Ortha nan Gaidheal


CHRISTMAS chants were numerous and their recital common throughout Scotland. They are now disappearing with the customs they accompanied. Where they still linger their recital is relegated to boys. Formerly on Christmas Eve bands of young men went about from house to house and from townland to townland chanting Christmas songs. The band was called 'goisearan,' guisers, 'firduan,' song men, ' gillean Nollaig,' Christmas lads, 'nuallairean,' rejoicers, and other names. The 'rejoicers' wore long white shirts for surplices, and very tall white hats for mitres, in which they made a picturesque appearance as they moved along singing their loudest. Sometimes they went about as one band, sometimes in sections of twos and threes. When they entered a dwelling they took possession of a child, if there was one in the house. In the absence of a child, a lay figure was improvised. The child was called 'Crist, Cristean' Christ, Little Christ. The assumed Christ was placed on a skin, and carried three times round the fire, sunwise, by the 'ceannsnaodh ' - head of the band, the song men singing the Christmas Hail. The skin on which the symbolic Christ was carried was that of a white male lamb without spot or blemish and consecrated to this service. The skin was called 'uilim.' Homage and offerings and much rejoicing were made to the symbolic Christ. The people of the house gave the guisers bread, butter, crowdie, and other eatables, on which they afterwards feasted.

The three poems which follow were taken down from Angus Gunn, Ness, Lewis, then over eighty-four years of age. Angus Gunn had been a strong man physically and was still a strong man mentally. He had lived for many years in the island of North Roney, and gave a graphic description of it, and of his life there. He had much oral lore which he told with great dramatic power. The following tale is one of those related by him:-

'Ronan came to Lewis to convert the people to the Christian faith. He built himself a prayer-house at Eorabay. But the people were bad and they would not give him peace. The men quarrelled about everything, and the women quarrelled about nothing, and Ronan was distressed and could not say his prayers for their clamour. He prayed to be removed from the people of Eorabay, and immediately an angel came and told him to go down to the "laimirig," natural landing-rock, where the "cionaran-cro," cragen was waiting him. Ronan arose and hurried down to the sea-shore shaking the dust of Eorabay off his feet, and taking nothing but his "pollaire," satchel, containing the Book, on his breast. And there, stretched along the rock, was the great "cionaran-cro," his great eyes shining like two stars of night. Ronan sat on the back of the "cionaran-cro," and it flew with him over the sea, usually wild as the mountains, now smooth as the plains, and in the twinkling of two eyes reached the remote isle of the ocean.

Ronan landed on the island, and that was the land full of "nathair bheumnaich, gribh inich, nathair nimhe, agus leomhain bheucaich" - biting adders, taloned griffins, poisonous snakes, and roaring lions. All the beasts of the island fled before the holy Ronan and rushed backwards over the rocks into the sea. And that is how the rocks of the island of Roney are grooved and scratched and lined with the claws and the nails of the unholy creatures. The good Ronan built himself a prayer-house in the island where he could say his prayers in peace.'

Roney is a small, precipitous island in the North Atlantic, sixty miles from the Butt of Lewis and sixty miles from Cape Wrath, forming the apex of a triangle between the two promontories. It is inaccessible except in a smooth sea, which is rare there. The rocks of Roney are much striated. The island is now uninhabited. St Ronan lived in the end of the seventh century.

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