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Best you not speak aloud the name ‘Faery’,
lest there be a fae in closest earshot who might take offence.
by Steve Storey
The Traveller Man
The year is 1705: Sat before the warming fireside of a Scottish lowland crofter’s dwelling, an old traveller man – invited across the threshold to entertain – waits for the occupants to fall silent before introducing himself to his host and their wider family…
To this fine gathering, let me tell you of the man you have welcomed to sit before your pleasing hearth and share the benefits of excellent company: My name is Jamie Watsun; my own position in life is proud lowly – low by birth, but with much knowledge and experience afforded me by my life’s travels.
As a young sailorman I served aboard a merchant ship in the hide and tallow trade, rising to the rank of mate. A grand vessel and happy crew, but one that was to find sad employment returning the surviving remnant of the Buannachan Redshank army to the land of waiting kin and the hopeful protection of clanfolk. We sailed maybe ‘twinty’ times from the shores of old Ireland’s Ulster following the defeat of the coalition by the cursed Cromwell – a defeat which brought to an end the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.
Following those ventures I chose to leave ship and travel this excellent country in my own company. Nightly sustenance and refuge were reliably provided by those – such as yourselves, happy to exchange board and lodging for news and an evening’s entertainment of tale and song – of which, be assured, I have collected a good many examples on my voyages and wide rambles.
Jamie Watsun Tells His Tale
Friends, we have dined well on pottage and downed good corn spirit; and now, as an accompliment to a sincere ‘thank you’ I shall be pleased to share a tale.
Watsun introduces the main character…
This account, offered with humility, tells of a tenant crofter who worked the hard land. This man was forced by circumstance to tred a malicious path spitefuly laid before him. Be it known that I am duty-bound to protect this fellow, whose life now thankfully thrives, for at that time he chose to navigate about his imposed hardship by deviation from the laws of the kirk, and as we know well, there is much malice in the world; those of power – those supposed paragons who would want to inflict dire sanction upon this fine gentleman in harshest retribution.
So, friends, that I may tell the telling of my tale, I shall give this crofter an invented name. I shall call him, ‘William Gude’; and my tale I shall title, ‘William Gude an’ the Fae’.
The ‘Ill Years’ of struggle…
The ‘Seven Ill Years’ of famine and hardship, that inflicted all the land during the 1690s, remained thereafter as a weeping sore in the folk memory. Starvation claimed many; others fled their homes – taking to the roads in search of food and charity, or indeed, for a new life in far-off lands. Rarely two days passed together when the corpse bell was not heard to announce yet another unfortunate borne to a rushed shallow grave; or news went about of a desparate family taking boat for Amerikay.
The years that followed the calamity witnessed growing tension between kirkmen and their tenant crofters. From high pulpits the clergy cited ‘The Years’ as God’s punishment, and chose to blame its happening wholly on the crofter folk. They, the condemned people, had, ‘…failed to oblige the good Christian God with undevoted faith’, instead they had, ‘…given their alligance to the old ways and traditions’, and at the time of planting, ‘…left ploughed headlands unsown in order that they might placate the believed unnatural and secure their own good fortune.’
The sad outcome of these assertions meant crofters were forced to choose between harsh fines imposed by the religious authorities, or to risk having their households ravaged by the aggrieved servants of nature – the fae folk.
The life of the crofter man…
William Gude, lived and toiled in a township a long day’s walk from this place. He had struggled – as had all the world – during the ‘Seven Ill Years’, suffering the sad loss of kith and close kin. Gude himself was barely a survivor, reliant at times upon the goodness of neighbours; the flesh of horse or the bark of tree for sustenance; his wits; and – as he had once believed – the graces gained from pilgrimage and the sacrifice of the holy martyrs, to finally leave those pitiful days behind.
After the ‘Years’, he returned to cultivate the land once more as a lowland crofter on a kirk estate; again to marry, taking for himself an honest and respected woman with whom he raised a family. One might say that if it was not for the cruelty of the clergy, the life of William Gude, although hard, was secure with sound hope for the future.
I shall not name that town where Gude lived, but know that to the south and east there were three large arable fields owned by the kirk and worked by the community. Each household was responsible for both ploughed field strips and crops – allocated by lot. One of the fields was left fallow while the remaining two were prepared as soon after Lady Day in late March that conditions allowed. Spring crops of barley, oats, peas and horse beans were sown to then be harvested in August, in good time to allow the groundwork and planting of winter grain. More fortunate than most, the tillers of the land had dispensed with their toilsome foot ploughs, having replaced manpower some years earlier with oxen. It was the usually unsown headlands, ploughed by these beasts as they turned at the end of each strip, that was the contention between the kirk authorities and the crofters.
The issue between the kirk and crofter…
The town’s kirkman had dictated that the headlands be spring-sown with just barley; the cereal grain of which would then be supplied to the greedy kirk as an imposed tax. William Gude and other workers of the land knew well that such a plan would severely impact the yield of their own peas and horse beans at the time of harvest – crops that provided an essential addition to the crofters diet – as these plantings required the intervention of nature’s own pollinators that would usually be drawn to the wild flowers which germinated, grew and bloomed in the headlands.
Gude and a gentleman fae meet together…
Now, Gude himself had always walked a careful path between kirk and the ways of the old lore. He thought long and hard on the dilema now facing him and his fellow crofters before deciding to call upon the aid of the fae folk to settle the matter. Gude acted, saying nothing to his community in fear of retribution – should word spread of his intentions.
William sat through the moonlit night-time hours; quietly watching over the shallow wooden bowl of creamy milk placed by the door to his croft house along with a small beaker. Eventually, a little before dawn bejewelled the eastern skies, he heard the rustling movements in the undergrowth and low shrubs about his house. There then appeared a small fellow – perhaps a mere twelve inch in height, pale and possessing emerald green eyes, barefoot, dressed in a red cap and singing a cheery song of love to dear nature. He tipped his cap to the bowl, dipped the rustic beaker and drank down the cooling liquid. This done, he inhaled a couple of long deep breathes before uttering a blessing upon the household:
“May this dwelling be e’er dry an’ the good hearth kept warm.
“May kin be rude of health – hale an’ hearty – from the day they be born.
“May peace an’ blessings inhabit this house, an’ remain forever long.”
His invocation issued, this princely fellow of the wee folk turned towards the clump of blackthorn – dressed as it was in the attractive white blooms of early April’s blossom – that led him toward home. It was at this moment that the crofter William chose to speak up, careful of his words – fore it is well-known that a fae can easily take offence.
“Good sir. It is I who occupy this homely croft with my gentle wife and sons, and I heartily welcome your blessing.
“Sir, I stand humbled before you with the hope of engaging your help to overcome a sorry matter that if left unaddressed will, I fear, cause harm upon both our kingdoms, and as a result injury to the land.
“Will you please permit me to occupy a short while of your time; to sit with you upon this grassy knoll amongst the full-grown crocus in their colours of purple, yellow and white and tell of my predicament? In good faith of my word and intentions I give you a personal gift – three quartz pebbles I have prized and kept close to me since my early childhood when they were bequeathed by my own father.
“In addition, I give you my name, ‘William Gude’, well aware that names hold power, and by my willingness to confess my own I believe a bond of truth and trust will properly exist between us.”
“Good crofter, as your honest civility and care for my kind are clear apparent, and your concerns for the welfare of the land – which we all serve – acknowledged, then surely, I will sit with you and listen to your words. And if it happens that harm can be avoided, then I will willingly lend my powers to aid your cause.”
The pair sat upon the knoll. As William shared oatcakes dipped in honey with the distinguished gentleman, he told of the demands of the kirk authorities; of how the toilers of the land were expected to tend the kirkman’s strips as well as their own; of the taxes payable in harvested crops from their own endeavours; and of the choice they were forced to make between kirk and fae, when ‘instructed’ to plant the headlands thick with barley seed, to the detriment of the pollinators that would serve the peoples vetch. They continued to talk for some time and discussed how harm resulting from the kirkman’s demands could be averted. Eventually, a pact was made between the man and goodly fae.
Gude and the fae folk act…
A dark ‘cloud’ arose from the land and journeyed skyward. Countless starlings had, in short time, cleared the headlands of planted crop seed. Then, in acknowledgement of their arrangement made with the fae, they danced a dance of joyous celebration – a final mumeration as spring’s season settled over the land. The starling was a bird well chosen by the fae; feisty and tenacious in character; a lover of seed and grub; and a feathered creature of myth in possession of much intelligence.
The fae folk then took advantage of the starlings’ clearance and seeded the headlands with wild flowers:
“One for God and one for the crow,
“One to die and one to grow.”
It was a short time thereafter that the headlands erupted in vivid colour. The fae took special delight in the cultivation of these many meadow blooms: Greater-stitchwort; dog violet and the bees own favourite foxglove; ghost orchid; the aromatic bastered balm and the profusely spiked star-of-Bethlehem – to name but just a few. Their riotous colour and fragrance brought great joy to the fae and enticed the natural world back to inhabit the good land and pollinate the peoples pea and horse bean.
Gude, as agreed, placed a single quartz pebble at the eastern end of each of the three kirkman’s riggs within the planted fields – a secret signal identifying the man’s allocation to the fae. Each night they would seed the ridges with bindweed and horsetail, before carefully cultivating William Gude and his fellow crofters’ own strips.
And so it was that the raging kirkman was undone by the good crofter; those servants of the natural world – the fae; and by the power bestowed by the Lord of all things. Indeed, no taxes were paid in grain from the headlands, and a bumper harvest of vetches allowed the townsfolk to sell their excess produce in the surrounding villages – and to put a little money aside. The congregation of the beligerant minister deserted him soon after the summer harvest, as the loyalty of the town’s laity to the kirkman waned in favour of a cleric preaching acceptance, inclusiveness and gentle reformation.
Jamie Watsun concludes his tale…
To this fine gathering; I thank you for your close attention, and hope you have both enjoyed my tale and taken to your hearts the good crofter; but what of the hard working fae? With their side of the bargin fulfilled, they feasted with much revelry, chosing the man William Gude as their honoured guest. This one small corner of their kingdom had been restore to nature’s balance, and as such brought much pleasure to these gardeners’ of all God’s country.
From that day to this, the crofter, to whom I gave the invented name ‘William Gude’, has remained a close and loyal friend to the wee folk – trusted and trusting in their good council and honesty. My hope is that in time he will introduce others of a fine heart to profit from the knowledge of the fae, such that in future days all the people of this land may truly benefit from the bountiful gifts of the Lord’s good earth.
My good host, the hour is close at hand of wisdom and tolerance amongst men, when the religious afflictions that have blighted our country, sown discourse and served hardship to the common man will be cast aside for union, improvement and harmony under God. I pray you acknowledge our Lord and the realms of His creation; and thank graciously the fae folk who stand closer to humanity than all the angels – for they truly do His bidding with honest love for the world, its nature and goodness.
Elgin author Steve Storey’s tales are largely set during the past in or around Moray.
Keith Community Radio (107.7FM) is currently broadcasting them as a series titled The Parlour Tales.
Tonight at 7.45pm a short story called The Cat an’ the Pot will be read out by Colin Smith, who’s from Alves and has performed with several theatrical groups including Elgin Amateur Dramatic Society.
The same broadcast will then be repeated at 11.45am tomorrow morning.
After that, the next scheduled episode of The Parlour Tales will be The Harmful Heirloom.
This will be read by professional actress Lesley Sim at 7.45pm on Monday, June 27, and repeated at 11.45am the following morning.
Lesley, who lives in Huntly, will also read the tale above – William Gude an’ the Fae – at 7.45pm on Monday, August 22, and again at 11.45am the following day.