Authors: Sorche Nic Leodhas
By Loch and by Lin
Tales from Scottish Ballads
Sorche Nic Leodhas
FOR ANN DURELL
This book of ballad stories
“Sona bithid tu
Agus eiridh gu math dhuit
Fad finn foinneach an latha.”
* the bard's blessing
“Happy shall you be
And it shall be well with thee
All the livelong day.”
EVERY ballad tells the story of something that actually happened long ago. Sometimes the event was great enough to be famous in history, so that we find battles, deeds of kings and nobles, intrigues, and high romance celebrated in these old songs. Even more often, however, the ballad maker wrote his ballads to tell his small world about the doings of persons not at all important except in the villages or shires in which they lived. Thus the popular ballads of Scotland are the songs of the common folk, first made by one of themselves, couched in the language that they themselves spoke, telling about events which, if they had not witnessed them, they at least knew by hearsay.
The men who created these ballads were less concerned with presenting a true picture than they were with making a grand story of the happening. They drew upon their imaginations to give color to the telling, and in consequence events became more exciting, the background brighter, and the characters larger than life.
As the ballads passed down through the years each singer added a few ideas of his own, so that every ballad finally came to have almost as many versions as there were ballad singers to sing them, but in every case the original event that caused it to be written, however vague it became through use and years, was never lost sight of, and still provided the framework for the song.
That these are in truth the songs of the people is proved by the way the persons in them behave. To a Scottish crofter or village dweller, kings and nobles, in spite of their high estate, are only men, after all, and the ballad maker when telling about them made them act as his listeners would have done themselves. The Scottish kings always seemed to be closer to their people than were the kings of other lands. The basic idea of the clanâthat all the members of it were kinfolk, springing from a common ancestorâmay have had something to do with it. But a large number of the Scottish kings went about among their people and knew them well, and in turn were well known by them. There was no undue familiarity in the people's attitude toward their sovereigns, but their subjects, although they esteemed and honored their kings and often loved them, still thought of them as men.
So we have kings in the ballads who behave exactly as the common folk do themselves. The king in “The Tale of the Lochmaben Harper” strolls out of his castle of Carlisle, and meeting the harper, sends him to stable his old gray mare beside the king's favorite steed. The Laird of Hutton Hall, in “The Tale of Dick o' the Cow,” does not hesitate to haggle with his fool over the price of the stolen steed; the Earl of Mar (a very great earl indeed), after forgiving his daughter, is on good terms with her in a very cozy fashion. “They visit back and forth.” Lang Johnnie Mor and his companions, in “The Tale of Lang Johnnie Mor,” walk into the castle without ceremony and frighten the king out of his wits by their size. No doubt they were enormous men, but not as large as they were made out to be by the ballad maker. Nevertheless, there were many huge men in the old days. Sir John of Erskine Park, whom Jock o' Noth mentions, was, according to history, over eight feet tall. Then there was Scotland's greatest hero, Sir William Wallace, who wielded a sword that was seven feet long. Wallace's sword is still in existence, and I understand is kept in the armory of Stirling Castle. In “The Tale of the Knight and the Shepherd Lass,” the lass is unusually bold in her actions and forthright in her speech for a king's daughter, although, to be sure, she is passing herself off as a tender of sheep. In the same story, the king, like any householder, comes down and opens the door himself when the lass tirls at the pin. The common folk accepted such behavior without question. It was just what they would have done themselves.
The first two tales in this collection were taken from ancient lays, or Scottish bards' tales. They antedate the introduction of printing into Scotland by several hundred years. They are a true part of the oral tradition of the country and have always been handed down in Gaelic and in the form of verse. I have never heard nor seen a story taken from any of the lays. The other stories in the collection are not so old. They are made from ballads such as those which used to be printed crudely on leaflets or single sheets, sometimes called broadsides, and pinned up for sale on the posts of stalls at markets and at fairs. The seller often gave his potential purchasers a taste of his wares by singing them, fitting the words to old familiar airs. Few of the old ballads had musical notations of their own, but borrowed any tune that pleased them that would fit their words. These are the “twopenny ballads” whose passing Thomas Hood laments in “Hood's Own, the Comic Annual” (1838), and the ballads upon which the tales in this collection are based were very old in Hood's time, and were probably composed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Tale of the
Lay of the Smithy
KNOW then, all who listen, that in the beginning the Finne, the noble company of Finn, had neither swords nor lances. Shields they had, fashioned of cowhide stretched upon frames of willow withes, and helmets and arm protectors of leather. Gold they had, also, cunningly worked by craftsmen among them into rings and chains and other ornaments, and the secret of making colored enamels was known to them. But for weapons the Finne had naught but
, or pointed wooden poles and staves, hardened in the fire. The craft of the blacksmith was not known then in the land of the Finne.
Then upon a fair day a company of the Finne lay resting from the hunt on thick heaps of rushes strewn about the edge of the
, that grassland above the shore of the sea. Six of them there were, and they were Osein, Coilte, Diarmid, Osgar the son of Osein, Goll MacMorna, and the fair Finn MacChumhail himself.
While they lay, idly talking, there came a
, a giant woman, walking under the waters along the sands at the bottom of the sea. When she reached the shallows she came striding up through the white-topped waves that broke upon the shore.
Finn and his company rose and stood together to watch her as she came up from the sea. Although she was a giant, it was not her size that made the flesh of the heroes creep with horror. She was but little taller than the Finne, who were themselves big men. It was her ugliness, which was beyond believing, from which they shrank.
The yellow hair that sprang from her head was coarse, and spiky like an old thorn bush, and every hair stood quivering on end. She had but one eye and that one in the middle of her forehead, encircled by long matted dark eyelashes, and a black furry eyebrow overhung the eye. Her nostrils were broad and flat and flaring, like the snout of a boar, her teeth the length of a grown man's finger, and from each corner of her wide mouth projected a long sharp fang, and her skin was scaly like that of a fish.
Upon her back she bore an anvil, strapped to her shoulders by stout woven bands that crossed upon her breast and were wound thrice about her waist. Through the bands were thrust a great heavy hammer, a bellows, and a pair of tongs.
Finn, for the sake of courtesy, hid his loathing and spoke to the creature as she came toward him.
“Who are you, stranger?” he asked. “Whence have you come and what brings you to the land of Finne, O woman from the sea?”
“I am known as the
, the blacksmith to whom all the smithy's mysteries are known. My name is Lon Lonnrach, and I am the daughter of the Yellow Muilearteach. I have come here from Lochlan, that far country across the surging sea, to set up for myself a smithy where I shall forge weapons such as your eyes have ne'er beheld.”
“Shall my eyes not behold them now, then?” asked Finn. “We will come with you to see you set up your smithy.”
“That you will not if I can help it!” said the giant woman, and turning away from Finn she hastened across the plain, and her feet sped so swiftly that soon she was out of sight. But the Finne lost no time in taking up her trail, following where her footprints led.
Over the machair and over the moor strode the beangruagach, Lon Lonnrach. She leaped up the yellow hill beyond the plain and down the other side. She climbed up and down a green hill and a brown hill, but her feet did not falter on the way. Then she came to a hill that was neither yellow nor green, nor was it brown. The earth upon it showed dark through patches of heather, and it was as red as if the blood of warriors had been spilled upon the ground.
At the foot of the hill the giant woman built her smithy, and placed her anvil within it. She built a fire of birchwood beside the anvil, adding fuel and blowing upon it with her bellows until the flame leaped high and the heart of the fire, like the sun at midday, glowed too brightly for the eye to look upon.
She cast red earth from the hill on the fire and melted it, and worked it into a fiery ball. Taking the ball with her tongs she laid it on the anvil, and with her hammer she beat it with all her might, and her arm moved so swiftly it seemed that the smith had seven hands. She shaped the glowing metal into a blade, and as she worked she murmured to it, whispering magic runes, until the blade took form and leaped on the anvil and sang back to her, and so the sword was born.
The Finne, in the pursuit of Lon Lonnrach, the giant woman, met and passed a bard of their clan. He was curious to know what game they tracked so hotly, so he turned about and followed after them.
While the sword was yet in the making the Finne came to the smithy and stood peering through the narrow slit that served for a door, watching the gruagach at her work. As the blade on the anvil took shape beneath her hammer, Finn, impatient to see the weapon closer, put a hand on either side of the doorway and tore the opening wider. He passed into the smithy and went to stand at the beangruagach's side. And after him came Osein, Coilte, Diarmid, Osgar the son of Osein, and Goll MacMorna, and presently the bard of the clan, having found his way to them at last, came in to join them.
The gruagach, until the shining blade was finished, paid the intruders no heed. Then she laid the sword aside and set the hammer against the anvil on the ground. She turned to Finn and a smile full of evil and malice showed on her face. “Since you came unbidden, Finn MacChumhail, you are unwelcome,” said she. “Better for you 'twould be, if you had stayed behind.”
Finn had eyes for naught but the sword. His heart leaped for joy at the sight of the gleaming weapon.
“Whether I be welcome or not is of little consequence,” he said. “Strike a bargain with me, O uallach gobhain, to whom the smithy's mysteries are known. What will you take for this blade of earth and fire, and for others like it, one for each of my chiefs who are with me here?”
“The earth's wealth, the sea's wealth would not purchase even one sword were I in Lochlan,” said Lon Lonnrach the beangruagach. “But I am in a strange land and far from my home. What do you offer me for the swords?”