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An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legends

PART OF THE Wish You Were Here ISSUE

‘Fear not the Dark Dragon of Dunvegan. If it should ever awake from sleep.’

BooksfromScotland would love to congratulate Theresa Breslin on being awarded the OBE for services to childrens’ literature in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Well deserved! We absolutely love her illustrated treasury books of folk tales, published by our good friends at Floris Books, and featuring the amazing artwork of Kate Lieper.  An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legends, the new book by this dream team, features stories from iconic castles including Edinburgh, Caerlaverock and Eilean Donan. In this extract, find out how Dunvegan Castle was saved by a magical ‘faery flag’.

 

Extract taken from An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legends
By Theresa Breslin, illustrated by Kate Lieper
Published by Floris Books

 

The Faery Flag of Dunvegan Castle


For eight centuries, Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye has been the home of the MacLeod Clan. The MacLeods have held on to their ancestral seat longer than any other family in Scotland.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that they own a magical flag, Am Bratach Sith, which can summon the Folk of Faery/and to help them in times of need. It is spun from faery silk and gossamer, and stitched with tiny stars. Before the land bridge was built, Dunvegan Castle was surrounded by water. Visitors came by boat through the iron-barred sea gate. It was said that a sleeping Dragon, dark and dangerous, had its lair in a deep cave below the castle walls …

Eight centuries ago, when Price Leod married the daughter of the Seneschal of Skye, the newlywed couple came to live in the castle at Dunvegan. Thus began the great Clan of MacLeod, who guided and guarded their kith and kin from this fortress on a craggy isle facing out to the North Atlantic Ocean. The only way into the castle was through the iron-barred sea gate, which opened to allow boats to enter along a narrow canal. With the mountains to shield them and the waters of Loch Dunvegan all around them, the MacLeods believed their castle to be safe from invaders. No one paid much attention to the old tales of a dark and dangerous Dragon living in a cave below the castle walls.

Now, it is known that the men of Clan MacLeod are invariably handsome, and one young chieftain, a descendant of Leod, was no exception. Every lass on Skye fell in love with him, but he never met anyone whom he might love in return. That is, until the day he was walking by the shore of Loch Dunvegan and saw a girl sitting singing upon a rock. The song she sang had no words, but the melody was so sweet and haunting that Chieftain MacLeod paused to listen. He approached the girl, who turned her head and smiled. And at that moment love filled his heart. She too was enchanted with him. But, when he said that he wanted to ask her father for her hand in marriage, she looked troubled.

The young chieftain soon found out why. The girl was a princess of Faeryland and her father, the king, did not look kindly upon any mortal man who wished to take her away from her home.

“Humans age and die more quickly than us,” the king told his daughter. “This union would bring you heartache and sorrow.” “If heartache and sorrow is the price that I must pay for love, then so be it,” the princess replied.

The king was impressed by her spirit and courage, and he agreed that the young couple could marry… on one condition. “After a year and a day my daughter must return to Faeryland, bringing nothing with her from the human world.”

This was a harsh condition, but the chieftain and the princess decided that they would enjoy the time they were allowed. They spent spring wandering happily on the hills among the yellow whins. They spent summer sitting cosily together on the sands by the shoreline. They spent autumn brambling for wild berries. They spent winter singing and dancing and feasting by the fire. Their days were filled with happiness, none so much as the morning that their son was born.

All too soon a year and a day was completed, and, at midnight, they knew that they must obey the condition placed upon them by the king. The princess bade a sad farewell to her husband. Before she left she made him promise that he would not let their son cry for long without being comforted.

“Supposing our son is in danger?” he asked her. “Would you never be allowed to return to help him?”

At this she replied, “You, the MacLeod of MacLeod, have treated me, a royal faery princess, with honour and love. And so, should Clan MacLeod be in danger, the whole Faery Host will come to their aid.” She regarded him solemnly and then said words he did not understand:

 

Fear not the Dark Dragon of Dunvegan.

If it should ever awake from sleep, then,

though I am gone from your side, you must summon me.

Send me a signal, and the Faery Host

will fly to your aid.

 

With a heavy heart the chieftain watched his faery wife leave him.

As the days passed, his sorrow did not lessen but increased in measure. Another year went by, with sadness hanging over the castle like grey mist.

On the eve of the anniversary of his wife’s departure, the chieftain sat silent in the castle hall, his head sunk in his hands. To cheer him, his friends and relations decided to organise a clan ceilidh for the next day. They opened the iron-barred sea gate so that members of Clan MacLeod arriving from the Islands and the Highlands could row their boats through the canal into Dunvegan Castle.

In the tower room that was his son’s bedroom, the chieftain spoke to the child’s nursemaid. “Be watchful over my babe this night of all nights,” he told her. “I am charged with not letting my son cry without being comforted.” And the chieftain heaved a huge sigh, for, since his wife had left, many a long and lonely night he himself had cried without being comforted.

The nursemaid sat by the baby’s cradle and she rocked him gently to sleep.

As the sun set on the Isle of Skye, the noise of feasting sounded throughout Dunvegan Castle. As the food was served, the clatter of crockery and clash of cutlery reached the tower room where the young babe slept.

The child snuffled in his sleep.

The nursemaid rocked the cradle and the child fell silent.

As the moon rose on the Isle of Skye, the noise of storytelling sounded throughout Dunvegan Castle. As the tales were told, the lilt of laughter reached the tower room where the young babe slept.

The child turned over in his sleep.

The nursemaid rocked the cradle and the child was still.

As the hour of midnight approached on the Isle of Skye, the noise of the ceilidh sounded throughout Dunvegan Castle. As the dancing began, the merry music of fiddle and frolicking reached the tower room where the young babe slept.

The child opened his eyes.

But no nursemaid was there to rock the cradle. She had tiptoed from the room to lean over the staircase and watch the people whirling in reels and jigs.

The child did not slip back to sleep.

No nursemaid was at the cradle…

…and no guard was at the sea gate.

When the sun had set on the Isle of Skye, and the noise of the feast sounded throughout Dunvegan Castle, the clatter of crockery and clash of cutlery reached the cave where the Dark Dragon slept deep below the castle walls.

The Dragon snuffled in its sleep.

When the moon had risen on the Isle of Skye, and the noise of storytelling sounded throughout Dunvegan Castle, the lilt of laughter reached the cave where the Dark Dragon slept deep below the castle walls.

The Dragon turned over in its sleep.

When the hour of midnight had approached on the Isle of Skye, and the noise of the ceilidh sounded throughout Dunvegan Castle, the merry music of fiddle and frolicking reached the cave where the Dark Dragon slept deep below the castle walls.

The Dragon opened its eyes.

With no one to rock the cradle or comfort him, the child began to cry.

The Dark Dragon began to growl.

No one heard the sobbing of the child.

No one heard the scrabbling of the Dragon’s claws, the beating of its enormous wings, the screeching of its hideous voice.

Midnight struck the hour. The chieftain thought again of his lovely wife – the faery princess from whom he’d parted one year and one day ago. He remembered the promise he’d made to her: that their son would never cry without being comforted. He raised his head. Through the noise of the feast and the chatter of the stories and the music of the ceilidh, he heard the sobbing of his son.

With the clock bell chiming, he hurried from the hall and raced up the stairs of the tower. Faster and faster he ran, the crying becoming louder and louder as he neared the nursery room. But, just as he put his hand on the door, the cries became a gurgle of delight. The child crowed in happy contentment.

The chieftain stopped in surprise.

Slowly he opened the door.

The shadowy figure of a woman was leaning over the cradle. He heard his son murmur: “Mama!”

The last bell of midnight chimed. A gleam of light flashed at the window. And by the time the chieftain entered the room, he was alone with his son.

In wonderment he lifted his smiling child from the cradle and hugged him. There was no doubt in his mind that the figure he had seen was his wife. And although it saddened him that she could not stay, it was also a comfort that she was close by and watching over them.

When the chieftain laid the child back to rest he noticed a silken shawl draped over the cradle. Had his faery princess left it deliberately? As he bent to tuck it round his son, the window glass shattered. A clawed foot scraped at the frame, and a fierce yellow eye peered into the room!

The Dark Dragon of Dunvegan Castle had awoken, crashed through the open sea gate and was now inside the castle grounds!

The beast spotted the baby in the cradle. It thrust forward its mouth and opened up its jaws…

There was a shout from below and a rainstorm of arrows struck the Dragon’s scaly body. With a roar of anger it turned and flew down into the courtyard.

The chieftain ran to the window. His clansmen surrounded the thrashing beast. But the Dragon lashed its tail in a circle and hurtled them into the loch. Beating enormous wings, the beast took off, heading once again towards the tower and its prey.

The chieftain drew his claymore.

The Dragon’s mighty face was at the broken window and murder was in its mind.

It was not within the reach of his sword, but the chieftain held fast in the face of danger, for he would not leave his son to run and save himself.

The child cried out.

The chieftain glanced towards the cradle. His son had wriggled free from his shawl of faery gossamer.
The Dragon’s eyes shone with rage.
The child cried out a second time.
The chieftain glanced again towards the cradle.
His son had kicked the shawl towards him.
The Dragon drew in a long breath, preparing to belch out a firestorm of red-hot flames.
A third time the child cried out.
And for a third time the chieftain glanced at the cradle.
The shawl was floating free in the air.
And suddenly the chieftain remembered the words of his faery bride and he understood.

 

Fear not the Dark Dragon of Dunvegan.

If it should ever awake from sleep, then,

though I am gone from your side, you must summon me.

Send me a signal, and the Faery Host

will fly to your aid.

 

 

Swiftly the chieftain grasped the shawl. He spun around to stand alone before the Dark Dragon of Dunvegan Castle. Raising his hand, he waved the shawl like a flag in battle and called upon his one true love to come to his aid.

And instantly, there was rushing wind and the Faery Host were on either side of the chieftain, in the air and on the earth. Above, around and below the tower, the magical horde battled the Dragon. And with a thousand spears they brought down the Dark Dragon of Dunvegan Castle.

When the chieftain’s son grew to manhood he declared that he remembered his mother rocking him to sleep that fateful night when she left him wrapped in the Faery Flag. And he also clearly recalled her promising that the Faery Flag of Dunvegan Castle would rescue the MacLeods from death three times more.

Twice more, indeed, the Faery Flag has saved Clan MacLeod. The first time, Clan MacDonald set fire to Dunvegan Castle. As the MacLeods were escaping, their chieftain snatched up the Faery Flag and, immediately, the Faery Host appeared. Armed with claymores, they drove the MacDonalds into the sea. Centuries later a pestilence came upon the Isle of Skye, destroying crops and cattle. The MacLeod chieftain, who knew the old stories, carried the Faery Flag through the fields, and, as he went, the Faery Host went with him, and the crops and cattle were healed. So Clan MacLeod may use the flag only one more time to call upon help from Faeryland.

The Faery Flag remains in Dunvegan Castle, lying there until it may be needed. It is treasured by Clan MacLeod, for within it rests the powerful love of a beautiful faery princess for a mortal man and the baby she bore him.

 

An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legends by Theresa Breslin and illustrated by Kate Lieper is published by Floris Books, priced £14.99

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