An Orkney Folk Tale: How Tam Scott Lost His Sight
This traditional folk tale from Orkney deals with some slippery customers, and would been told in the past in crofts on a winter’s night. We hope you enjoy it!
Tam saw this strange man coming along the pier, leading a blue cow on a rope. Tam was going to help the man get the cow into the boat, but the stranger picked up the cow like it was a cat and set it in the boat.
Tam Scott was a sailor who lived on Sanday and carried people and goods between the islands. One day he took a group of passengers to Kirkwall, as the Lammas Fair was in full swing. This was a market that was held in August under the shadow of St Magnus Cathedral.
As Tam walked through the fair a stranger approached him and greeted him by name. He was tall and strongly built, with black hair and beard. He asked Tam if he could hire his boat, to take a cow to one of the North Isles, and as he was taking him away from the fair early he would pay him well for it. Tam agreed and they arranged to meet in an hour’s time down at the pier.
Tam saw this strange man coming along the pier, leading a blue cow on a rope. Tam was going to help the man get the cow into the boat, but the stranger picked up the cow like it was a cat and set it in the boat. Tam was amazed by the man’s strength. They set off from Kirkwall and Tam tried to start a conversation, but the only answer he got from the stranger was “A close tongue keeps a safe head.”
As they sailed north, Tam asked if he wanted to land at Shapinsay. “East of Shapinsay” said the man. Tam tried again to chat with the man, but got the same reply. He asked the man if he wanted to land at Stronsay, but the man said “East of Stronsay.” They sailed on and Tam asked the man where he would like to land in Sanday. “East of Sanday” said the man. Tam protested that the only thing east of Sanday was Norway, and his boat was too small for such a voyage, but the man ordered him to keep sailing.
Tam saw a fog lying on the sea and said that they should turn back. “A close tongue keeps a safe head” said the man. Tam said that they may end up with no heads if the fog covered them and they got lost. But as they sailed towards it the fog lit up, like the sun was shining through it. The man sprang towards Tam and said that he must be blindfolded.
Tam remembered the man’s strength and allowed his eyes to be covered. But the man didn’t cover his eyes properly, so Tam could see a bit of what was happening. He saw a beautiful green island, with blue cattle and fields of corn swaying with the breeze. There were lovely houses and on the shore the mermaids sang a song that almost made Tam go mad with joy. He knew that this stranger was a fin man, a race of magical beings who live under the sea and on magical islands that float on its surface.
He felt the boat touch a gravel beach and he heard the voices of people who lifted the cow out of the boat and threw in a bag of money. His boat was pushed back into the sea and when he took off his blindfold he was back in the fog. He soon passed through it and saw the familiar sight of Sanday before him.
The following year, Tam was back in Kirkwall enjoying the Lammas Fair. He spotted, in the crowd, the fin man who had taken him to the magical island of Hildaland. Tam greeted the man warmly, “It’s good to see you” he said, “What have you been doing since I last saw you?”
The man’s face grew dark and he took a small box out of his pocket. Tam thought it was a snuffbox and that he was going to offer him some.
“Did you ever see me?” said the man, “Then you’ll never have to say you saw me again.” With that the man held the open box towards Tam and blew some powder from it into Tam’s eyes. They burned, then went dark and he was blind ever after.
You see, there are many foul hearts hidden beneath a fair face and you should not be too friendly with strangers.
Tom is a champion of folk tales from Orkney, bringing them back to the public through books and as a professional storyteller. His day job is at the Orkney Museum. Along with his wife, Rhonda, he runs Orkneyology.com to bring more stories into the world at a time when they are much needed.