A retelling of the ballad of the Scottish borders
This episode we have a delightful Fairy Tale. With fairies, castles, witches, princesses and princes, step mothers and ugly step sisters (alignments to be revealed), lots of things done in threes, and body horror that’s positively Cronenbergesque. Musical credits, sources and more at: https://talesofbritainandireland.com/episode-35-kate-crackernuts/ #myth #mythology #folklore #legends #fairytales
“Open, open, green hill!”
This episode we have a delightful fairy tale.
With fairies, castles, a witch, princesses and princes, step mothers and ugly step sisters (alignments to be revealed), lots of things done in threes, and body horror that’s positively Cronenbergesque.
Also taking the crown as longest episode yet, quite against all the podcast SEO advice I’ve received.
There are diversions into even more odd and unnecessary directions than usual. So I hope you like that kind of thing. If you’re listening to the podcast I assume you do?
“[The Tale] is very corrupt, both girls being called Kate”— Joseph Jacobs in the poorly named “English Fairy Tales”
Story in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)
The stories in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript.
If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the story, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on…
The forest at night is huge and dark. A flaming pitch torch movies through it at speed, held in the hands of a figure who is fleeing through the night desperately.
He’s lost, terribly lost. But by now he’s tired and confused as well. Something is wrong here. He’s half stumbling, half running when he hears the sound. It’s right in front of him!
A great slow rumbling noise. The tired desperate man draws to a halt and as he does so a dazzlingly bright light bursts forth, blinding him.
He drops his torch in shock, backs off, trips on some root and falls over backwards.
Lying prone all he can see is the light, light from which, to his horror, silhouetted figures emerge – humanoid, mis-proportioned – all long limbs and thin bodies.
Backlit by the dazzling light the black figures reach down to the lost young man….
We start this story proper in a very non specific Kingdom with a northern European later mediaeval feel to it.
There’s a King, and a Queen, as all too often there are. He had inherited the throne but she was the second Queen. How long before our story starts their marriage happened is known only by the sands of time, and they aren’t telling.
Each of them brought a daughter to the marriage – the King’s daughter, whose mother was dead, was called Kate. And the Queen’s daughter, whose father was dead, was… also called Kate.
We’ll call them the King’s Kate and the Queen’s Kate until better names suggest themselves.
The two Kate’s were around the same age – just on that cusp of adulthood. And the step-sisters were the best of friends.
But the Queen, the step-mother, she hated the King’s daughter something rotten. For the Queen’s daughter was bonny and fair and would soon have all the men of the Kingdom fighting for her hand.
And shame to say she thought her own daughter positively ugly by comparison. Which is no way to think about your own child.
One day the queen took her concerns to the henwife. The henwife, who lived in an idyllic cottage core home, surrounded by flowers and chickens, and who was the model of jovial friendliness.
The henwife who provided assistance to those in need. Or more correctly, those with needs. And she wasn’t fussy about what those needs were. As long as the pay was good.
And the Queen could pay.
After a charming chat the henwife told the Queen -”Send the King’s daughter to me and, this is very important, make sure that she has fasted first.”
So the next morning the King’s daughter Kate’s breakfast didn’t arrive when it usually did. She was going down to the kitchens to discover why when her step-mother rushed up to her.
“Kate, so sorry to bother you, but I need a favour. Could you go to the henwife for me, fetch some eggs, and see what else she has for you?” and using no small amount of subterfuge she intimated that there was something urgent that needed to happen that was to do with the Henwife’s other business, of which Kate, like many in the Kingdom, was well aware.
And that it was urgent. It couldn’t wait till after breakfast.
The Queen was trusting her with a task that was too sensitive to reveal to a servant, her own husband or daughter even.
It was a masterful bit of manipulation.
Kate was a kind young woman and she was happy to oblige.
She left the queen and went immediately to the henwife but on her way through the palace she spied a piece of bread left on the side. She took it and ate it on her walk.
When she reached the cottage the henwife was as friendly as friendly can be. She fussed around getting the eggs together, and as she did so she, ever so casually asked Kate to check a large cooking pot for her.
Kate lifted the lid, looked inside. If she’d been watching the henwife’s face she’d have seen a flash of anger cross it for just a split second.
“Water’s almost at the boil” she called out.
“Thankyou dearie” said the henwife. As she presented Kate with the eggs she added “and do make sure to tell your step-mother that she must keep her pantry door better locked in future.”
Kate interpreted this as a more cryptic message than it actually was, assumed it was the other thing she’d been sent for her, and headed back with the eggs.
The Queen understood the henwife’s message and cursed. The next morning she sent Kate again, again with breakfast undelivered. This time Kate encountered some pea-pickers on the way to the cottage, and they gladly offered her some peas to eat.
Then things repeat for that day. This is a fairy tale so that happens a couple of times – events occurring in threes.
On the third day the Queen went with the King’s Kate to the henwife – I don’t know how she justified it to Kate by this point, but it did mean she could make sure Kate hadn’t eaten anything.
The plan worked. This time the Queen and the henwife watched as bonny Kate, trusting Kate, lifted the lid off of the pot.
And at that:
Kate’s head wrenched itself from her neck with a sharp sickening crack. Then by its own power the detached head threw itself down onto the floor.
From there the head turned, the long blonde hair sweeping across the floorboards with an audible brushing sound. Eyes open it looked back at its own headless body, still standing there. The mouth of the detached head was agape and aghast.
But it wasn’t over yet.
In a dusty corner of the room, unnoticed to all but the hen wife, lay the decapitated head of a sheep. And propelled by forces unseen it leapt onto the stump of Kate’s neck.
Kate’s eyes opened. And they were the sheep’s eyes. She gave a terrified bleat. And on the floor the eyes of her own pretty head closed for the last time.
The Queen, the very definitely evil step-mother of a queen, was delighted by this. She rushed back to the palace, the terrified transformed Kate her prisoner.
And into the chambers of her own daughter, Kate, she burst.
“Not so pretty now is she?” The queen laughed madly as she presented the terrified monstrosity to her own Kate.
The Queen’s Kate was apparently fairly immune to shock, or at least very good at hiding it.
“This is Kate!” she said in horrified realisation.
“Yes, yes – no one’s going to want her now are they my dear?!. You’ll be the prettiest princess now! Ha ha ha ha ha!”
“Ha ha ha ha ha!” agreed Kate, imitating her mother’s maniacal laughter. “Oh yes!” Sheep headed Kate recoiled in terror at her friend’s words.
But she was relieved a few minutes later when the Queen went for a lie down after her exhausting morning’s activity of being evil.
Then the Queen’s Kate turned to her sheep-headed sister and with no hesitation declared: “We’ve got to leave, right now!”
She found a silk scarf to wrap around her sister’s head, packed some belongings and money, and far away from the palace, and indeed the Kingdom, they fled.
Yes – this is a tale where the protagonist is the Ugly Step Sister.
For days they slept under moon and stars until eventually they reached a land far away from their own. A land dominated by a large hill-top castle.
And the princesses knew about royalty and castles, and so there they went to seek an audience with the King.
The queen’s Kate pleaded for her and her sick sister to be allowed to spend a night in the castle.
The King agreed, barely even phased by the nature of Kate’s illness. But he laid down one condition. One fairly onerous condition.
You see the crown prince of the Kingdom had been taken ill these past few weeks. At first he had just been more tired than usual but increasingly he barely had any energy at all, unable to rise from his bed or do anything much but sleep through the day.
And it seemed that this was no ordinary illness. For anyone who watched over the prince in his room at night wasn’t there the morning after. Which, even a sceptic would agree, definitely hint sat the supernatural.
The King was offering a peck of silver should anyone watch the prince, but takers were thin on the ground.
The two Kates could stay, and they’d get the peck of silver, if human-headed Kate would watch the prince that night.
Because she was fearless and apparently had insane levels of self-confidence Kate agreed.
That night Kate was watching the prince sleep when the clock struck midnight. At this the weak, severely ill man jumped out of bed, dressed himself and then headed downstairs all while ignoring any attempt by Kate to wake him up from the entrancement he was clearly in. He didn’t even register her.
She followed him down to the stable where he saddled a horse, called for his hound and opened the stable doors. At the last moment Kate jumped on the back of his horse behind him, he of course paid no attention, and off into the night they rode.
They didn’t stay on the road long, soon turning into the vast greenwood, lit up by the moonlight.
As they rode Kate noticed the trees around were fair brimming with hazelnuts, more than she’d ever seen in her life. The forest was teeming with the magical nuts. She grabbed herself a handful and put them into her apron pockets. Because women’s clothes had pockets back then.
A little while later and she and the prince arrived at a large hill, all covered with grass and moss and trees and intensely green.
The prince cried out: “Open, OpengGreen Hill, and let this prince in with his horse and hounds”.
The quick thinking Kate added “And his lady behind him.”
At this the whole side of the hill slowly opened up, dazzling light poured out, out along with the sounds of music and merriment. And into the hill they rode.
They were in a cavernous hall. Well lit by fires, as finely decorated as any palace ballroom Kate had ever seen. There were banqueting tables piled high and a great many people in attendance.
Quickly Kate leapt from the horse and hid herself just by the door.
The prince was immediately beset by the most beautiful women – no, not quite women, Kate saw, they shimmered magically and their proportions were all just a little wrong. These were fairies.
They dragged the prince to dance. And even when he tried to stop they made him dance again, and again.
It seemed this explained quite a lot about his wasting illness.
Kate snatched glances while keeping herself hidden. She was helpless to stop him.
A fairy child, little more than a baby, sat near to her, holding a wand in its hand. Two fairy women regarded it and Kate could make out their conversation:
“You know that a girl with a sheep’s head has come to the castle? ” said one fairy to the other
“So I heard, terrible business, wouldn’t she just love to know that three strikes of that wand would fix that.”
“Aye, I’m sure she would, but that’s not going to happen is it?”
Kate almost stopped breathing. The conversation moved on to other topics and then the women went back to the dance.
How to get the wand from the baby?
Kate thought on the nuts she’d gathered from the wood. She rolled one over to the child. It watched it curiously.
She rolled more… a second, a third and when a fourth rolled by the child dropped the wand and went for the nuts. Quick as a flash Kate darted out, scooped up the wand, put it in her apron and hid back around the corner again.
Kate waited the rest of the night, remained mercifully undiscovered.
Just before dawn the fairies retreated deeper into the hill, the door opened and the prince left, Kate jumping on to his horse behind him.
The King was astonished to find Kate still in the prince’s chambers the next morning, cracking nuts by the fire. Kate Crackernuts they called her after that. Because of all those nuts she cracked.
She got her peck of silver, and when asked if she’d consider a peck of gold to stay another night she agreed.
And then she rushed to her sister Kate. It was as the fairies said: three strikes of the wand and the sheep’s head evaporated off revealing her own original head beneath, as if it hadn’t been last seen on the floor of the henwife’s cottage.
The sisters hugged and rejoiced.
That evening things went much as the last, without the wand of course. Kate Crackernuts followed the prince out, got some more nuts, hid from the fairies, but the prince was still trapped in his terrible dances and she could do nothing for him.
Despite her lack of success when she returned to the castle the next morning she made a new deal with the King – if she stayed up with him one more night she’d get given the prince’s hand in marriage.
Of course for this to be a good deal for her she’d have to save him from the nocturnal party fairies.
The third evening she returned and things seemed to go just as the other two days. No great new plan formed in Kate’s mind. But luck was on her side. The baby was there again, and this time it was playing with a strange bird, unlike any Kate had ever seen before.
She froze. Fairy voices. Close by…
“That bird’s here…”
“Don’t worry, he’s not gonna see it – he’s too busy dancing isn’t he?”
“Even if he does so what – he’s not gonna cook and eat it, get his three bites in, cure himself, is he?”
Kate couldn’t believe her luck.
Now, just to get the bird away from the child. Luckily she had some nuts… and experience in this. Once the fairies were gone she rolled nuts to the babe, which was successfully distracted. Kate made a lunge for the bird, grabbed it, broke its neck without the slightest compunction and retreated back into her hiding place.
And then she waited, terrified of discovery at any moment. Finally, after gonising hours of waiting the time came when the faeries retreated, the hill opened.
The Prince, who looked fit to pass out, dragged himself again on to his horse, and back to the castle they rode.
Later that morning, instead of nut cracking, Kate plucked the feathers from the strange elven bird and cooked in on the fire.
The prince smelt it and in a weak voice asked for a bite. Kate gave him one, and he swallowed it down. He lifted himself up onto his elbows with more energy than he’d shown in days. There was magic here.
“Is there anymore? I need another bite”
“There is,” said Kate, passing him some more. He ate that greedily and swung his legs over to sit on the side of his bed.
“Just one more bite?”
And when he’d had that one he was returned to full health. Hale and hearty the prince arose from his bed and dressed himself, a beaming smile on his lips.
When the servants came to check on him that morning they found him and Kate cracking nuts by the fire.
And there isn’t much more to tell really – Kate married the Crown Prince. It turned out her sister Kate had made the acquaintance of the Prince’s younger brother and they were soon to be wed.
So as the tale says the well sister had married the ill brother and the ill sister, (sheep’s head is an illness), married the well brother.
And as many Scottish fairy tales end: They all lived happy, as happy as you can be about death I suppose and they never drank out of a dry Cappy..
(And no – we never find out what happened to the evil step-queen, the henwife or the King. That’s just how this tale is. And I for one find that somewhat refreshing)
(You know for an 130 odd year old tale).
This is from “The Scottish Fairy Book” and I really like it. The horrified look on that head!
Tales with similar components
In the discussion section I mention a few stories which have similar aspects to them as Kate Crackernuts while being very much different overall stories. This is far from an exhaustive list but here are the stories mentioned:
The Twelve Dancing Princesses or “The Shoes that were danced to Pieces“
This is really a whole tale type – the folktale classification system ATU has it as type 306. The tales are quite different in details (e.g. number of dancers) but they all share with Kate Crackernuts the motif of dancing the night away, and an outsider discovering this.
I said in the podcast that it isn’t supernatural in these tales- and I definitely overstated the case here. There’s certainly magic in most versions of the tale, even if the princesses’ dancing isn’t caused by anything supernatural, but in some versions there are even dragons and magic carpets, so I retract that. Even so, usually this differs from Kate Crackernuts by having the princesses willing participants, while the Prince is very much not.
The Girl and the Dead Man /An Nthginn Agus An Duine Marbh. Related by Ann Daroch from Islay in 1859 and told to her by Margaret Conal.
The common features are: the pecks of gold and silver, a task of having to watch over a man at night (in this case a dead one), and cracking of nuts, though this latter is part of a series of small fidgety tasks rather than a central focus.
It also contains a similar motif of three daughters and bannock baking that crops up in the episode The black bull of Norroway
Tatterhood – A Norwegian tale collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, with the translation here published first in 1888. In this the prettier sister of the eponymous character has her head replaced with a calf’s head and Tatterhood is the one who has to get it back for her.
Tatterhood is classified as ATU tale type 711 – “The Beautiful and the Ugly Twin“, and there are other similar stories. It shares some characteristics with Kate Crackernuts – sometimes involving an animal transformation and always a situation where an ugly sister helps a beautiful one.
But this tale type really leans into the ugliness of the sister whereas in the original Kate Crackernuts and even in my telling where I explictly call her an ugly step-sister which the original doesn’t, the Ugliness is really just comparative and quite likely only in the Queen’s mind.
I find it interesting that there is a whole tale type that subverts our narrative about ugly sisters, though it is a damn shame she has to become magically beautiful at the end of these stories, and I prefer Kate Crackernuts for not including that.
Two modern versions of the tale
As mentioned in the episode there is a full length Czech film version of the story on youtube (without subtitles). Kate Crackernuts name is changed to Anička and there are other differences (as far as I can tell!) but many similarities. I actually really like the look of the sheep’s head given what I assume to be the budget.
You can Czech it out (groan) below:
Come on mainstream film companies- give us another version
Secondly I also discovered a queer version of the tale, told in verse. I am all for both of those things.
You can find it here: Corvidqueen – Kate Crackernuts
Impressions of the Hen-wife
A couple of paintings that made me think of the hen-wife. The bottom work, “A visit to the Witch” by Edward Frederick Brewtnall, is clearly not the same character but it has very similar vibes to the story
Nothing really to do with Kate Crackernuts but if you’ve listened to the episode I know your interest has been piqued by my mention of a myrmecoleon. This is, I will remind you – the surprising offspring of an ant and a lion.
If you want more detail including an artist’s impression (clearly copyrighted or I’d include that masterful work here), then you can find it more at this illuminating article on the subject :Ant lion pit – Myrmecoleon
- Kate Crackernuts in Longman’s Magazine – The first version
- Kate Crackernuts rewritten by Joseph Jacobs
- Terri Windling on hen wives – Very detailed article, recommended
Musical credits for Episode 35: Kate Crackernuts
Intro music from the incredibly talented Alice Nicholls Music
Outro music by Josh Keely and Mitch Newman
Other music, used under various Creative Commons licenses:
A long story
The one who spread the sadness
Crossing the Chasm Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
Force of the Spell
Hide and Seek
Ben Von Wildenhaus
Yonder Hill and Dale