Bukolla: A folktale from Orkney

Contributed by Marilyn McPhie


Once long ago, there was a man and a woman who lived in a small cottage in Orkney. They shared the cottage with two
others – their son and a cow. The cow’s name was Bukolla, and the man and woman valued her greatly. Every day she
gave them no less than forty pints of milk. They used some for themselves and sold or traded the rest. Bukolla’s milk
was so plentiful and so rich, that they didn’t have to do any work at all. They also shared the cottage with their son.
And although the story records the cow’s name, it does not tell us the boy’s name. He was not valued in the household,
so his parents referred to him only as “the boy.”
The boy loved Bukolla. As soon as he awoke every morning, he greeted Bukolla. He made sure that every day she was
led to the best and greenest pastures. He sat with her and sang to her. Whenever he was able to trade Bukolla’s milk
for some fresh apples, he always managed to save one or two for Bukolla, for he knew that they were her favorite treat.
Every night before the boy went to sleep he told Bukolla “Good night,” and he wished her sweet dreams.
One morning, the family found that Bukolla was missing. Apparently, she has disappeared during the night. Whether
she had wandered off or had been stolen, they did not know. The man and woman looked around for a while, and not
seeing the cow, they went to the boy. “Go out and find Bukolla, and bring her back,” they demanded. “And if you can
not bring the cow back, do not bother to return.”
The boy set off immediately. He wore only his old clothing and as for shoes, he fashioned three pair of shoes for the
journey, though they were only made of bark, and as for food, he found what he could – one withered apple, a dried
bread crust, and a jar of water. He traveled all that day and finally came to a small hill. Thinking that perhaps he could
see Bukolla from the hilltop, he climbed the hill. He sat for a moment and ate a half of the apple and half of the bread
crust, and he drank half of the water. Then he called in his loudest voice, “Bukolla, my cow, speak to me now.” He
listened, but he heard nothing.
That night, the boy slept in the field. The next morning, he put on the second pair of shoes, for the first were worn
through.
He walked for hours. Coming to another hill, he climbed it. He sat for a moment, ate the other half of the apple, the
other half of the bread – and he drank most of the water. Then he again called in his loudest voice, “Bukolla, my cow,
speak to me now.” Again, he heard nothing.
He spent the second night in the field again, and in the morning, he put on the last pair of shoes and set off again. At
noon, he climbed a third hill. He had no food left, but he drank the remaining water, and again called out, “Bukolla, my
cow, speak to me now.” This time he heard a faint “moo” coming from the base of the hill. He followed the sound and
found Bukolla in a cave, tied to a post, looking forlorn. Quickly, he untied the rope and said, “I have missed you, Bukolla.
I’ll take you home.” He began to lead the cow down the path, away from the cave.
He was surprised when Bukolla spoke. And not just a “moo.” “Thank you for rescuing me,” said Bukolla, “but my
captors are a terrible troll woman and her daughter. When they see that I am missing, they will surely pursue us.”
The boy and the cow hurried down the path, but soon, as Bukolla had warned, they could hear heavy footsteps running
toward them. “That is the troll woman and her daughter,” said Bukolla. “They will soon overtake us.”
“What can we do?” asked the boy.
“Quickly, take a hair from my tail and lay it on the path.”
This the boy did.
The cow spoke, “Become a river, a mighty thing that no one can cross but a bird on the wing.” And just like that, the hair
became a huge river. Bukolla and the boy ran on as fast as they could, but soon the trolls arrived at the river.
“If you think you can stop us with this puny river,” said the troll woman, “you are very much mistaken. Daughter, go and
get my father’s bull.”

Soon the daughter returned with an enormous bull, which lowered its head, and drank and drank and drank, until the
river was dry. Then the two trolls resumed the chase.
When the boy could hear that they were coming close, he again asked, “What shall we do now?”
Bukolla spoke, “Take another hair from my tail and lay it on the path.” This time, the cow said, “Become a fire, a mighty
thing that no one can cross but a bird on the wing.” And the hair became a raging fire. When the trolls came close, the
troll-woman said, “Daughter, get my father’s bull.” When she returned with the bull, it opened its mouth and spewed
out all the water from the river. When the fire was out, they resumed their pursuit.
Once again, the boy asked “What shall we do? Another hair?” He could see a pattern. “Yes,” said Bukolla, and this time
she said, “Become a rock, a mighty thing that no one can cross but a bird on the wing.” And, sure enough, there
appeared a rock as large as a mountain. “Daughter, get my father’s drill.”
The troll daughter returned with a large hand drill, and taking turns, the troll woman and her daughter began to drill a
hole through the rock mountain. After a time, they had made a hole completely through the rock. The troll woman
peered into the hole and could see Bukolla and the boy. She did not have the patience to wait until they had made the
hole larger. She plunged headfirst into the hole they had made, but the troll was large, and the hole was small. Soon
she became wedged tightly in the hole, and no matter how much the daughter pushed and pulled and how much the
troll woman struggled, she could not escape.
It is said that the troll woman stayed wedged in the rock, and in time, she herself turned to rock – which can be seen
even today.
And what of Bukolla and the boy? One story says that he brought the cow back to his parents, but I like to think that the
boy took Bukolla to another town altogether. Bukolla gave even more milk than before, in gratitude for the boy’s rescue
and his kindness. The milk was not only the most plentiful, but also the richest and creamiest milk anyone had tasted, so
it fetched a good price in the market. With the money, the boy was able to build a house and a fine comfortable barn
for Bukolla. Every morning, the boy greeted Bukolla, and every evening the boy said “Good night” to his friend and
wished her sweet dreams. And there were always plenty of fresh apples for Bukolla’s treat. The two of them lived
happily, and the boy shared the milk and the money with everyone in the village.