Today's classic tale was from Popular Tales of the Western Highlands, a collection of Scottish folklore collected by JF Campbell through many years of oral history research, and published in 1890.
There was a king in Erin once, who had a leash of sons. John was the name of the youngest one, and it was said that he was not wise enough; and this good worldly king lost the sight of his eyes, and the strength of his feet. The two eldest brothers said that they would go seek three bottles of the water of the green Isle that was about the heaps of the deep ("Eilean uaine a bha 'n iomal torra domhain."). And so it was that these two brothers went away. Now the fool said that he would not believe but that he himself would go also. And the first big town he reached in his father's kingdom, there he sees his two brothers there, the blackguards! "Oh! my boys," says the young one, "it is thus you are?" "With swiftness of foot," said they, "take thyself home, or we will have thy life." "Don't be afraid, lads. It is nothing to me to stay with you." Now John went away on his journey till he came to a great desert of a wood. "Hoo, hoo!" says John to himself, "It is not canny for me to walk this wood alone." The night was coming now, and growing pretty dark. John ties the cripple white horse that was under him to the root of a tree, and he went up in the top himself. He was but a very short time in the top, when he saw a bear coming with a fiery cinder in his mouth. "Come down, son of the king of Erin," says he. "Indeed, I won't come. I am thinking I am safer where I am." "But if thou wilt not come down, I will go up," said the bear. "Art thou, too, taking me for a fool?" says John. "A shaggy, shambling creature like thee, climbing a tree!" "But if thou wilt not come down I will go up," says the bear, as he fell out of hand to climb the tree. "Lord! thou canst do that same?" said John; “keep back from the root of the tree, then, and I will go down to talk to thee." And when the son of Erin's king drew down, they came to chatting. The bear asked him if he was hungry. "Weel! by your leave," said John, "I am a little at this very same time." The bear took that wonderful watchful turn and he catches a roebuck. "Now, son of Erin's king," says the bear, "whether wouldst thou like thy share of the buck boiled or raw?" "The sort of meat I used to get would be kind of plotted boiled," says John; and thus it fell out. John got his share roasted. "Now," said the bear, "lie down between my paws, and thou hast no cause to fear cold or hunger till morning." Early in the morning the Mathon (bear) asked, "Art thou asleep, son of Erin's king?" "I am not very heavily," said he. "It is time for thee to be on thy soles then. Thy journey is long - two hundred miles; but art thou a good horseman, John?" "There are worse than me at times," said he. "Thou hadst best get on top of me, then." He did this, and at the first leap John was to earth.
"Foil! foil!" says John. "What! thou art not bad at the trade thyself. Thou hadst best come back till we try thee again." And with nails and teeth he fastened on the Mathon, till they reached the end of the two hundred miles and a giant's house. "Now, John," said the Mathon, "thou shalt go to pass the night in this giant's house; thou wilt find him pretty grumpy, but say thou that it was the brown bear of the green glen that set thee here for a night's share, and don't thou be afraid that thou wilt not get share and comfort." And he left the bear to go to the giant's house. "Son of Ireland's King," says the giant, "thy coming was in the prophecy; but if I did not get thy father, I have got his son. I don't know whether I will put thee in the earth with my feet, or in the sky with my breath." "Thou wilt do neither of either," said John, "for it is the brown bear of the green glen that set me here." "Come in, son of Erin's king," said he, "and thou shalt be well taken to this night." And as he said, it was true. John got meat and drink without stint. But to make a long tale short, the bear took John day after day to the third giant. "Now," says the bear, "I have not much acquaintance with this giant, but thou wilt not be long in his house when thou must wrestle with him. And if he is too hard on thy back, say thou, 'If I had the brown bear of the green glen here, that was thy master.' " As soon as John went in - "Ai! ail! or ee! ee!!" says the giant, "If I did not get thy father, I have got his son;" and to grips they go. They would make the boggy bog of the rocky rock. In the hardest place they would sink to the knee; in the softest, up to the thighs; and they would bring wells of spring water from the face of every rock. The giant gave John a sore wrench or two. "Foil! foil!" says he, "if I had here the brown bear of the green glen, thy leap would not be so hearty." And no sooner spoke he the word than the worthy bear was at his side. "Yes! yes!" says the giant, "son of Erin's king, now I know thy matter better than thou dost thyself." So it was that the giant ordered his shepherd to bring home the best wether he had in the hill, and to throw his carcass before the great door. "Now, John," says the giant, "an eagle will come and she will settle on the carcass of this wether, and there is a wart on the ear of this eagle which thou must cut off her with this sword, but a drop of blood thou must not draw." The eagle came, but she was not long eating when John drew close to her, and with one stroke he cut the wart off her without drawing one drop of blood. ("Och! is not that a fearful lie?") "Now," said the eagle, "come on the root of my two wings, for I know thy matter better than thou dost thyself." He did this; and they were now on sea, and now on land, and now on the wing, till they reached the Green Isle. "Now, John," says she, "be quick, and fill thy three bottles; remember that the black dogs are away just now." ("What dogs?" "Black dogs; dost thou not know that they always had black dogs chasing the Gregorach!”) When he filled the bottles with the water out of the well, he sees a little house beside him. John said to himself that he would go in, and that he would see what was in it. And the first chamber he opened, he saw a full bottle. ("And what was in it?" "What should be in it but whisky.") He filled a glass out of it, and he drank it; and when he was going, he gave a glance, and the bottle was as full as it was before. "I will have this bottle along with the bottles of water," says he.
Then he went into another chamber, and he saw a loaf; he took a slice out of it, but the loaf was as whole as it was before. "Ye gods! I won't leave thee," says John. He went on thus till he came to another chamber. He saw a great cheese; he took a slice off the cheese, but it was as whole as ever. "I will have this along with the rest," says he. Then he went to another chamber, and he saw laid there the very prettiest little jewel of a woman he ever saw. "It were a great pity not to kiss thy lips, my love," says John.
Soon after, John jumped on top of the eagle, and she took him on the self same steps till they reached the house of the big giant, and they were paying rent to the giant, and there was the sight of tenants and giants and meat and drink. "Well! John," says the giant, "didst thou see such drink as this in thy father's house in Erin?" "Pooh," says John, "Hoo! my hero; thou other man, I have a drink that is unlike it." He gave the giant a glass out of the bottle, but the bottle was as full as it was before. "Well!" said the giant, "I will give thee myself two hundred notes, a bridle and a saddle for the bottle." "It is a bargain, then," says John, "but that the first sweetheart I ever had must get it if she comes the way." "She will get that," says the giant; but, to make the long story short, he left each loaf and cheese with the two other giants with the same covenant that the first sweetheart he ever had should get them if she came the way.
Now John reached his father's big town in Erin, and he sees his two brothers as he left them - the "blackguardan!" "You had best come with me, lads," says he, "and you will get a dress of cloth, and a horse and a saddle and bridle each." And so they did; but when they were near to their father's house, the brothers thought that they had better kill him, and so it was that they set on him. And when they thought he was dead, they threw him behind a dike; and they took from him the three bottles of water, and they went home. John was not too long here, when his father's smith came the way with a cart load of rusty iron. John called out, "Whoever the Christian is that is there, oh! that he should help him." The smith caught him, and he threw John amongst the iron; and because the iron was so rusty, it went into each wound and sore that John had; and so it was, that John became rough skinned and bald. Here we will leave John, and we will go back to the pretty little jewel that John left in the Green Isle. She became pale and heavy; and at the end of three quarters, she had a fine lad son. "Oh! in an the great world," says she, "how did I find this?" "Foil! foil!" says the hen-wife, "don't let that set thee thinking. Here's for thee a bird, and as soon as he sees the father of thy son, he will hop on the top of his head." The Green Isle was gathered from end to end, and the people were put in at the back door and out at the front door; but the bird did not stir, and the babe's father was not found. Now here, she said she would go through the world altogether till she should find the father of the babe. Then she came to the house of the big giant and sees the bottle. "Ai! Ai!!" said she, "who gave thee this bottle?" Said the giant, "It was young John, son of Erin's king, that left it." "Well, then, the bottle is mine," said she. But to make the long story short, she came to the house of each giant, and she took with her each bottle, and each loaf, and each cheese, till at length and at last she came to the house of the king of Erin. Then the five-fifths of Erin were gathered, and the bridge of nobles of the people; they were put in at the back door and out at the front door but the bird did not stir. Then she asked if there was one other or any one else at all in Erin, that had not been here. "I have a bald rough-skinned gillie in the smithy," said the smith, "but," –
"Rough on or off, send him here," says she. No sooner did the bird see the head of the bald rough-skinned gillie, than he took a flight and settles on the bald top of the rough skinned lad. She caught him and kissed him. “Thou art the father of my babe."
"But, John," says the great king of Erin, "It is thou that gottest the bottles of water for me." "Indeed, 'twas I” says John. "Weel, then, what art thou willing to do to thy two brothers?" "The very thing they wished to do to me, do for them;" and that same was done. John married the daughter of the king of the Green Isle, and they made a great rich wedding that lasted seven days and seven years, and thou couldst but hear leeg, leeg, and beeg, beeg, solid sound the peg drawing. Gold a-crushing from the soles of their feet to the tips of their fingers, the length of seven years and seven days.
From John MacDonald, travelling tinker.