exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

The Tale of Kate Crackernuts and the Fairy Dance

Reading Time: 5 minutes

There was a king and a queen, as there so often are, and they each had a daughter, for the queen was not the first wife of the king. The king’s daughter was called Anne, and the queen’s daughter was called Kate, and though Anne was far bonnier than Kate, they loved each other as though they were real sisters. The queen was green with jealousy at the king’s daughter’s beauty and she cast about to spoil it. She took the council of the hen-wife, who told her to send the lassie to her the next morning, hungry.

Morning came and the queen said to Anne, “My dear, go to the hen-wife in the glen and ask her for some eggs.”

So Anne set out to get the eggs, and while she passed through the kitchen she saw a crust, which she took and ate as she walked.

When she came to the hen-wife’s house she asked for the eggs as she had been told to do, and the hen-wife said to her, “Lift the lid off that pot there and get yourself some eggs.”

Anne did so, but the pot was empty.

“Go home to the queen and tell her to keep her larder door better locked, ” said the hen-wife.

So Anne returned to the queen and told her what the hen-wife had said. The queen knew that Anne must have eaten something, so when she sent her to get eggs the next morning she made sure that she had no scran before she left, but the princess saw some countryfolk picking peas by the roadside, and she spoke to them kindly and they gave her a handful of peas, which she ate as she walked.

When she arrived at the hen-wife’s house and asked for the eggs, the hen-wife said to her, “Lift the lid off that pot there and get yourself some eggs.” Anne did so, but the pot was empty. The hen-wife was rare angry and said, “Go home to the queen and tell her the pot won’t boil if the fire’s away.”

So Anne returned to the queen and told her what the hen-wife had said.

The next day the queen took no chances and accompanied Anne to the hen-wife herself. This time, when Anne lifted the lid off the pot, her bonny head fell off, and on jumped a sheep’s head!

The queen was quite satisfied and returned home.

Her own daughter, Kate, had followed Anne and the queen that morning, curious about the goings-on, and she took a fine linen cloth from her pocket and wrapped it around her sister’s head, and she took her by the hand and led her out to seek their fortunes. On and on they went until they came to a castle. Kate knocked on the door and asked for a night’s lodgings for herself and her unwell sister.

When they were shown in they discovered that the castle belonged to a king who had two sons, and one of them was sickening to death and no one could find out what ailed him. The curious thing was that whoever sat up with him at night was never seen again, so the king had offered a peck of silver to anyone who would sit up with him. Kate had no fear and offered to sit up with the king’s son.

All went well until midnight. When twelve o’clock rang, the sick prince rose, dressed himself, and slipped downstairs. Kate followed him closely but he didn’t seem to notice her. The prince went to the stable, readied his horse, and jumped into the saddle. Kate leapt lightly up behind him and they rode away through the greenwood. Kate plucked nuts from the trees as they passed, filling her apron with them.

They rode for some way until they came to a green hill. Here, the prince drew up his horse and said, “Open, green hill, and let the young prince in with his horse,” and Kate added, “And his lady behind him.”

Without hesitation, the green hill opened and they entered a magnificent brightly lighted hall, and many beautiful fairies surrounded the prince and led him off to the dance. Kate hid herself behind the door and watched the prince dancing and dancing and dancing until he could dance no longer, and when he fell down upon a couch in exhaustion, the fairies would fan him till he could rise again and go on dancing.

At last the cock crowed and the prince made all haste to get on back on his horse. Kate carefully snuck out from behind the door and jumped up behind him, and they rode back to the castle.

When the sun rose in the morning, the king came in and found Kate sitting down by the fire, cracking the nuts that she had picked in the forest. Kate assured the king that the prince was fine, but she would not sit up another night unless she was to get a peck of gold, and the king agreed.

The second night passed as the first had done and as the prince danced, Kate saw a fairy bairn playing with a wand and overheard a fairy say, “Three strokes of that wand would make Kate’s sister as bonnie as she ever was,” so Kate rolled the nuts she had gathered past the fairy bairn until the bairn toddled after the nuts and let the wand fall. Kate took it up and put it in her apron, and at cockcrow they rode back to the castle as they had before.

As soon as Kate and the prince returned to the castle she rushed to Anne’s room and touched Anne three times with the wand, and the nasty sheep’s head fell off and Anne was her own pretty self again.

On the third night, Kate told the king that she would not sit up another night unless he would allow her to marry the prince. The king agreed, and Kate and the prince returned to the green hill. As the prince danced, Kate saw the fairy bairn playing with a bird and overheard a fairy say, “Three bites of that bird would make the sick prince as well as he ever was,” so Kate rolled all the nuts she had to the fairy bairn until the bird was dropped and Kate put it in her apron.

At cockcrow Kate and the prince set off again. When they arrived at the castle she plucked the bird and roasted it, and soon there arose a wonderful, savoury smell.

The sick prince roused and said, “I wish I had a bit of that bird, it smells delicious.” So Kate gave him a bite of the bird and he rose up on his elbow, and she gave him another bite and he sat up on his bed, and she gave him a third bite and he rose hale and strong, dressed himself, and sat down with Kate by the fire, and when the king came in later that day he found Kate and the young prince cracking nuts together. Meanwhile, the prince’s brother had laid eyes on Anne’s renewed beauty and had fallen in love with her, and she with him.

And so the sick son married the well sister, and the well son married the sick sister, and they all lived happily, and if they’re not dead they’re living yet.

First collected by Andrew Laing and published in Longman’s Magazine, 1889