This is a fabulous treasury of legend and wonder; tales of monsters who dwell in lakes, of small people who trap humans in earthen mounds where time stands still; of dark, shape- shifting spirits whose cloak of human form is betrayed by the sand and shells which fall from their hair. In the absence of a written tradition, for generations of Skianachs, these tales, handed down orally, contained the very warp and weft of Hebridean history. They take us far beyond Christian times, to the edge of the Iron Age, and interweave with threads from the wider Atlantic tradition of Gaelic heroic myth and legend.
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About the Author
Otta Swire Was Born In 1898 And Spent Many Happy Childhood Holidays In Skye, Where She Became Captivated By The Islands Rich History Of Folklore And Began Recording Them In Notebooks. She Had These Formally Published In 1949, After She Had Moved To Skye To Live Permanently. She Died In 1973.
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Kyleakin to Broadford
O come with me where the sea-birds fly Remote and far by the Isle of Skye — Away with the winds a-sailing! Where dreams are the gifts availing — Will ye come with me? (From 'Come with me' by Pittendrigh Macgillivray)
Born on the site of Tyburn Cross and named after a pirate ancestress who was hanged from her own yard-arm after helping to raid Micklegarth (Constantinople), I feel that, quite apart from my half-Skye blood, I should have much in common with an island in which the King's writ has never run — much — except by consent. 'For indeed', as a Skye man remarked in 1749 on hearing that the long arm of the law now reached as far as Ross-shire, 'it behoves Christians to be very wary, for if the Lord Himself does not check it, it will soon touch us here.'
Skye is a strange island in many ways. Those who visit it, whether from choice or by birth, either hate it wholeheartedly or else love it so dearly that they remain homesick for it until they die. And these latter are the great majority. No one is ever indifferent to it, not even Government Inspectors! I am among those who love Skye and so I want to write for my children some of the old Skye stories which I heard from my mother and many of which she, in turn, heard from a great-aunt who was born over 160 years ago, on 18 April 1799. That they may be of interest to all, I have threaded these stories, as well as many which are better known, on the roads of Skye as on a necklace.
Kyleakin, the Skye terminus of the ferry from Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland, lies in the 'giant' country where Fionn and his men once fought and hunted (see Chapter 17). These Fiennes were a race utterly unlike the giants of the fairy tales, and they exceeded men as much in virtues as in size. But the Fienne boys closely resembled their human counterparts and had a passion for stone-throwing, as witness Na Craigein,
It was a pet of a day when this Na Craigein (the Much Pawed) climbed Saigh Mhinn in the early dawn. Some say he was splayfooted, poor boy, but it seems more probable that his name only commemorates a certain puppy-like clumsiness. Be that as it may, the blue of sea and hill went to his head like wine and, desiring to play 3-pin ninepins against himself, he looked round for three suitable trees. As he looked he saw, several giant-miles away, an old woman carrying a milking-stool, a milk pitcher, and a cow-fetter, and approaching a cow in a very sly and furtive manner. Much interested, he lay down to watch and recognized the cow as one whose kindly old owner had often given him a bowl of its creamy milk, a rare treat to a Fienne boy accustomed to deer's milk. Seeing that the sly hag was about to milk her neighbour's cow, Na Craigein grew angry, picked up a large boulder and flung it to frighten her. Unfortunately he aimed too well and the boulder, Clach Chraigisgean, fell plumb on top of old woman, cow, milk pitcher, and all. Na Craigein was worried about the cow and started down to lift the rock off, but something else distracted his attention, so they are all still beneath the stone.
The many rocks and small skerries in the Kyles were also caused by Fiennes, this time grown giantesses (the Skye giantess Grein and a friend of hers in Raasay), throwing stones at each other during a quarrel, said to have arisen over the recipe for a face lotion made from deer's milk, honey, silver weed roots, and something else, but what? That was the question between them. Both were bad shots and the sea suffered.
Kyleakin (Haco's Strait) has been so called since Haco, King of Norway, anchored there with his fleet in the thirteenth century. At this period of Scottish history there was much trouble with the Norsemen who still held, howbeit loosely, parts of the Scottish mainland and the Isles. This trouble reached a head in 1268 when Haco came in person with the greatest fleet that ever left Norway, sailing past Lewis and down the Sound of Raasay to Kyleakin, where he anchored, and which has ever since borne his name. Here reinforcements joined him and he sailed on, his raven banners proudly flying, to meet his fate at the Battle of Largs.
After the battle he and other survivors took to the galleys but, as has happened more than once in British history, the weather now took a hand. Alexander III is said to have wisely avoided an encounter until a storm was seen approaching, so that after the battle the gale drove many of the undermanned fleet ashore. Ships were wrecked all round the coasts of Lorne and Mull and Skye. Haco himself with a few ships reached 'Wester Fjord' (Loch Bracadale) in safety. Here they came ashore, seized all the food they could find, and, leaving starvation behind them, sailed on to Kirkwall, where Haco, old, ill, and heartbroken, was landed to die. It is told that he had the old Viking sagas read to him and, contrasting their victories with his own defeat, died of grief and shame. Alexander III was afterwards known as 'The Tamer of the Ravens'.
To the east of the little town of Kyleakin a small promontory juts out, crowned by the ruins of Castle Maol. The main wall of the ruin, eleven feet thick, was cracked from top to bottom in the great storm of 1 February 1948, but Castle Maol still stands as 'saucy' today as when it was built in the twelfth century by 'Saucy Mary', a Norwegian princess, wife of a Macdonald of the time, who used the castle to extract toll from every ship which passed through the Kyles. It is said she had a chain across from the castle to the mainland shore. Some chain! Later, Castle Maol came into the possession of the Mackinnons of Strath.
The road from Kyleakin to Broadford is one of the best, from the motorist's point of view, in the island. It is also very beautiful but rather un-Skye-like, running, as it does in parts, through a birch wood. In the old days this part of Skye was densely wooded, covered by a part of the Caledonian Forest in fact, and so was the Island of Pabay which may be seen from the road. On Pabay are the ruins of a small chapel, traditionally one of those built by St. Columba's monks.
Pabay remained thickly wooded to the water's edge long after the forests had disappeared from the mainland of Skye. After the chapel fell into disuse and the monks left, it became a refuge of outlaws, 'broken men' and robbers, whose raids on the more law-abiding citizens caused much trouble. They are said to have met their end, as an organized raiding community, in a rather unusual manner. They had, of course, many enemies and their chief decided to rid himself of them all with the help of the Devil. So they made a great fire on the beach and roasted three cats alive with appropriate spells, an infallible way of raising the Evil One if you get the spells right. Several minor demons appeared, but the robber chief insisted that he would do business only with the Devil in person. At length Satan himself rose from the earth and asked their will. He was told to kill two men whom the chief feared. 'The price of two lives is two souls', said the Devil. This worried the band and an argument began. Now, the chief had been in the habit of boasting that if only he and his men could get swords that would not melt, they would conquer Hell and capture the Devil himself. Satan reminded him of this and offered to kill all his enemies and then return, with subordinate devils, and fight the band for their souls, 'here on the shore where swords do not melt'. This was agreed. Satan carried out his share of the bargain and returned. A fearful battle ensued, the Devil and his legions overcoming all the bandits who were armed with claymores or broadswords but failing to harm the chief, whose sword had a cross hilt. Suddenly a great black cat jumped from nowhere in particular on to his sword arm, causing him to drop his blade. He was never seen again. The blackened stones where the evil fire was lit and Satan stood may be seen on the beach near Ardnish in proof of the truth of this tale. But I have never seen them.
But to return to the forest that once grew where the road now runs. In it the 'little people' used to live. In Highland superstition there seem to be two quite different and distinct theories about the fairies — Celtic versus Scandinavian perhaps — which over the centuries have become confused. On the one hand they are represented as a people living side by side with their human neighbours and displaying most human characteristics. They wore the same clothes (though often of a bygone fashion), they had the same possessions such as cups, cows, distaffs, &c. But they had no iron and feared it. They borrowed and returned human possessions, and sometimes stole them too. They showed great kindness and gave much help to anyone who did a kindness to one of themselves, but took revenge (often slyly) on anyone who offended them. They were, in Skye, small and dark, and spoke both Gaelic and a strange 'fairy' tongue. Flint arrow-heads were 'fairy arrows'. In fact, they were the old inhabitants of the land — the little dark Neolithic people, Iberians or older, who were here before the Celts and who, as the fairies or 'little people', show all the traits you would expect in the conquered. They dwelt underground in the 'Picts' houses' or 'fairy mounds', feared the iron they had never owned, and took every chance to annoy those of their conquerors who had not become their friends, It would be interesting to know whether the belief that it is lucky to be 'first-footed' at New Year by a dark man goes back to the time when those who had made friends with the little dark people did not lose beasts or gear.
The other theory makes the fairies or Daoine Sithe some of the fallen angels. When the Devil and his angels were driven out of Heaven some fell into the sea and became the Blue Men, whose chief stronghold was the Minch:
The Blue Men are breast high With foam-grey faces.
Some fell to earth and became the fairies. They hid from God's sight in woods and caves and fairy mounds, wore white or light garments, had supernatural powers, were great musicians, and took the substance from all they wanted, leaving only the appearance, ready to crumble. Some remained in the sky and became the Merry Dancers, or Northern Lights, whose coming presaged storm or war or disaster. This last seems to owe something to the Scandinavian belief that the Northern Lights were the Valkyries, the 'Choosers of the Slain', riding to battle. In the early autumn of 1939 an unusually red and very brilliant display was seen over Skye and held by many to be a forecast of war.
The story is told that once, not very long after St. Columba's visit to Skye, a priest from Pabay was making his way through the forest to call on some of his parishioners. He came to a small clearing with a few scattered boulders in it and sat down to rest, sticking his crook in the ground beside him. As he sat resting, he became aware of sounds in the woods about him — faint rustlings and, as it were, voices — but all small and soft and definitely unhuman. He looked up and saw at the edge of the clearing a crowd of little people varying from three to four feet in height, but apart from that exactly like the people of his own time. Alarmed, he made the sign of the Cross, but instead of disappearing a little old man with a white beard, obviously someone of importance among them, came forward and, falling on his knees before the priest, begged his blessing for himself and his people.
'Who are you?' 'We are of the Daoine Sithe', said the old man, 'and we have come to beg you to pray for us, that we may become once more God's children and recover our souls. For a long time we have repented of our sins but we dare not say the Pater Noster or any other prayer unless we have received forgiveness.' 'Pray for you?' cried the scandalized priest, 'Give you my blessing? Never. For sins such as yours there is no forgiveness.' The old man groaned and was silent, but a little old woman stepped forward and dropped on her knees beside him. 'It is written "there is joy in Heaven over one sinner who repenteth", and that is true', she said, '"And him who cometh to me I will in no wise cast out", and that we believe', she pleaded. 'Pray for us.'
The priest was an honest man and her words disturbed him. But he remembered all he had been taught — the 'little people' belonged to the Evil One. They were evil. Had they not been driven out of Heaven? Such pity was but a temptation and he put it behind him and said firmly: 'There is no forgiveness for such as you. As soon would my stick become a tree again as God forgive you. Begone!' And he was alone.
He got up, much disturbed in mind, and, thinking of the faces of the little old man and the little old woman when he refused their plea, he forgot his crook as he went on his way through the forest. Everywhere round him he could hear as he went a soft, despairing wailing, as of a people without hope. It spread through the forest and up the slopes of Beinn na Caillich on into the hills and did nothing to lessen the trouble in his mind.
At last he reachd the hut he had come to visit, baptized a new-born baby, gave good counsel to its parents, not forgetting to add a warning to guard the child well as the 'little people' were about. When he was ready to leave, the child's father cut him a new stick from the forest, but the priest was anxious to find his old crook again, for it had been made for him by a fellow novice from a branch of the great ash near his old monastery on the mainland and was his only personal possession, so he carefully retraced his steps to the place where he had rested. He entered the clearing and, behold, there where his stick had been a magnificent ash tree stood, overtopping all the firs of the forest as God's mercy outreaches man's.
The priest fell on his knees and remained long in prayer. Then, sure of his duty, he arose and called the 'little people', but only the faint, hopeless wailing answered him. He went back to Pabay and sought leave to dwell in the forest, where he preached continually, day and night, the forgiveness of God to all who would listen, birds, beasts, and trees. Men called him mad and he never saw the 'little people' again, but slowly the wailing ceased in the hills.
Now to return to the road and to practical matters. About four miles from Kyleakin a road branches off to the left. This leads to Kylerhea Ferry and Glenelg (see Chapter 17). About a mile farther on another road takes off to the left, the road to Armadale and the south of Skye (see Chapter 18). From here onwards the road is lined with houses and crofts. First comes the township of Upper Breakish, then that of Harrapool, and then, on Broadford Bay, Broadford itself. It is now practically impossible for the uninitiated to decide where one township ends and another begins, so the three miles of 'ribbon development' is usually referred to in general terms as Broadford, but the hotel and cross-roads, eight miles from Kyleakin, where the Elgol road (see Chapter 19) goes left, is certainly Broadford proper. Corry and the hospital lie to the right, on the sea side, and the main road to Sligachan, Portree, and the north goes straight on. Beinn na Caillich looks down on them all.
Broadford to Sligachan
When death's dark stream I ferry o'er; A time that surely shall come; In heaven itself, I'll ask no more, Than just a Highland welcome.
Broadford itself, though not very big even for an island township, is a place of considerable importance in Skye and holds a unique position geographically, since all in Skye who wish to reach Kyleakin, Kylerhea, or Armadale, Skye's three ferry gateways, must pass through or near it, no matter whether they come from the north or the south. Equally, no one can go from the south to the north, or vice versa, except through Broadford.
Until World War II Broadford was itself a port, and one where the Portree steamer called morning and evening. Broadford Bay was always a joy to passengers, not only for the magnificent scenery — the mountains rising direct from sea-level are most striking — but also because a school of porpoises or a whale could almost always be counted upon to appear. Generally both were on view. I was once asked by a tourist what 'that' was, pointing to a spouting whale in the Bay. When I replied 'A whale' he grinned cheerfully and remarked, 'No use trying to pull my leg. Whales only live in the Bible and the Arctic.' But that was before the days of whale steak.
Unfortunately, in the war the Broadford pier fell into disrepair, a great loss to the township. Many representations to the appropriate Ministries eventually resulted in the promise of a grant in aid of one of two Skye piers, Broadford or Armadale. An embarrassing position, fraught with many snags for those who must decide on the relative needs, merits, and claims. But it became obvious that with her many buses and nearness to Kyleakin, Broadford had to lose. The other feature which adds to Broadford's importance in the island is her hospital, the largest in Skye.
Excerpted from "Skye"
Copyright © 2006 Dr J. Swire.
Excerpted by permission of Birlinn Limited.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Sir William Tarn, Litt.D., LL.D., F.B.A,
Preface by Jim Swire,
Introduction by Ronald Black,
FROM THE GATEWAY TO THE CAPITAL,
1. Kyleakin to Broadford,
2. Broadford to Sligachan,
3. The Cuchullins,
4. Sligachan to Portree,
5. Trotternish: Portree to Flodigarry,
6. Trotternish: Duntulm,
7. Trotternish: Duntulm to Portree,
8. Portree to Edinbane,
9. Edinbane to Fairy Bridge,
11. Fairy Bridge to Dunvegan,
14. Dunvegan to the Maidens,
15. Roag, Harlosh, Bracadale,