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Farm fields on the Dulnain flood plain by Shillochan

Once on a time there lived at Mulinfenachan in Duthil [1] a miller who was so strong that he was called Strong Malcolm. But though Malcolm was strong, no man in the parish was as lazy as he. That laziness was encouraged by "little men" that nobody ever saw, and very few ever heard.

When water was scarce, and corn had to be ground, Malcolm, would place a lippy [2] of barley meal in the hopper [3] before going to bed. During the night the mill would light up and the wheel turn without water. There would be noise of shouting and laughter inside the mill; and in the morning all the corn in the mill would be ground, the meal in bags, and everything left tidy and in order.

If any man was so bold as to enter the mill while the little men were at work, some unseen power would kick him in the rear with such force that he would fall to the ground, and when he would rise from the fall, the mill would be in darkness and all would be silent.

When straw was wanted for the cattle, a large basin of sowens [4] was left on the thrashing-floor at night, and in the morning all the corn was found thrashed, the straw in bundles, and the grain winnowed and ready for the mill.

One night as the little men were busy in the mill, the grain kiln [5] of Tullochgriban was seen to be on fire, and the little men were heard to exclaim, "We will have plenty of meal now, and sowens too, for Tullochgriban kiln is on fire, and Strong Malcolm must from now on work for himself, or starve." The little men then went away and never more returned.

[MacDougall, p. 186-90. Retold]

  1. Duthil is a small village in Inverness-shire, Scottish Highlands.
  2. Lippy: About 2 l.
  3. Hopper: Container.
  4. Sowens: A pudding made from oatmeal husks steeped and boiled.
  5. Kiln: Oven, etc.


The Invisible Maiden

Nic Gilmichael was a maiden [1] who followed the Campbells of Glen-Faochan, near Oban. She looked after the household servants, and punished them if they neglected to do their work, or did it in a slovenly manner.

Once a newly-arrived servant, on being warned by the laird [2] to take in the water before dark to avoid that Nic Gilmichael should be displeased with her, said, "If she comes across me, I'll twist her neck for her."

The maiden, though unseen, was then present, and heard what the servant threatened to do to her. Shortly after that, the servant, having gone to the well, came back to the house with her head turned round, until her face overlooked her right shoulder. Being asked the cause, she could only say that she got on the left cheek a slap from a hand in the dark, which threw her head into its new position.

As soon as the laird heard what had been done to her, he led her out by the hand and walked with her round the house, addressing the maiden in the dark, and saying to her, "Nic Gilmichael, poor body, will you not, to oblige me, put the servant's head as it was before?"

After a while the servant got another slap, this time on the right cheek. The blow put her head back nearly to its first position. There it remained in its final position as a warning to others not to threaten vengeance on Nic Gilmichael.

When the estate of Glen-Faochan was sold, she was heard all night sobbing and crying among the trees about the house. But after that she was neither seen nor heard at the house, or anywhere else in the glen [3].

[MacDougall, p. 222-26. Amplified]

  1. Maiden. Houseservant. This one is spoken of as invisible.
  2. Laird. A member of the gentry in Scotland. Laird is a shortened form of 'laverd' and originates in "Lard (Lord)" - both are old words meaning Lord.
  3. Glen. A small, secluded valley; a narrow and deep mountain valley.


Black-haired Ian of Lewis, Sailor

Black-haired Ian [1] was a fisher's son. When he was a little boy his father was drowned, and after that Ian was brought up by his uncle. He lived a short way from the Great Anchorage [2] on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. There he used to fish and see the vessels that visited the Anchorage. He came to take a great liking to the sea, and at length no trade would please him but to be a sailor.

On a certain evening he saw a fine ship coming into the haven under full sail, and it seemed to him that he had never before seen a more beautiful sight. He sprang into his own little fishing boat, and before the ship's anchor reached the bottom, he was on board of her. He waited until her sails had been furled, and then he climbed one of the masts and began to run out and in on the yards, and to climb the ropes as he saw the sailors do. The captain noticed how bold and active he was, and as soon as he came down from the mast, he asked him if he would like to be a sailor. Black Ian answered that there was nothing in the world he would like better.

"Go home, then," said the captain, "and get your father's leave, and tomorrow come ye here together; and if you and I agree, I will let you go away with me and learn sailoring."

Black Ian said that his father was not alive, but that he would ask his uncle for leave to go. That satisfied the captain, and Ian went home in great haste.

Early next day he returned, running and leaping, and had scarcely got on board when he said with joy that he had got his uncle's full permission to go with the ship.

"And did he say anything to you about taking an engagement?" said the captain.

"O yes," answered Ian, "I am to bind myself to the ship for five years that I may learn seamanship right."

"And what did he say to you about wages?"

"He said that I was to get a half-penny at the end of the first month, two half-pennies at the end of the second month, and so doubling the wages of each succeeding month to the close of the five years."

The captain laughed aloud at Black Ian's wages, and without thinking beforehand of what he was about to do, he said, "You shall get that, my little hero," and Ian was then bound to the ship by a document where the deal was put down in writing and signed.

On the following day the ship sailed out of the Anchorage, and went on a long voyage to a far away country. She reached the seaport she was bound to, and stayed a long time abroad, but at the end of four years she returned to England; and in the beginning of the fifth year of Black Ian's engagement, she arrived at the seaport that she belonged to.

Her owners came on board, and after welcoming the captain they began to look over the ship.

Black Ian had grown into a fine lad and an excellent sailor. But he had not yet got a penny of his wages further than a shilling or two now and again when he happened to go ashore with the other sailors at the ports where they called. Nor did the captain think of reckoning the sum to which the lad's wages would amount, until the owners came on board. Then one of them asked where did he get the sailor boy he had over there? The captain answered that he got him on the Island of Lewis.

"And how long have you had him?"

"I have had him for more than four years."

"And what wages are you giving him? No doubt you are giving him a good wage, for he is as clever a sailor as we have ever seen?"

The captain smiled and said, "Well, I have given him no wages yet, but he himself asked that he should be bound for five years, and that he should receive for wages a half- penny at the end of the first month, two half-pennies at the end of the second month, and so doubling the wage of each successive month to the end of the five years. And what he asked I promised him in a joke, and not with the intention of paying him according to his request."

"Did you think beforehand of what you were doing? You have promised the lad more than the ship is worth, and more than she has earned since the first day she was launched."

At first the captain did not believe this; but when he saw it was true, he was struck with great shame and regret. At length he said, "What shall we do?"

The owners answered: "There is only one thing you can do. You shall go away on the next voyage without delay, and take good care to keep a good distance from land on the last day of the lad's engagement. We will give you in three bags all the money we possess. On the last day of his time at twelve o'clock, say to him that you have his wages in the bags, and that he will get them if he will then leave the ship with them; but if he will not, then after that you shall pay him as you please."

The captain said that, hard as it was for him to do that, he would try to do it.

As soon as the captain got everything ready, he sailed off on the next sea voyage. He reached safely the place he was bound to, and when he had delivered his cargo, returned the way he came. Black Ian's time ran out before the ship had come in sight of land, and on the last day of his time, the captain offered him his wages on condition that he would leave the ship at once. "All right," said Ian. "If I get my wages I will leave the ship this moment, but will you give me two hours of the carpenter's time to make a raft for me?"

"You shall get that, and wood too," said the captain, for he was sorry to part with Ian, and willing to help him.

When the raft was ready, it was lowered over the ship's side. Ian received as his wages, one bag full of gold, another of silver, and a third of copper. He placed them unopened on the raft with a bag of biscuits and a bottle of drink, and pushed the raft away from the side of the ship. The crew raised a shout three times at parting, and then the ship went off on her way.

Every minute sthe boat was going further away and night was coming. At length night fell, and the darkness took her out of his sight. Then poor Ian began to grow dejected, not knowing what would happen before the next day dawned. At last he thought he would see what stuff was in the bottle. He took a toothful from it, and felt that that had lightened his mind. About midnight sleep overpowered him and he did not awake till day was breaking. There was then a nice breeze of wind driving the raft before it. Ian passed three nights and three days on the raft. But on the evening of the third day he saw land ahead of him, and in the darkening of the night the raft struck the shore in a bay that was the very prettiest he had ever seen.

Ian the Sailor sprang ashore, glad that he had once more got firm land beneath the soles of his shoes. He took the bags with him to the top of the beach and hid them in the sand there. He then drew the raft up to the border of the wood, saying to himself, "It may be useful to someone."

He then struck into the wood to see if he could find a house where he might stay. But, though he travelled the night long, he saw neither houses nor any other dwelling-places. About daybreak he glanced ahead of him, and saw smoke ascending from the foot of a high precipice a short distance off. He made straight for it, and what was there but a big black clumsy building like an old mill. He was ready to drop with fatigue and sleep, and so he walked in without asking for permission or getting it.

A handsome woman sat at the fireside before him. When she noticed him, she was much alarmed, for she was not used to see travellers coming. In a short time, however, she gathered courage enough to ask him where he came from. He answered that he was a sailor who had drifted ashore. She gave him food and drink, and begged of him to make haste and be gone from the house as quick as he could. He asked the reason, and she answered that seven robbers stayed in the house; and if they arrived before he left, they would not let him go with his life. He then asked when they would come. She answered that she expected them every minute.

"Let them come, then," said Ian the Sailor. "Since I got in, I will not go out until I get a little wink of sleep."

"Well," said the woman, "do as you please; but I fear you will repent of not taking my advice."

"Be that as it may, but in the meantime tell me where I can stretch myself and rest a while."

The woman did that, and at once he was sound asleep.

He knew not how long he slept, but it was the loud talk of the robbers that awoke him. He heard them ask where he was. The woman told them, and without a moment's delay they came where he was, and asked him what brought him there? He told them the reason, as he had told it to the woman.

"Well," said one of them, "we are robbers, and we let no man who comes this way escape alive."

"Ha, ha!" said Black Ian, "It was some sort of robbing that put me in this situation at first."

"You look good enough to be one of our band," said one of them, "and your language is brave. We will give you a chance to prove what you can do. You can rest till tomorrow to rest. But after that everyone of us will take his own way, and he who brings home most spoil for three nights will be chief over the rest, and will have nothing to do but to take care of the house while his companions are away."

This pleased Ian well, and he stayed at home till the first day of trial came.

Then he went off and took his own way, as did everyone of the band. When night came, he returned home with the little bag of copper which he had hidden near the shore; and none of the company had as much. He started off next day, and returned at night with the little bag of silver; and if he had done better than his comrades the first night, he did seven times better that day. On the third day he went out for the last time, and brought home the little bag of gold. He poured out all it contained on the floor, and asked if any of them had done better. They all answered that they had not, and went on to make him chief over them all.

Next day the robbers went away to seek their fortune while Ian stayed at home. As soon as he was alone he thought that he would search the house. He took down a big bunch of keys he saw hanging on a nail in the wall, and with them he opened every room in the house except one. The key of that one the woman had hidden, and at first she refused to part with it. However, when Ian told her that he was the chief now and that she must be obedient to him, she gave up the key.

Then he opened the door of the secret chamber, and saw a beautiful lady hanging by her hair from a hook in the ceiling of the room. The points of her toes were scarcely touching the floor. He sprang to where she was, unloosed her hair, and laid her down on the floor, seemingly dead. She was in a swoon for a while; but when she came out of it, he told her how he had come to that place, and then she told him the way she had been brought there. She was the daughter of the king of Spain. Two of the robbers were caught at the king's castle, and because they were put to death by her father, the rest vowed that they would not rest till they took revenge on him. The revenge they took was to seize her when she was taking a walk about the castle, and carry her away to their own place, and torture her by leaving her hanging in the way Black Ian had found her.

She and Ian fled from the house of the robbers, taking with them as much as they could carry of gold and precious things, with food for the journey. They took the less used paths until night came. They then beheld a mountain bothy before them, and made straight for it. They were not long in reaching it. They went in, and though they found it empty, it had seemingly been occupied shortly before. No matter, they resolved to pass the night there as well as they could.

Some time after they entered they heard a murmur like men talking with one another outside the door. At first they thought it was the robbers who were whispering to one another outside. Soon, however, they understood that the small weak voices they were hearing came neither from the robbers nor from any earthly creatures. At last Black Ian sprang to his feet, saying that he would know who or what the noises came from. So he opened the door. What he saw, startled him. Three human bodies, holding their heads between their hands stood before him.

Ian said, "Well, what do you want?"

They answered, "We are a father and two sons who were murdered by robbers in this bothy and buried behind the house. But, as every head was not placed with its own body, we find no rest. If you will place our heads where they ought to be, perhaps we may do as much for you."

Ian answered that he would do as they asked him if they would show him where the heads were, and where they would like them to be placed. They went with him, and he did everything as they directed him, and when all was over, they went out of sight.

Next day Black Ian and the king's daughter left the bothy, and they did not stop until they reached the nearest seaport. They married there, and set up an inn by using some of the gold they took from the house of the robbers. They were prosperous and happy there till a warship came into the harbour. On board of this ship was the chief commander of the Spanish fleet. He was seeking the king's daughter that he might win herself and half the kingdom, for this was the reward the king had promised to the commander on sea or on land who found her and brought her home in safety.

The commander came ashore with another officer, and of all places they called at Black Ian's house. They were not long there before they got acquainted with Ian and his wife. They recognised that she was the king's daughter, but they did not make that known. Before leaving, they gave her and her husband a friendly invitation to go out next day and see the ship. Ian and his wife heartily accepted the invitation, but when the commander got them on board he set sail and kept on his way, until he was a great distance from land. There he left poor Black Ian in a small boat without oar or sail, and went away.

Ian was in trouble, and passed the rest of the day in dejection, but when night came, he saw that his boat kept her bow pointing steadily in one direction with a good way on her. Then he noticed a bottle of strong drink in the forepart of the boat, and after taking a draught from it he fell asleep.

As soon as he awoke next day, he looked every way but no land was in sight. Still the boat was making good way and holding her head in the same direction as on the night before. This gave him more courage; yet he felt the day long enough.

At the approach of night he took another drink from the bottle, and fell asleep over it. On the third morning he looked ahead, and saw land far off, and the boat making straight for it. The rope for tying up the boat was out ahead, and there was a hard pull on it. And what was still more strange, there was a strong wake before the furthest out end of the rope. But what or who was towing the boat, he could not understand.

At last the boat reached the shore, and three men went out of the sea before her, pulling her with the rope till they left her beyond the reach of the highest tide. These were the three men whose heads and trunks he had placed together behind the mountain bothy. As soon as they saw Ian's foot on land, they vanished out of sight.

The king's daughter would not marry the commander who found her until every soldier and sailor in the kingdom was made to pass by under her window in her father's castle. After going through many hardships, Ian reached the castle last of all. He was just in time. The king's daughter knew him. They were again married, and if they are still living they are happy.

[MacDougall, p. 74-96. Retold]

  1. Ian: John.
  2. Now ▾Stornoway, from Old Norse 'steering bay', was originally a Viking settlement and developed around a well sheltered natural harbour. The harbour hosts a fishing fleet. Stornoway is also home to a small campus of the University of Stirling. Stornoway black pudding is regarded as one of the top gourmet black puddings in the United Kingdom.


Scottish folktales, legends, fairy tales of Scotland, Literature  

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

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