Isle of Dreams

I recall one whom I knew, a fisherman of the little green island: and I tell this story of Coll here, for it is to me more than the story of a dreaming islander. One night, lying upon the hillock that is called Cnoc-nan-Aingeal, because it is here that St. Colum was wont to hold converse with an angel out of heaven, he watched the moonlight move like a slow fin through the sea: and in his heart were desires as infinite as the waves of the sea, the moving homes of the dead.

Arid while he lay and dreamed, his thoughts idly adrift as a net in deep waters, he closed his eyes, muttering the Gaelic words of an
old line.

In the Isle of Dreams God shall yet fulfil Himself anew.

Hearing a footfall, he stirred. A man stood beside him. He did not know the man, who was young, and had eyes dark as hill-tarns, with hair light and soft as thistledown; and moved light as a shadow, delicately treading  the grass as the wind treads it. In his hair he had twined the fantastic leaf of the horn-poppy.

The islander did not move or speak: it was as though a spell were upon him.

“God be with you,” he said at last, uttering the common salutation.

“And with you. Coll mac Coll,” answered the stranger. Coll looked at him. Who was this man, with the sea-poppy in his hair, who, unknown, knew him by name? He had heard of one whom he did not wish to meet, the Green Harper: also of a grey man of the sea whom islesmen seldom alluded to by name: again, there was the Amadan Dhu . . . but at that name Coll made the sign of the cross, and remembering what Father Allan had told him in South Uist, muttered a holy exorcism of the Trinity.

The man smiled.

“You need have no fear, Coll mac Coll,” he said quietly.

“You that know my name so well are welcome, but if you in turn would tell me your name I should be glad.”

“I have no name that I can tell you,” answered the stranger gravely; “but I am not of those who are unfriendly. And because you can see me and speak to me, I will help you to whatsoever you may wish.”

Coll laughed.

“Neither you nor any man can do that. For now that I have neither father nor mother, nor brother nor sister, and my lass too is dead, I wish neither for sheep nor cattle, nor for new nets and a fine boat, nor a big house, nor as much money as MacCailein Mòr has in the bank at Inveraora.”

“What then do you wish for, Coll mac Coll?”

“I do not wish for what cannot be, or I would wish to see again the dear face of Morag, my lass. But I wish for all the glory and wonder and power there is in the world, and to have it all at my feet, and to know everything that the Holy Father himself knows, and have kings coming to me as the
crofters come to MacCailein Mòr’s factor.”

“You can have that, Coll mac Coll,” said the Green Harper, and he waved a withe of hazel he had in his hand.

“What is that for?” said Coll.

“It is to open a door that is in the air. And now, Coll, if that is your wish of all wishes, and you will give up all other wishes for that wish, you can have the sovereignty of the world. Ay, and more than that: you shall have the sun like a golden jewel in the hollow of your right hand, and all the stars as pearls in your left, and have the moon as a white shining opal above your brows, with all knowledge behind the sun, within the moon,
and beyond the stars.”

Coll’s face shone. He stood, waiting. Just then he heard a familiar sound in the dusk. The tears came into his eyes.

“Give me instead,” he cried, “give me a warm breast-feather from that grey dove of the woods that is winging home to her young.” He looked as one moon-dazed. None stood beside him. He was alone. Was it a dream, he wondered? But a weight was lifted from his heart. Peace fell upon him as dew upon grey pastures. Slowly he walked homeward. Once, glancing back, he saw a white figure upon the knoll, with a face noble and beautiful. Was it Colum himself come again? he mused: or that white angel with whom the Saint was wont to discourse, and who brought him intimacies of God? or was it but the wave-fire of his dreaming mind, as lonely and cold and unreal as that which the wind of the south makes upon the wandering hearths of the sea?

— Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp), The Works of “Fiona MacLeod” (Uniform Edition), Volume IV, arranged by Mrs. William Sharp, London, William Heinemann, 1912.

The Wayfarer

THE WAYFARER.

I.

Among those in the home-straths of Argyll who are now grey, and in the quiet places of whose hearts old memories live green and sweet, there must be some who recall that day when a stranger came into Strath Nair, and spoke of the life eternal.

This man, who was a minister of God, was called James Campbell. He was what is called a good man, by those who measure the soul by inches and extol its vision by the tests of the purblind. He had rectitude of a kind, the cold and bitter thing that is not the sunlit integrity of the spirit. And he had the sternness that is the winter of a frozen life. In his heart, God was made in the image of John Calvin.

With this man the love of love was not even a dream. A poor strong man he was, this granite-clasped soul; and the sunlight faded out of many hearts, and hopes fell away to dust before the blight of the east wind of his spirit.

On the day after his coming to Strath Nair, the new minister went from cottage to cottage. He went to all, even to the hill-bothy of Peter Macnamara the shepherd; to all save one. He did not go to the cottage of Mary Gilchrist, for the woman lived, there alone, with the child that had been born to her. In the eyes of James Campbell she was evil. His ears heard, but not his heart, that no man or woman spoke harshly of her, for she had been betrayed.

On the morning of the Bell, as some of the old folk still call the morrow of the Sabbath, the glory of sunlight came down the Strath. For many days rain had fallen, hours upon hours at a time; or heavy, dropping masses of vapour had hung low upon the mountains, making the peaty uplands sodden, and turning the grey rocks into a wet blackness. By day and by night the wind had moaned among the corries along the high moors. There was one sound more lamentable still: the incessant mèhing of the desolate, soaked sheep. The wind in the corries, on the moors, among the pines and larches; the plaintive cruel sorrow of the wandering ewes; never was any other sound to be heard, save the distant wailing of curlews. Only, below all, as inland near the coast one hears continuously the murmur of the sea, so by night and day the Gorromalt Water made throughout the whole reach of Strath Nair an undertone as of a weary sighing.

But before nightfall on Saturday the rain ceased, and the wet wind of the south suddenly revolved upon itself beyond the spurs of Ben Maiseach. Long before the gloaming had oozed an earth-darkness to meet the falling dark, the mists had lifted. One by one, moist stars revealed hollows of voilet, which, when the moon yellowed the fir-tops, disclosed a vast untravelled waste of blue, wherein slow silent waves of darkness continuously lapsed. The air grew full of loosened fragrances; most poignantly, of the bog-myrtle, the bracken, and the resinous sprays of pine and larch.

Where the road turns at the Linn o’ Gorromalt there is an ancient disarray of granite boulders above the brown rushing water. Masses of wild rose grow in that place. On this June gloaming the multitudinous blooms were like pale wings, as though the fabled birds that live in rainbows, or the frail creatures of the falling dew, had alit there, tremulous, uncertain.

There that evening, the woman, Mary Gilchrist, sat, happy in the silences of the dusk. While she inhaled the fragrance of the wild roses, as it floated above the persistent green odour of the bent and the wet fern, and listened to the noise of Gorromalt Water foaming and surging out of the linn, she heard steps close by her. Glancing sidelong, she saw “the new minister,” a tall, gaunt man, with lank, irongrey hair above his white, stern, angular face.

He looked at her, not knowing who she was.

Continue reading “The Wayfarer”

She Beckons to the Soul

There is no racial road to beauty, nor to any excellence. Genius, which leads thither, beckons neither to tribe nor clan, neither to school nor movement, but only to one soul here and to another there; so that the Icelander hears and speaks in Saga, and the brown Malay hears and carves delicately in ivory; and the men in Europe, from the Serb and the Finn to the Basque and the Breton, hear, and each in his kind answers; and what the Englishman says in song and romance and the deep utterance of his complex life, his mountain-kindred say in mabinogi or sgeul.

Even in those characteristics which distinguish Celtic literature — intimate natural vision; a swift emotion that is sometimes a spiritual ecstasy, but sometimes is also a mere intoxication of the senses; a peculiar sensitiveness to the beauty of what is remote and solitary; a rapt pleasure in what is ancient and in the contemplation of what holds an indwelling melancholy; a visionary passion for beauty, which is of the immortal things, beyond the temporal beauty of what is mutable and mortal — even in these characteristics it does not stand alone, and perhaps not preeminent. There is a beauty in the Homeric hymns that I do not find in the most beautiful of Celtic chants; none could cull from the gardens of the Gael what in the Greek anthology has been gathered out of time to be everlasting; perhaps only the love and passion of the stories of the Celtic mythology surpass the love and passion of the stories of the Hellenic mythology. The romance that of old flowered among the Gaelic hills flowered also in English meads, by Danish shores, along Teutonic woods and plains. I think Catullus sang more excellently than Bailê Honeymouth, and that Theocritus loved nature not less than Oisin, and that the ancient makers of the Kalevala were as much children of the wind and wave and the intimate natural world as were the makers of the ancient heroic chronicles of the Gael.

There is no law set upon beauty. It has no geography. It is the domain of the spirit. And if, of those who enter there, peradventure any comes again, he is welcome for what he brings; nor do we demand if he be dark or fair, Latin or Teuton or Celt, or say of him that his tidings are lovelier or the less lovely because he was born in the shadow of Gaelic hills or nurtured by Celtic shores.

It is well that each should learn the mothersong of his land at the cradle-place of his birth. It is well that the people of the isles should love the isles above all else, and the people of the mountains love the mountains above all else, and the people of the plains love the plains above all else. But it is not well that because of the whistling of the wind in the heather one should imagine that nowhere else does the wind suddenly stir the reeds and the grasses in its incalculable hour.

Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp)The Collected Works of Fiona MacLeod (Uniform Edition), Vol. V, London, 1920.

No Mortal Destiny Requites

I think our people have most truly loved their land, and their country, and their songs, and their ancient traditions, and that the word of bitterest savour is that sad word exile. But it is also true that in that love we love vaguely another land, rainbow-land, and that our most desired country is not the real Ireland, the real Scotland, the real Brittany, but the vague Land of Youth, the shadowy Land of Heart’s Desire. And it is also true, that deep in the songs we love above all other songs is a lamentation for what is gone away from the world, rather than merely from us as a people, or a sighing of longing for what the heart desires but no mortal destiny requites. And true, too, that no tradition from of old is so compelling as the compelling tradition that is from within; and that the long sorrow of our exile is in part because we ourselves have driven from us that company of hopes and dreams which were once realities, but are now among beautiful idle words.

Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp), The Collected Works of Fiona MacLeod (Uniform Edition), Vol. V, London, 1920.

Mecca of the Gael

Iona Abbey.
Iona Abbey.

In spiritual geography Iona is the Mecca of the Gael. It is but a small isle, fashioned of a little sand, a few grasses salt with the spray of an ever-restless wave, a few rocks that wade in heather and upon whose brows the sea-wind weaves the yellow lichen. But since the remotest days sacrosanct men have bowed here in worship. In this little island a lamp was lit whose flame lighted pagan Europe, from the Saxon in his fens to the swarthy folk who came by Greek waters to trade the Orient. Here Learning and Faith had their tranquil home, when the shadow of the sword lay upon all lands, from Syracuse by the Tyrrhene Sea to the rainy isles of Orcc. From age to age, lowly hearts have never ceased to bring their burthen here. Iona herself has given us for remembrance a fount of youth more wonderful than that which lies under her own boulders of Dûn-I. And here Hope waits. To tell the story of Iona is to go back to God, and to end in God. Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp), Iona.