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The Ben Vehir Dragons

The mountain Ben Beithir [1] got this name from a dragon. Long ago, she took shelter in Corrie Lia [2], a great hollow in the face of the mountain, and almost right above Ballachulish Pier. The dragon was a terror to the district. From the lip of the corrie she overlooked the path round the foot of the mountain, and if the unsuspecting traveller tried to pass by her, she would leap down and tear him to pieces.

No one dared to attack her, nor could anyone tell how she might be destroyed until Charles, the Skipper, came that way. He anchored his vessel a good distance out from the site of the present pier, and between the vessel and the shore he formed a bridge of empty barrels, lashed together with ropes, and bristling with iron spikes. When the bridge was finished, he kindled a large fire on board the vessel, and placed pieces of flesh on the burning embers.

As soon as the savour of the burning flesh reached the corrie, the dragon came down by a series of leaps to the shore, and from there she tried to make her way out on the barrels to the vessel. But the spikes entered her body and tore her up so badly that she was nearly dead before she reached the outer end of the bridge. Meantime the vessel was moved from the bridge, until there was a wide distance between it and the last barrel. The dragon did not have enough strength left to leap to the deck of the vessel over this gap. And as she could not return the way she came, she died of her wounds where she was, at the end of the bridge.

The people in the neighbourhood of the mountain now felt at peace. But they did not know that the old dragon left behind her a whelp in Corrie Lia. In course of time the whelp became a full-grown dragon that had a brood of young dragons hidden away in a corn stack at the foot of the mountain.

When the farmer discovered them in his stack, he at once set fire to it, hoping to destroy them all. Their shrieking was carried up the mountain-side with the wind, and as soon as it reached their mother, she rushed down to their assistance. But she was long in reaching them, and in spite of all her efforts they were burnt to death.

When she saw this, she stretched herself on a flat rock near the shore, and continued to lash the rock with her tail until she killed herself.

The rock is still known as the Dragon Rock, and Ben Vehir House now stands on it.

[MacDougall, p. 96-100]

Ben Vehir, Ben Beithir
Ben Beithir (Ben Vehir), the peak to the left, is a mountain in the Scottish Highlands to the south of Ballachulish, on the south side of Loch Leven.

Words
  1. Ben Beithir is Ben Vehir in the original text: A mountain south of the entrance to Glencoe (Glen Coe) in West Scotland is named after a savage creature that took shelter in a round hollow in the hillside there. Ben is 'mountain', and Beithir is Scottich Gaelic for bear, serpent, wild beast, and possibly dragon. In early Scottish Gaelic it was an undetermined savage creature. The folkloric beithir may have a long tail, but it never seems to be a fiery winged dragon.
  2. Corrie Lia: A specific hollow in the mountainside of Ben Beithir. A corrie is a round hollow in a hillside; a narrow circular valley with high walls, a cirque.
  3. Loch: loch: a lake or a part of the sea that is almost surrounded by land (Merriam-Webster)

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Angus Mor and the Fairies

Angus Mor was a shepherd on a farm near Tomrianurich in Inverness. On a wet, misty evening as he was returning after going around the hill, he thought he heard a young maiden's voice coming out of a rock beside the path he was travelling on, and it was the voice of the one he was going to marry that very night. He stood and listened, expecting to hear the same voice again. He heard the voice, but did not see the woman or a place on the surface of the rock where she could be in hiding.

Thinking it was echo's voice he had heard, he held on his way till he went round a point of the rock. Before him was a pretty green knoll, and as soon as he came in sight of it, he saw the door open, and a light coming out from there. It was like the light of the bright day, and he heard the sweetest music and the sound of dancing within. He crept towards the door, thrust his dagger into the side post, and peeped into the fairy knoll. Fairy men and women were wheeling and dancing like mad in a circle in the middle of the floor. But he did not see the maiden. He stood where he was until a fairy came out and went to a brook close by. When she was returning, he went to meet her and barred the path before her.

"Let me pass, Angus Mor," she said.

"No," answered Angus, "not until you tell me who the woman was that I heard calling before I came in sight of the fairy knoll."

"I will not tell you that; I may not," she said.

"If you don't, I won't let you pass," he said.

"If not with your good will, then in spite of you," she said and shot past him like lightning. Angus held in his hand a crook with an iron spike in one end of it, and he threw the crook after the fairy and struck her in the shins. She fell to the ground, and before she had time to get up, he had hold of her between his arms, and the crook laid across her breast.

"Tell me now," said he, "what woman was calling in the fairy knoll before I came in sight of it?"

"Angus Mor," said she, "if you can tell who our queen is, a week from tonight on the bridge of Easan Dubh, your wife and son will be yours."

Angus wondered greatly at these words, but allowed the fairy to go, and then he went home and got married.

Another evening as he was returning from the hill, he reached the rock that he last heard the voice from. He stood still at the end of it and listened for a while, but did not hear anything. He then went forward till he came in sight of the fairy knoll. When he looked towards the door of it, he saw a light shining inside, but did not hear any sound of music or dancing. He therefore turned away, but before he had gone far, he saw the fairy returning from the brook, and in passing she called to him as she had done the first night, "Angus Mor, your wife and son are yours if you can tell the secret of our queen on the bridge of Easan Dubh on next Friday evening."

The message he thus got the second time, made Angus somewhat anxious, especially since he did not know what the outcome might be.

He reached home, and his wife met him at the door. She noticed that something was troubling him, so she asked him what was the matter, and he told her everything he had seen and heard at the Fairy Knoll.

"Angus, dear," said his wife, "let none of these things make you anxious. We got married before that year ran out, so do not let me cause you anxiety any longer."

"Wife, I don't understand you," said Angus.

Then she said, "About a year ago a faintness came over me as I was passing the fairy knoll. I sat down on the knoll, and fell asleep in a short time. When I awoke I was in the finest place I ever saw, and was surrounded by men and women who were busy dancing. I tried to go out, but whatever way I took, the fairies would bar it.

"At last one of them, who seemed to be chief over the rest, said, "Brown-haired maiden with laughing eyes, you will get out if you promise to be my wife. But if you get your chosen love to marry you before the end of the year from tonight, you won't have to be my wife." I was so eager to get away that I gave him my word. But, Angus, you were my choice, and since I got you before the time ran out, I am free from the promise I gave him."

On Friday evening Angus Mor once more returned from the hill, and when he came to the bridge of Easan Dubh, he remembered it was there he was to learn who the queen of the fairies were. He stood a while on the top of the bridge, but he was not long there when he heard in the brook under him the sweetest voice he had ever listened to. He peeped over the parapet of the bridge, and saw the fairy queen cleaning and rubbing clothes on a stone in the water, and singing a song:

Chorus
Horin O Ró Hooriv Horó,
Horin O is na Hooriv ohó,
Horin O Ró Hooriv Horó.

1.
I know Ben More in Mull,
I know the top of Scuir Eigg,
I know the cat that was in Ulva
With its tail turned to the fire.

2.
There is music in the hall of my dear,
There is gold in the land of Mackay;
But there is a song in Inverness
Which shall never be known.

When she ended the song, Big Angus cried from the top of the bridge, "In spite of what you have just sung, woman, you are wrong. I now know every word of your song, and know who you are too."

At these words the queen started and screamed. She then lifted up her head, and when she saw Angus on the bridge, she said, "You have foiled me. Your wife and son are now your own, definitely." After saying this she went out of sight, and he did not see her any more.

[MacDougall, p. 132-142]

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Big Black Ian

THERE was before now a King who went with his three sons to the hunting hill. When they reached the hilltop they sat down on a pretty, little green knoll, behind the wind and before the sun, where they would see every man, and no man would see them. The eldest son, as he was sitting on his father's right hand and his two brothers on the left, said, "That man who would come and strike a blow at my father and knock a tooth mouth, would need to be well able to defend himself."

The youngest son answered: " We never heard mention of any man who would do that except Big Black Ian."

No sooner had he said it than Big Black Ian came like the hunting falcon from the rocky summit, struck the king on the mouth, and took with him a tooth knocked out of his mouth.

Then the king's three sons stood up and vowed that they would not let mire out of brogue or water out of hose until they found their father's tooth. Home they stretched, got a vessel ready, and set her course in the direction where they thought Big Black Ian's country lay, and

The vessel was a beauteous sight,
With prows under;
Her masts, well hewn, slim and narrow,
Beneath the white sails' show.

After they had sailed for many days, the youngest son, Ulin, climbed the mast to see if he could catch sight of any land. When he got as high as he could go, the others cried to him if he saw anything at all. He said that he did.

"What do you see?" said they.

"Little it is if an island and big it is if a bird," answered he, and then descended. At the end of a good spell he went up again; but as yet he could only say, as he had done already, that what he saw was little if an island but big if a bird.

After a long while he climbed the mast the third time, but before he reached the top, he cried aloud, "It is land," and they made straight for it.

As soon as they reached the shore they landed, and travelled onwards to see what would happen to them. They had not gone very far when they came to the edge of a precipice. There they saw a little, shrivelled, withered, old manikin standing, and near him a basket with a long rope tied to it. They asked him who he was and what he was doing over there. He answered that he was the gatekeeper of Big Black Ian, and that no man could go to his castle unless he went down the precipice in the creel.

The eldest brother went over to the edge of the precipice and looked down; but when he saw the depth beneath, he was so filled with horror that he would not descend.

Then the second brother went over to the edge of the precipice, but when he looked over, such dread seized him that he would not go down in the creel either.

At length young Ulin went into the creel, and when going over the edge of the rock, he cried to his brothers, "Return home with the ship, and if I live, I will reach you soon or late."

He arrived at the foot of the rock safely, and there he saw a big castle surrounded by a high rampart a short way from him. He made for the castle, and on the way he met his own wife, who had been stolen from him by Big Black Ian a year earler, and that he had with him in the castle. But Ulin had not known till then who had stolen her or where she had been taken. He wondered greatly to meet her in that place, but not less did she wonder to meet him there.

She returned with him to the castle, and after she had tended him well with meat and drink, she told him that Big Black Ian and his four warriors were in the hunting hills, and that they would come home in the evening. "But," she said, "we will shut the gates, and though they are mighty, they cannot enter."

The evening came, and Big Black Ian and his companions with him. When he found the gates closed, he called on the woman to open them for him. But he did not get as much as an answer. He cried a second and a third time, but though he did, it was in vain. At last he understood that young Ulin had come, and that he was in the castle. With that he cried to him, "Surrender or combat."

"Surrender or combat," said young Ulin, "you won't get tonight; but prepare to defend yourself early enough tomorrow."

When the sun rose next morning, young Ulin went up to the rampart and cried, "Shall I get the fair play of the Feinn?"

Big Black Ian answered, "You shall get a combat with one man, or a combat with two or three men, as you like."

Young Ulin did not listen to any more talk, but sprang over the rampart and cried, "I'll take a combat against one man."

He got that, and he and the champion of the Red Shield closed with one another. They fought hard all day long, but when evening drew close, young Ulin was faint and wearied. Then he recalled that he was far from friends and near to foes, and dealt a bloody blow that struck the head off the other.

Then he sprang over the castle rampart; but before he was barely in, Big Black Ian's "Surrender or combat" reached him.

He answered as he had done on the night before, "Surrender or combat you won't get from me tonight, but make ready to defend yourself tomorrow morning."

Early next morning young Ulin went up to the rampart of the castle, and again asked the fair play of the Feinn. He got that, and he and the champion of the Green Shield met one another. He was getting the better of the champion in the beginning of the day, but when the sun was about to go down in the west, he grew wearied and faint. But when he thought that he was far from his friends and near to his foes, he roused himself, and with one bloody stroke he struck the champion's head off. He then sprang over the rampart, but Big Black Ian sent a new challenge after him, as on the night before.

Next day and the day after that again everything happened as on the first two days, and he struck the heads off the champion of the White Shield and the champion of the Black Shield. The four champions were all dead now, but next morning he was challenged to meet Big Black Ian himself.

Young Ulin had time to spring in over the rampart again, and that night his wife treated him as well as she could.

Next morning he sprang out as usual, and he and Big Black Ian drew near each other. They fought first with their swords, but some time during the day they came so close to one another that they went into a hard wrestling bout. They would make quagmires of quagmires and knolls of knolls. Where it was softest they were sinking to the eyes, and where it was hardest to the knees, and where it was not so hard and not so soft, they were sinking to the thick end of the thigh. When the sun was going down, young Ulin put Big Black Ian under him and struck off his head.

When his wife saw this, she ran to the gate and opened it, so that her husband should not have to leap over the rampart that night.

They stayed together in the castle until young Ulin's wounds were healed. Then they made ready to return home, and they took with them all the gold and silver in the castle. They also took with them Big Black Ian's horse, hound, hunting falcon, and the tooth of Ulin's father. The distance was long, and they took a long time on the way. At length they came in sight of the place of his father's castle. But, instead of going to it, they went to the miller's house. They wanted to stay there till they saw how things were going on about the place. They did not let on who they were, and the miller did not recognise them, though he had been well acquainted with them before.

When night came and they were talking together beside the fire, the miller said to young Ulin, "You have as handsome a horse as I ever saw. Tomorrow you should go with him to the horse-race at the king's castle. "

"I will not go," said young Ulin, "but you may take him with you and go there, if you please."

The miller accepted the offer whole-heartedly, and next day he went to the race with the horse. He reached the castle in good time. The horses were drawn up at the end of the racing field, and the order to start was given. With a stride or two the miller's horse shot out ahead of all others, and left them further behind him with every step he took, until he reached the winning-post. He was then a long distance before the rider next to him, and he got the prize.

The miller returned home in the evening, full of pride because he had won the race. He told young Ulin all the brave things he had done with the horse, and then he said, "A dog race is to be held at the castle tomorrow. Three stags are to be let go before the dogs, and the dog that is fastest and that kills most will get the prize. You should go with your dog."

"I won't go," said young Ulin; "but take the dog and go with him."

The miller wanted nothing more, and when the time came, he went away with the dog on a leash. He reached the place. The deer were let go, and the dogs after them. But before they had gone very far, the miller's dog killed two deer, and the dog next him one. When the race was over the king came to the miller and asked him where he had found the horse and the dog he had. The miller answered that he had loaned them from a man who had come to his house and got permission to stay; and that the man had as fine a hunting falcon as any man ever saw too.

"Go home and tell him that a falcon race will be held here tomorrow," said the king, "and be sure that you will take with you himself and his falcon to the race."

The miller went home and told the stranger how things had gone at the race, and the message the king had sent.

Next morning young Ulin and the miller went away with the falcon, and in due time they reached the castle. Six pigeons were let off, and the falcons after them. But before the pigeons had gone far, young Ulin's falcon killed the six.

Then the king went where the owner of the falcon. Neither he nor any other present knew who he was. The king said to him, "Will you sell your horse, dog, and falcon? I will give you a handsome price for them."

The stranger answered that he would not, but that he had another small thing that he would give him for nothing. He then took the tooth out of his pocket and handed it to the king, saying, "See how that will suit you."

At once the king recognised his son, and rejoiced greatly to see him safe and sound. He then praised him for the service he had done him.

"I have done something else that was equally good. I have taken home my wife who was stolen from me a year before I left home."

"If so, bring her here without delay, that I may see her."

They sent for her at the miller's house, and when she came to them, the king rejoiced greatly to see her again. She took the tooth and placed it where it first was in his mouth. Then a great feast was made for all who were at the races.

[MacDougall, p. 40-56]

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Scottish folktales, legends, fairy tales of Scotland, Literature  

MacDougall, James. Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English: Collected from Oral Tradition. Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1910.

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