The Works of "Fiona Macleod", Volume V, For the Beauty of an Idea

"Beloved and most beautiful, who wearest
The shadow of that soul by which I live."
                                                     "Prometheus Unbound."

III

THE GAELIC HEART

One day, on Iona, I met an old woman who had been gathering driftwood in the haven called Port-na-Churaich--the haven of the coracle, for it was there St. Colum landed on the day Christ's hand steered the helm to the Holy Isle. She was weary with her burthen, and had rested on a ledge of granite, and there had fallen asleep.   I stood a long time looking at her. I had not seen her for some years, not since the death of her daughter in the Sleat of Skye: but it was not at the way-worn sadness of the old figure I was looking, though that was in my thoughts. I was thinking of what I had heard of her. Long ago a poet of the isles had put song upon song on her, as the saying is: and one known to all of us had made an oran-ghaoil about her which is still sung from the Rhinns of Islay to The Seven Hunters. When I was a child I had heard often of the beauty of Mary Macarthur. But sorrow, which had long lain as upon a rock on the hills, looking at her, had come suddenly in the twilight, when all was well, and took her heart in fierce swift hands, and wrung it, and it was as tide-wrack left by the ebb on dry sand. She was old, and her beauty was gone away from her like a rainbow lifted from a wilderness, long before the last of her partings came to her in Sleat of Skye.

She too had been known for her songs. They were pastoral and sweet, or of the sea and wild and lamenting. One, telling of the, small, shaggy, long-horned kye coming with a young herd-girl over the braes in mist and crowding upon a loosened cliff, and so falling into the surge of the tides a thousand feet below, is well known among the few who remember such things in the old tongue that is being so swiftly forgotten: another, of the sea-bulls, is a favourite iorram of the boatmen of the middle isles: and Eachan MacDougall, the blind poet of Skye, used to sing to women in the twilight, over the kindly tea or sup of milk and porridge, her seven strange sad songs that are called "A Day in My Heart." It was these only I recalled now. They tell the lives of many women. There is the dawn-song of wonder and joy, the morning-song of the proud heart, the noon-song of the sleeping passions and sleeping thoughts, the afternoon song of longing and blind anger and pain, the gloaming song of regret and tears and silence, the nightfall song of revolt and the heart aflame, and the midnight song that is not sung, but is smothered in ashes, or drowned in deep water, or burned in the fierceness of fire. In Eachan-Dall's poem, he says her beauty is the beauty of the morning star in June, when it is a white fire in a rose of flame. He says her grace is the grace of the larch in an April wind, of a reed in shaken waters, of a wave tost like a white flower in the blue hair of the sea, of a fawn moving through bracken in the green dusk of old trees. He says men will remember her beauty till they are old; and their sons shall remember it; and their sons' sons. He says, "Surely in this fair woman's heart is great joy and pride, for she will be beautiful and glad all the days of her life." And I recall the last of her songs, "Flame on the Wind." I cannot give it aright in English, for its long mournful cadences, lifted on tides of passionate vain regret and old grief, need the language of the old world that has in it so much of the sound of wind in trees and the lamentation of wind and the sighing of waters. I thought of it as I looked at old Mary Macarthur, and of the ending of one verse :

                                                O burning soul,
Can hills of ice assuage this burning fire?

And then I remembered one of her love-songs, she who had known so much love, and had thrown treasures down barren rocks into the cold seas, and had made a flaming universe and eternity out of the pale hour of a wintry noon.

It is dark here, my Love, my Pulse, my Heart, my Flame:
Dark the night, dark with wind and cloud, the wind without aim
Baffled and blind, the cloud low, broken, dragging, lame,
And a stir in the darkness at the end of the room sighing my name, whispering my name!
Is that the sea calling, or the hounds of the sea, or the wind's hounds?

* * * * * * * * *

Great is that dark noise under the black north wind
Out on the sea to-night: but still it is--still as the frosts that bind
The stark inland waters in green depths where icebergs grind--
In this noise of shaking storm in my heart and this blast sweeping my mind!

And now nothing of all this left, nothing but a tired old woman, sad-eyed, and furrowed poorly clad, a gatherer of driftwood. Hills of ice had in truth assuaged this burning fire. The noise of shaking storm had ebbed from the troubled heart; no blast now swept the mind, but only the chill airs of winter froze dreams and all old sweet thoughts, perhaps memories even. Poor old woman, how white and old and withered she looked, so forlorn in her poor frayed clothes, in the sleep of weariness, among the yellowing bracken by the granite rock. Was it all gone, I wondered: all the dream, the wonder, the flame? Were they all gone, noons of passionate life, twilights of peace and recaptured hopes, nights uplifted in dreams or shaken with tears and longings?

While I was dreaming and wondering, wondering and dreaming, Old Mary stirred, and opened her eyes. At first sleep was heavy on her, and I saw she was not yet rightly awake.

"Do not stir," I said, "and I will sit down here beside you, Mairi mic Ruaridh Donn." At that, and the familiar name, she knew me, and was glad to tears, and welcomed me over and over, as though I had come in some impossible way out of the irrecoverable past.

"Yes, I had the tiredness indeed," she added after a little, "but what of that? For I had the good sleep, and a thousand things of goodness more, for I had a dream of dreams. Do I remember it? Yes, for sure, I have it as, clear as a cradle. I was lying here, just as I will be now, with this faggot here too, when a woman of beauty came up the path and took the faggot and flung all the sticks an' ends into the sea. What will you be doing, lady?" I said, but not in anger, only in the great wonder. ''Tis your sorrows I'm throwing away,' she said with a voice as sweet as to send the birds to the branches--churiead e na h'ein, an crannaibh. 'It is glad of that I am,' I said, 'for it is many of them I have.' Then she said: 'You'll have peace, Mary, and great joy, and your songs and your beauty will never die.'  So the tears were at me at that, an' I cried: 'It is only an aisling you are. . .  a dream and a vision!'  'No,' she said, "an' by the same token, Mary, I'll tell you the song that you were singing below your breath down there on the shore:

"A Dhe na mara
Cuir todhar's an tarruinn
Chon tachair an talaimh
Chon bailcidh dhuinn biaidh,"'

And sure, an' in truth, these were the very words I was singing to myself down there on the shore  . . . 'O God of the Sea, fill the sea-wave with store of the good weed, to feed the soil that will give us food.' And at that my heart sank with fear and rose with gladness, for who could this be but . . . an' sure before I could put word to it, she said I am Brighid. I went on the knees, and cried gach la' agus oidche thor, duinn do sheimh--'each day and night give us thy peace.' And I was putting another word to it, for her, fair FosterMother of Christ, when she looked at me and said: 'I am older than Brighid of the Mantle, Mary, and it is you that should know that. I put songs and music on the wind before ever the bells of the chapels were rung in the West or heard in the East. I am Brighid-nam-Bratta, but I am also Brighid-Muirghin-na-tuinne, and Brighid-sluagh, Brighid-nan-sitheach seang, Brighid-Binne-Bheullbuchd-nan-trusganan-uaine, and I am older than Aona and am as old as Luan. And in Tir-na-h'oige my name is Suibhal-bheann; in Tir-fo-thuinn it is C-gorm; and in Tir-nah'oise it is Sireadh-thall. And I have been a breath in your heart. And the day has its feet to it that will see me coming into the hearts of men and women like a flame upon dry grass, like a flame of wind in a great wood. For the time of change is at hand, Mairi nic Ruaridh Donn--though not for you, old withered leaf on the dry branch, though for you, too, when you come to us and see all things in the pools of life yonder.'

"And at that I closed my eyes, and said the line of the old poem that you will be knowing well, the Laoidh Fhraoch--Bu bhinne na farch-chiuil do ghuth--sweeter thy voice than the sweetest lute.

"And when I opened them she was not there, but I was an old woman on the brac above Port-na-Churaich, and when I looked again it was you I saw and no other."*

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*St. Brighid (in Gaelic pronounced sometimes Bride, sometimes Breed), St. Bride of the isles as she is lovingly called in the Hebrides, has no name so dear to the Gael as "Muime-Chriosd," Christ's Foser-Mother, a name bestowed on her by one of the most beautiful of Celtic legends. In the Isles of Gaelic Scotland her most familiar name is Brighid nam Bratta--St. Briget or St. Bride of the Mantle--from her having wrapt the new-born Babe in her Mantle in Mary's hour of weakness. She did not come into the Gaelic heart with the Cross and Mary, but was there long before as Bride, Brighid, or Brithid of the Dedannans, those not immortal but for long ages deathless folk who to the Gael were as the Olympians to the Greeks. That earlier Brighid was goddess of poetry and music, one of the three great divinities of love, goddess of women, the keeper of prophecies and dreams, the watcher of the greater destinies, the guardian of the future. I think she was no other than a Celtic Demeter--that Demeter-Desphoena born of the embrace of Poseidon who in turn is no other than Lir, the Oceanus of the Gael: and instead of Demeter seeking and lamenting Persephone in the underworld, it is Demeter-Brighid seeking her brother (or, it may be, her son) Manan (Manannan), God of the Sea, son of Oceanus, Lirand finding him at last in Iceland, etc.--as I write here a little further on. Persephone and Manan are symbols of the same Return of Life.

The other names are old Gaelic names: Brighid-Muirghin-no-tuinne, Brighid-Conception-of-the-Waves; Brighid-Sluagh (or Sloigh), Brighid of the Immortal Host; Brighid-nan-Sitheachseang, Bridget of the Slim Fairy Folk; Brighid-Binne-Bheul-thuchdnan-trusganan-naine, Song-sweet (lit. melodious mouth'd) Brighid of the Tribe of the Green Mantles. She is also called Brighid of the Harp, Brighid of the Sorrowful, Brighid of Prophecy, Brighid of Pure Love, St.. Bride of the Isles, Bride of Joy, and other names. Aona is an occasional and ancient form of Di-Aon, Friday; and Luan, of Diluain, Monday.

Tir-na-h'Oige (commonly anglicised as Tirnanogue) is the Land of (Eternal) Youth; Tir-fo-thuinn is the Country of the Waves; and Tir-na-h'oise is the Country of Ancient Years. The fairy names Siubhal-bheann, C-gorm, and Siread-thall respectively mean Mountain-traveller, Grey Hound, and Seek-Beyond.
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I have thought often of old Mary Macarthur, and of her dream of holy St. Bride, and of that older Brighid of the West, Mother of Songs and Music--she who breathes in the reed, on the wind, in the hearts of women and in the minds of poets. For I too have my dream, my memory of one whom as a child I called Star-Eyes, and whom, later, I called "Banmorair-na-mara," the Lady of the Sea, and whom at last I knew to be no other than the woman that is in the heart of women. I was not more than seven when one day, by a well, near a sea-loch in Argyll, just as I was stooping to drink, my glancing eyes lit on a tall woman standing among a mist of wild hyacinths under three great sycamores. I stood, looking, as a fawn looks, wild-eyed, unafraid. She did not speak., but she smiled, and because of the love and beauty in her eyes I ran to her. She stooped and lifted blueness out of the flowers as one might lift foam out of a pool, and I thought she threw it over me. When I was found, lying among the hyacinths, dazed, and, as was thought, ill, I asked eagerly after the lady in white and with hair "all shiny-gold like buttercups," but when I found I was laughed at, or at last, when I passionately persisted, was told I was sun-dazed and had been dreaming, I said no more. But I did not forget. And for many days, for weeks indeed, I stole away to seek or be found by my white love, though she had gone away or did not come again. It was years afterward that I heard a story of a woman of the divine folk, who was called the Lady of the Sea, and was a daughter of Lir, and went lamenting upon the earth because she had lost her brother Manan the Beautiful, but came upon him at last among the hills of Iceland and wooed him with songs and flowers and brought him back again, so that all the world of men rejoiced, and ships sailed the seas in safety and nets were filled with the fruit of the wave. And it was years after that before I knew the deeper wisdom, and wrote of the Shepherdess the words that I now say again--I believe that we are close upon a great and deep spiritual change; I believe a new redemption is even now conceived of the Divine Spirit in the human heart, that is itself as a woman, broken in dreams and yet sustained in faith, patient, long-suffering, looking towards home. I believe that though the Reign of Peace may be yet a long way off, it is drawing near; and that Who shall save us anew shall -come divinely as a Woman--but whether through mortal birth, or as an immortal breathing upon our souls, none can yet know. Sometimes I dream of the old prophecy that Christ shall come again upon Iona; and of that later prophecy which foretells, now as, the Bride of Christ, now as the Daughter of God, now as the Divine Spirit embodied through mortal birth--the coming of a new Presence and Power; and dream that this may be upon Iona, so that the little Gaelic island may become as the little Syrian Bethlehem. But more wise is it to dream, not of hallowed ground, but of the hallowed gardens of the soul, wherein She shall appear white and radiant. Or that, upon the hills, where we are wandered, the Shepherdess shall call us home."

Yes, I have thought often of Mary Macarthur, that solitary old woman, poor and desolate, once so beautiful: yet loved by Brighid, the genius of our people. Was it not our sorrowful Gaelic world I saw, when I came upon the poor old woman--that passing world of songs and beauty, of poets' dreams and of broken hearts, that even now in forlorn old age is loved again by Brighid the White--Brighid the White, who, even yet may use the fading voice to lead the wild trumpets of revelation?

We have in Ross and the Outer Isles a singular legend, which has a beauty within and without. A young crofter was unhappy in love and not fortunate in the hard way of the hill-life. When bad seasons come on the back of the black wind, the croft-smoke turns from blue to brown, as the saying is: and bad seasons in succession had come to the Strath, and every one of the scattered clansfolk there had suffered, but none so much as Fergus Dhu, who had lost sheep, and crops, and the youth out of his heart.

One day he went idly across the boggy moor under Cnoc Glas, mooning among the loneroid and black heather where the white tufts of canna were like blown foam of the sea. A single tree grew on that waste, a thorn that on a forgotten Beltane had been withered into a Grey Woman, the Fairy Thorn or The Singing Tree or Tree of Bad Music. At many a winter ceilidh by the peat-glow tales were passed of what had been seen or heard there: but they were all at one in this, that only the happy and fortunate were in peril there, that only the unhappy and unfortunate might go that way, and, indifferent, see the tall swift woman in grey, or hear the thin music.

Likely that was why Fergus-Fergus Dhu as he was called, because of his black hair, and black eyes, and the dark hours into which he so often fell-wandered that day along the sodden bracken-covered sheep-ways. When he came to the thorn he saw no grey woman, perhaps because there was no room in his dreaming mind for any but one woman who now would never warm to him but be a kindly stranger always; and heard no thin air, gay or wild, perhaps because the sad lift and fall in his heart was a daylong sound that dulled his ears. But while he was staring idly into the withered thorn he saw a short stem break into little green leaves. He could not believe what his eyes showed him, but when he saw also pink and white blossoms run in and out among the leaves and break into a fall of snow, and felt the sudden sweetness in the air about him, he believed. He went closer, and his wonder grew when he saw that the stem had seven holes in it. He put his hand on the stem, and it came away. There was a hole at each end, and the tborn-reed was like any feadan. So he put it to his mouth, and ran his familiar fingers up and down the holes, for Fergus Dhu was the cunningest player in the Strath. He played till the whole thorn went into a wave of green. He played till a snow of blossom came all over the green of the sea. Although it was November, and wet, and the hill-wind moaned searching the corries, by the thorn it was like a May noon, Fergus looked at the sky, and saw that it was blue: at the long moor, and saw that it was covered with April yellow and with a shimmer of the wings of little birds. He looked at the grey hills to the east, and they were rose-red and a star was above them: he looked at the grey hills to the west, and they were blue as peat-smoke and a rainbow leaned against them. Then his heart filled with joy, and he said to himself, "I have found my desire." So he played his joy. As he played, the rainbow leaned away from the grey hills of the west, and took their sadness, and was no more: the star sank behind the grey mountains of the east: the long moor faded into the old silence: the white foam and the green wave ebbed from the thorn.

Fergus looked at the thorn-pipe, and it was only a black cloud-wet feadan with seven mossy holes in it.

He "went away" in that hour. No one saw him that night, or the next day, or the next: and months and years passed, and no one saw him, and the body was never seen, though his bonnet was found near the withered thorn.

In the seventh year after that a strange thing happened. A new life quickened the thorn. A thousand small green buds shook out little fluttering green leaves, and, from these, white moths of blossom continually rose. Linnets sang on the branches.

One day Fergus Dhu came strolling that way. He had no memory of the years that had gone, or with whom he had been, and the sweet fatal accent was out of his eats. But when he saw the thorn he remembered his feadan, and took it from his coat-fold, and played because of his gladness. The tears fell from his eyes when he saw the grey rain come down and blot out the new life from the thorn, so that it was old and withered again: and at the wet hill-wind calling again its old mournful cry, wheeling like a tired hawk above the far lamentation of the sheep. "Why is this?" he said. "When I saw this lonely place in its sorrow I played it into joy. And now when I come upon it in its beauty, I have played it back into the old sorrow. Grief to my heart, that it is so."

One man of the Strath saw Fergus Dhu, that day, and he spoke of Fergus as a thin worn leaf that one sees through when it hangs in the wind. Certainly no other saw him, nor has seen him since.

This tale of Fergus, who was fy, and went down the west with strangers, is it not also a symbol, even as Mary Macarthur, old and poor but treasured and loved and cared for by the Genius of our race is it not also a symbol of the Gaelic heart, of the Gaelic muse let me say? For the Gaelic muse seems to me the beautiful and sad and waywardly joyous spirit of whom poor Fergus was but the troubled image. Does she, too, not go to and fro in a land where rainbows bloom and fade above desolate places and where a star hangs above the holy hills of the east, seeking her desire: going in sorrow, but, suddenly beholding the world radiant, breaking into songs of joy and laughter: coming again, after an evil time, and finding the grey thorn of the world full of the green leaf, blossom, and undying youth, and, so finding, turning suddenly to tears, and to the old sorrow, and to the longing whose thirst is not to be quenched, to the cry of the curlew for the waste, of the heart going a long way from shadow to shadow?

One must with this lanthorn of the spirit look into the dark troubled water of the Gaelic heart, too, I think, if one would understand. How else can one understand the joy that is so near to sorrow, the sorrow that like a wave of the sea can break in a moment into light and beauty? I have heard often in effect, "This is no deep heart that in one hour weeps and in the next laughs." But I know a deeper heart that in one hour weeps and in the next laughs, so deep that light dies away within it, and silence and the beginning and the end are one: the heart of the sea. And there is another heart that is deep, and weeps one hour and in the next laughs; the heart of Night . . . where Oblivion smiles, and it is day; sighs, and the darkness is come. And there is another heart that is deep, and weeps in one hour and in the next laughs: the soul of man: where tears and laughter are the fans that blow the rose-white flame of life. And I am well content that the Gaelic heart, that in one hour weeps and in the next laughs, though it be so sad and worn among smiling nations, is in accord with the great spirits of the world and with immortal things.


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