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The Brownie Of Blednock

from Tales From Scottish Ballads





"There came a strange wight to our town en',
An' the fient a body did him ken;
He twirled na' lang, but he glided ben,
Wi' a weary, dreary hum.

His face did glow like the glow o' the West,
When the drumly cloud had it half o'ercast;
Or the struggling moon when she's sair distrest.
O, Sirs! it was Aiken-Drum."


Did you ever hear how a Brownie came to our village of Blednock, and was
frightened away again by a silly young wife, who thought she was
cleverer than anyone else, but who did us the worst turn that she ever
did anybody in her life, when she made the queer, funny, useful little
man disappear?

Well, it was one November evening, in the gloaming, just when the
milking was done, and before the bairns were put to bed, and everyone
was standing on their doorsteps, having a crack about the bad harvest,
and the turnips, and what chances there were of good prices for the
stirks[26] at the Martinmas Fair, when the queerest humming noise
started down by the river.

[Footnote 26: Bullocks.]

It came nearer and nearer, and everyone stopped their clavers[27] and
began to look down the road. And, 'deed, it was no wonder that they
stared, for there, coming up the middle of the highway, was the
strangest, most frightsome-looking creature that human eyes had ever
seen.

[Footnote 27: Idle talk.]

He looked like a little wee, wee man, and yet he looked almost like a
beast, for he was covered with hair from head to foot, and he wore no
clothing except a little kilt of green rashes which hung round his
waist. His hair was matted, and his head hung forward on his breast, and
he had a long blue beard, which almost touched the ground.

His legs were twisted, and knocked together as he walked, and his arms
were so long that his hands trailed in the mud.

He seemed to be humming something over and over again, and, as he came
near us we could just make out the words, "Hae ye wark for Aiken-Drum?"

Eh, but I can tell you the folk were scared. If it had been the Evil One
himself who had come to our quiet little village, I doubt if he would
have caused more stir.[28] The bairns screamed, and hid their faces in
their mothers' gown-tails; while the lassies, idle huzzies that they
were, threw down the pails of milk, which should have been in the
milkhouse long ago, if they had not been so busy gossiping; and the very
dogs crept in behind their masters, whining, and hiding their tails
between their legs. The grown men, who should have known better, and who
were not frightened to look the wee man in the face, laughed and hooted
at him.

[Footnote 28: Excitement.]

"Did ye ever see such eyes?" cried one.

"His mouth is so big, he could swallow the moon," said another.

"Hech, sirs, but did ye ever see such a creature?" cried a third.

And still the poor little man went slowly up the street, crying
wistfully, "Hae ye wark for Aiken-Drum? Any wark for Aiken-Drum?"

Some of us tried to speak to him, but our tongues seemed to be tied, and
the words died away on our lips, and we could only stand and watch him
with frightened glances, as if we were bewitched.

Old Grannie Duncan, the oldest, and the kindest woman in the village,
was the first to come to her senses. "He may be a ghost, or a bogle, or
a wraith," she said; "or he may only be a harmless Brownie. It is beyond
me to say; but this I know, that if he be an evil spirit, he will not
dare to look on the Holy Book." And with that she ran into her cottage,
and brought out the great leather-bound Bible which aye lay on her
little table by the window.

She stood on the road, and held it out, right in front of the creature,
but he took no more heed of it than if it had been an old song-book, and
went slowly on, with his weary cry for work.

"He's just a Brownie," cried Grannie Duncan in triumph, "a simple,
kindly Brownie. I've heard tell of such folk before, and many a long
day's work will they do for the people who treat them well."

Gathering courage from her words, we all crowded round the wee man, and
now that we were close to him, we saw that his hairy face was kind and
gentle, and his tiny eyes had a merry twinkle in them.

"Save us, and help us, creature!" said an old man reprovingly, "but can
ye no speak, and tell us what ye want, and where ye come from?"

For answer the Brownie looked all round him, and gave such a groan, that
we scattered and ran in all directions, and it was full five minutes
before we could pluck up our courage and go close to him again.

But Grannie Duncan stood her ground, like a brave old woman that she
was, and it was to her that the creature spoke.

"I cannot tell thee from whence I come," he said. "'Tis a nameless land,
and 'tis very different from this land of thine. For there we all learn
to serve, while here everyone wishes to be served. And when there is no
work for us to do at home, then we sometimes set out to visit thy land,
to see if there is any work which we may do there. I must seem strange
to human eyes, that I know; but if thou wilt, I will stay in this place
awhile. I need not that any should wait on me, for I seek neither wages,
nor clothes, nor bedding. All I ask for is the corner of a barn to sleep
in, and a cogful of brose set down on the floor at bedtime; and if no
one meddles with me, I will be ready to help anyone who needs me. I'll
gather your sheep betimes on the hill; I'll take in your harvest by
moonlight. I'll sing the bairns to sleep in their cradles, and, though I
doubt you'll not believe it, you'll find that the babes will love me.
I'll kirn your kirns[29] for you, goodwives, and I'll bake your bread on
a busy day; while, as for the men folk, they may find me useful when
there is corn to thrash, or untamed colts in the stables, or when the
waters are out in flood."

[Footnote 29: A churn.]

No one quite knew what to say in answer to the creature's strange
request. It was an unheard-of thing for anyone to come and offer their
services for nothing, and the men began to whisper among themselves, and
to say that it was not canny, and 'twere better to have nothing to do
with him.

But up spoke old Grannie Duncan again. "'Tis but a Brownie, I tell you,"
she repeated, "a poor, harmless Brownie, and many a story have I heard
in my young days about the work that a Brownie can do, if he be well
treated and let alone. Have we not been complaining all summer about bad
times, and scant wages, and a lack of workmen to work the work? And now,
when a workman comes ready to your hand, ye will have none of him, just
because he is not bonnie to look on."

Still the men hesitated, and the silly young wenches screwed their
faces, and pulled their mouths. "But, Grannie," cried they, "that is all
very well, but if we keep such a creature in our village, no one will
come near it, and then what shall we do for sweethearts?"

"Shame on ye," cried Grannie impatiently, "and on all you men for
encouraging the silly things in their whimsies. It's time that ye were
thinking o' other things than bonnie faces and sweethearts. 'Handsome is
that handsome does,' is a good old saying; and what about the corn that
stands rotting in the fields, an' it past Hallowe'en already? I've heard
that a Brownie can stack a whole ten-acre field in a single night."

That settled the matter. The miller offered the creature the corner of
his barn to sleep in, and Grannie promised to boil the cogful of brose,
and send her grandchild, wee Jeannie, down with it every evening, and
then we all said good-night, and went into our houses, looking over our
shoulders as we did so, for fear that the strange little man was
following us.

But if we were afraid of him that night, we had a very different song to
sing before a week was over. Whatever he was, or wherever he came from,
he was the most wonderful worker that men had ever known. And the
strange thing was that he did most of it at night. He had the corn safe
into the stackyards, and the stacks thatched, in the clap of a hand, as
the old folk say.

The village became the talk of the countryside, and folk came from all
parts to see if they could catch a glimpse of our queer, hairy little
visitor; but they were always unsuccessful, for he was never to be seen
when one looked for him. One might go into the miller's barn twenty
times a day, and twenty times a day find nothing but a heap of straw;
and although the cog of brose was aye empty in the morning, no one knew
when he came home, or when he supped it.

But wherever there was work to be done, whether it was a sickly bairn to
be sung to, or a house to be tidied up; a kirn that would not kirn, or a
batch of bread that would not rise; a flock of sheep to be gathered
together on a stormy night, or a bundle to be carried home by some weary
labourer; Aiken-Drum, as we learned to call him, always got to know of
it, and appeared in the nick of time. It looked as if we had all got
wishing-caps, for we had just to wish, and the work was done.

Many a time, some poor mother, who had been up with a crying babe all
night, would sit down with it in her lap, in front of the fire, in the
morning, and fall fast asleep, and when she awoke, she would find that
Aiken-Drum had paid her a visit, for the floor would be washed, and the
dishes too, and the fire made up, and the kettle put on to boil; but the
little man would have slipped away, as if he were frightened of being
thanked.

The bairns were the only ones who ever saw him idle, and oh, how they
loved him! In the gloaming, or when the school was out, one could see
them away down in some corner by the burn[30]-side, crowding round the
little dark brown figure, with its kilt of rushes, and one would hear
the sound of wondrous low sweet singing, for he knew all the songs that
the little ones loved.

[Footnote 30: Stream.]

So by and by the name of Aiken-Drum came to be a household word amongst
us, and although we so seldom saw him near at hand, we loved him like
one of our ain folk.

And he might have been here still, had it not been for a silly,
senseless young wife who thought she knew better than everyone else, and
who took some idle notion into her empty head that it was not right to
make the little man work, and give him no wage.

She dinned[31] this into our heads, morning, noon, and night, and she
would not believe us when we told her that Aiken-Drum worked for love,
and love only.

[Footnote 31: Impressed this upon us.]

Poor thing, she could not understand anyone doing that, so she made up
her mind that she, at least, would do what was right, and set us all an
example.

"She did not mean any harm," she said afterwards, when the miller took
her to task for it; but although she might not mean to do any harm, she
did plenty, as senseless folk are apt to do when they cannot bear to
take other people's advice, for she took a pair of her husband's old,
mouldy, worn-out breeches, and laid them down one night beside the
cogful of brose.

By my faith, if the village folk had not remembered so well what
Aiken-Drum had said about wanting no wages, they would have found
something better to give him than a pair of worn-out breeks.

Be that as it may, the long and the short of it was, that the dear wee
man's feelings were hurt because we would not take his services for
nothing, and he vanished in the night, as Brownies are apt to do, so
Grannie Duncan says, if anyone tries to pay them, and we have never seen
him from that day to this, although the bairns declare that they
sometimes hear him singing down by the mill, as they pass it in the
gloaming, on their way home from school.





Next: Sir Patrick Spens

Previous: Lord Soulis



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