The title Port an Lùdag – The Little Finger Tune (PS 240) intrigues me. The idea that it concerns the piper’s hiharin finger doesn’t convince me because other more famous tunes make greater use of the little finger. A few months ago, I posted a story about St Moluag’s Little Finger. I recently found another Gaelic tale in which this finger plays a prominent part – this time it belongs to a giant’s daughter.
The story Cath nan Eun (The Battle of the Birds) was a popular one. It shares its name with a well-known pibroch, PS 305. The following version was recited by a fisherman who played the pipes, John Mackenzie, near Inverary in 1859. Here is the part concerning the little finger:
“This is no time for stopping,” says the giant’s daughter. She thrust finger after finger into the tree, till she made a ladder for the king’s son to go up to the magpie’s nest. When he was at the nest, she said, “Make haste now with with the eggs, for my father’s breath is burning my back.” In his hurry she left her little finger in the top of the tree. “Now,” says she, “thou wilt go home with the eggs quickly, and thou wilt get me to marry to-night if thou canst know me. I and my two sisters will be arrayed in the same garments, and made like each other, but look at me when my father says, Go to thy wife, king’s son; and thou wilt see a hand without a little finger.” (p. 31)
“Cha ’n àm fuireachd so,” arsa nighean an fhamhair. Shàth i’ meur an déigh meur, gus an d’ rinn i fàradh do mhac an rìgh gu dol suas do nead na pioghaid. ’Nuair a bha e aig an nead, thubhairt ise, “Dèan cabhag a nuas leis na h-uibheam, oir tha anail m’ athar a’ losgadh mo dhroma.” Leis a chabhaig a bh’ air-san, dh’ fhàg ise ’lùdag am mullach na craoibhe. “Nis,” ars’ ise, “théid thu dhachaidh leis na h-uibhean gu luath, agus gheibh thu mise ri phòsadh a nochd ma dh’aithnicheas tu mi; bithidh mis’ agus mo dha phiuthar air ar n-éideadh anns an aon trusgan, agus air ar dèanamh coltach ri’ chéile. Ach seall thus’ ormsa ’nuair a their m’ athair ’falbh le d’ mhnaoi, a mhic an rìgh; agus chi thu làimh gun lùdag.” (p. 43)
This version of the Battle of the Birds was recited by John Mackenzie, April 1859, and written in Gaelic by Hector Urquhart. The reciter is a fisherman, and has resided for the last thirty-four years at Ceanmore, near Inverary, on the estate of the Duke of Argyll. He is a native of Lorn. He says he has known it from his youth, and he has been in the habit of repeating it to his friends on winter nights, as a pastime, “He can read English and play the bagpipes, and has a memory like Oliver and Boyd’s Almanac.” He got this and his other stories from his father and other old people in Lorn and elsewhere. He is about sixty years of age, and was employed, April 1859, in building dykes on the estate of Ardkinglas, where Hector Urquhart is gamekeeper. In reciting his stories he has all the manner of a practised narrator; people still frequent his house to hear his tales. I know the man, and I have heard him recite many. The Gaelic has some few north country words. (p. 38)
Allan MacDonald discovered a recording of his great uncle, Donald MacPherson, Smirisary, telling a similar version in the Sound Archives of the School of Scottish Studies. Sadly, it is not online at www.tobarandualchais.co.uk, but it is on our list of things to make available. The version quoted above is online and makes delightful reading: John F. Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, New Edition, Vol. 1 (Paisley: Alexander Gardner, 1890).