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Gaelic Algorithmic Research Group

Rannsachadh digiteach air a' Ghàidhlig ~ Goireasan digiteach airson nan Gàidheal

Developing a Web App for Crowdsourcing Judgements on Gaelic Text Normalisation

In working on the project for the University of Edinburgh, our team from Code Your Future is thrilled to present our project, ‘Crowdsourcing User Judgements for Gaelic Normalisation’. Aimed at Gaelic speakers, this project will collect user inputs on passages of historical Gaelic writing that have been updated to modern orthography by an AI model developed by the University of Edinburgh. Through hard work, collaboration, innovation and problem-solving, we have hugely enhanced a previous research project, ‘An Gocairː An Automatic Gaelic Standardiser’ and not only met but exceeded our goals.

The ‘An Gocair’ Web App

Our team used the PERN stack as it uses a common framework and program language so it can be easily modified to enhance user experience and interactions in the future. In today’s globalised world, it is useful to be able to launch this application from any device and location. We have admin features in our application to give researchers more control over the data, and user sign-in features that allow users to sign in from social media accounts. Throughout the project, there were challenges in terms of adhering to project requirements. Those challenges were an opportunity for us to learn. So we valued our team members’ creativity, experimentation and unique skills to find solutions to the problems that aligned with our project objective.

The Reinforcement Learning with Human Feedback App – for crowdsourcing Gaelic speaker judgements on AI-corrected texts

Our project followed an agile mindset that prioritises interactions, customer collaborations and responsiveness to change. As a result, we adapted agile values and principles focusing on short development cycles like creating simpler tasks, allocating them to the team members and receiving constant feedback from the team lead.  Also, the agile approach helped us to manage time efficiently through sprint planning, daily standup meetings and optimising our time allocation and productivity.

By using React we have made every feature into a component so it can be easily modified in the future. By using the Passport module we have made the application more secure. Implementing it into the application was a challenge, however, and took a lot of the time. Before coming up with the passport, we tried a few different authentication tools but they did not give us the ability to be used as login with other social media accounts.  

Our project relies on data and the Postgres database management system is useful for storing and managing our data efficiently. Our database Schema design considers scalability in mind to handle a growing dataset and increased user load. We also implemented proper encryption and access control, to protect users’ data and maintain user privacy through admin features.


Melese Berehannu

Appolin Fotso 


Artem Filkovskyi 


Nasir Ali

Decoding Hidden Women: Feminist digitisation practices in the Tale Archive

By Catherine Banks

As the Decoding Hidden Heritages project is nearing the end of its digitisation and metadata collection stage, this is a good opportunity to share some insights from the project on the importance of archival work for the representation of women’s heritage. While the project’s main focus is on the narrative traditions of Scotland and Ireland, valuable information has also been discovered that has wider cultural implications, such as the influence of gender on narrative traditions. These discoveries have been made possible by the digitisation process because it has allowed a re-examination and re-documentation of the archive’s collection. As part of this process at the School of Scottish Studies Archives, I have been able to employ what Prof Melissa Terras terms feminist digitisation practices, which ‘are both an attitude, and an application of technology in an efficient way’.[1] She described this practice as ‘an act of owning women’s history, using digital means, to collate information and histories that the mainstream – for whatever reason – has not tackled’.[2] For this project, that has involved ensuring that women’s material in the archive is accessible to and discoverable by the public through digitisation and accurate metadata collection.

While digitising the Tale Archive I discovered several unique factors that affected women’s presence, or rather their absence, in the archive. In particular, I noticed distinct documentation issues with the archive’s material relating to women. The most significant of these issues was the erasure of women’s names in archival documents and metadata.

There are four distinctive scenarios in which women’s names have been erased:

  1. The documents lack women’s first names.

The most common erasure of women’s names in the archive is the use of only women’s surnames, particularly their married surnames, for example Mrs. Stewart. In SSSA_TA_WT042_001 the informant is only listed as Bean Sheumais (‘Wife of James’). This is most likely because that was how these women would have given their names to the collectors, as was the social practice at the time.

  1. Their husband’s full name is used in lieu of women’s names.

The next most common form of women’s names is their husband’s full name used as their married name, for example Mrs. John MacDonald. In some cases, married women’s first names have been discovered and their full names are included in the metadata. For example, Mrs. Hugh Milne has been recorded as Bella Milne in the project database.


The influence of gender on the documentation of names in these records is made clear in SSSA_TA_GH013_001. The metadata for this transcription records the informant as ‘Andrew Stewart and family’ but the document itself listed it as Mrs. Andy Stewart. Despite the fact that this story is told by Mrs. Stewart about her own experience with a ghost, the metadata recorded her husband as the main informant, erasing Mrs. Stewarts’ ownership over her story. When her husband and son interject into her story, the transcript states ‘Carol Stewart, their son, takes over’ and ‘Andrew takes over’ but, rather than use her full name, it says that the ‘story returns home to Mrs. Stewart’.  Each of the male members of the Stewart family have their full names recorded while Mrs. Stewart does not. As a result of re-examining this material, the metadata has been corrected and Mrs. Stewart’s story is now properly recognised in the archive.

  1. The names are unrecorded.

In much of the material, women have shared their stories anonymously. This makes it impossible to document who they are. Women are often referred to as ‘girls’ such as ‘Barra Girl’ (SSSA_TA_GH002_002) or ‘a girl who was native of Glenurqhart’ (SSSA_TA_WT043_002) without their names recorded. Yet, even in these cases it is still important to document the informant’s gender in the metadata. For example, one informant was listed as a ‘Native of Lochcarron’ in SSSA_TA_WT037_015.  However, by reading their story it can be ascertained this person was a woman, because she states, ‘when they sent me … I was a young girl at the time’. By documenting their gender in the metadata, at least we are able to accurately acknowledge these women’s presence in the archive.

  1. They are not named in the archive’s metadata but are present in documents.

One of the most significant examples of a woman’s erasure from the archive is SSSA_TA_FL025. This document and its metadata records Walter Johnson as the informant of a transcription. However, the transcription is actually of Bella Higgins telling her personal experience of meeting a fairy [Ed. noted here using the dated and offensive term ‘golliwog’]. Even though it is only Bella speaking, her story had been attributed to Walter Johnson. As a consequence of this incorrect documentation, her voice had been hidden in the archive.

Similarly, in a series of transcriptions by John Stewart and his wife Maggie Stewart (SSSA_TA_GH001_022, 23, 25), John was recorded as the only informant. Even though Maggie was present in them as well, her contributions to their stories were unrecognised. As a result of the careful examination of these documents while they were digitised, these women’s contributions were uncovered and are now appropriately documented in the collection’s metadata.

While in some cases these documentation issues may seem small, they have significant consequences. Women’s names being unrecorded or partially recorded in the archives makes tracing women’s histories and family lineages extremely difficult and often impossible. For example, it is impossible to ascertain from the documentation whether a woman recorded as Mrs. MacDonald is the grandmother, mother, wife or sister-in-law to Mr. John Macdonald because all these women would have been referred to identically. Similarly, when women have no name recorded at all, their contributions to the archive are unidentifiable.

The exclusion of these women misrepresents the material within our archives, presenting the collection as more male dominated than it is. Not only is their re-inclusion into the archive’s metadata important as an act of justice for these women, but it also enriches and expands the historical research and data that can be produced from the archive. As historians Andrew Flinn, Mary Stevens, and Elizabeth Shepherd have argued, ‘the archives that are “chosen” for survival, the terms in which they are described, and the processes by which these decisions are made, do ultimately impact on the collective memory and public histories that are produced from them’.[3]

This is particularly important in the context of the increasing trend in historical research, where historians seek to write women who have been hidden in accounts back into history. A recent example of this is a biography of George Orwell’s wife, ‘Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life’ by Anna Funder. She points out that in Orwell’s novel Homage to Catalonia, written while Orwell and his wife were in Spain, he ‘mentions “my wife” 37 times but never once names her. No character can come to life without a name’.[4]  However, Funder was able to reconstruct the life of Eileen when she went ‘back to the biographers’ footnotes and sources and into the archives and found details that had been left out. Eileen began to come to life’.[5] Thus, there is immense value in archival sources which is still being discovered today and archivists play a vital role in ensuring that women’s history in these archives does not remain hidden. It is therefore important to seize the opportunity that digitisation projects such as this present to employ feminist digitisation practices on archival collections to uncover women’s hidden histories and ensure their posterity for the future.

The DHH team would like to thank Catherine for her important and timely blog and her excellent contributions to the project.


Flinn, Andrew, Mary Stevens, and Elizabeth Shepherd. “Whose Memories, Whose Archives? Independent Community Archives, Autonomy and the Mainstream”. Archival Science 9, no. 1-2 (2009)

Funder, Anna. “Looking for Eileen: how George Orwell wrote his wife out of his story”. The Guardian, 30 July 2023. Accessed 4 October 2023.

Melissa Terras. “Interview With Professor Melissa Terras On Feminist Digitisation Practices And The Future Of Our Digital Cultural Heritage”. The University Of Edinburgh Futures Institute, 6 January 2023. Accessed 4 October 2023.

Links to images


[1] Melissa Terras, “Interview With Professor Melissa Terras On Feminist Digitisation Practices And The Future Of Our Digital Cultural Heritage”, The University Of Edinburgh Futures Institute, 6 January 2023, accessed 4 October 2023.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Andrew Flinn, Mary Stevens, and Elizabeth Shepherd, “Whose Memories, Whose Archives? Independent Community Archives, Autonomy and the Mainstream”, Archival Science 9, no. 1-2 (2009): 76.

[4] Anna Funder, “Looking for Eileen: how George Orwell wrote his wife out of his story”, The Guardian, 30 July 2023, accessed 4 October 2023.

[5] Ibid.

Writing Prompts

At our recent steering group meeting our Chair, Prof Melissa Terras, noted that the index cards I shared in the post on Alan Bruford’s Tale Types make great writing prompts. This immediately cast me back to my Am-Dram days, when our director would ask us to pick a number and assign us whichever ATU tale type that corresponded, to create a short play with. This is a really useful tool for creativity and I thought I would share some Tale types and a few examples from the card index, which you may wish to explore.

These index cards summaries one part of a recording, or a manuscript in the SSSA collections. Often they are just the most brief description of the tale and other cards go into more detail.

ATU 1696

“What Should I have Said…?”

Card reads The lad seeking a wife. A widow tried to advise her stupid son on what to say to a chosen girl. Each time he visited the girl he misinterpreted his mother's instructions"

You can read this above version of this tale type in our Maclagan collection, via the OpenBooks platform (page 11, MML2389).


ATU 470a

The Offended Skull

The card reads " Skull asked to wedding. Young man going to church to arrange wedding sees opened grave, skull on ground, invites it to wedding; it says a verse. That night called to door from party, taken around corner and never seen again. When his house is in ruins 100 years later he calls on the old woman next door. Takes whisky before tea and crumbles to dust on the floor"

This tale is also available to listen to online and there is a much clearer summary of the tale on Tobar an Dualchais:

Tom Robertson told Alan Bruford that this tale was his grandmother’s story.


ATU 510

Cinderella , Cap of Rushes

card reads "Rashie Coat, from Fife. Heroine leave home to avoid unwanted suitor, not father, self or stepmother; gets wonderful clothes as pre-condition for accepting him"

This is not from recording or a manuscript in SSSA, but I have to say that the way that the summary is written made it stand out to me. There are thousands of variants of Cinderella and many examples in the Tale Archive, including Essie Pattle, the Shetland variant. You can listen to T A Robertson read the story of Essie Pattle (SA1972.238.B1) in Shetland dialect here:


Supernatural Witch Tales

Bewitched Dancing

card reads: Alasdair nan cleas asked woman for drink of milk. She refused. He made her dance an endless dance. Still dancing when husband came home. He told her to send for Alasdair, offer him a drink of oatmeal and water and apologise. when finished drinking, woman's dance finally came to an end

This is one of the tale types devised by Alan Bruford for classifying Witch Tales. This tale appears in Calum MacLean’s notebooks, collected from Roy Bridge, and is a story of Alasdair nan Cleas – Alasdair of the Tricks – who was Keppoch Clan Chief and thought to be a sorcerer. There is a great blog about this tale over on the Calum MacLean Project blog:


ATU 1137

Tales of the Stupid Ogre / Self Did It

card reads "Fairy suitor scalded with pot of black puddings"

These types of tales have origins in the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops.

ATU 1452 

Choosing a Wife

card reads "choosing a wife" Rich man with 2 sweethearts  - to choose one he would marry asked both to make porridge from basket of shavings. Rich one threw all the shavings in at once and they caught light. Poor girl put shavings in little by little and got the rich man for her husband"

The above tale, told by Lucy Stewart (SA1960.167.A12). is a variant of a type of bride tests tale which includes stories which feature the selection of a wife on how she cuts cheese! You can listen to this recording via the SSSA material on Tobar an Dualchais:



ATU 1408

The Foolish Husband & His Wife / The The man who does his wife’s work

card reads "The man who thinks he can di his wife's work is less time finds he cannot

Angus MacLellan told the story of a crofter who thought his wife was useless, until she asked him to swap places with him. The recording is on Tobar an Dualchais, with a summary in English.

We also have a version of this in Maclagan, from Islay, MML 2386


Romantic Tales: The Lad and his Dream

card reads "the lad and his dream" Young man from Skye when in search of the beautiful girl he had seen and married in a dream. When he found her she had the same dream but was arranged to marry another. They made a plan to marry with the girl veiled and were married one hour before her intended wedding

Ending with a take from the Romantic Tales Index here at SSSA – two strangers dream of one another and set off to find the other!


If you feel inclined to use any of these prompts, we would love to see your work!


Stories of Happiness

An image of a white sandy beach with turquoise water and rocky cliffs in the background. The image is taken using a long shutter speed, making the waves blur into the sand. The image is of Port Ness beach on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland.

“Port Ness Beach, Isle of Lewis, Scotland” by Chris Golightly is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Today (October 3rd) is Scottish Museums Day, a day to celebrate everything great and wonderful about Scottish Museums, galleries and archives! This year, the theme is: A Museum of Happiness, inspired by Stuart A. Paterson’s poem…

I’ve made my own Museum of
Happiness, which isn’t built of brick
or stone or wood, its walls the thickness
of the day, a flapping tongue of canvass
held in place by rope & peg to stop
it flying off & joyously away
up into everywhere in time & space

I’ll carry it around with me to pitch
beside the sea, in a field or by
that river, a billowing rickety marquee,
a travelling show of personal delights
performing one night only & forever…

A search for ‘happiness’ on Tobar an Dualchais produces some great results, and I thought I would share four School of Scottish Studies Archives stories/songs that demonstrate four different kinds of ‘happiness’.


A song about the happiness of place and the memories attached to it.


Despite the title, the happiness spoken about in this song is not about a place, but about the memories and feelings of spending time with a loved one.


A story about finding happiness (and health, a princess and a kingdom) through embracing generosity and turning away greed – at least if you’re a character in a folktale!


This story can be interpreted in various ways, but I see it as a lesson to not rely on external factors to bring you happiness, or that you can search far and wide, but the key to happiness might have been in front of you all along.

What do you think of these stories? Is there a particular folktale or traditional song about happiness that makes you smile?

Bruford’s Tale Types

a collage of black and white images of small index card drawers
Here in the The School of Scottish Studies Archives we have tales classified under the ATU index, as well as tales grouped together under story types, such as Robber Tales, Historical Tradition; Romance Tales; Hero Tales and Legends.

There are also indexes of tales which are classified under “Supernatural Witch” and “Supernatural Fairies” which were part of the work of Alan Bruford (1937-1995) to survey the Central Index and pull together material of “recurrent plots and motifs from the tangled mass of Scottish, and especially Gaelic, local traditions of supernatural and historical events” [Bruford, 1967].

Open drawer of an index card collection

There isn’t a great deal written on the ongoing work of these type-lists, but it is clear that Bruford continued to work on this until his death. Donald Archie MacDonald (1929-1999) published a broader paper on the type-lists in 1995 and I link to that at the end.

Here are just a few examples:

W1 – The Witch Hare


W7 a – The Witch’s Daughter and her Father

W31 – The Three Knots

F24 – Fiddler Enlisted To Play for Fairy Dancers

This story is available to listen to via Tobar an Dualchais:


F103A – A Fairy Song Overheard or Learned

Available via the University’s OpenBooks platform* :  (pp27-28))


F118 – Fairy Helps with Clothworking

Available via the Univeristy’s OpenBook Platform*: (pp 40 -41)*:*/Author:%22maclagan%2C+dr+robert+%7C%7C%7C+Maclagan%2C+Dr+Robert%22

Further Information

Bruford, Alan 1967, ‘Scottish Gaelic Witch Stories:  A Provisional Type-list’, Scottish Studies (volume 11), pp 12-47

MacDonald, Donald Archie 1994-1195. ‘ Migratory Legends of the Supernatural in Scotland: A General Survey’, Béaloideas (62/63), pp 29-78


*The Maclagan Mss is in the process of being added to the University of Edinburgh’s OpenBooks platform as an open access resource. This is a work in progress but the pdf batches so far can be accessed here:

The Secret of Heather Ale (Fìon an Fhraoich)

“Heather (Calluna vulgaris)”

The ‘secret’ of making heather ale has been a popular folktale in Scotland, with claims that the brewing of it dates back to ancient times.

I came across a few references to it while digitizing the ATU index cards in the SSSA’s Tale Archive.

Read the full Gaelic version from Calum Maclean’s collection of Fìion an Fhraoich (IFC MS 1028, pp. 103-105).

Accounts differ, as to whether it was the Vikings or ‘The Pechs’ that held the secret to making the ale, but the similar vein that runs through them is that eventually there were only two people in the world who held the secret: a father and his son. When they were forced to disclose their secret, the father claimed he would share the recipe, but only if his son was killed first. This request was followed through and the father then exclaimed that he had lied – he never intended to share the recipe, but believed that his son would have, being weaker than himself, and therefore had him killed to protect the secret forever!

You can read a full version of this story in English in Robert Chambers’ Popular Rhymes of Scotland. The story starts with this charming description of the Pech people:

“LONG ago there were people in this country called the Pechs; short wee men they were, wi’ red hair, and long arms, and feet sae braid, that when it rained they could turn them up owre their heads, and then they served for umbrellas.”

Listen to a 1961 version on the Tobar an Dualchais website by John Jamieson Irvine, recorded by School of Scottish Studies fieldworker, Elizabeth Sinclair.

Another wonderful reference to this story is the 1890 poem “Heather Ale” by Robert Louis Stevenson.

From the bonny bells of heather
They brewed a drink long-syne,
Was sweeter far than honey,
Was stronger far than wine.
They brewed it and they drank it,
And lay in a blessed swound
For days and days together
In their dwellings underground.

There rose a king in Scotland,
A fell man to his foes,
He smote the Picts in battle,
He hunted them like roes.
Over miles of the red mountain
He hunted as they fled,
And strewed the dwarfish bodies
Of the dying and the dead.

Summer came in the country,
Red was the heather bell;
But the manner of the brewing
Was none alive to tell.
In graves that were like children’s
On many a mountain head,
The Brewsters of the Heather
Lay numbered with the dead.

The king in the red moorland
Rode on a summer’s day;
And the bees hummed, and the curlews
Cried beside the way.
The king rode, and was angry,
Black was his brow and pale,
To rule in a land of heather
And lack the Heather Ale.

It fortuned that his vassals,
Riding free on the heath,
Came on a stone that was fallen
And vermin hid beneath.

Rudely plucked from their hiding,
Never a word they spoke:
A son and his aged father—
Last of the dwarfish folk.

The king sat high on his charger,
He looked on the little men;
And the dwarfish and swarthy couple
Looked at the king again.
Down by the shore he had them;
And there on the giddy brink—
“I will give you life, ye vermin,
For the secret of the drink.”

There stood the son and father
And they looked high and low;
The heather was red around them,
The sea rumbled below.
And up and spoke the father,
Shrill was his voice to hear:
“I have a word in private,
A word for the royal ear.

“Life is dear to the aged,
And honour a little thing;
I would gladly sell the secret,”
Quoth the Pict to the King.
His voice was small as a sparrow’s,
And shrill and wonderful clear:
“I would gladly sell my secret,
Only my son I fear.

“For life is a little matter,
And death is nought to the young;
And I dare not sell my honour
Under the eye of my son.
Take him, O king, and bind him,
And cast him far in the deep;
And it’s I will tell the secret
That I have sworn to keep.”

They took the son and bound him,
Neck and heels in a thong,
And a lad took him and swung him,
And flung him far and strong,
And the sea swallowed his body,
Like that of a child of ten;—
And there on the cliff stood the father,
Last of the dwarfish men.

“True was the word I told you:
Only my son I feared;
For I doubt the sapling courage
That goes without the beard.
But now in vain is the torture,
Fire shall never avail:
Here dies in my bosom
The secret of Heather Ale.”

Nowadays, in the age of the internet and search engines, the guarding of a recipe to the death seems quite ridiculous! Also, to our modern sensibilities allowing a tradition to die out and not be preserved in some form or another would be almost unthinkable. The School of Scottish Studies Archives, and others like it around the world, exist to collect, preserve and share oral and written tradition. This work is very important, and crucial to our understanding of the past, present and future. The world is a much richer place for it!

If you’d like to try making your own heather ale, check out this recipe. Let us know how it turns out!

Bibliography and Further Reading

Calum Maclean Collection (

Tobar an Dualchais

Heather Ale by Robert Louis Stevenson (

The Legend of Heather Ale – Folklore Scotland

“The Secret of the Heather Ale” Munro, Neil. The Lost Pibroch: And Other Sheiling Stories. United Kingdom: W. Blackwood, 1896.

The Popular Rhymes of Scotland, with illustr., collected by R. Chambers. United Kingdom: n.p., 1869.

Scottish Gaelic Chatbots for Museum Exhibits 

Our own Prof Will Lamb is working with Dr David Howcroft (lead investigator) and Dr Dimitra Gkatzia from Edinburgh Napier university to build the first tools for Gàidhlig chatbots. This is starting with the creation of a new dataset to train AI models.

Our current experiments (which you can participate in if you speak Gàidhlig!) are focused on building our dataset: we need examples of humans asking and answering questions about museum exhibits in a chat conversation. Participants are paired up and given a set of exhibits from the National Museum of Scotland to discuss, briefly summarising their discussions as well. 

The next step? Well, after a bit of data cleanup and anonymisation, it’s time to see how well neural network models for natural language generation work for this amount of data. One of the interesting challenges for this project is trying to see how far you can get in building a chatbot with as little data as possible. The lessons we learn in this work will inform future work, not just in Scottish Gaelic, but in Natural Language Generation more generally! 

Why build chatbots for Scottish Gaelic? 

We believe the world is a better place when everyone can learn in their preferred language. Scottish Gaelic has fewer language technologies available than languages like English or Mandarin, and we’d like for our research in natural language generation to help in some small way to address this gap. 

Why focus on ‘Exhibits’? 

Museums are a primary tool for learning outside of schools, libraries, and documentaries, and are increasingly leveraging mobile applications and chatbots to enhance visitor experiences. However, these chatbots are generally available for only a few languages, due to a lack of linguistic and technical resources for minority languages like Scottish Gaelic. 

How can I contribute? 

If you speak Scottish Gaelic and live in Scotland, you can take our short comprehension quiz (5-10 minutes) and sign up to participate in the study! The full study (after the quiz) takes up to two hours to complete, and participants will receive up to £30 in compensation for their contribution. Additionally, you’ll have the opportunity to be named as contributing to this important Gaelic resource if you so desire! More details here: 

If you don’t speak Scottish Gaelic or live outside of Scotland, you can share this blogpost with all the Gaelic speakers you know! Encourage them to participate or to spread the word to their friends. All in all, we hope to recruit about 100 people to participate in our study, and we have a ways to go before we reach this goal. If you don’t know what to say to your contacts, how about: 

Researchers in Edinburgh are trying to build the first chatbots for Scottish Gaelic and they’re recruiting participants for an experiment paying up to £30! Find out more at: or sign up at 

Who all is involved in this research? 

This work is supported by a small grant from Creative Informatics. The lead investigator is Dave Howcroft. William Lamb and Dimitra Gkatzia are co-investigators. Anna Groundwater from the National Museum of Scotland provided information about their exhibits, and Hector Michael Fried & Rory Gianni (InChat Design) support the effort as well. We are also grateful to our student intern for their assistance. 

A Cat’s Tale

Today is International Cat Day and that is as good as excuse as any to look in the Tale Archive for any material purrtaining to Felis Catus. Don’t worry though – should you not hold with such cosy nonsense – for the tale I’ve chosen is far removed from cute and fluffy!

Tocher, Vol 7. (1972)

‘Sùil a Sporan agus Sùil a Dia’ was a tale given by Donald Alasdair Johnston on two separate occasions to fieldworkers for The School of Scottish Studies (SA1969.120.A1; SA1970.214.A1). It is classified as a variant of ATU 613 – Two Travellers. We have a third version of this type in the Tale Archive, which John Shaw collected from Cape Breton in 1978, from Flora MacLellan.

Donald Alasdair’s story was published in Tocher in 1972 and tells the story of two brothers. Sùil a Dia believed that God would provide all he needed in life, but Sùil a Sporan argued that his purse could provide him with everything. So serious was this argument that the best way to test this out – it seemed – was for Sùil a Sporan to dash out his devout brother’s eyes, in order to see if God would restore them.

Now blind, Sùil a Dia took refuge in a house which belonged to the King of Cats, Gugtrabhad, and his company. Sùil a Dia overheard the messenger kitten, Piseag Shalach Odhar, tell the clowder of a healing well. Once they left, the blind brother scrambled on hand and knee til he found the well, restored his sight and returned to his brother.However –  if not dark enough already – this tale takes a few more sinister turns!

Sùil a Sporan asked his brother to put out his eyes next to make certain of the miracle.  Once blind and alone, Sùil a Sporan felt his way inside the same house, to the same spot of refuge. When the cats assembled again there was outrage when Piseag Shalach Odhar told them that a human had been listening to them the night before. They hunted around the house and – mistaking Sùil a Sporan for his brother – exact their revenge.  The story doesn’t really end well for anyone – certainly not Sùil a Sporan or the cats, ultimately, who meet a fiery end!

You can read the story as transcribed in Tocher (SA1969.120.A1), by clicking on the image below (link opens a pdf)

You can also listen to the version told by Donald Alasdair to Donald R MacDonald (SA1970.214.A1) via Tobar an Dualchais:


Click the image for a PDF of this tale, from Tocher, Vol 7 (1972)


Further Information

  • John Shaw wrote an article for Scottish Studies which compares Donald Alasdair’s tale with Sgeulachd  a’ Chait Bhig ‘s a’ Chait Mhóir, collected from Cape Breton:

Shaw, J 1991, ‘Sgeulachd  a’ Chait Bhig ‘s a’ Chait Mhóir‘, Scottish Studies, vol 30. Pp93-106


Hoire, Lady Evelyn

Dealbh de dh’fhalaire

Falaire sna meadhan-aoisean

(English Synopsis: How working on a nearly illegible word in a story taken down by Lady Evelyn over a hundred years ago helped solve the mystery of what exactly the term alaire means and whether it has a long or short vowel in Gaelic)

Seadh, ’s Lady Evelyn Stiùbhart Mhoireach à Siorrachd Pheairt a tha mi a-mach air. Bha mi riamh dèidheil oirre ach tha mi air leth taingeil dhi an t-seachdain-sa, oir dh’fhuasgail i snaidhm cànain dhomh a bha a’ cur dragh orm o chionn fhada.

Tha facal car annasach sa Ghàidhlig aig a bheil dà chiall gu gur eadar-dhealaichte a-rèir coltais: falaire. Anns a’ chiad dol a-mach, tha e a’ ciallachadh am biadh a gheibhear aig tìodhlacadh (o shean, b’ e sin aran-coirce, càise agus drama) air neo nàdar de dh’each. Nuair a bha mi ag obair air na h-innteartan seo san Fhaclair Bheag,  chùm mi fa leth iad. Ged nach robh mi buileach cinnteach dè am freumh a th’ aig a’ bhiadh tìodhlacaidh, ar leam gur e dà fhreumh eadar-dhealaichte a bha seo ach air an robh, an dèidh linntean, an aon chruth air co-thuiteamas. Gu fortanach, bha co-dhiù am biadh furasta a gu leòr a thaobh cèill is litreachaidh. Ach abair snaidhm a bh’ anns an dàrna facal…

Anns a’ chiad dol a-mach, cha robh e cho furasta fiosrachadh dè dìreach a’ chiall a th’ aige. Lorg mi rudan mar na leanas:

  • Dwelly:
    alaire, s.f. ‡Brood mare. 2 see falair.
    falair, -e, -ean, s.m. Ambler, pacer (of a horse)
    falaireach, †† a. Prancing
    –d, s.f.ind. Ambling, pacing, curvetting, stately motions of a war-horse, prancing. 2 Canter.
    falairich, v.a. Amble
  • Edward Lhuyd:
    56A. Galloping, pacing. Fâlereachd, A[rgyll].
  • Am faclair aig an Urr. Tormod MacLeòid:
    FÀLAIRE, -EAN, s.m. (Fàl, turf) An ambler, pacer, (of a horse,) a mare
  • Am faclair aig Athair Ailean MacDhòmhnaill:
    FÀLADAIR, 24. a swift rider as if riding a fairy steed or fàlairidh. [Fàlairidh. Heard it used by old men to mean a horse. J.M.]
    FÀLAIREACHD, 26, galloping.
  • DASG
    fàlaireachd, another word for ‘marcach’. [NOTES: note added – riding.]
  • Faclair an Duinnínigh:
    FALAIRE, g. id., pl., -RÍ, m., an ambler, a pacing horse.
    FALAIREACHT, -A, f., an ambling pace; act of ambling, pacing; American handgallop; the flaw in horses of moving both legs on each side alternately; the gait of a spancelled goat, etc.
  • MacGilleBhàin:
    fàlaire, an ambler, mare, Ir. falaire, ambling horse; seemingly founded on Eng. palfrey. The form àlaire exists, in the sense of “brood mare” (McDougalls’s Folk and Hero Tales), leaning upon àl, brood, for meaning. Ir. falaradh, to amble.

Mo ghaol air Dineen A bharrachd air sin, bha e a’ nochdadh an-siud ’s an-seo ann an seann sgeulachdan mar Buachaille Caora Caomhaig:

“Am bàs os do chionn, a bhéist,” ars esan, “gu dé d’ éirig?” ars esan.
“Ó ’s iomadh rud sin,” ars am fuamhaire, ars esan, “ach chan eil sìon a th’ agam nach fhaigh thu,” ars esan, “ach leig leam mo bheatha,” ars esan.
“Dé,” ars esan, “a bheil agad?”
“Tha,” ars esan, “a h-uile seòrsa agam,” ars esan, “as urrainn duine ainmeachadh,” ars esan. “Tha,” ars esan, “tha fàlairidh agam,” ars esan, “nach do … nach do mharcaich duine riamh a leithid,” ars esan.

Gu dè fon ghrèin a bh’ agam an-seo ma-thà? Nàdar de dh’each math, a-rèir nan seann-sgeulachdan, ach dè dìreach? Agus carson a bha an fhuaimreag a’ dol eadar fada ’s goirid, fiù ann an leabhraichean a bha a’ sgrìobhadh nan stràcan gu cunbhalach? Tha cuimhne agam gun dug mi sùil airson falaire ann an eDIL aig an àm, feuch dè an cruth a bh’ air an fhacal seo san t-Seann-Ghaeilge, ach cha d’fhuair mi dad.

Aig a’ cheann thall, an dèidh dhomh cus ùine a chosg air an aon fhacal mar a thachras uaireannan, chuir mi romham am facal a chur ann le fuaimreag fhada, leis gun robh e a’ nochadh ann an uiread a sgeulachdan mar sin. Ach gach turas a chunnaic mi falaire no fàlaire ann an sgeulachd, chuireadh e dragh orm. Unfinished business, mar a chanas iad sa chànan eile.

Feasgar an-diugh, bha mi ag obair air ceartachadh agus thàinig mi gu sgeulachd ùr air an robh Lasair Gheug a chaidh a thogail aig tè NicGilleMhaolain ann an Srath Tatha le Lady Evelyn ann an 1891 nuair a bha Gàidhlig pailt san sgìre fhathast. ’S e làmh-sgrìobhadh car seann-fhasanta a bh’ ann, bachallach bachlagach, agus gu math mì-shoilleir ann an cuid a dh’àitichean, lethbhreac de lethbreac de lethbreac is dòcha, mus deach a sganadh. Ach co-dhiù, stiall mi orm gus an dàinig mi gu leth-bhèarn:

Rudeigin a’ tòiseachadh le à, rudeigin, dà litir le ceann suas, agus rudeigin eile. Ge be ciamar a thionndaidh mi e, cha robh dad a’ bualadh orm. Dh’fheuch mi an uair sin an sgeulachd a lorg ann an tùsan eile, air teans gun deach a chur ann an clò-bhualadh ’s gun robh lethbhreac nas soilleir acasan. Cha d’fhuair mi lorg air an tionndadh Ghàidhlig ach thachair gun deach an tionndadh Beurla fhoillseachadh agus bha sin ’na chuideachadh mòr dhomh. ’S e a’ Bheurla a leanas a chur Alan Bruford air an earrann seo:

We will kill the king’s graceful black palfrey, and leave it on the landing.

Palfrey? Each? Bha mi air na sgrìobh MacGilleBhàin air dhìochuimhneachadh agus cha robh à?ll/bb/bh/tl/th/??? fhathast a’ dèanamh ciall sam bith. Cha robh dad a’ nochdadh sna tùsan àbhaisteach fo palfrey. Nuair nach bi slighe eile agam, feuchaidh mi eDil gu tric, car mar oidhirp dheireannach – agus nochd na leanas air an sgrìn:

falafraigh f. (OF palefrei) a palfrey: falafraigh alafraigh IGT, Decl. § 13 . alafraidh ‘na héruim, ex. 639 . inghean … ┐ falabhraigh uaine fúithe, Each. Iol. 37.26 . g s. Inghean na Falabhrach Uaine, 38.4 . ar édach h’alafraidhe, IGT, Decl. ex. 640 . .xx. falafraidh, Fier. 111 . pl. tuc eich ┐ falafracha [sic leg.] dó, AU 1516 . an ḟalartha ghorm `the blue Ambler’ GJ vii 90 ff .

Agus mar chlach às an adhar, bha an dà chuid fhios agam dè bha san sgeulachd seo (àllaire) agus dè bha am facal fàlaire a’ ciallachadh agus nòisean carson a bha e a’ dol eadar fada agus goirid (a bharrachd air folk etymologies mar fàl). ’S e am badan de chonsain am meadhan an fhacail palfrey a bu choireach. Cha robh -lfr- nàdarra sa Ghaeilge no sa Ghàidhlig agus stob iad fuaimreag eile a-steach an toiseach: falfr– > falafr-. Mar a thachras ann an Gàidhlig an-diugh fhathast ann am faclan aig a bheil fuaimreag-chuideachaidh (mar eisimpleir falmadair /faLamədɪrʲ/). ’S e an rud inntinneach a th’ aig an fhuaimreag-chuideachaidh gu bheil e air leth làidir agus a’ tarraing beum air falbh on chiad lide agus ma dh’fhaighnicheas tu de dhaoine aig a bheil Gàidhlig o thùs, chan urrainn dhaibh a ràdh le cinnt an e fuaimreag fhada, leth-fhada, no ghoirid a th’ ann. Ar leam gun robh làmh aig an -f- ud a bharrachd is e a’ crìonadh air falbh agus dh’fhàg sin facal againn aig an robh fuaimreagan caran às an àbhaist. Tachraidh rudan mar sin uaireannan, mar eisimpleir, tha calpa /kaLabə/ car às an àbhaist oir chan fhaighear an fhuaimreag-chuideachaidh le -lp- a ghnàth ach ’s e colbtha a bh’ ann o shean, le fuaimreag-chuideachaidh ach fo bhuaidh -th- dh’fhàs am b ’na p.

A thaobh na cèille, ’s e each air leth luachmhor a bh’ ann am palfrey o shean. Bha iad comasach air ceum rèidh ris an canar ambling sa Bheurla, falaireachd, agus rachadh na h-eich seo astar fada ’s iad ri falaireachd. Cha chreid mi gun robh e riamh a’ ciallachadh brood mare gu sònraichte ach gun robh luchd nam faclairean a’ dol claon beagan leis gur e facal boireann a th’ ann am falaire. Ach ma dh’fhaoidte gun robhar deònach orra mar brood mares cuideachd… ma bha iad cho luachmhor, ’s e each mar sin a bhiodh tu ag iarraidh airson searraich a thoirt dhut, nach biodh? Co-dhiù no co-dheth, air a’ char as lugha, tha cinnt agam a-nis dè seòrsa each a th’ ann!

Cha chreid mi gu bheil fuasgladh glan ann a thaobh litreachaidh an fhacail seo. ’S ann goirid a tha e san Fhaclair Bheag a-nis oir, mar is trice, glèidhidh a’ Ghàidhlig feadhainn fhada ’s ghoirid sa chiad lide agus ’s ann goirid a tha e ann am palfrey. Ach facal inntinneach gun teagamh, cothrom tràchdais do chuideigin is dòcha a tha dèidheil air eich agus fòn-eòlas – ach a-nochd, òlaidh mi slàinte Lady Evelyn, ’s bochd nach robh na cothroman aice-se a bhiodh aice an-diugh ann an saoghal an rannsachaidh, ach ’s math gun robh i ann!

Mìcheal Bauer, cuidiche rannsachaidh

Scottish Settlers in Alberta, Canada

The study of folktales can reveal a lot about cultures from around the globe, including the movement of people and ethnic groups.

I recently came across a ‘Hero Tale’ that caught my eye, entitled Am Breabadair agus an gille glas or The Weaver and the Grey Lad, in the Tale Archive, copied from an edition of Tocher (no. 42, 1989). The story is recited by Hugh MacPhee in Gaelic, recorded by Dr. Margaret A. Mackay in Alberta*, Canada (transcribed by Peggy McClements and translated by Donald A. Macdonald). I was raised in Alberta, and so the biographical details of the reciter piqued my interest. The tale in Tocher includes an interesting footnote: ”Emigrants from the Hebrides continued to settle in Western Canada well into the twentieth century, and Hugh MacPhee was one of a group from Benbecula and South Uist who were settled on lands near Clandonald, Alberta, in the early 1920s. His family was one known for its storytellers, including almost certainly the Donald Macphee so vividly described by J.F. Campbell in the introduction to Popular Tales of the West Highlands (I, pp. xxi-iii): this is a gift which Hugh’s son, Alex Norman MacPhee of Vermilion, Alberta, still keeps alive.” You can read the tale in full below.

Alex Norman is actually listed on the Tobar an Dualchais website, and you can find out more information about him here. The website states that “Despite spending the vast majority of his life in Western Canada, Alex did not lose his mother tongue, and was well versed in the culture and history of the Gaels on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Alex Norman MacPhee, Tobar an Dualchais website.

If as Tocher states, Alex’s ancestor is in fact the Donald Macphee described in Popular Tales of the West Highlands, what a great treasure for the MacPhee family it is to have such a wonderful and detailed account of your ancestors and their dwellings in their home country. Read the full account here.

There is a significant population of people of Scottish ethnicity in Canada, in fact the 2016 Canadian Census lists “Scottish” as the third highest ethnic origin among its respondents. The Maritime provinces are well-known for their Scottish diaspora, but Alberta less so. Even so, evidence of Scottish culture and influence can be seen across Alberta, with plenty of Albertan place-names originating in Scotland, such as Calgary, named after Calgary Bay in Mull by Lieutenant-Colonel James Farquharson Macleod (1836 – 1894), who served as Commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police and was born in Drynoch on the Isle of Skye. Similarities between Calgary, Scotland and Calgary, Canada start and end with the name, however! Other places include Banff, Carstairs and Airdrie to name a few. Alberta even has an official registered tartan.

Listen to this great 1979 recording by Dr. Margaret A. Mackay on the Life for emigrants in Canada.

If you’d like to look up records of emigration from Scotland, including ship passenger lists from 1890 onwards, visit the National Library of Scotland.

*It is important to recognize that the province known as Alberta is on First Nations lands across the boundaries of Treaties 6, 7 and 8. The Numbered Treaties of Canada have a complicated history and I encourage readers to find out more about them and the effects they have had on the indigenous people of Canada and their way of life. Lieutenant-Colonel Macleod, who I mentioned earlier, was one of the major signatories on Treaty 7 in present day Southern Alberta. The treaty was signed in Fort Macleod, named after him.

Downtown Calgary By AceYYC – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, wiki commons

Calgary Bay, Mull by Traveler100 at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, wiki commons

Am Breabadair agus an gille glas or The Weaver and the Grey Lad (click on the photos to see them full screen):


Bibliography and Further Reading

Tartan Details – The Scottish Register of Tartans (

Emigration | National Library of Scotland (

Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity Highlight Tables – Ethnic Origin, both sexes, age (total), Canada, 2016 Census – 25% Sample data (

“Popular Tales of the West Highlands.” United Kingdom: Edmonston and Douglas, 1860.

“Tocher: Tales, Songs, Traditions.” School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh.

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