The Creveenach and other giant birds

In which I examine a curious creature from Highland folklore.

Content note: child endangerment.

Several of the Gaelic folk tales collected by John Francis Campbell and his informants in the west of Scotland in the 1850s and 60s feature a beast whose name Campbell rendered as Creveenach. (Elsewhere he, his scribes, and his later translator John G. McKay, recorded a bewildering variety of both Gaelic spellings and Anglicisations: Gire-mhìnich, cri-bhìnneach, Cro mhìnich, gìre-mhìneach, Cro mhineach, Ghri Mhineach, and ghré-bhinneach in Gaelic; Geere-veenach, Cro-veenich, geera-veenuch, and Greveen-ach in English.) When Campbell first came across it, he remarked in a footnote “This word is unknown to me. It was explained to mean a bird like a large eagle.” But what exactly was the Creveenach, and what narrative function does it perform?

Its only appearance by that name in the works which Campbell published in his lifetime is in a story called “The Widow’s Son”. The hero, John, in the course of many adventures, is searching for his lost love, the Princess of the Land Under Waves, and is given aid by a man who “is herd to the birds of the air, and sets them asleep”. This helpful demigod conceals John in a bag made from a bloody-side-out cowskin, resulting in his being carried off by a Creveenach to “the island, where all the birds of the air were wont to sleep”. (In one version of the story, this is in the country he needs to get to; in another, the journey serves no purpose, as he is saved from the Creveenach’s nest and carried on his way by an imp living in a box, which he had possessed all along.)

Campbell points out, correctly, that such huge birds are a feature of folklore in many lands, and draws a parallel with King Garna of Spain – hero of one of the episodes in the remarkable oral romance of Conall Gulban – who has a similar experience after falling into a dragon’s nest. (Conall Gulban was a real Irish king, who according to later chronicles died in 464: most of Spain in his time was under the rule of the Visigothic King Theodoric II of Toulouse. Campbell notes that some variants of Garna's story actually substitute a Creveenach for the dragon.)

Interestingly, even though he draws several parallels between “The Widow’s Son” and The Thousand and One Nights (of which his informants claimed to be unaware), Campbell does not here mention the rukh or roc in the story of Sindbad: but the parallel is exact, not only here but in every other appearance of the Creveenach (save one). It always fulfils the same function, unwittingly carrying the hero to where the narrative requires him to be, usually with the design of eating him or feeding him to its chicks. The “dragon” in King Garna’s story, though it is amphibious like most Scottish dragons, seems very much to be the same giant bird in a different guise.

The one exception to this rule is in the story “Iosbadaidh”, where the Cro mhìnich is the hero’s speech-imitating pet bird, small enough to be kept in a portable box! This is entirely unique, and feels as if the name has been misapplied. Campbell considered “Iosbadaidh” a late import into Gaelic lore, showing literary influence from Greek and Arabic sources (via English printed collections), even the name possibly derived from "Aesop".

Campbell thought the word “Creveenach” must derive from “gryphon”, and he was probably right. Marco Polo, the first European to use the Arabic word rukh, considered it interchangeable with gryphon; and in late medieval French romance, gryphons often play precisely the role outlined above. Notably, this includes one continuation of Huon de Bordeaux which appeared around 1300, shortly after Polo’s account of his travels, and shows very clear influence from both the Irish Voyage of St Brendan and Arabic sources. At first glance it may seem implausible that the Gaelic tradition could have been influenced by such sources: but in 1540, the Huon romances had been translated into English by Lord Berners, and had become hugely popular. It's well attested that Highland and Lowland seasonal labourers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used to exchange stories, and it's perfectly plausible that an oral version of (part of) Berners' Huon could have made it to the Highlands this way. (Obviously, tales from the Thousand and One Nights could have reached the Highlands by the same route.) The fact that the classical gryphon is not a bird, but a monster part-eagle and part-lion, seems not to have mattered a jot.

Because the rukh is conventionally located in the Indian Ocean, Polo specifying Madagascar, it has been suggested that it was inspired by exaggerated accounts of the (now extinct) Malagasy crowned hawk eagle. When one considers that the Creveenach's nesting and hunting habits, as described in the tales, somewhat resemble those of a white-tailed eagle inflated to monstrous size, it is tempting to speculate that gryphons were substituted in Southern Europe because no bird quite so fearsome was known there, while Scotland had its own rukh already. (Even in modern times there exists a stubborn rumour accusing the white-tailed eagle of carrying off a human being: three-year-old Svanhild Hansen was allegedly borne away to an eyrie in Norway in 1932, though she was later found alive with only superficial injuries. Experts agree that this is not in fact possible.)

There is, as it happens, another suspected gryphon in one of Campbell’s tales, which is not at all like the Creveenach, or bird-like at all. This is the “Tree Lion” (Leòmhan chraobh) in “The Fair Gruagach, Son of the King of Eirinn”, whose wife the hero is forced to abduct. Although Campbell has assumed from the name that something like a gryphon is meant, this seems doubtful. The Tree Lion, unlike the Creveenach, is a sapient being; shows no sign of being able to fly (though he is a remarkable leaper); has a human (or fairy) wife; and is capable of shape-shifting. All in all he sounds much more like an ogre or malignant elf, or one of the ambiguously-humanoid “dragons” of Slavic tradition, than any gryphon or giant bird. Campbell himself thought, likely with good reason, that “The Fair Gruagach” was a particularly ancient story, preserving otherwise forgotten strands of myth: a gryphon, a creature alien to Scottish tradition, would be a surprising thing to find in such a tale.

McKay, when he came to edit Campbell's untranslated tales, thought that “this huge bird is probably own brother to the carrying eagle” which appears in other stories Campbell collected: but this is problematic at best. The "carrying eagle" in "The Brown Bear of the Green Glen" and "The King of Lochlin's Three Daughters" is of an altogether different character.

In “The Brown Bear”, the hero, Prince Iain of Ireland, does have to bait the eagle to draw it down, just as the Creveenach is baited – but then he speaks to it, and persuades it to carry him willingly to the enchanted Green Isle, where it even advises him on how to collect the magic water he seeks and evade the dogs that guard it. In “The King of Lochlin’s Three Daughters”, the eagle – which Campbell compares to a djinni – is the servant of underground-dwelling giants, but again is sapient, possessed of speech, and well disposed towards the hero. These intelligent, Tolkienesque eagles resemble the Creveenach only in that both carry protagonists through the air; and the word is never used of them.

(An interesting tangent: Campbell was not aware of any direct foreign parallel to "Three Daughters": but as it turns out, there are remarkably close analogues, including the role of the eagle, both in Russian folklore and in Buryat Mongol tales of the popular hero Altun. Here legend brushes shoulders briefly with history: although Altun is not directly attested in reliable sources, tradition remembered him as a son of Boroldai Bogdo, a general of the Mongol Empire who died in 1263. A Norwegian version which had only just been translated came to my attention six months after first publishing this post. There are also some parallels to another fascinating story collected by Campbell, The Ridire of Grianaig and Iain the Soldier's Son, in which a role similar to that of the eagle is played by an enormous raven.)

It seems likely, therefore, that we are dealing here with several different mythological creatures.

- The Creveenach itself is, judging from its nesting and feeding habits, something like a gigantic version of a white-tailed eagle (a bird once common enough in the Western Highlands), and fills the role in its several stories of Sindbad’s rukh.

- The “carrying eagle” may be physically similar – eagle-like, but large enough to easily carry an adult human – but is sapient and usually benevolent, and more closely associated with magic.

- The “Tree Lion” is the name of an individual, who is a shape-shifting fairy and not a bird at all.

- Iosbadaidh’s pet is... maybe some kind of parrot?

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