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Friday, 12 December 2014

Playing Cards with the Devil

A popular story once told throughout the Highlands and Islands concerns a group of men playing cards when a stranger enters who happens to be the Devil in disguise. It is a migratory legend – type ML 3015 as classified by the Norwegian folklorist Reidar Th. Christiansen – and the tale was well known throughout Europe and beyond.
The following version of this tale was recorded and then transcribed by Calum Maclean, on the 16th of May 1951, from the recitation of Archibald MacInnes (1881–c. 1953) from Achluachrach, Brae Lochaber:

Feadhainn a’ cluich chairtean

Anns na timeannan a chaidh seachad bhiodh iad daonnan a’ cluichd chairtean, mar a tha iad an-diugh. Ach ’s e daonnan ’s e Catch the Ten a bhiodh aca, beireachd air an deich agus an Ass agus Bachelor. Ach bha iad an trip seo a’ cluich ann an croit ann an Taigh an Droma. Thàinig fear caol, dubh a-staigh an sin is fhuair e a shuidhe a chluich nan cairtean còmh’ ri càch. O! an taobh air an robh e bha iad a’ cosnadh a h-uile geam. Thuit cairt fon bhòrd. Tha seans gun tug bean an taigh sùil air le coinneal na le teaghamh pios de bhior às an teine a choimhead dè bh’ ann. Agus thug i an aire do chasan eich air an fhear a bha seo. Dh’fhuirich i car sàmhach. Chaidh i gu ceann eile an taighe is thug i botal uisge coisrigte a-nuas. Thilg e orra e is gu h-àraid air-san. Chaidh e na shradagan a-mach ron uinneag. Is chan eil forfhais gum facas riamh tuillidh e.

And the translation goes as follows:

A few who were playing cards

In the olden days they always used to play cards as they do to this day. A favourite game they always used to play was Catch the Ten in which they would catch the ten and the Ass and Bachelor. One time they were playing in a croft at Tyndrum. A tall, dark man came in and he sat down to play cards with the others. Oh, the side he played on won every single game. A card fell under the table and the goodwife of the house went to look for it either with a candle or a piece of wood from the fire and she saw that the man had horse’s hooves for feet. She stayed quite silent. She went to the other end of the house and took down a bottle of holy water. She threw this over them and especially over him. He disappeared in sparks through the window. No one knows if he was ever seen again.

Compared to other versions of the tale the above comes across as a summary but it may well be the case that MacInnes could only recollect the bare bones of a longer version that would include more detail and perhaps even dialogue. The Rev. John Gregorson Campbell briefly mentions card-playing:

A party of young people were playing cards; a stranger joined them and took a hand. A card fell below the table, and the youth who stooped to lift it observed the stranger to have a horse’s hoof. The devil, on being thus detected, went up the chimney in smoke. The story is universal over the Highlands. Cards are notoriously known as the devil’s cards. When boys play them, the fiend had been known to come down the chimney feet foremost, the horse’s or pig’s foot appearing first. When going away he disappears in smoke, and neighs horribly in the chimney.

For the sake of comparison, here are two examples of this tale, both of which stem from the Isle of Skye, the first in Uig:

As a finely dressed gentleman he is said to have joined a party playing cards in Uig Inn one Saturday night. The party continued well into Sunday morning, when one of the cards happening to drop on the floor, the party who lifted it was horrified to find he was playing with the cloven-footed gentleman; and on raising the alarm his satanic majesty disappeared through the roof amidst flames of fire.

And the next version of the tale is placed in Snizort on the other side of the island:

On a Saturday night, a company of rough men were playing cards in the village inn of Snizort, Skye. Quarrelling and swearing over trifles were going on, when a distinguished stranger entered without knocking or bidding. He challenged any of those present to a game with him, and he defeated them singly and collectively. They then began to get curious as to his name and business. A card happened to slip off the table, and one of the players bent down to pick it up, when, horror! he noticed that the stranger had horses’ feet on him. Concealing his knowledge from the rest of the company for fear the visitor might also know and get “unpleasant,” he went to the hostess. She recognised the gravity of the case, seized a Bible, entered the room, and shook it in the stranger’s face, when lo! he disappeared as a blaze of fire up the chimney. Needless to say, the company soon broke up without more card-playing.
As can be readily seen all the above versions are but a variation on a theme. Considering that cards were known as the ‘Devil’s Bible’ then perhaps such stories contained a moral tone to put off anyone contemplating such an enjoyable pastime.

References:
John G. Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld, ed. by Ronald Black (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd., 2005), pp. 160–61
Alexander MacBain, ‘Highland Superstition’, The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. XIV (1887–88), pp. 237–38
Norman Matheson, ‘The Ghosts and Apparitions of the Isle of Skye’, The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. XVIII (1891–92),pp. 8–16
Éilís Ní Anluain, ‘The Cardplayers and the Devil (ML 3015)', Béaloideas, vol. 59 (1991), pp. 45–54
Martin, Puhvel, ‘The Legend of the Devil-Haunted Card Players in Northern Europe’, Folk-Lore, vol. 76 (1965), pp. 33–38
SSS NB 8, p. 740

Image:
Devil playing cards

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