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Sea Hats, Seal Skins and Stolen Souls

April 30, 2009
Dermot Egan's illustration of the Blue Man wearing a magic sea hat, (c) 2007.

Dermot Egan's illustration of the Blue Man wearing a magic sea hat, (c) 2007.

The post for March – a full month late – concerns the cohuleen druith (a kind of magic sea hat), and all its variants in Irish and Scots folklore.

Firstly, on the name. Sometimes I’ve seen the first word spelled ‘cohuleen’ and sometimes ‘cohullen’, but in either case its meaning is clear, being derived from Irish cochall, or ‘hood’. ‘Druith’ is desrived from draoi. I will qoute MacBain’s definition here:

draoi, druidh, a magician, druid, Irish draoi, gen. pl. druadh, Early Irish drai, drui, g. druad, Gaulish druides (English druid). Its etymology is obscure. Stokes suggests relationship with English true, Gaelic dearbh, q.v. Thurneysen analyses the word as dru, high, strong, See truaill. Brugmann and Windisch have also suggested the root dru, oak, as Pliny did too, because of the Druids’ reverence for the oak tree. Anglo-Saxon dry/, magus, is borrowed from the Celtic. draoineach, druineach, artisan, “eident” person (Carm.); draoneach, “any person that practices an art” (Grant), agriculturist; druinneach, artist (Lh.). Irish druine, art needlework.

Therefore the “druid’s hood”, or enchanted hood, is used by the Irish Merrow (sea people) to make journeys from the undersea realms to the surface and back again (Yeats, as ever, provides a good basic source for this). If a merrow loses its hat, or if it is stolen by a human, that merrow cannot return to the undersea realm. In many accounts, this particular fact is a useful means by which men may kidnap female merrow and force them to live in marriage on the surface, as in the story of the Lady of Gollerus. And I think that is its main function. My supposition here is that the cohuleen druith was invented by Irish story-tellers to make the “kidnapped mermaid” motif seem more plausible and more interesting, and also to allow human visitors to see and report on the remarkable undersea realm.

My reason for this is pretty simple: there doesn’t seem to have been a conceptual problem in Gaelic folklore with the idea of undersea humanoid creatures that could breathe water – in fact, the Blue Men of the Minch are a case in point (although in my version of the Blue Men story, they do use magic hats), as are various trows, nuggles and other sea sprites that do not seem to need a cohuleen druith to survive underwater. So, if the only reason for the cohuleen druith was to explain how creatures could breathe, it would have no function at all in the narrative, as pre-modern audiences would happily listen to a tale about a free-swimming aqautic humanoid creature with no apparent air supply.

However, there did need to be some explanation as to why a kidnapped mermaid did not simply run away. Here, the cohuleen druith is perfect, a ready made reason why she must stay until, like the Lady of Gollerus, she discovers it’s hiding place and departs at once to her true element, leaving a lingering doubt as to the fishy maternal origins of everyone in the family thereafter.

But in other situations, it will serve as an explanation for why a human is capable of visiting the undersea kingdom, like in Crofton Coker’s The Soul Cages, in which the hat is described as being like a cocked hat. Here, the human protagonist is capable of visiting the undersea world of the mysterious merrow through the aid of a borrowed hat.

Scottish material has interesting parallels to the Irish; George Douglas (1901) provides us with The Fisherman and the Merman, The Mermaid Wife and The Seal-Catcher’s Adventure, all of which abandon the cohulen druith in favor of seal skins, and two of which are from the Shetlands. In all of these tales the merrow appear as being very similar to the Selkie, taking the form of seals while travelling and then disrobing of their seal skin apparel when on the shore. In each one, a skin gets stolen, with tragic consequences for the owner, who can no longer return below.

The Scots / Norse influenced use of the sealskin for exactly the same narrative purpose as the cohulen druith has further convinced me that it is a narrative device with little background in earlier Celtic lore. I’d be interested in read any accounts of enchanted hats being worn by merrow in the Irish cycles, which is would we would expect to find them if they were a part of ancient tradition. But to my knowledge, there are none; as far as I can see, the ‘enchanted hat’ is like an 18th century equivalent of the teleporter on Star Trek: it’s a very handy scenic device when it’s working, and a very handy plot device when for some reason – like in nearly every episode – it doesn’t.

As I mentioned, in my Blue Men of the Minch story (see the sidebar) the titular creatures wear magic hats, although they do not in MacKenzie’s original. I merged the merrow and the Blue Men in this way precisely because I wanted to have the ‘stolen wife’ element in the story, and for my protagonist to see the under sea kingdom beneath the Shiant Isles. And without the cohulen druith, that’s simply not possible. In fact the story didn’t really come alive until I added the hat. Handy, that.


The Wolf-Clan of Wikipedia (formerly Langavat)

February 13, 2009

As I noted in my post on Elliot O’Donnell, I’ve had an interest in the story about a family of werewolves at Loch Langavat in Lewis for some time now. They appear mentioned on Wikipedia under Hebridean Mythology and Folklore, and in other places on Wikipedia too, and from there have found their way to any number of sites on the Hebrides or on lists of mythological creatures. It’s a classic case of internet-itis. The entry is always much the same:

“A family of werewolves were said to occupy an island on Loch Langavat. Although long deceased, they promised to rise if their graves were disturbed.[1]

The source given on Wikipedia is Darren Mann’s paranormal database. I contacted Darren to ask about the source he’d used to construct the entry, and he very kindly sent me a scan of the document in question, which turns out to be a two-page anecdote in Terence Whitaker’s book, Scottish Ghosts and ApparitionsI’ve attached the page scan Darren sent me.  It tells the story of how Andrew Warren went to visit his grandfather on Lewis and the old man had dug up a werewolf’s body, claiming that the “island used to be overrun with them”. Andrew then sees the ghost of the werewolf through the window that night before fleeing in terror. The bones are reburied the following day and the creature is laid to rest.

In the meantime, however, I’d come across another source mentioning werewolf bones in the Hebrides – the story in Elliot O’Donnel’s Werewolves that I posted a few months ago. As soon as I got hold of the scan from Whitaker I realised it was the same story. O’Donnell does not mention Langavat – that was probably an insertion by Whitaker – and some other details have been addded but nonethless it is clear that the two are the same tale.

Whitaker was not the only person to borrow the tale from O’Donnell. Much earlier, in 1926, Christopher Marlowe (not the poet) wrote a book called The Fen Lands, including exactly the same tale, but placing it in Linciolnshire. That version appears here and also on BBC Lincolnshire. I can’t find much about Marlowe’s book online and it looks fairly obscure, so really I’m just guessing when I say that the tale – which is too specific to be a ‘travelling tale’ or a widespread archetype – has simply been borrowed by Marlowe from O’Donnell’s book of fifteen years earlier, and relocated closer to home.

So anyway, that’s how we got a widespread internet meme about there being a clan of werewolves in Lewis that would rise if their bodies were disturbed.

I find it interesting the way that as such tales are deconstructed into their basic elements in order to be put on the internet,  new ideas are created. For example, the notion that “the island used to be overrun with werewolves” has become a ‘clan of werewolves.’  The ‘island’ itself was proably intended to be Lewis, but has been scaled down to be “an island on Loch Langavat,” which is a totally new concept. And the fact that one apparation was seen has been viewed as evidence that the whole clan would rise again if their bodies were disturbed.

So we go from a single episode to the archetypal Wikipedian / Hebridean wolf-clan, who are all over the internet now and will probably refuse to die quietly. There’s no possible way my little corner of the net would ever change that, even if I wanted it to.

And I don’t even think I do. I’ve decided to run with the ‘wolf-clan’ idea in my story, and I’m playing with the notion that many more of them could have risen up from the dead if it had not been for the quick thinking of Mr Warren’s grandfather. There’s archaeology, excorcisms, and the whole works added in. Apart from the beginning, it’s a whole new story.

Here’s an extract:

‘Charlie! Charlie! Come look what I found, boy. Here, in the kitchen!’

I ran through the back door, in from where I had been helping Kenneth cut the peat, and saw the old man, white haired, red-faced and muddy from the trail, just finished laying down a leather bag of bones upon the big table, with poor Elsie looking on in horror, for they were as mucky as he, and crumbs of drying peat and bone were already scattering across her newly-swept floor.

‘What is it, seanair?’ I asked, for I knew he liked it when I used that word, ‘grandfather’, although I knew no other words of the old language.

‘A werewolf!’ said he with a note of triumph, and out of the bag came the head, rolling onto the table and falling upright to look at me, so theatrical it seemed the old man must have practiced the move for a while before he came in. The eyes were empty and the teeth fallen away, but it was a wolf’s skull clear enough, although it seemed to me that the rest of the pile was nothing but the skeleton of a normal man.

‘Oh, Lord preserve us, and get the dirty beast from here!’ said Elsie, frowning at him as best she could, but I do not recall him ever having flinched at her scolding before, and this was not to be the first time. She spluttered and fussed for a moment before walking out the way I had come in, taking her morning tea beside the outhouses, instead of in her chair by the kitchen fire.

Now my grandfather got to sorting the bones, with me watching on in silence, and within half an hour the creature’s form lay stretched out complete on the table; he was a rangy fellow who would have stood almost as tall as the Reverend himself, with the angular canine head now in position on top of the spine and looking very natural there, made of the same sort of bone, and about the same age.

But of course, I thought that it must be impossible, and I still recalled that on my first summer my grandfather had fooled me with a wild story about magic eggs. Ever since, I had been on the receiving end of many long lectures about the dangers of superstition – and the butt of many jokes about bad eggs for my troubles.

 ‘Grandfather, this joke is a very good one,’ I said, smiling. ‘But what are we going to do, now it is done?’

‘This is no joke, Charlie Warren. It’s a werewolf’s body. This part of Lewis used to be overrun with them, and satyrs and other animal-men, although no-one now cares to admit it.’

‘Grandfather, I’m not twelve any more. I’m nearly a man now. You’ve found a wolf’s skull and buried together with a body in the cemetery, then dug it up again. That’s all.’

‘Well, you can tell that to the two girls up at Dibadale, who saw a live one just yesterday. I’m sure they’ll be pleased to know that the young boy – the man, I beg your pardon – from Glasgow is calling them a pair of liars.’

‘Grandfather…what are you saying? They saw a wolf-man?’

‘Quite so. From their window, and it was running in the fields behind the house, just as the sun was setting. But of course, obviously they were mistaken, and you would know better, because of all the schooling you have had, and the books that you have read. Is that it?’

‘I’m sorry, seanair,’ I said, for I knew that he would never have kept up the pretence so long, and that he must be serious. ‘I thought it was a joke, like the time you made those empty eggs move about, with the magnet beneath the table.’

‘There is no joke about it, this time,’ he said. ‘And I would never use the body of a dead man in jest, so do not make that suggestion again. Now, come and take a look…’

‘Seanair?’ I interrupted him, a thing he would not normally allow. ‘Where were you yesterday, when the beast was seen?

‘Coming through Dibadale from the Loch at Langavat, as it happens,’ said he. ‘Some peat-cutters found the body, when they were digging in the mouth of the Tairbh. I was called out there to dig him out and bury him properly. Now, enough of your interruptions, and look carefully at his right arm. Don’t be squeamish, he is as dead as can be, and will not harm you.’

I wrinkled up my nose as I approached, although there was no smell but that of the peat. It had preserved the body well, and in some places some of the skin on his arms remained, and lines were visible in the flesh on his right hand, a tattoo or marking of a dirty dark blue, some design of the ancient people. I peered closer – it was a beast, four-footed, looking not very much like a wolf, and very much more like a very dirty hound with an elongated body, whose head had been badly smudged.

‘Is it a wolf?’ said I.

‘Obviously,’ said the venerable bone-digger. ‘Hah! This will fox old Professor Bugge! This could be Leodwulf, himself!’

He often spoke this way, making allusions that were far beyond my ability to comprehend, for I knew he considered me a sponge that would soak up his knowledge like water, without effort or discernment. But on that day I was preoccupied with the frightening appearance of the creature, and also by the notion that one of its living relatives had been seen only a few miles to the north.

‘Seanair?’ I asked. ‘Who is Leodwulf?’

‘Leodwulf, the ugly wolf, young Charlie. The founder of the MacLeod clan, seven hundred years ago! And here’s proof. Well, at least it could be proof. I wonder if there are more bodies in that bog, eh? It would be quite marvellous to see if they all had the same mark.’

‘You mean…we are descended from…him?’

‘Oh…perhaps not him directly, Charlie.’ He must have seen the worried look of a frightened boy creep back upon my face, and he became placatory, after his own fashion. ‘As I said, the history of this island is not what people would have you believe nowadays. The Vikings claimed to accept the true God, but in truth they had Him confused with all sorts of demons from their old country, and they continued to worship the wolf, and the raven too. But to a Christian, the wolf is a symbol of lust and deceit! A man wearing such as symbol on his arm should never have been allowed in a house of God!’

‘So…does this mean you are right?’ I asked.  ‘And that Professor Buggy is wrong?’ I found myself often in this situation with my grandfather; he would come at things from so many directions at once that I ended the conversation with no memory of how it had begun, and no idea what he wanted me to say. Then all of a sudden he would realise how his ranting must appear to my boyish eye, and he would relent of his strange questions and theories. He turned very quickly away from the creature’s body, and said:

‘Well, never mind that ignorant old Dane! There was a wolf-clan here, and I can prove it. I’ll keep his arm, and get the rest of him back in the ground tomorrow morning. We’ll bury him outside the old graveyard, and then go fishing. And let’s let that be the end of it, and there will be no breathing a word to your mother, either. Now, it is time for your lunch.’ 

 That’s the post for February…


Incidentally there are two Loch Langavats on Lewis (it does just mean Long Lake, after all). I’ve picked the northern one, as it is more remote, and set the action at Tolstadh, the cloest town with a Free Church. The other one is partly in Harris, further south, and is a famous salmon-fishing spot.

The Fachan, Corriugneacht, and Suibne Guilt

January 6, 2009

fachanHi. 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…


(c) Dermot Egan 2007

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.

Elliot O’Donnell and the Ghostly Internet Presence

December 22, 2008

December’s post is a departure from the normal subject matter of this blog. Instead of concentrating directly on a monster or theme from Celtic folklore, I’m going to be taking a look at an important writer in the field: Irishman Elliot O’Donnell (1872-1965), who has been described as Britain’s greatest ghost hunter. O’Donnell was a mysterious character indeed: he claimed to have seen a ghostly apparation covered in spots when he was five, and also to have been near-strangled by a phantom in Dublin later in life. But what’s really odd is how little information survives on the internet about this amazingly prolific and popular writer. I can’t even find a photograph of him online, although he lived until 1965…

O’Donnell was born in Ireland but travelled to the U.S. to become a police officer in Chicago, and was involved in the Chicago Railway Strike of 1894, at age 22. He later  served in WW1. In the meantime he travelled widely in the British Isles and Ireland seeking out haunted places, and began to publish books of stories and articles, primarily on ghosts and phantoms in Celtic countries, in 1904. He and continued to publish on an almost yearly basis throughout the war and then at a slightly slower pace up until 1939. After Ww2 he had a brief resurrection of his career, before publishing his final work in 1958. A full list of titles is here:

  • For Satan’s Sake (1904)
  • Unknown Depths (1905)
  • Some Haunted Houses (1908)
  • Haunted Houses of London (1909)
  • Reminiscences of Mrs.E. M. Ward (1910)
  • Byways of Ghostland (1911)
  • The Meaning of Dreams (1911)
  • Scottish Ghost Stories (1912)
  • The Sorcery Club (1912)
  • Werewolves (1912)
  • Animal Ghosts (1913)
  • Ghostly Phenomena (1913)
  • Haunted Highways and Byways (1914)
  • The Irish Abroad (1915)
  • Twenty Years’ Experience as a Ghost Hunter (1916)
  • The Haunted Man (1917)
  • Spiritualism Explained (1917)
  • Fortunes (1918)
  • Haunted Places in England (1919)
  • Menace of Spiritualism (1920)
  • More Haunted Houses of London (1920)
  • The Banshee (1926)
  • Ghosts, Helpful and Harmful (1926)
  • Strange Disappearances (1927)
  • Strange Sea Mysteries (1927)
  • Confessions of a Ghost Hunter (1928)
  • Great Thames Mysteries (1929)
  • Famous Curses (1929)
  • Fatal Kisses (1929)
  • Rooms of Mystery (1931) London: Philip Allan & Co. Ltd.
  • Ghosts of London (1932)
  • The Devil in the Pulpit (1932)
  • Family Ghosts (1934)
  • Strange Cults & Secret Societies of Modern London (1934)
  • Spookerisms; Twenty-five Weird Happenings (1936)
  • Haunted Churches (1939)
  • Ghosts with a Purpose (1952)
  • Dead Riders (1953)
  • Phantoms of the Night (1956)
  • Haunted Waters, and Trees of Ghostly Dread (1958)

The three books in bold are the ones I have read so far. In particular I have been looking at Werewolves from 1912, owing to an interest in a story about the Werewolves of Langavat, which I keep coming across on the internet, but whose source remained obscure until recently. (Suffice to say, it isn’t in O’Donnell’s book, but in a much more recent work called Scotland’s Ghosts and Appparitions by Terence Whitaker. More of that in February’s post.)

So, what’s O’Donnell like as a writer, then? Well, some of his works are pseudo-scholarly, in that delightfully amaetuerish antiquarian mode that only the British and Irish are able to pull off. Other works are straightforward books of short stories, but often written in the first person to suggest that Elliot, our man of the haunted road, was there in person to witness the horror and the mystery. If you like M.R James, or Thomas Crofton Coker, you’ll like this writer.  Here’s some of Werewolves

Here is another account of this type of haunting narrated to me some summers ago by a Mr. Warren, who at the time he saw the phenomenon was staying in the Hebrides, which part of the British Isles is probably richer than any other in spooks of all sorts.

“I was about fifteen years of age at the time,” Mr. Warren said, “and had for several years been residing with my grandfather, who was an elder in the Kirk of Scotland. He was much interested in geology, and literally filled the house with fossils from the pits and caves round where we dwelt. One morning he came home in a great state of excitement, and made me go with him to look at some ancient remains he had found at the bottom of a dried-up tarn. ‘Look!’ he cried, bending down and pointing at them, ‘here is a human skeleton with a wolf’s head. What do you make of it?’ I told him I did not know, but supposed it must be some kind of monstrosity. ‘It’s a werwolf!’ he rejoined, ‘that’s what it is. A werwolf! This island was once overrun with satyrs and werwolves! Help me carry it to the house!’

If you don’t like that, there’s little for you on this blog….

Anyway, O’Donnell’s works are mostly in the public domain and some of them have been put online at Project Guteneberg and elsewhere. But strangely, only a few of them are online, the same ones repeated in numerous places. I’ve indicated these in italics.

So, what’s up? Why have only a handful of these works been reproduced? Is it possible that his pre-ww2 work is his best, and that no-one is really bothering to reprint or archive the later works in the 20s and 30s? Or do I just need access to a better library?

Anyway, here are some links to get you started.

None of that gets me any closer to a copy of Banshees. Or a photograph of O’Donnell so I can see what sort of man I am dealing with. Was he a rakish fop, a befuddled antiquarian, a canny entrepreneur who preyed upon the gullible, or a hard-minded man of the people? 

If anyone has a photo, let me know?

S.J. McKenzie.

Swordland Lodge, by Loch Morar

November 13, 2008


Humor me while I ramble, it is late at night where I am…

One of the tales in my collection The Blue Men of the Minch concerns the well-known Loch Morar Monster, Morag, whose visitations were thought to presage death for a member of the MacDonald family. Not to give too much away, but here’s a sneak peek…

The MacDonalds of Morar were once prosperous, a branch of Clanranald, and the holders of many lands in Lochaber and the Western Isles. Then, their misfortunes began; an heir was killed while hunting, the next young laird was struck witless after an accident, and so on it went, until within one hundred years of the building of the clan house at Arisaig, the Morar line came to an end. The descendants scattered and the family lands were sold to incomers, in the years just before the West Highland Line reached Mallaig and the new century began.

We may put it all down to the passing of the old times in the Highlands, and convince ourselves that the family’s demise was a normal affair, provided that we do not consider the case too closely, and seek the reason why so much ill-luck occurred to one family in so short a span of years; and provided also that we never travel to Loch Morar by Sworldland, where the water is clear and deep, and catch sight of something, large and serpentine, moving about just below the surface.


Anyway, I had known about the existence of other monsters besides Nessie for some years, but became even particularly interested in the Morar area as a base for a ‘water-monster’ tale after reading the accounts of Loch Morar and the Grey Dog of Meoble over at Mike Dash’s blog at the Charles Fort Institute. What got me hooked was the notion that there should be so much folklore in such a small remote area; there were not one but two death harbingers for the Macdonald’s, the Monster and the Grey Dog, within an area the size of my suburb in Adelaide.

And that’s just the tip of the (deep loch-forming) iceberg for this area; a bit more scouting around revealed a villain called Evil Donald who was followed about by a monster in the shape of a giant toad, a headless witch or ghost who terrorized the area, and a charmed dappled Bull that eventually killed the clan hero (Ronald MacDonald, no less) after he had put paid to the rest. All of it good stuff, and all of it connected to the MacDonald clan, who, judging by the account up here, were indeed a very unlucky family in the nineteenth century.

It is in the deep water near Swordland where many of the monster sightings seem to have occured, so that is where I decided to set the tale. The name, by the way, besides being the name of innumerble sword and sorcery constructions, is a Gaelic feudal concept meaning “lands granted for service in battle”, i.e. “Airbertach won swordlands in the lands of the Norsemen, including Mull and Tiree.”) Clearly, the land around the lodge was the spoils of battle at some point in the past.

According to Wikipedia (Loch Morar):

Although the only road along the loch extends no more than four miles along the north shore, both sides of the lake were inhabited along their length as late as the early twentieth century. Emigration and the introduction of sheep farming and sporting estates in place of the traditional cattle farming, however, led to the abandonment of all settlements on the south shore and of those on the north east of Bracorina. Kinclochmorar, at the head of the loch, was last inhabited around 1920 and Swordland Lodge, at the midway point on the north shore and level with the deepest part of the loch, has been no more than a summer home since 1969.

Further investigation found a Geograph photo of the lodge (at the top of this page), as well as lots of references to it as a hiking destination. The lodge is only accessible by boat, but if you are too lazy to walk along the north shore you can take a boat from Mallaig, twalk over the ridge to Tarbert from the lodge, then boat back to Mallaig through the Kyles on the other side.

That’s about all. Other than a few business and real estate pages, the internet is remarkably quiet on Swordland Lodge.

Hmmmm. A Victorian hunting lodge on the edge of a famous loch, with it’s own monster just nearby, but it hasn’t been permanently occupied since the 1960s, and not accessible by road!

Are the Scots totally mad? In a more populous region a place like that would be fairly swarming with tourists. In Morar, it’s uninhabited most of the year. Even though my story was set in the 1870s, I decided Swordland seemed interesting enough to visit one day if I ever make it back to Scotland, to see if I could find out who really lives there….

I even found a website posting by a similarly intrigued tourist by the name of Ozneil:

I took a boat from Morar up Loch Morar for about 7-8 miles to Swordland Lodge, a magnificent Victorian hunting lodge accessable only by water. From there we walked across a low saddle, sorry dont know Scot’s term, about a mile to a little hamlet, Tarbert, on Loch Nevis where we were picked up by another boat which took us back to Mallaig & thence by train back to Morar. For pristine scenery with no sign of man it was magic. I never found out who owned Swordland lodge…

Well, Ozneil, I just found out. I think the Special Operations Executive own Swordland lodge. The SOE (formed by Winston Churchill in WW2) closed off much of Lochaber for training purposes and also requisitioned many other large houses in the region. I have this list from SECRET SCOTLAND:

  1. STS21 – Arisaig House, Arisaig, Inverness-shire – Finishing School
  2. STS22 – Rhubana Lodge, Morar, Inverness-shire
  3. STS22a – Glasnacardoch Lodge, Morar, Inverness-shire – Foreign Weapons Training
  4. STS23 – Meoble Lodge, Morar, Inverness-shire
  5. STS23b – Swordland Lodge, Tarbet Bay, Morar, Inverness-shire
  6. STS24a – Inverie House, Knoydart, Mallaig, Inverness-shire
  7. STS24b – Glaschoille House, Knoydart, Mallaig, Inverness-shire
  8. STS25a – Garramor House, Morar, Inverness-shire
  9. STS25b – Camusdarach Lodge, Morar, Inverness-shire
  10. STS25c – Traigh House, Morar, Inverness-shire

The site says that it was used for training commandos in WW2 but its specific function is now unknown. Right.

Anyway, I’m calling that my post for October. None of this really affected my story, which employed a fairly generic hunting lodge setting and in fact, could have been set anywhere with the ingredients: ‘loch’, ‘monster’ and ‘lodge with history of hunting accidents’. However, the idea of a mostly abandoned building in a haunted area being used for a training excercise has a lot of potential for a future story.

So, I might have to set another tale in Lochaber, the place where the people aren’t…


Red Cap and Red Man

October 31, 2008

As promised, this month’s post – just in the nick of time, on Halloween or Samhain to you purists – concerns the relationship between the Redcap of Scots Borders folklore (discussed last month) and the Red Man (Far Darrig, Fear Dearg), a solitary fairy of Irish folklore. Was the Redcap merely a translation of the original Irish character into a new setting across the Irish Sea? The short answer: probably not, unless you are prepared to look at very general Indo-European fairy prototypes..

W.B. Yeats Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry is a key source for the Red Man and is encyclopedic in nature: The Far Darrig (fear dearg), which means the Red Man, for he wears a red cap and coat, busies himself with practical joking, especially with gruesome joking. This he does, and nothing else.

That’s pretty much all Yeats had to say on the subject, and that’s what you’ll find paraphrased all over the internet, with additional details (such as the fact that farmers consider meeting him very lucky) added here and there, often for the purpose of using him in role-playing games. There are no stories in Yeat’s text about the Red Man, except for the curious Far Darrig in Donegal, an amusing tale of fairy deception that makes no specific reference to red men, red caps or any other identifying features of this type of fairy, and so we must assume that it was the nature of the deception that promoted Yeats (or his source) to call the tale by this name.

The Red Man also appears in the work of that other luminary of Irish folklore, Thomas Crofton Coker. In the Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland he states that the Red man and Red cap are probably the same, but also draws parralels between the red cap worn by the Merrow, to Robin Hood, Robin Goodfellow (aka Puck), and to the German Hobgoblin and Kobold, and to the Norman English ‘Follet’. Following the logic of this passage, pretty much any trickster figure wearing a red hat in medieval or early modern thought could be said to be a counterpart of the Far Darrig. (It is noteworthy that the Redcap of Borders lore is also called Robin).

Few internet sites mention a direct link between the two creatures, and those that do cite no original reference. I suppose it is easy enough to say that the Redcap is the Scots equivalent of the Irish Fear Dearg without a direct reference, because the two sound similar in some characteristics; both are wizened men wearing red cap who delight in playing tricks. But there are many differences, too – the Fear Dearg wears a green cloak, has no association with churches or castles, and is not said to dye his cap in blood, and so on.

Should we be looking more at similarity than difference?

I think the only real conclusion to be drawn here is not regarding a translation of the Red cap from Ireland to Scotland, but of the general prevalence of the colour red in both Celtic and Germanic folklore as a symbol of the otherworld, and often, of deceit.

The story-teller, wishing to alert his audience to the fact that the character in question was a trickster spirit or a death messanger, would include the detail of a red cap, possibly stained with blood or made of an otherwordly plant, in order to make sure his listeners got the point. I suggest that the use of the red cap in this way is much the same as a modern spy character wearing a dark cloak and sunglasses; it sets them up as a ‘type’, but it does not necessarily mean that one such usage of the ‘type’ is a direct memory or translation of the other.

NOTE: Another type of Far Darrig, The Red-Headed Man, is described in various tales of humans trapped in fairy-land. It is with his help that they escape. Examples are found in Examples are to be found in Lady Wilde’s ANCIENT LEGENDS OF IRELAND, VOL. I, ‘Fairy Music’ and ‘Fairy Justice’. This is taken from the Encyclopedia of the Celts. I think we can rule out this character as being quite a different trope to our Red Man of deceit.

Happy Samhain,

S J. McKenzie.

Publication: The Cat Witch of Laggan

October 23, 2008

Good news: My story The Cat-Witch of Laggan will be published by Bewildering Stories some time next year. The editors have asked me to provide a bio-sketch, and details on how my tale differs from the original version in George Douglas’ Scottish Fairy Tales. Well, that sort of thing is exactly what this blog is for, so here goes…

Douglas’ original version of this tale is found in Scottish Fairy Tales (1901) in two different episodes, MacGillichallum of Razay and The Witch of Laggan. Both are taken from the folklore of Strathdrean and Badenoch. The first part tells of how the Laird of Razay (almost certainly Raasay, near Skye), Bold John Garve MacGillichallum, was the bane of witches in Scotland until such time as twelve of their number decided to drown him by taking the form of giant cats and fouling his rigging just as he was in the middle of returning home to Razay during a storm. In my version, this happens after the episode with MacIan, but is otherwise basically unchanged, except of course that it is written from the witch’s perspective.

The sequel tells of how Donald MacIan, the Hunter of the Hills, is accosted by the lead witch immediately after Razay’s death. She comes upon him in his bothy, wet from the storm and taking the form of a small cat, and pleads to be let in by the fire. Once she has warmed up and expanded to her giant size, she brags of having bested MacGillichallum, and threatens to do likewise to him. MacIan ends up killing her in the way that is described in my version; except that in the original, her death is quite real, whereas in my version, it is merely a ruse to make the two “heroes” think that she is dead, so that she may live among the people for another thirty years.

I have cast the witch as an anti-heroine, a pre-Christian death spirit, a guardian of the sacred yards of Dalarossie, Laggan and Moy (which I think were all sacred sites before Christianity), and a figure of vengeance against those who commit blasphemy or evil in or near those places. I have invented the ‘witch-killing contest’ between the two men as a way of linking the two episodes more effectively, and also changed the ending. In the original, the devil’s road agents do catch the witch on her way to the safety of Dalarossie, whereas in my version, the witch makes it to safety, and leaves the devil’s men empty-handed.

S.J McKenzie

Note: This is not my monthly post….still haven’t got to that yet.