The Swans Swim Sae Bonnie

Dark sister felt a malevolent seed of jealousy bloom within her heart. When once she held her sister’s hand, now she stood apart. When once they danced together, now she watched her Fair sister twirl in the sunlight while she stayed in the shadow.

Words by Róisín McCrimmon & Illustration by Allison McKay

There once was a laird who had two daughters- one dark, and one fair. He loved them both and let them roam free on his land. For many happy years, they raced straw boats down the burns, danced through fields of heather, and ran, hand-in-hand, through twisting woods.

But as they grew up, Dark sister began to notice that while their father loved them equally, others did not. She listened to the villagers as she and her sister passed by:

“Ah, if anely baith were fair.”

“Her hair gleams like stook.”

“She’s a swan, an her sester a dyook.”

Dark sister felt a malevolent seed of jealousy bloom within her heart. When once she held her sister’s hand, now she stood apart. When once they danced together, now she watched her Fair sister twirl in the sunlight while she stayed in the shadow.

Perhaps they could have spent the rest of their days in this way. One forever in the sunlight, one forever in the shade. Sadly, this went as such things go, and the sisters found themselves in direct competition for the love of one man.

John was gentle and kind, with crinkled eyes and a quick laugh. Fair sister saw Dark sister’s jealousy when she danced with John; but part of her thought that here was a man meant for a swan, not a duck. John did not notice Dark sister’s pale face watching him from the edge of the room; no one really ever noticed her anymore.

Perhaps the sisters could have found a shared joy in their love. Sadly, this went as such things go, and the seed of jealousy in Dark sister turned into a thorny mass of hatred. Dark sister stared at Fair and felt nothing but anger.

One day, Fair sister sat in the garden, picking posies for her lover. She was startled by her sister, who lately tended to flee around corners when she saw her coming.

“Ah’ve missed ye.” Dark sister gazed down at the grass beneath her feet, speaking in hushed tones to her beautiful twin. “Can we waak doon tae the river thegither? Like we eence did?”

Perhaps, if Fair sister had not spent the walk to the river speaking solely of John, and if Dark sister had not felt ignored for so long, they may have mended their broken relationship. Sadly, this went as such things go, and fair sister did not notice the sharp edges to her sister’s smile.

It was calm down by the river. The water rushed on, whispering to the reeds that lined its shores. The swans glided serenely by, and barely wobbled when Fair sister crashed into the icy water. She struggled against her heavy skirts, gulping in water while her long golden hair wrapped tightly around her neck.

“O sester, dear sester, fair go ye catch ma haun?” she spluttered, already feeling the tug of the current.

Her sister stood silently on the riverbanks.

“Ah’ll gie ye ma true lo’e John!” She hurled the plea in desperation at her sister, barely keeping her head above the river’s surface now.

Dark sister looked on; her hands tucked demurely in her sleeves. She was still there when the last of the bubbles popped.

There once was a miller who had one daughter. She had calluses on her fingertips and never managed to shake all the flour from her hair. She was far too busy to dance through the heather, but she found time, when she could, to walk along the river. That’s where she was when the swan floated by – or, what she thought was a swan. Soft golden hair gently trailed after pale skin as the body gracefully floated out to sea.

It took a while to pull her from the water. The miller and his daughter laid the body out on a grassy knoll as they considered what to do next.

There once were three fiddlers who travelled from town to town, singing songs and playing tunes in every pub they passed. The fiddlers had no daughters. Perhaps, if they did, they would not have treated Fair sister so poorly. Sadly, this went as such things go, and when they saw the poor girl lying in a bed of golden hair and green grass, they saw nothing but an opportunity.

They paid the miller a handsome sum, and each took something from the beautiful girl, hoping her beauty might pass into their art.

The first fiddler took three of her finger bones and said, “this ah’ll mak me three fiddle pins”.

The second fiddler took three lengths of her hair and said, “That’ll mak a fiddle that’ll play a tune sae rare.”

The third fiddler took her breastbone and said, “This ah’ll mak a fiddle that’ll play a tune its lone.”

After they left, the miller’s daughter buried the broken remains of the beautiful girl on the grassy knoll. The swans drifted serenely by as she wept.

There once was a laird who once had two daughters, but now had only one. He adored his Dark daughter but wept at the memory of one with hair as fair as straw, and a smile as soft as sunlight. He gave his only daughter run of the land and tried to find joy in how she danced through fields of heather and ran through twisting woods.

One day, a group of fiddlers came to the castle. They were known throughout the land for the beautiful music and rowdy songs. The laird hoped maybe they’d put a smile on John’s face, and given that, maybe his own. So, he invited the fiddlers into his great castle to play, sitting hand-in-hand with dark sister as she glanced at John from under her dark eyelashes.

Perhaps the music could have healed his old soul and brought joy to John, who might have looked at Dark sister at last, and their days might have ended happily. Sadly, this went as such things go, and as the fiddlers started playing, a ghostly voice filled the chamber.

“It’s yonder he sits ma aul-man the king,
It’s yonder she sits ma mither the queen.
It’s yonder she sits ma fause sester Jean
An sae lightly she pushed me inta the stream.”

Dark sister fell to her knees, her hands gripped in her father’s as he looked, pale, at the fiddlers. John clutched his head in his hands, unleashing a ghastly wail that echoed in the silence following the last, mournful, note.

“Faither,” she begged, flesh turning white in his bone-crushing grip, “let us pey these three fiddlers an let tham be gang.”

For a time, the laird said nothing. Then, his face carved from stone, he turned to his daughter, hissing “Ah’ll pey the three fiddlers fin they play the same tune ower again”.

There once was a laird who had no daughters. He stood in his castle and watched the flames of the pyre scratch red lines into the night sky, staring, cold at a Dark sky and Light stars that twirled and danced through the sky.

Illustration by Ally McKay.

Swans Swim sae Bonnie- Belle Stewart (Perth) 1964