Chapter 7: Ghosties and ghoulies

2748 A collection of oddments.
To be edited

Trisgatail Trenfher, a giant, performed a remarkable feat in the Irish tale, ‘The Intoxication of the Ultonians’. ‘Stouter than a large man is each of his limbs. This pillar-stone outside, which all the Clanna-Degad could not lift, he pulled out of the ground, and performed an apple feat with it from one finger to another. He hurled it from him with power, as quickly and lightly as he would fling a wisp for quickness and lightness.’ R.C. MacLagan 1901 232. The punning references to the pillar-stone (a beacon site), the apple (éibheall ‘flame’), and the wisp of straw (connlach ‘gathering fire’) are evident even in the English translation.

MacGlumag na mias, o liath tarrang shìoda, burrach mòr, a bodach.J.G. Campbell 1902, 123.
Said to mean ‘Son of Platter-pool, from grey silken spike, great caterpillar
Son of the Gleam, a signal: E. gleam: see beacon file, Yeavering
G. gleam ‘loud noise, resounding echo’. An echo resembles a signal, which has to be acknowledged. G. glaoim ‘common rumour’ is a message which travels around. G. glòin ‘squint-eyed’ (?), gloine ‘glass’, G. glan ‘bright, radiant’,

Among the more famous British ghosts are an assortment of White Ladies and Grey Ladies. There are not as many as one might imagine and a search shows that they are almost all attached to elite sites or inns surrounded by marshes, both places where signal fires would normally have been lit. By far the most impressive is Lady Janet who floats in a fiery glow above the clock tower at Glamis Castle. M. Alexander 2002, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain, 105-6. It is perhaps not a coincidence that her name represents G. aodhan ‘fire’.

casan-caìrbhe ‘chariot spokes: the rays of the sun breaking through a mass of clouds’. The sun was seen as the centre or hub of a spoked wheel. This is the poetic concept which inspired the idea of the Sun God driving across the heavens in a chariot.

Cheese and fairies WMA 1952, 404.
Gravemound of a dragon, WMA 1952, 411.
Anthoin WA 1952, 241, 397.
A spectre on Creag an Fhuathais, Braemar was pres. a beacon fire. WA 1952, 241. cf Ben Wyvis; G. eibh. ?Fr. nuage.
Hallowe’en bonfires were lit at the Tamnavrie stone circle, Aberdeenshire (WMA, 386). The word here is probably naomh ‘sacred’.

‘There is a story of a man on Loch Rannoch-side who fought a bush, in mistake for a ghost, in a hollow, which had an evil name for being haunted. The conflict continued until dawn, when he was found exhausted, scratched and bleeding’. J.G. Campbell 1901, 181.

Dwarves and ghosts.
There are a great many different words for dwarves, ghosts and spectres in Gaelic stories in contexts which suggest that they are a remnant of hunting lore. Many of these are ‘fire’ words, which suggests that the ghostly presence was smoke or a smoke signal, and that the reference is probably to beacons or smoke-fires. In addition to the probable practical aspects of creating smoke signals, there is a powerful metaphysical association between death, fire and the soul or ghost which can be traced to the practice of using human bones as fuel. Murchadh, the great hunter, ‘became grey’ and his spirit was freed by fire to travel to the land of youth where he could hunt for ever. Animal bones and the remains of the hunt were also burned, thus, no doubt, providing the old warriors with their ghostly prey.

None of the words listed appear to have any metaphysical attributes, but their number and variety suggests a considerable volume of lost lore. The dwarf in some cases was a hunt terrier and some similar explanation may be possible in other cases. Many apparitions were beacons of some kind.

abhag ‘terrier; dwarf, spectre’; cf. G. eibh ‘fire’. Applied to a small hunting dog.
aog ‘death, ghost, spectre, skeleton’; cf aoigh ‘hero, skilful person, traveller, stranger, guest’, all applicable to hunters, including those travelling from a distance. Probably ‘fire’.
arc ‘dwarf; stag, hind’. Was the red deer at some remote period the ‘dwarf’ compared with the elk?
arrachd ‘spectre, apparition, centaur, pigmy, dwarf, mannikin’. AG. ‘àr ‘battle, slaughter (hunt)’. The word is probably carrachd
arrachdan ‘fairy’.
baobh ‘goblin, wizard, wicked mischievous female who invokes a curse or some evil on others, she-spirit supposed to haunt rivers’. bo ‘gather’ and eibh ‘fire’. cf. biadh ‘meat, provender’.
bòcan ‘hobgoblin, sprite, spectre, apparition, bugbear’. cf. bochd ‘fire’.
bòchdan ‘a general name for terrifying objects seen at night and taken to be supernatural.’ Evidently a beacon.
bodach ‘carl, old man, an apparition seen at night’. A beacon. Bodach an Sméididh ‘the beckoning old man’1 is probably smùideadh ‘emitting smoke’. Corra-lòigein, a type of bodach,2 is caoir ‘blaze’ or carraid ‘conflict, strife (hunting)’ + loisgeann ‘fire’.
brideach ‘dwarf’. cf breo ‘fire, flame’.
càileireachd ‘cremation of the dead’.
cruiteachan ‘dwarf’, apparently related to Cruithen ‘Picts’.
cruth ‘phantom’, related to cruach ‘red’, a beacon word and to Cruithen ‘Picts’.
cruthlach ‘ghost, fairy’.
dealbh ‘spectre’, cf G. dealan ‘flaming coal’, dealt ‘dew’. The dew on May morning, in other words, the smoke from the Beltane fire, has magical qualities.
dreag ‘a ghostly light like a comet, presaging the death of an important person’.
eug ‘ghost, spectre; death’. Probably ‘fire’.
firean ‘dwarf’, from *fir ‘fire’.
fo-dhuine ‘dwarf, servant’.
fot ‘giant’. G. lucht-fothach ‘people of the wilderness’ or hunters.
fuath ‘aversion, hatred; goblin, scarecrow, diminutive insignificant person, spectre, ghost, demon, spirit, kelpie’. The Muireartach or Muileartach, a manifestation of the Cailleach, was a fuath. J.G. Campbell 1901, 188: ‘The name of the daring spectre (fuath) was the bold, red, white-maned Mhuireartach maol. Her face was dusky, of the hue of coal, the teeth of her jaws crooked red; in her head there glared a single eye’. The description confirms that she was a hunt beacon.
galoban ‘dwarf’; cf gal ‘blast of flame, smoke, kindred, warfare, slaughter, valour’; gealach, gil ‘the moon’.
gigean ‘dwarf; term of contempt’; cf. *gig ‘deer’.
leibid ‘dwarf’.
lucharan ‘pigmy’; cf G. lòchran ‘light, lamp, torch’.
luch-àrnunn ‘pigmy, dwarf’; a ‘light’ word. cf leus ‘blaze, flame, light, ray of light’, luisne ‘flame, flash’.
màileachan ‘sprite, brownie’, as mal ‘king, champion, soldier (hunter)’; cf. also màilleid ‘wallet, bag’ and màilleach ‘armour, coat of mail’.
monar ‘dwarf’.
sibhreach ‘fairy, spectre’.
sìochair ‘dwarf, fairy-like person, contemptible fellow’.
sìodha ‘fairy, hunter’, from sìth ‘mound, outlook point’.
sìogaid ‘lean, dwarfish, weakly fellow, starveling’, from sìth ‘mound, outlook point’.
sìogaidh ‘fairy, pygmy’; cf. sìogaidh ‘twining like a serpent’, or like a chain of hunters twining about the deer. G. siuc ‘scorched’.
spiorad ‘dwarf, ghost, fairy’. cf speur ‘star’, E. spirit.
tàchar ‘ghost’, ‘a rare and almost obsolete word’ only found in place-names such as Sròn an tàchair ‘the ghost-haunted rock’, between Kinloch Rannoch and Drumcastle, Perthshire. Imire tàchair in Iona is a ridge leading from near the abbey to the hill.
tàcharan ‘spirit, ghost, child left by the fairies’. cf taighleach ‘bright’.
tachradh, tacharan ‘weak, helpless’.
taghairm ‘the spirit-call’ is a gathering beacon used by hunters, like that on Ben More in Mull.
taibhs ‘phantasm, object seen by a taibhsear or one with the second sight’ J.G. Campbell 1902, 123..
taisdealach ‘pilgrim, traveller, ghost’: also words for a hunter.
tamhasg ‘the shade or double of a living person’.
tannasg or tannas ‘ghost, spectre, generally of the dead’. More shadowy and spiritual than a bòchdan. J.G. Campbell 1902, 123. cf. teine ‘fire’.
tàradh ‘noises heard at night through the house, presaging a coming event’.
taran ‘the ghost of an unbaptised child’.
tàsg ‘ghost, apparition’; cf. taisg ‘deposit, lay up, hoard’, tasgaidh ‘store, treasure’. cf teas ‘heat, warmth’.
tàslach ‘a supernatural premonition, felt or heard but not seen’.
tathach ‘shade, ghost’.
torthair ‘monster, dwarf’.
troichilean ‘pigmy, dwarf’.
trosdan ‘dwarf; trap’.
trost ‘dwarf’.

Picts and other very small people.
These words show a clear association with hunters and with fire but nothing that explains the small stature of those named. There is no evident need for Gaelic to have several dozen names for dwarves and an explanation is needed. MacRitchie (DMR 1890, 95-99) showed that Scottish traditions about fairies (ie, hunters) converge with traditions about Picts: for example they were both small people and their sites coincide: a Pecht’s house was also a fairy knowe. An explanation for this, and a clue to the elusive meaning of ‘Pict’ is provided by G. cruth ‘phantom’ and cruiteachan ‘dwarf’ if both are taken to mean ‘hunters’. The same word is found as cruithin-tuath, ‘the Pictish nation’. Picts were described as pirates, another word for hunters. The hunting scenes on the Class II stones provide a vivid picture of the Picts as hunters. The Pentland Firth was used by hunters and the Pentland Hills were the hunting preserve of the Sinclairs of Roslin. ‘Reginald of Durham, writing in the last half of the twelfth century, mentions, in 1164, Kirkcudbright as being in terra Pictorum, and calls their language sermo Pictorum’, Reg, Dun. Libellus, c, lxxxiv, in W. Skene, Celtic Scotland i, 203 note. This identifies the Galwegian Picts with the Galwegian Gaels. In a legend connected with the Picts of Galloway, the Gaedel Ficht or Gaelic Pict, appears as the eponym of the race. The Picts in Galloway were known as Creenies, ie, Cruithineach. They spoke Gaelic.

We may begin to speculate that if the Picts were anything distinct from the Scottish population (and it is not certain that they were), they were an organisation of elite hunters. Such an organisation could be destroyed simply by subjecting their leaders to the normal feudal pattern and removing their special status. We know that at a much later date than the 9th century feudal landlords in the Highlands expropriated hunting rights and it begins to be possible to contemplate stories of the extinction of the Picts in these terms. All the ‘little people’ disappeared, perhaps in the same way. There are signs that Lowland deer preserves were appropriated by the Crown before the 12th century, when we find King David hunting with his nobles in Holyrood Park and William the Lion hunting at Kincardine in the Mearns. Ref to William at Kincardine. It does nothing to detract from this theory to find ‘fairies’ with political clout still living in Atholl in the 16th century.

We can arrive at the same conclusion by a second route. The origin of the name Feinn or Fian lies in G. fiadh ‘deer’. Cormac’s Glossary dates to the beginning of the 9th century. At this time Fianae, the plural of fian, meant ‘A band of men whose principal occupations were hunting and was also a troop of fighting men under a leader’.Diarmuid A. Ó Drisceóil, ‘Fulachta fiadh: the value of early Irish literature’, in Victor Buckley (ed), Burnt Offerings, International Contributions to Burnt Mound Archaeology, Dublin 1990, 158. Fiadh is the aspirated form of biadh ‘feed, nourish, maintain’ and can also be linked to fiach ‘value, worth’, fiacaill ‘tooth, AG deer trap’, beuc ‘roar, bellow’ (E. buck), pèac ‘any long pointed thing’ (E. pick), peasg ‘gash, cut’, piseach ‘increase, good fortune’, and pech or pecht ‘Pict, dwarf, fairy’. If the hunters of Scotland were tattooed or otherwise decorated this would explain the Roman joke that their name as pechts or hunters suited them as pechts or painted people, since that is what the Romans understood the word to mean in Latin.

In this inventive tradition we can include puns on Greek pygmé ‘dwarf’, originally the length from elbow to knuckles, which include E. pigment and Latin pingere ‘to paint’ and Pict. The pigmented or painted Picts were perhaps deduced to be very small people because of the pun on pygmé, presumably taken as literal truth by someone with a little Latin and less Greek. These pigmies were nevertheless immensely strong and accomplished great stone constructions that in Ireland were more reasonably attributed to giants and which in both countries should be looked on as having some role in prehistoric hunts.

Following the same etymology we come to the peighinn or ‘penny’, which was a measurement of land long before it became a unit of money. The links suggest it was hunting land. Against this is the standard story that pennylands mark the Norse occupation of the Hebrides, with rent paid in silver pennies. The objection to this is that the Norse did not use currency. Pennies and pennylands seem to be peculiar to a few islands in the Hebrides and the link between units of land and their value in money is relatively recent. The word is found in the refrain of the port sung to accompany the Gille Calum or sword dance in which a solo dancer imitates a stag with his arms while doing clever things with his feet. The refrain Gille Calum, da pheiginn is taken to mean that the boy Calum will get a wife for twopence (RCM 1901, 106-108). This is the usual kind of nonsense. Gille is a standard word for a young hunter, while Calum is from G. gal ‘blaze of fire’. Da ‘two’ is probably damh ‘stag’, which gives us ‘Servant of the fire, a stag from the hunting land’, and a stag is what the dancer imitates. We have found similar ‘Gille’ phrases elsewhere in a hunting context. There is more nonsense in the Gille Calum. Rug an luchag uan boirionn is said to mean ‘the mouse brought forth a ewe lamb’ but is more comprehensible as ‘the hunt by the light of the far-reaching beacon’, with ruaig ‘pursuit, hunt, chase’, leig ‘fire’, lùchar ‘light’, aìn ‘fire’ and bior-fuinn ‘landmark, beacon’ or boiream ‘spreading, far-reaching’. Scottish Gaelic has nothing to compare with the great evolved story cycles of Ireland but it does contain, more or less intact, an enormous number of such archaic phrases which resolve into references to hunting. One would describe them as pedestrian were they not so fraught with meaning.

One source of very small people has been explored in the ‘pigmy’ pun but another and different type of dwarf is evident in the reference to the abhag who was attacked by a Glastig and returned to the hunter as hairless as a plucked hen (JMD 1910, 246). An abhag is a small hunting dog, and was evidently a dwarf compared with the giant hounds used to run down wolves, boars and stags. St Patrick had a dwarf.

Neither fairies, Picts, Fein, dwarfs or ghosts were supernatural or magic, or very small or very large people, but simply hunters (with the occasional small dog) who appear to have lived in the wilds as an organised force or militia, separate from settled families who were wise to keep their distance. The activities of hunters were controlled by lights lit on knolls and on mountain tops, and they may also have used fire to drive the deer and pen them in the ambush site. A Mesolithic link is suggested by the distribution of feens or ‘deer people’ from Finland to Ireland. Irish poets claimed that the Fein of Ireland were massacred at the Battle of Gabhra. Gabhra means ‘deer forest’ and is also found as Gowrie in Scotland, and the Gower in Wales. Men who die in poetic battles are invariably deer. To say that ‘in very old times the dwarves had long wars with men’ (DMC 1890, 94n) is only a way of saying that hunters long ago engaged in great deer-drives. That this organisation was incompatible both with the spread of agriculture and the imposition of feudalism is evident, and the fairies disappeared from Lowland Scotland and were almost forgotten everywhere. But in the Highlands there is just enough evidence to pick up the thread and draw together a picture of their lives.

The ùruisg or brownie.
G. ùruisg ‘being, supposed to haunt lonely and sequestered places, water-god, brownie, diviner, one who foretells future events, savage ugly fellow, sloven, slut, bear’. ‘Bear’ is an intelligent guess but it is wrong. The ùruisg is the aurochs, remembered from prehistory. The link with water is a pun between AG uisg ‘hunt’ (as E. ox) and uisge ‘water’, hence such creatures as the water-horse and the water-bull.

‘The ùruisg had a peculiar fondness for solitude at certain seasons of the year. About the end of harvest he became more sociable, and hovered about farmyards, stables and cattle-houses. He had a particular fondness for the products of the dairy, and was a fearful intruder on milk-maids who made regular libations of milk or cream to charm him off, or to procure his favour. He is said to have been a jolly personable being, with a broad blue bonnet, flowing yellow hair, and a long walking staff. Every manor-house had its ùruisg, and in the kitchen, close by the fire, was a seat which was left unoccupied for him. He was gainly and good-natured rather than formidable. He was known to perform many arduous exploits in kitchen, barn and stable, with marvellous precision and rapidity. Kind treatment was all he wished for and it never failed to procure his favour. The brownies seldom discoursed with man but they held frequent and affectionate converse with one another. They had their general assemblies too, and on these occasions they commonly selected for their rendezvous the rocky recesses of some remote torrent, whence their loud voices, mingling with the roar of the water, carried to the ears of wondering superstition.’

In other words, an ùruisg is the male of the aurochs, a more or less tame bull whose great interest in the farmyard and cattle-houses is explained by the tame cows who lived there. When he tended to bother the milk-maids, they distracted him by an offering of milk, which a bull likes as well as anyone. He probably did not wear a blue bonnet or sit beside the kitchen fire, but the roaring assemblies in the woods are authentic enough. Every township naturally had its own ùruisg as it had its more or less tame cows. They were let loose in the autumn, spent the winter in the forest, and were rounded up again in the spring, either about to calf or already in milk. It is probable that by then the cows had already migrated to the high pastures and that the milkmaids did not go up with their livestock but went up to find them. Ref: The Art of Corse Herding. There was an obstinate belief that anyone who needed a cow in the Highlands could simply go and catch one, an aspect of Mesolithic domestication which left a long legacy.

The principal urisks of Breadalbane.
As noted above, the urisk was a large hairy creature, fond of milk, who is often heard bellowing in the woods: in other words a wild aurochs bull. But his memory has become confused with a number of other obsolete features, most of them beacons of one kind or another.

Adaidh of Glenlochan aodh? 'beacon of Glenlochan'.
Amhlagan-dubh. eibh ‘fire’; lagan probably a deer ambush site; dubh ‘deer’.
Babaidh an lochan.
Brunaidh an easain. beacon of the killing (ess). A brownie.
Brunaidh an eilein. beacon of the island. A brownie.
Caobarlan of Lag an Tairbh Duibh on Drummond Hill: the hollow of the black bull.
Cas-luath leitir. hunt-beacon of the slope or hill.
Catan ceann-liath. The hunt of the principal light, or the light of the trap.
Cleitean. Clootie, the cloven-footed one.
Cludarlan. Clootie, the cloven-footed one.
Fuath Coire Ghamhnain.
Martain. G. mart an animal killed for winter stores.
Paderlan a Fearnan. fire of the hunting land.
Patragan and Peadragan. fire-dragon
Peallaidh an Spuit, at the Falls of Moness, Aberfeldy. The hairy one of the waterfall.
Sligeachan of Carwhin. sluagh
Slochdail a chuirt.
Truibhas-dubh at Fartairchill. Troop of two-horned beasts (deer or cattle).
Uruisg dubh more Eas-amhlagan. Thegreat black aurochs of the fire-killing ?

The urisk of Carwhin was said to be a splendid weaver equal to six men. (Gillies 340-346). Weaving no doubt refers to his sexual prowess.

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