Storytelling at Abbotsford

20th Mar 2021 - 14th May 2021

Tune in each fortnight for another story told in the series ‘A Gift of Tales’ in our historic house by Mary Kenny.

Presenting a series of traditional stories recorded in the historic rooms at Abbotsford, these folk tales resonate with objects in the collection, with local landscape and with Sir Walter Scott’s writing and legacy.

As a child Walter Scott heard tales from his grandparents at Smailholm. As a young man he travelled widely, collecting stories and ballads from the rich oral tradition of Scotland and Borderlands which inspired his life and work.

This selection of tales is specially curated and told by Mary Kenny, our Heritage Engagement Officer, and they are suitable for ages 7-107!

Watch now...

20th March: WEE JOHNNIE

This folktale warns against leaving a new baby unattended, for in olden times it was believed that the fairy folk would swap one of their sickly children for yours if they could - and with dire consequences!

My telling of this traditional changeling story was drawn originally from Katherine M. Briggs ‘British Folk Tales and Legends – A Sampler’ as ‘Johnnie in the cradle’, published by Granada, a treasured possession since 1985. I have heard and read many variations over the years and honed ‘Wee Johnnie’ through telling the story many times.

Sir Walter Scott writes about his mother’s fairy charm, the Toadstone, about fairy changelings and remedies for recovering a human child - quoting the ‘Brewery of Eggshells’ tale: ‘On the Fairies of Popular Superstition’ in the introduction to ‘Tamlane’ in the ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’, published by Ballantyne, 1833. Fairy lore and superstition weave through many of Scott’s works, exist in copious ‘notes’, and are featured in his library.


In this supernatural tale, Borders horse trader Canobie Dick meets a mysterious stranger on the moonlit Eildon Hills. In aiming for the best deal for his horses, Dick gains an eerie adventure, and so much more than he bargained for!

I originally came across this story nearly forty years ago, many years before I imagined living in Scotland, in Katherine M. Briggs ‘British Folk Tales and Legends – A Sampler’, published by Granada. No name was credited, nor in the many other identical published texts I have seen. Then, by chance I was delighted to find the self-same text in my own copy of ‘Waverley’ a few years back- by which time I had settled in the Borders, discovered Scott, walked the Eildon’s, and told many stories - including this one - at Abbotsford. It remains a firm favourite.

Sir Walter Scott published this tale within ‘Fragment of a romance which was to have been entitled Thomas the Rhymer’, in appendices to the general preface, ‘The Waverley novels’ standard edition volume 1. Published by A&C Black, London 1895. Scott also published it in ‘Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft’ 1830, quoting from the oral tradition with which he was familiar, linking the events to the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715. He also notes that a similar, much older legend is given in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) by his English near-namesake, Reginald Scot, and that stories of this type exist in Celtic folk tradition across northern Europe.

Coming soon...

16th April: THOMAS THE RHYMER (approximately 18 minutes)

In this famous local story the young laird of Ercildoune, resting beneath a tree on the Eildon hills, is surprised by a beautiful woman on a grey horse. A cheeky kiss leads to a journey into the liminal world of the Fairy Folk, and the great, ancient legend of the seer True Thomas.

30th April: THE MAGIC QUERN (approximately 12 minutes)

The wild salty seas have from ancient times been the highways of trade, wealth, and adventure. Sea roads also for pirates, marauders, and superstitious men - all of which feature in this curious story is set in north-eastern lands and the tumultuous seas off Orkney.

14th May: MUCKLE - MOUTHED MEG (approximately 10 minutes)

This local Reiving legend harks back to the early 17th century, when one of Sir Walter Scott’s ancestors got caught red handed thieving cattle! Young Watt Scott faced a tough choice to avoid infamous border justice and save his life- but at what price?

About Mary...

A practitioner in the Creative Arts and Community-based Learning over four decades, Mary has been a member of the Scottish Storytellers Directory for seventeen years, and lives and works in the Borders.

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