At the narrowest sailable point there are barely 12 miles between the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland and County Antrim in the north of Ireland and on a clear day you can see from one to the other.
As they are both Celtic countries in close geographical proximity it is not surprising that culturally there are so many similarities. Ireland has been an island nation since the dawn of time, however Scotland as a country was not established until the 10th century. Of course that isn’t to say there wasn’t anything there as the Picts and the people of Dál Riata would clearly point out!
In terms of folklore there are some distinctly Scottish ethereal beings and mystical tales of course, however many seem to have been ‘borrowed’ from their Irish counterparts over time. So how did the Irish infiltrate Scotland and what magic and stories of the supernatural did they leave behind?
Dál Riata and Immigration
This Gaelic dominion dates back to 400 A.D and covered a part of the west of Scotland and the north east of Northern Ireland. The Picts were much further to the north of Scotland and didn’t converse in the same Gaelic tongue as their neighbours.
After the Romans left Britain, the realm was quickly taken over by an ever mounting population of Irish immigrants and other Celtic speaking communities. Safe in the knowledge they were protected by vast numbers of kinsman, the official seat of Dál Riata was moved across the sea from Ireland to Scotland.
By the 7th century, Saint Patrick had carried out his work trying to rid Ireland of Paganism and Saint Columcille had taken it upon himself to bring the same to Scotland by setting up a monastery on Iona to promote Christianity.
This, together with an influx of Norse and Saxon immigrants diluted the strong pagan Celtic gene pool and much of the established Gaelic influence faded away. By the time Scotland was established as a kingdom in the 10th century, the Picts had overrun and more or less eliminated the people of Dál Riata.
In Ireland many of the pagan beliefs and superstitions did not succumb to Christian conversion and stood the test of time. Although not as strong due to a mix of cultures influencing life in Scotland, many traditions and myths remained although largely hidden and confined to more rural areas.
So what was left behind?
Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Benandonner and the Giant’s Causeway
One of the first mythological tales any young Irish child learns just happens to be Scottish too. Fionn was an Irish giant who was in an ongoing battle with his nemesis across the sea, a Scottish giant by the name of Benandonner who was larger and much more dangerous. Temper rising, Fionn began to break off pieces of the Antrim Coast and throwing them into the sea to build a series of stepping stones across the water to finish off Benandonner.
Fionn learns that Benandonner is coming for him and is terrified so hatches a plan with his wife to scare off the intimidating ogre once and for all. Dressed as an infant, Fionn is tucked up in a crib as the Scottish giant arrives to the house. Benandonner looms over the helpless Oona as she informs him that Fionn is on an errand. Making pancakes, she puts iron into some of the batch. Handing one to Benandonner that contains the iron, he takes a bite and his tooth is broken.
Oona looks on disdainfully and says her husband eats them without any trouble. She then proceeds to feed an untainted pancake to the ‘infant’ who gobbles it down without a bother. The giant feels the teeth of the ‘child’ and is bitten for his trouble!
Realising that if this was the offspring of Fionn, his rival must indeed have strength and power beyond anything he could imagine. Benandonner runs back across the Causeway in terror, smashing the hexagonal shaped basalt columns as he went, leaving only that on the coast of Antrim to ensure Fionn did not follow in his wake.
The Pirate Queen of Connaught and the Gallowglass Warriors
Of course the most interesting tales are those with solid historical foundation. So what happens when you take a group of Scottish mercenaries and have them led by Ireland’s most fearsome female?
Having pillaged and plundered their way across Europe, the Vikings began to invade Britain and began to settle in the Hebrides. The Norsemen were intelligent enough to know the benefits of interacting and becoming part of communities and began to marry local Gaelic speaking women. These mixed marriages led to the part of the population known as Gael -Gall, translating as ‘foreigners who speak Gaelic.’
In the mid thirteenth century, the King of the Hebrides presented a hundred or so warriors born into the Gael-Galls as a gift to the King of Connaught in Ireland. They became known as the Gallóglaich (foreign young warriors) and helped to bring the Norman Invasion of Ireland to an end in Carrick-on-Shannon in the year 1270.
As a result of this Irish Kings began to hire the Gallóglaich over the years and centuries to fight not only invading forces but each other in the battle for supremacy. The Scottish mercenaries were not cheap but they were certainly effective and got the results they were paid for.
Standard dress code was a padded jacket covered in mid length chain mail and an iron helmet. Traditional Gallóglaich weaponry consisted of a two handed sword similar to a claymore, spears, darts and the double headed Sparthe Axe, a throwback to their Viking heritage.
They would number approximately 80 men for each engagement and there would be two young lads for each warrior to carry supplies and backup weaponry. Such was their reputation and standing, it would not be long before a fiery red-headed female Irish pirate would come hiring.
Grace O’Malley was born into a successful family who thrived on trade and shipping, otherwise known as piracy. Grace was not to be thwarted in her attempts to become a part of her father’s thriving business. So determined, she cut off her long red locks and became known as Grace the bald or ‘Granuaile’. She proved her worth on a voyage with her father when their ship was boarded by pirates. Undeterred and unfearful, the feisty young girl climbed the rigging and jumped screaming and clawing onto the back of the unsuspecting pirate in order to protect her father.
The young woman was married at sixteen to an affluent and aspiring man in order to expand the family empire and they lived at ‘Cock’s Castle’ in Lough Lorrib. Under attack from a rival clan, Grace’s husband Donal was murdered and the aggressors were sure of their victory. They were wrong. The furious widow got her men to strip the castle roof of lead and make shot to fire on her husband’s killers. The Joyce clan were so impressed, they retreated and renamed the homestead ‘Hen’s Castle’ a name still used today.
The experience hardened Granuaile and while increasing her holdings and piracy reputation, she married once again for money and prestige. Cleverly she wed under ‘Brehon Law’ which meant the marriage was binding for one year only, after which time any dissatisfied party could divorce and retain marital assets. On their first anniversary, Grace divorced her second husband and kept Rockfleet Castle for herself as a strategic stronghold.
Any one crossing Granuaile personally was destroyed as she was a vengeful woman yet she always maintained her control of the shores and seas of Ireland. This was not enough for the fire-haired pirate and she began to raid islands off the coast of Scotland and to operate a protection racket on the high seas where people would pay for safe passage.
Grace believed her own men were not up her standards, so also hired the Gallóglaich as their brutal but effective modus operandi was exactly what she was looking for. Together they went on to destroy Spanish invaders and even take on the Crown in her ongoing strive towards total domination of the seas and coastline.
The unformidable Pirate Queen retired to Rockfleet Castle at the top of her game and died in her seventies leaving her reputation of fear and notoriety firmly intact. Although historic, the story of Grace O’Malley became more and more a part of Irish folklore, becoming immortalised in poems, songs, books and plays, her links to Scotland never forgotten.
Borrowed or Shared? Celtic Women of Folklore
The great blues guitarist B.B King once said “I don’t think anybody steals anything, all of us borrow.” Never a truer word has been spoken when it comes to folklore. It would be impossible to have two such similar nations without a crossover of ethereal beings and legends, although taking into account age and history, it is likely that Scotland did much of the borrowing! Let’s take a look at some of the most popular characters from Celtic folklore.
The Divine Hag
Cailleach Beare (or Bheur) is a crone goddess associated in Ireland with the Beara Peninsula on the South West coast but equally so with the Scottish Highlands were she was said to drop rocks randomly from her wicker basket and used the mountains as stepping stones.
Her time of power is from Samhain to Beltane and she is the goddess of winter. She would raise brutal arctic storms, snow and ice and the hag carried a magic staff that turned the greenery she touched to the grey withered death of winter.
Cailleach Beare is hideous and terrifying, with a blue face, long pointed teeth and filthy, bedraggled hair. As her season comes to a close, she turns into a block of stone until winter returns once more.
The Omen of Death
The Irish Banshee or Scottish Bean Nighe is the ultimate harbinger of death. Both words mean fairy woman and carry with them tales of being disguised as a washer woman, washing the bloodied clothes of those about to die. This particular account of the Banshee can be traced back to the Irish Goddesses ‘The Morrigan’ and ‘Clíodhna’, Queen of the Banshees.
Although known as death portents, there have been sightings of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment.
The traditional description of the fairy death bringer is that of a wretched old hag, dress shredded, matted grey hair, pointed rotting teeth and long, yellow fingernails. If you become her chosen victim she will torment you ruthlessly, making you hear her soul wrenching scream of despair until your own soul is lost in the depths of her evil cry after a descent into madness.
Of course of you are lucky, you will have a quick death by looking into her blood red eyes, filled with enough loathing and agony to kill you instantly. Those strong enough not to succumb to either, are ripped apart by her withered bare hands.
More often than not however, the Banshee is a benevolent herald of despair, her chilling cries through the still of the night leading to death and anguish.
Cait Sidhe – One Borrowed from Scotland!
There is one tale that is definitely more rooted in Scottish Folklore than Irish yet still features in tales from both sides of the water.
The Cait Sidhe or Cat Sith is inscrutable and very little is known although there is more to glean from Scottish lore. The creature seems to stem from the Highlands of Scotland yet pops up in exactly the same form in Irish culture.
The fairy being is in the shape of a large black cat with a white spot and is believed to be a soul reaper. Traditions include putting out fires so as not to entice the Cait Sidhe with heat and distracting it from the body of the recently deceased with games and puzzles.
On the feast of Samhain, many homes would leave out milk so that the Cait Sidhe would bless the home for the coming year. Those who didn’t would be cursed and the milk from their cows would run dry.
One explanation of the existence of the Cait Sidhe is that it is a witch. It is said that certain witches have the ability to transform into a feline up to eight times while retaining the ability to change back. Should the witch decide to change a ninth time, she is destined to stay in that form of the forever. Perhaps why a cat is said to have nine lives.
These of course are just a few of the many historic links and tales of folklore and legend that straddle the Celtic nations of Ireland and Scotland. There may be arguments over origins, traits and ownership and indeed there should be as it keeps the folklore alive. What is not up for question is that the histories and folklore of Ireland and Scotland are inextricably intertwined. One cannot exist without the other and as such define us as two different lands but one very solid, mutual Celtic culture.