Story of the Year winner: The Sheltie

From 2,500 entries in our fourth children's Story of the Year competition, the judges chose Eleanor Lang's story set in Orkney, an elegant reinvention of the traditional fairytale. Illustration by Matilda Harrison
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Once, there was a fine young couple lived on a croft in Orkney. There were four strapping young boys, and some years later, a daughter, born to the farmer and his wife. This girl never grew as big and brosy as her brothers, but remained slight and short for her age, although she had enough fire and determination to make up for it. She was christened Wilhelmina after her father, but she was called Minnie by everyone. She was always made much of by the family, as she was so much the youngest and the smallest of the children.

They were something terrible poor. One by one, the boys were obliged to leave home, and seek work on another farm, or in a distant town. They all vowed to keep in touch, and come home once every year at Christmas time. Soon, only Minnie was left at home with her parents. That year, the summer was very bad. The rain fell from the sky in sheets and ruined the crop which was waiting to be harvested. The corn lay and mouldered on the ground. When the farmer and his wife gathered together what provisions they had, it was obvious that it would hardly feed them, never mind their daughter.

"Don't worry," said Minnie, seeing the problem immediately. "I'll go and work for the old Spey-Wife over the hills. I hear she's been looking for a servant."

Minnie's mother had dreaded this moment.

"Is there no other place would take ye on, lass? I've heard tell the old Spey-Wife works spells and wickedness on folk."

"Never a bit of it, mother, I'll be just fine," said Minnie, and she went straight away to gather her few belongings into a bundle.

Nevertheless, it was with dragging feet and a heavy heart that she set out for the house of the witch. For as long as she was in sight of her own home, her steps were jaunty and she hummed to herself, but once the croft had faded into the horizon, her song faltered. She stopped once to eat from the food which her mother had prepared for her. By the time she was on the road which led to the Spey-Wife's dwelling, up among the stone quarries of the high peat-bogs and hills, dusk had started to dim the sky.

The old Witch watched her all the way up the hill.

With uncertain steps, and many a look cast about her, Minnie went up to the lichen-covered door. She raised her hand to knock, but the door flew open before she could touch it.

"Come away in, lass, come away in. I've been expectin' ye," said a wavering voice from the gloom of the interior.

"Sit doon, and we'll discuss terms," ordered the voice.

A black shadow moved between Minnie and the far wall, and threw a peat on the fire. By the light of the shower of blue and gold sparks which flew up, Minnie was able to make out a simple wooden table with a chair beside it. The Spey-Wife settled into a straw-backed chair by the fireside, and Minnie nervously sat on the seat by the table. For a few minutes, there was no sound but the hissing of the fire and the mournful "swee" from a battered kettle which was suspended over it.

Finally the Witch spoke.

"The question is, do you see, are you the right person for the job? Are you able for it?"

"I can carry water, and cook and clean. I'm small but I'm strong," said Minnie. "What would you pay me?" she added boldly.

"I'll pay you with a roof over your head, and food on the table, girl," said the Witch. "How will you pay me for all the knowledge I will give you, and all the spells and secrets you will learn?"

"I have nothing," said Minnie, suddenly crestfallen, "but these few things in my bundle, and they're no worth a pin, but to me."

"My, but you have bonnie hair, lass," said the Witch.

With a shock, Minnie realised that the old woman had moved up behind her in the gloom, because she could feel her bony fingers stroking and caressing her hair.

"I could use that hair to make some fine love potions," crooned the Witch, "if there was a bit more of it. I'll tell you what, lass," she went on. "You will work for me, and learn all the wisdom I have, and I will see that you are fed and clothed, until such time as your hair has grown to your waist, and then you will cut it off, and give to me to make spells, and you will be free to go. That is as fair a bargain as I can offer. What do you say?"

Minnie agreed to the terms.

"But I would like to visit home once a year, on Christmas Day," she said.

"I'm no' just too sure if that's the best o' ideas," murmured the Witch, as she went to attend to the fire, for if truth be told, the old woman was as hard as "get-out".

So Minnie started her isolated but busy life, working in the home of the Spey-Wife. Apart from her domestic duties, the Witch taught her which herbs and berries to pick for spell-casting. Once she had learned these secrets, Minnie was able to go collecting on the moors by herself, and her only happy moments were spent there.

On a day of wild wind, she would jump between tussocks of heather, as she watched white horses' manes breaking in the navy waters of the distant sea.

On sunny days she would take off her heavy leather boots, and paddle in the peaty waters of the hill-puddles, at first repelled, but then delighted with the spongy feel of the velvety mosses squelching under her toes.

On a mild day of smirry rain, she would go out without her cloak, and exult in the feel of rainwater running down her long hair, and the damp swish of soft grasses brushing against her bare knees. Then she would go back to the house, and steam dry at the peat-fire.

Dead things were peculiarly effective to spell-making. Minnie was instructed to bring home as many drowned dragon-flies, as many insects half-digested in sundew-leaves, as she could find. Once she came across an old cat which had crept away to the moors to die. When she first saw it, it was furry-coated and might have been just sleeping, but when she turned it over gingerly with her toe, she saw that its head and body on the underside had been eaten to the bone by worms.

The Witch was pleased and excited with this find, and made many powerful spells with the bones.

People often visited the house, to ask for potions to take away, and enchantments to be cast. Minnie was always told to hide out of sight during these visits, in case she guessed the identity of the callers, many of whom were rich and powerful people.

As the days wore on, Minnie longed for Christmas Day to come, so that she might feel the love and comfort of her own home again, if only for one day, but the Spey-Wife had other plans. She had no intention of letting anyone with so much knowledge of her secrets out of her sight.

On Christmas Eve, she mixed a sleeping-draught for Minnie, and gave it to her to drink, pretending it was a Christmas treat. The magic in the potion kept Minnie asleep for the whole day and when she awoke the next morning, she had lost track of time, and thought that Christmas was still to come.

At the same time, the Witch sent word to Minnie's family that their daughter had unfortunately lost her way in the hills, and had fallen into a flooded quarry and drowned.

The family were heart-broken. As the Witch had assured them that no body would ever be found, they fashioned a little wooden cross, and set it in the garden, in memory of their bright, bonnie wee girl.

So, by way of wicked enchantments, the Witch kept Minnie under her evil spell, until five years passed, and Minnie's hair had grown to her waist. She went to ask the Witch if the bargain could not be paid off. But the old Spey-Wife, who was as cold as love on a Monday morning, had no intention of letting her servant go.

"What poor kind of payment is this you are offering for the knowledge I have shared with you? Two handspans of straggly black hair? Go back to your duties, girl. Ask me again, when your hair has grown to your knees!"

So, poor Minnie went back to her chores.

There was one secret that the Witch had not shared with her, and it was this; as she watched the young woman at work, the Witch envied Minnie her youth and vitality, her keen eyes and light step. She had determined to work on a transformation spell, so that she could exchange her own worn-out body for Minnie's younger one. But it would require very powerful magic, and she had not so far been able to work out a formula.

Minnie toiled on for several more years, by which time her hair had grown down to her knees.

Once more, she confronted the old Spey-Wife.

"Well, then, lass, I see your hair is grown to your knees," said the Witch, circling Minnie, and feeding the long tresses through her hands. "But what is this I see? Is that no' some grey hairs hidin' among the black? Fie on you, girl, for grey hairs are no' worth a button tae me for spells. I fear you'll have to bide wi' me a while yet!"

When she heard this, Minnie's eyes were opened. She saw into the old Witch's heart, and it was as black as the Earl o' Hell's waistcoat. She realised that the Witch had never had any intention of letting her go.

Snatching up the transformation spell, which was sitting half-made in a bottle on the table, she fled out of the open door, determined to make a bid for freedom.

The old woman fairly screeched with rage, as she hirpled after the runaway.

Minnie turned and flung the spell-bottle as hard as she could at her pursuer, but the Spey-Wife managed to dodge it and retrieve it undamaged. She took out the stopper, and flung the unfinished spell over Minnie.

Minnie was straight away transformed, but into a fine black pony, with a strong back, and stuggy legs, and a bonnie black-and-grey flecked mane and tail.

When she saw that the spell had not worked as she had hoped, and all her plans had come to nothing, the Spey-Wife's wicked heart burst with rage. Her evil form slithered and trickled away down into the ground, where it poisoned the well-water for the next ten years.

As for the black pony, she tossed her head and galloped off for home. How she flicked her heels, and snickered in delight, when she caught sight of her old dwelling! Much had changed there during her long absence. The eldest son had done well, and returned home with a good fortune. Now the house was well furnished, and had plenty of food in the presses and larders. The three other boys had married, and lived close-by with their wives and children.

The eldest brother was in the garden, repairing a dyke when Minnie trotted up to him. She jumped over the wall, walked to the memorial cross, and gently dislodged it with her hoof. Then she returned to her brother and nuzzled his collar, while he petted and spoke to her.

"Mother! Father! Come here!" he shouted. "You'll maybe think I've gone stone mad, but this peedie horse fair has the look o' our Minnie!"

So the little horse was made a great fuss of, and became a family pet, who was much loved by all, and gave rides to the children and grandchildren.

And to this day in Orkney, you will see short, sturdy little horses, who love to roam over the hill-sides. Their correct name is Shetland ponies, but the Islanders call them Shelties. They have independent spirits, however, so do not be over-familiar with them, or try to run your fingers through their manes. They may well object, and take a snap at your hands if you are not careful

Story of the Year 4

The Winner

Eleanor Lang's `The Sheltie', published here, wins our pounds 2,000 first prize. The writer, who is in her forties, was born in the Orkney Isles, where her grandparents lived, and where she spent holidays as a child. She now lives in Glasgow with her husband and four children, where she does voluntary work as a child minder. Her previous jobs have included proofreading for a publisher, and bookkeeping. She started to write two years ago when her youngest child was nine, but has not been published until now.

The Runners-up

The two runners-up, who both win pounds 500, were Lynne Benton, with her story `A Present for Gran', and Finbar O'Connor, who wrote `Spellshocked'

Ms Benton, 51, a part-time music teacher in a village school, has lived in Bath since she went to college there. She began writing when her four children left home, and has had some articles and short stories published.

Finbar O'Connor, 35, lives in Dublin and is studying for a law degree. He sings and plays guitar and keyboards in a rock band.

The following stories will also be included in the `Story of the Year 4' anthology which will published by Scholastic Children's Books in the autumn

A Cat Called Conker, by Rachel Adams, 61, a retired head teacher who lives in Bristol.

The Hippo in the Back Garden, by Jennifer Gleason, who lives in Prestwich, Manchester.

Don't Mention Boats in Our House, by Richard Newton, 42, a freelance copywriter and radio commercial producer from Poole, Dorset.

The Miracle of Little Abdul Bashir, by Richard Nathanson, 48, a fine art adviser, author, and originator of advertising posters, who lives in southwest London.

The Girl Who Sold Slippers to Snakes, by Ghillian Potts, 63, a retired English teacher from southeast London.

Perfect Pets, by Brenda Sivers, 59, of West Sussex, an established writer for children, who also works as change communicator for Royal and Sun Alliance.

No Place Like Home, by Jonathan Wakeham, 23, an account planner for a London advertising agency, who also writes lyrics for musicals.