Chapter 6: More nonsense rhymes

Edited 13 January 2010

In the previous chapter we discovered that such diverse and unregarded things as shinty dialogues, fairy tales, counting-out rhymes, and the cumulative tales used to entertain young children conceal archaic incantations addressed to the Hunting Goddess. We looked for further abused fragments of Gaelic and found some more surprising things.

The theriomorphic soul.
We begin with the much abused fragment from the land of MacLeod, on the basis of which the MacLeods are considered to have ‘a close connection with the horse’ while Dr George Henderson regarded it as evidence for the theriomorphic soul. G. Henderson 1911, 117. Needless to say, it is nothing of the sort.

Gaelic version Nonsense version Archaic interpretation
Sìol nan Leòdach Progeny of Leod sùil ‘eye, beacon’; lèod ‘cutting’
Sìol a’ chapuill Progeny of the horse co-pu-ilidh ‘gathering fire place’
Bhacaich spògaich Lame and awkward bacadh ‘hindrance, deer trap’
spòg ‘to seize with talons’
Bheathaicheadh air Fed on beatha ‘salutation’
Moll is fòlach Chaff and rank grass moll ‘gathering’
fòlach ‘blood-shed’
Air dubhadan dubh On the black beard of oats dubh ‘deer’
Is gulm eòrna. And on singed barley straw glum for glun ‘trap’
eòrna for feòrnean ‘pile’.

The introduction is missing but this again can be recognised as a request for blessing on a hunt: ‘[O Lady, bless] the beacon of the slaughter, the beacon of the gathering place, the deer trap of the sharp seizure. [Give] a blessing on the muster and on the killing (or falach ‘concealment, ambush’) of the deer, and a great pile at the trap.’

The Old Woman of Rodel.
A mercifully brief example of a nonsense tale written to explain a fragment of old verse is also from the land of Macleod. We can immediately recognise the Old Woman as the beacon at Rodel, at the southern end of Harris. A poor old widow woman had been plundered seven times by robbers or hunters known as Clan Mhic Iain Mhoir, ‘the clan of the son of Big John’, in archaic terms ‘the hunting band of the great fire’. She revenged herself on them by feeding them cats (cath ‘hunt’) which they took for lamb (uan for ain ‘fire). She outlives them all and as she pours a cauldron of boiling water on to their grave at Rodel, she recites the following verse.

’Mhic mearlach nan laogh ‘s nan gobhar, Son of a thief of calves and goats,
Mise gu h’ard ‘s thusa fodham; I am above and thou are below me;
Tha thu shios gu domhain, domhain, Thou are down deeply, deeply,
Is doirtidh mi seo mu do ghoball. And I will pour this over thy lap.

In the forest of the hunter of hinds and stags,
I am on the height and thou are under my command;
Thou hast a petition (cìos) for the deer forest, the deer forest,
That I will pour a multitude into the trap.

This is unusual only insofar as the Cailleach addresses the hunters. She exists in effigy at Rodel, built into the church in the form of a sheela-na-gig, a term we can now recognise to mean ‘hunter of deer’.

The caisean-uchd.
Occasionally ritual practice appears to be an artefact of mistranslation and credulity. This appears to be the case with the caisean-uchd, the breast-strip of a sheep killed at Christmas or on New Year’s Eve, singed until it smoked and then solemnly sniffed at by each member of the family as a charm against fairies and spirits. MacAlpine adds that this was done ‘in Islay at any time but never for the sake of the fairies’. According to another source, the singed and smelly object was the dewlap of a cow. It appears that the caisean-uchd was once a good-luck ritual of a very different type.

caise ‘wrinkle, fold, privy parts of a female’. A symbolic deer trap.
cas ‘approach, wreathe, twist, bend, climb (hunt)’. Cognate with E. chase
uchd ‘intercession’.
uan ‘lamb’, a pun on ain ‘fire’.

Crossing water.
The belief that a witch or an evil spirit cannot cross water is believed to find expression in the Gaelic saying: Ludh an spioraid ’dol timchioll na drochaid – ‘The way of the ghost going round the bridge’ or ‘To go about the bridge, as the ghost did’. Dwelly 606. Being reinterpreted, this means ‘The way of the hunter rounding up (the deer ) with a hurdle.’ Here the spioraid is not a spirit but one who follows spoor, or a tracker; cf. G. spor ‘to search by scratching, groping or fumbling’. Highland hunters were phenomenally good trackers.

Gill’ite-a-gochd or Cill igh ’ic ochd was a game played by children in Argyll. J.F. Campbell IV, 290; R.C. McLagan 1901, 129. A smouldering stick is passed round a circle of children. Each child tries to keep it alight by waving it around for as long as it takes him to repeat the following jingle and then passes it, still glowing, to the next one. The player who holds the stick says Cill igh ’ic ochd or Gill’ite-a-gochd, and the next one replies Cha ’n fhior dhuit e, and the fire-holder repeats as fast as he can:

Cha’n ’eil clach na crann ’san tigh mhor ’ud thall,
Nach tuit mu d’cheann, ma leigeas tu as Gill’ite-a-gochd.

There’s never stock nor stone in yonder great house
But will fall on thy head if thou lettest out the servant of Ite-a-gochd.

Gill’ite-a-gochd means ‘servant of the deer beacon’, in other words, fire, and the response means ‘Fire for thee’. The ‘great house’ is probably the beacon (the Tigh Mhor at Dalmally was a beacon site). This fits the actions and purpose of the game perfectly if we imagine that live fire was on occasion carried to the beacon by hunters running in relays, who handed it over with this ritual warning. Children not yet old enough to hunt could practise their skills at keeping fire alight.

The Taghairm or gathering summons.
One of the most bizarre misinterpretation of a routine hunting activity is the story attached to the taghairm. Martin Martin, thought to be a Highlander but evidently not very expert in Gaelic, already at the end of the seventeenth century described the taghairm as a form of divination. One roasted a live cat on a spit until a very large cat appeared and answered certain questions. A more evolved version of this myth appeared in the London Literary Gazette of March 1824. It claimed that the taghairm was a horrid species of sorcery, one of the most effective ways of raising the Devil and getting unlawful wishes granted. It had last been performed in Mull at the beginning of the seventeenth century by Allan mac Echain and Lauchlan Odhar, both at the time young and unmarried. They raised the infernal powers by roasting, one after the other, a series of live cats over four days and four nights, beginning at midnight on Friday and tasting no food in the meantime. Almost immediately black cats began to pour into the house or barn where the taghairm was taking place. By the end of the fourth day ‘there was a black cat at the root of every rafter on the roof of the barn and their yells were distinctly heard beyond the Sound of Mull in Morvern.’ G. Henderson 1911, 267-9. The performance was successfully accomplished and both men got a great accession of all worldly goods.

Another taghairm with some similar features was attributed to Allan nan Creach ‘Allan of the spoils’, one of the Camerons of Locheil, in the fifteenth century. Drummond-Norrie, Loyal Lochaber, [DATE] 247-249. Wishing to repent of his evil doings he took advice from the witch Gormshuil and set up a taghairm in a small hut on the Corpach Moss. While his servant roasted the cat, he tried but failed to ward off all the other cats who poured in. Eventually he had collected all the cats of Lochaber. The last to arrive was Camdubh, a gigantic black cat with one eye, who was second in importance only to his brother Cluasan leabhra ‘long ears’.

All these stories of cats come from literary sources – it seems that the supernatural taghairm exists only in English – but the sense of the original Gaelic is easy to deduce, particularly as it is known that taghairm means ‘gathering summons’. It was not addressed to infernal powers and it did not involve cats but hunters or cathach. The fire that burned for four days and nights was a very large gathering beacon, visible in the one case as far as Morvern and in the other throughout Lochaber. As further evidence of this regional activity, we know that the beacon on Ben More on Mull was visible on the islands of Eigg and Coll, and that the men of Mull regularly crossed to Morvern to hunt. The witch consulted by Allan was a great long-distance beacon. We know her name: Gorm-shùil mhòr of Moy (for major regional beacons, see page ref). With her permission, the Camerons evidently used a beacon on the Corpach Moss for local purposes. Like all proper fairy cats, these are black cats, since G. dubh ‘black’ also means ‘deer’. A black cat is a deer hunter and Camdubh ‘the bent place of the deer’is a deer trap.

The king of the cats raised by the MacLeans had very large ears and that raised by Allan nan Creach had very long ears, in both cases a loose interpretation of Cluasa leabhra literally ‘library ears’ or ‘book ears’, not an appropriate epithet for the leader of a band of hunters. A better word is cleasach ‘sportive, crafty, capable of feats of valour’. Cleas is also found in clìath-chòmraig ‘battalion, hero’ and in fir-chlis ‘aurora borealis’. Leòbrach ‘of the thick lips’ is again part of the sexual imagery attached to the deer ambush. The same root is found in liobard ‘leopard’ and in leòbair or ‘leper’ (Fillan was a leper or white man or beacon). This is discussed under liobasdair ‘sloven’ (page ref). The descendants of Cluasa Leabhra might now call themselves the Lochiel Leopards.

In Lochaber Allan said to his servant:
Ciod air bith a chì, no’ chual thu, cuir mu’n cuairt an cat –
‘Hear you this or see you that, round the spit and turn the cat’.

Nicolson’s Gaelic Proverbs has
Ge b’e chi no chluinneas tu, cùm an cat mun cuairt
Whatever you see or hear, keep the cat turning. A. Nicolson, Gaelic Proverbs, 1996 edition, 216.

Relevant words are cuir ‘to invite’, cum ‘battle, fight (hunt)’, cuairt ‘expedition’ and cath ‘hunt’. This is an instruction or definition: ‘What you see or hear invites the local hunter to a communal hunt’ – perhaps ‘These things define an invitation to a communal hunt.’

An irrational account of toghairm na ndeamhan – ‘the conjuration of demons’ – comes from the evolved folk-lore typical of Ireland. G. Keating, History of Ireland, c.1630, xlvi. G. cliathach also means ‘battle’ or ‘hunt’, because hurdles were used to carry dead deer or, probably, haunches of venison wrapped in hides.. If the druids ever did anything of the sort for the purpose of conjuring demons, they were twice deluded.

‘As to the druids, the use they made of the hides of the bulls offered in sacrifice was to keep them for the purpose of making conjuration, or laying geasa on the demons; and many are the ways in which they laid geasa on them, such as to keep looking at their own images in water, or gaze on the clouds of heaven, of keep listening to the noise of the wind or the chattering of the birds. But when all these expedients failed them, and they were obliged to do their utmost, what they did was to make round wattles of the rowan tree, and to spread thereon the hides of the bulls offered in sacrifice, putting the side that had been next the flesh uppermost, and thus relying on their geasa to summon the demons to get information from them, as the conjurer does now in the circus; whence the old saw has since been current which says that one has gone to his wattles of knowledge [chliathaibh] when he has done his utmost to obtain information.’ There is no need to see anything supernatural in this practice. As reported already (page ref), a hunter benighted far from home in the taiga might wrap himself up in the flayed hide of the deer or elk he had killed and sleep directly on the snow. L. Zaliznyak 1997, 80.

Armstrong’s Gaelic Dictionary (Mid-Perthshire), 1820, from Martin Martin.
‘The divination by the taghairm was once a noted superstition among the Gael, and in the northern parts of the Lowlands of Scotland. When any important question of futurity arose, and of which a solution was, by all means, desirable, some shrewder person than his neighbours was pitched upon, to perform the part of a prophet. This person was wrapped in the warm smoking hide of a newly-slain ox or cow, commonly an ox, and laid at full length in the wildest recesses of some lonely waterfall. The question was then put to him and the oracle left in solitude to consider it. Here he lay for some hours with his cloak of knowledge around him, and over his head, no doubt, to see the better into futurity; deafened by the incessant roaring of the torrent; every sense assailed; his body steaming; his fancy in a ferment; and whatever notion had found its way into his mind from so many sources of prophecy, it was firmly believed to have been communicated by invisible beings who were supposed to haunt such solitudes.’ This taghairm appears to be a shamanistic initiation which was typically designed to increase the candidate’s ability to manipulate the sacred by means of an ecstatic experience. Mircea Eliade notes initiation by seclusion in the bush, a larval existence, symbolic burial, and hypnotic sleep, all designed to remove all memory of the former life M. Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 1946, in English 1964, 64-5. or to provoke what we would call a complete mental breakdown.

But, again, the irrational may rest on the purely practical. Although it may appear at first sight to be even more removed from realisty, the account of how Iain Beag a’ Bhlair Bhuidhe (‘the small fire of the hunting plain’) was to catch the water-horse appears to be derived directly from hunting lore. ‘At Beltane Eve when the sun begins to descend from his highest part, you must kill the speckled ox [an damh ballach], you will then put the skin about yourself and go on your hands and knees, like an ox. Before sunset let someone drive you and the cows to the side of Poll nan Craobhan. As soon as the sun sets, the black horse will come out of the water and begin to graze with the cattle. Get between the horse and the water, spring at his bridle which has neither bit nor chin-strap and pull it off. Then the black horse is under your control and will do whatever you want.’ J. MacDougall 1910, 308-319.

Columba and Odhran.
Another marvellously improbable story is the legend that Odhran, a follower of Columba, was buried alive to sanctify the site of the first Abbey in Iona. There were apparently some problems in finding the best site for it had already been moved more than once. To move a building around tells us that it was a beacon site whose location had been tested overnight by means of fires and found to be out of sight of some distant position. When Columba had the earth removed after three days, Odhran uttered the words: Chan eil am bàs ’na iongantas, no Ifrinn mar a dh’aithrisear (or a dùbhrar), which might mean ‘There is no wonder in death and hell is not as it is reported’. Columba reacted with passion to these blasphemies, calling out, according to one version

?ir! ?ir! air sùil Odhrain mu’n labhair e tuilleadh còmhraidh
‘Earth! Earth! On Oran’s eye that he may blab no more.’ G. Henderson, 1911, 282.

Another version, given by Jamieson (1811) amends sùil ‘eye’ to beal ‘mouth:

Uir! Uir! air beal Orain ma’n labhair e tuile comh’rahd
‘Earth! earth! on the mouth of Oran that he may blab no more’.

As we will see, the original version is probably correct.

A preliminary clue is that Oran is found as Ir. orthain ‘prayer’ which suggests the origin of the name as ‘hunting fire’. It is also linked to G. aodhair ‘fiery conflagration’ Other related words are ùir ‘fire’, sùil ‘beacon, signal’, muin ‘shows, points out’, labhair ‘hunter’, tul ‘fire’, and còmhraig ‘fight, war, battle (communal deer hunt)’. What Columba actually shouted was

‘Fire! Fire! The beacon shows the hunter the signal for a joint hunt!’

Like many other meaningless scraps of Gaelic which have inspired wild stories, and some even wilder academic theories, this is a hunting shout, used to alert hunters that they had to muster. Odhran himself is and sùil odhrain was presumably the beacon on Iona. A hunting shout is less memorable than burying a man alive, though that is one way of putting out a fire, but an invitation to a hunt was momentous enough in its day. The story of the moving site also suggests that the abbey at Iona was built on an existing beacon site and that the monks were responsible for manning it. The old name of the island, I, is probably G. aodh ‘light, fire’.

Satan’s Invisible World Discovered.
‘Charms and spells have been first taught to men and women in confederacy with the Devil, many of which are received by Tradition and used by Witches and ignorant Persons too. The vertue of curing, must be from the Devils active invisible application of them, to such or such a disease, as the curing of an Universal Gout by this unintelligible Charm.’

Etter sheen etter sock Aodhair sìan, aodhair suaigh (su ‘gather’, aigh ‘deer’)
Roaring conflagration, fire of prosperity,
Etta leur etta pachk Aodhair léir, aodhair pèac,
Far-visible fire, sharp-pointed fire,
Wipper sicaan easemitter in shi Uipear seicean easmaidh an sìth,
Churl of the hide bag, a spear in the deer forest,
Fo leish in shi corne Follas an sìth corne,
Proclaim in the deer forest of the horns,
Orn sheip twa till ane Orn sèap tuathaile àin,
Slaughter great quantities, light of the folk,
Curht mach a mainfhore. Curaidh mach a min-fheur
Champion of the deer plain of the fine grass.
Printed, mainshore.

To cure the Ling
This appears to be an archaic prayer addressed to the beacon directly.
Cathari Duni Chini Brini. Cathair daoine cinnich brionn.
Watchman of the people, grow bright!

For relief in child-birth.

Far si far fa far fay,
U far four na forty kay,
U mack straik it a pain four hun,
Creig weil mack smeoran bun bagie.

This charm is a mixture of archaic Gaelic and nonsense English. It may be four or five unrelated hunting shouts, or the second couplet may be part of a longer rhymed incantation. Far si far in the first line could mean ‘Fire see fire!’ Fa far fay may mean something like ‘Look! faraway fire!’ which appears to be a separate shout. In the second line one can again guess at Ua ‘out of’; far ‘far’?; four ‘fire’; na ‘of the’; foir-thìr ‘distant’; cu-ibhe ‘gathering fire’, giving: ‘The gathering fire in the far distance!’ The third line is Ua magh straig aodh a painnthear chun – ‘out of the hunting plain flashes the fire of the arrow’ (the light of the signal fire). Line four appears to contain the words creach ‘plunder’, magh ‘deer forest’, smeuran ‘berries’, archaic ‘fire’ and bagach ‘warlike’.

Puirt a Beul - Mouth Music, Tocher 38, 38. From Nan Mackinnon of Vatersay, d. 1982.
This one is very obscure.

1 An dubh m’an gheal ‘s an liath m’an bhuidhe– [Black on white and grey on yellow]
Deer of the light and smoke (or light) of the hunting troop

2 ’M breacam a bh’aig bean Iain Mhuirich – [The plaid that Iain Mhuirich’s wife made]
The speckled deer of the Lady of the hunters’ fire.

3 ’S chan fhaca mi riamh an Uibhist – [And I’ve never seen in Uist]

4 Aonan bheireadh bàrr air – [One that would surpass it.]

5 Osan riobach goirid farsainn – [Shaggy short baggy stockings]
Shaggy young deer

6 Cùl na coiseach air a tachas – [To set the back of the leg itching]
Deer trap of the butchery and of the …?….

7 Saoilidh mi bhuam fad air astar – [

8 Gur e ’s caiptean Spàinneach – [For the Spanish captain]
For the leader of the herd.

9 Ged bha thu air bheagan gruaige – [

10 Shaoilinn gu graighead tu gruagach – [

11 Fear cho math air a’ Lic Ruaidh riut – [

12 Buaidh an iomadh càs ort – [

ADD: Celtic Magazine article on the real meaning of Druidical Chants and Choruses.
Down down derry derry down

And here is another one. J.G. McKay, More West Highland Tales, vol. 2, 1960, 298-9.

Cha d’fhuair mise an siod - I got nothing there fuar ‘fire’? siod ‘silk’, for ‘smoke’?
Ach crioman ime air éibhleig – But a little bite of butter on an ember
’S deur bainne an cròileig (craidhleig?) - A little drop of milk in a creel ban ‘fire’
’S deoch an cupan gun tonn – A drink from a cup that had no bottom,
’S an crioman arain nach robh ann – A little mouthful of bread that was not there
’S fhuair mi cead dol dachaigh – And then I was allowed home.

As we saw already, when Monnachan got home, Minneachan was not to be seen, but he had left four more riddles: an t-im air eibhleig ‘butter on a cinder’; cal ann an croidhleag ‘kail in a creel’, rathad mor gloine ‘a highroad of glass’, and brogan papier ‘paper shoes’. These must have been understood, at least by a few people, long after such incantations has been reduced to the level of an entertainment. Some of this is easy; some obscure. To put butter on a cinder is a way of lighting a fire; a highroad of glass is no doubt the direction indicated by the light of a beacon; ‘milk’ or ‘kail’ in a creel is light or heat in a brazier or hearth; the cup or well without bottom is the deer-trap in the deer-forest.

The editor of More West Highland Tales notes that Tobar gun tonn – ‘A well without water’ – is the beginning of a riddle about a thimble given in West Highland Tales ii, no.50, where there are many other hunting and fire riddles to solve. The correct solution of the bottomless well (ton, not tonn) is the deer trap:

Tobar gun tonn, cumaidh e ’làn de dh’ fhuil ’s de dh’fheoil.
A waveless well, it holds its fill of flesh and blood.

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