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Friday, 11 December 2015

How Finn Chose a Hound

The hunt was at the very heart of Fenian pursuits. Indeed, the root of the word fian is a cognate with the Latin venare meaning to hunt and so the lifestyle of such a young band of warriors would wield around the chase. Of course, what use would a hunter be without a trusty and loyal hound? Pedigree deerhounds, and other hunting dogs besides, were (and still are) integral to any hunting endeavour, and thus were highly prized and sought after. According to a tradition, recorded on 24 April 1951 (and transcribed shortly afterwards) by Calum Maclean from John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, this is the method by which the Fenian leader chose a hound:

Mar a Thaghadh Fionn a Chù

’S e duine sgilear a bh’ ann am Fionn. Agus dh’aithnigheadh e beothach, biodh e na dhuine, na bheothach, dh’aithnigheadh e dè bh’ ann, ainmhidh, each na mart. Agus ’s ann mar seo a bha e a’ taghadh a’ choin:

Sùil mar àirneag,
Cluas mar dhuilleag,
Uchd mar ghearran,
Speir mar chorran,
’S an t-alt-lùthaidh fada bhon cheann.

’S ann mar sin a thaghadh e an gadhar a bheireadh air an fhiadh. Agus an gabhar a gheibheadh tu mar sin, leumadh e air a h-uile turas as deaghaidh an fhèidh. Mar a bha e ag ràdha, rachadh e troigh air fhichead agus nì am fiadh fichead troigh. Agus ’s ann mar sin air a h-uile leum cha robh e a’ toirt a-staigh an fhèidh ach troigh. Agus ghabhadh e treis ris nan d’ fhuair am fiadh mòran air falbh.

And the translation goes something like the following:

Thus Would Finn Chose his Hound

Finn was a skilful man and he could discern a good man or a good beast whether it was a horse or a cow. And thus was the way in which he would chose a hound:

Eye like sloe
Ear like leaf,
Chest like horse
Hough like sickle,
And the pith-joint far from head

That is how he chose a hound that would catch deer. This hound would leap after a deer every time. As it is stated, it could reach twenty-one feet and the deer only twenty feet. And every leap it took it would get closer to the deer by one foot. And it would only take a while before the deer could get very far away.

A common proverbial phrase relates how Finn chose a hound as given in Nicolson’s collection of Gaelic proverbs:

Siud mar thaghadh Fionn a chù:
Sùil mar àirneag, cluas mar dhuilleig,
Uchd mar ghearran, speir mar chorran,
’S an t-alt-lùthaidh fad’ on cheann.

Thus would Fingal choose his hound:
Eye like sloe, ear like leaf,
Chest like horse, hough like sickle,
And the pith-joint far from head.

William Scrope in his influential Victorian book Days of Deer Stalking (1883), gives the following version of the tradition:

At an early period, the name by which those dogs were known in these countries was the same, viz., the Celtic one of Miol chù, which signifies a dog for the pursuit of wild animals, through this term is now applied generally to all dogs of the greyhound species. The following description of the miol-chù has been handed down for generations, and is quite as minute, and at least as old, as the well known on of the book of St. Alban’s:―

“Sud mar thaghadh Fionn a chù
Suil mar airneag, cluas mar dhuilleig,
Uchd mar ghearran, speir mar chorran,
Meadh’ leathan, an cliabh leabhar,
’San t-alt cuil fad bho’n cheann;”

which my be translated thus:―

An eye of sloe, with ear not low,
With horse’s breast, with depth of chest,
With breadth of loin, and curve in groin,
And nape set far behind the head:
Such were the dogs that Fingal bred.

Such knowledge, or proverbial wisdom, was later re-imagined in Gaelic song as can be seen from an extract which probably dates to around the mid-seventeenth century:

An cù ’bhi’aig Raonull-mac-Raonuil-’ic-Iain,
Beireadh e sithionn a beinn:
Ceann leathan, eadar ’dha shuil, ach biorach ’s bus dubh air gu shroin.
Uchd gearrain, seang-leasrach; ’s bha fhionnadh
Mar fhrioghan tuirc nimheil nan còs,
Donn mar àirneag bha shuil; speir luthannach lùbta,
’S faobhar a chnamh mar ghein.
An cù sud ’bh’aig Raonull-mac-Raonuil-’ic-Iain,
’S tric thug e sithionn a beinn.

Ronald-son of Ronald-son of John’s good dog,
He could bring venison from the mountain,
He was broad between the eyes; otherwise sharp and black-muzzled to the tip of his nose.
With a horse-like chest, he was small flanked, and his pile
Was like the bristles of the den frequenting boar.
Brown as a sole was his eye;
Supple-jointed (was he), with houghs bent as a bow;
All his bones felt sharp and hard as the edge of a wedge.
Such was Ranald Mac Ranald vic John’s good dog,
That often brought venison from the mountain.

According to Nether-Lochaber, this Ranald Mac Ranald vic John (properly Raghnall mac Raghnaill ’ic Iain) was a celebrated hunter who belonged to Glencoe, and who was later slain at the battle of Philliphaugh in1645.

(Sheriff) Alexander Nicolson (ed.), A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1996), p. 388
William Scrope, Days of Deer Stalking in the Scottish Highlands (London: Hamilton, Adams, 1883), p. 264
Rev. Alexander Stewart (Nether-Lochaber), Nether Lochaber: The Natural History, Legends and Folk-Lore of the West Highlands (Edinburgh: William Paterson, 1883), pp. 197–98

Deerhounds giving chase by Arthur Rackham