A long time ago, Magnus Muir was gathering limpets on the shore on the west side of Hacksness in Sanday, when he heard from some place among the rocks a very curious sound. The sound was so very pitiful that it made Magnus uneasy and lonesome.
He searched for the source of the sound. At first he saw only a large seal quite near the rocks, thrusting its head above the surface of the water, and looking with both eyes into an inlet a short distance away. Magnus noticed that the seal was not afraid; it never dived, and never ceased to gaze at the inlet.
Magnus crossed over a large rock which lay between him and the place. There, in a corner of the inlet, he saw a mother seal lying in the throes of her calving pains, moaning and bellowing loudly. The father seal lay in the sea watching his mate in her trouble. Magnus stood and watched her too, and he said it was pitiful to see what the poor animal suffered.
He stood there, a little way off, until she calved two fine seal calves. Magnus thought to himself that the skins of the calves would make him a splendid waistcoat, and ran to where all three were lying.
The poor mother seal rolled over the edge of the rock into the sea, but the two young seals did not have the wit to get away. So Magnus seized them both. But the mother seal in the sea below was so anxious about her young that he rolled round and round in the sea and beat herself with her paws. Then she would climb with her forepaws on the rock and gaze into Magnus" face with such a pitiful look that it might melt a heart of stone. The father seal was acting in the same way, but he would not come so dose to Magnus.
Magnus turned to go away with the two young seals in his arms – they were sucking his jacket as if they were at their mother's breast – when he heard the seal mother give a groan that was so like a groan of a human being that it went straight to his heart and quite overcame him. He looked around, and saw the mother seal lying on her side with her head on the rock, and he saw – as certainly as he ever saw anything on earth – tears brimming from both her eyes.
This was more than he could stand. So he bent down and placed both the young seals on the rock. The mother took them in her paws and clasped them to her bosom, just as if she had been a human mother with a child. And she looked right into Magnus" face. What a glad look she gave him!
Magnus was then a young man; and some time afterward he married. And a long time after he was married, when his children had all grown up, he went to stay on the west side of Eday. One fine evening, Magnus went to fish for coal-fish off an outlying rock. It was an isolated rock that was covered at high tide; you could only walk to it dry-shod at low water. The fish wouldn't take for a time; but when the flood tide began, the fishing became so good that Magnus stood and pulled in the fish until he had quite filled his creel.
With the fish taking so well, he forgot in his eagerness the path he had to take. And when he was ready to go home, he was horrified to discover that the channel between him and the land was covered by the sea, and the water was so deep that it would have gone over his head. The water current was extremely strong at that point as well. Magnus shouted again and again, but he was far away from any house, and no one heard his cries.
The water kept rising, it came above his knees, then over his hips, then up to his armpits then to his chin. He shouted until he was hoarse. But just as the sea was coming round his neck, now and then rippling into his mouth, and the sea began to lift him from the rock, he was seized by his jacket colla, and swung off his feet. After a little while he found his feet on the bottom, where he could wade in safety to the shore to dry land.
He looked toward the place he had come from, and saw a large seal swimming to that rock. There she dived, took up his creel of fish and swam with it to the land. He waded out and took the creel full of fish out of her mouth; and he said with all his heart, "God bless you, seal!"
And she looked at him as if saying, "One good turn deserves another." She was the same seal that he had seen calving on Hacksness forty years before.
He said afterwards he would have known her motherly look among a thousand. But she had grown very large and old.
There is a tale on how the mermaid was first created the most beautiful of all creatures, perfect in form and lovely in face. She had no more tail on her fair body than has the daintiest lady in the land. But long, long ago, a great queen was bathing in the sea, and as she came out of the water, she saw the most beautiful creature that she had ever seen. It was the mermaid sitting on a rock nearby and combing her golden hair.
The queen was greatly amazed at the mermaid's beauty, and shocked to see her sitting naked, so she sent one of her maids with a gown to the mermaid.
The mermaid said , "I am queen myself, a queen of the sea. To show by body is no shame to me. No clothes dirty my skin. A fair woman don't need much dress, you know."
The queen was filled with mad jealousy and raised a great hubbub along with all the women of the land,. They said it was a sin to let the form of woman be seen naked on the seashores. They also said that this seamaid was so fair and her voice so sweet that no man seeing and hearing her could ever care for women. She was too enchanting.
The women took no rest till they got a judge to decree that the mermaid should wear a tail. But the men of the land had the judge also add a way out for the mermaid. It was that if ever a man fell in love with her, she should have the power of laying aside her tail.
The little island of Copinsay to the south-east of the Orkney Mainland is the home of many legends. One is about a brownie and farmer there. The farmer lived in the sole farmhouse on the island. He was the only human on the island.
One winter night the farmer had just got into the box-bed in his old-fashioned kitchen when he saw in the corner an ugly naked creature with a wet, leathery, slightly phosphorescent skin. This being was somewhat smaller than a man and the crown of its head was flat and bald.
The alarmed farmer remembered that cold steel might help. He seized the sword which he kept beside his bed, and leapt up to fight the intruder. But although the farmer crossed himself and described a circle in the air with the blade of the sword his visitor remained in the corner, gibbering at him.
The creature was swift to avoid all the items the farmer started to throw at him. Nevertheless, the farmer managed to hit it twice, so that it darted through the doorway.
The man sat down on his straw stool to get his breath and gather his wits. Slowly his temper cooled. He reflected that, while he had done his best to disable the intruder, it had made no attempt to injure him. Thus, when it re-entered the room, grinning and making friendly gestures, the farmer remained seated and tried to understand what it was saying.
The brownie said that his name was Hufbo. He used to live in the sea, but was sick of gnawing raw fish and seaweeds. He wanted to stay on land, and was willing to work well for his lodging.
Each night he would grind meal on the quern standing on its stone shelf in a corner of the kitchen, and the meal was always enough for the farmer's morning porridge. All he asked in return was a saucer of milk to sup with his own handful of roasted barley.
This offer appealed to the farmer, for he was a busy man, at heart hospitable too, and had quickly got over his first alarm of how the intruder looked. The bargain was made, and the farmer went back to bed. In the background the low gritty chuckle of the quern went on and on.
Next morning there was a bowl of clean, sharply ground oatmeal. At the farmhouse Hufbo became a valued servant. Sometimes the farmer would talk with him, but more often lay silently in the darkness and watched the figure industriously turning the millstone.
As it happened, the farmer had a sweetheart. She lived on the Orkney Mainland. He was pledged to marry her. Now he thought it would be most unwise to bring her to Copinsay as his wife until she had become accustomed to Hufbo. He therefore told her about his servant, praising how faithful and good natured he was. To make even more sure she would accept the servant, he took her to the island several times so that she might meet him. The girl did not object to sharing her new home with the brownie; so in due course the marriage was celebrated and the bride came to Copinsay.
In her warm bed the kind girl soon came to imagine that their even naked servant must be shivering in the cold of the winter night. She was also worried by his unashamed. massive nakedness.
Without telling anyone, she got cloth and made a warm cloak with a hood to cover the brownie's bald crown. One night she placed the completed garment on the quern, pleased with herself for the good deed she had done. Usually Hufbo came in quietly to carry out his task, but on this night he no sooner entered the room than he set up a dismal howling. Round and round the quern he went, sobbing his heart out and repeating,
"Hufbo's gotten cloak and hood,
So Hughbo can do no more good."
Then he dashed out into the darkness and was never seen on Copinsay again.