The Witch Of Fife
: The Scottish Fairy Book
In the Kingdom of Fife, in the days of long ago, there lived an old man
and his wife. The old man was a douce, quiet body, but the old woman was
lightsome and flighty, and some of the neighbours were wont to look at
her askance, and whisper to each other that they sorely feared that she
was a Witch.
And her husband was afraid of it, too, for she had a curious habit of
disappearing in the gloaming and stay
ng out all night; and when she
returned in the morning she looked quite white and tired, as if she had
been travelling far, or working hard.
He used to try and watch her carefully, in order to find out where she
went, or what she did, but he never managed to do so, for she always
slipped out of the door when he was not looking, and before he could
reach it to follow her, she had vanished utterly.
At last, one day, when he could stand the uncertainty no longer, he
asked her to tell him straight out whether she were a Witch or no. And
his blood ran cold when, without the slightest hesitation, she answered
that she was; and if he would promise not to let anyone know, the next
time that she went on one of her midnight expeditions she would tell him
all about it.
The Goodman promised; for it seemed to him just as well that he should
know all about his wife's cantrips.
He had not long to wait before he heard of them. For the very next week
the moon was new, which is, as everybody knows, the time of all others
when Witches like to stir abroad; and on the first night of the new moon
his wife vanished. Nor did she return till daybreak next morning.
And when he asked her where she had been, she told him, in great glee,
how she and four like-minded companions had met at the old Kirk on the
moor and had mounted branches of the green bay tree and stalks of
hemlock, which had instantly changed into horses, and how they had
ridden, swift as the wind, over the country, hunting the foxes, and the
weasels, and the owls; and how at last they had swam the Forth and come
to the top of Bell Lomond. And how there they had dismounted from their
horses, and drunk beer that had been brewed in no earthly brewery, out
of horn cups that had been fashioned by no mortal hands.
And how, after that, a wee, wee man had jumped up from under a great
mossy stone, with a tiny set of bagpipes under his arm, and how he had
piped such wonderful music, that, at the sound of it, the very trouts
jumped out of the Loch below, and the stoats crept out of their holes,
and the corby crows and the herons came and sat on the trees in the
darkness, to listen. And how all the Witches danced until they were so
weary that, when the time came for them to mount their steeds again, if
they would be home before cock-crow, they could scarce sit on them for
The Goodman listened to this long story in silence, shaking his head
meanwhile, and, when it was finished, all that he answered was: "And
what the better are ye for all your dancing? Ye'd have been a deal more
comfortable at home."
At the next new moon the old wife went off again for the night; and when
she returned in the morning she told her husband how, on this occasion,
she and her friends had taken cockle-shells for boats, and had sailed
away over the stormy sea till they reached Norway. And there they had
mounted invisible horses of wind, and had ridden and ridden, over
mountains and glens, and glaciers, till they reached the land of the
Lapps lying under its mantle of snow.
And here all the Elves, and Fairies, and Mermaids of the North were
holding festival with Warlocks, and Brownies, and Pixies, and even the
Phantom Hunters themselves, who are never looked upon by mortal eyes.
And the Witches from Fife held festival with them, and danced, and
feasted, and sang with them, and, what was of more consequence, they
learned from them certain wonderful words, which, when they uttered
them, would bear them through the air, and would undo all bolts and
bars, and so gain them admittance to any place soever where they wanted
to be. And after that they had come home again, delighted with the
knowledge which they had acquired.
"What took ye to siccan a land as that?" asked the old man, with a
contemptuous grunt. "Ye would hae been a sight warmer in your bed."
But when his wife returned from her next adventure, he showed a little
more interest in her doings.
For she told him how she and her friends had met in the cottage of one
of their number, and how, having heard that the Lord Bishop of Carlisle
had some very rare wine in his cellar, they had placed their feet on the
crook from which the pot hung, and had pronounced the magic words which
they had learned from the Elves of Lappland. And, lo and behold! they
flew up the chimney like whiffs of smoke, and sailed through the air
like little wreathes of cloud, and in less time than it takes to tell
they landed at the Bishop's Palace at Carlisle.
And the bolts and the bars flew loose before them, and they went down to
his cellar and sampled his wine, and were back in Fife, fine, sober, old
women by cock-crow.
When he heard this, the old man started from his chair in right earnest,
for he loved good wine above all things, and it was but seldom that it
came his way.
"By my troth, but thou art a wife to be proud of!" he cried. "Tell me
the words, Woman! and I will e'en go and sample his Lordship's wine for
But the Goodwife shook her head. "Na, na! I cannot do that," she said,
"for if I did, an' ye telled it over again, 'twould turn the whole world
upside down. For everybody would be leaving their own lawful work, and
flying about the world after other folk's business and other folk's
dainties. So just bide content, Goodman. Ye get on fine with the
knowledge ye already possess."
And although the old man tried to persuade her with all the soft words
he could think of, she would not tell him her secret.
But he was a sly old man, and the thought of the Bishop's wine gave him
no rest. So night after night he went and hid in the old woman's
cottage, in the hope that his wife and her friends would meet there; and
although for a long time it was all in vain, at last his trouble was
rewarded. For one evening the whole five old women assembled, and in low
tones and with chuckles of laughter they recounted all that had befallen
them in Lappland. Then, running to the fireplace, they, one after
another, climbed on a chair and put their feet on the sooty crook. Then
they repeated the magic words, and, hey, presto! they were up the lum
and away before the old man could draw his breath.
"I can do that, too," he said to himself; and he crawled out of his
hiding-place and ran to the fire. He put his foot on the crook and
repeated the words, and up the chimney he went, and flew through the air
after his wife and her companions, as if he had been a Warlock born.
And, as Witches are not in the habit of looking over their shoulders,
they never noticed that he was following them, until they reached the
Bishop's Palace and went down into his cellar, then, when they found
that he was among them, they were not too well pleased.
However, there was no help for it, and they settled down to enjoy
themselves. They tapped this cask of wine, and they tapped that,
drinking a little of each, but not too much; for they were cautious old
women, and they knew that if they wanted to get home before cock-crow it
behoved them to keep their heads clear.
But the old man was not so wise, for he sipped, and he sipped, until at
last he became quite drowsy, and lay down on the floor and fell fast
And his wife, seeing this, thought that she would teach him a lesson not
to be so curious in the future. So, when she and her four friends
thought that it was time to be gone, she departed without waking him.
He slept peacefully for some hours, until two of the Bishop's servants,
coming down to the cellar to draw wine for their Master's table, almost
fell over him in the darkness. Greatly astonished at his presence there,
for the cellar door was fast locked, they dragged him up to the light
and shook him, and cuffed him, and asked him how he came to be there.
And the poor old man was so confused at being awakened in this rough
way, and his head seemed to whirl round so fast, that all he could
stammer out was, "that he came from Fife, and that he had travelled on
the midnight wind."
As soon as they heard that, the men servants cried out that he was a
Warlock, and they dragged him before the Bishop, and, as Bishops in
those days had a holy horror of Warlocks and Witches, he ordered him to
be burned alive.
When the sentence was pronounced, you may be very sure that the poor old
man wished with all his heart that he had stayed quietly at home in bed,
and never hankered after the Bishop's wine.
But it was too late to wish that now, for the servants dragged him out
into the courtyard, and put a chain round his waist, and fastened it to
a great iron stake, and they piled faggots of wood round his feet and
set them alight.
As the first tiny little tongue of flame crept up, the poor old man
thought that his last hour had come. But when he thought that, he forgot
completely that his wife was a Witch.
For, just as the little tongue of flame began to singe his
breeches, there was a swish and a flutter in the air, and a great Grey
Bird, with outstretched wings, appeared in the sky, and swooped down
suddenly, and perched for a moment on the old man's shoulder.
And in this Grey Bird's mouth was a little red pirnie, which, to
everyone's amazement, it popped on to the prisoner's head. Then it gave
one fierce croak, and flew away again, but to the old man's ears that
croak was the sweetest music that he had ever heard.
For to him it was the croak of no earthly bird, but the voice of his
wife whispering words of magic to him. And when he heard them he jumped
for joy, for he knew that they were words of deliverance, and he shouted
them aloud, and his chains fell off, and he mounted in the air--up and
up--while the onlookers watched him in awestruck silence.
He flew right away to the Kingdom of Fife, without as much as saying
good-bye to them; and when he found himself once more safely at home,
you may be very sure that he never tried to find out his wife's secrets
again, but left her alone to her own devices.