Folklore of the Gaels

The folklore of the Gaels of Ireland and the Highlands is a vast subject area that makes fascinating study for those who are interested. This paper is a brief introduction to some of the more notable aspects of our rich heritage of folk customs and beliefs, the roots of which go back to the pagan nature religion of our ancestors. While the religious meanings have long since been forgotten by most, yet these ancient rites and customs survive in the 'folk memory' of the Gael. Celtic religion was by nature tribal and localized.

Deities were nature spirits that inhabited rivers, lochs, groves, moorland, mountains and glens. Worship of these places survived long after the Gods themselves had been cast aside through the influence of Christianity. This can be seen in many place names.

Deosil: A very common practice is the circling three times deosil, or sunwise, of a certain place, house etc. to bring good luck and fortune. This is clearly a pagan custom of drawing down the power of the sun, associated with blessings, good health and fortune. For example, fire is carried three times around an infant; boats are rowed three times sunwise before a journey; the sick circle three times around a holy well for health.

Quarter Days: The Quarter Days are the old Celtic festivals of Samhain, Bride, Beltaine and Lughnassadh, and much folklore surrounds them. They are considered especially potent days for all kinds of charms, divinations and so on. Need fires are kindled for the protection and purification of people and livestock; visits to holy wells are made; dedications of banks are carried out. These days are also considered lucky for journeys, new ventures, lovers etc. There are also certain taboos, however. It is considered dangerous to give away fire in the form of a kindling, in case the luck of the house goes with it. The First Monday of the Quarter is dedicated to the moon, and is also considered very lucky. A system of divination used in the Highlands, known as The Firth, was carried out on this day, just before sunrise. The seer would go barefoot to stand in the doorway of the house, and the divination would be made from what is seen, particularly of birds and animals.

Moon Phases: Sowing and planting were always done at the waxing moon. The waning moon was considered good for plowing, reaping, cutting peat. On the waning moon, hazel and willow were not cut for baskets, nor was wood cut for boats. Everyone once carried a 'peighinn pisich' (lucky penny) which was turned over three times in the pocket at the first sight of the new crescent.

Water: The magic of water is widely known. Wells, pools, streams are reputed to have healing powers and life preserving properties. Springs are particularly beneficial, as they carry water from the heart of the Earth. At one time, there were over 600 holy wells all over Scotland; they were originally shrines of local water deities. Before drinking of the well water, you must circle the well three times and 'silver' the water with a silver coin.

The Sea: Much superstition surrounds this. Certain things must not be given their correct name at sea, even places, for fear of causing offense to the 'Good People'. Certain birds are either good or bad omens if seen at sea. A stranger must not walk over ropes, oars etc. or this would bring bad luck. When rowing a boat you must start from the right hand side. A child born on the ebbing tide was considered to be unlucky, and would probably grow up weak and sickly.

Animals: There is a wealth of folklore concerning animals. The serpent in Scotland symbolizes wisdom and the Earth spirit. Bulls are especially linked with fertility. The most common 'fairy animals' are the selkies, or seal people, and the kelpies, or water horses. (For more information see Celtic Totem Animals, Dalriada Publications).

Trees: Certain trees are considered to be under the protection of the 'fairies', and to destroy a fairy tree is a very dangerous act. Rowan is the supreme tree of protection, and is used for the churn staff, distaff, the pin of the plow and in many other domestic and agricultural implements. It is common to plant a rowan near the front door of the house, or near the byre door. Hazel is associated with divination, especially of water. The nuts are embodiments of wisdom and children born in the autumn could have the 'milk of the nut', said to be of great benefit. Elder or the bourtree is also a protective tree and features a great deal in folklore. Willow and Alder are especially beloved of water spirits. Thorn trees are said to be sacred to the fairies, especially if three are found growing together. Ivy is protective of milk. Ivy, woodbine and rowan are combined in wreaths and placed over the lintels of cow houses. Many plants are said to have magical properties, such as Saint John's Wort, pearlwort, vervain, yarrow, woodbine, foxglove and many others. Milk could be charmed from another's cows, but certain plants, such as pearlwort, could be used to counteract this.

Stones: Many standing stones are reputed to have healing powers. Stones with holes through them are especially good for 'curing' barren women. Small healing stones, sometimes shaped like different parts of the body, were used in the Highlands. The sick person would wash the affected part and then rub it with the appropriate stone. 'Elf Bolts' — the name given to small flint arrowheads, were also considered lucky if found. Cattle were given water to drink in which an elf bolt had been dipped. The Knocking Stone — a large lump of stone, hollowed out, in which corn was bruised. It was closely associated with the daily bread and therefore with the 'luck of the house'. Family Charm Stones — these were stones handed down through families that were said to have supernatural powers. The most famous charm stone was that of the Brahan Seer, Kenneth MacKenzie, who lived in the 17th century. It was a small white stone with a hole in the center; when he looked through it he could 'see' into the future.

The Fairies: One of the most important aspects of Gaelic folklore is the preservation of the 'Fairy Tradition' in story and song. The belief in fairies was widespread until very recently in Celtic countries. In Scotland, the most famous incidents involving the taking of mortals to Fairyland are of Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin and the Rev. Robert Kirk, author of the remarkable book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. There are several schools of thought as to the origin of the belief in fairies:

  1. Some say the fairies are a folk memory of a former race of people (such as the Fir Bolgs), slightly smaller and stockier than us in stature, who lived underground in mound-like dwellings.
  2. Others see the fairies as 'Fallen Angels', who were denied a place in Heaven through some misdeed or other. This is obviously a later, Christianized explanation.
  3. Many people see the fairies as a non-human race of nature spirits, and also as the spirits of the Departed. Most fairy hills would seem to be associated with ancient burial places.
  4. The fairies are also said to be the Gods of an older, Earth based religion who have diminished in stature only as a result of the bias against their worship by the Church.

Fairyland: This is the magical dwelling place of the fairy folk, which is in essence the same as the Celtic Otherworld. Glimpses of the Otherworld can be had through the 'Second Sight'. Entrances to this land are often 'over the sea' to an island beneath the waves, or subterranean as in caves, mounds, etc. Fairy women often come in boats to take mortal men away to these lands, hence it is considered unlucky for seafaring men to see a woman before setting out on a journey by boat.

Fairy Gifts: Many folk stories tell of fairies giving gifts to mortals, for example gold, but this often turns to withered leaves or muck. Other gifts to various Scottish clans are fairy flags and fairy chanters.

The Changeling: The fairies would sometimes take away young babies (especially new born) and leave a sickly child of their own in its place, which would soon wither and die.

The Ban Sidhe: (Banshee) This means a fairy woman, but is usually used to mean the spirit of a dead ancestries, the guardian spirit of one of the old Irish families. In the Highlands she was known as the Glaistig Uaine, the Green Lady. When any great misfortune (such as a death) was about to happen in the family, her cries could be heard.

The Gruagach: A fairy woman who guarded livestock, especially at night, but expected a daily offering of milk for her work. Libations were poured on 'gruagach stones' (especially in Skye).

Ban Nigh: The Washer of the Ford, a gloomy figure seen in the dark of night, washing the shroud of someone about to die.

The Cailleach: The old woman, the night mare; many place names are named after her.

Uruisg: Spirits of the forest, half human, half goat, with ragged, hairy appearance. They are wild and savage, but it is possible to establish friendships with them. Uruisgs will help households that they attach themselves to, and work for little reward, but they are easily offended. They are similar to the Brownies of the Lowland areas.

Highland Second Sight: The Highlanders are famed for this gift, but few will speak openly about it, for they have such a superstitious fear of it. Visions usually come to the seer uninvited, and often against the will of the person. Seeing a person's double, or seeing the death shroud about someone, meant that their death was imminent. Those with Second Sight can also see events happening to living people who are great distances away at that particular time.

Invocations: Traditional invocations play an important part in Highland life, and are recited on all significant occasions. They bear a thin surface of Christian influence, below which can be seen the old pagan deities. Examples: Invocation of the Graces, Invocation for Justice, and many others.

The Evil Eye: The 'Droch shuil' — this is a very potent Highland belief, which clearly has its origins in the Celtic legend of the Fomorian God 'Balor of the Evil Eye'. It is believed that certain people have the ability to blight things on which they cast their gaze; this unfortunate gift can also be possessed by people with no evil intent, and consider themselves cursed by it. Stale urine is a powerful antidote for the Evil Eye. Another way to combat this is to drink three mouthfuls of water which has been poured over silver.

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