More Legends

In an earlier column I wrote about what I do in deconstructing legends and I have another example that I’d like to tell you about. This one was the original puzzle that first led to my increasing fascination with finding the truth underlying such tales, and it was brought to my attention decades ago while I was still a student, by my oldest friend who was something of an antiquarian—but not yet an antique—even then.

There is an ancient Scots folk song called “The False Bride” that contains the oldest known riddle in Britain. The song tells the story of a jilted lover who attends and witnesses his beloved’s wedding to another man, but there is one verse that voices the riddle and seems to have nothing to do with the main song. In that verse the singer states:

The men in the churchyard, they asked of me,
“How many strawberries grow in the salt sea?”
And I asked them back, with a tear in my e’e,
“How many ships sail through the forest?”

That’s all there is to it, and no one was ever able to explain the origins of that single anomalous stanza, or even to venture a guess about what it might mean. Even today, if you care to take the time to check it out on Google, you’ll find discussions about it, with all kinds of plausible-sounding  explanations and opinions of what it’s all about, but you’ll find nothing worthwhile in any of it. The consensus of those interested enough even to question it is that it’s simply a riddle that has always been there, in that song, unexplained. Some of the opinion holders even demonstrate their abject ignorance of the melody’s lilt by advocating the substitution of the word “bluebells” for “strawberries”, because bluebells supposedly scans better and probably because they’ve heard the song about the Bluebell of Scotland . . . God save the mark!

The truth is that in the 1950s, as the story was related to me, something intrinsic to the understanding of the riddle changed because one particularly inquisitive man heard a report of a curious find in the North Sea, off Britain’s east coast, and what he heard clicked with something that he had noticed in the course of his normal work, which was in a branch of Heraldry, the study of armorial bearings, coats of arms and other heraldic symbols.

There is a large, shallow fishing grounds in the North Sea, between Britain and western Europe, called the Dogger Bank, and for hundreds of years North Sea fishermen have been known to dredge up strange things in their nets there from time to time, including pieces of mammoth skeletons, rhinoceros remains and stone age hunting tools. The Bank, approximately 260 km long and up to 97 km wide, lies about 120 kilometres off England’s east coast, and it is  submerged to a depth of 15 to 36 metres. It is rich in fish and its name comes from “dogger”, the ancient Dutch word for a kind of fishing boat. Large antlers and huge pieces of petrified trees were fairly commonplace finds on the Bank, hauled in in the fishing nets, and the ongoing recurrence of such events eventually led to scientific confirmation that that Dogger Bank had once been a large, low-lying, heavily forested land bridge between Britain and western Europe that had been submerged in the relatively recent past, after the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago. What no one had suspected, though—at least until the matter engaged the curiosity of our Heraldic scholar (whose name, unfortunately, I have long since forgotten)—was that that single fact contained the explanation of the riddle in the False Bride, because bearing in mind that the east coast of England was extremely low and swampy until three hundred or so years ago, the three closest points of relatively high land to the Dogger Bank are: Friesia, the ancient region of the Netherlands that was the ancestral home of the Friesian people; Brittany in France, the prehistoric home of the native Celtic clan who called themselves “les gens de la fraise”—the people of the strawberry; and that out-jutting shoulder of Scotland that is the ancestral home of Clan Fraser. Friesians, Fraises, and Frasers, all derivatives of the same root word, and all three peoples sharing the same Clan totem or emblem since ancient times—the strawberry leaf.

And so the riddle is explained, with fascinating overtones of catastrophe and racial memories of the Great Flood as the fertile, idyllic but nameless land bridge in the North Sea is swallowed up by the rising waters of the ocean. The hapless survivors escape to safety on the nearest points of higher land in what is now Scotland, France and the Netherlands, there to start a new phase of existence while commemorating, at least in Scotland, their families and ancestors who perished in the cataclysm . . . “How many strawberries grow in the salt sea? How many ships sail through the forest?”