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

Author: Cristina Horvath

Digitization & Data Entry Technician
Decoding Hidden Heritages Project

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?

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 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.

Scotland’s Year of Stories

Gaelic Version  |  BSL Version

2022 has been designated Scotland’s Year of Stories – very apt for the Decoding Hidden Heritages Project! Scotland has such a rich history of storytelling and the School of Scottish Studies Archives can attest to this. For this week’s blog I’d like to share two stories I found in the Tale Archive that center around… storytelling!

(Click on the images to enlarge them)


Fear aig nach robh sgeulachd idir or Why Everyone Should be Able to Tell a Story, Translation from “Stories from South Uist” (Angus., Campbell, John Lorne. Stories from South Uist. United Kingdom: Routledge & Paul, 1961)

Listen to the original Gaelic version here.

‘A Man with no Story’, by Elizabeth Kerr, Maclagan Manuscripts, p.2391, c.1890

The manuscript reads: “Sometimes, at a Ceilidh, a person found himself severely pressed to relate an ursgeul, when perhaps he did not wish to do so, or felt unable. Here is an example of ingenuity in such circumstances. He would begin with all seriousness as follows: On one occasion a woman and her son had a Dun cow which they wished to sell, and so they set out with it to the market. They had a good long distance to go, and what but, before they reached the market, the cow stumbled, and fell into a hole, and could not come out. The boy got hold of its tail to pull it out, and when he was pulling, and pulling, away came the tail with him, and if the Dun Cow’s tail had been stronger, my ursgeul would have been longer.”

“The love of stories is hardwired into us all; it is one of the strongest ways we connect with one another and share our experiences. Great stories, well told, can evoke indelible images in our minds and bring contemporary and traditional cultures to life. Every culture has its stories to tell, and Scotland has a particularly rich heritage of stories and storytelling to spotlight and celebrate. These include our local tales, oral traditions, great stories told in books or on screen – all inspired by our country, our culture and reflected back by many diverse voices and across the widest range of forms.” (Museums Galleries Scotland)

Have a look at the Scottish Storytelling Centre for more information on the wonderful tradition of storytelling in Scotland.

Digitizing Archival Material

This week’s blog post will take a behind-the-scenes look at what’s involved in digitizing an archival collection.

My job in the Decoding Hidden Heritages Project is to scan and document the contents of the Tale Archive here at the SSSA. The Tale Archive is comprised of paper documents separated into folders depending on their classification (ATU number, Romantic Tales, Supernatural Tales, etc.). There is also a collection of corresponding index cards for these documents.

The Tale Archive at the School of Scottish Studies Archive

As with most archival collections, various stationary items like staples, rubber bands and tape have been used over the years. Although their use was innocent and common-sense at the time, people looking after historic and archival collections now are aware that these items can present conservation issues. Staples can distort and tear paper and card, and metal has the potential to react chemically with its environment and certain materials it comes into contact with. Plastics and rubbers are particularly notorious for deteriorating in historic collections, and sometimes in unexpected ways. Deterioration of plastics is still a relatively new area of study among conservation experts, and methods of dealing with deterioration and alteration of plastic collections will continue to evolve in the coming years.

“Plastics are a new class of materials and their individual weaknesses are little known and often unexpected. Traditional display and storage methods accelerate deterioration of plastics, and the ensuing chemical and physical damage can be unattractive, highly corrosive, irreversible—and largely un-treatable. Because of the diversity and versatility of plastics, they have been used in a huge range of common objects since their introduction in the 19th century. Unfortunately, for the first part of their history, their long-term properties were not well understood. Older plastic objects can deteriorate more rapidly and in a greater variety of ways than those made from traditional materials. More recent plastics may also deteriorate rapidly as a result of planned obsolescence, such as biodegradability.” – Canadian Conservation Institute Guidance on Caring for Plastics and Rubber

Rubber reacts to oxygen over time and can become brittle and sticky. The rubber band in the photo below had to be carefully taken off the affected index card to ensure no text was lost.

Sticky tape will lose its adhesion over time and will come lose and discolor paper as can be seen in the photos below.

Projects like this one are a great opportunity for collections to be sifted through and to deal with any conservation issues present. As I go through the paper and cards to prepare them for scanning, I carefully remove any items that will prevent the documents from being scanned safely or that may harm them in storage over time. Paperclips and rubber bands are carefully removed and replaced with acid-free paper, which will prevent any further deterioration so the documents can stay legible for future generations to benefit from. If the paper/card is fragile and removing the deteriorated elements would do further damage, then it is left as found. I also have access to a special overhead scanner for these documents that takes a scan from above and does not come into contact with the document. Feeding fragile documents through the usual scanner could destroy them – and probably the scanner, too!

A bit of a top tip from the National Archives’ Managing Mixed Collections Guidance to use at home is to not store photographs next to rubber: “Vulcanised rubber emits hydrogen sulphide and carbonyl sulphide, gaseous pollutants that are the main agents responsible for tarnishing silver and causing photographs (which include a silver component) to fade and yellow. Rubber bands are made from vulcanised rubber, so it is important to ensure they are not used in close proximity to photographic materials.”

Have questions? Feel free to comment on the post and I will happily try to answer!

Further reading:

Care of Objects Made from Rubber and Plastic – Canadian Conservation Institute

Plastics? Not in My Collection – V & A Conservation Journal

The Well of the World’s End: More than Meets the Eye

An illustration of a young woman in a dress is shown seated on the edge of a well. She looks downwards at a frog that sits next to her.

Illustration by John D. Batten in English Fairy Tales, London: David Nutt, 1890.

English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs includes many tales that are familiar to most of us, and several that I have come across in my digitization work on the Tale Archive here at the School of Scottish Studies Archives. Some of these stories I remember coming across include Tom Thumb, The Red Etin, and Nix, Nought, Nothing which I mentioned in my last blog post about the Mi’kmaq Tale. One tale that I came across whilst working on the ATU 400 tales is ‘The Well of the World’s End’ on p. 215 of English Fairy Tales. The tale is an interesting combination of what most of us would know as Cinderella and The Princess and the Frog – although it’s not quite as child-friendly for our modern times, as the frog turns into a prince not with an innocent kiss, but with the chopping off of his head!

You may be wondering why I chose to discuss a tale from English Fairy Tales, as it doesn’t seem to be about what the Decoding Hidden Heritages Project is all about: Gaelic Narratives. However, Jacobs cites one of his sources for the tale of ‘The Well of the World’s End’ as: “[John] Leyden’s edition of the Complaynt of Scotland, p. 234…” (1801). He goes on further to mention ‘parallels’ of the tale:

In Scotland it is Chambers’s tale of The Paddo, p.87; Leyden supposes it is referred to in the Complaynt (c. 1548), as “The Wolf of the Worldis End.” The well of this name occurs also in the Scotch version of the “Three Heads of the Well”.

The Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1870), compiled by Robert Chambers, is a publication that comes up frequently in the Tale Archive here, and the Complaynt of Scotland is a book with a fascinating history that I highly recommend looking further in to if you haven’t come across it before.

I was initially drawn to the tale of ‘The Well of the World’s End’, and the entire publication, because of its wonderful illustrations, but the tale reveals a much more interesting story than what appears on the surface, and is worth a deeper dive (pun intended?) if you have the time. The links I’ve included in this post provide plenty of interesting reading material!

I’ve also included the front page from English Fairy Tales below, as it provides a snapshot of the wonders that can be found in its pages…


Leyden, John, James Inglis, David Lindsay, and Robert Wedderburn. The complaynt of Scotland: written in 1548. With a preliminary dissertation and glossary. Edinburgh: Printed for Archibald Constable. And sold by T. Cadell junior, and W. Davies, London, 1801.

Jacobs, Joseph, and Batten, John D. English Fairy Tales. London: David Nutt, 1890.

“Magic Flight”: A Mi’kmaq Tale

There are 28 versions of Aarne–Thompson–Uther (ATU) Index tale type 313 at the School of Scottish Studies Archives, but this particular one stands out. It is a tale told by Isabel Morris Googoo from the Mi’kmaq (or Micmac) tribe in Whycocomagh, Nova Scotia, to folklorist Elsie Clews Parsons in 1923. It was originally published in the Journal of American Folklore in 1925, but the copy we have on file is from a 1986 edition of the Cape Breton Magazine, with added illustrations of Mi’kmaq petroglyphs from a publication by the Nova Scotia Museum. The article notes that “it is an example of elements of European stories and religion that have been worked into Micmac tradition.” In this part of Canada, this European influence would have come more specifically from Scottish and French settlers, although this tale type has variations that can be found across the globe. It even has ties to Ancient Greek mythology. In Scots, it is best known as Nicht, Nought, Nothing collected by Andrew Lang from “an aged old lady in Morayshire” (In Lang’s words). Unfortunately, the lady is not named as is too often the case with female narrators, and actually what makes the Mi’kmaq Magic Flight story so interesting is that it was told and collected by women, and they are specifically named. In the Journal of American Folklore article, we are even given the names of the source of the story: Googoo’s grandmother, Mary Doucet Newell. The collector, Elsie Clews Parsons, was one of the earliest figures for the feminist movement and was outspoken on the negative effects of gender role expectations, publishing works on the topic in the early 20th century.

An Irish version of the Magic Flight tale, also collected by a woman, can be read on the Duchas website here.

The Mi’kmaq Magic Flight tale from the Cape Breton Magazine is attached here in its entirety. Note the adverts, providing a wonderful glimpse into the social history of 1980’s Nova Scotia!

A Micmac Tale – Magic Flight



Parsons, Elsie Clews. “Micmac Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore 38, no. 147 (1925): 55–133. *Warning: this article contains some offensive language*

Peverill, L.., Robertson, M.. Rock Drawings of the Micmac Indians. Petroglyphs. N.p.: n.p., 1973.

Cape Breton’s magazine. 1972. Wreck Cove, N.S.: R. Caplan (Edition no. 41, 1986).

Lang, Andrew. Custom and Myth. United States: Harper & brothers, 1893.

The Selkie o the River Dee

A Faroese stamp featuring the legend of Kópakonan (the Seal Woman).

Whilst working on data capture for the Decoding Hidden Heritages Project, I came across this tale of a seal-woman, or selkie (ScG: ròn ‘seal’), that struck a chord with me. Stanley Robertson from Aberdeen tells of the story he heard from his father, ‘The Selkie o the River Dee’, which Stanley was told was a true story and referred to an ancestor of his.

A man spies a seal-woman coming out of the River Dee and shedding her skin on the shore. The man takes the skin and hides it from her to force the woman to go home with him and be his wife. They have several children together and one day the children find the seal skin the man had hidden. The woman takes the skin and disappears back into the River Dee, never to return, with the man arriving just in time to see her go.

Upon reading the story, it immediately occurred to me that this seems to have been a tragic incident that was ‘spun’ into a whimsical tale, likely for the benefit of the children involved. Surely enough, Stanley goes on to say that he thinks the woman might have actually committed suicide, as the story referred to ”real” people. I think this story is fascinating because it has the ability to truly resonate with the listener or reader on a very emotional level. You don’t need to be an expert on folktales to understand why or how it came to be. Similar seal-woman (or mermaid) stories are found across the North Atlantic, for example in Irish, Icelandic and Faroese folklore.

A much more cheerful selkie reference in popular culture can be seen in the beautifully-illustrated Irish feature film: Song of the Sea.

To hear a similar story in Gaelic, click here.

To hear more stories on selkies (male and female versions), visit the Tobar an Dualchais website.

This blog post was written by Cristina Horvath, the newly-appointed Digitisation & Data Entry Technician for the Decoding Hidden Heritages Project.

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