Gaelic Folklore for a Multi Species Future

Gaelic Folklore for a Multi-Species Future 1

There are few today who doubt the challenge of climate change. As I write, wildfires are burning in Tenerife, Hawaii and in British Columbia. July 2023 has been confirmed as the hottest month in the global temperature record. Much of this destruction is blamed on the era of the Anthropocene. The concept is based on the premise that humans are the single most influential species on the planet. Humankind has abused this position to drain the earth of its natural resources without any regard for the impact on other species. The challenge of the Anthropocene has become daunting and almost “too hot” to handle on a global scale. But in Rebecca Solnit’s words:  “We can’t afford to be climate doomers”. Anna Tsing and others have proposed the notion of a ‘Patchy Anthropocene’ as a way forward. This is designed to focus our attention on how we can engage with all creatures in our local ‘patches’. 

In Scotland  there is a traditional resource that has much to tell us about living together with other species.  Folklore frequently refers to local (often small) places and the different creatures that live in it, but an emphasis on local places can sometimes spark a negative reaction. At best, it can be seen as “parochial” or “inward-looking”. At worst, it can be mis-interpreted as nationalism or xenophobia – but, as  McFadyen and others have pointed out: to focus on the local is to stand up against the forces of globalisation and capitalism. This is very much in keeping with the spirit of Scottish ecologist Patrick Geddes, who advised people to ‘think global and act local’. 

There has been a lot of commentary in recent years from MacKinnon, Meighan and others on the concept of dùthchas (Scottish-Gaelic) or dúchas (Irish-Gaelic). A key feature of dùthchas is the interconnectedness of the species. This multi-species context is found in many indigenous cosmologies. Keith Basso writes about the multiple relationships that Native Americans have with their local places. The Celtic ontological concept of dùthchas is inherently multi-species, and Gaelic folktales offer several different models of species living together.  There are four in particular I’d like to outline in this piece and the next. I call these (1) networks, (2) shape-shifting (3) parallelism and (4) mirroring. In this first piece I deal with networks. The other three models are dealt with in the second piece.   

Firstly, I’d like to draw attention to a contribution by Alan Riach, where he focuses on the Scottish-Gaelic poem The Song of the Owl” (c.1600) by Domhnall mac Fhionnlaigh nan Dàn. In this poem, the owl flies around touching the trees, circling around the mountains, and drinking from the rivers. The owl becomes a witness to the interconnectedness of nature. Riach describes the poem as “a haunting expression of the idea of unity existing between land, people, all living creatures, nature and culture”. 

Another such story in the Gaelic tradition concerns the salmon of knowledge and the renowned warrior, Fionn Mac Cumhail, who as a young boy met the poet Finnegas near the river Boyne in Ireland and studied under him. The poet had spent seven years trying to catch the salmon that lived in the river. The fish was known as ‘the salmon of knowledge’, since it fed on the hazelnuts of knowledge at the well of Segais. Eventually, the poet caught it, and asked the young Fionn to cook it. He advised Fionn not to taste it, as whoever ate the first bite would gain the knowledge of the salmon.  


Salmon of Knowledge” by Didrik J is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

While he was cooking the fish, the young Fionn inadvertently burned his thumb, and instinctively put his burnt thumb in his mouth. This immediately imbued him with the salmon’s wisdom. When the poet returned, he saw the wisdom in the young boy’s eyes. After that, whenever Fionn put his thumb in his mouth, the knowledge he wished to gain was revealed to him. As an aside, isn’t it interesting that the ancient storytellers didn’t need to wait for the discovery of Omega 3 before they knew oily fish was good for the brain!. 

In this folk narrative, the different species worked together like a network or chain of connection.  Nine hazelnut trees grew over the well. The nuts on the trees contained wisdom. As the nuts fell into the water, they were eaten by the salmon, who then swam downstream. The human who ate the salmon was endowed with gifts of wisdom, inspiration and knowledge. When humans die, they decompose into the land, and it is from the earth that trees grow. This is a picture of balanced unity. Each element in the network has significance and has its own part to play. Any interruption of the elements results in the breakdown of the network.

What is even more interesting about this narrative is that the gift of knowledge is not confined to humans. As the Gaelic scholar Meg Bateman notes, the intuition gained by Fionn when sucking his thumb was not that of an individual but a universal intuition. It is knowledge that is present in wells, in fish, in insects and mammals, and in the landscape itself. Humans are not the only thinking beings. In my next piece I shall look at other models of co-existence from Gaelic folk tales. 

Gaelic Folktales for a Multi-Species Future 2

In the previous piece, I began by exploring the concept of Dùthchas (Scottish-Gaelic) or Dúchas (Irish-Gaelic) and considered one model of multi-species existence in Gaelic folklore. This was based on the story of the salmon of knowledge and looked at the network of collaboration among species that are connected with one another. The central character was the young Fionn Mac Cumhail who had ingested of the salmon of knowledge. 

As a young warrior, Fionn regularly went hunting. One day, his hounds captured a deer whom they recognised as human. When Fionn brought her home, she was transformed back into a woman named Sadhbh. (Her deer shape was a curse from a druid whom she had refused to marry). Sadhbh was soon pregnant. When Fionn was away, the druid returned and turned Sadhbh back into a deer, whereupon she vanished. Despite his best efforts, Fionn couldn’t find her. Sometime later, Fionn found a fawn in the forest, whom he recognised as his son. Once he brought him home, the fawn turned into a boy whom Fionn named Oisín (meaning little deer). Oisín would later become one of the greatest of the Fianna. The original plot is even more complicated…. 

While such shapeshifting may seem fanciful today, it is quite common in traditional folk narratives. Shapeshifting occurred frequently, and shapeshifters passed through a range of animal forms – insects, birds and mammals. It seems that knowledge of and identification with the different species was regarded as an advantage for those who enjoyed it. The key message was this: relationship between Gods, humans and animals was blurred and non-hierarchical. Moreover, it was a phenomenon that accepted that the distinction between human and animal is not as clearcut as we might think. Is there something of the animal in humans and something human in animals? 

Many of us with pets love our animals, and sometimes treat them as if they were almost human. This sense of companionship between humans and animals is captured in a very famous poem in Old Irish called Pangur Bán. This poem was written in the 9th century  by a monk about his cat, Pangur Bán. The poem describes the harmonious existence between human and animal, but also the parallels in their activities.  While the monk is hunting meaning in a manuscript, Pangur Bán is hunting mice. The cat’s eyes stare at the wall, while the monk’s eyes are fixed on the page. When the cat catches a mouse, he is delirious. The monk is equally delighted when he “catches the meaning” of a text. They both work hard in the company of one another and in parallel with one another. There is no hierarchy in the relationship in this multi-species model. Humans and animals live side by side in harmony. 

Finally, I’d like to draw on the work of Scottish-Gaelic scholar Michael Newton who points to a process he calls “human-nature mirroring”. He illustrates this with reference to parallels that are perceived between humans and trees. The make-up of the tree was seen as comparable to that of the human physique, and the Gaelic terms used for the human body are the same as that for trees. People are often depicted in terms of tree metaphors. And so, for example, the phrase “it was in the timber” is used to describe something hereditary. The importance of rearing a child well is captured in the phrase: “bend the sapling and the tree won’t defy you”. It is important to note that the parallels go in both directions and are not simply a projection of human personality traits onto the natural world. The examples demonstrate agency on behalf of nature as well as humans. 

The four models I have described (1) networks (2) shapeshifting (3) parallelism, and (4) mirroring illustrate that dùthchas encodes a particular way of thinking about humans and nature that is multi-species rather than anthropocentric. In the Gaelic world, humans and non-humans were not separated. There was an ecological balance between all entities. Deborah Bird Rose uses the concept of kinship with similar intent. It implies an inter-generational world that is interwoven. The interaction of different species in harmony and in equality with one another is very different from the modern hierarchy that places humans at the top of the multitude of species. This hierarchical view has been influenced by Descartes, the Enlightenment and some forms of Christianity and it is precisely this model that has led to high destruction across the planet. 

So, where do we go from here?

In my two pieces I have drawn on Gaelic folktales as a ‘home-grown resource’ in Scotland. I suggest that they could be revived, re-envisaged or repurposed as an inspiration for a different future. Drawing inspiration from the Irish philosopher John Moriarty, I believe we should adopt an approach that Scottish activists McFadyen and Sandilands (2021) call ‘cultural darning and mending’. They describe this as a ‘playful approach to cultural activism’, or a future-orientated creative ethnology that engages with our folk narratives, our place-lore and traditional local knowledge. In linking our present and future to the past, we can (as Alastair McIntosh puts it) ‘re-member’ a dúchas-grounded relationship with the land – and raise consciousness about what was lost during the process of Anglicisation and colonisation. Part of this “cultural darning and mending” could involve re-visiting our traditional folk-narratives (Scots and Gaelic) and reading them ecologically. Thankfully, many activists are already engaged in such activities. Is this a theme that could be explored at next year’s international book festival, I wonder? 



Comments (4)

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  1. 230823 says:

    It’s a vital aspect of the anthropocene as a proposed epoch that we are continually reinterpreting extant stories from the perspective of our own present concerns. It’s thus a perfectly legitimate strategy to read or otherwise appropriate to our contemporary concerns Domhnall mac Fhionnlaigh nan Dàn’s premodern poem as an expression of dùthchas.

    I remain chary of dùthchas, however. It reminds me of the utopian ‘unhomed’ exile and loss of Tory nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, of a harkening back to some pre-industrial place of safety and reliability and deep trust (‘homeland’) and to the more authentic form of life of some mythical ‘folk’ who poetically dwelt there.

    It also reminds me of the German ‘heimat’, which deeply informed the writing of Nan Shepherd and Martin Heidegger, and which proved vulnerable to easy assimilation into the fascist ‘blood and soil’ literature of the National Socialists and the National Party of Scotland. According to critics like Günter Grass, Theodor Adorno and Peter Vierick, the romantic idea of a ‘Volk’ community, which is deeply rooted in the earth through its more authentic land-use practices, leads straight to Auschwitz. Those who were taken to Nazi concentration camps were officially declared by the SS to be ‘enemies of the volk community’ and thus ‘a threat to the integrity and security of the heimat’.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    I think there is a lot in this. The enemies of wisdom here are indeed poets and priests who attempt to own, restrict and control. I read a theory that tricksters (sometimes shapeshifters themselves) were a popular form of critiquing prescriptive priesthoods. Nature’s systems are too complex for poets and priests to understand, let alone accurately describe or effectively control. Life science is typically done locally, but shared globally.

    1. 230824 says:

      I do often wonder, however, whether or not all narrative, whether in the life sciences or in poetry or – indeed – wherever narration occurs, isn’t ‘typically done locally, but shared globally’.

  3. John McLeod says:

    This is a really wonderful and informative piece – thank you for publishing it in a place where it can be freely accessed by many people.
    At some point the kind of cultural curiosity and remembering that you describe will go mainstream, and greatly enrich our lives and our relationship with the more-than-human world.

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