In the Kingdom of
Fife, in the days of long ago, there lived an old man and his wife.
The old man was a douce, quiet body, but the old woman was lightsome
and flighty, and some of the neighbours were wont to look at her
askance, and whisper to each other that they sorely feared that she
was a Witch.
And her husband was afraid of it, too, for she had a curious habit
of disappearing in the gloaming and staying out all night; and when
she returned in the morning she looked quite white and tired, as if
she had been travelling far, or working hard.
He used to try and watch her carefully, in order to find out where
she went, or what she did, but he never managed to do so, for she
always slipped out of the door when he was not looking, and before
he could reach it to follow her, she had vanished utterly.
At last, one day, when he could stand the uncertainty no longer, he
asked her to tell him straight out whether she were a Witch or no.
And his blood ran cold when, without the slightest hesitation, she
answered that she was; and if he would promise not to let anyone
know, the next time that she went on one of her midnight expeditions
she would tell him all about it.
The Goodman promised; for it seemed to him just as well that he
should know all about his wife’s cantrips.
He had not long to wait before he heard of them. For the very next
week the moon was new, which is, as everybody knows, the time of all
others when Witches like to stir abroad; and on the first night of
the new moon his wife vanished. Nor did she return till daybreak
And when he asked her where she had been, she told him, in great
glee, how she and four like-minded companions had met at the old
Kirk on the moor and had mounted branches of the green bay tree and
stalks of hemlock, which had instantly changed into horses, and how
they had ridden, swift as the wind, over the country, hunting the
foxes, and the weasels, and the owls; and how at last they had swam
the Forth and come to the top of Bell Lomond. And how there they had
dismounted from their horses, and drunk beer that had been brewed in
no earthly brewery, out of horn cups that had been fashioned by no
And how, after that, a wee, wee man had jumped up from under a great
mossy stone, with a tiny set of bagpipes under his arm, and how he
had piped such wonderful music, that, at the sound of it, the very
trouts jumped out of the Loch below, and the stoats crept out of
their holes, and the corby crows and the herons came and sat on the
trees in the darkness, to listen. And how all the Witches danced
until they were so weary that, when the time came for them to mount
their steeds again, if they would be home before cock-crow, they
could scarce sit on them for fatigue.
The Goodman listened to this long story in silence, shaking his head
meanwhile, and, when it was finished, all that he answered was: “And
what the better are ye for all your dancing? Ye’d have been a deal
more comfortable at home.”
At the next new moon the old wife went off again for the night; and
when she returned in the morning she told her husband how, on this
occasion, she and her friends had taken cockle-shells for boats, and
had sailed away over the stormy sea till they reached Norway. And
there they had mounted invisible horses of wind, and had ridden and
ridden, over mountains and glens, and glaciers, till they reached
the land of the Lapps lying under its mantle of snow.
And here all the
Elves, and Fairies, and Mermaids of the North were holding festival
with Warlocks, and Brownies, and Pixies, and even the Phantom
Hunters themselves, who are never looked upon by mortal eyes. And
the Witches from Fife held festival with them, and danced, and
feasted, and sang with them, and, what was of more consequence, they
learned from them certain wonderful words, which, when they uttered
them, would bear them through the air, and would undo all bolts and
bars, and so gain them admittance to any place soever where they
wanted to be. And after that they had come home again, delighted
with the knowledge which they had acquired.
“What took ye to siccan a land as that?” asked the old man, with a
contemptuous grunt. “Ye would hae been a sight warmer in your bed.”
But when his wife returned from her next adventure, he showed a
little more interest in her doings.
For she told him how she and her friends had met in the cottage of
one of their number, and how, having heard that the Lord Bishop of
Carlisle had some very rare wine in his cellar, they had placed
their feet on the crook from which the pot hung, and had pronounced
the magic words which they had learned from the Elves of Lappland.
And, lo and behold! they flew up the chimney like whiffs of smoke,
and sailed through the air like little wreathes of cloud, and in
less time than it takes to tell they landed at the Bishop’s Palace
And the bolts and the bars flew loose before them, and they went
down to his cellar and sampled his wine, and were back in Fife,
fine, sober, old women by cock-crow.
When he heard this, the old man started from his chair in right
earnest, for he loved good wine above all things, and it was but
seldom that it came his way.
“By my troth, but thou art a wife to be proud of!" he cried. “Tell
me the words, Woman! and I will e’en go and sample his Lordship’s
wine for myself.”
But the Goodwife shook her head. “Na, na! I cannot do that,” she
said, “for if I did, an’ ye telled it over again, ’twould turn the
whole world upside down. For everybody would be leaving their own
lawful work, and flying about the world after other folk’s business
and other folk’s dainties. So just bide content, Goodman. Ye get on
fine with the knowledge ye already possess.” And although the old
man tried to persuade her with all the soft words he could think of,
she would not tell him her secret.
But he was a sly old man, and the thought of the Bishop’s wine gave
him no rest. So night after night he went and hid in the old woman’s
cottage, in the hope that his wife and her friends would meet there;
and although for a long time it was all in vain, at last his trouble
was rewarded. For one evening the whole five old women assembled,
and in low tones and with chuckles of laughter they recounted all
that had befallen them in Lappland. Then, running to the fireplace,
they, one after another, climbed on a chair and put their feet on
the sooty crook. Then they repeated the magic words, and, hey,
presto! they were up the lum and away before the old man could draw
his breath. .
“I can do that, too,” he said to himself; and he crawled out of his
hiding-place and ran to the fire. He put his foot on the crook and
repeated the words, and up the chimney he went, and flew through the
air after his wife and her companions, as if he had been a Warlock
And, as Witches are not in the habit of looking over their
shoulders, they never noticed that he was following them, until they
reached the Bishop’s Palace and went down into his cellar, then,
when they found that he was among them, they were not too well
However, there was no help for it, and they settled down to enjoy
themselves. They tapped this cask of wine, and they tapped that,
drinking a little of each, but not too much; for they were cautious
old women, and they knew that if they wanted to get home before
cock-crow it behoved them to keep their heads clear.
But the old man was not so wise, for he sipped, and he sipped, until
at last he became quite drowsy, and lay down on the floor and fell
And his wife, seeing this, thought that she would teach him a lesson
not to be so curious in the future. So, when she and her four
friends thought that it was time to be gone, she departed without
He slept peacefully for some hours, until two of the Bishop’s
servants, coming down to the cellar to draw wine for their Master’s
table, almost fell over him in the darkness. Greatly astonished at
his presence there, for the cellar door was fast locked, they
dragged him up to the light and shook him, and cuffed him, and asked
him how he came to be there.
And the poor old man was so confused at being awakened in this rough
way, and his head seemed to whirl round so fast, that all he could
stammer out was, “that he came from Fife, and that he had travelled
on the midnight wind.”
As soon as they heard that, the men servants cried out that he was a
Warlock, and they dragged him before the Bishop, and, as Bishops in
those days had a holy horror of Warlocks and Witches, he ordered him
to be burned alive.
When the sentence was pronounced, you may be very sure that the poor
old man wished with all his heart that he had stayed quietly at home
in bed, and never hankered after the Bishop’s wine.
But it was too late to wish that now, for the servants dragged him
out into the courtyard, and put a chain round his waist, and
fastened it to a great iron stake, and they piled faggots of wood
round his feet and set them alight.
As the first tiny little tongue of flame crept up, the poor old man
thought that his last hour had come. But when he thought that, he
forgot completely that his wife was a Witch.
For, just as the little tongue of flame began to singe his breeches,
there was a swish and a flutter in the air, and a great Grey Bird,
with outstretched wings, appeared in the sky, and swooped down
suddenly, and perched for a moment on the old man’s shoulder.
And in this Grey
Bird’s mouth was a little red pirnie, which, to everyone’s
amazement, it popped on to the prisoner’s head. Then it gave one
fierce croak, and flew away again, but to the old man’s ears that
croak was the sweetest music that he had ever heard.
For to him it was the croak of no earthly bird, but the voice of his
wife whispering words of magic to him. And when he heard them he
jumped for joy, for he knew that they were words of deliverance, and
he shouted them aloud, and his chains fell off, and he mounted in
the air —up and up—while the onlookers watched him in awestruck
He flew right away to the Kingdom of Fife, without as much as saying
good-bye to them; and when he found himself once more safely at
home, you may be very sure that he never tried to find out his
wife’s secrcts again, but left her alone to her own devices.