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The Brownie of Copinsay

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.



Johnie Croy

The mermaid, when on land, is always seen combing her yellow hair with a golden comb. Her form and face are lovely, her voice was still more attractive, and her enchanting music carries men away.

One time long since, Johnie Croy was the bravest, boldest, and bonniest man in all the broken isles of Orkney. Many a longing glance from many a bonnie lass was cast at him.

One day Johnie went to the seashore to look for driftwood. The tide was out, and he walked under the crags on the west side of Sanday. As he was found his way among the big boulders there came to him the most lovely sound that he had ever heard. He stood a little minute, quaking with the beauty of that sound.

There was a point of the crag that jutted out before him. Johnie thought the lovely music came from the other side of that point, and peeped on the other side, and there he saw a mermaid sitting on a tang-covered rock combing her yellow hair. The hair shone like the brightest gold. She had a silvery glistening petticoat hanging down from her waist, and the lower ends of that skirt were folded together and lay behind her like a tail. From head to waist she was naked, but her golden locks floated down over her silky skin like sunshine playing about a pillar of snow.

Johnie was overcome with love of her. He would court the beautiful creature though the wooing should cost him his life. She sat with her back to the sea, and that glimpse set his heart beating. He decided to creep down so as to get between her and the sea, hiding under the big boulders. Sometimes he would glance over the stones at her. Pangs of love made him creep up behind her, as she sat combing her bonnie hair and humming her lovely tune. He rose, sprang forward, flung his arms around her neck, and kissed her sweet mouth. He thought himself in Paradise.

She sat a little minute fairly stunned. Then she sprang to her feet, flung Johnie on the rock, and gave him a wallop. Then, opening the tails of her petticoat, she ran to the sea.

When Johnie stood up he saw the maid in the sea. She was staring at him with flaming eyes. She was angry at being so rudely kissed; yet the kisses had left a mark on her heart, and the warm embrace filled her breast with love.

As Johnie happened to look down, he saw shining at his feet the mermaid's gold comb. She had dropped it in her haste. Johnie held up the comb and cried, "Thanks!"

When she saw the comb she gave a bitter cry, saying, "My golden comb! To lose it is the sorest shame - Wherever I go I will be called the lass that lost her golden comb. Oh give me back my comb!"

Johnie said, "Or come and live on land with me, for I can never love another than you."

"No, no," she said, "I don't actually like the rain and snow. And bright sun. Rather, come with me, my bonnie lad, and I'll make you a chief here with us, living in a crystal palace where sunbeams never blind, where winds never blow, and raindrops never fall. Oh come away with me, bonnie man, and be my own down under, and we shall both be happy."

Johnie said, "My darling, you can come with me anyway, for I have a stately house at Volyar, with plenty of gear, plenty of cows and sheep, and you will be mistress of all. You will never want for anything. Just come away and live with me, my darling. Give it a try!"

The longer they stood the more they admired each other. At last she saw folk coming; for mermaids see far. So she bade him farewell, and swam out to sea, singing, "Alas! My golden comb!" Johnie went home with a sore heart, carrying the gold comb in his bosom. His mother was a wise woman, so Johnie told her about the mermaid and asked his mother's advice as to what he should do.

"You are a big fool to fall in love with a sea lass when there are plenty of your own kind that would be glad to have you," said his mother. "If you want to have doings with her, keep her comb as the dearest treasure. While you have her comb you will have power over her. However, if you will take my advice, cast her comb in the sea and think no more of her. For even if she may make your summer bright and beautiful, it will give way to a woesome winter. And you'll sink in the quagmire at its end."

Johnie went about his work as before. In periods he could think of nothing but his sea-doll, but did not forget to lock up the comb in a sure place. Now, it turned out one night that Johnie could not sleep. He lay tossing about. As the morning was approaching, he fell into a slumber, and in the glimmering of the day he was awakened by a most beautiful sound of music in his chamber. He lay awhile as if entranced, the music was so sweet. And then he remembered that it was the same music he had heard at the shore. It was his darling's lovely's voice.

He sat up and there she was, sitting in a chair before his bed. She was the most lovely creature. Her face so bonnie, her yellow hair shining like gold, and her dress so wondrously fine that Johnie took it for a vision.

Johnie said, "My darling, will you live with me and be my own, dear wife?

She said, "Ill make you a fair offer: For seven years I'll live with you here and be your marrow. And after that, you can come with me and see my own folks. And all that is mine will be yours there."

Johnie jumped out of bed, fell on his knees before her, and agreed to the bargain. With that they jumped into each other's arms, and did not tire of it.

They were married. The folks said a bonnier bride was never seen; the gold and the silver shone on her dress, a string of large pearls was round her neck.

Johnie's darling made a frugal, loving wife. She baked the best bread and brewed the strongest ale in all the island. And she kept all things in good order. She was the best spinner in all the countryside, and the best wife and mother that was ever known on the island.

At the Volyar estate all things went well during the seven years. As the end of the seventh year drew near there was much stir in making ready for a long sea-voyage. Johnie thought much. His wife was brisk and steadily busy, but often wore a far-away look in her face.

By this time Johnie and his wife had seven bonnie and stately children. Each of the children was weaned in Grannie's bosom, and now she had the youngest child sleeping with her in her own little house. On the night before the seven years had ended, Grannie made a cross of wire around midnight, smeared the cross with some dye and stamped a cross on the bare seat of the children. He screamed, loud and long, but at last fell asleep.

Morning came, and when they were fully equipped, Johnie's wife walked down to the boat. When she came to the beach she saw her husband and six of their children in the boat. So she sent up the servants for the youngest child. They soon came back, telling that four men had tried to lift the cradle that the child lay in, but that they could not move it one inch.

A cloud came over the mother's fair face. She ran up to the house and tried to lift the cradle, but could not move it. She then flung back the blanket and made for lifting the naked child out of its cradle. The moment she touched him she felt a dreadful burning go through her arms. It made her draw back, screaming a lot too.

A little while later she went back to the boat with salt tears running from her bonnie eyes. All the time Grannie sat on a stone with a sorry laugh about her mouth

As the boat sailed away the folk on the shore heard Johnie's wife lament, "Alas for my bonnie child! To think that I must leave him to live and die on dry land!"

"Away, far away, sailed the boat, nobody knows where. Johnie Croy, his braw wife, and six eldest children were never more seen by mortal eye.

Grannie nursed the little boy that was left, and she named him Croy of the Cross. He grew to be a terribly strong and well-favoured man. When his grandmother died, Corsa Croy took to the sword, and he went far away to in the Holy Land. Croy gathered great store of wealth from the chiefs he slew. He married a yarl's daughter and settled in the Island of Britain, He and his wife had many children and plenty of worldly gear. They lived happy, and if they are not dead, they are living yet.

[W. Traill Dennison. West Brough, Sanday]


Katherine Crackernuts

There was once a king whose wife died and left him with a dearly loved, only daughter. The little princess's name was Velvet-Cheek, and she was so good, pretty, and kind-hearted that her father's subjects loved her. But as the king was generally engaged in running the state, the poor little maiden had a rather lonely life, and often wished that she had a sister to play with, someone who would be a companion to her.

On hearing this, the king made up his mind to marry a middle-aged countess he had met at a neighbouring court. She had one daughter, named Katherine, who was just a little younger than Princess Velvet-Cheek, and who would make a nice playfellow for her, he thought.

He did so, and in one way the arrangement turned out well, for the two girls loved one another dearly, and had everything in common, just as if they had really been sisters. But in another way it turned out badly, for the new queen was a cruel and ambitious woman, and she wanted her own daughter to do as she had done and make a grand marriage, and perhaps even become a queen. And when she saw that Princess Velvet-Cheek was growing into a very beautiful young woman, more beautiful by far than her own daughter, she began to hate her and wish that in some way she would lose her good looks.

"For," thought the cruel queen, "what suitor will heed my daughter as long as her stepsister is by her side?"

Now, among the servants and retainers at her husband's castle there was an old henwife [1] who was skilled in the knowledge of magical charms and love potions. "Perhaps she could help me to do what I seek to do," said the bad queen; and one night, when it was growing dusk, she wrapped a cloak round her and set out to this old henwife's cottage.

"Send the lassie [2] to me tomorrow morning before she has eaten something," replied the old woman when she heard what her visitor had to say. "I will find out a way to mar her beauty." And the wicked queen went home content.

Next morning she went to the princess's room while she was dressing, and told her to go out before breakfast and get the eggs that the henwife had gathered. "And see," added she, "that you do not eat anything before you go, for there is nothing that makes the roses bloom on a young maiden's cheeks like going out fasting in the fresh morning air."

Princess Velvet-Cheek promised to go and fetch the eggs. But as she was not fond of going out of doors before she had had something to eat, and also suspected that her stepmother had some hidden reason for giving her such an unusual order. Therefore she slipped into the pantry as she went downstairs and helped herself to a large slice of cake. Then, after she had eaten it, she went straight to the henwife's cottage and asked for the eggs.

"Lift the lid of that pot there, and you will see them," said the old woman, pointing to the big pot standing in the corner where she boiled her hens' meat.

The princess did so, and found a heap of eggs lying innside. She lifted them into her basket while the old woman watched her with a curious smile.

"Go home, Honey," she said at last, "and tell your stepmother from me to keep the cupboard door better locked."

The princess went home, and gave this odd message to her stepmother, wondering to herself what it meant.

But if she did not understand the henwife's words, the queen understood them only too well. For from them she gathered that the princess had in some way prevented the old witch's spell doing what she intended it to do.

So next morning, when she sent her stepdaughter once more on the same errand, she accompanied her to the door of the castle herself, so that the girl had no chance of paying a visit to the pantry. But as the girl went along the road that led to the cottage, she felt so hungry that, when she passed a party of country-folk picking peas by the roadside, she asked them to give her a handful.

They did so, and she ate the peas; and so it came about that the same thing happened that had happened yesterday.

The henwife sent her to look for the eggs; but she could work no spell on her, because she had broken her fast. So the old woman bade her go home again and give the same message to the queen.

The queen was very angry when she heard it, for she felt that she was being outwitted by this delicate girl, and she determined that, although she was not fond of getting up early, she would accompany her next day herself, and make sure that she had nothing to eat as she went.

So next morning she walked with the princess to the henwife's cottage, and as had happened twice before, the old woman sent the girl to lift the lid off the pot in the corner in order to get the eggs.

And the moment that the princess did so off jumped her own pretty head, and on jumped that of a sheep. Then the wicked queen thanked the cruel old witch for the service rendered, and went home quite delighted with the success of her scheme. Meanwhile the princess picked up her own head and put it into her basket along with the eggs, and went home crying, keeping behind the hedge all the way, for she felt so ashamed of her sheep's head that she was afraid that anyone saw her.

Now, as I told you, the princess's stepsister Katherine loved her dearly, and when she saw what a cruel deed had been wrought on her, she was so angry that she declared that she would not remain another hour in the castle. "For," said she, "if my mother can order one such deed to be done, who can hinder her ordering another? I think it is much better for us both to be where she cannot reach us."

So she wrapped a fine shawl round her poor stepsister's head so that none could tell what it was like, and putting the real head in the basket, she took her by the hand, and the two set out to seek their fortunes.

They walked and walked till they reached a splendid castle, and when they came to it, Katherine made as though she would go boldly up and knock at the door.

"I may perhaps find work here and earn enough money to keep us both comfortable," she explained,

But the poor princess with a sheep's head and a bad headache from it would rather have pulled her back. "They will have nothing to do with you," she whispered, "when they see that you have a sister with a sheep's head."

"And who is to know that you have a sheep's head?" asked Katherine. "If you hold your tongue and keep the shawl well round your face, and leave the rest to me?"

So up she went and knocked at the kitchen door, and when the housekeeper came to answer it she asked her if there was any work that she could give her to do. "For," said she, "I have a sick sister, who is rather troubled with migraine, and I would fain find a quiet lodging for her where she could rest for the night."

"Do you know anything of sickness?" asked the housekeeper, who was greatly struck by Katherine's soft voice and gentle ways.

"Yes, I do," answered Katherine, "for when one's sister is troubled with the migraine, one has to learn to go about softly and not to make a noise."

Now it chanced that the king's eldest son, the crown prince, was lying ill in the castle of a strange disease that seemed to have touched his brain. For he was so restless, especially at nights, that someone had always to be with him to watch that he did himself no harm. This state of things had gone on so long that everyone was quite worn out.

And the old housekeeper thought that it would be a good chance to get a quiet night's sleep if this capable-looking stranger could be trusted to sit up with the prince.

So she left her at the door and went and consulted the king. Soon the king came out and spoke to Katherine, and he, too, was so pleased with her voice and her appearance that he gave orders that a room should be set apart in the castle for her sick sister and herself. He also promised that if she would sit up that night with the prince and see that no harm happened to him, she would have a bag of silver pennies as her reward in the morning.

Katherine agreed to the bargain readily, "for," she thought, "'it will always be a night's lodging for Princess Velvet-Cheek; and besides, a bag of silver pennies is not to be got every day."

So the princess went to bed in the comfortable chamber that was set apart for her, and Katherine went to watch by the sick prince.

He was a handsome, comely young man, who seemed to be in some sort of fever, for his brain was not quite clear, and he tossed and tumbled from side to side, gazing anxiously in front of him and stretching out his hands as if he were in search of something.

At twelve o'clock at night, just when Katherine thought that he was going to fall into a refreshing sleep, she saw him rise from his bed, dress himself hastily, open the door, and slip downstairs, as if he were going to look for somebody.

"There is something strange in this," said the girl to herself. "I think I had better follow him and see what happens."

So she stole out of the room after the prince and followed him safely downstairs, where he put on his hat and riding-coat. Unlocking the door, he crossed the courtyard to the stable, and began to saddle his horse.

When he had done so, he led it out and mounted, and whistling softly to a hound that lay asleep in a corner, he prepared to ride away.

"I must go too, and see the end of this," said Katherine bravely; "for I think he is bewitched. All this are not what a sick man and ordinary sleepwalker would do."

So, just as the horse was about to start, she jumped lightly on its back and settled herself comfortably behind its rider, all unnoticed by him.

The strange pair rode away through the woods, and as they went, Katherine pulled the hazelnuts that nodded in great clusters in her face. "For," said she to herself, "Dear only knows where next I may get anything to eat."

On and on they rode until they left the greenwood far behind them and came out on an open moor. Soon they reached a little hill, and here the prince drew rein, and stooping down, cried in a strange, uncanny whisper, "Open, open, green hill, and let the prince, his horse, and his hound come in."

"And," whispered Katherine quickly, "let his lady enter behind him."

Instantly and to her great astonishment, the top of the round hill seemed to tip up, leaving an opening that was large enough for the little company to enter. Then it closed gently behind them again.

They found themselves in a magnificent hall, brilliantly lighted by hundreds of candles stuck in wall brackets round the walls. In the centre of this apartment was a group of the most beautiful maidens that Katherine had ever seen, all dressed in shimmering ball-gowns, with wreaths of roses and violets in their hair. There were vigorous and lively gallants too. They had danced with these beauteous damsels to the strains of fairy music.

When the maidens saw the prince, they ran to him and led him away to join their revels. And at the touch of their hands all his languor seemed to disappear, and he became the merriest of all the throng, and laughed, and danced, and sang as if he had never known what it was to be ill.

As no one took any notice of Katherine, she sat down quietly on a bit of rock to watch what would happen. And as she watched, she became aware of a tiny, tiny child, playing with a tiny wand, quite close to her feet.

He was a pretty child too, and she was just thinking of trying to make friends with him when one of the beautiful maidens passed, and looking at the wand, said to her partner, in a meaning tone, "Three strokes of that wand would give Katherine's sister back her pretty face."

Here was news indeed! "I could borrow that wand for a while," Katherine thought. Her breath came thick and fast; and with trembling fingers she drew some of the nuts out of her pocket, and began rolling them carelessly towards the child. It looked like he did not get nuts very often, for he dropped his little wand at once and stretched out his tiny hands to pick them up.

This was just what she wanted; and she slipped down from her seat to the ground and drew a little nearer to him. Then she threw one or two more nuts in his way, and when he was picking these up, she lifted up the wand unobserved and hid it under her apron. After this, she crept cautiously back to her seat again. Just then a cock crew at daybreak, and at the sound all the dancers disappeared, all but the prince. He ran to mount his horse, and was in such a hurry that Katherine had much ado to get up behind him before the little hill opened and he rode swiftly into the outer world once more.

But she managed to do so, and as they rode homewards in the grey morning light, she sat and cracked her nuts and ate them as fast as she could, for her adventures had made her very, very hungry.

When she and her strange patient had once more reached the castle, she just waited to see him go back to bed and begin to toss and tumble as he had done before. Then she ran to her stepsister's room and found her asleep with her poor misshapen head lying peacefully on the pillow. Now Katherine he gave it three sharp little strokes with the fairy wand and suddenly the sheep's head disappeared and the princess's own pretty head took its place.

In the morning the king and the old housekeeper came to ask what kind of night the prince had had. Katherine answered that he had had a very good night; for she was very anxious to stay with him longer, now that she knew that the fairy girls who lived in the green hill had thrown a spell over him. She was resolved to find out also how that spell could be lifted away.

The king was pleased to think that they had found a suitable nurse for the prince. He was also charmed with the looks of her stepsister who came out of her chamber as bright and pretty as in the old days. She said that her migraine was all gone and that she was now able to do any work that the housekeeper might find for her. The king therefore begged Katherine to stay with his son a little longer, adding that if she would do so, he would give her a bag of gold pieces.

Katherine agreed readily, and that night she watched by the prince as she had done the night before. And at twelve o'clock he rose and dressed himself, and rode to the fairy hill as she had expected him to do, for she was quite certain that the poor young man was bewitched and not suffering from a fever.

Then she accompanied him, bringing with her the wand to return it to the child. She was riding behind the prince all unnoticed and filling her pockets with nuts as she rode.

When they reached the fairy hill, he spoke the same words that he had spoken the night before. "Open, open, green hill, and let the young prince in with his horse and his hound." And when the green hill opened, Katherine added softly, "And his lady behind him." So they all passed in together.

Katherine seated herself on a stone and looked around her. The same revels were going on as yesternight, and the prince was soon in the thick of them, dancing and laughing madly. The girl watched him narrowly, wondering if she would ever be able to find out what would restore him to his right mind. As she was watching him, the same little child who had played with the magic wand came up to her again. Only this time he was playing with a little bird.

And as he played, she found an occasion to give him back the wand. He had not missed it. Then one of the dancers passed by while she turned to her partner and said lightly, "Three bites of that birdie would lift the prince's sickness and make him as well as he ever was." Then she joined in the dance again, leaving Katherine sitting upright on her stone, quivering with excitement.

If only she could catch that bird, the prince might be cured! Very carefully she began to shake some nuts out of her pocket and roll them across the floor towards the child. He picked them up eagerly, letting go the bird as he did the wand the night before; and in an instant Katherine caught it and hid it under her apron.

Soon afterwards the cock crew, and the prince and she set out on their homeward ride. But this morning, instead of cracking nuts, she killed and plucked the bird, scattering its feathers along the road. And the instant she came back to the prince's room and had seen him safely into bed, she put it on a spit in front of the fire and began to roast it.

Soon it began to frizzle and get brown and smell deliciously, and in his bed in the corner the prince opened his eyes and murmured faintly, "How I wish I had a bite of that birdie."

When she heard the words, Katherine's heart jumped for joy, and as soon as the bird was roasted she cut a little piece from its breast and popped it into the prince's mouth.

When he had eaten it, his strength seemed to come back somewhat, for he rose on his elbow and looked at his nurse. "Oh, if I had but another bite of that birdie!" he said. And his voice was certainly stronger.

So Katherine gave him another piece, and when he had eaten that, he sat right up in bed.

"Oh, if I had but a third bite of that birdie!" he cried. And now the colour was coming back into his face, and his eyes were shining.

This time Katherine brought him the whole of the rest of the bird. He ate it up greedily, picking the bones quite clean with his fingers; and when it was finished, he sprang out of bed, dressed himself, and sat down by the fire.

When the king came in the morning with his old housekeeper at his back to see how the prince was, he found him sitting cracking nuts with his nurse, for Katherine had brought home quite a lot in her apron pocket.

The king was so delighted to find his son cured that he gave all the credit to Katherine Crackernuts, as he called her, and he gave orders at once that the prince should marry her. "For," said he, "a maiden who is such a good nurse is sure to make a good queen."

The prince was quite willing to do as his father bade him, and while they were talking together, his younger brother came in. He was leading Princess Velvet-Cheek by the hand. they had got to know each other only yesterday, but now he was declaring that he had fallen in love with her, and that he wanted to marry her at once.

So it all fell out very well, and everybody was quite pleased. The two weddings took place at once, and unless they are dead since then, the young couples are living yet.

(AT 306, 711. Collected in the Orkney Islands. See Wikipedia, "Kate Crackernuts" - Adapted from Grierson 1910, 253-68)

  1. henwife: a sort of witch
  2. lassie: girl



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