(folk tale from the Scottish Highlands, told by David Campbell)
I first came upon a version of this story in a collection of orally transmitted tales gathered by a woman in the early 20th century in the Hebrides, Western Isles of Scotland. To me it is a talismanic tale of a courageous journey to wisdom. It embodies the notion of a search following visions and ideals, time of loss and despair, courage to accept a difficult life apprentiship and the ultimate reward of endeavour. A richness of spirit, insight and wisdom. (David)
Once long ago in the time of the old gods, on a day of crisp autumn some young women were gathering blackberries on the lower slopes of The Cuillins on the island of Skye. They were laughing and chattering and singing. The boldest and fleetest and loveliest of them climbed higher and even higher up the slopes of the mountain, seeking the sharpest and sweetest of the blue-ripe berries. Full of dreams, higher and higher she climbed so caught in the search for the sharpest and sweetest and most perfect little berries that she no longer heard the singing and laughter and chattering of her companions.
A sudden chill ran in the air and looking up she saw rolling towards her a blank wall of mountain mist. Alarmed to be alone she turned to find her way back but saw that she was lost. Through the mist she saw above her, craggy shapes of rocks and below, dizzy gullies eddying with wispy apparitions of mist. She dared move neither forward nor backwards, upwards nor downwards.
At that moment she heard the sound of footsteps and saw approaching her, huge ghostly forms, like the legendary giants of the Cuillins. She shrank in terror and could not move. A sudden flurry of wind made a momentary clearing in the mist and she laughed out loud to see that her companions were a herd of deer, mostly hinds with young calves following at their heels. These deer seemed unafraid and so she followed behind them as they grazed and moved surefooted along the craggy ridges. They would, she hoped lead her to safety. As if they were obeying a voice from the mountain they all pricked their ears and set off purposefully along a narrow track. The track led not down but upwards and came to a cave high in the Cuillins.
In this cave were an old man and an old woman seated on two stools gazing into a dark rock pool on the floor of the cave. When the old woman heard the deer she rose to fetch her milking pail and seeing the girl at the entrance to the cave she stopped to ask her name and her business in that place.The girl told how she came to lose her companions and offered the old woman her blackberries saying, “Can you give me shelter for this night?”
“For a night?” said the old woman and she turned to her husband and together they spoke a while in a strange tongue. At length she replied. “For a night, no, but for a year and a night, yes, we can give you shelter if you will help me with the beasts for now I grow old. The deer will bring you back to the sea at the latter end of the year.”
To this the girl agreed. And the days ran by while she was busy milking and tending the hinds. The old woman taught her too, how to find and gather sweet-scented herbs from the mountainside; thyme she picked on the rock face, meadow sweet and wild mint from the edge of the mountain burns, golden asphodel and boy myrtle from the swampy peat ground.
These herbs the old woman dried and sprinkled on the peat and heather fire. Over this she heated the deer’s milk to make croudie. The making of this croudie was the old woman’s life.
While she worked at this the old man sat gazing into the pool in which was mirrored the world. When the croudie was prepared he took it and fashioned it into all the shapes and figures he had seen on the pool’s surface. This was his whole life. For he and his wife were the maker of dreams.
Each night as the red sun set below the sea foam the old man carried these dreams out to the mouth of the cave and held them up to take colour from the setting sun. Some he held in his right hand, some in his left. Those dreams from his right hand were airy and light, beautiful dreams full of comfort and promise. Out of the blue heavens they were carried by birds of good omen. Eagles, falcons, larks and even the cheeky little wren. These sweet dreams they carried under the veil of sleep through the whole wide world.
But from the left hand of the old man came nightmarish fantasies, ugly apparitions, dreams full of false phantoms, dreams to deceive. Out of the dark skies, out of the shadowy corries of mist these illusions were borne by birds of evil omen. The smell of carrion was on them, ravens, hoodie crows, rooks and kites. Through the web of darkness they took these deceptions and horrors under the eyelids of world.
When the year and one night of the young woman’s service came to an end, the old woman said to her, “You have served us well.” Then in her strange tongue she spoke to the leader of the herd, a hind grey with age. “Go well” she said to the girl, “your reward awaits you.”
Following the old hind, the deer led her by an easy path down to the seashore, but to no place that she knew and when she tried to walk along the beach the deer huddled round her, preventing her from moving and all were gazing out over the morning bright sea. Following their intent gazes she saw coming out to the sunrise a boat of skins, a little coracle, and in it a fair youth. Around his throat glistened a hoop of the finest gold showing him to be the son of a King. She looked upon this prince and he upon her and each thought the other fair. And she loved him.
He beached his little craft and came ashore his hands outstretched. The deer parted to make a path for him. “Fair one of dreams,” he said, “night after night in my father’s halls have I dreamed of you, seen your face in this place so hither I came to seek you as my bride, if you will come with me.”
Already the sun was setting as they sailed towards his father’s kingdom in the west. When she became queen of that land she taught its people the meaning of many dreams and they grew wise. But much is forgotten.
URSILLA AND HER SELKIE LOVER
(folk tale from the Orkney Islands, told by Tom Muir, recorded by Sean Lewis)
In Orkney selkie stories are well known, where seals can remove their skins to reveal a human form underneath. They are of great beauty and men will steal a selkie woman’s skin to force her to live with him as his wife, until such time as she finds the skin’s hiding place and returns to the sea. In this variation of the tale it is a human woman who takes control of the situation and chooses a selkie man to be her lover, as her pride has led her to make a bad marriage. This story was collected by Walter Traill Dennison (1825-94), a folklorist from the island of Sanday. He changed the name of the woman as he didn’t want to embarrass her descendants, which included himself. I had it republished in the book ‘Orkney Stories & Sea Legends’ that commemorated the centenary of his death and have told it many times. (Tom)
Ursilla Balfour was the daughter of the laird of Stronsay, his only child and heir to his estate. She was a beautiful young woman, but she was proud, overbearing, strong willed and quick to anger. Her father tried to push her into marriage; not for love but as a good financial business transaction. If she married the son of another laird then it would unite two wealthy families and increase their fortune and reputation. But Ursilla was having none of it. No matter how hard her father tried she would always send away the hapless suitors who came to court her.
It looked like Ursilla would never marry, but there was a very good reason why she refused to accept the proposals that she received. You see, Ursilla Balfour was already in love. The object of her desires was not the son of a rich laird, but the man who worked in her father’s barn. She watched him go about his work and the fires of love burned fiercely inside her. But she had to hide her feelings and she did this very well for she treated the poor man like dirt. He was often on the wrong end of Ursilla’s sharp tongue and many a row he received from her. But as long as her father lived then Ursilla had to keep her love for the barn man a secret.
One day Ursilla’s luck changed and her father died, leaving her with all his land and money. The first thing that she did was to go to the barn man and say:
‘Right you; get home and wash and shave.’
‘Why?’ he asked, somewhat puzzled by her order.
‘Because you’re going to be married.’
‘Married,’ he spluttered, ‘married to whom?’
‘Why, married to me of course! Don’t you know that I love you?’
‘Eh, no,’ he said, even more confused than before, ‘I can’t say that I had noticed.’
‘Well, I do, and you need a wash and a shave before I get you ready for our marriage. Hurry up now; run along!’
The poor man was in a terrible fix. He certainly didn’t love her, in fact, he didn’t even like her. But she was the laird now and her word was law. If he refused he would be evicted from his house and would have to find himself a new home on another island. Maybe Ursilla would take out her anger on his family and his parents, brothers and sisters might suffer the same fate. No, he had to do it, no matter how much the idea appalled him. Ursilla, meanwhile, wasted no time in sending out the wedding invites to all the lairds whose sons had failed to win her. It caused quite a scandal among the lairds; Ursilla Balfour marrying a common farm servant. How awful!
‘It won’t last,’ they said, ‘six months; that’s all I give it. Marrying so far beneath yourself; it’s disgusting!’
But Ursilla didn’t care, she loved her handsome barn man and she was going to marry him no matter what they said. But the old saying is true; ‘marry in haste, repent at leisure’, and that’s what happened to Ursilla Balfour. Because the man didn’t love her and the marriage bed remained a cold, lonely place. She soon came to realise that she had acted too rashly in marrying the man. But it was too late to do anything about it and she didn’t want to give the other lairds the satisfaction of saying:
‘I told you so!’
She had to maintain the pretence of a happy marriage, but she was a passionate woman and she had needs. If her husband didn’t love her then she would take a lover to keep her warm at night. But if she was found out then there would be another scandal and she couldn’t trust any of the lairds’ sons to keep quiet about such an arrangement. But Ursilla was a strong willed, determined woman and she decided that she would find a lover among the selkie folk.
She went down to the sea early one morning and waited until the tide was full and then she shed seven tears into the water. Some folk said that they were the only tears that she ever shed in her life. As the ripples from the final tear were fading away the head of a great selkie broke the surface of the water and swam towards her. When it was near it rose from the water and pulled back the skin, revealing a strong, handsome face.
‘What do you want from me, fair lady?’ asked the selkie man.
‘I have made a bad marriage and the bed is a cold, unloving place. I want to feel strong arms around me. I want to be loved and to make love.’
‘So, you’ve come to the selkie folk?’
‘Yes, I have.’
‘Well, I will come to you and satisfy your needs, but I can only take human form every seventh stream.  Meet me here at that time.’
With that the selkie man covered his face and slid beneath the waves.
At the next seventh stream Ursilla hurried to the shore and the selkie man rose up and shed his skin and they embraced. All of Ursilla’s needs and desires were answered that night and when it was time for them to part she promised to come back to him at the next seventh stream.
It was noted that Ursilla was in a much better mood after that. Her servants also noticed that she was putting on weight, especially around the belly. As the time passed it became obvious that there was more than one heart beating inside Ursilla’s body.
When her time came she gave birth to a fine baby boy, strong limbed, brown eyed and with webbed hands and feet. Now didn’t that tell a story? The nurse clipped the webs of skin between the fingers and toes, but they kept growing back again. The nurse continued to clip them until, as they couldn’t grow in the usual place, they spread onto the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet as a horny, thick skin.
It is said that this condition, known as ‘hard hands’ in Stronsay, is still to be seen in the descendant of Ursilla Balfour and her selkie lover to this day.
MALLIE AND THE TROW
(folk tale from the Shetland Islands, told by Lawrence Tulloch, recorded by Bob McGeady)
I heard it from Stanley Robertson when we were eating breakfast in Bob Pegg's house in Strathpeffer. Stanley had heard it from George Peterson of Papa Stour/Brae but where George got it from I have no idea. (Lawrence)
Mallie was a widow who lived with her three sons. They were all big healthy young men, two of them were teenagers and their mother found it very hard to feed them. They were very poor, money was in very short supply since the man of the house had been lost at sea.
At the start of every winter they had a few potatoes, a small barrel of salted herrings and a boll (140lbs) of oatmeal. As the boys got bigger Mallie found it harder and harder to make this scanty supply of food last all winter.
There came the time, the winter still had a distance to go, when the last of herring was taken from the barrel and last of the meal was taken from the girner. As they ate this frugal meal Malie explained that they had no more food left and hungry days lay ahead.
The following day the boys were all as hungry as ever and there was no food.
“What are we going to do?” asked the oldest son.
“We shall have to become beggars, there is nothing else for it.” he was told.
The old woman who lived close by always seemed to have plenty so the same boy volunteered to go and ask her. He knocked on her door and she came and answered it.
“All our food has been eaten, we are all going hungry, please can you give us something to eat?” he pleaded.
He could see into the kitchen of the house, he could see that the cupboard door was open and the shelves were laden with food. There was bread, cheese, cooked meat, oatmeal, flour, tea, coffee and jar after jar of jam and preserves, the cupboard was filled to overflowing.
The old woman gave the boy a withering look.
“Go away, how dare to come to my door begging, I have nothing to give you and do not come back or it will be worse for you.”
He came back home to his mother and his brothers crying. He was a big boy and crying was for babies but he was so hungry and he could not understand how that woman could be so hard and unkind.
“Some folk are like that, son,” his mother said. “Be pleased that we are different.”
Late in the afternoon a knock came to the door and standing on the doorstep was a little old man with grey hair and twinkling blue eyes but he was dressed in rags.
“Can you give me something to eat? he asked. I have been on the road for two days without any food at all.”
Mallie explained to him that they had no food either but he was welcome to come in and warm himself by the fire. The old man thanked her and came in to the kitchen. After he had settled down and was speaking to the boys Mallie went to the herring barrel.
There were no herring in it, she knew that but there was some brine. She went to the meal girner and, using a small brush made from the grass, bent that grew near the shore, she swept the corners of the box, the lid and the bottom.
Mallie was surprised at how much she got from the girner, she took it and mixed it with the brine. It was enough that everyone got a small amount in a cup but Mallie had hardly any for herself.
The old man sat by the fire and asked if he could stay with them overnight.
“We have no bed for you but you are welcome to stay by the fire. We have plenty of peats so at least you can be warm,” Mallie replied.
The following morning one of the boys went to the well for a bucket of water and each of them had a drink. The old man took his departure and he thanked the family for their hospitality.
They all said goodbye and the old man walked away. The boys had gone back indoors and Mallie was about to in and shut the door when the man turned back and spoke again to Mallie.
“That meal and brine that we had last night, was that really the very last of your food?” he asked. Mallie told him that it was the last and she had no idea what they would have from now on. The old man considered for a time and then said.
“It is a very special person who will share the very last that they have.”
With that he turned and walked away. Inside there was a gloom settling over the house. Mallie hated to see the boys so hungry and they were trying very hard not to complain. The fire burned down low and one of the boys went to the stack for a basketful of peats.
At least they could be warm he thought. When he came back Mallie stoked up the fire. The peats were quite big and Mallie broke one in two. Something fell from the peat and tinkled on the floor.
When Mallie picked it up she saw that it was a gold coin. She broke another peat and out came another gold coin. Every peat proved to have a gold coin inside it and Mallie knew that the old man that visited was a trow and this was his way of saying thanks.
There was no more hunger for Mallie and the boys, they could buy anything they wanted. This did not go unnoticed, the old woman who refused to help them was curious to know where Mallie’s money came from.
She spied on the family and saw Mallie breaking peats and picking up the coins. The woman waited until after dark and stole peats from Mallie’s peat stack. She was not content with basketful, she took several and brought them into her kitchen.
However when she broke a peat no coin appeared. Instead a mouse dropped to the floor and scuttled away looking for a place to hide. She broke open another and another but she looked in vain for gold coins, all she got was more and more mice.
The mice multiplied like mad and soon the house was overrun with them. They got into her larder and they devoured every morsel of food that she had. In no time she had nothing to eat, the mice had consumed everything.
She endured two days of hunger and misery and then she was reduced to begging. She knew that Mallie now had plenty so she came to Mallie’s door and she was greeted by the same boy that she had turned away from her door.
The old woman told him that mice had over run her home, she had no food, she was very hungry and could they please give her something.
“I will give you exactly the same as you gave me when we had nothing,” he told her and slammed the door in her face.
Mallie asked him who he was speaking to.
“It was that old woman from next door,” he said. “She has the cheek to ask us for food and I have not forgotten how she treated me when I asked her for food.”
“Have you forgotten that I told you ?” Mallie asked him. “I told you that we were not like her.
She opened the door and called the old woman back.
“Come in,” she said. “Come in and sit by the fire and you can share the food that I am cooking. As long as we have any food you shall never go hungry.”
 Spring tide.