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Grey seal

Once on a time there was a man who lived not very far from John of Groat's house in the very north of Scotland. He lived in a little cottage by the seashore, and made his living by catching seals and selling their very valuable fur.

He earned a good deal of money in this way, for these creatures used to come out of the sea in large numbers and lie on the rocks near his house basking in the sunshine, so that it was not difficult to creep up behind them and kill them.

Some of those seals were larger than others, and the country people used to call them "Roane" and whisper that they were not seals at all, but mermen and merwomen who came from a country of their own, far down under the ocean and assumed this strange disguise in order that they might pass through the water and come up to breathe the air on the surface of the earth.

But the seal catcher only laughed at them, and said that those big seals were most worth killing, for their skin were so big that he got an extra price for them.

One day it chanced that when he was out and tried to catch seals, he stabbed a seal with his knife, but the stroke did not kill the creature. With a loud cry of pain it slipped off the rock into the sea and disappeared under the water, carrying the knife along with it.

The seal catcher got much annoyed at his clumsiness, and also at the loss of his knife. He went home to dinner and felt downcast. On his way he met a horseman who was so tall and so strange-looking and who rode on such a big horse that he stopped and looked at the stranger in astonishment, wondering who he was, and what country he came from.

The stranger stopped also, and asked him his trade. On hearing that he was a seal catcher, he at once ordered a great number of sealskins. The seal catcher was delighted, for such an order meant a large sum of money to him. But his face fell when the horseman added that it was absolutely necessary that the skins should be delivered that evening.

"I cannot do it," he said in a disappointed voice, "for the seals will not come back to the rocks again until tomorrow morning."

"I can take you to a place where there are lots of seals," answered the stranger, "if you will mount behind me on my horse and come with me."

The seal catcher agreed to this, and climbed up behind the rider, who shook his bridle rein, and off the great horse galloped at such a pace that the seal catcher had much ado to keep his seat. On and on they went, hurrying like the wind till at last they came to the edge of a huge precipice that went sheer down to the sea. Here the mysterious horseman pulled up his steed with a jerk. "Get off now," he said shortly.

The seal catcher did as he was bid, and when he found himself safe on the ground, he peeped cautiously over the edge of the cliff, to see if there were any seals lying on the rocks below.

To his astonishment he saw no rocks, only the blue sea, which came right up to the foot of the cliff.

"Where are the seals that you spoke of?" he asked anxiously, wishing that he had never set out on such a rash adventure.

You will soon see," answered the stranger, who was attending to his horse's bridle.

The seal catcher was now thoroughly frightened, for he felt sure that some evil was about to befall him, and in such a lonely place he knew that it would be useless to cry out for help.

The next moment the stranger laid his hand on his shoulder, and he was hurled over the cliff, and fell with a splash into the sea. He thought that his last hour had come, but instead of being choked by the water, he could breathe quite easily as long as the other held on to him. He and his companion, who was still close at his side, seemed to be sinking as quickly down through the sea as they had flown through the air.

Down and down they went, till at last they came to a huge arched door. It seemed to be made of pink coral, studded over with cockleshells. It opened of its own accord, and when they entered, they found themselves in a huge hall. Its walls were formed of mother-of-pearl, and the floor was of sea-sand, smooth, firm, and yellow.

The hall was crowded with occupants, but they were seals, not men, and when the seal catcher turned to his companion to ask him what it all meant, he was struck by terror to find that he, too, had taken on the form of a seal. He was still more terror-struck when he caught sight of himself in a large mirror that hung on the wall, and saw that he also no longer looked like a man, but a nice, hairy, brown seal.

"Woe to me," he said to himself, "for no fault of own this artful stranger has laid some baneful charm on me, and I will remain like this for the rest of my life."

At first none of the huge creatures spoke to him. For some reason or other they seemed to be very sad, and moved gently about the hall, talking quietly and mournfully to one another, or lay sadly on the sandy floor, wiping big tears from their eyes with their soft furry fins.

But after a while they began to notice him and to whisper to one another. His guide moved away from him and disappeared through a door at the end of the hall. When he returned, he held a huge knife in his hand.

"Have you seen this before? ' he asked, holding it out to the seal catcher, who, to his horror, recognised his own hunting knife that he had struck at a seal in the morning, and that had been carried off by the wounded animal.

At the sight of it he fell on his face and thought the seals around him would take revenge on him by killing him. But, instead they crowded round him, rubbing their soft noses against his fur to show their sympathy, and assured him that no harm would befall him if he would only do what they asked him.

"Tell me what it is," said the seal catcher, "and I will do it if it lies within my power."

"Follow me," answered his guide, and he led the way to the door he had disappeared through when he went to seek the knife.

The seal catcher followed him. And there, in a smaller room, he found a great brown seal lying on a bed of pale pink sea-weed, with a gaping wound in his side.

"That is my father," said his guide, "the one you wounded this morning, thinking that he was one of the common seals who live in the sea, instead of a merman who can speak and understand just as humans. I brought you here to bind up his wounds, for no other hand than yours can heal him."

"I have no skill in the art of healing," said the seal catcher, astonished at the forbearance of these strange creatures that he had so unwittingly wronged, "but I will bind up the wound to the best of my power, and I am only sorry that it was my hands that caused it."

He went over to the bed, and stooping over the wounded merman, washed and dressed the hurt as well as he could. And the touch of his hands appeared to work like magic, for no sooner had he finished than the wound disappeared, leaving only the scar, and the old seal sprang up, as well as ever.

Then there was great rejoicing throughout the whole palace of the seals. They laughed and talked, and they embraced each other in their own strange way, crowding round their comrade, and rubbing their noses against his to show him how delighted they were at his recovery.

But all this while the seal catcher stood alone in a corner, with his mind filled with dark thoughts, for although he saw now that they had no intention of killing him, he did not relish the prospect of spending the rest of his life in the guise of a seal deep under the ocean.

But to his great joy, his guide approached him, and said, "Now you are free to return home to your wife and children. I will take you to them, but only on one condition."

"And what is that?" asked the seal catcher eagerly at the thought of being restored safely to his family.

"That you will take a solemn oath never to wound a seal again."

"That will I do right gladly," he replied, for although the promise meant giving up his means of livelihood, he felt that if only he regained his proper shape he could always turn his hand to something else.

So he took the required oath, holding up his fin as he swore, and all the other seals crowded round him as witnesses. A sigh of relief went through the halls when the words were spoken, for he was the most noted seal catcher in the North.

Then he bade the strange company farewell, and accompanied by his guide, passed once more through the outer doors of coral, and up, and up, and up, through the shadowy green water, until it began to grow lighter and lighter and at last they emerged into the sunshine of earth.

Then, with one spring, they reached the top of the cliff, where the great black horse was waiting for them, quietly nibbling the green turf.

When they left the water their strange disguise dropped from them, and they were now as they had been before, a plain seal catcher and a tall, well-dressed gentleman in riding clothes.

"Get up behind me," said the latter, as he swung himself into his saddle. The seal catcher did as he was bid, taking tight hold of his companion's coat, for he remembered how nearly he had fallen off on his previous journey.

Then it all happened as it happened before. The bridle was shaken and the horse galloped off, and it was not long before the seal catcher found himself standing in safety before his own garden gate.

He held out his hand to say good-bye, but as he did so the stranger pulled out a huge bag of gold and placed it in it.

"You have done your part of the bargain, and we do ours," he said. "Men shall never say that we took away an honest man's work without making compensation for it, and here is what will sustain you for the rest of your life."

Then he vanished, and when the astonished seal catcher carried the bag into his cottage and turned the gold out on the table, he found that what the stranger had said was true, and that he would be a rich man for his remaining days.

[Retold from Grierson 58-67]

TO TOP

The Little Oatmeal Cake

Below are explanations of Scottish words that appear in the original fairy tale, "The Wee Bannock". Bannock means unleavened flat bread, biscuit, or cake, as the case may be. - TK
"Some tell about their sweethearts,
How they tirled them to the winnock,
But I'll tell you a bonnie tale
About a guid oatmeal bannock.
"

"Some tell about their sweethearts,
How they twirled them to the window
But I'll tell you an attractive tale
About a good oatmeal cake."

An old man and his wife lived in a dear little cottage by the side of a small stream. They were a very cheerful and contented couple, for they had enough to live on, and enough to do. Indeed, they considered themselves quite rich, for, besides their cottage and their garden, they owned two sleek cows, five hens and a cock, an old cat, and two kittens.

The old man spent his time looking after the cows, the hens, and the garden; while the old woman kept herself busy spinning.

One day, just after breakfast, the old woman thought that she would like an oatmeal cake for her supper that evening, so she took down her bake board, and put on her girdle, and baked a couple of fine cakes, and when they were ready she put them down before the fire to harden.

One day, just after breakfast, the old woman thought that she would like an oatmeal cake for her supper that evening, so she took down her bake board, and put on her girdle, and baked a couple of fine cakes, and when they were ready she put them down before the fire to harden.

While they were toasting, her husband came in from the cow barn, and sat down to take a rest in his great armchair. Presently his eyes fell on the cakes, and as they looked very good, he broke one through the middle and began to eat it.

When the other cake saw this it determined that it should not have the same fate, so it ran across the kitchen and out of the door as fast as it could. And when the old woman saw it disappearing, she ran after it as fast as her legs would carry her, holding her spindle in one hand and her distaff in the other.

But she was old, and the cake was young, and it ran faster than she did, and escaped over the hill behind the house. It ran, and it ran, and it ran, until it came to a large newly thatched cottage, and as the door was open, it took refuge inside, and ran right across the floor to a blazing fire, which was burning in the first room that it came to.

Now, it chanced that this house belonged to a tailor, and he and his two apprentices were sitting cross-legged on the top of a big table by the window, sewing away with all their might, while the tailor's wife was sitting beside the fire, carding lint.

When the wee cake came trundling across the floor, all three tailors got such a fright that they jumped down from the table and hid behind the master tailor's wife.

"Hoot," she said, "what a set of cowards you are! It is but a nice wee cake. Get hold of it and divide it between you, and I'll fetch you all a drink of milk."

So she jumped up with her lint and her lint cards, and the tailor jumped up with his great shears, and one apprentice grasped the line measure, while another took up the saucer full of pins; and they all tried to catch the wee cake. But it dodged them round and round the fire, and at last it got safely out of the door and ran down the road, with one of the apprentices after it, who tried to snip it in two with his shears.

It ran too quickly for him, however, and at last he stopped and went back to the house, while the wee cake ran on until it came to a tiny cottage by the roadside. It rolled in at the door, and there was a weaver sitting at his loom, with his wife beside him, winding a ball of yarn.

"What's that, Tibby?" said the weaver with a start, as the little cake flew past him.

"Oh!" cried she in delight, jumping to her feet, "it is a wee cake. I wonder where it came from?"

"Don't bother your head about that, Tibby," said the man, "but grip it, woman, grip it."

But it was not so easy to get hold of the wee cake. It was in vain that the goodwife threw her clue at it, and that the goodman tried to chase it into a corner and knock it down with his shuttle. It dodged, and turned, and twisted, like a thing bewitched, till at last it flew out at the door again, and vanished down the hill, "for all the world," as the old woman said, "like a new tarred sheep, or a foolish cow."

In the next house that it came to it found the goodwife in the kitchen, churning. She had just filled her churn, and there was still some cream standing in the bottom of her cream jar.

"Come away, little cake," she cried when she saw it. "You have come in just the nick of time, for I am beginning to feel hungry, and I'll have cakes and cream for my dinner."

But the little cake hopped round to the other side of the churn, and the goodwife after it. And she was in such a hurry that she nearly upset the churn; and by the time that she had put it right again, the wee cake was out at the door and half-way down the hillside to the mill.

The miller was sifting meal in the trough, but he straightened himself up when he saw the little cake.

"It's a sign of plenty when cakes are running about with no one to look after them," he said; " but I like cakes and cheese, so just come in, and I will give you a night's lodging."

But the little cake had no wish to be eaten up by the miller, so it turned and ran out of the mill, and the miller was so busy that he did not trouble himself to run after it.

After this it ran on, and on, and on, till it came to the smithy, and it popped in there to see what it could see. The smith was busy at the anvil making horse-shoe nails, but he looked up as the wee cake entered.

"If there be one thing I am fond of, it is a glass of ale and a well-toasted cake," he cried. "So come in here, and welcome to you."

But as soon as the little cake heard of the ale, it turned and ran out of the smithy as fast as it could and the disappointed smith picked up his hammer and ran after it. And when he saw that he could not catch it, he flung his heavy hammer at it, in the hope of knocking it down, but, luckily for the little cake, he missed his aim.

After this the cake came to a farmhouse. A great stack of peats was standing at the back of it. In the cake went, and ran to the fireside. In this house the master had all the lint spread out on the floor, and was separating the lint from the stalk with an iron rod, while the mistress was heckling what he had already cloven.

"Oh, Janet," cried the goodman in surprise, "a little cake comes in here. It looks rare and good to eat. I'll have one half of it."

"And I'll have the other half," cried the goodwife. "Hit it over the back with your cloving-stick, Sandy, and knock it down. Quick, or it will be out at the door again."

But the cake danced about and dodged behind a chair. "Hoot!" cried Janet contemptuously, for she thought that her husband might easily have hit it, and she threw her heckle at it. But the heckle missed it, just as her husband's cloving-rod had done, for the cake danced about again, and flew out of the house.

This time it ran up a brook-side till it came to a little cottage standing among the heather. Here the goodwife was making porridge for the supper in a pot over the fire, and her husband was sitting in a corner plaiting ropes of straw with which to tie up the cow.

"Oh, Jock! come here, come here," cried the goodwife. "You are crying for a little cake for your supper; well, come here, quick, and help me to catch it."

"Ay, ay," assented Jock, jumping to his feet and hurrying across the little room. "But where is it? I cannot see it."

"There, man, there," cried his wife, "under that chair. Run to that side; I will keep to this."

So Jock ran into the dark corner behind the chair; but in his hurry he tripped and fell, and the wee cake jumped over him and flew laughing out at the door. Through the grass and shrubs and up the hillside it ran, and over the top of the hill, to a shepherd's cottage on the other side.

The inmates were just sitting down to their porridge, and the goodwife was scraping the pan.

"Save us and help us," she exclaimed, stopping with the spoon half-way to her mouth. There's a wee cake come in to warm itself at our fireside."

"Latch the door," cried the husband, "and we'll try to catch it. It would come in handy after the porridge."

But the cake did not wait until the door was locked. It turned and ran as fast as it could, and the shepherd and his wife and all the children ran after it with their spoons in their hands in hopes of catching it. And when the shepherd saw that it could run faster than they could, he threw his cap at it and almost struck it; but it escaped all these dangers, and soon it came to another house, where the folk were just going to bed.

The goodman was half undressed, and the goodwife was raking the cinders carefully out of the fire.

"What's that?" said he, "for the bowl of soup that I had at suppertime was not very big."

"Catch it, then," answered his wife, "and I'll have a bit, too. Quick! quick! Throw your coat over it or it will be away."

So the goodman threw his coat right on top of the little cake and almost managed to smother it; but it struggled bravely and got out, breathless and hot, from under it. Then it ran out again, into the grey light, for night was beginning to fall. And the goodman ran out after it, without his coat. He chased it and chased it through the stack yard and across a field, and in among a fine patch of bent grass. Then he lost it. And as he was feeling cold without his coat, he went home.

As for the little cake, it thought that it would creep under a whin bush and lie there until morning, but it was so dark that the cake never saw that there was a fox's hole there. So it fell down the fox's hole, and the fox was very glad to see it, for he had had no food for two days.

"Oh, welcome, welcome," he cried; and he snapped it through the middle with his teeth, and that was the end of the little cake.

And if a moral be wanted, here it is: People should never be too uplifted or too cast down. And even though many thought they were going to get the cake, it was a fox that got it after all.

[Retold, from Grierson, 93-101]

The same tale with many Scottish words intact:

"Some tell about their sweethearts,
How they tirled them to the winnock,
But I'll tell you a bonnie tale
About a guid oatmeal bannock."

An old man and his wife lived in a dear little cottage by the side of a burn. They were a very canty and contented couple, for they had enough to live on, and enough to do. Indeed, they considered themselves quite rich, for, besides their cottage and their garden, they owned two sleek cows, five hens and a cock, an old cat, and two kittens.

The old man spent his time looking after the cows, the hens, and the garden; while the old woman kept herself busy spinning.

One day, just after breakfast, the old woman thought that she would like an oatmeal bannock for her supper that evening, so she took down her bakeboard, and put on her girdle, and baked a couple of fine cakes, and when they were ready she put them down before the fire to harden.

While they were toasting, her husband came in from the byre, and sat down to take a rest in his great armchair. Presently his eyes fell on the bannocks, and as they looked very good, he broke one through the middle and began to eat it.

When the other bannock saw this it determined that it should not have the same fate, so it ran across the kitchen and out of the door as fast as it could. And when the old woman saw it disappearing, she ran after it as fast as her legs would carry her, holding her spindle in one hand and her distaff in the other.

But she was old, and the bannock was young, and it ran faster than she did, and escaped over the hill behind the house. It ran, and it ran, and it ran, until it came to a large newly thatched cottage, and as the door was open, it took refuge inside, and ran right across the floor to a blazing fire, which was burning in the first room that it came to.

Now, it chanced that this house belonged to a tailor, and he and his two apprentices were sitting cross-legged on the top of a big table by the window, sewing away with all their might, while the tailor's wife was sitting beside the fire carding lint.

When the wee bannock came trundling across the floor, all three tailors got such a fright that they jumped down from the table and hid behind the master tailor's wife.

"Hoot," she said, "what a set of cowards you are! It is but a nice wee bannock. Get hold of it and divide it between you, and I'll fetch you all a drink of milk."

So she jumped up with her lint and her lint cards [card: an instrument or machine for carding fibers that consists usually of bent wire teeth set closely in rows in a thick piece of leather fastened to a back], and the tailor jumped up with his great shears , and one apprentice grasped the line measure, while another took up the saucer full of pins; and they all tried to catch the wee bannock. But it dodged them round and round the fire, and at last it got safely out of the door and ran down the road, with one of the apprentices after it, who tried to snip it in two with his shears.

It ran too quickly for him, however, and at last he stopped and went back to the house, while the wee bannock ran on until it came to a tiny cottage by the roadside. It trundled in at the door, and there was a weaver sitting at his loom, with his wife beside him, winding a clue of yarn.

"What's that, Tibby?" said the weaver with a start, as the little cake flew past him.

"Oh!" cried she in delight, jumping to her feet, "it is a wee bannock. I wonder where it came from?"

"Dinna bother your head about that, Tibby," said the man, "but grip it, woman, grip it."

But it was not so easy to get hold of the wee bannock. It was in vain that the goodwife threw her clue at it, and that the goodman tried to chase it into a corner and knock it down with his shuttle. It dodged, and turned, and twisted, like a thing bewitched, till at last it flew out at the door again, and vanished down the hill, "for all the world," as the old woman said, "like a new tarred sheep, or a daft cow."

In the next house that it came to it found the goodwife in the kitchen, kirning. She had just filled her kirn, and there was still some cream standing in the bottom of her cream jar.

"Come away, little bannock," she cried when she saw it. "You have come in just the nick of time, for I am beginning to feel hungry, and I'll have cakes and cream for my dinner."

But the wee bannock hopped round to the other side of the kirn, and the goodwife after it. And she was in such a hurry that she nearly upset the kirn; and by the time that she had put it right again, the wee bannock was out at the door and half-way down the brae to the mill.

The miller was sifting meal in the trough, but he straightened himself up when he saw the little cake.

"It's a sign of plenty when bannocks are running about with no one to look after them," he said; " but I like bannocks and cheese, so just come in, and I will give you a night's lodging."

But the little bannock had no wish to be eaten up by the miller, so it turned and ran out of the mill, and the miller was so busy that he did not trouble himself to run after it.

After this it ran on, and on, and on, till it came to the smithy, and it popped in there to see what it could see. The smith was busy at the anvil making horse-shoe nails, but he looked up as the wee bannock entered.

"If there be one thing I am fond of, it is a glass of ale and a well-toasted cake," he cried. "So come inbye here, and welcome to you."

But as soon as the little bannock heard of the ale, it turned and ran out of the smithy as fast as it could and the disappointed smith picked up his hammer and ran after it. And when he saw that he could not catch it, he flung his heavy hammer at it, in the hope of knocking it down, but, luckily for the little cake, he missed his aim.

After this the bannock came to a farmhouse, with a great stack of peats standing at the back of it. In it went, and ran to the fireside. In this house the master had all the lint spread out on the floor, and was cloving it with an iron rod, while the mistress was heckling what he had already cloven.

"Oh, Janet," cried the goodman in surprise, "here comes in a little bannock. It looks rare and good to eat. I'll have one half of it."

"And I'll have the other half," cried the goodwife. "Hit it over the back with your cloving-stick, Sandy, and knock it down. Quick, or it will be out at the door again."

But the bannock played "jook-about,," and dodged behind a chair. "Hoot!" cried Janet contemptuously, for she thought that her husband might easily have hit it, and she threw her heckle at it.

But the heckle missed it, just as her husband's cloving-rod had done, for it played "jook-about" again, and flew out of the house.

This time it ran up a burnside till it came to a little cottage standing among the heather.

Here the goodwife was making porridge for the supper in a pot over the fire, and her husband was sitting in a corner plaiting ropes of straw with which to tie up the cow.

"Oh, Jock! come here, come here," cried the goodwife. "You are crying for a little bannock for your supper; well, come here, histie, quick, and help me to catch it."

"Ay, ay," assented Jock, jumping to his feet and hurrying across the little room. "But where is it? I cannot see it."

"There, man, there," cried his wife, "under that chair. Run to that side; I will keep to this."

So Jock ran into the dark corner behind the chair; but, in his hurry, he tripped and fell, and the wee bannock jumped over him and flew laughing out at the door.

Through the whins and up the hillside it ran, and over the top of the hill, to a shepherd's cottage on the other side.

The inmates were just sitting down to their porridge, and the goodwife was scraping the pan.

"Save us and help us," she exclaimed, stopping with the spoon half-way to her mouth. There's a wee bannock come in to warm itself at our fireside."

"Sneck the door," cried the husband, "and we'll try to catch it. It would come in handy after the porridge."

But the bannock did not wait until the door was sneckit It turned and ran as fast as it could, and the shepherd and his wife and all the bairns ran after it, with their spoons in their hands, in hopes of catching it.

And when the shepherd saw that it could run faster than they could, he threw his bonnet at it, and almost struck it; but it escaped all these dangers, and soon it came to another house, where the folk were just going to bed.

The goodman was half undressed, and the goodwife was raking the cinders carefully out of the fire.

"What's that?" said he, "for the bowl of brose that I had at supper-time was not very big."

"Catch it, then," answered his wife, "and I'll have a bit, too. Quick! quick! Throw your coat over it or it will be away."

So the goodman threw his coat right on the top of the little bannock, and almost managed to smother it; but it struggled bravely and got out, breathless and hot, from under it. Then it ran out again, into the grey light, for night was beginning to fall, and the goodman ran out after it, without his coat. He chased it and chased it through the stackyard and across a field, and in among a fine patch of whins. Then he lost it; and as he was feeling cold without his coat, he went home.

As for the poor little bannock, it thought that it would creep under a whin bush and lie there till morning, but it was so dark that it never saw that there was a fox's hole there. So it fell down the fox's hole, and the fox was very glad to see it, for he had had no food for two days.

"Oh, welcome, welcome," he cried; and he snapped it through the middle with his teeth, and that was the end of the poor wee bannock.

And if a moral be wanted for this tale, here it is: That people should never be too uplifted or too cast down over anything, for all the good folk in the story thought that they were going to get the bannock, but it was a fox that got it after all.

[Grierson, 93-101]

Words in the Scottish original
  • bairn -- child
  • bannock -- usually unleavened flat bread or biscuit made with oatmeal or barley meal
  • bonnet -- brimless cap worn by men or boys
  • bonnie -- attractive, excellent, fine, fair
  • brae -- hillside, slope
  • brose -- a chiefly Scottish dish made with a boiling liquid and meal
  • burn -- creek, inlet, spring of water
  • canty -- cheerful, sprightly
  • byre -- cow barn
  • carding -- card: to cleanse, disentangle, and collect together (as fibers) by the use of cards preparatory to spinning
  • cloving -- separating the lint from the stalk
  • clue -- ball
  • daft -- foolish, etc.
  • dinna -- don't
  • goodwife -- Goodwife (Scottish: Guidwife), usually abbreviated Goody, was a polite form of address for women, formerly used where Mrs., Miss and Ms. would be used today. However, a woman addressed by this title was of a lesser social rank than a woman addressed as Mistress.

    Goodwife and Goody were used in England, Scotland, and Colonial America. By the mid-1700s they had become archaic outside Scotland. And the goodwife's male counterpart is Goodman

  • guid -- good
  • heckle -- instrument for combing flax or hemp
  • heckling -- combing
  • histie -- bare, barren
  • hoot -- a Scottish exclamation (even cry) of protest, annoyance, objection, impatience, or dissatisfaction, as the case may be
  • jook-about -- juke about, dance about
  • kirn -- (a) to churn; (b) a tool for chirning; (c) churn; corn; grain; kernel; harvest celebration (Scottish)
  • kirning -- churning
  • lint -- a soft fleecy material made from linen usually by scraping.
  • peats -- peat is the earliest stage in the formation of coal; cf. turf
  • shears -- a cutting implement similar or identical to a pair of scissors but typically larger
  • sneck -- to fasten (a latch), dialect
  • sneckit -- locked
  • tar -- cover with tar. In sheep farming the animals' sores were treated by brushing tar over them, and all the sheep in a flock were treated in the same way. The fragment "tarred with the same brush" (being judged and/or treated all alike or by the same rule) derives from it.
  • tirl -- stir, twirl
  • trundled -- rolled, revolved
  • wee -- very small, and very early
  • whin -- shrub or bent grass.
  • whin -- shrubs, grass, bent grass
  • winnock -- window, opening, entrance, window pane

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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 204-11]

Contents


Scottish folktales, legends, fairy tales of Scotland, Literature  

Grierson, Elizabeth Wilson. The Scottish Fairy Book. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1910.

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