The Witch of Keil

Entrance to one of the caves at Keil, Southend, Kintyre.
Entrance to one of the caves at Keil, Southend, Kintyre.

This old lady is introduced to us by Mr. F. A. Mackay, in his poem of “The Heir of Lorn.” Moila was her name, and she lived at the beginning of the thirteenth century, though she was popularly supposed to have seen Fingal in his prime, and her wrinkled and tremendously aged face seemed, literally, to give utterance to such an idea. She claimed kindred with the Clan Donald, to one of whom she had been a sort of foster-mother, and she lived near to St. Columba’s church, in one of those mysterious caverns of which there are so many in the district of Keil. When the visitor was admitted to her presence, this was the species of old lady on which his gaze fell :—

. . . . a hideous form
Like to the monster of the midnight storm;
Skins of the beasts of prey are loosely thrown
Across a shape whose shrivell’d limbs are shown;
Fierce, wild, and ruthless; long her matted hair,
Which ill protects a bosom dark and bare.
A rod of iron fills her skinny hand,
With which anon she stirs the blazing brand;
A crown of bramble decks her wrinkled brow;
Coarse is the fringe which shades her eye below ;
Out from its hairy covered cell it stares,
As lightning through the gathered rain-cloud glares.
A smoking cauldron hangs above the fire,
Whose fitful blazes flare and then expire;
A wild succession of unearthly shapes,
Glides down the throat where gloomy darkness gapes;
Before the fire, on back of hard tortoise,
An old sly cat his one-eyed sleep enjoys;
Heaped in a corner lie, not far apart,
The mystic books of her divining art;—
Toads, asps, and adders crawl along the ground,
Whilst slimy snails coat all the rocks around.

She is further described as having “Her hands like toads, each finger like an asp;” but her repulsiveness is atoned for by her magic powers. She weaves her spell, and summons her kindred spirits, which come trooping to her cave to do her bidding.

See how she stirs the cauldron, smoking white!
Around her dance fantastic spirits bright;
Some green, some red, some yellow, others blue—
A fiend-like mocking of the rainbow’s hue;
With maddening swiftness round and round they wheel,
Like fiery belt which makes the vision reel.
Slow through the smoke appears a lurid hand,
Which drops some charm at Moila’s stern command;
The hissing pot gives forth a lurid gleam,
The witch chants out, the spirits dance and scream.
‘Tis seven times done ! loud bursts a joyous shout,
Away! away! dread darkness ends the rout.

Such were the incantations of Moila, the witch of Keil.

— Bede Cuthbert, Argyll’s Highlands, Glasgow, 1902.

Red and Strong Is the Blood

The Lamont Harp, Clàrsach Lumanach, presented c. 1460-1464 to Charles Robertson of Lude, National Museum of Scotland.
The Lamont Harp, Clàrsach Lumanach, presented c. 1460-1464 to Charles Robertson of Lude, National Museum of Scotland.

THE HARP OF THE GAEL.

GAELIC MOD PRIZE POEM.

BY REV. DUGALD MACECHERN, B. D.
(Translated by Author.)

HARP of my own dear country,
Trembling against my bosom,
Sweeter to me are thy strains
Than all of the wide world’s music,
Shapely thy curving neck
Like the wild swan afloat on the ocean,
Gleaming thy sun-bright strings,
Like the golden hair of my dear one.
What ah! what can express
Like the harp’s wild tender trembling,
Love that lies in the heart
Like a precious jewel hidden?
Sweet to me is the viol
When move in the dance the maidens,
Dear to me are the pipes
When my sword is red in the battle,
But ’tis the harp should be tuned
With slender and swift-moving finger,
When in her song my dear one,
Sweet-throated, her love confesseth.
Tell me thy secret, my harp,
Who taught thee to tremble in music?
Was it the ocean crooning
To th’ yellow sands and the sea-wrack?
Say, were thy tutors the lark
And the tuneful thrush of the wild-grove,
Blast of the giant bens
And whisper of wind-kissed forest,
Chant of the waterfall where
The stream leaps down from the mountains,
These, and in glens of our love
The songs of the sweet-throated maidens,
Say, were thy tutors these?
Who taught thee to tremble in music—
Music of kings in the times
When the Sun in his youth was shining,
Music of more than heroes
In the days of Fingal and Ossian.

Coll of the waves! Eilean Chola,
Musical were thy children,
Thine was the last of the line
Of the old-time harpers of Albyn,
Sad was thy heart, oh Murdoch!
When last thou tunedst the harp-strings,
Sad was thy heart, and the ship
Like a seagull out on the ocean,
Passing tby spray-swept island,
Bearing the Prince of thy bosom,
Bearing Prince Charlie an exile
Out on the sorrowful ocean,
Saying good-bye to Albyn
And to the crown of his fathers—
The golden crown of his fathers
Lost on the field of battle,
And to the land of the heroes
Who unto death were faithful.
Passed thy prince from thy view
Till the sail seemed merged in the ocean,
Passed—and together that hour
Thy harp and thy heart were broken.

Never again did thy song
Rise in the halls of the chieftains,
Never in Coll of the waves
In the eyrie of Tighearn Chola.
Even as the rose will shut
When her lover the Sun is departed,
So didst thou close thy heart,
The music, the glory departed.
Music with thee was laid
In thy grave in Mull of the mountains.
How could the strings be tuned
When lost were the rights of our fathers.
Banned was the tartan plaid
And they cursed the tongue of the mountains;
Who, who could tune thy strings
And the land of the Gael dishonoured?

Harp of the kings, let us sing
In the ears of the wise of the nation,
Standing on steps of the throne
Of the Scot-descended Edward,
Close to the Destiny Stone,
The stone of the Scots and of Aidan—
Sing how a nation alone
May stand forever unshaken.
Red and strong is the blood
Where the wind is scented with heather,
Races of heroes are bred
On the purple breasts of mountains,
Often the heroes of hills
Have hurled back doom from a nation—
Have we forgotten Omdurman
And Hector in crisis of battle?
Sing how the blood of the cities,
Swiftly degenerate, faileth,
Sing of proud kingdoms that fell
Their children forsaking the mountains.

Harp of the Scots, thou art kin
To the harp that is slumbering in Tara,
Shall we not therefore sing
Together our songs, O Erin?
Branches we are of the stem
Whose roots reach the ages forgotten,
Proudly the harp of the Gael
In the banner of Erin is floating,
Proudly in veins of the king
The blood of the Gael is flowing—
Blood of the Scots of Dalriad,
Blood of O’Neil and of Canmore.
Here in the hands of our love
Is balm for the wounds of thy bosom,
Thy deep, red wounds—and thy grief
Shall vanish like visions with morning.
Cease from your terrible tears,
O dark-haired daughters of sorrow,
Golden and beautiful breaks
The morn on the hilltops of Erin!

Harp of the world-scattered Gaels,
Sing how the Gaels are in number
Even as the stars; how in strength
They are sinew and muscle of empires.
Brothers they are, of our blood,
Though spread to the four winds of heaven,
Brothers, if exiles, still,
Though their white-sailed ships return not.
What if the straths are forlorn,
The Blood of the race is not passing,
What if the language should fail,
The Race of the Gael is not dying!
See how the Gaels are in number
As sands on the marge of the wild wave,
Conquering with hands of toil
The cities and lands of the stranger;
Under the sun of the Indies
And in the lands over ocean,
Wielding the axe of the settler
Far in the depths of the forest,
Digging the yellow gold,
Low in the depths of the canyon,
Struggling on far fields of battle
Struggling—and falling with glory!

Tell me, my harp beloved,
Shall the hope that I cherish fail me—
Shall I behold the Gaels
To the glens of their love returning,
Men at work on the crofts
As I saw in the times unforgotten,
The mother in musical Gaelic
To the babe at her bosom crooning.
Friendly at feast of the Old-Year,
Chieftain and clansmen together,
Cheeks of the youth aglow
At the Shinty on New-Year’s morning—
Every old custom so dear
To our beautiful glens returning,
Bagpipes on fields of battle
Chanting their war-notes defiant,
And, in the halls of peace
The harp with its wild sweet trembling,
Why should I thus drop tears
On the ruins of old homes broken—
Spanning the bens, behold!
The rainbow, the rainbow is shining!

Listen, my harp, my beloved!
When cometh the time of my changing,
When my hand white as the snow,
To dust in the grave shall crumble,
Do not let any man’s hand
Strike from thee chords of sorrow —
Shall I not rise again
To the wind my boat’s sail spreading,
For the beautiful Island of Youth
In the gold of the Sea of the Sunset.
There I shall practice thy music,
There in the Hall of the Noble—
Beloved! when I am dead,
For me let no wail of sorrow
Rise from thy sun-bright strings,
But a song—a song victorious.

Lightning Pours from Their Sides of Steel

Now I behold the chiefs, in the pride of their former deeds! Their souls are kindled at the battles of old; at the actions of other times. Their eyes are flames of fire. They roll in search of the foes of the land. Their mighty hands are on their swords. Lightning pours from their sides of steel. They come like streams from the mountains; each rushes roaring from the hill. Bright are the chiefs of battle, in the armor of their fathers. Gloomy and dark, their heroes follow like the gathering of the rainy clouds behind the red meteors of heaven. The sounds of crashing arms ascend. The gray dogs howl between. Unequal bursts the song of battle.

Fingal, An Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, Book I, James Macpherson.