Tag Archives: scotland

Maclachlan and the Glaistig

Although the title of this tale refers to a glaistig, Maclachlan himself addresses her as a Chailleach, and the confusion between the two beings is common. This is a fascinating tale in some respects, clearly referencing the tradition of Fionn and how he came to possess his powers, as well as the common belief that such powers are gifted to people by the daoine sìth or other kinds of Otherworldly figures like the Cailleach.


The first of the MacLachlans of Ardnamurchan lived in Glenahurich. In his herd of horses he had a fine grey mare, whose first foal he wished to keep. But the Glastig frequenting the rocky sides of a neighbouring ravine or waterfall knew this; and because she hated him as an intruder in the place, she resolved to disappoint him.

As soon as the foal was born, she took it and thrust it into a hole opening over an underground stream, in which it was drowned. On the following day MacLachlan found the foal dead in the hole, but thought that it had fallen in accidentally. Next year the same thing happened, the second foal being found dead in the same hole, and in the same underground stream. His suspicion was now aroused, and so he resolved to watch the mare next summer at foaling time.

When the season arrived, he went one day to the hill to see the mare; but the Glastig was there before him, and was busy pushing the third foal through the hole into the stream underneath. He knew well how to defend himself from fairy influence; and, therefore, he seized the Glastig in his arms, and with a great effort succeeded at last in throwing her down.

“Your death is over you, Carlin,” said he, as he stood over her. ” My ransom is mine own,” she replied. “What ransom wilt thou give me?” said he.

“The vision of the two worlds to thyself and prosperity to thee and to thy descendants after thee.” On these terms he let her go.

Some time after, being in the Braes of Lochaber, he took his rod, and went to the river Spean to fish. With the first cast he hooked a fine fish, which he landed on the river bank. Being hungry, he kindled a fire at the river side, and placed the fish upon it.

Soon afterwards he happened to press with his finger a blister which rose on the upperside of the fish. The heat burnt his finger so badly that he put it into his mouth to cool. No sooner had he done this than he obtained the vision of the two worlds, or, in other words, the second sight. The first part of the Glastig’s promise was then fulfilled, and it is said that the other part was fulfilled afterwards.


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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


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A Banshee Story

The Caointeach was a Banshee. She followed the Clan MacKay and other clans in the Rhinns of Islay. When a death was going to happen in one of these clans, she would come to the sick man’s house with a green shawl about her shoulders, and give his family warning by raising a sad wail outside the door. As soon as the sick man’s friends heard her voice, they lost all hope of his getting better. They had heard the Caointeach lamenting, and that was proof enough to them” that his end was at hand.

The Caointeach has ceased to give warning to the people of the Rhinns. She was last heard at a house in that district many years ago.

A sick man was then on his death-bed, and his friends attending him. It was winter, and the night was wet and cold, with rain and wind. She stood at the wind-ward door of the house; and there she raised a low, melancholy wail. The family heard her mourning; and one of them so pitied her that he went out at the leeward door, and left her an old plaid on a seat at the side of the door. He then returned within, and cried to her: “Come to the sheltered side, poor woman; and cover yourself with a piece of my plaid.” In an instant the lamenting ceased; and from that time to this the Caointeach has not been seen or heard in the Rhinns. 



James MacDougall, Folktales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English, 1910, p215.


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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


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There’s something about selkies that captures the imagination, and there are many modern reworkings and retellings of the typical selkie tale – often told as a tragedy where the human lover pines away ever more once the selkie lover inevitably finds their skin and returns to the sea. Personally I’m totally on the selkie’s side on this; being kidnapped and forced to bear children against your will ain’t so romantic…Nonetheless, the lore is interesting, and the tales do have a tragic duty to them. This following tale was collected in Orkney.

In Orkney, selkie was the popular name for seal. Seals were popularly divided into two classes; namely, first, the common seal, here called tang fish, which had no power to assume the human form. These, like other inhabitants of the sea, were called fish. To the other class belonged all seals larger in size than the Phoca vitulina; such as the great seal, rough seal, Greenland seal, crested seal, and gray seal, — all of which have been seen in Orkney waters. And it was this class of larger seals that were called “selkie folk,” because they had the power of assuming the human form. The believers in this myth were never at a loss to account for its existence; but the causes assigned for the origin of this amphibious human race, so far as known to me, must have been imagined since the introduction of Christianity. Some say the selkie folk were fallen angels, who, for a more trivial fault than that of those consigned to the infernal regions, were condemned to their present state. Others held that the selkie folk were human beings, who, for some grave misdemeanour were condemned to assume the seal’s form, and to live in the sea, and were yet allowed to take human form and shape when on dry land. “And who kens,” said one of my old gossips, “but they’ll maybe some day get leave to come back tae their auld state.”

It was believed that males among the selkie folk sometimes held secret and illicit intercourse with females of the human race. Sometimes these marine gallants became the paramours of married women. The ballad which I hope later on to give is an instance of such connection. And however ungainly the appearance of these gentlemen when in the sea, on assuming human shape they became in form fair, attractive, and in manner winning; and by their seductive powers the female heart seems to have been easily conquered. And if the selkie gentlemen were attractive in the eyes of earth-born women, the selkie females were no less charming in the estimation of men.

Indeed, to see a bevy of these lovely creatures, their seal skins doffed, disporting themselves on a sea-side rock, was enough to fire with admiration the coldest heart.

Let it be noted that the selkie nymphs always appear in groups; they never sit alone combing their hair like the mermaid; and, unlike her, are not represented as wearing long golden hair. And, unlike the mermaid, the selkie folk were never represented as dwelling in “Finfolk-a-heem.”

It was only at certain periods and conditions of the tide in which the seals had power to assume the human
shape. But these periods were a subject of dispute among my oral authorities.

Versions of the story I am now to tell were at one time rife in every Orkney island; and some of them have already appeared in print. The man who told me this tale was a native of North Ronaldshay, was well read in
English literature, and so familiar with Shakespeare that any six lines of that author you quoted he would tell you from what play your quotation was taken. Though above superstitious belief in, he possessed an inexhaustible store of old-world tales. He often assisted me in clearing up some difficulty in Orkney folk-lore.

The goodman of Wastness was well-to-do, had his farm well-stocked, and was a good-looking and well-favoured man. And though many braw lasses in the island had set their caps at him, he was not to be caught. So the young lasses began to treat him with contempt, regarding him as an old young man who was deliberately committing the unpardonable sin of celibacy. He did not trouble his head much about the lasses, and when urged by his friends to take a wife, he said, “Women were like many another thing in this weary world, only sent for a trial to man; and I have trials enouch without being tried by a wife.” “If that ould fool Adam had not been bewitched by his wife, he might have been a happy man in the yard of Edin to this day.” The old wife of Longer, who heard him make this speech, said to him, “Take doo heed de sell, doo’ll may be de sell bewitched some day.” “Ay,” quoth he, “that will be when doo walks dry shod frae the Alters o’ Seenie to dae Boar of Papa.”

Well, it happened one day that the goodman of Wastness was down on the ebb (that portion of the shore left
dry at low water), when he saw at a little distance a number of selkie folk on a flat rock. Some were lying
sunning themselves, while others jumped and played about in great glee. They were all naked, and had skins as white as his own. The rock on which they sported had deep water on its seaward side, and on its shore side a shallow pool. The goodman of Wastness crept unseen till he got to the edge of the shallow pool; he then rose and dashed through the pool to the rock on its other side. The alarmed selkie folk seized their seal skins, and, in mad haste, jumped into the sea. Quick as they were, the goodman was also quick, and he seized one of the skins belonging to an unfortunate damsel, who in terror of flight neglected to clutch it as she sprang into the water.

The selkie folk swam out a little distance, then turning, set up their heads and gazed at the goodman. He noticed that one of them had not the appearance of seals like the rest. He then took the captured skin under his arm, and made for home, but before he got out of the ebb, he heard a most doleful sound of weeping and lamentation behind him. He turned to see a fair woman following him. It was that one of the selkie folk whose seal skin he had taken. She was a pitiful sight; sobbing in bitter grief, holding out both hands in eager supplication, while the big tears followed each other down her fair face. And ever and anon she cried out, “O bonnie man! if there’s onie mercy i’ thee human breast, gae back me skin! I cinno’, cinno’, cinno’ live i’ the sea without it. I cinno’, cinno’, cinno’ bide among me ain folk without my ain seal skin. Oh, pity a peur distressed, forlorn lass, gin doo wad ever hope for mercy theesel’!” The goodman was not too soft-hearted, yet he could not help pitying her in her doleful plight. And with his pity came the softer passion of love. His heart that never loved women before was conquered by the sea-nymph’s beauty. So, after a good deal of higgling and plenty of love-making, he wrung from the sea-lass a reluctant consent to live with him as his wife. She chose this as the least of two evils. Without the skin she could not live in the sea, and he absolutely refused to give up the skin.

So the sea-lass went with the goodman and stayed with him for many days, being a thrifty, frugal, and
kindly goodwife.

She bore her goodman seven children, four boys and three lasses, and there were not bonnier lasses or statelier boys in all the isle. And though the goodwife of Wastness appeared happy, and was sometimes merry, yet there seemed at times to be a weight on her heart; and many a long longing look did she fix on the sea. She taught her bairns many a strange song, that nobody on earth ever heard before. Albeit she was a thing of the sea, yet the goodman led a happy life with her.

Now it chanced, one fine day, that the goodman of Wastness and his three eldest sons were off in his boat to the fishing. Then the goodwife sent three of the other children to the ebb to gather limpits and wilks. The youngest lass had to stay at home, for she had a beelan foot. The goodwife then began, under the pretence of house-cleaning, a determined search for her long-lost skin. She searched up, and she searched down; she searched but, and she searched ben; she searched out, and she searched in, but never a skin could she find, while the sun wore to the west. The youngest lass sat in a stool with her sore foot on a cringlo. She says to her mother, “Mam, what aredoo leukan for?” “O bairn, deu no tell,” said her mother, ”but I’m leukan for a bonnie skin, tae mak a rivlin that wad ceur thee sare fit.” Says the lass, “May be I ken whar hid is. Ae day, whin ye war a’ oot, an’ ded tought I war sleepan i’ the bed, he teuk a bonnie skin doon; he gloured at it a peerie minute, dan folded hid and led hid up under dae aisins abeun dae bed.” (Under the aisins — space left by slope of roof over wall-head when not beam-filled.)

When her mother heard this she rushed to the place, and pulled out her long-concealed skin. “Fareweel, peerie buddo!” (a term of endearment), said she to the child, and ran out. She rushed to the shore, flung on her skin, and plunged into the sea with a wild cry of joy. A male of the selkie folk there met and greeted her with every token of delight. The goodman was rowing home, and saw them both from his boat. His lost wife uncovered her face, and thus she cried to him: “Goodman o’ Wastness, fareweel tae thee! I liked dee weel, doo war geud tae me; bit I lo’e better me man o’ the sea! “And that was the last he ever saw or heard of his bonnie wife. Often did he wander on the sea-shore, hoping to meet his lost love, but nevermore saw he her fair face.

George F. Black, County Folklore Volume 3: Orkney and Shetlands, 1903, 170-176.


Posted by on May 25, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Loch Awe (II)

This is just a short one, a different version of the origin story of Loch Awe at the hands of the Cailleach. In this tale, the Cailleach is the daughter of Griannan the sage – Griannan being a diminutive for the sun. Thus she is the daughter of the ‘little sun’ – as in the weaker winter sun, perhaps.

Bera the aged dwelt in the cave of the rock. She was the daughter of Griannan the sage. Long was the line of her fathers, and she was the last of her race. Large and fertile were her possessions; hers the beautiful vales below; and hers the cattle which roamed on the hills around. To Bera was committed the charge of that awful spring, which by the appointment of fate was to prove so fatal to the inheritance of her fathers, and her fathers race. Before the sun should withdraw his beams she was to cover the spring with a stone, on which sacred and mysterious characters were impressed. One night this was forgot by the unhappy Bera. Overcome with the heat and chase of the day, she was seized with sleep before the usual hour of rest. The confined waters of the mountain burst forth in the plain below, and covered the large expanse, now known by the lake of Awe. The third morning Bera awaked from her sleep. She went to remove the stone from the spring; but, behold! no stone was there. She looked to the inheritance of her tribe! She shrieked. The mountain shook from its base; her spirit retired to the ghosts of her fathers in their light airy halls.

Barbour, Unique Traditions Chiefly of the West and South of Scotland, 1886, p188.

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Posted by on February 21, 2012 in Uncategorized


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The Lismore Rat Incantation

Something slightly different now, a spell against rats (with a loose translation):

Aor Nan Eadan

Mìle marbhaisg ort, a radain!
A shlaideare nam badan arbhair;
Cha leòr leat sop ach an Iàn sguab dheth,
Dh-fàg thu ‘m bualadh dhomh nèo-tharbhach.
Rinn thu gradan de’m chuid eòrna,
A mhèirlich gur mòr do cháil dheth;
Na’n robh do cheann agam air innean,
‘Smise nach tilleadh mo lamh dhiot!

Cha d’fhàg thu mulan anus san iolainn
Nach do mhil thu ‘s nach do mhab thu,
Cha d’fhag thu poca ‘san t’sabhal,
Nach do tholl thu ‘s nach do shlaid thu;
Mo thruaighe mi aig àm ‘cuir coirce
An t’seann lairdhonn bi ‘bochd da-rireamh;
Mhic an Radain ‘s mòr do pheacadh,
Mar a chreach thu de gach nì mi!

Ach èirich a laochain a’s dean imric,
Imich th’ar a chaol gu séolta,
Thu fein ‘s do chuid daoine uile
Falbhaibh gu builleach mar chomhla’
Air Michail ‘sair Brìde mìn,
Eirich, imicli as mo thìr!

The Gaelic is uncommonly good, and there is a touch of humour in the whole that is very difficult to catch and reproduce in a translation ; but we have ventured upon the following version, which we warn the reader, in order to prevent future quarrel on the subject, is more of a paraphrase than a metaphrase:

The Rat-Expelling Incantation

A thousand ills befall thee, greedy rat!
Expertest thief that ever yet was born!
In barn and stack-yard, maugre trap and cat,
Sad is the state of all my stock of corn;
Nor does a handful serve thee, shameless thief,
Unblushing rogue, thou claimest the whole sheaf!

My barley thou hast millered into meal,
Chaff and small dust together close commingled;
Thou spoilest more than ever thou canst steal;
Hadst thou but any shame, thine ears had long since tingled;
I wish I had thy head upon a stithy,
I’d rap it with the biggest hammer in the smithy!

Nor corn in sheaf, nor barley snugly stacked,
Could serve thy turn; but all my garner’d grain,
In well-tilled sacks is next by thee attacked,
And all yspoiled, thou thief of fertile brain.
And all my sacks are nibbled too, and holed, —
A sight most aggravating to behold.

Alas, for all my seed corn in the spring!
Alas, for all thy keep, my good brown mare!
But take advice, and leave me, rat; and bring
All thy companions with thee; else beware
My malison shall fall withouten fail
On thee and thine, from whisker-tip to tail!

So rat be warned; away! across the Ferry,
And in some quarter new be sleek and merry;
By good St. Michael, and by chaste St. Bride,
I charge thee, leave me ere the morning tide!

(Exeunt Ratti tumultuously, and best foot foremost.)

Stewart, ‘Twixt Ben Nevis and Glencoe, 1885, p4-6.

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Posted by on February 21, 2012 in Uncategorized


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The Sharp-Witted Wife, and other tales

More on the Cailleach and her associations with creation, amongst other things. How could I resist a creation story that involves a goddess accidentally making a feature in the landscape by creating a furrow with her arse? 

She expressed an earnest desire to have a drink from the well of Creagaig, on the farm of Mannal, in Tiree. On the west margin of Loch Phuill there is a bare and stony rising in the ground, which becomes an island when the loch is flooded. It is called the ‘Roofless Walls of the Bera Wives’ (Totachun na Cailleacha Beura). On the south side of the Ross of Mull there is a natural enclosure in the rocks that goes by the same name. Here Bera folded her goats at night. In the daytime she drove them to pasture, where there is now no trace of land, beyond the dangerous Torrin Rocks, stretching away to the south-west of Iona (Na Torrainnean Itheach). At Sword Point (Rutha Chlaidheamth) on the north side of the same peninsula, there is a round mark in the face of the granite rocks, called ‘Bera’s Cake’ (Bonnach Chailleach Bheur) produced by a cake thrown by her. So also a natural enclosure in the rocks above Gorten, in Ardnamurchan, is called ‘ The Old Wife’s Byre ‘ (Bàthaich na Caillich) it being said that she folded her cattle there.

Curious natural appearances of another kind have suggested other fancies in connection with her. She set about building a bridge across the Sound of Mull, commencing at the Morvern side, and was on her way, with a creelful of stones on her back for the purpose, when the creel strap (iris mhuineil) broke, and the burden fell to the ground. The stones with which the basket was filled (and it must have been one of no small capacity) form the remarkable cairn called Cam na Caillich (the old wife’s heap of stones). She intended to put a chain across the Sound of Islay, to prevent the passage of ships that way, and the stones are pointed out on the Jura side to which the chains were to be secured. Beinn na Caillich a hill in Kildalton parish, Islay, is called after her, and a furrow down its side, called Sgrìob na Caillich) was made by her, as she slid down in a sitting posture. In the parish of Stralachlan and Strachur, in Cowal, Argyllshire, there is also a hill called after her, Beinn Chaillach Bheur (the Cailleach Bear or Bera of the Statistical Account, p. 105). The writer in the Statistical Account renders her name ‘The Old Wife of Thunder,’ having evidently mistaken beur, sharp-tongued and sharp-witted, for beithir (pron. beìr) a thunder-bolt. He adds: “She could (according to popular stories) with ease and incredible agility transfer herself from one hill to another, command terrific thunder and desolating deluges at pleasure; and hence the dreadful apprehensions of incurring her ire that generally prevailed.”

She is ‘the aged Bera’ (Beura aosmohr), daughter of ‘Crabbed the Wise’ (Greannan Glic), referred to in legend. She had charge of a well in a valley on the top of Ben Cruachan (Coire Chruachain) and was to cover it every evening at sunset with a flagstone. She failed one night to do so, the well overflowed all night, and before morning Loch Awe was formed.

It is told that a man once went to see her (it is not said where) and test her wit. She had the reputation of being inhospitable and sullen. He said he would make her give him meat and lodgings for a night. He found her a very old woman, in an empty house, with nothing to sit upon, a bare floor, not overly clean, and full of holes. At first she was churlish and uncivil, but after an exchange of witticisms became more hospitable, and gave him a sheep’s head to singe. The following version of the conversation bears repeating:

She. Whence has come the man with the flowing plaid and the flaunting kilt at the evening’s close?
He. I came from the flag-stones near the narrow Sound, to see my lady-love at the evening’s close.
She. What is your name?
He. William Sit-down.
She (in amazement). William Sit-down!
He. Why should I not sit down, when the mistress of the house asks it? (Sits down.)
She. Though you sit, it will not be to your benefit.
He. What should suffice for yourself during your life-time, will not that suffice for me for a night?
She. There is nothing here but bare floor, earth full of holes, and fleas sharp ground fleas, that will bite your two haunches most uneasily.
He. (when he gets the sheep’s head to singe). What is the portion of the man who singes the head?
She. As much as he can take with him in one verse.

Ear from the root is mine,
The loud babbler of the head,
The jaws and two cheeks,
Eye, and snout, and brain.

Having thus secured the whole head, he made minced meat of it, to which he helped himself in large spoonfuls.

She. The load is heavy for the weakly neck.
He. The road is but a short one.
She. Though short, it is ascent.
He. Ascent is not quicker than descent.

Having said this, he swallowed his last spoonful and went away.

John Gregorson Campbell, The Sharp-Witted Wife, in The Scottish Historical Review Volume XII, 1915, p415-416.

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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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The Cailleach and The Well of Youth

On the lands of Knock in Mull (an cnoc Muileach) at the point of Sròn na Crannalaich, near Loch Ba, there is a well, reputed to be ‘The Well of Youth.’ Thither Bera went regularly at ‘the dead of night,’ before bird tasted water or dog was heard to bark, and by then drinking from it kept herself always at sixteen years of age. At last, when making her way to the well on a calm morning (and such mornings are very beautiful in the West Highlands), she heard a dog barking. She exclaimed:

‘Little knows any living wight,
When mischance may befall him ;
For me early has the dog called,
In the calm morn above Loch Ba.
I had enough of spells
To serve the seed of Adam,
But when the mischance was ripe
It could not be warded off.’

Having said this, she fell, crumbling into dust. She lived so long that she had above five hundred children. These were buried by her in the ‘Burial Place of Hosts’ in Ireland, according to one version of the rhyme, and according to another in Cill-mo-Neacain in lona.

She buried Nine times nine by seven,
In the Burial Place of Hosts in Ireland.’

The latter place is said to be the same as the stony patch of ground, not far from the cathedral, called Cill-mo-ghobhlain or Cill-mo-ghobhannain.

John Gregorson Campbell, The Sharp-Witted Wife, in The Scottish Historical Review Volume XII, 1915, p413-414.

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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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