Folklore Of Scotland - Story of the Shifty Lad
Some folktales have survived to modern times, and been more popular than others, such is The Tale of the Shifty Lad, that originated in Scotland. I've met a few shifty lads in my lifetime, but alas none of them were from Scotland, so guess I'll have to settle for reading about them.
Since other sites on the Internet, can tell this story best and truest to it's origin, I won't completely re-invent the story wheel and provide the version I know. However, I will give you an overview of this interesting ancient folk legend, that is laced with a trickster tale of supreme shrewdness.
In this Scottish story, the Shifty Lad goes through his apprenticeship, not in a company of thieves, but under the sole charge of the Black Rogue, of whom he at last rid himself, by getting him to try the pleasant sensation of being hung by the neck.
Having disposed of his master, he engages himself to a carpenter, whom he persuades to break into the king's storehouse of treasures. Meanwhile, the king consults the Seanagal for advice as to prevent his losses, who tells him that a hogshead of soft pitch should be placed near the entrance. That way the thief who will come back, will sink into the tar pitch and be caught.
The Shifty Lad, always being one step ahead of his carpenter co-conspirator, convinces him to let him step on his shoulder, to reach the treasures. He then beheads his master, and leaves the body in the hogshead.
Like in The Story of Rhampsinitos, the King consults the Seanagal, and they decide to send a trunk with the carpenter's head inside from town to town, to see if anyone would mourn the would-be thief. Naturally, the carpenter's wife screams as the bloody head passes her house.
The Shifty Lad thinks quickly, and cuts himself with an adze, leading the soldiers to think the scream did not come from the mourning wife, but from him as he hurt himself.
The body is then hung on a tree, guards in place, with orders from the King to seize anyone who should attempt to take it down and bury it.
Wanting to do the right thing by the widow, the lad drives a horse drawn wagon filled with two kegs of whisky near the soldiers, acting as though he's trying to hide something. Naturally, he gets the guard's attention.
Recommended Further Reading on the Shifty Lad
- Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol. I: XVIId. The Tale of the Shifty Lad, the Widow\'s Son
A more detailed version of the Shifty Lad published in 1860 can be found here. Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol. I, by J.F. Campbell, at sacred-texts.com
A Seanagal is another name for a soothsayer, someone who can see into the future and predict events before they happen.
Such visionaries were often found in the employ of the courts of kings and queens who believed in such things, as advisors.
The ever crafty Shifty Lad immediately pretends to try to out run them, and allows the soldiers to catch the horse's brindle, while he runs off.
He knows that the soldier's won't resist being able to partake in the free whiskey and will drink themselves to sleep. Once they are comatose with whiskey, he of course, steals the carpenter's head back for the widow to bury.
Generally, a hogshead is an old time standard of measurement in the form of a large wooden cask of liquid or some other food product.
The measurement is exclusively a certain volume, standardized by the British Weights and Measures act of 1824. It was used most widely for alcoholic beverages.
It's about sixty-three gallons of liquid in U.S. measurements. Those of us who are Cajun may remember that historically, a hogshead was used in Louisiana to measure sugar and cotton in Colonial days.
More Versions of the Story of the Shifty Lad Folktales
In the version I originally heard orally, the end of the story involves a feast in which according to the Senagal's prediction, the Shifty Lad asks the king's daughter to dance. Once he does this, the Senegal puts a black mark upon him, but again the Shifty Lad outwits him, and puts another blackmark on the Senagal and twenty other men in the room.
The king is so impressed that a man who put all these marks could have done so, that he wishes to reward the cleverness. He asks that whoever did this come forward and chose a princess for his wife. All of the marked men, of course, come forward.
The story doesn't end there, because then the Shifty Lad, must procure the king's daughter by other means for his wife.
Obviously, in terms of trickster tales, this one goes far beyond many other world folktales in elaborateness, and perhaps this is why it has survived until today. Apparently, the Scottish folk tellers knew a thing or two about embellishing a good story.
They also knew that all of the elements good folklore -- a thief of wonderful cunning, his successes, and escapades, and ending in a final honor -- all point to the how and why of a oft told tale destined to survive.
So, this leads me to wonder: Where are the folktales of today? Don't our children deserve both some new ones and to also know the old ones?
Tour of Scotland
Any carpenter worthy of his trade would have owned an adze or adz. This tool was and still is used by smoothing rough cut timber and wood by hand. Use of the tool is not without it’s hazards, as the carpenter would stand astride the wood and swing the adze downwards toward his feet.
The sharp right angled blade can be deadly without practice. Thus, in carefully chipping away pieces of wood, moving backwards as he goes -- the carpenter’s end result being a smooth surface (hopefully).
In Colonial times in the U.S. the adze would have been one of the most needed carpenter and home tools owned. It has many other uses, such as squaring logs, hollowing out timber (boat building), and salvaging old buildings.
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