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Book of Scottish Story
Elphin Irving, the Fairies' Cupbearer

By Allan Cunningham


The romantic vale of Corriewater, in Annandale, is regarded by the inhabitants, a pastoral and unmingled people, as the last border refuge of those beautiful and capricious beings, the fairies. Many old people, yet living, imagine they have had intercourse of good words and good deeds with the " gude folk ;" and continue to tell that in the ancient days the fairies danced on the hill, and revelled in the glen, and showed themselves, like the mysterious children of the Deity of old, among the sons and daughters of men. Their visits to the earth were periods of joy and mirth to mankind, rather than of sorrow and apprehension. They played on musical instruments of wonderful sweetness and variety of note, spread unexpected feasts, the supernatural flavour of which overpowered on many occasions the religious scruples of the Presbyterian shepherds, performed wonderful deeds of horsemanship, and marched in midnight processions, when the sound of their elfin minstrelsy charmed youths and maidens into love for their persons and pursuits ; and more than one family of Corriewater have the fame of augmenting the numbers of the elfin chivalry. Faces of friends and relatives, long since doomed to the battle trench, or the deep sea, have been recognised by those who dared to gaze on the fairy march. The maid has seen her lost lover, and the mother her stolen child ; and the courage to plan and achieve their deliverance has been possessed by, at least, one border maiden. In the legends of the people of Corrievale, there is a singular mixture of chin and human adventure, and the traditional story of the Cupbearer to the Queen of the Fairies appeals alike to our domestic feelings and imagination.

In one of the little green loops or bends, on the banks of Corriewater, mouldered walls, and a few stunted wild plum-trees and vagrant roses, still point out the site of a cottage and garden. A well of pure spring-water leaps out from an old tree-root before the door ; and here the shepherds, shading themselves in summer from the influence of the sun, tell to their children the wild tale of Elphin Irving and his sister Phemie; and, singular as the story seems, it has gained full credence among the people where the scene is laid.

"I ken the tale and the place weel,” interrupted an old woman, who, from the predominance of scarlet in her apparel, seemed to have been a follower of the camp; " I ken them weel, and the tale’s as true as a bullet to its aim, and a spark to powder. Oh, bonnie Corriewater! a thousand times have I pu’ed gowans on its banks wi’ ane that lies stiff and stark on a foreign shore in a bloody grave :” and sobbing audibly, she drew the remains of a military cloak over her face, and allowed the story to proceed.

When Elphin Irving and his sister Phemie were in their sixteenth year (for tradition says they were twins, their father was drowned in Corriewater, attempting to save his sheep from a sudden swell, to which all mountain streams are liable; and their mother, on the day of her husband’s burial, laid down her head on the pillow, from which, on the seventh day, it was lifted to be dressed for the same grave. The inheritance left to the orphans may be briefly described: seventeen acres of plough and pasture land, seven milk cows, and seven pet sheep (many old people take delight in odd numbers) ; and to this may be added seven bonnet pieces of Scottish gold, and a broadsword and spear, which their ancestor had wielded with such strength and courage in the battle of Dryfe-sands, that the minstrel who sang of that deed of arms ranked him only second to the Scotts and the Johnstones.

The youth and his sister grew in stature and in beauty. The brent bright brow, the clear blue eye, and frank and blithe deportment of the former, gave him some influence among the young women of the valley; while the latter was no less the admiration of the young men, and at fair and dance, and at bridal, happy was he who touched but her hand, or received the benediction of her eye. Like all other Scottish beauties, she was the theme of many a song; and while tradition is yet busy with the singular history of her brother, song has taken all the care that rustic minstrelsy can of the gentleness of her spirit, and the charms of her person.

"Now I vow," exclaimed a wandering piper, "by mine own honoured instrument, and by all other instruments that ever yielded music for the joy and delight of mankind, that there are more bonnie songs made about fair Phemie Irving than about all the other maidens of Annandale, and many of them are both high and bonnie. A proud lass maun she be, if her spirit hears ; and men say the dust lies not insensible of beautiful verse ; for her charms are breathed through a thousand sweet lips, and no farther gone than yester morn, I heard a lass singing on a green hillside what I shall not readily forget. If ye like to listen, ye shall judge; and it will not stay the story long nor mar it much, for it is short, and about Phemie Irving." And accordingly he chanted the following rude verses, not unaccompanied by his honoured instrument, as he called his pipe, which chimed in with great effect, and gave richness to a voice which felt better than it could express :—-

Gay is thy glen, Corrie,
`With all thy groves flowering:
Green is thy glen, Corrie,
When July is showering;
And sweet is yon wood, where
The small birds are bowering,
And there dwells the sweet one
Whom I am adoring.

Her round neck is whiter
Than winter when snowing ;
Her meek voice is milder
Than Ae in its flowing;
The glad ground yields music
Where she goes by the river ;
One kind glance would charm me
For ever and ever.

The proud and the wealthy
To Phemie are bowing ;
No looks of love win they
With sighing or suing ;
Far away maun I stand
With my rude wooing,
She’s a flow’ret too lovely
To bloom for my pu’ing—

O were I yon violet
On which she is walking ;
O were I yon small bird
To which she is talking ;
Or yon rose in her hand,
With its ripe ruddy blossom ;
Or some pure gentle thought,
To be blest with her bosom !

This minstrel interruption, while it established Phemie lrving’s claim to grace and to beauty, gave me additional confidence to pursue the story.

But minstrel skill and true love tale seemed to want their usual influence, when they sought to win her attention; she was only observed to pay most respect to those youths who were most beloved by her brother; and the same hour that brought these twins to the world, seemed to have breathed through them a sweetness and an affection of heart and mind, which nothing could divide. If, like the virgin queen of the immortal poet, she walked " in maiden meditation fancy free," her brother Elphin seemed alike untouched with the charms of the fairest virgins in Corrie. He ploughed his field, he reaped his grain, he leaped, he ran and wrestled, and danced and sang, with more skill and life and grace than all other youths of the district ; but he had no twilight and stolen interviews. When all other young men had their loves by their side, he was single, though not unsought ; and his joy seemed never perfect save when his sister was near him. If he loved to share his time with her, she loved to share her time with him alone, or with the beasts of the field, or the birds of the air. She watched her little flock late, and she tended it early; not for the sordid love of the fleece, unless it was to make mantles for her brother, but with the look of one who had joy in its company. The very wild creatures, the deer and the hares, seldom sought to shun her approach, and the bird forsook not its nest, nor stinted its song, when she drew nigh; such is the confidence which maiden innocence and beauty inspire.

It happened one summer, about three years after they became orphans, that rain had been for a while withheld from the earth ; the hillsides began to parch, the grass in the vales to wither, and the stream of Corrie was diminished between its banks to the size of an ordinary rill. The shepherds drove their flocks to rnoorlands, and marsh and tarn had their reeds invaded by the scythe, to supply the cattle with food. The sheep of his sister were Elphin’s constant care; he drove them to the moistest pastures during the day, and he often watched them at midnight, when flocks, tempted by the sweet dewy grass, are known to ‘ browse eagerly, that he might guard them from the fox, and lead them to the choicest herbage. In these nocturnal watchings he sometimes drove his little flock over the water of Corrie, for the fords were hardly ankle-deep; or permitted his sheep to cool themselves in the stream, and taste the grass which grew along the brink. All this time not a drop of rain fell, nor did a cloud appear in the sky.

One evening during her brother’s absence with the flock, Phemie sat at her cottage door, listening to the bleatings of the distant folds, and the lessened murmur of the water of Corrie, now scarcely audible beyond its banks. Her eyes, weary with watching along the accustomed line of road for the return of Elphin, were turned on the pool beside her, in which the stars were glimmering fitful and faint. As she looked, she imagined the water grew brighter and brighter; a wild illumination presently shone upon the pool, and leaped from bank to bank, and, suddenly changing into a human form, ascended the margin, and passing her, glided swiftly into the cottage. The visionary form was so like her brother in shape and air, that, starting up, she flew into the house, with ;he hope of finding him in his customary seat. She found him not; and impressed with the terror which a wraith or apparition seldom fails to inspire, she uttered a shriek so loud and so piercing is to be heard at Johnstonebank, on the other side of the vale of Corrie.

An old woman now rose suddenly from her seat in the window-sill, the living dread of shepherds, for she travelled the country with a brilliant reputation for witchcraft, and thus she broke in upon the narrative : " I vow, young man, ye tell us the truth upset and downthrust ; I heard my douce grandmother say that on the night when Elphin Irvlng, disappeared--disappeared, I shall call it, for the bairn can but be gone for a season, to return to us in his own appointed time,— she was seated at the fireside at Johnstonebank; the laird had laid aside his bonnet to take the Book, when a shriek mair loud, believe me, than a mere woman’s shriek, —-and they can shriek loud enough, else they’re' sair wranged,—-came over the water of Corrie, so sharp and shrilling, that the pewter plates dinnelled on the wall; such a shriek, my douce grandmother said, as rang in her ear till the hour of her death, and she lived till she was aughty and aught, forty full ripe years after the event. But there is another matter, which, doubtless, I cannot compel ye to believe; it was the common rumour that Elphin Irving came not into the world like the other sinful creatures of the earth, but was one of the Kane-bairns of the fairies, whilk they had to pay to the enemy of man’s salvation every seventh year. The poor lady fairy, —a mother’s aye a mother, be she elf’s flesh or Eve’s flesh,—hid her elf son beside the christened flesh in Marion Irving’s cradle, and the auld enemy lost his prey for a time. Now hasten on with your storv, which is not a bodle the waur for me. The maiden saw the shape of her brother, fell into a faint or a trance, and the neighbours came flocking in. Gang on wi’ your tale, young man, and dinna be affronted because an auld woman helped ye wi’ it.”

It is hardly known, I resumed, how long Phemie Irving continued in a state of insensibility. The morning was far advanced, when a neighbouring maiden found her seated in an old chair, as white as monumental marble; her hair, about which she had always been solicitous, loosened from its curls, and hanging disordered over her neck and bosom, her hands and forehead. The maiden touched the one and kissed the other; they were as cold as snow ; and her eyes, wide open, were fixed on her brother’s empty chair, with the intensity of gaze of one who had witnessed the appearance of a spirit. She seemed insensible of any one’s presence, and sat fixed, and still, and motionless. The maiden, alarmed at her looks, thus addressed her: " Phemie, lass, Phemie Irving! Dear me, but this is awful ! I have come to tell ye that seven o’ yer pet sheep have escaped drowning in the water; for Corrie, sae quiet and sae gentle yestreen, is rolling and dashing frae bank to bank this morning. Dear me, woman, dinna let the loss o’ the world’s gear bereave ye of your senses. I would rather make ye a present of a dozen mug ewes of the Tinwald brood mysel ; and now I think on’t, if ye’ll send ower Elphin, I will help him hame with them in the gloaming mysel. So Phemie, woman, be comforted.”

At the mention of her brother’s name, she cried out, " Where is he? oh, where is he ?” —gazed wildly round, and, shuddering from heart to foot, fell senseless on the floor. Other inhabitants of the valley, alarmed by the sudden swell of the river, which had augmented to a to! rent deep and impassable, now came in to inquire if any loss had been sustained, for numbers of sheep and teds ofhay had been observed floating down about the dawn of the morning. They assisted in reclaiming the unhappy maiden from her swoon; but insensibility was joy compared to the sorrow to which she awakened.

"They have ta’en him away, they have ta’en him away;” she chanted in a tone of delirious pathos; "him that was whiter and fairer than the lily on Lyddal-lee. They have long sought, and they have long sued, and they had the power to prevail against my prayers at last. They have ta’en him away; the flower is plucked from among the weeds, and the dove is slain amid a flock of ravens. 'They came with shout, and they came with song, and they spread the charm, and they placed the spell, and the baptised brow has been bowed down to the unbaptised hand. They have ta’en him away, they have ta’en him away ; he was too lovely, and too good, and too noble, to bless us with his continuance on earth ; for what are the sons of men compared to him? —the light of the moonbeam to the morning sun; the glow-worm to the eastern star. They have ta’en him away, the invisible dwellers of the earth. I saw them come on him, with shouting and with singing, and they charmed him where he sat, and away they bore him; and the horse he rode was never shod with iron, nor owned before the mastery of human hand. They have ta’en him away, over the water, and over the wood, and over the hill. I got but ae look o’ his bonnie blue ee, but ae look. But as I have endured what never maiden endured, so will I undertake what never maiden undertook,—I will win him from them all. I know the invisible ones of the earth; I have heard their wild and wondrous music in the wild woods, and there shall a christened maiden seek him and achieve his deliverance.”

She paused, and glancing round a circle of condoling faces, down which the tears were dropping like rain, said, in a calm, but still delirious tone ….

“Why do you weep, Mary Halliday? and why do you weep, John Graeme? Ye think that Elphin Irving, -- oh, it’s a bonnie, bonnie name, and dear to many a maiden’s heart as well as mine, -- ye think that he is drowned in Corrie, and ye will seek in the deep, deep pools for the bonnie, bonnie corse, that ye may weep over it, as it lies in its last linen. And lay it, amid weeping and wailing, in the dowie kirkyard. Ye may seek, but ye shall never find ; so leave me to trim up my hair, and prepare my dwelling, and make myself ready to watch for the hour of his return to upper earth.”

And she resumed her household labours with an alacrity which lessened not the sorrow of her friends.

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