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Na Fionnghallaich às a’ Chlàr-chè – The Nac Mac Feegle of Discworld

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A kind of Appreciation of Sir Terry Pratchett’s characters, by David Rosser-Owen

“The Wee Free Men! Nae quin! Nae king! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna’ be fooled again!”

Among the more colourful (literally) characters of the Discworld are the pictsies known as the Wee Free Men, or the Nac Mac Feegle.

That great anthropological work The Folklore of Discworld¹, describes them as having “shaggy red hair, and… covered all over with blue tattoos and blue paint, in patterns which indicate their clan”, that they wear the kilt, and that they’re about six inches tall.

It goes on to say that originally “they were denizens of Fairyland, and served its Queen as her wild champion robbers who went raiding on her behalf into every world there is… They themselves say they left in disgust because the Queen was a spiteful tyrant.” [Folklore p 103]

One of their clan chiefs is Rob Anybody, the Big Man of the Chalk Clan, who has stated proudly, “We’ve been robbin’ an’ runnin’ around on all kinds o’ worlds for a lang time.”

The Folklore says that for “many centuries, one of their favourite places was an area of the Earth called Scotland. They were already there in the time of the Ancient Romans… Later generations of Scottish humans were well aware of their presence.” [Folklore p 105]

They cross over into universes and worlds by a magical process they call the crawstep. Presumably by this means they arrived on the Discworld from Fairyland and initially took up residence on the high moors of Überwald before moving on to Lancre and elsewhere.

“The time that the Feegles or their ancestors spent in Scotland has had a deep influence on them (unless, who knows, it was the other way around). Besides the tattoos and the kilts, they have developed a taste for strong liquor, and even for haggis…

“The speech of the Feegles is markedly Scottish, to the point that, though it is not technically a foreign language (unlike, for example, that of dwarfs), most people in Lancre and Ankh-Morpork find it very hard to follow…

“Most of it is a form of Lowlands Scots peppered with Glasgow slang, but there are several words adopted from Gaelic, the Celtic language of the Highlands and Isles…” (Folklore pp 109, 112-3)

Yet Miss Perspicacia Tick, in her A Feegle Glossary, lists as one of their words “schemie: an unpleasant person”, which would clearly indicate a familiarity also with relatively recent Edinburgh argot².

“And what of their own name? Here again we see the influence of the Scottish and Irish lore they picked up during their stay on the Earth (or vice versa). ‘Mac Feegle’ means ‘Sons of Feegle’, and ‘Feegle’ is clearly a variation of ‘Fingal’, the eighteenth-century Scottish name for a great hunter and warrior hero in Celtic tradition.” (Folklore p 114)

From the above we can deduce certain things about them. Clearly their way of expressing themselves is through a form of Glaswegian Scots with other words added from elsewhere. How they acquired this is moot, but if the Folklore is correct then it is likely direct from the source.

In other words they are frequenters of that particular part of south-western Scotland that has historically drawn in people from all over the Highlands and Islands as well as from the neighbouring areas of Galloway, Dumfries, and Ayr.

But are the Lands of the ancient Scots and Picts their original provenance? In a way this is a redundant question, given that their presence and their apparent constant sojourning there has made them as effectively native as if it were their original home.

A conversation that the old kelda of the Chalk Clan had with Tiffany Aching, however, lends a persuasive substance to the notion that indeed they are Scot or Pict in origin.

“‘What was your name, now?’
‘Tiffany, er, Kelda.’…
‘A good name. In our tongue you’d be Tir-far-thóinn, Land Under Wave,’ said the kelda. It sounded like ‘Tiffan’.”³

Their presence, or that of their kindred spirits, is certainly widely known in that region, where they are called “brownies” in the Lowland speech – and, copying and adapting that, are sometimes called brùinidhean (“brownies”) in the Gaelic. Although the Gaelic word for brownie is usually ùraisg or màilleachan.

There seems to have been some serious confusion in the transmission of the folklore, for collectors of tales of the Highlands have recorded that they actually like dairy produce rather than the converse.

It needs to be pointed out that the exact nature and differences between the Cruidhne (Picts) and the Gàidheil (Scots) are quite obscure. There was constant intermarriage certainly between the neighbouring kingdoms of Dàl Riada, Fortrenn, Fìb, the Airgheallach, and Al Clwyd.

Whether or not the Cruidhne spoke a different language or simply a dialect form of Brythonic, it is clear that the related but separate language of the Gàidheil came to be dominant among all populations in Scotland so that at the end of the eighteenth century some 80 percent spoke it.

There are significant differences between the Gaelic spoken in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, apart from the arbitrary conventions for spelling. These represent developmental divergences over the centuries from the Old Irish that the followers and descendants of the Sons of Erc brought to Alba.

But from the internal evidence of the Tongue of the Wee Free Men it would appear that although it, too, is a slight divergence this represents more of a sub-dialect probably of Argyll or Donegal Gaelic. For example, the word ‘nac’ as in Nac Mac Feegle is actually ‘nec’ in Old Irish and ‘neach’ in modern Scottish Gaelic where it normally has a non-gender-specific singular usage (the conventional plural being luchd).

In the Feegle version, as recorded, of the name of the young ‘hag of the Chalk’, Tiffany Aching – “Tir-far-thóinn Land Under Wave… It sounded like ‘Tiffan’” we may well have the recorder’s approximation of the spelling, or the written form may have diverged from the spoken, as ‘under’ is fo both in Old Irish and modern Scottish Gaelic and faoi in modern Irish. Written in both her name would be Tir f’thuinn and would, indeed, sound much like Tiffan.

In explaining the usages ‘hag’ and ‘kelda’, the Folklore avers that both words relate to cailleach, the Gaelic for ‘hag’ or ‘crone’ (which has magical overtones).

In the case of the witches obviously this is as a translation, and in the word ‘kelda’ as a corrupt or misheard form of cailleach dhubh – “’the Black Hag’, a supernatural figure in Scottish and Irish tradition who shapes the landscape, rules the seasons, protects wild animals, and confers power on favoured humans” (Folklore p 113).

The Folklore, as mentioned above, suggests that Feegle derives from Fingal (Fionnghall) – a late corruption of the name of the leader of the Fiana, Finn mac Comhaill.

Given his exploits, and that of his band, it is hardly surprising that the patronymus of the Feegles should be called after him. It is likely that Feegle is the recorder’s attempt to represent the nasals in the middle of Fionnghall.

So it is possible to reconstruct what was said that the recorder wrote:

The Nac Mac Feegle would be the Neach Mhic Fhionnghaill – there is probably a dialect usage of neach here to mean ‘people’; kelda would be cailleach dhubh; and Tiffan would be Tir f’thuinn.

It’s probable that the names by which the Feegles of the Chalk Clan are known are not their actual given names (as they have an aversion to lawyers in particular knowing who they are) but are appellations or nicknames in Morporkian (a language staggeringly like British English).

It would be impossible otherwise to get, for example, the double entendre inherent in Rob Anybody, the Big Man of the clan, which would be absent from both Raib Neachsambith and Spùinneadair Neachsambith.

So, to conclude, it is possible to render their famous slogan, or sluagh-ghairm, (“The Wee Free Men! Nae quin! Nae king! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna’ be fooled again!”) into at least its Scottish Gaelic version as:

“Na Daoine Beaga Saora! Gun bhanrìgh! Gun rìgh! Gun cheannard! Gun uachdaran! Cha mheallar sinn a-rithist!”

References:
¹ Pratchett, Terry, and Simpson, Jacqueline, The Folklore of Discworld: Legends, Myths and Customs from the Discworld with helpful hints from planet Earth, Doubleday, London 2008

² Pratchett, Terry, Wintersmith, Doubleday, London 2006, p 11

³ Pratchett, Terry, The Wee Free Men, Doubleday, London 2003, p 138

© D Rosser-Owen 2009, 2010, 2011 All Rights Reserved

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Written by Daoud Rosser-Owen

February 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. The design for the weblog is a tad off in Epiphany. Nevertheless I like your site. I might need to use a normal browser just to enjoy it.

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    June 8, 2012 at 3:34 am


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