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Tales from Scottish Ballads

The following is from Tales from Scottish Ballads by Elizabeth W. Grierson:

The Earl of Mar's Daughter

"It was intil a pleasant time,
  Upon a simmer's day,
The noble Earl of Mar's daughter
  Went forth to sport and play."

Long, long ago, in a country far away over the sea, there lived a Queen who had an only son. She was very rich, and very great, and the only thing that troubled her was that her son did not want to get married in the very least.

In vain his mother gave grand receptions and court balls, to which she asked all the young countesses and baronesses, in the hope that the Prince would take a fancy to one of them. He would talk to them, and dance with them, and be very polite, but, when his mother hinted that it was time that he looked for a wife, he only shrugged his shoulders and said that there was not a pretty girl amongst them.

And perhaps there was some truth in his answer, for the maidens of that country were all fat, and little, and squat, and everyone of them waddled like a duck when she walked.

"If thou canst not find a wife to thy liking at home," the Queen would say, "go to other countries and see the maidens there; surely somewhere thou wouldst find one whom thou couldst love."

But Prince Florentine, for that was his name, only shook his head and laughed.

"And marry a shrew," he would say mockingly; "for when the maidens heard my name, and knew for what purpose I had come, they would straightway smile their sweetest, and look their loveliest, and I would have no chance of knowing what manner of maidens they really were."

Now the Queen had a very wonderful gift. She could change a man's shape, so that he would appear to be a hare, or a cat, or a bird; and at last she proposed to the Prince that she should turn him into a dove, and then he could fly away to foreign countries, and go up and down until he saw some maiden whom he thought he could really love, and then he could go back to his real shape, and get to know her in the usual way.

This proposal pleased Prince Florentine very much. "He would take good care not to fall in love with anyone," he told himself; but, as he hated the stiffness and ceremony of court life, it seemed to him that it would be good fun to be free to go about as he liked and to see a great many different countries.

So he agreed to his mother's wishes; and one day she waved a little golden wand over his head, and gave him a very nasty draught to drink, made from black beetles' wings, and wormwood, and snails' ears, and hedgehogs' spikes, and before he knew where he was, he was changed into a beautiful gray dove, with a white ring round its neck.

At first when he saw himself in this changed guise he was frightened; but his mother quickly tied a tiny charm round his neck, and hid it under his soft gray feathers, and taught him how to press it against his heart until a fragrant odour came from it, and as soon as he did this, he became once more a handsome young man.

Then he was very pleased, and kissed her, and said farewell, promising to return some day with a beautiful young bride; and after that he spread his wings, and flew away in search of adventure.

For a year and a day he wandered about, now visiting this country, now that, and he was so amused and interested in all the strange and wonderful things that he saw, that he never once wanted to turn himself into a man, and he completely forgot that his mother expected that he was looking out for a wife.

At last, one lovely summer's day, he found himself flying over broad Scotland, and, as the sun was very hot, he looked round for somewhere to shelter from its rays. Just below him was a stately castle, surrounded by magnificent trees.

"This is just what I want," he said to himself; "I will rest here until the sun goes down."

So he folded his wings, and sank gently down into the very heart of a wide-spreading oak tree, near which, as good fortune would have it, there was a field of ripening grain, which provided him with a hearty supper. Here, for many days, the Prince took up his abode, partly because he was getting rather tired of flying about continually, and partly because he began to feel interested in a lovely young girl who came out of the castle every day at noon, and amused herself with playing at ball under the spreading branches of the great tree. Generally she was quite alone, but once or twice an old lady, evidently her governess, came with her, and sat on a root, which formed a comfortable seat, and worked at some fine embroidery, while her pupil amused herself with her ball.

Prince Florentine soon found out that the maiden's name was Grizel, and that she was the only child of the Earl of Mar, a nobleman of great riches and renown. She was very beautiful, so beautiful, indeed, that the Prince sat and feasted his eyes upon her all the time that she was at play, and then, when she had gone home, he could not sleep, but, sat with wide-open eyes, staring into the warm twilight, and wondering how he could get to know her. He could not quite make up his mind whether he should use his mother's charm, and take his natural shape, and walk boldly up to the castle and crave her father's permission to woo her, or fly away home, and send an ambassador with a train of nobles, and all the pomp that belonged to his rank, to ask for her hand.

The question was settled for him one day, however, and everything happened quite differently from what he expected.

On a very hot afternoon, Lady Grizel came out, accompanied by her governess, and, as usual, the old lady sat down to her embroidery, and the girl began to toss her ball. But the sun was so very hot that by and by the governess laid down her needle and fell fast asleep, while her pupil grew tired of running backwards and forwards, and, sitting down, began to toss her ball right up among the branches. All at once it caught in a leafy bough, and when she was gazing up, trying to see where it was, she caught sight of a beautiful gray dove, sitting watching her. Now, as I have said, Lady Grizel was an only child, and she had had few playmates, and all her life she had been passionately fond of animals, and when she saw the bird, she stood up and called gently, "Oh Coo-me-doo, come down to me, come down." Then she whistled so softly and sweetly, and stretched out her white hands above her head so entreatingly, that Prince Florentine left his branch, and flew down and alighted gently on her shoulder.

The delight of the maiden knew no bounds. She kissed and fondled her new  pet, which perched quite familiarly on her arm, and promised him alatticed silver cage, with bars of solid gold.

The bird allowed the girl to carry him home, and soon the beautiful cage was made, and hung up on the wall of her chamber, just inside the window, and Coo-me-doo, as the dove was named, placed inside.

He seemed perfectly happy, and grew so tame that soon he went with his mistress wherever she went, and all the people who lived near the castle grew quite accustomed to seeing the Earl's daughter driving or riding with her tame dove on her shoulder.

When she went out to play at ball, Coo-me-doo would go with her, and perch up in his old place, and watch her with his bright dark eyes. One day when she was tossing the ball among the branches it rolled away, and for a long time she could not find it, and at last a voice behind her said, "Here it is," and, turning round, she saw to her astonishment a handsome young man dressed all in dove-gray satin, who handed her the ball with a stately bow.

Lady Grizel was frightened, for no strangers were allowed inside her father's park, and she could not think where he had come from; but just as she was about to call out for help, the young man smiled and said, "Lady, dost thou not know thine own Coo-me-doo?"

Then she glanced up into the branches, but the bird was gone, and as she hesitated (for the stranger spoke so kindly and courteously she did not feel very much alarmed), he took her hand in his.

"'Tis true, my own love," he said; "but if thou canst not recognise thy favourite when his gray plumage is changed into gray samite, mayhap thou wilt know him when the gray samite is once more changed into softest feathers; and, pressing a tiny gold locket which he wore, to his heart, he vanished, and in his stead was her own gray dove, hovering down to his resting-place on her shoulder.

"Oh, I cannot understand it, I cannot understand it," she cried, putting up her hand to stroke her pet; but the feathers seemed to slip from between her fingers, and once more the gallant stranger stood before her.

"Sit thee down and rest, Sweetheart," he said, leading her to the root where her governess was wont to sit, while he stretched himself on the turf at her feet, "and I will explain the mystery to thee."

Then he told her all. How his mother was a great Queen away in a far country, and how he was her only son. Lady Grizel's fears were all gone now, and she laughed merrily as he described the girls who lived in his own country, and told her how little and fat they were, and how they waddled when they walked; but when he told her how his mother had used her magic and turned him into a dove, in order that he might bring home a wife, her face grew grave and pale.

"My father hath sworn a great oath," she said, "that I shall never wed with anyone who lives out of Scotland; so I fear we must part, and thou must go elsewhere in search of a bride."

But Prince Florentine shook his head.

"Nay," he said, "but rather than part from thee, I will live all my life as a dove in a cage, if I may only be near thee, and talk to thee when we are alone."

"But what if my father should want me to wed with some Scottish lord?" asked the maiden anxiously; "couldst thou bear to sit in thy cage and sing my wedding song?"

"That could I not," answered Prince Florentine, drawing her closer to him; "and in order to prevent such a terrible thing happening, Sweetheart, we must find ways and means to be married at once, and then, come what may, no one can take thee from me. This very evening I must go and speak to thy father."

Now the Earl of Mar was a violent man, and his fear lay on all the country-side--even his only child was afraid of him--and when her lover made this suggestion she clung to him and begged him with tears in her eyes not to do this. She told him what a fiery temper the Earl had, and how she feared that when he heard his story he would simply order him to be hanged on the nearest tree, or thrown into the dungeon to starve to death. So for a long time they sat and talked, now thinking of one plan, now of another, but none of them seemed of any use, and it seemed as though Prince Florentine must either remain in the shape of her pet dove, or go away altogether.

All at once Lady Grizel clapped her hands. "I have it, I have it," she cried; "why cannot we be married secretly? Old Father John out at the chapel on the moor could marry us; he is so old and so blind, he would never recognise me if I went bare-headed and bare-footed like a gipsy girl; and thou must go dressed as a woodman, with muddy shoes, and an axe over thine arm. Then we can dwell together as we are doing now, and no one will suspect that the Earl of Mar's daughter is married to her tame pet dove, which sits on her shoulder, and goes with her wherever she goes. And if the worst comes to the worst, and some gallant Scotch wooer appears, why, then we must confess what we have done, and bear the consequences together."

A few days later, in the early morning, when old Father John, the priest who served the little chapel which stood on the heather-covered moor, was preparing to say Mass, he saw a gipsy girl, bare-headed and bare-footed, steal into the chapel, followed by a stalwart young woodman, clad all in sober gray, with a bright wood-axe gleaming on his shoulder.

In a few words they told him the purpose for which they had come, and after he had said Mass the kindly old priest married them, and gave them his blessing, never doubting but that they were a couple of simple country lovers who would go home to some tiny cottage in the woods near by. Little did he think that only half a mile away a page boy, wearing the livery of the Earl of Mar, was patiently waiting with a white palfrey until his young mistress should return, accompanied by her gray dove, from visiting an old nurse, "who," she told her governess, "was teaching her how to spin."

And little did her father, or her governess, or any of the servants at the castle, think that Lady Grizel was leading a double life, and that the gray dove which was always with her, and which she seemed to love more than any other of her pets, was a gray dove only when anyone else was by, but turned into a gallant young Prince, who ate, and laughed, and talked with her the moment they were alone.

Strange to say, their secret was never found out for seven long years, even although every year a little son was born to them, and carried away under the gray dove's wing to the country far over the sea. At these times Lady Grizel used to cry and be very sad, for she dare not keep her babies beside her, but had to kiss them, and let them go, to be brought up by their Grandmother whom she had never seen.

Every time Prince Florentine carried home a new baby, he brought back tidings to his wife how tall, and strong, and brave her other sons were growing, and tender messages from the Queen, his mother, telling her how she hoped that one day she would be able to come home with her husband, and then they would be all together.

But year after year went by, and still the fierce old Earl lived on, and there seemed little hope that poor Lady Grizel would ever be able to go and live in her husband's land, and she grew pale and thin. And year after year her father grew more and more angry with her, because he wanted her to marry one of the many wooers who came to crave her hand; but she would not.

"I love to dwell alone with my sweet Coo-me-doo," she used to say, and the old Earl would stamp his foot, and go out of her chamber muttering angry words in his vexation.

At last, one day, a very great and powerful nobleman arrived with his train to ask the Earl's daughter to marry him. He was very rich, and owned four beautiful castles, and the Earl said, "Now, surely, my daughter will consent."

But she only gave her old answer, "I love best to live alone with my sweet Coo-me-doo."

Then her father slammed the door in a rage, and went into the great hall, where all his men-at-arms were, and swore a mighty oath, that on the morrow, before he broke his fast, he would wring the neck of the wretched bird, which seemed to have bewitched his daughter.

Now just above his head, in the gallery, hung Coo-me-doo's cage with the golden bars, and he happened to be sitting in it, and when he heard this threat he flew away in haste to his wife's room and told her.

"I must fly home and crave help of my mother," he said; "mayhap she may be able to aid us, for I shall certainly be no help to thee here, if my neck be wrung to-morrow. Do thou fall in with thy father's wishes, and promise to marry this nobleman; only see to it that the wedding doth not take place until three clear days be past."

Then Lady Grizel opened the window, and he flew away, leaving her to act her part as best she might.

Now it chanced that next evening, in the far distant land over the sea, the Queen was walking up and down in front of her palace, watching her grandsons playing at tennis, and thinking sadly of her only son and his beautiful wife whom she had never seen. She was so deep in thought, that she never noticed that a gray dove had come sailing over the trees, and perched itself on a turret of the palace, until it fluttered down, and her son, Prince Florentine, stood beside her.

She threw herself into his arms joyfully, and kissed him again and again; then she would have called for a feast to be set, and for her minstrels to play, as she always did on the rare occasions when he came home, but he held up his hand to stop her.

"I need neither feasting nor music, Mother," he said, "but I need thy help sorely. If thy magic cannot help me, then my wife and I are undone, and in two days she will be forced to marry a man whom she hates," and he told the whole story.

"And what wouldst thou that I should do?" asked the Queen in great distress.

"Give me a score of men-at-arms to fly over the sea with me," answered the Prince, "and my sons to help me in the fray."

But the Queen shook her head sadly.

"'Tis beyond my power," she said; "but mayhap Astora, the old dame who lives by the sea-shore, might help me, for in good sooth thy need is great. She hath more skill in magic than I have."

So she hurried away to a little hut near the sea-shore where the wise old woman lived, while her son waited anxiously for her return.

At last she appeared again, and her face was radiant.

"Dame Astora hath given me a charm," she said, "which will turn four-and-twenty of my stout men-at-arms into storks, and thy seven sons into white swans, and thou thyself into a gay gos-hawk, the proudest of all birds."

Now the Earl of Mar, full of joy at the disappearance of the gray dove, which seemed to have bewitched his daughter, had bade all the nobles throughout the length and breadth of fair Scotland to come and witness her wedding with the lover whom he had chosen for her, and there was feasting, and dancing, and great revelry at the castle. There had not been such doings since the marriage of the Earl's great-grandfather a hundred years before. There were huge tables, covered with rich food, standing constantly in the hall, and even the common people went in and out as they pleased, while outside on the green there was music, and dancing, and games.

Suddenly, when the revelry was at its height, a flock of strange birds appeared on the horizon, and everyone stopped to look at them. On they came, flying all together in regular order, first a gay gos-hawk, then behind him seven snow-white swans, and behind the swans four-and-twenty large gray storks. When they drew near, they settled down among the trees which surrounded the castle green, and sat there, each on his own branch, like sentinels, watching the sport.

At first some of the people were frightened, and wondered what this strange sight might mean, but the Earl of Mar only laughed.

"They come to do honour to my daughter," he said; "'tis well that there is not a gray dove among them, else had he found an arrow in his heart, and that right speedily," and he ordered the musicians to strike up a measure.

The Lady Grizel was amongst the throng, dressed in her bridal gown, but no one noticed how anxiously she glanced at the great birds which sat so still on the branches.

Then a strange thing happened. No sooner had the musicians begun to play, and the dancers begun to dance, than the twenty-four gray storks flew down, and each of them seized a nobleman, and tore him from his partner, and whirled him round and round as fast as he could, holding him so tightly with his great gray wings that he could neither draw his sword nor struggle. Then the seven white swans flew down and seized the bridegroom, and tied him fast to a great oak tree. Then they flew to where the gay gos-hawk was hovering over Lady Grizel, and they pressed their bodies so closely to his that they formed a soft feathery couch, on which the lady sat down, and in a moment the birds soared into the air, bearing their precious burden on their backs, while the storks, letting the nobles go, circled round them to form an escort; and so the strange army of birds flew slowly out of sight, leaving the wedding guests staring at one another in astonishment, while the Earl of Mar swore so terribly that no one dare go near him.

*       *       *       *       *

And although the story of this strange wedding is told in Scotland to this day, no one has ever been able to guess where the birds came from, or to what land they carried the beautiful Lady Grizel.

Hynde Horn

Copyright Scotland from the Roadside 2019