A collection of essays & photos by William A. Young, linking travel, Celtic mythology, and some associated odds-and-ends
Scotland gets a wee bit magical this time of year, much of the time. When the snow falls on the mountains and the frost falls on the earth, everything seems wrapped up in a slumber, a stillness that’s almost restful.
At other times, it’s less pleasant. When the storms and the rain and the sleet fly in, when the wind’s howling through the air and every time you step outside the door it feels like the entire country is actively trying to kill you, then it’s not quite as nice. But even then, even at the worst, there’s always a stillness at the heart of the storm. It’s the one you find when you close the door, shut out the wail of the wind and sit down in the wamth, by the flicker of the firelight. There’s a wonderful peace in that, too.
In the old days, winter was a time for stories, for clustering round the fire and listening to quiet voices in the still air. Little else could be done; but it was not by necessity alone that people chose to spend their time so. There’s an intimacy to such things that we have now largely lost, a sense of togetherness shaped by sharing something between one another, rather than receiving it from elsewhere. For the old folk, it was something precious; they were the repositories of stories, the one’s who’d heard them the most and could remember them the best. They were the centre of those nights in the firelight, occupying the place in the room where the television sits today. Stories gave old age value; a value that’s faded away, now that the young folk have stopped listening.
Not everyone has ceased to listen, though – at least not yet. Though story-telling is no longer the universal pursuit it once was, there are still a great many people who keep it alive. In Scotland, it’s one of our great cultural traditions, and as such the Scottish Government have been kind enough to provide us with a national centre for Story-telling, housed in the medieval stone buildings of the Royal Mile. I took a wander over there on Friday evening, to hear some old tales re-told.
The event was called “Remembering Brigid”; a Celtic goddess who was converted into a saint, and is commonly known in Scottish tradition these days as Bride. The performance was beautifully conceived as a restoration of the old ambience of storytelling. The whole performance area was darkened, with just a few minimal spotlights and a number of candles for illumination. The flickering flames brought in a little touch of the old peace, even in such modern settings.
There were three performers, working singly and together throughout the evening; a young fiddle-player with the blood of the Western Isles written in her bones, who sang also in Gaelic; a willowy musician named Susanna, who played the accordion and the bodhran; and a wee, older lady from the lowlands of Scotland, who was a professional storyteller and reminded me of my granny. Quite the triad they made.
They performed some songs and traditional invocations to Bride from the highlands, in Gaelic and in English, with and without musical accompaniment. There was a description of the various forms of Brigid, and a wonderful story about a young girl from the isles, caring for an unplanned baby, who encountered a vision of the goddess during an old highland ritual called the ‘Procession of Bride’. The conclusion was a version of a story about both Bride and the Cailleach, explaining the story of the rising of spring as the struggle between the Winter Queen and the Summer Princess for rule over the world. It names and explains the various winds and storms of the winter as the work of the servants of the Winter Queen; her eight helpers, the assistant hags who make up her circle of nine.
The music was beautifully done. You can hear the material of the principal musician, Susannah Orr Holland, on her website here.
At the end of the evening I made back homewards through the winter streets. Appropriately enough, one of the Winter Queen’s servants put in an appearance, and by the end of the journey there was snow falling from the sky, whipped around the streets by a cutting, savage wind. It seemed very fitting; closing the door and heading to bed felt like another battle against the winter won. And another of its secrets found.
Here’s the text of the final story, “The Coming of Angus & Bride”. This is Donald Mackenzie’s version, from 1917;
“All the long winter Beira kept captive a beautiful young princess named Bride. She was jealous of Bride’s beauty, and gave her ragged clothing to wear, and put her to work among the servants in the kitchen of her mountain castle, where the girl had to perform the meanest tasks. Beira scolded her continually, finding fault with everything she did, and Bride’s life was made very wretched.
One day Beira gave the princess a brown fleece and said: “You must wash this fleece in the running stream until it is pure white.”
Bride took the fleece and went outside the castle, and began to wash it in a pool below a waterfall. All day long she laboured at the work, but to no purpose. She found it impossible to wash the brown colour out of the wool.
When evening came on, Beira scolded the girl, and said: “You are a useless hussy. The fleece is as brown as when I gave it to you.”
Said Bride: “All day long have I washed it in the pool below the waterfall of the Red Rock.”
“Tomorrow you shall wash it again,” Beira said; “and if you do not wash it white, you will go on washing on the next day, and on every day after that. Now, begone! and do as I bid you.”
It was a sorrowful time for Bride. Day after day she washed the fleece, and it seemed to her that if she went on washing until the world came to an end, the brown wool would never become white.
One morning as she went on with her washing a grey-bearded old man came near. He took pity on the princess, who wept bitter tears over her work, and spoke to her, saying: “Who are you, and why do you sorrow?”
Said the princess: “My name is Bride. I am the captive of Queen Beira, and she has ordered me to wash this brown fleece until it is white. Alas! it cannot be done.”
“I am sorry for you,” the old man said.
“Who are you, and whence come you?” asked Bride.
“My name is Father Winter,” the old man told her. “Give me the fleece, and I shall make it white for you.”
Bride gave Father Winter the brown fleece, and when he had shaken it three times it turned white as snow.
The heart of Bride was immediately filled with joy, and she exclaimed: “Dear Father Winter, you are very kind. You have saved me much labour and taken away my sorrow.”
Father Winter handed back the fleece to Princess Bride with one hand, and she took it. Then he said: “Take also what I hold in my other hand.” As he spoke he gave her a bunch of pure white snowdrops. The eyes of Bride sparkled with joy to behold them.
Said Father Winter: “If Beira scolds you, give her these flowers, and if she asks where you found them, tell her that they came from the green rustling fir-woods. Tell her also that the cress is springing up on the banks of streams, and that the new grass has begun to shoot up in the fields.”
Having spoken thus, Father Winter bade the princess farewell and turned away.
Bride returned to the mountain castle and laid the white fleece at Beira’s feet. But the old queen scarcely looked at it. Her craze was fixed on the snowdrops that Bride carried.
“Where did you find these flowers?” Beira asked with sudden anger.
Said Bride: “The snowdrops are now growing in the green rustling fir-woods, the cress is springing up on the banks of streams, and the new grass is beginning to shoot up in the fields.”
“Evil are the tidings you bring me!” Beira cried. “Begone from my sight!”
Bride turned away, but not in sorrow. A new joy had entered her heart, for she knew that the wild winter season was going past, and that the reign of Queen Beira would soon come to an end.
Meanwhile Beira summoned her eight hag servants, and spoke to them, saying: “Ride to the north and ride to the south, ride to the east and ride to the west, and I will ride forth also. Smite the world with frost and tempest, so that no flower may bloom and no grass blade survive. I am waging war against all growth.”
When she had spoken thus, the eight hags mounted on the backs of shaggy goats and rode forth to do her bidding. Beira went forth also, grasping in her right hand her black magic hammer. On the night of that very day a great tempest lashed the ocean to fury and brought terror to every corner of the land.
Now the reason why Beira kept Bride a prisoner was because her fairest and dearest son, whose name was Angus-the-Ever-Young, had fallen in love with her. He was called “the Ever Young” because age never came near him, and all winter long he lived on the Green Isle of the West, which is also called the “Land of Youth.”
Angus first beheld Bride in a dream, and when he awoke he spoke to the King of the Green Isle, saying: “Last night I dreamed a dream and saw a beautiful princess whom I love. Tears fell from her eyes, and I spoke to an old man who stood near her, and said: ‘Why does the maiden weep?’ Said the old man: ‘She weeps because she is kept captive by Beira, who treats her with great cruelty.’ I looked again at the princess and said: ‘Fain would I set her free.’ Then I awoke. Tell me, O king, who is this princess, and where shall I find her?”
The King of the Green Isle answered Angus, saying: “The fair princess whom you saw is Bride, and in the days when you will be King of Summer she will be your queen. Of this your mother, Queen Beira, has full knowledge, and it is her wish to keep you away from Bride, so that her own reign may be prolonged. Tarry here, O Angus, until the flowers been to bloom and the grass begins to grow, and then you shall set free the beautiful Princess Bride.”
Said Angus: “Fain would I go forth at once to search for her.”
“The wolf-month (February) has now come,” the king said. “Uncertain is the temper of the wolf.”
Said Angus: “I shall cast a spell on the sea and a spell on the land, and borrow for February three days from August.”
He did as he said he would do. He borrowed three days from August, and the ocean slumbered peacefully while the sun shone brightly over mountain and glen. Then Angus mounted his white steed and rode eastward to Scotland over the isles and over the Minch, and he reached the Grampians when dawn was breaking. He was clad in raiment of shining gold, and from his shoulders hung his royal robe of crimson which the wind uplifted and spread out in gleaming splendour athwart the sky.
An aged bard looked eastward, and when he beheld the fair Angus he lifted up his harp and sang a song of welcome, and the birds of the forest sang with him. And this is how he sang:–
Angus hath come–the young, the fair,
The blue-eyed god with golden hair–
The god who to the world doth bring
This morn the promise of the spring;
Who moves the birds to song ere yet
He bath awaked the violet,
Or the soft primrose on the steep,
While buds are laid in lidded sleep,
And white snows wrap the hills serene,
Ere glows the larch’s vivid green
Through the brown woods and bare. All hail!
Angus, and may thy will prevail. . . .
He comes . . . he goes. . . . And far and wide
He searches for the Princess Bride.
Up and down the land went Angus, but he could not find Bride anywhere. The fair princess beheld him in a dream, however, and knew that he longed to set her free. When she awoke she shed tears of joy, and on the place where her tears fell there sprang up violets, and they were blue as her beautiful eyes.
Beira was angry when she came to know that Angus was searching for Bride, and on the third evening of his visit she raised a great tempest which drove him back to Green Isle. But he returned again and again, and at length he discovered the castle in which the princess was kept a prisoner.
Then came a day when Angus met Bride in a forest near the castle. The violets were blooming and soft yellow primroses opened their eyes of wonder to gaze on the prince and the princess. When they spoke one to another the birds raised their sweet voices in song and the sun shone fair and bright.
Said Angus: “Beautiful princess, I beheld you in a dream weeping tears of sorrow.”
Bride said: “Mighty prince, I beheld you in a dream riding over bens and through glens in beauty and power.”
Said Angus: “I have come to rescue you from Queen Beira, who has kept you all winter long in captivity.”
Bride said: “To me this is a day of great joy.”
Said Angus: “It will be a day of great joy to all mankind ever after this.”
That is why the first day of spring–the day on which Angus found the princess–is called “Bride’s Day”.
Through the forest came a fair company of fairy ladies, who hailed Bride as queen and bade welcome to Angus. Then the Fairy Queen waved her wand, and Bride was transformed. As swiftly as the bright sun springs out from behind a dark cloud, shedding beauty all round, so swiftly did Bride appear in new splendour. Instead of ragged clothing, she then wore a white robe adorned with spangles of shining silver. Over her heart gleamed a star-like crystal, pure as her thoughts and bright as the joy that Angus brought her. This gem is called “the guiding star of Bride “. Her golden-brown hair, which hung down to her waist in gleaming curls, was decked with fair spring flowers–snowdrops and daisies and primroses and violets. Blue were her eyes, and her face had the redness and whiteness of the wild rose of peerless beauty and tender grace. In her right hand she carried a white wand entwined with golden corn-stalks, and in her left a golden horn which is called the “Horn of Plenty”.
The linnet was the first forest bird that hailed Bride in her beauty, and the Fairy Queen said: “Ever after this you shall be called the ‘Bird of Bride’.” On the seashore the first bird that chirped with joy was the oyster-catcher, and the Fairy Queen said: “Ever after this you shall be called the ‘Page of Bride’.”
Then the Fairy Queen led Angus and Bride to her green-roofed underground palace in the midst of the forest. As they went forward they came to a river which was covered with ice. Bride put her fingers on the ice, and the Ice Hag shrieked and fled.
A great feast was held in the palace of the Fairy Queen, and it was the marriage feast of Bride, for Angus and she were wed. The fairies danced and sang with joy, and all the world was moved to dance and sing with them. This was how the first “Festival of Bride” came to be.
“Spring has come!” the shepherds cried; and they drove their flocks on to the moors, where they were counted and blessed.
“Spring has come!” chattered the raven, and flew off to find moss for her nest. The rook heard and followed after, and the wild duck rose from amidst the reeds, crying: “Spring has come!”
Bride came forth from the fairy palace with Angus and waved her hand, while Angus repeated magic spells. Then greater growth was given to the grass, and all the world hailed Angus and Bride as king and queen. Although they were not beheld by mankind, yet their presence was everywhere felt throughout Scotland.
Beira was wroth when she came to know that Angus had found Bride. She seized her magic hammer and smote the ground unceasingly until it was frozen hard as iron again–so hard that no herb or blade of grass could continue to live upon its surface. Terrible was her wrath when she beheld the grass growing. She knew well that when the grass flourished and Angus and Bride were married, her authority would pass away. It was her desire to keep her throne as long as possible.
“Bride is married, hail to Bride!” sang the birds.
“Angus is married, hail to Angus!” they sang also.
Beira heard the songs of the birds, and called to her hag servants: “Ride north and ride south, ride east and ride west, and wage war against Angus. I shall ride forth also.”
Her servants mounted their shaggy goats and rode forth to do her bidding. Beira mounted a black steed and set out in pursuit of Angus. She rode fast and she rode hard. Black clouds swept over the sky as she rode on, until at length she came to the forest in which the Fairy Queen had her dwelling. All the fairies fled in terror into their green mound and the doors were shut. Angus looked up and beheld Beira drawing nigh. He leapt on the back of his white steed, and lifted his young bride into the saddle in front of him and fled away with her.
Angus rode westward over the hills and over the valleys and over the sea, and Beira pursued him.
There is a rocky ravine on the island of Tiree, and Beira’s black steed jumped across it while pursuing the white steed of Angus. The hoofs of the black steed made a gash on the rocks. To this day the ravine is called “The Horse’s Leap”.
Angus escaped to the Green Isle of the West, and there he passed happy days with Bride. But he longed to return to Scotland and reign as King of Summer. Again and again he crossed the sea; and each time he reached the land of glens and bens, the sun broke forth in brightness and the birds sang merrily to welcome him.
Beira raised storm after storm to drive him away. First she called on the wind named “The Whistle”, which blew high and shrill, and brought down rapid showers of cold hailstones. It lasted for three days, and there was much sorrow and bitterness throughout the length and breadth of Scotland. Sheep and lambs were killed on the moors, and horses and cows perished also.
Angus fled, but he returned soon again. The next wind that Beira raised to prolong her winter reign was the “Sharp Billed Wind” which is called “Gobag”. lasted for nine days, and all the land was pierced by it, for it pecked and bit in every nook and cranny like a sharp-billed bird.
Angus returned, and the Beira raised the eddy wind which is called “The Sweeper”. Its whirling gusts tore branches from the budding trees and bright flowers from their stalks. All the time it blew, Beira kept beating the ground with her magic hammer so as to keep the grass from growing. But her efforts were in vain. Spring smiled in beauty all around, and each time she turned away, wearied by her efforts, the sun sprang forth in splendour. The small modest primroses opened their petals in the sunshine, looking forth from cosy nooks that the wind, called “Sweeper”, was unable to reach. Angus fled, but he soon returned again.
Beira was not yet, however, entirely without hope. Her efforts had brought disaster to mankind, and the “Weeks of Leanness” came on. Food became scarce. The fishermen were unable to venture to sea on account of Beira’s tempests, and could get no fish. In the night-time Beira and her hags entered the dwellings of mankind, and stole away their stores of food. It was, indeed, a sorrowful time.
Angus was moved with pity for mankind, and tried to fight the hags of Beira. But the fierce queen raised the “Gales of Complaint” to keep him away, and they raged in fury until the first week of March. Horses and cattle died for want of food, because the fierce winds blew down stacks of fodder and scattered them over the lochs and the ocean.
Angus, however, waged a fierce struggle against the hag servants, and at length he drove them away to the north, where they fumed and fretted furiously.
Beira was greatly alarmed, and she made her last great effort to subdue the Powers of Spring. She waved her magic hammer, and smote the clouds with it. Northward she rode on her black steed, and gathered her servants together, and called to them, saying: “Ride southward with me, all of you, and scatter our enemies before us.”
Out of the bleak dark north they rode in a single pack. With them came the Big Black Tempest. It seemed then as if winter had returned in full strength and would abide for ever. But even Beira and her hags had to take rest. On a dusky evening they crouched down together on the side of a bare mountain, and, when they did so, a sudden calm fell upon the land and the sea.
“Ha! ha!” laughed the wild duck who hated the hag. “Ha! ha! I am still alive, and so are my six ducklings.”
“Have patience! idle chatterer,” answered the Hag. “I am not yet done.”
That night she borrowed three days from Winter which had not been used, for Angus had previously borrowed for Winter three days from August. The three spirits of the borrowed days were tempest spirits, and came towards Beira mounted on black hogs. She spoke to them, saying: “Long have you been bound! Now I set you at liberty.”
One after another, on each of the three days that followed, the spirits went forth riding the black hogs. They brought snow and hail and fierce blasts of wind. Snow whitened the moors and filled the furrows of ploughed land, rivers rose in flood, and great trees were shattered and uprooted. The duck was killed, and so were her six ducklings; sheep and cattle perished, and many human beings were killed on land and drowned at sea. The days on which these things happened are called the “Three Hog Days”.
Beira’s reign was now drawing to a close. She found herself unable to combat any longer against the power of the new life that was rising in every vein of the land. The weakness of extreme old age crept upon her, and she longed once again to drink of the waters of the Well of Youth. When, on a bright March morning, she beheld Angus riding over the hills on his white steed, scattering her fierce hag servants before him, she fled away in despair. Ere she went she threw her magic hammer beneath a holly tree, and that is the reason why no grass grows under the holly trees.
Beira’s black steed went northward with her in flight. As it leapt over Loch Etive it left the marks of its hoofs on the side of a rocky mountain, and the spot is named to this day “Horse-shoes”. She did not rein up her steed until she reached the island of Skye, where she found rest on the summit of the “Old Wife’s Ben” (Ben-e-Caillich) at Broadford. There she sat, gazing steadfastly across the sea, waiting until the day and night would be of equal length. All that equal day she wept tears of sorrow for her lost power, and when night came on she went westward over the sea to Green Island. At the dawn of the day that followed she drank the magic waters of the Well of Youth.
On that day which is of equal length with the night, Angus came to Scotland with Bride, and they were hailed as king and queen of the unseen beings. They rode from south to north in the morning and forenoon, and from north to south in the afternoon and evening. A gentle wind went with them, blowing towards the north from dawn till midday, and towards the south from midday till sunset.
It was on that day that Bride dipped her fair white hands in the high rivers and lochs which still retained ice. When she did so, the Ice Hag fell into a deep sleep from which she could not awake until summer and autumn were over and past.
The grass grew quickly after Angus began to reign as king. Seeds were sown, and the people called on Bride to grant them a good harvest. Ere long the whole land was made beautiful with spring flowers of every hue.
Angus had a harp of gold with silver strings, and when he played on it youths and maidens followed the sound of the music through the woods. Bards sang his praises and told that he kissed lovers, and that when they parted one from another to return to their homes, the kisses became invisible birds that hovered round their heads and sang sweet songs of love, and whispered memories dear. It was thus that one bard sang of him:–
When softly blew the south wind o’er the sea,
Lisping of springtime hope and summer pride,
And the rough reign of Beira ceased to be,
Angus the Ever-Young,
The beauteous god of love, the golden-haired,
The blue mysterious-eyed,
Shone like the star of morning high among
The stars that shrank afraid
When dawn proclaimed the triumph that he shared
With Bride the peerless maid.
Then winds of violet sweetness rose and sighed,
No conquest is compared
To Love’s transcendent joys that never fade.
In the old days, when there was no Calendar in Scotland, the people named the various periods of winter and spring, storm and calm, as they are given above. The story of the struggle between Angus and Beira is the story of the struggle between spring and winter, growth and decay, light and darkness, and warmth and cold.”
The Scottish Story-telling Centre’s website you can find here. If you enjoy such things, do get in touch to trade some notions; I always like to hear from fellow-travellers, whatever kind of journey it may be we’re on.
© William Young and Feral Words, 2016. 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.