From By Sundown Shores by Fiona MacLeod



I have spoken in 'Iona' and elsewhere of the old highland woman who was my nurse. She was not really old, but to me seemed so, and I have always so thought of her. She was one of the most beautiful and benignant natures I have known.

I owe her a great debt. In a moment, now, I can see her again, with her pale face and great dark eyes, stooping over my bed, singing 'Wae's me for Prince Charlie,' or an old Gaelic Lament, or that sad, forgotten, beautiful and mournful air that was played at Fotheringay when the Queen of Scots was done to death, 'lest her cries should be heard.' Or, later, I can hear her telling me old tales before the fire; or, later still, before the glowing peats in her little island-cottage, speaking of men and women, and strange legends, and stranger dreams and visions. To her, and to an old islander, Sheumas Macleod, of whom I have elsewhere spoken in this volume, I owe much more than to any other influences in my childhood. Perhaps it is from her that in part I have my great dislike of towns. There is no smoke in the lark's house, to use one of her frequent sayings - one common throughout the west.

I never knew any one whose speech, whose thought, was so coloured with the old wisdom and old sayings and old poetry of her race. To me she stands for the Gaelic woman, strong, steadfast, true to 'her own,' her people, her clan, her love, herself. 'When you come to love,' she said to me once, 'keep always to the one you love a mouth of silk and a heart of hemp.'

Her mind was a storehouse of proverbial lore. Had I been older and wiser, I might have learned less fugitively. I cannot attempt to recall adequately even the most characteristic of these proverbial sayings; it would take overlong. Most of them, of course, would be familiar to our proverb-loving people. But, among others of which I have kept note, I have not anywhere seen the following in print. 'You could always tell where his thoughts would be . . . pointing one way like the hounds of Finn' (i.e. the two stars of the north, the pointers): 'It's a comfort to know there's nothing missing, as the wren said as she counted the stars': 'The dog's howl is the stag's laugh'; and again, 'I would rather cry with the plover than laugh with the dog' (both meaning that the imprisoned comfort of towns is not to be compared with the life of the hills, for all its wildness). 'True love is like a mountain-tarn; it may not be deep, but that's deep enough that can hold the sun, moon, and stars': 'It isn't silence where the lark's song ceases': 'St. Bride's Flower, St. Bride's Bird, and St. Bride's Gift make a fine spring and a good year.' (Am Bearnan Bhrigde 'us Gille-Bhrigde 'us Lunn-Bata Bhrigde, etc. - the dandelion, the oyster-catcher, and the cradle(1) - because the dandelion comes with the first south winds and in a sunny spring is seen everywhere, and because in a fine season the oyster-catcher's early breeding-note fortells prosperity with the nets, and because a birth in spring is good luck for child and mother.') 'It seems easier for most folk to say Lus Bealtainn than La' Bealtainn': i.e. people can see the small things that concern themselves better than the great things that concern the world; literally, "It's easier to say marigold than may-day' - in Gaelic, a close play upon words: 'Cuir do lamh leinn,' 'Lend us a hand,' as the fox in the ditch said to the ducking on the roadside: 'Gu'm a slan gu'n till thu,' 'May you return in health,' as the young man said when his conscience left him: 'It's only a hand's-turn from eunadair to eunadan' (from the bird-snarer to the cage): 'Saying eud is next door to saying eudail,' as the girl laughed back to her sweetheart (eud is jealousy, and eudail is my Treasure): 'The lark doesn't need broggan (shoes) to climb the stairs of the sky.'

Among those which will not be new to some readers, I have note of a rhyme about the stars of the four seasons, and a saying about the three kinds of love, and the four stars of destiny. Wind comes from the spring star, runs the first; heat from the summer star, water from the autumn star, and frost from the winter star. Barabal's variant was 'wind (air) from the spring star in the east; fire (heat) from the summer star in the south; water from the autumn star in the west; wisdom, silence, and death from the star in the north.' Both the season-rhyme and that of the three kinds of love are well known. The latter runs:-

Gaol nam fear-diolain, mar shruth-lionaidh na mara;
Gaol nam fear-fuadain, mar ghaoith tuath 'thig o'n charraig;
Gaol nam fear-posda, mar luing a' seoladh gu cala.

Lawless love is as the wild tides of the sea;
And the roamer's love cruel as the north wind blowing from barren rocks;
But wedded love is like the ship soming safe home to haven.

I have found these two and many others of Barabal's sayings and rhymes, except those I have first given, in collections of proverbs and folklore, but do not remember having noted another, though doubtless 'The Four Stars of Destiny (or Fate)' will be recalled by some. It ran somewhat as follows:-

Reul Near (Star of the East), Give us kindly birth;
Reul Deas (Star of the South), Give us great love;
Reul Niar (Star of the West), Give us quiet age;
Reul Tuath (Star of the North), Give us Death.

It was from her I first heard of the familiar legend of the waiting of Fionn and the Feinn (popularly now Fingal and the Fingalians), 'fo-gheasaibh,' spellbound, till the day of their return to the living world. In effect the several legends are the same. That which Barabal told was as an isleswoman would more naturally tell it. A man so pure that he could give a woman love and yet let angels fan the flame in his heart, and so innocent that his thoughts were white as a child's thoughts, and so brave that none could withstand him, climbed once to the highest mountain in the Isles, where there is a great cave that no one has ever entered. A huge white hound slept at the entrance to the cave. He stepped over it, and it did not wake. He entered, and passed four tall demons, with bowed heads and folded arms, one with great wings of red, another with wings of white, another with wings of green, and another with wings of black. They did not uplift their dreadful eyes. Then he saw Finn and the Feinn sitting in a circle.

Their long hair trailed on the ground; their eyebrows fell to their beards; their beards lay upon their feet, so that nothing of their bodies was seen but hands like scarped rocks that clasped gigantic swords. Behind them hung an elk-horn with a mouth of gold. He blew this horn, but nothing happened, except that the huge white hound came in, and went to the hollow place round which the Feinn sat, and in silence ate greedily of treasures of precious stones. He blew the horn again, and Fionn and all the Feinn opened their great, cold, grey, lifeless eyes, and stared upon him; and for him it was as though he stood at a grave and the dead man in the grave put up strong hands and held his feet, and as though his soul saw Fear.

But with a mighty effort he blew the horn a third time. The Feinn leaned on their elbows, and Fionn said, 'Is the end come?' But the man could wait no more and turned and fled, leaving that ancient mighty company leaning upon its elbows, spellbound thus, waiting for the end. So they shall be found. The four demons feld into the air, and tumultuous winds swung him from that place. He was found lyind dead in a pasture in the little island that was his home. I recall this here because the legend was plainly in Barabal's mind when her last ill came upon her. In her delirium she cried suddenly, "The Feinn! The Feinn! they are coming down the hill!'

'I hear the bells of the ewes,' she said abruptly, just before the end: so by that we knew she was already upon far pastures, and heard the Shepard calling upon the sheep to come into the fold.

(1) It is probably in the isles only that the pretty word Lunn-Bata is used for cra-all (creathall), a cradle. It might be best rendered as boat-on-a-billow, lunn being a billow.

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