Contributed by Marilyn McPhie
In Scotland many centuries ago, there was a king. He sat on his fine throne in his fine castle, surrounded by riches beyond compare, and he was content – even proud. But one day there came a challenge. An English lord, with lands and warriors and gold of his own, sent a challenge to that Scottish king. In that day and time, challenges came in many guises. The result could be a full-on battle, with thousands of armored men wielding swords and bows and pikes. Or, often a challenge could be of a different sort. A challenge of champions. Each side would put up a representative. The fiercest swordsman, the most accurate archer, the most skilled wrestler. The champions and the arenas could take many forms, and the challenger was the one to choose.
So when the king knew that a challenge was coming, he reviewed the possibilities. His men were strong. He knew that. And skilled and brave. The king thought he could meet any challenge put to him. But he had not anticipated what he got. The challenge was — dancing! And fifteen brave knights were on their way to his castle to take on any champion he could put forth.
The king blanched. His men were skilled at arms. That he knew. But could they dance? He was not confident of that. However, the king thought and thought, and suddenly it occurred to him that his champion could – and must – be none other than the one who was known to all as “The Bonny Lass of Anglesey.” He had never seen her dance – or even met her, for that matter, but she was known far and wide as the most accomplished dancer in the land.
She was from Anglesey, an island known for its mystical atmosphere, but where was she now? The king called his servants and sent them on the search. “Saddle your horses,” he said, “and ride out to bring me the bonny lass of Anglesey. There is no one who can dance like she can dance.” One servant went north, another south, still others east and west – all searching for the bonny lass of Anglesey, but the messenger who went east was the first to find her and bring her back to the court. “Come and dance for the king” he said, “for fifteen English knights have come to dance away his lands and gold.”
“And what will be my reward if I am victorious?” she asked. The messenger was ready with an answer. “The king offers fifteen plows, a mill, and a house.” “That’s no fitting reward,” she replied. “And,” the servant went on, “the husband of your choosing from among the king’s valiant men.” The bonny lass scoffed at this. “Well, I shall come, and we shall see, but none of the king’s knights will ever have me to wife.”
The bonny lass returned with the messenger to the king’s castle, and when they saw her riding toward them, the cry went up, “Huzzah! “Tis the bonny lass of Anglesey.” The king was sure that his lands and gold were now safe from any challenge.
The lass took the hand of the first English knight and began to dance. It had been said that perhaps she was of the fey folk, and her dancing was surely a wonder. She was as lovely as a leaf that danced on the waves of the sea. She was as light as the clouds in the sky. She was as swift as the ocean winds, as strong as the trees, as supple as the grass. It was not long before the first knight gave out, defeated by the lass. She invited the second to dance, then the third and the fourth – until fourteen of the knights had collapsed. And yet the bonny lass of Anglesey seemed as fresh and lively as she had when the day began. Up stepped the fifteenth and last of the English knights. He had urged his fellows to be strong, only to see them fall one by one. Now he laid aside his sword, invaluable in battle but useless in dancing. He glowered at the lass and said through clenched teeth, “I’ll dance you to the ground.” And they began to dance.
They danced high and they danced low, and the knight vowed that he would die before he yielded the victory. They had begun with but two hours until the stroke of midnight, and they danced past that hour and into the dawn of the next day. As the sun rose, the bonny lass of Anglesey was as fresh and lively as ever, but the knight was slow and stumbling, until at last he was forced to admit that the lass had won.
The king cheered the victory and again offered the lass land, a house, a mill – and her choice of a husband. The lass scoffed. “Now I’ll dance for your lands and gold,” she said. And she started in to dance again. Perhaps the king was enchanted or perhaps he knew that she would not stop dancing until she had her reward. Howe’er it was, the bonny lass danced and danced until she had won it all – the gold, the jewels, the swords and buckles – everything that took her fancy. And taking it all, she danced her way back to Anglesey. Did she every find a husband to suit her? Some say yes, and some say no, but all say that she danced and danced whenever she wished and did not stop until she was older than old. One day she entered the fairy realm, when it is said that she dances to this day, the Bonny Lass of Anglesey.