Ortha nan Gaidheal


ON Christmas Day the young men of the townland go out to fish. All the fish they catch are sacred to the widows and the orphans and to the poor, and are distributed among them according to their necessities.

There is a tradition among the people of the Western Isles that Christ required Peter to row 707 strokes straight out from the shore when He commanded him to go and procure the fish containing the tribute-money. Following this tradition, the old men of Uist require the young men to row 707 strokes from the land before casting their lines on Christmas Day. And whatever fish they get are cordially given to the needy as a tribute in the name of Christ, King of the sea, and of Peter, king of fishermen. This is called 'dioladh deirc,' tribute-paying, 'deirce Pheadair,' Peter's tribute, 'dioladh Pheadail,' Peter's payment, and other terms. This tribute-paying on Christmas Day excites much emotional interest, and all try to enhance the tribute and in various ways to render the aims as substantial as possible.

The whiting and the haddock of the same size bear a strong resemblance to one another. There are differences, however. The haddock has a black spot on each side of its body above the pectoral fin, while the head of the whiting is more elongated than that of the haddock. Children and strangers are taught between the two thus :-

'Ball dubh air an adaig,
Gob fad air a chuideig.'

(A black spot of the haddock,
A long snout on the whiting.)

The people of Uist say that the haddock was the fish in whose mouth Peter found the tribute-money, and that the two black spots are the marks left by Peter's fingers when he held the fish to extract the money from its month. The crew of young men who get most haddocks on Christmas Day are looked upon during the year as the real followers of the king of fishers. There is, therefore, considerable emulation among the different crews.

The haddock is called 'iasg Pheadail,' Peter's fish, and 'iasg Pheadair runaich,' the fish of loving Peter; and a family of birds 'peadaireach, ' peitirich' - Peter-like, petrels, because in their flight they seem to be walking on the sea.

The tradition as to rowing 707 strokes is curious and interesting. The only other similar tradition which I know is of the wars between the Fomorians and the Milesians in Ireland. Both were invaders :- the Milesians earlier, the Fomorians later. When the Fomorians landed in Ireland the Milesians were already established, and the result was a long continued war, till both sides were exhausted and tired of the strife. During a temporary truce it was agreed that the Fomorians should retire to the sea and row straight out 707 strokes from land, and if they succeeded in landing again they were to be allowed to remain and enjoy their hard-won honours. Whether for good or for ill to Ireland, the Fomorians effected a landing a second time, and settled in the south and west of the island.

The Irish were Pagan at the time, and the tradition of the 707 strokes being imposed by Christ on Peter must have been inserted in the Fomorian tradition after Ireland became Christian.

Niall MacFhionnlaigh, A' Chiste Ghàidhlig, a chuir na teacsaichean seo gu léir bho Carmina Gadelica air an làrach-lìn aig Sabhal Mór Ostaig ann an 1995
2001-04-09 CPD