TOBAR AN DUALCHAIS: Eriskay placename folklore: Gleann a’ Mhill Mhòir

Gleann an Fhir Mhòir, Eriskay Pic Liam Liam Alastair Crouse

Liam Alastair Crouse looks further into island placenames as discovered from recordings on the Tobar an Dualchais website…..

If readers were bemused by the lack of consensus in my previous article about Eriskay placename folklore connected to Glaic a’ Chòmhraig (“Legend, not historical record, behind a name”), they will be overjoyed by this week’s piece.

While the legend affixed to the place agrees across the sources, the actual name of the place is less certain. 

The reason for the disagreement is likely simple. Colloquial speech in Eriskay, sometimes quick and contracted (as is natural for native speakers), has stymied the precise transfer of the placename.

The result is at least four versions of the same name.

The name was further obscured as it was omitted from the Ordinance Survey name-books of 1876-1878. As a result, it is not to be found on official maps.

Add to this that it had not been written down until recently, and we have the reason why the toponymic variations had plenty of time to develop.

But coming to a consensus over the placename is perhaps less important. I will here follow the version used by Fr Allan Mcdonald, the celebrated priest and folklore scholar in Eriskay: Gleann a’ Mhill Mhòir. The glen has also been referred to as Gleann an Fhir Mhòir, Gleann a’ Bheinn Mhòir and Gleann a’ Bhàigh Mhòir.

Gleann a’ Mhill Mhòir (“the Glen of the Large Hill”) is located on the eastern slopes of Eriskay, as they cascade from the summit of Beinn Sgritheann to the sea.

It is a narrow, steep glen rising from a slender bay, bordered to the south by Rubha nam Bàsadairean and the north by Gob Sloc an Ime.

The glen has long been associated with strange occurrences. In Fr Allan’s notebooks, reproduced in Strange Things, are anecdotes collected from a herring fisherman, Ewen MacMillan, of mysterious lights seen for a period of hours on the cliff face (Sgala Mhòr Gleann a’ Mhill Mhòir).

There is also an account of a dog forewarning the same man of a potential threat as they descended An Ceum Càs on the northern side of the glen.

Perhaps Ewen had been aware of other legends about the area, such as the following summary recorded by Fr Allan in his notebook, tentatively compiled between 1887 and 1890 (EUL CW 58A).

It tells of a crew from Boisdale who went fishing at Eriskay some 150 years previous. They went ashore to have dinner at the curiously named Uamh Mhùn nan Cailleach.

A stranger appeared and came into the cave. Sensing the threat, the skipper asked the others to tend to the boat while he cooked dinner.

Once he had finished, he excused himself to the boat, immediately pushing off with the oars and raising the sail. The stranger was enraged that the crew had escaped.

He began to chase after them, past Roisinis to Creag-Chuile-Brat, shouting:

“Bi sàs, bi sàs

Mo nighean an Creag-chuile-brat

’S mo mhac an Gleann na Gò!”

In the rhyme, the supernatural being called to his daughter in Creag-Chuile-Brat (another similarly difficult placename to spell), a rock on the border of Roisinis and Bun-a’-Mhuilinn townships, and his son, residing at Gleann na Gobha near Ròineabhal on the opposite side of the Sound of Eriskay.

While the version of the legend recorded by Fr Allan is not explicitly connected to Gleann a’ Mhill Mhòir – the subject of this article – other versions are. Indeed, Fr Allan must have known the legend’s location, as he later instructed another researcher, Ada Goodrich Freer, to visit.

Ada Goodrich Freer, dubbed Cailleach nam Bòcan (“The Old Woman of the Ghosts”) by the Eriskay folk, came to Eriskay in 1894-1895 to investigate and record instances of second sight on behalf of the Society of Psychical Research.

In Eriskay Where I Was Born, Capt Angus Edward MacInnes described her obsession with verifying supernatural occurrences in the Highlands and Islands.

“A bit of a terror she was always on the prowl at all hours of the night looking for ghosts. Wherever she heard of one being seen, off she would go.

She must have had some nerve to visit these places, especially during night-time hours, places I would not go to on my own, not even during the daytime.”

Capt MacInnes then recounts his version of the legend of Gleann a’ Bhàigh Mhòir (note the toponymic variation), saying that the ghost began hurling hundred-weight boulders after the fleeing crew.

He also provides another line to the rhyme concerning the creature’s family, saying that a third shout was addressed to someone in Beinn Mhòr, South Uist.

Both written accounts above are truncated versions of what would have been more elaborate performances in the original Gaelic.

Fortunately, a lengthier narration was recorded by Calum Iain MacLean from Kate Morrison, Ceit Iain Bharraich, in 1953 (TAD 20104), and I would encourage anyone who wants to hear this legend in full to go listen on the Tobar an Dualchais website.

In this version, the rhyme shouted by the giant was a repetition of “a phiuthar-s’ ann an Gleann na Gobha, coinnich iad” (“o sister in Gleann na Gobha, meet them”).

A map showing the place names of Eriskay

In addition to these sources, there is also a brief reference to the placename (“Gleann an Fhir Mhòir”), and the ghost who terrorised the fishermen, in the book of placenames compiled by the school children of Eriskay in 2005. 

The setting of this tale is not a cave, but the old fishing bothy, or àirigh, nestled in the bottom of the glen.

Readers of Am Pàipear, the local newspaper in Uist, may have read that the old shieling site was last year partially covered by a landslide caused by heavy rains.

Having discussed briefly the sources, I would like to move beyond these four versions of the legend to discuss large supernatural beings dwelling in remote places.

In the Gaelic versions of the story, “bodach mòr” (“big old man”) and “bòcan mòr” (“big ghost”) are used to describe the creature, as well as the term “fear mòr” (“big man”) in one of the toponyms.

From other recordings found in Tobar an Dualchais, the “fear mòr” appears to represent a type of ghost, for example the description of “Leathad nam Fear Mòra” by Nan Eachainn Fhionnlaigh MacKinnon in TAD 53984.

There is another reference to this type of supernatural being in Martin Martin’s Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, first published in 1703.

He describes the “great men” of Glenstyle (Gleann Stadhlaidh, north of Lochboisdale).

“The natives […] are possessed with a firm belief that this valley is haunted by spirits, who by the inhabitants are called great men; and that whatsoever man or woman enter the valley without making first an entire resignation of themselves to the conduct of the great men will infallibly grow mad.

“The words by which he or she gives up himself to these men’s conduct are comprehended in three sentences, wherein the glen is twice named, to which they add that it is inhabited by these great men, and that such as enter depend on their protection.”

The parallels between Martin’s representation and those in the Eriskay stories are striking.

Not only do we have similar terms used, but the haunting of a remote, east-coast glen along with the rhyme are close motific counterparts.

It may not be a coincidence that each relation of the “bodach mòr” inhabits a place along the eastern side of Eriskay and South Uist.

We may also think of Cailleach Mhòr Stadhlaigh, the hag of the same Stadhlaidh as the “great men of Glenstyle”, who is illustrated so aptly in the popular satire of the same name (TAD 105675; 36387; 1625; 105974; 8025, and so on).

Indeed, Fr Allan describes how one Donnchadh Ruadh MacIlleRiabhaich, whose descendants were cleared to Eriskay, was often harassed by the Cailleach Mhòr.

It was Donnchadh’s wrestling match with the Cailleach that is described so vividly in the song. On her defeat, however, she flew into a rage. Spying a boat crew who had come ashore, she attacked them and drove them to their boat, in an episode very similar to that which befell the Boisdale men. Once the crew had put to sea they were safe, as the sea is sacred, relates Fr Allan.

The manner of rhyme also broadly reflects a genre common in Gaelic folklore whereby visitors to an area must entreaty the supernatural residents for permission to enter.

Beyond Gleann Stadhlaigh, Rann Ghleann Liadail, another east-coast settlement below the Beinn Mhòr, was attested by Fr Allan as the supplication to enter that glen (EUL CW 58B). It took a full five minutes to recite.

Bodach, cailleach, sister, daughter and son. Saoil, did all these giant ghosts belong to the same family?

The website contains some 50,000 oral recordings of songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.