Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Fairy Faith in Scotland

The Fairy Faith in Scotland





In the moorlands between Trossachs and Aberfoyle, a region made famous by Scott’s Rob Roy, I have seen atmospheric changes so sudden and so contrasted as to appear marvellous. What shifting of vapours and clouds, what flashes of bright sun-gleams, then twilight at midday! Across the landscape, shadows of black dense fog-banks rush like shadows of flocks of great birds which darken all the earth. Palpitating fog-banks wrap themselves around the mountain-tops and then come down like living things to move across the valleys, sometimes only a few yards above the traveller’s head. And in that country live terrible water-kelpies. When black clouds discharge their watery burden it is in wind-driven vertical water-sheets through which the world appears as through an ice-filmed window-pane. Perhaps in a single day there may be the bluest of heavens and []the clearest air, the densest clouds and the darkest shadows, the calm of the morning and the wind of the tempest. At night in Aberfoyle after such a day, I witnessed a clear sunset and a fair evening sky; in the morning when I arose, the lowlands along the river were inundated and a thousand cascades, large and small, were leaping down the mountain-highlands, and rain was falling in heavy masses. Within an hour afterwards, as I travelled on towards Stirling, the rain and wind ceased, and there settled down over all the land cloud-masses so inky-black that they seemed like the fancies of some horrible dream. Then like massed armies they began to move to their mountain-strongholds, and stood there; while from the east came perfect weather and a flood of brilliant sunshine.
And in the Highlands from Stirling to Inverness what magic, what changing colours and shadows there were on the age-worn treeless hills, and in the valleys with their clear, pure streams receiving tribute from unnumbered little rills and springs, some dropping water drop by drop as though it were fairy-distilled; and everywhere the heather giving to the mountain-landscape a hue of rich purplish-brown, and to the air an odour of aromatic fragrance.
On to the north-west beyond Inverness there is the same kind of a treeless highland country; and then after a few hours of travel one looks out across the water from Kyle and beholds Skye, where Cuchulainn is by some believed to have passed his young manhood learning feats of arms from fairy women,—Skye, dark, mountainous, majestic, with its waterfalls turning to white spray as they tumble from cliff to cliff into the sound, from out the clouds that hide their mountain-summit sources.
In the Outer Hebrides, as in the Aranmore Islands off West Ireland, influences are at work on the Celtic imagination quite different from those in Skye and its neighbouring islands. Mountainous billows which have travelled from afar out of the mysterious watery waste find their first impediment on the west of these isolated Hebridean isles, and they fling themselves like mad things in full fury [Pg 5]against the wild rocky islets fringing the coast. White spray flashes in unearthly forms over the highest cliff, and the unrestrained hurricane whirls it far inland. Ocean’s eternally murmuring sounds set up a responsive vibration in the soul of the peasant, as he in solitude drives home his flocks amid the weird gloaming at the end of a December day; and, later, when he sits brooding in his humble cottage at night, in the fitful flickering of a peat fire, he has a mystic consciousness that deep down in his being there is a more divine music compared with which that of external nature is but a symbol and an echo; and, as he stirs the glowing peat-embers, phantoms from an irretrievable past seem to be sitting with him on the edge of the half-circle of dying light. Maybe there are skin-clad huntsmen of the sea and land, with spears and knives of bone and flint and shaggy sleeping dogs, or fearless sea-rovers resting wearily on shields of brilliant bronze, or maybe Celtic warriors fierce and bold; and then he understands that his past and his present are one.
Commonly there is the thickest day-darkness when the driving storms come in from the Atlantic, or when dense fog covers sea and land; and, again, there are melancholy sea-winds moaning across from shore to shore, bending the bushes of the purple heather. At other times there is a sparkle of the brightest sunshine on the ocean waves, a fierceness foreign to the more peaceful Highlands; and then again a dead silence prevails at sunrise and at sunset if one be on the mountains, or, if on the shore, no sound is heard save the rhythmical beat of the waves, and now and then the hoarse cry of a sea-bird. All these contrasted conditions may be seen in one day, or each may endure for a day; and the dark days last nearly all the winter. And then it is, during the long winter, that the crofters and fisher-folk congregate night after night in a different neighbour’s house to tell about fairies and ghosts, and to repeat all those old legends so dear to the heart of the Celt. Perhaps every one present has heard the same story or legend a hundred times, yet it is always listened to and told as though it were the [Pg 6]latest bulletin of some great world-stirring event. Over those little islands, so far away to the north, out on the edge of the world, in winter-time darkness settles down at four o’clock or even earlier; and the islanders hurry through with their dinner of fish and oat-bread so as not to miss hearing the first story. When the company has gathered from far and near, pipes are re-filled and lit and the peat is heaped up, for the story-telling is not likely to end before midnight. ‘The house is roomy and clean, if homely, with its bright peat fire in the middle of the floor. There are many present—men and women, boys and girls. All the women are seated, and most of the men. Girls are crouched between the knees of fathers or brothers or friends, while boys are perched wherever—boy-like—they can climb. The houseman is twisting twigs of heather into ropes to hold down thatch, a neighbour crofter is twining quicken root into cords to tie cows, while another is plaiting bent grass into baskets to hold meal. The housewife is spinning, a daughter is carding, another daughter is teazing, while a third daughter, supposed to be working, is away in the background conversing in low whispers with the son of a neighbouring crofter. Neighbour wives and neighbour daughters are knitting, sewing, or embroidering.’[5] Then when the bad weather for fishing has been fully discussed by the men, and the latest gossip by the women, and the foolish talk of the youths and maidens in the corners is finished, the one who occupies the chair of honour in the midst of the ceilidh[6] looks around to be sure that everybody is comfortable and ready; and, as his first story begins, even the babes by instinct cease their noise and crying, and young and old bend forward eagerly to hear every word. It does []not matter if some of the boys and girls do topple over asleep, or even some of the older folk as the hour gets late; the tales meet no interruption in their even, unbroken flow. And here we have the most Celtic and the most natural environments which the Fairy-Faith enjoys in Scotland.
There are still the Southern Highlands in the country around Oban, and the islands near them; and of all these isles none is so picturesque in history as the one Columba loved so well. Though Iona enjoys less of the wildness of the Hebrides furthest west, it has their storm-winds and fogs and dark days, and their strangeness of isolation. On it, as Adamnan tells us, the holy man fought with black demons who came to invade his monastery, and saw angelic hosts; and when the angels took his soul at midnight in that little chapel by the sea-shore there was a mystic light which illuminated all the altar like the brightest sunshine. But nowadays, where the saint saw demons and angels the Islanders see ghosts and ‘good people’, and when one of these islanders is taken in death it is not by angels—it is by fairies.