Elves in Scotland: Their Skills

By Thomas Crofton Croker

The Elves possess great powers, which they know how to turn to the best advantage. They are the most expert workmen in the world; and every fairy unites in his own person the most various trades: he is his own weaver, tailor, and shoemaker.

A weaver was one night waked out of his sleep by a very great noise; on looking out of bed, he saw his room filled with busy Elves, who were using his tools without the least ceremony. They were employed in converting a large sack of the finest wool into cloth. One was combing, another spinning, a third weaving, the fourth pressing it, and the noise of these different operations and the cries of the fairies created the greatest confusion. Before daybreak they had finished a piece of cloth above fifty ells long, and took their departure without even thanking the weaver for the use of his machinery.

An Elf once made a pair of shoes for a shepherd during the time that he was stirring his porridge, and another shaved an acquaintance with a razor not sharper than a hand.

They are unrivalled in the art of building; this is sufficiently proved by their own dwellings, which are so strong, that they have resisted the wind and weather for several thousand years, and sustained no damage, except in the stoppage of the chimney.

The buildings which they have executed under the direction of the famous architect, Michael Scott, are truly astonishing. In his early days he used to go once every year to Edinburgh, to get employment. He was once going there with two companions; they were obliged to pass over a high hill, probably one of the Grampians, and fatigued with the ascent, rested on its summit. They were, however, soon startled by the hissing of a large serpent which darted towards them. Michael’s two friends took flight; but he resolved to make a bold stand, and just as it was about to give him the mortal bite, he, at one stroke of his stick, hewed the monster into three pieces. Having overtaken his terrified companions, they pursued their journey, and lodged for the night in the nearest inn. Here they talked over Michael’s adventure with the serpent, which the landlady by chance overheard. Her attention seemed to be excited, and when she heard that the serpent was a white one, she promised to give a large reward to any person who would bring her the middle piece.

As the distance was not great, one of the three offered to go: he found the middle piece, and the tail, but the part with the head had disappeared, and had probably taken refuge in the water, in order to come out again entire, as is the manner of serpents which have combated with men. (It is singular enough, that a person who has been bit by a serpent is infallibly cured if he reaches the water before the serpent.)

The woman, on receiving the piece of the serpent, which still gave signs of life, uttered a loud cry, appeared in the highest degree pleased, and gave her guests the best that her house afforded. Michael, curious to know what the woman intended to do with the serpent, feigned to be suddenly seized with violent colic, which could only be cured by sitting near the fire, the warmth of which apparently relieved him. The woman did not at all discover the trick, and thinking that a person in so much pain could not have much curiosity to examine her pots, she willingly consented to his sitting the whole evening at the fire.

As soon as all the others had retired, she set about her important business, and Michael had an opportunity of observing, through the keyhole, every thing that occurred. He saw her, after many rites and ceremonies, put the serpent, with some mysterious ingredients, into a kettle, which she brought to the fire before which Michael was lying, and where it was to boil till morning.

Once or twice during the night she came, under pretence of inquiring after the invalid, and to bring him a cordial; she then dipped her fingers into the kettle with the mixture, whereupon the cock, which was perched on a bar, began to crow aloud. Michael wondered at this influence of the broth on the cock, and could not resist the temptation of following her example. He thought that all was not quite right, and feared that the evil one might have some hand in it; but at length his curiosity got the better of his objections. He dipped his fingers into the soup, and touched the tip of his tongue with it, and the cock instantly announced the occurrence in a plaintive tone. Michael now felt himself illuminated with a new, and to him hitherto entirely unknown light, and the affrighted landlady judged it most prudent to let him into her confidence.

Armed with these supernatural endowments, Michael left the house on the following morning. He soon brought some thousands of the devil’s best workmen into his power, whom he made so skilful in his trade, that he was able to undertake the buildings of the whole kingdom. To him are ascribed some wonderful works to the north of the Grampians; some of those astonishing bridges which he built in one night, at which only two or three workmen were visible. One day a work had just been completed, and his people, as they were accustomed to do, thronged round his house, crying out, “Work! work! work!” Displeased at this constant teazing, he called out to them in joke, that they should go and build a road from Fortrose to Arderseir, across the frith of Moray.

The cries instantly ceased, and Michael, who considered it impossible to accomplish the task, laughed at them, and remained at home. The following morning, at daybreak, he went to the shore, but how great was his surprise, when he saw that this unparalleled labour had so far succeeded as to require only a few hours to be finished. Uncertain, however, whether it might not prove injurious to trade, he gave orders for demolishing the greater part of the work, and only left in memory of it a piece at Fortrose, which the traveller may behold at this very day.

The fairies, once more out of work, came again with their cries; and Michael, with all his ingenuity, could not devise any harmless employment, till at length he said: “Go and twine ropes which may carry me to the moon, and make them of slime and sea-sand.” This procured him rest, and if there was a scarcity of other work, he sent them to make rope. It is true they did not succeed in manufacturing proper ropes, but traces of their labour may be seen to this day on the sea-shore.

Michael Scott, having one day had a quarrel with a person who had offended him, he sent him as a punishment to that unhappy region, where dwells the evil one and his angels. The devil, somewhat displeased at Michael’s presumption, showed the new comer the whole extent of hell; and at length also, by way of consolation, the spot he had prepared for Michael; it was filled with the most horrid monsters imaginable, toads, lizards, leeches, and a frightful serpent opened its terrific jaws.

Satisfied with this spectacle, the stranger returned to the region of day: he related all that he had seen, and made no secret of what Michael Scott had to expect as soon as he should have passed into the other world. Michael, however, did not lose his courage, and declared that he would disappoint the devil in his expectations. “When I am dead,” said he, “open my breast, and take out my heart. Place it on a pole in a public place, where every one may see it. If the devil is to have my soul, he will come and fetch it away, under the form of a black raven; but if it is to be saved, a white dove will bear it off: this shall be a sign to you.” After his death they complied with his request: a large black raven came from the east with great swiftness, while a white dove approached with the same velocity from the west. The raven darted violently towards the heart, missed it, and flew by, while the dove, which reached it at the same time, carried it off, amidst the shouts of the populace.

From Fairy legends and traditions of the South of Ireland, part III., by Thomas Crofton Croker.
London: John Murray, 1828.

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