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]
A long, long time ago, in the island of South Ronaldsay, there lived a lass who at a very early age gave birth to a child. The child was a lass too, as bonnie and winsome as her mother.
The mother was young and innocent. When her folk asked her how it had come to pass that she had borne a child, she said she could not tell. And when they asked who the child's father was, she declared that she had never known anyone who it could possibly be. They tried to make her say more, but the lass maintained in her quiet way that there was nothing she could say.
Her folk were puzzled, yet they might have believed her; but the kirk and the kirk session would not let them be. The lass was questioned and questioned again, by the minister and the elders, but she could only say that she did not know how she had got the child. But they would not believe her. And none in the township would believe her. The people were hard and bigoted, and they could not understand her silence and her innocent look.
That poor lass and her child were ill-used. Everybody's hand seemed against them. As the years went by they had to struggle hard for their food and clothes. They could not sow their corn nor grow their lint [flax] in the in-grand [in-field] like other folk did; and they had to bear meekly the taunts of people who seemed to think it a duty to be cruel to them.
At last the child became a fine young woman. Her mother watched her with pride. She was sad that such a bonnie lass should be so badly clad. But she could do nothing to replace the rags her daughter wore.
Often the girl went for walks by herself along the seashore.
There is a place on the east shore near Halcro Head that is called the Gloup of Root. The gloup is a great chasm some way from the cliff edge, and the chasm is connected with the sea by a long cave. The ground at the seaward side of the chasm is untilled, but it has the marks of ancient fields.
One day the girl was wandering along at this place when she discovered a fine field of lint which had sprung up between the gloup and the sea. It was far finer lint than any that grew inside the townships of South Ronaldsay, and it waved beautifully in the breeze. She went to tell her mother; and they both carried away armfuls of this grand lint, which seemed to belong to nobody.
The mother prepared the lint, then she made it into a dress for her daughter. It was a lovely dress. When it was made, it was dyed a bright colour with dyes that the mother made from some moorland plant. The daughter thought she had never seen such a fine dress. When the girl wore it, the mother declared that both she and her dress just fitted each other – they were both so beautiful.
The girl was wearing the dress when the laird came by. He could not take his eyes off her; and he must have told his son about her; for the story says that the young man came, and fell in love with her, and married her. And here is the song that the old folk used to sing about it. Some of the words are lost, and so is the bonnie lilting tune, but this is what is remembered:
On the large fields, two three,
There was an old and grey-haired woman sitting by the fire-side with a blanket over her knees and the left foot stretched on the pleasantly warm hearth-stone, She was busy darning a stocking she had pulled off for that purpose. At the same time she was telling of the mermaids to a group of youngsters. She seemed wholly absorbed by the beauty of the being she described. Her eyes glowed as she described her, while the youngsters, with eyes wide open and gaping mouths, sat around her, spell-bound, believing every word she said.
"How did the mermaids come to get these fishlike skins or so-called tails, grandma?" asked one of the youngsters.
"Nowadays some think the mermaid wears skins of seals beneath her waist, fastened with a belt, and that se can take off as well. However, only a few generations ago, people believed she really has a fishlike tail, and not feet covered in sealskins. The mermaids were believed to marry their own kind, as human women do too. But it so happened that the marriage of a mermaid to merman man doomed her to lose her astounding beauty she had from birth. During the first seven years of married life she lost her exquisite loveliness little by litte. During the next seven years she was about as fair as women on earth; and in the third seven years of married life she became ugly and repulsive.
However, the mermaid could escape losing her charms and beauty by having sexual intercourse with a human and marrying him. Therefore she often tried to show her beauty on the seashore and seduce men by enchanting music, to lure a man into marriage."
The old woman added, "The mermaid is the loveliest creature in the wide sea. Her face is most lovely, and her form perfect in shape and proportion. Her golden hair descends below her waist, and, furthermore, adorns her head and falls over her delicate skin in golden wreaths.
"When in the water, she had a tail. The menfolk tell the tale is part of her body while the old woman say this tail is be a skirt, and fastened at the mermaid's waist. When the mermaid is on land, the skirt shows up as a beautiful petticoat embroidered with silver and gold, but when the mermaid is in the sea her petticoat iss gathered together and shut up at its lower end so that it hides her feet and looks like what foolish men call a tail."
There was a dangerous creature in the deep sea. He was known as the Mester Stoor Worm. If the earth shook and the sea swept over the fields, it was Stoor Worm yawning. He was so long that there was no place for his body until he coiled it around the earth. His breath was so venomous that when he was angry and blew out a great blast of it every living thing within reach was destroyed and all the crops were withered. With his forked tongue he would sweep hills and villages into the sea, or seize and crush a house or ship so that he could devour the people inside.
When he came close to the country where Assipattle lived, and began to yawn, the people knew that he must be fed, otherwise he would get into a rage and destroy the whole land. The news was that the king had consulted a wise man, a spaeman, about what must be done. After thinking a while, the spaeman said that the only way to keep the Stoor Worm happy was to feed him on young virgins, seven of them each week. The people were horrified by this, but the danger was so appalling that they consented.
Every Saturday morning seven terrified girls were bound hand and foot and laid on a rock beside the shore. Then the monster raised his head from the sea and seized them in the fork of his tongue and they were seen no more.
As they listened to what the king's messenger, who had brought the news, had to tell, the faces of Assipattle's father and brothers grew grey and they trembled, but Assipattle declared he was ready to fight the monster. All through the years, he bragged, he had been saving his strength just for this. His brothers were furious and pelted him with stones, but his father said sadly, "It's likely you'll fight the Stoor Worm when I make spoons from the horns of the moon." [Babylonsk astrology - ]
There were even more dreadful things for the messenger to relate. He said that the people of the country were so horrified by the deaths of the loveliest and most innocent girls that they demanded some other remedy. Once again the king consulted the spaeman, who declared at long last, with terror in his eyes, that the only way to persuade the monster to depart was to offer him the most beautiful girl in the land, the Princess Gem-de-lovely, the king's only child.
Gem-de-lovely was the king's heir and he loved her more than anyone else. But the people were so frantic with grief at the loss of their own children, that the king said with tears rolling down his cheeks, "It is surely a wonderful thing that the last of the oldest race in the land, who is descended from the great god Odin, should die for her folk."
There was only one possible way of saving the princess, so the king asked for sufficient time to send messengers to every part of his realm. They were to announce that the princess would become the wife of any man who was strong enough and brave enough to fight the monster and overcome him. The wedding gift to the champion would be the kingdom itself and the famous sword Sikkersnapper that the king had inherited from Odin.
Thirty champions had come to the palace [said the messenger; who had halted his weary horse at Assipattle's farm], but only 12 of them remained after they had seen the Stoor Worm. Even they were sick with fear. It was certain that the king had no faith in them. Old and feeble as he was, he had taken the sword Sikkersnapper out of the chest behind the high table, and had sworn that he would fight the monster himself rather than let his daughter be destroyed. His boat was pulled down from its noust [a sheltered stance above the reach of the tide] and was anchored near the shore, so as to be ready when he needed it.
Assipattle listened eagerly to all this, but no one heeded him. The messenger mounted his horse and slowly rode away. Soon the father and mother went to bed. From where he lay in the ashes beside the flickering fire, Assipattle heard them saying that they would go next day to see the fight between the king and the monster. They would ride Teetgong, who was the swiftest horse in the land.
How was it that Teetgong could be made to gallop faster than any other horse? asked the mother. It was a long time before Assipattle's father would tell her, but at last, worn out by her questions, he said, "When I want Teetgong to stand I give him a clap on the left shoulder; when I want him to run quickly I give him two claps on the right shoulder; and when I want him to gallop as fast as he can go I blow through the thrapple [windpipe] of a goose that I always keep in my pocket. He has only to hear that and he goes like the wind."
After a while there was silence and Assipattle knew that they were asleep. Very quietly he pulled the goose thrapple out of his father's pocket. He found his way to the stable, where he tried to bridle Teetgong. At first the horse kicked and reared, but when Assipattle patted him on his left shoulder he was as still as a mouse. When Assipattle got on his back and patted his right shoulder he started off with a loud neigh. The noise wakened the father, who sprang up and called his sons. All of them mounted the best horses they could find and set off in pursuit of the thief, little knowing that it was Assipattle.
The father, who rode fastest, almost overtook Teetgong, and he shouted to him,
"Hi, hi, ho! Teitgong wo."
At that, Teetgong came at once to a halt. Assipattle put the goose thrapple to his mouth and blew as hard as he could. When Teetgong heard the sound he galloped away like the wind, leaving his master and the six sons far behind. The speed was such that Assipattle could hardly breathe.
It was almost dawn when Assipattle reached the coast where the Stoor Worm was lying. There was a dale between the hills. In the dale was a small croft house. Assipattle tethered his horse and slipped into the croft. An old woman lay in bed, snoring loudly. The fire had been rested [banked], and an iron pot stood beside it. Assipattle seized the pot. In it he placed a glowing peat from the fire. The woman did not waken as he crept quietly out of the house, but the grey cat which lay at the bottom of her bed yawned and stretched itself.
Down to the shore Assipattle hurried. Far out from the land there was a dark high island, which was really the top of the Stoor Worm's head. But close to the shore a boat was rocking at anchor. A man stood up in the boat beating flukes [swinging his arms across his chest to warm himself], for it was a cold morning. Assipattle shouted to the man, "Why don't you come on shore to warm yourself?"
"I would if I could", replied the man, "but the king's kamperman [seneschal} would thrash me black and blue if I left the boat."
"You had better stay then," said Assipattle, "a whole skin is better than a sarkful of sore bones. As for myself, I am going to light a fire to cook limpets for my breakfast." And he began to dig a hollow in the ground for a fireplace.
He dug for a minute or two, then he jumped up crying, "Gold! It must be gold! It's yellower than the corn and brighter than the sun!"
When the man in the boat heard this he jumped into the water and waded ashore. He almost knocked Assipattle down, so anxious was he to see the gold. With his bare hands he scratched the earth where Assipattle had been digging.
Meanwhile, Assipattle untied the painter and sprang into the boat with the pot in his hand. He was well out to sea when the man looked up from his digging and began to roar with madram [rage]. The sun appeared like a red ball over the end of the valley as Assipattle hoisted his sail and steered towards the head of the monster. When he looked behind, he could see that the king and all his men had gathered on the shore. Some of them were dancing with fury, bawling at him to come back. He paid no heed, knowing that he must reach the Stoor Worm before the creature gave his seventh yawn.
The Stoor Worm's head was like a mountain and his eyes like round lochs, very deep and dark. When the sun shone in his eyes the monster wakened and began to yawn. He always gave seven long yawns, then his dreadful forked tongue shot out and seized any living thing that happened to be near. Assipattle steered close to the monster's mouth as he yawned a second time. With each yawn a vast tide of water was swept down the Stoor Worm's gullet. Assipattle and his boat were carried with it into the mighty cavern of a mouth, then down the throat, then along twisting passages like tremendous tunnels. Mile after mile he was whirled, with the water gurgling around him. At last the force of the current grew less, the water got shallower, and the boat grounded.
Assipattle knew that he had only a short while before the next yawn, so he ran, as he had never run in his life, around one corner after another until he came to the Stoor Worm's liver. He could see what he was about because all the inside of the monster was lit up by meeracles [phosphorescence].
He pulled out a muckle ragger [large knife] and cut a hole in the liver. Then he took the peat out of the pail and pushed it into the hole, blowing for all he was worth to make it burst into flame. He thought the fire would never take, and had almost given up hope, when there was a tremendous blaze and the liver began to burn and sputter like a Johnsmas bonfire. When he was sure that the whole liver would soon be burning, Assipattle ran back to his boat. He ran even faster than he had done before, and he reached it just in time, for the burning liver made the Stoor Worm so ill that he retched and retched. A flood of water from the stomach caught the boat and carried it up to the monster's throat, and out of his mouth, and right to the shore, where it landed high and dry.
Although Assipattle was safe and sound, no one had any thought for him, for it seemed that the end of the world had come. The king and his men, and Assipattle, and the man who had been in the boat, and the old woman, who had been wakened by the noise, and her cat, all scrambled up the hill to escape from the floods that rushed from the Stour Worm's mouth.
Bigger and bigger grew the fire. Black clouds of smoke swirled from the monster's nostrils, so that the sky was filled with darkness. In his agony he shot out his forked tongue until it laid hold of a horn of the moon. But it slipped off and fell with such a tredad [violent impact] that it made a deep rift in the earth. The tide rushed into the rift between the Dane's land and Norrowa. The place where the end of the tongue fell is the Baltic Sea. The Stoor Worm twisted and turned in torment. He flung his head up to the sky, and every time it fell the whole world shook and groaned. With each fall, teeth dropped out of the vile spewing mouth. The first lot became the Orkney Islands; the next lot became the Shetland Islands; and last of all, when the Stoor Worm was nearly dead, the Faroe Islands fell with an almighty splash into the sea. In the end the monster coiled himself tightly together into a huge mass. Old folk say that the far country of Iceland is the dead body of the Stoor Worm, with the liver still blazing beneath its burning mountains.
After a long while the sky cleared and the sun shone, and the people came to themselves again. On the top of the hill the king took Assipattle into his arms and called him his son. He dressed Assipattle in a crimson robe, and put the fair white hand of Gem-de-lovely into the hand of Assipattle. Then he girded the sword Sikkersnapper on Assipattle. And he said that as far as his kingdom stretched, north, south, east and west, everything belonged to the hero who had saved the land and people.
A week later, Assipattle and Gem-de-lovely were married in the royal palace. Never was there such a wedding, for everyone in the kingdom was happy that the Stoor Worm would never trouble them again. All over the country there was singing and dancing. King Assipattle and Queen Gem-de-lovely were full of joy, for they loved each other so much. They had ever so many fine children; and if they are not dead, they are living yet.