The Fishy Cloak
by Sarah Das Gupta
The tailor stared at the model of the King which filled most of his small workshop. In his twenty years of stitching, he had made some strange garments, but none as strange as King Kenneth’s order. The first problem had been finding the right fish, with the right scales. The tailor had waited for the fishermen’s return every evening, with their coracles full of fish.
Many times, they had bartered and argued with the tailor over the price and quality of the skins with their sparkling iridescence in the moonlight. Then, there had been all the hours skinning the fish and drying the skins in the sun, not to mention the smell. His wife had constantly complained that the whole cottage stank of dead fish!
Yet, in the end Kenneth MacAlpin was delighted with the finished garment. He stood well away from the public gaze and tentatively tried on his fishy cloak. The material was a wonderful dark, deep blue like the lochs he loved so well or the winter sky in the gloaming studded with a thousand stars. He walked around the room, the long cloak trailing after him.
The hundreds of dried fish scales, laboriously stitched to the material, gleamed and sparkled in the flare of the torches, like iridescent fingerprints of some heavenly enchanter. Even Kenneth had to admit, when he pulled the dark hood over his face, the smell almost stifled him. Much as he loved his magical cloak, he was quite relieved to fold it carefully and lay it in his great, carved hunting chest.
It was the year 840 when Kenneth’s father had been killed in a fearsome battle against the Picts. Although Kenneth had established his kingdom of Dal Riata in the West, it was threatened on all sides by the Picts, the dreaded Vikings and the Britons. Of these threats, MacAlpin resented the treacherous Picts most of all. Yet, despite all his efforts, his chieftains refused to listen to the King’s pleas to challenge the Picts in battle. One went as far as declaring, ‘Even if God sent his own glorious angel, I should not be persuaded.’
Kenneth thought deeply about this declaration. Supposing God should do exactly that? As the first step in his plan, he invited the great men of his kingdom to a magnificent feast at Clunie castle, Kenneth’s summer home, on a small islet close to the shore of the loch. Built of wood and drystone, the tower gave a good view of any enemy approaching from the landward side.
The scene that night was full of cheer and good food. The King and his main guests sat at the top table in the great hall, at the very end of the room sat grooms and followers. For the King a rich choice of roasted meats lay before them swan, venison, boar, wild fowl. At the lower tables the main dish would be vegetable pottage – a thick, porridge-like dish of oats, mixed with beans, peas, and cabbage. Only at the higher tables would pieces of bacon or chicken be added. The King’s table by this time would have moved on to a fish course of salmon, herring, eels, hake and roach; on the west coast of his kingdom there was a wide choice.
At the end of over two hours of feasting and drinking mead and freshly brewed ale from great drinking horns, Kenneth looked at his satisfied, and in some cases, inebriated guests. Many would have been too drunk to have tasted a final course of apples, pears and damsons, sweetened with honey. Gradually they stumbled off to collapse on straw mattresses in rooms scattered around the tower.
Kenneth, who had been drinking watery ale for most of the riotous evening, retired to his room sober, but full of eager anticipation. He opened the heavy, intricately carved chest beside his bed. The torches which burnt from brackets on the stone walls shed light on the fantastic cloak with the fish scales translucent and gleaming in the weird, half-light. He pulled the long, garment over his shoulders. It trailed behind him like a strange serpent god stippled with iridescence. Breathing in deeply, Kenneth placed the dark hood low over his head and face. The smell of fish was almost over- powering.
He glided into the first chamber where one of the thanes lay sprawled across the dark bed Kenneth adopted a suitably ‘angelic’ pose and half sang, half chanted, ‘In God’s name listen to His heavenly messenger. Follow your King into battle against the treacherous Picts.’
Silence followed, absolute silence, except loud snoring from the head of the bed. MacAlpine clapped his hands and stamped on the floor. The sleeper woke with a start. His eyes bulged, his mouth hung open. In the flare from the torches the reflection of the fish scales gleamed and danced on the dark walls. Like a beached whale, the listener seemed literally petrified by this angelic visitation.
Rather pleased with the effects of his fishy cloak, the King moved from room to room.
The next morning, after comparing notes, the thanes unanimously agreed to King Kenneth’s campaign against the Picts.
When Kenneth died in 858, he had united his Gaelic speaking kingdom and the lands of the Picts in the Kingdom of Alba, or ‘Scotland’. It must be admitted that the Danes had also contributed to the defeat of the Picts. Yet, who can underestimate the power of a fishy cloak?
Sarah Das Gupta is an English teacher living near Cambridge, UK. She has also lived and taught in India and Tanzania.Her work has been published in over 15 countries, including: US, UK, Canada, Australia, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Germany, Romania and Croatia. Her interests include, folklore, landscape, history, early music, parish churches, horse racing.