A folk tale from the Isle of Skye
Source: Otta F. Swire, Skye: the Island and its Legends.
This version is my telling, which appeared in If Women Rose Rooted.
One beautiful morning in later summer, a group of young women from the village on the edge of the world, all the way down there by the sea, set off into the mountains to gather blaeberries. One of them, daydreaming and enjoying the sun on her shoulders, strayed away from the rest, climbing up higher and higher in search of larger and finer berries. But then suddenly the air grew chilly, and she looked up, shivering, only to see a wall of mist rolling down the slopes of the mountain towards her.
Startled out of her reverie, she realised that she was alone, and at once turned to retrace her steps and to find her friends – but the mist whirled around her, and in no time at all she became lost. Slowly and cautiously she moved on through the mist, only understanding that she was going in the wrong direction when the heather through which she had originally climbed suddenly gave way to rock. She stood still, frightened now, afraid to move for fear of stepping over a cliff edge, or falling into the deep cut of a mountain burn.
And then she heard footsteps behind her. She whirled around, peering into the mist, and saw a band of huge ghostly forms moving towards her. Fearful, she would have stepped back – but a sudden small breeze shifted the fog for a moment, and she saw that the visitors were deer. Most of them were hinds, with calves at foot. They didn’t seem to be afraid of her and so she decided to join them, thinking that they at least would know where they were going, and might even lead her to safety. The deer moved slowly through the mist, grazing here and there, and so it was easy for the girl to keep up with them. A few steps at a time, they led her high up into the dark Cuillins, where eventually she found herself standing beside them at the opening of a cave.
Thinking to wait there in safety until the mist dissolved, the girl entered the cave. But the cave was inhabited; inside she found an old man and an old woman, each seated upon a wooden stool, gazing into a dark rock pool in the cave’s floor. The old woman turned to the girl and courteously asked her how she had come to be there; the girl told her tale and begged shelter for the night or until the mist would clear. ‘Shelter for one night we cannot give,’ the old woman said, ‘but shelter for a year and a night you may have if you will help me in the dairy, for I grow old. The deer will take you back down the mountain when the time is done.’
As she looked into the depths of the old woman’s dark eyes, the girl found herself agreeing. And so she spent busy days caring for and milking the hinds, and gathering sweet-scented herbs from the mountains which the old woman showed her how to find. There was thyme, meadowsweet and wild mint; there was golden asphodel and bog myrtle. The old woman dried them and sprinkled them on the fire which she lit each day out of dried heather. Then she would heat the deer’s milk, and make crowdie cheese. While the old woman worked at the fire with herbs and milk, the old man sat gazing into the rock pool, in which all the world was mirrored. And then, when the crowdie was made, he fashioned from it shapes and figures of the things that he had seen on the pool’s surface. For he and his wife were the makers of the world’s dreams.
Every evening as the sun set below the sea, the old man carried their white dreams to the cave mouth, and held them up to take on colour from the sunset. The dreams that he held in his right hand were true dreams, and out of the blue sky came eagles and falcons, larks and wrens, to carry them throughout the world. But the dreams in his left hand were false phantoms, designed to mislead. Out of the dark cracks of the mountain came the crows and ravens, to spread the shadows around the world.
When the year and the night of the girl’s service were ended, the old woman came out of the cave and spoke in a strange tongue to the leader of the herd of deer, a gentle hind with glowing eyes who now was grey with age. She said farewell to the girl, telling her that her service had been honest and true, and that she would find a reward waiting for her when she returned home to the seashore.
The deer led her by a hidden, easy route down the mountain, and they came sooner than she had thought to the sea – but this was not the shore that the girl knew. She started to walk along the beach to see if she could discover where she might be, but the deer wouldn’t allow it, and they gathered around her, enclosing her in a circle, and stood looking out to sea.
The girl looked too, and soon she saw, coming out of the sunset, a boat made all of skins; and as it came closer she saw that in the boat was a fair young man with a golden torc at his throat. He landed his coracle and came to her, hands outstretched, and at once she knew that she loved him. He called her ‘the fair one of dreams’, and told her that he had dreamed of her many times over the past year, back home in his father the king’s halls. Last night, he said, he had been shown in another dream the way to find her, and so he had followed the dreampaths, and had come to ask her to marry him.
The girl of course agreed, and they sailed away together across the sea. And when she became queen of her husband’s country, she taught the people the meaning of many dreams which the old woman had shown her during the time of her service in the mountains, and they grew wondrously wise.
But now much is forgotten.
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