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Michael Scott

Scottish Folktale

In the early part of Michael Scott’s life he was in the habit of emigrating annually to the Scottish metropolis, for the purpose of being employed in his capacity of mason.  One time as he and two companions were journeying to the place of their destination for a similar object, they had occasion to pass over a high hill, the name of which is not mentioned, but which is supposed to have been one of the Grampians, and being fatigued with climbing, they sat down to rest themselves.  They had no sooner done so than they were warned to take to their heels by the hissing of a large serpent, which they observed revolving itself towards them with great velocity.  Terrified at the sight, Michael’s two companions fled, while he, on the contrary, resolved to encounter the reptile.  The appalling monster approached Michael Scott with distended mouth and forked tongue; and, throwing itself into a coil at his feet, was raising its head to inflict a mortal sting, when Michael, with one stroke of his stick, severed its body into three pieces.  Having rejoined his affrighted comrades, they resumed their journey; and, on arriving at the next public-house, it being late, and the travellers being weary, they took up their quarters at it for the night.  In the course of the night’s conversation, reference was naturally made to Michael’s recent exploit with the serpent, when the landlady of the house, who was remarkable for her “arts,” happened to be present.  Her curiosity appeared much excited by the conversation; and, after making some inquiries regarding the colour of the serpent, which she was told was white, she offered any of them that would procure her the middle piece such a tempting reward, as induced one of the party instantly to go for it.  The distance was not very great; and on reaching the spot, he found the middle and tail piece in the place where Michael left them, but the head piece was gone.

The landlady on receiving the piece, which still vibrated with life, seemed highly gratified at her acquisition; and, over and above the promised reward, regaled her lodgers very plentifully with the choicest dainties in her house.  Fired with curiosity to know the purpose for which the serpent was intended, the wily Michael Scott was immediately seized with a severe fit of indisposition, which caused him to prefer the request that he might be allowed to sleep beside the fire, the warmth of which, he affirmed, was in the highest degree beneficial to him.

Never suspecting Michael Scott’s hypocrisy, and naturally supposing that a person so severely indisposed would feel very little curiosity about the contents of any cooking utensils which might lie around the fire, the landlady allowed his request.  As soon as the other inmates of the house were retired to bed, the landlady resorted to her darling occupation; and, in his feigned state of indisposition, Michael had a favourable opportunity of watching most scrupulously all her actions through the keyhole of a door leading to the next apartment where she was.  He could see the rites and ceremonies with which the serpent was put into the oven, along with many mysterious ingredients.  After which the unsuspicious landlady placed the dish by the fireside, where lay the distressed traveller, to stove till the morning.

Once or twice in the course of the night the “wife of the change-house,” under the pretence of inquiring for her sick lodger, and administering to him some renovating cordials, the beneficial effects of which he gratefully acknowledged, took occasion to dip her finger in her saucepan, upon which the cock, perched on his roost, crowed aloud.  All Michael’s sickness could not prevent him considering very inquisitively the landlady’s cantrips, and particularly the influence of the sauce upon the crowing of the cock.  Nor could he dissipate some inward desires he felt to follow her example.  At the same time, he suspected that Satan had a hand in the pie, yet he thought he would like very much to be at the bottom of the concern; and thus his reason and his curiosity clashed against each other for the space of several hours.  At length passion, as is too often the case, became the conqueror.  Michael, too, dipped his finger in the sauce, and applied it to the tip of his tongue, and immediately the cock perched on the spardan announced the circumstance in a mournful clarion.  Instantly his mind received a new light to which he was formerly a stranger, and the astonished dupe of a landlady now found it her interest to admit her sagacious lodger into a knowledge of the remainder of her secrets.

Endowed with the knowledge of “good and evil,” and all the “second sights” that can be acquired, Michael left his lodgings in the morning, with the philosopher’s stone in his pocket.  By daily perfecting his supernatural attainments, by new series of discoveries, he became more than a match for Satan himself.  Having seduced some thousands of Satan’s best workmen into his employment, he trained them up so successfully to the architective business, and inspired them with such industrious habits, that he was more than sufficient for all the architectural work of the empire.  To establish this assertion, we need only refer to some remains of his workmanship still existing north of the Grampians, some of them, stupendous bridges built by him in one short night, with no other visible agents than two or three workmen.

On one occasion work was getting scarce, as might have been naturally expected, and his workmen, as they were wont, flocked to his doors, perpetually exclaiming, “Work! work! work!”  Continually annoyed by their incessant entreaties, he called out to them in derision to go and make a dry road from Fortrose to Arderseir, over the Moray Firth.  Immediately their cry ceased, and as Scott supposed it wholly impossible for them to execute his order, he retired to rest, laughing most heartily at the chimerical sort of employment he had given to his industrious workmen.  Early in the morning, however, he got up and took a walk at the break of day down to the shore to divert himself at the fruitless labours of his zealous workmen.  But on reaching the spot, what was his astonishment to find the formidable piece of work allotted to them only a few hours before already nearly finished.  Seeing the great damage the commercial class of the community would sustain from the operation, he ordered the workmen to demolish the most part of their work; leaving, however, the point of Fortrose to show the traveller to this day the wonderful exploit of Michael Scott’s fairies.

On being thus again thrown out of employment, their former clamour was resumed, nor could Michael Scott, with all his sagacity, devise a plan to keep them in innocent employment.  He at length discovered one.  “Go,” says he, “and manufacture me ropes that will carry me to the back of the moon, of these materials—miller’s-sudds and sea-sand.”  Michael Scott here obtained rest from his active operators; for, when other work failed them, he always despatched them to their rope manufactory.  But though these agents could never make proper ropes of those materials, their efforts to that effect are far from being contemptible, for some of their ropes are seen by the sea-side to this day.

We shall close our notice of Michael Scott by reciting one anecdote of him in the latter part of his life.

In consequence of a violent quarrel which Michael Scott once had with a person whom he conceived to have caused him some injury, he resolved, as the highest punishment he could inflict upon him, to send his adversary to that evil place designed only for Satan and his black companions.  He accordingly, by means of his supernatural machinations, sent the poor unfortunate man thither; and had he been sent by any other means than those of Michael Scott, he would no doubt have met with a warm reception.  Out of pure spite to Michael, however, when Satan learned who was his billet-master, he would no more receive him than he would receive the Wife of Beth; and instead of treating the unfortunate man with the harshness characteristic of him, he showed him considerable civilities.  Introducing him to his “Ben Taigh,” he directed her to show the stranger any curiosities he might wish to see, hinting very significantly that he had provided some accommodation for their mutual friend, Michael Scott, the sight of which might afford him some gratification.  The polite housekeeper accordingly conducted the stranger through the principal apartments in the house, where he saw fearful sights.  But the bed of Michael Scott!—his greatest enemy could not but feel satiated with revenge at the sight of it.  It was a place too horrid to be described, filled promiscuously with all the awful brutes imaginable.  Toads and lions, lizards and leeches, and, amongst the rest, not the least conspicuous, a large serpent gaping for Michael Scott, with its mouth wide open.  This last sight having satisfied the stranger’s curiosity, he was led to the outer gate, and came away.  He reached his friends, and, among other pieces of news touching his travels, he was not backward in relating the entertainment that awaited his friend Michael Scott, as soon as he would “stretch his foot” for the other world.  But Michael did not at all appear disconcerted at his friend’s intelligence.  He affirmed that he would disappoint all his enemies in their expectations—in proof of which he gave the following signs: “When I am just dead,” says he, “open my breast and extract my heart.  Carry it to some place where the public may see the result.  You will then transfix it upon a long pole, and if Satan will have my soul, he will come in the likeness of a black raven and carry it off; and if my soul will be saved it will be carried off by a white dove.”

His friends faithfully obeyed his instructions.  Having exhibited his heart in the manner directed, a large black raven was observed to come from the east with great fleetness, while a white dove came from the west with equal velocity.  The raven made a furious dash at the heart, missing which, it was unable to curb its force, till it was considerably past it; and the dove, reaching the spot at the same time, carried off the heart amidst the rejoicing and ejaculations of the spectators.

Folk-Lore and Legends: Scotland

Folk-Lore and Legends:

: Contains 33 Scottish folktales.

Author: Charles John Tibbitts
Published: 1889
Publisher: W. W. Gibbings, London

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