“A story is telt eye tae eye, mind tae mind, heart to heart.”
– Scots Proverb
I grew up in rural Perthshire hearing a wealth of legends and stories, told by traditional storytellers.
Their stories related to landmarks; standing stones; lochs; or rivers. Just like those landmarks the stories were every bit a part of the landscape and evidence of them remains in the place names. Lurchers Crag in the Cairngorms has a story about a lurcher; Harper’s Stone near Sheriffmuir has a story about a harper bard; Corrie of the Urisks has stories about the Urisks. Stories have direct linguistic, cultural and historical ties to our landscape and to us, who live among the landmarks.
When my son was born I started thinking quite seriously about the importance of our stories; those tales I’d learnt from storytellers in Perthshire and the legends within the ‘Poems of Ossian’.
Growing up I had taken these cultural gems for granted, just like those big monolithic stones, standing unshakable in the farmers fields. As an adult, when I began to tell them from memory, I realised not everyone knew them and the tales were beginning to fade from our collective, cultural memory.
Determined to pass the stories on to my son I started working on a new, illustrated edition of the Poems of Ossian, called “Ossian Warrior Poet”. A collection of Scottish legends from the 3rd and 4th century, reworked for a new generation. I studied the maps of Pliny, Ptolemy, Timothy Pont and Blaeu to name a few. I gathered books from the 18th and 19th centuries on Scottish geography and place names, to see how these had changed and discovering pieces of folklore woven into these place names as I went.
I read and reread the descriptive language in the Ossianic poems, hunting for clues of possible locations for the action in the stories and comparing these to the maps, hunting place names that might offer different linguistic clues or relevant landmarks. Where could a village be located, where would the lookouts be, or the brochs or beacon hills?
I compared the footnotes of as many different versions of the Poems of Ossian as I could get my hands on.
The amount of research I did was too long for footnotes so I turned my research into hand drawn maps and illustrations, making my work as visual as possible and linking the legends back into the landscape they came from.
The idea Scottish folklore and stories are another part of our landscape is not mine alone. It has been a part of Scottish culture and identity for centuries, reflected in our literature and languages.
The 17th century Gaelic poem “The Song of the Owl” by Domhnall mac Fhionnlaigh describes that connection between land, people, nature and culture. It’s called “duthcas” in Gaelic. It’s also a significant part of Scottish Traveller storytelling culture, to which we owe the preservation of thousands of folktales and much of our oral storytelling tradition.
When we speak about who we are, we nearly always start by saying where we’re from and no matter where we travel to, pieces of our homeland travel with us in the languages we grow up hearing and speaking, our names and the stories we hear.
Our languages and stories are a living part of our heritage, a special kind of heirloom. Being familiar with our history, languages; culture and legends influences our sense of self; nurtures confidence in our identity.
Scottish folktales contain strands of history, people’s history; what was important to us; how we lived; what we ate; what we feared; what we loved; and who we are. And because of that, our stories help to preserve other things that might otherwise be lost or forgotten by historians. Our stories are a shared cultural memory bank, spanning centuries.
Examples of this can be found in the morals of a story or the characters. Some ancient Scottish stories teach the importance of offering hospitality: like the drover who asked for bread but got none and punishes the whole family with a dancing spell until they mend their ways.
Who is rewarded and who is punished in these tales can reveal the aspirations and moral values of the Scottish community.
Folklore has historically also given people opportunity to ‘code’ opinions otherwise deemed politically dangerous, such as Jacobite sympathies. It’s given artists a chance to satirise public figures and given some, who wouldn’t have had much of a chance to otherwise express themselves, a voice.
Voices of women, for example, who were writing ballads and folklore between the 16th and 18th centuries. Ballad stories like ‘An Ciul Bachalach’ written by Beathag Mhor’s fae Martainn a Bhealaich, eldest son of Donald Martin of Beallach. In this story Beathag isn’t able to marry the baby’s father so asks he raise their son with a worthy wife instead.
“Ma Theid thu dh’Uibhist an eorna
Thoir to bhoideach dhachaidh as.
Thoir dhachaidh to shocair chiallach
Riaraicheas na caipteanan…
…Thoir dhachaidh to mhodhail chiuin
Dh’ionnsaicheas mo mhac-sa dhut.s
If you go to Uist of the barley
Take a bonnie bride home.
Take home a gentle, clever bride
Who will be approved of by the clan leaders.
Take home a modest, quiet bride
Who will teach my son for you”
It was common for illegitimate children to be raised in the father’s wealthier family and because of our storytelling culture we have first person records of it, from the mothers.
Religious or superstitious views appear in the form of characters being saved frae a kelpie or the Devil by the wielding of a bible or a cross. In Faerie stories, a cross o rowan protects young children from being stolen by faeries.
Many Scottish faerie stories are specific to certain areas in Scotland with Neolithic burial cairns or mounds because the fae folk are thought to be creatures of the underworld, spirits of the dead.
In the stories like the Tacksman (tenant farmer) of Auchriachan the dead are often characters the heroes meet in faerie land. Faerie stories can therefore reveal areas with potential archaeological importance and add to the history of the site.
Some of our stories also offer a way to deal with shared trauma. Grieving voices from disasters like the Iolaire; the Clearances; the aftermath of Culloden are captured in folksong and story. These events, though long past into the history books, have left indelible marks on our psyche as a people and folklore and folksong offers us a chance to process it.
Our stories show cultural links with Ireland and Scandinavia. Scotland and Scottish characters from folklore are included in 13th Century Viking sagas and the Irish legends of Cuthullin the warrior. Cuthullin was trained by the Scottish War Queen, Sgathach at her Fortress of Shadows in Skye.
Peter Frederik Suhm (1728 – 1798) in his “Historie af Danmark” mentions Swaran meeting Cuthullin, and Caledonian King Fingal, all characters within the Poems of Ossian.
And that’s why our stories are so important, why we have to keep telling them.
Like people, stories evolve over time and each generation needs a chance to hear these stories with fresh ears, to add their voice to them and write their own. Stories provide a foundation to understand, explore and express our identities in powerful and memorable ways. They are the roots supporting our growth.
In telling and retelling our tales we help to preserve and develop our cultural memory bank, maintaining, our connection with the Scottish diaspora over the globe and our on-going connection to our land, our history, our cultural neighbours and who we are, as a proud hearted folk.
“Is fhearr na’n t- òr sgeul air inns’ air chòir – Better than gold is a tale well told.”
– Gaelic proverb
Eileen Budd is a writer, story teller and illustrator from Perthshire Scotland. You can find her Ossian Warrior Poet book at Wide Open Sea, https://wideopensea.co.uk/ossian/ and also find her on instagram at @eileenbudd.