More Celtic Fairy Tales: The Farmer of Liddesdale

I'll save Joseph Jacobs's sly remarks for the end of the story (see below), not wanting to give it away here! Meanwhile, James MacDougall notes in his commentary on this story: "Màrt here means the fit time for doing any particular part of agricultural work. For example, the Màrt-cuir is the fit time of sowing. This began on the twelfth day of April and ended at Bealltainn or Mayday. No sowing should take place before the former day, or after the latter. The following old rule was strictly observed: Let the weather come bad or good, sow the seed in the right Màrt. Màrt-fuine, or the fit time of baking, began on the twelfth day of August. It was so called because no part of the growing corn was cut, and the meal made from it baked into bread before that day arrived. Màrt-buana, or the fit time of reaping, began on the twelfth day of September. The Farmer, having done everything in the appointed season, appeals to Providence for help. "

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Celtic Fairy Tales (2) unit. Story source: More Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs with illustrations by John D. Batten (1895).

The Farmer of Liddesdale

THERE was in Liddesdale (in Morven) a farmer who suffered great loss within the space of one year. In the first place, his wife and children died, and shortly after their death the ploughman left him. The hiring-markets were then over, and there was no way of getting another ploughman in place of the one that left. When spring came, his neighbours began ploughing, but he had not a man to hold the plough, and he knew not what he should do. The time was passing, and he was therefore losing patience. At last he said to himself in a fit of passion, that he would engage the first man that came his way, whoever he should be.

Shortly after that a man came to the house. The farmer met him at the door, and asked him whither was he going, or what was he seeking. He answered that he was a ploughman, and that he wanted an engagement.

"I want a ploughman, and if we agree about the wages, I will engage thee. What dost thou ask from this day to the day when the crop will be gathered in?"

"Only as much of the corn when it shall be dry as I can carry with me in one burden-withe."

"Thou shalt get that," said the farmer, and they agreed.

Next morning the farmer went out with the ploughman and showed him the fields which he had to plough. Before they returned, the ploughman went to the wood and, having cut three stakes, came back with them and placed one of them at the head of each one of the fields. After he had done that, he said to the farmer, "I will do the work now alone, and the ploughing need no longer give thee anxiety."

Having said this, he went home and remained idle all that day. The next day came, but he remained idle as on the day before. After he had spent a good while in that manner, the farmer said to him that it was time for him to begin work now because the spring was passing away, and the neighbours had half their work finished.

He replied, "Oh, our land is not ready yet."

"How dost thou think that?"

"Oh, I know it by the stakes."

If the delay of the ploughman made the farmer wonder, this answer made him wonder more. He resolved that he would keep his eye on him and see what he was doing.

The farmer rose early next morning and saw the ploughman going to the first field. When he reached the field, he pulled the stake at its end out of the ground and put it to his nose. He shook his head and put the stake back in the ground. He then left the first field and went to the rest. He tried the stakes, shook his head, and returned home. In the dusk he went out the second time to the fields, tried the stakes, shook his head, and after putting them again in the ground, went home. Next morning he went out to the fields the third time. When he reached the first stake he pulled it out of the ground and put it to his nose as he did on the foregoing days. But no sooner had he done that than he threw the stake from him and stretched away for the horses with all his might.

He got the horses, the withes, and the plough, and when he reached the end of the first field with them, he thrust the plough into the ground and cried: "My horses and my leather-traces, and mettlesome lads,
the earth is coming up! "

He then began ploughing, kept at it all day at a terrible rate, and before the sun went down that night, there was not a palm-breadth of the three fields which he had not ploughed, sowed, and harrowed. When the farmer saw this he was exceedingly well pleased, for he had his work finished as soon as his neighbours.

The ploughman was quick and ready to do everything that he was told, and so he and the farmer agreed well until the harvest came. But on a certain day when the reaping was over, the farmer said to him that he thought the corn was dry enough for putting in. The ploughman tried a sheaf or two, and answered that it was not dry yet. But shortly after that day, he said that it was now ready.

"If it is," said the farmer, "we better begin putting it in."

"We will not until I get my share out of it first," said the ploughman. He then went off to the wood, and in a short time returned, having in his hand a withe scraped and twisted. He stretched the withe on the field and began to put the corn in it. He continued putting sheaf after sheaf in the withe until he had taken almost all the sheaves that were on the field.

The farmer asked of him what he meant.

"Thou didst promise me as wages as much corn as I could carry with me in one burden-withe, and here I have it now," said the ploughman, as he was shutting the withe.

The farmer saw that he would be ruined by the ploughman and therefore said:

'Twas in the Màrt I sowed,
'Twas in the Màrt I baked,
'Twas in the Màrt I harrowed.
Thou who hast ordained the three Màrts,
Let not my share go in one burden-withe.

Instantly the withe broke, and it made a loud report, which echo answered from every rock far and near. Then the corn spread over the field, and the ploughman went away in a white mist in the skies, and was seen no more.

Joseph Jacobs notes: "I need scarcely suggest the identification of the ploughman with the … . As usual in folk-tales, that personage does not get the best of the bargain. The rustic Faust evades his contract by a direct appeal to the higher powers. This is probably characteristic of Scotch piety."

(1000 words)

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