The White Fairy Cow of Calanais

Contributed by Marilyn McPhie

If you have ever been to Scotland, you know that legends and lore are everywhere to be seen and heard.  They are as ubiquitous as the taste of haggis or the skirl of the bagpipes.

It seems that every church, every crossroads, every ancient tree – and certainly every stone has its story.

Here is one:

Many centuries ago, the survival of families was precarious.  War, disease, accident – all could bring on an early demise.  And in the winter, there was always a great fear of starvation.  Men went hunting for whatever animals, large or small, they could find.  Women carefully counted the cabbages and other provisions.  Would there be enough to last?

In this long ago time on the island of Lewis, one winter was especially harsh, and the people were suffering.  One woman, the mother of six children, was very worried.  Every day, it seemed, her children grew thinner, their cheeks paler, their voices weaker.  The mother had done what she could, but hunger and cold and the suffering of her children had brought her to the edge of despair.   And so it was that one day she went down to the sea, near the standing stone of Calanais.    She called out to the spirits that dwelt in the waters.  She begged them for help, for food.  And she waited.  If she had expected a voice or a visit, she was sorely disappointed, and so she waded into the freezing waters, intending to end her own life.

Just as she stood  waist-deep in the water, she saw coming out of the sea a strange sight.  It was a cow, a white cow with red ears.  It was not a cow she’d ever see before.  Certainly it didn’t belong to any of her neighbors.  But it looked at her with its large eyes, and it seemed to say to the woman to go home and all would be well.

So she turned and left the sea, and returned to her cottage, where she put more water into the thin soup that was their only food that night.

The next morning, however, the mother heard a strange sound outside her door.  It was the moo of a cow. She opened the door, and standing there was the white cow with red ears.   It stood silent and still, but there seemed to be an invitation in its eyes.  Taking a chance, the mother picked up a stool and a pail, and followed the fairy cow to the Calanish stones, which modern scientists tell us are more than 5,000 years old.  There by the ancient stones, the woman set out to milk the cow.  And, wonder of wonders, the milk flowed until the pail was full.  What joy there was in that cottage that day, for fresh milk was a treat that had not been available for a long, long time.

The next morning, as the woman woke her children, she fancied that they seemed stronger, their cheeks rosier, their eyes brighter than the day before.  And yet another wonder – when she took her pail down to the stones, there was the cow, ready to be milked.

After several days of this, the woman shared her experience with her neighbors.  Could they milk the cow, too, they wondered.  The mother invited them to try.  And the cow gave milk to every village woman who came with an empty pail.  The milk flowed until the pail was full, and then it stopped until the next woman stepped up to try.  They realized soon enough that every woman in the small village could fill a pail with milk every day.

It was surely a blessing and a miracle, but of course, there’s always someone who wishes for more.  One woman, newly arrived in the village, grew suspicious and unsettled when she was told of the fairy cow and the milk. Why only one pail of milk?  Why not get more?  After all, the extra milk could be sold in the nearby market.  Sold for money.  Why not?

One day, the dissatisfied women came early to milk – and she brought not one pail, but two.  The milk filled one pail, and then the flow stopped.  There was not another drop to be had that day.  When the other village women realized what had happened, they were angry.  But the greedy woman was angry, too.  Why should she not have more milk?  Why was the cow so stubborn?

Anger can cloud the mind, and it surely did hers.  The next day she came with one pail, but though it couldn’t be readily seen, the pail had a sieve on the bottom.  The greedy woman milked and milked and milked and felt quite clever.

But that day the cow returned to the sea, and the next morning, it was nowhere to be seen.  In fact, the miraculous fairy cow never returned.  Luckily, it was almost spring, and the women of the village found other ways to provide for their children, but they always remembered the winter that the white cow appeared and saved their starving children, and they always told the story to their children, making sure to point out the folly of being too greedy.