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a Scottish folktale retold by Cathy S. Mosley
Once, on the Isle of Mull, there lived two orphaned sisters; the one named Margaret was a fair as any could wish, while her sister, Ailsa, was as plain as the dun coloring on a milk cow. Yet it was Ailsa who had a beau in the village; as sturdy, quiet a man. So she was often away visiting he and his family, leaving Margaret to tend the cottage and to dream of far-off lands, fancy clothes, and princes that might one day rescue her.
One day, as Margaret was sweeping the stoop she looked up and gave a small cry of surprise - for without warning or sound there stood a fine-looking stranger. Broad of shoulder with thick dark hair, a face well sculpted, and good manners when he asked for a mug of cold water and place to rest his feet. Nor did Margaret waste a moment in asking him in, and not only laid out a mug of chill water but food from her pantry. His looks pleased her, as did his speech, and she was delighted when he asked if he could call again.
And that was the way of things......each time Ailsa was away the fine stranger would call; coming and going as silently as quickly as he had that first day.
So it was with no sorrow that Margaret saw her sister married off, because that meant the cottage was all her's and her lover could come as often as he could please. Her fairy lover - that she knew from the way he appeared and disappeared, and the fact that he swore her to secrecy. For if she ever breathed a word she would not see him again while she lived.
Now Ailsa, once she was settled in her home with her husband began to worry about Margaret being left alone out in the lonely cottage, and when the two sisters did meet she often urged Margaret to look for a village lad. "There are no princes here," she would say, "But many a lad with a good heart and warm hearth who'd gladly have such a lovely wife."
But Margaret would shake her head and say, "I like my cottage and my life. Don't I bloom out in the mountain air?"
There was no denying that she glowed with health and vigor, with dancing eyes and a laugh in her voice. Almost like a lass in love.
As winter drew near Ailsa worried even more, and pressed harder for her sister to find herself a husband. Till, finally, Margaret declared, "I have no need for the village lads.What do they know of love!? All they know is soil and cows and the creak of the season."
"And what do you know of love?" asked Ailsa.
"What do I know of Love?!" Margaret responded in utter exasperation, "I know it better than you do ....with her dull husband and duller life! My lover gives me kisses like passion themselves....." Then the words fell from her lips, and soon she realized what she had done. She begged her sister never to breath a word.
And this Ailsa swore. She even swore it upon the Bible.
But Ailsa had never had a secret worth keeping, and this was one that was too big for her to hold within her own soul. It was not long before she told her dear mother-in-law.
Oh how the old woman moaned and carried on, crying, "No good will come of it ....None at all......Its a doom come to the family......"
By the time Margaret returned to the village she realized, by the knowing looks her neighbors gave her, that her secret had traveled the length and breadth of the streets. The poor young woman ran home in despair and begged to the wild winds that her lover forgive her. But one week passed to two and two to three and still her lover did not cross her threshold, and she knew that she would not see him again as long as she lived.
She cried out to the wild winds, and the Fair folk, calling for their justice. That a curse be called down on her sister that neither Ailsa, or any of her kin, prosper.
More weeks went by and Aisla and her husband began to be worried when Margaret didn't come down to the village, so they traveled up to the cottage.
The cottage was chill and empty, with the door wide open and the wind blowing dry leaves about.
Soon stories traveled down from the shepherds that Margaret ran the hills - always fleeing from them.
In time poor, mad Margaret (as they now called her) was mourned, and almost forgotten amidst the joy that came to Aisla's heart - for she had given birth to a fine son, Torquil. Now Torquil grew to be far more handsome than his parents, and came to have the renown of being the best reaper in the village. And oft he was the most able to throw the sickle and cut the plaited tuft of barley, otherwise known as the Corn Dolly.
The many years passed well. Until one year when the young reapers began bringing
word of a strange event that some had seen under the light of the Autumn moon....A
maiden, black of hair and fair of skin that would step from a cairn and reap
a whole field before the first light. They
called her "Maiden of the Cairn."
Now Torquil's pride and curiosity nearly demanded that he see this maid, and one Sunday night he got his wish. He was out later than usual when he saw the Maid step from the cairn and began to work the field he had left due to the hour. Lovely she was, but she swung the sickle with strength.
"Hello!" he called, heading towards her.
But she kept reaping and calling back, "Overtake me! Overtake me!"
Thus challenged Torquil took up his own sickle and followed. Sweat poured down his face and neck, and he moved at a furious pace.
Yet it made no difference - she stayed far ahead.
His entreaties only met with, "Overtake me! Overtake me!"
At last she reached the end of the last furrow and at last seemed to be waiting for him - looking beautiful and proud in the moonlight.
Torquil rushed to finally meet her, and he saw that she had plaited the last corn for his sickle to take. Yet in his drive to catch her he had not realized that midnight had long since passed - and the day was now Monday.
He threw his sickle and cleanly cut off the Corn Dolly.
And heard the Maiden of the Cairn say, "Tis an evil thing to cut the Harvest Maid on Monday, the Day of the Moon."
Torquil fell dead with the sound of her laughter in his ears.
This tale is based on "The Sister's Curse," in Fitzroy MacLean's West Highland Tales, and refers to the ancient and widespread practise of taking the last tuft of corn in the field for the "harvest maid," or the "corn dolly." For most modern folks the plaited dolls are no more than wall decorations, but in the past these "maidens" were treated with respect; as powerful talismens of prosperity for the fields and the family.
MacLean, Fitzroy. West Highland Tales. Edinburgh: Canongate. 1985.
Vickery, Roy. Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1995.