Folk-Lore/Volume 3/The Baker of Beauly: a Highland version of the Tale of the "Three Precepts"

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Folk-Lore/Volume 3
Number 2 (June)
The Baker of Beauly: a Highland version of the Tale of the "Three Precepts". by Alexander MacBain & W. A. Clouston
819293Folk-Lore/Volume 3 — Number 2 (June)
The Baker of Beauly: a Highland version of the Tale of the "Three Precepts".
Alexander MacBain & W. A. Clouston


A Highland Version of the Tale of the "Three Precepts".

THE following Highland version of the folk-tale of the "Three Precepts" was got by me in 1887 from Dr. Corbet, Beauly, and published in the original Gaelic in the Celtic Magazine for July of that year. As I see that Mr. Jacobs is unaware of the existence of this Gaelic rendering of the tale, from the fact of his not mentioning it in his notes to the "Tale of Ivan" in his excellent book of Celtic Fairy Tales, I here give an English literal translation of it.

Dr. Corbet heard it nigh thirty years ago from the lips of a farm-hand of the name of MacCallum, resident then at Bogroy, near Inverness. An Aberdeen friend informed me that in his younger days—some two-score years ago—he remembered seeing the story printed on the old broadsheets, like the story of "Long Pack" and others, and sold at feeing markets and by pedlars throughout the country. Whether this Aberdeenshire English version was exactly the same as the Gaelic one here translated, my friend could not distinctly vouch; but the general outlines were certainly the same. That the story of the "Three Precepts" was known among the Gaels in mediaeval times, is evidenced by its being woven into the tale of the "Wanderings of Ulysses", of which indeed it forms the last and principal text. Dr. Kuno Meyer has published a corrected text and translation of this Gaelic-Irish piece,[1] and he points out in his preface how the author must have made use of the story of the Tres Sapientiæ, sold to Domitian, as related in the Gesta Romanorum. The Gesta story contains the "Three Precepts" exactly as in the Scottish Gaelic tale, but the incidents in proof of the "Precepts" are entirely different. For the "Precept" in regard to staying in the house of an ill-matched couple, the early Irish version substitutes the advice never to travel until the sun is up. In the Cornish tale of "Ivan" the incidents and advices are practically the same as in the Gaelic version here produced. I have to thank Mr. W. A. Clouston for some further notes which he sent me when the Gaelic version first appeared. Here follows the tale referred to.

At the time of the Battle of Culloden there lived in Beauly a widow who had an only son, whose name was Donald Fraser. He went along with the rest of the Clan Fraser to the battle. The rebels were defeated, and Donald fled to Beauly as fast as his legs could carry him. His poor mother was glad to see him back again unlamed, unwounded, sound and healthy, poor, hungry, and tired as he was. He, however, knew that his life would be endangered if he stayed in his mother's bothy for one night, as the red-coats were in pursuit of those that helped the Prince, though it was by the press-gang the most of the Frasers were compelled to join Lord Lovat, who was afterwards beheaded. He was thus a wanderer for three years, taking shelter in the hills, hollows, rocks, woods, and caves that lie between the Bannock Loch and Birds' Loch in the heights of Beauly. On a certain day at the end of three years, he says to his mother: "Woman, I feel tired of my life; we are now reduced to poverty, and destitute of both meat and clothes. I will go and try if I can get work, come what may."

"You will not go," says she, "till first you get your mother's bannock and blessing."

She made a Beltane bannock ready for him in the morning, and thus with the bannock and his mother's blessing he set out for Inverness. There he got no work to do. From Inverness he proceeded to Nairn, where he got work. He took up his lodgings in the house of an old man who had an only daughter. By-and-by Donald began to court the girl and married her. On the night of the wedding whatever came into Donald's head, he got up, put on his clothes, went away and left her there. On he travelled till he arrived at Keith, where he tried to get work, but failed. Thence he proceeded to Huntly, but could find no work there. At last he was on the verge of starvation, for bread or drink he had not tasted since he had left Nairn. There was no alternative for him but to go and beg. He went into a baker's shop and said, "In the name of God, give me something to eat, for I am dying of hunger."

"Bread or drink you will not get from me, you nasty beast," says the baker. "If I were giving to every one of your class that comes the way, I would not have much left to myself."

"Oh," says poor Donald, "don't allow me to die of hunger; give me food, and I will do anything you ask me."

"What could you do?" says the baker.

"I can work," says Donald.

"But," says the baker, "I don't want a workman just now, and I am sure you cannot bake."

"But could I not learn?" says Donald.

"Undoubtedly you could learn," says the baker, "but it would take you seven years to do so."

"Give me food," says Donald, "and to-morrow morning I'm your man."

He served the baker for seven years, and at the end of the seven years, says the baker to Donald: "I am well pleased with you. You served your time honestly, and to-day I do not know where there is a better tradesman than you. I do not know how I will get on without you;: but if you will stay with me for another seven years, I will give you this (mentioning the wages) for the past seven years and the seven to come."

"To-morrow morning," says Donald, "I'm your man."

He served the baker for the second seven years, and at the end of the seven years the same agreement was made between them as at the end of the first seven years, with this difference, however, that at the end of the seven years Donald was to receive double the wages he had got for the fourteen years he had already served. They agreed as usual, and honest Donald served the baker for twenty-one years. At the expiry of the twenty-one years, the baker says to Donald: "You are now at the end of three seven years, and if you will serve me for another period of seven years, I will give you as much pay for the seven as you have to get for the twenty-one that are past."

"No, I will not stay for one year more," says Donald; "I will go home and see my wife."

"Your wife?" says the baker; "have you a wife? You're a strange man; you have been here for twenty-one years,. and no one ever heard you say you had a wife. But now," says the baker, "which would you rather: your three wages or three advices."

"Oh," says Donald, "I cannot answer that question till I get the advice of a wiser man than myself; but I will tell you in the morning." Donald came down early in the morning as he had promised.

"What now?" asked the baker. "Which are you going to take—the three wages or the three advices?"

"The three advices," says Donald.

"Well, the first advice is," says the baker: "Keep the proper roundabout road; the second advice is: Do not stay in a house where there is a young, beautiful wife, with an old surly husband; and the third advice is: Think thrice before you ever lift your hand to strike anyone. And here is money for you to take you home, and also three loaves of bread; but remember that you will neither look at them nor take them asunder till you do so at your wife's knee, so that they may be the means of making peace between you, for you are so long away from her that it is hard to say whether she is alive or dead, or how will she welcome you."

Donald at once set off for Nairn. His intention was to stay the first night at Keith, and next night he would be at home. On the road between Huntly and Keith he overtook a pedlar, who greeted him kindly, and asked him where he was going. Donald told him he was going to Keith. The pedlar said he was very glad, as he was going there too; and the conversation they would have on the road would make them feel the journey shorter.

Thus they went along till they came to a wood, when the pedlar said: "There is a short cut through this wood which will shorten our journey to Keith by three miles, besides taking the road."

"Take it, then," says Donald, "Dear have I paid for the advice. I'll take the road."

The pedlar took the short cut through the wood, but did not proceed far when Donald heard cries of "Murder! Murder!"

Off he set through the wood to help the pedlar, who was after being robbed by two robbers.

"You now see the force of my advice," Donald says.

"You are robbed, and you may be thankful you were not murdered, let alone the time we have lost. We will not reach Keith to-night."

They came to a farmer's house at the roadside, and as it was late, and they were still a good way from Keith, they went in and asked if they could get lodgings for the night. This they got from the inmates, who were sitting round a good fire, in a frank and pleasant manner. They also got a good warming and plenty to eat.

Donald saw the farmer's wife, a young and charming woman. An old, grey, blear-eyed, unkempt man came in after her. But when he had come in, Donald says to the pedlar, "I will not stay here any longer. Dear have I paid for the advice."

"Surely you are not going to take the road at this time of night," says the pedlar; "and if you won't stay in the house, you can sleep in the barn."

Donald agreed to this proposal, and he went to sleep in the barn with his clothes on. He had a wisp of straw for a pillow, a wisp of straw for a bolster, a wisp of straw on both sides of him, and a wisp above him. He was so buried in straw that he had barely room to breathe.

He had scarcely slept, when two persons came in, and sat on the straw right on the top of him. Uncomfortable as he was, he dared not complain or open his mouth, but with a scissors he had in his pocket he cut off a small piece of the coat of the man that was sitting near his head, which was going into his mouth and eyes, and he put the piece he had cut off into his waistcoat-pocket. The man and woman, for such they happened to be, now began courting at the hardest. At last the woman said, "What a pity that old and nasty bodach (carl) wasn't dead. If you would place the razor on his neck, I would send it through his throat myself."

This was what happened. When Donald came out of the barn in the morning, the poor pedlar was in the hands of the officers of the law. He was handcuffed, and was being taken away to Aberdeen on the charge of having murdered the farmer. In the morning the farmer was found dead with his throat cut.

Donald followed them to Aberdeen; the pedlar was taken before the Lords; he was condemned, and the judge put on the black cap to pronounce the sentence of death. At this moment Donald gets up in court, and says: "My Lord, if you please, can a man that has not been summoned to court as a witness speak?"

"What have you to say?" asked his Lordship.

Donald then related the circumstances of the barn, and requested that the young widow's sweetheart be brought into court in the clothes he wore on the night of the murder, and that he (Donald) could give proof that the young man was guilty and the pedlar innocent.

The young man was taken into court, and when he was placed at the bar, Donald asked if there was a tailor in the court-house.

"Yes," says a man, rising opposite him.

"Try," says Donald to the tailor, "if there is a piece cut off from the skirt of his coat."

"Yes," says the tailor.

Thereupon Donald produced from his waistcoat-pocket the piece he had cut off from the man's coat, and giving it to the tailor, asked him if it suited the piece wanting in the coat.

"Yes," says the tailor; "it is the very piece that was cut off from the skirt of the coat."

Donald then related the circumstances of the case a second time. The man and woman were both executed in Aberdeen for this murder, and the pedlar was free.

Donald now set out for Nairn to visit his wife, but, before leaving the town, he bought a pistol, powder, and shot.

"Who knows," says he, "what may happen to me before I reach my journey's end?"

At last the good man arrived at Nairn at night, but well did he find out the house of his loving wife. He opened the door, and upon going in, he at once knew his wife's voice as she and another man were quarrelling. He charged his pistol to shoot the man; but here he remembered his third advice the baker gave him: "Think thrice before you lift your hand to strike any man."

When the man stopped quarrelling, the woman began and said: "You young rascal, I have only yourself, and little pleasure have I ever got from you or your father before you. He left me the night we were married, and it is not known whether he is dead or alive; but he left you behind him to be a burden on me."

When Donald heard this, he was thankful he did not shoot his son; so he marched in where the pair were, took the loaves of white bread off his back, and broke them on his wife's knee. Out of the first loaf tumbled the wages of the first seven years; out of the second, the wages of the second seven years, and out of the third the wages of the third seven years. Afterwards they lived together as happy as people could wish for.


I have met with several popular European forms of this story, which is assuredly of Eastern extraction, and has, I daresay, been orally current in Gaelic "time out of mind". The Gaelic story could not have been taken from No. 103 of Swan's translation of the Anglo-Latin version of the Gesta Romanorum—which, by the way, does not occur in the old English translations of the Gesta edited by Sir F. Madden for the Roxburgh Club, and one edited by Mr. Herrtage for the Early English Text Society—since the incidents of the murder and the loaves are not found in the monkish tale, while they are at least in one European popular version besides the above.

There is a story in the Turkish collection called Quirq Vazir Tarikhi (History of the Forty Vazirs), which in the opening bears some resemblance to the Gaelic tale. It is the Lady's eighteenth recital in my learned friend Mr. E. J. W. Gibb's complete English translation of that storybook, and relates how a young cobbler sees a darivesh pass by his stall one day, wearing "shocking bad" shoes. He gives the devotee food and repairs his shoes, and then telling him that he is about to travel, requests the good man's counsel in return for his little services. The darivesh skives him these three bits of advice: (1) "Set not out on a journey till thou have found a good fellow-traveller; for the Apostle of God [i.e., Mahommed] has said, 'The companion, then the road.' (2) Light not in a waterless place. (3) Enter great cities when the sun is rising."

After a time the cobbler finds some suitable travelling companions, and they set out. One day, in the afternoon, they approach Aleppo, and the cobbler, remembering the third advice of the darivesh, refuses to accompany them into the city, but his companions go on, leaving him to shift for himself without the walls. The rest of the story is analogous to the tale of "Ghanim", the slave of love, in the Arabian Nights, and both have probably been derived from a tale in an old version of the story-book, entitled Kissa-i Chehár Darivesh (Story of the Four Dervishes), written by Amir Khusrau, who died A.D. 1324, a Hindustani version of which, entitled Bagh o Bahár (Garden and Spring), was made early in the present century.

It is very evident that the Turkish tale is a compound of a story of three maxims, and the Persian story from which the Arabian tale of "Ghanim" was also adapted; and that the first part is imperfect, since we do not find that the hero profited by the first and second maxims of the darivesh, while in observing the third his life was not in danger. Moreover, we are not told that the hero's companions had cause to regret entering the city. I conclude, therefore, that the Turkish compiler had a confused recollection of the story of the "Three Maxims", and prefixed as much of it as he knew to what is elsewhere a distinct story of a youth, outside a city after dark, discovering two men enter a cemetery carrying a great box between them; his resuscitating an inanimate lady they had there buried; his concealing her, and so on. I had almost omitted to mention that this tale forms one (or part of one) of the Persian tales of the "Thousand and One Days" (Hazár ú Yek Rúz), said to have been compiled by a darivesh called Mukhlis of Ispahan, a work which was partly done into French early in the last century, under the title of Les mille et un jours: Contes Persans, by Petis de la Croix.

To return to the Gesta version of the Gaelic story of "The Baker of Beauly", No. 103 of Swan's translations. Here a king buys of a merchant three maxims for a thousand florins: (1) "Whatever you do, do wisely and think of the consequences. (2) Never leave a highway for a by-way. (3) Do not be a guest in a house where the husband is old and the wife is young." By observing the first bit of advice the king saves his royal throat from being slit by a barber, who has been hired to do so by the prime minister. By observing the second and the third he also saves his life.

In my Popular Tales and Fictions, vol. ii, p. 317 ff., I have adduced an earlier monkish version of the incident of the royal barber, as well as Arabian and Turkish variants, and a Kashmirí analogue, finally tracing it to an old Buddhist collection, and on p. 491 giving a version from Ceylon. Swan, in the notes to his rendering of the Gesta, cites from Petis de la Croix, Contes Turcs (a fourth of the Turkish "Forty Vazirs" done into French) the Ottoman version, where, however, the king gets but one maxim for his money: "Consider well before you do any deed"; and I have no doubt that originally the story came to Europe in a form similar to that of the Gesta version, but with the incident relating to the first maxim as the last.

For a full discussion of this story cycle, see Mélusine, iii, 473-513; iv, 166 (the latter reference reproducing M. René Basset's elaborate variant list, Contes Berbères, pp. 226-28).

  1. Merugud Uilix Maicc Leirtis, The Irish Odyssey. D. Nutt, London, 1886.