Measuring the Boar Against the Bristles

I have already referred to a note by Mrs. MacTavish on this subject, vol. ii. 489. She tells how she learned Dan an Dearg (the Song of the Red) more than sixty years ago, from a ploughman who used to chant it at his work; and she adds–

“The subject of the song is Diarmaid O Duine, or Dearg as he was sometimes called. Diarmaid was, as I daresay you know, the progenitor of the clan Campbell, who are called at times Siol Diarmaid, at other times Clann Duine. I never heard who his wife was, but she was esteemed a virtuous and worthy person; yet she had enemies, who wished to persuade her husband that she did not love him, and who concerted a plot to prove her fidelity. Diarmaid was a great sportsman, as all Fingalians were, and hunted wild boars, which, it would appear, were numerous in the Scottish forests at that period. The sport at times proved fatal to those engaged in it. Pretended friends persuaded Diarmaid to pretend that he was killed by one of those animals. They put him on a bier, and carried him home to his wife, all bloody, as if he had really suffered as they said. She conducted herself with becoming fortitude and composure, ordered refreshments for those assembled to watch the remains of their chief, sat down along with them, and commenced singing the song which follows. It is very touching in the original. Never having been favoured by the muses, I cannot do it the justice which it deserves, or that I could wish. The translation is as literal as I can make it.”


Derg, son of Derg, I am thy wife,
The husband whom I would not hurt,
The husband whom I would not hurt,
There never was a worthy who was not tried;
Wretched am I after thee this night.


Derg, son of Olla of the enlightened mind,
By whom so softly the harp was played,
By whom so softly the harp was played,
Beloved was the hero who kept no wrath,
Though Derg was laid low by a hog.


I see the hawk, I see the hound,
With which my loved one used to hunt,
With which my loved one used to hunt,
And she that loved the three
Let her be laid in the grave with Derg.


Then let us rejoice this night,
As we sit around the corpse of a king,
As we sit around the corpse of a king
Let us be hospitable and liberal,
Thanks be to God for every thing.


Derg mac Derg gur i mi do bhean;
Air an fhear cha deanain lochd.
Cha n’ eil saoi nach d’ fhuair a dheuchain
S’ truagh tha mise ad dheigh an nochd.


Derg mac Olla chridhe ‘n iuil,
Leis an seinte gu ciuin cruit;
B ‘ionmhuin an Laoch air nach do luidhe fearg;
Ged do thorchradh Derg le muic.


Chi mi n’ t seabhag a’s an cu
Leis an deanamh mo run sealg;
S’ an neach leis ail ionmhuin an triuir
Cuirer i ‘s an uir le Derg.


Bi mid gu subhach an nochd
Sin nar suidhe mu chorp Righ
Bi mid gu furanach fialaidh;
Buidheachas do Dhia gach ni.

Diarmaid, who was never conquered in battle, was destroyed by stratagem. Some one of his enemies took a bet with him that he could not measure the length of a boar that he had killed by pacing its back against the bristles with his bare soles, which gave rise to the saying–

Tomhas n’ tuirc n’ aghaidh n’ fhrioghain,
Measuring the boar against the bristles,

when any unlikely thing is proposed. He gained his bet, but it cost him his life; the boar’s bristles being so strong that he bled to death. This legend is said to be the origin of the boar’s head being the crest of the principal families of the Campbells.

Popular Tales of the West Highlands, Vol. III, J.F. Campbell.

Published by Christian Clay Columba Campbell

Christian Clay Columba Campbell is a Roman Catholic of the Anglican Use. As Senior Warden of the Cathedral of the Incarnation (Orlando, FL), he organised the process by which the parish accepted the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, petitioning to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Cathedral is now the Church of the Incarnation in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Personal queries should be directed to me at eccentricbliss dot com.

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