Pechts wi big banana feet

Author: Philip Robinson

Date: 1997

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 5 Simmer1997


The Picts, or Pechts as they are known in Ulster-Scots, were a real historical people — and at the same time they were a mythical race with peculiar characteristics. The Pechts of Scottish and Irish history are both known in the Irish Annals as the ‘Cruithin’*. They were numerous and widespread in Ireland before the Early Christian period, but thereafter disappeared as a separate people, except in the south Antrim and west Down kingdom of Dalaradia. The Antrim portion of Dalaradia was known as the country of the Cruithin until the 7th - 8th centuries. A typical historian’s description of the survival of these latter-day Picts was given by H J St J Clarke in his book Thirty Centuries in South East Antrim. He described the various kingdoms in the Ulidian (Antrim and Down) confederacy of that period:

Second in importance was Dalaradia, the country of the Picts or the Cruithins, which included the present diocese of Dromore and the whole of Antrim south of the River Ravel.

When the Antrim Dalaradia became separated from its county Down portion, the Bishop of Connor was known as the Bishop of Dalaradia, and it was this reduced territory which was styled the “Country of the Cruithins or Picts”. Bishop Reeves stated last century that the “name Cruithne is supposed to be derived from cruith, ‘colour’, for the same reason that in Latin the people were called Picti or Pictores, from the artificial colouring of their skin”.

St Comgall, the founder of Bangor Abbey in 511, was described as a Cruithin from Magheramorne in East Antrim, and the kings of Dalaradia were also known as “chiefs of the Cruithin”. Perhaps best known among these Pictish kings of Dalaradia was Milchu — the master under whom St Patrick served near Slemish in the 4th century. In fact, St Patrick’s early mission was to an east Ulster dominated by Pictish paganism at that time, and his own background in north Britain may have been quite similar.

Among Patrick’s first converts were Bronagh, daughter of Milchu, the Cruithin chief, and her son Mochaoi (Mahee). St Mahee was to found the great monastery of Nendrum on Island Mahee in Strangford Lough, which was visited by St Ninnian of Candida Casa (Whithorn) in south-west Scotland, the ‘Patron Saint of the Southern Picts’. It was at Nendrum that St Colman, who was also of the Cruithin, was educated, and there too St Finnian, who was to found the great school of Movilla at Newtownards, began his studies before completing them among the Southern Picts at Whithorn. (Note that the story of Milchu’s stubborn paganism but of his daughter’s conversion provides St Mahee with a pre-eminence that is consistent with the ‘mutter-richt’ tradition of the Picts as described in the notes following this article). When St Columba went to Scotland to convert the Picts, he took St Comgall, the Cruithin abbot of Bangor with him as a translator. Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, in the early 1600s, described these Cruithin in Latin as the Picti, and the Irish picts were called by Welsh writers Y Gwydhyl Phichtiaid.

The Pechts of folklore are remembered in the same areas of Ulster as the historical Picts survived longest — particularly in south Antrim. George Benn’s History of Belfast in 1823 describes the traditions of the Parish to the north of the city:

Their earliest tradition (if such it can be called) is an account of a deformed and diminutive race of beings, whom they denominate Pechts or Pauchts, and who formerly inhabited caves in the earth. It is usual to hear persons when wanting to express any thing immeasurably old, exclaim, ‘as far back as the time of the Pechts’. It is difficult to account in a satisfactory manner for this strange tradition; which, if general only among the Scottish race, might reasonably be thought to be derived from the kingdom of their ancestors, Pechts being the true orthography for what is more commonly written Picts.

M‘Skimmin’s History of Carrickfergus (1839) states:

Tradition affirms that the country was originally inhabited by a people called Pehts, who resided in caves. They are said to have been very strong, but small in stature. Little pipes resembling our tobacco-pipes, that are sometimes found in digging, are still commonly called Peht-pipes, from an idea that they belonged to these people. … The tradition of this neighbourhood is, that these caves were made and inhabited by the Pehts or Picts, a branch of the great Scythian stock, who overran a considerable part of Europe.

M‘Skimmin records a modification of the Ulster-Scots word Pecht to an anglicised form Peht, which is similar to the sound change involved in the loss of the gutteral -ch- between Scots nicht and English ‘night’. This provides a fascinating connection with ‘Pictland’ in eastern Scotland, where the place name element Pit- (as in Pitlochry) is the only distinctively ‘Pictish’ word which is supposedly drawn from the ‘lost’ pre-Celtic language of the Picts. However, perhaps Pit- and Peht simply have the same origin, that is, the loss of the -ch- sound from Pecht.

Early this century, Elizabeth Andrews collected many stories about the Pechts in Antrim, Down and Donegal for her article “Ulster Fairies, Danes and Pechts” in Antiquary, August 1906, and her book Ulster Folklore published in 1913.

In Antrim and Donegal she found:

The Pechts are spoken of as low, stout people, who built some of the ‘caves’ or soutterains in the forts. An old man, living in the townland of Drumcrow, Co. Antrim, showed me the entrance to one of these artificial caves, and gave me a vivid description of its builders. ‘The Pechts,’ he said ‘were low-set, heavy-made people, broad in the feet — so broad’, he added with an expressive gesture, ‘that in rain they could lie down and shelter themselves under their feet.’ He spoke of them as clad in skins, while an old woman at Armoy said they were dressed in grey. … An old man in Donegal spoke of them as short people with large, unwieldy feet.

At Maghera, Co. Londonderry:

Fairies, or wee folk, are about three feet in height, some not so tall; they are of different races or tribes, and have pitched battles at the Pecht’s graveyard. … This is a place covered with rough mounds and very rough stones, and is looked on as a great playground of the fairies; people passing through it are often led astray by them. The Pechts, or Picts, were described to me as having long black hair, which grew in tufts; they were small people, about four feet six inches in height, thick set, nearly as broad as they were long, strong in arms and shoulders, and with very large feet. When a shower of rain came on, they would stand on their heads and shelter themselves under their feet.

The Ordnance Survey Memoirs for Co. Antrim in the 1830s confirm, parish by parish, that the people there had an “implicit belief” in various types of supernatural happenings associated with Fairies, Brownies (“Broonies”), Danes and Pechts. There is often great confusion between these different types of beings, but the ‘wee Danes’ — distinguished in this way from the historical ‘Big Danes’ or Vikings — were usually given the credit for building the circular earthen forts or raths, and the underground, stone-lined souterrains or ‘caves’. The raths were also known as ‘fairy forths’ and ‘Danish forths’, and the souterrains known as ‘Danes caves’, or even ‘Pechts houses’ or ‘coves’. In north Antrim the Pechts rather than the Danes were regarded as the builders of these features. The legendary giant of north Antrim and Giant’s Causeway fame (Finn McCoul), was believed to have been a chief or a master to the Pechts. They worked for him as slaves and carried the stones in a line to build his grave. His legendary stature may only have been relative to that of the diminutive Pechts. Brownies and Pechts would work at night for a farmer, threshing or cutting corn, but if payment in the form of clothes or food was left out for them, they would disappear, greatly offended. One Antrim farmer who had left out food for the ‘Broonies’ heard them run away crying:

I got my mate an’ my wages

An’ they want nae mair o’ me.

It is interesting that many people seemed to see little contradiction in the idea that Picts and Danes were both supernatural and, at the same time, historical races. Fairies and Broonies — the wholly supernatural people who were considered to dwell in the forths — were “wee folk” too. They were similar in size (about 4' 6") to the Pechts, but Broonies were hairy and wore no clothes. All these creatures could disappear at will, mix unrecognised with humans, ‘blink’ cattle, and would work at night for fanners. It has been observed frequently that these traditions reflect ancient, pre-Christian races who were suppressed by later cultures and went ‘underground’ — literally. Elizabeth Andrews found that in these legends of the Pechts and Fairies were “traces of a struggle between a primitive pagan race of diminutive stature and civilised, tall Christians.”

The frequent references to these creatures as ‘gentle-folk’ and their forts as ‘gentle places’ is problematic, for not even the least troublesome fairies were regarded as gentle in character or genteel in station. The Gaelic word ginte, which is derived from ‘Gentile’, translates variously as ‘Gentile, Pagan, Heathen or Norseman’. It was used frequently in the Irish Annals to describe the Northmen or Danes (hence the surnames McGinty and — in north Antrim — McKinty). The translations in English of these Annals actually use the word ‘gentiles’ to describe the Danes, and forths have been known as ‘Danish forts’ in English since at least the 16th century. For example, in 1613 the plantation castles of Sir John Fishe in Cavan and Thomas Flowerdew in Fermanagh were described as being built in old raths or ‘Dane’s forts’. Fairies, Danes, Broonies and Pechts — who never inhabit church sites or Christian graveyards — did live in ‘Gentile’ places, and most certainly were Gentile rather than ‘gentle’ folk.

To return to the picture we have from the folklore of our forebears concerning the mythological Pechts:

  1. They lived in, and had built, the underground ‘caves’ or souterrains found in or near circular ring-forts (most known souterrains are associated with raths, and both features were being constructed from the Late Bronze Age right through to the Early Christian Period).
  2. They were small in size, four to five feet high, but stocky and very strong.
  3. They had very large feet — comically large, so much so that they could lie on their back in the rain to use their feet as umbrellas.
  4. They smoked small clay pipes and wore skins or grey clothes (the clay pipes were also known as Fairy pipes or Danes pipes).
  5. They had long black hair which grew in tufts.
  6. Like the Danes, they were regarded as human, with a significant role in the history of ancient times, but simultaneously they were regarded as mythological, supernatural creatures. In north Antrim the Pechts were said to be so numerous that when making a fort, they could stand in a long line and hand the earth from one to another, no one moving a step.

The late John Braidwood, a Scot who was Professor of English at Queens University and had a particular interest in Ulster-Scots vocabulary, compared the Pechts of Ulster folklore to similar fabulous creatures known throughout Europe and beyond. For example, Sir John Mandeville in his 1356 Travels wrote of popular monsters called sciapods, or the umbrella-footed people of Ethiopia, who used their one large foot as a natural umbrella against the heat of the sun:

In that contree ben folk that han but o fot … And the foot is so large that it schadeweth all the body agen the sonne whanne thei wole lye and reste hem.

Pliny’s Natural History describes a tribe of men called the Monocol, who had only one leg:

the same are called the umbrella-foot tribe because in the hotter weather they lie on their backs on the ground and protect themselves with the shadow of their feet.

Professor Braidwood, in tracing the similarities of the legends of the Ulster Pechts and the sciapods, recalls a children’s rhyme used as an insult in west Scotland:

Skinny-ma-linky, long legs and umbrella feet.

How many readers, like me, remember a slightly different version of this from their own childhood?

Skinny-ma-link melodeon legs, big banana feet.

Went tae the picters an cudn’t get a seat.

When the show was over, the rain cum on again —

Skinny-ma-link, melodeon legs, big banana feet.

Notes on a tradition of the historical Picts

The Picts or Cruithin of the historical record were described as having had — in early times — a female succession for the choice of their leaders. This ‘mother-right’ of the Picts was described by T F O’Rahilly in Early Irish History and Mythology thus: ‘Among the Picts eligibility for kingship depended on the candidate’s mother being of the royal line … The Pictish custom of reckoning royal descent through the mother is regarded by not a few scholars as a pre-Celtic survival.’ The female heroine, and the prestigious role of women in Ulster-Scots culture, may or may not be a legacy of this. M‘Skimmin’s History of Carrickfergus records that in the early 1800s daughters of Presbyterian farmers in the district often retained their maiden names after marriage. I can confirm that this practice survived until recently in the same area, especially when there were no sons in the family to inherit the land. This custom is clearly seen in the graveyards of Antrim and Down, where 18th and 19th century inscriptions such as ‘Margaret Craforde alias Maxwell …’, ‘James Boal, son to Mgte. Orr …’, or ‘Anne Balye, wife to James Mearne …’ are commonplace. A further reflection of this tradition can be seen in the widespread use of the mother’s maiden name as a Christian or first name for a boy (eg Crawford McCullough). This is a custom acknowledged as having been introduced to America by the ‘Scotch-Irish’. Further, the modern practice of designating a lady ‘Ms’ rather than ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’ has a precedent in Ulster-Scots where Miss is used for all women of ‘respectable’ station — school teachers, land lords’ wives etc. — regardless of their marital status. (The term Miss is, in Ulster-Scots and in southern speech in America, actually an abbreviation of ‘Mistress’).

John de Courcy — the Anglo-Norman lord who conquered east Ulster in the 1180s and built Carrickfergus Castle — took as his wife Affreca, daughter of the Viking king of the Isle of Man. Lady Affreca had a unique and interesting role, founding as she did a Cistercian Abbey on the shores of Strangford Lough at Greyabbey with monks from Holm Cultram in Cumbria and Melrose Abbey in Scotland. Wigton on the northern shore of the Solway Firth between Cumbria and Galloway, was the scene of the drowning in 1685 of the most celebrated Covenanter martyr — Margaret Wilson — who was tied to a stake and drowned by the rising tide within sight of St Ninnian’s Whithorn. As she was only 18, Margaret Wilson is better remembered than her neighbour and ‘sister’ Wigton martyr, Margaret Lachlan, aged 63, who suffered the same fate. Antrim and Down too produced a number of ‘Daughters of the Revolution’ in times of crisis such as the 1798 rebellion — heroines such as Betsy Gray, whose exploits and distinctly female role owe as much to local tradition as to actual history. It would surely be a worthwhile and fashionable study for someone to investigate the powerful role of women in Ulster-Scots history and tradition, whether there is a pre-historic precedent for it or not.

Philip Robinson

* Cruithni is a Gaelic (‘Q-Celtic’) borrowing of the Brythonic (‘P-Celtic’) word Preteni, from which the name ‘Britain’ itself derives. The words in various languages — ‘Picti’ (Latin), ‘Pict’ (English), ‘Pecht’ (Old Scots) and ‘Cruithin’ (Gaelic) — have cognate meanings and have been used interchangeably by historians in both Scotland and Ireland. However, some have objected to the use of the word ‘Picts’ to describe the Irish Cruithin on the grounds that it implies that the ‘True Picts’ of eastern Scotland, the ‘Southern Picts’ of Galloway in south-west Scotland, the ‘Dalaradian Picts’ of south-east Ulster, and the ‘ancient Britons’, were a single ‘people’. We do not know what the Picts/Cruithin actually called themselves.



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