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The Fair Maid and the Snow-White Unicorn

A Scottish Folktale

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"A Magical Tale"

n.b: A “besom” is a broom.

Long, long ago – when there was still magic in the world and things were not always what they seemed to be – in a ruined castle in the far north of England there dwelt a Fair Maid, with eyes as black as the sloes on the blackthorn in November and skin as white as its blossom in March. Once, her family had been rich and powerful, owning all the land around as far as the eye could see and the castle had been in good repair, full of servants to wait on the family and soldiers to protect them from all dangers. Over the years, however, war and misfortune had come upon them, so that all that was left of the once-proud family was the Fair Maid, with eyes as black as the sloes on the blackthorn and skin as white as its blossom, a Maid who went barefoot, and wore patched and faded gowns of silk and velvet.
The little land that had not been sold was overgrown and sadly neglected, providing just enough food for one white cow with red ears, two gray sheep and three speckled hens. Instead of the many servants to care for the Maid and to look after her, there was only an Old Crone, bent and wrinkled; and instead of the soldiers to guard her, there was only a Unicorn.
He was a splendid creature, as white as the first fall of snow on Muckle Cheviot, the highest of the nearby hills; he resembled a young deer except that, instead of antlers, he had one horn growing from the middle of his velvety forehead, and his eyes, unlike the brown eyes of the deer, were as blue as the speedwell which grew in the castle moat.
As the years passed, travelers began to talk of having caught a glimpse of this Maid who wandered barefoot over the lonely hiss, and who was accompanied everywhere by a snow-white Unicorn; hearing this, the young men in the land thought to themselves what fine sport it would be to hunt such a rare creature and to kill it, and then to woo the Fair Maid and marry her.
Through the green valleys and over the heather-clad hills they journeyed, until they came within sight of the ruined castle, and there they hid themselves behind clumps of trees or great boulders, and waited. When at the last the Maid appeared with her snow-white Unicorn, each man prepared to draw his bowstring, thinking that never had he hunted a finer beast, or wooed a fairer maid; but, at the very moment that the hunters were about to let fly their deadly, goose-feathered arrows, the Unicorn shook his head, so that each huntsman felt as though he had been turned to stone, and helpless and speechless he remained until maid and beast had passed out of sight.
“Who wants to hunt a unicorn in these bleak hills?” the young men cried angrily, when they returned to their homes.” As for the Maid, she dresses like a beggar and is far from beautiful. No man in his senses would dream of wooing her.” And not one of them admitted how helpless he had been when the Unicorn had shaken his head.
So the word spread that the Maid was both poor and ugly, and the Unicorn not worth the hunting. Soon People forgot all about them and the Maid dwelt happily in her ruined castle with the Old Crone, and roamed the hills and valleys with the Unicorn by her side.
Now it happened that one fine, spring morning the Maid and Unicorn wandered farther a field than usual, climbing right over Muckle Cheviot itself and down into a valley where the banks were ablaze wit the golden flowers of the bonnie broom, and where, in the distance, a grey stone farmhouse huddled against the steep hillside.
“What sound is that?” the Maid cried, halting suddenly and looking around her. “It is only the feet of the wind in the bonnie broom,” the Unicorn answered. “It is that, and it is more than that,” the Maid said. “It is the sad, soft cry of those who have been rejected, and it breaks my heart to hear it. Who are you?” she called out, “Why do you weep so bitterly?” At that, a little man, old and bearded, and wrinkled, stepped from under the bonnie broom beside her. “We are the little People, Fair Maid,” he said, “and we weep because we have nowhere to go. Ever since yonder farm was built, I, who am the Oldest and Wisest, have lived there with my people – with my children, and my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren. “This spring, a new farmer moved in, and his wife says she has no time for the Little People, no butter to spare for our bread, no milk to give us for our babies. She swept us all out with a heather besom, than locked and bolted the door; and now my people weep because they are frightened and hungry and homeless.”
“My castle has long lacked a roof,” the Maid said. “the wind sighs o’nights and whistles along the passages, and the rain drives through the windows, but the kitchen is snug and warm. If the old Crone and the Unicorn are willing, you may share it with us and live there as long as you please.” “I am willing,” the Unicorn said. “I am willing,” the Old Crone muttered, when the Maid retuned to her castle with the Little People clustering anxiously about her. And she skimmed some of the cream from the basin beside her, and set down on the hearth for the Little People, and cut a thick crust off the loaf she had just baked, and set it beside the cream. “You shall have no cause to regret this day,” said the Oldest and Wisest to the Maid. “You shall have no cause to regret this day,” his people agreed.
After they had drunk the cream and eaten the bread, the women and children set up their tables, chairs, cooking pots and all their possessions on the left-hand side of the great fireplace, while the men scurried about the ruined castle, probing and rapping and banging, nodding their head as one and stroking their beards, their eyes gleaming with excitement.
That night, while the Maid slept soundly on the right hand of the kitchen fireplace, with the Unicorn at her feet, and the Old Crone stretched out on a settee, the castle was filled with the sound of singing and whistling, with the buzz of little saws and the tap of tiny hammers. When the Maid awoke the next morning, she found, to her surprise, that a new roof covered the castle and that no longer could the wind enter at will. All the next night the Little People worked, and when the Maid awoke on the second morning, she found, to her amazement, that the doors had been renewed, and glass put in the windows, so that no longer could the rain and snow enter at will. While the Maid slept on the third night, the Little People worked harder than ever before; and when she awoke on the third morning, she found, to her astonishment, all the rooms furnished and restored, as they had been when the family was rich and powerful. The walls were hung with tapestries, the beds furnished with warm coverings, while the long table in the great Hall was set with goblets of Venetian glass and dishes of the finest silver.
“Now there is no need for us to live in the kitchen,” the Oldest and Wisest said. “If you are willing, we shall make our home henceforward in the room at the top of the west tower.” “I am willing,” the Maid said. “But I must ask the Unicorn and the Old Crone too.” “We are willing,” answered the Unicorn and the Old Crone.
That night, for the first time in her life, the Maid slept in the big four-poster bed in the Great Bedroom. When she awoke the next morning and looked out of the window, she found to her delight that the fields had been ploughed and sown and harrowed, and that where there had been one white cow with red ears, now there were a hundred; where there had been two grey sheep, now there were two hundred, and instead of three speckled hens, now there were three hundred.
“How ever can I thank you for all you have done for me?” she asked the Oldest and Wisest. “By accepting one word of advice,” he answered.” Your castle is repaired, your lands cultivated and your flocks and herd are thriving. All that is lacking is a husband for you and a master for the castle.” “A master,” the Old Crone agreed. “A husband,” the Unicorn whispered, with a strange look in his blue, blue eyes. “Very well,” the Maid said. “How shall I set about finding a husband for myself and a master for the castle?” “Leave that to me,” answered the Oldest and Wisest. “I shall bid the birds spread the news that suitors for your hand may present themselves here on the first morning of May.”
Joyfully the birds spread the news that, in her castle in the lonely hills, the Maid awaited her suitors, so that from the Frozen North and the Warm south, from the Eastern Seaboard and the Western Isles, the princes journeyed forth.
The first to arrive was the Prince of the Frozen North, a handsome warrior, who talked of battles and the joyful sound of steel against steel in hand-to-hand fights. Never, the Maid, thought, had she met such a brave and handsome prince – which was not surprising , as he was the first man she had ever spoken to. “I shall marry you,” she said, “if you can give me the right answer to one question. Would you have room in your castle for the Little People?” “The Little People?” the Prince cried. “Why, they were all killed a long time ago, and a good thing too, for all they did was interfere and cause trouble.” “You are not the husband for me, nor the master for this castle,” the Maid declared, and the Prince of the Frozen North departed in anger, while the Unicorn sighed softly.
The second to arrive was the Prince of the Warm South, a handsome huntsman, who talked of the thrill of chasing deer and hares, and the joyful sound of the horn in the green woods. Never, the Maid thought, had she met such a splendid and handsome prince –which was not surprising, as he was only the second man she had ever spoken to. “I shall marry you,” she said, “if you can give me the right answer to one question. Would you have room in your castle for the Little People?” “The Little People?” The prince cried. “Why, they were chased away from this country years ago, and a good thing too, for all they did was make a nuisance of themselves.” “Then you are not the husband for me, nor the master for this castle,” the Maid declared, and the Prince of the Warm South departed in anger, and again the Unicorn sighed softly.
The third to arrive was the Prince of the Eastern Seaboard, a handsome sailor who talked of storms and shipwrecks, and the joyful sound of the sea surging on the sandy shore. Never, the Maid thought, had she met such a valiant and handsome prince – which was not surprising, as he was only the third man she had ever spoken to. “I shall marry you,” she said, “if you can give me the right answer to one question. Would you have room in your castle for the Little People?” “The Little People?” The prince cried. “Why, they were all drowned years ago, and good riddance to bad rubbish, say I.” “Then you are not the husband for me, nor the master for this castle,” The maid declared, and the Prince of the Eastern Seaboard departed in anger, while the Unicorn sighed hopefully.
The fourth and last to arrive was the Prince of the Western Isles, a handsome musician, who sang sweetly to the accompaniment of his harp, of the magic of old, half-forgotten days. Never, the Maid thought, had she met such an accomplished and handsome prince, - which was not surprising, as he was only the fourth man she had ever spoken to. “I shall marry you,” she said, “if you can give me the right answer to one question. Would you have room in your castle for the Little People?” “The Little People?” The prince cried. “Why, they do not exist and they never did. They were created by story-tellers, poets and musicians like me, and without us, they have no life of their own.” “Then you are not the husband for me, nor the master for this castle,” the Maid declared, and the Prince of the Western Isles departed in anger, while the Unicorn watched, but made never a sound.
“They were all brave and handsome young men, Oldest and Wisest,” the Maid said, “but not one of them would have allowed you and your people to stay here as I promised. What shall I do now?” “Follow your heart,”: the Old Crone snapped, before the Oldest and Wisest could answer. The Maid thought for a moment, and then turned to the Unicorn. “If you were a prince, would you have room in your castle for the Little People?” She asked. “Always,” the Unicorn answered.
“Then I shall marry you because, ever since I can remember, you have looked after me, and been good and kind to me, and also because you love the Little People as I do.” The Maid declared. Because all this happened long, long ago – when there was still magic in the world, and things were not always what they seemed to be – the snow-white Unicorn sighed again. And disappeared. And in his place there stood a prince who was braver, and more handsome, and much, much wiser than any of the four suitors who had journeyed to woo the Maid on that May morning. So the Maid and the Unicorn-Prince were married, and they, and the Old Crone, and all the Little People with their leader the Oldest and Wisest, lived happily and prosperously ever after.
~ From Folk Tales for Moor and Mountain by Winifred Finlay, 1969 ~


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