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.