“The Sin-Eater” (1895) by Fiona Macleod

Now, we are a scattered band. The Breton’s eyes are slowly turning from the sea, and slowly his ears are forgetting the whisper of the wind around Menhir and Dolmen. The Cornishman has lost his language, and there is now no bond between him and his ancient kin. The Manxman has ever been the mere yeoman of the Celtic chivalry; but even his rude dialect perishes year by year. In Wales, a great tradition survives; in Ireland, a supreme tradition fades through sunset-hued horizons to the edge o’ dark; in Celtic Scotland, a passionate regret, a despairing love and longing, narrows yearly before a bastard utilitarianism which is almost as great a curse to our despoiled land as Calvinistic theology has been and is.
—Fiona Macleod, “From Iona” in The Sin-Eater and Other Tales and Episodes (1895), 11-12

It was called alternately the Celtic Twilight and the Celtic Revival. The languages and cultures of the Gaelic-speaking peoples of the British Isles was rapidly fading in response to the events of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century; spreading industrialization, transportation and emigration, especially after the Great Famine in Ireland, accelerated the decline of the Gaelic languages in favor of English, which had become the language of government, literature, and trade in the United Kingdom—and, before the breakup of the British Empire, throughout the world.

Against this decline rose varied movements; some aimed to preserve and promulgate the declining language and customs, such as the gorsedds in Wales, while the Irish Literary Revival in the late 19th/early 20th century sought to raise awareness of Irish literature and writers. Common cause was made between Gaelic speakers based on mutual interest in languages, lore, and preservation of rapidly-disappearing ways of life. The Celtic Revival filtered across the Atlantic to the United States in many forms; W. B. Yeats, Æ (George William Russell), reprints of James Macpherson’s Ossian and the novels of Sir Walter Scot, the fantasies of George Macdonald and Lord Dunsany, the weird tales of Arthur Machen…and, though often forgotten today, the weird works of Scottish writer William Sharp, who also wrote as Fiona Macleod.

Sharp was already a relatively successful author whose books of poetry and realistic novels in the 1880s had progressed to the point where by 1890-1891 he could support himself full-time as a writer and editor. He and his wife went on a trip to Italy, where he found a muse in the form of Mrs. Edith Wingate Rinder (Alaya 125), and the inspiration for a new literary persona.

Anyone might than have observed something different about Sharp. His creative voice was stronger, all his work more passionate and vital. And those who knew him intimately knew also that it was in the years immediately following his return from Italy that Sharp began, quietly but steadfastly, to produce the work later to be attributed to the pen of Fiona Macleod.
—Flavia Alaya, William Sharp—”Fiona Macleod” 1855-1905 (1970), 97

Sharp had previously tried on other literary voices, H. P. Siwaärmill, W. H. Brooks, and COuntess Ilse von Jaromar, but works under these names failed to gather attention. Fiona Macleod was created not just as a female voice for Sharp’s fiction, but a distinctly Scottish one; Sharp was at this point becoming more aware of himself as a Scot, and of the importance of Scottish Gaelic and folklore. It also provided an outlet for Sharp’s more occult leanings; he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and an associate of Wiliam Butler Yeats on the “Celtic Mysteries” project, which involved trance workings (Talking to the Gods, 23, 36), and “second sight” and prophecy would find their way into Macleod’s work (Alaya 190).

The degree to which Sharp identified with Fiona Macleod has been a point among his biographers, up to and including his wife, who quoted from one of his letters:

…I can write out of my heart in a way I could not do as William Sharp, and indeed I could not do so if I were the woman Fiona Macleod is supposed to be, unless veiled in scrupulous anonymity…

This rape sense of oneness with nature, this cosmic ecstasy and elation, this wayfaring along the extreme verges of the common world, all this is so wrought up with the romance of life that I could not bring myself to expression by my outer self, insistent and tyrannical as that need is. … My truest self, the self who is below all other selves, and my most intimate life and joys and sufferings, thoughts, emotions and dreams, must find expression, yet I cannot save in this hidden way.
William Sharp (Fiona Macleod) A Memoir (1910) 227

The ruse was more than skin-deep; from 1894 onwards he maintained two simultaneous and distinct writing careers, one as Sharp and the other as Macleod, answering letters “in character,” having his sister write out manuscripts in a woman’s handwriting, mailing letters to himself from “Fiona Macleod,” careful that he and his wife would always talk about “Fiona” as if she was a separate entity to avoid a slip, etc. The stress of the dual existence increased during his later years; Sharp forbore applying for a civil list pension because it would require revealing his authorship…and there may have been additional reasons.

Terry L. Meyers in The Sexual Tensions of William Sharp (1996), traces some of the subtle issues of gender identity and sexuality that Sharp expressed in his letters and fiction. A fierce advocate for gender equality, Meyers also traces themes of possible homosexual and transgender thought in his work and affiliations with other Victorian writers. Full expression or exploration of these feelings would have been difficult or impossible; Oscar Wilde being a prime example of the consequences of being found out. It is perhaps notable that in 1898 Sharp served on the Free Press Defence Committee formed to defend Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion from prosecution for obscenity (Meyers 18).

While it is impossible at this remove to say definitely whether Sharp was homosexual, transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, or somewhere else on the spectrum, the combination of a strong feminine voice and a focus on authentic Scottish Gaelicisms came together to acclaim in the novels Pharais (1894), The Mountain Lovers (1895), and Green Fire (1896) to positive critical appraisal—sometimes eclipsing that of Sharp under his own name. Yet for all of Macleod’s literary output, the collection of short stories The Sin-Eater and Other Tales and Episodes (1895), particularly the title story, has come to be the most impactful—albeit in a way that Sharp/Macleod could not have foreseen, unless they really did have the Sight.

Alaya describes The Sin-Eater stories as “semi-autobiographical tales”; and there is in them a combination of authentic folklore, realistic portrayals of the lives of the Scottish people (warts and all), and perhaps above all a strong focus on Scottish Gaelic language. Macleod captures not just the somewhat stereotypical cadence of a way of thought and speaking, but makes knowledge of Gaelic a point of identity. Many phrases and a few special passages are in Gaelic, often with translation but some left au natural with only the context to guide the English reader. Yet it is telling when it is written:

The man had used the English when first he spoke, but as though mechanically. Supposing that he had not been understood, he repeated his question in the Gaelic.

After a minute’s silence the old woman answered him in the native tongue, but only to put a question in return.

“I am thinking it is a long time since you have been in Iona?”
—Fiona Macleod, “The Sin-Eater” in The Best Psychic Stories (1920), 127

Frank Belknap Long gifted a copy of The Best Psychic Stories to H. P. Lovecraft c.1923; the editor was Joseph Lewis French, an industrious editor and anthologist developed a reputation for weird anthologies beginning with Great Ghost Stories (1918) and The Best Ghost Stories (1919), and would go on to edit several more anthologies in that vein in the 1920s. The introduction was by Dorothy Scarborough, PhD., author of The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917). French doesn’t mention Fiona Macleod’s alter ego, although the secret had been out a decade or so at that point; Scarborough doesn’t mention it in her brief introduction either, although her 1917 opus refers to Macleod as “Sharp’s other literary self” (65).

It isn’t clear if Lovecraft himself knew that Sharp was Macleod at that point—but it had apparently crossed his radar at a particularly good time for a little story he was working on titled “The Rats in the Walls:”

That bit of gibberish which immediately followed the atavistic Latin was not pithecanthropoid. The first actual ape-cry was the “ungl”. What the intermediate jargon is, is perfectly good Celtica bit of venomously vituperative phraseology which a certain small boy ought to know; because his grandpa, instead of consulting a professor to get a Celtic phrase, found a ready-made one so apt that he lifted it bodily from The Sin-Eater, by Fiona McLeod [sic], in the volume of Best Psychic Stories which Sonny himself generously sent! I thought you’d note that at once—but youth hath a crowded memory. Anyhow, the only objection to the phrase is that it’s Gaelic instead of Cymric as the south-of-England locale demands. But as—with anthropology—details don’t count. Nobody will ever stop to note the difference.
H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 8 Nov 1923, Selected Letters 1.258

Scottish and Irish Gaelic are Goidelic (Q-Celtic) languages; Welsh (Cymric) is P-Celtic. Different branches of the same linguistic family tree, but not mutually comprehensible. Lovecraft had borrowed a Scottish Gaelic phrase and put it where a Welsh phrase should be. As it happened, Lovecraft was correct. No one noticed the slip when the story was published in Weird Tales in March 1924. However, when the story was reprinted in the June 1930 issue, it came under the eye of a Celtophile who had made some effort to learn Irish Gaelic—Robert E. Howard of Texas. As Lovecraft later told the story:

As for the languages represented in the atavistic passage—I don’t recall including Sanscrit [sic], though I did lift a sentence of Celtic (of which I know not a single word) from another story, “The Sin-Eater”, by “Fiona McLeod” (William Sharp). This sentence, incidentally, was what brought me into correspondence with Robert E. Howard. It was—since I swiped it from a Scottish story—a Gaelic specimen, whereas of course the Celtic language of southern Britain was Cymric. R.E.H.—as an expert Celtic antiquarian—noticed the discrepancy, & thought I had adopted a minor theory that a Gaelic wave had preceded the coming of the Cymri to Britannia. He wrote Wright on the subject, & Wright forwarded the letter to me—whereupon I felt obliged to drop a line to the mighty Conan exposing my own ignorance & confessing to my rather inept borrowing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to C. L. Moore, 2 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore 47

Much as I admired him, I had no correspondence with him till 1930—for I was never a guy to butt in on people. In that year her read the reprint of my Rats in the Walls and instantly spotted the bit of harmless fakery whereby I had lifted a Celtic phrase (for use as an atavistic exclamation) from a footnote to an old classic—The Sin-Eater, by Fiona Macleod (William Sharp). He didn’t realise the source of the phrase, but his sharp eye for Celtic antiquities told him it didn’t quite fit—being a Gaelic (not Cymric) expression assigned to a South British locale. I myself don’t know a word of any Celtic tongue, and never fancied anybody could spot the incongruity. Too charitable to suspect me of ignorant appropriation, he came to the conclusion that I followed a now-discredited theory whereby the Gaels were supposed to have preceded the Cymri in England—and wrote Satrap Pharnabazus [Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright] a long and scholarly letter on the subject. Farny passed this on to me—and I couldn’t rest easy until I had set the author right. Hence I dropped REH a line confessing my ignorance and telling him that I had merely picked a phrase with the right meaning from a note to a Scottish story while perfectly well aware that the language of Celtic South-Britain was really somewhat different.
—H. P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, 5 Jul 1936, Selected Letters 5.277

Howard’s letters show that in 1929 and early 1930 his reading was turning increasingly to Irish history, with long letters to Harold Preece and Tevis Clyde Smith on Celtic history and language. It was perhaps this focus which made Howard so sensitive to Lovecraft’s use of language in “The Rats in the Walls”—as given in his letter to Wright:

As to the climax, the maunderings of the maddened victim is like a sweep of horror down the eons, dwindling back and back to be finally lost in those grisly mists of world-birth where the mind of man refuses to follow. And I note from the fact that Mr. Lovecraft has his character speaking Gaelic instead of Cymric, in denoting the Age of the Druids, that he holds to Lhuyd’s theory as to the settling of Britain by the Celts.

This theory is not generally agreed to, but I scarcely think that it has ever been disproved, and it was upon this that my story “The Lost Race” was based — that the Gaelic tribes preceded the Cymric peoples into Britain, by way of Ireland, and were later driven out by them. Baxter, the highly learned author of Glossario Antiquae Britanniae upholds this theory on the grounds that the Brigantes, supposed to be the first Celtic settlers in Britain, were unacquainted with the “p” sound, which was not used in Britain until the advent of the Brythonic or Cymric peoples. According to this, the Brigantes were a Goidhelic tribe, and Lhuyd’s point seems proven.

Personally, I hold to the theory of Cymric precedence, and believe that Brythonic tribes inhabited, not only Britain and Scotland before the coming of the Gaels, but Ireland as well. The blond Britons appear to me to be a closer branch of the ancient Aryan stock, the Gaels arriving later, and being mixed with some Turanian or Mediterranean blood. But every man is entitled to his own view and a writer has the right to use any and all theories, no matter how conflicting, in his stories. I may write a story one day upholding a certain theory of science, letters, anthropology or what-not, and the next day, a story upholding a theory directly opposite. A fiction writer, whose job is to amuse and entertain, should give all theories equal scope and justice. But I’m taking up too much of your time.
—Robert E. Howard to Farnsworth Wright, Collected Letters 2.42-43

Howard’s specific source for this argument appears to be O’Donovan and O’Reilly’s Irish-English Dictionary (1864 ed.). We know Howard had this volume, as he cites in a subsequent letter to Lovecraft (CL2.70), and it seems to be the source for some of his Irish language comments in prior letters (cf. CL2.7, 20-21, 22-23). This passage in particular jives with the content of Howard’s letter:

Mr. Baxter (in Glossario Antiquæ Birtanniæ, p. 90) remarks, that the oldest Brigantes, whom he esteems the first inhabitants of Britain, never used in their language the sound of the letter p, which was afterwards introduced by the Belgic Britains. If the old Brigantes were really of the first inhabitants of Britain, it would follow, that they were a part of the Guidelian, or Gaulish colony, which went over to Ireland, and whom Mr. Lhuyd evidently proves to have been the first inhabitants of all that part of Great Britain which now comprehends England and Wales.
“Remarks on the Letter P” in An Irish-English Dictionary 399-400)

Lovecraft’s response is now lost, but that exchange began a correspondence that would last until Robert E. Howard took his own life in 1936; Lovecraft would still mourn his Texas friend until his own death in 1937. It is notable that while the first couple of letters are lost their collected correspondence, A Means to Freedom begins with both men deep into British Celtic history, and their wide-ranging letters spin out from there—but this period would always inform Lovecraft’s image of Robert E. Howard as a scholar and enthusiast for Gaelic language and culture. It is possible that Lovecraft’s high opinion of Howard helped overcome Lovecraft’s lingering prejudices regarding the Irish and “Celtic peoples,” who in the early 20th century still faced racial and ethnic discrimination.

No where in the surviving letters do Howard and Lovecraft discuss William Sharp or Fiona Macleod. The first time that Lovecraft acknowledges Sharp and Macleod as the same individual is in 1929:

The lines of William Sharp (who, by the way, has written some remarkable weird material under the pseudonym of “Fiona MacLeod” [sic]) are highly potent despite their simplicity. I have followed the draining of Lacus Nemorensis with great interest, though without much hope that anything valuable will be discovered on Caligula’s galleys.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 15 Apr 1929, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 57

Lovecraft refers to “The Lake of Nemi” in Sharp’s volume of poetry Sospiri di Roma (1891)—which is, coincidentally, a product of the same trip to Italy in which Fiona Macleod was born in Sharp’s mind. Benito Mussolini had begun a project to drain Lake Nemi (Lacus Nemorensis), which Sharp had visited. So sometime between 1923 and 1929, Lovecraft discovered that Fiona Macleod was William Sharp…and had read enough of Macleod’s fiction to praise it, if only briefly. It is a pity that Lovecraft doesn’t expand on the subject at any length in his letters; he doesn’t even mention Macleod or Sharp in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—and Lovecraft could scarcely have faulted Sharp for using Macleod as a pseudonym, considering Lovecraft had written under the name Elizabeth Berkeley himself.

It may be worthwhile to look at the infamous borrowing in context:

Curse you, Thornton, I’ll teach you to faint at what my family do! … ’Sblood, thou stinkard, I’ll learn ye how to gust … wolde ye swynke me thilke wys? … Magna Mater! Magna Mater! … Atys … Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodaun … agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa! … Ungl … ungl … rrrlh … chchch ….
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Rats in the Walls”

“But, Andrew Blair, I will say this: when you fair abroad, Droch caoidh ort! and when you go upon the water, Gaoth gun direadh ort! Ay, ay, Anndra-mhic-Adam, Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodann … agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa!”†

† Droch caoidh ort! “May a fatal accident happen to you” (lit. “bad moan on you”). Gaoth gun direadh ort! “May you drift to your drowning” (lit. “wind without direction on you”). Dia ad aghaidh, etc., “God against thee and in thy face … and may a death of woe be yours … Evil and sorrow to the and thine!”
—Fiona Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” The Best Psychic Stories 146

Delapore’s speech devolves from contemporary English (“Curse you, Thornton”) to Elizabethan English (“‘Sblood, thou stinkard”) to Old English (“wolde ye swynke” i.e. “would you belabor me like this?”) to Latin (“Magna Mater!” i.e “Great Mother”) to Gaelic (“Dia ad aghaidh”) and finally prehuman speech (“Ungl.”) As Lovecraft had no knowledge of Scottish Gaelic, he accidentally copied the spelling error (“aodaun” for “aodann”) in The Best Psychic Stories version of the text.

In Macleod’s “The Sin-Eater,” the speech is given not so much as a curse but as a deliberate insult by the eponymous Sin-Eater Neil Ross who is already, though he knows it not, doomed. There is something of a parallel to the two speeches in that regard: both men who speak it are destined to be consumed by madness, driven to their fate by old family sins and quite literal consumption. While it is probably too much to say that “The Sin-Eater” inspired “The Rats in the Walls,” it is likely that Lovecraft might have been struck by the parallels…and the bit of luck that put such an appropriate choice of phrase in his way.

The phrase and the story can only exist in the wider context of the Celtic Twilight, and of Sharp’s assumption of the literary identity of Fiona Macleod; the very focus on Celtic languages and culture which was the focus of Sharp’s purpose in writing and publishing as Macleod in turn directly led to Lovecraft’s correspondence with Robert E. Howard, based on his awareness of and interest in Celtic languages and history.

An odd legacy for Fiona Macleod—yet perhaps oddly appropriate.

“The Sin-Eater” by Fiona Macleod can be read online for free here.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

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