A Story From: Scotland
Read Time: 20 to 30 mins.
For Ages: 8 to 14yrs.
ONCE IN SCOTLAND a young lad was so smitten with a bonny lass that he did nothing but think of her night and day. At last he summoned his courage, offered her his heart and asked for hers to return.
Flattered was she but alas! her heart was already offered to another. She sweetly smiled then her eyes flit about and off she was, leaving the lad feeling cast-adrift and sunk.
Well, if there was one thing the lad was sure of, he could no longer walk about the people of that town. Not with everyone knowing she had passed him over for another lad, snickering and pointing at him as he went by. Nor could he fish anymore with the lads at the shore, for the shame of it.
So with a heavy heart he gathered his nets inside his boat and sailed to an uninhabited island, where he built himself a hut. Every morning, very early, he sailed to the sea, laid his nets and hauled a day’s catch. He took his catch to market at a port where no one knew his face, sold his fish, bought food and other necessities, and sailed home to his island. Such was his life, day after day.
And so it would have stayed but one day, the corner of his eye caught something gleaming amidst the fish in his net. Quickly, he grabbed it by one hand, though it twisted and thrashed, and he tied the net into a knot so that whatever it was, was securely fastened.
“Release me!” called a mermaid. To look at, she was just like any other girl up to the waist, but below that she flipped a long fishtail that glittered with shiny yellow-green scales.
“I know better,” said he. “You know as well as I do that you must grant me a wish.”
“Very well,” she said, “I suppose you want a bag of gold coins. I happen to know of a sunken ship not far from here with such treasure.”
“Ay, I have no interest in a bag of coins,” he said. “‘Twill not give me what I want.”
“So it’s a trunk of treasure you require?” She reared her head with pride. “I am the daughter of the king of the sea, and can have my mer-servants deliver such a trunk to your island.”
“If you know enough about me to know about my island,” said the lad, “you know what it is I really want.”
“The bonny lass?” sighed the mermaid. “Why her?”
“Och, you know why!” he said. “Her blue eyes. Her blond hair. The way she moves. She is what I want most in all the world and if I can’t have her, I want naught else!”
“Ah, she is not so different from the others,” said the mermaid, but when the fisherlad tightened his hold on the netting, she quickly added, “Of course I can grant your wish of love, but you must realize it will take some time. Release me and I’ll give you a magic ring. After one year and a day, when you go to her and offer her the ring, she will not refuse.”
“How do you know she won’t be wedded by then?”
“She’ll not be,” promised the mermaid.
So the fisherlad cut away the net from the mermaid, took her ring and placed it in a jar on his mantle. He decided to scratch the wood to keep track of every day that went by.
As he sailed back to his island one day not long after that, he saw what looked from a distance like a heap of seaweed. More curious it was when the seaweed moved, and as he sailed to shore, he saw that it was a wee brown lass whose mangled dark hair lay in a heap around her.
“What are you doing here?” he frowned.
“Och, do not send me away – I have to go somewhere! My father has a new bride not much older than myself. She’s horrible and mean and I fear she’s bound to do something terrible to me.”
“You can’t stay here. Go back and make it right with her.”
“Don’t ask me to do that! Besides, I can’t go anywhere because the winds aren’t right.”
“Tomorrow morning the winds will change.”
“And my raft is broken.”
“I’ll fix it.”
“Please! I need to stay somewhere where I’m alone and safe!”
“So do I!” thundered the lad, glowering at her. A long silence.
“Then I’ll jump into the sea,” she cried, bursting into tears, “for there’s naught else for me to do!” Tears streaked down her dirty face.
“Ah…” He looked away. What else could he do? “Very well then, I suppose you can stay.”
“‘Twill be just like living alone, with me here,” said the lass quickly. “Only better. I’ll cook your dinner and tend the place while you’re gone, but you’ll hardly know I’m here.”
“Good,” he said. “Keep it that way.”
The girl was true to her word. When the lad returned from fishing or from the market, she would present a hot meal for him and after placing it on the table she would leave. Where she went, where she slept, he knew not and he did not wonder in the least.
One day he had an especially good day. The fish were plentiful and sold well at market. After the girl set his dinner before him, he said, “There now, you don’t have to go so quickly. Lay yourself a plate and sit across from me. We might as well eat together.”
So they ate, saying little, but the next day they said a few words more, and the day after that, more still, until they got to know all about one another. He understood completely why she had to leave her house, and pounded the table with fury when she told him about her father and how he had been blind to the dangerous situation he put her in. She listened with sympathy to the tale of his bonny lass and how he planned to win her heart with the mermaid’s ring after the 101 days. In fact, she posted a chart over the mantle to keep track of the days gone by and the ones left. A clever idea, he thought, since the scratches on the wood were becoming hard to tell apart.
When the lad returned home from fishing one day, he saw she had moved flowers from the field and planted them in front of the hut. Another time she trained a rose vine to twine above the front door.
Around that time she started to help him beach the boat and spread the nets. Though she was but a wee brown lass and nearly as small as a child and sometimes seemed to disappear completely behind the nets since her skin and hair were as dark as the wet ropes, still she was surprisingly strong and helpful to have around.
One morning she said, “When you go to market, you must bring back a bit of window glass to keep the weather out.” He obliged, and the next day while he was gone she placed the glass in the window holes. Indeed, the hut stayed warmer that evening. Another time she told him, “Bring me back some whitewash – these walls are far too dreary.” He complied, and she washed the walls and painted them white. Though he started to grumble about precious little money being left after he fetched her this or fetched her that, he had to admit that his hut was more comfortable than it had ever been before.
In the shed one day, he noticed a pile of grass had been pushed against one wall and was pressed down in the middle, and he realized that it must be where she slept at night. A bit ashamed that he had never wondered about it before, he decided to forego fishing for a few days and started gathering wood and hammering it to the hut.
“What will you be at now?” she asked.
“‘Tis not proper for a lass to sleep in a shed next to the rods and shovels,” said he. “This will be a room of your own.”
“I don’t need fussin’ on my account,” she sniffed, but he noticed as she went about the house that evening she was humming to herself. A melody that was the same as one his mother used to sing.
And so the days went quickly by. Half the year was over, then but a few days left of the year, then the year was gone and it was one day after, the last day of his waiting. When the lad entered the hut that afternoon, he saw her in front of the hearth with the magic ring on her finger, holding up her hand and looking at it from all angles.
“What are you doing?” he barked, startling her.
“‘Tis nothing,” she said quickly, dropping the ring back into the jar and sealing it with its lid. “Just making sure all is well with the ring for tomorrow.”
Then she went to her room. When she returned, she held a packet with all of her belongings.
“I’m leaving now. I’m going back to my father’s home.”
“What? Aren’t you worried how they will treat you?”
“I’ll manage. I’m older now.”
“It’s only been a year.”
“One year is enough.”
“But…the winds aren’t right.”
“They will be soon.”
“But we never fixed your raft. I’ll give you a ride in the boat.”
“I fixed the raft. I’d just as soon leave as I came, if that’s all right with you.”
She walked over to the chart, took it off the wall, laid it before him and marked off the last day.
“Tomorrow,” she said, “you will claim your own true love.”
And she left.
For the rest of the day, the fisherlad stayed in his chair. He stared at the walls and at the floor. He slept in the chair. Early the next morning when he woke, the first thing he saw was the chart on the table before him. He went over to the mantle where he kept the mermaid’s ring and set out to claim the love of his life.
Only it wasn’t to the village he was born where he set his sail. It was to the land of the girl who had stayed with him at the island. She was surprised to see him enter her father’s garden.
“How are you? Did you find the love of your life?”
“Yes, I did. I mean, now, I have.”
“And will she have you?” asked the girl, staring at the ring that he held in front of her.
“You tell me,” he said, sweeping her into his arms.
And so the two were wed, and a fine wedding it was, with all the family and friends that the girl and lad thought had been cross with them but who were no longer angry, if they had ever been at all.
In the village, one day it so happened the lad chanced upon the same bonny lass who had captured his heart before. She had the same golden hair and blue eyes, and the same tall, slim frame, but there was nothing about her that seemed different or better than other girls. Later that day he took his bride back to their island, where they both wanted to be most of all.
That was when they saw the mermaid sitting on a rock in the water.
“Did you find your own true love?” said she.
“Yes I did – and here she is!” said the lad.
“But she does not have blond hair,” said the mermaid.
“And she does not have blue eyes.”
“Nor is she tall or slim.”
“‘Tis so,” said he, “as you can see she’s right short, and, if I can say so, perhaps a bit filled out?” His bride bopped him on the shoulder.
“Yet she is your own true love?”
“No doubt about it.”
“So our bargain is kept. You got what you asked for.” The mermaid dived off the rock and into the sea, and that was the last they ever saw of her.
And so the fisherlad and his wee brown lass lived happily for the rest of their days.
Retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2005. All rights reserved.
The story "The Fisherlad & the Mermaid's Ring" is traced to Tobermory, a city in western Scotland that is located on an island named the Island of Mull.
A sgeulachdan (skale-ak-tan) is a tale that's told as part of the entertainment at a gathering such as a wedding or a funeral. Almost always the sgeulachdan had a theme for the occasion. "The Fisherlad and the Mermaid's Ring" is a tale suitable for a wedding.