Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ota Swire, Skye: the Island and its Legends

Ota Swire's book on Skye, first published in 1952, has become my favorite work of folklore. I like it so much partly because it is much more than a work of folklore. It is a tour of the island, following its main roads counterclockwise around the coast, with little sections on each town, ruin, hill, or bay a visitor would come to. Swire tells the reader everything she knows about each place, from ancient legends about Cuchulain and the Fenians to where Bonnie Prince Charlie slept to the notable bathtub in the hotel. It is this interweaving of the legendary past, the historical past, and the present that makes the book so utterly charming. Reading folklore often becomes a tedious slog of one story after another, all vaguely similar, but Ota Swire's approach avoids that trap. Instead it is like driving around the island with an impossibly knowledgeable and good-humored native guide, a dream vacation for anyone interested in Scotland.

One example:
In the ruins of Kilchoan Church a twisted elder tree grows. This tree, according to tradition, grows out of the grave of a Scandinavian prince named Diel or Tiel. He was a great prince of Norway, it is thought the king's son, and he came with his ships of war to Scotland. He was killed in battle, or, as some have it, drowned, and his ships sailed into the bay bringing his body for burial in the little church of Kilchoan. First they laid the body down on the shore, where a Skerry is still known as Cnoclannach, the Norseman's Skerry. The bay, til then known as Loch-a-Chuain, Loch of the Ocean, became Poltiel or Poultiel, the Pool of Tiel. Within living memory an old man in the district found that he could not keep his sheep out of his cabbages, so one night in the dark he came to the graveyard and cut billets out of the elder tree to protect his cabbages. This became known and John MacLeod, brother of Neil MacLeod the Skye Bard, wrote certain verses lampooning him. What they were is known only to Glendale, for they were never published. They had, however, the desired effect; no one since has dared to harm the tree.
Ota Swire was born in 1898, and this book was mainly written in the 1940s. Swire had deep roots on Skye; she was descended on one side from the MacLeods of Dunvegan, and on the other from people of Clanranald who lost their lands on Lewes after supporting Charles Stuart in  the '45 and thereafter lived in Skye as "refugees." Yes, on Skye in the early 20th century a family that came in 1745 was still considered not quite native. Swire heard many stories from her grandmothers and great aunts, others from an old bard who once worked for her great-grandfather, still others from the many friends she made around the island. She had also read all the available books on the island's history, as well as much of Scottish and Irish folklore, but whenever she could she preferred to stick to what she had been told.

From the Middle Ages to the '45, the history of Skye was mostly the history of two warring clans: MacDonald and MacLeod. The MacDonalds were the most powerful family in the Scottish islands, and their chiefs sometimes styled themselves Lords of the Isles. Their main power was elsewhere, but from the thirteenth century on they had a branch on Skye, the MacDonalds of Sleat. Their rivals on Skye were clan MacLeod, based at the great castle of Dunvegan. All the islanders were a mix of Celt and Viking, but the MacDonalds identified more with the Celtic side, the MacLeods with the Norsemen. The MacLeods had more land and followers on Skye itself than the MacDonalds, but the MacDonalds could sometimes draw support from branches of their clan on other islands. So neither was ever able to drive the other out, and they waged 500 years of low-level warfare, punctuated by a dozen or so pitched battles. Their castles dot the landscape, and the locations of their battles are still remembered in the place names and the stories.

Besides the history of the clans, and a bit too much on Bonnie Prince Charlie -- while in hiding after his defeat he seems to have passed from supporter to supporter all around the island, allowing every district and every clan to claim that they sheltered him -- we get plenty of the usual Scottish folklore: water horses, seal maidens, lake monsters, hills full of little people and fairy music, haunted castles, churches built by followers of St. Columba. There is even a little on the clearances, and the tour takes you to several vanished towns that emigrated en masse to Canada or Australia, founding new settlements named after their old homes. The whole thing is delightful and I recommend it highly, especially for anyone considering a trip to Skye.

Swire was no scholar and spoke no Gaelic, so she made many mistakes. Since her book became a classic it has been brought out in several "improved" versions, with the Gaelic corrected and the history straightened out. Avoid them. Instead get the new, 2006 edition from Birlinn, the one for sale on Amazon and in most bookshops. This has the text exactly as Swire left it, but supplies corrections in a long introduction by Gaelic scholar Ronald Black. That way you can both experience the stories as Swire told them, and, if you feel the need, check to see what recent scholarship says about the events she mentions and the place-name etymologies she presents. You can also get from Black some hints at the darker side of the island's history, especially what really happened to the people who vanished from the island, their places taken by sheep.

Ota Swire's Skye is in its way nearly as wonderful as the island itself, which is a very wonderful place indeed.

No comments: