The Fairy Bridge: A Bridge of Sorrows

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Image: The Fairy Bridge on the Waternish Peninsula, Isle of Skye.

Just off the A850 between Dunvegan and Edinbane is a small road that cuts across the Waternish Peninsula, the B886. Turn onto the single track road, and the Fairy Bridge sits to the left. It has been closed to anything other than foot-traffic for a long time. This is a very old bridge, but not as old as the story tied to it. I would like to believe stones from the original bridge were used to form the current one.

This is believed to be the very bridge on which one of the Macleod clan chiefs said a sad farewell to his fairy wife. She was the daughter of Oberon, King of the Fairies. He had agreed to the marriage, but only for a year and a day, after which time she must return to her own people. A son was born to the happy couple, but she had to honor her father’s agreement and said her goodbye to her husband and son at this very bridge. It was a much lamented farewell. (This is one of many versions of the story and my personal favorite.)

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Image: Dunvegan Castle, Isle of Skye

Dunvegan Castle, home of the Macleod chiefs for centuries, is where the story gets even more enchanting. Some say she gave her husband a fairy shawl to remember her by, a magic shawl of protection. It could be raised three times, and three times only, if he or any of his clan were ever in need of help. On the third time, aid would come but at the expense of the clan standard and all their possessions. It has been raised twice with great success and is kept in a glass case for preservation and viewing inside Dunvegan Castle.

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Image from Dunvegan Castle website: Am Bratach Sith (The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan)

There is little left of the fairy flag, it is quite faded. It was such a thrill to see this remnant of an enchanted tale. It was magical, indeed. Experts have never been able to determine it’s origin. Possibly Persian, 4th century, or maybe it is the missing battle flag of King Harald Hardrada of Norway, of whom the Macleods descend. I like to believe it is the shawl of the fairy princess.

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If you are fortunate to visit this wonderful bridge, you must remember this: anyone who walks across the bridge must acknowledge the fairies by waving to them and greeting them politely. Of course, I waved and spoke a genuinely friendly “Hello.” Mustn’t be rude to our hosts.

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Sitting on the Fairy Bridge on a recent visit, I recalled a story my friend, George Macpherson, the Skye Storyteller, shared about one of the battles that took place on the hillside behind his home in Glendale, just a few miles away. It was one of the times the Macleod’s raised the fairy flag and called for aid from King Oberon and his fairy army. It’s a wonderful story. A story for another time, perhaps.

If you could possess your own wee family heirloom, given to you from a fairy princess, what might it be? How might it be used?

 

The Last Skye Seannachie: George W. Macpherson, Scottish Storyteller

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George W. Macpherson is the last traditional storyteller on the Isle of Skye. His Gaelic name is Seoras. He is a national treasure, truly. This man has thousands of years of story put to memory. He has the ability to tell a story in his soft thick Scottish accent that will transport you from wherever you are into a different time and place, a distant place where giants roamed the landscape and the fairy folk danced. As I sat in his living room, along a ridge above Glendale on the Isle of Skye, his voice carried me away. I was surrounded by color and scent, I heard the voices of those he described and stood in the middle of each tale, fully engaged, fully part of it. It was magical.

I asked when he first began telling stories. “Well, I started when I was three years old. My grandfather took me on his knee, and he told me a story, and I’d have to tell it back to him. And he’d say, ‘No, that’s not the way it was.’ And he’d tell it to me again, and I’d have to retell it till I was tellin’ the story the way he told it. And I did that then for seven years till I was ten. Then, I was allowed to tell a story outside the house for the first time. That was the kind of training at that time for a seannachie. After that I was collecting stories and telling them ever since. So all together I’ve been learning and collecting and telling stories now for over eighty years.”

He comes from a long line of seannachies. (Pronounced  shan-nach-hee.) Both his paternal and maternal grandfathers were seannachies, as was his father. So all the stories and all that comes with this ancient bardic office funneled down to him. He told me there are three levels of stories for story tellers, the “big stories,” the “middle stories,” and the “small stories.” Only a seannachie could tell the “big stories,” and they must be told exactly the same, word for word, as they were passed down. If you aspire to be a storyteller, you should begin with at least fifty stories committed to memory, always building your collection to include more and more. George has hundreds of stories. Eighty years and generations upon generation of stories passed down from his ancestors and others. He has one story that takes three days to tell. “I’ve only told it once!”

He also said he knows many story tellers today who practice in front of a mirror, so they can get all their facial expressions and hand motions and body movements down just so. “They’re trying to tie attention to the teller not the story. And that’s wrong, it’s not the teller that’s important it’s the story.” The power is in the story. I loved these words. So much truth in them on so many levels.

Seoras Macpherson is the last Skye seannachies and one of the last three in all of Scotland. He has been writing his stories down and publishing them, so as not to lose all of them. It is an oral tradition, an oral office of bard, clan historian, druidic heritage, but we have lived long enough to see the last of these great men and women aging without apprentices to carry on this legendary gift. I found myself saddened as I listened to this wise, gentle man and his powerful stories, and I wished with all my heart to be three again and sitting on his knee, repeating them . . . word for word . . . until I heard him say, “That’s just right. Now for the next story.”

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Sample story by George W. Mapherson