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Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend
Chapter X. The Story of Michael Scott

Michael Scott, who lived during the thirteenth century, was known far and near as a great scholar, and it is told that he had dealings with the fairies and other spirits. When he wanted to erect a house or a bridge he called the "wee folk" to his aid, and they did the work for him in a single night. He had great skill as a healer of wounds and curer of diseases, and the people called him a magician.

When Michael was a young man he set out on a journey to Edinburgh with two companions. They travelled on foot, and one day, when they were climbing a high hill, they sat down to rest. No sooner had they done so than they heard a loud hissing sound. They looked in the direction whence the sound came, and saw with horror a great white serpent, curved in wheel shape, rolling towards them at a rapid speed. It was evident that the monster was going to attack them, and when it began to roll up the hill-side as swiftly as it had crossed the moor, Michael's two companions sprang to their feet and ran away, shouting with terror. Michael was a man who knew no fear, and he made up his mind to attack the serpent. He stood waiting; for it with his staff firmly grasped in his right hand.

When the serpent came close to Michael it uncurved its body and, throwing itself into a coil, raised its head to strike, its jaws gaping wide and its forked tongue thrust out like an arrow. Michael at once raised his staff, and struck the monster so fierce a blow that he cut its body into three parts. Then he turned away, and called upon his friends to wait for him. They heard his voice, stopped running, and crazed upon him with wonder as he walked towards them very calmly and at an easy pace. It was a great relief to them to learn from Michael that he had slain the fearsome monster.

They walked on together, and had not gone far when they carne to a house in which lived a wise old woman. As the sun was beginning to set and it would soon be dark, they asked her for a night's lodging, and she invited them to enter the house. One of the men then told her of their adventure with the wheeling serpent which Michael had slain.

Said the Wise Woman: "Are you sure the white serpent is dead?"

"It must be dead," Michael answered, "because I cut its body into three parts."

Said the Wise Woman: "This white serpent is no ordinary serpent. It has power to unite the severed parts of its body again. Once before it was attacked by a brave man, who cut it in two. The head part of its body, however, crawled to a stream. After bathing in the stream it crawled back and joined itself to the tail part. The serpent then became whole again, and once more it bathed in the healing waters of the stream. All serpents do this after attacking a human being. If a man who has been stung by a serpent should hasten to the stream before the serpent can reach it, he will be cured and the serpent will die."

"You have great knowledge of the mysteries," Michael exclaimed with wonder.

Said the Wise Woman: "You have overcome the white serpent this time, but you may not be so fortunate when next it comes against you. Be assured of this: the serpent will, after it has been healed, lie in wait for you to take vengeance. `'Then next it attacks, you will receive no warning that it is near."

I shall never cross the high mountain again," Michael declared.

Said the Wise Woman: "The serpent will search for you and find you, no matter where you may be."

"Alas!" Michael exclaimed, "evil is my fate. What can I do to protect myself against the serpent?"

Said the Wise Woman: "Go now to the place where you smote the serpent, and carry away the middle part of its body. Make haste, lest you be too late."

Michael took her advice, and asked his companions to go with him; but they were afraid to do so, and he set out alone.

He walked quickly, and soon came to the place where he had struck down the monster. He found the middle part and the tail part of the white serpent's body, but the head part was nowhere to be seen. He knew then that the woman had spoken truly, and, as darkness was coming on, he did not care to search for the stream to which the head part had gone. Lifting up the middle part of the body, which still quivered, he hastened back towards the house of the Wise Woman. The sky darkened, and the stars began to appear. Michael grew uneasy. He felt sure that something was following him at a distance, so he quickened his steps and never looked back. At length he reached the house in safety, and he was glad to find that there were charms above the door which prevented any evil spirit from entering.

The Wise Woman welcomed Michael, and asked him to give her the part of the serpent's body which he had brought with him. He did so willingly, and she thanked him, and said "Now I shall prepare a meal for you and your companions."

The woman at once set to work and cooked an excellent meal. Michael began to wonder why she showed him and his friends so much kindness and why she was in such high spirits. She laughed and talked as merrily as a girl, and he suspected she had been made happy because he had brought her the middle part of the white serpent's body. He resolved to watch her and find out, if possible, what she was going to do with it.

After eating his supper Michael pretended that he suffered from pain, and went into the kitchen to sit beside the fire. He told the woman that the heat took away the pain, and asked her to allow him to sleep in a chair in front of the fire. She said, "Very well," so he sat down, while his weary companions went to bed. The woman put a pot on the fire, and placed in it the middle part of the serpent's body.

Michael took note of this, but said nothing. He pretended to sleep. The part of the serpent began to frizzle in the pot, and the woman came from another room, lifted off the lid, and looked in. Then she touched the cut of the serpent with her right finger. When she did so a cock crew on the roof of the house. Michael was startled. He opened his eyes and looked round.

Said the Wise Woman: "I thought you were fast asleep."

"I cannot sleep because of the pain I suffer," Michael told her.

Said the Wise Woman: "If you cannot sleep, you may be of service to me. I am very weary and wish to sleep. I am cooking the part of the serpent. Watch the pot for me, and see that the part does not burn. Call me when it is properly cooked, but be sure not to touch it before you do so."

"I shall not sleep," Michael said, "so I may as well have something to do."

The Wise Woman smiled, and said: "After you call me, I shall cure your trouble." Then she went to her bed and lay down to sleep.

Michael sat watching the pot, and when he found that the portion of the serpent's body was fully cooked, he lifted the pot off the fire. Before calling the old woman, he thought he would first do what she had done when she lifted the lid off the pot. He dipped his finer into the juice of the serpent's body. The tip of his right finger was badly burned, so he thrust it into his mouth. The cock on the roof flapped its wings at once, and crowed so loudly that the old woman woke up in bed and screamed.

Michael felt that there must be magic in the juice of the serpent. New light and knowledge broke in upon him, and he discovered that he had the power to foretell events, to work magic cures, and to read the minds of other people.

The old woman came out of her room. "You did not call me," she said in a sad voice.

Michael knew what she meant. Had he called her, she would have been the first to taste the juice of the white serpent and receive from it the great power he now himself possessed.

"I slew the serpent," he said, "and had the first right to taste of its juice."

Said the Wise Woman: "I dare not scold you now. Nor need I tell you what powers you possess, for you have become wiser than I am. You can cure diseases, you can foretell and foresee what is to take place, you have power to make the fairies obey your commands, and you can obtain greater knowledge about the hidden mysteries than any other man alive. All that I ask of you is your friendship."

"I give you my friendship willingly," Michael said to her. Then the Wise Woman sat down beside him and asked him many questions about hidden things, and Michael found himself able to answer each one. They sat together talking until dawn. Then Michael awoke his companions, and the woman cooked a breakfast. When Michael bade her good-bye, she said: "Do not forget me, for you owe much to me."

"I shall never forget you," he promised her.

Michael and his companions resumed their journey. They walked until sunset, but did not reach a house.

"To-night," one of the men said, "we must sleep on the heather."

Michael smiled. "To-night," said he, "we shall sleep in Edinburgh."

"It is still a day's journey from here," the man reminded him.

Michael laid his staff on the ground and said: "Let us three sit on this staff and see how we fare."

His companions laughed, and sat down as he asked them to do. They thought it a great joke.

"Hold tight!" Michael advised them. The men, still amused, grasped the staff in their hands and held it tightly.

"Staff of mine!" Michael cried, "carry us to Edinburgh."

No sooner did he speak than the staff rose high in the air. The men were terror-stricken as the staff flew towards the clouds and then went forward with the speed of lightning. They shivered with fear and with cold. Snow-flakes fell on them as the staff flew across the sky, for they were higher up than the peak of Ben Nevis. When night was falling and the stars came out one by one, the staff began to descend. Happy were Michael's companions when they came down safely on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

They walked into the town in silence, and the first man they met stood and gazed with wonder upon them in the lamplight.

"Why do you stare at strangers?" Michael asked.

Said the man: "There is snow on your caps and your shoulders."

Having spoken thus, a sudden fear overcame him, and he turned and fled, believing that the three strangers were either wizards or fairies.

Michael shook the snow off his cap and shoulders, and his companions did the same. They then sought out a lodging, and having eaten their suppers, went to bed.

Next morning Michael found that his companions had risen early and ;one away. He knew that they were afraid of him, so he smiled and said to himself: "I bear them no ill-will. I prefer now to be alone."

Michael soon became famous as a builder. When he was asked to build a house, he called the fairies to his aid, and they did the work in the night-time for him.

Once he was travelling towards Inverness, and came to a river which was in flood. The ford could not be crossed, and several men stood beside it looking across the deep turbid waters. "It is a pity," one said to Michael, "there is no bridge here."

Said Michael: "I have come to build a bridge, and my workers will begin to erect it to-night."

Those who heard him laughed and turned away, but great was their surprise next morning to find that a bridge had been built. They crossed over it with their horses and cattle, and as they went on their way they spread the fame of Michael far and wide.

As time went on Michael found that his fairy workers wished to do more than he required of them. They began to visit him every evening, crying out: "Work! work! work!"

So Michael thought one day that he would set them to perform a task beyond their powers, and when next they came to him crying out: "Work! work! work!" he told them to close up the Inverness firth and cut it off from the sea. The fairies at once hastened away to obey his command.

Michael thought of the swift tides and of the great volume of water flowing down from the rivers by night and by day, and was certain that the fairies would not be able to close the firth.

Next morning, however, he found that the river Ness was rising rapidly, and threatening to flood the town of Inverness. He climbed a hill and looked seaward. Then he found that the fairies had very nearly finished the work he had set them to do. They had made two long promontories which jutted across the firth, and there remained only a narrow space through which the water surged. The incoming tide kept back the waters flowing from the river, and that was why the Ness was rising in flood. Not until after the tide turned did the waters of the river begin to fall.

Michael summoned his fairy workers that evening, and ordered them to open up the firth again. They hastened away to obey him, and after darkness came on they began to destroy the promontories. The moon rose as they went on with their work. A holy man walking along the shore saw the fairies, and prayed for protection against them. When he did so the fairies fled away, and were unable again to visit the promontories, and so these still lie jutting across the firth like crab's toes. The one has been named Chanonry Point, and on the peninsula opposite it there now stands Fort George, which was placed there to prevent enemy ships from sailing up to Inverness.

When the fairies found they were unable to complete their task they returned to Michael, crying out again: "Work! work! work!"

Michael then thought of an impossible task which would keep them busy. He said: "Go and make rope-ladders that will reach to the back of the moon. They must be made of sea sand and white foam."

The fairies hastened away to obey his command. They could not, however, make the ropes for Michael, try as they might.

Some say that Michael's workers are still attempting to carry out the work he last set them to do, and that is why wreaths of foam and ropes of twisted sand are sometimes found on the seashore till this day.

It is told that one weak-minded and clumsy old fairy man used to spend night after night trying to make ropes of sand and foam on the shore of Kirkcaldy Bay. When he grew weary he lay down to rest himself, and on cold nights he could be heard moaning: "My toes are cold, my toes are cold."

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