Adders of Poison and Wisdom

Adders have a significant place in Gaelic folklore

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig

The old Gaels were very fond of puzzles, and here’s an example of one whose solution might not be immediately obvious to the modern eye or ear:

Tha slat an coille Alasdair,

Cha ghiuthas i, cha dharach i,

Chan aon fhiodh air thalamh i,

’S cha thomhais thu gu oidhche i.

‘there’s a rod in Alasdair’s wood; it’s not pine, it’s not oak; it’s not of any wood on earth, and you’ll not guess it till nightfall.’

The solution is a nathair ‘snake/adder’. Slat, while meaning a rod, such as a fishing rod (or a yard measure), can also refer to a long thin object such as an uncoiled snake and even, colloquially, to a penis. Nathraichean ‘snakes/adders’ pop up several times in Gaelic folklore and sayings. An example of a malediction is sgath na nathrach ort! ‘the bite of the snake on you!’. And we might say of somebody who has a strong aversion to another person – tha nimh na nathrach aige dhut ‘he has the snake’s poison for you’.

Nathair [pron. NA-hir] has cognates in other languages, including English. The silent ‘th’ [sounded like an ‘h’ between two vowels] would have once been sounded like a ‘t’ or ‘d’, demonstrating the word’s relationship with Welsh neidr, Icelandic naðra and Middle English naddre. The English form lost the ‘n’ to the article and ‘a naddre’ became ‘an adder’. So nathair and adder are close relatives. The Latin natrix ‘water snake’, employed in the scientific appellation for the grass snake – Natrix natrix, is also likely to be cognate with nathair, although some authorities have sought a derivation from the root nat ‘swim’.

Grass snake ©Richard Revels

While nathair can be a generic for snakes or serpents of any sort, it is commonly used in reference to the adder. If we want to be specific, we can refer to the adder as a nathair-nimhe ‘poisonous snake’, with the non-venomous grass snake being referred to as nathair gun phuinnsean ‘snake without poison’. There is a simile cho carach ris an nathair-nimhe ‘as devious as the adder’. It is interesting that, in the Gaelic dialect of Gairloch (Wester Ross), a similar process has occurred to that in English, with the initial ‘n’ in nathair being lost. An adder in Gairloch is athair-neimhe, and the late Roy Wentworth’s comprehensive dictionary of the dialect lists a local place-name (not on the maps) – Camas nan Athraichean-Neimhe ‘the bay of the adders’.

Ordnance Survey map showing Bad nan Nathraichean - serpents' cliff - on the Waternish Peninsula in Skye.
Bad nan Nathraichean, interpreted by the Ordnance Survey as ‘serpents’ cliff’ is on the Waternish Peninsula, Isle of Skye. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The Gaelic landscape boasts a number of place-names where nathair appears in its standard genitive or possessive form – nathrach [‘NAR-uch’] in the singular or sometimes plural, and nathraichean [‘NAR-ee-chun’] in the plural. Examples are Creag na Nathrach ‘the rocky hill of the adder’ near Loch Loyne, Lochaber, Càrn na Nathrach ‘the hill of the adder’ in Ardgour and Meall Nathrach ‘adder hill’ south of Loch Laggan. Cnapan Nathraichean ‘adders’ knob’ is on the Balmoral Estate in Aberdeenshire and Geodha nan Nathraichean ‘the geo of the snakes’ is on the south-eastern coast of Lewis. The last name is fascinating, as several of my Lewis-born acquaintances maintain that, just as with Ireland, there are no adders on the island. And Meall Arachaidh in Applecross is considered to be properly Meall nan Nathraichean ‘the lump of the snakes’.

Ordnance Survey map showing Cnapan Nathraichean - adders' knob - on Balmoral Estate.
Cnapan Nathraichean ‘adders’ knob’ (top left) is on the Queen’s Balmoral Estate.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Alexander Carmichael in Carmina Gadelica (Vol II) gives the following information about a phenomenon also recorded from the traditions of other Celtic peoples: ‘A product called ‘clach-nathrach’ serpent stone, is found on the root of the long ling [heather]. It is of steel-grey colour, has the consistency of soft putty when new and of hard putty when old, and is as light as pumice-stone, which it resembles. It is of a globular form, and from one to three inches in diameter. There is a circular hole, about a quarter of an inch in width, through the centre. This substance is said to be produced by the serpent emitting spume round the root of a twig of heather. The ‘clach-nathrach’ is greatly prized by the people, who transmit it as a talisman to their descendants.’

It is said that the adder has an aversion to three species of tree – birch, Scots pine and, most particularly, the ash. There is a saying in Gaelic: Thèid nathair tro theine dearg mun tèid i tro dhuilleach an uinnsinn ‘a snake will go through a red-hot fire sooner than through the leaves of the ash’. An adder’s head was viewed as a useful component in the medical bag of old healers who would keep a pocan cheann ‘little bag of heads’ – containing the heads of an adder, toad and newt. This would be dipped into a stream that divided two crofts. The water that escaped from the bag when it was lifted out of the stream was then applied to a wound. The Welsh polymath, Edward Lhuyd, noted the Gaelic tradition of immediately running into water as an antidote for adder-bite. He also reported the belief that old snakes turned into winged dragons! Lightfoot in Flora Scotica (1777) tells us that ‘[snake] venom dropt on a sword will cause it to hiss like water on hot iron, and that a poultice of human ordure is a sovereign remedy for the bite’! The author hastens to point out that he does not advocate any of these ‘cures’!

There is an ancient tradition connecting the adder to Latha Fèill Brìde ‘St Bride’s Feast Day’ (1 February), a manifestation of which was to pound a piece of peat in a stocking on that day, the peat representing the emergence of the snake from its winter lair. The snake is supposed to make a promise to the MacIver clan as it emerges from its hole on Bride’s day (traditionally the start of Spring), perhaps recalling some ancient motif or even an echo of clan alliances in ancient times – possibly between the MacIvers in Perthshire and Clann Donnchaidh, the Robertsons, among whose animal totems was a serpent.

Mhionnaich mise do Chlann Ìomhair,

’S mhionnaich Clann Ìomhair dhòmhsa

Nach bean mise do Chlann Ìomhair

’S nach bean Clann Ìomhair dhòmhsa.

‘I have sworn to Clan Iver, And Clan Ivor have sworn to me, That I shall not touch Clan Ivor, And that Clan Ivor will not touch me.’

Two male adders dancing
Adders ©Catriona Reid/NatureScot.

Perhaps the most famous of the Gaelic legends of the adder concerns the magic contained within the flesh of a white specimen (of which the author has seen one example in the wild). A tale from Tiree called An Nathair Gheal ‘the white snake’ tells of a tyrannical king who seeks the power to understand the speech of birds and other animals but who is thwarted by a young prince who eats the flesh of the white snake that he has procured for the king. A raven – a bird of great wisdom in Gaelic tradition – tells the prince to escape with his life, and all ends well. The motif of the young man inadvertently gaining knowledge by consuming the flesh that contains wisdom has likely been transferred from the powerful and influential pan-Gaelic tale of how the young Fionn mac Cumhail gains his intellectual powers by tasting bradan an eòlais ‘the salmon of knowledge’.

A Sutherland legend, based on an attested historical character, is of Fearchar Lighiche, a Beaton physician with Islay origins, who is a shepherd in Glen Golly in the Mackay Country of the far northern Highlands. He attends a fair in the Lowlands, where a stranger offers him a reward if he can capture a white snake from the base of a hazel tree (the tree of knowledge) in his native glen. Fearchar himself consumes some flesh from the snake and suddenly gains magical knowledge of how to cure all human ailments. On his way home (without his reward) he attends to a king, alleviating his excruciating pain, and becomes a famous and wealthy physician and landowner. The real Fearchar might well have been a physician to Robert II, a 14th century king of Scotland.

A very similar story, based in Lochalsh and concerning the 8th century healer Naomh Faolan ‘St Fillan’ who takes a white snake to France, is related by Duncan Matheson (Donnchadh Stalker 1929-2010) on the Tobar an Dualchais website. And traditions concerning snakes have continued virtually to the present day. Alexander Nicolson (Alasdair Shomhairle Mhòir) of Skye (1884-1966) was recorded by his nephew, the folklorist, Calum Iain Maclean, in 1959, relating how, as a boy, he had seen a young heifer suffering bad swelling. Folk cures such as using uisge far an airgid ‘silvered water’ or tying a red thread around the beast and reciting a healing rann ‘verse’ were attempted but had not proved efficacious. A neighbour suggested that the problem was snake-bite, and he offered to effect a cure with a snake’s head that he had inside the house (this foresight is not explained!) He rubbed claban-cinn na nathrach ‘the top of the snake’s head’ over the site of the wound and by next morning the swelling had gone and the animal was cured. Nicolson concludes by saying, ‘Chan fhaca mise riamh ceann nathrach a bhith ga chur air feum ach aig an aon àm ud’ (I never saw a snake’s head being used except that one time). Indeed! A precious memory, captured for posterity.

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.

This entry was posted in Gaelic, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.