An Orcadian fairy-tale with Nordic roots

I have written before in this column about the Rousay fairy-tale about Peerie Fool (Mimir’s Well 25/11/2010), but last week I ran into one of the Rousay people who helped me trace down the location for this fairy tale, and she asked me if there were any news. And in fact, there is. Since 2010, I have been able to find out some more about the tale and compare it to other fairy-tales, and made some interesting discoveries.


In the story of Peerie Fool we meet three princesses who, after their father is dead, live with their mother in a small house in Rousay. Like most Orkney crofters, they grow cabbage in a “kailyard”. One day they discover that some of the cabbage has been stolen. It turns out to have been stolen by a giant, and the princesses decide to take it in turns to be on guard in order to confront him. Over the course of three nights, the giant picks up each of the princesses and carries them home in his straw basket.

On their arrival at the giant’s house, the princesses are told that they have to milk the cow, put her to the hill, make food, tease, card and spin the wool and make cloth before the giant comes back. The first two princesses make a poor job of their work, and it is made worse by their refusal to share their food with a group of fairy folk who arrive at the house. The giant then peels the skin off them and flings them into the hen-house. When it is the turn of the third princess, she agrees to share her food. A little yellow-headed boy of the fairy folk then offers to help her with her wool work and the weaving. All he wants in return is for her to guess his name when he comes back. The group of fairies then goes away with the wool.

Later, an old woman arrives and asks if she can stay the night. The princess is worried what the giant might say, and sends her away. She instead finds a resting-place at a nearby mound, where she suddenly hears and sees the fairy-folk through a crack. They are busy teasing, carding and spinning, and urging them on is the yellow-headed boy saying “Tease, teasers, tease! Card, carders, card! Spin, spinners, spin! For Peerie Fool, Peerie Fool is my name.” The old wife runs back to the princess with these news, so when the yellow-headed boy comes back with the cloth, she is able – after pretending to guess some wrong names – to tell him his name. He and all the fairy-folk run away, and on their way they meet the giant, who notices their ugly looks. The fairy-folk tell him that the hard work with the wool is to blame for their looks, and he vows that the princess shall never work again. He is also very pleased when he sees the cloth. Sometime later, the princess is longing for home. She finds her sisters, gets their skins back on, and manages to smuggle them home by tricking the giant into carrying them home hidden in his straw basket with hay on top. Last, she smuggles herself home in the same way, where the mother and sisters await the giant with boiling water. This kills the giant, and the queen and princesses live happily ever after.

The story has been passed down orally, as well as having been published in several printed versions. The Orkney folklorist Ernest Marwick wrote down two versions of the story: one in Orkney dialect (Marwick and Robertson 1991: 290-292, “The Peerie Fool and the Princess”) and one in Standard English (Marwick 1975: 144-146, “The Giant, the Princesses, and Peerie-Fool”). The story also appears in County Folklore Volume III (Black and Thomas 1994 [1903]: 222-226, “Peeriefool”) and in Muir (1998: 127-131).

The story itself is reminiscent of several other types of international folk tale also known in the Nordic area. Perhaps most strikingly, it is a Rumpelstiltskin type of story, AT 500 (The Name of the Helper) in the Aarne-Thompson system for classification of folktales (Thompson 1946). In the story of Rumpelstiltskin, the heroine’s impossible task is to spin straw into gold. A supernatural being not unlike the “little yellow-headed boy” in “The Story o’ Peerie Fool” then offers to help, but in return she must guess his name. His name, Rumpelstiltskin, is overheard, and the girl in consequence gets to keep her newborn child, which she otherwise would have had to give away to the fairy.

The story of Peerie Fool is also related to other folktales. The ugly looks of the fairy-folk, due to the hard work (“Some hid thir eyes hingan oot, some hid thir tongs hingan awa doon on their breest, an’ some cam hirplan alang on staffs, wae backs booed doon” and their reply that this has happened “wae teasan”, “wae cairdan” and “wae spinnan”: Costie 1976: 77) is paralleled in the stories of “The Three Spinners” (collected by the brothers Grimm) or “The Three Aunts” (collected in Norway by Asbjørnsen and Moe) where the aunts are equally deformed by their work (AT 501: The Three Spinners: Thompson 1946). This detail is also included in all the Orkney versions of the folktale.

But even more interestingly, the story of Peerie Fool shows a close family resemblance to story number AT 311 in the classification system (Rescue by their Sister: Thompson 1946: 482, 36, 173). A Norwegian version of the story, “Risen som ville gifte seg” (The Giant who Wanted to Get Married) from Søgne in Vest-Agder can be found in Førlandsaas (1872). According to Hodne’s classification of Norwegian folktales (Hodne 1984:68-72), this story is found in all parts of Norway excluding the two northernmost counties of Troms and Finnmark.

In “Risen som ville gifte seg”, there are three sisters, and one of them is left home alone. The girl is making soup, but in the middle of it has to go out to see to the cattle. Along comes a giant who wants to get married. While the girl is out, the giant eats the soup and other food in the house. This detail is partly paralleled in the Peerie Fool story (all versions) in that the first encounter with the giant is when he steals the princesses’ cabbage. This happens over three nights, the detail about cooking and looking after cattle then being paralleled later on in the story, after the princesses’ arrival at the giant’s house (all versions). A detail from “Risen som ville gifte seg” which is paralleled in Chrissie Costie’s version of “The Story o’ Peerie Fool” only, and not in the other Orkney versions, is that the girl has to go and look for the cattle high up in the hills. This shows that Costie must have known the story from oral tradition, and not from a printed source.

In “Risen som ville gifte seg”, the giant next proposes marriage to the three girls in turn. Two of them say no and are killed by the giant, while the third says yes and is taken to his home inside the mountain.

In the Peerie Fool story (all versions), the three sisters are taken to the giant’s house where the two older sisters fail his test by not being able to spin and weave. They are subsequently flayed and chucked in the hen-house (all versions), paralleling the killing in “Risen som ville gifte seg”. The test of spinning and the Rumpelstiltskin story-line then replaces the test which is found in “Risen som ville gifte seg” of not looking in a certain room, where the dead sisters are being kept.

After the test (in “Risen som ville gifte seg”) or Rumpelstiltskin storyline (in Peerie Fool), the rest of the tale in both cases is taken up with the rescue of the sisters. In both “Risen som ville gifte seg” and Peerie Fool (all versions), the youngest sister first brings the other two back to life: In Peerie Fool (all versions) she puts their skins back on, while in “Risen som ville gifte seg” she revives them with an ointment, before tricking the giant into carrying them home in his own sack (“Risen som ville gifte seg”) or straw basket (Peerie Fool). The youngest sister last manages to smuggle herself home in the same manner. In Peerie Fool (all versions) the three sisters and their mother then kill the giant by throwing boiling water over him, while in “Risen som ville gifte seg” the giant bursts of anger when he discovers the youngest girl is gone and has left a decoy in her bed.

The structure of Peerie Fool (all versions) is therefore best described as that of AT 311 (“Risen som ville gifte seg”) providing the framework, with AT 500 and 501 (Rumpelstiltskin and The Three Aunts) being embedded within. Regarding its wider distribution, Thompson (1946: 36) says the area of greatest popularity of AT 311 is Norway and the Baltic. He also suggests Norway as “an important centre of dissemination of this tale, if not its original home.” (Thompson 1946: 36). When a typically Norwegian tale is found in such close parallel in Orkney, it speaks of the continued cultural ties between Orkney and Scandinavia.

Another interesting feature showing the cultural links between Orkney and Scandinavia, is the living Nordic giant lore preserved in the island of Rousay. The story of Peerie Fool is only one of numerous stories and legends from Orkney involving giants. Landscape features in Orkney such as standing stones, boulders and land spits are often explained in folk lore as resulting from the actions of giants: a large boulder in Copinsay is known as the Giant Stone, the legend being that it was flung by a giant from Stembister in Deerness (Marwick 1972:178). The giant Cubbie Roo, who was said to come from Rousay’s neighbouring island of Wyre and be so large that he used the islands as stepping stones, apparently once threw a boulder from Fitty Hill in Westray at a giant on Kierfea Hill in Rousay. However, the boulder fell short and now lies beside the shore at Sourin in Rousay, where it is known as the Finger-Steen, as Cubbie Roo’s finger marks are still visible on it. Another such boulder is the Cubbie Roo Stone lying in the Evie Hills, and another on Stronsay, “said to have been thrown to waken a brother giant who was slow to get up in the morning” (Marwick 1972:178-9).

One also notes the recurring in some of the giant legends recorded by Marwick (1972) of giants possessing a straw or heather basket, known in Orkney as a “kaesy” (with variant spellings) or a “cubby” (also with variant spellings), a feature which also occurs in the Peerie Fool story. Once, when the giant Cubbie Roo attempted bridge-building, the band on his “kaesy” broke and the stones in it fell down and formed a mound known as Cubbie Roo’s Burden (Marwick 1972:179). Another giant with such a basket is said to have come from Caithness for soil for his garden. The marks he left when scooping up the soil now form the Stenness and Harray Lochs, and, after dropping the baskets, their contents now forms the two Hills of Hoy (Muir 1998:10-11).

While giants are also found in British and other European folklore – one only needs to think of the Biblical Goliath or the Greek Cyclops, or numerous British giants such as Cormoran and Cormelian, Gog and Magog, or the giant encountered by Jack in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk (see, for example, Alexander 2002: 54, 111-112, 148). Marwick (1972:178-180) nonetheless argues that the numerous Orcadian stories of giants are more likely to share their cultural ancestry with Nordic stories. He notes the similarities between the Orcadian stories and stories of trolls from Norwegian folk tales or the jǫtnar (giants) of Old Norse myth, who “ […] liked to spirit away beautiful girls, princesses in particular, whom they forced to spin all day and to scratch the troll’s head all night” (Marwick 1972:180). The jǫtnar were prominent figures in Old Norse mythology, with many stories attached to them. Giants are also very much part of the Scandinavian landscape, with numerous rocks and landscape formations said to have been formed or moved by the activity of giants (Schön 2004:183-4). In Old Norse mythology, the Earth itself is made from the body of the giant Ymir (Schön 2004:52), and Marwick (1972:179-80) argues that “[p]ossibly we can see in these local [Orcadian] tales a dim memory of the giant Ymir […]”.


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