The Gruagagh

Mucking about in the Archives this afternoon resulted in a nice look at how a folk motif can change over time. Take the matter of a Gruagach…

We reviewed a double CD set of Robin Williamson’s Four Gruagach Tales. As our reviewer says, ‘Some may be asking ‘What, pray tell, is a gruagach?’ In many tales, a gruagach is akin to a brownie. Not in Williamson’s stories: a gruagach is a wizard, long of hair and beard, often red-haired, and usually malevolent.’

That however is not the original conception of a gruagach. Quoting Wikipedia, we have this description which is very much what folklorists hold to be true: ‘A brownie/brounie or urisk (Lowland Scots) or brùnaidh, ùruisg, or gruagach (Scottish Gaelic) is a legendary creature popular in folklore around Scotland and England especially the north, though more commonly hobs have this role.’

Encyclopedia Mythica has a much more favorable description which is more keeping with the conceptualization that contemporary writers such as de Lint use: ‘The Pictish/Scottish male equivalent of Scotia he was also looked upon as the guardian of cattle, a bold warrior and brilliant sorcerer.’

It’s quite possible that the Encyclopedia Mythica telling is much more recent in origin.

Charles de Lint’s Jack of Kinrowan series collects two previously published short novels — Jack, the Giant Killer (1987) and Drink Down the Moon (1990), which are core texts of urban fantasy, and they indeed have a gruagach who is called The Gruagach by de Lint. No vile creature but instead something far more noble and far more human.

So let’s finish off this ramble by quoting from de Lint’s novel:

“In peaceful times,” Finn replied, “the Gruagagh sees to the welfare of Kinrowan itself. He sits in his Tower, weaving and braiding the threads of luck that flow through the earth by the will of the Moon—ley lines. Do you know what I mean?”

“Vaguely. I mean, I’ve heard of leys before.”

“Yes. Well, his Tower… Think of it as a great loom that he uses to gather the luck we need, the luck that he weaves into the fabric of the realm. When there’s a snag or tear in the luck threads, it’s the Gruagagh who solves the problem, sometimes by a simple spell to untangle a knot in the thread, other times by directing the hobs and brownies of the Court to remove the obstruction. The luck gave us life and sustains us, you see, while the tides of your belief strengthens or weakens what we already are—at least that’s what I heard the Laird say once. He said that without the lines of luck, we would be wholly dependent upon your belief and soon gone from this world.

“So the Gruagagh sees to the physical realm and its boundaries, while the Court itself and its people are looked after by our Laird and his family. The Laird rules and settles disputes, while his lady and her daughters hold in trust the songs that sow the seeds deeper, make the harvests more bountiful, keep the Host at bay on Samhaine Eve—the day-by-day magics that make life better. Only now our Laird is widowed and his daughter’s gone…”

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