Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Scottish Traditional Tales edited by A J Bruford and D A MacDonald

One of the things I love about bookshops in Scotland is that they always seem to have a Scottish books section (Irish bookshops I've been in do the same, and I assume Welsh bookshops do too - the local interest section that English bookshops sometimes have is not quite the same thing) where I almost always find something interesting. In Edinburgh at New Year I found 'Scottish Traditional Tales' which looked like it would be an excellent addition to my growing folk and fairy tales collection. It is, and I've been dipping in and out of it ever since.

This book represents fifty years of research from the school of Scottish studies at Edinburgh university, and contains almost a hundred stories. They've come from a variety of sources including the Hebridean Gaelic tradition, Lowland cairds (travelling people), Shetland, Orkney - and basically all over Scotland. It was the Shetland stories that made this a book I had to take home with me there and then, but my particular local interest aside it's a proper treasure trove of interesting things.

The stories are arranged thematically, starting with children's tales. There are only eight the editors think were specifically meant for young children, the rest would have been shared with an older audience wherever people gathered together and going late into the night. Other categories include fortune tales, hero tales, trickster tales, 'other cleverness, stupidity, and nonsense', fate morals and religion, origin and didactic legends, ghost stories, fairies and sea folk, witchcraft, and robbers and clan feuds. Some of these, specifically the clan feuds and the origin legends are truly local, but many are variations on folk tales that span the world and can be traced in one form or another across thousands of years.

Stories from Shetland and the Hebrides are particularly well represented thanks to the tradition of gathering together in people's houses of an evening to work and tell stories surviving rather longer there than in other parts of the country. Curiously it's a custom that seems to have died out in Orkney sometime before it did in Shetland where it seems to have been common practice at least until the Second World War. Even after that the flavour of these stories is familiar to me from my early childhood in the 1970's, but by then they were definitely stories to entertain children with and maybe told in a different way.

There's something particularly fascinating in the way that stories evolve as they move from place to place, but also in the details that don't change. For example, however Scottish the hero may be in any tale that involves a giant, the giant always smells the blood of an English man. However, a story from Barra called 'The Fox and The Wolf and the Butter' itself a variation of a European tale which features a Bear and a Wolf, becomes 'The Cats and the Christening' in Shetland (where neither wolves, foxes, or bears feature in the local fauna).

There's an excellent and interesting introduction, and thorough notes for each story at the back of the book (something I appreciated, footnotes would have been distracting). There's also an effort to retain the voice of the story tellers, either by sticking to the dialect they spoke, or in the case of the translated Gaelic tales by trying to keep the rhythm of the them in the English version.

And that's the joy of the Scottish books section - it allowed me to find something that might otherwise have lurked in the relative obscurity of social history, or similar, where I am not in the habit of generally browsing.


  1. Sounds like this book would be great background reading for my move to Scotland.

  2. I shall investigate when I go back in April. I am hoping to bag a bottle of Oban gin too.

  3. I'm going to be in Mull at the end of April, and getting very excited by it as it gets closer. It will be the first time I've been and I'm quietly hopeful I might see a Sea Eagle (long held ambition) or at least something I could reasonably imagine was a sea eagle from a distance.

  4. I haven't been to Mull - yet, but I hope to visit one day. It isn't far from Oban is it? We always spend some time there so a ferry crossing would be very easy. A Sea Eagle is a great ambition to hold.