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Metadata for text 55
No. words in text13110
Title Gaelic Riddles and Enigmas (Toimhseachain agus Dubh-Fhacail)
Author Nicolson, Alexander
Editor N/A
Date Of Edition 1938
Date Of Language 1900-1949
Publisher Sinclair, Celtic Press
Place Published Glasgow
Volume N/A
Location NLS
Geographical Origins Various
Register Literature, Prose and Verse
Alternative Author Name N/A
Manuscript Or Edition Ed.
Size And Condition 18.9cm x 12.6cm
Short Title Gaelic Riddles and Enigmas
Reference Details NLS: T.86.g.
Number Of Pages 103
Gaelic Text By N/A
Illustrator N/A
Social Context Alexander Nicolson (1884-1966), from Skye, was a lecturer at Jordanhill College in Glasgow at the time of writing this book. Some years previously he had given a student the task of collecting twenty riddles: twelve in verse and eight in prose. When the student remarked how difficult a task that had been, Nicolson realised that he ought to collect and publish all the riddles he could find while they were still to be found. As a boy, he and his friends were very familiar with all sorts of riddles told in the taigh-céilidh, and they would practise them for fun and to see who amongst them would be Fear cobhair nan geas (‘the Solver of Riddles as well as the Destroyer of Spells’). Nicolson mentions, in the Preface, the importance of riddles through the ages, and how they were held in high esteem by, for example, some of the early Greek poets. He also notes that this collection of riddles is noteworthy because it reveals ‘a healthy and noble standard of morality’ and is ‘free of the veiled suggestion, and the unsavoury innuendo’ (pp. 9-10). Nicolson also published Modern Gaelic: A Basic Grammar in 1936 and Am Breacadh: A Basic Gaelic Reader in 1939.
Contents This volume begins with a Clar-Amais/Contents (pp. 5-6), and a Preface by Alexander Nicolson, in English, explaining why he is publishing the book and how he collected the material (pp. 7-11). There is a list of Errata attached between pp. 4 and 5 containing thirteen corrections as follows: p. 40 line 25 read ’S nach d’rinn; p. 52 line 20 read Da rud bheag, dhubh; p. 62 line 6, 7 read mun, for mu an; p. 64 line 12 read g’a, for ’ga; p. 64 line 18 read uilinn; p. 66 line 13 read banntraich; p. 70 line 13 read labhradh; p. 76 line 4 read tlaths; p. 78 line 24 read fear-aiseige; p. 86 line 2 read gu’m; p. 90 line 2 read g’, for ’g; p. 92 line 28 read nigheanan; p. 92 line 29 read Cill.

The riddles are presented here in Gaelic and English on facing pages. The English translations are literal – no attempt has been made to reproduce the sound patterns of the original Gaelic. Nicolson also notes that there are ‘divergencies [sic] in spelling from the canonical norm of Gaelic orthography, if such a condition can be said to exist’ (p. 10), and that, on occasion, the same word may be spelt differently, ‘owing to the exigencies of rhyme’ (p. 10). In addition, Nicolson explains that the accent is used only ‘where its absence would lead to possible ambiguity’ (p. 10), as he does not believe it is a necessary feature of the language except in such instances, and in the creation of dictionaries.

The riddles and enigmas are grouped under the following subject headings: Amannan agus Aimsirean/Times and Seasons (pp. 12-15), Beathaichean/Animals (pp. 14-23), Na Duil/The Elements (pp. 24-33), Biadh agus Deoch/Food and Drink (pp. 32-35), Luibhean agus Measan/Herbs and Fruit (pp. 35-37), Buill a’ Chuirp/Members of the Body (pp. 36-39), Airneis Taighe/House Furniment (pp. 40-45), Innealan agus Beairtean/Instruments and Implements (pp. 44-51), An Taigh agus na Bhuineas Da/The House and Its Appurtenances (pp. 50-53), Comhdach/Clothing (pp. 52-55), Nithean Coitcheanna/Common Objects (pp. 54-63), Daimhealachd/Relationship (pp. 60-61), Bho’n Bhiobull/Biblical (pp. 62-63), Ceistean agus Tri-fhaclaich/Questions and Triads (pp. 62-73), Ceasnachadh Fhinn air Nighean Charmaig/Fingal’s Questioning of Cormack’s Daughter (pp. 72-77), Ceistean Cunntais/Arithmetical Questions (pp. 76-83), Measganta/Miscellaneous (pp. 84-87), Ceistean air Eolas Feumail/Practical Knowledge Questions (pp. 86-91), Dubh-Fhacail/Puzzles (Sayings of hidden import) (pp. 90-95), Briathran a theirtear ealamh a chum am brigh a fhalach/Sayings to be spoken quickly in order to conceal their import (pp. 94-97), Deuchainnean Uirghill, no Cliseachd Teangann/Elocutionary Tests, or Nimbleness of Speech (pp. 96-101), and Beachdan air Side/Observations on Weather (pp. 101-03).

Variations of a number of riddles are given. For example, on page 16 three variations of one riddle are given. On occasion, variations of a line of a riddle are given, for example, Fear dubh, namhaid clisbhiche and Fuar dubh namhaid clisgeadach (p. 24). Certain riddles have footnotes attached to them, explaining a concept, a historical basis for the riddle, or an interesting fact about it. These footnotes are always in English and they are marked on either the English translation of the riddle or on the Gaelic original, but not on both. In one instance, a footnote informs us from whom the riddle was collected (p. 56).
Sources Many of the riddles presented here are riddles that Nicolson himself learned during his childhood in Skye. However, he also offers thanks to Peggy MacLean of Raasay for some of the riddles, and to his nephew, Calum MacLean, for supplying him with a collection of riddles that Calum himself had made. It is unclear whether these riddles were all from Skye. Even if they were collected in Skye, however, it is possible that some of the riddles came from other islands and from the mainland, brought by settlers to the island. One riddle was collected from Archd. MacPherson from Ollach in Skye (p. 56).
Language This volume contains a number of different types of riddles and enigmas. Some of them are quite informative, such as ‘Ciamar a tha aoisean chreutairean air an coimeas?’ (pp. 22-23). A number of riddles are puns on the Gaelic name of the object in question, e.g. ‘Co a’ bhrog nach deachaidh riamh mu chois duine? Brog-na-cuthaige’ (p. 34) and ‘Co e an currachd nach d’rinneadh riamh le lamhan dhaoine? Currachd-an-righ’ (p. 38), or as part of the riddle, e.g. gabh meaning both ‘take’ and ‘kindle’ in the following riddle: ‘Anna beag [sic bheag] a’ chota bhain, \ Mar is motha a ghabhas i, \ ’S mar is faide a sheasas i, \ Is ann is lugha a bhitheas i a’ fas.\ —Coinneal’ (p. 44).

Others are puzzles that require a logical answer, for example, ‘Tha brathair aig brathair m’athar, \ ’S cha bhrathair athar domhsa e. \  —A Athair Fein’ (p. 60). Another example, from the section on Arithmetical Questions, begins ‘Bha aig tuathanach ri ochd gallain bhainne a roinn co-ionnan eadar dithis choimhearsnach, agus gun ri a sheachnadh ach tri soithichean, a ghabhadh ochd, coig, agus tri gallain fa leth. Cia mar a chaidh aige air roinn chothromach a dheanamh?’ (p. 82). There are also some Practical Knowledge Questions, such as ‘Cia mar a dh’aithnichear adag seach cuiteag?’ (p. 86) and ‘Ciamar a sgoltar fiodh? Gach fiodh air a bharr \ Ach an fhearn air a bun.’ (p. 86); some tongue-twisters, such as ‘Cha robh reatha leathann, liath, riamh reamhar’ (p. 96); and some sentences that play on words, such as ‘Ged a mholadh tu am mol, chan fhas am mol molach.’ (p. 98).

This volume is also an excellent reflection of the outlook of the people who used these riddles. For example, in two out of the four versions of a riddle to which the answer was Seillean, the bee was described as wearing a cota buidhe Frangach (p. 16) and a cota fada Frangach (p. 18). In addition, sunbeams are described as Casan Cairbinn fo’n Ghrein (p. 28), and winter is described as A’ Chailleach Bheurr (p. 30). We also find superstitions amongst the riddles, e.g. ‘Ciod iad na tri comharraidhean air laraich mhallaichte? \  —Deanntag, Droman, agus Trian-ri-Trian’ (p. 68).

Some of the riddles are based on historical fact or fiction. For example, in regard to the riddle ‘Ciod iad tri mallachdan an tuathanaich: \ —Reodhadh Ceitein, Ceo Iuchar, agus an Taoitear Saileach’ (p. 68), a footnote explains that an Taoitear Saileach was Sir Roderick MacKenzie who was known and disliked for ‘rack-renting the tenantry’ (p. 68). The riddles and enigmas also allow us a glimpse into the interests and knowledge of the people. For example, there is a section on Biblical questions, and a section of questions and riddles about the Fenians. There is also a section of riddles and sayings about the weather, e.g. ‘Tha breac an rionnaich air an adhar; Latha math am maireach.’ (p. 100) and ‘Tha currachd air a’ bheinn; Siud an t-uisge a’ tighinn.’ (p. 100).

This volume is a useful source of vocabulary on a variety of subject matters. It contains a number of terms and phrases relating to nature, for example, a’ Chamhanaich (p. 12), Fiolan nan Ceud Cas (pp. 14-15), Gearr (p. 22), ceum an eibhrionnaich ‘the step of the gelded goat’ (pp. 22-23), Fuaran-fuchaidh [sic fiuchaidh] ‘a spring’ (pp. 24-25), laigh e air lag tobhtaig’ (p. 26), Dealt (p. 26), na Fir-Chlis (p. 28), Gas Ranaich ‘Broken Bracken Blown by the Wind’ (pp. 34-35), and moigean mollach ‘shaggy clump’ (pp. 34-35).

This volume also contains a number of terms for implements and instruments, such as roth-muilne (p. 44), cliath-chliathta (pp. 46-47), the word daimh meaning ‘the large beams of the harrow in which the teeth are inserted’ (pp. 46-47), isneach (pp. 46-47), spal-figheadair (pp. 48-49), greallag beairt-fhighe, criathar (p. 50), coileach-gaoithe (pp. 50-51), cliar ballain (pp. 54-55), and gillemirean (pp. 54-55).

Other words and expressions of interest include Latha Feill-Bride (p. 20), Feilleagan ‘festal one’ (p. 18-19), thallud (p. 22), te ghuaganach dheas ‘A jaunty, handsome one’ (pp. 22-23), cha mhinidh e ‘awl’ (pp. 34-35), sgleib ‘chisel’ (pp. 34-35), amharcan ‘pupil of eye’ (pp. 36-37), cuman ur, adhar ‘A new, fresh coque’ (pp. 38-39), ag gliogan and ag glagan (p. 40), blianach ‘tough flesh’ (p. 76), corma ‘mead’ (p. 76, an explanation of this term is given in a footnote), coit ‘canoe’ (pp. 82-83), piobaire na tobhta (p. 88-90). This last phrase is not explained in this volume, but McDonald (1958) explains it. Note also the similar phrase gleadhrach mhor a’ gharraidh (p. 88) and compare with gleadhrach na tobhta in McDonald (1958). Pages 88 and 90 also contain a number of interesting terms to describe women, such as Cinneagag, Cruinneagag, Snathdag, Ginneabhag, and Inneabheag (p. 90). Also of interest is the representation of Mackay as mhic Thaoig (p. 95).
Orthography As many of these riddles and enigmas will have been handed down for a number of generations, words and usages are likely to have been preserved in them, that may have since become less common. Some of these may be representative of the Skye dialect. For example, we find: An Eigh rather than an deigh (p. 24), A’ leumadraich (p. 26), macstalla rather than mac talla (p. 26), cionnus (p. 52), Mhaiteagan rather than miotagan (p. 52), the use of madadh for ‘dog’ (p. 66), dearna (p. 74), fos (p. 76), bliochd (p. 76), teach (p. 84), and thar an neas ‘across the cape’ (pp. 84-85).

Interestingly, seo (p. 84) and siud (p. 100) are both used; and a ta is used in a riddle on p. 76, although tha is used elsewhere in the text (e.g. p. 64). Also of interest are the forms of cha deachaidh e riamh (p. 24), nam fagteadh (p. 78), and chugam (p. 84). We find both Ciamar (p. 22) and Cia mar (p. 26).

The orthography is generally that of the early-to-mid-twentieth century.
Edition First edition. EUL Celtic Library also holds a copy of this book. It seems likely that the version held in the Celtic Library is an earlier impression than that held in the National Library of Scotland. The Celtic Library book has a green hardback cover (the NLS copy has a blue hardback cover) with the title text on the cover in a smaller and less ornate font, and the words ‘English and Gaelic’ under the title. The Celtic Library copy contains no list of Errata and the Errata identified in the NLS copy are uncorrected in it. Significantly, in the edition held in the Celtic Library, the publisher’s information on the title page has been obscured with a sticker on which new publication details are printed, viz. Alex. MacLaren & Sons, Glasgow.
Other Sources
Further Reading McDonald, Allan, Gaelic words and expressions from South Uist and Eriskay, 1958.
Nicolson, Alexander, Modern Gaelic: A Basic Grammar, 1936.
Nicolson, Alexander, Am Breacadh: A Basic Gaelic Reader, 1939.
Thomson, Derick S. (ed.), The Companion to Gaelic Scotland, 1994.
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