Long ago, Johnny Croy of Volyar was the bravest, boldest and bonniest man in all of Orkney.
Many a fair lass cast longing glances towards young Johnny, but never a one did he care for.
Now it happened that one day Johnny went to seek driftwood on the shore on the west side of Sanday. The tide was well out, and he was threading his way through the big boulders under the crags.
Suddenly he heard the most lovely voice singing a strange sweet tune.
For a moment he stood dumbfounded with the beauty of the music. It came from the other side of a big point of the crag and when Johnny peeped around it, he saw a wonderful sight. On a weed-covered rock sat a mermaid, combing her long hair. Like brightest gold it shone and flowed down over her white shoulders like sunshine over snow. A silvery, glistening petticoat hung down from her waist, the train of it folded together so that it lay behind her like the tail of a fish.
And all the while she combed, she sang her bewitching song.
Johnny Croy was overcome with love for this beautiful creature.
She sat with her back to the sea, and he got down and crept quietly among the boulders to get between her and the water. Every glance he cast at her made his heart burn all the more.
Quietly he crept up, coming within a few feet of her.
Still she combed, and still she sang. Then Johnny sprang forward, threw his arms around her, and kissed her. She leaped to her feet - for two pretty white feet were under the silvery petticoats - and gave Johnny such a wallop that he was thrown flat on the rocks.
Gathering here shimmering train over her arm, she ran down to the sea. As Johnny scrambled to his feet, he spied the sea maid’s golden comb on the sand. She was out in the water now, staring at him with all her eyes, angry at being so rudely kissed, yet with love growing fast in her heart. She knew well that only if she could take a mortal lover could she keep her youth and beauty.
Johnny held up the golden comb and cried, "Thanks to thee, my bonny lass, for this love-token!"
The mermaid gave a bitter cry.
"Alas, alas! My golden comb! Oh, give me back my golden comb! To lose it will shame me before all my people! Oh, give me back my golden comb!"
"Oh no, my sweet!" says Johnny. "Come you and live on land with me, for never can I love another now."
"Not so," replied the mermaid. "I cannot live in your cold land. I cannot bide your black rain and your white snow. And your hot sun and smoky fires would wizen me up in a week. Come with me, my bonny lad. I’ll make you a chief among the Finfolk. Come away, come away with me."
"Oh, no," said Johnny. "You cannot entice me – I was not born yesterday. But come you to my stately house at Volyar. There I have plenty of gear; I have cows and sheep. I will make you mistress of all my store. Never shall you want for what I can give you."
But the mermaid shook her head.
"Come, come now with me, my bonnie man. I will set you in a crystal palace under the sea. There the sunbeams never blind, there the winds do not blow, and the raindrops never fall. Oh, come away with me, and be my love, and we shall both be happy as the day is long."
"It is for the lass to follow the lad," said Johnny Croy. "Just come away and bide with me, my darling Gem-de-Lovely." So there they stood, each tempting the other. And the longer they gazed, the better they loved. But at last Gem-de-Lovely saw folk coming far airway. Bidding Johnny farewell, she swam out to sea, singing mournfully, "Alas, alas. My golden comb. Alas, my bonnie man."
Johnny watched her go, her golden locks shining over her white shoulders like sunbeams glinting over sea-foam. Then he went home with a sore heart but carrying the treasured golden comb.
His mother was a Spae-Wife - a wise woman - and Johnny Croy told her his tale and asked her advice.
"Great fool that you are!" said his mother sharply. "To fall in love with a sea maid when any land lass would be glad of you! But men will be fools all the world over. To bring this sea wife to you, you must keep her comb well hidden; it is her dearest treasure. Keep it, and you have power over her. But be wise, my son. Take my advice. Cast the comb into the sea, and forget her. The folk of the sea are not of God’s people."
But Johnny Croy could not do that.
"Then," said Grannie Croy, "she may make a bright summer for you, but it will end in a woeful winter. I have seen that you will ride your own road, though you sink in the quagmire at its end. Only one I can save – I would it were you, my son. But what will be, will be."
Well, Johnny went about his work like one bewitched, thinking all the while of his Gem-de-Lovely and the cautionary words of his mother. But he put the comb up safely for all that.
Then came a night when he could not sleep for thinking of his lost love. Towards morning he dozed and at day-break was wakened by beautiful music.
He lay a while as if enchanted - it was the voice that he had last heard at the shore.
Opening his eyes he saw that Gem-de-Lovely was sitting at the foot of the bed, the most beautiful being that ever gladdened a man’s eyes. Her face was so fair, her hair so gleaming, and her dress so splendid that Johnny took her for a vision and tried to say a prayer. But never a word of prayer came to his lips.
"My bonnie man," said the mermaid, "I’m come to ask again for my golden comb. I’m come to see if you will live with me in my crystal palace under the waves."
"‘No," said Johnny. "No, that I cannot do. But unless you bide with me now and be my loving wife, my heart will surely break."
"I will make you a fair offer," said Gem-de-Lovely. "I will be your wife. I will live here with you for seven years, if you will swear to come with me and all that’s mine, to see my own folk at the end of that time." At that, Johnny jumped out of bed, fell on his knees before her, and swore to keep the bargain.
And so they were married.
Gem-de-Lovely shivered and shook as they came to the kirk and stuffed her hair in her ears as the priest prayed. But folk soon forgot that, for a bonnier bride was never seen in Orkney. Her face was as lovely as the dawn; her dress shone with silver and gold; and every pearl in her necklace was as big as a cockle shell.
Gem-de-Lovely was a frugal, loving wife to Johnny Croy. She baked the best bread in the island and brewed the strongest ale. She was the best spinner in all the countryside and for seven years everything at Volyar was in good order. The sheep and the cattle thrived and the barns were full. All things went merry as a Yuletide from one year to the next. But all good things must end; and the seventh year drew to a close.
Then, you may believe there was a stir in making ready for a long sea voyage. Johnny said little, but he thought much.
Gem-de-Lovely was brisk and busy and wore a far-away look. By now, the pair had seven bonny bairns, all as strong and well-favoured as their parents. Each of them in turn had been weaned in Grannie Croy’s little house and now she had the youngest sleeping in her own room.
And what do you think Grannie Croy did on the eve of the day when the seven years ended?
She rose in the midnight and blew up the ashes in the fire. She made a cross of wire and heated it red-hot in the glowing embers. And then she laid the red-hot cross on the bare seat of the babe who screeched like a demon all the while.
In the morning when they were fully equipped, Gem-de-Lovely walked down to the boat. And she was a picture. Stately and splendid as a queen in her shining dress with the great pearls gleaming on her neck, she came to the beach.
There was her Goodman, Johnny Croy with her six eldest bairns.
But there also was Grannie Croy, sitting on a stone with the tear in her eye.
Gem-de-Lovely sent up the servants to Grannie Croy’s little house to bring the seventh bairn down in his cradle. Back they came, telling her that the four of them could not budge it one inch.
A cloud came over her beautiful face. She ran up to the house and tried to move the cradle - not an inch would it budge.
She flung back the blanket to lift the babe out in her arms. But the moment she touched him she felt a dreadful burning and started back with a wild scream. Down to the beach she ran, her head hanging and the tears streaming from her deep blue eyes. And all the while, Grannie Croy sat on the stone with the tears on her cheek and a half-smile on her lips.
As the boat pushed off, they heard Gem-de-Lovely lamenting sore.
"Alas, alas, for my bonnie boy! Alas, that I must leave one to live and die on dry land!"
The wind blew, the sail filled and the boat turned to the west and swiftly disappeared. Johnny Croy and his fair wife and their six eldest bairns inhere never more seen in Orkney.
But Grannie Croy nursed up the babe that was left and named him Corsa Croy - Croy of the Cross. He grew up the bravest, the boldest and the bonniest man in the islands.
When his grandmother died, Corsa Croy took to the sword. Far over seas he advent on crusade to fight the Pagans in the Holy Land. And men said that enemies fell before his blade like thistles to the reaping-hook.
Corsa Croy became rich and famous. He married a great earl’s daughter and settled in the south country. He and his wife had many bairns and long life and happiness, for the descendants of the sea-folk are always handsome and always lucky.