If a nation protects and nurtures its culture and heritage it has to include timeless folk tales and myths. Scotland has hosted the whirling Dervish of JK Rowling’s derivative doorstop books of magic, mixed with science fiction, for so long we tend to forget our own tales issuing from the wellspring of a rich tradition that has real history attached and is not a hotchpotch of contemporary literature.
Folk tales deal with our fears but are altogether gentler stories with a lesson to learn or a moral attached. They talk of real places, real characters. Our ancestors told the tales because they actually believed water kelpies, goblins and fairies existed. The tales have been overlooked as source material in preference to the industry of fear and violence.
Tom and the Mermaid Bride
On my bookshelves squashed between heavyweight tombs on Scotland’s inability to admit it has the political courage of a grouse hiding in heather, sits an unassuming compendium of Orkney folk tales, entitled “The Mermaid Bride, and other Orkney Folk Tales“. It takes its place shoulder to shoulder with works of historian Tom Devine and Scots language expert Billy Kay.
The stories are derived from Viking times, put together by the notable folklorist and historian Tom Muir. There are tales of giants, trows, (trolls), hogboons (a Norse mound dweller), Fin folk, (sorcerers of the sea), nucklavee, (monsters), sea trows, (malignant fairies) mermaids, selkies (seal-like creatures) and shape shifters known as kelpies. There’s a lot of sea and sailing there. Folk who live on islands tend to have tales concentrate on things unseen that lie in deep water.
The stories must seem antiquarian to the modern mind but we have our own to match, such as SNP mandates, (false bringers of hope), hacks, (creatures who drink a lot and warp news), and captains of industry, ugly fat people who steal and hide money.
The man is the message
Tom Muir is a man blessed with the perfect accent to tell stories of myth and magic. Some story tellers are entertainers looking for an easy fee and applause, some are genuine repositories of our history. Tom is such a man.
I got to know him on a visit to Orkney. He is a member of staff in Tankerhouse Museum, at night a great maker of delicious trifles. For a man who lives off the past but not in the past he’s done us a great service gathering so many tales together, stories illustrated by his fellow Orcadian, Bryce Wilson. Wilson uses a precise, skilled pointillism in imagery.
The tales are whispers and rumours forgotten in our rush for the latest Jack Reacher or television soap series, less Viking saga, more tasty short bites.
The Mermaid Bride is a great wee book to read to young or old, one story at a time, and still have time left to do you own work. The tales are as well crafted as the Skara Brae earth and stone houses, and just as ancient. Once upon a time these tales were told by our elders, kept in respectful memory, carried by the winds that brush the rocks and boulders we used as shelter. The book is far too modest for its own good, so I have no qualms in giving it a hefty promotion here.
The Cringe in full swing
Folk tales are not immune from the Scottish cringe. Tom Muir did not have an easy ride testing them out on various audiences.
“You would be surprised at the hostility that I met with when gathering the stories and telling them once more. Old people were the most resistant, “Why are you bothering with that old dirt? You know, you shouldn’t be believing in fairies”. Telling them I did not believe in fairies made no difference. One old woman, who was in the front row at a retelling where I had been invited to show some of Bryce’s illustrations and tell the story that went along with it, waited until the applause died down to say, in a very loud voice, “Weel, if yin’s the best they can do a’ll no be comin’ back next week!” I am laughing about it now, but at the time it was quite crushing. I have learned to thicken my skin since then. Old people were taught to despise the old stories as ‘superstition’ and worthless.”
Well then, not a result to match ‘Harry Snotter and the Pot of Endless Royalties‘.
I have no idea why an adult would reject folk tales and then switch on the television to enjoy a rerun of Jason and the Argonauts, tell our children the tales of Hansel and Gretel, or listen to the tales of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, set to music by Rimsky-Korsakov. The tales are “styled like an evening of stories by the side of the fire.”
I had similar stories told to me by my aged Irish grandfather born in the 1870s and recounted them to my daughters when young; for Tom the custom was passed to him by his parents born early last century. You can hear him tell some of the stories in his Orkneyolgy site [see link below], a podcast that Tom consider’s writer’s suicide for he earns not a penny from his effort. Here’s a fine example from the book that I’ve chosen – it fits within the length of the essay. You don’t need an Orkney chair to read it.
The Shetland Fin Wife
The goodman of Faracleat in Rousay was a successful trader who used to make his regular trips to Norway. As he returned from his third voyage, his ship was caught in a gale, and driven onto the rocks of Shetland. The goodman and the ship’s crew managed to struggle ashore alive, but they had lost everything.
Autumn was quickly giving way to winter. Strong winds and heavy seas would make sure that the Orkneymen would not be able to return home for the rest of that year.
The goodman of Faracleat took lodgings with an old woman who was good to him and treated him well. Now the year wore one and the winds still howled with rage around her little house. It was Christmas Eve, and the goodman sat staring into the fire with a heavy heart. He was not interested in the food that the old woman offered him, and he had little to say to her.
The old woman tried to cheer him up and urged him to eat but with no luck.At last he spoke of what was troubling him. “Alack-a-day! How can I be merry this night? Tomorrow is Yuleday, my first Yuleday that I have been away from my own fireside, and from my woman and bairns since I was married. Well may I be sad and dour!”
“Well,” said the old woman, “I warrant you would fain be beside your awn folk at this time. And I am well sure you would give the best cow in your byre if you could be beside your wife by cock-crow on Yule morning”
“Aye. That I would, with all my heart, Lord knows,” he answered.
“Well, well, it’s all that ends well,” said the old woman. “but take yourself a drop of gin, and go to bed, goodman, and if you tell me your dreams in the morning I’ll give you a silver mark for hansel on Yuleday. [A gift for the celebration] So goodman took a drink and went to bed and slept soundly until morning.
Meanwhile, the goodwife of Faracleat lay in her lonely bed and thought about her husband. Was he still alive? And if so, where was h? She thought it would be a sad Yule in the house of Faracleat that year.
She rolled over and went to sleep but was awoken in the morning by the feeling someone was in the bed beside her. As she came to her senses she could hear the low snoring of a man under the blankets of a man next to her. She fetched the intruder a mighty wallop with her fists, and cried out in anger.
“You ill-bred, ill-descended villain! How dare you come into an honest wife’s bed. Get out you great beast, or, by the Lord who made you, I’ll tear you to rags!”
“Is that your voice, my own Maggie?” said the man, as she grabbed him by the throat.
When she heard his voice she let go her grip and said, “Bless me! Are you my own goodman?” And so it was. He had been transported from Shetland to Rousey by the magic of the old woman, for you see, she was not any old woman, but a Fin wife. Their magic is much stronger by anything mankind can command.
And as the goodwife hugged her goodman a thought occurred to him, and he said, “Goodwife, I’ll doubt you’ll not be so glad when you come to know what it cost to come to take me home.”
And they both dressed, and went into the byre. Sure enough their best cow was gone.”Oh, it’s Brenda! She’s taken the best cow, and the best milker in the byre!”
And it is true as I am sitting here this night, for a man called John Flett from Rousey was in Shetland the following summer and what should he see tethered outside the old woman’s house but Brenda the cow. He knew the cow well, and swore that that was her he saw chewing the cud in Shetland.
Old tales bring us closer to people
Getting you man back and in bed and all he does is snore, must have seemed authentic to the wives of Orkney. We are so taken by the plight of goodman, his longing for home, the severance of a loving couple, it never occurs to us that his crew are lost early in the tale.
The Mermaid Bride is a potpourri from which to pick and choose for a quiet evening’s distraction. There are many books of folk tales from other countries, yet there is a lovely gentleness to be enjoyed here, a wink and a nod and a boatload of charm. Fifty stories, and nothing is being sold to the reader, no expensive toys or games or fandom.
I recommend this book to lovers of our land and harassed parents.