THE ISLAY HILT
The Islay Hilt (Claidheamh Ceann-Ileach)
is a terrifying tale of fairies, changelings and an epic rescue mission.
Near Kilchoman lived a blacksmith by the name of MacEachern who had a young son. When the boy reached the age of fourteen, he became ill suddenly and inexplicably. He became bed-ridden and his skin quickly became wrinkled, as if the boy was an elderly man. Not only was MacEachern in deep despair, no-one else knew what to do. Even local doctors, such as they were, had neither explanation nor remedy.
One day MacEachern was at work in his forge when the local fear fiosachd (wise man) paid a visit. Hoping that the wise man may be able to give some helpful advice, the blacksmith told him about his son’s strange illness. The wise man offered the view that the boy was not ill at all, but had instead been carried away by the Daoine Sith (fairies) who had left a Sibhreach (changeling) in his place.
MacEachern wasn’t sure what to believe, so the wise man told him how to test whether or not this creature was in fact a changeling. He told the blacksmith to gather eggshells and spread them out before the bed. Then he should gather water with them and set them out around the fire. He should then throw the creature into the fire; if it was his own son he would cry out, but if it was a changeling he would instead escape the torture of the fire by flying through a hole in the roof.
The blacksmith did this, and when the wrinkled soul in the bed saw the water-filled shells being arranged around the fire he let out a shrill shriek of laughter. “I am eight hundred years old and I have never seen anything like this”, he mocked. On hearing this, MacEachern picked up the changeling and hurled him onto the fire; as the wise man had said, he immediately felw threw a hole in the roof.
The story does not end there, for the blacksmith still had to find his son. The wise man had suggested that the boy may have been taken to the fairy hill at Borachill Mor (near Port Ellen). The wise man told MacEachern that at a certain time the hill would be open and this would be the best chance to rescue his boy.
When the time came, MacEachern set off from Kilchoman in the direction of the Borachill. He took with him a Bible, a dirk (a short dagger usually worn by Highlanders in the stocking) and a cockerel. It was a long walk, but as he approached the hill he could see that it was lit up and he heard the sound of what seemed like hundreds of people dancing and making merry. It was not too difficult to locate the opening which was, as the wise man had suggested, was open.
He entered cautiously. He thrust his dirk into the ground to prevent the opening closing in on him, and carried the Bible before him to protect him from the fairies’ power. The cockerel was carried under his other arm. As he entered the huge, brightly lit cavern the fairies asked him who he was and what he wanted. They ridiculed the haggard man who was armed only with a Bible and a bedraggled cockerel.
MacEachern was undeterred by the fairies’ mockery. He could see his son in the midst of all the revelry and demanded his return, saying he would never leave without him. At this the fairies burst into laughter, which wakened the cockerel who crowed loudly. The Daoine Sith had been out-thought by the wily blacksmith who knew that, when the cock crows, all fairy merrymaking must cease. In an instant the fairies disappeared and the hill closed, but MacEachern managed to grab his son and escape through the narrowing entrance just in time.
It took a year for the son to recover from the experience but one day, while watching his father making a sword at the anvil, he told him that he knew of a better way to make weapons – something he had learned from the fairies. The son then set to work and produced the most beautifully-crafted sword ever seen by human eyes. It became known as the Islay Hilt (Claidheamh Ceann-Ileach) and quickly became known as a masterpiece of craftsmanship.
The Islay hilt brought MacEachern and his son fame in the islands and they were commissioned as swordmakers to successive Lords of the Isles. Indeed, the MacEachern family became hereditary weapon smiths for the Lordship – and all because, if the story is to be believed, a young boy learned the skill from his fairy captors.