This Scottish fairy tale is from Sorche Nic Leodhas’s 1962 collection Thistle and Thyme and begins by introducing us to a lord (henceforth known as ‘the laird’) and his daughter. She is every bit as beautiful as you might expect, sweet natured and kind as well, but more than anything she is stubborn. That’s rather sweet in a fluffy little girl, and she’s thoroughly spoiled by her fond family. Then she grows up. And there is a Disagreement.
You see, her father thinks she should get married. That’s not the point of contention, she quite agrees, but unluckily for him she’s been looking around and has developed some firm ideas of her own about what kind of husband she’d like. When she sees the son of the gobha (that being a blacksmith) in the castle courtyard, she leans out the window for a better view, scandalising her maid. She likes the look of him and intends to get another look as soon as she can. Being a proactive kind of a girl, this happens sooner rather than later. As she’s perfectly aware her parents wouldn’t ever give their permission for her to call at the gobha’s shop, she ‘borrows’ a dairymaid’s spare dress and goes without asking permission from anyone.
When she arrives at the shop, she finds the gobha’s son alone. He’s in the middle of shoeing her father’s mare, which is the excuse she uses for her being there. They stare at each other, they smile, they flirt a bit, and then the girl goes on her way again very pleased with what she’s seen. The interest is mutual, with the boy trying to find out at the castle which maid it was who came flitting into his father’s shop that morning, but there’s a great many of them and the girl wasn’t even a maid, of course, so no one can tell him.
By this time she’s returned the dress, put on her own, gone to her father and calmly informed him to stop looking for a husband for her because she’s come up with one on her own. The laird is at first amused, then – realising it isn’t all some awful joke – appalled and enraged. When his daughter refuses to change her mind, he decides the best thing to do is send her to Edinborough and very quickly marry her off to a distant cousin who, if not quite what he was hoping for, is at least not a blacksmith. “I’ll go if I must,” his daughter tells him. “But you can tell my cousin that I’ll not be marrying him. I’ve made up my mind to wed the gobha’s son!” Who, incidentally, has only just worked out who his pretty visitor really is, after seeing her emerge from church with her family. He has not the same expectations of getting his own way that the girl has and is thoroughly miserable at the loss of his hopes.
On the day before she is due to travel to Edinborough with her mother, the laird’s daughter sneaks downstairs at the crack of dawn for some time alone to think. On her way through the kitchen she meets with the cook, who has just found a tiny shoe that she assumes must belong to a child. The girl offers to find its owner and that is exactly what she does, though honestly he’s not really what she was expecting; the sound of crying leads her to an unhappy little old man sitting by the side of a nearby lane. The girl coaxes out his story, a sad business of stones and mean dogs that nick other people’s footwear, and promptly returns his property. He’s overjoyed. Grateful for her kindness, he asks if he can be of any help to her, and she tells him all about the gobha’s son and her unwanted wedding. The little man hits on a key point she’s maybe not considered. “Does the gobha’s son want to wed you?” The girl certainly doesn’t lack confidence: “He would if he knew me better.” So that’s sorted. The little man gives her two berries and tells her, like a dodgy sort of doctor, to swallow them before bed. This will solve all her problems…eventually.
Well, the laird is not completely stupid. He locks his daughter in her room that night should she decide to run away. When her mother opens it the next morning, she screams so loudly that the laird comes running. The bed is empty! Or is it? Under the covers is a little white dog with a cheeky grin and his daughter’s blue satin ribbon in its hair. The laird doesn’t want to believe it’s really her, insisting everyone search the room from cupboard to chimney. It’s no good, of course. Eventually he just has to accept it, his daughter has turned into a dog.
That puts paid to the wedding plans. The laird tells everyone that his daughter is ill and actually calls his own physician to see if there’s anything to be done, but the Scottish medical fraternity aren’t too experienced with spells and the physician insists it must all be an optical delusion. Then they get in an old woman with a reputation for dealing with this sort of thing. She, at least, does believe them but she hasn’t the least idea how to lift the spell, and nor does the gypsy woman who comes in next. The laird is running out of ideas, his wife is running out of coping mechanisms, and their distress is so self-evident that the servants all assume the girl’s ‘illness’ is fatal.
News reaches the gobha’s son, who is heartbroken. He is wrecking a perfectly good piece of iron when an unexpected visitor arrives in his doorway. It is the little man, on a tiny horse, which he wants shod. While the job is being done, the little man tries to initiate some conversation, but the gobha’s son doesn’t have the heart for even the most basic pleasantries. Bringing up the laird’s daughter, however, does the trick. When he asks why the boy doesn’t just go up to the castle and cure her, the gobha’s son is furious and indignant. How on earth could he cure her when so many have already tried and failed? Wouldn’t he be there on the spot if he thought he could do anything? Satisfied that the boy’s feelings are sincere, the little man produces the answer – two more of those strange berries, and a bit of advice.
So the gobha’s son cleans himself up quickly and dashes to the castle. Everyone is getting rather desperate there, even the laird’s daughter; she is so fed up with being a dog that she nipped her father that morning for being a pompous idiot. It isn’t the best time for the boy that the laird blames squarely for the whole mess to turn up on the doorstep, but when he says the magic word – ‘cure’ – the laird is only too happy to show him up. Only the boy has terms. He wants the laird’s permission to marry his daughter. The laird says no immediately, but it’s a bluff he can’t hold. If it’s a choice between having a daughter married to the gobha’s son or having a daughter who is a dog, it’s pretty clear which is going to give him more hell. So he says yes.
The gobha’s son is shown up to the room where the dog is locked away. He feeds her the berries and in a blink he’s got the laird’s daughter standing in front of him. It’s so good to see her as human again that even the laird can’t hold her tactics too much against her. He soon finds out that the gobha’s son is actually a pretty nice young man and ends up making him steward over the estate. And so the girl got her way, just as she said she would, happily married to the boy she chose for herself.
Fairy tale marriages are not, contrary to popular perception, always very happy, or romantic for that matter. This one, though, is adorable. It is a classic tale of nice boy meets stubborn girl meets little old man with magic meets little white dog meets boy again – and neither of the girl’s parents have to lose their heads in order for the marriage to happen! These two are one of my favourite fairy tale couples and I have reviewed their story this week in honour of a Very Romantic Event taking place in my family. Best wishes to my brother and his wife to be, may yours be a very happy ever after.