Skye Legends And Castles
( Originally Published 1912 )
IN spite of himself John had begun to feel an interest in the poet, Ossian, " that fellow who invented the ` apples of immortal youth ' and the stupid Falls of Lora." The landlord was telling them stories in front of the drawing-room peat fire, at the Dunvegan inn. The kindly man, with his gray hair and bent shoulders, stared into the fire as he talked, and whenever he came to a specially critical point in one of his tales, he would lean forward and nervously prod the slow-burning peats with his foot.
" Yell be speirin' a story of me, will ye? " he had said. " Weel, then, I maun gie ye some guid tales that yell no be hearin' in mony sheilings o' Skye i' these times. There's no a doot but that our Skye fowk hae forgotten all the guid old tales o' Ossian and Fingal, his fayther, and a' the guid people. It is a great peety! Ye '11 maybe find a wheen old fowk who yet ken aboot the guid people who were seen yonder at the Fairy Brig; but the young fowk ken naething but the Broadford Fair and sae muckle learning frae the Glasgy and Inverness papers. But Archie here," slapping his own lean knee as he spoke, " Archie here, he kens what's i' the papers and he kens the old tales, too. Ou ay, he kens them fine ! "
" Well, then, give us a few," said John, by way of encouraging him to proceed.
And so, first of all, they heard how there was an old ruin in Skye, called Dunscaich Castle, and how it had been built long ages ago in the days of Fingal, the giant, by a great chief, named Cuchullin, for whom the famous Cuchullin or Coolin hills have been called. Cuchullin and his mighty giants had built the castle in a single night, and there were great feasts held there, at every one of which the minstrel Ossian sang the praises of Cuchullin and his Fingalians, and of their brave and terrible deeds. But a truly dreadful thing befell Ossian, so the story relates. One day, as he was wandering over the hills, he suddenly heard the most beautiful music which seemed to come from the direction of a pleasant green knoll close by. Sitting down to listen, he was lulled to sleep by the fairy strains, for the music was that of the " good people." No sooner had Ossian so fallen to sleep than the green knoll opened wide and out poured troops of fairies, who allowed him to go with them to their underworld and to join in their merry-making. But, after a while the music again sounded, once more Ossian slept on the hillside, and when he awoke, he was an old, gray-bearded man. He had been asleep for a hundred years, as mortals count time. After this Ossian was very sad. During the years he had been absent, the world had entirely changed; the giant Fingalians had disappeared, and the dwarfs called men inhabited Skye. Feeling very lonesome, Ossian at length married a shepherd's daughter, and in due time a child was born to them. Years went by and Ossian's daughter was herself married to Peter, who spent all his days in hunting. Ossian lived with his daughter and Peter, and every evening he recited to them marvelous tales of his youth, painting glowing pictures of the Isle of Skye in the time of the Fingalians. And all these tales Peter wrote down in a big book.
Upon one occasion Peter killed a huge stag and when he carried it home upon his shoulders, he said to his aged father-in-law, In the Fingalian days you sing about, killed you ever a stag so large as this one ?"
When the stag had been dressed and eaten, Ossian took up one of its bones and answered with much disdain, This bone, big as you think it, could be dropped into the hollow of a Fingalian blackbird's leg."
" Hm ! " grunted John; " I'll bet Peter wouldn't swallow that !
Peter was much annoyed by the old man's boast, so much so that he snatched up the large volume containing the songs of other days, and it would have been burned in the fire had not Ossian's daughter rescued it just in time. Ossian felt such disgust at the sad lack of appreciation shown by these little people who now possessed the earth that when he went to his bed he prayed earnestly to his pagan gods that they might allow his Fingalian stags and hounds and blackbirds to return to earth for only one hour, one hour in which to convince the unbelieving Peter.
Upon waking the next morning he felt a weight upon his breast; it proved to be the paw of his own hound, who seemed overjoyed when Ossian called him by name. The old man arose, found his little grandson, and, with the dog, they went out upon the hillside. Then Ossian said to the child, " Put your fingers in your ears, little one, else I will make you deaf for life," and he whistled more loudly than any mortal can whistle.
Soon there appeared in the distance a herd of Fingalian deer, so huge that the child was frightened. They passed, and Ossian spoke to his dog, which immediately overtook the herd and caught seven of their number, These his master skinned and dressed, a d when they were ready for cooking, he waded Into the center of the loch, and, reaching down his hand, brought up his great Fingalian kettle, which had not been used for more than a century. Then was Ossian very, very happy; for, since the fairies had put him to sleep, long years ago, he had never once had enough to eat. So big and so empty had been his stomach that he had formed the habit of gathering up its too numerous folds with nine splints. One by one he removed these at the great feast which now took place, and at last his appetite was satisfied.
Having collected all the bones and burned them, Ossian asked his grandson to go up to the knoll and tell him if he saw anything. " A great bird is flying hither," answered the child; and a big Fingalian blackbird flew to Ossian's side. He at once grasped and killed it, and carried it home to his son-in-law's turf hut. After supper, Ossian was able to call for the thigh-bone of Peter's stag and place it in the hollow of the giant blackbird's leg. Thus did he triumph in the eyes of mortals and prove the truth of his Fingalian boasts And it was the very same night that Ossian died.
The landlord told them many other strange things. He told them how the fairies of Skye are supposed to keep herds of cattle as well as of deer; how these cattle are red and speckled and can swim across the sea; and how there are only ten places in the whole island where they will graze, one of them being a certain field near Portree. He told them that the fairies very seldom have horses, but that sometimes they have been known to take horses belonging to mortals out of their stables and ride them across the country at top-speed, sitting facing their tails. He told them that when you hear a horse neigh at night, you may know that an elf has been riding him too hard. They learned that fairy dogs are green, a lighter shade toward their feet, and that sometimes their tails are long and braided, and then again they are coiled upon their backs. Fingal's dog, Bran, was of fairy breed, it seems; a queer little verse says that,
"Bran had yellow feet,
Besides his other virtues, Bran wore a poisonous shoe which killed whatever it struck; and when he traveled at full speed (he always went " a glen at a step, a hill at a leap, and thirty-two miles at a running leap ! ") he looked like three dogs. Earthly dogs greatly dislike the fairies and always will chase them, but they invariably return with no hair left on their bodies except their ears, and very soon after they die.
He told them that fairies never really steal anything, only the substance of it. For instance, there was always great fear that the fairies would come to steal a little baby; if they did succeed in carrying it off, in its place they would leave a queer, dwarfed old man who had an alarmingly large appetite. If the fairies stole cattle or food, it was the same way; they left something in its place, Something which would always prove worthless when tested, al-though the change might not be noticed at once. If a mortal went to visit the fairies in their green knolls or under-world, h* stuck his knife into the ground near the entrance to the fairy country; this enabled him to make his escape when he desired. Iron was the greatest protection against fairies, but their host told them that many consider oatmeal to be as effectual for this purpose. If a boy is going any distance after dark, his mother sometimes fills his pockets with oatmeal, which p events him from seeing any " guid people." It is unlucky for mortals to wear green because it is the favorite color of the fairies. At the battle of Killiecrankie, Viscount Dundee wore green and to this fact was attributed his defeat. Even to-day his descendants do not like the color.
" Well, the Irish don't believe that ! " commented John.
It is clear that the people of the Scottish Highlands and Islands are very superstitious. It is said that various strange animals are still feared by the people of certain remote districts. The landlord told of a water-horse which lives in the lochs although it sometimes feeds in the fields with normal horses, and has been known to take human shape. If a man leaps upon its back, the beast will surely jump from a cliff to devour its prey at the bottom of the loch. In some lochs of Skye it is said there are still water-bulls, and a certain loch on the mainland has a mysterious bogie. There is a phantom dog at a place called Uist, in Skye; he has unearthly eyes which glitter, and a fearful bark, and he guards the burying ground. No Skye-man desires to pass that way after dark!
The people of one part of Skye believe that if they light fires on a certain headland at the beginning of winter, it will bring them in her-rings a-plenty. Many persons still hold it to be undesirable, when starting upon a journey, to meet certain people. Some think women more unlucky, and some men. That he might not encounter any " bad people," one old farmer, or crofter, was accustomed to send out a member of his own family to be the first to meet him.
An amusing story was told of a Skye farmer and his wife, who went to bed one evening, leaving a pot of paint on the floor; during the night their pig entered and fell into the pot. Getting up when she heard the .noise, the woman saw the pig's green snout and declared to her husband that it was the devil himself. The farmer accordingly sprang up and held down the lid of the pot until the struggles within ceased. He was encouraged by his wife, who all the while was assuring him, " Many a per-son you will confer a favor on this night, Murdoch;" but when they discovered their mistake, there was little rejoicing. The poor couple had lost their paint and their pig as well.
And so, laughing at these strange stories and superstitions, even while they 't the same time felt just a bit puzzled by them, tie young people finally listened to Mrs. Pitt's pleadings that they should " come away to bed."
The next morning, having walked from the inn, along the road and through a bit of wood-land, they stood at length befoe fine old Dun-vegan Castle, home of the chief of the McLeod clan for more than seven hundred years.
Some say that Dunvegan is the oldest inhabited building in the country, and certain it is that, though the place has been much modernized, the present chief still lives in a castle including an old keep which came into the family's possession when Leod, son of the King of Man, married the daughter of McCrailt Armuinn of Dunvegan.
The castle perches high upon a ledge of rock which is almost an island, the waves of the loch washing it on three sides. The main door is approached by a wide path crossing the little ravine, doubtless spanned by a drawbridge in olden days. Upon ringing, Mrs. Pitt found that the family were away, as indeed they usually are, but the servant was most civil and consented to show the party about.
They entered first a square hall with wooden galleries above, from one of which was hung the McLeod banner of white with the family legend and arms in crimson embroideries. Up-stairs they were taken through many apartments, the floors of which were quite bare, and the furniture grouped in the center and covered with heavy awnings; most of the family portraits were in their places, however, and might have afforded many an interesting tale had the chieftain been present to identify his ancestors. The great drawing-room has a bloody history.
"In the middle of the sixteenth century," Mrs. Pitt was saying, " Black Ian, a usurping chief, feared that the Campbells, who, he knew, had landed in Skye, would come to turn him out of the castle. Ian spoke of discussing terms, and so invited eleven Campbells to a banquet in this very drawing-room. Each Campbell was carefully seated between two McLeods. When the feast was at its height, a signal was given, and each McLeod arose and promptly killed a Campbell."
" But where's the Fairy Tower I've heard about? " said Barbara. The servant assured her that they were soon to se it.
Up the narrow spiral star in the ancient keep they climbed until they came into a chamber with enormously thick walls and windows commanding a glorious view f blue loch and bold Skye headland. Legend has it that each future bride of a McLeod had, o pass one night alone in this room so that tie fairies might have an opportunity to inspect her.
" Sir Walter Scott slept here once, you know," reminded Mrs. Pitt; ` and Dr. John-son before him. Johnson and Boswell had traveled far through these wild islands of the Hebrides,—they were very wild in those days; and the luxury-loving Doctor was much de-lighted to be invited to Dunvegan, where the young laird of the day entertained him. What with the genial host and the ladies of his house hold, the good food and bed, 1:0. Johnson would have been perfectly content had he not caught a bad cold, ` having strangely slept without a night-cap.' "
Descending the stair, they passed the entrances of dark dungeons, which seem to have been built very close to where were once the family's living apartments.
It must have been dreadful to go so near the poor prisoners whenever you went up- and downstairs," said Betty.
But, of course, the most interesting things at Dunvegan are the Fairy Flag, Rory Mor's Drinking-horn, and the celebrated Dunvegan Cup.
The flag is now too frail to be shown to visitors; it is said to be a square of rich yellow silk, stitched with gold crosses and having several red spots. Two strange stories account for its existence.
One tale has it that a certain McLeod chief married a fairy who was allowed to stay on earth but twenty years. It was near the Fairy Bridge, three miles from Dunvegan, that she flew away from her husband's reach; and, as she went, dropped the flag which she had been accustomed to wear as part of her dress. The other tale relates that during the festivities held after the birth of a McLeod heir, the nurse left the baby without sufficient covering; but when she went back to her charge, she found him wrapped in the Fairy Flag. Thus she picked him up, and as she showed him to some of the clansmen, fairy voices were heard singing of the magic powers of the flag and of how the mere waving of it three times would save the clan in time of need.
" And has it saved them? "I demanded John eagerly.
Yes; the flag has been waived twice. The first time the McLeods were on the point of suffering a terrible defeat from an enemy who had surprised them; but the flag made the McLeod forces appear many times their real size and the enemy fled. The second d time the flag stopped a plague that had attacked the cattle on the island."
" I suppose they wouldn't like to wave it a third time, even if they needed it very much," suggested Betty, " because then the fairy would come and take it away, wouldn't she? "
They saw the great drinking-horn, tipped with silver, which belonged to Sir Rory Morn, a McLeod chief of the sixteenth. century. The rule is that each chief, upon coming of age, must fill this horn to the brim and drain it at one draught.
" It doesn't look very big inside," said John, leaning over to examine it better; but the servant explained that most of it has now been filled up and it is consequently only a very moderate drink which modern chiefs must take. Originally the cup would probably have held two or three bottles of wine.
The Dunvegan Cup is made of oak, stands on four short silver legs, and is embossed with silver in which were once set precious stones of which only a few bits of coral remain. It is now considered a most interesting and valuable specimen, having been made in the year 1493.
Columbus ! " cried John; " just the year after we were discovered! "
The cup has a fairy history, too. In the days of the third McLeod chief, a cattle-herder, named Lurran Casinreach, or the swift-footed," was present at a strange fairy feast. The fairies had done him harm; as a means of revenge, Lurran stole their cup as it was being passed around the table, and so it came into possession of the lairds of Dunvegan Castle.
As they crossed the Fairy Bridge on their return motor car trip to Portree the following day, they recalled the story of McLeod's fairy wife and her flag.
" I never expected to feel so well acquainted with fairies ! " declared Betty.
A few days later the boat from Oban carried the party out of the pretty, sheltered harbor of Portree, and north to Gairloch, on the mainland. With a large, luxurious hotel, the place has now become quite a tourist resort.
But even better than Gairloch they liked Loch Maree, to which a big motor car whirled them through a wonderful wilderness of hills covered with bell-heather and roadside edged with lavender thyme; of remarkably varied and perfect trees and of waterfalls and rushing torrents, which, though clear, have a suggestion of the color of the peat.
After lunching at a long table, where most of the chairs were unoccupied, John and Philip took the others for a row on the lake. The shadows on bold Ben Slioch with its great crevices, and on the other mountains, were dark, dark blue that afternoon, without a hint of the heliotrope of which they had seen so much in the Highlands. Now and ten threatening clouds piled up near one of the peaks, but the sun always succeeded in chasing them away.
They rowed very close to the famous Eileen Maree, where once was a monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary; there was also a sacred well which our poet, Whittier, described as a spot to which insane people *ere brought to bathe their brows and be cured by its waters.
"There's an old, old legend, too, which is connected with the island," said Mrs. Pitt. " I think you will like to hear This little isle had been appointed by a young Norwegian prince as the place of meeting with his bride. He was kept waiting a long time in much anxiety, however, for the lady was the daughter of an Irish king, and her boat was delayed by contrary winds. At last they told the prince that a boat had been sighted, and he sent a messenger to the end of the lake with orders to hoist a white flag if the lady was safe, and a black flag if she had been lost. The lady was there, and as beautiful as ever, but she chose to fly the black flag to test her lover's faith, to see how he would feel at news of her death. Alas ! when she arrived joyfully to contradict the bad report, she found that the prince had taken his life. There are two stones on the island which, they say, mark the graves of the unlucky pair."
That evening the dining-room was crowded with gentlemen and ladies who had been off fishing all day; this, they learned, explained the deserted lunch-table. When they finished dinner, they found the floor of the little hall almost covered with trays of fish, and an old One, his face flushed with pride, was still bearing in more. They were mostly sea-trout, he told them, and they came up the river into the fresh waters of Loch Maree.
" I think I'll just stay behind a day or two, if you don't mind, Mrs. Pitt, and have a little fishing myself." Such was John's decision that evening, but the next morning he thought better of it, and went on with the others to Inverness.