Open main menu

Folk-Lore/Volume 1/A Highland Folk-Tale and its Foundation in Usage

< Folk-Lore‎ | Volume 1



MR. J. F. CAMPBELL printed the following tale in the second volume of the Transactions of the Ethnological Society (p. 336). It was sent to him in Gaelic by John Davan, in December 1862—that is, after the publication of the fourth volume of his Highland Tales. The tale is only given in outline, but in quite sufficient fulness for my present purpose.

There was a man at some time or other who was well off, and had many children. When the family grew up the man gave a well-stocked farm to each of his children. When the man was old his wife died, and he divided all that he had amongst his children, and lived with them, turn about, in their houses. The sons and daughters got tired of him and ungrateful, and tried to get rid of him when he came to stay with them. At last an old friend found him sitting tearful by the wayside, and learning the cause of his distress, took him home; there he gave him a bowl of gold and a lesson which the old man learned and acted. When all the ungrateful sons and daughters had gone to a preaching, the old man went to a green knoll where his grandchildren were at play, and pretending to hide, he turned up a flat hearthstone in an old stance,[1] and went out of sight. He spread out his gold on a big stone in the sunlight, and he muttered, “Ye are mouldy, ye are hoary, ye will be better for the sun.” The grandchildren came sneaking over the knoll, and when they had seen and heard all that they were intended to see and hear, they came running up with, “Grandfather, what have you got there?” “That which concerns you not, touch it not,” said the grandfather; and he swept his gold into a bag and took it home to his old friend. The grandchildren told what they had seen, and henceforth the children strove who should be kindest to the old grandfather. Still acting on the counsel of his sagacious old chum, he got a stout little black chest made, and carried it always with him. When anyone questioned him as to its contents, his answer was, “That will be known when the chest is opened.” When he died he was buried with great honour and ceremony, and then the chest was opened by the expectant heirs. In it were found broken potsherds and bits of slate, and a long-handled white wooden mallet with this legend on its head:

So am favioche fiorm,
Thabhavit gnoc aunsa cheann,
Do n’fhear nach gleidh maoin da’ fein,
Ach bheir achuid go leir d’a chlann.

“Here is the fair mall
To give a knock on the skull
To the man who keeps no gear for himself,
But gives his all to his bairns.”

Wright, in his collection of Latin stories, published by the Percy Society (No. xxvi, p. 28), gives a variant of this tale (orally collected in 1862 by Mr. Campbell from the Scottish peasant), and, so far as can be judged by the abstract, the parallel between the two narratives, separated by at least five centuries of time, is remarkably close. The latter part is apparently different, for the Latin version tells how the old man pretended that the chest contained a sum of money, part of which was to be applied for the good of his soul, and the rest to dispose of as he pleased. But at the point of death his children opened the chest. “Antequam totaliter expiraret ad cistam currentes nihil invenerunt nisi malleum, in quo Anglicè scriptum est:

“ ‘Wyht suylc a betel be he smyten,
That al the werld hyt mote wyten,
That gyfht his sone al his thing,
And goht hym self a beggyn.’ ”

Here, then, is a case whereby to test the problem of the origin of folk-tales. Did the people adopt this tale from literature into tradition and keep it alive for five centuries; or did some early and unconscious folk-lorist adapt it into literature? The literary version has the flavour of its priestly influence, which does not appear in the traditional version; and I make the preliminary observation that if literature could have so stamped itself upon the memory of the folk as to have preserved all the essentials of such a story as this, it must have been due to some academic influence (of which, however, there is no evidence), and this influence would have preserved a nearer likeness to literary forms than the peasant’s tale presents to us. But the objection to this theory is best shown by an analysis of the tale, and by some research into the possible sources of its origin.

The story presents us with the following essential incidents:—

(1) The gift of a well-stocked farm by a father to each of his children.
(2) The surrender of all property during the owner’s lifetime.
(3) The living of the old father with each of his children.
(4) The attempted killing of the old man.
(5) The mallet bearing the inscription.
(6) The rhyming formula of the inscription.

Mr. Campbell notes the 1st and 3rd of these incidents in his original abstract of the story,[2] but of the remaining 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 6th, no note has hitherto been taken.

Of the first incident, the gift of a well-stocked farm by a father to each of his children, Mr. Campbell says: “This subdivision of land by tenants is the dress and declaration put on by a class who now tell this tale.” But it also represents an ancient system of swarming off from the parent household when society was in a tribal stage. The incident of the tale is exactly reproduced in local custom. In the island of Skye the possessor of a few acres of land cut them up only a few years ago into shreds and patches to afford a separate dwelling for each son and daughter who married.[3] In Kinross, in 1797, the same practice prevailed. “Among the feuars the parents are in many instances disposed to relinquish and give up to their children their landed possessions or the principal part of them, retaining only for themselves some paltry pendicle or patch of ground.”[4] In Ireland and in Cornwall much the same evidence is forthcoming, and elsewhere I have taken some pains to show that these local customs are the isolated survivals in late times of early tribal practices.

We next turn to the second essential incident of the tale—the surrender of the estate during the owner’s lifetime. This is a well-marked feature of early custom, and M. Du Chaillu has preserved something like the survival of the ritual observances connected with it in his account of the Scandinavian practice. On a visit to Husum he witnessed the ceremonial which attended the immemorial custom of the farm coming into possession of the eldest son, the father still being alive. The following is M. Du Chaillu’s description, and the details are important:—“The dinner being ready, all the members of the family came in and seated themselves around the board, the father taking, as is customary, the head of the table. All at once, Roar, who was not seated, came to his father and said, ‘Father, you are getting old; let me take your place.’ ‘Oh no, my son,’ was the answer, ‘I am not too old to work; it is not yet time: wait awhile.’ Then, with an entreating look, Roar said, ‘Oh, father, all your children and myself are often sorry to see you look so tired when the day’s labour is over: the work of the farm is too much for you it is time for you to rest and do nothing. Rest in your old age. Oh, let me take your place at the head of the table.’ All the faces were now extremely sober, and tears were seen in many eyes. ‘Not yet, my son.’ ‘Oh yes, father.’ Then said the whole family, ‘Now it is time for you to rest.’ He rose, and Roar took his place, and was then the master. His father, henceforth, would have nothing to do, was to live in a comfortable house, and to receive yearly a stipulated amount of grain or flour, potatoes, milk, cheese, butter, meat, etc.”[5] Without stopping to analyse this singular ceremony in detail, it is important to note that old age is the assigned cause of resignation by the father of his estate; that the ceremony is evidently based upon traditional forms the meaning of which is not distinctly comprehended by the present performers; that the father is supported by his successor. As a proof that we have here a survival of very ancient practice, it may be noticed that in Spiti, a part of the Punjab, an exact parallel occurs. There the father retires from the headship of the family when his eldest son is of full age, and has taken unto himself a wife; on each estate there is a kind of dower-house with a plot of land attached, to which the father in these cases retires.[6] In Bavaria and in Wurtemberg the same custom obtains.[7]

Of the third incident in the tale, the living of the father with his children, Mr. Campbell says this points to the old Highland cluster of houses and to the farm worked by several families in common,[8] and I think we have here the explanation why the father in Scotland did not have his “dower-house”, as he did in Scandinavia and in Spiti.

We next come to the fourth incident, the attempted killing of the old father. Now, from the famous Greek work of Hecatæus on the Hyperboreans, we know that the death of the aged by violence was a signal element of their customs. “They die only when they have lived long enough; for when the aged men have made good cheere and anoynted their bodies with sweet ointments they leape off a certain rocke into the sea.” That we have in this the tradition of customs which once existed in the North, Mr. Elton affords proof both from saga-history and from the practice of comparatively modern times, when “the Swedes and Pomeranians killed their old people in the way which was indicated by the passage quoted above.”[9] It is the custom of many savage tribes, and the observances made use of are sometimes suggestive of the facts of the tale we are now analysing. Thus, among the Todas of the Nilgiri Hills, they place the old people in large earthen jars with some food, and leave them to perish;[10] while among the Hottentots, Kolben says, “when persons become unable to perform the least office for themselves they are then placed in a solitary hut at a considerable distance, with a small stock of provisions within their reach, where they are left to die of hunger, or be devoured by the wild beasts.”[11]

The important bearing of these incidents of barbarous and savage life upon our subject will be seen when we pass on to our fifth incident, namely, the significant use of the mallet. Some curious explanations have been given of this. Mr. Thoms once thought it might be identified with Malleus, the name of the Devil.[12] Nork has attempted with more reason to identify it with the hammer of Thor.[13] But the real identification is closer than this. Thus, it is connected with the Valhalla practices already noted by the fact that if an old Norseman becomes too frail to travel to the cliff, in order to throw himself over, his kinsman would save him the disgrace of dying “like a cow in the straw”, and would beat him to death with the family club.[14] Mr. Elton, who quotes this passage, adds in a note that one of the family clubs is still preserved at a farm in East Gothland. Aubrey has preserved an old English “countrie story” of “the holy mawle, which (they fancy) hung behind the church dore, which, when the father was seaventie, the sonne might fetch to knock his father in the head, as effœte, & of no more use.”[15] That Aubrey preserved a true tradition is proved by what we learn in similar practices elsewhere. Thus, in fifteenth century MSS. of prose romances found in English and also in Welsh, Sir Perceval, in his adventures in quest of the Holy Grail, being at one time ill at ease, congratulates himself that he is not like those men of Wales, where sons pull their fathers out of bed and kill them to save the disgrace of their dying in bed.[16] Keysler cites several instances of this savage custom in Prussia, and a Count Schulenberg rescued ah old man who was being beaten to death by his sons at a place called Jammerholz, or “Woful Wood”; while a Countess of Nansfield, in the fourteenth century, is said to have saved the life of an old man on the Lüneberg Heath under similar circumstances.[17]

Our investigation of barbarous and savage customs which connect themselves with the essential incidents of this Highland tale has at this point taken us outside the framework of the story. The old father in the tale was not killed by the mallet, but he is said to have used it as a warning to others to stop the practice of giving up their property during lifetime. We have already seen that this practice was an actual custom in tribal society, appearing in local survivals both in England and Scotland. Therefore the story must have arisen at a time when this practice was undergoing a change. We must note, too, that the whole story leads up to the finding of a mallet with the rhyming inscription written thereon, connecting it with the instrument of death to the aged, but only upon certain conditions. If, then, we can find that the rhyming inscription on the mallet has an existence quite apart from the story, and if we can find that mallets bearing such an inscription do actually exist, we may fairly conclude that the story which, in Scotland, is the vehicle of transmission of the rhyme is of later origin than the rhyme itself.

First of all it is to be noted under this head that Wright, in a note to the Latin story we have already quoted, gives from John of Bromyard’s Summa Predicantium another English version of the verse—

“Wit this betel the smieth
And alle the worle thit wite
That thevt the ungunde alle thing,
And goht him selve a beggyng,”

which shows, I think, the popularity of the verse in the vernacular. Clearly, then, the Latin version is a translation of this, and not vice versâ. It must have been a rhyming formula in the vernacular which had a life of its own quite outside its adoption into literature.

This inferential proof of the actual life of the English rhyming formula is proved by actual facts in the case of the corresponding German formula. Nork, in the volume I have already quoted, collects evidence from Grimm, Haupt, and others, which proves that sometimes in front of a house, as at Osnabrück, and sometimes at the city gate, as in several of the cities of Silesia and Saxony, there hangs a mallet with this inscription:

Wer den kindern gibt das Brod
Und selber dabei leidet Noth
Den schlagt mit dieser keule todt

which Mr. Thoms has Englished thus:

“Who to his children gives his bread
And thereby himself suffers need,
With this mallet strike him dead.”[18]

These rhymes are the same as those in the Scottish tale and its Latin analogue, and that they are preserved on the selfsame instrument which is mentioned in the story as bearing the inscription is proof enough, I think, that the mallets and their rhyming formulæ are far older than the story. They are not mythical, the story is; their history is contained in the facts we have above detailed; the history of the folk-tale commences when the history of the mallet fades from the facts of life.

To these rhyming formulæ, then, I would trace the rise of the mythic tale told by the Highland peasant in 1862 to Mr. J. F. Campbell. The old customs which we have detailed as the true origin of the mallet and its hideous use in killing the aged and infirm had died out, but the symbol of them remained. To explain the symbol a myth was created, which kept sufficiently near to the original idea as to retain evidence of its close connection with the descent of property; and thus was launched the dateless, impersonal, unlocalised story which Mr. Campbell has given as a specimen of vagrant traditions which “must have been invented after agriculture and fixed habitations, after laws of property and inheritance; but it may be as old as the lake-dwellings of Switzerland, or Egyptian civilisation, or Adam, whose sons tilled the earth.”[19] I would venture to rewrite the last clause of this dictum of the great master of folk-tales, and I would suggest that the story, whatever its age as a story, tells us of facts in the life of its earliest narrators which do not belong to Teutonic or Celtic history. The Aryan, with his traditional reverence for parental authority, at once patriarchal and priestly, would have stamped upon his memory, with singular clearness, traditions, or it may be observations, of an altogether different set of ideas which belonged to the race with which he first came into contact, namely, the Iberic. But whether the story is a mythic interpretation by Aryans of non-Aryan practices, or a non-Aryan tradition, varied, as soon as it became the property of the Aryan, to suit Aryan ideas, it clearly takes us back to practices very remote, to use Mr. Elton’s forcible words, from the reverence for the parents’ authority which might have perhaps been expected from descendants of “the Aryan household”.[20] These practices lead us back to a period of savagery which we are only just beginning to understand. Far back in this period we become aware of a central conception of the savage mind upon the shedding of blood; namely, the blood that alone calls for vengeance is blood that falls on the ground; and so we often find the idea, says Professor Robertson Smith, that “a death in which no blood is shed, or none falls upon the ground, does not call for vengeance”.[21] Thus certain “piacula were simply pushed over a height, so that they might seem to kill themselves by their fall”; and we are not only reminded of the Valhalla of the Scandinavians, and of the Tarpeian Rock of the Romans, but of the recent sacrifice of Professor Palmer by the Arabs in this rude and savage manner.[22] “But”, says Professor Robertson Smith, “applications of this principle to the sacrifice of sacrosanct and kindred animals are frequent; they are strangled or killed with a blunt instrument”; in which connection, we are to note the club or mallet that appears in sacrificial scenes on ancient Chaldean cylinders, and the club or mallet that Aubrey tells us of in his “countrie story” of English peasants in the seventeenth century, and that Mr. Campbell tells us of in his folk-tale of Scottish peasants in the nineteenth century.

  1. “Standing-place.”
  2. Journ. Ethnol. Soc., loc. cit.
  3. New Statistical Account of Scotland, xiv, 273.
  4. Ure’s Agriculture of Kinross, 57.
  5. Du Chaillu’s Land of the Midnight Sun, i, 393.
  6. Tupper, Punjab Customary Law, ii, 188.
  7. Cobden Club Essays—Primogeniture.
  8. Journ. Ethnol. Soc., ii, 336.
  9. Elton, Origins of English History, 91; cf. Du Chaillu, Land of the Midnight Sun, i, 393.
  10. Breaks, Hill Tribes of India, 108.
  11. Mavor’s Collection of Voyages, iv, 41.
  12. Anecdotes and Traditions (Camden Soc.), 85.
  13. Mythologie der Volkssagen und Volksmärchen.
  14. Geijer, Hist. Sweden, 31, 32.
  15. Aubrey, Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, 19.
  16. Nutt, Legend of the Holy Grail, 44.
  17. Elton, Origins of English History.
  18. Gentleman’s Magazine, 1850, i, 252.
  19. Journ. Ethnol. Soc., ii, 337.
  20. Elton’s Origins, 92.
  21. Religion of the Semites, 397.
  22. The legend of a Scottish Saint relates how a certain King of Lothian condemned his daughter, Thenew, to be precipitated from the summit of a rock.