Our 21st-century culture is first, superficial: images. Deeper and less visible are the workings of commerce. But there is another culture that also occupies our own, to which we might be more sensitive, and which might help in other ways. Let’s call it psychological and social. Here, Alan Riach reminds us of what that has been, is, and might yet be.

THERE are various accounts of the Gaelic “otherworld” not always matching each other, as is appropriate for the shape-shifting, identity-loosening, bureaucratic nightmare that it presents. Among them are The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies by Robert Kirk (c1641-92).

This was said to have been published in 1691 but no copy of such a first edition is known. Walter Scott claimed to have read it and he published an edition in 1815. It was republished in 1893 with an introduction by Andrew Lang, dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson. The 2007 edition has an introduction by the feminist scholar of religion, myth, fairy tales and art, Marina Warner. We’ll be coming back to Robert Kirk.

There is also Survivals of Belief Among the Celts (1911) by George Henderson (1866-1912), who collected material from the Outer Hebrides, particularly South Uist, was a graduate of Edinburgh and Vienna universities, and became a lecturer in Celtic Studies at the University of Glasgow from 1906 until his early death.

Survivals of Belief tracks three areas: “The Finding of the Soul” considers “internalised” belief: religion and ritual, speech and spells, charms and names, the Evil Eye, the significance of blood, and the “Gessa” or taboo. “The Wanderings of Psyche” takes us through outward manifestations: the “theriomorphic soul” in its forms as hand or weapon, trees and stones, bird or bee, animals of various kinds (not least curious, the Boobrie, which might be bird, water-horse or water-bull). And “The Earthly Journey” considers rites of healing, illumination, fire, water, milk, magic stones, sacrifices, faith, caves, lochs and wells. The book concludes with discrimination between “folk-consciousness” which “thinks in pieces” and “a sovereign content of existence” which comes with Christianity.

Among many other studies of folk belief and supernatural matters, there is The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain (1946) by the poet Lewis Spence, an older contemporary of Hugh MacDiarmid. But I’d like to spend some time here with John Gregorson Campbell (1834-91), who was a Gaelic-speaker from Appin, a minister of Tiree, and one of the major folklorists of the 19th century. The material he collected c1850-74 was published in two volumes, Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1900) and Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands (1902). The dating suggests that some of his informants were born in the 18th century and some stories seem to predate the Jacobite rising of 1745, drawing from an earlier, more traditional Gaelic society.

Folklore collecting was international, with the brothers Grimm in Germany, Robert Kirk and later Walter Scott in Scotland, Thomas Crofton Croker and later WB Yeats and Lady Gregory in Ireland. William Grant Stewart was the first collector in the Scottish Highlands, followed by James Napier in the Lowlands and Walter Gregor in the north-east. But Gregorson Campbell is a key figure.

Revised, collated, introduced and annotated by the Gaelic scholar Ronald Black, the books were republished as The Gaelic Otherworld (2008; reprinted 2019). This new edition invites a review of the whole sense of the “otherworld” in traditional Gaelic story and song.

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More than that: Black draws out clearly the ways in which the folklore itself has contemporary application, in psychological, political, social and other spheres of existence. And this is vital. Far from being “quaint” or “esoteric”, this is arresting narrative and imaginative revelation of metaphoric understanding. We need to think again about this “otherworld” as something more than merely “superstition”.

Black identifies in Gregorson Campbell’s work not one but three otherworlds, peopled respectively by fairies, spirits and witches. The world of the fairies is secular, suggesting what has since been delivered by science: the ability to fly, Freudian psychiatry, moral quandaries, the mix of reason and instinct, the tension between intellectual self-apprehension and animal desires, evident in creatures that cross a hierarchy of life in the animal kingdom, from the “uruisk” (a Highland monkey), to mermaids and water-horses. Then there is the world of spirits, ghosts and second sight. This is the home of the dead, where we encounter the omens of death and other premonitions. This sphere is grim, often violent, forced upon our attention by the fact of mortality and foresight, or simply self-knowledge of what the future inevitably holds for each of us.

The world of witchcraft and the devil is “the religious otherworld”. Polarities – good and evil, God and the Devil, healing and harming, medicine and mistreatment, high hopes and missed chances – are characteristic, and they generate both, or either, comedy and tragedy.

Each otherworld engages the mysterious questions of time and space, reality and dream, what is above or beyond our knowledge, past visible horizons, what can be seen on the face of the Earth, and what lies below (underground, underwater).

A visit to an otherworld usually involves some distortion of time. As Black points out, “Rip Van Winkle is a migratory legend of Celtic origin, claimed by Orcadians to have come from Washington Irving’s father, born and bred in Shapinsay”.

BUT time has practical meaning in the divisions of the Celtic Year, with quarter-days, Gaelic names for different kinds of wind, festivals, the seasons and what happens in each of them, an annual calendar of turning-points to be marked and acted on. Start with the fairies: where did they come from?

The Catholic tradition in Scotland reports that the fairies are supposed to belong to the angelic order of beings who remained neutral in the revolt of the Angels. They had to undergo a trial on earth after their leader Lucifer had been expelled from Heaven and fallen into Hell. When God commanded the angels to cease fighting, those who fell to earth became fairies, those who remained in the sky became the northern lights, those who fell on rocks became echoes, those who fell in the sea became seals. Yeats and Lady Gregory were informed that there were two kinds of fairies, the Tuatha Dé Danann, or the Peoples of the Goddess Danu, who were good, and the Fir Bolg, or Men of Bags, “more wicked and more spiteful”: these are “the two races of the Sidhe”.

According to Lady Gregory, one is tall, handsome, given to jesting and playing pranks, riding on horseback at night-time in large companies and troops or in carriages decked with flowers; the others are small, dark, malevolent and big-bellied. The idea that each carries in front of them a bag suggests to Ronald Black that perhaps they were wearing sporrans.

But the general implication of succession is clear: “the fairies of any one race are the people of the preceding race – the Fomors for the Fir Bolgs, the Fir Bolgs for the Dananns, and the Dananns for us.” When the old races die they don’t depart into absence, they become fairies, spirits, and look on, to hinder and distract, or sometimes to help.

Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle – I said we’d come back to him – author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves and Fairies, was described as a “walker between two worlds” and Black confirms the justice of this appellation, “but not in the sense in which it was intended”.

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The two worlds Kirk walked between were the Gaelic-speaking world of the parish of Aberfoyle in Perthshire, where he preached, and the Scots- and English-speaking worlds of his parents and background in Edinburgh. As a churchman, he was more than familiar with Latin but it is his immersion and integration into the Gaelic world which validates the description. Black notes: “This is a truly ‘secret commonwealth’ with a discernible organisational principle, and indeed the traditions of the Church upon which the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory is based were themselves substantially inherited from eschatologies of this kind, including those of the Celts and the Greeks.”

In a sense, the Gaelic otherworld is purgatory. And all these terms are metaphoric, which is to say, while they take narrative, literary forms as stories, in imagery, with tension and a powerful sense of risk and danger, they are not mere whimsy or fancy, but rather generated out of realities which anyone might understand immediately in the material, secular universe.

Metaphor is what we use when we don’t have an immediately applicable vocabulary for certain things. Black gives an example: “Every so often in Gaelic literature we notice a poet or writer groping for familiar words to express an alien concept.”

A 16TH-CENTURY woman calls a gun “a slender powder of poison”, as if it were a snake; a 20th-century writer mentions the trolley of a Glasgow tram looking “like a lobster’s antennae”.

Take this further and the stories of the Gaelic otherworld might be decoded as psychic constructions that would help make sense of things otherwise inexplicable, or most stiflingly fearful. What cannot be spoken of directly might not dictate silence, but rather forms of expression parallel to the literal.

And these might help people make rules for living well, avoiding danger, observing moral priorities and social equilibrium in a dangerously changing world. Such rules of guidance might apply in domestic as much as political contexts, from housekeeping to childcare, from bereavement and separation to relocation, migration and exile, from pregnancy to alcoholism, sickness and death. The conflation of aspects of Christian religion with pagan superstition and folk-beliefs may seem strange but perhaps an immediate and sharp understanding of how this works is supplied by the Welsh poet and clergyman RS Thomas (1913-2000).

As noted in his biography by Byron Rogers, in an interview given in his 87th year Thomas was asked by a journalist from The Daily Telegraph what sort of God he believed in, and replied: “He’s a poet who sang creation [and] He’s also an intellect with an ultra-mathematical mind, who formed the entire universe in it.” Further: in a TV film of 1972, Thomas said this: “The message of the New Testament is poetry. Christ was a poet, the Resurrection is a metaphor; and I feel perfectly within my rights in approaching my whole vocation as a priest and preacher as one who is to present poetry.”

And he elaborated on this, saying that 2000 years ago, after the disciples had “experienced something” they then had to “convey it by means of manuscripts, or whatever they used, in language. And we have to take their account in language, but there are aspects of language which are most successfully conveyed by metaphor, and the risen Christ, the resurrection, to me, as I said, is metaphor. It’s an attempt to convey an experience of a kind of new life, an eruption of the deity into ordinary life, a lifting up of ordinary life into a higher level…”

Or, to put it another way, to acknowledge and describe (if not always to understand) the forces at work below the surface of things, that erupt into daily material life, and those that surround us, from above and far away, invisible, ineffable, intractable, metaphor is vital. In this, the imagination is not merely helpful, but necessary.

As Hugh MacDiarmid puts it in his poem, “On a Raised Beach”: “What the seen shows is never anything to what it’s designed to hide”.