The Black Bull of Norroway

There was once a woman who had three daughters. One day the eldest said, “Mother, bake me a bannock and roast me a collop, for I must seek my fortune.” Her mother provided the food, and the lass went to visit a local witch for advice on where to find her fortune. The witch told her to look out the back door, for her future would come by. On the third day, when she looked out, she saw a coach-and-six, and the witch said, “Yon’s for you.” So the eldest daughter climbed into the coach and went off.

 

The second daughter requested a bannock and a collop for herself, and went off to see the witch. For her part, on the third day, she looked out the back door and spied a coach-and-four. The witch said, “Yon’s for you.” And the second daughter went off.

 

Now the youngest daughter received her bannock and collop and set off to see the witch. She looked out the back door, one day, two days, and on the third day, she saw nothing but a large black bull. To her dismay, the witch announced, “Yon’s for you.” And what could the girl do, but climb on the bulls back? Off they went.

 

After traveling for several hours, the girl was hungry and thirsty, but no food or drink was in sight. However, the bull was kind, and seeing her hunger and thirst, he told her to eat what she found in his right ear and drink what she found in his left ear. It seemed unlikely, but the food and drink she found was delicious. On they went until they came to a fine castle, which the bull declared belonged to his eldest brother. When they arrived, the bull went off to a green pasture, but the girl was treated kindly and given a beautiful apple which she was instructed not to cut open until she had reached the direst circumstance.

 

In the morning, they set off again, and that evening they arrived at another fine castle which belonged to the bull’s second brother. Here again, she was treated well, and upon departure she was given a pear, with the same advice as before. The third day took them to a third castle, the home of a third brother, and she was given a plum.

 

The next day the two came to a large field. The bull set the girl down on a large rock. He told her that he was going to battle with the Old One. If the bull was successful in battle, all around would turn blue, but if everything turned red, she would know that the Old One had triumphed. The girl sat for hours, hearing the battle in the distance. Finally, everything around her turned blue, and in her jubilation, she happened to move. It was just a bit, but it was enough, for when the bull came to look for her, he could not find her.

 

The girl wandered until she came to a glass hill. She wished to climb it, but it was too slick for her. She wept in despair, but finally she came to the house of a blacksmith. He told her that if she served him for seven years, he would make her iron shoes to climb the mountain. This she did. When she finally reached the top of the glass mountain, she came to the hut of a washerwoman who told her that she had been given the task of washing the blood-stained clothing of a gallant knight, but neither she nor her daughter had been able to get them clean, no matter how hard and how long they had scrubbed. Miraculously, when the girl washed the clothing, it came clean as can be in an instant. The gallant knight was so grateful that he said he would marry the one who had laundered his clothing. However, the washerwoman assured him that it had been her own daughter, and so the gallant knight and the washerwoman’s daughter were to be married in three days’ time.

 

The girl was distraught, for she had fallen in love with the knight. She cut the apple, and from it poured forth gold and jewels. All these she offered to the washerwoman’s daughter in return for being able to sit beside the knight that evening. The washerwomen, ever devious, gave a sleeping potion to the knight, so that the girl could only watch and wait, while the knight slept soundly. She wept all night, singing her sad tale:

 

“Seven long years I served for thee,
The glassy hill I clomb for thee,
Thy bloody clothes I wrang for thee;
And wilt thou not waken and turn to me?”

 

The next night, she cut open the pear, which yielded even greater treasures, all of which she exchanged for another night’s watch with the knight. Again, she told her tale:

 

“Seven long years I served for thee,
The glassy hill I clomb for thee,
Thy bloody clothes I wrang for thee;
And wilt thou not waken and turn to me?”

 

But the knight slept soundly as before. The next day, however, the knight was restless and had some notion that he had missed something of great importance. The girl, knowing that it was her last chance, cut open the plum and offered its great treasure for one more chance. That evening, though he was given the sleeping draught, he poured it on the floor, and so was awake when the girl began to tell her tale.

 

“Seven long years I served for thee,
The glassy hill I clomb for thee,
Thy bloody clothes I wrang for thee;
And wilt thou not waken and turn to me?”

 

He sat up and really looked at her. “You are the one who washed my stained clothing.” “I am.” “And you are the one who has sat with me for three nights.” “I have.” “And you are the one I shall marry, for in another form I was a black bull, and we two were promised to each other long ago.”

 

And so it was that the two were married. The wicked washerwoman and her daughter were punished. And of course, the maiden and the knight are still living most happily for aught anyone knows.

— Contributed by Marilyn McPhie