Sympathy for the Witch

Last Spring a huge storm tore through our local forests and knocked thousands of trees to the ground.  It was devastating and since then, for nearly a year now, we’ve been working to clear these fallen trees and turn them into firewood for our village.

Last weekend a friend of ours came over to help chop some of this wood and move felled trees and logs with us.  In exchange for this backbreaking work we took him adventuring around the Glens, to places off the beaten track, full of wonder and echoes of the past.

When the cold and the dwindling light chased us indoors we got the fire going and shared stories. 

Winter is a good time for storytelling. 

I grew up in a family with a Scottish storytelling tradition and most of the stories I share now as a tradition bearer, are the ones I learned from family and family friends.  Many of them are specific to places, or to a community, or a certain time, which seems appropriate because these stories spoke to me at different times in my life too.

Images by Eileen Budd

For example, when I was a wee girl, it was the stories about princesses and faeries that grabbed my attention.  Stories about beauty and youth and freedom from responsibility.  The girl who grows up poor and put upon by a jealous witch of a mother but, because the young girl is beautiful, she marries a prince and then she’s set for life!  The dresses, the castles, the feasts, oh my!

It was the ideal plan as long as you were beautiful, graceful, elegant and demure.

(I, however, was stocky, shortsighted, clumsy and sarcastic, so according to these stories, my chances of landing a prince were exceptionally small, probably for the best). 

As a teenager, the stories I liked to hear were about mythical creatures, like dragons or selkies. Wild beasts fighting knights, fighting for survival, gaining their freedom, rejecting society. Warriors rising up from the Highlands to batter invading armies! The power of nature beating on the ground like the Kelpie’s hooves! The imprisoned Fisherman’s wife transforming into a seal, swimming free forever! 

Yes! Thats what my teenage heart longed for: adventure, rebellion and freedom.

As a young woman the stories I loved changed again.  Many traditional stories have women in a domestic setting, where family and homemaking are central and as a young woman this all seemed abhorrent to me. How sexist! How oppressive! How utterly terrible that these stories should still exist! I wanted to know; where were the stories about the strong women, the heroic women?!

So I sought those out instead and I found history to be rich with stories of incredible women doing amazing things.

Recently I was invited to speak at an event, to tell some of these traditional stories I felt should be wiped from existence and since I have always disliked changeling stories, this was the type I had picked to tell and then pull apart at this event.

Changling stories are old Scottish stories where the woman has her child taken and a faerie child put in its place. The faerie child is overly demanding, the woman can get no sleep or rest, she is at her wits end and feels deep down this child is not her own. As a young woman I heard these stories and I thought how awful. How deranged the mother is, how ignorant and attached to superstition, I thought. 

I thought.

I thought about those stories for weeks leading up to this event. I asked myself what was it about these tales I hated so much, why did they upset me. And as I readied them in my mind for telling I noticed something within these stories.

At its lowest points, motherhood can be extreemly isolating and upsetting.  It has moments of feeling hopeless, especially on those long nights, or if you’re on your own, or when you haven’t slept for days and cannot work out why, oh why wont your baby stop crying.  I know this.  I have lived those moments and I see them in the changling stories. I’ve felt the mother’s anguish and sleep deprived desperation. I can feel her exhaustion with a child who never seems to settle, who’s always hungry, always crying.  The loneliness of a mother up all night and all day, struggling to find an answer as to why she cannot satisfy this child. 

It cannot be human.

And suddenly through the centuries, through the folklore I am right there with that mother in her blackhouse with her screaming child.  The crop outside waiting to be cropped, the animals waiting to be milked, the family waiting to be fed, the clothes waiting to be washed, the expectations thicker and more choking than the smoke from the open fire.

In those stories the mother almost always seeks help.  Someone comes to give her a break and a solution to the problem is found. The mother comes back to her own child, all is well again.

Maybe these aren’t the messages I wanted or expected to find but they’re important and have been in those stories for centuries.

So who was I to say these stories shouldnt be told anymore?

We hear different stories at different times in our lives and we take different things from them.  Like those stories about princesses I loved as a child. Now I pay attention to the witches and jealous stepmothers in those stories because I can see why they’re upset. These women are those same princesses, now aged, their beauty fading, jealous of the young woman’s looks, opportunities, vitality and hope. 

The witch who was once the prime enemy to me in these stories is now a powerful warning.

Youth and beauty fade, so what then? A choice, to be the bitter jealous stepmother or the helpful, guiding godmother?

To share your knowledge and gifts with those who come after you?

Or remove all that you disapprove of?

Like earasing a story you’d rather not tell.

Sometimes, we hold onto the messages we find in stories, like little pieces of a jigsaw puzzle we haven’t solved yet, until one day we slip them into place.  This is part of the richness of folklore, part of the importance of telling and retelling these stories; sharing knowledge through the centuries. 

And the best stories will not tell you what the moral or message is. The best stories will make you think about your own situations in different ways, they will spark something in you that you hadn’t expected. 

And your sparks will be different to my sparks. 

That’s the joy of telling stories with people.

Eileen Budd is an artist & storyteller raised in Perthshire amid a rich oral storytelling culture. She has been working with museums for nearly 20 years, using storytelling as a way of interpreting and sharing knowledge of history and Scottish folk tradition. Her fully illustrated book ‘Ossian Warrior Poet’ and mini book ‘Scottish Druids’ can be bought here: Eileen hosts regular public storytelling events as well as events with schools. You can keep track of what she’s up to online: and on Instagram: @eileenbudd.

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