The Old Woman and Her Wool

Many years ago, in Scotland, on the Isle of Skye, at the foot of the Cuillin were two small towns. One was home to the Clan MacDonald of Sleat and the other belonged to the Clan MacLennen. These two clans were constantly fighting, mostly over land, but also over Inverness Castle. They each laid claim to the castle, fighting over it and the lands between them for hundreds of years. As older generations passed on and younger generations rose up, their fighting evolved from violent confrontations to bickering, arguing and stubborn refusals to cooperate. They hated each other out of habit.

One year in late spring, after the sheep had all been sheared and their fleece washed, picked and carded, ready for spinning, word came to the towns that there was a great Witch Hunt going on in the country, and women were being rounded up, accused of practicing witchcraft and summarily executed.

Women young and old grew frightened and wondered if the Witch Hunt would extend to their island. News of the proceedings was scarce and, if that wasn’t bad enough, all over Scotland people were dying of plague and famine.

It was a woeful time to be alive.

Living alone in a homely little cabin that faced West and provided spectacular views of incoming weather over the sea, and panoramic sunsets, was an old childless woman whose husband had died many years before during a particularly harsh winter.

As she got older, it was harder for her to tend her own sheep, and she made a deal with one of the families whose land shared a border with hers. If they would tend her sheep along with theirs, she would allow them to keep ¾ of the fleece they harvested and keep all but one of the spring lambs for their family.

This was a very generous offer, and her neighbors were happy to work with the old woman. For her part, she was happy to have enough fleece to spin into yarn for her weaving and knitting, and one young lamb to raise for slaughter without all the bother of tending the flock.

The young neighbor wife would often drop in on the old woman, making sure that she was well. Having heard the stories, the young wife talked to the old woman about the great Witch Hunt, and both women fell silent, each thinking their thoughts about what this might mean. And the young woman, who loved the old woman like a grandmother, gave her a hug before leaving and said, “There is trouble enough in life that we cannot change, I’ll never understand why we make it worse by fighting with our own people. Now is the time when we should all be drawn together, but instead I fear we will be fighting again with the MacDonalds or faced with famine or plague before summer’s end. And who knows what will come of this awful Witch Hunt.”

The old woman thought about what her young neighbor had said as she worked well into the night, separating her wool into piles of different colors. Growing tired, she laid her head down on one of the soft bundles and promptly fell asleep. It wasn’t a deep and restful sleep, however, as all of her worries hammered at her even in her dreams. She saw her piles of wool begin to twirl themselves into puffy tornados in white, cream, gray, brown, tan, red and black. They arranged themselves in first this pattern and then that, separating into two groups and then coming back together in one.

By the time the morning sun began to peek over the Cuillin, and stream into the back windows of her little cottage, the old woman woke with a start, fearing that she had slept far too long. In the first moments she was awake, she vaguely recalled her dream of the wool tornadoes, but shortly it dissolved like salt in soup, leaving her with a feeling that there was something she must do. Thoughts of her grandmother, who taught her how to spin and weave and knit, came to mind. Her grandmother had endless patience and taught her to respect the craft of working with wool. She remembered her grandmother saying, “Think happy thoughts and blessings while you work with the wool, child. Your fingers handle every last bit, and if you focus on positive things as the yarn flows through your fingers, you will infuse the yarn with positivity. If you are angry, unhappy or bitter, resentful or frustrated, you will infuse the yarn with that instead. You have the power to affect whoever wears the garment you make, so make sure you use that power wisely.” And while that made sense to her when she was a girl, she hadn’t thought about it for a good many years.

So all the while her hands were occupied spinning her wool, plying and making yarns of white, cream, gray, brown, tan, red and black, she was thinking about her grandmother, and about what the young neighbor woman had said, “Now is the time when we should all be drawn together.” As every inch of yarn passed through her still-nimble fingers, she was thinking of ways these two clans could work together to resist the plague and famine that were afflicting the rest of Scotland. And if they could work together, they could keep away the fanatics who imagined every bad thing that happened was somehow the fault of some poor woman they called a witch.

She began singing quietly to herself as she spun, “Now is the time we should all be drawn together.” And all that summer she wove sashes for the men to wear, made of all of the colors of sheep on the Isle of Skye. She made more sashes than she ever had before and still didn’t run out of yarn. When she had filled her entire bedroom with the colorful woven sashes, she chose one to give to her neighbor. She walked to her neighbor’s house and knocked on their door. The young wife answered and invited her inside as she called to her husband to come and see what their neighbor had made for him. “This is a wonderful gift!” he exclaimed. And he immediately put it on.

“I have a whole room full of sashes I have woven, and I want to give them to all of the MacLennen men,” she told them. They agreed it would be a good thing to do, so they helped her distribute her sashes to all the men, secretly wondering how the old woman had managed to weave all that fabric and not run out of yarn. It was a troubling thought.

When every man, young and old alike, had one of the new sashes, the old woman still had half a room full of sashes! “I don’t know how I could have miscalculated like this,” she said to herself, “but what shall I do now?”

As she slept that night, holding one of the sashes, she dreamed again of her wool. And in her dream, she heard a voice say “Now is the time we should all be drawn together,” and when she awoke she knew what she must do.

She piled up a cart full of the leftover sashes, attached it to her little donkey and rode over to her neighbor’s house, to see if the young wife would accompany her. She wanted to head over in the direction of Sleat, where the Clan MacDonald lived, and give the sashes to each of their men as a peace offering and a way to bring the clans together.

Her neighbor wanted to help, but quietly asked, “Are you not worried, with talk of witches, that some might wonder how you were able to weave so many sashes and not run out of yarn? What might the MacDonalds think?”

The old woman was not afraid and softly said, “Now is the time we should all be drawn together. This is just one old woman’s way of trying to do that. This is not witchcraft.”

The young woman agreed, but still had misgivings. They were executing women for lesser reasons and she worried for the safety of the old woman. She asked her husband what he thought and was surprised that he seemed completely unconcerned. He was uncharacteristically cheerful and thought it was a fine idea. And so the women set off with the little donkey and the cart full of sashes.

It was not a long journey, and soon the women were on MacDonald land. As they approached a grouping of houses, one of the MacDonald women was outdoors, carrying a water bucket. She stopped in wonder at the sight of two MacLennan women approaching as that was a most unusual occurrence.

“What brings you here today old woman?” she asked, suspicious.

“I’ve come here today with a gift,” the old woman said, holding up one of the sashes, “I spent all summer weaving these sashes and I would like to present them to the MacDonald men as a gesture of good will and friendship from the MacClennens.” She handed one to the woman whose frown immediately rearranged into a smile as she said, “What a lovely idea! Won’t you come inside and allow me to share your gift with my husband and sons?”

The women followed her inside where her husband was stacking firewood into the wood box next to the fireplace. He looked up, surprised, as his wife said “Husband! We have guests from the clan MacLennen and they have brought you a gift. As he straightened up she draped the sash over his head and shoulder. Suddenly the husband, who had been scowling, obviously unsure of what to do in this completely unexpected situation, burst into a broad smile, puffed out his chest and exclaimed, “This is a wonderful gift!”

Both the husband and wife agreed that they would take the sashes the old woman had made and would see to it that every one of the MacDonald men got one. They helped her unload her cart, and as she was making to leave, there was a twinkle in the old woman’s eye as the husband said, “Now is the time we should all be drawn together.” She winked at her young neighbor.

There never was another battle between the MacDonald clan and the MacLennen clan, and by working together, the plague and famine that tormented the rest of Scotland didn’t make it to their little towns on the Isle of Skye. Shortly thereafter, the Witch Hunt concluded and no more women in Scotland were branded as witches, tortured and killed.

The old woman knew that something magical had happened and before she went to join her husband in the hereafter, she made sure to teach the young women in her clan the secrets of the real power of spinning and weaving and knitting. She also taught them to keep it quiet, lest rumors of witches should start up again.

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About Marion

Blogger, editor, writer, builder of web stuff. I gave up my literal red pen for a virtual one. In my free time I have to make things with my hands to offset all the hours I stare at a computer screen and clack on the keyboard. That's why I knit.
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