The Rescue of Leddy Isabel

A Scottish Tale retold by Barra the Bard

Originally published in The Kilt & Harp Autumn, 2000

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Lang time by, thaur was a King in the East called Sealgair who fell in love wi’ a leddy named Isabel fra the Western Isles. Some say this is a ballad fra the Orkneys, but my granny said she was fra the Isle of Barra. They had a short wooing, as up and doon as the tides, and they waur wed. But King Sealgair was a restless man, and often he wad leave her tae gae hunting far for game. A wise woman had warned him ain dee that did he nae spend mair time with his wife, he wad hae stranger quarry tae hunt, but he laughed and said, Guid! What else cad a hunter wish for?

Ain dee he cam hame fra his hunting—and naebody kent whaur she was. A wee lassie said that she had seen the leddy sitting under a yimpe–tree, singing, on May–morn. Sealgair, being fra off, didna ken what a yimpe–tree was, sae he sought a’ over the island, and naebody cad point it oot tae him. He was a skilled tracker, you ken, and he thought gin he cad find the place she had last been, he cad track her fra thaur.

He went hame at last, and the wise woman foond him thaur, sitting beside a cauld hearth. I hear you are asking aboot the yimpe–tree, she said.

Aye, I am, he said. It wad be the place fra which I cad track her—

She held up her hand. But they are the trees of the People of Peace, she said, not wanting to anger any wha might be aboot invisibly by calling them fairies or trows. They are i’ their world, and half i’ oors on special dees, and this was May–dee. She sat under it, and she sang wi’ her bonny voice her loneliness. They love music, and they canna feel the same emotions we can, sae they are always captivated by them. Your leddy has been taen by the People of Peace.

And she told him what to do if ever he found her—but she could not tell him how to do that.

The next morning, sad at heart, he set forth in quest of his leddy. The ballad says,

Lang, lang he was seeking her.
He had foam of the Eastern World,
And foam of the Western World under his prow.
He saw the stars of the North
And the stars of the Sooth
And the stars that are under the sea.
He was searching through the blackness of the night
And the redness of the dawn
And all the colors of the dee.

Ain dee, he saw a company riding, on graceful white horses, and wi’ white dogs that had red ears capering aboot them. The folk waur dressed in beautiful green garb, a’ the shades of green in a wood, and silver i’ their flowing hair. His wife was among them–the ainly sad face.

He followed them tae a hillside, and it opened tae admit them—he ran as fast as he cad, ta’ing oot his dirk tae stick i’ the lintel sae the opening wadna clase.

I’side waur fine gardens and a beautiful palace, far grander syne he had ever seen i’ oor world. The folk he had followed waur sitting doon tae a feast, and he went boldly forward, straight tae the mon wha was dressed grander syne the rest, wi’ a golden circlet on his heid.

The Fairy King looked at him and said, Why did you come here, and wha are you?

Noo, tae gie your name gies power tae your enemies, and the questing King Sealgair kent that fra the wise woman, sae he answered, I am Hunter.

Why did you come here, human-wha-hunts, and what dae you seek?

I followed you intae the hill, for never hae I seen folk as fine as you are, he said. The wise woman had warned him nae tae challenge them directly, but tae mind he said nae falsehood either.

This pleased the Fairy King, wha invited him tae join their feast, and he sat doon near the head table. But he cad see that his wife was wan and sad, for a’ her fine claes. A bonny fairy lass sat beside him, and he asked her wha the leddy was.

Ach, we brought her tae sing tae us, but a’ her sangs are sad, said the fairy lass.

Wonderful dishes waur served, and fine wines–but Sealgair managed not tae eat or drink anything at a’, as the wise woman had warned him. He kent that his wife must hae eaten and drunk, and this sair perplexed him, for that gave them power tae keep her.

At last, the Fairy King said to him, Human–wha–hunts, I ken that your folk barter money for goods. Tell me, what will you barter for your freedom?

The leddy looked at him with tears in her eyes, but her husband only smiled. Let your guards gae and burn their hands on ma dirk i’ your lintel, he said, and I hae nae eaten a bite nor drunk even a drappie at your feast, ainly watched and listened. You hae nae power tae keepit me here. But it is a puir guest wha doesna gie. ‘Dàrna bean a’ chlàrsair–a’ chlàrseach fhèin,’ says the proverb: ‘The harper’s second wife–the harp itself.’ I see a harp, wi’ nane playing it. May I hae the lane of it?

Aye, play for us, agreed the Fairy King.

He played a sad song, and a glad song, and a guid gabber reel for them tae dance, pushing aside the tables and seats; even his wife danced with the Fairy King. I’ oor world, Sealgair was coonted a fine harper, but that dee he played for his wife as weel as himself, and surpassed himself on the best harp he had ever touched.

The fairy–folk love music, and they loved his playing. At last the Fairy King said to him, Human–wha–hunts, you may ask three rewards of me, ain for each tune–but they must be what you can carry.

Fair enough, agreed Sealgair. He reached out to the table, whaur a golden goblet studded wi’ jewels stood–and he picked up a tiny crumb. I choose this crumb of your fine bread.

Then he stooped tae the floor right i’ front of the Fairy King, and picked up a tiny twig that had fallen from the wreath on his head. I choose this twig fra the wreath upon your heid.

By now the fairies were all laughing at this foolish mortal–until he swept up his wife i’ his arms, sae her feet waur aff the floor.

As the ballad says,

What I will hae I will you tell
And that’s ma leddy Isabel.

All aboot them, swords flashed fra scabbards, but the Fairy King held up his hand. Hauld! Fairly spoken, and fairly done! You may hae the leddy, tae sing gladly tae your harping. Tak’ as weel a second wife! And he put the harp into Isabel’s hand.

And that is hoo King Sealgair rescued the leddy Isabel and gained a fairy harp, and that is the end of that tale!

Note: Sealgair is Scots Gaelic for a hunter. It would be An t-sealgair for the hunter, and would be pronounced ahn t’ shal-gair.


The Trows & the King’s Lady, a Shetland version (with a set of pipes) in Selected Highland Folk Tales, collected orally by R. Macdonald Robertson, ed. by Jeremy Bruce–Watt (Oliver & Boyd:Edinburgh & London, 1966) pp. 25-26

Various medieval Orpheo legends

Abigail Jones Dangler maternal grandmother of the author.

©2000 Barra Jacob–McDowell