exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

The Tale of Assipattle and the Stoorworm

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Long, long ago, in the lands to the north, a prosperous farmer lived with his wife and their children: seven sons, and a daughter. The youngest of their sons was named Assipattle. He was a lazy boy, held in great contempt by his brothers whose toil on the farm was increased by his refusal to work the land. Instead, his mother made him sweep the floors, fetch peat for the fire, and all the other menial tasks around the farmhouse that she could persuade him to do, though he would much rather have been lying in the ash pit, daydreaming of adventure.

His brothers laughed at him and bullied him mercilessly, but his sister loved him dearly and treated him with kindness. Every evening she would sit by the ash pit with him and listen to his stories of trolls and goblins and giants in which Assipattle was always the conquering hero. She would lovingly ruffle his unkempt mop of hair, each movement of her hand releasing a puff of ashes into the air.

One day, a messenger arrived from the palace with a message from the king himself. The king asked that the farmer’s daughter be sent to live in the palace with his own daughter, the Princess Gemdelovely, who required a lady in waiting. The farmer and his wife were delighted and did not hesitate to ready their daughter for her new role. She was dressed in her best clothes, and the farmer made her a pair of rivlins from the hide of their finest cow so that she needn’t go barefoot in the palace. Whilst her mother and father and her six hard-working brothers cheered and waved as she rode off to the palace, Assipattle watched her go with great sadness in his heart.

After his sister left, time passed much the same as always for Assipattle until one day a rider passed with grave tidings – a Stoorworm was drawing near to the land. Fishermen tending their nets had caught sight of the giant sea serpent and declared it to be Mester Stoorworm, the largest and most ferocious of all the Stoorworms. Its putrid breath could destroy every living creature on which it fell, laying waste to whole swathes of land, and its forked tongue could drag entire villages into the sea. Its great yawning mouth had turned towards the shore, a warning to all that if not fed, the kingdom and everything in it would soon be consumed. Assipattle desperately wished that he could live up to the roles he played in the stories he used to tell his sister, and that he could slay the Stoorworm.

Fear grasped every heart in the kingdom. The king’s most trusted advisor suggested that they sought the help of a great sorcerer who lived in the kingdom, but the king did not trust magic and did not want to take his advice. The king gathered his advisers and for three days he took counsel, but try as they might, they could not find a way to turn the Stoorworm from the land. Reluctantly, the king agreed to summon the sorcerer and laid the case before him. The sorcerer stroked his long, grey beard.

“The question you put to me is one of great weight, and must not be answered in haste”, he said. “I will return before tomorrow’s sunrise with my answer,” and as quickly as he had appeared in front of the king, so he disappeared again.

The following day, true to his word, the sorcerer returned, and the solution he presented was more horrifying than the king had ever imagined.

“There is but one way to satisfy Mester Stoorworm and save the land,” he said, his booming voice echoing around the king’s counsel chambers. “You must feed the Stoorworm with the seven fairest maidens in the kingdom. If the Stoorwom remains after seven days, a further seven fair maidens must be fed to him. If that does not suffice then there is only one thing that will save us, but it is so terrible that I dare not mention it in the meantime.”

“There must be some other way!” exclaimed the king.

“There is no other way.” said the sorcerer, shaking his head.

And so it came to pass that at dawn the following morning, seven beautiful maidens from the kingdom were wrenched from their families and bound to the rocks that ran into the sea, and the Stoorworm whipped his long tongue out and swept them into his waiting mouth. The people of the kingdom wept, and when they realised that the Stoorworm had not been sated by their sacrifice, their hearts broke as the time for the second sacrifice came and went. They begged the king to find another way to save the land.

The king summoned the sorcerer to him once more and demanded to be told of the second remedy. “Surely it cannot be any worse than what we are doing now” the king reasoned.

“Very well,” said the sorcerer. “Your daughter, your only child and heir to your kingdom, must be given to the Stoorworm. Only then will the monster leave our land.”

The king’s face turned white and he bowed his head as he contemplated the terrible fate of his most beloved daughter, and his counsel sobbed, for they knew how dear the Princess Gemdelovely was to him.

After some time a silence fell on the king’s counsel chambers, and the king arose and spoke with a heavy heart. “She is my only child, and the dearest thing on this earth to me, but if Princess Gemdelovely’s death can save our kingdom and the people in it then she must lay down her life to save the land she so loves.”

And so the Lawman arose to proclaim the doom of the princess. The king asked the counsel for a respite of three weeks, that he might offer his daughter to any champion that would defeat the Stoorworm. His request was granted, and the Lawman spoke the doom of the princess to the kingdom. Messengers were sent far and wide to issue the proclamation that any champion who would come forward and slay the Stoorworm would have the Princess Gemdelovely for his wife, and with their union would come the kingdom to which she was heir, and the famous sword Sickersnapper that the king had inherited from Odin himself.

The news of the princess’s doom spread over the length and breadth of the land, and the people of the kingdom lamented the terrible fate that was to befall her. The farmer and his good wife and their six sons mourned with the rest of their kinsfolk, but Assipattle sat amongst the ashes and said nothing. He turned the problem of the Stoorworm and the princess’s terrible fate over and over in his mind.

Six and thirty champions came to the king’s castle, each confident that they would be the one to triumph since slaying a sea monster seemed such a small thing when there was a wife, a kingdom, and a great sword to gain, but when they saw the Mester Stoorworm with its gaping mouth and great white teeth, twelve of them fell ill and had to be carried home, and twelve of them were seized by fear and ran away. The remaining twelve were disheartened at the thought of what was clearly a hopeless task. They had no spirit left in them at all for each of them knew that when the time came, they would not have the courage to try to kill the Stoorworm.

The three weeks passed slowly, and the twelve remained at the king’s castle with their hearts in their stomachs. On the eve of the day of the sacrifice, the king held a supper. It was a dreich feast, for everyone was so lost in thoughts of the terrible thing that was to happen the next day that there was little eaten and less said.

When all but the king and the Kemperman, the king’s greatest fighter, had gone to rest, the king opened the kist he was sitting on in which all his precious things were kept, and drew out Sickersnapper, the great sword.

“Why are you taking out your sword?” asked the Kemperman. “Let Sickersnapper lie, my king. When your years number fourscore and sixteen it is time to leave such wielding to younger, stronger men.”

“Wheesht!” the king snapped. “Or I’ll try out my remaining strength on you! Do you think I will stand by and see my only child eaten by that monster and not try to save her when no other man will? I will cross my thumbs on the edge of Sickersnapper and swear it: that this sword and I will perish before I let the Stoorworm touch even a hair on her head! Now, my trusty Kemper, ready my boat with the sail set to hoist and the prow pointing out to sea. It is the last service that you will do for me, and I thank you.” And with that, the king bade the Kemperman goodnight.

That night, the whole kingdom had a fitful, broken sleep, for they all knew the fate that was to befall their beloved Gemdelovely the next morning. The farmer and his family were going to set out early to get to the top of the hill near the shore to witness the death of the princess, all except Assipattle, who was to stay at home to herd the geese. But Assipattle had other plans.

That evening he lay as quiet as the grave until the deep, even breathing of his parents told him that they were asleep, then he quickly, silently, crept out of his ash pit and made his way to the stables. His father’s horse, Go-Swift, could ride faster than the wind but only the farmer knew how to control her, or so he thought – Assipattle had overheard him explaining to his wife how he controlled his steed by whistling commands through a goose thrapple. Assipattle saddled and bridled the beautiful mare and led her to the stable door, but Go-Swift was not accustomed to Assipattle and she whinnied and neighed as he climbed on to her back. The noise seemed painfully loud in the stillness of the night, and sure enough, it was only seconds before the farmer and his six sons came running out of the house.

“Stop thief!” called the farmer at the top of his voice as he advanced on the figure that was clinging to the back of his most prized horse, not thinking for a moment that it could be his seventh son.

Assipattle took a goose thrapple from his pocket, took a deep breath, and blew through it. At the sound of the shrill whistle Swift-Go lunged forward and in an instant was bounding over the hills, and the farmhouse was just a speck in the distance. Assipattle was going to kill the Stoorworm.

As daylight began to break in the east, Assipattle and Go-Swift came within sight of the sea. There in the water lay the Stoorworm. The sight of the enormous beast had driven off every champion for miles around, but Assipattle was not afraid. He knew that he did not have the strength needed to fight the beast with swords or arrows, but his mind was sharp and he had his wits about him. He came to a valley where a wee cottage lay, and here he tethered Go-Swift and climbed down from her back. He found the door to the cottage unlocked and pushed it open gently. An old woman lay asleep in the bed. Assipattle quickly looked about him and spotted what he was looking for on a high shelf. He carefully lifted down an iron pot and into the pot he placed a live peat from the smouldering fire, silently thanking the old woman and hoping that she would not grudge him these things if she knew what he was to do with them.

As Assipattle and Go-Swift neared the shore he saw the king’s boat tethered at the water’s edge, guarded by a single boatman. The boat’s sails were set, and its prow faced out to sea, just as the king had requested. Assipattle made his way down to the rocky shore and began searching amongst the rocks, nodding to the boatman. “It’s a nippy morning,” he said. “You must be freezing sitting there.”

“Aye, I’ve sat here all night until the very marrow of my bones is congealed,” said the boatman.

“Why don’t you come on to the sands for a run to warm yourself?” asked Assipattle, as he gathered mussels and limpets from the rocks.

“What would the king say if he were to find me running in the sand and his boat left unguarded? That is more than my head is worth!”

“Wise enough,” Assipattle agreed. “In the meantime, I’ll be lighting a fire to roast my breakfast. Maybe you’ll be able to feel the heat from it and get some warmth,” he added amicably, as he began to dig a hole in the sand to make a fire in. The boatman watched him curiously, his hunger starting to make itself known to him at the thought of roast shellfish.

Only a minute passed before Assipattle leapt up and cried out “Gold, gold! I don’t believe it, gold in the sand!” When the boatman heard this his eyes widened and he instantly forgot all about guarding the king’s boat. He jumped out on to the shore, pushing Assipattle aside and scraping amongst the sand where he had been moments before. Assipattle saw his chance and jumped into the boat, clinging tightly to his pot as he pushed out to sea. As the boatman dug deeper and deeper into the hole that Assipattle had started and found nothing but more sand, he realised he had been tricked. But it was too late. By the time the sun began to peek over the hills, Assipattle was half a mile away from the shore, hoisting his sail and headed straight for the Stoorworm.

Mester Stoorworm was like a mountain rising out of the sea with eyes that glowed like the hottest embers. The forked tongue that had swept whole towns into the sea and dashed countless ships against the rocks lashed about in front of Assipattle. But Assipattle felt no fear. He watched the Stoorworm intently as its vast mouth opened and stretched in a yawn, forcing a flood of seawater down its throat and out again through its huge gills.

Assipattle took down the sail and rested on his oars a moment to gather his thoughts, then he aimed the prow of the boat for the sea monster’s mouth. As the Stoorworm opened his mouth once more, Assipattle and the king’s boat were sucked down into the dark, dank insides of its body. On and on they went, down and down for a long, long way, and as they went the water became more shallow as it washed out of the monster’s gills until it was little more than ankle-deep, and Assipattle found himself wedged at the bottom of the throat.

Assipattle jumped out, pot in hand, and ran and ran until he came to the enormous liver of the Stoorworm. He pulled and pulled at the liver to make a ragged hole and stuffed the still smouldering live peat into it. He blew and blew on the peat until he thought his lips would crack, until at last a flame sprang from it and caught the oil of the liver. In the blink of an eye the fire had spread as far as Assipattle’s eyes could see, and he ran back to the boat as fast as his feet would carry him.

The Stoorworm felt the heat of the fire and convulsed so sharply that the boat was flung up and out of its mouth on to the shore, and Assipattle along with it. The creature twisted and writhed in the water as great clouds of smoke as black as pitch billowed from its mouth and nose. The poor creature – for you would agree, had you witnessed its agonies, that it was now to be pitied, despite its cruelty – tossed its head out of the water, tongue outstretched, and made one final great stretch towards the moon before crashing down and striking the earth with such a force that it made a great dent in it, into which the sea rushed, forming the crooked straits that now divide Denmark from Norway and Sweden. As its head hit the ground, its teeth shot out and came to rest in the sea, becoming the Orkneys and the Shetland Isles. Wracked with pain, the creature twisted itself into a great knot, and died. The knot became the island of Iceland, and the fire that Assipattle had kindled with his live peat inside the monster has burned ever since, fuelling all of Iceland’s hot springs and fire filled mountains.

When it was at last clear that Mester Stoorworm was dead, and the world had come to rest once again, the king took Assipattle in his arms and kissed him and blessed him and called him his son. He took off his mantle and gave it to Assipattle, and girded Sickersnapper around his waist. He called Princess Gemdelovely to him and placed her hand in Assipattle’s and declared that they would be man and wife and rule the kingdom together.

The company mounted their horses and rode back to the palace where Assipattle was reunited with his beloved sister, and she lived happily in the castle with them until the day she died. Assipattle and Princess Gemdelovely loved each other dearly and were married with a great feast, and the kingdom rejoiced, and when the old king died they ruled the kingdom together for many a long year, and if they’re not dead, they’re living yet.

First collected in The Scottish Antiquary, Northern Notes & Queries by Walter Traill 1890