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Thursday, 5 December 2013

A Charming Start

Even in his teenage years Calum Maclean took an active interest in oral traditions such as stories, songs, historical legends and so on. This is hardly surprising given that his own family and relations were steeped in tradition and were particularly strong in respect of singing and piping. As a sixth year pupil in 1935, Maclean published in Portree Secondary School Magazine the following charm:

In these days when so many old customs are fast sinking into oblivion, it may be of interest to know that there are still a few who adhere to the ways of tradition. It may be a surprise to some, that even yet there are those who can dispense with the services of a doctor or veterinary surgeon. Some yet remain who have implicit faith in the modes of healing employed by their fore-fathers a century or more ago, and remember their charms and exorcisms, and are able to apply them when occasion arises. For practically all ailments the people of the glens had charms; there was a charm for jaundice, the charm for toothache, the charm for a bursting vein, the charm for a sprain, and various charms for counteracting the evil eye.

All the charms were simple, and in them the distressed people invoked the help of the Triune of grace, or the help of Columba or of Bride, the aid-woman of Christ, or even of the mother, Mary. The charms were of no avail unless there was implicit faith in them. The person who applied the charm had to believe that it would produce the desired result; it was the same in the case of the patient. The failure of a charm to prove effective was always attributed to lack of faith.

As recently as last year a Skye doctor was surprised to find round the wrist of a patient suffering from a sprain a string knotted in three places. On enquiring what it meant, the patient replied that a certain person had applied the charm for sprain, “Eòlas air sniamh.” Thus did a skilled technician, trained in one of the most efficient institutions in the country, find that the traditional modes of healing were still adhered to, and were competing in some places with modern surgery.

The charm for sprain, because of the ailment it treated, was one of the most common charms in practice, and in consequence was among the most familiar. Like all other runes and incantations of antiquity, it had different versions, each district having its own particular version. In “Carmina Gadelica” there appear three versions of “Eòlas air sniamh.” The first version, which is a short one, was collected in Benbecula; the second, which is also short, was collected in Lewis; and the third, which is perhaps the best of the three, comes from Arisaig. The Skye version, which we shall give later, bears close resemblance to the Arisaig version than to either of the other two.

The version which appears here was taken down from the dictation of one belonging to a type that is fast disappearing from our midst. He is a person endowed with a retentive memory and an excellent command of his native tongue; and, moreover, has a strong individuality which has enabled him to withstand those whom intolerant bigotry and scrupulous Calvinism deprived of all their interest in folk-lore. In his youth he was taught many charms, but many of these he has forgotten through lack of practice. The charm for sprain he had on several occasions practised, and in most cases with success. His trust in it has never wavered, and he can relate several instances of the charm proving efficacious. He it was indeed who had pitted his skill against that of the doctor—the incident to which we have already referred.

At first we could not induce him to tell the charm, for regarding it there was a law that it could only be told by a man to a woman, or by a woman to a man; any transgression of this rule meant that the charm was no longer efficacious as far as the transgressors were concerned. A woman who revealed the charm to another woman could not longer practise it, neither could a man who revealed it to another man. The version below was obtained only after the three versions in “Carmina Gadelica” were recited to assure the exorcist that the charm would lose its efficacy.
The “Eòlas air sniamh” was applied in cases of sprain, or even of fractured arms or legs. A piece of string or a thin strip of cloth was procured. This string or cloth was knotted in three places, the three knots being symbolic of the Trinity. Each knot on being tied was spat on three times. While this was going on, the following was repeated in an undertone, there being a pause whenever the knots were being spat on:—

Chaidh Criosd a mach
Air maduinn mhoch
Chaidh e sios do’ n loch
Fhuair e na h-eich ‘s a’ ghart
Is an cnamhan briste mu seach
Chuir e cnaimh ri cnaimh
Chuir e smuais ri smuais
Chuir e feidh ri feidh
Chuir e fuil ri fuil
Chuir e feoil ri feoil
Chuir e seiche ri seiche
Mar a leighis Criosda sin
Is comasach e air leigheas so.

Christ went out
On a morning early,
He went down to the loch,
He found the horses in the corn
With their bones broken apart,
He put bone to bone,
He put marrow to marrow,
He put sinew to sinew,
He put blood to blood,
He put flesh to flesh,
He put hide to hide,
As Christ healed that,
Able is He to heal this.

As the exorcist placed the symbolical string on the injured limb, he said: “Tha mi ag cur so an ainm Tri-aon nan gràs, an athair, am Mac is an Spiorad Naomh”─“I place this in the name of the Triune of grace, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

It is uncertain from whom Maclean collected this fairly common charm but it may have been from from Donald MacCallum in Portree. Maclean later noted that the first story that he ever recorded was in 1935 from this man and it would be reasonable to guess that he may have collected the above charm as well.

One does not have to search far or wide for this fairly common charm, as Maclean stated in his short article, for many other versions were collected not many years before by Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912), and can be found in his great if controversial compendium of Gaelic lore entitled Carmina Gadelica (1900). The charm collected by Carmichael is entitled ‘Eòlas an t-Sniamh’ / ‘Charm for Sprain’ and the similarities between them can be readily seen:

CHAIDH Criosd a mach
Maduinn moch,
Fhuair e cas nan each
’Nan spruilleach bog;
Chuir e smior ri smior,
Chuir e smuais ri smuais,
Chuir e cnaimh ri cnaimh,
Chuir e streabhon ri streabhon,
Chuir e feith ri feith,
Chuir e fuil ri fuil,
Chuir e creais ri creais,
Chuir e feoil ri feoil,
Chuir e saill ri saill,
Chuir e craicionn ri craicionn,
Chuir e flonn ri flonn,
Chuir e blath ri blath,
Chuir e fuar ri fuar;
Mar a leighis Righ nam buadh sin
Is dual gun leighis e seo,
Ma ’s e thoil fein a dheanamh.
      A uchd Ti nan dul,
      Agus Tiur na Trianaid.

CHRIST went out
In the morning early,
He found the legs of the horses
In fragments soft;
He put marrow to marrow,
He put pith to pith,
He put bone to bone,
He put membrane to membrane,
He put tendon to tendon,
He put blood to blood,
He put tallow to tallow,
He put flesh to flesh,
He put fat to fat,
He put skin to skin,
He put hair to hair,
He put warm to warm,
He put cool to cool,
As the King of power healed that
It is in His nature to heal this,
If it be His own will to do it.
      Through the bosom of the Being of life,
      And of the Three of the Trinity.

According to Carmichael, the above charm was collected from Mary MacDonald, a shepherd’s wife, from Caim, Arisaig.

Although Maclean would later collect more charms they were not as plentiful as they had been when Carmichael had been posted to Uist as an exciseman. Doubtless if Maclean’s initial remit had been broader than romantic stories then he may well have collected more charms than he actually did.

Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & A. Constable, 1900)
C. McL (VI.) [Calum Maclean], ‘A Practice of Old Gaeldom’, Portree Secondary School Magazine, no. 2 (June 1935), pp. 9–10

Image used by Carmichael to illustrate the charm ‘Eòlas an t-Sniamh’ / ‘Charm for Sprain’ in Carmina Gadelica, vol. 2, p. 20


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