Anima Celtica". . . le reve de la vie vue en beauty . . ."--RENAN.
"To see things in their beauty is to see them in their truth."
THE GAEL AND HIS HERITAGE* "He who moves about happy in dreams, he is the Self, this is the immortal, the fearless." --Khanda x. of the 8th Prap‚thka of the Khandogya-Upanishads.
The last tragedy for broken nations is not the loss of power and distinction, nor even the loss of that independence which is so vital to the commonweal. It is not, perhaps, even the loss of country, though there is no harder thing than to see the smoke of the stranger, or to hear upon the wind the forlorn business of the going of those, who are dispossessed and the coming of those new in possession. The last tragedy, and the saddest, is when the treasured language dies slowly out, when winter falls upon the legendary remembrance of a people. Sometimes a bitter destiny descends suddenly upon a nation, as when Russia all but strangles Finland, permitting that broken people, when it gasps for life, to live, but on condition that it relinquishes freedom, language, tradition, hope, pride, and honour. The wrong is not the blind wrong of a barbaric people too savage to know the sacredness of pledge and solemn, oath, but is the open wrong of a cynical Government, scorning the most sacred pledge and the most solemn oath. Then again the destiny that comes upon a crushed nation may be only retributive and regenerative, as with Spain. Such nations are bent, not broken: they have no tragic sunset. They have not lost the irrecoverable, and they have hope. Another destiny there is, that which awaits, a people which has never been a sovereign power, but has had national greatness; which has never striven to extend its dominion, but has seen its own frontiers, liberties, possibilities, and at last even its language and cherished national inheritance of legend and gathered incalculable beauty shrink from age to age, from generation to generation, from decade to decade, from year to year. When I speak of the Gaelic people of Ireland and Scoland, I speak, alas! only of the small Gaelic remnant in the Scottish Highlands and in the Isles, and of the remnant in Ireland. This people is unable or unwilling to accept the bitter solace of absorption in the language, the written thought, the active, omnipresent, and variegated energy of the dominant race. It has to keep silence more and more, and soon it too will be silent.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~1 Reprinted from The Nineteenth Century, Nov., 1900 where it appeared as an article upon "Carmina Gadelica; Hymns and incantations, etc. In 2 vols. large 4to. Orally collected in the Highlands and islands of Scotland, and translated into English by Alexander Carmichael."
It is a strange thing: that a nation can hold within itself an ancient race, standing for the lost, beautiful, mysterious ancient world, can see it fading through its dim twilight, without heed to preserve that which might yet be preserved, without interest even in that which once gone cannot come again. The old Gaelic race is in its twilight indeed; but now, alas it is the hastening twilight after the feast of Samhain, when winter is come at last, out of the hills, down the glens, on the four winds of the world.
There are some, however, who do care. There are some whose hearts ache to see the last pathetic stand of a retreating people, and who would gladly do what yet may be done to preserve awhile the beautiful old-world language and the still more beautiful and significant thought and legend and subtle genius enshrined in that language; who are truly loth to let die and become legendary and literary that which had once so glorious a noon, and has now a sunset beauty, is even yet a living aspect, is still the coloured thought of life and not of the curious imagination only.
Those who think thus and desire thus must ever be grateful to Mr. Alexander Carmichael, who, after so many years of preparation through a long life of loving and sympathetic heed for the beautiful things of the past as seen and heard in the Hebrides, but now, alas! hardly to be seen and rarely to be heard, has given us the invaluable record of his life-work. It is not too much to say that Mr. Carmichael is the last great chronicler of the Gael. Even before the late John Campbell of Islay died, having won a European reputation for his collection and translation of Gaelic folklore, he feared that the day was over when much more was to be gleaned. He knew that when Mr. Carmichael left the Hebrides, and went to Edinburgh to prepare the life-work of forty years, he would have no like successor. This not because there are no willing workers now (one of the foremost of these, John Gregorson Campbell of the island of Tiree, is our latest loss); but because it is too late. Even in the Gaelic-speaking Irish west, from Donegal to Clare, the native collector finds more and more difficulty; for the old are proud, and the middleaged have forgotten or are silent, and the young do not know and do not care. Dr. Douglas Hyde, the late William Larminie, and others have done what they could, but the gleaners now have a small aftermath for their gain, because of the narrowing pastures of a once vast and fruitful national heritage. Most of the folk-lore and folk-tales now got in Gaelic Scotland and Ireland are at thirdhand, got by the person who tells them from some other, who had them from this man or that woman, but in English, arid too often with a perplexing dual light on them as of noon and moonlight, and even at the best without the determining savour and unalloyed colour and unique accent of the Gaelic original.
By a singular irony the students of Gaelic literature and Gaelic language are increasing: of ancient Gaelic, indeed, there are many scholars to whom we owe much and shall owe more--Dr. Whiteley Stokes, Dr. Kenea Meyer and Dr. George Henderson among them, in Ireland Dr. Douglas Hyde, Mr. T. W. Rolleston, and others. Soon there will be only a few old peasants and a few learned men (mostly Germans) who will be able to speak in the old language.
Now that Mr. Carmichael has given us so much of his life-work (let us trust not all, and that he has yet much accumulated lore to give us from remembrance and translation), and that advanced years will prevent him from again relinquishing time and means in his enthusiastic quest, there are few who can take up his work. What is sadder is that there are fewer and fewer among the islanders and the Highlanders of the remoter districts of the mainland who can or will repeat the desired old wisdom, beauty, and strangeness of ancient faiths and customs. The Gaelic-speaking islesman or Highlander has an all but unconquerable reticence now, and will seldom speak of the hidden things that were once common and beautiful with the commonness and beauty of sunlight and wind. Many causes have led to this. When a people is forced--by circumstances--to speak two tongues the native speech naturally remains that of the inward life, the inward remembrance, the spiri. The English-speaking Gael is apt to be silent and morose in English if he does not know it well or is not at ease in its use, and naturally is not found communicative by, those who would hear him speak of the things they wish to hear. He is proud and sensitive too, and does not appreciate the superior smile and the ill-bred laugh with which his interrogator so frequently punctuates his curiosity. When things sacred to his forefathers, and to him too for that very association as for others, are broached--as when one would ask about the potato blight or the herring failure--it is surely only natural that he should be irresponsive, or, if he answer, be evasive, or take refuge in a seeming boorish dulness. But how much greater a gulf exists between these Scottish or English foreigners and those Gaels who practically have no language but their own, so little English have they, and in that isolation are so remote from the confusedly coloured verbiage of modern speech, and our modern ways of thought, and, above all, our modern ways of life. It is a gulf that few can realise, except those few who perforce live much with both peoples, and speak readily the speech of both, and understand what is in each that here repels and there attracts the other. I have known many instances of Gaelic crofters and fishermen who have not only refused to be drawn into confidence but have wilfully misled their interrogators. I remember on one occasion. crossing the Sound of Eriskay, between the island of that name and South Uist: when two men were in the ferry, and with them was a man whom they had hired to go with them on their fishing excursion in Uist and Benbecula. They asked many questions of the boatmen, and learned little, the men for one thing having their work to see to, and their daily needs to bear in mind, and not caring for the idle curiosity of strangers. The latter seemed aggrieved, and spoke heedlessly concerning the stupidity of "these Highlanders," and how ignorant they were. A week or two, later I met the man who had gone with them to fish. "Well, PÚ1 M'Phail," I said, "and how did you get on with your English friends? Did you tell them what they wanted to know about what we do, and what we think on this and that?" "At first I told them nothing," he said, "and then when they-bothered me every hour I told them a little that was nothing at all, and they were pleased; and at last when they wanted more, and spoke of things I did not wish to speak about, I told them a fathom o' nonsense, and the older man he put a net into my words and took out what he fancied, and told his friend to write them down as he said them over. I laughed at that for sure, for it was all foam and forgetfulness. And on the last night, when he brought out a book with nothing but white paper in it, and said he wanted to take down some things from me, and for me to put my name and place at the end of it, I said then I could not, for being only a Barra man I had no more English, having used all I knew in telling the fine tales I had told. And at that he seemed surprised, and I don't know yet if he has thought it out, and sees that a man can tell tales only with the words he has, and that when these are used up he can tell no more tales."
I recall this little anecdote as significant. One other, equally significant, will suffice as commentary on what I have said. I was staying with friends who had taken a farmer's house in Glen Usinish, under the shoulder of mighty Hecla, in South Uist, and heard from a crofter of a foreign gentleman who had the Gaelic like the sruthinara (the flowing tide), though it was not the Gaelic of the isles; and this gentleman was asking, asking everywhere, and writing down whenever he could get what he wanted. "No," added the crofter, "it was not old tales or old songs he wanted, like good Father Allan of Eriskayi but if we did this or if we did that, and the why of it, and who did it now, and did we believe in it, and could we give names? So we just all had a heavy silence like mist on us. For we knew that though he had the Gaelic tongue he had not the Gaelic heart. For sure it was not for love and kinship, but, just to find out and to speak scornfully to others about our ways, that he asked. So he got little, and what little he got would not be a good catch for any one but an Amitan (a fool)." The next day one of our company was fishing on Loch Druidibeg, and there met the folklore hunter, who was fishing there also, and learned from him that he had got much unexpected information, though confusedly told, and that he found the people strange and quite unlike what he had read about them, with nothing of that peculiar imagination and Celtic beauty of speech and thought of which he had heard so much and found in books both old and new, and that, far from being a spiritual and poetic race, he found the highlander and still more the islander dull and prosaic, and with interests wholly commonplace and selfish. In the following winter I heard from a friend that this gentleman had lectured on "The Gael as he is to-day" (I give, not the title, but the subject of his lecture), and though I had merely the vaguest report of it, I can well believe, as my correspondent said, that the lecturer betrayed not only a radical ignorance of the actual manners, customs, and thought, the outward and inward life of the Gael of to-day, but constantly misapprehended and misinterpreted what little he had been able to gather. We have an old saying that it takes three years to get into a man's mind, and twice three years to get to what is secret in a man's mind, and thrice three years to get a man to speak of the secret things that are in his mind.
This, then, is one of the obvious reasons why it is so difficult for those of foreign speech and manners and ways of thought and life to reach into the true life of the Gael, by whom, of course, I mean not the Anglicised or Scoticised persons of Highland parentage who live in Glasgow or in Edinburgh, for example, but the remoter Gael who speaks his ancient tongue, and to a great extent lives the life lived by his ancestors for many generations.
Of the relatively small number capable of this sympathetic understanding and this adequate interpretation only for a very few it is possible to do anything even approximating the great service done by Mr. Alexander Carmichael. Dr. George Henderson, for instance, a Gaelic-speaking Gael and one of the most learned Celtic students living, is fitted for the congenial work; but his labours in Oxford and elsewhere render a task of the kind practically impossible. Even the greatest enthusiast, a clansman, cannot get into the life of the people in the sense of intimate comradeship in a few holiday weeks; and, as all of us who are of the north know, there are interclass or local suspicions and jealousies which, superficial and removable as they commonly are, yet perforce have to be considered. Indeed, I know of only one man who can do for us anything equivalent to the great task which Mr. Alexander Carmichael has now triumphantly brought to the long-desired end. I allude to Father Allan Macdonald, of Eriskay in South Uist, a priest who is not only beloved of his people, and truly a father to them, but is an enthusiast in Gaelic lore and literature, who in his many years ministration has collected what, if ever translated, will be almost as invaluable a treasure-trove as these "Ortha nan Gaidheal," the Carmina Gadelica of Mr. Carmichael.
Incidentally may I be excused the personality and say with what eagerness; those of us who love and cherish the beautiful oral literature and legendary lore and folk-songs of the Gael wish that there were more priests and ministers like Father Allan Macdonald,and the late Gregorson Campbell of Tirce? I do not think any one who has not lived intimately in the Highlands can realise the extent to which the blight of Calvinism has fallen upon the people, clouding the spirit, stultifying the mind, taking away all joyousness and light-hearted gaiety, laying a ban upon music even, upon songs, making laughter as rare as a clansman landlord, causing a sad gloom as common as a ruined croft. And even where matters are no longer so bitter as they were a generation ago, even where to-day a certain half-hearted turning towards a truer conception of human life is evident, it is too late--too late for the recovery of that which is gone away upon the wind.
But as this is a matter on which (when I have written to a like effect) I have been held unjustifiably prejudiced either from the Gaelic or sectarian standpoint or both, I will give without comment an episode incidentally cited by Mr. Carmichael in his Introduction, and give it with the more propriety as it will reveal to many readers the splendid native material which has been so piteously perverted.During my quest I went into a house near Ness. The house was clean and comfortable, if plain and unpretending, most things in it being home-made. There were three girls in the house, young, comely, and shy, and four women, middle-aged handsome, and picturesque in their homespun gowns and highcrowned mutches. Three of the women had been to the moorland pastures with their cattle, and had turned in here to rest on their way home.
"Hail to the house and the household," said I greeting the inmates in the salutation of our fathers.
"Hail to you, kindly stranger," replied the house wife. "Come forward and take this seat. If it be not ill-mannered may we ask whence you have come this day? You are tired and travel-stained, and probably hungry?" "I have come from Gress," I said, "round by Tolasta to the south and Tolasta to the north, taking a look at the ruins of the Church of St. Aula at Gress, and at the ruins of the fort of Dunothail, and then across the moorland." "May the Possessor keep you in His Own keeping, good man. You left early and have travelled far, and must be hungry."
With this the woman raised her eyes towards her daughters, standing demurely silent and motionless as Greek statues in the background. In a moment the three fair girls became active and animated. One ran to the stack and brought in an armful of hard, black peats; another ran to the well and brought in a pail of clear spring water, while a third quickly spread a cloth, white as snow, upon the table in the inner room. The three neighbours rose to leave, and I rose to do the same. "Where are you going, good man?" asked the housewife in injured surprise, moving between me and the door. "You must not go till you eat a bit and drink a sip. That indeed would be a reproach to us that we would not soon get over. These slips of lassies and I would not hear the end of it from the men at the sea, were we to allow a wayfarer to go from our door hungry, thirsty, and weary. No! no! you must not go till you eat a bite. Food will be ready presently, and in the meantime you will bathe your feet and dry your stockings, which are wet after coming through the marshes of the moorland."
Then the woman went down upon her knees, and washed and dried the feet of the stranger as gently and tenderly as a mother would those of her child. "We have no stockings to suit the kilt," said the woman, in a tone of evident regret, "but here's a pair of stockings of the houseman's which he has never had on, and perhaps you would put them on till your own are dry."
One of the girls had already washed out my stockings, and they were presently drying before the bright fire on the middle of the floor. I deprecated all this trouble, but to no purpose. In an incredibly short time I was asked to go "ben" and break bread.
Through the pressure of the housewife and of Myself the other three women had resumed their seats, uneasily, it is true; but immediately before food was announced the three women rose together and quietly walked away, no urging detaining them.
The table was laden with wholesome food sufficient for several persons. There were fried herrings and boiled turbot fresh from the sea, and eggs fresh from the yard. There were fresh butter and salt butter, wheaten scones, barley bannocks, and oat cakes, with excellent tea and cream. The woman apologised that she had no "aran coinnich" (moss bread--that is, loaf bread) and no biscuits, they being simple crofter people far away from the big town [Stornoway].
"This," said I, taking my seat, "looks like the table for a 'reiteach' (betrothal) rather than for one man. Have you betrothals in Lews?" I asked, turning my eyes towards the other room where we had left the three comely maidens. "Oh, indeed yes, the Lews people are very good at marrying, Foolish young creatures, they often marry before they know their responsibilities or realise their difficulties," and her eyes followed mine in the direction of her own young daughters. "I suppose there is much fun and rejoicing at your marriages--music, dancing, singing, and merry-makings of many kinds?" "Oh, indeed, no; our weddings are now quiet and becoming, not the foolish things they were in my young days. In my memory weddings were great events, with singing and piping, dancing and amusements all night through, and generally for two or three nights in succession. Indeed, the feast of the "bord breid" (kertch table) was almost as great as the feast of the marriage table, all the young men and maidens struggling to get it. On the morning after the marriage the mother of the bride, and, failing her, the mother of the bridegroom, placed the "bried tri chearnach" (three-cornered kertch) on the head of the bride before she rose from her bed. And the mother did this ("an ainm na Tri Beannaichte" (in the name of the Sacred Three), under whose guidance the young wife was to walk. Then the bride arose and the maidens dressed her, and the bards sang songs to her, and recited "rannagail mhora" (great rigmaroles), and there was much rejoicing and merry-making all day long and all night through. "Gu dearbh mar a b'e fleagh na bord breid a b'fhearr, cha'ne hearr bu mheasa" (indeed, if the feast of the kertch table was not better it was not a whit worse).
"There were many sad things done then, for those were the days of foolish doings and foolish people. Perhaps, on the day of the Lord, when they came out of church--indeed, if they went into church--the young men would go to throw the stone, or to toss the caber, or to play shinty, or to run races, or to race horses on the strand, the young maidens looking on the while, ay, and the old men and women." "And you have no music, no singing, no dancing now at your marriages?" "May the Possessor keep you! I see that you are a stranger to Lews, or you would not ask such a question," the woman exclaimed, with grief and surprise in her tone. "It is long since we abandoned those foolish ways in Ness, and, indeed, throughout Lews. In my young days there was hardly a house in Ness in which there was not one or two or three who could play the pipe or the fiddle or the trump. And I have heard it said there were men, and women too, who could play things they called harps, and lyres, and bellow-pipes, but I do not know what those things were." "And why were those discontinued?" " A blessed change came over the place and the people," the woman replied in earnestness, "and the good men and the good ministers who arose did away with the songs and the stories, the dancing and the music, the sports and the games, that were perverting the minds and ruining the souls of the people, leading them to folly and stumbling." "But how did the people themselves come to discard their sports and pastimes?" "Oh, the good ministers and the good elders preached against them, and went among the people, and besought them to forsake their follies and return to wisdom. They made the people break their pipes and fiddles. If there were foolish men here and there who demurred the good minister and the good elders themselves broke and burnt their instruments, saying:
"'Is fearr an teine beag a gharas la beag na sithe
Na'n teine mor a loisgeas la mor na feirge'
(Better is the small fire that warms on the little day of peace
Than the big fire that burns on the great day of wrath.)
The people have forsaken their follies and their Sabbath-breaking, and there is no pipe, no fiddle here now," said the woman, in evident satisfaction. "And what have you now instead of the racing, the stone-throwing, and the caber-tossing, the song, the pipe, and the dance?" "Oh, we have now the blessed Bible preached and explained to us faithfully and earnestly, if we sinful people would only walk in the right path and use our opportunities."
"But what have you at your weddings? How do you pass the time?"
"Oh, the carles are on one side of the house, talking of their crops and,their nowt, and mayhap of the days when they were young and when things were different: and the young men are on the other side of the house, talking about boats, and sailing, and militia, and naval reserve, perhaps of their own strength, and of many foolish matters besides."
"And the girls, what are they doing?" "Oh, they, silly things, are in the 'culaist' (back-house), perhaps trying to croon over some foolish song under their breath, perhaps trying to amble through some awkward steps of dancing on the points of their toes; or, shame to tell, perhaps speaking of what dress this or that girl had on at this or that marriage, or, worse still, what hat this girl or that had on the Day of the Lord, perhaps even on the day of the Holy Communion, showing that their minds were on the vain things of the world instead of on the wise things of salvation."
"But why are the girls in the 'culaist'? What do they fear?" "May the Good Being keep you, good man. They are in the 'culaist' for concealment, and the fear of their life and of their death upon them that they may be heard or seen should the good elder happen to be passing the way." "And should he what then?" "Oh, the elder will tell the minister, and the good minister will scold them from the pulpit, mentioning the girls by name. But the girls have a blanket on the door and another blanket on the window to deafen the sounds and to obscure the light."
"Do the young maidens allow the young men to join them in the 'culaist'?" "Indeed, truth to tell, the maidens would be glad enough to admit the young men were it not the fear of exposure. But the young men are so loud of voice and heavy of foot, and make so much noise, that they would betray the retreat of the girls, who would get rebuked, while the young men would escape. The girls would then be ashamed and cast down, and would not lift a head for a year and a day after their well deserved scolding. They suffer most, for, sad to say, the young men are becoming less afraid of being admonished than they used to be."
"And do the people have spirits at their marriages?" "Oh yes; the minister is not so hard upon them at all. He does not interfere with them in that way unless they take too much and talk loudly and quarrel. Then he is grieved and angry, and scolds them severely. Occasionally, indeed, the carles have a nice 'frogan' (liveliness) upon them, and are very happy together. But, oh, they never quarrel nor fight, nor get angry with one another. They are always nice to one another and civil to all around them."
"Perhaps were the minister to allow the people less drink and more music and dancing and merrymaking they would enjoy it as much. I am sure the young girls would sing better, and dance better, with the help of the young men. And the young men themselves would be less loud of voice and less heavy of heel among the maidens. Perhaps the happiness of the old people too would be none the less real nor less lasting at seeing the joyousness of the young people."
To this the woman promptly and loyally replied: "The man of the Lord is untiring in work and unfailing in example for our good, and in guiding us to our heavenly home, constantly reminding us of the littleness of time and the greatness of eternity, and he knows best, and we must do our best to follow his counsel and to imitate his example."Mr. Carmichael speaks also of a famous violin-player, who died a few years ago in the island of Eigg, a good man celebrated for his knowledge of old-world airs and for his oldstyle playing. One day at divine service a preacher denounced him, saying, "Tha thu shios an sin cul na comhla," etc. (in effect, "You that are down there behind the door, miserable grey-haired man with that old fiddle beside you, that you play with a cold hand without and the devil's fire in your heart"). After that public admonition the old man's family pressed him to play no more of his sinful airs and old songs and to burn his fiddle. In vain this last minstrel pleaded that his violin was a valuable one, as indeed it was, and famed for its tone and as the handiwork of a pupil of Stradivarius. At last he was forced to part with it to a passing pedlar for a few shillings. "It was not the wretched thing that was got for it," he exclaimed afterwards, that grieved my heart so sorely, but the parting with it! the parting with it! . . . and I to that gave the best cow in my father's fold for it when I was young." The voice of the old man faltered, and tears ran down his face. He was never again seen to smile.
One other instance and I have done. A lady, still youthful, related to Mr. Carmichael what follows: "When we came to Islay I was sent to the parish school to obtain a proper grounding in arithmetic. I was charmed with the schoolgirls and their Gaelic songs. But the schoolmaster (a Lowlander) denounced Gaelic speech and Gaelic songs. On getting out of school one evening the girls resumed a song they had been singing the previous evening. The schoolmaster heard us, however, and called us back. He punished us till the blood trickled from our fingers, although we were big girls with the dawn of womanhood upon us. The thought of that scene thrills me with indignation."
I think the thought of that scene, and of a crowd of incidents of a kindred nature, must. fill with bitter resentment and indignation every man and woman who has a drop of Gaelic blood in his or in her veins, all men and women who have any ancestral pride, any love for the things of beauty and honourthat their fathers and mothers loved and their forebears for generations loved.
For forty years Mr. Carmichael collected a vast mass of oral lore, written down from the recital of men and women throughout the Highlands and Islands, from Arran ito Caithness, from Perth to St. Kilda, but the greater part in the outer Hebrides. The present collection, long announced as “r agus “b (Gold and Dross), and now more adequately and fitly called Carmina Gadelica, is a selection from this mass. Ortha nan Gaidheal, runs the Gaelic title; and the setting forth, "Urnan agus Ubagan, le solus air facla gnatha agus cleachdana a chaidh air chul crussaichte bho bhialachas feadh Gaidhealtachd na H-Alba: agus tionndaichte bho Ghaidhlig gu Beurla, le Alastair Macgillemhicheil," which, being interpreted, means in effect that this collection of ancient hymns and incantations, and records of old rites and old customs, has been gathered in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (the Gaeldom of Alba . . . Gaidhealtachd na H-Alba) and translated from Gaelic into English by Alexander Carmichael. Of the people who to this day, at the winter ceilidh or in the boats on summer nights, still repeat the legendary tales, Mr. Carmichael gives several interesting sketches. In every crofting townland there are several story-tellers who recite the oral lore of their predecessors. These story-tellers of the Highlands, says Mr. Carmichael, "are as varied in their subjects as are literary men, and women elsewhere: one is a historian, narrating events simply and concisely ; another is a historian with a bias, colouring his narrative according to his leanings. One is an inventor, building fiction upon fact, mingling his materials, and investing the whole with the charm of novelty and the halo of romance. Another is a reciter of heroic poems and ballads, bringing the different characters before the mind as clearly as the sculptor brings the figure before the eye. One gives the songs of the chief poets, with interesting accounts of their authors, while another, generally a woman, sings to weird airs, beautiful old songs, some of them Arthurian. There are various other narrators, singers, and speakers, but I have never heard aught that should not be said nor sung."
There is no people in the world so well bred in this beautiful reticence as the Gaelic peasant. He has an innate refinement which makes him unique among the races of the north. It is this people which is now but a .remnant, and soon will be a memory.
And what stores of old wisdom and legend and song they had as their common heritage, that a few (alas a small and ever diminishing few!) still have. Here are two types in instance, Hector Macisaac and his wife. This old couple lived alone (their daughter having gone into service to help her parents) in a turf-walled hut thatched with reeds; and their life, like that of so many of the crofters, was one of utmost penury and often of actual privation. Mr. Carmichael knew both well: from the woman he heard many secular runes, sacred hymns, and fairy songs; from the husband numerous heroic tales, poems, and ballads. Indeed so many were the stories and poems which the old islander recited at different times that Mr. Carmichael says they would fill several volumes; and many books, he adds, could have been filled with the stories and poems recited by two others alone, out of the many score of like-gifted islanders he knew--an old blind cottar, Hector Macleod of Lianacuithe, in South Uist, and another old cottar, Roderick Macneill of Miunghlaidh, in Barra. Yet neither of them told more than a small part of what he knew. None of the three men knew any letters, nor any language but Gaelic, nor had ever been out of his native island. All expressed regret in well-chosen words that they had not a better place in which to receive their visitors (Mr. Carmichael and Campbell of Islay), and all thanked them in polite terms for coming to see them and for taking an interest in their decried and derided old lore. All were in all things courteous.
Some idea of the way in which the continuity of oral lore is maintained is given by Mr. Carmichael in an account such as that of his friend Kenneth Morrison, an old, blind, and poor man of Trithion, in Skye. He knew many stories and poems, but mentioned the names of many old men in the extensive but now desolate parish of Minnlinis who had been famous story-tellers in his boyhood--men who had been born in the first decade of the century. Several of these, he said, could recite stories and poems during many nights in succession, some of the tales requiring several nights to relate. Kenneth repeated fragments of many of these, identical with poems and stories or with parts of poems and stories published by Macpherson, Smith, the Stewarts, the MacCallums, the Campbells, and others.
Of the treasure of old songs, hymns, and folk-lore of incalculable interest brought together in these two beautiful volumes, the greater number have been rescued from oblivion in the islands and among the Roman Catholic population. Broadly speaking, the northern Hebrides are Protestant, the southern Catholic. At the same time, it should be added, many of these treasure-trove have been equally common on the mainland, and a large proportion among Protestants also. Nor was the collector content with a single version only. From one to ten have been taken down, differing more or less; and it must often have been no easy matter to select. In some instances, Mr. Carmichael has given variants. Even this selection, however, could not be used as it stood, and the collector adds that several poems and many notes are wholly withheld, while a few of the poems and all the notes have been abbreviated.
The collection comprises Achaine (Invocations, Blessings, and Prayers); Aimsire (Hymns of the Seasons); Oibre (Songs and Hymns of Labour); and, in the second volume, Uibe (Incantations, Charms, Spells) and Measgain (Miscellaneous).
Every one of these Achaine, Aimsire, and Oibre has a singular beauty of thought and generally of expression also, and often that beauty is made more excellent for us by the note that goes with the rann, achanaidh, or urnuigh (rune, invocation, or blessing). Take, for example, the "Rann Romh Urnuigh," or Rune before Prayer. "Old people in the isles sing this or some other short hymn before prayer. Sometimes the hymn and the prayer are intoned in low, tremulous, unmeasured cadences, like the moving and moaning, the soughing and the sighing of the ever murmuring sea on their own wild sbores. They generally retire, perhaps to an outhouse, to the lee of a knoll, or to the shelter of a dell, that they may not be seen or heard of men. I have known men and women of eighty, ninety, and a hundred years of age continue the practice of their lives in going from one to two miles to the seashore to join their voices in the voicing of the waves and their praises with the praises of the ceaseless sea."
This " Rune before Prayer " is as follows in English:
I am bending my knee
In the eye of the Father who created me,
In the eye of the Son who purchased me,
In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me,
In friendship and affection.
Through Thine own Anointed One, O God,
Bestow upon us fulness in our need,
Love towards God,
The affection of God,
The smile of God,
The wisdom of God,
The grace of God,
The fear of God,
And the will of God,
To do on the world of the Three
As angels and saints
Do in heaven.
Each shade and light,
Each day and night,
Each time in kindness.
Give Thou us Thy Spirit.
Can we imagine an English peasant or a peasant of any other country repeating nightly, alone and solemnly, this poem or one of the hundreds like it; or an aged English or any other peasant going habitually from one to two miles to the seashore "to join his voice with the voicings of the waves and his praises with the praises of the ceaseless sea"?
The very names of many of these rescued songs and hymns are beautiful. Some of the songs are very ancient, with their meanings obscure or lost now, as Duan na Mathairn.
Thou King of the moon.
Thou King of the sun,
Thou King of the planets,
Thou King of the stars,
Thou King of the globe,
Thou King of the sky,
Oh! lively thy countenance,
Thou beauteous Beam.
Two loops of silk
Down by thy limbs,
And a handful
Out of every stock of them.
Very likely this is but a fragment, remembered perhaps with some dim recollection of when and how it should be said, and to what end. "The Guiding Light of Eternity," "The Light'ner of the Stars," "The Soul Plaint," the several Sleep Prayers and Resting Blessings and Consecrations of Peace and "The Soul Peace," are among the most beautiful names. Sometimes, in a relatively modern poem some old-world wisdom will suddenly appear, as in this quatrain in a singular "Ora Boisilidh," or Bathing Prayer:
A chuid nach fas 's a chumhanaich,
Gum fas 's an dubha-thrath;
A chuid nach fas 's an oidhche dhiot.
Air dhruim a mheadhon la.
(The part of thee that does not grow at dawn, may it grow -at eventide; the part of thee that does noi grow at night,may it grow at ridge of middle-day.)
Sometimes too a peculiarly Celtic symbolism occurs even in the most unlikely place, as in an "Invocation for Justice" for an intending litigant, where the wronged man says he will go forth in the likeness of a deer, in likeness of a horse, in likeness of a serpent, and at last as a king, meaning that he will be wary, strong, wise, and dignified.
A beautiful and touching poem called Eosai Bu Choir a Mholadh (Jesu, who ought to be praised) is made the more wonderful for us by the knowledge that it was composed by a poor illiterate woman of Harris, and a leper. She had to leave the upland community and dwell alone on a desolate tract of seashore, and live on herbs and shell-fish. After a time she became cured, and made this touching song, remembered with affection to this day. In some of the good-wishing poems there are not only lovely lines but others which enshrine old names and legendary associations once familiar to the ancient Gael of a now forgotten day. Thus the Ora train Buadh, or Invocation of the Graces, opens in these lines:
I bathe thy palms
In showers of wine,
In the lustral fire,
In the seven elements,
In the juice of rasps,
In the milk of honey,
And I place the nine pure choice graces
In thy fair dear face,
The grace of form,
The grace of voice,
The grace of fortune,
The grace of goodness,
The grace of wisdom,
The grace of charity,
The grace of maidenliness,
The grace of whole-souled loveliness,
The grace of goodly speech.
This ora is one of the longest poems in Mr. Carmichael's collection. In it is one of those survivals to which I have alluded, as in the verse beginning, "Is tu gleus na Mnatha Sithe":
Thine is the skill of the Fairy Woman,
Thine is the virtue of Bride (Bridget) the calm,
Thine is the faith of Mary the mild,
Thine is the tact of the woman of Greece,
Thine is the beauty of Emer the lovely,
Thine is the tenderness of Darthula delightful,
Thine is the courage of Maebh the strong,
Thine is the charm of Honey-Mouth.
How typically Gaelic this is, with its mixture of Christian and old Celtic and pagan lore, the Virgin Mary and St. Bride Muime Chriosd (Christ's Foster-Mother) alternating with the Fairy Woman and with some dim legend of Helen of Troy,* and she again with the fair wife of Cuchulain, the great champion of Gaeldom, and with DeirdrÍ (Darthula--Deardhuil--Dearshul as in this Gaelic text), the Helen of the Gael,
*At least I take it that Is tu gniomh Na mnatha Greuig is an allusion to Helen.
and with Maeve, the Dark Queen whose name and personality loom so vast and terrible in ancient Gaelic history, and "Honey-Mouth" (Binne-bheul), whom I take to be Angus, the God of Love.
Of a singular and touching beauty also is the strange "farewell" or death poem called An Treoraich Anama, The Soul-Leading--or sometimes Fois Anama, Soul Peace. This is slowly intoned over the dying person by some dear and intimate friend, and all present join in his strain. During the prayer, the anama charu, or soul friend, makes the sign of the cross with the right thumb over the lips of the dying. A strange scene, truly, and fit for a Gaelic Rembrandt, that of the smoke-begrimed turfcottage of a poor crofter, with the soul friend and others near and dear intoning this invocation to "strong Michael, high king of the angels," and the dying man with his feet already abhuinn dubh a bhais (in the black river of death), and his soul about to go on its long wayfaring across the beanntaibh na bithbhuantachd (the mountains of eternity).
The whole second section consisting of the Aimsire, or Seasons Chants, is fascinating and valuable to an extraordinary degree, and in no part of the two volumes is there such a wealth of valuable commentary, particularly in the long sections devoted to St. Michael and to Sloinntireachd Bhride, the genealogy of St. Bride, the Mary of the Gael, the beloved Muime Chriosd, Christ's foster-mother, the dearest of all the great dead to the heart of every true Gael. Michael is the Poseidon of the Gael, is indeed no other than Manannan, perhaps the greatest of the Celtic gods. From Mounts St. Michael in Brittany and in Cornwall to Ard-Micheil in far North Uist there were temples to his honour, and to-day the scattered names keep him in remembrance, and many places have remains. His legendary tomb, though Mr. Carmichael does not allude to this, is at Kilmicheil, in the Kyles of Bute; but perhaps this was not the brian Micheil, the god, but some good saint from Columba's brotherhood on Iona. To this day on the 29th of September the Feast of St. Michael is still celebrated in the Hebrides, and perhaps elsewhere; but the ceremonies are much curtailed, and are rapidly being ignored and forgotten. In the invaluable pages which Mr. Carmichael has devoted to "Michael nam Buadh" and to St. Bride there is a treasure of legendary lore and beauty, a profoundly significant record of now forgotten customs.
In lovely and primitive beauty the third section, that of the Oibre, or Chants of Labour, stands unique. These kindling blessings and smooring-of-the-peats blessings, these herding croons and milking croones, these shepherd songs and reaping chants, these beautiful lamb-marking chants and quaint waulking or warping songs and loom blessings, these hunting blessings and sea prayers, and solemn ocean blessing, for sure there is not in any country in the world so beautiful a heritage.
What would the sportsman of to-day think, of the young Gaelic huntsman, who was consecrated before he began his experiences? Oil was put on his head, a bow placed in his hand, and he was required to stand with bare feet on the bare grassless ground, and to take a solemn oath as to what not to do --not to kill a bird sitting, nor a beast lying down, nor the mother of a brood, nor the swimming duck (i.e. because of her young), and so forth.
The white swan of the sweet gurgle,
The speckled dun of the brown tuft
are to be held free. The Beannachadh Seilgends quaintly with--
[And with you for guidance be]
The fairy swan of Bride of flocks,
The fairy duck of Mary of peace.
Fascinating as is the second volume its appeal is to the folklorist primarily. Here are scores of strange and often in their inconsequence bewildering examples of the eolas and sian, the charm or spell. These range from the beautifuil "Charm of the Lasting Life" to various spells of the evil eye and to mysterious and weird maledictions. In the Miscellaneous section are some singular poems, notably Bantighearna Bhinn, the Melodious Lady-Lord, and the Duan nan Daol, or Poem of the Beetle, with interesting notes by the translator dealing with this ancient and peculiar Christian superstition. The great collection ends with a strange and apt little song, a fragment of a sea chant perhaps.
Mar a bha, As it was,
Mar a tha, As it is,
Mar a bhitheas As it shall be
Gu brath. Evermore.
Ri tragdh With the ebb,
'S ri lionadh. With the flow.
There is an appendix of the names of the reciters to whom Mr. Carmichael was indebted, their occupation, place of residence, and, district. Many of his informants were women--as Ciorsdai Macleod, who had much lore about the sluagh, the fairy hosts, and the second sight; or Morag Mackay, who had her isolated cot among the green, grassy mounds of the ruined nunnery on the lovely little island of Heisgeir-nan-Cailleach; or Oighrig Maccriomthain (Macrimmon), "who had many beautiful songs"; or Isebeal Chisholm, a wandering tinker of North Uist, who knew innumerable incantations and incantation formulae; or Fionnaghal Macleod, of Ciachanreamhar, in South Uist, "who was full of occult lore and old beliefs of many kinds,"
There was another woman, Mary Macrae of Harris, from whom Mr. Carmichael learned much, including the beautiful prayer and invocation, Dia Liom A Laighe, "God with me lying down," given in vol. i. In her youth, this woman came to the Hebrides from Kintail with her father, Alexander, whose mother was one of the celebrated ten daughters of Macleod of Rarasay, mentioned by Dr. Johnson and Boswell. Let me finish this article by quoting what Mr. Carmichael has to say of her, for indeed I think she also is a type of the half forlorn and weird, half wildly gay and young spirit of her ancient, disappearing race, ever ready to dance to its own shadow if nothing else be available, yet so sad with a sadness that must live and pass in silence.She often walked with companions, after the work of the day was done, distances of ten and fifteen miles to a dance, and after dancing all night walked back again to the work of the morning fresh and vigorous as if nothing unusual had occurred. She was a faithful servant and an admirable worker, and danced at her leisure and carolled at her work like "Fosgay Mhoire," our Lady's lark, above her. The people of Harris had been greatly given to old lore and to the old ways of their fathers, reciting and singing and dancing and merry-making; but a reaction occurred, and Mary Macrae's old-world ways were adjured and condemned. But Mary Macrae heeded not, and went on in her own way, singing her songs, and ballads, intoning her hymns and incantations, and chanting her own "port-a-bial" (mouth-music), and dancing to her own shadow when nothing better was available. Truly Mary Macrae stands for her people, who, poor and ignored remnant as they are, heed little the loud ways of a world that is not for them, but go their own way, singing their songs and ballads, intoning hymns or incantations, chanting their own wild, sea-smitten music, and dancing to their own shadow, to the shadow of their ancestral thought and dream, whether in blithe waywardness or in an unforgetting sorrow.
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