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Observations placeholder

Myths and legends - Popular Tales of the West Highlands – The Myths of the Mounds



Type of Spiritual Experience


T C Lethbridge – Ghost and Ghoul

AII over the HighIands and Islands of Scotland, but more especially in the west round about the sea of Maoil, as it was once called, are rounded green mounds, known by the name of sithean (sheean). These appear to have been so named after a real people of antiquity, the Tuatha De Danann, the people of the goddess Danu, who was the Great Earth Mother. This people is traditionally recorded in the chronicles of Ireland as having been driven out by the invasion of the people of Miled to live in the green mounds round about the sea of Maoil, that is to what are now known as the Hebrides.

These green mounds, which are still numerous today, are nearly always conspicuous. You can usually tell that a mound is called a sithean before you are told the fact, or learn it from a map. It is reasonable then to say that the Sith and Danann are the same people.

However, it is not as easy as that. Nothing in the study of antiquity ever is, and, in my experience, it is the type from the text-book which is rare. I have seen an entirely natural sithean, a gravel mound, dug away in North Uist to mend a road and one on Kerrera with stone burial cists sticking out of the side of it which were probably of Bronze Age date. A sithean on Colonsay had pre-neolithic rubbish in it; while one beside Loch Creran has the look of being a natural outcrop of rock.

But there are many which are all of one period and have houses inside them. I have dug out one of these on south Uist and there are a great number of others. They were lived in at a time when Rome ruled in southern Britain, -but their inhabitants were an lron Age people. All up the western side of the Outer Islands, and in many other places as well, these people lived in considerable numbers, for there were wide plains to the west two thousand years ago which have been largely washed away by the sea. It seems reasonable to suppose that these homes inside the sithean actually belonged to the Sith, or the Tuatha De Danann.

We have all heard the stories of fairies living inside hills. Here is a-people who actually did so. At least the sites of their homes have now frequently become hillocks, although I do not think that they were so at first.

The archaeological evidence seems to point to their having been built originally as a ring of stone cells surrounding a movable leather tent. Where the remains of vegetable material are sometimes found today in the central court l think it is the trace of bedding and never came from the roof at all. When the leather tent was removed for the last time, the court often filled up with blown sand, driven inland as the sea ate away the coastal plain. It was this encroachment of the sea which I think caused the Danann to migrate once more and this movement was, I suspect, to the eastern parts of Scotland, where our fairies became a branch of the great and warlike confederacy of the Picts.

A description of the experience

Popular Tales of the West Highlands by J. F. Campbell - Volume II  [1890]

From Rev. Thomas Pattieson, Islay. NOTES to the Smith and the Fairies

The man carried into the hill and there remaining for a long time, is … an incident common to many races, including the Jews, and one which I have heard in the Highlands ever since I can remember, though I do not remember to have heard any of the peasantry tell it as a story.

The belief that "the hill" opened on a certain night, and that a light shone from the inside, where little people might be seen dancing, was too deeply grounded some years ago to be lightly spoken of; even now, on this subject, my kind friend Mrs. MacTavish writes—

"You may perhaps remember an old servant we had at the manse who was much offended if any one doubted these stories--(I remember her perfectly). I used to ask her the reason why such wonders do not occur in our day, to which she replied, that religious knowledge having increased, people's faith was stronger than it was in the olden time. In the glebe of Kilbrandon in Lorn is a hill called Crocan Corr--the good or beautiful hill where the fairies even in my young days were often seen dancing around their fire. I sometimes went out with others to look, but never succeeded in seeing them at their gambols.

"Are you aware that ------'s mother was carried away by the fairies--(I know ------ well). So convinced were many of this absurdity, which I remember perfectly well, that it was with difficulty they got a nurse for his brother ------, who being a delicate child, was believed to have been conveyed away along with his mother, and a fairy left instead of him during his father's absence * * * The child however throve when he got a good nurse, and grew up to be a man, which, I suppose, convinced them of their folly. Mr. ------ minister, of ------ had some difficulty in convincing a man whose wife was removed in a similar manner (she died in childbed), that his son, a boy twelve years of age, must have been under some hallucination when he maintained that his mother had come to him, saying she was taken by fairies to a certain hill in Muckairn, known to be the residence of the fairies.

"If any one is so unfortunate as to go into one of these hills, which are open at night, they never get out unless some one goes in quest of them, who uses the precaution of leaving a GUN or SWORD across the opening, which the fairies cannot remove. A certain young woman was decoyed into one of these openings, who was seen by an acquaintance dancing with the merry race. He resolved on trying to rescue her, and leaving his gun at the entrance, went forward, and seizing the young woman by the hand, dragged her out before they could prevent him. They pursued them, but having got her beyond the gun, they had no longer power to keep her. She told him she had nearly dropped down with fatigue, but she could not cease dancing, though she felt it would soon kill her. The young man restored her to her friends, to their great joy."

(I remember exactly the same incident told of a hill called Bencnock in Islay, and one similar of another hill called Cnock-donn.) "When poor women are confined, it is unsafe to leave them alone till their children are baptised. If through any necessity they must be left alone, the Bible left beside them is sufficient protection.

"Many were the freaks fairies were guilty of. A family who lived in Gaolin Castle, Kerrera, near Oban, had, as they supposed, a delicate child; it was advancing in years but not growing a bit; at length a visitor from Ireland came to the castle, and recognized her as the fairy sweetheart of an Irish gentleman of his acquaintance. He addressed her in Gaelic or Irish, saying--'THA THUSA SIN A SHIRACH BHEAG LEANNAN BRIAN MACBRAODH.'--There thou art, little fairy sweetheart of Brian MacBroadh. So offended was the elf at being exposed, that she ran out of the castle and leaped into the sea from the point called RUTHADH NA SIRACH, the fairies' point, to this day.

"Fairies were very friendly to some people whom they favoured, but equally mischievous where they took a dislike. A hill in the farm of Dunvuilg in Craignish was one of their favourite haunts, and on a certain occasion they offered to assist an honest tenant's wife in the neighbourhood, for whom they had a kindness, to manufacture a quantity of wool she had for clothing for her family. She was very glad to have their services, and being always an active race, they set to work directly, repeating 'CIRADH, CARDADH, TLAMADH, CUIGEAL, BEARTIGHE GU LUATH BURN LUAIDH AIR TEINE CORR IONNDRAIDH MHOR MHAITH BEAN AN TIGHE FHIN.' Teazing, carding, mixing, distaff, weaving loom, water for waulking on the fire, the thrifty housewife herself is the best at sitting up late.

"In the heat of their operations an envious neighbour came to the door crying--'DUNBHUILG IRA THEINE,' Dunvuilg on fire! Dunvuilg is on fire! Dunvuilg is on fire! was re-echoed by all the little company. 'M’ UIRD IS M' INNEAN! M' UIRD IS' M' INEANN! MO CHLANN BHEAG S' MO DHAOINE MORA! MO CHLANN BHEAG S' MO DHAOINE MORA!'--'Dunvuilg on fire; my hammers and my anvil--my hammers and my anvil; my little children and my grown men--my little children and my grown men!' and they all scampered off, but not till they had nearly finished the housewife's web.

There is a field in the farm in which I was born, said to have been the scene of fairy operations. They were seen at work, and heard encouraging each other with 'CAOL ACHADH MHAIDH BUANADH GU TETH.' The corn in the field was found in stooks in the morning.

"It is quite common to remark, that the fairies are at some meal as the time of day may indicate when there is rain with sunshine, but I never heard the reason why.--(In England it is the d---l beating his wife.)

"The night following the 13th of May, or May-day, old style, is a particularly busy season with both fairies and witches. Then every herd and dairy-maid and cannie housewife uses various arts to ward off the many evils the enemy has the power of inflicting. One device which I have seen used was putting a little tar in the right ear of each cow beast in the byre; but all these charms or giosragan, as they are called, had always some reason. Tar has a disinfecting quality, as is well known, and used to be put on clothing under the arms when a person had to go into a house where there was any infectious disease."

The Dunbhulaig story is all over the Highlands, and there seem to be many places so called. Mr. John MacLean, Kilchamaig, Tarbert, Argyle, has sent me a version which varies but little from that told by Mrs. MacTavish. The scene is laid on the Largie side of Kintyre. The farmer's wife was idle, and called for the fairies, who wove a web for her and shouted for more work. She first set them to put each other out, and at last got rid of them by shouting "Dunbhulaig on fire!" The fairies' rhyme when working was--

"Is fad abhras 'n aon laimh air dheradh,
Ciradh cardadh tlamadh cuigel, p. 64
Feath a bhearst fithidh gu luath,
'S uisge luaidh air teine
Obair, obair, obair, obair,
Is fad abhras 'n son laimh air dheradh.

Which Mr. MacLean translates freely--

"Work, work, for a single hand
Can but little work command,
Some to tease, and card, and spin;
Some to oil and weave begin;
Some the water for waulking heat,
That we may her web complete.
Work, work, for a single hand
Can but little work command."

The rhyme, when they depart in hot haste, is--

"Mo mhullachan caise m'ord a's m innean,
Mo bhean 's mo phaisde s' mo gogan ima,
Mo bho a' mo gobhair s' mo chiste beag mine,
Och, och, ochone gur truagh tha mise!"

Freely translated thus by Mr. MacLean--

"My wife, my child, alas, with these,
My butter pail and little cheese,
My cow, my goat, my meal-chest gone,
My hammers too, och, och, ochone!"

Or more closely thus--

"My mould of cheese, my hammer, and anvil,
My wife and my child, and my butter crock;
My cow and my goat, and my little meal kist;
Och, och, ochone, how wretched am I!"

I heard another version of the same story in Lewis from a medical gentleman, who got it from an old woman, who told it as a fact, with some curious variations unfit for printing. And my landlady in Benbecula knew the story, and talked it over with me in September this year. The versions which I have of this story vary in the telling as much as is possible, and each is evidently the production of a different mind, but the incidents  are nearly the same in all, and the rhyme varies only in a few points. Dunbhulaig is the same in Kintyre, Lorn, Lewis, and Benbecula. I am not aware that the story has ever before been reduced to writing.


The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items



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