It’s an old Celtic legend, probably based in truth as many are, about Fionn mac Cuhaill’s (Finn MacCool) dogs. There are many versions, most short and as an aside. However, being St. Patrick’s Day, I thought to give homage to these two dogs.
The origin of Bran and Sceolang (shkeolawn) were that they were twins of Fionn’s aunt or sister, depending on the age of the text, who was transformed into a bitch while pregnant, and thus gave birth to the two dogs. It is my belief that this explanation of the dogs’ heritage is an allegory on the closeness of the three and their connectedness. However the dogs came to be, Bran and Sceolang remain firm names in the history of mac Cumhaill.
Fionn loved his dogs, Bran in particular. He was never separated from them and they adored him. The communication and thread between the three was recorded without variation as virtually unbreakable. They have been portrayed as either Irish deer hounds or wolfhounds. Their vast intelligence and deep love is noted in all versions of the story.
It is recounted that when young, the hounds and Fionn were out hunting deer and the pack was on the scent. The group of dogs brought a deer to ground, but Bran and Sceolang, being of human heritage were able to discern that the trapped deer was really a woman named Sadbh (Sive), who had been turned by a druid into deer form. They protected her from the other dogs. Later Fionn would ‘marry’ Sadbh and their son, Oisin, would become a hero of some note.
Sadbh could retain human form while with Fionn and his band. However, she was lured from Fionn’s protection and, once away from him, returned to deer form to run the forest. Fionn often went out with Bran and Sceolang, who were the only ones that could recognize Sadbh in her deer form, in hopes of finding her again.
Long into the lives of the two dogs Finn, once again, decided to search for his lost love. He was cautioned to leave the aged dogs behind or suffer sorrow, but he would not.
The three had been out in very bad weather for several days and, on that fateful day, chose to try one more time to find Sadbh. It was at the end of that long day of searching that Fionn gave the signal for the dogs to, once more, cast out and search. Sceolang, of advanced age, and after days of walking and searching, was exhausted and for the first time in her long, long life, could not, as much as she wished, fulfill the command of Fionn. She sank to a sit and remained there.
Bran attempted to encourage her and when that failed, he, with immense effort, set off on his final hunt. Fionn commanded Sceolang to wait and followed Bran. Fionn was led into the craggy hills of Ceentlea.
On the slope ahead of him Bran caught a scent and age dropped from him. He began to run and bay as he’d once done as a young dog. Fionn followed the sound of the dog out of the undergrowth and onto the open summit of the crag which overlooked a small lake.
Silhouetted against the dying sun, on the edge of the cliff, stood a red deer. Fionn called out Sadbh’s name. The deer turned, looked at him, then whirled and jumped from the cliff. It is said that Bran turned and looked once at Fionn, then willingly followed the deer.
When Fionn had not returned after three days from his hunt, his man, Caurag, and a group went in search of him. They found Sceolang, near death, but in the place her master had told her to wait. She was unable to physically follow Bran and Fionn, so Caurag gathered her up, a feat that would not have been possible when she was in her prime, and followed where she glanced.
When they finally were close to Fionn, Sceolang demanded to be put on the ground and slowly made her way to where Fionn sat, unmoving, staring into the lake. Sceolang licked Fionn’s face once, then waded into the lake and began a mournful howl.
Fionn called her away to him and they returned home. Fionn carried Sceolang as she was too old to make the return journey.
Several years later Sceolang died quietly in her sleep and Fionn had her buried and a cairn erected over her body.
The tale of the love, devotedness, intelligence, and loyalty of the dogs and Fionn lives on.