A Scottish Folk Tale


 A Scottish Folktale (Adapted)

The warriors of the Fianna were once together, on the steep side of Ben Eudainn, on a wild night, and there was pouring rain and falling snow from the north. About midnight a creature of haggard appearance came to Fionn’s shelter. Her hair was down to her heels, and she cried to him to let her in. Fionn raised up a corner of the tent door, and he gazed at her.

"You’re an ugly creature," he said.  "Why should I let you in?”

She went away with a great cry that chilled Fionn’s bones. Then she reached the shelter of Oisean, and she asked him to let her in. Oisean lifted a corner of his door, and he saw her.

“You strange, hideous creature,” he said, “how can you ask me to let you in?”

She went away with a shriek that made his flesh crawl.

She reached Diarmid’s shelter, and she cried aloud to him to let her in. Diarmid lifted his door, and he saw her.

“You are a strange creature,” he said, “but it is a terrible night for any, be they comely or no. Come in and be dry.”

And so she came into his shelter, and the others of the Fianna who shared Diarmid’s tent began to flee, so hideous was she.

"Go to the further side of the tent," said Diarmid to them, "and let the creature come to the warmth of the fire."

They went to the one side, and they let her be at the fire, but she had not been long at the fire, when she came and sought to be under the warmth of Diarmid’s blanket together with himself.

"You are too bold," said Diarmid. "First you ask to come in, now you ask to share the warmth of my bed. But very well, you may do so.”

She went under the blanket, and he turned a fold of it between them. She was not long in his bed, when he gave a start, and he gazed at her, and he saw the finest woman that ever was, from the beginning of the universe till the end of the world. He shouted out to the rest to come over where he was, and he said to them:

"Is not this the most beauteous woman that man ever saw!"

"She is," they said, “the most beautiful woman that man ever saw."

She was asleep, and she did not know that they were looking at her. He let her sleep, and he did not awaken her, but a short time after that she awoke, and she said to him, "Are you awake Diarmid?"

"I am awake," said Diarmid.

"If you could build the very finest castle ever seen, where would you have it built?"

"Up above Ben Eudainn, if I had my choice," and Diarmid slept, and she said no more to him.

There one of the Fianna went out early, before the day, riding, and he saw a castle built up upon a hill. He cleared his sight to see if it was surely there; then he saw it, and he went home, and he did not say a word.

Another went out, and he saw it, and he did not say a word. Then the day was brightening, and two came in telling that the castle was most surely there.

Said she, as she rose up sitting, "Arise Diarmid, go up to your castle."

He looked out, and he saw a castle, and he came back to her.

“I will go up to the castle, if you’ll go with me."

They went to the castle, the two of them, and her hand was in his. Meat and drink were laid out on the tables, and there were maid servants, and men servants to attend them, and a fine greyhound bitch with three pups by the fire.  And all was just as Diarmid would have it.

They spent three days in the castle together, and at the end of three days she said to him, "You are sorrowful, because you are not with your friends.”

He would not answer.

"You had best go with the Fianna, and your meat and drink will be no worse than they are here," said she, and she turned away from him.

He was angered and he went away when he heard that. He soon reached the people of the Fianna, and Fionn, the brother of his mother, but they all had ill will to him, because the woman had come first to them, and that they had turned their backs to her, and Diarmid had not, and the matter had turned out so well for him.

It was not long before Diarmid regretted that he had left the beautiful damsel, and he went to ask her pardon, but when he climbed the mountain there was no castle, nor a stone left of it on another. He began to weep, and he said to himself that he would not rest till he should find her.

Away he went and took his way across the glens. There was neither house nor ember in his way. He was going on, and met a shepherd.

"Did you see, this day or yesterday, a woman taking this way?" said Diarmid to the shepherd.

"I saw a woman early in the morning yesterday, and she was walking hard," said the shepherd.

"What way was she going?"

"She went down to the shore of the sea, and I saw her no more."

Diarmid took the very road that she took, till there was no going any further. He sat on a knoll by the shore, and he had not sat there long when he saw a boat coming, and one man in her, and he was rowing her.

He went down where the boat was, and he asked for passage and it was granted, and he climbed in. Then the boat went out over the sea, and to his wonder she went down under the waves. He thought he would drown, but when he opened his eyes he saw dry ground, and a fair plain on which he could walk. He went on this land, and he walked on.
He was but a short time walking, when he found a drop of blood hanging from the branch of a hawthorn. He took the blood, and he put it into a napkin, and he put it into his pouch.

He was a while walking, and he saw another drop of blood on a hawthorn branch, and he took it, and put it into his pouch. He fell in with the next one, and he did the like with it. Then what should he see a short space from him, after that, but a woman, wild and unkempt as though she were crazed, gathering rushes. He went towards her, and he asked her what news she had. "I cannot tell my news till I gather the rushes," said she.

"Be telling it while you are gathering," said Diarmid.

"I am in great haste," said she.

"What place is here?" said he.

"There is here," said she, "Rioghachd Fo Thuinn, Realm Under-waves."

"What use have you for rushes?" said Diarmid.

"The daughter of King Under-waves has come home, and she was seven years under spells, and she is ill, and the leeches of Christendom are gathered, and none are doing her good, and a bed of rushes is what she alone finds will soothe her.”

"Well then, I would be in your debt if you see me to where that woman is."

"I will see to that. I will put you into the sheaf of rushes, and I will take you with me on my back."

“That is a thing you cannot do," scoffed Diarmid.

"Be that upon me," said she.

She put Diarmid into the bundle, and she took him on her back.

When she reached the damsel’s chamber she let down the bundle.

"Oh! hasten that to me," said the daughter of King Under-waves.

The Diarmid sprang out of the bundle, and sprang to meet her, and they seized each other's hands, and there was great joy between them.

"I am not well, and I will not be. Every time I thought of you when I was coming home, I lost a drop of the blood of my heart."

"Well then, I have got these three drops of your heart's blood, take them in a drink, and there will be nothing amiss."

"Well then, I will not take them," said she; "they will not do me a shade of good, since I cannot get one thing and I shall never get that in the world."

"What thing is that?" said he.

"There is no good in telling thee that; thou wilt not get it, nor any man in the world; it has discomfitted them for long."

"If it be on the surface of the world I will get it. Just tell me what it is," said Diarmid.

"Three draughts from the cup of Righ Magh an Ioghnaidh, the King of the Plain of Wonder, and no man ever got that, and I shall not get it."

"Oh! said Diarmid, "there are not on the surface of the world as many as will keep it from me. Tell me if that man be far from me."

"He is not; he is within a bound near my father, but a rivulet is there that can never be crossed, though it look to be narrow enough to leap over.”

He went away, and he reached the rivulet, and he walked into it, but no matter how many steps he took, the farther side came no closer.

"I cannot cross over it; that was true of her," said Diarmid.

Before he had let the word out of his mouth, there stood a little red-haired man in the midst of the rivulet, and he was fishing with a net for the quick bright fish.

"Diarmid, son of Duibhne, you are in straits," said he. “What would you give to a man who would bring you out of these straits? Come hither and put your foot on my palm."
"Oh! my foot cannot go into your palm," said Diarmid.

"It can."

Diarmid went, and he put his foot on his palm. "Now, Diarmid, it is to King Mag an Iunai that you are going, and I will go with your myself."

"So be it," said Diarmid. And the man carried him across the rivulet, and when he set him down on the far side, he said, “Tell the king of me, so that he may invite me in to feast with him. That is why I have brought these fine fish.”

Diarmid agreed, and set off and soon reached the house of King Wonderplain. He shouted for the cup to be sent out, or battle, or combat; and it was not the cup. There were sent out nine hundred Lugh ghaisgeach, and nine hundred Lan ghaisgeach, and in two hours he left not a man of them alive.

"Whence," said the king as he stood in his own great door, "came the man that has just brought my warriors to this pass? If it be the pleasure of the hero let him tell from whence he came."

"It is the pleasure of the hero; a hero of the people of the Fianna am I. I am Diarmid."

"Why did you not send in a message to say who your were, and I would not have sent my army upon thee and had them destroyed utterly. But come, what do you require?"

"I seek the cup that comes from your own hand for healing."

"No man ever got my cup of healing, but you shall, for I see that you are here for love.”

And so Diarmid got the cup from King Wonderplain. And they feasted together.

"I will now send a ship with you Diarmid," said the king, but Diarmid said that he had his own way back, and so he and the king parted from each other. But when Diarmid came to the rivulet, the little red-haired man was not there.

"There is no help for it," said he. "I shall not now get over the rivulet, and shame will not let me return to the king."

What should rise while the word was in his mouth but the little red man out of the rivulet, and he had a net full of fish.

"You are in straits, Diarmid."

"I am. I got the thing I desired, but I cannot get across with it."

"Well, now. Though you didn’t say a word of me to the king, nor had them bring me in to the castle, still, put your foot on my palm and I will take you over the stream."

Diarmid put his foot on his palm, and the man took him over the stream.

"Will you talk to me now Diarmid?" said he.

"I will," said Diarmid.

"You are going to heal the daughter of King Underwaves? She is the woman that you love best in the world?"

"Oh! it is she."

"Then go to the green well in the wood. There you will find a bottle, and you shall fill it with the water of the well. When you reach your fair damsel, pour the water in the king’s cup, and the three drops of blood. If she drink it, she shall be well, and live. But when she is healed, I tell you that you will no longer love her.”

"Oh! That shall not be," said Diarmid.

“It shall be so, and you shall not be able to hide it from her. And King Under-waves will come, and he will offer you much silver and gold for healing his daughter. Take not a jot of it, but ask only that the king should send a ship to take you back to the place you came from. Otherwise you will remain there forever in sorrow."

Diarmid went; he reached the green well in the wood; he got the bottle, and he filled it with water; he took it with him, and he reached the castle of King Under-waves. When he came in he was honoured and saluted.

"My fair Diarmid," said the damsel from her sickbed. “You have come, and you have brought the cup.”

"There was no man could have turned me back," said Diarmid. And when he saw again how beautiful she was, he was certain the little red man had lied.

He put the drops of blood into the water in the cup, and she drank it. And then she was whole and healthy, and he knew she would live. But it was as the little red man had said: Diarmid looked upon her and he felt no love for her. And when the fair damsel put her arms around Diarmid she knew that it was so, and she wept.

“You took pity upon me when I was a strange, ugly creature,” she said. “And then you loved me when you saw me as I truly am. And now I am well, and yours forever, and yet you are cold to me. I do not know why. Tell me why it is so.”

But Diarmid would not answer.

Then the king sent word throughout the town that she was healed, and music was raised, and lament laid down. The king came where Diarmid was, and he said to him, "Now, take as much silver as you wish for healing her, and you shall marry her."

"I will not take the damsel,” Diarmid said, “and I will not take anything but a ship to be sent with me to my home country."

A ship went with him, and he reached his home country; and his people greeted him with joy and pleasure that he had returned. But of his time in the land under the waves he would never speak.

[For a contemporary take on this tale, see "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" by Neil Gaiman]

In the beginning was a story ...

In the beginning there was a story:

“And God said ‘Let there be light….’” (The Bible)

“Ages ago the entire universe existed in an egg-shaped cloud…” (China)

“The world at first was only water and darkness, and all the animals lived above the sky….” (Cherokee)

“The entire Universe was thousands of times smaller than the head of a pin. Then it suddenly exploded in a Big Bang, and with that, time, space and matter were all created.” (Stephen Hawking)

“You slept and grew inside Mommy’s tummy for nine months until you were ready to come out, and then one day that’s what you did, and everyone was so happy to meet you ….” (Me, or you, or just about anyone)

We live in a universe bounded by Story.  Whether it’s the entire cosmos or your own life, no matter how far back you go to find out where something came from, you’ll find a story there already waiting for you.  A story someone else is telling you, or a story you have to create for yourself.

The past is nothing more than the stories we tell about it, and the same is true of the future. What will life be like a hundred years from now? How will the universe end? And more importantly, what’s going to happen to ME?

For physicists, the beginning and the ending of all things can be expressed in equations, but the rest of us can only imagine the past and the future in stories.

(And maybe mathematics is a kind of storytelling, too, with numbers instead of words.)

And what about the way things are now? Just where are we in the universe? How big is it? Why are we here? All of our questions lead to stories of one kind or another: myths and theories and belief systems are all stories.

In the beginning was a story. And right now is a story. Lots of them, actually. Big stories that almost everyone believes in, and smaller stories that usually don’t quite fit the big ones.

What story are you in?