Many years ago when I lived in Edinburgh, I did an evening class that had a title something along the lines of “Scottish place names and mythology”. I’m wondering now how I got the time and the money to do this as I remember my Edinburgh time as working two jobs to keep my head above water. But time and money I did have, and I sat through six or eight weeks of fascinating links between place names and history and mythology.
One story that stuck in my mind was the story of the Devil’s staircase*.
A young woman singing while she was baking bannocks one morning and the Deil (as the lecturer described him – not quite the master of evil type Devil we may be familiar with but in Scottish folklore he’s more of a trickster, someone who uses his cunning to trick simple humans into his power) heard her singing and stopped by the cottage where she lived.
In the usual manner of these stories, he praised her bannock baking and asked her to marry him.
She demurred of course, as women in these stories do, so the Deil resorted to trickery.
“Will you marry me if I build you a staircase* to the top of the mountain before you finish your baking?”
Laughing, she agreed. What a silly man! As if he could build a staircase to the top of the mountain by the time she finished baking.
Well she went back to her baking and her singing and when the bannocks were almost ready she looked out the window and saw the Deil had just about completed the staircase*.
Realising at once who he was and what she had done, she took off running out of the cottage, thinking to run away from him, but the Deil saw her running and chased after her. Seeing he was gaining on her, she pleaded for divine help, and God (or Gods – I can’t recall if this was a pagan story) took pity on her and turned her into a standing stone to save her.
Thus thwarted, the Deil went away without his bride.
At the end of the story, one of the women in the class said, “She brought it on herself by singing. My granny always said, Dinnae sing when you’re baking or you’ll summon up the Deil.”
I could see the lecturer was surprised at this information (I guess he’d never done much baking with his granny) because for him the singing was a minor detail of the story. For him the main part of the story was the standing stone of the Running Maid (or similar name – like I said, it was a long time ago) which is located nearby the Devil’s staircase.
I always wondered – was the story made up to stop girls from singing while they were baking; or did girls never sing when they were baking because the story came first? It would have been interesting to know where the woman’s granny was from – if she was from the geographical area where the story took place. Or is the saying about not singing while you’re baking a thing that’s all over Scotland?
*It might not have been a staircase but something else like a bridge. I have Devil’s staircase in my mind from thinking about the West Highland Way for the past year. As I said, it was a long time ago and some details have gone fuzzy.