Copyright
John Rhys.

Celtic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 1) online

. (page 30 of 35)
Online LibraryJohn RhysCeltic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 1) → online text (page 30 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


neighbours ; some one of the company repeating in an.
audible voice the following rhyme :

Ollick ghennal erriu as ble'in fcer vie,
Seihll as slaynt dan slane lught thie ;
Bea as gennallys eu bio ry-cheilley,
Shee as graih eddyr mrane as deiney ;
Cooid as cowry n, stock as stoyr,
Palchey phuddase, as skaddan dy-liooar ,
Arran as caashey, eeym as roayrt ;
Baase, myr lugh, ayits uhllin ny soalt ;
Cadley sauchey tra vees shin ny I/tie,
As feeackle y jargan, nagh bee dy mie."

It may be loosely translated as follows :-

A merry Christmas, a happy new year,
Long life and health to all the household here.
Food and mirth to you dwelling together,
Peace and love to all, men and women ;
Wealth and distinction, stock and store,
Potatoes enough, and herrings galore;
Bread and cheese, butter and gravy ;
Die like a mouse in a barn or haggard ;
In safety sleep while you lie to rest,
And by the flea's tooth be not distressed.

At present New Year's Day is the time when the
qualtagh is of general interest, and in this case he is,
outside the members of one's own household, practi-
cally the first person one sees on the morning of that
day, whether that person meets one out of doors or
comes to one's house. The following is what I have
learnt by inquiry as to the qualtagh : all are agreed that
he must not be a woman or girl, and that he must not
be spaagagh or splay footed, while a woman from the
parish of Marown told me that he must not have red
hair. The prevalent belief, however, is that he should
be a dark haired man or boy, and it is of no consequence
how rough his appearance may be, provided he be
black haired. However, I was told by one man in
Rushen that the qualtagh or ' first-foot ' need not be



RHYS



33 8 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

a black haired person : he must be a man or boy. But
this less restricted view is not the one held in the
central and northern parts of the island, so far as I could
ascertain. An English lady living in the neighbourhood
of Castletown told me that her son, whom I know to be,
like his mother, a blond, not being aware what conse-
quences might be associated with his visit, called at a
house in Castletown on the morning of New Year's
Day, and he chanced to be the qualtagh. The mistress
of the house was horrified, and expressed to the English
lady her anticipation of misfortunes ; and as it happened
that one of the children of the house died in the course
of the year, the English lady has been reminded of it
since. Naturally the association of these events are not
pleasant to her ; but, so far as I can remember, they
date only some eight or nine years ago 1 .

By way of bringing Wales into comparison with Man,
I may mention that, when I was a very small boy, I
used to be sent very early on New Year's morning to
call on an old uncle of mine, because, as I was told,
I should be certain to receive a calennig or a calends'
gift from him, but on no account would my sister be
allowed to go, as he would only see a boy on such an
occasion as that. I do not recollect anything being said
as to the colour of one's hair or the shape of one's
foot ; but that sort of negative evidence is of very
little value, as the qualtagh was fast passing out of
consideration.

The preference here given to a boy over a girl looks
like one of the widely spread superstitions which rule
against the fair sex ; but, as to the colour of the hair,
I should be predisposed to think that it possibly rests

1 Since this paper was read to the Folk-Lore Society a good deal of
information of one kind or another has appeared in its journal concerning
the first-foot : see more especially Folk-Lore for 1892, pp. 253-64, and for
1893, pp. 309-21.



v] THE FENODYREE AND HIS FRIENDS 339

on racial antipathy, long ago forgotten; for it might
perhaps be regarded as going back to a time when the
dark haired race reckoned the Aryan of fair complexion
as his natural enemy, the very sight of whom brought
with it thoughts calculated to make him unhappy and
despondent. If this idea proved to be approximately
correct, one might suggest that the racial distinction in
question referred to the struggles between the inhabir
tants of Man and their Scandinavian conquerors ; but
to my thinking it is just as likely that it goes much
further back.

Lastly, what is one to say with regard to the spaagagh
or splay footed person, now more usually defined as
flat footed or having no instep? I have heard it said
in the south of the island that it is unlucky to meet
a spaagagh in the morning at any time of the year, and
not on New Year's Day alone; but this does not help
us in the attempt to find the genesis of this belief. If
it were said that it was unlucky to meet a deformed
person, it would look somewhat more natural ; but why
fix on the flat footed especially ? For my part I have
not been trained to distinguish flat footed people, so
I do not recollect noticing any in the Isle of Man ; but,
granting there may be a small proportion of such people
in the island, does it not seem strange that they should
have their importance so magnified as this superstition
would seem to imply? I must confess that I cannot
understand it, unless we have here also some supposed
racial characteristic, let us say greatly exaggerated. To
explain myself I should put it that the non-Aryan
aborigines were a small people of great agility and
nimbleness, and that their Aryan conquerors moved
more slowly and deliberately, whence the former, of
springier movements, might come to nickname the latter
the flat footed. It is even conceivable that there was some

z 2



340 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

amount of foundation for it in fact. If I might speak
from my own experience, I might mention a difficulty
I have often had with shoes of English make, namely,
that I have always found them, unless made to measure,
apt to have their instep too low for me. It has never
occurred to me to buy ready-made shoes in France or
Germany, but I know a lady as Welsh as I am, who
has often bought shoes in France, and her experience
is, that it is much easier for her to get shoes there to fit
her than in England, and for the very reason which
I have already suggested, namely, that the instep in
English shoes is lower than in French ones.

Again, I may mention that one day last term l , having
to address a meeting of Welsh undergraduates on folk-
lore, I ventured to introduce this question. They agreed
with me that English shoes did not, as a rule, fit Welsh
feet, and this because they are made too low in the
instep : I ought to have said that they all agreed except
one undergraduate, who held his peace. He is a tall
man, powerful in the football field, but of no dark com-
plexion, and I have never dared to look in the direction
of his feet since, lest he should catch me carrying my
comparisons to cruel extremes. Perhaps the flatness of
the feet of the one race is not emphasized so much as
the height of the instep in those of the other. At any
rate I find this way of looking at the question somewhat
countenanced by a journalist who refers his readers to
Wm. Henderson's notes on the Folklore of the Northern
Counties, p. 74. The passage relates more particularly
to Northumberland, and runs as follows : ' In some dis-
tricts, however, special weight is attached to the " first-
foot" being that of a person with a high-arched instep,
a foot that "water runs under." A flat-footed person
would bring great ill-luck for the coming year.'

1 This was written at the beginning of the year 1892.



v] THE FENODYREE AND HIS FRIENDS 341

These instances do not warrant the induction that
Celts are higher in the instep than Teutons, and that
they have inherited that characteristic from the non-
Aryan element in their ancestry. Perhaps the explana-
tion is, at least in part, that the dwellers in hilly regions
tend to be more springy and to have higher insteps than
the inhabitants of flatter lands. The statement of
Dr. Karl Blind on this point does not help one to a
decision when he speaks as follows in Folk-Lore for 1892,
p. 89: 'As to the instep, I can speak from personal
experience. Almost every German finds that an Eng-
lish shoemaker makes his boots not high enough in the
instep. The northern Germans (I am from the south)
have perhaps slightly flatter feet than the southern
Germans.' The first part of the comparison is some-
what of a surprise to me, but not so the other part, that
the southern Germans inhabiting a hillier country, and
belonging to a different race, may well be higher in the
instep than the more northern speakers of the German
language. But on the whole the more one examines
the qualtagh, the less clearly one sees how he can be
the representative of a particular race. More data
possibly would enable one to arrive at greater probability.

There is one other question which I should like to
ask before leaving the qualtagh, namely, as to the rela-
tion of the custom of New Year's gifts to the belief in
the qualtagh. I have heard it related in the Isle of Man
that women have been known to keep indoors on New
Year's Day until the qualtagh comes, which sometimes
means their being prisoners for the greater part of the
day, in order to avoid the risk of first meeting one who
is not of the right sex and complexion. On the other
hand, when the qualtagh is of the right description, con-
siderable fuss is made of him ; to say the least, he has
to accept food and drink, possibly more permanent



342 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

gifts. Thus a tall, black haired native of Kirk Michael
described to me how he chanced on New Year's Day,
years ago, to turn into a lonely cottage in order to light
his pipe, and how he found he was the qualtagh : he
had to sit down to have food, and when he went away it
was with a present and the blessings of the family. Now
New Year's Day is the time for gifts in Wales, as shown
by the name for them, calcnnig, which is derived from
calan, the Welsh form of the Latin calender, New Year's
Day being in Welsh Y Calan, ' the Calends.' The
same is the day for gifts in Scotland and in Ireland,
except in so far as Christmas boxes have been making
inroads from England : I need not add that the Jour de
CAn is the day for gifts also in France. My question
then is this : Is there any essential connexion of origin
between the institution of New Year's Day gifts and
the belief in the first-foot ?

Now that it has been indicated what sort of a qnaltagh
it is unlucky to have, I may as well proceed to mention
the other things which I have heard treated as unlucky
in the island. Some of them scarcely require to be
noticed, as there is nothing specially Manx about them,
such as the belief that it is unlucky to have the first
glimpse of the new moon through glass. That is a
superstition which is, I believe, widely spread, and,
among other countries, it is quite familiar in Wales,
where it is also unlucky to see the moon for the first
time through a hedge or over a house. What this
means I cannot guess, unless it be that it was once
considered one's duty to watch the first appearance of
the new moon from the highest point in the landscape
of the district in which one dwelt. Such a point would
in that case become the chief centre of a moon worship
now lost in oblivion.

It is believed in Man, as it used to be in Wales and



v] THE FENODYREE AND HIS FRIENDS 343

Ireland, that it is unlucky to disturb antiquities, especi-
ally old burial places and old churches. This super-
stition is unfortunately passing away in all three countries,
but you still hear of it, especially in the Isle of Man,
mostly after mischief has been done. Thus a good
Manx scholar told me how a relative of his in the
Ronnag, a small valley near South Barrule, had carted
away the earth from an old burial ground on his farm
and used it as manure for his fields, and how his beasts
died afterwards. The narrator said he did not know
whether there was any truth in it, but everybody
believed that it was the reason why the cattle died ; and
so did the farmer himself at last : so he desisted from
completing his disturbance of the old site. It is possibly
for a similar reason that a house in ruins is seldom
pulled down, or the materials used for other buildings.
Where that has been done misfortunes have ensued ;
at any rate, I have heard it said so more than once.
I ought to have stated that the non-disturbance of anti-
quities in the island is quite consistent with their being
now and then shamefully neglected as elsewhere. This
is now met by an excellent statute recently enacted by
the House of Keys for the preservation of the public
monuments of the island.

Of the other and more purely Manx superstitions
I may mention one which obtains among the Peel
fishermen of the present day : no boat is willing to be
third in the order of sailing out from Peel harbour to
the fisheries. So it sometimes happens that after two
boats have departed, the others remain watching each
other for days, each hoping that somebody else may be
reckless enough to break through the invisible barrier
of ' bad luck.' I have often asked for an explanation of
this superstition, but the only intelligible answer I have
had was that it has been observed that the third boat



344 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

has done badly several years in succession ; but I am
unable to ascertain how far that represents the fact.
Another of the unlucky things is to have a white stone
in the boat, even in the ballast, and for that I never
could get any explanation at all ; but there is no doubt
as to the fact of this superstition, and I may illustrate it
from the case of a clergyman's son on the west side,
who took it into his head to go out with some fishermen
several days in succession. They chanced to be un-
successful each time, and they gave their Jonah the nick-
name of Clagh Vane, or ' White Stone.' Now what can
be the origin of this tabu ? It seems to me that if the
Manx had once a habit of adorning the graves of the
departed with white stones, that circumstance would be
a reasonable explanation of the superstition in question.
Further, it is quite possible they did, and here Manx
archaeologists could probably help as to the matter of
fact. In the absence, however, of information to the
point from Man, I take the liberty of citing some
relating to Scotland. It comes from Mr. Gomme's
presidential address to the Folk-Lore Society : see Folk-
Lore for 1893, pp. 13-4 :

' Near Inverary, it is the custom among the fisher-folk,
and has been so within the memory of the oldest, to
place little white stones or pebbles on the graves of
their friends. No reason is now given for the practice,
beyond that most potent and delightful of all reasons in
the minds of folk-lore students, namely, that it has always
been done. Now there is nothing between this modern
practice sanctioned by traditional observance and the
practice of the stone-age people in the same neighbour-
hood and in others, as made known to us by their
grave-relics. Thus, in a cairn at Achnacrie opened by
Dr. Angus Smith, on entering the innermost chamber
" the first thing that struck the eye was a row of quartz



v] THE FENODYREE AND HIS FRIENDS 345

pebbles larger than a walnut ; these were arranged on
the ledge of the lower granite block of the east side."
Near Crinan, at Duncraigaig and at Rudie, the same
characteristic was observed, and Canon Greenwell,
who examined the cairns, says the pebbles " must have
been placed there with some intention, and probably
possessed a symbolic meaning." ' See also Burghead,
by Mr. H. W. Young (Inverness, 1899), p. 10, where we
read that at Burghead the ' smooth white pebbles,
sometimes five or seven of them, but never more,' have
been usually arranged as crosses on the graves which
he has found under the fallen ramparts. Can this be
a Christian superstition with the white stones of the
Apocalypse as its foundation ?

Here I may mention a fact which I do not know where
else to put, namely, that a fisherman on his way in the
morning to the fishing, and chancing to pass by the
cottage of another fisherman who is not on friendly
terms with him, will pluck a straw from the thatch of
the latter's dwelling. Thereby he is supposed to rob
him of his luck in the fishing for that day. One would
expect to learn that the straw from the thatch served as
the subject of an incantation directed against the owner
of the thatch. I have never heard anything suggested
to that effect ; but I conclude that the plucking of the
straw is only a partial survival of what was once a
complete ritual for bewitching one's neighbour, unless
getting possession of the straw was supposed to carry
with it possession of everything belonging to the other
man, including his luck in fishing for that day.

Owing to my ignorance as to the superstitions of
other fishermen than those of the Isle of Man, I will
not attempt to classify the remaining instances to be
mentioned, such as the unluckiness of mentioning a
horse or a mouse on board a fishing-boat: I seem,



346 CELTIC FOLKLORE [CH.

however, to have heard of similar tabus among Scottish
fishermen ; and, according to Dr. Blind, Shetland fisher-
men will not mention a church or a clergyman when
out at sea, but use quite other names for both when on
board a ship (Folk-Lore for 1892, p. 89). Novices in the
Manx fisheries have to learn not to point to anything
with one finger: they have to point with the whole
hand or not at all. This looks as if it belonged to a
code of rules as to the use of the hand, such as prevail
among the Neapolitans and other peoples whose chief
article of faith is the belief in malign influences : see
Mr. Elworthy's volume on The Evil Eye.

Whether the Manx are alone in thinking it unlucky
to lend salt from one boat to another when they are
engaged in the fishing, I know not: such lending would
probably be inconvenient, but why it should be unlucky,
as they believe it to be, does not appear. The first of
May is a day on which it is unlucky to lend anything,
and especially to give anyone fire 1 . This looks as if
it pointed back to some druidic custom of lighting all
fires at that time from a sacred hearth, but, so far as is
known, this only took place at the beginning of the
other half-year, namely, Sauin or Allhallows, which is
sometimes rendered into Manx as Laa '// mooar ny
Saintsh, ' the Day of the great Feast of the Saints.'

Lastly, I may mention that it is unlucky to say that you
are very well : at any rate, I infer that it is regarded so,
as you will never get a Manxman to say that he is feet-
vie, ' very well.' He usually admits that he is ' middling';
and if by any chance he risks a stronger adjective, he
hastens to qualify it by adding 'now,' or 'just now,'
with an emphasis indicative of his anxiety not to say

1 With this compare what Mr. Gomme has to say of a New Year's Day
custom observed in Lanarkshire : see p. 633 of the Ethnographic Report re-
ferred to at p. 103 above, and compare Henderson, p. 74.



v] THE FENODYREE AND HIS FRIENDS 347

too much. His habits of speech point back to a time
when the Manx mind was dominated by the fear of
awaking malignant influences in the spirit world around
him. This has had the effect of giving the Manx
peasant's character a tinge of reserve and suspicion,
which makes it difficult to gain his confidence: his
acquaintance has, therefore, to be cultivated for some
time before you can say that you know the workings of
his heart. The pagan belief in a Nemesis has doubt-
less passed away, but not without materially affecting
the Manx idea of a personal devil. Ever since the first
allusion made in my hearing by Manxmen to the devil,
I have been more and more deeply impressed that for
them the devil is a much more formidable being than
Englishmen or Welshmen picture him. He is a graver
and, if I may say so, a more respectable being, allowing
no liberties to be taken with his name, so you had
better not call him a devil, the evil one, or like names,
for his proper designation is Noid ny Hanmey, ' the
Enemy of the Soul,' and in ordinary Anglo-Manx con-
versation he is commonly called ' the Enemy of Souls.'
I well remember getting one day into a conversation
with an old soldier in the south of the island. He was,
as I soon discovered, labouring under a sort of theo-
logical monomania, and his chief question was con-
cerning the Welsh word for ' the Enemy of Souls.' I felt
at once that I had to be careful, and that the reputation
of my countrymen depended on how I answered. As
I had no name anything like the one he used for the
devil, I explained to him that the Welsh, though not
a great nation, were great students of theology, and that
they had by no means neglected the great branch of it
known as satanology. In fact that study, as I went on
to say, had left its impress on the Welsh language : on
Sunday the ministers of all denominations, the deacons



348 CELTIC FOLKLORE [rn.

and elders, and all self-respecting congregations spoke
of the devil trisyllabically as diafol, while on the other
days of the week everybody called him more briefly
and forcibly diawl, except bards concocting an awdl for
an Eistedfod, where the devil must always be called
diafl, and excepting also sailors, farm servants, post-
boys and colliers, together with country gentlemen
learning Welsh to address their wouldn't-be consti-
tuents for all these the regulation form wasjawl, with
an English/ Thus one could, I pointed out to him,
fix the social standing of a Welshman by the way he
named ' the Enemy of Souls/ as well as appreciate the
superiority of Welsh over Greek, seeing that Welsh,
when it borrowed 8ia/3o\o? from Greek, quadrupled it,
while Greek remained sterile. He was so profoundly
impressed that I never was able to bring his attention
back to the small fry, spiritually speaking, of the Isle of
Man, to wit, the fairies and the fenodyree, or even the
witches and the charmers, except that he had some
reserve of faith in witches, since the witch of Endor was
in the Bible and had ascribed to her a 'terr'ble' great
power of raising spirits : that, he thought, must be true.
I pointed out to him that a fenodyree (see p. 288) was
also mentioned in his Bible : this display of ready know-
ledge on my part made a deep impression on his mind.

The Manx are, as a rule, a sober people, and highly
religious ; as regards their tenets, they are mostly mem-
bers of the Church of England or Wesleyan Methodists,
or else both, which is by no means unusual. Religious
phrases are not rare in their ordinary conversation ; in
fact, they struck me as being of more frequent occur-
rence than in Wales, even the Wales of my boyhood ;
and here and there this fondness for religious phrase-
ology has left its traces on the native vocabulary. Take,
for example, the word for ' anybody, a person, or human



v] THE FENODYREE AND HIS FRIENDS 349

being/ which Cregeen writes py'agh or p'agh : he rightly
regards it as the colloquial pronunciation of pcccagh,
'a sinner.' So, when one knocks at a Manx door and
calls out, Velp'agh sthie? he literally asks, ' Is there any
sinner indoors?' The question has, however, been
explained to me, with unconscious irony, as properly
meaning, ' Is there any Christian indoors?' and care is
now taken in reading to pronounce the middle conso-
nants of the word peccagh, ' sinner/ so as to distinguish
it from the word for a Christian 'anybody': but the
identity of origin is unmistakable.

Lastly, the fact that a curse is a species of prayer, to
wit, a prayer for evil to follow, is well exemplified in
Manx by the same words, gwee 1 , plural gwecaghvn,
meaning both kinds of prayer. Thus I found myself
stumbling several times, in reading through the Psalms
in Manx, from not bearing in mind the sinister meaning
of these words ; for example in Psalm xiv. 6, where we
have Ta 'n beeal oc lane dy ghweeaghyn as dy herriuid,
which I mechanically construed to mean ' Their mouth
is full of praying and bitterness/ instead of 'cursing
and bitterness'; and so in other cases, such as Ps. x. 7,
and cix. 27.

It occurred to me on various occasions to make
inquiries as to the attitude of religious Manxmen to-
wards witchcraft and the charmer's vocation. Nobody,
so far as I know, accuses them of favouring witchcraft
in any way whatsoever ; but as to the reality of witches
and witchcraft they are not likely to have any doubts
so long as they dwell on the Biblical account of the
witch of Endor, as I have already mentioned in the
case of the old Crimean soldier. Then as to charmers



Online LibraryJohn RhysCeltic folklore, Welsh and Manx (Volume 1) → online text (page 30 of 35)