This book contains a rich and fascinating collection of folktales from across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and from Nova Scotia, gathered mainly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They appear here in English but where the original Gaelic texts exist, which is in the majority of cases, these too are reproduced.
The compiler and editor, Michael Newton, is a renowned Gaelic scholar with a long track record of research and publication, including Dùthchas nan Gàidheal: Selected Essays of John MacInnes (2006) and (co-edited with Wilson McLeod) An Ubhal as Àirde (The Highest Apple), an 800-page anthology of Gaelic literature from the Middle Ages to the present day, which came out in 2019. This latest volume is a slender creature compared with either of these, but still manages to cover many themes and much territory in its pages. It sits, for the most part comfortably enough, somewhere between a full-on academic study and a book for any reader interested in Scottish Highland culture, and in folklore, oral history, legends and supernatural tales more generally.
The stories are grouped into five categories: ‘Tales of Wonder’, which include a variant of the well-known fairytale ‘The Frog Prince’ as well as the magnificent ‘Grazing of Cruachan’, a variant on the ‘ogre’s heart in the egg’ tale; ‘Tales About Life and the World’, focusing on creation myths and explanations of natural phenomena and animal behaviour; ‘Tales of Culture Heroes and Ancients’, many of which are versions of the ‘Fenian’ or ‘Ossianic’ cycle recounting the legends of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna; ‘Historical Legends and Clan Sagas’, including stories about Columba and other Celtic saints, clan power struggles, cattle raids and battles; and ‘Tales of the Otherworldly’, in which the fairies predominate, although various other beings such as glaistigs, uruisgs and witches also make their appearances.
Introducing this last category, Michael Newton explains that the term ‘supernatural’ does not sit well with such stories, as it implies that science and rationality can usually explain away many of the forces and phenomena they contain, leaving the rest to be dismissed as ‘merely absurd figments of imagination’. There is no such simple separation in Gaelic culture, Newton says, quoting John MacInnes: ‘the word traditionally used to describe such entities and phenomena is ana-ghnàthaichte, simply meaning “unusual, “extraordinary”.’ Not surprisingly, such a perspective was disapproved of by the church, which also objected to the popularity of the heroic tales. As Bishop John Carswell wrote in the introduction to the Gaelic translation of the Kirk’s Book of Common Order (1567):
And great is the blindness and darkness of sin and ignorance of the mind among the composers and writers and patrons of Gaelic, in that they prefer and are accustomed to maintain and improve vain, hurtful, lying, worldly tales composed about the Tuatha Dè Danann … and about the heroes and Fionn mac Cumhaill with his warriors …
Newton bookends the stories with an introduction (‘The Power of Stories’) and an epilogue (‘Reclaiming Our Voices’) which give powerful accounts respectively of the centrality of poetry and story to Gaelic culture and the near-fatal destruction of that culture by outside forces. In the introduction, he outlines some of the key features of the oral story tradition, including the importance of the cèilidh as a communal event in which stories would be created, repeated, enlarged upon and exchanged. There were many links between this oral storytelling culture and the more sophisticated literature of the professional bards who were patronised by the elite of Highland society. Nor did the stories exist in cultural or geographical isolation. There was a constant sharing of story, song and poetry between Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, and Newton sets these Gaelic stories, their motifs and themes within the much wider Eurasian and indeed worldwide corpus of myth and folktale. They form part of this enormous treasury of human stories developed to explain who we are and our relationship with the natural world, but they also retain or have acquired features which give them their cultural distinctiveness. It was this unique character − and the pressing concern that as Gaelic culture was subjected to dispersal, neglect or deliberate attack and suppression from the eighteenth century to the present day it became further diminished and devalued − that drove some of the great collectors, such as John Francis Campbell, John G. Campbell and Alexander Carmichael, to record what they could in print before it was lost for ever.
Newton’s short epilogue is a fierce critique of the vandalism done to the Gaelic oral tradition by the ‘assimilationist’ British State, working in consort with religious and educational authorities on the ‘anglonormative imperial project’. Again, he places what happened in the Scottish Highlands in a wider context: ‘A society that loses its own stories inevitably takes on the stories dictated by someone else. That act of ventriloquism can result in alienation from the past, from the lived environment, from a sense of self and agency’. Coupled with the loss of language, territory and community, ‘the consequences can be devastating at a social and personal level’. It is hard to argue with that, but Newton ends on a more hopeful note − that efforts to undo some of the damage are underway, and that enough of the culture survives, as exemplified in this book, to reconnect people ‘to one another, to ourselves, to the land, to the deep past …’
My only problem with this book is that its design might have been better. The English texts appear in one section and the Gaelic originals in another, and it takes some effort to thumb back and forth between the two; the editorial notes, especially as they are not too numerous, would have been better as footnotes than endnotes, for this reader at least; and the large page-size results in long lines which are not eye-friendly.
The book is also very expensive. The contents are so good that it would be wonderful to see a more affordably priced edition. With its dual texts it offers − as Ruairidh MacIlleathain writes in his spirited and enthusiastic foreword − ‘modern Gaels and Gaelic learners a tremendous resource to see, and perhaps even to hear, how the seanchaidhean of old would enthral an audience with their use of language.’ For this reason, and my remarks about the design notwithstanding, I sincerely hope that it finds the wide readership it deserves.
Into the Fairyhill: Classic Folktales of the Scottish Highlands is published by McFarland; UK copies can be ordered from the Gaelic Books Council website.