Contributed by Marilyn McPhie
This old tale is taken from one of the 350 ballads recorded by James Child in the 19th century.
Once long, long ago on a pleasant summer morn, the Earl of Mar’s daughter was walking with her maids in the garden. The girl looked around at the green grass, the blooming flowers, the clear blue sky. She noticed a small white turtle-dove, the bonniest bird she had ever seen. She called to the bird who flew down and lighted on her hand.
The Earl’s daughter was delighted. She stroked the bird and spoke to it. “My bonnie bird, if you stay with me, I’ll take you back to the castle. Instead of a rough nest, you shall have a golden cage with gold and silver curtains. You will have the finest food, and I will care for you, love you, and cherish you.” To her great happiness, the Earl’s daughter saw that the dove seemed content to stay with her. She took the dove back to the castle, and as she had promised, she had the jeweler make it a golden cage which she hung with gold and silver curtains.
That evening, the Earl’s daughter spoke to the bird kindly and smoothed its feathers. But all of a sudden, it slipped away from her hand, and when she looked, she saw not a bird, but a stranger – a very handsome man! She jumped to her feet in alarm and called out, accusing, “Who are you, and what have you done with my beautiful bird? My door was bolted, so how came you here?”
The man bowed and spoke. “Where is the dove, your sweet cooing dove? I am the dove. My mother who dwells far away on a sea island is rich and noble and powerful – and she commands some magic. She placed a spell on me so that I might go a-wooing – as a dove during the day and a man at night.”
“And will you now go a-wooing?” asked the Earl’s daughter. “No, I will not,” the man replied. “When I first saw you, I knew that you were the one for me, and I do not need to go a-wooing any more. I will stay with you and be your faithful love.”
That pleased the Earl’s daughter. She had loved the dove, and now she loved the man even more. He cautioned her not to tell anyone about his shape-shifting spell. As a dove, he would be vulnerable during the days. She promised, and they clasped hands and plighted their troth.
Years passed in happiness. Seven years. And each year, the Earl’s daughter gave birth to a child in secret. And each year, the dove carried the child away to be cared for by his mother on the faraway isle.
However, the carefree happiness was not to last. The Earl had not paid enough attention to his daughter to notice that she had born seven babes, but he had been thinking about her in his own way, and he decided that it was time for her to marry, He had a groom in mind – a rich nobleman who would bring her costly presents and solidify a relationship which would be of great benefit to the Earl.
He spoke to his daughter of his decision and instructed her to accept the chosen suitor, and he was surprised when the girl wept and declared that she did not want to marry. She was happy with things the way they were. As she spoke, the white dove perched on her arm, and she stroked its feathers and caressed it. Seeing this, the Earl vowed to wring the neck of the dove at dawn the next day and then have her bethothed to the rich suitor by noon.
That night, the couple spoke. “You must fly away and save yourself,” the girl exclaimed. “I must remain here, but I will not betray you, and I will never marry another. I’ll die first.”
The next morning, the Earl sent servants to tell his daughter to prepare to be wed. They were also instructed to kill the dove in the golden cage, but when they burst into the daughter’s room, they found the cage empty and the daughter weeping.
The dove flew back to his mother’s kingdom, where his mother rejoiced to see her son again and called for singing, dancing, and all manner of celebration. But the son declared that this was time for battle, not celebration. He appealed to his mother for magic to transform him into a goshawk and to send him back to his wife with four-and-twenty men transformed into large, gray-feathered storks, and his seven sons transformed into seven swans. The mother knew that her powers were not so great, but she knew of an old woman who had such magic, and the transformations were accomplished. All of the birds then flew over the sea to the Earl of Mar’s castle, and they perched on the trees outside the gate to wait for dawn on the wedding day.
At daylight, the festivities began. Wedding guests streamed into the castle, although as they passed through the gates, they remarked on the many large birds they saw in the trees. Then from the castle emerged the Earl of Mar with his daughter on his arm, bride’s maids and groom’s men following them. As they proceeded down the road to the church, the birds descended from the trees.
The gray-feathered storks seized the wedding guests and bound them so that they were unable to move. The seven swans tied the Earl of Mar and the bridegroom and the groom’s men to a tree. Then the swans lifted up the bride with her maids, and the storks, the swans, the bride and her maids all flew out of sight.
For years after, men and women who were there for the wedding of the Earl of Mar’s daughter told tales of the strangest wedding they had seen in all their lives.
But when the man, who had been a white dove, arrived at his mother’s palace, along with his wife and their seven sons – now finally it was time for the mother to call for singing, dancing, feasting, and general rejoicing. And it must be said, that in time the Earl of Mar learned of the happiness of his daughter. The Earl and the daughter forgave each other, and every year they traveled back and forth for visits which brought joy to all.