The Waters of Life – A tale from The Scottish Borders


Once upon a time there was a King who was so ill that he believed he was nearing death, a wise woman was called for, she said the only thing that would cure him was to drink from the Waters of Life.

Questioning the wise woman the King learned that the Waters of Life could only be found in a well  within a courtyard of an enchanted castle that lay in the middle of a dark stretch of water.  On pressing her further she said that such a place lay in the far off  ‘an chancie hills o the Scottish Borderlands’.

‘It is a sad an barren land scoured by incessant winds that at the same time whisper o aw that yince was there.’  She then disappeared before the King could ask any more of her.

The King immediately sent for his 3 sons.  He told each of them that they must fix a flask to their belts and go off to find the Water of Life that only this would save their Father.  At a crossroads by a burn they all took off in different directions.  The two oldest boys chose a broad easy going path that were strewn with daisy.  The youngest took a narrow twisted path that was overgrown with thorny bushes.

The two older Princes on their pleasant path were soon enjoying their easy journey so much and having a braw time with each other that they forgot all about the ills of their father and the water of life.

As for the youngest son, he made his way around the brambles and bushes through bogs ‘like a needle through the coarsest cloot, through bramble bushes, under whin bushes, through bogs an the thickest o woods’.  It was a journey that tested him, and he constantly struggled, so much so that he hardly remembered his name let alone know how far he had travelled.  Finally he came to a wee cottage with an old man who was sitting by the door as if he were expecting him.  ‘Here now, ye’ve  come at last.  I thought ye might never get here.  Ye have a long way tae go yet afore ye find the Waters o Life, so put yer horse in the stable an then come away an share ma supper.’

After being well fed the young Prince was offered a warm bed for the night but this offer came with a warning as the old man said, ‘There is a bed for ye through the wall, but whatever ye dae keep still, dinnae move an dinnae utter a sound nae matter what wee critters get in beside ye tae keep warm.’

The young lad was so tired he agreed and went straight to bed.  He had no sooner got himself all cosy and tucked in when a throng of frogs and snails got in beside him. As they slithered around him in the bed he couldn’t help but tense up and was just about to cry out when he remembered the old man’s warning.  That night he barely slept, as the cock crowed all the critters slithered away and there was a knock on the door.
‘Did ye sleep weel? asked the old man as they sat down for breakfast.  The young prince replied that he had had better sleeps but it could have been worst.

‘so it was meant tae be,’ nodded the old man. He then told the young lad that outside there was a new horse for him who would take him to the old man’s older brother who would help him on the next stage of his journey.

When the young prince mounted the horse the old man handed him a ball of yarn and instructed the prince to throw it between the horses ears and this will make the horse go faster than the wind.  The horse started to head north, with a clear road in front of him the prince threw the ball of wool between the horses ears and the horse took off like a hare.  After some time and quite a distance covered he could see ‘North Countree’ on the horizon.  Soon afterwards they came to a door of a tumble-doon house and neglected garden.  Sitting outside the front door was an even older and uglier man than the first.

‘So ye got here at last.  I suppose ma younger brother sent ye here?’

The prince told him he had and was pointed to a stable to put his horse.   He was then invited to supper with this ancient man,  to share his oatmeal scones and brambles with relish.  After supper the old man said ‘There’s a bed upstairs for ye, but whatever ye dae, an matter what critters come tae share yer be dinnae move or make a sound, or yer father will have yin less son aboot him.’

Completely exhausted, even more tired than the night before the prince went to bed. This time a throng of toads and slow worms joined him and wriggled around the whole night.  The lad managed to hold tight and not move or scream out.  As the cock crowed twice the critters scattered and there was a knock at the door.  As before the old man asked if he has slept well and the boy answered the same.  The old man returned the same reply ‘Aye, that is how it was meant ta be,’ and said there was a new horse outside that would take him to the oldest brother who would help him on his way.

When the prince mounted this new horse he was given another ball of yarn with the same instructions.  So again off they went and left a driech North Countree.  Soon the ominous Chancie Hills of the Scottish Borders lay in front of them.  In a large patch of waste ground was a ruined house at it’s door sat the oldest and ugliest man the prince had ever seen.

Just as before he was invited inside, given food and offered a bed for the night with the same warning.  The lack of sleep from the previous two night again meant that the lad accepted, but this time no creatures crawled into bed with him and he slept soundly till morning.   Until the cock crowed three times.

‘Did ye sleep wee?’  The old man asked

‘I have never slept so well.’  the prince replied brightly.

‘So it was meant tae be,’ nodded the old man. ‘Now listen very carefully tae what I have tae say, because if ye make a mistake yer father will have about him yin less son, whilst ye will live lot the rest o yer days in the driech withered lands o the North Countree as a frog, or a snall, a toad or a slow-worm.

‘Take intae yer hand this ball o yarn an throw it atween the lugs o yer horse an then ride that fast that the wind cannie catch sight o ye, till ye come tae the furthest away o the Scottish Borderland hills.  There ye will come across the enchanted castle that sits in the midst o a dark sheet o water.

‘Tie yer horse tae a tree, an then when it is time, caw oot that ye want tae be lifted across the water.  Three swans will come an cart ye across the water, but watch that ye dinnae slip an faw, because yer father will have yin less son.

‘On reaching the shore ye will have three gates tae go through, each guarded by terrible beasts.  They are always sound asleep in the middle o the day atween yin an twae o’clock, so ye must use that time wheel.

‘Heid straight for the castle.  Inside ye’ll pass by many grand rooms that could turn the head o a lesser man.  Nae matter what ye see in there dinnae tarry, for it is only that short hour that will keep ye safe.  Make yer way tae the kitchen an oot intae the garden where ye will come across the well.  Fill yer flask with the Waters o Life, an then come back here tae me the same way ye travelled there.  But mind this, yer success will affect mair than you an yer father’.
After thanking this old man for his kindness the prince set off.  All morning her rode till they reached the furthest back of the Scottish Borderland Hills.  True to his word the castle stood there before him surrounded by dark water.  At the water’s edge the prince tied his horse and called out to be carried over the water.

Three swans came to his side and carried him safely over the water to the castle.  It was precisely 1 o’clock when he stepped onto the shore.

At the first gate were two giants holding spiked clubs, they were sound asleep. The prince passed safely between them.  At the second gate were two ferocious lions with teeth as long as daggers, again they were asleep and the prince walked on unharmed.  At the third gate there were two dragons sleeping, again the prince past between them.

The prince then past many grand rooms in the castle, but didn’t give them a second glance, but in the last room was the grandest chamber, in it was a gold four poster bed and lying on the bed was the bonniest girl the prince had ever seen.  He could not help but go over to her, as he approached he felt such deep feelings of love for her, feelings he had never felt before.  He went closer and kissed her on her cheek.  The girl didn’t wake from her sleep, remembering his mission the boy turned to go, but as he did he dropped his frilly handkerchief on the floor, picking it up he placed it on the beautiful girl as a gift. Three crowns were embroidered in it’s corner.  The prince then left the room and onto the well.

At the well he removed the cap from his flask and filled it with water from the well.  Then the prince took to his heels and sprinted back past all the grand rooms, sneaking a look at the beautiful sleeping girl.  Then scurried through the gates with their sleeping guards.  At the waters edge the swans were waiting for him.   Across the water they took him, no sooner had he set foot on the other side did he hear the most hideous roar as the monsters all waked from their slumber.  The boy leapt onto his horse and rode swiftly back to the old man.  At nightfall he arrived at the ruined house.

‘Now it is yer turn tae help me, for I have helped you,’ said the old man. ‘Take this sword an come with me tae the well at the back o the hoose.’  When they got to the well the old man told the prince ‘Now, ye must cut off ma heid’.

The prince argued with him but ended up following hi orders and cut the old man’s head off.  As the head hit the water at the bottom of the well  a handsome young man showed up and stood beside the prince.  As the prince turned around the old ruined house had transformed into a magnificent house, how it would have once been, the gardens were all flourishing with neat lawns and trimmed hedges.

The handsome young man thanked the young prince for releasing him from the spell and hoped that he would do the same for his two brothers.  The prince was delighted to cut of the heads of the other two.  Just as he cut off the head of the youngest brother the beautiful girl in the enchanted castle stirred, stretched and opened her eyes, the spell was broken.  Unbeknownst to the prince she was a princess.  The giants, lions and dragons all vanished.  The swans turned back into armoured knights.

The next morning the prince rode back to the cross roads where he had previously left his brothers.  His brothers were still there enjoying themselves and only remembered their plight when they saw him.  The youngest brother didn’t see them and exhausted fell asleep.

While the youngest brother slept the eldest brother whispered ‘I wonder if hae was successful,’ and took the boys flask and unscrewed the top and took a sip.  He could tell straight away that this was no ordinary water.  The two older brothers agreed that their younger brother was too young to take responsibility for such a find and curing their father.  The oldest brother filled his flask half full with the magic water and the middle brother took the other half, then they filled the youngest brother’s flask with water from the burn.

When the young prince awoke, he had the weirdest felling that a strange presence was about him, he saw the tracks of the horses  which went in the direction of his father’s castle.  Believing this was a sign that his brothers had returned he rode back to the castle.

The youngest son was delighted to see his father.  He quickly handed him the flask but as the King took a sip he screwed up his face and spat the water out.  ‘Son, are ye trying tae poison me? This is nae Water o Life ye have in this flask.  Were ye trying tae trick yer auld father?’  The king called for the guards and demanded they cut off his son’s head in the morning saying this boy was no son of his.

The executioner on hearing that he had to cut of the young princes head was sorely vexed, he’d always liked the boy.  So he disguised him in some ragged clothes clothes and dirtied his face and under the cover of night helped him escape and to the home of a poor family of charcoal burners.  Here the boy lived.

Meanwhile the beautiful princess had been searching the whole land for the owner of the handkerchief with the three crowns.  When at last she came to the King’s palace where she insisted on seeing the King and his three sons.  She said she will marry the son who filled his flask from the Waters of Life she cast the handkerchief on the floor and said that only the owner would be able to stand onto of it without loosing their balance.

The eldest son stepped boldly onto the handkerchief,  toppled over and broke his arm. The second prince fared even worst and overbalanced and broke his leg.  The Princess furious, turned to the King and asked if he had no other son.  The King shook with fear and went pale.  He sent for the executioner to find out what had happened to his son.  A messenger was sent to tell the youngest prince to return to the castle.  But the messenger returned and informed the King that the prince would not return and prefers to live in the woods than die in the castle.  The messenger was sent again with the message that he would be safe coming back to the castle.  Once more the messenger returned unaccompanied.  The Princess told the messenger to ask the youngest prince if he would like to swap a handkerchief for the one he left at the enchanted castle.  This time the Prince came straight back.  The Princess asked him to step onto the handkerchief, which indeed he did.  Then she faced the King and his two oldest sons and said ‘Ye can keep yer other twae sons.  They’ve tricked ye yince, an they’ll dae it again nae doot.’

Then she invited the young prince back to her castle to marry her and rule all of her lands.   Which of course he did. They made a point of stopping by the poor charcoal burners house and gifted the family with more money than they could imagine to thank them for their kindness.  From the time they reached the enchanted castle till today their laughter and happiness was carried far and wide on gusting winds.

Resource: Scottish Borders Folk Tales by James P. Spence








About Amanda Moffet

I run with Rodger Moffet. Live in Edinburgh and love travelling around Scotland gathering stories.

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