The Stolen Bairn:E202
An old Scottish folktale about a brave lass who must find a way to outwit the wicked fairies who have stolen away her bairn (Scottish word for child). A slightly spooky tale best suited for ages 8 and over. (duration 24 minutes) An episode from Journey with Story, a storytelling podcast for kids.
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The Stolen Bairn –
A Scottish Folktale (lightly adapted from Thistle and Thyme Tales and Legends of Scotland)
Do you think it is better to be brave or clever? Why? What is the bravest thing you have ever done? What is the cleverest thing you have ever done?
Hello everyone. I’m Kathleen Pelley. Welcome to Journey with Story. I wonder how you answered my questions about being brave or clever, because today’s episode is an old Scottish folktale about a young girl who is both clever AND brave. Word of warning, mums and dads, this story is best suited for listeners aged 8 and up – it is definitely NOT suited for younger listeners as it is a sort of scary story – just right for Halloween.
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Thanks also to all of you who have been rating, reviewing, and sharing this podcast with others – as I have said many times before – good stories are a great way to feed hearts and make them bolder and braver and stronger!
Now, let’s take a journey with The Stolen Bairn. (bairn is a Scottish word for a baby or child)
Long, long ago in Scotland, on a mist -covered coast, two tall, dark fairies with pointy ears came across a bundle tucked under the bushes by the cliffs. It was a wee baby, babbling and cooing, with his little face poking through the blanket. Not a soul was near him.
“I would like such a bairn as this,” said one fairy.
“Aye,” said the other, looking around. “Sure, no one is around to stop us.”
In an instant, the two fairies snatched up the bundle in their withered arms and vanished.
Just a few minutes later, sailing by the cliffs, two fishermen noticed the figure of a woman fallen on the rocks, her golden tresses hanging low.
“‘Tis a lass!” said one.
“But we can’t stop here,” said the other, turning the tiller away from the sharp, rocky cliffs near the shore. “Our boat will shatter!”
“But look – she must be injured, or worse,” said the first fisherman. “We can’t just abandon her here.”
So the two fishermen carefully anchored their boat on the high, rocky waters by the cliffs and climbed up the rocks to the lass.
“Is she still alive?” one asked.
“Aye,” said the other, “but we’d best get her back to the village – there’s not a moment to waste.”
The women of the village nursed the young girl with teas of fern root and violets steeped in whey. Finally, after many days and nights had passed, the lass opened her eyes.
“My bairn,” she murmured. “Where’s my bairn?”
“Lass,” said one of the women,” you were found quite alone.”
At once the girl bolted upright in the bed.
“Nay! I bundled my bairn good and safe by the bushes when I went for just a moment to fetch him water. I must have fallen on the rocks. My bairn must still be there!”
The villagers quickly formed a search team and returned to the cliffs. They searched all day long, tramping up and down the path and all around the area, asking everyone they could find. But no one knew of a baby that had been found by the cliffs.
One of the fishermen had to give the mother the sorry news. “Stay here in our village with us,” said he. “This can be your new home. We have many a fine lad for you to marry. You’ll have another bairn before long, no doubt.”
“No, thank you. I know you mean well. But now I must go to find my bairn.”
So the lass traveled from farm to village, searching and asking everyone she met about her lost baby. With her hair blown about and a wild expression in her eyes, many thought her quite mad and perhaps she was, a bit.
One day she wandered into a camp of gypsies.
“Where is my bairn? Can anyone help me?” The girl looked so forlorn and weary, a mother with three young children took pity on her. She bid the lass to come inside her tent. She washed the feet of the visitor and fed her from her own pot.
“Where is my bairn?” was all the girl could say.
“Alas, I know not,” said the young mother. “But my grandmother is the wisest woman I know. If anyone can help you find your little one, it is she.”
She led the lass to another tent. Inside sat an old, old woman dressed in black from head to toe. After she heard the lass’s sorry tale, the grandmother said nothing, only reached out and clasped the girl’s hand in hers. For hours they sat like this the two of them together, saying nothing.
At midnight, the grandmother stood up and selected some herbs from a basket, scattering them over the fire. The fire leaped up and the smoke that rose from the burning herbs swirled round the old gypsy woman’s head. She closed her eyes and listened as the fire burned hot. When it died down, she took the lass’s hand again.
“You must stop searching, poor lass,” said the grandmother sorrowfully. “For your baby has been stolen away by the fairies. Taken to live with them, he was. It’s best that you accept it, lass. The fairies are far more powerful than we mortals.”
The lass was silent. Then she wailed, “If I cannot get back my bairn, I might as well lay down and die.”
“No, child!” urged the old grandmother, tears welling in her eyes. “Perhaps there is a way…”
“What?” whispered the lass. “A spell?”
“Ah, if only it were that easy!” said the old, gypsy
grandmother. “The fairies are a vain people who enjoy rare and beautiful things, but they have no art. If they see something exquisite, something very rare and extraordinary, they will want it. And if you have such an unusual item, you might be able to bargain with them. But it would have to be something without equal anywhere in the world. And I’m afraid you would need two such treasures – one to gain entrance inside the fairy mound, where they live. And another to bargain with for your babe.”
The old woman sighed. “What’s more, the time for you to obtain two treasures is short. If only you had 10 years! But the truth is, in 10 days the fairy people will gather together from all corners of the earth to choose a new ruler for the next 100 years. Your baby is sure to be among them for the event. After that, who knows where your babe might go? And now,” she said, “there is only more thing I can do for you.”
The old gypsy grandmother laid one hand on the girl’s head and cast a spell to protect her from fire and earth, wind and water. Unable to do anything more, they bid goodbye.
As she set off down the path, hope brimmed in the young lass’s heart, for now she knew there was a chance of finding her baby after all.
Then suddenly, her heart sank as fast as it had soared, for now she realized how impossible it would be for her, penniless as she was, to ever obtain a rare and exotic treasure, much less two?
Her head spinning, she lay a hand on a tree to steady herself. What items do people speak of in wonder? All she could think of were two legendary items from kings of ancient times- a famous white cloak and a golden stringed harp.
Suddenly she knew what she must do, and headed straight to the shore, where large seabirds called eider ducks nested. On the beach were the fur sheddings from the ducks. Soft down duck fur that had shed from their breasts, and delicate white feathers that had rolled off their wings. She clambered up and down the rocks gathering the cottony down and the clusters of white feathers.
Sharp rocks scraped her feet but did not pierce her skin, the hot sun burnt in the sky but that did not redden her face. The wind splashed the waves on the rocks but her dress and legs stayed dry. Of course, now she knew the spell of the gypsy grandmother was shielding her from the ill effect of earth and fire, wind and water.
The lass gathered all the down and feathers she needed. Then she set to weaving the down into a large cloak. The cloak was so soft and thick that it looked as if a tuft of cloud had been plucked from the sky. Then to decorate border around the cloak, she wove the delicate white feathers around the edges. In three quick strokes, she cut off her long golden hair that had fallen to her waist. Setting aside one strand of her locks for later, she took the rest and wove the strands into the feathered border, making golden flowers and leaves, all glimmering and resplendent.
Day and night she worked for there was not a moment to lose.
After she had stitched the final stitch, she carefully folded the soft white cloak, laid it under a shrub and returned to the seashore.
Searching the sandy beach, the lass looked for the right shape of bones to make a frame for a harp. Luckily she discovered an arc of bone that had been washed by the waves and made so smooth, that it resembled ivory. Taking the bone back to the shrub, she tied it together to make a frame for a harp. From the lock of hair she had set aside before, she braided each of her tiny hairs into thin strands, then twisted several thin strands together to form strong, elegant strings for the harp.
She stretched the strings tight and set them in tune. When she plucked a note, it was so full of longing and grief that even the birds flying out to the sea stopped in mid-air for a moment and cocked their heads to listen.
The lass wrapped her cloak around her shoulders, held the harp to her chest and set out to the mound where the fairies were known to live. As she traveled, villagers stepped aside for her to pass, not wanting to disturb her quest.
And so she continued along the high road and the byroad, her eyes fixed straight ahead. At last, as the moon rose full, she reached the entrance of the fairy mound. She spread her billowing cloak upon the path and stepped aside.
Before long a fairy strode toward her.
The fairy pointed at her. “You! No humans are allowed here. Leave at once!”
The fairy noticed the white cloak. “Hmm,” she said. “Finders keepers.” And she stooped for it.
“Nay!” said the lass. “It’s mine. You cannot have it!” She quickly snatched the cloak from the ground, cleverly wrapping it round her shoulders so it swirled around her body, its folds glimmering in the sun and its golden threads shining.
“Mortal, don’t be a fool! I’ll give you a handful of gold for it.”
“This cloak is not for sale. ‘Tis embroidered with my own golden hair, and there’s none like it in the world!”
“No amount of gold?” scoffed the fairy. “You make me laugh – all you humans crumble at the first glint of gold. Very well, I’ll fill your pockets with gold and all you can hold in your arms. There! Are you satisfied now?”
“The cloak is not for sale for ANY amount of gold,” she repeated, “nor for any regular price.”
“WHAT then?” said the fairy, sensing a bargain could be struck.
“Take me with you inside the fairy mound. Then the cloak will be yours and you’re welcome to it.”
“What a fool,” mumbled the fairy, but she took the lass by the hand and together, they entered the fairy mound. Once inside, the fairy snatched the soft white cloak from the lass’s shoulders, and the girl let it go with a smile.
Glancing back, she saw the fairy showing off the cloak and a crowd of other tall, dark fairies surrounding her, touching it, begging to be allowed to try it on, please, just once. But the lass headed straight forward, harp in hand, until she spied at the edge of the mound a high throne. Sitting on the throne was a tall, sharp-eared creature, with his eyebrows deep cast into a frown, who she realized must be the new king of the fairies.
Boldly she marched forward.’
“You dare to approach the throne!” growled the king. “How did you – a human! – get inside the fairy mound?”
The lass pointed to the fairy who had let her through.
The king frowned. “And what have you there?” said he, nodding to the harp she clutched to her breast.
“‘Tis my harp,” said she.
“I have harps a’plenty,” shrugged the king.
“Not like this,” said the lass, and she plucked a few chords, ringing notes so pure and clear that the king stared in wonder.
“You offer this as a gift for me, the new king of the fairies?”
“The harp might be a gift under the right circumstance,” the lass said quickly. “It’s not for sale for any usual price.”
“It’s naught but a common harp and you know it,” shrugged the king. “You think too much of your little toy.” Then he cunningly added, “but I could take it off your hands. What do you want for it?”
“The harp is beyond price,” said the lass. “‘Tis woven from my own golden hair. There’s none like it in the world. There’s only one trade of interest to me.”
The king arched one eyebrow.
“My bairn!” she said. “Give me my bairn that was taken by the fairies after I left him in his blankets by the black cliffs. My bairn back, and the harp is yours!”
“Nonsense!” He was not anxious to let go of the chubby-cheeked infant, held deep in the woods. He ordered a few of the fairies to bring gold, and they piled armfuls of the precious nuggets around the young woman’s ankles. “Surely,” he sneered, “that’s more than enough payment for a common harp.”
“Ooch, I do not want your gold!” she cried. “My bairn! I want my bairn and naught else!”
He clicked his fingers, and more fairies brought more armfuls of precious stones, this time of emeralds and rubies that heaped over the gold until a great pile of jewels rose to her waist.
Without looking once at the jewels she stared at the king with eyes of steel. “My bairn! Give me my bairn and naught else!”
When he saw that she could not be moved, the king barked, “So take the brat – what do I care?”
“Give me the bairn first, then the harp,” said she, knowing full well that if she let go of the harp first, she’d never see her baby again.
The king clicked his fingers. Before long, the baby was brought to his side. At once the infant recognized its mother and reached out. The lass gripped the harp tightly, her chin up. She repeated, “Give me the bairn first.”
So the baby was returned to its mother, and the lass gave the harp to the king. He struck a few chords and the purest and sweetest melody every heard in the fairy kingdom rang out.
All the fairies gathered round, delighting in the talents of their new king and clapping their hands with glee.
Clutching her baby, the lass turned from the king, marched out of of the fairy mound, and headed to the fisherfolk who had cared for her so tenderly.
There was much rejoicing in that village on that night as all the folk gathered around the brave lass who had fought the fairies with all her wit and might to save her wee bairn.
And from that day forward this tale of the stolen bairn and his fearless mother has been passed down from wise women through the ages.
So, those fairies were rather nasty, weren’t they? But our young heroine knew just how to deal with them, didn’t she? This is a perfect story for Halloween, because if you remember I have mentioned before that Halloween is made up of two old Scottish words – hallow (meaning holy) and ee’en (meaning evening). It was called that because it is the night before the feast of All Saints, when people celebrated the triumph of good over evil. They dressed up in costumes as a way to ward off the ghosts who they believed scoured the earth on this night before the beginning of winter- before the feast of All Saints.
And, what do you think this story souvenir is? Yes, it is an easy one this time, isn’t it…it is same as many, many of the stories on this podcast….
Good will Triumph – it is exactly what one of my favorite poets, Julian of Norwich tells us and you have heard me say this before…say it with me
“All shall be well….all shall be well… and all manner of things shall be well.”
Be well – my listeners – thank you for all of your amazing encouragement and supports – Happy (Almost)Halloween
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Cheerio then, join me next time for Journey with Story.