From Mrs MacGeachy, Islay.
BEFORE this there was a king, and he wished to see his son with a wife before she should depart. His son said he had better go for a wife; and he gave him half a hundred pounds to get her. He went forward in to a hostelry to stay in it. He went down to a chamber with a good fire in front of him; and when he had gotten meat, the man of the house went down to talk to him. He told the man of the house the journey on which he was. The man of the house told him he need not go further; that there was a little house opposite to his sleeping chamber that the man of the house had three fine daughters; and if he would stand in the window of his chamber in the morning, that he would see one after another coming to dress herself. That they were all like each other, and that he could not distinguish one from the other, but that the eldest
had a mole. That many were going to ask for them, but that none got them, because whoever wished for one, must tell whether the one he liked best was younger or older; and if he made her out, that she would cost him a hundred pounds. "I have but half a hundred," said the king's son. "I will give thee another half hundred," said the man of the house, "if thou wilt pay me at the end of a day and a year; and if thou dost not pay me, a strip of skin shall come from the top of thy head to the sole of thy foot."
On the morrow when he rose he went to the window; he saw the girls coming to dress themselves; and after meat in the morning, he went over to the house of their father. When he went in he was taken down to a chamber, and the man of the house went down to talk to him. He told the journey on which he was, and he said to him, "They tell me that thou hast three fine daughters." "I have that same, but I am afraid that it is not thou who wilt buy them." "I will give them a trial, at all events," said he. The three were sent down before him, and it was said to him "Whether she, the one he liked best, was the elder or younger." He thought he would take the one with the mole, because he knew she was the eldest. She then was much pleased that it was she herself he was for. He asked her father how much she would be, and her father said she would be a hundred pounds. He bought her and he took her to the house, of his father, and the married. Shortly after they married his father departed.
A day or two after the death of the old king the young king was out hunting; he saw a great ship coming in to the strand; lie went down to ask the captain what be had on board. The captain said,
[paragraph continues] "That he had a cargo of silk." Thou must," said he, "give me a gown of the best silk thou hast for my wife." "Indeed!" said the captain, "thou must have an exceedingly good wife when thou must have a gown of the best silk I have on board." "I have that," said the king, "a wife many of whose equals are not to be got." "Wilt thou lay a wager," said the captain, "that with all her goodness I will not get leave to enter thy chamber?" "I will lay a wager, anything thou desiredst, that thou wilt not." "What wager wilt thou lay?" said the captain. "I will put the heirship in pledge," said the king. Said the captain: "I will put all the silk in ship in pledge to thee that I will." The captain came on shore and the king went on board.
The captain went where the hen-wife was, to try if she could make any way to get in with to king's chamber that night. The hen-wife thought a while, and she said "That she did not think that there was any way that would succeed." The captain rose here, and he was going. "Stop thou!" said she, "I have thought on a way: her maid servant and I are well with each other; I will say to her that I have got word from a sister of mine that I will scarce find her alive; I will say to the king's wife that I must go to see my sister; that I have a big kist, of good worth, and I should like if she would oblige me and let it into her own sleeping chamber till I come back." She went where the queen was, she asked her this, and she got leave. Here the captain was put into the kist, and the king's gillies were gathered, and the kist put in the chamber. The king's wife was within by herself wearying, for the king was not coming home. At last she went to bed; when she was going to bed she put a
gold ring that was on her finger, and a gold chain that was about her neck, on a board that was opposite to the bed. When the man who was in the kist thought that she had time to be asleep, he rose and he took with him the chain and the ring, and he went into the kist again. At the mouth of day came the hen-wife to ask for the kist; the gillies were gathered, and the kist was taken down. When every one went from the house, as soon as he could, the captain rose and he went down to the ship; he shook the chain and the ring at the king. Then the king thought that the captain had been with his wife, or that he could not have the chain and ring. He said to the captain, "Would he put him over to the other side of the loch?" The captain, said, "That he would." When the captain got him over he returned himself, and he went to dwell in the king's house. Then the king's wife did not know what to do with herself, for that the king had not come home. She went that day and she dressed herself in man's clothes, and she went down to the strand; she met with a boat, and she said to them, "Would they put her over on the other side?" They put her over, and she went on forward till she reached the house of a gentleman; she struck in the door, and the maid servant came down. She said to her, "Did she know if her master wanted a stable gillie?" The maid servant said, "That she did not know, but that she would ask." The maid servant went and she asked her master if he wanted a stable gillie. He said, "He did;" and he asked that he should come in; he engaged her, and she stayed working about the stable. There was a herd of wild beasts coming every night, and going into an empty barn that the gentleman had; a wild man after them, and
his face covered with beard. She kept asking her master to send a man with her, and that they would catch him. Her master said, "That he would not; that they had no business with them; and that he had not done any harm to them." She went out one night by herself, and she stole with her the key of the barn door; she lay hid in a hole till the wild man and the beasts went in; she took with her the gillies, and they caught the wild man. They brought him in and they took off his beard; when the beard came off him she knew him, but she took no notice; and he did not know her. On the morrow he was about to go, but she spoke to her master to keep him; that the work was too heavy on her, and that she needed help. Her master ordered her to keep him. She kept him with her, and he himself and she were cleaning the stable.
A short time after this she spoke to her master for leave to go home on a trip to see her friends. Her master gave her leave. She said she would like well to have her gillie with her, and the two best horses that were in the stable.
When they went, she was questioning him by the way what had made him go with these wild beasts; or what be was at before the day. He would not tell her anything. They went on forward till they came to the hostelry where he had got the half hundred pounds. When she set her face down to the house, he refused to go into it. She said to him, "Did he do anything wrong, as he was refusing to go into it." He said, "That he had got half a hundred pounds from the man of the house." She said to him, "Had he paid them;" and he said, "That he had not paid, and that a strip of skin was to come from the top of his head to the sole of his foot, if it was not paid at
the end of a day and a year." She said, "It would be well deserved; but that she was going to stay the night in the hostelry, and that she must go down." She asked him to put the horses into the stable, and they went in to the hostelry. He was standing in the door of the stable, and his head was bent. The man of the house came out, and he saw him. "My big gillie, I have thee here," said the man of the house; "art thou going to pay me to-day?" "I am not," said he. Then he went in, and they were going to begin to cut the strip of skin. She heard the noise, and she asked what they were going to do to her gillie. They said, "They were going to cut a strip of skin off him from his crown to his sole." "If that was to be done," said she, "he was not to lose a drop of blood; send up here a web of linen, let him stand on it, and if a drop of blood comes out of him, another strip of skin shall come off thee." Here there was nothing for it but to let him go; they could not make anything of it. Early on the morrow she took him over with her to the house of her father. If he was against going to the hostelry the night before, he was seven times as much when going to her father's house. "Didst thou do harm here too, as thou art against going in?" "I got a wife here such a time since." "What came of her?" "I don't know." No wonder whatever happens to thee, thou hast only to put up with all that comes thy way." When her father saw him, he said: "I have thee here! Where is thy wife?" "I don't know where she is." "What didst thou to her?" said her father. He could not tell what he had done to her. Now there was nothing to be done but to hang him to a tree. There was to be a great day about the hanging, and a great
many gentlemen were to come to see it. She asked her father what they were going to do to her gillie. Her father said, "That they were going to hang him; he bought a wife from me, and he does not know what has happened to her." She went out to see the gentles coming in to the town; she asked of the one of the finest horse, what was his worth. "Five score," said he. "Though he were five hundreds, he's mine," said she. She told her servant to put a shot in the horse. She asked her father if he had paid for his wife. He said he had paid. "If he paid," said she, "thou hast no business with him, he might do what he liked with her; I bought the finest horse that came into the town to-day; I made my gillie put a shot in him, and who dares to say that it is ill." Here there was nothing to be done but to let him loose. They could do nothing to him because he had bought her.
Here she went in to her father's house, and she told one of her sisters to give her a gown. "What art thou going to do with a gown?" said she. "Never mind, if I spoil it I'll pay for it." When she put on the gown her father and sisters knew her. Her father and sisters told him that it was she was with him, and he did not believe them. She put off the woman's clothes and put on the man's clothes again. They went, herself and he; they went on forward till they were near his own old house. "Now," said she, "we will stay here to-night; do thou sit at the top of the stair, and thou shalt set down all the talk that I and the man of the house will have." When they went in and sat, she and the man of the house began to talk together. "I thought," said she to the captain, "that a king was dwelling here; how didst thou get it?" He was that who was here before; but I am thinking, as
thou art a stranger, that I may tell thee how I got it." " Thou mayest," said she, "I will not make a tale of thee, the matter does not touch me." He told her every turn, how the hen wife had put him in the kist, and the rest of the matter, to the going of the king on the morrow.
Very early on the morrow the man of the house was going to court: he said to her "That if she was not in a hurry to go away, that she might go with him to listen to the court." She said "she would be willing, and she would like well that her gillie should be with her." She went in the coach with the captain, and her gillie rode after her. When the court was over she said, "That she had got a word or two to say, if it were their pleasure to let her speak." They said to her, "To let them hear what she had to say." She said to her gillie, "Rise up and give them the paper thou wrotest last night." When they read the paper, she said, "What should be done to that man?" "Hang him, if he were here," said they.
"There you have him," said she, "do with him what you will." Herself and the king got back to their own house, and they were as they were before.
This was written, April 1859, by Hector MacLean, "from the dictation of Catherine Milloy, a Cowal woman, married to a mer at Kilmeny, Islay--one Angus MacGeachy. Mrs.
[paragraph continues] MacGeachy learned the story from a young man who resides in Cowal, Robert MacColl."
May 1860.--No other version of this story has come to me as yet. It resembles Cymbeline in some of the incidents; and one incident, that of the blood, is like Portia's defence in the Jew of Venice. It is worth remark that the scene of Cymbeline is partly laid in Britain, partly in Italy.
In the Decameron, 2nd day, novel 9, is the Italian story from which Cymbeline is supposed to have originated. "Bernard of Genoa is imposed upon by one Ambrose, loses his money, and orders his wife, who is quite innocent, to be put to death. She makes her escape, and goes in man's dress into the service of the Sultan; there she meets with the deceiver, and, sending for her husband to Alexandria, has him punished; she then resumes her former habit, and returns with her husband rich to Genoa."
In the Decameron, the Italian merchants dispute at Paris, and lay a bet. "A poor woman who frequented the house," replaces the Gaelic "Hen wife." The man who was hid in the chest took a ring, a girdle, a purse, and a gown, and in the Gaelic he takes a ring and a chain. The wife disguises herself as a man in both, but the service which she undertakes is different; and "the Sultan" is replaced by "a gentleman." In both stories she discloses the cheat in open Court,--in the one, before "the Sultan's court;" in the other, "in a court"--"to them." But though there are such resemblances, the two stories differ widely in spirit, in incident, in scene, and in detail. Those who hold that old stories are handed down traditionally, will probably consider this to be one of the kind; and if so, Shakspeare may have gathered his incidents at home. On the other hand, so well known a book as the Decameron, translated into English, 1566, might well account for part of the story.
In either case it is curious to trace the resemblance and the difference in these three versions of what appears to be the same popular tale; told by Boccaccio, Shakspeare, and a farmer's wife in the Highlands. If traditional, the story would seem to belong to a forgotten state of society. It is not now the custom to buy a wife, and thereby acquire the right to shoot her; and yet this right is insisted on, and acknowledged, and the story hinges on it. It seems that the Gauls had the power of life and death over their families, and that there was a custom very like the purchase of a wife among the old Icelanders.
There used to be, and probably there still are, certain ceremonies about betrothals, both in Norway and in the Highlands, which look like the remains of some such forgotten practice.
In the Highlands, a man used to go on the part of the bridegroom to settle the dower with the bride's father, or some one who acted for him. They argued the point, and the argument gave rise to much fun and rough wit. For example, here is one bit of such a discussion, of which I remember to have heard long ago.
"This is the youngest and the last, she must be the worst; you must give me a large dower, or I will not take her."
"Men always sell the shots first when they can; this is the best--I should give no dower at all."
The first knotty point settled, and the wedding day fixed, the bridegroom, before the wedding day, sent a best man and maid to look after the bride, and gathered all his friends at home. The bride also gathered her friends, and her party led the way to church, the bride was supported by the best-man and best-maid, and a piper played before them. The bridegroom's party marched first on the way home; and then there was a jollification, and a ball, and some curious ceremonies with a stocking.
The strip of skin to be cut from the debtor is mentioned in other stories; and I believe such a mode of torture can be traced amongst the Scandinavians who once owned the Western Islands.
In another story which I have heard, a man was to be punished by cutting IALL, a thong, from his head to his heels, another from his forehead to his feet, a thong to tie them, and a thong to make all fast.
TIGH-OSDA' is the word commonly used for an inn. It is probably derived from the same root as Hostelry Spanish, Osdal; French, Hôtel.
SEOMBAR is pronounced almost exactly like the French chambre--the only difference being that between the French a and the Gaelic o.
SEARBHANNT is very near the French servante.