The Gruagach and the Milk Stone
by S. J. McKenzie
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Only when I’d spoken to everyone in the village about the Lady did I pluck up the courage to ask my own father. I’d been reluctant to do so, for fear that he might think I did not respect their ways. But he told me what he knew about the Lady straight away, without even asking about the reason for my curiosity. He could still remember the day another part of the Lady’s secret was discovered. This event occurred some ten years before my birth, but after she had been in Bennan for generations, so it is a wonder it had gone unnoticed for so long.
“If you’re curious about the Lady,” said my father, “the most important thing you need to know is the secret of how she keeps the disease from the herds. It’s an astonishing thing, and this is how we found out about it. There was a farmer, over in Kintyre, who was out chasing a sheep at night and came upon a herd of our Bennan cattle, milling about peacefully up in his back pasture as though they were quite at home there.
Not believing what he saw — for how ever could they have crossed the strait from Arran? — he ran back to his homestead so he could bring others to witness it. But when they returned to the place, the herd was gone.
The farmer told everyone he knew, so the news soon travelled to Arran, where the murrain was plaguing every other herd, while ours in Bennan held firm as usual. At first the news was received with scorn, for the people thought they knew the whereabouts of their own cattle right enough.
But only days thereafter, similar news came from the Rhinns of Islay — a place even further from Bennan! This time, the unlucky cowherd witnessed a monster with the herd. A giant, he said it was, full fifteen feet in height, with most of its parts shaped like a goat, but standing upright, and it was driving the cattle down a darkened road and singing roughly to them:
Cows of Cogan and Mackinnon
Cows of every herd in Bennan,
Hi, ho! Bring out the Herd!
A night in Arran, another Islay,
And in green Kintyre of birches,
Hi, ho! Bring out the Herd!
Just the same sort of song as MacPhaill said our Lady sang, the night she was seen in the field here. How could the Islay man possibly know that?
“Anyway, Old Mark MacKinnon counted head as soon as he heard this strange news, and indeed, forty and four of his beasts were missing. There was an outcry, and all sorts of old talk about rustlers was dragged up, previous grievances aired and the like, and we were even talking of sending an armed party over to Islay. Until, of course, Mackinnon counted head again the following night and found the full number completely restored, somewhat to his embarrassment. Somehow the Lady had gotten them back to him in the night.
“So, this is how the Lady keeps the murrain down. Whenever there is an outbreak, she moves our herds about to places where they’ll be kept safe. Not a single beast we’ve lost in my lifetime! Never mind what manner of creature she is, I say it’s a great blessing. So that’s why we must stay. Your mother will continue to do her duty, and you will take up the duty when we are gone. That was agreed upon when we moved here.”
* * *
Eight years later, my mother died, well short of her full span. My father had died a few years before that, but he had been older when they married. So, despite my reservations, the duty passed to me, for I was the only child born to my mother that lived. I was only twenty–four, but I had already seen enough of the weariness it caused her, never to be far from the stone, not for a single evening.
After she died, I thought long on ways to evade the same fate, but could think of nothing, and life was kind to me, despite my duty. I was blessed with a daughter (and a son too, but he passed while still an infant), my husband was good and gentle, our lands were fertile and our herd strong, and the people of Bennan bestowed a generosity on me, bringing me gifts, like offerings almost, on the quarter days, so that I might continue to make the libation. So my life passed for another four years.
But one night when I was in my twenty–eighth year, all this was changed. I had poured out the libation on a bright moonlit night in summer, the midges settling onto it as soon as it was inside the stone, but that was no concern of mine and I hastened away.
I had not gone long away from the stone when I heard a sound behind me like hooves in the grass, and turned to see none but the Lady, bending over to drink her reward. She was just as I had been told — tall and willowy and incandescent in the moonlight, and not a part of her could I see beneath her hair that shone like spun gold; except for her feet, which were exactly as those of a nanny goat.
Like MacPhaill before me, I could not help but gasp at this sight, the noise of which attracted her attention from across the field even as she stood up from her drink. She looked quickly over to me and I expected her to stride away, as she had from the others. But then the most extraordinary thing of all occurred, and for all I know, I am the only person ever to see it.
The Lady grew rapidly in dimension — not merely to the size of the giant creature seen in the Rhinns, but far beyond that, until she was truly massive, taller even than Goat Fell, and that is the tallest thing I know. As she grew, she became like animal skin that has been stretched out to its furthest, and the image of things can be seen upon the other side. As the brightness of her hair faded, the stars shone though her body, giving me perhaps the only true glimpse any of us ever had of her true form.
I saw that her legs were indeed those of a goat, and that she had a tail like that same animal, which was normally covered by her hair. But from the waist up, she had the body of a normal girl approaching womanhood, not shy of hard work, but containing no sign of strangeness or disfigurement. But what was most terrifying to me was her face; for it was as though part of the sky had become a giant starry mirror, and I saw my own countenance, staring back at me from a massive vantage, with a faint sad smile upon my lips.
Then with an enormous leap, she bounded away northward over the fir trees. There was not the slightest tremor as her strange unearthly body departed. From the dimensions of her leap, I would guess her landing point must have been as far away as Cnoc Dubh, six miles hence.
At the time I thought it a massive jump, but on reflection it would seem this was but a step for her, and I knew that people nearby would not feel her landing, nor see any sign of it; for by the time she was into the sky, her substance had become stretched so thin that she had disappeared entirely.
That night, something within me broke apart. The sight of my own face upon that unearthly creature was more than I could bear, and I could no longer obey my father’s wishes and remain at the stone-house. It came to me I must be free from the duty of the libation, and all that care and sorrow that went with it. And no sooner had I thought this than an answer provided itself to me, as though it had been in the back of my mind all the while, just waiting for me to summon it.
* * *
Living in Kiscadale at that time was a man called Malcolm Innes; a wayward lad, his parents were impoverished, their lands having been infected by the murrain some years back, and all their cattle taken by it. It was widely known that he bore a grudge against us here in Bennan, claiming that our good fortune came only at the expense of others. Many felt similarly, but this lad had a reason to be more angry than most.
I got hold of a farm boy, and told him to find Innes and offer him money if he’d come back to Bennan and meet with me the following day. If it sounds as though I was a fine lady and had plenty of money to be paying for such errands, then that is not the case; this was all the money we had, and I was desperate.
The farm boy played his part well, and Innes appeared at my door while my husband was out working. He was blowing like a tired horse after the walk up to our lands, impatient to know the nature of his work and the manner of his payment.
I am not ashamed of what I did. I could not have done anything myself, for I knew the curse of the Lady would come down upon me if I played a direct part in what transpired. But it seemed a simple matter to tell the boy our secret, well-guarded in Bennan for so long; the secret of the milk-stone.
He knew about the Gruagach already, or had guessed as much, for the presence of our herds in far-flung fields required some sort of explanation. But what he did not know was that she must be fed with milk each night, from the stone in our field, otherwise she might no longer serve us. Our secret took just a minute to tell.
I pretended I had no notion what he might do with the knowledge; that was his own affair. In truth, I pictured him skulking in the bushes while I poured the libation and then spilling it onto the soil with his boot as soon as I had departed. In terms of reward, he sought nothing further from me, other than to know why I had told an outsider our most precious secret.
All I said in reply was: “Our blessing is not what it would appear. There are many in Bennan who would see the Lady gone.” This was my greatest lie of all. Many lives depended on her continued presence; but I thought my own happiness to be worth more than all of that.
What became of young Innes, I cannot tell you first hand, for I saw no sign of him that night as I made the libation, and never met him afterwards. But I do know the manner of his vengeance, and it was more inventive than I had given him credit for.
Word got round soon after of what he’d done, for like all those who suffer from jealousy, he was a braggart, and told the people of Kiscadale about the deed. I recall sitting in the house of a friend, now long passed on, feigning innocence while she told me what she’d heard.
“He lit a fire close by, the rascal, and heated up some sheep’s milk, as close to boiling as he could keep it. When he heard a noise nearby, quick as a fox he ran out and poured it into the stone, after having removed the libation you’d put in there an hour before. Then he’s back to his hiding place in the hazels, and he sees her coming over to drink her fill. Well, she burned her mouth on it, let out a terrible howl, and ran southward towards the strait. She’s not been seen in a fortnight!”
“No wonder the herds are sickly,” I said, for they were, more so than they had ever been in my lifetime. “It’s all coming upon us now that she’s not here to keep it at bay.”
“It’s the end of us!” said my friend, wringing her hands, for her husband had lost most of his herd and was on the brink of ruin. “What’s to be done to bring her back? And how was the secret uncovered? Who would do this to us?”
I kept my silence. Every night for another long month I made the libation, and each morning the gloomy cowherd reported that she had not come in the night, for the milk was still there. Eventually I decreed that she had gone, and that my duties were at an end. I moved over to Brodick to live in the house of my uncle, and we prospered there. My daughter grew beautiful, and made us proud. We were free.
As for the Lady, she never returned to Arran, and there is only one curious tale to account for her after her last libation. A fisherman, out one night near Bennan Head, said he’d seen a giant figure in the sky, taller than any mountain on Arran, leaping across from the Struey Rocks in the direction of Alissa Craig on her way to the mainland, using the giant island as you or I would use a stepping stone. He reported that she was glowing, luminous like the moon, and so beautiful that he almost let his boat crash upon the rocks while he stared at her.
But then, stranger still, he saw a three–masted ship rear up from beneath the water, of the sort the English used in the time of Nelson, and like her it was vastly oversized, and luminous, and he could make out the land and the stars beyond it. The Lady’s heel caught in the masts of that ghostly ship as she leapt across the strait, and she never made landing on Alissa Craig. Down she tumbled into the dark sea, dragging the ship with her, and both of them were quickly gone from sight.
That was the last anyone has ever seen of the Lady of Bennan.
Copyright © 2012 by S. J. McKenzie