“From Orbost House”
Otta Swire is one of the more recent of the folklorists to feature in this podcast, so much so that unfortunately the copyright has not yet expired on her highly recommended books.
Born Otta Tarn at the very end of the nineteenth century (1898) she grew up in the twentieth, but her works reveal a fascination with earlier times.
The daughter of an English historian and a Scottish clanswoman Otta was born in London but spent childhood holidays on the Isle of Skye: the large, mountainous and generally enchanted island situated only just off the West coast of the Scottish mainland, these days joined to it by a road bridge.
On Skye could be found the family home of Swire’s mother, Flora Robertson. Swire was clearly proud of the roots and it was from Skye she would write her books.
Her father was an accomplished historian and writer in his own right and consequently Otta grew up in a reasonably wealthy household and, as her books make clear, she must have been well educated though I haven’t got exact details of that education.
In this she was not dissimilar to most (or possibly all) of the other folklorists mentioned on the podcast. But in contrast to many of the others Swire was not particularly famed, nor did she write a voluminous collection of works.
However the four short volumes that she did author have come to be extremely highly regarded, and I can honestly say that they are truly excellent reads – and much more engaging than much folklore fare (and I say that as a lover of such).
The details I’ve been able to gather of her life pre-publishing these stories are somewhat scant – she married her cousin, Colonel Roger Swire in her early 30s, the couple had children and it wasn’t until her 50s that her first book was published, in which she thanks both her Husband and her father (who also writes an introduction to the book).
“Skye: the Island and Its Legends”, was Swire’s first book. She completed three more books with a similar tone, about the Highlands, Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides respectively, prior to her death in 1973. She claims in her first book that she wanted to write the tales for her children, but her works seem rather more grand than that.
Rather than solely a collection of sequentially enumerated folktales Swire’s works paint a vivid picture of life in Scottish Highlands and Islands, both as it was when she was writing and as it once was. She references many older literary works as well as drawing on Swire’s own considerable first hand knowledge of the areas.
The books function almost as travelogues, taking you on a tour of these places through Swire’s eyes (complete with road directions and mentions of hotels, where such exist) but with much of the actual text taken up with extended asides on the historic, the unusual, the picturesque and the legendary. Like a car journey with a particularly interesting and knowledgeable local friend.
Or as she describes it, far more poetically and pleasingly than I: “I have threaded these stories … on the roads of Skye, as on a necklace”
There’s a touch of wry observational humour to them as well. As one might expect from this description Otta’s stories are very rooted in place – with a folktale often ultra specific – to one particular Glen, Ben, Loch or Kirk.
She also illustrated her later volumes with detailed black and white sketches that really complement the style of the stories and give the reader a bit more of a sense of the places being discussed.
Whilst she was an author Swire lived in the grand Orbost house, her re-acquired family home. While this might not normally warrant a mention in a biography it is here that she wrote all of her books, and from which we signed off her Preface’s “Orbost House, Isle of Skye”.
It’s clearly something that had great importance to her: A postcard picture of the house and a little more detail on it can be found here: Orbost hotel by Dunvegan.
Sources and Legacy
Her stories were drawn from a wide number of sources but particularly of note were the number told to her by her mother and who had in-turn heard from “a great aunt who was born over 150 years ago, on 18 April 1799”, giving them a long heritage at the time she was writing and a longer time now, some 70 or so years hence. It is a story of Swire’s mother that is told in the Stone Circles episode of the podcast, where Swire’s mother is a character on the exhibition to Callanish.
Swire also credits a few others in her books who helped her to draw the legends together, most notably and frequently Dame Flora Macleod of Macleod, who owned Dunvegan castle on Skye, with its famed magical treasurers of Clan Macleod: The Fairy Flag, The Dunvegan cup and Sir Rory Mor’s Horn.
Nevertheless it’s clear that the bulk of the work was Swire’s. And what is perhaps most notable about her works is that while in some instances they draw directly on the works of earlier writers, and others of her tales are very widely known, a good proportion of Swire’s stories are unique to her. By which I mean she is the first person to write them down, rather than that they are of her invention.
And this means that Otta F. Swire is THE primary source for many stories of the Scottish Islands and Highlands.
This is much in keeping with many of the nineteenth century folklorists referred to on the podcast: who are the original sources for many of their tales, but Swire is notable in that she is composing her work some fifty or a hundred years later than most of those folklorists.
She was recording stories then that, were not without her writing them, would now be lost to the world.
Sworeis highly cognisant of this, and on the effect of modernity on these oral legends. Having witnessed two world wars and writing in the 1950s and 60s Swire knows she is chronicling a world which has almost ceased to be: “The Hebrides are changing rapidly. I hope that this book may preserve a little of their ancient flavour” she says.
And the fact that her stories now exist, are retold by people such as myself, and much more notably, Neil Gaimain, rather prove that she succeeded in her goal.
While the Islands have indeed changed (In many ways it seems likely she would not have approved of) the stories have survived through Swire’s work.