an, the Soldier’s Son is the only folk tale I’ve ever found that is directly connected to my home town. The story’s alternative title is The Knight of Grianaig. Grianaig is Gaelic for Greenock, the literal translation of which is, rather amusingly, ‘sunny creek’. Ask any resident of the town to describe it in three words and I guarantee you that none of those words will ever be ‘sunny’, but more likely than not, one of them will be ‘grey’.
In the land of the west, the Knight of Grianaig lived with his wife and his three daughters. The three maidens were very beautiful and full of goodness and they were dearly loved by the people, so there was much sorrowing when one day they were swept into the sea by a great beast. No one knew their fate, or how to find them, and their poor father and mother mourned endlessly.
A soldier lived in the town and he had three sons, and come Yuletide they were playing shinny together, and Ian, the youngest of the three brothers, said, “Let’s have a shinny match on the grounds of the Knight of Grianaig, for his lawn is wider and the grass smoother than ours.”
But his brothers were worried that they would offend the Knight if they were to play on his ground as his daughters used to, and they might bring the memory of their terrible fate to his mind. But Ian wasn’t worried about the Knight and persuaded his brothers to go with him to the lawn, and so they did. Ian had won three games from his brothers when the Knight put his head out of a window and saw them playing shinny, and he was full of rage and ordered his men to bring the brothers before him.
The Knight’s face was angry as he asked, “How could you choose to play shinny on my ground and bring the loss of my dear daughters to my mind? The pain that you have made me suffer, you will suffer also.”
Ian stepped forward and answered, “We will make it up to you, Knight. Build us a ship and we will go and seek your daughters. We will find them before a year and a day has passed, and will carry them back to Grianaig.”
The Knight agreed and ordered his wrights to build the three brothers a ship. It was filled with all the meat and drink that they might need for the journey, and its prow was set out to sea. The brothers set off and sailed through the waves for seven days until they reached a sandy white beach where they went ashore. There they found a number of men working on a rock, with their foreman standing over them.
“What place is this?” asked the eldest brother.
“This is the place where the three daughters of the Knight of Grianaig dwell, and tomorrow they will be wed to the three giants,” answered the foremen.
“How can we find these three maidens?” the eldest brother asked.
“To reach the daughters of the Knight of Grianaig you must get into the creel, and be drawn by a rope up the face of this rock,” the foreman answered.
So the eldest brother jumped into the creel, and it began to move slowly up the rock face. He was about half way up when a great black raven flew down and began pecking his face. The eldest brother did his best to shield his face but it was no use, and he was forced to go back the way he came.
The middle brother then jumped into the creel and went up the rock face, but the raven flew upon him too and he fared no better.
Finally Ian got into the creel. As before, when he was half way up the rock face, the raven appeared. “Quickly!” he cried, “Pull me up quickly or I shall be blinded!” And the men on the creel pulled with all their might and in another moment Ian had reached the top, and the raven was right behind him.
“Will you give me a piece of tobacco?” the raven asked.
“I will not!” Ian replied. “You tried to peck my eyes out”
“Only because that is part of my duty,” said the raven. “But give me some tobacco and I will be a good friend to you.”
So Ian broke off a piece of his tobacco and gave it to the raven, who went on, “Now we will go to the house of the giants where the Knight’s daughters sit sewing and sewing until even their thimbles are wet with their tears,” and he hopped off in front of Ian, and Ian followed, until they reached a large house, the door of which stood open. They entered and passed through many halls until they found the Knight’s daughters, and Ian asked them how he might find the giants.
So Ian went outside and pulled at the chain with all his might, and he shook it so hard that one of the links broke with a great clang. The giants heard it from the hunting hill and ran back to their home.
The giants looked perplexed. “Who are you that would break our battle chain?” they asked.
“That will be plain to you after wrestling with me,” Ian answered.
And he charged at the giants, and they wrestled and twisted and strove with each other until one of the giants forced Ian to his knee.
“You are the stronger,” Ian cried, and the giant answered, “All men know that!” and they took hold of each other once more and grappled until Ian at last threw each of the giants. Ian wished that the raven was there to help him, and no sooner had he wished it than the raven appeared.
“Put your hand under my wing and there you will find a knife sharp enough to take off their heads,” the raven said. And Ian did so, and found the knife, and took the heads off the giants with a single blow.
The raven congratulated Ian, and told him to rest. “Tomorrow,” the raven said, “You will take the Knight’s three daughters to the edge of the rock that leads to the lower world. But take heed – you must go down first yourself and let them follow after you. Now, you will give me a piece of tobacco for my reward.”
“Take it all,” Ian said, “for you have well earned it.”
But the raven refused. “I will take but a piece. You know what is behind you, but you have no knowledge of what is before you,” and he picked up the tobacco in his beak and flew away.
The next morning the Knight’s daughters loaded up as many of the castle’s treasures as they could carry, and together with Ian they went to the edge of the rock. Ian marvelled at their riches, and asked the youngest sister to let him keep the little gold cap that she wore, for he thought her the most beautiful of the three. Taken as he was with the cap, he forgot the advice of the raven and bade the sisters to go first down the cliff. Long he waited, but wait as he might the basket never came back, for in their joy at being free the Knight’s daughters had forgotten all about Ian, and had set sail in the ship that had brough him and his brothers to the land of Grianaig.
When at last he understood what had happened, the raven came to him.
“You did not heed my words,” the raven said gravely.
“No, I did not, and here I am,” answered Ian, bowing his head in shame.
“The past cannot be undone,” the raven went on. He that will not take counsel will take combat. Tonight you will sleep in the castle of the giants. And now you will give me a piece of tobacco.”
Ian slept fitfully. In the morning the raven returned and told Ian to go to the giant’s stable, where he would find a horse that could travel over land or sea. “But be careful how you enter the stable,” he added, “for the door swings to and fro without ceasing, and if it touches you it will cause you to cry out.”
So Ian went to the stable and sprang to get through the door, but the door caught one of his feet and he fell in a faint to the stable floor. The raven quickly caught him, picking him up in his beak and claws, and carried him back to the castle of the giants, where he laid a poultice on his foot until it was as well as it ever was.
“Now come out to walk,” said the raven, “but take heed that you do not speak, nor should you touch anything. And first, give me a piece of tobacco.”
And Ian beheld many strange things on the island that day, more than he had thought possible. In a glen lay four heroes, stretched out on their backs, killed by three spears that still stuck in their breasts. But he kept his counsel and did not speak, but he couldn’t help himself and he pulled out the spears. The men sat up and said, “You are Ian the soldier’s son, and a spell is laid upon you to travel in our company to the cave of the black fisherman.”
So together they went on until they reached the cave and one of the heroes entered to see what should be found there, and he beheld a hag seated on a rock, and she struck him with her club before he had a chance to speak and he was turned to stone. She dealt with the remaining three heroes in the same way, and then Ian himself ventured in.
“These men are under spells,” said the witch, “and they will not live until you have anointed them with the water you must fetch from the island of the Big Women.”
Ian turned away with a heavy heart, and wished that he had heeded the raven’s advice.
“You did not obey my counsel,” the raven said, hopping towards him, “and so trouble has come upon you. Get some rest, and tomorrow you shall mount the horse that sleeps in the stable of the giants, that can travel over land and sea, and you will ride it to the land of the Big Women, and sixteen boys will come to meet you and offer your horse food. They will wish to take her saddle and bridle from her, but see that they do not touch her. You must give her food yourself and lead her into the stable and shut the door. And be sure that for every turn of the lock given by the sixteen stable lads, you give one. And now you will give me a piece of tobacco.”
The next morning Ian arose and led the horse from the stable, avoiding being struck by the door, and he rode the horse across the sea to the island of the Big Women, and he was met by sixteen stable lads, and each one offered to take the magic horse and to feed her and put her into the stable. But Ian only answered, “I myself will put her in and see to her,” and so he did, and while he was rubbing her down the horse said to him, “Every kind of drink they will offer you, but see you take none save whey and water only,” and when the sixteen stable boys saw that Ian would take nothing to drink they drank it all themselves and fell into a deep sleep.
Ian was so pleased with himself that he had withstood their fair words, that he forgot the final piece of counsel the horse had given him:
“Do not fall asleep or you will let slip the chance of getting home again,”
But as the stable boys slept a sweet music played and it wasn’t long before Ian slept also. The horse broke through the stable door and kicked him and woke him roughly.
“You did not heed my counsel!” she said, “Who knows if it is not too late to win over the sea? You must take the sword that hangs on the wall and cut off the heads of the sixteen grooms.”
Filled with shame at being once more proved heedless, Ian arose and did as the horse had ordered before running to the well and filling his leather water bottle. He jumped on the horse and they rode back over the sea to the island of the giants where the raven was waiting for him.
“Lead the horse into the stable,” said the raven, “and lie down to sleep, for tomorrow you must make the heroes live again and slay the hag. And have a care not to be so foolish tomorrow as you were today.”
Ian awoke the next morning and hastened to the cave where the old hag was sitting. He crept up behind her and struck her dead where she sat before she could cast any spells on him. He sprinkled the water over the heroes and they came to life again, and together they all journeyed to the other side of the island where the raven met them.
“At last you have followed the counsel that was given to you,” said the raven. “Having learned wisdom, you may return to Grianaig. There you will find that the Knight’s two eldest daughters are to be wedded this day to your two brothers, and the youngest daughter to the chief of the creel haulers. But her gold cap you shall give to me, and if you want it you only have to think of me and I will bring it to you. If anyone asks you where you came from, answer that you have come from behind you, and if anyone asks you where you are going, answer that you are going before you.”
Ian nodded in agreement and gave the youngest daughter’s gold cap to the raven, and he mounted the horse and set her face to the sea, and they rode off away and away until they reached the church in Grianaig. Ian leapt down from the saddle.
“Now,” the horse said, “draw your sword and cut off my head.”
“Poor thanks that would be for all the help you have given me,” Ian answered.
“It is the only way that I can free myself from the spells that the giant laid on me, and on the raven, for I was once a girl and he was my love. I have no fears. Do as I ask.”
So Ian drew his sword as the horse had bade him and cut off her head, and he went on his way without looking backwards.
As he walked, Ian saw a woman standing at the door of her house. She asked him where he had come from and he answered as the raven had told him, that he came from behind. The woman enquired where he was going, and he replied that he was going on before him but that he was thirsty and would like a drink.
“You are an impudent fellow,” said the woman, “but you shall have a drink.” And she gave him some milk, which was all she had until her husband came home.
“Where is your husband?” Ian asked, and the woman answered, “He is at the Knight’s castle, trying to fashion gold into a cap for the Knight’s youngest daughter, like the caps that her sisters wear such as are not to be found in this land.”
As she spoke, her husband arrived home, and when he saw Ian he asked, “What is your trade, boy?” And Ian replied, “I am a smith.”
“Good luck has surely befallen me then,” said the man, “for you can help me to make a cap for the knight’s daughter.”
“You cannot make that cap, and you know it” said Ian.
“Well I must try,” the man replied, “or I shall be hanged, so it would be a good deed to help me.”
“I will help you if I can, but keep the gold for yourself,” Ian said. “Lock me in the smithy tonight and I will work.” So the man, wondering to himself, locked Ian in the smithy. As soon as the key was turned, Ian wished for the raven and it came to him, carrying the cap in his mouth.
“Now take my head off,” the raven said, and remembering what the horse had said, Ian did not hesitate and cut the head off the raven, shutting his eyes tightly so that he wouldn’t see anything. He lay down and slept until the man came and unlocked the smithy door and shook him awake. Ian gave him the cap, and fell asleep again directly.
It was midday when he awoke again, and he beheld a tall, brown haired youth standing before him.
“I am the raven,” the youth said, “and the spells are broken. Now get up and come with me.” And Ian and the youth went together to the palace, and on the way they met a beautiful maiden.
“I am the horse,” the girl said, “and the spells are broken,” and she and the youth that had been the raven went away together.
In the meantime the smith had carried the gold cap to the Knight’s castle and bade a servant belonging to the Knight’s youngest daughter give it to her mistress. When the youngest daughter’s eyes fell on it she cried out, “The smith speaks false, and if he does not bring me the man who gave him this cap I will hang him on the tree beside my window.”
The servant was filled with fear at her words and she ran to tell the smith what the youngest daughter had said. The smith ran as fast as he could to seek for Ian, and when he found him and brought him to the castle the youngest daughter was overjoyed and declared that she would marry him. The Knight of Grianaig was summoned, and when his youngest daughter and Ian had told him their long and winding tale, the Knight agreed that she and Ian should be married. And so they were, with great feasting and rejoicing, and they lived happily together, and if they’re not dead they’re living yet.