On the eastern part of Trosswickness, near an ancient Pictish ruin, once stood a lonely hut. The man who lived there was called Olla Ollison, but that was not his real name. Olla lived the life of a hermit. He was about thirty years old and somewhat slender. He always looked pensive, and very often retired to the sea-shore after sunset.
One day in late autumn he had just finished his harvest and put his sheaves in little stooks behind his hut. His day's work was done, and he went home to eat something and to rest till the moon had risen. Then he wanted to go to the sea-shore.
The night was calm and beautiful. The seafowl had gone to rest here and there on the Ness. He was about midway down his steep pathway to the shore when he noticed an old man coming up towards him with a heavy bag of sillocks on his back. They knew each other slightly. The old man was on his way home. At this meeting the old man asked Olla why he came to the beach so late at night.
"I come here to meditate, to feel at one with the rocks and the rippling waves and listen to their voice. I come here to ask the sea to give me back the treasure of my heart, kept away from me for many long years."
"Ah, well," said the old man, "I have trotted up and down to the beach here the last thirty years of my life, and I have never seen or heard anything peculiar myself. I for my part have a wife, and if she can only hold her tongue, home life is not too bad. Maybe a wife can make you happy."
Olla listened attentively and sighted deeply at the old man's words. "I sympathise with you in your troubles, and am thankful that you think well of me. But now I feel I must meditate. However, if you will come tomorrow to my hut, I shall be happy to talk more with you."
Next day the other came to visit the hermit. When he tapped gently at the door, a voice from within cried, "Come in, friend."
"Good day," said the oldtimer. "It is so good for someone like me to talk with a man of eddication, and express my opinions so freely, but I hoop you'll excuse me for it."
"Yes, of course. Do take a seat," said the hermit.
The old man sat down and soon told of auld Peggy Moad the midwife. One day she was summoned by the hill-folks to help them with a difficult birth. While she was in their home, she was given a salve to rub the child's eyes with. By accident some of the salve into her eye, and then on she could see hillfolks that otherwise remained invisible to people.
But some time after the hillfolks found out that she was able to see them and their doings among other people. One sunday she met the man of the hillwife she had helped. "How is it with you today, Peggy?" he asked, and with that he breathed into her face. And from that day she never saw hillfolks any more.
Olla seated himself on a chair close to the old man by the fireside and told of his life and how he had met his true love.
"My real name is Roderick Douglas. Ollison was my mother's maiden name. When my father fell in a great battle, my mother in sorrow decided to leave Scotland, and return to Shetland, her native country, and took me with her. I was their only son. At that time I was about twelve years old. When we came to her father's house on the island of Bressay, we were heartily welcomed. I was shortly afterwards sent to the parish school for two years, and learnt Latin and mathematics.
"Then my mother decided to go and live with a sister of hers in Dunrossness, and I was to go along with her. Several weeks after we came to her home in the village of Skelaburgh, it was decided that I should go to a neighbouring school to learn navigation, in case I might go to sea, as so many other youths on these islands did.
"After a few weeks at this school I got as crush on a girl there, Lelah. She was about two years younger than me. I had never seen before. She looked well. My heart beat like an imprisoned bird. I watched her quite spell-bound, and I blushed. She won my heart, young as it was. I left school that day scarcely knowing what to do with myself. Coming home I could neither eat nor study. I felt a kind of longing pain at my heart, but I felt reluctant to tell mother how things were with me, when she caught me sitting heaving and staring blankly into the air.
I went to bed early that night. Lying in bed I could lie still and see her face in front of me. At last I fell asleep; and then, oh, such dreams! There she was a little distance from me. In my dreams I tried to speak to her, but my voice was gone. I tried again and again to speak, and at last succeeded. But the efforts woke me up, and then I found my mother at my bedside, wiping the sweat from my face. I told her that I had been dreaming and would go to sleep again.
"I woke up with the morning light streaming into my room, and my arms entwined around a portion of the bedclothes. I got up, dressed and had breakfast, and went to the school. I had come before her. After a few minutes she entered along with another girl. I breathed hard before recovering myself. A short time afterwards I had the opportunity to timidly cross the floor and walk up to her where she was seated. Blushing, and in a kind of a whisper I offered, "Shall I help you with your sums?"
""'Oh yes, if you please," she answered. After this I managed to make myself useful and agreeable to her."
"One day Lelah's sums were more than usually troublesome, so I sat down beside her and answered her questions in the softest and most loving tone of voice I could command. I crept close to her side, and, almost unconsciously, put my arm round her waist, which she perceiving, put her hand round and pushed my arm away; but she did it so gently, and with such a blush, and giving my hand at the same time, as I imagined, a gentle squeeze. Oh, how can I tell my ecstasy!"
Then I found that I had rivals in boys older than I. One day, after school had assembled, he went and sat down beside her, and started whispering to her, and laughing; and I thought I saw her give him a look of fondness once or twice. How my blood boiled within my veins. I was boiling with rage, and wished to fight him.
After school I dashed a blow in his face, after getting enraged by picking up a quarrel with him first. We were the best two boxers in the school. He was a better fighter than I was. Soon I sank exhausted on the ground. As the other boys cried, "Say beat," I sprang to my feet and dashed a blow on his left temple. He fell, and there he lay headlong.
"There's the schoolmaster,' shouted a boy in the outer part of the ring. All scampered into the school as fast as they could. My rival and I had to go home as fast as our stiff and sore limbs could carry us. As I entered the house, mother saw my swollen and discoloured face. She threw her arms around my neck and sobbed, "Tell me, who did it?"
"I fought Jack Smith; that's all," I answered.
She found it best to put me to bed. I could not sleep that night. I lay worrying what the love of my heart would think of it all when she heard it. In the morning my mother brought my breakfast on a small tray, and on it a neat little letter sealed with blue wax. I recognised the writing, and my heart bounded in a flutter. A strange expression passed over my mother's face as she withdrew when I broke the seal with trembling and read:
Dearest Olla, are you much hurt? I will miss you at school; get better for my sake. How could you think I cared anything for Jack Smith? I hope that will please you and make you better, and then you will not fight him any more.I wrote her back:
I know you did not want me to fight, but . . . Now when you say you do not love him, I will not fight him any more. Dearest, I dream beautiful dreams about you. I am going to send this by Tom Flaws when he comes, for I think he will call to see me to-day.
"A few days after this," continued the Olla, "I went to school, and as I entered I observed an expression of pleasure pass over Lelah's lovely face; and, going up to the table where she sat, I whispered, "I'm all right now, Lelah."
"I did much to be good at things, so that she would like me still. All my spare time at home was employed as an amateur mechanic. I constructed miniature watermills, windmills, fullrigged ships, chairs, tables, tubs, cogs, and other models on a perfect scale. Such memories are dear to my heart.
"After I had been at the school, the ruling elder of the district called at the school one day, and said he wished to speak to me. I followed him outside, where he said, ' Olla, I hear that you are a very clever lad, and we want a teacher at Hallowmas for the Chancein School. Therefore we have decided to give you the offer of it."
"In reply I thanked him for what I considered the highest honour that could have been conferred on me; and said I would do my best, as up to this time I had never possessed a shilling of my own. After shaking hands with my new benefactor, I by and by went up to where Lelah was sitting, and whispered, "Lelah, I am going to be a teacher. I have got the Chancein School."
"Her lovely eyes beamed with a mixed expression of wonder and delight.
""I will tell you all about it when we get out." After the school was dismissed, I got the opportunity of telling Lelah that it was all settled, and that I was to buy her a present when I got my first quarter's salary.
"The harvest was now near at hand. I wished to assist my uncle in the fields; for I had become good at binding sheaves, and all kinds of harvest work. The season happened to be unusually fine. In the night Lelah and I used to walk together down to the sea-shore. How beautiful it was when we sat gazing silently at the moon. I drew closer towards her, and kissed her when she was unaware, staring at a star. This was my first kiss. After a little I said, "Dear Lelah, what were you thinking about when you were looking so earnestly at that bright star up there?"
"I was thinking . . . you bad boy, whether there can be an end to the sky. It makes my head reel to think of it, though, so let us speak about mermaids instead.'"
Simon of Gott and the Mermaid - an unhappy encounterNow Olla's guest by the fireside broke in, "Speaking of mermaids, a story of Simon of Gott comes to mind. One day at ebb tide he was hauling his lines when he noticed they were heavier than usual. He told the helpmate that was with him in his boat to take the large iron-hooked pole and stand ready, looking for a shimmer down in the water. The boy looked intently and said after a while, "I see something."
"What is it?" asked Simon.
"It is a body," said his helpmate.
And then a most beautiful mermaid appeared. She had long, yellow hair hanging down her back. Simon cried in great fear, "My knife!" Then he stabbed her in the breast. The fair mermaid fell back into the sea, leaving a stream of red blood after her.
"Alas, alas," she cried.
From that day Simon of Gott never went to sea again. His corn started to rot. Then one day when he was crossing a stream, a green mist came up from the sea and enveloped him, and that was the last that was seen and heard of Simon.
Maikie of Fradigal and his mermaid wife"Then there was Maikie of Fradigal. One summer morning at ebb tide all was calm, he noticed a most beautiful mermaid sitting on a skerry. She was combing her bonnie yellow hair. He looked at her for a long time, and noticed a silky skin laying on the stone beside her. It was put there as if it were a shawl that a woman had flung from her shoulders.
When he saw the skin, he leaped forward for it and got it. Then he sat down to see what she would do. He said he had never seen a prettier woman since the day he was born. The sun was just rising, and the morning light fell on her face and her body. She was white and pure and beautifully formed in every way. She also had a pretty pair of legs.
Now the mermaid jumped off the skerry and into the water. He had her skin, though, and that is what mermaids wrap their feet in, so that people think they have the tail of a fish. Her upper body came out of the water, and she pointed at the skin, saying, "Hey, give me back my skin. Why would you steal from me something that can do you little good and make me poor?"
Maikie said, "God forbid that I should hurt a hair of your bonnie head or take away your piece of skin. But won't you come home with me for dinner and get some warm clothes as well?"
"Do not tempt me," said the mermaid again, "I desire to return to the emerald halls and the coral caves of my ancestors. Last night, by the pale moonlight, my brave merman knight left me to hunt in the great sea-plains, and this morning he will return to find me absent if I don't hurry. Now, give me my skin and let me go, please."
"Wait just a little," said Maikie, sprang to his home nearby, and came back with woman clothes after his wife on his shoulder. When he came to the water, he laid them on the top of a stone. The mermaid seemed to soften up a little at this. Soon she put on the clothes and waded ashore.
Maikie took her by the arm and said, "Come home with me and get a cup of tea. It will revive you, and then you are free to stay with me or go out to sea again. In any case I give you back your skin. But I will never leave you any more. If you take to the sea again, I'll follow you, even if it should choke me. So do not be angry with me."
Maikie was in love, and mermaids just like other folks are well pleased to be praised. She got home with Maikie, and said nothing more about her knight and his wonderful exploits, and a proverb came to mind, "Der's as guid fish oot o' da sea as ever yet wis in it."
She decided to stay with him. He could not tell his folk that she was a sea-woman, for they would then be prejudiced against her and him all the time. Instead he said she came ashore from a shipwreck, and that her name was Mary Mermaid. They did well together, and she had liked fish, which he caught. After six months she and Maikie got married, and they were as happy as the day is long.
Then, after many years a boy who was running about came across an old, dry skin that lay hidden under a sheaf. The boy told others what he had seen. Mary heard it too, and understood the community would soon think her a mermaid. She decided to leave.
Next morning, when Maikie woke up, his bonnie Mary was gone. In the barn the skin was gone too.
"Many a time I have wished that my old wife had been a mermaid," said the old man. "But now let me hear the rest of your story; for I think the best of it is yet to come."
It had become late, however, so they decided to meet again next day and let Olla resume his story.
When the old man came home, his ear caught the prelude of the coming storm: It was the low crooning guttural sound his old wife indulged in when she brimmed with wrath. A new peat fire had been put on, and there was much lazy smoke inside. The old man, therefore, on stepping over the floor, had the upper part of his body enveloped in thick darkness, with only his legs visible, so that he was within a few feet of the hearth before his wrathful mate saw him.
"Do you have any dinner for me?" he asked.
"No," she answered.