her dead body; an' by St. Martin's Cross, neither I nor any other saw her leave the island. And that was more than a year ago."
"But, Giorsal, she must have left Iona and gone to Mull, or maybe gone away in a steamer, or--"
"It was in midwinter, an' when a heavy gale was tearing through the Sound. There was no steamer an' no boat that day. There isn't a boat of Iona that could have taken the sea that day. And no--Elsie wasna drowned. I see that's what's in your mind. She just went out o' the house again cryin'. I asked her what was wrong wi' her. She turned an' smiled, an' because o' that terrifying smile I couldna say a word. She went up behind the Ruins, an' no one saw her after that but Ian Donn. He saw her among the bulrushes in the swamp over by Staonaig. She was laughing an' talking to the reeds, or to the wind in the reeds. So Ian Donn says."
"And what do you say, Giorsal ?
The old woman went to the door, looked out, and closed it. When she returned, she put another bit on the fire, and kept her gaze on the red glow.
"Do you know much about them old Iona monks?" she asked abruptly.
"What old monks?"
"Them as they call the Culdees. You used to be askin' lots o' questions about them. Ay ? well . . . they aye hated folk from the North, an' women-folk above all."
I waited, silent.
"And Elsie, poor lass, she hated them in turn. She was all for the wild clansmen out o' Skye and the Long Island. She said she wished the SiOl Leoid had come to Iona before Colum built the big church. And for why? Well, there's this, for one thing: For months a monk had come to her o' nights in her sleep, an' said he would kill her, because she was a heathen. She went to the minister at last, an' said her say. He told her she was a foolish wench, an' was sore angry with her. So then she went to old Mary Gillespie, out by the lochan beyond Fionnaphort on the Ross yonder--her that has the sight an' a power o' the old wisdom. After that she took to meeting friends in the moonshine."
"Ay. There's no call to name names. One day she told me that she had been bidden to go over to them. If she didn't, the monks would kill her, they said. The monks are still the strongest here, they told her, or she me, I forget which. That is, except over by Staonaig. Up between Sgéur Iolaire and Cnoc Druidean there's a path that no monk can go. There, in the old days, they burned a woman. She was not a woman, but they thought she was. She was one o' the Sorrows of the Sheen, that they put out to suffer for them, an' get the mortal ill. That's the plague to them. It's ill to any that brings harm on them. That's why the monks are na strong over by Staonaig way. But I told my girl not to mind. She was safe wi' me, I said. She said that was true. For weeks I heard no more o' that monk. One night Elsie came in smiling an' pluckin' wild roses. " Breisleach!" I cried, "what's the meanin' o' roses in January?" She looked at me, frighted, an' said nothin', but threw the things on the fire. It was next day she went away."
"An' that's all. Here's the tea'. Ay', an' for sure here's my good man. Whist, now! Rob, do you see who's here?"
Nothing is more strange than the confused survival of legends and pagan faiths and early Christian beliefs, such as may be found still in some of the isles. A Tiree man, whom I met some time ago on the boat that was taking us both to the west, told me there's a story that Mary Magdalene lies in a cave in Iona. She roamed the world with a blind man who loved her, but they had no sin. One day they came to Knoidart in Argyll. Mary Magdalene's first husband had tracked her there, and she knew that he would kill the blind man. So she bade him lie down among some swine, and she herself herded them. But her husband came and laughed at her. "That is a fine boar you have there," he said. Then he put a spear through the blind man.
"Now I will take your beautiful hair," he said. He did this and went away. She wept till she died. One of Colum's monks found her, and took her to Iona, and she was buried in a cave. No one but Colum knew who she was. Colum sent away the man, because he was always mooning and lamenting. She had a great wonderful beauty to her.
It is characteristic enough, even to the quaint confusion that could make Mary Magdalene and St. Columba contemporary. But as for the story, what is it but the universal Gaelic legend of Diarmid and Grania? They too wandered far to escape the avenger. It does not matter that their "beds" are shown in rock and moor, from Glenmoriston to Loch Awe, from Lora Water to West Loch Tarbert, with an authenticity as absolute as that which discovers them almost anywhere between Donegal and Clare; nor that the death-place has many sites betwixt Argyll and. Connemara. In Gaelic Scotland every one knows that Diarmid was wounded to the death on the rocky ground between Tarbert of Loch Fyne and the West Loch. Every one knows the part the boar played, and the part Finn played.
Doubtless the story came by way of the Shannon to the Loch of Shadows, or from Cuchullin's land to Dûn Sobhairce on the Antrim coast, and thence to the Scottish mainland. In wandering to the isles, it lost something both of Eiré and Alba. The Campbells, too, claimed Diarmid; and so the Hebrideans would as soon forget him. So, there, by one byplay of the mind or another, it survived in changing raiment. Perhaps an islesman had heard a strange legend about Mary Magdalene, and so named Grania anew. Perhaps a storyteller consciously wove it the new way. Perhaps an Iona man, hearing the tale in distant Barra or Uist, in Coll or Tiree, "buried" Mary in a cave of Icolmkill.
The notable thing is, not that a primitive legend should love fantastic raiment, but that it should be so much alike, where the Syrian wanders from waste to waste, by the campfires of the Basque muleteers, and in the rainy lands of the Gael.
In Mingulay, one of the south isles of the Hebrides, in South Uist, and in Iona, I have heard a practically identical tale told with striking variations. It is a tale so widespread that it has given rise to a pathetic proverb, "Is mairg a loisgeadh a chlarsach dut," "Pity on him who would burn the harp for you."
In Mingulay, the "harper" who broke his harp "for a woman's love was a young man, a fiddler. For three years he wandered out of the west into the east, and when he had made enough money to buy a good share in a fishingboat, or even a boat itself, he came back to Mingulay. When he reached his Mary's cottage, at dusk, he played her favourite air, an "oran leannanachd," but when she came out it was with a silver ring on her left hand and a baby in her arms. Thus poor Padruig Macneill knew Mary had broken her troth and married another man, and so he went down to the shore and played a "marbh-rann," and then broke his fiddle on the rocks; and when they came upon them in the morning he had the strings of it round his neck. In Uist, the instrument is more vaguely called a "tiompan," and here, on a bitter cold night in a famine time, the musician breaks it so as to feed the fire to warm his wife--a sacrifice ill repaid by the elopement of the hard woman that night. In Iona, the tale is of an Irish piper who came over to Icolmkill on a pilgrimage, and to lay his "peeb.-h'yanna"* on "the holy stones"; but, when there, he got word that his young wife was ill, so he "made a loan of his clar," and with the money returned to Derry, only to find that his dear had gone away with a soldier for the Americas.
*The Irish pipes are called "Piob-theannaich" to distinguish them from the "Piob" or "Piob-Mhòr"of the Highlands.
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