The Tusk of the Milking Maids

A deep-water fish appears – rather strangely and inexplicably –  in an old Gaelic milking song

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

It is fair to say that the deep-water marine fish known in English as tusk or cusk – traille in Gaelic – does not often appear in Gaelic song or literature, but it is, perhaps rather inexplicably, mentioned in a milking song recorded by Alexander Carmichael in the first edition of Carmina Gadelica, his unique collection of Gaelic songs, prayers and other heritage. The fish shares its place with some of the great saints of the Gaels.

Tusk, or cusk (Brosme brosme), is a bottom dweller that prefers stony bottoms on the continental shelf and slope at depths between 100 and 1000 meters.. Photo: MAREANO / Institute of Marine Research

There is a saying in Gaelic – ʼs ann às a ceann a bhleoghnar bò ‘it’s from her head that a cow is milked’. This refers, not to some remarkable anatomical feature in Highland cattle, but to the ‘fact’ that a happy cow produces more milk. And cows are happy when they are sung to! Carmichael explains the situation thus: ‘The cows become accustomed to these lilts and will not give their milk without them, nor, occasionally, without their favourite airs being sung to them. This fondness of Highland cows for music induces owners of large herds to secure milkmaids possessed of good voices …’

“A Scotch Milkmaid” – A Scottish Shale Museum postcard, (C)Scottish Shale Museum.

Carmichael goes on to elucidate the inspirational consonance between the work of the milking maids and the environment of the West Highlands, at least in his experience. Perhaps this explains why the oceanic tusk finds its way into a song about an essentially land-based activity: ‘It is interesting and animating to see three or four comely girls among a fold of sixty, eighty, or a hundred picturesque Highland cows on meadow or mountain slope. The moaning and heaving of the sea afar, the swish of the wave on the shore, the caroling of the lark in the sky, the unbroken song of the mavis on the rock … the lowing of the kine … the response of the calves within the fold, the singing of the milkmaids in unison with the movement of their hands, and of the soft sound of the snowy milk falling into the pail, the gilding of hill and dale, the glowing of the distant ocean beyond, as the sun sinks into the sea of golden glory, constitute a scene which the observer would not, if he could, forget.’ One wonders if the milking maids themselves appreciated the glory of their work!

Here, then, is the milking song recorded by Carmichael on pp 258-9 of Volume 1, with a fairly literal (and unpoetic) translation given below:

Thig, a Bhriannain, on chuan,
Thig, a Thorrainn, buadh nam fear,
Thig, a Mhìcheil mhìl’ a-nuas
’S dìlinn dhòmhsa bò mo ghean.

Hó m’ aghan, hó m’ agh gaoil,
Hó m’ aghan, hó m’ agh gaoil.
M’ aghan gràdhach, bò gach àirigh,
Sgàth an Àrd Rìgh gabh ri d’ laogh.

Thig, a Chaluim chaoimh, on chrò,
Thig, a Bhrìde mhòr nam buar,
Thig, a Mhoire mhìn, on neòil,
’S dilinn dhòmhsa bò mo luaidh.
Hó m’ aghan, hó m’ agh gaoil.

Thig am fèaran on a’ choill,’
Thig an traill’ à druim nan stuagh,
Thig an sionn’, chan ann am foill,
A chur aoibh air bò nam buadh.
Hó m’ aghan, hó m’ agh gaoil.

* * * *

Come, Brendan, from the ocean,
Come, Ternan, most potent of men,
Come, valiant Michael, down
Forever make my best cow mine.
Ho, my wee heifer, ho my beloved heifer,
Ho my wee heifer, ho my beloved heifer.
My beloved wee heifer, cow of every shieling,
For the sake of the High King accept your calf.

Come, beloved Calum of the fold,
Come, great Bride of the cattle herds,
Come, gentle Mary from the clouds,
Forever make my best cow mine.
Ho, my wee heifer, ho my beloved heifer.

The woodpigeon will come from the wood,
The tusk will come from the open sea,
The fox will come but not deceitfully,
To welcome the virtuous cow.
Ho, my wee heifer, ho my beloved heifer.
Adult tusk live in relatively deep water, while the juveniles prefer shallow water. Photo: MAREANO / Institute of Marine Research

One can never be sure with Carmichael’s work that he has not ‘tidied up’ the originals he heard, but even so, the result is an interesting blend of appreciation of some of the joys of nature and an invocation of the protection and assistance of the greatest of the Christian saints associated with Gaelic civilisation – all sung to a lilting melody and for the purpose of increasing the yield of life-sustaining cow’s milk. But why the milkmaid chose the tusk over other more familiar species of marine fish, such as cod, herring or saithe, remains, at least to this blogger, a mystery!

* * * *

This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.

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