The Fisherman of Shetland

P. H. Emerson July 26, 2015
Scottish
Intermediate
10 min read
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    There was a snug little cove in one of the Shetland Islands. At the head of the cove stood a fishing hamlet, containing some twenty huts. In these huts lived the fisher-folk, ruled by one man—the chief—who was the father of two beautiful daughters.

    Now these fishermen for some years had been very lucky, for a fairy queen and her fairies had settled there, and she had given her power over to a merman, who was the chief of a large family of mermaids. The fairy queen had made the merman a belt of sea-weed, which he always wore round his body. The merman used to turn the water red, green, and white, at noon each day, so that the fishermen knew that if they cast their nets into the coloured waters they would make good hauls.

    Amongst these fishermen were two brave brothers, who courted the chief’s daughters, but the old man would not let them get married until they became rich men.

    Whenever the fishermen went off in the boats the merman was used to sit on a rock, and watch them fishing.

    Close by the hamlet was a great wood, in which lived a wicked old witch and a dwarf.

    Now this witch wished to get possession of the merman’s belt, and so gain the fairy’s power. Telling her scheme to the dwarf, she said to him:

    “Now you must trap the merman when he is sitting on the rocks watching the fishing fleet. But I must change you into a bee, when you must suck of the juice in this magic basin, then fly off and alight on the merman’s head, when he will fall asleep.”

    So the dwarf agreed, and it happened as she had said; and the merman fell asleep, and the dwarf stole the belt and brought it to the witch.

    “Now you must wear the belt,” said the witch to the dwarf, “and you will have the power and the fairy will lose her power.”

    They then translated the sleeping merman to the forest and laid him before the hut, when the witch got a copper vessel, saying:

    “We must bury him in this.”

    Then she got the magic pot, and told the dwarf to take a ladleful of the fluid in the pot, and pour it over the merman, which he did, and immediately the merman turned into smoke, that settled in the copper vessel. Then they sealed the copper vessel tightly.

    “Now take this vessel, and heave it into the sea fifty miles from the land,” said the witch, and the dwarf did as he was bid.

    “Now we’ll starve those old fishermen out this winter,” said the witch; and it happened as she had said—they could catch nothing.

    In the spring the queen fairy came to one of the young fishermen who was courting one of the chief’s daughters, and said:

    “You must venture for the sake of your love, and for the lives of the fishermen, or you will all starve—but I will be with you. Will you run the risk?”

    “I will,” said the brave fisherman.

    “Well, the dwarf has got my belt, he stole it from the merman, and so I have lost power over the world for twelve months and a day; but if you get back the belt I can settle the witch; if not, you will all starve and catch no fish.”

    So the bold fisherman agreed to try.

    “Now I must transform you into a bear, and you’ll have to watch the witch and the dwarf, and take your chance of getting the belt; and you must watch where he hides his treasure, for he is using the belt as a means to get gold, which he hides in a cave.”

    And so the sailor was turned into a bear, and he went to the wood and watched the dwarf, and saw that he hid his treasure in a cave in some crags.

    The bear had been given the power of making himself invisible, by sitting on his haunches and rubbing his ears with his paws.

    One night, when it was very boisterous, the bear felt like going to see his sweetheart. So he went, and knocked at the door. The girl opened the door, and shrieked when she saw the bear.

    “Oh, let him in,” said her old mother.

    So the bear came in and asked for shelter from the storm, for he could speak.

    And he went and sat by the fire, and asked his sweetheart to brush the snow from his coat, which she did.

    “I won’t do you any harm,” he said; “let me sleep by the fire.”

    He came again the next night, and they gave him some gruel, and played with him; for he was just like a dog.

    So he came every night until the springtime, when, one morning, as he was going away, he said:

    “You mustn’t expect me any more. Spring has come, and the snows have melted. I can’t come again till the summer is over.”

    So he returned to the wood and watched the dwarf, but he could never catch him without his belt, until one day he saw him fishing for salmon without the belt, and at the same time his sweetheart and her sister came by picking flowers.

    So the bear went up to the dwarf, and the dwarf, when he saw him coming, said:

    “Ah! good bear! good bear! let me go. These two girls will be a more dainty morsel for you.”

    But the bear smote him with his paw and killed him, and immediately the bear was turned into his former self, and the girls ran up and kissed him, and talked.

    Then he took the two girls to the dwarf’s cave, and gave each of them a bag of treasure, keeping one for himself. And taking the belt, he put it on, and they all walked back to the hamlet, when he told the fishermen that their troubles would soon be over—but that he must kill the witch first.

    Then he turned the belt three times, and said:

    “I wish for the queen fairy.”

    And she came, and was delighted, and said: “Now you must come and slay the witch,” and she handed him a bow and arrow, telling him to use it right and tight when he got to the hut.

    So he went off to the wood, and found the witch in her hut, and she begged for mercy.

    “Oh no, you have done too much mischief,” he said, and he shot her.

    Then the queen fairy appeared, and sent him to gather dry wood to make a fire. When the fire was made she sent him to fetch the witch’s wand, which she cast into the flames, saying:

    “Now, mark my word, all the devils of hell will be here.”

    And when the wand began to burn all the devils came and tried to snatch it from the fire, but the queen raised her wand, saying:

      “Through this powerful wand
    that I hold in my hand,
    Through this bow and arrow
    I have caused her to be slain,
    That she may leave our domain.
    Now take her up high
    into the sky,
    And let her burst asunder
    as a clap of thunder.
    Then take her to hell
    and there let her dwell,
    To all eternity.”

    And the wand was burnt, and the devils carried the witch off in a noise like thunder.

    The twelve months were up on that day, and the fairy said to the fisherman:

    “Take your chief and your brother, and put out to sea half-a-mile, where you’ll see a red spot, bright as the sun on the water; cast in your net on the sea-side of the spot, and pull to the shore.”

    They did as the queen commanded, and when they pulled the net on the shore they found the copper vessel.

    “Now open it,” said the queen to the fisherman with the belt, “but cover your belt with your coat first.”

    And he did so, and when he opened the copper a ball of smoke rose into the air, and suddenly the merman stood before them, and said:

      “The first four months that I was in prison,
    I swore I’d make the man as rich as a king,
    The man who released me.
    But there was no release, no release, no release.

      The second four months that I was in prison,
    I swore I’d make the water run red,
    But there was no release, no release, no release.

      The last four months that I was in prison,
    I swore in my wrath I’d take my deliverer’s life,
    Whoever he might be.”

    Whereupon the fisherman opened his coat and showed him the belt.
    Then the merman immediately cooled down, and said:

    “Oh, that’s how I came into this trouble.”

    Then he asked the fisherman with the belt what had happened, and he told him the whole story.

    Then the queen told the fisherman to take the girdle off and put it back on the merman, and he did so; and suddenly the merman took to the sea, and began to sing from a rock:

      “As I sit upon the rock,
    I am like a statue block,
    And I straighten my hair,
    That is so long and fair.
    And now my eyes look bright,
    For I am in great delight,
    Because I am free in glee,
    To roam over the sea.”

    After that the hamlet was joyful again, for the fishermen began to catch plenty of fish; for the merman showed them where to cast their nets, by colouring the water as of old.

    And the two brothers married the chief’s two beautiful daughters, and they lived happily ever afterwards.

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