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The Mermaid Wife

A Shetlander was walking on a sandy shore when he saw several mermen and mermaids dancing by moonlight, and several seal-skins strewed beside them on the ground. When he approached, they at once fled to secure their garbs. Then they got seal shapes and plunged at once into the sea. But the Shetlander noticed that a skin remained on the shore. It lay close to his feet, so he snatched it up, bore it swiftly away, and hid it carefully.

When he returned to the shore, he met the fairest woman. She lamented the robbery, for now she could not divne into the water to her friends in the deeps, and had to stay on the ground above water. She begged them man in vain to give her back her skin, but the man had drunk deeply of love and could not be swayed to give back the skin. However, he offered to protect her beneath his roof as his betrothed spouse.

The merlady understood that she had to live on earth, and found it fit to accept the offer, and the couple had several children. The Shetlander's loved his merwife without bounds, whereas the lady would often steal alone to the desert strand, and give a signal. At that a large seal would appear, and the two of them talked together in an unknown tongue.

Years passed in this way. Then it happened that one of the children, in the course of his play, found a seal's skin hidden beneath a stack of corn. Delighted he ran with it to his mother. Her eyes glistened with rapture, for she knew he had found the means for her to get back to the ocean and her native home. Her bursts of joy was only toned down at the thought of leaving her dear children. She hastily embracing them, however, and then fled with all speed towards the seaside.

The husband returned home at this very moment, and learnt from the children what had taken place. He ran briskly to the shore, hoping to overtake his wife, but too late. She had already turned herself into a seal and bound from the ledge of a rock into the sea. The large seal that she had used to talk with on the shore, soon appeared and congratulated her in the most tender manner on her escape.

But before she dived out of his sight, she cast a parting glance at the miserable Shetlander, and said to him, "Farewell, and may all good attend you. I loved you well when I lived on earth, but I always loved my first husband better."

(Retold from Tibbits (Anonymous) Folk-Lore and Legends: Scotland, 1889]


The Brownie of Ferne-Den

There have been many brownies known in Scotland, and stories have been written about the brownie of Bodsbeck and the brownie of Blednock, but there is a better story about the brownie of Ferne-Den.

Ferne-Den was a farmhouse that stood on the edge of a glen ["den"], and had got its name from it. Anyone who wished to reach the dwelling had to pass through the glen.

People believed a brownie lived in the glen, and that he never appeared to anyone in the daytime. But at night he was sometimes seen, stealing about like an ungainly shadow from tree to tree, trying not to be seen, and never harming anybody by any chance.

Like all brownies that are properly treated and let alone, he was always on the look-out to do a good turn to those who needed his help. The farmer often said that he did not know what he would do without him. For if there was work to be finished in a hurry at the farm - corn to thrash or winnow or tie up into bags, turnips to cut, clothes to wash, a kirn to be kirned, a garden to be weeded - all that the farmer and his wife had to do, was to leave the door of the barn or the turnip shed or the milk house open when they went to bed, and put down a bowl of new milk on the doorstep for the brownie's supper. And when they woke the next morning the bowl would be empty, and the job finished better than if they had done by themselves.

This might have proved to them how gentle and kindly the creature really was. But nearly everyone about the place was afraid of him, and would rather go a couple of miles round about in the dark when they were coming home from church or market, than pass through the glen and run the risk of catching a glimpse of him.

The farmer's wife was so good and gentle that she was not afraid of anything. When the brownie's supper had to be left outside, she always filled his bowl with the richest milk and added a good spoonful of cream to it, for, she said, "He works so hard for us, and asks no wages, so he well deserves the very best meal that we can give him."

One night this gentle woman was taken very ill, and everyone was afraid that she was going to die. Her husband was greatly distressed, and so were her servants, for she had been such a good mistress to them that they loved her as if she had been their mother. But they were all young, and none of them knew very much about illness, and everyone agreed that it would be better to send off for an old woman who lived about seven miles away on the other side of the river, who was known to be a very skilful nurse.

But who was to go? For it was black midnight, and the way to the old woman's house lay straight through the glen. And whoever travelled that road ran the risk of meeting the dreaded brownie. The farmer would have gone only too willingly, but he did not dare to leave his wife alone. And the servants stood in groups about the kitchen, each one telling the other that he ought to go, yet no one offering to go themselves.

Little did they think that the cause of all their terror was within a yard or two of them behind the kitchen doo. It was a queer, wee, misshapen little man, all covered with hair, with a long beard, red-rimmed eyes, broad, flat feet, just like the feet of a toad, and enormous long arms that touched the ground even when he stood upright, .

He listened to their talk with an anxious face. For he had come up as usual from his hiding-place in the glen, to see if there were any work for him to do and to look for his bowl of milk. And he had seen from the open door and lit-up windows, that there was something wrong inside the farmhouse, for at that hour it usually was dark and still. So he had crept into the entry to try and find out what the matter was.

When he gathered from the servants' talk that the mistress was ill, his heart sank within him. For he loved her so dearly and she had always been so kind to him, And when he heard that the silly servants were so taken up with their own fears that they did not dare to set out to fetch a nurse for her, his contempt and anger knew no bounds.

"Fools!" he muttered to himself, stamping his queer, misshapen feet on the floor. "They speak as if I was ready to take a bite off them as soon as I met them. If they only knew the bother it gives me to keep out of their road, they would not be so silly. But if they go on like this, the bonnie lady will die among their fingers. So it strikes me that I must go myself."

So saying, he reached up his hand and took down a dark cloak which belonged to the farmer, and was hanging on a peg on the wall. He threw it over his head and shoulders to hide his ungainly form somewhat, and hurried away to the stable. There he saddled and bridled the fastest horse that stood there.

When the last buckle was fastened, he led it to the door , and scrambled on its back. "Now, if ever you travelled fleetly, travel fleetly now," he said; and it was as if the creature understood him, for it gave a little whinny and pricked up its ears; then it darted out into the darkness like an arrow from the bow.

In less time than the distance had ever been ridden before, the brownie drew rein at the old woman's cottage. She was in bed, fast asleep, but he rapped sharply on the window. And when she rose and put her white-capped old face close to the pane to ask who was there, he bent forward and told her his errand.

"You must come with me, goodwife, and quickly, if the life of the lady of Ferne-Den is to be saved," he commanded, in his deep, harsh voice, "for there is no one to nurse her at the farm up there, save a lot of ignorant servant wenches."

"But how am I to get there? Have they sent a cart for me?" asked the old woman anxiously. For as far as she could see, there was nothing at the door save a horse and its rider.

"No, they have sent no cart," replied the brownie, shortly. "So you must just climb up behind me on the saddle, and hang on tight to my waist, and I'll take care to land you at Ferne-Den safe and sound."

His voice was so masterful that the old woman did not dare to refuse to do as she was bid. Besides, she had often ridden when she was a lassie, so she made haste to dress herself, and when she was ready she locked her door, and was soon seated behind the dark-cloaked stranger with her arms clasped tightly round him.

Not a word was spoken till they approached the dreaded glen. Then the old woman felt her courage giving way. "Do you think that there will be any chance of meeting the brownie?" she asked timidly. "I would rather not run the risk, for folk say that he is a dangerous creature."

Her companion gave a curious laugh. "Keep up your heart, and don't hem and haw," he said, "for I promise you that you'll see nothing uglier this night than the man that you ride behind."

"Oh, then, I'm fine and safe," replied the old woman with a sigh of relief; "for although I haven't seen your face, I am sure that you are a true man, for the care you have taken of a poor old woman."

She relapsed into silence again until the glen was passed and the good horse had turned into the farmyard. Then the horseman slid to the ground, and turning round, lifted her carefully down in his long, strong arms. As he did so the cloak slipped off him, revealing his short, broad body and his misshapen limbs.

"In all the world, what kind of man are you?" she asked, peering into his face in the grey morning light, which was just dawning. ''What makes your eyes so big? And what have you done to your feet? They look more like toad webs than anything else."

The queer little man laughed again. "I've wandered many a mile in my time without a horse to help me, and I've heard it said that over-much walking makes the feet unshapely," he answered. "But don't waste time in talking, goody. Go your way into the house. And listen: if anyone asks you who brought you here so quickly, tell them that there was a lack of men, so you had to be content to ride behind the brownie of Ferne-Den."

(Retold from Grierson 1910, 204-11)


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.



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