“raised on songs and stories, heroes of renown” (from “the Rare Old Times”- The Dubliners)
I recently came across a heroic tale mentioned by Alexander Irvine, a photographer from the Hebrides, on Facebook. It was one more remarkable story* from another island close to my Scots and Irish heart- the Isle of Skye, so after rummaging a bit I pulled it up out of the Time Traveler’s Rucksack.
Let me tell you about the greatest hero of Ulster, CùChulainn (CooCullen), son of the god Lugh and a mortal woman, He received his name as a young man for slaying the ferocious guard hound of Cullen. He regretted his action and offered to take the dog’s place until another could be found and so became known from then on as the hound of Cullen.
King Forgall did not want CùChulainn to marry his daughter, Emer, so he sent him, along with his best friend Ferdiad, over the Irish Sea to study the arts of warfare on Skye. Forgall was hoping CùChulainn would be slain by the famed female warrior, Scáthach who lived there.
Some legends say that Scáthach (Ska’hawk) was a daughter of the King of Scythia, which encompassed parts of Eastern Europe and Asia. The women of the Scythian steppes were the fierce Amazons described by Homer in the Iliad and in Herodutus’ history of Thermodon.
Scáthach had a fortress on Skye called Dun Scaith and she only trained warriors who could penetrate her formidable defenses of treacherous water and precipice. CùChulainn overcame these dangerous challenges and so gained her trust and respect. He was welcomed with Ferdiad into her great hall and they became fast friends. Under her tutelage he grew into a full-fledged warrior and she gave him his famous barbed spear, the gae bulg. It is said in some accounts that they became lovers as well.
CùChulainn accompanied Scáthach on her mission to defeat a neighbouring female chieftain, named Aoife, who was said to be her own twin sister. CùChulainn ended up fathering a child by Aoife’s daughter and he also slept with Scáthach’s daughter whose husband he killed in a duel. Yet it appeared no malice was borne and Cuillen’s mountain range on Skye is named after him.
When CùChulainn returned to Ireland, King Forgall still opposed him so he was forced to abduct Emer who became his wife.
Scáthach later became a goddess of the dead leading those killed in battle to the land of eternal youth. (Tir –na- nog)
CùChulainn went on to fight many brave battles and accomplish extraordinary deeds, including the great cattle raid at Cooley. Although described as “a dark, sad man but comely,” during battle he became frenzied and monstrous ( the ríastrad), which is the Celtic counterpart of a Viking berserker.
On the eve of the battle at Muirthemne it is said CùChulainn heard the harp of the bean sidhe Aiobhell, Her music is too beautiful for mortal ears, and so he knew then that his life was coming to an end.
But those are other tales.
Hear the emotional Uillean pipes of Davy Spillane:
‘We were heart companions, We were companions in the woods, We were fellows of the same bed, where we used to sleep the balmy sleep. After mortal battles abroad, In countries many and far distant, together we used to practice, and go through each forest, learning with Scathach’. – Ferdiad
bean sidhe– the fairies who herald death often appearing as a washer woman ( of blood stained clothes) or a sweet singing maiden.
shortbread from Skye (Claire MacDonald)