A collection of essays & photos by William A. Young, linking travel, Celtic mythology, and some associated odds-and-ends
It started with a book. I found it while returning from a trip to the peninsula of Knoydart on the northwest coast, where David Hine and I had spent a week taking in the experience of incessant, torrential rain. Such wonders you may find in Scotland…
A change of train required a brief stop in the town of Fort William and, to pass the time, I briefly dropped in to the West Highland Museum. If I am honest, I sought it out as much for its heating system as I did for the knowledge it contained- my boots were sodden and cold- but my chance presence led me to pluck from a bookshelf a text that was, in due course, to lead me on something of a journey. It began like this…
The book was born in the closing years of the 19th century. Such a late date of publication feels remarkable, for the tone of its content is such as to convince the reader they are peering back into the dimmest ages of antiquity. It was the work of a Presbyterian clergyman named John Gregorson Campbell, who, in the years around the turn of the century lived upon the Hebridean island of Colonsay. There, amidst the rain and mists of the west, he made it his business to record the heresies whispered by his parishioners. At that time, stories far older than the gospels were still told around the firesides of winter; enunciated in the old Celtic tongue, and speaking of spirits already ancient in the days when Christ was young. Campbell set about the work of recording them.
It is possible Campbell’s work commenced with some degree of malice. Perhaps he intended in time to expose the superstitions of the people to judgement; to cast them as primitive fools, or worthless Christians. If this was the case, it was an intention that withered as he warmed to his theme. Perhaps, after so many years of isolation in a world of fog and wind, he came to find in the tales that formed his book something that was lacking in the Book that had formed him. The mists started to creep into his soul; already a Highlander himself by birth, it may be alleged that on Colonsay his spirit went entirely native.
The text he produced is a classic. It was originally published as two; the “Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland”, and “Witchcraft and the Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands”. Now, it has been gathered into a combined edition, along with a wealth of ancillary data, under the title “The Gaelic Otherworld”. It contains a veritable encyclopaedia of the legends of the Celtic west of Scotland; doorways into a thousand other worlds, each populated by beings and ideas of an antique, alien nature, as foreign to the modern reader as the legends of the most distant of lands. Yet, these are the ideas that lived within the borders of Great Britain only a few generations before this- and which, to a surprising degree, have managed to linger on.
Myriad journeys could commence from Campbell’s book. It points the way to so many otherworldly places… As I sat on the train from Fort William south to Edinburgh, sipping a hot cup of coffee and letting the warmth trickle into my bones, one particular story crawled into my mind and curled up there. It was to awaken many times thereafter, and drag me out into hills and libraries under the impulse of its own wandering nature. It told of the traditions that existed in the Highlands around the figure of Thomas the Rhymer, a medieval poet and prophet from the borderlands of Scotland and England. The accuracy of Thomas’s prophetic verses was believed in for centuries with a zeal bordering- at the least- on the religious. The words I read that day on the subject, were these;
“In Argyllshire and Perthshire, the celebrated Thomas the Rhymer (Tomas Reuvair, T. Reini) is as well-known as in the Lowlands of Scotland. He is commonly called “the son of the dead woman “, but the accounts vary as to the cause of this name. One account says, he was, like Julius Caesar, taken out through his mother’s side, immediately after her death; another, that the cry of the child was heard in the mother’s tomb after her burial, and on the grave being opened Thomas was found in the coffin. A third account says, that a woman, whose husband had been cut in four pieces, engaged a tailor, at the price of the surrender of her person, to sew the pieces together again. He did so in two hours time. Some time after the woman died and was buried. Subsequently, she met the tailor at night, and leading him to her tomb, the child was found there. Both the Highland and Lowland accounts agree that Thomas’s gift of prophecy was given him by a Fairy sweetheart, that he is at present among the Fairies, and will yet come back.
The Highland tradition is, that Thomas is in Dunbuck hill near Dunbarton. The last person that entered that hill found him resting on his elbow, with his hand below his head. He asked, “Is it time?” and the man fled. In the outer Hebrides he is said to be in Tom-na-heurich hill, near Inverness. Hence MacCodrum, the Uist bard, says:
“When the hosts of Tomnaheurich come,
Who should rise first but Thomas?”
Tom-na-h-iubhraich, the Boat Mound, probably derives its name from its resemblance to a boat, bottom upwards. Another popular account makes it the abode of the Feinne, or Fin MacCoul and his men. There is a huge chain suspended from the roof, and if any mortal has the courage to strike it three times with his fist, the heroes will rise again. A person struck it twice, and was so terrified by the howling of the big dogs that he fled. A voice called’ after him, “Wretched mischief-making man, that worse hast left than found”.
Thomas attends every market on the look-out for suitable horses, as the Fairies in the north of Ireland attend to steal linen and other goods exposed for sale. It is only horses with certain characteristics that he will take. At present he wants but two, some say only one, a yellow foal with a white forehead. The other is to be a white horse that has got “three March, three May, and three August months of its mother’s milk”; and in Mull they say, one of the horses is to be from the meadow of Kengharair in that island. When his complement is made up he will become visible, and a great battle will be fought on the Clyde.
‘When Thomas comes with his horses,
The day of spoils will be on the Clyde,
Nine thousand good men will be slain,
And a new king will be set on the throne.’
You may walk across the Clyde, the prophecy goes on to relate, on men’s bodies, and the miller of Partick, who is to be a man with seven fingers, will grind for two hours with blood instead of water. After that, sixteen ladies will follow after one lame tailor, a prophecy copied from Isaiah IV I. A stone in the Clyde was pointed out as one, on which a bird would perch and drink its full of blood, without bending its head, but the River Trustees have blasted it out of the way that the prophecy may not come true.” (pages 147-149)
There is much in this story that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Christian religion, nominally universal in the Highlands of the late 19th century. The lines between life and death are blurred, in a fashion that a religion promising judgement in the hereafter can never countenance. If heaven is a certainty for the saved, and hell the eternal punishment of the sinner, what then can be made of a soul who departed many centuries ago, but will yet come back?
The belief that lies behind the story of Thomas is that of the Otherworld; or, more accurately, the other worlds. The old stories of the Celtic peoples are filled with accounts of separate realities that exist within, parallel to, or outwith our own. These other lands are not believed to be unitary; there are a multitude, ruled over by different spirits with differing intentions towards man. It is perhaps unreasonable to term them “Celtic”; although they are the legendary inheritance of the Celtic peoples, they were passed down from ancestors far older than the category or name of Celt. They are tied to sites that reach back into the Neolithic, and bear in their own structure the imprint of cultures far older and stranger than anything that survived into the historical era. They are the echoes of lost civilisations; the ghosts of dead ideas that have, in their own fashion, refused to die- that have gone into the other world of legend, and that keep coming back.
The other worlds of the Celts are not heavenly lands. They are tied up with real places; their stories bound around features of the landscape, places that are incorporated into a great web of legend that cover the Celtic lands in a net of narrative. In a sense, all Scotland is a story, if you can learn how to read it- and travel is a part of the reading. The face of the land across which you pass is the page upon which it is written.
Over the next month or two (or three, depending on my degree of laziness), I’m going to post three accounts of Otherworlds that are tied to particular places in the landscapes of the Celtic countries. Two are in Scotland, one in Ireland; the last of them, in Scotland, will explain in great detail exactly what I found in the course of chasing down the ghost of Thomas the Rhymer. While they may not contain the same degree of visual drama or extremity of conditions you’ll find in some of my posts on other, more exotic parts of the world, I hope they will nevertheless showcase a little of what is special about this particular patch of land that I call home. I think it has much to commend it.
Until next time…
© William Young and Feral Words, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to William Young and Feral Words with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.