In 'The Sea-Madness' I have told of a man - a quiet dull man; a chandler of a little Argyll loch-town - who, at times, left his counter, and small canny ways, and went out into a rocky wilderness, and became mad with the sea. I have heard of many afflicted in some such wise, and have known one or two.
In a tale written a few years ago, 'The Ninth Wave,' I wrote of one whom I knew, one Ivor MacNeill, or 'Carminish,' so called because of his farm between the hills Strondeval and Rondeval, near the Obb of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. This man heard the secret calling of the ninth wave. None may hear that; when there is no wave on the sea, or when perhaps he is inland, and not follow. That following is always to the ending of all following. For a long while Carminish put his fate from him. He went to other isles: wherever he went he heard the call of the sea. 'Come," it cried, 'come, come away!' He passed at last to a kinsman's croft on Aird-Vanish in the island of Taransay. He was not free there. He stopped at a place where he had no kin, and no memories, and at a hidden, quiet farm. This was at Eilean Mhealastaidh, which is under the morning shadow of Griomabhal on the mainland. His nights there were a sleepless dread. He went to other places. The sea called. He went at last to his cousin Eachainn MacEachainn's bothy, near Callernish in the Lews, where the Druid Stones stand by the shore and hear nothing for ever but the noise of the waves and the cry of the sea-wind. There, weary in hope, he found peace at last. He slept, and none called upon him. He began to smile, and to hope.
One night the two were at the porridge, and Eachainn was muttering his Bui 'cheas dha'n Ti, the Thanks to the Being, when Carminish leaped to his feet, and with a white face stood shaking like a rope in the wind.
In the grey dawn they found his body, stiff and salt with the ooze.
I did not know, but I have heard of another who had a like tragic end. Some say he was witless. Others that he had the Friday-Fate upon him. I do not know what evil he had done, but 'some one' had met him and said to him 'Bidh ruith na h'Aoin' ort am Feasda, 'The Friday-Fate will follow you for ever.' So it was said. But I was told this of him: that he had been well and strong and happy, and did not know he had a terrible gift, that some have who are born by the sea. It is not well to be born on a Friday night, within the sound of the sea; or on certain days. This gift is the 'Eolas na h'Aoin,' the Friday-Spell. He who has this gift must not look upon any other while bathing: if he does, that swimmer must drown. This man, whom I will call Finlay, had this eolas. Three times the evil happened. But the third time he knew what he did: the man who swam in the sunlight loved the same woman as Finlay loved; so he stood on the shore, and looked, and laughed. When the body was brought home, the woman struck Finlay in the face. He grew stange after a time, and at last witless. A year later it was a cold February. Finlay went to and fro singing an old February rhyme beginning:
Feadag, Feadag, mathair Faoillich fhuair!
(Plover, plover, Mother of the bleak Month.) He was watching a man ploughing. Suddenly he threw down his cromak. He leaped over a dyke, and ran to the shore, calling, 'I'm coming! I'm coming! Don't pull me - I'm coming!' He fell upon the rocks, which had a blue bloom on them like fruit, for they were covered with mussels; and he was torn, so that his hands and face were streaming red. I am your red, red love,' he cried, 'sweetheart, my love'; and with that he threw himself into the sea.
More often the sea-call is not a madness, but an inward voice. I have been told of a man who was a farmer in Carrick of Ayr. He left wife and home because of the calling of the sea. But when he was again in the far isles, where he had lived formerly, he was well once more. Another man heard the sobbing of the tide among seaweed whenever he dug in his garden; and gave up all, and even the woman he loved, and left. She won him back, by her love; but on the night before their marriage, in that inland place where her farm was, he slipt away and was not seen again. Again, there was the man of whom I have spoken in 'Iona,' who went to the mainland, but could not see to plough because the brown fallows became waves that splashed noisily about him: and now he went to Canada and got work in a great warehouse, but among the bales of merchandise heard continually the singular note of the sandpiper, while every hour the sea-fowl confused him with their crying.
I have myself, in lesser degree, known this longing. I am not fond of towns, but some years ago I had to spend a winter in a great city. It was all-important to me not to leave during January; and in one way I was not ill-pleased, for it was a mild winter. But one night I woke, hearing a rushing sound in the street - the sound of water. I would have thought no more of it, had I not recognised the troubled noise of the tide, and the sucking and lapsing of the flow in weedy hollows. I rose and looked out. It was moonlight, and there was no water. When, after sleepless hours, I rose in the grey morning I heard the splash of waves. All that day and the next I heard the continual noise of waves. I could not write or read; at last I could not rest. On the afternoon of the third day the waves dashed up against the house. I said what I could to my friends, and left by the night train. In the morning we (for a kinswoman was with me) stood on Greenock Pier waiting for the Hebridean steamer, the Clansman, and before long were landed on an island, almost the nearest we could reach, and one that I loved well. We had to be landed some miles from the place I wanted to go, and it was a long and cold journey. The innumerable little waterfalls hung in icicles among the mosses, ferns, and white birches on the roadside. Before we reached our destination, we saw a wonderful sight. From three great mountains, their flanks flushed with faint rose, their peaks white and solemn, vast columns of white smoke ascended. It was as though volcanic fires had once again broken their long stillness. Then we saw what what it was: the north wind (unheard, unfelt where we stood) blew a hurricane against the other side of the peaks, and, striking upon the leagues of hard snow, drove it upward like a smoke, till the columns rose gigantic and hung between the silence of the white peaks and the silence of the stars.
That night, with the sea breaking less than a score yards from where I lay, I slept, though for three nights I had not been able to sleep. When I woke, my trouble was gone.
It was but a reminder to me. But to others it is more than that.
I remember that winter for another thing, which I may write of here.
From the fisherman's wife with whom I lodged I learned that her daughter had recently borne a son, but was now up and about again, though for the first time, that morning. We went to her, about noon. She was not in the house. A small cabbage-garden lay behind, and beyond it the mossy edge of a wood of rowns and birches broke steeply in the bracken and lonroid. The girl was there, and had taken the child from her breast, and, kneeling, was touching the earth with the small lint-white head.
I asked her what she was doing. She said it was the right thing to do; that as soon as possible after a child was born, the mother should take it - and best, at noon, and facing the sun - and touch its brow to the earth. My friends (like many islanders of the Inner Hebrides, they had no Gaelic) used an unfamiliar phrase: 'It's the old Mothering.' It was, in truth, the sacrament of Our Mother, but in a far, ancient sense. I do not doubt the rite is among the most primitive of those practised by the Celtic peoples.
I have not seen it elsewhere, though I have heard of it. Probably it is often practised yet in remote places. Even where we were, the women were somewhat fearful lest 'the minister' heard of what the young mother had done. They do not love these beautiful symbolic actions, these 'ministers,' to whom they are superstitions. This old, pagan, sacramental earth-rite is, certainly, beautiful. How could one be better blessed, on coming into life, than to have the kiss of that ancient Mother of whom we are all children? There must be wisdom in that first touch. I do not doubt that behind the symbol lies, at times, the old miraculous communication. For, even in this late day, some of us are born with remembrance, with dumb worship, with intimate and uplifting kinship to that Mother.
Since then I have asked often, in many parts of the Highlands and Islands, for what is known of this rite, when and where practised, and what meaning it bears; and some day I hope to put these notes on record. I am convinced that the Earth-Blessing is more ancient than the westward migration of Celtic peoples.
I have both read and heard of another custom, though I have not known of it at first-hand. The last time I was told of it was of a crofter and his wife in North Uist. The once general custom is remembered in a familiar Gaelic saying, the English of which is, 'He got a turn though the smoke.' After baptism, a child was taken from the breast by its mother, and handed (sometimes the child was placed in a basket) to the father, across the fire. I do not think, but am not sure, if any signal meaning lie in the mother handing the child to the father. When the rite is spoken of, as often as not it is only 'the parents' that the speaker alludes to. The rite is universally recognised as a spell against the dominion, or agency of evil spirits. In Coll and Tiree, it is to keep the Hidden People from touching or singing to the child. I think it is an ancient propitiary rite, akin to that which made our ancestors touch the new-born to earth; as that which makes some islanders still baptize a child with a little spray from the running wave, or a fingerful of water from the tide at the flow; as that which made an old woman lift me as a little child and hold me to the south wind, 'to make me strong and fair and always young, and to keep back death and sorrow, and to keep me safe from other winds and evil spirits.' Old Barabal has gone where the south wind blows, in blossom and flowers, and green leaves, across the pastures of Death; and I . . . alas, I can but wish that One stronger than she, for all her love, will lift me, as a child again, to the Wind, and pass me across the Fire, and set me down again upon a new Earth.