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Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend
Chapter V. Nimble Men, Blue Men, and Green Ladies


Among the children and descendants of Beira are the Nimble Men, or Merry Dancers (Aurora Borealis), the Blue Men of the Minch, and the Green Ladies.

The Nimble Men are divided into two clans. The heroes of one clan are clad in garments white as hoar-frost, and the heroes of the other clan in garments of pale yellow. Brighter and more varied colours are worn by the ladies of the clans. Some are gowned in green, some in red, and some in silvery white, and a few wear royal purple.

On winter nights when there is peace on land and sea the Nimble Men and Merry Maidens come forth to dance in the northern sky. They are all of giant stature but comely of form, and their dances are very graceful. The men bow to the maids and the maids curtsy to the men, and when the dance is at its height some of the men leap high and whirl round about, so merry do they become. Fairy pipers play enchanting music while the merry couples dance across the northern sky.

There was once a prince of the White Clan of Nimble Men, and his name was Light Foot. He loved the Princess Comely, who was the fairest of all the Merry Maidens, and he had a rival named Green Eyes, the chief of the Yellow Clan. Princess Comely liked best to dance with Light Foot, because among the Nimble Men he was without an equal as a dancer.

One dark night when the mountains were white with new-fallen snow and the valleys ;listened with hoar-frost, all the northern sky was lit up in splendour by the Nimble Men and Merry Maidens, who came out to dance in honour of Queen Beira. It was the first great gathering of the winter season, and all the dancers were clad in new and dazzling garments. They began to dance soon after darkness set in, and it was nigh to midnight ere they sank down to rest.

Princess Comely had danced all the time with Light Foot, and when she sat down he knelt before her, whispering softly: "Fairest of the fair, O be my bride!"

Said Princess Comely: "Your bride I shall be."

The words were heard by Green Eyes, who was crouching near at hand. His heart was filled with anger, and leaping up, he called upon the members of his clan to draw their swords and fight Light Foot and his followers. Then all was confusion. The warriors of both clans sprang at one another, brandishing their gleaming weapons. Up leapt Light Foot to fight against Green Eyes. Rising to full stature he darted across the sky to smite him down. Up leapt the Princess Comely and all the maidens, and ran away shrieking. Then a battle royal began to rage between the rival clans. The sound of swords striking swords reached the earth, and seemed like the rustling of frosty twigs when the wind rises suddenly and scampers through the forest.

For hours the fearsome fight was waged with fury, and men and women came forth to watch it with wonder and in silence. They saw the warriors leaping white with anger. Hard and swift were the blows, and many were slain. At length below the feet of the Nimble Men there appeared a cloud which was red with the blood that flowed from many wounds received in the battle royal. From the sky the blood drops fell like dew on the green stones of the mountain, which were thus for ever stained with red spots. That is why the red-speckled green stones are called "blood stones".

When the night was almost spent, Princess Comely returned to the battle-ground, and found that the conflict had cone to an end. As she drew near, a few wounded warriors rose up and staggered away. She began to search among the fallen warriors for Light Foot, and at length she found him lying cold and dead. A cry of sorrow broke from her lips, and was wafted towards the earth on the first breath of dawn. Those who heard it knew then that the prophecy of the Seer was being fulfilled, and they sang the song he had made:

When yon lady seeks her lover
In the cold and pearly morn,
She will find that he has fallen
By the hand that she did scorn.
She will clasp her arms about him
And in her anguish die -
Oh, never again will trip the twain across the Northern Sky!

The Blue Men are found only in the Minch, and chiefly in the strait which lies between the Island of Lewis and the Shant Isles (the charmed islands), and is called the "Sea-stream of the Blue Men". They are not giants, like the Nimble Men, but of human size, and they have great strength. By day and by night they swim round and between the Shant Isles, and the sea there is never at rest. The Blue Men wear blue caps and have grey faces which appear above the waves that they raise with their long restless arms. In summer weather they skim lightly below the surface, but when the wind is high they revel in the storm and swim with heads erect, splashing the waters with mad delight. Sometimes they are seen floating from the waist out of the sea, and sometimes turning round like porpoises as they dive.

Here is a boatman's song about the Blue Men:

When the tide is at the turning and the wind is fast asleep,
And not a wave is curling on the wide, blue deep,
Oh, the waters will be churning in the stream that never smiles,
Where the Blue Men are splashing round the charmed isles.

As the summer wind goes droning o'er the sun-bright seas,
And the Minch is all a-dazzle to the Hebrides,
They will skim along like salmon—you can see their shoulders gleam,
And the flashing of their fingers in the Blue Men's Stream.

But when the blast is raving and the wild tide races,
The Blue Men are breast-high with foam-grey faces
They'll plunge along with fury while they sweep the spray behind,
Oh, they'll bellow o'er the billows and wail upon the wind.

And if my boat be storm-toss'd and beating for the hay,
They 'll be howling and be growling as they drench it with the spray
For they'd like to heel it over to their laughter when it lists,
Or crack the keel between them, or stave it with their fists.

Oh, weary on the Blue Men, their anger and their wiles!
The whole day long, the whole night long, they 're splashing round the isles;
They'll follow every fisher—ah! they'll haunt the fisher's dream
When billows toss, Oh, who would cross the Blue Ken's Stream!

In days of old the "Blue Men's Stream " was sometimes called "The Current of Destruction", because so many ships were swamped in it. The people blamed the Blue Men, who dwelt in caves, they said, at the bottom of the sea. Their sentinels were always on the look-out, and when a vessel came in sight, word was sent to the men in the caves to come up. Sailors were afraid of them, and many sailed round the Shant Islands instead of taking the short cut between these and the big Island of Lewis.

When the chief of the Blue Men had all his men gathered about him, ready to attack a ship, he rose high in the water and shouted to the skipper two lines of poetry, and if the skipper did not reply at once by adding two lines to complete the verse, the Blue Men seized the ship and upset it. Many a ship was lost in days of old because the skipper had no skill at verse.

True is the Gaelic saying, however: "There comes with time what comes not with weather".

One day, when the wind was high and the billows rough and angry, the Blue Men saw a stately ship coming towards their sea-stream under white sails. Royally she cleft her way through the waves. The sentinels called to the blue fellows who were on the sea floor, and as they rose they wondered to see the keel pass overhead so swiftly. Some seized it and shook it as if to try their strength, and were astonished to find it so steady and heavy. It carried on straight as a spear in flight.

The chief of the Blue Men bobbed up in front of the ship, and, when waist-high among the tumbling waves, shouted to the skipper:

Alan of the black cap, what do you say
As your proud ship cleaves the brine?

No sooner were the words spoken than the skipper answered:-

My speedy ship takes the shortest way,
And I'll follow you line by line.

This was at once an answer and a challenge, and the chief of the Blue Men cried angrily:

My men are eager, my men are ready
To drag you below the waves.

The skipper answered defiantly in a loud voice:

My ship is speedy, my ship is steady,
If it sank it would wreck your caves.

The chief of the Blue Men was worsted. Never before had a seaman answered him so promptly and so well. He had no power to injure the ship, because the skipper was as good a bard as he was himself, and he knew that if he went on shouting half-verses until the storm spent itself the skipper would always complete them. He signalled to his followers to dive; and down below the wave ridges they all vanished, like birds that dive for fish. The big ship went on proudly and safely under snow-white, wind-tight sails while-

The sea-wind through the cordage sang
With high and wintry merriment.

Once upon a time some fishermen who were crossing the "Sea-stream of the Blue Men" in calm weather found one of the blue fellows sleeping on the surface. They seized him, and, lifting him into the boat, bound him tightly with a rope. He slept so soundly that although the fishermen let him fall out of their hands he did not awake.

They resolved to take him to the shore, but they had not ;one far when two Blue Men bobbed above the clear waters and shouted:

Duncan will be one, Donald will be two,
Will you need another ere you reach the shore?

The skipper of the boat was about to shout two lines in reply, but, before he could speak, the Blue Man in the boat opened his eyes, and with a quick movement he snapped the rope that bound him as easily as if it had been only an oat straw, and answered:—

Duncan's voice I hear, Donald too is near,
But no need of helpers has strong Ian More.

As he spoke he leapt out of the boat into the sea. That was how the fishermen came to know that all the Blue Men have names of their own.

The Green Ladies are different from the fairies, who are called "Wee Folk", for, like the Blue Men, they are of human size. Some of them are withered old hags, resembling Beira in the winter season, and some of them are as fair as Beira in her summer girlhood. They have power to change their forms at will. A Green Lady may sometimes deceive a traveller by appearing before him in the form of his lady-love, and, after speaking to him for a time, turn away with mocking laughter and vanish from sight. Perhaps, too, she may appear as a dog, and torment shepherds by driving their sheep hither and thither in wild confusion.

Each Green Lady lives alone in a solitary place, either below a river or waterfall or in a green knoll, a forest, or a deep ravine. One is rarely seen in daytime. The Green Lady wanders about in the dusk- of late evening, in moonlight, or in darkness. She is ever a deceiver, and woe to the traveller who has not the knowledge how to overcome her spells, for she may drown him at a river ford or lead him over the edge of a precipice. It is difficult to fight against her, for if she asks a man what weapon he has, and he names it, she can, by working magic, make the weapon quite harmless.

One evening a smith was riding homeward from battle on his horse, and when it was growing dusk he reached a ford. Suddenly a Green Lady rose out of the water in front of him.

"Stop!" she cried; "you cannot ride across."

Said the man: "Begone! O evil one, or I shall smite you."

"What have you to fight with?" she asked.

Said the man: "I have my sword."

Immediately he named his sword it lost its power to do her injury.

The Green Lady laughed mockingly, and then asked: "What else have you to fight with?"

Said the man: "I have my spear."

When he named the spear it became as useless as the sword.

The Green Lady laughed again, a shrill mocking laugh. "Have you room for a rider behind you?" she asked.

Said the man: "Yes, and there is room also for a rider in front."

As he spoke he seized the Green Lady, lifted her up in front of him, threw the reins over her head, and said: "Now I have you in my power."

"You will never leave the ford," she answered, "because your sword and spear have been made useless to you."

Said the man: "I have still one weapon left."

"Which one is that?" she asked.

Said the smith: "The sharp bright weapon against my leg."

He meant the dirk in his right stocking, but as he did not mention its name, the Green Lady could not make it useless.

"Then I will leave you," cried the lady in alarm.

Said the smith: "You cannot leave me until I choose to let you go. The reins are about you, and you cannot move beyond them, for the magic power has now been taken from you and has passed to me."

The Green Lady knew well that this was so. She knew also that she would have to do whatever the man ordered her to do before he would set her free.

The horse was urged forward by the smith, and the ford was crossed in safety. Then the animal trotted across the moor as the moon rose over the hills, shining fair and bright.

"Let me go," the Green Lady cried, "and I shall give you a herd of speckled cattle."

Said the man: "You will have to give me a herd of cattle, but still I shall not let you go."

The horse went on, and the Green Lady wept tears of sorrow and anger.

"Let me go," she cried, "and I shall build for you to-night a house which fire will not burn nor water or storm wind injure, and it shall be charmed against all evil beings."

The man reined up his horse, and said: "Fulfil your promise, and I shall set you free."

He dismounted, and the Green Lady dismounted also. The smith tied the reins round her, and repeated his command.

"Your wish will be fulfilled," she said.

Then the Green Lady uttered a loud cry, which was heard over seven hills. The cry was repeated over and over again by Big Angus of the Rock (Echo), a lonely spirit who is at everyone's service. Big Angus is a son of Beira, and it is told he was wont to cause his mother much trouble by contradicting her orders and giving orders of his own, for he desired to be King of the Universe, although he was weak-minded and light-headed. To punish him, Beira shut him inside a rock, and compelled him ever after to repeat any words that were said in his hearing. Ever since that day Big Angus has had to repeat over and over again everything he hears in his lonely rocky prison.

So Big Angus repeated the cry of the Green Lady, which was a command to fairies and goblins to come to her aid. As these little people fear all Green Ladies, they answered her cry without delay. They came from the hill-tops and from inside cliffs, from green knolls in lonely moors and deep forests, and from every other haunt they loved. Those that were dancing ceased to dance, and those that were setting out on journeys turned back. They crossed the moors jumping like crickets, and came through the air like birds and gathered round the Green Lady, waiting to obey her.

She set them to work at once to hew wood and gather stones. They cut down trees in the Rowan Wood, and quarried stones below a waterfall. As they went on working, the Green Lady cried out:-

Two stones over one stone,
One stone over two stones
Work speedily, work speedily—
Bring every timber from the wood
But mulberry, but mulberry.

The house was built very quickly. Across the moor the fairies stood in two rows—one row from the house to the waterfall and one from the house to the Rowan Wood. The stones that were quarried were passed along from hand to hand, and so were the pieces of timber that were hewed down and sawed and dressed.

When the dawn was beginning to appear in the eastern sky the house was ready, and all the fairies and goblins vanished from sight.

"Set me free," cried the Green Lady.

The smith said: "I shall set you free when you have promised not to do me any injury."

"I promise that readily," said she.

Said the smith: "Promise also that neither I nor my children will ever be drowned by you in the fords of the three rivers."

He named the rivers he referred to. They all flowed near his home.

The Green Lady promised that also. Then the smith set her free, and she cried: "You have not named the fourth river. Let you and your children beware!"

As she spoke she went past the smith like a green flame. He never again saw her, but seven years afterwards one of his sons was drowned in the ford of the fourth river he had not named, and then he knew that the Green Lady had taken her revenge.

Other Green Ladies have made friends with certain families, and have kept watch over their houses, shielding them from harm. Once a poor fisherman lost his boat, and sat down on the beach at a river mouth lamenting his fate. A Green Lady appeared before him, and said: "If I give you a new boat will you divide your fish with me?"

Said the fisherman: "I promise to do so."

Next morning he found a new boat lying on the beach. He went out to sea and caught many fish. When he returned to the shore he left half of his catch on a green knoll on the river bank. The Green Lady was well pleased, and helped the man to prosper.

One evening, however, he left no fish for her. He went out to sea next day as usual, but did not catch anything. Sad was his heart when he returned home empty-handed, but it was even sadder next morning when he found that his boat had been smashed to pieces during the night in a storm which had risen suddenly and raged until daybreak. He never again saw the Green Lady, and he had reason to be sorry that he had not kept his bargain with her.

There was once a Green Lady who received favours from a bold pirate whose name was Mac Ean Yeer. She kept watch over him on sea and land, so that he was always able to escape from those who pursued him. The Green Lady advised him to paint one side of his boat black and the other side white, so that watchers on the shore would see a black boat passing to the north and a white boat passing to the south, and thus be deceived, thinking the boat which went out to attack a galley was not the same one as they saw returning. In time when the people came to know the trick, they said of deceitful persons:

He's black on one side and white on the other,
Like the boat of Mac Ean Yeer.

Mac Ean lived to be an old man, and when he died in Islay the Green Lady shrieked aloud and passed northward. The shriek was heard in Mull, and ere the echoes died away she had reached the Coolin Hills in Skye.


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