That lang has bene in the fary
Farleis to fynd …’
“I am the naked Blind Harry
That has lingered long in Faery
Fey things to find …”
These are the words of the Scottish poet William Dunbar (1459?-1530?) in ‘The Manere of the Crying of Ane Playe’ with my adaptation to current English following. The words are spoken by a dwarf who identifies himself with ‘Blind Harry’ a poet from a previous generation to Dunbar and one he wrote about elsewhere in his ‘Lament for the Makars’, a poem celebrating what Dunbar regarded as Scotland’s bardic heritage. Although Blynd Hary (‘Harry the Minstrel’) was apparently the author of a popular poem about the scottish hero William Wallace, he was also a legendary figure much like the welsh Taliesin, the vehicle for inspired, prophetic or magical verses that the poets who wrote them might not wish to put their names to. The dwarf here claims just such an ancestry for Harry, making him an habitué of the Otherworld and a descendant of Finn McCool:
That dang the Devill and yart him yowle
The skyis rangd quhen he wald scowle
And trublit all the air
My forefather was Finn McCool
That man who made the Devil howl
The skies cracked when he would scowl
Troubling all the air
What we have here is the characterisation of Finn as an ancestor to a speaker who frequents the Otherworld, continuing a traditional Irish theme still alive in medieval Scotland.
There is also a fascinating association between Finn and the Cailleach, for such, surely, is his ‘wife’ in this section of the poem:
Hir head wan heiar than the lift
The hevyne reddit quhen scho wald rift;
The las was no thing sklender.
He had a wife, she towered high
Her head was lifted to the sky
The heavens shifted when she passed by;
She was no slender lassie.
It is also said that she “She spittit Lochlomond with her lips” and that “Thunner and fireflaucht flew fae her hips” Thunder and lightning emanating from her seem to indicate her control of the weather. The ironic tag “The las was no thing sklender” reinforces this with characteristic humour.
In his The Book of the Cailleach (an essential text) Gearóid Ó Crualaoich says of her ; “ … the Otherworld female, the Cailleach of the Irish and the Scottish Gaelic tradition, regarded as the shaper who has formed the features of the landscape”. And later on the Book, he suggests that “a kind of harmonious balance has existed, over many cycles of renewal of the Cailleach between the human and the Otherworld orders”.
Gearóid Ó Crualaoich writes of her as she appears in the oral folklore of Ireland and Scotland. That Dunbar made this reference in the literary tradition without the need for contextual comment in his evocation of a legendary bardic figure indicates how pervasive she must still have been in the consciousness of medieval scots along with Finn who, of course, does also have a presence in the literary tradition of both Ireland and Scotland.
A final note on Blind Harry: Some commentators have felt that his name relates to Hár an alternative name for Óđinn. This may be a coincidence. But, if there is anything in it, it does suggest a tantalising crossover between the Gaelic and the Norse pantheons in the name of a legendary bardic figure in medieval Scotland.