The Works of Fiona Macleod, Volume V, The Children of Water


E u p p o u   e u p o l o u    e u q a l a s s n --SOPHOCLES.

Within a hundred years ago many of the islefolk, and not only in the more remote places, openly or furtively practised what are called pagan rites. Many of these dwelt with water, more particularly with the water of the sea: for to the people in the west the sea is an ever present power to be feared, to be propitiated, to be beguiled if possible, to be regarded as a hard foster-mother, perhaps: hardly to be loved. I have never heard any definition of the sea more impressive than that of a fisherman of the isle of Ulva, whom I knew. "She is like a woman of the old tales whose beauty is dreadful," he said, "and who breaks your heart at last whether she smiles or frowns. But she doesn't care about that, or whether you are hurt or not. It's because she has no heart, being all a wild water."

I have read often of the great love of the islesmen for the sea. They love it in a sense of course, as the people of the land love uplands and wild moors, and the movements of clouds over stony braes or above long pastures by low shores and estuaries. Nor are they happy away from it. How could they be, since the wave is in their hearts. Men and women who are born to the noise of the sea, whose cradles have rocked to the surge or croon of the tides, who have looked on the deep every day in every season of the year, could not but feel towards it as a shepherd feels towards the barest hills, as a forester feels for the most sombre woods, as the seedsower and the harrower feel for monotonous brown lands which swell upward till they bear the rounded white clouds like vast phantom flowers. In this sense they love it, and truly. Some love it for itself, and its beauty. A few love it with passion, feel its spell irresistible, magical. "A wild mare, a mocking beautiful woman, and the blue sea in foam, for the joy of these I would give the world and time," says a Gaelic poet. But it is not of the exceptions I speak: it is of the many. These do not love what they have so much cause to dread; what holds so many little fortunes in go great and loose a clasp; what shuts off from so many desires; what has so common a voice of melancholy; what makes an obvious destiny take the measure of fatality, an implacable doom. For them, when the sea is not a highway, it is a place of food, the Cuilidh Mhoire or Treasury of Mary, as the Catholic islesmen of the Southern Hebrides call the sustenance-giving waters. When neither, it is most likely to be a grave, the cold drifting hearths of the dead.

As to those I speak of, the people in many parts were good Christians for most days, and then one day other selves hidden under taught faiths and later symbols would stand disclosed. Above all, when certain days of traditional sanctity recurred, it was customary to perform rites of a druidic or pagan remembrance, in the face even of priests of a Faith that has ever turned stern eyes on all rites of the eager spirit of man save its own. And what the people were then, in the many, they still are in the few; though now for the most part only where the Great Disenchantment has not yet wholly usurped the fading dominion of the Great Enchantment.

It was the custom, then, and still is in some isles, for mothers to wet brow or finger of their new-born in the flow of the tide at the end of the third week of the child's life. The twenty-first day, if a Sunday, was held to be the most fortunate, and a Thursday next to it--but a Friday was always to be avoided, and a Saturday was held in some fear, unless the child was dark in hair and eyes and colour. It was above all needful to see that this wave-baptism happened when the tide was at the flow. If it were done at the ebb, woe to that child and that mother: soon or late the "baptized" would be called, to sink in deep gulfs and be homeless and no more seen--and, in the west, for the dead to have no green grave for sleep-covering is a nakedness of sorrow ill to endure for those left to mourn.

I remember, when I was a child, being taken to have tea in the cottage of one Giorsal Macleod, in Armadale of Sleat, who had lost both husband and son through this sea-hallowing rite having been done at the ebb. Her husband was a young man, and had never spoken to her of the fear of his mother, who through a misjudgment in a time of weakness and fever had "waved" him after the turn of the ebb. But one day when Annra Macleod came in to find Giorsal crying because unwittingly she had done a like thing, he laughed at her folly, and said that for himself he cared no whit one way or the other whether the child were dipped in this hour or in that. But before the month was out, and on a calm night and just as the herring had risen, Annra's feet tangled in the nets, which fell back with him, and he sank into the strong ebb, and was sucked away like a fading shadow. And seven years from that day little Seoras, the boy, when fishing for piocach in the haven, stumbled from the coble's heavy bow and into the swift-slipping greenness. He was good at the swimming, and could easily have saved himself on so calm a day and with the coble not a fathom-reach off: but he was an ebb-child, and his fate was on him, and he was called out to deep water and death. His mother saw this. And when she spoke of her sorrow she used invariably the words, A Dhia (O God), 'twas a long-laid death for my cold darling: 'twas I that did it with that dip in the ebb, I not knowing the harm and the spell, A cuislin mo ghraidh, A m'ulaidh 's m'agh! (O pulse-let of my love, O my treasure and joy!)

In those days I speak of, the people used to have many sea-rites, and, almost in all the isles, on La' Chaluim-Chille (St. Columba's Day) in particular. Offerings of honey-ale or mead, fluid porridge, kale-soup, precious bread even, were given to the god of the sea. As the darkness of Wednesday night gave way to dawn on Maundy Thursday, as Mr. Carmichael relates in his beautiful Carmina Gadelica, the man deputed by the islefolk would walk into the sea up to his waist, and then, while he poured out the offering, would chant

A Dhe na mara
Cuir todhar's an tarruinn
Chon tachair an talaimh
Chon bailcidh dhuinn biaidh.
"O god of the sea,
Put weed in the drawing wave
To enrich the isle-soil,
To shower on us food."

Then those behind the offerer took up the, chant and wafted it along the seashore on the midnight air, the darkness and the rolling of the waves making the scene weird and impressive."

That I have not seen; and now I fear the god of the sea has few worshippers, and knows no scattered communes of bowed chanters at midnight.

But this, though also I have not seen, I know of at first hand. A man and his three sons,on an island which I will speak of only as south and east of the Minch, went secretly on the eve of St. Columba's Day a year ago,. and took a pail of milk from the byres, and a jug of running water of a well-spring, and a small loaf of bread from the oven, and a red faggot from the fire held in a cleft stick. The youngest son threw the fire into the sea, crying, "Here's fire for you!" And the other sons poured on the black flood the surf-white milk and the rain-grey water, crying, "Here's clean water for you!" and "Here's the kindly milk for you!" And the father threw the loaf of bread on the wave, and cried "Peace to your hunger!"

That was all, and they did it secretly, and the sons (it is said) half to please their father. Only one or two neighbours knew of it, and they silent before the Minister; but somehow it came to the man's ears, and like most of his kind he was angry at a thing beyond him and his understanding, and spoke in contempt to one wiser than himself (I do not doubt), and threatened him with a public exhorting from the pulpit, so that Mr. M----- sullenly promised no more to do the thing his forebears had done for generation upon generation.

"After all, the minister was right," said someone to me, who had heard the tale: "for Mr. M---- was only holding by a superstition."

I did not make the obvious retort, but said simply that it was better to hold by old things of beauty and reverence than to put a blight on them.

I do not say the minister was wholly wrong. He spoke according to his lights. Doubtless he had in remembrance some such passage as that in Deuteronomy where the ban is put upon any one who will suffer his son or his daughter to go through fire, or upon any that draw omen from the cry of fowls, or upon the interpreter of signs. And compelled by that stubborn thraldom to the explicit word which has been at once the stern strength and the spiritual failure of all the Calvinistic denominations (in our religion-harried Scotland at least), he spoke in numbed sympathy and twilight knowledge.

Since, I have tried to learn if Mr. M----- had knowledge of the ancient meanings of that sea-rite, and if other words, or chant, or urnuigh-mhara or sea-prayer, had been used by his elders.  But, as yet, I have not learned.  I have wondered often if this broken and all but silent rite were a survival of a custom before ever St. Colum was heard of. The bread offering and that of the milk are easy of understanding. But why should one give fresh water from an earth-spring to that salt, unstable wilderness; why offer to it a flame of fire, to it whose pale crescents of light or moving green lawns beneath swaying cataracts are but the glittering robe over a cold heart, than which no other is so still everlastingly in an ancient and changeless cold?

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