This month’s Tobar an Dualchais contribution is from Dr Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart, course leader for the MSc Material Culture and Gàidhealtachd History at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. He looks in more detail at the traditional Gaelic children’s story, Biorachan Beag agus Biorachan Mòr…
Recently I was asked to visit Bun-sgoil Shlèite to lead storytelling sessions for the children.
But what story to tell? For inspiration, I browsed through John Francis Campbell’s great four-volume collection, Popular Tales of the West Highlands. Clearly, there was only one choice: the story Campbell’s Islay informants called Mionachag and Murchag, better known in the Outer Hebrides as Biorachan Beag and Biorachan Mòr.
In Vaternish for a story-collecting trip in October 1871, Campbell tried to coax tales out of a likely group of folk gathered about a fire: ‘a shoemaker at work, two old fellows on benches, an old wife spinning, girls, dogs, hens &c’. After drawing a blank, he asked if they knew Biorachan Mòr.
‘All the party immediately begin to grin like Cheshire cats’. The stories then poured out.
In his collection, Campbell explains that Biorachan Beag and Biorachan Mòr was the first tale that children would learn, aged five or six. In most versions, Biorachan Beag and Biorachan Mòr go to the wood to gather nuts. But the more Biorachan Mòr gathers, the more Biorachan Beag eats. Eventually, in frustration, Biorachan Mòr goes to fetch a branch to beat the greedy Biorachan Beag.
The branch, however, has other ideas. ‘You won’t get me’, it says, ‘until you get a knife to cut me.’
Biorachan Mòr goes to the knife. ‘I want a knife to cut a branch, a branch to beat Biorachan Beag to stop him eating lots of the nuts.’
But the knife wants a stone to sharpen it, then the stone wants water to wet it, and so the story grows and grows, getting more absurd and uproarious with each new character: a deer to swim the water, a hound to hunt the deer, butter to rub into the hound’s paws, a mouse to scrape the butter, a cat to chase the mouse, a drop of milk to give to the cat, a cow to give the milk, hay for the cow, then a stable boy and finally a baker-woman, whom Biorachan Mòr asks to bake a bannock for the stable boy.
Biorachan Beag and Biorachan Mòr is what is known by folklore scholars as a ‘chain tale’. Traditional English examples include The House that Jack Built, The Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly, and The Enormous Turnip.
More recently, children’s writers such as Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar) and Helen Oxenbury (We’re All Going on a Bear Hunt) discovered that the chain tale is the equivalent of crack cocaine for bedtime reading, as many exhausted parents of over-excited toddlers (‘Again! Again!’) can confirm.
Simple, repetitive, ludicrous, challenging the tongue and memory alike, offering theatrically-minded mums and dads a chance to try out a whole variety of silly voices, chain tales constantly ratchet up the tension before suddenly releasing it through a sudden, anti-climactic ending.
By the time Biorachan Mòr returns with the branch, Biorachan Beag has eaten so many nuts – that he’s exploded!
Despite the popularity of Biorachan Beag and Biorachan Mòr and its variations in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd, there are perhaps surprisingly few recordings of the tale – just fifteen – on Tobar an Dualchais.
Collectors from the School of Scottish Studies, one suspects, may never even have considered recording a popular children’s tale, a waste of valuable time, recording tape, and battery power. It’s telling that five of the recitals were by Kate Dix of Berneray (Tobar an Dualchais tracks 43493, 46815, 63112, 63897, 70395), and two by Nan Mackinnon of Vatersay (55259, 62847), women whose rich repertoire of lore was extensively and exhaustively recorded over the years.
Folklorists have not done much research on chain tales. The brute fact is that expertise in children’s rhymes does not make academic reputations.
No matter the legions of enthusiastic tots desperate for chain tales, Hamlet will always trump The Enormous Turnip. But for the dedicated storyologist, tales like Biorachan Beag and Biorachan Mòr are comparable to the geneticist’s fruit fly or nematode worm: small, straightforwardly structured (although deceptively so), prolific, easily comparable, with readily observable mutations.
Because the tale is so simple, we can immediately recognise one island micro-variation. The word for hound, gadhar, no longer readily understood, is replaced by four contributors, Nan Mackinnon among them, with its near rhyme saor, ‘carpenter’.
In this revised version, the carpenter, after being fed butter, fashions a milking-pail (cuman) to draw the water, thus dispensing with the need for the older version’s somewhat random swimming deer (36041, 42078, 55259, 62847, 73209).
Biorachan Beag and Biorachan Mòr is certainly not easy to tell.
Its seemingly clear-cut structure demands practice and concentration. Encouragingly for me, not one of the Tobar an Dualchais reciters manages a perfect version.
Recounting Biorachan Mòr’s adventures, Kate Dix unfailingly misses out the stone and the hound, though they do appear in the easier memorised ‘rigmarole’ (‘the butter for the hound’s paws, the hound to chase the deer, the deer to swim the water’ &c.).
Mrs Campbell, an Uibhisteach in Taynuilt, gives up when she reaches the mouse, while, despite a confident beginning, Duncan MacLeod of Berneray packs it in with the cow (36041, 73209). Reciters lose track and give the same helper twice.
We can sympathise with Donald Kenneth Maclean (80940) saying no, he can’t recollect it, but would definitely remember it immediately, if only he’d hear it again!
Another problem with the story is how to bring it to a close. Biorachan Mòr could conceivably spend all eternity badgering an ever-increasing host of people, animals, and objects for assistance in his never-ending quest.
Storytellers’ solutions to the dilemma vary from the frankly feeble – ‘Then he got the stable boy, and he got everything.’ (The End) – to Peggy MacDonald from Loch Aineort’s inventive riposte to the water’s demand for someone to draw it.
She breaks in with ‘I’ll draw you myself!’ – perhaps a pointed allusion to how, before piped water, lugging pails from the well was one of women’s most burdensome everyday tasks (43062). Kate Dix, meanwhile, introduces a symbolic key to open the stable to get hay for the cow, thus triggering the final avalanche of rigmarole.
But this is not how the story was resolved in John Francis Campbell’s nineteenth-century version.
There, Biorachan Mòr ends up asking a baker-woman to bake a bannock for the stable boy. Yes, she’ll do this, but first of all he has to carry water for her from the well. But there is nothing to pour water into but a criathar, a sieve or riddle.
As Biorachan Mòr stands disconsolately with water draining out through the holes, a crow caws ‘Gòrag! Gòrag!’ (‘Stupid!), before advising ‘Criadh ruadh is còinneach!’ (‘red clay and moss’). Biorachan Mòr gets the crow’s suggestion, stops up the riddle, fills it, and so the final stage of the story can begin.
This pivotal episode stands apart from the systematic, repetitive ‘chain’ part of Biorachan Beag and Biorachan Mòr. Of course, the impossible task of carrying water in a sieve has been a challenge to characters in folktales and legends ever since ancient times.
It rather looks as if a particularly gifted storyteller had the bright idea of borrowing the episode and slotting it into the climax of the already existing chain tale.
This storyteller could have hailed from the western Highlands or from one of the Irish Gaeltachts, where the tale is best known as Murchadh Beag agus Murchadh Mór. Whoever they were, it is interesting how close the episode is to a Lowland folktale in which Jock the hero learns from a helpful crow how to carry water in a sieve to make a bannock: ‘Stap it wi’ fog and clag it wi’ clay!’
The sieve episode is a clever addition, but it goes against the internal logic of the chain tale form, in which speed, rhythm, and repetition are what counts. It didn’t stick.
Another problem is that exactly the same episode was used to introduce a version of Am Bonnach Beàrnach (‘The Scraggy Bannock’), the Gaelic version of chain tale The Gingerbread Man (see 43537).
By the time the School of Scottish Studies collectors were on the road, Biorachan Mòr’s sieve challenge had been almost forgotten. Iain Paterson asks Duncan MacLeod if he’s heard it, but Duncan, clearly thinking of the Bonnach Beàrnach, says, no, that’s actually a different story entirely (73209). Only Donald Maclean of Grimsay retains a faint memory of Biorachan Mòr, the sieve, and the kindly crow (63299).
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if reciters muddle up Biorachan Beag and Biorachan Mòr.
As with different singers interpreting the same song, it’s a pleasure to listen to how the different storytelling styles and personalities come through in the same tale: the octogenarian Kate Dix’s voice, for example, cracking as she does her utmost to reach the end of each rigmarole without drawing breath, or Mrs Campbell’s exasperated laughter as she realises that what should be a simple children’s tale poses a challenge to even the most accomplished narrator.
The website tobarandualchais.co.uk contains some 50,000 oral recordings of songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.