The Banshee of Castle Muirn 

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Fairies & Faeries & Pharies!

fairy vintage book


Broadly speaking, a fairy is a being of human form with magical powers, a being who loves to intervene in human affairs. They are good, mischievous or evil. Fairies are often thought to be tiny, and that's why you don't see them. Benign fairies are small, well-dressed in red, green, gold or blue, and they are very good-looking. They can can shape-shift or become invisible at will. In English tradition, they have gossamer wings protruding from their backs. 

Most live in palaces underground where they enjoy themselves playing instruments and dancing. Some are kindly, but some exploit human greed for their amusement. Their gifts of money and possessions often turn to leaves, dust or stones. The best way to avoid trouble with them, is to refuse their offers of great wealth, and quietly go about your business.

 People have been quite creative with spelling: faerie, fayerie, feirie, feyrie, ferie, pherie, pharie and so on! The word was borrowed from Old French faerie or faierie which referred to the world of the fairies. In Old French a fairy was a fae and in modern French she is a fée. All these words developed from fatum, the Latin word for destiny. To the Romans Fata was the goddess of fate. In France she is still believed to have the ability to influence a person's destiny.

Why was the word borrowed into English? Because of the Norman Conquest (1066 and all that). The first language of the kings of England was French for about 350 years after that event. And people who speak the same language share not only words but also beliefs in the supernatural. La fée Morgane is the fairy in the Tales of King Arthur.

 The Normans liked the idea that Arthur fought against the Saxons in the 5th century as had the Normans in the 11th century. Stories about this British war leader seemed to justify their conquest of Britain. See Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of Britain for a very different version of King Arthur. These tales became the favourite subject of minstrels and the party theme for many a feast.

 So fairy is a word borrowed from French. You’d expect that fairy-like folk must have existed in Britain before the Norman Conquest. And you’re right. The original word in English for fairy is elf, aelf in Old English, and this entity is found in Germanic folklore. In Anglo-Saxon times, people said healing charms for 'elf sickness' as they believed elves shot arrows at human beings and animals to make them sick. The 'proof' of the existence of the elves and the harm they caused were prehistoric flint arrowheads found all over England. In some areas, elf men were thought to be like little old men, but the women were beautiful. They were believed to live in kingdoms as did human beings.

 The word fey, meaning 'unworldly' or 'about to die soon', is a word of quite different origin. It is used in Lowland Scots or Scots English and comes from Old English faegr meaning 'unhappy, doomed to die soon, on the point of death'. 

The origin of fée:                                                              Petit Robert, 1991, p. 767

Meaning of Fey http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/fey_adj_v1   

Sìthaich: The Fairies of the Highlands

The English word fairy does not translate sìtheach well at all. You know that old expression 'lost in translation'? Well 'fairy' is the ultimate understatement. The sìthaich have awesome powers and should be treated with great respect--particularly the ban-sìth or banshee as she is called in English.

 Ban-sìth or bean-shìth in Gaelic means 'fairy woman'. They've have had a bad reputation in English stories; they screech and howl and scare folk. But, in a lament to a MacCrimmon piper, a banshee is said to 'sing a sad lament'--sheinn a' bhean-shìth a torman mulaid. So much for screeching.

 But here is the interesting bit. According to Gaelic folklore in Scotland and Ireland, only Gaelic families are worthy of a banshee. In the seventeenth century in particular the banshee is seen as a protectress of the people who rightfully hold the land. People believed in the banshee in the Scottish Highlands as well. A friend said he had heard the banshee lament in a close (passageway) in a Glasgow block of flats. This is the modern era!

 So what does a banshee do that is so valuable? A banshee is a death-messenger. Horrors! My novels are about a woman who can become a banshee. How can a banshee be a sympathetic heroine and death messenger you might ask? 

In Gaelic tradition a warning of death is a good thing. With her lamenting, she told people close to the dying person that the time had come to prepare a funeral; she cried early enough for people far away to give them a chance to go home and prepare for a proper funeral. See? Banshees are considerate.

 In my story, The Banshee of Castle Muirn, the village wise woman, a banshee in reality, requires an apprentice to take over her duties. She's getting too old for the business. The wise woman is feared and shunned just for being a healer; yet her services are eagerly sought. They have no idea she is a banshee. They have no idea why she is such as good healer. They suspect magic of some sort however.

 The only possible candidate for training is Shona Campbell, the daughter of a Campbell chieftain. She agrees to train as a healer as some knowledge of that art is expected of a good wife. The wise woman mixes a little banshee training in with the healing. But Shona has no desire to become a banshee; she wants to marry a good man who is acceptable to her clan. Then she finds out that she is expected to marry a particularly nasty Lowlander. She believes her father far away in Edinburgh is in danger. She becomes a banshee to protect her family.

 Pronunciation: ban-sìth is ban-shee (no surprise) with the stress on the second syllable.

Gàidhlig / Gaelic


 Gaelic (pron. Gay-lik) is the first language of Scottish Gaels (Highlanders). People in the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland will pronounce it as it is pronounced in the language, that is, Gàidhlig (Gah-leek).

After the Wars of Independence (14th century) there were only two languages spoken in great numbers in Scotland: Gaelic and Lowland Scots (which developed from Middle English). The Stewart kings, a shiny new dynasty, considered Scottish Gaels a terrible threat to the peace and unity of the kingdom; in this period Gaels are called 'wild Scots'. (Likewise Irish Gaels were called 'wild Irish'.)

After 1500 Scottish Gaels were called 'Highlanders' because the language was spoken in the mountainous regions of the north and west. The linguistic connotation of the word is more important than the geographical. Former professor of Celtic, Donald Meek, comes from the Island of Tiree and I don't think there is any part of that island which is more than 300 ft above sea level. Yet, when he first went to the Lowlands, he was asked if he were a Highlander and he said yes, meaning he was a a Scottish Gael.  

Tintagel

According to legend Tintagel was the birth place of Arthur, the legendary Welsh hero, whose warband fought the Saxons. Oh! Not what you're used to hearing? Wasn't Arthur a king? Warband...what about knights? What about the grail quest?

In the 15th century Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d' Arthur,  which is the legend as we know it today. The Welsh and Saxons were eliminated and the grail quest inserted. The knights of Arthur's Round Table wear plate armour similar to that worn by Sir Thomas, who was a professional soldier and knighted in 1441. He was later accused of theft, extortion and rape and was imprisoned several times. Go figure.

The earlier shape of Arthurian legend had a lot to do with a Cambro-Norman called Geoffrey of Monmouth Norman whose family settled in Wales after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Normans came into contact with the Celtic people of Brittany, their neighbours in France. When William conquered England, the legends of another Celtic people, the Welsh, and their resistance to the Saxons was likely used as part of a campaign to legitimise the conquest. In Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) the good guys were Welsh and the bad guys were Saxons. It was wildly popular in the courts of England and France in the High Middle Ages and a frequent theme of medieval banquets.

So here is taste of Geoffrey's Arthur... or a shortened version thereof:

At Eastertime Uther Pendragon ordered his nobles to assemble in London. Many nobles attended with their wives and daughters. Among them was the duke of Cornwall, Gorlois, with his wife Igerna, the most beautiful woman in Britain. As soon as the king saw her, he suddenly burned with love for her and had eyes only for her. He kept on smiling and joking with her. Her husband noticed and angrily stormed out of court without permission. Uther angrily commanded him to return. When Gorlois refused, the king gathered a large army, marched to Cornwall and set about burning its cities and towns. Gorlois decided to fortify his strongholds, until he could get help from Ireland. He placed his wife in the fort of Tintagel. 

                        The Sea at Tintagel

When this was reported to the king, he marched on the castle where Gorlois was and besieged it. After a long week had passed, he recalled his passion for Igerna and summoned Ulfin of Ridcaradoc, a knight of his household, expressing his desire...

Ulfin answered that no power on earth could get Uther to her in the stronghold of Tintagel. It stood completely surrounded by the sea and could only be reached by a narrow cliff. Yet if Merlin was prepared to help, he could get them in.

Merlin was moved by Uther's great passion and said that with his herbs he could give Uther the exact appearance of Gorlois. Merlin accompanied him in another disguise.

                        The Castle built in Geoffrey's Time

Then they set off on the path to Tintagel, where they arrived at dusk. The gatekeeper was informed that the duke was approaching and the gates were opened and the men admitted. The king spent the night with Igerna and cured himself through the love-making he had longed for. Igerna was deceived by his false appearance and also by the lies he wove so well. That night she conceived the renown Arthur whose prowess secured his fame.

           A rather stunning statue of Arthur at Tintagel

In July 2018 I took a Rick Steves tour of the south of England and discovered Tintagel. Wonderful experience. The post-Roman dunum or fortress was sited on a flat headland of the sea. A narrow land bridge connects the 'mainland' to the 'island'. Today there are steps which lead visitors down to the narrow neck of land leading to the fortress site. You pass by the ruins of a 12th century castle, Geoffrey's time. Not much left of it, but more than the fortress constructed in the 5th century, possibly the time of Arthur. Tintagel might come from British Dyn Tagell meaning the 'fortress of the narrow neck'. 


            A view of the stairs which lead to the 'neck'

The site of the former 'palace' is surrounded by wide seas. Excavation has shown that the buildings were made of dry-stone walls commonly used in Ireland and western Britain. Amazing how they hang together without mortar. The site was probably used by the kings of Dumnonia or a sub-king--like Arthur? Expensive pottery imported from the Mediterranean in the 5th and 6th centuries indicates a prosperous household at Tintagel.

Most interesting of all, an incised slate dating to the 6th century was found with the name ARTOGNOU which might mean Bear Knowing, Bear son or Bear Born. Not quite 'Arthur' but close enough for people who love the legend.

 

Celtic Languages


Note: Modern Celtic languages are divided into two groups:


The Goidelic:                                        Country spoken:

 

Irish Gaelic — Gaeilge                          Ireland — Eire    

Scottish Gaelic — Gàidhlig                   Scotland — Alba

Manx  — Gailick                                   Isle of Man – Ellan                     

(died out 20th century)                              Vannin

                                           

The Brythonic:


Welsh – Cymreig                                    Wales — Cymru 

Breton – Breizhoneg                               Brittany (France) — Breizh

Cornish – Kernewek                               Cornwall — Kernow

(died out 18th century, but revived)  


Someone who speaks a Brythonic language like Welsh cannot understand a person who speaks Gaelic, but the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland can understand each other with some difficulty.

Scraps of History

After the Wars of Independence, conditions in many parts of Scotland were chaotic and lawless; the most secure social grouping proved to be the family and clan. Feudalism alone could not provide security. Even in the Lowlands there was a tendency to trust in kinship more than in feudal relationships. The Crichtons, the Livingstones, Homes, Hepburns were kindreds whose family pride was expressed in tailzies (entail) to heirs male who were obliged to bear not only the heraldic arms of the family but its name as well.

 The term 'clan system' is relatively recent--General Stewart of Garth wrote about 'the system of clanship' in his Sketches of the Highlanders (1822). Frank Adam used the term 'Highland Clan System' in his book of 1906. The common perception of a clan according to David Stevenson is:

 'a body of people related by blood, descended from a common ancestor, inhabiting a clan territory, ruled by a chief who is head of the kin, wearing a clan tartan and all having the same surname.'

 So what is a clan?

 Clans served social, cultural and military functions. The basic structure was composed of chiefs, their kin, chieftains (more remote kin to the chief or vassals) and their near relatives. They occupied a certain territory which they believed inalienable to their people; that is, it could not be sold. There were a number of itinerant people, poets, musicians, tradition bearers, supported by the elite.

 Some writers have described the clans as feudal but that is a simplification. As was mentioned before, Gaelic society was an accommodation of a kin-based society to feudalism. There was a lot of overlap between the two legal systems: Gaelic and feudal.

 The difference between feudal and Gaelic law 'although the theories of landholding that underlay the two systems were so different, in practice Gaelic clanship and feudalism were very much alike'. (Kermack  64)  

 For example, tenants (tuathanaich) gave rents to the lord/chief/king in return for protection. As well as certain labour services, military service was expected of the tenantry. The elite were expected to give justice and to protect their kin and tenants from their enemies, and provide for them in famine times.

 What made the Gaelic clan different from a Lowland family? Language: Highland clans spoke Gaelic; Lowland families spoke Inglish, later called Lowland Scots or Broad Scots. The most powerful of the Lowland leaders had feudal titles such as baron or earl, and they obeyed Scots Common Law. The most powerful of the Highland clans may also have held feudal titles, but their clansmen held them in awe as quasi-sacred figures. Gaelic chiefs were inaugurated like the ancient kings of Ireland and Scotland.  Highlanders also believed in the sacred nature of the land, a remnant of pagan belief that the land was a woman, married to the chief or king of a people.

  © Sheila Currie  2018