From Lochourn to Glenfinnan the gray mountains ranging,
Naught falls on the eye but the changed and the changing;
From the hut by the lochside, the farm by the river,
Macdonalds and Cameron pass—and for ever.
The flocks of one stranger the long glens are roaming,
Where a hundred bien homesteads smoked bonny at gloaming.
Our wee crofts run wild wi’ the bracken and heather,
And our gables stand ruinous, bare to the weather.
To the green mountain shealings went up in old summers
From farm-town and clachan how mony blithe comers!
Though green the hill pastures lie, cloudless the heaven,
No milker is singing there, morning or even.
Where high Mam-clach-ard by the ballach is breasted,
Ye may see the gray cairns where old funerals rested,
They who built them have long in their green graves been sleeping,
And their sons gone to exile, or willing or weeping.
The chiefs, whom for ages our claymores defended,
Whom landless and exiled our fathers befriended,
From their homes drive their clansmen, when famine is sorest,
Cast out to make room for the deer of the forest.
Yet on far fields of fame, when the red ranks were reeling,
Who prest to the van like the men from the shealing?
Ye were fain in your need Highland broadswords to borrow,
Where, where are they now, should the foe come to-morrow?
Alas for the day of the mournful Culloden!
The clans from that hour down to dust have been trodden,
They were leal to their Prince, when red wrath was pursuing.
And have reaped in return but oppression and ruin.
It’s plaintive in harvest, when lambs are a-spaining,
To hear the hills loud with ewe-mothers complaining—
Ah! sadder that cry comes from mainland and islands,
The sons of the Gael have no home in the Highlands.
On the top of Ben Cruachan is the spring from which Loch Awe was filled, and this is how they say the event happened:–Aged Bera lived in the cave of the Great Rock. She was a daughter of Grenan the Wise. For many ages her ancestors inhabited that country–a princely family, hospitable and powerful. Bera was the last of that renowned family. She owned as her inheritance each fair grassy glen all around Ben Cruachan, and the many flocks that fed in every dell and strath around. To Bera was entrusted that secret spring of many virtues, hid from the knowledge, and beyond the ken of the world. That became the spring of woe to Bera, and to her father’s race! There was a great flagstone on the mouth of the spring, and it was Bera’s duty to place the flagstone over the spring about sundown and to lift the same stone away as soon as the beams of the morning light began to gild the horizon. There were words graven on this flagstone, like ancient writing, but no eye ever beheld the stone that could read the secret letters. One of those days, Bera happened to be out hunting the deer among the rugged steeps of Ben Cruachan, and, being faint with the weariness of the chase, she no sooner returned home at night, and set herself on her bed of rashes under the leafy shade, then she fell asleep and neglected to place the flagstone over the mouth of the spring! The water quickly poured forth like a great river which could not be stayed! Swiftly streamed the flood, like a torrent or great waterfall, down the side of the mountain, from rock to rock, till the waters filled the glen, which from that time is called Loch Awe. On the third day poor Bera awoke. She looked down the glen, but instead of that green and most beautiful and lovely glen, nothing could be seen but water. Bera gave forth a dreadful scream which was echoed by every crag and grove and dell, and Ben Cruachan quivered to its centre! Bera left this poor world! She ascended to the lofty halls of the great princes from whom she sprung–far far up beyond the vision of created eyes, among the thin white clouds of heaven. Up there her scream may still be heard, and is the dread of the shepherds and hunters of Ben Cruachan. On dark clouds she is seen hovering around the top of the Ben; there oft-times may be heard her song of sorrow, and often she is abroad amid the roar of the tempest. On the dark skirts of the black clouds of the sky she is often seen sporting in wild fury. Like a tall pillar of the whitest mist she is seen hunting the deer on the hill, with her bow and her quiver of arrows! In white foam she is seen on the flood ; from cascade to cascade, from pool to pool, till at length she reaches Loch Awe, on which she may be seen swimming like a calm, white swan from island to island. From the broken ruins of Kilchurn, from the old abbey of Innisfail and of Inniswraith, are often heard her dismal wail. And on the peaks of Ben Cruachan she is often seen on a summer’s morning rising in her airy robes of mist to welcome the sun, till she is quickly lost from view amid bright and joyful birds of the air.
AMONG the many interesting historical relics carefully treasured at Cluny Castle in Badenoch—the Seat of the Chief of Clan Chattan—is the Black Chanter or Feadan Dubh, of the Clan, on the possession of which the prosperity of the House of Cluny is supposed to depend. Of the many singular traditions regarding it, one is that its original fell from Heaven during the memorable Clan battle—rendered familiar to general readers through the pages of Scott’s “Fair Maid of Perth”—fought between the Macphersons and the Davidsons in presence of King Robert III., his Queen, and Nobles, on the North Inch of Perth, in 1396, and that being made of crystal it was broken by the fall and the existing one made in fac simile. Another tradition is to the effect that this is the genuine original, and that the cracks were occasioned by its violent contact with the ground. Be the origin of the Feadan Dubh what it may, it is a notable fact that whether in consequence of its possession, or of their own bravery, no battle at which the Macphersons were present with the Bratach Uaine, or green banner, of the Clan, and the Chief at their head, was ever lost.
The following lines are inscribed upon the Chanter:—
Feadan Dubh Chlann Chatain
‘S fad o chualas
‘S buan a mhaireas
‘S mor ‘àdh.
It is related that before the Battle of Culloden an old witch, or second seer, told the Duke of Cumberland that if he waited until the Bratach Uaine and the Feadan Dubh came up he would be defeated. Ewen of Cluny was present at the Battle of Prestonpans with six hundred of his Clan, and accompanied Prince Charlie into England. On the Prince’s retreat into Scotland, Cluny with his men put two regiments of Cumberland’s dragoons to flight at Clifton, fought afterwards at the Battle of Falkirk, and was on his way from Badenoch to Inverness with his Clan to join the Prince when flying fugitives from Culloden met him with the intelligence of that sad day’s disaster. As Colonel John Roy Stuart (Iain Ruadh Stiubhart) the famous warrior-poet of the ’45 has it in his Oran eile air latha Chuilodair:—
Clann-Mhuirich nam buadh,
Iad-san uile bhi bhuainn,
Gur h-e m’ iomadan truagh r’a leughadh
which may be freely translated:—
(Clan Vourich of might!
When dire was our plight,
Would you had been there to aid us!)
The celebrity of the Highland bagpipe and the part it has played—so to speak—in the history of the Highlands and of our Highland regiments are well known. “As others with the sound of trumpets, so those with the sound of the pipes are inspired with ardour for the fight.” The potency of bagpipe music on the hearts of all true Highlanders is universally acknowledged. As regards the Gathering it was the piobaireachd’s shrill summons thrilling in the ears of our forefathers “the sad tale of their devastated glens, and their houseless friends which gathered them for the war by notes which had often sounded to hard-earned victory; speaking in strains which made their blood boil with glowing emulation, as they marched to the foe, and which pealing to survivors of the battlefield in notes re-echoed by the frowning crags, drowning by its piercing tones the loud waitings of the bereaved, and the woful shrieks of the despairing women, called in a maddening voice for speedy and unsparing retribution.”
To those whose dearest associations are connected with the blue hills and rushing torrents of the Highlands there is something, on the other hand, singularly heart-stirring in the Failte, or Welcome, on the strains of the bagpipe, and something inexpressibly touching in the plaintive notes of the Cumhadh, or Lament, especially when heard in after years or in the exile of a distant land. According to tradition the Black Chanter of Clan Chattan is endowed with magical properties. Towards the end of the combat on the North Inch of Perth, we are told that there was seen an aerial minstrel hovering over the heads of the Macphersons, who after playing a few wild strains on the instrument let it drop from his hand. The Macpherson piper secured this enchanted pipe, and even though mortally wounded poured forth the pibroch of the Clan till death effectually silenced his music. The Black Chanter was ever after held to ensure success not only to the Macphersons, but also to its temporary possessors, whenever lent to other Clans by the generosity of the Chief of the time. The Grants of Strathspey having received an affront through the cowardice of some unworthy members of that Clan and being dejected beyond measure, borrowed this magical instrument. Its bold war-notes soon roused their drooping energies and stimulated them to such valour that from that time forth it passed into a proverb that “no enemy ever saw the back of a Grant.” The Grants of Glenmoriston afterwards borrowed it in the same way, and it was only restored to “old Cluny” in the early part of the present century.
Here are some spirited and appropriate lines on the Black Chanter composed by Mrs. D. Ogilvy about half-a-century ago, and worthy, I think, of a permanent place in the pages of the Celtic Monthly:—
Black Chanter of Chattan, now hushed and exhausted,
Thy music was lost with the power of the Gael,
The dread inspiration Macpherson had boasted.
For ever expired in Drummossie’s* sad wail.
Of old on St. Johnstone’s† dark meadow of slaughter
Thy cadences hurried the piper’s last breath;
The vanquished escaped amid Tay’s rolling water,
The conqueror’s pibroch was silenced by death.
That piper is nameless, and lost in like manner,
The tribes are forgotten of mighty Clan Quhele;
While Chattan, that bears the hill cat on his banner,
No time can extinguish, no ruin assail.
From the hand of a cloud-cleaving bard thou wert given
To lips that embraced thee till moveless and dead;
Since then never idly Macpherson hath striven,
Nor trust in his fortune been shaken by dread.
O mouth piece of conquest! who heard thee and trembled?
Who followed thy call, and despaired of the fight?
Availed not that foemen before thee dissembled,
For quenched was their ardour and nerveless their might.
The blast of thy pibroch, the flaunt of thy streamer,
Lent hope to each spirit and strength to each arm;
While the Saxon confronting was scared like the dreamer
Whose sleep is of peril, of grief, and alarm.
Led on by thy promise, what Chieftain e’er sallied,
Nor proved in his venture how just was thy vaunt?
At the spell of thy summons exultingly rallied
The faltering pulse of dispirited Grant.
Forerunner of victory! why didst thou tarry?
Thy voice on Drummossie an empire had changed;
We then had not seen our last efforts miscarry,
The Stuart had triumphed, the Gael been avenged.
Ah, fatal Drummosie—sad field of the flying!
The Gathering sank in the hopeless Lament;
What pibroch could stanch the wide wounds of the dying?
What magic rekindle the fire that was spent?
Proud music! by shame or dishonour ne’er daunted,
By murmur of orphan, by widowed despair.
The fall of thy country thy spell disenchanted,
With the last of the Stuarts it vanished in air.
Yet rouse thee from slumber. Black Chanter of Chattan,
Send forth a strong blast of defiance once more;
On the flesh of thy children the vulture doth batten,
And sodden with blood are the sands of Lahore.
As fierce as the tiger that prowls in their forest,
Those sons of the Orient leap to the plain;
But the blade striketh vainly wherever thou warrest,–
Black Chanter of Chattan, bestir thee again!
* Another name for Culloden. † In olden times the City of Perth was sometimes so-called from its patron, Saint John.
Seing all the principall theevs & recetters in the Highlands of Scotland does ather actuallie duell or constantly haunts & ar harboured in Glencoa, Ranoch, Brae lochaber, Glengarie & Lochaber & adjacent Glens, uher all depredations ar caried to ther disposed of & all Murtherers & persons guiltie of attrocious Cryms ar sheltered securly wt ther relations which plaices ar very remoatt from The head brughs of the shyres to which they belong.
1t Therfor yt a Garison consisting of tuo hundred men at least be plaiced at Jnnerlochay uher it shall be undertaiken by laying out 60 lib. ster: they may be conveniently lodged, & shall be easily provyded of all provisions at ye Cuntree vaitts.
2d The sojours would consist of highland men ayr to be levied or put in plaice of such as are most of their bussines being to goe out on pairties & to travell in the night for aprehending of theevs & recetters through deserts & Muntans & crossing rivers which ar utterly unknouen & rocks Inpracticable for such forces as ar now a foot.
3d That ye governor be a person of respect & Estait & Creditt so as his reputation will oblidge him to tack no base means to connive or transact wt any offenders But that his deutie to his Matie & his Cuntrie will oblidge him to mack it his uork to Crush the thift & oppression uhich if authorised he may doe in a short tym If he but will understand uher the Intric of it lyes.
4d Seing The reverence that is dew & reallie given to ye law is knouen to begett mor obedience then the force of such a number of men is able to doe Its overturd That the Governor be apoynted to be a Justice of Peace in the severall shyrs the forsds bounds belongs to, & lykwayes that the shyriffs of these shyrs viz. Pearth Argyll & Innernes be appoynted to give the Governor a Deputan from them uherby their power he may act legallie wt out Incroaching on yr priviledges but rayr comptible to ym for his respective decreets, so that he being armed wt these Legall pouesr togayr wt his Comission its not to be in the least doubted but will ever keep the Highlands from thifts & depridations, nor is ther any plaice in the Highlands that can so pirvaine any open rebellion uold be ther attempted lying equall be sea & land for all places & most of them in less then a nights merch or sailling to him.
5. That seing The Governours trouble & Chairges will be considerable for Intelligence & oyr Incident expenses, Its overturd that he have duble Capts pay The Companies to be only comanded by Livetennents under him. And Thus The King is at no more Chairge yn presently The Cuntree will not be oppresst ut projects and the Highlands made peacable.
6. The Lau & Acts of Parlt ar still to be in force in order to Cheefs & Landlords, & this person alloued to persew them be lau upon all occasions.
7. That the Governor be by his Comission appoynted to mack severall circuitts to keep Courts which will contribut much uhen they see law brought to ther dors wt a force able to put it in execution, I mean shyriff Courts) & if a greater latitude be alloued its best.
8. That The Governor be appoynted to gett lists of all the Theevs & broaken men in the Highlands which he may easily gett & That his Maties Advocatt sumone them all to find Cation which many will doe Especiallie If it be thought fitt to Indemnifie them for bypast transgressions (except Murder) such as will not compear to be denounced fugitivs & a Comission to the forsd Governor to aprehend or destroy ym which he may doe if they keep Scotland.
9. That the severall shyriffs be appoynted (togayr ut the Magistrats of Brughs) to receave his prisoners & grant him receatts for them.
10. That ye forsd Governor shall by himself & give up the nams of such as he knowes to be cited to give in evidences agt such prissoners to be tryed befor the Justices & ther deputts.
The above is copied from the original (in the handwriting of the first Marquess) in the charter chest of the Marquess of Tweeddale. From 1662 to 1674 John Hay, second Earl, afterwards first Marquess, of Tweeddale occupied a very prominent place in Scottish politics, when he was distinguished for the moderation of his views. This paper is undated, but was found with papers dated about 1668, and there is little doubt that it must have been written just before an Act of Privy Council (of which Tweeddale was President) dated 22nd Dec., 1664, dealing with disorders in the Highlands.
— The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. XII., No. 46, January 1915.
This contemptuous loathing lasted till the year 1745, and was then for a moment succeeded by intense fear and rage. England, thoroughly alarmed, put forth her whole strength. The Highlands were subjugated rapidly, completely, and for ever. During a short time the English nation, still heated by the recent conflict, breathed nothing but vengeance. The slaughter on the field of battle and on the scaffold was not sufficient to slake the public thirst for blood. The sight of the tartan inflamed the populace of London with hatred, which showed itself by unmanly outrages to defenceless captives. A political and social revolution took place through the whole Celtic region. The power of the chiefs was destroyed: the people were disarmed: the use of the old national garb was interdicted: the old predatory habits were effectually broken; and scarcely had this change been accomplished when a strange reflux of public feeling began. Pity succeeded to aversion. The nation execrated the cruelties which had been committed on the Highlanders, and forgot that for those cruelties it was itself answerable. Those very Londoners, who, while the memory of the march to Derby was still fresh, had thronged to hoot and pelt the rebel prisoners, now fastened on the prince who had put down the rebellion the nickname of Butcher. Those barbarous institutions and usages, which, while they were in full force, no Saxon had thought worthy of serious examination, or had mentioned except with contempt, had no sooner ceased to exist than they became objects of curiosity, of interest, even of admiration. Scarcely had the chiefs been turned into mere landlords, when it became the fashion to draw invidious comparisons between the rapacity of the landlord and the indulgence of the chief. Men seemed to have forgotten that the ancient Gaelic polity had been found to be incompatible with the authority of law, had obstructed the progress of civilisation, had more than once brought on the empire the curse of civil war. As they had formerly seen only the odious side of that polity, they could now see only the pleasing side. The old tie, they said, had been parental: the new tie was purely commercial. What could be more lamentable than that the head of a tribe should eject, for a paltry arrear of rent, tenants who were his own flesh and blood, tenants whose forefathers had often with their bodies covered his forefathers on the field of battle? As long as there were Gaelic marauders, they had been regarded by the Saxon population as hateful vermin who ought to be exterminated without mercy. As soon as the extermination had been accomplished, as soon as cattle were as safe in the Perthshire passes as in Smithfield market, the freebooter was exalted into a hero of romance. As long as the Gaelic dress was worn, the Saxons had pronounced it hideous, ridiculous, nay, grossly indecent. Soon after it had been prohibited, they discovered that it was the most graceful drapery in Europe. The Gaelic monuments, the Gaelic usages, the Gaelic superstitions, the Gaelic verses, disdainfully neglected during many ages, began to attract the attention of the learned from the moment at which the peculiarities of the Gaelic race began to disappear. So strong was
this impulse that, where the Highlands were concerned, men of sense gave ready credence to stories without evidence, and men of taste gave rapturous applause to compositions without merit. Epic poems, which any skilful and dispassionate critic would at a glance have perceived to be almost entirely modern, and which, if they had been published as modern, would have instantly found their proper place in company with Blackmore’s Alfred and Wilkie’s Epigoniad, were pronounced to be fifteen hundred years old, and were gravely classed with the Iliad. Writers of a very different order from the impostor who fabricated these forgeries saw how striking an effect might be produced by skilful pictures of the old Highland life. Whatever was repulsive was softened down: whatever was graceful and noble was brought prominently forward. Some of these works were executed with such admirable art that, like the historical plays of Shakspeare, they superseded history. The visions of the poet were realities to his readers. The places which he described became holy ground, and were visited by thousands of pilgrims. Soon the vulgar imagination was so completely occupied by plaids, targets, and claymores, that, by most Englishmen, Scotchman and Highlander were regarded as synonymous words. Few people seemed to be aware that, at no remote period, a Macdonald or a Macgregor in his tartan was to a citizen of Edinburgh or Glasgow what an Indian hunter in his war paint is to an inhabitant of Philadelphia or Boston. Artists and actors represented Bruce and Douglas in striped petticoats. They might as well have represented Washington brandishing a tomahawk, and girt with a string of scalps. At length this fashion reached a point beyond which it was not easy to proceed. The last British King who held a court in Holyrood thought that he could not give a more striking proof of his respect for the usages which had prevailed in Scotland before the Union, than by disguising himself in what, before the Union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten as the dress of a thief.
Thus it has chanced that the old Gaelic institutions and manners have never been exhibited in the simple light of truth. Up to the middle of the last century, they were seen through one false medium: they have since been seen through another.
Thus it has chanced that the old Gaelic institutions and manners have never been exhibited in the simple light of truth. Up to the middle of the last century, they were seen through one false medium: they have since been seen through another. Once they loomed dimly through an obscuring and distorting haze of prejudice; and no sooner had that fog dispersed than they appeared bright with all the richest tints of poetry. The time when a perfectly fair picture could have been painted has now passed away. The original has long disappeared: no authentic effigy exists: and all that is possible is to produce an imperfect likeness by the help of two portraits, of which one is a coarse caricature and the other a masterpiece of flattery.
— Lord Macaulay, History of England, Vol. III, chap. xiii.
The Earl of Breadalbane, a man of great power in the Highlands, and head of a numerous clan of the Campbells, was intrusted with a sum of money, which some authors call 20, and some 12,000 pounds, to be distributed among the chieftains, on the condition of their submission to the existing government, and keeping on foot, each chief in proportion to his means, a military force to act on behalf of government, at home or abroad, as they should be called on. This scheme would probably have rendered the Highland clans a resource, instead of a terror, to the government of King William; while their love of war, and their want of money, would by degrees have weaned them from their attachment to the exiled King, which would gradually have been transferred to a prince who led them to battle, and paid them for following him.
But many of the chiefs were jealous of the conduct of the Earl of Breadalbane in distributing the funds intrusted to his care. Part of this treasure the wily Earl bestowed among the most leading men; when these were bought off, he intimidated those of less power into submission, by threatening them with military execution; and it has always been said, that he retained a considerable portion of the gratuity in his own hands. The Highland chiefs complained to Government of Breadalbane’s conduct, who, they alleged, had advised them only to submit to King William for the present, until an opportunity should occur of doing King James effectual service. They also charged him with retaining, for his own purposes, a considerable part of the money deposited in his hands, as the price of peace.
My dear Lord, The money you mention, was given to purchase the peace of the Highlands. The money is spent—the Highlands are quiet, and this is the only way of accompting among friends.
Government, it is said, attended to this information, so far as to demand, through the Secretary of State, a regular account of the manner in which the sum of money placed in his hands had been distributed. But Breadalbane, too powerful to be called in question, and too audacious to care for suspicion of what he judged Government dared not resent, is traditionally said to have answered the demand in the following cavalier manner:— “My dear Lord, The money you mention, was given to purchase the peace of the Highlands. The money is spent—the Highlands are quiet, and this is the only way of accompting among friends.”
— Sir Walter Scott, Tales of a Grandfather, Second Series, Vol. I, 1842.
[W]hen an estate is so heavily burdened by an accumulation of debts inherited by its present possessor from the unwisdom of their forefathers. A point is ever reached … when the interest on money borrowed can no longer be paid and the lands themselves have to be sold. This in brief is what had happened not only with the lands we speak to you of, but of nearly all the lands which march with Ardkinglass. You will all of you recollect that it was but some 10 years ago that the neighbouring estate of Strachur which (with that of Ardgarten) was held for at least 9 centuries by a branch of our race passed into other hands. Drimsynie, Carrick, Ardentinny and Kilmun and even Dunoon all once part of the vast Barony of Ardkinglass and all held by younger sons of the parent stock have long since passed away, with the single exception of Dunoon which is still held by one of the old race. And though it seem but a span in the lifetime of a planet, and though the hills that keep watch, in their own unchanging silence, over the changing ownership of the glens, shall smile at the thought it seems a long time in the history of the race when we look back at the far off day when Cailein Oig first Laird of Ardkinglass with his three tall sons settled, in the place where in obedience to a predicted omen his hamper strings should snap.
Letter of Niall Diarmid Campbell, 10th Duke of Argyll, to the tenantry of Ardkinglas upon deciding to sell the estate (h/t Ardkinglas Estate).
Sieing the bark is come heir with the meal I desire now that you send onelie about threttie seckis alongis in Auchnabrekis boat and lat all the rest remaine till my farder ordours. In the meantime haist heir all the amunitione, powder, lead and matches that come fra Glenurquhy and send back this boatt of Macleanis with it and send some trustie man with it and some of the sojouris that are coming up to guard it. And lat it be haisted with expeditioune. Iff this overtake Auchnabrekis boatt lat the amunition be sent on hir. And howsoevir you shall not faill to haist both McCleanis boat and your awine sax oared boat with all possible diligence. And so I rest, your loving Coosen,
Inverlochie, last Jan. 1645.
After the writing hereof I have stayed yor awine boatt and so send the amunition in the reddiest boatt.
Eodem anno  infra octavas Ascencionis beatae Virginis Mariae idem rex Ergadiensis devicit in medio Ergadiae et totam terram sibi subegit, ducem eorum nomine Alexandrum de Argadia fugientem ad castrum de Dunstafinch per aliquod tempus inibi obsedit, qui eidem regi Castrum reddidit et sibi homagium facere recusans, dato salvo conductu sibi et omnibus secum recedere volentibus in Angliam fugit et ibidem debitum naturae persolvit.
John of Fordun, Chronica Gentis Scotorum, cxxvi.
The king that stout wes stark and bauld
Till Dunstaffynch rycht sturdely
A sege set and besily
Assaylit the castell it to get,
And in schort tym he has thaim set
In swilk thrang that tharin war than
That magre tharis he it wan,
And ane gud wardane tharin set
And betaucht hym bath men and met
Sua that he lang tyme thar mycht be
Magre thaim all off that countre.
I have heard many names of St. Briget, most beloved of Gaelic saints, with whom the month of February is identified . . . the month of “Bride min, gentle St. Bride” . . . Brighid boidheach Muime Chriosd, Bride the Beautiful, Christ’s Foster Mother . . . but there are three so less common that many even of my readers familiar with the Highland West may not know them. These are “the Fair Woman of February,” “St. Bride of the Kindly Fire,” and “St. Bride (or Briget) of the Shores.” They are of the Isles, and may be heard in some of the sgeulachdan gàidhealach, or Gaelic tales, still told among seafaring and hill folk, where the curse of cheap ignoble periodicals is unknown and books are rare. True, in several of the isles . . . Colonsay, Tiree, the Outer Hebrides . . . “St. Bride of the Shores” is not infrequent in songs and seasonal hymns, for when her signals are seen along the grey beaches, on the sandy machars, by the meadow path, the glen-track, the white shore-road, the islanders know that the new year is disclosed at last, that food, warmth, and gladness are coming out of the south. As “the Fair Woman of February,” though whatever other designation St. Bride goes by, she is often revealed. Her humble yellow fires are lit among the grasses, on the shore-ways, during this month. Everywhere in the Gaelic lands “Candlemas-Queen ” is honoured at this time. Am Fheill Bhride, the Festival of St. Briget, was till recently a festival of joy throughout the west, from the Highland Line to the last weedy shores of Barra or the Lews: in the isles and in the remote Highlands, still is.
It is an old tale, this association of St. Briget with February. It goes further back than the days of the monkish chroniclers who first attempted to put the disguise of verbal Christian raiment on the most widely-loved and revered beings of the ancient Gaelic pantheon. Long before the maiden Brigida (whether of Ireland or Scotland matters little) made her fame as a “daughter of God”; long before to Colum in Iona or to Patrick “the great Cleric” in Ireland “Holy St. Bride” revealed in a vision the service she had done to Mary and the Child in far-away Bethlehem in the East; before ever the first bell of Christ was heard by startled Druids coming across the hills and forest lands of Gaul, the Gaels worshipped a Brighde or Bride, goddess of women, of fire, of poetry. When, to-day, a Gaelic islesman alludes to Briget of the Songs, or when a woman of South Uist prays to Good St. Bride to bless the empty cradle that is soon to be filled, or when a shennachie or teller of tales speaks of an oath taken by Briget of the Flame, they refer, though probably unconsciously, to a far older Brighid than do they who speak with loving familiarity of Muime Chriosd, Christ’s Foster Mother, or Brighid – nam – Bratta, St. Bride of the Mantle. They refer to one who in the dim, far-off days of the forgotten pagan world of our ancestors was a noble and great goddess. They refer to one to whom the women of the Gael went with offerings and prayers, as went the women of ancient Hellas to the temples of Aphrodite, as went the Syrian women to the altars of Astarte, as went the women of Egypt to the milk-fed shrines of Isis. They refer to one whom the Druids held in honour as a torch bearer of the eternal light, a Daughter of the Morning, who held sunrise in one hand as a little yellow flame, and in the other held the red flower of fire without which men would be as the beasts who live in caves and holes, or as the dark Fomor who have their habitations in cloud and wind and the wilderness. They refer to one whom the bards and singers revered as mistress of their craft, she whose breath was a flame, and that flame song: she whose secret name was fire and whose inmost soul was radiant air, she therefore who was the divine impersonation of the divine thing she stood for. Poetry.
“St. Bride of the Kindly Fire,” of whom one may hear to-day as “oh, just Bhrighde mìn Muim (gentle St. Bride the Foster Mother), she herself an’ no other,” is she, that ancient goddess, whom our ancestors saw lighting the torches of sunrise on the brows of hills, or thrusting the quenchless flame above the horizons of the sea: whom the Druids hailed with hymns at the turn of the year, when, in the season we call February, the firstcomers of the advancing Spring are to be seen on the grey land or on the grey wave or by the grey shores: whom every poet, from the humblest wandering singer to Oisin of the Songs, from Oisin of the Songs to Angus Og on the rainbow or to Midir of the Underworld, blessed, because of the flame she put in the heart of poets as well as the red life she put in the flame that springs from wood and peat. None forgot that she was the daughter of the ancient God of the Earth, but greater than he, because in him there was but earth and water, whereas in her veins ran the elements of air and fire. Was she not born at sunrise? On the day she reached womanhood did not the house wherein she dwelled become wrapped in a flame which consumed it not, though the crown of that flame licked the high unburning roof of Heaven? In that hour when, her ancient divinity relinquished and she reborn a Christian saint, she took the white veil, did not a column of golden light rise from her head till no eyes could follow it? In that moment when she died from earth, having taken mortality upon her so as to know a divine resurrection to a new and still more enduring Country of the Immortal, were there not wings of fire seen flashing along all the shores of the west and upon the summits of all Gaelic hills? And how could one forget that at any time she had but to bend above the dead, and her breath would quicken, and a pulse would come back into the still heart, and what was dust would arise and be once more glad.
The Fair Woman of February is still loved, still revered. Few remember the last fading traditions of her ancient greatness: few, even, know that she lived before the coming of the Cross: but all love her, because of her service to Mary in Her travail and to the newborn Child, and because she looks with eyes of love into every cradle and puts the hand of peace on the troubled hearts of women: and all delight in her return to the world after the ninety days of the winter-sleep, when her heralds are manifest.
What, then, are the insignia of St. Briget of the Shores? They are simple. They are the dandelion, the lamb, and the sea-bird, popularly called the oyster-opener. From time immemorial, this humble, familiar yellow plant of the wayside has been identified with St. Bride. To this day shepherds, on Am Fheill Bhrighde, are wont to hear among the mists the crying of innumerable young lambs, and this without the bleating of ewes, and so by that token know that Holy St. Bride has passed by, coming earthward with her flock of the countless lambs soon to be born on all the hillsides and pastures of the world. Fisherfolk on the shores of the west and on the far isles have gladdened at the first prolonged repetitive whistle of the oyster-opener, for its advent means that the hosts of the good fish are moving towards the welcoming coasts once more, that the wind of the south is unloosened, that greenness will creep to the grass, that birds will seek the bushes, that song will come to them, and that everywhere a new gladness will be abroad. By these signs is St. Briget of the Shores known. One, perhaps, must live in the remote places, and where wind and cloud, rain and tempest, great tides and uprising floods are the common companions of day and night, in order to realise the joy with which things so simple are welcomed. To see the bright sunsweet face of the dandelion once more— an dealan Dhé, the little flame of God, am bearnan Bhrighde, St. Bride’s forerunner— what a joy this is. It comes into the grass like a sunray. Often before the new green is in the blade it flaunts its bright laughter in the sere bent. It will lie in ditches and stare at the sun. It will climb broken walls, and lean from nooks and corners. It will come close to the sands and rocks, sometimes will even join company with the sea-pink, though it cannot find footing where later the bind-weed and the horned poppy, those children of the seawind who love to be near and yet shrink from the spray of the salt wave, defy wind and rain. It is worthier the name “Traveller’s Joy” than the wild clematis of the autumnal hedgerows: for its bright yellow leaps at one from the roadside like a smile, and its homeliness is pleasant as the gladness of playing children.
It is a herald of Spring that precedes even the first loud flute-like calls of the missel-thrush. When snow is still on the track of the three winds of the north it is, by the wayside, a glad companion. Soon it will be everywhere. Before long the milk-white sheen of the daisy and the moon-daisy, the green-gold of the tansy, the pale gold of the gorse and the broom, the yellow of the primrose and wild colchicum, of the cowslip and buttercup, of the copse-loving celandine and meadow-rejoicing crowsfoot, all these yellows of first spring will soon be abroad: but the dandelion comes first. I have known days when, after midwinter, one could go a mile and catch never a glimpse of this bright comrade of the ways, and then suddenly see one or two or three, and rejoice forthwith as though at the first blossom on the blackthorn, at the first wild-roses, at the first swallow, at the first thrilling bells of the cuckoo. We are so apt to lose the old delight in familiar humble things. So apt to ignore what is by the way, just because it is by the way. I recall a dour old lowland gardener in a loch-and-hill-set region of Argyll, who, having listened to exclamations of delight at a rainbow, muttered, “Weel, I juist think naethin ava’ o’ thon rainbows . . . ye can see one whenever ye tak the trouble to look for them hereaboots.” He saw them daily, or so frequently that for him all beauty and strangeness had faded from these sudden evanescent Children of Beauty. Beauty has only to be perceptible to give an immediate joy, and it is no paradoxical extravagance to say that one may receive the thrilling communication from “the little flame of God” by the homely roadside as well as from these leaning towers built of air and water which a mysterious alchemy reveals to us on the cloudy deserts of heaven. “Man is surprised,” Emerson says, “to find that things near and familiar are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote.” Certainly no Gaelic lover of St. Bride’s Flower, of the Flower of February, but rejoices to see its welcome face after the snow and sleet of winter have first sullenly receded, if only for a time, and to know that St. Bride of the Shores wears it at her breast, and that when she throws it broadcast the world is become a green place again and the quickening sunlight a gladsome reality.
In these desolate far isles where life is so hard, where the grey winds from the north and east prevail for weeks at a time on the grey tempestuous seas, and where so much depends on such small things— a little drift- wood, a few heaps of peat, a few shoal of fish now of one kind now of another, a few cartloads of seaweed, a rejoicing sound is that in truth when the Gille-Bhride is heard crying along the shores. Who that has heard its rapid whirling cry as it darts from haunt to haunt but will recognise its own testimony to being “Servant of Breed” (the common pronunciation of the Gaelic Brighid or Bride)— for does it not cry over and over again with swift incessant iterance, Gilly-breed, gilly-breed, gilly-breed, gilly-breed, gilly-breed.
White may my milking be,
White as thee;
Thy face is white, thy neck is white,
Thy hands are white, thy feet are white.
For thy sweet soul is shining bright—
O dear to me,
O dear to see,
St. Briget White!
Yellow may my butter be,
Firm, and round:
Thy breasts are sweet.
Firm, round, and sweet,
So may my butter be:
So may my butter be, O
Safe thy way is, safe, O
Safe, St. Bride:
May my kye come home at even,
None be fallin’, none be leavin’,
Dusky even, breath-sweet even,
Here, as there, where O
St. Bride thou
Keepest tryst with God in heav’n,
Seest the angels bow
And souls be shriven—
Here, as there, ’tis breath-sweet even
Far and wide—
Singeth thy little maid
Safe in thy shade
When the first lambs appear, many are the invocations among the Irish and Hebridean Gaels to good St. Bride. At the hearth-side, too, the women, carding wool, knitting, telling tales, singing songs, dreaming— these know her whether they name her in thought, or have forgotten what was dear wisdom to their mothers of old. She leans over cradles, and when babies smile they have seen her face. When the cra’thull swings in the twilight, the slow rhythm, which is music in the mother’s ear, is the quiet clapping of her hushing hands. St. Bride, too, loves the byres or the pastures when the kye are milked, though now she is no longer ” the Woman of February,” but simply “good St. Bride of the yellow hair.”
— Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp), The Works of “Fiona MacLeod” (Uniform Edition), Volume VI, arranged by Mrs. William Sharp, London, William Heinemann, 1910.