Kate Crackernuts

from Orkney, adapted by Gill Kirk from Andrew Lang and Joseph Jacobs


ONCE upon a time there was a king and a queen who had married when each of them already had a child. The king’s daughter was called Anne and she was known for being pretty, and the queen’s daughter was called Kate and she was known for being smart.  Now, each of the girls had a problem. Anne had an unfortunate habit of using a baby-voice, because she thought people were often nice to her because she was pretty and she didn’t want them to think she was challenging, so she spoke babyishly. And Kate thought people were only interested in the clever things she had to say, so she frowned and looked serious a lot, in case her smile made them think she didn’t have much to say. Oh, dear.  Now, these girls were sisters only because their parents had married each other after they were born, but they loved each other just as much as if they were “real” sisters. 


Kate’s mother, the queen, was not a happy woman and she blamed other people for all the complaints she had in her heart, instead of asking herself why she felt as mean and grumpy as she did. She was very vain and she only cared about looks. It made her very grumpy to think that people thought Anne was prettier than her daughter Kate. So she made a plan to take Anne’s prettiness from her. 


She went to a strange old woman in the village who sold eggs (and was also not a happy soul) and asked her how she could spoil Anne’s looks.  The weird old woman told the queen to send Anne to her to buy eggs the next morning - before she had any breakfast. 


Early next morning  - before breakfast -  the queen said to Anne, ‘My dear, please go to the hen-wife and ask her for some eggs.’ Anne did a babyish giggle, and went to get the eggs. And as she went she passed through the kitchen and saw some bread on the side, so took a slice to munch as she walked. 


Anne reached the strange old hen-wife's house and she asked for some eggs, as the queen had told her. And the hen-wife said, 'Lift the lid off that pot over there and take a look.'  Anne did as she was told, she peeped into the pot and the old hen-wife watched. Nothing happened. Then the woman said to Anne, 'Go back home and tell the queen to keep her kitchen door locked.’ Anne took some eggs and went back home, more than a little bit confused.


When she got home, she told the queen - in a babyish voice - what the hen-wife had said and the queen knew it meant that Anne had had something to eat. 


The next morning, the queen tried again. This time, she made sure Anne left the house without any breakfast. But when she got halfway to the old hen-wife, Anne saw some people picking peas by the roadside. She stopped to have a wee chat with them, and they gave her some peas, which she ate as she walked. When she reached the hen-wife's, the hen-wife said, 'Lift the lid off that pot and look inside.' Anne lifted the lid and nothing happened. The hen-wife was angry and said to Anne, 'Tell your queen the pot won't boil if the fire's away.' So Anne went home with yet more eggs, and told the queen those very strange words, putting on her best babyish voice, in the hope that the queen wouldn’t be mean to her if she sounded like a baby.


On the third day,  the queen went with Anne all the way to the hen-wife. The old woman told Anne to look in the pot, and she did. And BOOSH! Anne's head became a sheep-head. The queen was happy now that her daughter was the prettier, and she went back home.


Poor wee Anne! She had a sheep’s head instead of her own! She ran home alone as fast as she could, very upset at what she knew the queen had done, and went to her sister Kate.  She told Kate everything that had happened and what Kate’s mum, the queen, had told her to do and how head head had turned into THIS. She didn’t use a babyish voice - she never did with Kate - and now she had a sheep’s head for a head, well, she knew she never would again! Now she had a sheep’s head, she had to be taken seriously, as a person with opinions and interesting thoughts. Talking like a baby, she realised, would not help things at all!


Now Kate was not just smart - she was also kind and loving. She was horrified at what her mother had done to her sister and she told Anne this. Then she wrapped her sister's head in a pretty cloth and together they ran away to seek their own fortune. 


The royal sisters marched through the countryside for miles and miles and eventually they came to a castle. Kate knocked at the thick wooden door and very seriously asked for a bed for herself and her poorly sister.  When they went in, they found the castle belonged to a king, who lived there with his sons. But one of the sons was extremely ill and no one could find out what was making him ill. Even worse, anyone who cared for him overnight would vanish by morning. The king was so worried for his son, that he offered a piece of silver to anyone who would stay up through the night with him. 


Now Katie was a very brave girl, so she offered to sit up with him.


All was quiet. Until midnight. But as the bells chimed twelve, the sick prince got up from his bed, got dressed and slipped downstairs. Kate followed him, but he didn't seem to notice her.  Then he went to the stable, saddled his horse, called his hound, and jumped into the saddle. Determined she wouldn’t lose sight of him, Kate leaped on the saddle behind him. 


The prince rode away, with Kate sitting behind. The rode through the woods, and as they went, Kate plucked nuts from the trees and filled her apron with them. On and on they rode, ‘til they reached a green hill. The prince stopped and called out, 'Open, open, green hill, and let the young prince in with his horse and his hound', and quickly, Kate whispered, 'and his lady behind him’.


Immediately the green hill opened up and they went inside. There in front of them was a magnificent hall, all lit up and full of beautiful fairies. They surrounded the prince and led him off to dance. No-one noticed Kate, so she hid herself behind the door. She watched the prince dance and dance ‘til he could dance no longer and fell down in exhaustion. But the the fairies fanned him ’til he cooled down, got him back up and make him dance some more. At last the cock crew, and dawn had broken, and the prince rushed back to his horse. Kate jumped up behind him, and home they rode. 


When it was breakfast time at the prince’s castle, the King and Anne and the healthy brother prince  came into the sickly prince’s room. There was Kate sitting by the fire, cracking the nuts she’d plucked in the woods on her way to the fairy hill. She told the king that the prince had a good night; but she would not sit up another night unless he gave her a piece of gold. After all, she said very seriously, I have to care for my sister and me when we leave here. The king agreed. 


The second night passed exactly as the first had done. The prince got up at midnight, dressed, went to the stables, rode to the green hill and the fairy ball, and Kate went with him, gathering nuts as they rode through the forest. This time she didn’t watch him dance, but decided to look around. As she watched she found herself smiling. The fairies were fascinating and strange. They were not beautiful, like fairies in books she had read, but unusual-looking. They were all shapes and sizes, colours and types. Long-eared, long-toothed, green-nosed, short-winged - each one was different, and each one was interesting. In the way every fairy stood, talked, smiled, listened, its personality shone out. They were happily, seriously, humorously, generously themselves and not one of them was pretending to be something they were not; not one of them had changed themselves out of fear of what other fairies thought. 


As Kate was pondering this realisation, her eye was caught by a fairy baby. It was playing with a wand. She overheard one of the nearby fairies say: 'Three strokes of that wand would make Kate's sister as bonnie as ever she was.' Could that be true? Kate was determined to find out. So she rolled some of her nuts to the fairy baby, ’til the baby toddled over to her to get the nuts. It dropped the wand and Kate put it in her apron. 


At cockcrow, Kate and the prince rode home as before. The moment she got home, she rushed to Anne and touched her three times with the wand. The sheep's head fell off and she was her own self again. Just without the silly voice. 


That next night, the third night, Kate told the king she would only care for the prince if she and her sister could stay in the castle as long as they wanted. The king said yes. 


Night came and everything happened just as before. But this time, inside the fairy hill, Kate saw the baby playing with a chicken. Kate heard one of the fairies say: 'Three bites of that chicken would make the sick prince as well as ever he was.' Kate was sure this would work, so she rolled all the nuts she had to the fairy baby ’til the baby dropped the chicken, and Kate put it in her apron. 


At cockcrow they set off home and when they got there, Kate plucked the chicken and cooked it and rushed it up to the prince’s room. The smell of cooking chicken filled the early morning air. 'Oh!' said the sick prince, 'I wish I had a bite of that chicken,' so Kate gave him a bite, and he leaned his head off the pillow. 'Oh, I wish I could have another bite,” said the prince, so Kate gave him another bite, and now he sat up in his bed. Then he said: ‘I’d really like a third bite,” and Kate gave him his third bite, and he got out of bed, healthy and strong, dressed himself, and sat by the fire for a chat with this fascinating woman who he felt he’d known for ages.


When the sun was fully up, the king and Anne came in to find Kate and the young prince cracking nuts and laughing about dancing and magical hills. Kate never frowned again.