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Margery White Coats
(A Scottish Tale)

A KING had four daughters, and his wife died, and he said he would marry any one whom his dead wife's clothes would fit. One day the daughters tried, and the youngest only could wear them. The king saw them from a window, and wished to marry her, and she went for advice to her mother's brother. He advised her to promise to marry the king if he would bring her a gown of birds' down, and a gown of the colours of the sky, woven with silver; and when he got that, a gown of the colours of the stars, woven with gold, and glass shoes. When he had got them, she escaped with all her clothes, by the help of her uncle, on a filly, with a magic bridle, she on one side, and her chest of clothes on the other. She rode to a king's palace, hid the chest in a hill under a bush of rushes, turned the filly loose, and went to the palace with nothing on but a white petticoat and a shift. She took service with the cook, and grew dirty and ugly, and slept on a bench by the kitchen fire, and her work was to blow under the great caldron all day long. One day the king's son came home, and was to hold a feast; she went to the queen and asked leave to go, and was refused because she was so dirty. The queen had a basin of water in her hand, and threw it at her, and it broke. She went to the hill, took out the dress of down and silver, and shook her magic bridle; the filly came, and she mounted, and rode to the feast. "The king's son took her by the hand, and took her up as high as any there, and set her on his own lap; and when the feast was over, there was no reel that he danced but he gave it to her." He asked her whence she came, and she said, from the kingdom of Broken Basins; and the prince said that he had never heard of that land, though he had travelled far. She escaped and returned to the cook, and all were talking about the beautiful lady. She asked about her, and was told not to talk about what she did not understand, "a dirty little wretch like her." Then the prince had another feast; and she asked leave again, and the queen refused, and threw a candlestick at her, and it broke, and she did as before. She put on another dress and went; the king's son had eight men on each side of the door to catch her. The same scene went on, and she said she came from the country of Candlesticks--"TIR NAN COILLEARAN," and escaped, leaving a glass shoe. Then the king's son fell sick (of course), and would only marry the woman whom the shoe would fit; and all the ladies came and cut off their toes and heels, but in vain. Then he asked if there was none other. Then a small creature put his head in at the door and said, "If thou didst but know, she whom thou seekest is under the cook." Then he got the history of the basin and candlestick from his mother. The shoe was tried and fitted, and he was to marry Morag. All were in despair, and abused her; but she went out to her chest, shook the magic bridle, and arrayed herself, and came back on the filly, with a "powney" behind with the chest. Then all there that had despised her fell on their knees, and she was married to the prince. "And I did not get a bit there at the wedding," said the girl.

Campbell's Notes on the Tale

This was told as we walked along the road, and is but a short outline of what was told me, written from notes made in the evening. The man said that the girl told it with a great deal of the queer old language, which he could not remember.

The girl and her chest on the same horse may be seen in the Highlands. The girl, in her white coats and short gown, may be seen blowing the fire in highland inns, the queen's likeness might be found; and the feast is a highland ball; the filly and the magic bridle are common in other stories; the incidents of the basin and candlestick have an equivalent in Norse; and I got them from a woman at the Sound of Barra afterwards, in another story. This shows what may be lost by dignified travelling. While the man was enjoying himself in the kitchen, the employer was smoking in solitary dignity, up stairs in his bed-room, writing a journal, and utterly unconscious that the game he pursued was, so near.

I have other versions of this tale from other sources, and may find room for them hereafter.

The beginning is clearly the same as the French story of "Peau d'Ane," and the end of it is the same as the Norse "Katie Wooden Cloak;" that is the same as Mr. Peter Buchan's "Rashen Coatie" (MSS. collection); and that again has something of "The Sharp Grey Sheep" in Gaelic; and that has to do with half a dozen stories in Grimm; and this is like "Cinderella," and like a Scotch story, quoted in a review of Chambers' Nursery Rhymes in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine.

In fifteen volumes which I explored one fine day, to see if Tait could account for highland stories, I found few popular tales; and of these taken from the German, which I did find, I have found none in the west, so far as I can remember. Tait's stories are polished, but in some of the original poetry legends can be traced.

"Finette Cendron," in the collection of the Contesse d'Aulnoy, belongs to the same class; and the story exists in Straparola, a book which is now very little known, and which deserves to be forgotten, but which contains useful information nevertheless. Those who hold that popular tales are derived from books, will look on Straparola's story as the original. It was printed at Venice in Italian in 1567, that is 293 years ago. Those who hold that popular tales are preserved in all countries, and in all languages alike, will hold that the Italian, German, French, Norse, English, and Gaelic, are all versions of the same story, and that it is as old as the common stock from which all these races sprang.

After working for a year, and weighing all the evidence that has come in my way, I have come to agree with those who hold that popular tales are generally pure traditions; but in order that others may judge, I give the following short outline of the story in Straparola. Favola iv.

Tebaldo, prince of Salerno, promises to his dying wife, that he will only marry another, if he can find one whom a certain ring will fit. After a time the promise becomes known, and it is noised abroad that the prince wishes to marry again. Ladies come; but the ring is too small for one, too large for another, and fits no one. One day, Doralice, the daughter of Tebaldo, tries on her mother's ring, and shows her father that it fits, and then the same strange unnatural wish to marry his daughter seizes the Prince of Salerno that seizes the fathers in the French and Gaelic stories, and caused the Cenci tragedy; but the French and Gaelic stories have something about dresses, which the Italian has not.

Doralice goes to her old nurse for advice, and hides herself in a wardrobe which none could open from without but the nurse, who puts in a supply of a certain liquor, of which a spoonful, however small, would keep a person alive for a long time. The wardrobe is described, and it is such a one as would be found in an Italian palace. The father, having missed the daughter, cannot abide the sight of the wardrobe, orders it to be carried to the piazza by servants, and it is sold to a Genoese merchant. He carries it over sea in a ship to Britannia, and there sells it to the king "Genese."

Here let me remark that the form of the popular tale was exactly the same as it is now, nearly three hundred years ago. The scene is laid somewhere a long way off; the names are those which the narrator happens to know, misapplied; the ornaments are those about him; and the incidents. within a certain range, are preserved entire. The story is an old play, with new scenery, and decorations in every country, and with fresh actors in every age.

King Genese of England comes on board the ship, and is taken with the beauty of the wardrobe, buys it, and has it taken to his own chamber. The hidden lady comes out when she is left alone, adorns the chamber, sweeps it and keeps it neat, and at last she is discovered, and the king marries her.

And here the Italian story goes off on quite a different road. It does as popular tales seem to do everywhere else. No sooner has a seeming origin been discovered for one bit, than the whole changes into something else. It is as if some convulsion were to overturn the Vatican, and break the statues once more, and some future antiquary were to try to fit the heads, legs, and arms to the proper bodies. The head of Apollo would not do for the Torso Farnese, but it might seem to fit some strapping Venus, and her arms might go on to some Apollino; and so, when only a few fragments of popular tales are known, it is perfectly hopeless to try to restore them. If all the fragments of all the statues in the Vatican were gathered together, then there might be some hope of mending them; but some are strongly suspected not to wear their own heads even now. If all the fragments of all the popular tales in the world were gathered, something might be reconstructed; but, unless each collector is content to bring his gatherings without alteration, the restorer will have hard work.

But to return to Straparola. The king marries the beautiful lady who keeps his room so tidy in so mysterious a manner, and they have two sons. The wicked Tebaldo, wandering over the world in disguise, arrives in Britain, knows his daughter, obtains access to the palace, murders the two children, and leaves a bloody knife in the Queen's possession. An astrologer is consulted, tells that the knife will be found, and it is found in the Queen's keeping; and she is to die. The astrologer, who knows everything, goes off to the old nurse, who comes at once to England, and tells the king all that has happened. Tebaldo is caught, and torn to pieces by four horses, and his flesh given to rabid dogs.

So end the wicked in many Gaelic tales. "He was torn between horses, burned amongst fires, and his ashes let fly with the wind," is the end of one.

The French story, "Peau d'Ane," is in "les Contes des Fées de Charles Perrault," the wicked father was sent for "Robes," "Couleur du temps," "Couleur du soleil," "Couleur de la Lune," and got them; and then for a donkey's skin, in which the lady disguised herself. But then the French story goes off on another road, for the donkey was precious and magical, and pieces of gold were found in his stall; and he belongs to another class of stories, which have Gaelic relations. (Perrault died 1703).

And so popular tales are woven together in a network which seems to pervade the world, and to be fastened to everything in it. Tradition, books, history, and mythology, hang together; no sooner has the net been freed from one snag, and a mesh gained, than another mesh is discovered; and so, unless many hands combine, the net and the contents will never be brought to shore.

Campbell, J. F. Popular Tales of the West Highlands: Orally Collected. London: Alexander Gardner, 1890-1893. (Reprint available from Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1969.)


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