The Fachan, Corriugneacht, and Suibne Guilt
Hi. Here’s the main post for January.
The Fachan has always intrigued me, ever since I read about it in James Mackilllop’s Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, which says the following:
“Fachan, fachin. Grotesquely ugly supernatural figure in Scottish gaelic folklore, counterparts of which are known in Irish tradition. The fachan is a variety of the better known athach, while the d’reach is a more particular fachan. The fearsome creature has but one leg from its haunch, one hand protruding from its chest, one eye and rough spiky hair; cf. the Irish Fer Caille; Fomorians. There were no creatures haunting lonely groges and locks that credulous peasants dreaded mor to meet. Sometimes classed as a Giant. See also Bòcan; luideag.”
This beast was one of the things that got me started on the project. I just…like it. There’s all sorts of kooky illustrations up on the net – I might put up a Fachan Gallery at some point, including a link to the charming and silly Catch the Fachan video game from Aberlour distillery. But apart from the bizarre and almost comic appearance of the creature, the really intriguing – and annoying – thing about the Fachan is that there doesn’t seem to be a single representative tale behind it. I’ve already pointed this out in my overview. Such a creature needs to live in a narrative, not in a list.
Anyway, the original source for the creature is the very brief account in J. F. Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands vol 3. Campbell is discussing the possible relation of Gaelic lore to Egyptian lore and discusses the Fachan in his description of the god Nesnas. He writes:
THE NESNAS is described as having half a head, half a body, one arm, and one leg, with which it hops with much agility. No such creatures appear in German or Norse tales, but the smith, in the Lay of the Smithy, had one leg and one eye. In a very wild version of No. XXXVIII., got from old MacPhie, the DIREACH GHLINN EITIDH MHICCALAIN, the desert creature of Glen Eiti, of the son of Colin, is thus described:–”With one hand out of his chest, one leg out of his haunch, and one eye out of the front of his face.” He was a giant, and a wood-cutter, and went at a great pace before the Irish king Murdoch MacBrian, who had lost sight of his red-eared hound, and his deer, and Ireland.
In the same story a “FACHAN” is thus described:–”Ugly was the make of the Fachin; there was one hand out of the ridge of his chest, and one tuft out of the top of his head, it were easier to take a mountain from the root than to bend that tuft.”
The Fachan appears listed in every internet list of mythical Celtic creatures that you care to name, owing to its inclusion in Katharine Briggs’ Encyclopedia of Fairies and Dictionary of Fairies. From Briggs, all sorts of details about the creature are derived – that it can destroy orchards in a single night, that it can induce heart attacks, and so on – but in terms of a memorate account of anyone actually having seen one, the best on offer is an account of the footrace between Nesnas Mhiccallain and Murachadh Mac Brian.
To me, that account shares more with stories of the hero that proves his worth but defeating and/or taming the ‘Hard Ghillie’ or troublesome servant, and it sheds little light on what a peasant’s encounter with the Fachan on a lonely moor in Scotland might have looked like. Basically, I don’t think the Murachadh Mac Brian tale is a representative account, even though it is the only one around.
Other issues arise from the passage – firstly, that this particular Fachan seems to have human parentage and be quite integrated into human (Irish) society whereas Brigg’s account is of a solitary fairy living in Scotland, leading me to question whether the named “Glen Eiti” and Glen Etive in Argyll are necessarily the same, as everyone seems to have assumed. But that is also for another post. The point here is, I wanted to write a good “memorate style” story about the creature, so it seemed like I was going to have to make one up.
My main inspiration came from this thread over at the CELT-L discussion list, which I participated in for a while in 2006 when I was writing the story. Stiof MacAmhalghaidh, who is something of a guru on that list, pointed out several things to me which were invaluable in completing the story.
Firstly, that the appearance of the Fachan is very similar to that of a druid in the Corriugneacht, which essentially means ‘ crane pose’. Druids would hop about on one leg with one eye closed and one arm extended, wearing a cloak of bird feathers. Stiof suggested that a kind of reverse euhemerization had taken place – that the druids had undergone a transformation into bird-like animal spirits in the minds of the people of Scotland and Ireland.
Here’s Dermot Egan’s sketch picture of the druid Callan from my story Fresh Blood and Feathers, showing something like the Corriugneacht. The reader is asked to imagine his eventual degenertion into the Fachan encountered centuries later on a lonely roadside in Glen Etive…
Even better than the Corriugneacht idea was Stiof’s pointer to the story of Suibe Geilt (Wild Sweeney, Sweeney the Mad), a classic Irish poem set down in the 12th century but probably of a much earlier origin, which records the decline into insanity of the priest-king Suibne of Dalriada (in Ulster, rather than Argyll), who goes mad after a defeat and takes to the forests, becoming a strange bird-like creature. He’s in the same tradition as Lailoken / Myrddyn Wyllt (Mad Merlin) who was supposed to have done much the same thing after defeat of his master at the battle of Arfderydd in 573. Certainly, there is a well-known meme in Gaelic literature of the mad druid who transforms into a bird-man, and this is what Stiof suggested that the Fachan may have derived from.
Well, how to fit all that into my story? The best parts of the Suibne poem to me are the ones in which Suibne visits his wife and lover Eorann who has taken up with another man Guaire son of Congal. She wishes to join him in his life in the woods but he deplores the idea and says it is no road for her… The idea of the demented Fachan replaying this scene over and over with any woman he came across occurred to me and I took the story from there. Here’s a sample.
Later that night, sometime in the dark hour just before dawn, Mary awoke screaming, soon waking the rest in a panic. Hastily they rose, and huddled together to comfort the baby, whose howls echoed around the narrow glen. But when that noise subsided, they made out another sound coming from the hill above them, and it froze them all into a silent fear. A harsh and terrible cry was heard, something like a man screaming, but also like the noise of a wild animal. No words could be made out, but there was a pattern to it, as though the thing were calling out, again and again. It went on for several minutes and left them so frightened that all they could do was to sit huddled, praying it would come to a stop, with poor Peg bleating for warmth and comfort.
Suddenly there were some loud crashes on the hill above, as if branches were breaking, and then the noise died down. As the fear subsided, Jackie readied his gun and got the fire going again so he could see about them, while his mother quieted the baby. Mary began to tell them of the dream that had frightened her so, at first she was still much shaken, and her breathing was ragged. But after only a short time, a calm came over her, and her words came slowly, as though part of her were still dreaming.
‘I am in the wilds, in a camp with Jackie, who has gone out hunting. We are about to be married,’ she said.
‘Aye, well, we did that often enough at the time,’ said Jackie, as his mother scowled.
‘I can hear something land upon the roof; it sounds like a bird, but…now I can hear it speaking to me.’ She shivered at the memory.
‘What did it say to you?’ said Jackie as he moved over to comfort her. At this she began trembling, and then all at once became rigid, and she began to speak in a different voice, low and anxious, as though another person were speaking through her.
‘Do you remember, lady, how easy it was for us as we lay together? Things are hard for me now, living the life of a bird, while you lie there sleeping.’
And then Mary, who seemed to be in a trance, made her reply to the man in her dream, up on the roof:
‘Why can you not come down from there and be with me, and be whole again?’
Now Jackie grabbed her and dragged her closer to the fire where he could see her clearly. She had gone deathly pale, and her eyes had taken on a strange dark colour not her own, and would not fix upon his face. ‘Mary, you are awake now! Wake up!’ he cried, but she seemed unable to hear him, and kept up the strange dialogue, speaking again in the man’s voice:
‘What of your lover, the hunter, who is out now looking to provide for you?’
She replied: ‘I would rather sleep with you, in the hollow of a tree, than lie with him in the finest hall in the land.’
At this, Jackie began to shake her fiercely to wake her, but also in anger that some demon was taking her from him as she slept. ‘Mary, for God’s sake, stop it! Mother, get some water!’ But his mother was yelling at him in return: ‘you’ll break her neck, flinging her about like that, leave her be!’ and baby Peg began to cry again, and throughout it all the strange man kept speaking through the voice of his enchanted wife:
‘My path is not for a lady,’ he cried out. ‘It is better for you to love the man that brought you here, than the crazed and famished half-man I have become’.
At that, the howling noise returned. High up on the dark hillside it was, clear and terrible, the voice of a man crying out in wordless madness, to whoever might hear. At that, Mary came out of her trance, screaming just as loud as before, and there was no calming the baby either. ‘Jack, we’ve got to get away from here,’ said his mother, and they gathered up their belongings as quick as they could and stumbled off down the track to Invercharnan by moonlight, to take their chances with the soldiers. At that moment, it appeared a safer course than remaining near whatever it was on the hill above them…
I’m still trying to get this particular story published. E-mail me if you’d like to read it. Steve.