Native Well-Springs of Creativity in the Scottish Highlands: Faery, Goddesses, the Land itself

Address to Asheville Wordfest, 14 April 2018

Alastair McIntosh (left) with Michael Newton (right) at Asheville Wordfest 2018.

At one time, all of humankind was indigenous. While some societies remain so, and others have been dislocated for many hundreds of years, the native Gaelic culture of the Scottish Highlands was strongly embedded in the land and its primal cosmology into the late eighteenth century. Underground streams of tradition still trickle from those sources and can be traced and reclaimed to the present day. A unifying and centripetal force in the cosmology and indigenous knowledge of the Scottish Highlands is idea of the sìdh, crudely and imprecisely translated as “faery” in English. These beings and the space they occupy integrate concepts of artistic expression, literary tradition, ancestral heritage, and belonging to birthplace for those immersed in Gaelic tradition.

So, let me first of all get something out of the way. One of my pet-peeves is the use of the word “superstition” to discuss native Gaelic cosmology and belief systems. The word “superstition” and others like it have been used for centuries to demean, dismiss, denigrate, and disempower Gaelic tradition, and to assert the supposed inherent superiority of anglocentric modernity. Even within Scotland, those who have any tangible knowledge of or contact with this belief system are a small minority. These are such sore points that those people will avoid subjects like “fairies” for fear of being mocked, misunderstood or misrepresented. I generally use the terms “cosmology” and “indigenous knowledge” to place Gaelic belief systems alongside those of other native peoples, and to afford them the dignity and esteem they deserve.

Gaels have been experiencing colonialism in Scotland for nearly a thousand years. Although the country was originally named after its Gaelic founders, the Scotti, in the early 12th century the Lowlands were colonized by anglophones who gradually took over its national institutions and identity, leaving the indigenous Gaels marginalized and vilified. It is worth mentioning that the 272nd anniversary of the Battle of Culloden is just two days away, and that this defeat marks a watershed in the subjugation of Scottish Gaeldom.

This brings me to the question of the meaning of the word “indigenous.” I understand it to signify the symbiotic relationship between a culture and the land that it occupies, an active and conscious engagement with that physical terrain and the other co-existing life forms. Not only is the identity of indigenous peoples bound up with their land but their sense of the sacred is tied to the integrity of their ecosystem. I concur with the view of indigeneity offered by John Mohawk in his 1990 essay “Distinguished Traditions”:

Traditional societies are socialized to existence in a specific place. That is to say, the most Traditional societies are indigenous in the sense that they believe they belong to the space they occupy. … Generation after generation expends energy thinking about what it means to be a people of the forest or desert, and that thinking process develops a conservatism about the ecology which is both healthy and, in the long term, necessary for survival …

Many cultures that were once indigenous have been disrupted, displaced, subjugated, and subsumed during the last five centuries of European imperialism and the creation of “modernity,” for lack of a better term. But I will return to this issue a little later.

What I hope to explore in this talk is the awesome interlocking weave in Gaelic thought between creativity and inspiration, the conceptualization of landscape and place, and the realm of supernatural beings. It is hard to know exactly how to begin to disentangle these issues, and riding these loops and interlace can tie the brain in knots, but hopefully you will have a sense of the emergent pattern by the time I am finished.

Spiritual traditions are always multifaceted and multilayered. It would be naive and misguided to assume that the “Fairy Faith” can or should be explained with a single theory or attributed to a single cause or rationale. On the one hand, we know from early medieval texts and from their very name that the sìdh are in origin the Old Gods. So there are aspects of fairy lore that are remnants of ancient druidic belief, but those undercurrents are relatively minor in the big picture. And of course, we can see wish fulfillment and projection, as in most religious systems.

But fairy lore is much more than this. It is also a pervasive rhetorical system in Gaelic tradition used in stories and songs to explore social and psychological norms and aberrations, surveying the depths of what it means to be human and to experience the mysteries of being alive. It contains a set of metaphors and analogies that has allowed Gaels to comment on the very idea of tradition and belief. So, it is disingenuous to equate this complex and textured aspect of indigenous knowledge with modern fantasies of tiny, winged creatures meant only to entertain or test the limits of suspending disbelief.

From our earliest recorded texts, these beings from the Otherworld are described as physically indistinguishable from human beings. In many ways, the Otherworld is a reflection of our own, and in other senses, the Otherworld and its residents are very different. But amongst these Otherworld beings are the ancestors. Because they are witnesses to history, brave mortals sometimes seek them out for wisdom and knowledge.

But how do we get the Otherworld? Hills often serve as entrances, but it is important to highlight that many fairy mounds are ancient megaliths and burial mounds, and the idea of fairy hills comes from the green knoll that grows over such prehistoric structures. So this again reflects the association between the sìdh, the ancestors, and the landscape. And keep in mind that it was taboo to disturb these sites — and some people still refuse to desecrate them.

Some of the lines of continuity across the centuries are pretty astounding. There are not many surviving descriptions of pre-Christian Celtic rituals, but a Greek writer from the second century BC, Nicander of Colophon, stated that the Celts spent the night near the tombs of their fallen heroes to await visions from the dead. In about the tenth century of the Common Era, some 1,200 years later, a Gaelic writer who had been trained in a Christian monastery apparently apologized for recording a story that had been inspired by 

the people of the sìdhe. For before the coming of the Faith, the demons had great power, so that they did bodily battle with humans, and revealed delights and mysteries to them, as though they were eternal. And so they were believed in.

Despite the fact that the élite of the Gaelic world accepted the formal doctrines and practices of Christianity, the motif of gaining inspiration and recovering ancient knowledge by supplicating the dead has recurred practically to the present day, as have many other elements of pre-Christian cosmology. The grand epic of early medieval Gaeldom was Táin Bó Cuailgne “the Cattle Raid of Cooley,” consisting of a cycle of related characters and narratives. According to one of the introductory tales, the cycle had been lost and was recovered when Muirgen spent the night at the grave of Fergus, one of the central heroes of the epic, and recited a poem explaining his quest:

Suddenly there was a great mist around him so that no one could find him for three days and three nights … Then Fergus recited to him the whole Táin, all that had happened from beginning to end.

A story of recovering ancient tales very similar to the early medieval ones was recorded in 1859 in Gairloch, in the West Highlands. According to the story, there was a man in Gairloch who was determined to seek out the tales of the ancient Gaelic warrior band called ’the Fian’. An unexpected mysterious guest came to his house, a harper, and he led the man out one night to the wilderness. The harper summoned the Fian at the man’s request and all of the tales of the Fian that were told in Gairloch were said to have been recovered due to this effort.

Now, there are a great many other examples I could point out and explicate from previous centuries but I’d like to move forward to the twentieth century and even to North America. One of the most interesting examples of the use of these motifs is a poem written in the mid-twentieth century by poet Calum Ruadh MacNeacail, native to the Isle of Skye. It describes a fairy woman who came to him in his sleep and tells him to compose a poem. Through him, she recounts some of the places inhabited by the sìdh in the area and some of the infamous encounters between humans and the sìdh in the history of the island.

Calum Ruadh was interviewed by Norwegian folklorist Thorkild Knudsen  in 1968, who created a mashup of several of those fieldwork recordings, including Calum singing his song (available on YouTube here, from the commercially available CD here). Keep in mind that Calum’s native language was Gaelic, and he was not very comfortable in English.

It was not just the gift of poetry or verbal excellence that the sìdh bestowed upon humans: music and dance were also common endowments. While there are many examples of this in the past, it’s worth highlighting the fact that this belief system survived until virtually the present day in Gaelic communities in Canada, in particular Nova Scotia (a subject I’ve explored at length in this paper). Although I could give a number of different examples of this, I’ll limit myself at present to two anecdotes.

The first was recorded in the 1980s from noted tradition bearer Eòs Nìll who recounted how the father of a certain Dòmhnall Caimbeul was coming home late at night when he saw a ban-shìth, a female fairy, milking a cow. In return for his promise of secrecy, she gave him a bow which bestowed the gift of fiddle virtuosity upon his family thereafter and to the present day.

The second anecdote is from the celebrated step-dancer Willie Fraser, a man I actually met in the 1990s. Here is his story in English translation:

When I was a little boy, probably four or five years old, my father, he knew about four or five dance steps.  And he would play tunes on the fiddle as well… And I would watch him dancing, doing these dance steps, and I learned the steps… from my father.  But in any case, I went to sleep this one night and I had a dream, that there was a man right next to my bed in the bedroom.  And this young man was dressed up in a handsome suit, a white shirt, and a handsome tie. And he said to me, “You’re going to be a dancer”—this was a dream —“I’m going to show you how to do four or five dance steps.”… A fortnight after that, I had the same dream again… this went on until I learnt twenty dance steps and those steps are very graceful, and I still know them…

What does it mean to be an artist in a particular culture? Where do these powers of imagination come from? The notion of “creativity” with its assertion of innovation emanating from the mental capacities and talents of individual humans has only been accepted into mainstream thinking since the early twentieth century. In previous times, and in other societies, the thinking has been that we humans can receive inspiration from divine sources and can act as vessels for such revelations as ultimately already exist in the divine realm, outside of ourselves and normal mortal perceptions, but that we cannot create entirely new things of our own design.

The Greeks held up the Muses as the source of creativity and artistic expression. For orthodox Christianity, God was the divine creator and architect, and he furthers his creation through us. For the Gaels, artistic expression, creative talent, and the fortune to fail or succeed was bequeathed by the sìdh.

So, what is going on here? At a psychological level, Dr. John MacInnes suggests that

we could take the fairy knoll as a metaphor of the imagination, perhaps as an equivalent of the modern concept of the Unconscious. From this shadowy realm comes the creative power of mankind. An old friend of mine used to say, when he produced songs or legends that I did not realise he knew: Bha mi sa chnoc o chunnaic mi thu “I’ve been in the hillock since I last saw you”. 

Poetry seems to have always been a favored form of cultural expression in the Gaelic world and Gaels of all social classes, genders and backgrounds have composed poetry and been esteemed for it. Although Gaelic poetry was being written down even before Anglo-Saxon poetry, the work of the learned, professional classes represents only the tip of a much larger iceberg. The bulk of poetic activity in Gaelic has been primarily oral in nature and it is loaded with strong imagery.

Especially since the forced dispossession of Gaels in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, there is a powerful strain of song-poetry that celebrates place and personal belonging, or conversely, laments exile and dispossession. Many of these texts are loaded with the names of places on the landscape, creating an itinerary over places significant to him or her. These place names are implicitly part of the common ancestral inheritance of a community and some of these places were the residences of the sìdh, the ancestors or other powerful beings. Although the professional Gaelic literati were known to go into a trance-like state in the dark to focus on their compositions, a common practice for vernacular poets was to compose while walking, and again, they saw the landscape in which they walked as being alive with history and loaded with numinous sacred sites.

This accords with remarks in the interview with Calum Ruadh above, when he said:

it was like a dream I had … it came to me then, as if I was – I was being inspired all along, but some unseen unheard of feeling came over me … once I got the first line done, I knew then I was going to compose a song about this fairy … as if I had dreamt of this fairy … I used to walk over there to the dyke in – watching Raasay – and the world could turn upside down for all that I cared, I was – I was at this – fairy in Raasay.

These supernatural entities demanded respect and deference, and ruination could be visited upon those people who refused to meet these obligations. One of the common means of paying respect to these beings was by pouring an offering of milk onto a specially designated and decorated stone. Gaelic society was oriented around the keeping of cattle, and Highlanders got the majority of their nourishment from a combination of dairy products and oats. Pouring milk on a fairy stone was essentially like paying tithes to the church.

Although this met with strong disapproval from local ministers, who often celebrated their victories over pagan superstition and heathen rites in the nineteenth century, I have heard of it surviving into the 1970s in Nova Scotia and even later in the Scottish Highlands. And what’s quite encouraging is that some of those revitalizing the Gaelic language and culture today are aware of these indigenous beliefs and practices. For example, here is a video from a few years ago in which some young Gaels are reviving the pouring of milk on a stone that had not been used for several generations on Loch Lomondside, not all that far from Glasgow.

Technically speaking, the sìdh were not the only supernatural residents of the neighborhood. You might find that your abode was inhabited by a glaistig, or a gruagach, who looked after your interests if you paid them your respects. Streams, rivers and lochs were occupied by urruisgean, eich-uisge, tairbh-uisge and other beasts who threatened those who were careless of the dangerous powers of water. Many features of the landscape had been created by a formidable female, usually called Cailleach Bheur, who lived far from the settled human community in the mountains with her deer. In short, this was believed to be an animate landscape, and tales and beliefs gave people tools for thinking about the forces of nature and their responsibilities as fellow citizens, and they persuaded people to limit their actions and desires.

There are many Gaelic stories and songs that comment on the weakening of “the Fairy Faith,” especially in the nineteenth century. This is often represented as a retreat or disappearance of supernatural beings with the approach of Protestantism, science, and various changes in material culture that defied the tenets of tradition. Some of the Highland intelligentsia who valued and defended tradition also lamented the displacement of Gaelic cosmology. Take, for example, these comments made by the pioneering folklorist John Francis Campbell in 1860:

Fairy belief is becoming a fairy tale. In another generation it will grow into a romance, as it has in the hands of poets elsewhere, and then the whole will either be forgotten or carried from people who must work for “gentles” who can afford to be idle and read books. Railways, roads, newspapers, and tourists, are slowly but surely doing their accustomed work.

Also significant are the remarks of Gaelic song-collector Francis Tolmie in the late 1800s:

As a child I was not permitted to hear about fairies. At twenty I was seeking and trying to understand the beliefs of my fathers in the light of modern ideas. I was very determined not to lose the past.

The fairy-lore originated in a cultured class in very ancient times. The peasants inherited it; they did not invent it.  With the loss of Gaelic in our times came the loss of folk-ideals. The classical and English influences combined had a killing effect; so that the instinctive religious feeling which used to be among our people when they kept alive the fairy-traditions is dead. We have intellectually-constructed creeds and doctrines which take its place.

It is commonly assumed that folklore and indigenous knowledge are inferior because they do not provide the material benefits and power afforded by science, but this is exactly the issue. Science and instrumental rationality were formulated in an effort to equip humans to become, in the words of René Descartes, the “masters and possessors of nature.” The universe was reframed as only a soulless machine, particles ruled by laws that can be dissected, measured, controlled, and harnessed.

The purpose of indigenous knowledge, by contrast, is to inform us what it means to be a member of a community, to co-exist within a given eco-system, and to create meaning out of the available resources so that we can live in a stable and sustainable set of relationships.

Along with colonialism came hierarchies and hegemonies. Empires condemned the beliefs, values, knowledge, ways of knowing, and ways of being of indigenous peoples as inferior, obsolete, unworthy of survival, and subject to replacement.

Celtic Revival art in the Oratory, Dun Laoghaire.

There were various responses to the dominant orders of instrumental rationality, science, and empire in the nineteenth century. The Romantic movement was a counter-cultural response by those within the privileged culture. The Celtic Revival was a corresponding response in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall and Man. Consider what they were up against: the most powerful empire on earth, a massive and brutal military machine, an ever evolving scientific apparatus, and a superiority complex. It was very hard to argue against the de facto supremacy and manifest destiny of the Anglo-British order on its own terms.

The Celtic Revival, which eventually contributed to the Easter Rising for Irish independence, has often been ridiculed for resorting to sentimentalism and wrapping itself up in a maudlin shroud of Celtic mist. Some of this criticism is well deserved, as it could sublimate energy and social capital into empty symbolism, disingenuous fantasies, and the resignation of defeat. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. The field of anthropology had barely been born and hadn’t yet produced legions of scholars or citizens arguing for the inherent dignity and value of all cultures. Subjugated peoples did not have access to the intellectual frameworks that we now have to defend themselves against the arrogance of empires, certainly not in a way that the dominant groups recognized or respected.

It is clear that, like other indigenous peoples, many Gaels were rattled and dispirited to see their indigenous traditions dethroned and replaced with sciences and technologies designed solely to conquer mere physical substance. Some Gaels did argue that things of value had been lost and needed to be reclaimed, even if they were not the same kinds of things that undergirded the material supremacy of the imperial order. They often grasped for validation for their scorned ancestral inheritance with the language of devotion, emotion, mythos, and rootedness – the very qualities that we now summon to sustain us in our resistance to the social, political and ecological disasters that seem ever closer to destroying our world.

And so, I see the struggle for Gaelic revitalization that continues to this very day as part of a global decolonizing project that is inherently about place, about culture, about spirit, about Geopoetics. It is an ongoing effort to regain control of a narrative that has been nearly silenced by the legacy of empire. It is an engagement with a mythopoeic way of being in the world and access to a non-rational way of knowing that can enable us to participate in the ongoing revelation of life.


Thanks to Christos Galanis, Iain MacKinnon and Alastair McIntosh for comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper.


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