Mar a Bha | Mar a Tha

As it Was. As it praise of Scottish Gaelic culture, the Old Ways, the New Ancients & Exploring the edges of Orality and the Literary

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A story is a river

a story is a place

a story is alive, wildly alive

breathing, nipping, singing in & out of Us.

Welcome to this wee and ever growing feast of stories, stories that have jigged, wiggled and flared forth from many, seen and unseen.  For twenty some years I have been carrying and tending, courting and telling these tales all around the country and beyond.  Theses stories were shared, and gifted to me while resting in the arms of the Outer Hebrides islands and Scots- Gaelic culture in my work with The Hebridean Folklore Project. 


Now I'm being nudged to gather them from the realm of the oral, laced with my experiences of what these places, people and stories feel and mean to me. To re-tell them on the page so they may travel further and farther, in praise of these islands, their strong, magnetic people, the Scottish Gaelic language, and the old ways.


Ways that we now need to weave into the fabric of our lives, mitigating the corrosive coding we are all influenced by, waking us to a deeper understanding.  These tales, and their re-telling, are breaking illusions, communing separations, sowing seeds for the New Story to flourish us forward with inner integrity, interbeing and communion with all!  Enjoy.    


The Cailleach Sgair

Originally told by Norman MacLeod, Leverburgh, Isle of Harris

Retold/rewritten by Tracy Chipman

Cailleach Sgair - Gaelic - Norman MacLeod - Leverburgh - Harris
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Cailleach Sgair - English - Norman MacLeod - Leverburgh - Harris
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Cailleach Sgair - Tracy Chipman
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The Cailleach Sgair


Let's begin! This story tells of an old women, known by the teller, as The Cailleach Sgair, she was as old as the sea and as wise as the stars.  Her hair a silver river of moonshine. Her face creased with every precious story of her life and her eyes, her eyes, they were clear ad sparking as a mountain stream in July.  She was the carrier of stories going back to the birth of time itself.  She tended the mountains, fjords, coastlines and the more than human beings that bloomed, fruited and filled that wide and wondrous landscape known as Lochland (now Norway).


One day, in May, they say she was banished from her native land by the King for some transgression.  For what we do not know.  Though knowing the ways of unscrupulous kings and wise women, we can only guess.   In the wake of her departure the flora and fauna of the land, began to wither and die and it is said a great sheet of blue ice came down from east of the sun and west of the moon, covering much of the once fertile land.


Anyway, the Cailleach Sgair took herself and her heavy heart to the summer-lands in the south.   

She travelled in and out of a year and a day, guided at night by the bright river of the Milky Way. Eventually arriving to an island place known as Eire.  There it is said the Cailleach brought her great gifts for all things alive and growing, creating a beautiful garden of flowering plants, wide green fields, and forests of high reaching trees bearing fruits and nuts.  To this day that garden has spread across the whole of the island which is also known as the Emerald Isle.


Seasons, perhaps centuries passed and the Cailleach grew older, living well in this land of milk and honey, though not a day passed that she didn’t feel a stab of longing in her heart for her Lochland, her homeland.   She loved her new home and yet still felt the sharp ache for the land of her birth, of her ancestors songs.  One day, as she tended her garden, enjoying the sweet swing of the day, there was a song that started in her heart, and as she worked, loved and stewarded the land, she whispered this special, private tune into every living thing.  Sometimes she cried juicy, plump tears as she sang.


Back in icy, arctic Lochland, the old King exhaled his last breath and died.  Crows cackled, bells of celebration rang louder, much louder than any moans of grief.   The old King's body was laid to rest, the sun shook of her shroud and so began the great ice melt, sea levels rose, castles floated away and porpoises danced polkas in the white horse of the waves.  Somewhere far away, they say, a man called Noah built a boat.  Ah, but that’s a story for another day.


The King’s daughter, who had the heart of a mother bear, and the keen in-sight of a hawk became Queen and immediately pardoned the old Cailleach who had been banished for something that no one could even remember now.  


News of this reached the even older and wiser Cailleach Sgair on the white wings of a swan.  She was so grateful to the swan for delivering this message that she sang the swan up, up, up into the blue-black night sky and there it can be seen near the Milky Way as the constellation, Cygnus.


The Cailleach made ready to leave her lush, vibrant garden home and return to the land of her birth.  She grieved leaving the beautiful garden she had blessed with her sweat, tears, songs and joy and so she dug and dug and dug with a golden trowel filling her apron pockets full to bursting with soil and stone.


Another leaving, “Bhi mi a falabh, Bhi mi a falabh” she spoke to the waves as she began her journey north.  And like before she followed the river of stars at night, her deep pockets brimming with earth, crossing the wild, wild waves.  North, and north, and east she travelled.  The sea was rough, and the wind was biting.  As she travelled towards Lochlan, she sang the song which had given her so much comfort over the many years on Eire (air-ah). (Sing Chi Mi)  As she sang, persevering through the wind and the waves, clods of soil fell from her overflowing apron pockets into the sea.  


It is said that when those spilling clods of soil and life landed in the sea – they become what is now known as the Hebrides islands.  From blooming Islay in the south to wind battered Lewis in the north.  It is also said that the song she sung soaked into those newly born islands, forever blessing or cursing those who would soon belong to these isles with a profound love and longing of their homeland. Sometimes a boon and a bane are the same.


To this day, the Cailleach Sgair, now so very old, much older than the stars, still roams the world.

From Ireland, through each Hebridean Island she roves, then back to her Lochland, singing her song of longing and love.  Some say that if your listening is deep, that on a fresh, clear winter night, you just might hear her song. (Sing Chi Mi)  Sin a gade! (That's it)


The Beastie’s Causeway

Originally told by Donald MacRury, Carnish North Uist

Retold by Tracy Chipman

Beastie's Causeway - English - Donald MacRury Carnish North Uist
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Beastie's Causeway - Tracy Chipman
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The Beastie’s Causeway


So this one day my dear friend Donnie MacRury and I were on an outing.  Donnie, who grew up in Stilligarry, South Uist, but now lived in Carnish, North Uist, was a true tradition bearer and fount of knowledge about everything from local folklore to the medicinal uses of plants to the history of the Islands.  As we drove up south along the mostly, so it was then, single-track road connecting the chain of islands, Donnie was telling me about the landmark we were on our way to visit.  He was explaining the particulars of what we would soon lay eyes on and the story about it.  It was a brief, perfunctory explanation.


We pulled onto a gravel drive off the main road, behind Seumas MacLeod’s shop in Stilligarry.  The yellow flags were in bloom as were, the asphodel, meadowsweet, ragged robin and bog cotton.  The wind was bright and strong coming from the west.  Bha an duigh tioram agus alainn.


We walked up a small hillock covered in mugwort, through the bracken and heather to the shore of Loch Druidibeg, lake of the little druid.  To the east, the mountains of South Uist: Hecla, Corodale and Beinn Mhor, to the south a derelict remnant of the Clearances sat empty and forlorn.  To the west the horizon hummed in translucent island light and to our north, the boggy, moorland stretched until reaching Loch Skipport road. 


Not far from where we stood were the remains of a Bronze Age road.  Old gray rocks, spotted with patches of lichen – light green, gray and ochre sat side-by-side forming a road-like structure.  About 20 metres from the water’s edge  this strange road started and stopped, then started up again, leading nowhere.  The causeway had been there for so long it was part of the landscape, it belonged and yet it did not.  This is what Donnie was telling me about in the car. This was the Beastie’s Causeway.  In silence we circled the causeway, moving in and out, admiring its form.  I wondered why and who and when.  Although the loch was some distance away, it was easy to see that once upon a time the peaty brown waters had lapped along its edges.  We were not the only ones exploring the site.  A few cyclists on holiday were curiously contemplating the ancient landmark.  Donnie saw their questioning looks and with gracious Hebridean hospitality went over and drew them in.


I watched as his eyes lit up and began to sparkle. He clasped his hands together, his lips curled up into a smile. Overhead a lapwing flew and I swear at that moment the bird paused, mid-flight, hovering...listening.  And that’s when Donnie told the story, and it went something like this.


Once, so very long ago, there was once a great bard who belonged to this stretch of land on an island, in an archipelgo scattered green and golden in the North Atlantic sea.  This bard was called MacVullich and he was bard to the mighty chief of Clan Ranald.  Like everyone on the island then and mostly now, MacVullich was also also crofter, meaning he grew food, tended the land and his animals with a deep honoring and abiding with the landscape and those more than human creatures dwelling there.  On this one day he was out along the shores of Loch Druidibeg, his brow furrowed.  You see, each spring MacVullich crossed his cattle through the waters of the loch so they could graze in the hills for the summer.  


It had been a very wet spring; the loch was high and difficult to navigate, so MacVullich was looking for the best place to cross his herd the next morning.  He was deep in concentration, though a tune his mother used to sing to him, played on the edges of his lips (hum "Mo Chubhrachan") He listened to the wind and to the water.  He looked at the clouds, gauging tomorrow’s weather.  MacVullich knew the language of the elements that made up this wild land, his home.  Much has been forgotten.


As he listened, sensed and observed he heard a strange mewling sound, It was a bit like a cat meowing, but it wasn’t.  Something, or someone was distressed and crying.  MacVullich followed sound, and eventually there along the shore he found a smaller furry creature of some sort.  Oh now, it wasn’t human.  It was something else.  Something he had never seen before.


MacVullich thought it looked a bit like an otter, but this was no otter.  It was some kind of beast and perhaps a baby at that.  MacVullich knew right enough that his wife would know what to do with the creature, so he picked it up, tucked it under his arm and made for home.  When he got there, his wife had never seen anything like it.  It did look like an otter, but it wasn’t one.  What she did know was that it was indeed a baby of some sort and most likely it had lost its mother....that why it had been crying.   She gave it a dish of milk and made a pen for the poor creature by the fire, where it settled, drank and fell asleep.  Then MacVuliich and his wife took their meal and went to their beds.


Well, in the middle of the night, there was a great commotion outside MacVullich’s door.  He got up and went to the door, though he didn’t open it.  He knew there was something on the other side of the door.  He felt the hairs on the back of his neck raise up and so he called out,


“Who’s that outside my door” His heart thumping.  


He heard the wind blowing in the grass, a sound he’s known all his life.  MacVullich's listening and communion with the place was so tuned in he also heard the sound of the sea…and he could make out the tide was coming in.  Again, MacVullich called, “Who is that outside my door!”


Through the door MacVullich smelled something, whoever, whatever it was.  The smell of the loch and of the hills, the smell of something wild and feral and the smell of something foul.  

A timeless time passed, and he waited, listening. 


And then it spoke, “It is I, the beast from the hill. You have my baby. Give me back my baby,” hissed the creature.


MacVullich, thinking fast, said, “Oh, is that your baby I have. Well if you want your baby back you’ll have to pay me a ransom.” 


After some time the beast spat,  “What is it that you want?”


“Well,” said MacVullich, “do you know that loch out there?”  “Aye.” said the beast.

“Well, you build me a causeway going through the waters of the loch, then I can cross my cattle safely over to graze in the hills.  You do that for me and you can have your baby back.”  


There was silence, though MacVullich knew she was still there.


At last she spoke, “Fine, MacVullich. You come out tomorrow at dawn, not a minute before or a minute after and you will have your causeway. Then, MacVullich, there are three thing you must do if you wish to have access to this causeway.  The first is, you must look for a rock with my footprint on it and that’s where you’ll leave my baby. The second, MacVullich is you must head for home and don’t look back!,”  she warned. 


“And the third thing?” asked MacVullich. 


“The third thing is that once you get home must do no work that day.  You must take a day of rest.”


MacVullich, sighed. He thought for a minute and after a bit replied, “Fair enough. I’ll be out on the moor at dawn.  Oh, and by the way, your baby is fine, fast asleep, well fed, by the fire”


And with that, the beast she slunk off into the night and MacVullich, well he went to his bed and caught a few more hours sleep.


MacVullich was up well before dawn.  He took his bowl of porridge, then picked the wee beastie up from the pen.  It was all snuggly and warm, then he pressed a kiss on his wifes cheek saing, “Right, I’m away to see what that beast has done for me.”  And out the door he went.

He walked for a spell, singing (sing "Mo Chubhrachan") and saw the first pink blush of dawn coming on behind the three mountains – Hecla, Corodale and Beinn Mhor.  As he came down the hill he looked out onto the clachan moor and the loch in the soft spell of dawn and there he saw a white stone road going through the waters of the loch.  


Until that moment, he really wasn’t sure if the Beast's visit the night before had happened or if it had been just a dream.  What a sight to see and he felt his blood stir, “Ach,” he said, “That will make a fine causeway.”  He wanted to go an investigate, but the wee beastie oxtered under his arm was squirming and wanting down, and then he recalled the words of the Beast and the three things he needed to do.


First, MacVullich had to find the stone with the beast’s footprint and leave the baby.  So, for the next few hours MacVullich searched for the stone, and there were a lot of stones – it wasn’t called Clachan Moor for nothing!  The sun was climbing higher in the sky, and the wee beastie under his arm was wanting down.  He was just about to give up when he saw something move out of the corner of his eye.  He looked and his gaze fell on a clump of heather rustling in the wind.  He went over to it anyway, just to have a look.  Pushing the heather to one side and then the other. Then widening it apart down the middle - he saw it!   The stone, sure enough and it had the beast’s giant footprint pressed into it.   So MacVullich set the baby down there.


The second thing MacVullich needed to do was??  Yes, that’s right to head home and not look back.  Now, there’s something about being a human being, that when you are told not to look, what is the first you want to do?  To LOOK!  Well, it was a long walk home and the whole time MacVullich resisted the urge to look back.  In fact, as he came close to the croft he was at a full out run.  He arrived at his front door, opened it, came in and slammed the door shut, heart pounding. He made it, and he had not looked!


Now, the third thing, MacVullich had to take a day of rest and this was by far the trickiest  thing for hard working MacVullich to do, but he did it.


The next morning MacVullich was up bright and early and smiling from ear to ear as he crossed his cattle over the causeway where they would graze in the hills for the summer.   He left a freshed baked bannock by the stone with the Beast's footprint as an offering.  He recited a verse of praise to the wild, to the Beast to the seen and unseen.


And so, from that day forward MacVullich and those who came after him used the causeway the beast had made to cross their animals over.  Much has changed on the island.  Seumas Mor’s shop is closed for one thing.  The waters of Loch Druidibeg have receded over the centuries and centuries, and some of the causeway stones have been taken and used to build a few of the nearby houses, but out on the Clachan Moor parts of the Beastie’s Causeway still stands.


When Donnie finished the story saying,  “Sin a gad e![1]”  The spell broke,  time which has certainly stopped, started up once again.  The lapwing who had paused mid-flight at the start of Donnie’s story, began to flap her wings again, rising high, flying towards the  machair and we all breathed a collective exhale.   I sensed our breath and surely out hearts had synced up during Donnie's telling.


Gently, slowly, our awareness became occupied with the sensory commotion of the moor.  The wind, the feast of birds, the lapping of the peaty brown water of the loch.  Damp, fresh air and peat smoke filled our lungs.  Ringed plovers cried out their warning.  The causeway seemed altered, as if it had only just arrived, travelled from another time and space.  We thanked Donnie and with the story digesting inside us all, the cyclists made for their bikes, heading north towards Balivanich. 


I stood, unspeakably grateful, taking it all in.  Thinking about this story, thinking that for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, this story has passed on the bright tongues so many, passed through the deep well of so many ears, and come alive in the magic treasure chest of so many, many imaginations.  And now, right here on the Clachan Moor, it has reached me.  Roosting in my heart, a jewel in my mind.


Donnie and I stood there for a moment, each pleased, each lost in our own thoughts, and in our a shared and fulfilling solitude.  Then, Donnie asked if I want to go look for that stone, you know, the one with the beast’s footprint. 


And so we did. 

And that’s a story for another day.

Sin a agad e!

More to come....


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@ Tracy Chipman - Storyteller / Proudly created with sweet creative juice & some cursing!