The Washer of the Ford:
And other Legendary Moralities.
By FIONA MACLEOD
PATRICK GEDDES AND COLLEAGUES.
THE LAWNMARKET, EDINBURGH
CHICAGO: STONE & KIMBALL
copyrighted in United States
All Rights Reserved
By the Same Author
PHARAIS: a Romance of the Isles.
THE MOUNTAIN LOVERS.
THE SIN-EATER: and other Tales.
GREEN FIRE. A Romance.
LYRIC RUNES AND FONNSHEEN
(PATRICK GEDDES AND COLLEAGUES.)
OSSIAN RE-TOLD. (Do.)
C. A. J.
I. The Washer of the Ford
II. Muime Chriosd
III. The Fisher of Men
IV. The Last Supper
V. The Dark Nameless One
VI. The Three Marvels of Hy
I. The Song of the Sword
II. The Flight of the Culdees
IV. The Laughter of Scathach the Queen
ULA AND URLA
"I find under the boughs of love and
Eternal Beauty wandering on her way."
("The Rose upon the Rood of Time."
"Here are told the stories of
these pictures of the imagination, of magic and romance. Yet they were gravely chosen
withal, and for reasons manifold. . . What if they be but dreams? 'We are such stuff as
dreams are made of.' What if they be but magic and romance? These things are not ancient
and dead, but modern and increasing. For wherever a man learns power over Nature, there is
Magic; wherever he carries out an ideal into Life, there is Romance."
To you, in your far-away home in Provence, I send these tales
out of the remote North you love so well, and so well understand. The same blood is in our
veins, a deep current somewhere beneath the tide that sustains us. We have meeting-places
that none knows of; we understand what few can understand; and we share in common a
strange and inexplicable heritage. It is because you, who are called Kathia of the Sunway,
are also Kathia nan Ciar, Kathia of the Shadow, it is because you are what you are that I
inscribe this book to you. In it you will find much that is familiar to you; for there is
a reality, beneath the mere accident of novelty, which may be recognised in a moment as
native to the secret life, that lives behind the brain and the wise nerves with their dim
The greater portion of this book deals with the remote life of a remote past, As for
"The Last Supper" and "The Fisher of Men," they are of no time or
date, for they are founded upon elemental facts which are modified but not
transformed by the changing years.
It may be the last of its kind I shall write ---at any rate, for a time. I would like it
to be associated with you, to whom not only the mystery but the pagan sentiment and the
old barbaric emotion are so near. With the second sight of the imagination we can often
see more clearly in the dim subsided waters than through the foam and spray of the
present; and most clearly when we recognise that, amid the ebb and flow of time and
circumstance, the present is but a surface-eddy of that past to which we belong. In the
strange arrogance of our passing hour we are as ships swinging happily content to
anchors which are linked to us by ropes of sand.
If I am eager to have my say ---on other aspects of our Celtic life in the remoter West
Highlands and in the Isles: now with the idyllic, now with the tragic, now with the
grotesque, the humorous, the pathetic, with all the medley cast from the looms of Life all
". . . from the looms of Life are spun,
Warp of shadow and woof of sun--"
and if, too, I long to express anew something of that
wonderful historic romance in which we of our race and country are so rich, I am not
likely to forget those earlier dreams which are no whit less realities-realities of the
present seen through an inverted glass which have been, and are, so full of inspiration
and of a strange and terrible beauty.
But one to whom life appeals by a myriad avenues, all alluring and full of wonder and
mystery, cannot always abide where the heart longs most to be. It is well to remember that
there are Shadowy Waters even in the cities, and that the Fount of Youth is discoverable
in the dreariest towns as well as in Hy Bràsil: a truth apt to be forgotten by those of
us who dwell with ever-wondering delight in that land of lost romance which had its own
way, as this epoch of a still stranger, if a less obvious, romance has its own passing
The titular piece---with its strange name that will not be unfamiliar to you who know our
ancient Celtic literature, or may bear in mind the striking image wrought out of the old
local legend, by the author of the Irish epic, Congal---gives the keynote,
not only of this book, but of what has been for hundreds, of years, and to some extent
still is, the characteristic of the purely Celtic mind in the Highlands and the Isles.
This characteristic is a strange complexity of paganism and Christianity, or rather an
apparent complexity arising from the grafting of Christianity upon paganism. Columba, St
Patrick, St Ronan, Kentigern, all these militant Christian saints were merely transformed
pagans. Even in the famous dialogue between St Patrick and OisIn, which is the
folk-telling of the passing of the old before the new, the thrill of a pagan sympathy on
the part of the uncompromising saint is unmistakable. To this day there arc Christian
rites and superstitions which are merely a gloss upon a surviving antique paganism. I have
known an old woman, in nowise different from her neighhours, who on the day of Beltane
sacrificed a hen: though for her propitiatory rite she had no warrant save that of vague
traditionary lore, the lore of the teinntean, of the hearthside---where, in truth,
are best to be heard the last echoes of the dim mythologic faith of our ancestors. What is
the familiar "clachan," now meaning a hamlet with a kirk, but an echo of the
"Stones," the circles of the Druids---or of a more ancient worship still, that
perhaps of the mysterious Anait, whose sole record is a clach on a lonely moor, of
which from time immemorial the people have spoken as the " Teampull na'n Anait
"? A relative of mine saw, in South Uist, less than twenty-five years ago, what
may have been the last sun-sacrifice in Scotland, when an old Gael secretly and furtively
slew a lamb on the summit of a conical grassy knoll at sunrise. Those who have the Gaelic
have their ears filled with rumours of a day that is gone. When an evicted crofter
laments, O mo chredch, mo chreach! ["O,
alas, alas!" Literally, "O, my undoing," or "O, my utter
ruin."] --- or
some poor soul on a bed of pain cries, O mo chradhshlat! ["Alas,
my torment!"] he who knows the past recognises in the one the mournful
refrain of the time when the sea pirates or the hill-robbers pillaged and devastated quiet
homesteads; and, in the other, not the moan of suffering only, but the cry of torment from
the victim racked on the "cradhshlat," a bitter ignominious torture used by the
ancient Gaels. When, in good fellowship one man says to another, Tha, a laochain (yes,
my dear fellow), he recalls Fionn and the chivalry of eld; for laochain is merely a
contraction for laoch-Fhinn, meaning a companion in war, a hero, literally Fionn's
righthand man in battle. To this day, women, accompanying a marching regiment, are
sometimes heard to say in the Gaelic, "We are going with the dear souls to the wars
"--literally an echo of the Ossianic Siubhlaidh sinn le'n anam do'n araich, "We
shall accompany their souls to the battle-field." A thousand instances could be
adduced. The language is a herring-net through which the unchanging sea filtrates even
though the net be clogged with the fish of the hour. Nor is it the pagan atmosphere only
that survives: often we breathe the air of that early day when the mind of man was attuned
to a beautiful piety which was wrought into nature itself. Of the several words for the
dawn, there is a beautiful one, Uinneagachadh. We have it in the phrase, 'nuair
a bha an latha ag uinneagachadh, "when the day began to dawn." Now this word
is simply an extension of Uinneag, a window, and the application of the image dates
far back to the days of St. Columba, when some devout and poetic soul spoke of the uinneagan
Nèimh, the windows of Heaven.
Sometimes, among the innumerable legendary moralities which exist fragmentarily in the
West Highlands and in the Isles, there is a coherent narrative basis--as, for example, in
the Irish and Highland folk-lore about St Bride, or Brigit, "Muime Chriosd."
Sometimes there is simply a phrase survived out of antiquity. I doubt if any now living,
either in the Hebrides or in Ireland, has heard even a fragmentary legend of the Washer of
the Ford. The name survives, with its atmosphere of a remote past, its dim ancestral
memory of a shadowy figure of awe haunting a shadowy stream in a shadowy land. Sir Samuel
Ferguson, in Congal, has done little more than limn an obscure shadow of that
shadow; yet it haunts the imagination. In the passage of paganism, these old myths were
too deep-rooted in the Celtic mind to vanish at the bidding of the Cross: thus came about
that strange grafting of the symbolic imagery of the devout Culdee, of the visionary
Mariolater, upon the surviving Druidic and pre-historic imagination. In a word, the Washer
of the Ford might well have appeared, to a single generation, now as a terrible and sombre
pagan goddess of death, now as a symbolic figure in the new faith, foreshadowing spiritual
salvation and the mystery of resurrection.
If, in a composition such as "Cathal-of-the-Woods," there is the expression of
revolt not ancient only, nor of the hour, but eternal, for the revolt is of the sovereign
nature within us whereon all else is an accidental super-structure---against the Christian
ethic of renunciation, with a concurrent echo of our deep primeval longing for
earth-kinship with every life in Nature: if here there is the breath of a day that may not
come again, there is little or nothing of the past, save what is merely accidental, in
"The Fisher of Men" or "The Last Supper." I like to think that
these eachdaireachd spioradail, these spiritual chronicles, might as well, in
substance, have been told a thousand years ago or be written a thousand years hence. That
Fisher still haunts the invisible shadowy stream of human tears; those mystic Spinners
still ply their triple shuttles, and the fair Weaver of Hope now as of yore and for ever
sends his rainbows adrift across the hearts and through the minds of men. What does it
matter, again, that the Three Marvels of Hy are set against the background of the Iona of
St Columba? St Francis blessed the birds of Assisi, and San Antonio had a heart as tender
for all winged and gentle creatures; and there are innumerable quiet gardens of peace in
the world even now, where the kindred of San Antonio and St Francis and St. Columba
are kith to our fellow-beings, knowing them akin one and all to the seals whom St Molios
blessed at the end of his days, and in his new humbleness hailed as likewise of the
company of the sons of God.
But of this I am sure. If there be spiritual truth in the vision of the Blind Harper who
saw the Washer of the Ford, or in that of Molios who hailed the seals as brethren, or in
that of Colum, who blessed the birds and the fish of the sea, and even the vagrant flies
of the air and saw the Moon-Child, and in that seeing learned the last mystery of the life
of the soul; if in these, as in the " Fisher of Men " and " The Last
Supper," I have given faint utterance to the heart-knowledge we all have, I would not
have you or any think that the pagan way is therefore to me as the way of darkness. The
lost monk who loved the Annir-Choille was doubtless not the less able to see the Uinneagan
Nèimh because he was under ban of Colum and all his kin; and there are those of us who
would rather be with Cathal of the Woods, and be drunken with green fire, than gain the
paradise of the holy Molios who banned him, if in that gain were involved the forfeiture
of the sunny green world, the joy of life, and the earthsweet ancient song of the blood
that is in the veins of youth.
These tales, let me add, are not legendary mysteries but legendary moralities. They are
reflections from the mirror that is often obscured but is never dimmed. There is no
mystery in them, or anywhere; except the eternal mystery of beauty.
Of the section called Seanachas, the short barbaric tales, I will say nothing to you,
whose favourite echo from Shelley is that thrilling line---" The tempestuous
loveliness of terror."
You in your far Provence, amid the austere hills that guard an ancient land of olive and
vine, a land illumined by the blue flowing light of the Rhone, and girt by desert places
where sun and wind inhabit, and scarce any other-you there and I here have this in common.
Everywhere we see the life of Man in subservient union with the life of Nature; never, in
a word, as a sun beset by tributary stars, but as one planet among the innumerous
concourse of the sky, nurtured, it may be, by light from other luminaries and other
spheres than we know of. That we are intimately at one with Nature is a cosmic truth we
are all slowly approaching. It is not only the dog, it is not only the wild beast and the
wood-dove, that are our close kindred, but the green tree and the green grass, the blue
wave and the flowing wind, the flower of a day and the granite peak of an aeon. And I for
one would rather have the wind for comrade, and the white stars and green leaves as my
kith and kin, than many a human companion, whose chief claim is the red blood that differs
little from the sap in the grass or in the pines, and whose "deathless soul" is,
mayhap, no more than a fugitive light blown idly for an hour betwixt dawn and dark. We are
woven in one loom, and the Weaver thrids our being with the sweet influences, not only of
the Pleiades, but of the living world of which each is no more than a multi-coloured
thread: as, in turn, He thrids the wandering wind with the inarticulate cry, the yearning,
the passion, the pain, of that bitter clan, the Human.
Truly, we are all one. It is a common tongue we speak, though the wave has its own
whisper, and the wind its own sigh, and the lip of man its word, and the heart of woman
Long, long ago a desert king, old and blind, but dowered with
ancestral wisdom beyond all men that have lived, heard that the Son of God was born among
men. He rose from his place, and on the eve of the third day he came to where Jesus sat
among the gifts brought by the wise men of the East. The little lad sat in Mary's, lap,
beneath a tree filled with quiet light; and while the folk of Bethlehem came and
went He was only a child as other children are. But when the desert king drew near, the
child's eyes deepened with knowledge.
" What is it, my little son? " said Mary the Virgin.
" Sure, Mother dear," said Jesus, who had never yet spoken a word, " it is
Deep Knowledge that is coming to me." '
" And what will that be, O my Wonder and Glory? "
" That which will come in at the door before you speak to me again."
Even as the child spoke, an old blind man entered, and bowed his head.
" Come near, O tired old man," said Mary that had borne a son to Joseph, but
whose womb knew him not.
With that the tears fell into the old man's beard. "Sorrow of sorrows," he said,
"but that will be the voice of the Queen of Heaven!"
But Jesus said to his mother: "Take up the tears and throw them into the dark
night." And Mary did so: and lo! upon the wilderness, where no light was, and on the
dark wave, where seamen toiled without hope, clusters of shining stars rayed downward in a
Thereupon the old king of the desert said:
"Heal me, O King of the Elements."
And Jesus healed him. His sight was upon him again, and his grey ancientness was green
youth once more.
"I have come with Deep Knowledge," he said.
"Ay, sure, I am for knowing that," said the King of the Elements, that was a
"Well, if you will be knowing that, you can tell me who is at my right side?"
"It is my elder brother the Wind." " And what colour will the Shadow be?
" Now blue as Hope, now green as Compassion."
"And who is on my left?"
"The Shadow of Life."
"And what colour will the Shadow be?"
"That which is woven out of the bowels of the earth and out of the belly of the
" Truly, thou art the King of the Elements. I am bringing you a great gift, I am: I
have come with Deep Knowledge."
And with that the old blind man, whose eyes were.now as stars, and whose youth was a green
garland about him, chanted nine runes.
The first rune was the Rune of the Four Winds.
The second rune was the Rune of the Deep Seas.
The third rune was the Rune of the Lochs and Rivers and the Rains and the Dews and the
The fourth rune was the Rune of the Green Trees and of all things that grow.
The fifth rune was the Rune of Man and Bird and Beast, and of everything that lives and
moves, in the air, on the earth, and in the sea: all that is seen of man, and all that is
unseen of man.
The sixth rune was the Rune of Birth, from the spawn on the wave to the Passion of Woman.
The seventh rune was the Rune of Death, from the quenching of a gnat to the fading of the
The eighth rune was the Rune of the Soul that dieth not, and the Spirit that is.
The ninth rune was the Rune of the Mud and the Dross and the Slime of Evil---that is the
Garden of God, wherein He walks with sunlight streaming from the palms of His hands and
with stars springing beneath His feet.
Then when he had done, the old man said:
" I have brought you Deep Knowledge." But at that Jesus the Child said:
" All this I heard on my way hither."
The old desert king bowed his head. Then he took a blade of grass, and played upon it. It
was a wild, strange air that he played.
" Iosa mac Dhè, tell the woman what song that is," cried the desert
" It is the secret speech of the Wind that is my Brother," cried the Child,
clapping his hands for joy.
"And what will this be?" and with that the old man took a green leaf, and played
a lovely whispering song.
"It is the secret speech of the leaves," cried Jesus the little lad, laughing
And thereafter the desert king played upon a handful of dust, and upon a drop of water,
and upon a flame of fire; and the Child laughed for the knowing and the joy. Then he gave
the secret speech of the singing bird, and the barking fox, and the howling wolf, and the
bleating sheep: of all and every created kind.
"O King of the Elements," he said then, for sure you knew much; but now I have
made you to know the secret things of the green Earth that is Mother of you and of Mary
But while Jesus pondered that one mystery, the old man was gone: and when he got to his
people, they put him alive into a hollow of the earth and covered him up, because of his
shining eyes, and the green youth that was about his as a garland.
And when Christ was nailed upon the Cross, Deep Knowledge went back into the green world,
and passed into the grass and the sap in trees, and the flowing wind, and the dust that
swirls and is gone.
All this is of the wisdom of the long ago, and you and I are of those who know how ancient
it is, how remoter far than when Mary, at the bidding of her little son, threw up into the
firmament the tears of an old man.
It is old, old--
"Thousands of years, thousands
If all were told."
It is wholly unwise, wholly the fantasy of a
dreamer, to insist, in this late day, when the dust of ages and the mists of the present
hide from us the Beauty of the World, that we can regain our birthright only by leaving
our cloud-places of the brain, and becoming consciously at one with the cosmic life of
which, merely as men, we are no more than a perpetual phosphorescence?
contents to Washer
of the Ford