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Cathal O'Cruachan and the Herdsman of Horses

There once was a man called Cathal O'Cruachan. He met another man who herded breeding horses. They laid a bet for shinnying [1]. The shinnying was to last three days, and at the end of that time Cathal was to receive the best horse in the stud if he should win, and to give his wife to the shepherd of the breeding horses if he should lose.

They met on the first day, and Cathal O'Cruachan won. They met again on the second day, and Cathal O'Cruachan lost. On the third day they went at the game once more, and contested the day pretty hotly; but Cathal won, and the herdsman lost.

The herdsman then said to Cathal, "Meet me tomorrow at such a place, and you shall get the horses."

Before Cathal left in the morning, his wife said to him, "Remember that you shall not take any of the horses until there shall come a dun, shaggy filly, the last of all."

They met, and the herdsman of the horses sent the horses past in front of Cathal; but Cathal took none of them until the dun, shaggy filly came as the last of them. Then he said, "This is my choice of the horses," and then he laid hold of her and went away home, thoroughly pleased with her.

But he did not enjoy his happiness for long. When he reached home, they told him that a giant had stolen his wife while he was away. He vowed that to find and rescue her or lose his life in the attempt.

In the dawn next morning he set off, and he was travelling until his soles got black and shoes got holes. The little nestling, folding, yellowtipped birds were taking to rest at the foot of the bushes and in the tops of the trees. The little, nimble, pretty squirrels were choosing crevices for each other as best they could. But Cathal O'Cruachan did not stop to rest. He saw a little house with a light in it, a long way from him. Although it was a long way from him, he was not a long time in reaching it.

What house had he here but that of the dog of the Great Mull? The kind dog said, "Cathal O'Cruachan, poor man, your pretty wife went past here last night with the big giant. She was on his shoulder."

Cathal got well treated by the kind dog. He got food to eat and many goat-skins under him and sheepskins over him for the night. He slept as comfortably as he ever did. When he got up in the morning, the dog continued to treat him well, and when Cathal was taking farewell, the dog said, "If hardship or necessity shall ever come on you, and swiftness of foot will be of use to you, think of me, and I will be at your side."

Cathal continued travelling until his soles got black and shoes got holes. The little nestling, folding, yellowtipped birds were taking to rest at the foot of the bushes and in the tops of the trees. The little, nimble, pretty squirrels were choosing crevices for each other as best they could. But Cathal O'Cruachan did not stop to rest, for he saw a little house with a light in it a long way from him. But though it was a long way from him, he was not a long time in reaching it.

He went in, and what was this but the house of the falcon of the rock of the ledge. The falcon said to him, "Poor man, your beautiful wife went past here last night on the shoulder of the big giant."

He got well treated by the falcon, and got white meat to eat, and was put to bed in a heap of feathers. "Sleep peacefully, Cathal O'Cruachan, said the falcon, and said he would watch over him during his sleep.

Cathal slept peacefully, and when he rose in the morning, he continued to get well treated by the falcon. And when he was leaving, the falcon said, "If hardship or distress shall ever come upon you, and two swift strong wings will be of use to you, think of me, and I will be at your side."

Cathal then set off and travelled on until his soles got black and shoes got holes. The little nestling, folding, yellowtipped birds were taking to rest at the foot of the bushes and in the tops of the trees. The little, nimble, pretty squirrels were choosing crevices for each other as best they could. But Cathal O'Cruachan did not stop to rest, for he saw a little house with a light in it a long way from him. But though it was a long way from him, he was not a long time in reaching it.

He went in, and what was this but the house of the brown wren of the stream of flowing. From the wren he got a supper of crumbs of bread and cheese, and was put to bed in a heap of moss that he found as comfortable as the feather bed of the falcon.

In the morning, when the wren was taking farewell with him, the bird said, "If hardship or distress come upon you in your time, and I can do you good, think of me, and I will be at your side."

On the evening of that day he reached the giant's house. When his wife saw him, she said, "You must hide yourself, for the giant will kill you as soon as he will come."

She then hid him as well as she might.

When the giant came from the hunting-hill and went in, he said, "E! Ho! Hoagich! I feel the smell of a traitor here tonight."

"It could be a bird that the cat brought in," said the woman.

When the giant went to bed, the woman began to say to him, "You cannot be killed, as you are so strong."

"I cannot be killed by attacking me face to face," said the giant. "But have you seen the stock outside opposite the door? There is a sheep in the centre of the stock, and there is a bird in the belly of the sheep, and there is an egg in the belly of the bird; and as long as the egg remains whole, my life shall be safe."

The giant rose in the morning and set off to the hunting-hill. No sooner did he go out of sight over the shoulder of the mountain than Cathal was out with the axe. When he split the stock, a sheep sprang away with great speed. He looked after her, and saw that it was but folly for him to go and chase her. Then he said to himself, "How useful the dog of the Great Mull would be here!" Almost before the words were out of his mouth, the dog was in the breast of the sheep. He came with her, and left her between his feet.

Cathal then opened the sheep, and no sooner had he done so than a bird sprang out of her, and flew away. Then said he to himself, ''How useful would be here the falcon of the Rock of the Ledge!" Almost before the word was out of his mouth the kind falcon came and brought back the dove dead, and left it at his feet.

No sooner did Cathal open the bird than an egg fell out of it, and rolled into a cairn [], which was near the place.

The wife then cried, "O! Cathal O'Cruachan! make haste, the giant is after coming over the edge of the mountain, taking each way that is shorter than another."

Then said Cathal, "How useful would be here the brown wren!" Almost before he had uttered the words, there was the wren within the cairn, and out he came with the egg in his bill. The giant was now almost as near the wren as Cathal was; but the wren hurried to reach the egg to Cathal, who put it under his shoe, and broke it.

No sooner had he broken the egg than the giant fell dead.

Cathal O'Cruachan and his wife stayed that night in the giant's house. The next day they took all the gold and silver they found there. They also took with them the brown wren, the falcon, and the dog. And when they reached their own home, they made a great liberal feast for themselves, their neighbours, and their friends.

When the feast ended, the dog said, "We must be going, or my house will be robbed by foxes, polecats, and martins."

The falcon said, "I also must go, or my house will be robbed by hooded crows and ravens."

"I will be going in the company of my friends," said the wren, "since they are strong and I weak. They will be company for me on the way."

The falcon said to the wren, "Spring up between my two wings, and no other bird will touch you till you reach home."

Cathal O'Cruachan then took leave of his friends.


  1. Shinny. A variant of hockey, played with a curved stick and a ball or block of wood.
  2. Cairn. Pile of stones.


The Rannoch Farmer's Son and the Fairies

There once lived in Rannoch a farmer's son who fell into ill health, and who used to go to the hill, morning and evening, to see if he would get better.

When summer came, and the cattle were driven to the hill pasture, he followed and remained in charge of them till they returned home to the strath [1] in the beginning of harvest.

On a calm, misty day he went away to gather them to the milking fold, but strayed in the mist, and was a good long time seeking them before he happened to come upon them. He found them at last grazing in a fine large corrie [2] with green juicy grass up to their eyes. The day was warm, and a misty, drizzling rain falling, and the grass was springing up rapidly from the ground. As he was tired with the heat and travelling on the hill, he sat down on a green hillock [3] to take a rest.

He was not long there when he heard a voice coming from the root of every blade of grass at his feet, saying: "Some of it to me, some of it to me!"

He then listened a while, and now the same voice came from the root of every blade of grass in the corrie. He looked to see if he could find out who the voices came from, but no man, small or tall, was visible.

He listened again, and when he heard the same din the third time he understood that it came from the fairies, and so he cried as loud as they did: "And some of it for me also!"

At once the din of voices ceased, and then he drove the cattle to the fold.

The milkmaids were waiting for them to come, and wondering what had kept them so long. They began to milk, but before they had gone over the half, every vessel in the fold was overflowing with milk. They could not comprehend how the milk became so abundant in so short a time; at length they began to praise the weather and say it was the cause of the abundance.

The farmer's son listened patiently to all that he heard; but he said to himself that the milk was not so plentiful on every farm as it was on theirs that day, and that it would not be so plentiful on theirs either, had he left the fairies alone when they were drawing it to themselves in the corrie.


  1. Strath: A large valley, typically a river valley that is wide and shallow.
  2. Corrie: A round hollow in a hillside; a steep-walled semicircular basin in a mountain.
  3. Hilloch or knoll: a small hill.


Combats that Never End

THERE are two mountains that overlook the Spey valley, one to the east and one to the west, and a fairy king dwells on each of them. One fairy king is white, and has great fame as an archer; he has a silver bow and arrows of gold, and once a day he shoots an arrow across the strath. The other fairy king is black as the raven, and on his left breast there is a red spot. He has no weapon, but is yet terrible in battle, because he can make himself invisible at will. When he does so, nothing remains in sight except the red spot. He has great strength, and when he goes against his enemies he seizes them unawares and throws them to the ground. No matter how well they are armed, his enemies tremble when the invisible fairy comes against them. All they see is a red spot moving about in the air.

Now, the white fairy has a fair bride whose name is Face-of-Light. It is a great joy to her to wander among the mountains where herds of deer crop the green herbage, and through the strath where cornfields rustle in soft winds and fragrant flowers bloom fair to see. The fairy has no bride, and is jealous of the white fairy because his days are filled with joy by the beauty of Face-of-Light.

These two fairies have ever been enemies. The black fairy keeps out of sight of the famous archer, fearing his arrows of gold.

One summer evening when the twilight shadows were lengthening and deepening across the strath, Face-of-Light tripped merrily over the grassy banks, gathering wild flowers. Silence had fallen on the world ; no bird sang and no wind whispered, the lochs were asleep, and the shrunken river made scarcely a sound louder than the sigh of a sleeping babe; it was no longer bright when Face-of-Light turned away from it.

The black fairy looked out from his mountain home. He knew that the white fairy had lain down to rest, and he watched Face-of-Light gathering wild flowers. Nearer and nearer she came to his dwelling, and he crept into a deep forest which conceals the entrance to his mountain, and waited to seize her. Face-of-Light, never dreaming of her peril, tripped towards the edge of the forest; and, seeing many flowers growing beneath the trees, went in to pluck them. She made the forest bright with her beauty, and the flowers grew fairer as she drew near.

Suddenly a great black hand was thrust out from a thick clump of bushes. The hand seized her, and she shrieked in terror and struggled to escape. The white fairy heard her cries, which pierced the air like the keen long whistle of the curlew, leapt up, and looked forth from his mountain top. In a moment he knew what had happened. Faceof-Light had been seized by his enemy, the black fairy, who was dragging her to a dark dungeon in the middle of his mountain. The white fairy was unable to come to her rescue for two reasons.

Like his dark enemy, he could not pass the utmost limits of his mountain house, and having already shot a golden arrow that day, he could not shoot another until a new day had dawned.

Night came on, and the black fairy climbed to the top of his mountain, where he danced with joy because he had taken captive the bride of his enemy. The white fairy was stricken with sorrow, and when he heard the cries of Face-of-Light coming from the dungeon, he fell down in a swoon.

All night long Face-of-Light sobbed and wept, while the black fairy danced on the mountain top and sang songs of triumph. He danced so fast that he raised a wind which swept down the strath and shook the trees from sleep, so that they moaned and sighed all night long. The cries of Face-of-Light were heard by human beings, and those who were awakened said one to another: "Listen to the hag of night. How terrible are her cries!"

Not until the dawn began to break did the white fairy recover from his swoon. Just when the first shaft of grey light pierced the eastern sky, he opened his eyes. Then he remembered his sorrow and wept softly. His tears fell as dew on the flowers and the grass.

Weeping, he climbed his mountain, and then wandered round about the crest of it. His heart was heavy for the loss of Face-of-Light, and when he listened he heard her moaning in her dark prison. The black fairy had ceased to dance. He stood upright on the highest point of his mountain house, and shouted to his enemy: "Ha! Face-of-Light is my prisoner." Then suddenly he was silent. He saw the white fairy stringing his silver bow and then drawing from his shining quiver a bright golden arrow.

"Ha!" cried the black fairy, "would you dare shoot at me?"

"Set free Face-of-Light, or I shall shoot," the white fairy made answer. His face was white as snow and hard as ice.

The black fairy laughed, and willed himself to become invisible, and then, just as the white fairy raised his bow to take aim, his enemy vanished from sight. No part of him could be seen but the great red spot on his left breast, which seemed to float in the air.

For a moment the white fairy, gazing eastward, looked with wonder at the red spot which grew brighter and brighter. His bow was bent, and his golden arrow was held ready for flight.

The sound of defiant laughter came down the wind as the black fairy, now invisible, danced with joy on his mountain top.

To and fro swayed the red spot, and the white fairy thought he would shoot at it. His aim was true and his arm was strong. Straight from the bow flew the bright golden arrow. It darted through the air with lightning speed and struck the red spot, which, be it known, was the heart of the black fairy. A shriek rang out across the strath. It was the death shriek of the black fairy, who fell down on the bare rock and died. His life-blood streamed forth, and the whole eastern sky was covered with it. In the midst of the redness gleamed the bright golden arrow of the white fairy.

No sooner was the black fairy slain than Face-of-Light was set free. The doors of her dungeon flew open, and she came forth in all her beauty. When she did so, the mountains and the strath were made bright, the river sparkled in the light, and the lochs flashed like burnished silver. All the land was made glad when Face-of-Light was set free from her dark prison. The slumbering flowers opened their eyes to gaze upon her, and the birds broke forth in merry song, while the white fairy smiled and danced with joy.

The black fairy lay dead and invisible on his mountain top until evening came on. Then his mother came to visit him. When she found that her son had been slain, she took from her wallet a pot of healing balsam and rubbed it on his wound. Then she rubbed the balsam on his eyes and on his lips. When she did this, he came to life, and began once again to plot evil against the white fairy and his beautiful bride.

This story, which used to be told in Strathspey, is the story of the struggle between darkness and light. The black fairy is night, which begins to make itself invisible at dawn, and the red spot on his left breast is the red light of morning. The golden arrow of the white fairy is the golden shaft of sunlio-ht that darts across the eastern heaven as the sun rises in morning splendour. Face-of-Light is the spirit of the River Spey, which is bright in daytime and lost to sight in the darkness of night.

When the story-teller says that Face-of-Light leaves the river, he means that its brightness leaves it when the shadows of night are falling.

A different story is told in the Ness valley. There are two mountains on either side of Loch Ness, and on each is a Fooar, or giant. They are rivals too. One loves the daylight and the other loves darkness.

Every morning at dawn one Fooar flings across Loch Ness a white boulder. When the boulder goes through the air the sky becomes bright. Every evening the other Fooar flings across Loch Ness a black boulder, and the sky grows dark.

The rivals can throw their boulders only once in every twenty -four hours. When the white boulder is flung, it strikes the night Fooar, and he falls down in a swoon. He does not recover until evening, and then he rises and, in turn, flings his black boulder, and strikes down his rival, who then lies unconscious until the dawn. When the giant of day grasps his white boulder and raises it on high, his red hand can be seen in the sky, and the red hand of the giant of night is often seen at evening. Sometimes the giants turn round the boulders to adjust them for throwing. Then the gold rings on their fingers and the golden armlets on their arms flash across the sky in bright splendour.


The Stratagem

An old fellow told that he had seen a fox go to a loch (lake) where there were wild ducks, and take a bunch of heather in his mouth, then go into the water, and swim down with the wind till he got into the middle of the ducks, and then he let go the heather and caught two of them.


Scottish folktales, legends, fairy tales of Scotland, Literature  

[A] MacDougall, James. Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English: Collected from Oral Tradition. Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1910.

[B] Mackenzie, Donald Alexander. Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend. New York: Frederick A Stokes, 1917.

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