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Living in an Oven

A gentleman once visited Joseph Gullan and found him in his writing chamber. It was so hot there that the visitor exclaimed, "It is hot as an oven!"

"So it ought to be," answered Gullan, "for it's here I make my bread."

(Chambers 1880, 108. Retold)

Expression (idiom)

  1. Make one's bread: earn a living.


The White Snake and Michael Scott

Long, long ago, when Michael Scott was just a young man he set out on a journey to Edinburgh with two companions. They travelled on foot, and one day, when they were climbing a high hill, they sat down to rest. No sooner had they done so than they heard a loud hissing sound. They looked in the direction that the sound came from, and saw with horror a great white snake, curved in wheel shape, rolling towards them at a rapid speed. It was plain that the monster was going to attack them, and when it began to roll up the hill-side as swiftly as it had crossed the moor, Michael's two companions sprang to their feet and ran away, shouting with terror.

Michael did not fear, though, and made up his mind to attack the snake. He stood waiting for it, with his staff firmly grasped in his right hand.

When the snake came close to Michael it uncurved its body and, throwing itself into a coil, raised its head to strike, its jaws gaping wide and its forked tongue thrust out like an arrow. Michael at once raised his staff, and struck the monster so fierce a blow that he cut its body into three parts. Then he turned away, and called on his friends to wait for him. They heard his voice, stopped running, and gazed upon him with wonder as he walked towards them very calmly and at an easy pace. It was a great relief to them to learn from Michael that he had slain the fearsome monster.

They walked on together, and had not gone far when they came to a house in which lived a wise old woman. As the sun was beginning to set and it would soon be dark, they asked her for a night's lodging, and she invited them to enter the house. One of the men then told her of their adventure with the wheeling snake which Michael had slain.

The wise woman said: "Are you sure the white snake is dead?"

"It must be dead," Michael answered, "because I cut its body into three parts."

The wise woman said: "This white snake is no ordinary snake. It has power to unite the severed parts of its body again. Once before it was attacked by a brave man, who cut it in two. The head part of its body, however, crawled to a stream. After bathing in the stream it crawled back and joined itself to the tail part. The snake then became whole again, and once more it bathed in the healing waters of the stream. All snakes do this after attacking a human being. If a man who has been stung by a snake should hasten to the stream before the snake can reach it, he will be cured and the snake will die."

"You have great knowledge of the mysteries," Michael exclaimed with wonder.

The wise woman said: "You have overcome the white snake this time, but you may not be so fortunate when next it comes against you. Be assured of this: the snake will, after it has been healed, lie in wait for you to take vengeance. When next it attacks, you will receive no warning that it is near."

"I shall never cross the high mountain again," Michael declared.

The wise woman said: "The snake will search for you and find you, no matter where you may be."

"Alas!" Michael exclaimed, "Evil is my fate. What can I do to protect myself against the snake?"

The wise woman said: "Go now to the place where you smote the snake, and carry away the middle part of its body. Hurry, so that you won't be too late."

Michael took her advice, and asked his companions to go with him; but they were afraid to do so, and he set out alone.

He walked quickly, and soon came to the place where he had struck down the monster. He found the middle part and the tail part of the white snake's body, but the head part was nowhere to be seen. He knew then that the woman had spoken truly, and, as darkness was coming on, he did not care to search for the stream to which the head part had gone. Lifting up the middle part of the body, which still quivered, he hastened back towards the house of the wise woman.

The sky darkened, and the stars began to appear. Michael grew uneasy. He felt sure that something was following, him at a distance, so he quickened his steps and never looked back. At length he reached the house in safety, and he was glad to find that there were charms above the door which prevented any evil spirit from entering.

The wise woman welcomed Michael, and asked him to give her the part of the snake's body which he had brought with him. He did so willingly, and she thanked him, and said: "Now I shall prepare a meal for you and your companions."

The woman at once set to work and cooked an excellent meal. Michael began to wonder why she showed him and his friends so much kindness and why she was in such high spirits. She laughed and talked as merrily as a girl, and he suspected she had been made happy because he had brought her the middle part of the white snake's body. He resolved to watch her and find out, if possible, what she was going to do with it.

After eating his supper Michael pretended that he suffered from pain, and went into the kitchen to sit beside the fire. He told the woman that the heat took away the pain, and asked her to allow him to sleep in a chair in front of the fire. She said, "Very well," so he sat down, while his weary companions went to bed. The woman put a pot on the fire, and placed in it the middle part of the snake's body.

Michael took note of this, but said nothing. He pretended to sleep. The part of the snake began to frizzle in the pot, and the woman came from another room, lifted off the lid, and looked in. Then she touched the cut of the snake with her right finger. When she did so, a cock crew on the roof of the house. Michael was startled. He opened his eyes and looked round.

The wise woman said: "I thought you were fast asleep."

"I cannot sleep because of the pain I suffer," Michael told her.

The wise woman said: "If you cannot sleep, you may be of service to me. I am very weary and wish to sleep. I am cooking the part of the snake. Watch the pot for me, and see that the part does not burn. Call me when it is properly cooked, but be sure not to touch it before you do so."

"I shall not sleep," Michael said, "so I may as well have something to do."

The wise woman smiled, and said: "After you call me, I shall cure your trouble." Then she went to her bed and lay down to sleep.

Michael sat watching the pot, and when he found that the portion of the snake's body was fully cooked, he lifted the pot off the fire. Before calling the old woman, he thought he would first do what she had done when she lifted the lid off the pot. He dipped his finger into the juice of the snake's body. The tip of his right finger was badly burned, so he thrust it into his mouth. The cock on the roof flapped its wings at once, and crowed so loudly that the old woman woke up in bed and screamed.

Michael felt that there must be magic in the juice of the snake. New light and knowledge broke in upon him, and he discovered that he had the power to foretell events, to work magic cures, and to read the minds of other people.

The old woman came out of her room. "You did not call me," she said in a sad voice.

Michael knew what she meant. Had he called her, she would have been the first to taste the juice of the white snake and receive from it the great power he now himself possessed.

"I slew the snake," he said, "and had the first right to taste of its juice."

The wise woman said: "I dare not scold you now. Nor need I tell you what powers you possess, for you have become wiser than I am. You can cure diseases, you can foretell and foresee what is to take place, you have power to make the fairies obey your commands, and you can obtain greater knowledge about the hidden mysteries than any other man alive. All that I ask of you is your friendship."

"I give you my friendship willingly," Michael said to her. Then the wise woman sat down beside him and asked him many questions about hidden things, and Michael found himself able to answer each one. They sat together talking until dawn. Then Michael awoke his companions, and the woman cooked a breakfast. When Michael bade her good-bye, she said: "Do not forget me, for you owe much to me."

"I shall never forget you," he promised her.

Michael and his companions resumed their journey. They walked until sunset, but did not reach a house.

"Tonight," one of the men said, "we must sleep on the heather."

Michael smiled. "Tonight," said he, "we shall sleep in Edinburgh."

"It is still a day's journey from here," the man reminded him.

Michael laid his staff on the ground and said: "Let us three sit on this staff and see how we fare."

His companions laughed, and sat down as he asked them to do. They thought it a great joke.

"Hold tight!" Michael advised them. The men, still amused, grasped the staff in their hands and held it tightly.

"My staff!" Michael cried, "carry us to Edinburgh."

No sooner did he speak than the staff rose high in the air. The men were terror-stricken as the staff flew towards the clouds and then went forward with the speed of lightning. They shivered with fear and with cold. Snow-flakes fell on them as the staff flew across the sky, for they were higher up than the peak of Ben Nevis. When night was falling and the stars came out one by one, the staff began to descend. Happy were Michael's companions when they came down safely on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

They walked into the town in silence, and the first man they met stood and gazed with wonder upon them in the lamplight.

"Why do you stare at strangers?" Michael asked.

Said the man: "There is snow on your caps, and your shoulders."

Having spoken thus, a sudden fear overcame him, and he turned and fled, believing that the three strangers were either wizards or fairies.

Michael shook the snow off his cap and shoulders, and his companions did the same. They then sought out a lodging, and having eaten their suppers, went to bed.

Next morning Michael found that his companions had risen early and gone away. He knew that they were afraid of him, so he smiled and said to himself: "I bear them no ill-will. I prefer now to be alone."

Michael soon became famous as a builder. When he was asked to build a house, he called the fairies to his aid, and they did the work in the night-time for him.

Once he was travelling towards Inverness, and came to a river which was in flood. The ford could not be crossed, and several men stood beside it looking across the deep turbid waters. "It is a pity," one said to Michael, "there is no bridge here."

Said Michael: "I have come to build a bridge, and my workers will begin to erect it tonight."

Those who heard him laughed and turned away, but great was their surprise next morning to find that a bridge had been built. They crossed over it with their horses and cattle, and as they went on their way they spread the fame of Michael far and wide.

As time went on Michael found that his fairy workers wished to do more than he required of them. They began to visit him every evening, crying out: "Work! work! work!"

So Michael thought one day that he would set them to perform a task beyond their powers, and when next they came to him crying out: "Work! work! work!" he told them to close up the Inverness firth and cut it off from the sea. The fairies at once hastened away to obey his command.

Michael thought of the swift tides and of the great volume of water flowing down from the rivers by night and by day, and was certain that the fairies would not be able to close the firth.

Next morning, however, he found that the river Ness was rising rapidly, and threatening to flood the town of Inverness. He climbed a hill and looked seaward. Then he found that the fairies had very nearly finished the work he had set them to do. They had made two long promontories which jutted across the firth, and there remained only a narrow space through which the water surged. The incoming tide kept back the waters flowing from the river, and that was why the Ness was rising in flood. Not until after the tide turned did the waters of the river begin to fall.

Michael summoned his fairy workers that evening, and ordered them to open up the firth again. They hastened away to obey him, and after darkness came on they began to destroy the promontories. The moon rose as they went on with their work. A holy man walking along the shore saw the fairies, and prayed for protection against them. When he did so the fairies fled away, and were unable again to visit the promontories, and so these still lie jutting across the firth like crab's toes. The one has been named Chanonry Point, and on the peninsula opposite it there now stands Fort George, which was placed there to prevent enemy ships from sailing up to Inverness.

When the fairies found they were unable to complete their task they returned to Michael, crying out again: "Work! work! work!"

Michael then thought of an impossible task which would keep them busy. He said: "Go and make rope-ladders that will reach to the back of the moon. They must be made of sea sand and white foam."

The fairies hastened away to obey his command. They could not, however, make the ropes for Michael. That is why wreaths of foam and strings of twisted sand may be found on the seashore to this day. Or maybe not.


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.



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