After Niall Sgrob

Charlotte Hathaway and Mike Vass

In 2013 pairs of writers and composers were commissioned by Remembered/Imagined to create new works of music and words inspired by the archive of Scottish cultural treasures, the School of Scottish Studies Sound Archive. It is a treasure trove of recordings of songs, music, tales, verse, customs, beliefs and oral history. After Niall Sgrob was a collaboration with composer Mike Vass, featuring Angus Peter Campbell, Maeve Mackinnon, Mr McFall’s Chamber and historic recordings from contributors to the Archives.

A father is troubled by conflicting memories he associates with the disappearance of his daughter.

Concept

When you remember an unusual occurrence, your mind can play tricks on you until you are not sure whether details are what actually happened or just something you imagined. In tradition, things exist as versions – stories, tunes, songs, even beliefs – as they pass between people. That is what Remembered/Imagined means to us: oral tradition as a parallel for the way the human mind works. It remembers the important things, changes the unimportant things, and forgets the things it doesn’t like, until there are many overlapping versions of events and any ‘original’ has been forgotten.

We wanted to tell a story in lots of versions so it came across like an unreliable memory.

Belief in the supernatural often comes from a misunderstanding of sleep conditions and hallucinations, leading to stories developing. (It comes from a lot of other misunderstandings too, relating to the natural world.) When developing this piece we were very interested in personal experience narrative based in supernatural. Mike had a life-threatening illness in the summer of 2013 where he experienced vivid hallucinations and Charlotte has also suffered from sleep-phenomena-related hallucinations, so we were particularly keen to explore the theme of tricks of the mind and the unreliability of memory. The concept of being ‘lifted by the sluagh’ is an interesting and widely-documented idea, potentially related to these sleep/hallucinatory phenomena. Charlotte re-wrote well-known sluagh-lifting tales and brought them into a story built around some lovely recordings of people’s own experiences with the supernatural.

Niall Sgrob

Niall Sgrob was said to be a man from Barra (or sometimes Uist) who was regularly lifted by the sluagh and taken on rampages about the islands. The sluagh are a band of fairies known for lifting unsuspecting individuals and carrying them off for nefarious purposes. There are several versions of the Niall Sgrob accounts (see SA1960.128 and SA1972.033, for example), the most famous of which depicts Niall being instructed to kill a young girl, but instead tricking the sluagh and killing the cow she had been milking. One version of the story has Niall Sgrob actually kill a girl with elfshot as she sits singing, because she has left her window open. Some people say this girl was simply taken away by the fairies whilst a replica of her was buried.

Another story crops up in our piece (see SA1958.146): a woman tells her husband to send their daughter to meet her on the opposite side of the island with a pail of milk. When the daughter does not arrive, it is believe that the fairies have taken her.

Faclan (words)

We wanted to incorporate a Gaelic waulking song but couldn’t find any that were appropriate to our story. Instead, we took an existing one about a fairy mourning the murder of her human lover (Sealgair a’ Choilich-bhuidhe/Gura Mise a Tha gu Dubhach sung by Annie and Calum Johnstone of Barra SA1954.031) and re-wrote the tune and some of the main verse lines:

Gura mise tha gu dubhach, (oh how miserable I am)
Hao rì ‘s an hurabhì hiù o,
Dh’fhalbh mi às aonais m’athair (I left without my father)
Hoireann is hurabhì hó hò,
Hoireann is hurabhì hó hi rì o,
Hoireann is hurabhì hó hò.

Thog iad mise tro uinneag fosgailt’ (they lifted me through the open window)
Hao rì ‘s an hurabhì hiù o,
Mìle mallachd air na sìthean (a thousand curses on the fairies)
Hoireann is hurabhì etc

Mìle mallachd air na sìthean (a thousand curses on the fairies)
Hao rì ‘s an hurabhì hiù o,
Cha d’fhuair e lorg riamh an nighean (He couldn’t ever find his daughter)
Hoireann is hurabhì etc

Gura mise tha gu dubhach, (oh how miserable I am)
Hao rì ‘s an hurabhì hiù o,
Dh’fhalbh mi às aonais m’athair (I left without my father)
Hoireann is hurabhì etc

Personal experiences

Essie Stewart is a Gaelic storyteller with a strong grounding in Gaelic and Traveller tradition. Born into a Sutherland travelling family, Essie is the grand daughter of the great Gaelic storyteller Allidh Dall Stewart, who died in 1968. In this clip she is about 15 years old and telling Hamish Henderson about an incident a few years previously where she saw a fairy. Her family saw no reason not to believe her.

Donald Ross – we found Donald Ross tricky to track down as there was little information about him in the Archives. After some detective work by Cathlin Macaulay (with help from the Tobar an Dualchais staff and the Ullapool Museum) we found out that he was known as Donald the piper and worked on the Rhidorroch Estate. In this interview he is talking to Dr John MacInnes about various things, including a friend’s fairy encounter.

Andrew Hunter was born and raised in South Nesting (1888), Shetland. He was a seaman and in this clip he describes the time when, as a child, he saw a host of little folk when travelling to a neighbour’s haunted croft.

Tape references

  • Essie Stewart, SA1957.041  – personal experience
  • John MacInnes, SA1960.188 – interview questions in English
  • Donald Ross (Loch Broom), SA1960.188 – personal experience
  • Andrew Hunter (Shetland), SA1974.203 – personal experience
  • Donald Archie MacDonald, SA1963.075 – interview question in Gaelic
  • Flora Boyd (Barra), SA1976.194 – the story of Niall Sgrob in Gaelic

All serial numbers refer to tapes found in the School of Scottish Studies Sound Archives, Edinburgh.