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Cawdor Castle as seen from Cawdor Burn, Nairn


Oral Tradition

 Celtic & wonder tales
 Characters & heroes
 Historical subjects
 International tales
 Jokes & anecdotes
 Place name lore
 Supernatural Legends

The Highlands and Islands of Scotland are rich in oral tradition. Typical of the tales represented here are: old Celtic and Wonder tales, stories of historical events, legends and tales of the supernatural. Other popular subjects included tales of how places got their names, of local characters and mystical animals.

Celtic and Wonder tales
Some of the old Celtic and Wonder tales are remnants of very old traditions. The Wonder tales, in particular, have strong connections with the Heroic tales from Ireland. These older stories were preserved orally by the learned orders of bards and oral historians (seanachaidhs) who, in the Middle Ages, wrote some of their material down on parchment. Field workers were still recording these same stories as late as the 1970s in the Highlands.

The tradition of storytelling
The tradition of storytelling, as with music genealogy and so on, tended to be preserved within certain families. Where a few folk would gather for an evening's ceilidh stories were told, particularly if a well known teller of tales was present. Phrases such as "Do you mind when . . ." or "There was a time in the glen when . . ." would set the ball rolling and young and old would gather round to listen spellbound to tales tall, strange or true. Few would leave early for home!

A declining oral tradition
Recent years, however, have seen a decline in the art of storytelling. The pressures exerted by modern media have all but done away with the traditional ceilidh, which so stimulated the oral tradition. What is left is often little more than the swapping of jokes and anecdotes. The decline in Gaelic speaking too has left fewer folk to pass on the tales. While these traditions have survived longer within the traveling community, yet even among them the old ways are fast disappearing.


If a book listed in the bibliography below is available from the Highland Libraries it will be indicated by a book icon - Check Highland Libraries' Catalogue

Popular Tales of the West Highlands Check Highland Libraries' Catalogue

Bruford, Alan
Scottish Traditional Tales Check Highland Libraries' Catalogue

Access more books about folklore

Access more books about oral history

Jackson, Kenneth H.
'The Folktale in Gaelic Scotland'
PSAFS IV (3), 1952, pp 123-140

Thomson, Derick S.
'The Gaelic Oral Tradition'
PSAFS V (1) - 1954, pp 1-16.

MacDonald D.A.
'The Scottish Tradition of Story Telling'
J M Fladmark (ed) Heritage: Conservation, Interpretation and Enterprise - 1993, pp 311-24.

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