The Laidly Worm and Kemp Owyne

The Laidly Worm and Kemp Owyne: Michael Berman

The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh is a traditional tale about a princess who changes into a dragon (the “laidly worm” of the title). In the Kingdom of Northumbria, a kind king in Bamborough Castle (see the photo above) takes a beautiful but cruel witch as his queen after the death of his wife. The King’s son, Childe Wynd, has gone across the sea but his daughter, Princess Margaret, is turned into a dragon by the witch. Later in the story, the prince returns and, instead of fighting the dragon, kisses it, restoring the princess to her natural form. He then turns the witch-queen into a toad and becomes king himself.

Kemp Owyne is a Child Ballad version of the tale, in which Childe Wynd is replaced by Kemp Owyne.

Built on a basalt outcrop, Bamburgh Castle was previously home to a fort of the native Britons known as Din Guarie and may have been the capital of the British kingdom of the region from the realm’s foundation in c.420 until 547, the year of the first written reference to the castle. In that year the citadel was captured by the Anglo-Saxon ruler Ida of Bernicia (Beornice) and became Ida’s seat. It was briefly retaken by the Britons from his son Hussa during the war of 590 before being relieved later the same year. His grandson Æðelfriþ passed it on to his wife Bebba, from whom the early name Bebanburgh was derived. The Vikings destroyed the original fortification in 993. The Normans then built a new castle on the site, and that forms the core of the present one. These days the castle is privately owned but opened to the public.

The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh
In Bamborough Castle once lived a king who had a fair wife and two children, a son named Childe Wynd and a daughter named Margaret. Childe Wynd went forth to seek his fortune, and soon after he had gone the queen his mother died. The king mourned her long and faithfully, but one day while he was hunting he came across a lady of great beauty, and fell so much in love with her that he determined to marry her. So he sent word home that he was going to bring a new queen to Bamborough Castle.

Princess Margaret was not very glad to hear of her mother’s place being taken, but she did not repine, but did her father’s bidding, and at the appointed day came down to the castle gate with the keys all ready to hand over to her stepmother. Soon the procession drew near, and the new queen came towards Princess Margaret, who bowed low and handed her the keys of the castle. She stood there with blushing cheeks and eyes on ground, and said: ‘O welcome, father dear, to your halls and bowers, and welcome to you, my new mother, for all that’s here is yours,’ and again she offered the keys. One of the king’s knights who had escorted the new queen cried out in admiration: ‘Surely this Northern princess is the loveliest of her kind.’ At that the new queen flushed up and cried out: ‘At least your courtesy might have excepted me,’ and then she muttered below her breath: ‘I’ll soon put an end to her beauty.’

That same night the queen, who was a noted witch, stole down to a lonely dungeon wherein she did her magic and with spells three times three, and with passes nine times nine she cast Princess Margaret under her spell. And this was her spell:

I weird ye to be a Laidly Worm,
And borrowed shall ye never be,
Until Childe Wynd, the King’s own son
Come to the Heugh and thrice kiss thee;
Until the world comes to an end,
Borrowed shall ye never be.

So Lady Margaret went to bed a beauteous maiden, and rose up a Laidly Worm. And when her maidens came in to dress her in the morning they found coiled up on the bed a dreadful dragon, which uncoiled itself and came towards them. But they ran away shrieking, and the Laidly Worm crawled and crept, and crept and crawled till it reached the Heugh or rock of the Spindleston round which it coiled itself, and lay there basking with its terrible snout in the air.

Soon the country round about had reason to know of the Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh. For hunger drove the monster out from its cave and it used to devour everything it could come across. So at last they went to a mighty warlock and asked him what they should do. Then he consulted his works and familiar, and told them: ‘The Laidly Worm is really the Princess Margaret and it is hunger that drives her forth to do such deeds. Put aside for her seven kine, and each day as the sun goes down, carry every drop of milk they yield to the stone trough at the foot of the Heugh, and the Laidly Worm will trouble the country no longer. But if ye would that she be borrowed to her natural shape, and that she who bespelled her be rightly punished, send over the seas for her brother, Childe Wynd.’

All was done as the warlock advised; the Laidly Worm lived on the milk of the seven kine, and the country was troubled no longer. But when Childe Wynd heard the news, he swore a mighty oath to rescue his sister and revenge her on her cruel stepmother. And three-and-thirty of his men took the oath with him. Then they set to work and built a long ship, and its keel they made of the rowan-tree. And when all was ready, they out with their oars and pulled sheer for Bamborough Keep.

But as they got near the keep the stepmother felt by her magic power that something was being wrought against her, so she summoned her familiar imps and said: ‘Childe Wynd is coming over the seas; he must never land. Raise storms, or bore the hull, but nohow must he touch the shore.’ Then the imps went forth to meet Childe Wynd’s ship, but when they got near they found they had no power over the ship, for its keel was made of the rowan-tree. So back they came to the queen witch, who knew not what to do. She ordered her men-at-arms to resist Childe Wynd if he should land near them, and by her spells she caused the Laidly Worm to wait by the entrance of the harbour.

As the ship came near, the Worm unfolded its coils, and, dipping into the sea, caught hold of the ship of Childe Wynd, and banged it off the shore. Three times Childe Wynd urged his men on to row bravely and strong, but each time the Laidly Worm kept it off the shore. Then Childe Wynd ordered the ship to be put about, and the witch-queen thought he had given up the attempt. But instead of that, he only rounded the next point and landed safe and sound in Buddle Creek, and then, with sword drawn and bow bent, rushed up, followed by his men, to fight the terrible Worm that had kept him from landing.

But the moment Childe Wynd had landed, the witch-queen’s power over the Laidly Worm had gone, and she went back to her bower all alone, not an imp, nor a man-at-arms to help her, for she knew her hour was come. So when Childe Wynd came rushing up to the Laidly Worm it made no attempt to stop him or hurt him, but just as he was going to raise his sword to slay it, the voice of his own sister Margaret came from its jaws, saying:

‘O, quit your sword, unbend your bow,
And give me kisses three;
For though I am a poisonous worm,
No harm I’ll do to thee.’

Childe Wynd stayed his hand, but he did not know what to think if some witchery were not in it. Then said the Laidly Worm again:

‘O, quit your sword, unbend your bow,
And give me kisses three;
If I’m not won ere set of sun,
Won never shall I be.’

Then Childe Wynd went up to the Laidly Worm and kissed it once; but no change came over it. Then Childe Wynd kissed it once more; but yet no change came over it. For a third time he kissed the loathsome thing, and with a hiss and a roar the Laidly Worm reared back and before Childe Wynd stood his sister Margaret. He wrapped his cloak about her, and then went up to the castle with her. When he reached the keep, he went off to the witch-queen’s bower, and when he saw her, he touched her with a twig of a rowan-tree. No sooner had he touched her than she shrivelled up and shrivelled up, till she became a huge ugly toad, with bold staring eyes and a horrible hiss. She croaked and she hissed, and then hopped away down the castle steps, and Childe Wynd took his father’s place as king, and they all lived happy afterwards.

But to this day a loathsome toad is seen at times haunting the neighbourhood of Bamborough Keep, and the wicked witch-queen is that Laidly Toad.

Taken from English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs Illustrated by John D. Batten. London: David Nutt [1890]. Scanned and redacted by Phillip Brown. Additional formatting and proofing by J. B. Hare at This text is in the public domain. This file may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this statement of attibution is left intact.

Child Ballad 34: Kemp Owyne

34A.1     HER mother died when she was young,
Which gave her cause to make great moan;
Her father married the warst woman
That ever lived in Christendom.

34A.2     She served her with foot and hand,
In every thing that she could dee,
Till once, in an unlucky time,
She threw her in ower Craigy’s sea.

34A.3     Says, ‘Lie you there, dove Isabel,
And all my sorrows lie with thee;
Till Kemp Owyne come ower the sea,
And borrow you with kisses three,
Let all the warld do what they will,
Oh borrowed shall you never be!’

34A.4     Her breath grew strang, her hair grew lang,
And twisted thrice about the tree,
And all the people, far and near,
Thought that a savage beast was she.

34A.5     These news did come to Kemp Owyne,
Where he lived, far beyond the sea;
He hasted him to Craigy’s sea,
And on the savage beast lookd he.

34A.6     Her breath was strang, her hair was lang,
And twisted was about the tree,
And with a swing she came about:
‘Come to Craigy’s sea, and kiss with me.

34A.7     ‘Here is a royal belt,’ she cried,
‘That I have found in the green sea;
And while your body it is on,
Drawn shall your blood never be;
But if you touch me, tail or fin,
I vow my belt your death shall be.’

34A.8     He stepped in, gave her a kiss,
The royal belt he brought him wi;
Her breath was strang, her hair was lang,
And twisted twice about the tree,
And with a swing she came about:
‘Come to Craigy’s sea, and kiss with me.

34A.9     ‘Here is a royal ring,’ she said,
‘That I have found in the green sea;
And while your finger it is on,
Drawn shall your blood never be;
But if you touch me, tail or fin,
I swear my ring your death shall be.’

34A.10   He stepped in, gave her a kiss,
The royal ring he brought him wi;
Her breath was strang, her hair was lang,
And twisted ance about the tree,
And with a swing she came about:
‘Come to Craigy’s sea, and kiss with me.

34A.11   ‘Here is a royal brand,’ she said,
‘That I have found in the green sea;
And while your body it is on,
Drawn shall your blood never be;
But if you touch me, tail or fin,
I swear my brand your death shall be.’

34A.12   He stepped in, gave her a kiss,
The royal brand he brought him wi;
Her breath was sweet, her hair grew short,
And twisted nane about the tree,
And smilingly she came about,
As fair a woman as fair could be.

34B: Kemp Owyne

34B.1     COME here, come here, you freely feed,
An lay your head low on my knee;
The hardest weird I will you read
That eer war read to a lady.

34B.2     ‘O meikle dollour sall you dree,
An ay the sat seas oer ye[’s] swim;
An far mair dollour sall ye dree
On Eastmuir craigs, or ye them clim.

34B.3     ‘I wot ye’s be a weary wight,
An releived sall ye never be
Till Kempion, the kingis son,
Come to the craig and thrice kiss thee.’

34B.4     O meickle dollour did she dree,
An ay the sat seas oer she swam;
An far mair dollour did she dree
On Eastmuir craigs, or them she clam;
An ay she cried for Kempion,
Gin he would come till her han.

34B.5     Now word has gane to Kempion
That sich a beast was in his lan,
An ay be sure she would gae mad
Gin she gat nae help frae his han.

34B.6     ‘Now by my sooth,’ says Kempion,
‘This fiery beast I[’ll] gang to see;’
‘An by my sooth,’ says Segramour,
‘My ae brother, I’ll gang you wi.’

34B.7     O biggit ha they a bonny boat,
An they hae set her to the sea,
An Kempion an Segramour
The fiery beast he gane to see:
A mile afore they reachd the shore,
I wot she gard the red fire flee.

34B.8     ‘O Segramour, keep my boat afloat,
An lat her no the lan so near;
For the wicked beast she’ll sure gae mad,
An set fire to the land an mair.’

34B.9     ‘O out o my stye I winna rise-+-
An it is na for the fear o thee-+-
Till Kempion, the kingis son,
Come to the craig an thrice kiss me.’

34B.10   He’s louted him oer the Eastmuir craig,
An he has gien her kisses ane;
Awa she gid, an again she came,
The fieryest beast that ever was seen.

34B.11   ‘O out o my stye I winna rise-+-
An it is na for fear o thee-+-
Till Kempion, the kingis son,
Come to the craig an thrice kiss me.’

34B.12   He louted him oer the Eastmuir craig,
An he has gien her kisses twa;
Awa she gid, an again she came,
The fieryest beast that ever you saw.

34B.13   ‘O out o my stye I winna rise-+-
An it is na for fear o ye-+-
Till Kempion, the kingis son,
Come to the craig an thrice kiss me.’

34B.14   He’s louted him oer the Eastmuir craig,
An he has gien her kisses three;
Awa she gid, an again she came,
The fairest lady that ever coud be.

34B.15   ‘An by my sooth,’ say[s] Kempion,
‘My ain true love-+-for this is she-+-
O was it wolf into the wood,
Or was it fish intill the sea,
Or was it man, or wile woman,
My true love, that misshapit thee?’

34B.16   ‘It was na wolf into the wood,
Nor was it fish into the sea,
But it was my stepmother,
An wae an weary mot she be.

34B.17   ‘O a heavier weird light her upon
Than ever fell on wile woman;
Her hair’s grow rough, an her teeth’s grow lang,
An on her four feet sal she gang.

34B.18   ‘Nane sall tack pitty her upon,
But in Wormie’s Wood she sall ay won,
An relieved sall she never be,
Till St Mungo come oer the sea.’

Taken from The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child. Boston, New York, Houghton, Mifflin and Company [1886-98]. Ballads originally transcribed by Cathy Lynn Preston. HTML Formatting at This text is in the public domain. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice of attribution is left intact.

In Kemp Owyne, Child Ballad number 34, the heroine is turned into a worm(dragon), usually by her stepmother, who curses her to remain so until the king’s son comes to kiss her three times. When he arrives, she offers him a belt, a ring, and a sword to kiss her, promising the things would magically protect him; the third time, she turns back into a woman. In some variants, he asks who enchanted her, a werewolf or mermaid; she says it was her stepmother and curses her into a monstrous creature, permanently.

It is an example of the type of ballad in which a being with supernatural powers plays an integral and necessary part in the central ballad action. These “beings with supernatural powers fall into four classes: supernatural beings; supernatural ex-mortals; mortals with supernatural powers; and creatures with supernatural powers” (Buchan, 1991, p.64). The heroine’s stepmother, the queen-witch, can be regarded as an example of the third class.

The Rowan tree was held in the utmost dread by witches on account of the mystic properties which were believed to encompass it. A branch of it, especially if in the form of a cross, put in the churn or cheese-vat, protected the butter and cheese from their evil machinations. No one could be hag-ridden at night who had branch of it in bed, and old people used to place it on their pillows to keep evil spirits and witches away, while a small piece of it carried on the person was a protection against enchantment. If a branch was brought into the house on Good Friday, no witch could enter.

… When a branch of the tree was hung over a cow’s stall or wreathed about her horns, this was effective against the evil eye and other ills, but it was necessary to repeat the prayer –

“From witches and Wizards, and long-tailed Buzzards,
And creeping things that run in hedge-bottoms,
Good Lord, deliver us!” (Porteous, 2002, pp.86-87).

In The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh, it is the keel of Childe Wynd’s ship, that is made of the rowan-tree, and that is why the queen witch can have no power over him.

Again and again in stories “…we see how things appear in threes: how things have to happen three times, how the hero is given three wishes; how Cinderella goes to the ball three times; how the hero or the heroine is the third of three children” (Booker, 2004, p.229). In this ballad, for example, it is three kisses that are required. But why does the triad, a group or series consisting of three items, feature over and over again in folktales and legends, wherever they may originate from? The answer is that it has long been of significance for a number of reasons. Three is linked with the phases of the moon (waxing, full and waning), and with time (past, present and future). Pythagoras even went as far as to call three the perfect number, in that it represents the beginning, the middle and the end, and he thus regarded it as a symbol of Deity. The triad is also the basis of The Threefold Law (a.k.a. the Law of Return) in the Wiccan Rede, an ethical code for witches, which adds a reward for those who follow the code, and a punishment for those who violate it. The law states that “All good that a person does to another returns three fold in this life; harm is also returned three fold.” And that is presumably what the main hero and the villain of this story have to look forward to.


Booker, C. (2004) The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell Stories, London: Continuum.

David Buchan ‘Talerole Analysis and Child’s Supernatural Ballads.’ In Harris, J. (ed.) (1991) The Ballad and Oral Literature, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Porteous, A. (2002) The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. (Originally published by the Macmillan Company, New York, in 1928).

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