The Mythical Arran

Extracts taken from Chapter 1 – Early Arran

I – The Mythical Arran

It is the island of Arran that lifts the Firth of Clyde into grandeur. Southward on one side stretches the humble plateau of Kintyre, monotonous and featureless in its regularity, while on the other the withdrawing Ayrshire coast contributes neither impressiveness nor charm; they need familiarity and association, these bowed and shelter- less uplands, to win the secret of their attraction. Bute and the Cumbraes borrow much of their effectiveness from what lies behind. But towering and clear-cut in mid-sea, Arran brings all into tune; the smoother, less aspiring lands become its proper foil, its setting; the sea chafes at the roots of its mountains and the clouds are caught on the shivered edges of its summits. It dominates the waterway; it gives character — a field upon which the eye may rest from every quarter. Even the southward half, of a surface tamer and more neighbour-like, if also more domestic, takes on something of the northern nobility, where in the low western light the transverse glens show like gashes to the very core. Yet is there nothing forbidding in the aspect of the mountain island; amid the tumble of the sea it holds out the comforting promise of solid earth and the security and secretiveness of the hills; from the land the eye never wearies in following the sweep and rise and passing glooms and glances of its frank massiveness— a big, rough giant, but a kindly one. The grey of granite melts into the blotched browns of the moors; the murky green of volcanic rocks is relieved by the fresher hue of meadows and crops; the white houses cluster or spread like daisies; as the light fluctuates and crosses, a glory of dark purple merges into a solemnity of neutral colour. And when the west flames up softly from the fallen sun of summer, the island draws round it a glory of amethyst haze, to hold it yet a while dimly outshining the darkened sea and colourless land around.

II – Emhain of the Apples

And it is in some such magic mist of poetry and myth that Arran appears on the dawn of history. Legends of gods and heroes lightly brush its shores, as the vapours of cloud flicker over its mountains. Like some other western isles it figures as the divine residence of Manannan MacLir, the youthful, roving son of Ler (Lear), old god of the sea. Unlike the other vanquished divinities of early Ireland, Manannan makes his home in a distant island, in ‘Emhain of the Apples,’Emhain Abhlach, where the apples are no passing fruit on an earthly tree, but the honey-tasted apples of the land of perpetual youth, the Celtic islands of the blessed. One identification of this insular paradise fixes it on Arran, and the anonymous poet who works the tale into his verses of the eleventh century makes a significant reference: ‘We will ask a harbour behind Arran, whilst searching the cold strands of Erin’ —

larrfam (iarfain) cuan ar cul Arann
Ag(ac) sur traghann nfhuar n’eirionn (n Erenn). (1)

The name Emhain or Eamhain may carry us to another legendary connection. One explanation of its meaning is that it is for Eomain, where ‘ Eo ‘ is a breast-pin or brooch and ‘ Muin ‘ signifies ‘ the neck.’ Now Muin is represented in Welsh by Mynyw, and an island Mynyw is the original of insula Minan, which has a place in the history of Arthur. For the old historian Gildas is made to tell, in one version, how his restless brothers pestered King Arthur, particularly that excellent youth the eldest of them, and would often swoop down from Scotland to plunder his territories. A deadly descent by this ambitious young man brings Arthur in pursuit; there is a battle in the island of Minan, and the young rover is slain. This island has been identified with Man, but Arran, too, we see, was a home of Manannan, and it is in Scotland, whence Arthur’s rebel came, while Man (2), in a geographical sense, was not. Arran, therefore, may also put in a claim to be the island in question.

There are other solitary links between Arran and the early myths, deriving from that strange divinity which hedged outlying islands in the Celtic imagination. When the sea- god Ler, to his great sorrow, lost his wife, the King of the divine tribe of Danu, the Tuatha De Danann, gave him choice of his own three foster-daughters, whose mother was Ailioll of Arran. Of her no more is known, and the rest of the story, one of the ‘three sorrowful tales’ of Ireland, has its setting elsewhere. Though such matter, as we now have it, is late in a literary sense, the bearing of it, as embodying early associations, is this, that in the primitive time of Irish legend Arran was a remote and unfamiliar island, far enough re-moved from ordinary circumstances, so far as that country was concerned, to be a haunt and harbourage of lorn divinities.

With the earlier mass of Irish mythological story Scotland has little or nothing to do, though by the close of such literary activity the west coast and islands are creeping into notice. The Gael there was still a stranger in a strange land. But by the time the great final saga of Finn and the Feinne is taking its monstrous and alluring shape the gulf has been bridged, and Scotland as much as or even more than Ireland is the stage of its heroic action. And in the last scene of all Arran looms up grandly as a place of splendid memories. The battle of Gabhra has completed the destruction of the Feinne: their leader was already dead. Only Ossian and Caeilte of the original band, with eight followers for each, survive to go their different ways, broken in heart and spirit. Then the centuries are rushed over, and Caeilte with his company is brought to meet St. Patrick and his monks, who marvel at the sight of the big men and their huge wolf-dog; men so tall that, when they sit down, the mere mortals reach but to their waist or shoulder. But they are magnanimous giants, of ‘manners gentle-kind,’ and ready to unfold to the inquiring saint the tale of their heroic past.

So when Patrick asked Caeilte ‘what was the best hunting that the Fianna ever had, whether in Ireland or in Scotland?’ the answer came prompt and short, ‘The hunting of Arran.’ ‘Where is that land?’ asked Patrick. ‘Betwixt Scotland and Pictland,’ Caeilte replied; ‘on the first day of the trogan (3) month,’ we, to the number of the Fianna’s three battalions, practised to repair thither and there have our fill of hunting until such time as, from the tree-tops, the cuckoo would call in Ireland. More melodious than all music whatsoever it was to give ear to the voices of the birds as they rose from the billows and from the island’s coast-line; thrice fifty separate flocks there were that encircled her, and they clad in gay brilliance of all colours, as blue and green and azure and yellow.’ And under stress of that happy memory, Caeilte bursts forth in a lyric of glorious praise:

Arran of the many stags — the sea impinges on her very shoulders! an island in which whole companies were fed — and with ridges among which blue spears are reddened ! Skittish deer are on her pinnacles, soft blackberries on her waving heather ; cool water there is in her rivers, and mast upon her russet oaks ! Greyhounds there were in her, and beagles; blaeberries and sloes of the dark blackthorn; dwellings with their backs set close against her woods, and the deer fed scattered by her oaken thickets! A crimson crop grew on her rocks, in all her glades a faultless grass; over her crags affording friendly refuge leaping went on and fawns were skipping! Smooth were her level spots — her wild swine, they were fat  cheerful her fields (this is a tale that may be credited), her nuts hung on her forest-hazels’ boughs, and there was sailing of long galleys past her! Right pleasant their condition all when the fair weather sets in: under her rivers’ brinks trouts lie; the sea-gulls wheeling round her grand cliff answer one the other — at every fitting time delectable is Arran! (4)

We have passed from the strange, vague Arran of the old gods to an island substantial and homely, with its woods and wild fruits, its sport in deer and wild swine and trout, its galleys for the sea, and the little houses of its hunting folk on the skirts of the forest. Thus in the older Irish songs Arran gets frequent reference as an ideal hunting- ground for the sporting Gael. (5)


Notes –

(1) Skene prints the whole poem, with Hennessey’s translation, in Celtic Scotland, vol. iii. pp. 410-27, from a MS. of 1600. It is anonymous of the close of the eleventh century (Miss Hull, Text-Book of Irish Literature, part 1. p. 212). The identification with Arran is in a tract in the Yellow Book of Lecan, twelfth to fourteenth century (Ibid., p. 213 note, and p. 21. Cf. also Skene’s Four Ancient Books of Wales, i. p. 78 note 9).
(2) Four Ancient Books, i. 78 (n.). Gildas in Cymmrodorion Record Series, p. 402. But the Arthur connection in Gildas is there a very late intrusion borrowed for the sixth century writer from the eleventh century Geoffrey of Monmouth, the begetter of the Arthur historic legend. It only adds to the fabulous Arran, even if the identification holds good. Cf. Skene’s Celtic Scotland, p. 114 note, for a discussion of Gildas and his various biographies.
(3)  ‘Which is now called lughnexadh, i.e. Lammas-tide’; or Lunasdae, Limadainn, Aug. 1-12, early Irish hignilsad, ‘festival of Lug,’ the Celtic sun-god (Macbain’s Dictionary; Rhys, Hibbert Lectures, p. 410).
(4) Silva Gadelica, ii. pp. 108-9: ‘The Colloquy of the Elders.
(5) ‘ More healthy are the hunting songs. Many of these are in praise of the Isle of Arran, in the Clyde, a favourite resort during the sporting-season both for the Scottish and Irish huntsman ‘ (Miss Hull, The Poem Book of the Gael, p. xxiii).

Featured image shows Arran Peaks, original photo taken by Dr. C. Fred. Pollack

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