A Story From: Scotland
Read Time: ["16 to 20mins"]
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs.
It was an odd sight that greeted the eyes of two tall, dark, sharp-eared fairies from the Sìdh. Under the bushes by the black cliffs they gazed upon a baby wrapped in its blankets mewing and cooing. Only his wee little face poked through, and not a soul nearby to claim him.
“I would like such a bairn,” said one, arching her eyebrow.
“Aye,” said the other, looking around. “No one else is here.”
In an instant, the two women of the Sìdh snatched up the bundle in their claw-like arms and vanished.
Minutes later, sailing by the black cliffs, two fishermen noticed a figure of a fallen woman on the rocks, her golden locks hanging low.
“‘Tis a lass!” said one.
“Don’t even think of stopping for the girl,” said the other, turning the tiller away from the sharp, rocky cliffs. “Our boat will break to pieces!”
“But look – she’s like a fallen angel,” said the first. “We cannot go home & have our dinner knowing we left her behind!”
So the two fishermen carefully anchored their boat on high waters by the cliffs and climbed up the rocks to the lass.
“Think she’s still with us?”
“Aye,” said the other, “but we’d best get her back to the village right quick.”
The women of the village nursed the stranger with tinctures of fern roots and violets steeped in whey. At last, the lass opened her eyes.
“My bairn,” she murmured. “Where’s my bairn?”
“Child,” said an older woman, worriedly glancing at the other womenfolk. “You were found quite alone.”
The lass sat up straight, surprising them all.
“Nay! I bundled my bairn good and safe by the path while I went to fetch him water. I must have tripped and fallen down the cliff! My bairn must still be there!”
The villagers quickly formed a search team and returned to the black cliffs. They searched the whole live long day, tramping up and down the path and all around the area, asking everyone they could find, but no one knew of a baby that had been found by the path near the cliffs.
“Stay here with us,” said one of the fishermen of the village when the lass was given the sorry news. “This can be your home now. We have many a fine lad for you to marry. You’ll have another bairn before long, no doubt.”
She drew in her breath. “Thank you just the same, I know you mean well. But now I am going to go and find my bairn.”
So the lass traveled from croft to croft, village to village, searching and asking everyone she met about her lost baby. With her hair blown about and a wild expression in her eyes, many thought her crazed, and perhaps she was, a bit.
One day the lass wandered into a camp of gypsies. “Where is my bairn? Can anyone help me?” The girl looked so forlorn and weary a mother with three young children took pity on her. She bid the lass to come inside her tent, washed her feet and fed her from her own pot. “Where is my bairn?” was all the girl could say.
“Alas, I know not,” said the young mother. “But my grandmother is the wisest woman I know. If anyone can help you find your little one, it is she.”
She led the lass to a tent, and inside sat a very wrinkled ancient woman dressed in black from heat to toe and sitting at a table. Saying nothing, the grandmother clasped her hands upon the hands of the lass and there they sat, hour after hour, hand in hand, till darkness fell. At midnight, the grandmother selected herbs from a basket and scattered them over the fire. The fire leaped up and the smoke that rose from the burning herbs swirled round the old gypsy woman’s head. She closed her eyes and listened as the fire burned hot. When it died down, she took the lass’s hand again. “Give up thy search, poor lass,” she said sorrowfully, “for thy baby has been stolen away by the Sìdh. Taken to live with the fairies, he was. It’s best that you accept it. The Sìdh are far more powerful than we mortals.”
The lass was silent. Then she said, darkly, “If I cannot get back my bairn, I might as well lay down and die.”
“No, child!” urged the old grandmother, tears welling in her eyes. “Perhaps there is a way…”
“What?” whispered the lass. “A spell?”
“Ah, if only it were that easy!” said the ancient gypsy grandmother. “The Sidh are a vain people who enjoy rare and beautiful things, but they have no art. If they see something exquisite, something very rare and extraordinary, they will want it, and if you have such an unusual item, perhaps you can bargain with them. But it would have to be something without equal anywhere in the world. And I’m afraid you would need two such treasures – one to gain entrance inside the Sìdhean and another to bargain with for your babe.
The old woman sighed. “What’s more, the time for you to obtain two treasures is short. If only you had 10 years! But in 10 days the people of the Sidh will gather together at the Sìdhean from all corners of the earth to choose a new ruler for the next 100 years. Your baby is sure to be among them for the event. After that, who knows where your babe might be? And now,” she said, “there is only more thing I can do for you.”
The old gypsy grandmother laid one hand on the girl’s head and cast a spell to protect her from fire and earth, wind and water. Unable to do anything more, they bid goodbye.
Uplifted by the notion that she might, after all, find her baby, the lass went on her way. Then suddenly, she felt as if she had struck her head on the cliffs once again – how could she, penniless as she was, ever obtain a rare and exotic treasure, much less two?
Her head spinning, she lay a hand on a tree to steady herself. What items do people speak of in wonder? All she could think of were two legendary items from kings of yesteryear – the famous white cloak of King Nechtan and the golden stringed harp of King Wrad. Suddenly she knew what she must do.
The lass headed straight to the sea, to the shore where the eider ducks nested and left behind the soft down that shed from their breasts and delicate white feathers that rolled off their wings. She clambered up and down the rocks gathering the cottony down and the feathers. Sharp rocks scraped her feet but did not pierce her skin, the hot sun burnt in the sky but did not redden her face, the wind splashed the waves on the rocks but her dress and legs stayed dry. Ah, she thought with warm gratitude, the spell the gypsy grandmother was shielding her from the ill effects of earth and fire, wind and water.
When the lass had gathered all the eider down and feathers she needed, she wove a cloak so soft and thick it looked as if a tuft of cloud had been plucked from the sky. Then she wove the delicate white feathers along its border. That done, she took her hair, her long golden hair that fell to her waist, and in three quick strokes chopped it all off. Setting aside a strand of her locks, she weaved the rest of the hair around the feathers to create golden flowers and leaves, all glimmering and resplendent. Day and night she worked for there was not a moment to lose. After she had stitched the final stitch, she carefully folded the soft white cloak, laid it under a shrub of gorse and returned to the seashore.
Searching the sandy beach, the lass looked for the right shape of bones to make a frame for a harp. Luckily she discovered an arc of bone that had been washed by the waves to such a smooth perfection that it resembled ivory. Taking the bone back to the shrub of gorse, she tied it together to make a frame for a harp. From the lock of hair she had set aside before, she braided each of her tiny hairs into thin strands, then twisted several thin strands together at a time to form strong, elegant strings for the harp. She stretched the strings tight and set them in tune, and when she plucked a note it was so full of longing and grief that even the birds winging their way to the sea stopped in mid-air for a moment and cocked their heads to hear.
The lass set her cloak around her shoulders, held the harp to her chest and set out to the Sìdhean. As she traveled, villagers stepped aside for her to pass, according her the respect due a princess. But of this she noticed nothing, and continued along the high road and the byroad, her eyes fixed straight ahead, until at last, as the moon rose full, she reached the entrance to where the Sìdh were known to gather. She spread her billowing cloak upon the path and stepped aside.
Before long a late-arriving Sìdh strode toward her.
The Sìdh pointed. “You! No humans are allowed here. Leave at once!”
Then the Sìdh noticed the white cloak. “Hmm. Finders keepers.” And she stooped for it.
“Nay!” said the lass. “It is mine. You cannot have it!” She quickly snatched the cloak from the ground, cleverly wrapping it round her shoulders so it swirled around her body, its folds glimmering in the sun and its golden threads shining.
“Mortal, don’t be a fool. I’ll give you a handful of gold for it.”
“This cloak is not for sale. ‘Tis embroidered with my own golden hair, and there’s none like it in the world!”
“No amount of gold?” scoffed the Sìdh. “You make me laugh – all of you humans crumble at the first glint of gold. Very well, I’ll fill your pockets with gold and all you can hold in your arms. There! Are you satisfied now?”
“The cloak is not for sale for any amount of gold,” she repeated, “nor for any regular price.”
“What then?” said the Sìdh, sensing a bargain could be struck.
“Take me with you inside the Sìdhean. Then the cloak will be yours and you’re welcome to it.”
“What a fool,” mumbled the Sìdh, but she took the lass by the hand and together, they entered the Sìdh. Once inside, the Sìdh snatched the soft white cloak from the lass’s shoulders, and the girl let it go with a smile. Glancing back, she saw the Sìdh showing off the cloak and a crowd of other tall, dark fairies surrounding her, touching it, begging to be allowed to try it on, please, just once. But the lass headed straight forward, harp in hand, until she spied at the edge of the wood a high throne, and sitting upon it a tall, forbidding, sharp-eared creature, with his eyebrows deep cast into a frown, who must be the new king of the Sìdh.
Fearlessly she approached the throne.
“You dare to approach the throne!” hissed the king. “How did you – a human! – get inside the Sìdhean?”
The lass pointed to the Sìdh who had admitted her. The white-cloaked Sìdh turned and said, “Your Highness, she entered with me.” The king frowned.
“And what have you there?” said he, nodding to the harp she clutched to her breast.
“‘Tis my harp,” said she.
“I have harps aplenty,” shrugged the king.
“Not like this,” said the lass, and she plucked a few chords, ringing notes so pure and transcendent that the king stared in wonder.
“You offer this as a gift for me, the new king of the Sìdhean?”
“The harp might be a gift under the right circumstances,” the lass said quickly. “It’s not for sale for any usual price.”
“It’s naught but a common harp and you know it,” shrugged the king. “You think too much of your little toy.” Then he cunningly added, “but I could take it off your hands. What do you want for it?”
“The harp is beyond price,” said the lass. “‘Tis woven from my own golden hair and there’s none like it in the world. There’s only one trade of interest to me.” The king arched one eyebrow. “My bairn!” she said. “Give me my bairn that was stolen by the Sìdh after I left him in his blankets by the black cliffs. My bairn and the harp is yours!”
“Nonsense!” He was not anxious to let go of the chubby-cheeked infant, held deep in the woods. He ordered a few of the Sìdh to bring gold, and they piled armfuls of the precious nuggets around the girl’s ankles. “Surely,” he sneered, “that’s more than enough payment for a common harp.”
“Ooch, I do not want your gold!” she cried. “My bairn! I want my bairn and naught else!”
He clicked his fingers, and more Sìdh brought more armfuls of precious stones, this time of emeralds and rubies that heaped over the gold until a great pile of jewels rose to her waist.
Without looking once at the jewels she stared at the king and said with steely eyes, “My bairn! Give me my bairn and naught else!”
When he saw that she could not be moved, the king barked, “So take the brat – what do I care?”
“Give me the bairn first,” said she, knowing full well that if she first let go of the harp she’d never see her baby again. “Then the harp.”
The king clicked his fingers and before long the baby was brought to his side. At once the infant recognized its mother and reached out. The lass gripped the harp tightly, her chin up, and repeated: “Give me the bairn first.”
So the baby was returned to its mother, and the lass gave the harp to the king. He struck a few chords and the purest and sweetest melody every heard in the Sìdhean rang out. All the Sìdh all gathered round, delighting in the talents of their new king and vigorously nodding their heads with admiration.
Clutching her baby, the lass turned from the king, quickened out of the Sìdhean, and headed to the fisherfolk who had cared for her so tenderly. Overjoyed were they that she had returned to their village – and with her bairn no less! – and that is where the lass and her little one stayed for many happy years.
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Retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2007. All rights reserved.
Sidh (pronounced "Shee"). A Gaelic word referring to earthen mounds that were thought to be home to a supernatural race and the fairies who lived there. The kingdom, Sidhean, is pronounced "She-an."
King Nechtan was an historical king of the Picts who lived from 597 to 620. He was somewhat enlightened and credited for taking his people out of the Dark Ages. The Picts were a confederation of tribes in what later was to become central and northern Scotland from Roman times until the 10th century.
King Wrad was a warlord who became king of the Picts during a troubled time of raids and battles with the Vikings. He died in 842.