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Celtic Legends

Seann-sgeulachd

In the introduction to his history of Clan Donald, Donald J. McDonald gave a brief account of Cú chulainn and why it is of interest to Clan Donald.  He referred to James Macpherson’s Works of Ossian and one of the sources he used for his history called the Black & Red Books of Clanranald.  These 17th century books, written in Gaelic, contain the traditions of Clan Donald from centuries earlier.  The Gaelic  le lachluinn mor mac mhuirich albannaich seanachaidh chloinn domhnill contain the traditions recorded by the MacMhuirich Scottish historians of Clan Donald from the 14th century.  Pixar's "Brave" depicts the important role of legends in Celtic culture as Queen Elinor instructs her rebellious daughter by reminding her of a legend of a former kingdom lost due to selfishness.  Her daughter protests, "Oh Mum.  It's only a legend".  The queen's response is classic, "Legends are lessons that ring with truth".  

Highland Galley

Tuan mac Cairill

Celtic mythology or legends from Ireland are inseparably intertwined into these ancient histories for good reason.  The Black & Red Books of Clanranald, contained in the Reliquiae Celticae manuscripts, begin with the Milesian myth from the  Lebor Gabála (Book of Invasions).  The legend of Tuan mac Cairill, based upon the Milesian myth,  provides the origin of the Celtic (Gaelic) people as told by an eye witness Tuan mac Cairill . This is the equivalent of the Book of Genesis for the Celtic people from their own legends that by some accounts begins immediately after the Biblical flood.

Cú chulainn 1521 engraving

This myth takes place at Dunscaith on the Isle of Skye which became a Clan Donald castle.  This legend explains the castle's name. Cú chulainn passes through a bog enroute to Sgathach that may well be the first description of the bogs of Rannoch Moor that were so familiar to our ancestors.

Cú chulainn, Aifee, and Connla

This is a tragic story that teaches the value of a champion's keeping his word.  Keeping an oath (one's word) was to be valued above all else, even family.  Being familiar with this Celtic value helps us better understand the motives & actions of our ancestors. 

The Death of Cú chulainn

This myth also conveys the Celtic value of honor and how an individual's

Kilmory Knap slabsactions would cast honor or dishonor upon his family, clan, and race.  Of course every Celtic youth pictured himself a champion.  These legends show us the ancient Celtic ideal or the standard set for which the youth would aspire.  This legend also demonstrates the significance of the raven or battle crow in Celtic culture.  This is especially significant to Glengarry MacDonells.

Deirdre

This myth takes place in Glen Etive near Glencoe and is the classic tragic tale of Celtic mythology included in the Black & Red Books of Clanranald.   It is eerie that a millennia before the Glencoe Massacre these glens of ancient Dalriada were already associated with tragedy.


Manannan mac Lir

This one explains the transition from Finlaggen crossthe old Celtic religion to Christianity.  One of the legends of Manannan includes an account of a prominent ancestor of Clan Donald who nearly lost his entire posterity (that's us) when tempted with an apple.  And just as recorded in the Biblical account our ancestor's taking the apple provides the Celtic explanation of how he acquired the knowledge & wisdom for which he was famous.

St. Julian's Legend

This is not a Celtic legend, but a French Crusader legend that provides a possible explanation of the unique cross found carved into the crest of the Finlaggen Cross. This head of a typical Standing Celtic Cross was discovered during a 1990 archaeological dig at Islay, the central seat of government of the Lords of the Isles.  The Finlaggen cross is believed to be from the 14th century and bears what has become known as the "cross, crosslet fitchee, gules".  This unique cross has been the central feature of most crests of Clan Donald.  The legend of St. Julian provides a plausible explanation for why Clan Donald crests feature this unique cross.


Oisin

Was believed by James MacPherson to be the same person as Ossian referred to in the Highland oral legends he compiled.   Even though this author does not agree that they were the same person, being familiar with the ancient legend of the seanachaidh Oisin helps us understand the standard set for all Celtic seanachaidh (Gaelic = oral historians), including the MacMhuirich who were the historians of Clan Donald and the Lords of the Isles. Ossian's cave is in Glencoe.


Fionn and the Fenians

This Celtic myth is one that Clan Donald will find the most familiar.   Clanranald stoneIt is startlingly similar to Clan Donald legends of Sòmhairlidh (Somerled) who like Fionn mac Cumhaill, became the champion who could unite the clans to overcome foreign invaders after obtaining the Salmon of Knowledge.

 

Becoming familiar with these legends or myths does give us a glimpse into the values and society of our ancient Celtic ancestors.  It also helps us understand the values of our more recent Celtic ancestors who retold these same legends around peat fires in their crofts all over the Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland for hundreds of years.

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# Article Title Hits
1 The Legend of St. Julian 9763
2 Tuan mac Cairill 8088
3 Cú chulainn 8087
4 Cú chulainn,Aifee,&Connla 6038
5 The Death of Cú chulainn 6995
6 Dierdre 4996
7 Manannan mac Lir 9573
8 Oisin mac Fionn 4323
9 Fionn and the Fianna 10282