Maiden Feast of Cairnkibbie – a stranger goes down a storm

Wilson’s Tales is a record of our region’s history, legends and people. First serialised in the Berwick Advertiser in the 1830s, the Wilson’s Tales Project is re-telling them for a modern audience.

Friday, 15th February 2019, 13:11 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th February 2019, 16:16 pm
The Maiden Feast of Cairnkibbie. Illustration by Sheila Vickers.

King James V of Scotland was a good chap with a reputation for good-humoured eccentricity. His riding, shooting and swordplay were matched by his expertise in music, dancing and spinning a yarn.

He also enjoyed mingling incognito with his subjects. While visiting Duns, he wagered the Lord of Ross that he could dress as a beggar and gatecrash one of the Maiden Feasts held on farms to celebrate the end of harvest.

“Too easy”, said Ross. To win the bet, he’d have to win the hearts of all present so they’d defend him against all comers, even the King’s own knights.

“Better than that”, said the King. “I’ll steal a horse, escape from capture and ride it back to Duns.”

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James disguised himself as a gaberlunzie. These licensed beggars were entitled to enter a Maiden Feast to dance, drink and kiss the lassies. With the traditional gaberlunzie’s wallet and his pipes, he made his way to a farm called Cairnkibbie, near Foulden, on the Whiteadder river.

A fine feast was under way, presided over by farmer William Hume, his guidwife and his bonny daughter, Lilly. Guests had come from far and wide dressed in their best, and Lilly danced with all, even the humblest.

She was generous-hearted, but her cheerfulness hid secret sorrow. She loved Will Carr, who was handsome, decent and of a good family. But he was poor, and William would never allow her to marry a poverty-stricken suitor.

The fun at the feast grew fast and furious. The blind piper played his heart out, the reels were riotous and the refreshment relentless. When the gaberlunzie arrived, he was welcomed.

He lost no time in unleashing his charm, raising the rafters with his laughter, slapping men on their backs and kissing the girls. His capacity for drink was astonishing, and his piping proved so stirring that even the weariest dancers set to with zest.

When Will Carr brought him ale the gaberlunzie spotted Will’s sadness. He noted the glances between the lovers and learnt from Lilly that her father had forbidden them to dance together. In the next reel, by deftly switching partners, he brought them together for a stolen kiss.

When the dancing ended he sang and told tales. He was a universal favourite, the uncrowned king of the feast. But as the mirth was at its height, there came the sound of horses. The King’s knights entered, denouncing the gaberlunzie as a common thief who had stolen King James’s silver mace.

NEXT WEEK: Farmer Hume backs the wrong horse.

Retold by Christine Fletcher, adapted by Joe Lang and illustrated by Sheila Vickers. Read the full story in Volume 5 of the Wilson’s Tales Revival Edition, £8.50, from Berwick booksellers or at