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Wednesday 11 March 2015

MacDonald of Keppoch and the Soothsayer

When it comes to Gaelic traditions supernatural elements sometimes loom large even in so-called historical legends. One such anecdote which references a divinatory method of reading the shoulder-blade or scapula of a sheep was recorded and transcribed shortly afterwards by Calum Maclean on 21st of January 1951 from the recitation of John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber.

Mac ’ic Raghnaill agus am Fear Taidhbhse

Mun d’fhalbh Mac ’ic Raghnaill na Ceapaich do Chùil Lodair, chuir e fios air fear-taidhbhse. Agus bha iad ag ràitinn an taidhbhse a b’ fheàrr a ghabhadh leughadh gur h-e slinneag mult dubh agus nach fhaodadh sgian a dhol na coir: i bhith air a bruich cho math agus gu slaodadh tu an t-slinneag as. Agus leughabh iad an t-slinneag. Agus bha an duine seo aige agus leugh e an t-slinneag. Agus thuirt e:
“Dè tha a’ dol a dh’èirigh dhomh an Cùil Lodair?”
Cha do bhruidhinn an duine idir:
“O! innis dhomh,” thuirt e, “ged a bhithinn air mo chall ann.”
“Tha thu a’ dol a bhith air do chall agus cha till thu às Cùil Lodair,” thuirt e.
“Chan eil comas air,” thuirt e. “Dè an dearbhadh a bheir thu dhomh air sin,” thuirt e. “Chan eil mi a’ creidsinn a h-uile dad dheth.”
“Falbha’ tu sa mhadainn,” thuirt e, “agus rud a bhios a dhìth ort, cha tèid a chur air a’ bhòrd. Agus chan fhaod thu bruidhinn na iarraidh air a’ mhnaoi. Ma nì thu sin, cha bhith na cumhnantan air an cumail. Agus dar a thèid i a-mach às an taigh aig an dorast, feuch an toir thu oirre tionndainn air ais agus an rud a bha a dhìth a chur air a’ bhòrd.
’S ann mar seo a bha.
Agus dar a bha i a’ falbh a-mach, thilg e bròg na deaghaidh. Thionndainn i mun cuairt agus cha tuirt i “’s e” na “chan e” ris. Agus thuirt e an uair seo: “Cha ghluais bròg na bruidheann droch bhean-taighe.”
Agus dh’fhuirich e an Cùil Lodair.

And the translation goes something like the following:

MacDonald of Keppoch and the Soothsayer

Before MacDonald of Keppoch set off for the battle of Culloden, he asked the advice of a soothsayer. And they say that this soothsayer was the best for interpreting the scapula of a black ram [mult] and that no knife should go near it as had to be boiled so that the scapula could be pulled out with ease. And he read the scapula. He had this man present and he read the scapula and asked:
“What’s going to happen to me at the battle of Culloden?”
The man didn’t speak at all:
“Oh, tell me,” he said, “even though I might be killed.”
“You’re going to be killed and you’ll not return from the battle of Culloden.”
“That can’t be helped but what proof can you give me of that as I don’t believe one word of it.”
“You’ll leave on the morrow,” he said, “and they very thing you’ll need will not be put in front of you on the table. And you may not speak or make a request of your wife. If you do that, then the agreement will not be kept. And when she goes out of the house and just as she has reached the door, you’ll try to make her turn back and to get the very thing you need to be put on the table.”
This is how things turned out.
As she was going out, he threw a shoe after her. She turned round she did not say either “yes” or “no” to him. And he then said: “Neither shoe nor speech will move a bad housewife.”
And he was killed at the battle of Culloden.

The technical term for reading a sheep’s shoulder-blade as a divinatory method is scapulimancy and seems to have been universal in application; and, if we wish to believe the Rev. John Gregorson Campbell, arrived in the Highlands and Islands around 1400. Many early travellers to and writers about the Highlands and Islands, including Martin Martin, Thomas Pennant, and Edward Lhuyd, noted instances or rumours of scapulimancy being used. In the main, however, they tended to focus upon the phenomenon of second-sight. Nevertheless, gazing at a shoulder-blade of a sheep (or a pig) was an ancient and widespread technique to foretell future events. Edward Lhuyd explained around 1700: “They [the Highlanders] have a care not to toutch [sic] it with the Teeth or a Knife. They by it foretell deaths, commotions, and tumultuary conventions within the bounds.” According to the Rev. John Gregorson Campbell, minister of Tiree 1861–1891, this mode of divination was practised as a profession or trade. Important events in the life of the owner of the slaughtered animal could be foretold by interpreting the marks on the shoulder-blade, speal or blade-bone of a sheep or black pig. The flesh had to be boiled thoroughly so that it could be stripped off without the use of knives, scrapers or teeth since any scratch would render the bone useless. The bone was then divided into upper and lower parts, corresponding to the natural features of the district in which the divination was made. Much depended on the skills of the diviner, but certain marks indicated a crowd of people meeting for a funeral, fight or sale. The largest hole or indention was the grave of the beast’s owner, and from its position his living or dying that year was prognosticated. If it was to the side of the bone, it meant death; if it was in the centre, it meant worldly prosperity. Campbell also related two instances from popular tradition in Barra in which the celebrated shoulder-blade reader Mac a’ Chreachaire, a native of that island, prognosticated correctly the fate of the island and Kisimul Castle, the seat of the MacNeils who were then chiefs of the island. The Massacre of Glencoe (1692) is also reputed to have been prognosticated by diviners.
To return to the theme of the Battle of Culloden, the following tradition was picked up by Pennant who gave two examples of the tale:
There is another sort of divination, called Sleinanachd, or reading the speal-bone, or the blade-bone of a shoulder of mutton well scraped. When Lord Loudon was obliged to retreat before the Rebels to the isle of Skie, a common soldier, on the very moment of the Battle of Culloden was decided, proclaimed the victory at that distance, pretending to have discovered the event by looking through the bone.

And also:

I heard on one instance of Second Sight, or rather of foresight, which was well attested, and made much noise about the prediction fulfilled. A little after the Battle of Preston Pans, the president, Duncan Forbes, being at his house of Culloden with a nobleman, from whom I had the relation, fell into discourse on the probable consequences of the action: after a long conversation, and after revolving all that might happen, Mr Forbes suddenly turned to a window said ‘All these things may fall out; but depend on it, all these disturbances will be terminated at this spot.’

Burnett, Charles S. F. ‘Arabic Divinatory Texts and Celtic Folklore: A Comment on the Theory and Practice of Scapulimancy in Western Europe’, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, vol. 6 (1983), pp. 31–42
Campbell, John Lorne (ed.), A Collection of Highland Rites and Customs (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer for the Folklore Society, 1975)
Campbell, Rev. John Gregorson, The Gaelic Otherworld, ed. by Ronald Black (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2005
Pennant, Thomas, A Tour in Scotland; MDCCLXIX, 3rd. edn. (Perth: 1979 [1774])
Pennant, Thomas, A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides 1772, ed by. Andrew Simmons (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1998)
SSS NB 2, pp. 162–63

Sheep scapula

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this interesting and insightful read! I look forward to future submissions detailing more about the culture and traditions of the Gaelic culture.