Thursday, 13 June 2019

Gaelic Folklore (11): The Glaistig


A composite character, included  among the Fuathan. She sometimes has the attributes and habits of the Cailleach Bheur, sometimes assumes animal form, often that of a goat, but more often she is described as half-woman, half-goat. She is a water-spirit, and when she is regarded as a Fuath she is murderous and dangerous. As the Green Glaistig, however, she is more like a Banshee, mourning the death or illness of her favourites, and even undertaking domestic duties.   She was often said to have been a human woman, taken and given fairy nature by the Fae.  In her benign form, she was fond of children and often took old people under her protection. She frequently herded the cattle of the farm she haunted, and expected libations of milk.

What follows are some descriptions and tales from old sources: 

laistic, glaistig, glaisnig, glaislig, a water-imp, from glas, water, 'stic,' imp. The glaistic is a vicious creature, half woman, half goat, frequenting lonely lakes and rivers. She is much dreaded, and many stories are told of her evil deeds. MacUalrig Mor, Big Kennedy of Lianachan, Lochaber, was coming home at night when he saw the glaistic. He seized her and put her on the saddle before him with his sword-belt round her waist, and when he got home he locked her in the cul-taigh, back-house. In the morning Big Kennedy heated the coulter of his plough and requested the glaistic to swear on the iron that she would never again molest man or woman in the place, and never more be seen in Lochaber while the sun shone by day or the moon by night. When the glaistic stretched out her lovely little hand and placed it on the coulter to give the required assurance, her hand was burnt to the bone. With a shriek of agony she flew out at the window and through the mist of the morning to the hillside beyond, and there she put out three bursts of the blood of her heart, which are still visible in the discoloured russet vegetation of the spot, and with each burst of blood the glaistig uttered a curse on Big Kennedy and on his seed for ever:

‘Fas mar an roinneach daibh,
Crion mar an luachair daibh,
’S diombuan mar cheo nam beann.'

Growth like the fern to them,
Wasting like the rushes to them,
And unlashing as the mist of the hill.

The descendants of Big Kennedy of Lianachan say that the curse is still upon them.

Carmina Gadelica, Volume. II, by Alexander Carmicheal, 1900

 supernatural being known as the glaistig, glaistic, glaisnig, glaislig, glaisric or glaislid (the Manx form is glashtyn). She has features in common with Cailleach Bheur. (More on the Cailleach:and Here) She is credited, for instance, with an attempt to bridge the Sound of Mull. The summarized folk-tale: "She gathered a huge creelful of stones among the hills to the north of Morvern and walked down to the Sound with her burden." When near her destination, however, the creel-rope snapped, and down fell the stones. They are still lying there, the heap being known as Carn-na-Cail-Lich. The glaistig herself has related the incident in rhyme:

"An aithne dhuibh Carn-na-Caillich
 Air an leacainn ghlais ud thall?
'S mise chruinnich sid le cliabh,
A' h-uile spitheag riamh a th'ann.
Drochaid a chur air Gaol Muile,
'S bha ifurasd' a chur ann.
 'S mur briseadh an iris mhuineil
 Bha i nis gun teagamh ann.”

"Know ye the Cailleach's cairn
On that green hillside yonder?
It was I that gathered it with a creel,
Every pebble that is in it,
To put a bridge on the Sound of Mull
And to put it there were easy,
Had not the neck-rope broken,
It were there now beyond doubt."

In the High-land Society's Dictionary the glaistig is a she-devil, or hag, in the shape of a goat. Some folk-tales refer to her as being very tall, while others depict her as a stout little woman. She has in widely scattered folk- tales various animal forms in addition to the goat, including those of the dog, mare, foal and sheep.

Herding sheep and cattle was supposed to be one of her chief occupations. She was fond of fish, her favourite fish-food being eels. In Mull she took refuge in a yew tree. Elsewhere she has her habitation in a cave or is supposed to be behind a waterfall, or at or in a ford of a river or a loch. Many folk-tales connect her with the strongholds of chiefs or with other old houses. As a family guardian she made merry when a marriage was about to take place, or wailed before a death. When unexpected visitors were coming, she could be heard at night in a house rearranging furniture and washing dishes. As a rule she was invisible, but when she permitted herself to be seen she was found to be attired in green like the fairies, and was consequently spoken of as a Ghlaistig uaine (the green glaistig).

She is sometimes referred to as having a magic or druidic wand like Cailleach Bheur. A Mull story tells that a glaistig who was attached to the family of Lamont at Ardnadrochit was herding the Lamont cattle when raiders from Lorne came to "lift" them. "She struck the cows and converted them into grey stones, which are to be seen to this day in "the Heroes' Hollow" (Glaic nan Gaisgeach). She broke her heart over this incident, died and was buried by Lamont.

The glaistig was credited with being fond of children. Mrs. Watson writes in this connexion: While the township women milked their cattle in the Bualie, the glaistig would play hide and seek with the children. 'A ghlaistic duibh cha bheir thu oirnn,' (Thou black glaistig, thou shah not catch us),"said the little ones, as they hid behind stones and bushes, and then the glaistig would pretend to be angry and would shower twigs and daisies on the imps. She also protected people of weak intellect. The writer has often heard her referred to as one who cared for lonely elderly people. J. G. Campbell, dealing with her attachment to particular individuals, mentions an old woman named Mòr, resident on a farm. "When Mòr fell sick, the glaistig used to come to the window and wail loudly."

Offerings of milk were made to the glaistig, being poured over, or into a hollow in, a boulder called Clach na Glaistig (stone of the glaistig). Those who forgot to give her milk found that the cattle were neglected by night. Sometimes a glaistig was seen basking in the sun while seated on a rock. Her clothing was often wet, and stories are told of her entering houses by night to warm and dry herself at the fire. She had long golden hair, and was consequently often referred to as the gruagach (gruag meaning hair of the head). In Tiree she was never called glaistig  but gruagach and gruagach mhafa ('sea-maid'). (More on the Gruagach: Here.) Like the Cailleach Bheur, she was sometimes a wader of the deep sea or crossed it by stepping from rock to rock or island to island.

She could pass from mountain to mountain or over the Minch very quickly. A glaistig was a familiar of Archibald Mac Ian Year (Mac Iain Ghiorr), a notorious Ardnamurchan pirate. His skill in thieving was said to have been bestowed upon him by the glaistig. He and his brother Ronald became annoyed with her because she always claimed a share of their spoil. On one occasion they went to Barra, thinking she could not follow them, but when they had taken possession of a dwelling and had kindled a fire to roast venison, she was heard calling to them through the smoke hole on the roof. When asked how she had discovered their whereabouts she replied, "Bha mi air Sgùrr Eige" ("I was on the height of Eigg Island"), an excellent point from which to keep watch. This saying became proverbial in the Outer Hebrides, being used when one made discovery of actions thought to be secret. The glaistig crossed the Minch very rapidly. She said that when Mac Ian made the first clink (snag) while striking the flint to light the fire, she was on the highest point of the Coolin Hills in Skye. As soon as she entered the house she began to nibble at the roasting venison. When Archibald Mac Ian died, the glaistig gave a shriek that roused the echoes of Ben Resipol (Réiseapol). The same night she was seen in the Coolin Hills in Skye, and after that neither her shadow nor her colour (a du no dath) was anywhere seen.

The sinister aspect of the glaistig is brought out in folk-stories that tell of her attempts to waylay or kill travellers. Mr. Alexander MacLennan, a native of Strathconon, told the writer of a glaistig that haunted the River Meig. A man met her as he was crossing a ford and she asked fiercely, "What have you against me?"
If he named a weapon, he could not injure her with it. His first answer was "My sword ".
She said, "It is harmless: what else?" The man next mentioned his black dagger in his right-foot stocking. "Anything else?" she asked.
"Yes," the man made answer; "the long grey thing at my thigh."
 He referred to his dirk, but, not having named it, its virtue remained. He seized and overcame the glaistig and took her to his smithy, where he tied her to the anvil. She shrieked all night and those supernatural beings who came to give her aid took off the roof of the smithy, having raised a great storm. The man was glad to release her, and after she fled the wind fell.

A Lochaber story which the writer recently found to be still quite current in the vicinity of Roy Bridge tells of a glaistig being captured by a man named Kennedy (or Mac Cuaric, a local rendering of the surname. Also given as Mac Ualrig). The glaistig cursed the Kennedys, and her curse is still supposed to cling to the family. Mac Ualrig More (Big Kennedy) of Lochaber was a smith, and one night when going home on horseback he met the glaistig as he was crossing Curr, the ford of Croisg. She hailed him, asking if he would not be the better of a rider behind him, and he answered, "Yes, and a rider before ". Stooping, he seized the glaistig and, lifting her on to the back of his horse, threw round her sian-chrios Fhaolain "the wizard belt of Fillan". Another version tells that he put her on the saddle before him with his sword-belt round her waist.) She could not effect her escape from the magic circle. Shrieking and wailing, she asked to be released. "Let me go," she cried, "and I will give you a fold of speckled cattle and success on the hill (as a hunter."
He claimed what she offered but insisted that it was not sufficient. Then she said she would build at once a house and charm it against water, iron, arrows, poison, caterans and fairies.
"Fulfil your words," said the smith, "and then you will be free ".
The glaistig shrieked and was heard over seven hills. From fairy mounds and cliffs they assembled and set to work speedily, calmly and orderly. A line of helpers was formed from Clianaig waterfall to the site of the house and passed slabs and stones from hand to hand. Others cut beams and rafters from the Knoll of Shore inlet, while the glaistig ordered them to fetch every timber except mulberry. At the grey dawning the house was ready and the smith had lit a fire, into which he thrust a coulter, which became red hot. He released the glaistig and as she passed a window she stretched out her crooked palm to bid  him farewell, but he thrust the red-hot coulter into it and she was "burned to the bone". Uttering a shriek of agony, the glaistig leapt upon a grey stone (evidently a "cursing stone") to pronounce the smith's doom. She brought the curse of the people on him and the curse of the goblins, saying,

"Grow like rushes,
Wither like fern,
Turn grey in childhood,
Change in height of your strength;
May not a son succeed."

Then she fled to the peak of Finisgeig, where she spilled her life blood, "which is still visible in the discoloured russet vegetation of the spot". It is said that the descendants of the smith grow grey while yet quite young and that the male succession is uncertain, the curse being still operative.

The glaistig is also spoken of as a trickster like Shakespeare's Queen Mab, who "plaits the manes of horses in the night", and her fairies, who love cleanliness in a house and "pinch the maids as blue as bilberry" if they are guilty of "sluttery". Folk- stories tell of the glaistig giggling in the darkness and speaking with a lisp, expressing herself often in verse. She is reputed to sing melodiously and often plaintively.
Sometimes she has appeared at a ferry as a poor old woman, asking to be taken across, although the tide might be running strong and the weather rough. It is told that one day she entered the boat of " Yellow Dougall of the Cave " (Dùghaill Buidhe na h-Uamha) to cross to Lismore and took the bow oar.
"A hearty pull, Dougall,' she cried.
'Another hearty pull then, honest woman,' said he."
She pulled so vigorously that Dougall had to row harder than ever he had done before. He marveled at her strength, but on reaching the island realized who had been his helper, because she suddenly vanished, according to one version, or, according to another, plunged into the sea and swam back.

Sometimes the glaistig is accompanied by a little son, who is quick witted and has a sharp tongue. Our Cailleach Bheur, as shown, is usually associated with wild animals whose forms she is capable of assuming. The glaistig cares for domesticated animals instead, including cows, horses, sheep, goats and dogs, whose forms she can take at will. In Mull she was commonly seen in the shape of a dog and was said to carry a pup at the back of her head. Yet, like the fairies and Cailleach Bheur, she fears dogs and takes flight from them.

Gregorson Campbell objected to her association with the goat on the ground that only the devil assumed the form of a goat, but in the north Highlands the goat is closely associated with fairies. Women were complimented by having their eyes compared to those of the goat.

"Suil ghobhar ghean
An aodann bhan
 Gu mealladh fhear.”

"The eye of the sportive goat
 In the faces of women
To wile the men."

A supernatural animal known as the " lame goat" (gobhar bacach) wandered through the country. It was supposed to lie down on the best land in a particular area. In Skye the "lame goat" was known as the glas ghoibhle. A rich grassy stretch in Strath is called Leaba na glais-ghoibhle, and the goat was also associated with Glendale. This supernatural animal was supposed to be "always in milk" and to have sufficient, indeed, to supply a large force of warriors. Another supernatural being with a goat connexion is the urisk (uruisg), a monster, half human, half goat, with abnormally long hair, long teeth and long claws. (For another meaning of gobhar bacach: Here.)

Reginald Scott refers to an urisk in the north of Scotland who was reputed to be a giant and the father of the fairies: "Many wonderful and incredible things did he also relate of this Balkin ('lord of the northern mountains'), affirming that he was shaped like a satyr and fed upon the air, having wife and children to the number of twelve thousand, which were the brood of the northern fairies, inhabiting Southerland (Sutherland) and Catenes (Caithness) with the adjacent islands." As there were various forms of the goddess Artemis in Greece, so apparently there were various forms of the ancient goddess of Scotland. It has been shown that Cailleach Bheur was associated with wild animals, while the glaistig's association was with domesticated animals, suggesting that she was the Artemis of the agricultural mode of life. Her interest in and kindness to children were evidently due to her connexion with birth. Artemis was in one of her phases a birth-goddess. The urisks were, as satyrs, associated with the glaistig, as were the Fomorians with our Cailleach Bheur.

Charms and spells against the fairies were exceedingly numerous in Great Britain, but only the several classes of these can be outlined here. Many charms were regarded as protections against the elves or as keeping them at a distance. Some were couched in general and inclusive terms; as, for instance, that Highland invocation quoted by Carmichael, which asks that :

 “ From every brownie and banshee.
From every evil wish and sorrow.
From every glaistig and bean-nigh.
From every fairy-mouse and grass-mouse,
Oh save me to the end of my day!”

Scottish Folklore and Folk Life, Donald Mackenzie, (1935).

he name glaistig means “ grey woman,” and the spirit thus described has been classed as a female of human race who has been put under enchantments and to whom a fairy nature has been given. “ She is said to have been at first a woman of honourable position, a former mistress of the house, who had been put under enchantments.” The clan MacLean enjoyed the dubious ministrations of such a tutelary spirit at Breachacha Castle, as did the MacDougalls of DunoUie in their own stronghold. In Ireland nearly every distinguished family had a banshee of its own. Such hags sat on rocks or fences, moaning horribly in premonition of a death in the family. The banshee's skeleton face and generally grisly appearance are eloquent of mortality. The banshee, the glaistig, and the Welsh cyhiriaeth, are, indeed, creatures of the most repellent kind. As their descriptions have come down to us, they represent the more ancient and horrible idea of the family spectre, with long and tangled locks, ghastly faces, green or grey in hue, talon-like nails, and raucous voices. They are symbols of death, corpse-like shapes haunting the spots where they dwelt in life, closely resembling the old English type of ghost popularly known as “Raw-head-and-bloody-bones.” In a word, they represent the dead ancestress, jealously anxious concerning the welfare of the family whence she sprang.

British Fairy Origins, by Lewis Spence, 1946

At Inverawe House.
his mansion-house has long been haunted by a Glaistig known as the 'Maiden of Inverawe' (Maighdean Inbher-athd), who was to be heard (at least till very recently) rustling {srannail) through the house. Stoups full of water, left in the house at night, were found in the morning upset by her, and chairs, left however neatly arranged, were turned round. She is said to have been some former mistress of the house who had proved unfaithful and had been buried alive.

At Dunstaffnage Castle.

This castle (Dim-sta'innis), once a seat of the kings of Scotland, was haunted by a woman known as the Sianag (or Elle-maid) of Dunstaffnage. She broke into outcries of joy or sorrow (inulad no aighear), according as a happy or unfortunate event was to befall the inmates. A stranger, who accompanied one of the servants to the castle and remained there that night, had his bedclothes twice pulled off by her, and heard her all night walking through the room and in the adjoining passages. Her footsteps were heavy like those of a man.

Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, By John Gregorson Campbell, 1900


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