Contributed by Marilyn McPhie
Long, long ago in a village on the island of Islay, there was a smith. He lived in a small cottage with his son, a fine young lad of some twelve years old. The boy’s mother had died years before, so it was just the two of them, and happy they were for the most part.
But then one day when the father was leaving the cottage to begin work at the smithy, he called for his son to come with him, as he had done every day for many years. This day, however, the lad said that he could not come. He was not feeling well, and the father told him to stay home and rest and surely, he would feel better by evening. But after a day of work, the father returned home and found the lad still in bed, sleeping soundly. When he summoned the boy to dinner, the lad simply turned over in his bed and continued to sleep.
After that everything about the lad was different. He had always been healthy and happy and lively, but now he was listless and weary. He languished in his bed day in and day out. He arose only for meals, and although he ate with an enormous appetite, he did not seem any better off for the food. He stayed in his bed, pale, even sallow, and he seemed to be wasting away, growing thinner and paler by the day, until it seemed likely that he did not have long to live.
One day the smith was working at his forge, when a man, one of his regular customers, came in. Seeing the smith, he said, “What is wrong? You look like a man facing death itself.”
“You might be right,” said the smith, “although the death will not be my own but that of my son.” He went on to explain how strangely ill his son had been for several months.
Of course, the friend expressed his sympathy, but he had more to say. “The boy in your house is not your son.”
“What?!” exclaimed the smith. “If it is not my son, then who is it?”
“It is surely one of the fey. They have stolen your son and replaced him with another.”
“Are you certain of what you say?” asked the smith.
“You can be certain,” said the man. “Here is what you must do.”
He instructed the smith to take a dozen eggs, crack them, and save the shells. Then he should fill the half shells with water and with great care arrange them in a semi-circle in front of the fire, making sure that the lad could see this process from his bed.
“If I am correct, the boy will soon inquire what you intend with the water-filled eggshells. You must say that you are waiting for the water in them to boil.”
“But that’s ridiculous!” exclaimed the smith.
“Exactly,” said his friend. “And the lad will surely remark on that. That is one indication that he is not your son. Then you must pile peats on the file until it is good and hot. The lad will notice that and ask why you need such a hot fire. Then you must grab him and move to throw him in the fire.”
“I could never throw my son in the fire for any reason,” burst out the smith.
“Do not worry. If the lad is actually your son, he will cry out in alarm, but if the lad is otherworldly, he will spring up the chimney at once.”
Assured that no one would be harmed in the process, the smith agreed to try.
It happened just as the man had predicted. When the lad who had been languishing in the bed for months saw the water-filled eggshells, he became agitated and asked first about the purpose of the eggshells and then the purpose of the fire. When the smith made to grab him and thrust him into the fire, the boy gave a shout and flew up the chimney.
Now the smith knew that the lad had not been his son after all, but how could he get his own son back?
Once again, the wise friend had some advice. He told the smith to go to a nearby hill, armed with a dirk, an iron bar, and a rooster.
On the appointed night, the smith proceeded to the hill. As instructed, he stamped three times at the base of the hill, and suddenly a beam of light emerged from a crack in the hill. The crack widened, and a door appeared. The father stuck his dirk into the threshold to ensure that he’d be able to escape.
Once inside the hill, the smith proceeded, protected by the iron bar – for it is well known that fairies are repelled by iron. Looking around, the smith saw his son in the midst of the fairies. “Why are you here?” demanded the fairies. “I have come for my son, and I will not leave without him,” replied the smith.
At this, the fairies began to laugh, loud and long. “This you will not do!” cried the fairies. And they began to scream and shout angrily, demanding that the smith leave at once. Of course, the great commotion woke the sleeping rooster concealed in the smith’s coat. The rooster began to flap and crow and with that, the fairies flew into a rage. They grabbed the smith and the son and threw them bodily out of the fairy hill. At the entrance, they discovered the dirk, yanked it out of the threshold and flung it after them.
The fairy hill closed with a bang.
The smith took his son home. He was happy to have rescued him from the fairies, but all was still not well. The lad was listless and silent. The smith took the boy every day to the smithy, but he did no work and just sat while the father worked away hour after hour and day after day.
Then one day as the smith was working away on a fancy sword ordered by a local chieftain, suddenly the lad leaped to his feet and said, “That is not how to make a sword. Let me show you how a sword should be made.”
Startled, the father stepped back, and the lad proceeded to craft a sword, using techniques that had never been seen before. The finished product was the finest sword anyone had seen.
How had the boy known how to make the sword? Was it intelligence, intuition, or perhaps knowledge he’d gained during his stay with the fairies? No one knows, and the lad himself could not say.
But what is certain is that the smith and his son worked in this way from that day forth, and the swords they made were the most finely-forged weapons ever known. The smith and his son were soon famous on the island and beyond for the amazing swords, and so they became not only famous but rich, and they lived out their days in happiness, comfort, and contentment.
All this happened on the island of Islay hundreds of years ago, and it is said that the ruins of that smithy can still be seen today – as can the nearby fairy hill.