Deceiving the Devil with a Rope of Sand

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 1174
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2020-2021

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.


  1. Michael Scott (Scotland).

  2. Mitchell Scott (England).

  3. Donald Duival and the Devil (England).

  4. A Wild Legend (Scotland).

  5. The Devil and the Schoolmaster at Cockerham (England).

  6. Tregeagle (England).

  7. The Devil's Mill (Ireland).

  8. The Shoemaker, the Tailor, and the Sailor (Germany).

  9. The Cheated Devil (Germany).

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Michael Scott


Michael Scott was, once upon a time, much embarrassed by a spirit, for whom he was under the necessity of finding constant employment. He commanded him to build a cauld, or dam-head, across the Tweed at Kelso: it was accomplished in one night, and still does honour to the infernal architect.

Michael next ordered, that Eildon hill, which was then a uniform cone, should be divided into three. Another night was sufficient to part its summit into the three picturesque peaks which it now bears.

At length the enchanter conquered this indefatigable dæmon, by employing him in the hopeless and endless task of making ropes out of sea sand.

Mitchell Scott


Long before Sir Walter Scott had given increased celebrity to the wizard feats of his clansman, Michael Scott, his fame had penetrated to the remotest villages of Northumberland. Similar anecdotes, but somewhat varied in the telling, have been transmitted of him there, as well as in the hamlets on the northern side of the Borders.... The Northumbrians call the magician Mitchell Scott.

The fame of Mitchell is great in that district for having beat the devil and his myrmidons by the well-known device of employing them to spin ropes of sand, denying them even the aid of chaff to supply some degree of tenacity to the incohesivo material.

Donald Duival and the Devil


The devil is apt to be cheated by clever mortals.... Donald Duival had a hand-to-hand fight with the devil, and overcame him. He would not allow him go until he gave him whatsover he asked. This was myriads of elves shut up in a box, or a book with clasps, as some say. The box or book was somehow opened, and every one of the elves rushed out, invisible, one version says, and kept crying, "Obair, obair -- work, work."

He set them to thrash his corn, but that was done in a minute. He then asked them to build him a "square" or farm out-house, and it was put up in no time. Then he asked them to strip the hill above his house of its heather. Before he could look about him, they had all the heather at his side.

He then asked them to build sand mounds in the sea, and they were spoiling the harbours when he stopped them and asked them to make ropes of the sand. This they are still working at, it is said, for they have not been able to hit on a method of making ropes of sand purely. Could they be allowed to use straw along with sand, they would succeed.

A Wild Legend


The parish [of Kemnay] is believed by some to derive its name from the Kembs, a chain of low rounded sand-hills, which run along the northern boundary at some distance from the Don, and terminate on the borders of Cluny, on the southeast.

A wild legend accounts for the peculiar broken character of these hills or rather hillocks, but it is almost forgotten in the parish, so that it is well nigh impossible to get a correct version of it. It appears, however, that the devil challenged an old witch to make a rope of sand. How she contrived to outwit his Satanic Majesty is unknown, but win the wager she did. The devil's rope broke, and remains to this day in the Kembs of Kemnay.

The Devil and the Schoolmaster at Cockerham


It is said that the arch Spirit of Evil once took up his abode in Cockerham, and so scared and disturbed the inhabitants of that quiet place, that at length in public meeting, to consider how to free themselves from this fiendish persecution, they appointed the schoolmaster, as the wisest and cleverest man in the place, to do his best to drive the devil away.

Using the prescribed incantation at midnight, the pedagogue succeeded in raising Satan; but when he saw his large horns and tail, saucer eyes, and long claws, he became almost speechless.

According to the recognised procedure in such cases, the devil granted him the privilege of setting three tasks, which if he (Satan) accomplished, the schoolmaster became his prey; if he failed, it would compel the flight of the demon from Cockerham.

The first task, to count the number of dewdrops on certain hedges, was soon accomplished; and so was the second, to count the number of stalks in a field of grain.

The third task was then proposed in the following words, according to a doggerel version of the tradition:

Now make me, dear sir, a rope of yon sand,
Which will bear washing in Cocker, and not lose a strand.

Speedily the rope was twisted of fine sand, but it would not stand washing; so the devil was foiled, and at one stride he stepped over the bridge over Broadfleet, at Pilling Moss.

The metrical version of the legend is scarcely worth printing.



There is a popular story attached to this lake [Dozmary Pool], ridiculous enough as most of those tales are. It is, that a person of the name of Tregeagle, who had been a rich and powerful man but very wicked, guilty of murder and other heinous crimes, lived near this place; and that, after his death, his spirit haunted the neighbourhood, but was at length exorcised and laid to rest in Dozmary Pool. But having in his lifetime, in order to enjoy the good things of this world, disposed of his soul and body to the devil, his infernal majesty takes great pleasure in tormenting him, by imposing on him difficult tasks; such as spinning a rope of sand, dipping out the pool with a limpet shell, etc.

The Devil's Mill


There was a squire one time and he wanted money badly and the devil appeared to him and he asked him if he wanted money and he said he did.

The devil said he would give him a room of money on conditions that he would go with him at the end of twenty-one years and if he was not able he would give work to do what he would not be able to do.

They made a bargain for a roomful of gold and the devil sent his men to fill the room with with gold. When they were shovelling in the gold they were getting tired and the squire had a hole made in the floor and his men were bringing it away into another room so the devil stopped his men from shovelling and he called up the squire and the squire told him he had enough. So at the end of twenty-one years the devil was to come for the squire, and if the squire gave him work to do he would not go with him.

The squire began to live in happiness and pleasure with all the gold he had until the twenty-one years were up. Then he began to get down-hearted and did not know what to do. He was retired to his room, and he was reading his bible and trying to content himself. The devil appeared to him and told him to be preparing that in a week his twenty-one years would be up, so when the twenty-one years were up the devil came to him in the room and told him he would have to give him something to do and if he was able to do it he would have to go with him tomorrow.

The squire brought the devil to a river in his own land and he said that he would have to build a mill two story high and have it built and slated before twelve o'clock the next day. The squire thought the devil would not be able to build it that short of time. Early next morning he was called by one of his servants and the servant told him that the mill was built below at the river; he got up and went down to the mill, and he did not know what to do.

So home he went and began to read his bible until the devil was with him and asked him was he ready to come or did he see the mill. The squire said he did and it was a great mill and it would take a week to prepare. He said he could not that he would have to come now and give him work. He would give him no time, and his wife was arguing with her servants. Is there anything you cannot do try said the devil, "can you stop a woman's tongue" if you stop my ladies tongue.

The devil disappeared out of the room and the servants ran up the stairs to the master and said the wife was dying and when he went down she was dead. Now said the devil is there anything else you have to do.

You will have to give me until I bury my wife.

The squire locked himself up in the room reading the bible and trying to convert himself. The devil had him anoyed and wanted him to bury his wife. He did not bury her for seven days so the devil was trying to get him to go and he was reading the bible night and day. After he burying his wife the devil came and said he should come now. The squire wanted him to give wait for three days and it was no use he would not give him three hours. He said he would not go until one day and he said he would sooner be dead than alive.

The devil said he bring him one way as the other dead or alive.

The squire said he would like to be hanged with a certain class of a rope a rope that would be made of sand of the sea shore. The devil struck him the rope of sand and blinded one eye in him. He asked five minutes more off him and he said he would not give so the squire began to cry.

The candle he had was nearly burned out and he asked him him to give him until the candle was burned out and the devil said he would and the squire quenched the candle and the candle was never burned out from that day to this. The squire said he would not go until the candle was burned out and he said it would never be burned out so the devil went out the door mad.

Got by, Told by,
Ellen Rattigan, John Oates,
Kilroosky, Kilroosky,
Roscommon. Roscommon.
Age 70 years.

The Shoemaker, the Tailor, and the Sailor


Once there were a shoemaker, a tailor, and a sailor who came upon hard times. Then they made a pact with the devil: that he should fulfill all their wishes, but for this they signed away their souls. Thus they wished for endless money, good food and drink, and everything else that they could think of.

But the deadline soon came, and each one thought of some task that the devil would be unable fulfill, in which case they would be free of their pact.

Thus the tailor demanded that the devil bring to him every trimming of cloth that he had ever cut off -- large and small -- in his previous tailoring. The devil should sew together into one piece every scrap that had ever fallen to the floor, and not a single stitch was to be visible. The devil soon completed this task and wrung the tailor's neck.

The same thing happened to the shoemaker, who demanded a single hide stitched together from the trimmings of all the shoes he had ever made.

However, the sailor gave the devil the task of making an anchor rope out of fine sand. The devil attempted to do so, but failed, and thus the sailor saved his own life and his soul.

The Cheated Devil


In a village there lived two brothers who led very wanton lives. After they had squandered all their money and property the devil came to them. He told them that he would give them a great pile of money that they could never use up. At the end of a year he would return, and they should give him a task. If he were able to fulfill this task, then they would forfeit their bodies and souls to him. If he failed to do so for even one of them, then he would give them a second pile of money equal to what he had already given them.

The brothers entered into this pact.

The younger brother purchased many horses, and from the entire countryside he hauled together a whole mountain of stones. To the contrary, the older brother did not give up his wild living.

At the end of a year the Evil One returned. The younger brother commanded him to blow apart the pile of stones with just three puffs. With only his second puff the devil blew all the sand in the pile into the sky, and with his third puff half the mountain and disappeared. Having done this he took hold of the man, and then flew with him to the older brother.

This brother was sitting in a tavern, and came outside only after much cajoling.

When the devil asked him for his task, this brother broke wind and said, "Catch that for me, and tie a square knot into it!"

That was too much for the devil. He had to release the younger brother and give them a great pile of money as well.

One might think that the requirement to tie a square knot was superfluous -- that in any event the devil would have been unable to fulfill such a task. But that is not true, as a simple peasant learned to his sorrow. He gave the same task to the Evil One, but without the square knot, and what happened?

A day passed, then a month, and then another month, and the devil did not return. The peasant felt quite safe, but at the end of an entire year the Evil One came running up, out of breath. He pulled out a feather, and behold: He had captured all the man's wind, to the last puff, and put it into the quill. And, of course, with that he had won the peasant's soul.

Another man from the same village had better luck. He commanded the devil to to collect and bring to him all the iron that had worn away from his plow as it had worked his fields. Knowing that he would not be able to do this, the devil threw the contract at the peasant's feet, and flew away.

The devil is also unable to spin a mountain of sand into a rope. Many individuals have escaped from him by giving him this task.

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Revised March 21, 2021.