A Shetland Folk Tale: Essypattle and the Blue Yow

Essypattle and the Blue Yow is a folk tale from the Shetland Islands, told in days gone by to family and friends around the hearth. It may seem familiar to you, and is a good demonstration of how stories are retold and changed for the different places they are told.

One day the crow was pecking at the window and saying “Go to the blue yow” over and over again. Essypattle ran to the blue yow, worried that it might be in trouble, but when she got to it she felt a change coming over herself.

There was once a sailor who had a lovely wife and a darling daughter who he loved dearly. When he was home from sea he loved to spend time with his little girl and she loved that too. But one time that he was home tragedy struck and his wife took ill and died. He couldn’t go to sea and leave his little daughter, so he stayed home.

However the money was running out and he knew that he had to go back to sea, as he didn’t know any other way to make a living. He decided to marry a widow woman in the next village. She had two daughters, older than his one, but they all promised to treat the little girl with kindness. But they lied. As soon as he was gone they treated her like a slave, making her do all the work around the house.

Although the girl did all the cooking she was given little to eat. She was dressed in rags and had the most miserable life, often crying herself to sleep. If she had any time to herself, which wasn’t often, she would rake out the ashes from the fire and draw pictures in them. He stepsisters mocked her and called her Essypattle (ash-raker), a nickname that stuck.

Essypattle had only two friends, a crow and a blue yow (ewe). A blue yow is a grey sheep that has a blue tinge to its wool when it is parted. No matter how little food she had she would always save some for the crow and she would pet the blue yow.

One day her stepsisters came bustling in saying that the king was going to visit their village and they were going to see him. There was no way that Essypattle would be allowed to go. When they returned from seeing the king they were even more excited, as the king had said that he wanted his son, the crown prince, to marry the girl whose foot fitted a pair of slippers that we would send throughout the land.

One day the crow was pecking at the window and saying “Go to the blue yow” over and over again. Essypattle ran to the blue yow, worried that it might be in trouble, but when she got to it she felt a change coming over herself.

When she looked down she saw that she was wearing a beautiful white dress instead of her rags. She knew that her stepsisters would steal the dress, so she rushed to her room and hid it.

Soon the king’s servant arrived carrying a pair of tiny slippers. Essypattle’s stepsisters saw how tiny they were and one gave up immediately. The other stepsister was determined to be a princess and she cut off her toes with an axe. When the servant arrived the slippers fitted, so he took the stepsister up on his horse behind him and carried her to the castle.

On the way the crow flew over them, crying:

“Nipped fit and clipped fit,
Ower da meadow rides,
While blyde fit and boannie fit,
In da hus bides.”

The king’s servant couldn’t understand the crow’s speech, while the stepsister was in too much pain to speak. When the king saw her he declared that this was no princess and soon found out what she had done. He sent her back with the servant. On the way the crow sang:

“Nipped fit is coarse an pert,
While blyde fit sits by da hert.”

On reaching the house Essypattle washed and bandaged her stepsister’s feet, because she was a kind girl.

The servant saw that she was very pretty and asked if she had a better dress to wear. She said that she did. She ran to wash and put on her dress from the blue yow.

Her beauty was breathtaking and the servant offered her the slippers, which fitted perfectly. The crowned prince fell head-over-heels in love with her, and she with him, and they were married and lived happily ever after.

Tom MuirBy Tom Muir
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.
Supporting Scotland's Year of Stories 2022

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Header image: Shetland sheep on Ward of Norwick photo © Copyright Mike Pennington and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence