Fairy Tale Tuesday No.91 – The Lairdie with the Heart of Gold

This fairy tale is taken from Sorche Nic Leodhas’s collection Thistle & Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland and does not contain an actual metal heart. The lord of the title, having lost his mother at an early age, is sent away from home by his grief-stricken father to live with relatives in the north. Only when his father dies is he allowed to come home. The inheritance might look good on paper but the old lord, having devoted about as much attention to the ancestral estate as he did to his son, leaves behind only farmland gone wild and a ramshackle castle.

Instead of cutting his losses and selling off the lot, the young lord stays to fix what he can. Though technically owed rent from the villagers who live on his land, most either can’t afford to pay or pretend they can’t, and their kind-hearted landlord believes them all. What with looking after his elderly household staff, all too old to easily find new positions, that makes him about as poverty-stricken as everyone else.

After a long winter’s day collecting rent – well, collecting evasions and assurances, with the odd coin thrown in – the lord is returning to the castle on foot, having left his horse at home away from the bitter weather. At a crossroads he stumbles across what looks like a pile of toys but are in fact the worldly possessions of a family of brownies, who have been evicted from their mill by the owner’s new wife. She doesn’t believe in brownies and has mistaken her supernatural tenants for rats. Harassed by her guard dog and hunted by her cat, they have taken to the road but can’t agree on where to go next. The young lord, immediately sympathetic, offers up his castle as their new abode.”You’ll find we have not much to do with,” he confesses, “but what we have, we’ll gladly share.”

The brownies are sold. They gather up their things and follow their new friend home to the castle, where he explains to his dumbstruck housekeeper that he’s sort of adopted a clan of brownies while he was out and they’re moving in right away. One brownie makes for the world’s most reliable domestic cleaning service; a whole family of them turn the castle from a functional ruin propped up on optimism to a warm, economically efficient social hub.

Their leader, Lachie Tosh, also takes an interest in the lord’s financial affairs and doesn’t like the look of them at all. At length he stages an intervention, pointing out that the cottagers eat much better than the household at the castle. “But how would they come by the money?” the lord protests. “They’ve told me often that they can’t make ends meet.” “They get the money by not paying their rent,” Lachie Tosh explains patiently. He offers himself up a ‘factor’ – essentially a business manager, account keeper and rent collector rolled into one hard-headed individual – and is soon hard at work bullying the villagers into not only paying for their land, but looking after it to a brownie’s exacting standards too. Though this doesn’t make Lachie Tosh a popular name, it does get results. While the lord is still happy to listen to anyone’s problems, at the end of the spiel they’re told to take it up with the factor.

The lord may be rubbish at keeping accounts, but spending money effectively comes naturally to him. From village maintenance to local employment, he works hard to make his lands thrive. With that well in hand, Lachie Tosh promotes himself from estate manager to general life coach. He insists the lord see a tailor; when he returns in a dapper new suit, Lachie Tosh advises him to start dating. The lord obediently sets off to meet and greet respectable young ladies all across the country, but every girl he approaches fails the key question: can she live with brownies? Most don’t even believe in the Fair Folk, taking an attitude reminiscent of the miller’s wife, which is the exact opposite of what the young lord is looking for.

Disheartened by his failure, he eventually returns to his lands. As he passes the brownies’ erstwhile home, he sees a pretty girl sitting on a bench outside the mill, looking depressed. She’s the miller’s daughter by his first marriage and is finding life with her urbane new stepmother something of a trial. The lord takes an immediate fancy to her and pops the brownie question. She beams. “Och, the dear wee things! There were always brownies at the mill when my mother was alive!” Smitten, the lord asks a second, more traditional question and brings her home that very day, much to the delight of Lachie Tosh. When they marry shortly afterwards, all the brownies are invited.

Stories about domestic fairies tend to end badly. Someone always offers them clothes in a misguided gesture of gratitude, or antagonises them in a less well-intentioned way out of jealousy or greed. This is an exceedingly rare instance of genuine harmony. Everyone is respectful of one another’s cultural customs! Stereotype-busting brownies are taking charge! And a hero whose weight in gold is not his weight in gold. That’s quite refreshing.

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