Beul-aithris agus an Cladach / The Seashore and Oral Tradition
Scotland’s Gaelic heritage boasts many ancient stories about the Fianna ‘Fingalian heroes’, sìthichean ‘fairies’, various supernatural creatures like the each-uisge ‘water-horse’ and crodh-mara ‘sea cattle’, and the ability of certain animals to be transformed into human form. Some tales are linked to specific locations, while others are more generally applied. Here are four condensed examples from the seashore.
The oystercatcher is intimately connected to St Bride or Brigid, a famous, if historically questionable, heroine from the early days of the Church (who is remembered in the many Scottish places called Kilbride (Cille Brìde or Brìghde, ‘church of Bride’). She appears to have in fact been an amalgam of an ancient pre-Christian goddess, St Bride of Kildare (5th–6th Century) and perhaps other female figures of spiritual importance. She was called Moire nan Gàidheal ‘Mary of the Gaels’, being considered only slightly less important than the Virgin Mary among the Gaelic people.
A story explains the relationship to the bird. St Bride was running away from a band of evil men who desired to kill her. She was alone and eventually reached a beach where there was no place to hide. She decided the game was up, gave a prayer to God to thank him for her life and lay on the sand to accept her death. But before the evil men reached the beach, the oystercatchers, who were patrolling the shoreline, saw her, realised her predicament and covered her with seaweed, hiding her and saving her life. She blessed the species and since that day the oystercatcher has been the brìdean (Brìd-eun ‘Bride’s bird) or gille-brìde ‘servant of Bride’.
The oystercatcher’s call is ‘Bi glic, bi glic’ ‘be wise, be wise’.Unfortunately, one of their number one day ignored the advice and tried to prise a limpet from the rock as the mollusc was ‘drinking the sun’. The limpet jammed its foot hard against the rock, trapping the bird’s beak under its shell and causing it to drown as the tide flowed in. The song it reputedly sang to its friend (through its closed bill!) and the unhelpful answer it received to ‘hang on till the tide turns’ was recorded by folklorist Alexander Carmichael.
The Lucky Cowrie
The cowrie is known in Gaelic as the faoiteag and it is considered good luck to find one. If you keep it in your pocket, it will bring you good fortune, and if you carry three of them on your person, you will always find your way in the thickest mist. But beware – some beaches have a tradition that any slige-fhaoiteig ‘cowrie shell’ taken away from the location must be returned a year to the day to the same place – or bad luck will result!
How the Flounder got its Crooked Mouth
A Gaelic story tells us that the lèabag ‘flounder’ became cearra-ghobach ‘wry-mouthed’ after an altercation with the powerful and holy Calum Cille (St Columba). The great man was wading across the sand of a sea-ford on one of his journeys when he accidentally stood on a flounder’s tail. The fish was hurt and offended and gave Calum Cille a good telling-off, saying he was big and clumsy, with crooked feet. The saint, who despite his holiness, had a fiery temper, retorted, saying angrily, ‘If I am crooked-footed, let you forever be wry-mouthed.’ And that’s how the flounder is to this day.
Mary and the Seal
The ròn ‘seal’ (the generic name refers to both the common and grey species) is an extremely important element in Gaelic folklore and permeates the world of proverb and simile. Well-known examples of the last include cho reamhar ri ròn ‘as fat as a seal’ and cho sona ri ròn air sgeir ‘as happy as a seal on a skerry’.
Many traditional stories have seals changing into human form. One of these is Màiri agus an Ròn ‘Mary and the Seal’, in which Mary, who lives with her parents in a West Highland hamlet, keeps going off to an uninhabited island nearby, even into her late teens when her mother would prefer her to be meeting boys and doing ‘normal’ things. But Mary is irreproachable, always being good-natured and industrious. Her mother notes that her daughter is always extremely happy when she returns from the island, and she suspects she is having a secret rendezvous there with a young man, so she enjoins her husband to investigate the matter. He finds out that she is in fact meeting a cullach-cuain (lit. ‘ocean-boar’), a full-grown male seal, and dancing ecstatically with him on a lonely beach. Tha nàdar nan ròn innte ‘she has the seals’ nature’.
The mother thinks that Mary has been bewitched by the King of the Land of the Waves, and asks her husband to kill the seal in order to break the spell. Reluctantly, he eventually agrees and fires a bullet into the seal, which escapes into the sea. The next day, Mary goes to the island once more and this time fails to return. When her father goes to look for her, all he sees are the heads of two seals swimming together in the bay where they once danced. He realises that Mary has become as one with the ròin ‘seals’, and that they have lost their daughter for ever to the great call of the ocean.
Author : Roddy Maclean (Ruairidh MacIlleathain), an Inverness-based journalist, broadcaster and educator working in the Gaelic language.