This story comes from the Cuillins, on the Isle of Skye, and I’ve always loved it. It concerns a group of young women who set off into the mountains to gather blaeberries. One of them strayed away from the rest, climbing up higher and higher in search of larger and finer berries. Suddenly the air grew chilly, and she saw a wall of mist rolling down the slopes towards her. She realised that she was alone, and turned to retrace her steps and to find her friends – but the mist whirled around her, and she became lost. Slowly and cautiously she moved on, only realising that she was going in the wrong direction when heather gave way to rock. She stood still, frightened now, afraid to move for fear of stepping over a cliff edge, or falling into the deep cut of a mountain burn.
And then she heard footsteps. She peered into the mist and saw some huge ghostly forms moving towards her – but a sudden small breeze shifted the mist, and she saw that the visitors were deer: most of them hinds, with calves at foot. They didn’t seem to be afraid of her, and so she decided to join them, thinking that they might lead her to safety. The deer moved slowly, grazing here and there, and so it was easy for the girl to keep up with them. They led her high up into the Cuillins, where she found herself at the opening of a cave.
The girl entered the cave, and inside were an old man and an old woman, each seated upon a wooden stool, gazing into a dark rockpool in the cave’s floor. The old woman asked the girl what she was doing there, and she told her tale and begged shelter for the night or until the mist would clear. ‘Shelter for one night we cannot give,’ the old woman said, ‘but shelter for a year and a night you may have if you will help me in the dairy, for I grow old. The deer will take you back down the mountain when the time is done.’
The girl agreed. She spent busy days milking the hinds and gathering sweet-scented herbs upon the mountains. There was thyme, meadowsweet and wild mint, golden asphodel and bog myrtle. The old woman dried them and sprinkled them on the fire which she made out of dried heather. Then she would heat the deer’s milk, and make crowdie. While the old woman worked, the old man sat gazing into the pool, in which all the world was mirrored. When the crowdie was made, he fashioned from it shapes and figures of the things that he had seen on the pool’s surface. For he and his wife were the makers of dreams.
Every evening as the sun set below the sea, the old man carried his dreams to the cave mouth, and held them up to take colour from the sunset. The dreams that he held in his right hand were true dreams, and out of the blue sky came eagles and falcons, larks and wrens, to carry them throughout the world. But the dreams in the old man’s left hand were false phantoms, designed to mislead. Out of the dark of the mountain came the crows and ravens, to spread the nightmares around the world.
When the year and the night of the girl’s service were ended, the old woman spoke in a strange tongue to the leader of the herd of deer, a hind grey with age. She said farewell to the girl, telling her that her service had been honest and true, and that she would find a reward waiting for her when she returned home to the seashore. The deer led her by a hidden, easy route down the mountain, and they came to the shore – but not to the shore that the girl knew. But when she started to walk along the beach the deer wouldn’t let her, and they gathered around her in a circle and stood looking out to sea. The girl looked too, and soon she saw, coming out of the sunset, a boat of skins, and in it was a fair young man with a golden torc at his throat. He landed his coracle and came to her, hands outstretched, and at once she loved him. He spoke of her as ‘the fair one of dreams’, and told her that he had dreamed of her in his father the king’s halls, and had come to ask her to marry him. The girl of course agreed, and they sailed away together into the sunset. And when she became queen of her husband’s country, she taught the people the meaning of many dreams, and they grew wondrously wise. But now much is forgotten.