Traditions of female rulers in the Hebrides are more evident, albeit tantalising in detail, than anywhere else in Scotland. An Irish writer, writing possibly in the 8th or 9th century, commenting on an earlier work by stated that the Ebudaes are under one king and they are all separated from one another by narrow straits: The king has nothing of his own; but all the property of all his subjects belongs to him. He is forced by definite law to act properly; and in order to prevent his being deflected by avarice from the right course, he learns justice by poverty, since he has no private possessions, but is supported at public expense. No woman is given to him for his own wife, but he takes on loan, one after another, any woman of whom he becomes enamoured. So he is not allowed to either pray or hope for children. Historical records of queens in the islands in confined toEigg, when in April 617 the Annals of Tigernach and other sources record the death of Donnan of Eigg with 150 martyrs. Some of the Irish records record the cause of the death was that the saint took up his abode where the queen of the island's sheep used to graze. The territorial dispute led to her getting the monks killed, though some annals state the number of slain as being 52 and the culprits being sea robbers.
A recurring, if rather elusive, feature in folklore in the Hebrides is the tradition of giant women.The earliest instance is recorded as a fact in theAnnals of Ulster, around the year 891:
The sea threw [up] a woman in Scotland. [She was] 195 feet in height; her hair was 17 feet long; the finger of her hand was 7 feet long, and nose 7 feet. She was as white as swan’s down.
Another name for the island of Eigg, coincidentally or not, was Eilean nam Ban Móra, 'The Isle of the Big Women'. ('The Isle of the Women' also features in the folk-tale 'Great Gulp' in More West Highland Tales.) On the farm named Heynish on Tiree (according to John Gregorson Campbell) there was an old burial ground called 'The Burial Place of the Big Women'. Stones from here were taken to build a farm outhouse and when a Mull man slept here in the barn one night, he was woken by his dog snarling at something unseen. Then he heard faint voices exclaim, 'This is the stone that was at my head.' He refused to sleep there again.
Jura is another island which notably features magical women in folk stories. J. F. Campbell gave tale of 'Seven Big Women of Jura' in Popular Tales of the West Highlands. There are traces of traditions of giant goddesses who possessed herds of deer and Jura's name derives from Norse, meaning 'deer isle'. The Paps of Jura are conspicuous landmarks and are considered by some to be linked to ancient pagan worship as a cult centre. The scholar W. J. Watson went a considerable distance to claim the antiquity of tradition attached to the Hebrides. Taking Er-domon as an ancient designation of the Inner Hebrides (which appears sometimes in Irish written sources as Iardomon), he cites the area as the original home of the monstrous Fomorians of Gaelic legend and points our that one of their supposed rulers was 'Indech, son of the goddess Domnu'. Then he adds:
The connection of the Fomorians with the Isles shows that here we have to do with a goddess of the deep sea, who was the tutelary divinity of the Isles and the divine ancestress of their ancient kings. This Domnu is distinct from the goddess of the Irish fir Domnann.
Viking Queens and Others
The tradition of female royals in the Western Isles is substantial and deserves looking at in some detail. John Gregorson Campbell informs that the island of Islay allegedly received its name from the Scandinavian princess Ile, who went to bath in a loch there, got stuck in the mud and drowned. 'The head and footstones of her grave are some distance from each other, and of three persons, who successively attempted to open the grave to see what the bones were like, each died mad!'
The question as to whether the Scandinavian folklore on the Isles is a survival from earlier culture is unclear. St Kilda, as seen from above, has the remnants of a tradition of a female warrior, but whether it ultimately derives from Gaelic or Norse legend is impossible to determine. The word Kilda may come from the Norse keldur, deriving from a female water sprite recalled by the Icelandic kelda. There was at least some degree of cultural cross pollination among northern, even in written sources. In Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum we have the example of the 'wild Queen of Scotland' named Hermuthrada or Hermutrude. Whether this means we can believe that she was the remembered archetype of a royal Pictish woman of high lineage, as James Frazer stated in The Golden Bough, is another matter.
The recurring theme of Norse princesses in the Hebrides is their coming to grief in various places and being buried in places afterwards remembered by tradition. So, we can example (in Tales from Barra) the remains of a daughter of a Norwegian king found on Barra at the place named Tràighiais. Her grave was for centuries pointed out at Eoligarry, near where a schoolhouse was later built. In Skye, between Duntulm and Flodigarry, is the peak named on maps as Sron Vourlinn , but locally known as Sron Bhiornal. Here was buried a Norse princess named Biornal who wanted to be laid at rest high in the hills so her tomb could look across the sea to her native land. This princess is said to have burnt the islands of Raasay and Rona in revenge for the murder of her brother Storab in the former place.
Coeffin Castle in Lismore was the supposed home of the Viking prince Caifean. His sister Beothail died of a broken heart when her lover died in a far away war and she was buried at Eirebal. However she did not feel at peace in this place and made her lament known (reported by Lord Campbell in Records of Argyll (1885) and reprinted in The Lore of Scotland):
My heart is grinding behind the stone, Down to dust, down to dust.While he of the fair and clustering locks (Man of my love, man of my love), Lies in quiet, and I not near him, Far from the tower, far from the tower.
News of her post-mortem disquiet reached her father, the King of Lochlann, and he sent a longship to carry her home. Her bones were washed in a holy well on Lismore and transported back to Scandinavia to lie beside her ancestors. But still she did not rest easy, for there was a small bone from her toe which was left behind in the holy well. The toe was recovered and laid with the rest of her remains and at last she was at peace.
On Skye (according to Seton Gordon, Otta Swire and many others) there is another royal Viking woman interred beneath the very prominent cairn of stones on the summit of Beinn na Calliche. Swire adds the tradition that, 'It was believed that if she saw danger approaching she would return to warn her children’s children.’ The most famous female Scandinavian relic of Skye's folklore in one Saucy Mary (probably not her given name). According to Otta Swire:
To the east of the little town of Kyleakin a small promontory juts out, crowned by the ruins of Castle Maol. The main wall of the ruin, eleven feet thick, was cracked from top to bottom in the great storm of 1 February 1948, bust Castle Maol still stands as 'saucy' today as when it was built in the twelfth century by 'Saucy Mary', a Norwegian princess, wife of a Macdonald of the time, who used the castle to extract toll from every ship which passed through the Kyles. It is said she had a chain across from the castle to the mainland shore. Some chain! Later, Castle Maol came into the possession of the Mackinnons of Strath.
Alasdair Alpin Macgregor notes an identical tradition from Lewis, where the Norse princess's chain stretched across the narrows between Lundale and Bernera.
The South Uist version of a common tale ('Mór, Princess of Lochlann,' by Duncan MacDonald, in Scottish Traditional Tales) tells of a local woman who prevented the wandering spirit of a woman returning to her grave by placing her distaff across it. The spirit said she was the daughter of the King of Lochlann, and had drowned in the sea nearby. She told the Uist woman where her casket full of treasure was buried, but despite looking for it, the treasure was never recovered. Some versions of this tale place the setting in Uig on Lewis, and one in particular states that a local woman was tending her cattle in a summer shieling at Cnoceothail one evening in the 17th century, a place which overlooks the cemetery of Baille-na-Cille. Around midnight she saw all the graves open and the bodies rise and scatter in all directions. Later, one by one, they returned to their tombs, except one which was long delayed, so the woman again placed her distaff across the grave to prevent the spirit returning and demanded to know its identity and where it had been. The form stated it had been delayed because it had further to go than the others, returning to the place of birth in Norway. In return for allowing her to return to her resting place the spirit woman informed the woman that there was a magical blue stone in a nearby loch and that, if it was recovered, it would bestow great powers on her son. The local woman recovered the stone and gave it to her son, Kenneth, Coinneach Odhar, who became the great Brahan Seer. An outlying tradition from the central Highlands seeks to explain the decimation of the great Caledonian Forest. A Scandinavian king employed his foster-mother, a winged monster or muime, to destroy the trees. (Later legend also blamed another woman for deforestation in the region: Mary, Queen of Scots). Also on the mainland, there is a tale of a maiden and her Viking lover Prince Olaf coming to improbable grief at their own hands because of a romantic misunderstanding, set around the island in Loch Maree.