Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Gaelic Folklore (9): Beithir


What follows are some descriptions and tales from old sources:

Beithir was a venomous and destructive creature, who  lived in dark caves and corries in the mountains.  Beithir is the lightning and also serpent, and probably the mythological legends have risen from the destructive characters of the element and the beast.

Highland Mythology, E.G. Watson, The Celtic Review vol. V, 1908

A destructive demon known as the beithir haunted "caves, corries and mountain fastnesses". The name was also applied to lightning, the thunderbolt and the serpent. Another name for the serpent was nathair.

Scottish Folk-lore and Folk life,  Donald Mackenzie, 1935

Nathair, serpent, adder. Several terms are applied to the serpent, as nathair, serpent; nimhir, venom; beithir,' lightning; 'righinn,' queen; and nighean Imhir, daughter of Ivor, dearrais, perverse. Probably 'nighean Imhir,' daughter of Ivor is a mistake for 'an nimhir,' the serpent, while 'nighean' may be a mistake for 'ruain,' hue, coloured spot. The serpent is now small and rare, though once large and numerous, in the Highlands. One was killed at Bailemonaidh, in Islay, in the early years of the century, measuring nine feet in length and eighteen inches in circumference. Much warm milk was abstracted every night from the milk-cot attached to the summer sheiling. After much searching, traces of milk were found leading to a grassy knoll in the neighbourhood. On the summit of the knoll a serpent lay coiled sunning itself in the summer sun and fast asleep. It immediately awoke, and, poising its head high in the air, hissed and lunged about in great fury. When shot, its enormously distended stomach was found to contain several twites, buntings, pipits, larks, and thrushes, and an incredible quantity of milk. Only a few years ago a larger serpent than this was killed in a turnip-field in Easter Ross. Clach-nathrach*, serpent stone, is found on the root of the long ling. It is of steel-grey colour, has the consistency of soft putty when new and of hard putty when old, and is as light as pumice-stone, which it resembles. It is of a globular form, and from one to three inches in diameter. There is a circular hole, about a quarter of an inch in width, through the centre. This substance is said to be produced by the serpent emitting spume round the root of a twig of heather. The 'clach-nathrach' is greatly prized by the people, who transmit it as a talisman to their descendants.  The presence of the reptile was indicated by the fear and anxiety displayed by a pair of well-trained horses working in the neighbourhood. Nothing could be seen, but the horses trembled violently, and, with nostrils distended and eyes staring, showed symptoms of great fear and could hardly be kept from running away from the men about them. When after some delay and difficulty the serpent was found and killed the horses quieted down, but for some days showed the effects of their fear. 

There are many sayings dealing with the serpent:

'Tha e ann an grath na nathrach dhuit.'
'Tha nimh na nathrach aig dhuit.'
'Cho carach ris an nathair nimhe.'
'Cleas na nathrach cur a chraicinn.'
'Cochull nathrach is ole a dh’fheumadh tu.'

He is in the spirit of the serpent towards thee.
The venom of the serpent he has towards thee.
As twistful as the serpent venomous.
The trick of the serpent changing the skin.
The sheath of the serpent badly wouldst thou need.

(*Clach Nathrach, see below)

Carmina Gadelica Vol.2 ,Alexander Carmichael, 1900.

A serpent, whenever encountered, ought to be killed. Otherwise, the encounter will prove an omen of evil. The head should be completely smashed (air a spleatradfi), and removed to a distance from the rest of the body. Unless this is done, the serpent will again come alive. The tail, unless deprived of animation, will join the body, and the head becomes a beithis, the largest and most deadly kind of serpent. A person stung by one should rush to the nearest water. Unless he reaches it before the  serpent, which also makes straight for it, he will die from the wound. Another cure for the sting is water in which the head of another serpent has been put. There was a man in Applecross who cured epilepsy by water in which he kept a living serpent. The patient was not to see the water.
Farquhar, the physician, obtained his skill in the healing art from being the first to taste the juice of a white serpent. He was a native of Tongue, in Sutherlandshire, and on one occasion was met by a stranger, who asked him where he got the walking-stick he held in his hand. The stranger further got him to go to the root of the tree from which the stick had been cut, take a white serpent from a hole at its foot and boil it. He was to give the juice without touching it to the stranger. Farquhar happened to touch the mess with his finger, and it being very hot, he thrust his finger in his mouth. From that moment he acquired his unrivalled skill as a physician, and the juice lost its virtue.
A week previous to St. Bridget's Day (1st February, O.S.) the serpents are obliged to leave their holes under ground, and if the ground is then covered with snow they perish. In the popular rhyme relating to the subject the serpent in Argyllshire and Perthshire is called the 'daughter of Edward,' but in Skye ait ribhinn, the damsel. In both cases the name is probably a mere euphemism suggested by the rhyme to avoid giving unnecessary offence to the venomous creature.
The big beast of Scanlastle in Islay was one of this kind. It devoured seven horses on its way to Loch-in-daal. A ship was lying at anchor in the loch at the time, and a line of barrels filled with deadly spikes, and with pieces of flesh laid upon them, was placed from the shore to the ship. Tempted by the flesh, the ' loathly worm' made its way out on the barrels and was killed by the spikes and cannon.

Campbell, John Gregorson (1900). Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Tha sinne 'cur mar choran 's mar gheasan ort,
Gu 'n innis thu, co thu fhein na co do mhuinntir ?
'S mise nighean righ na Sorchann,
Sgiath an ainn ;
'S gur h-e 's ainm dha 'm Baoidhre borb ;
'S gu 'n d' thoir e mise leis,
Cia mor bhur treis as an Fheinn.
Cia b' fhada 'n oidhche gu latha,
Cha bu ghna leinn 'bbith gun cheol.

We lay it as a circuit and as spells on thee.
That thou tell us who thou art, or thy people.
I am the daughter of the king of Sorchann,
Shield of armies,
And that his name is Baoidhre borb,*
And that he will take me with him.
Though great our time from the Fane,
Though long be the night to day,
It was not our wont to be without music.

(*Baoidhre, from Beithir, a large serpent or dragon, and Righ, a king, so called probably from having a serpent as part of his armorial bearings.)

Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol.III, J.F.Campbell, 1892

Old Macdonald, travelling tinker, told me a long story, of which one scene represented an incantation more vividly to me than anything I have ever read or heard. "There was a king and a knight, as there was and will be, and as grows the fir tree, some of it crooked and some of it straight, and he was a king of Eirinn," said the old tinker, and then came a wicked stepmother, who was incited to evil by a wicked henwife. The son of the first queen was at school with twelve comrades, and they used to play at shinny every day with silver shinnies and a golden ball. The henwife, for certain curious rewards, gave the stepdame a magic shirt, and she sent it to her step-son, "Sheen Billy," and persuaded him to put it on; he refused at first, but complied at last, and the shirt was a BEITHIR (great snake) about his neck. Then he was enchanted and under spells, and all manner of adventures followed; but at last he came to the house of a wise woman who had a beautiful daughter, who fell in love with the enchanted prince, and said she must and would have him:

"It will cost thee much sorrow," said the mother.
"I care not," said the girl, "I must have him."
"It will cost thee thy hair."
"I care not." 
"It will cost thee thy right breast."
"I care not if it should cost me my life," said the girl.

And the old woman agreed to help her to her will. A cauldron was prepared and filled with plants; and the king's son was put into it stripped to the magic shirt, and the girl was stripped to the waist. And the mother stood by with a great knife, which she gave to her daughter. Then the king's son was put down in the caldron, and the great serpent, which appeared to be a shirt about his neck, changed into its own form, and sprang on the girl and fastened on her; and she cut away the hold, and the king's son was freed from the spells. Then they were married, and a golden breast was made for the lady. And then they went through more adventures, which I do not well remember, and which the old tinker's son vainly strove to repeat in August, 1860, for he is far behind his father in the telling of old Highland tales. The serpent, then, would seem to be an emblem of evil and wisdom in Celtic popular mythology.

Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol.I, by J.F.Campbell 1890

The big beast of Lochawe.
This animal (Beathach mòr Loch Odha) had twelve legs and was to be heard in winter time breaking the ice. Some say it was like a horse, others, like a large eel.

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

Clach Nathrach:

n the Serpents egg, Clach Nathrach, druid’s glass, serpent bead, adder stone, glaine nathair, serpent stone
Of all the means of which superstition laid hold for  the cure of disease in man or beast, the foremost place  is to be assigned to the Serpent Stone, Clach Nathrach, also called the Serpent Bead or Glass (Glaine Nathair). It is an undoubted relique of Druidism, and as such  worthy of particular attention,
Pliny (29 C. 3) tells us that the Emperor Claudius put to death a knight of the Vocontian Gauls for carrying a serpent-egg (ovum anguinum) about him while engaged in a lawsuit. He also gives a description of the manner in which the egg or bead is manufactured by the serpents. In summer innumerable serpents enwrap one another, and generate the egg from the slaver of their jaws and bodies. They then, according to the Druids, cast it up into the air by their hissings, when it must be caught in a garment lest it touch the ground. The person who is bold enough to intercept it must fly away on a horse, for the serpents follow till a river intercepts them. The test of a true egg is, that it swims against the stream, even if bound in gold (si contra aquas fluitet, vel auro vinctum). The Druids further say it must be got at a particular season of the moon. The one Pliny saw was about the size, of a  round apple. It procures victory in lawsuits, and entrance to kings.

The tales told in modern times of the Serpent Stone, it's manufacture and wonderful properties, are of a similar class, and leave no doubt that in these beads and the use made of them we have the remains of an imposture, if not instituted, at least practised by the Druids. 
The ordinary Glaine Nathair (Serpent Glass) is of smaller size than is indicated by Pliny.  The one which the writer saw was about the size of a gun bullet, and about 1.25 in. long. There was a hole through from end to end, land depressions on its sides, as if it had once been soft, and had been taken up gently between the finger and thumb. It is of transparent glass, but glass unlike that of the present day. There are extremely brilliant and curious streaks of colour in it. It is now merely a family heirJoom, but in olden times was in great demand for dipping in water to be given to bewitched persons or beasts. The sloughed skin (cochull) of the serpent itself was used for the same purpose. Water in which it was dipped was given to sick beasts. The tale as to the manner in which it was originally got is the same as is told of other beads of the same kind. The serpents are assembled in a coiling mass, with their heads in the air hissing horribly, slavering, and out of their slaver making the serpent stone. The spittle, in course of becoming solid, was known as meall èochd. That the story was not implicitly believed is shown by the addition that, when the bead is finished, one of the serpents puts its tail through it. Thus the hole by which it is perforated is made.

In the case of the Bead which the writer saw, the  person who came upon the serpents at their work is said to have waited till the reptiles slept. He then worked the bead out of their circle with a straw or twig of heather. As he took it up between his finger and thumb, and made off with it, he observed that the pressure of his fingers marked it, it being still soft, and this made him put a straw through it to carry it home. This story fairly accounts for the shape of the bead and the marks upon it. The marks look as if they were so made when the stone was soft. Another account says that the finder came on a rock above where the serpents were at work, and, rolling his plaid into a ball, threw it down the rock near them. Instantly the serpents made a dash at the plaid, and while they were reducing it to shreds he made off with the Adder Stone. By means of a sharp-pointed stick, prepared for the purpose, and thrust through the soft bead, he raised it to the top of the rock, and, taking it between his finger and thumb, ran home.

Similar legends of the Adder Stone were current in the Lowlands. Scott says the name is applied "to celts and other perforated stones." In the Highlands the name is not applied to stones. In Wales and Ireland the Bead is known as "Druid's Glass." A more than historical interest attaches to it, from the means it gives of tracing, beyond the possibility of mistake, the use of amulets and superstitious charms to the times and teaching of the much-lauded Druids, and raises, if it does not throw light upon, questions as to the early intercourse of nations.

The manufacture of serpent beads is involved in obscurity. There is nothing known to create a probability that they are of Celtic workmanship. The Phoenicians from a very early date knew the art of glass-making, and their commerce extended far and wide, and as far as the shores of the British Isles, then the remotest part of the known world. It is, therefore, possible these beads came from Phoenician sources.

They are, it is said, found on the coasts of the Baltic and Mediterranean, in England and France, as well as in Ireland and Scotland, and it is possible enough their diffusion was owing to traders from Phoenicia and her colonies in Gaul and at Massilia. Similarly, idols are exported. at the present day from England to India. Fully as much, however, can be urged in behalf of a supposition that the beads are of Egyptian origin, and were obtained by the Celtic priests from the ancient Egyptian enchanters. The Egyptians from the earliest times used glass extensively, and could cut, grind, and engrave it, inlay it with gold, imitate precious stones in it, and colour it with great brilliancy. A bead found at Thebes is ascribed to- B.C. 1560, and relics of a similar class are not unfrequently found in the Egyptian catacombs. If they could be said to be of exactly the same manufacture with the Celtic beads, the question is nearly set at rest. Meyer gives it as his view that the first westward stream' of Celtic immigration passed through Egypt, along the north coast of Africa, and entered Europe by the Straits of Gibraltar. Ancient Irish history, if there be any truth in its fables, points to a similar conclusion. The subject is one of which nothing certain is known, and its decision is of value in showing whether the Celtic priests got their aids to superstition from their Egyptian brethren.

Snail beads (Cnaipein Seilcheig).
Snails also are said to form themselves into a mass and manufacture a stone of great virtue as a charm (Clack shianaidh), It protects its lucky possessor against all danger. Its name is "a snail bead" (Cnaipein seilcheig) or "a snail stone" (Clach na seil-cheig). Four or five snails are engaged in the manufacture of each stone. Water in which it is dipped is good for sore eyes and for mouths broken out with tetter.

Witchcraft and Second Sight in The Highlands and Islands of Scotland, by J. G. Campbell, 1902 

The Ben Vehir Dragons.
The mountain at whose base tourists to Glencoe are landed was first called Ben Gulbin, but it is now known as Ben Vehir (Beinn Bheithir). It got this name from a dragon which, long ago, took shelter in Corrie Lia (Liath), a great hollow in the face of the mountain, and almost right above Ballachulish Pier. This dragon was apparently a terror to the surrounding district. From the lip of the corrie she overlooked the path round the foot of the mountain, and, if the unsuspecting traveller attempted to pass by her, she would leap down and tear him to pieces.

No one dared attack her, nor could anyone tell how she might be destroyed until Charles, the Skipper, came the way. He anchored his vessel a good distance out from the site of the present pier, and between the vessel and the shore formed a bridge of empty barrels, lashed together with ropes, and bristling with iron spikes. When the bridge was finished, he kindled a large fire on board the vessel, and placed pieces of flesh on the burning embers. As soon as the savour of the burning flesh reached the corrie, the dragon descended by a succession of leaps to the shore, and thence tried to make her way out on the barrels to the vessel. But the spikes entered her body, and tore her up so badly that she was nearly dead before she reached the outer end of the bridge.
Meantime the vessel was moved from the bridge, until a wide interval was left between it and the last barrel. Over this interval the dragon had not sufficient strength left to leap to the deck of the vessel, and, as she could not return the way she came, she died of her wounds where she was, at the end of the bridge.

The people who lived in the neighbourhood of the mountain felt now at peace. But, if they did, little did they know of the new danger which threatened them. The cause of this danger was a whelp which the old dragon left behind her in Corrie Lia. In course of time the whelp became a full-grown dragon which had a brood of young dragons hidden away in a corn stack at the foot of the mountain.
When the farmer discovered them in his stack, he at once set fire to it, hoping thus to destroy the dangerous vermin it contained. Their shrieking was, with the wind, borne up the mountain-side, and, as soon as it reached their mother, down she rushed to their assistance. But she was long in reaching them, and in spite of all her efforts they were burnt to death. When she saw this, she stretched herself on a flat rock near the shore, and continued to lash the rock with her tail until she killed herself.
The rock is still known as the Dragon Rock, and on it Ben Vehir House now stands.

Folk Tales And Fairy Lore, by James MacDougall, 1910


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