Fairies and Salt

Medieval wall-painting of demons interfering with butter churning

It’s quite well-known that, amongst the varied substances to which fairies object, everyday, ordinary salt is one of the most repellent for them. I wish here to examine the details of this and to try to understand what the objection may be.

An immediate observation must be that not all faery beings have the same difficulty. It probably need not be pointed out that merfolk, living in the ocean, have no such aversion- and the same applies to the Scottish water horse (the each uisge) and the Manx tarroo-ushtey or water bull, both of which tolerate both fresh and salt water. For land dwelling fairies, however, salinity can be abhorrent, meaning that they cannot enter or cross the sea (just as a flowing stream can be a barrier). Perhaps for the same reason, in the Scottish islands the area below high tide line, which is washed regularly by the sea, is seen as being safe from fairy intrusion.

The fairies’ loathing of salt can work in two related ways. It can be used as a deliberate defence against them, or it can unwittingly prevent them handling human goods.

Amongst the means used by midwives and neighbours to protect mothers in labour was sprinkling salt around the house and, after the baby was safely delivered, it could be guarded against abduction by putting salt in the newborn’s mouth. Related to this, there were several ways of expelling a changeling.  In Wales, one means of driving off a changeling was to place salt on a shovel, make the sign of a cross in it and then to heat it over the fire.

One of James Brown’s Household Fairies, with salt sellar…

Quite a lot of the best evidence on the protection of property comes from the Isle of Man. There, for example, it used to be said that salt thrown into- or at least placed underneath- a milk churn would avoid any interference by the fairies with the butter making process (salt was also placed beneath querns on the island). Compare to this the Cumberland belief that you should sprinkle salt on the fire whilst churning milk to prevent the fairies interfering.

Likewise, the Manx belief is that, if you’re carrying milk in a pail, you should add a small pinch of salt to it, which will ensure that the fairies don’t steal or spoil the contents during the journey. A very curious example of this situation was reported around 1882-85. A Manx woman had killed and butchered one of her calves and decided to send her son with a cut of the meat as a gift to a poor neighbour. In her hurry, however, the mother forgot to protect the joint by sprinkling salt on it. As the boy walked over to the friend’s house, the local fairies realised that the meat was vulnerable and they followed the youth- licking him until he was sore over his entire body. When he got home, his mother had to wash him all over in salt in order to dispel the fairies’ magic. It’s a little hard to explain exactly what happened here: perhaps in licking the ‘goodness’ out of the meat the fairies also touched the boy’s bare arms, legs and face, thereby subjecting him to their power with their spit…

An account from Cornwall tells of a cow that was favoured by the fairies for its milk.  When the milkmaid at Bosfrancan farm near St Buryan realised what was happening, she sought advice from a local cunning woman who advised the maid to rub the cow’s udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving, as the pobel vean (the little folk) couldn’t abide the smell or taste of fish or salt.

These protections may prove a double edged sword, however, as frustrating the fairies’ will can rebound against you. A Cumbrian farmer had left a churn of milk outside his cottage overnight to keep it cool.  Next morning a little of the milk was missing and he guessed the fairies had filched some.  Annoyed, he fetched some of the salt he kept in his cottage to ward off evil spirits and threw it into the churn.  When the fairies sampled the milk the next night they were outraged by his response and retaliated by spitting it out all over his smallholding.  Wherever they sprayed the salty milk, the grass died and would not regrow.

As I have mentioned previously, fairies love human loaves, but they are wary of our seasoning. A Manx woman was walking on the road when she heard music and followed the sound. She came upon the source, a group of fairies (whom she could hear but not see), who asked her what she was carrying in her pannier. She had bread with her and offered to share it with them, placing part of the oat cake on a nearby hedge. As the bread was made without salt, they accepted it and, in return for her generosity, promised her that she would never be without bread thereafter.

There are, however, a few accounts which contradict this fairly consistent evidence. The residents of a farm at Gorsey Bank, in Shropshire, suffered constant disturbance from two boggarts that lived there.  Worn down by this, the farmer decided to move to escape them.  This was done, but the family were dismayed to find that the boggarts followed them, bringing a salt box that had been left behind. On the Scottish Borders, people would offer salt to the water sprite of the River Tweed to ensure a good catch of fish each year.  Finally, in Gerald of Wales’ account of the fairy abductee Elidyr, amongst the faery vocabulary that the youth was able to recall years after his experience was the phrase Halgein ydorum, ‘bring salt.’ Contact is not always anathema therefore.

oh dear…

Finally, a report from Airlie, near Dundee in Scotland, tells of a shepherd’s family that moved into a new cottage. One day, despite there being no other houses anywhere nearby, a small woman appeared at the door asking to borrow a little salt. She returned an equivalent amount of salt the following day and, as she left, the shepherd’s wife watched her. The mysterious woman disappeared behind a tree and the family assumed she was a fairy. After a pattern of regular borrowing and returning items had developed, the supposition was confirmed when, one day, the old woman asked the wife to stop pouring away her waste water near the tree, as it ran down into the old woman’s house. The story is interesting for the details of the subterranean home, but the fairy woman’s willingness to handle salt is the notable aspect for our purposes here.

Katharine Briggs, in her Dictionary of Fairies, argues that salt is disliked by our Good Neighbours because it is a “universal symbol of preservation, eternity and of goodwill.” In alchemy, it can represent the earthly human body, thus perhaps opposing it to the fairies’ ‘astral’ forms, but I suspect the real derivation of our ideas about salt is from Graeco-Roman culture, in which salt was placed on the lips of neonates to ward off evil spirits. This seems to have been inherited by the Christian church in giving salt to a child before baptism and this ancient power of protection thereby passed into British folk traditions.

Famous Fairies

One of the Famous Fairies series by Lorna Steele

I am pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, which is entitled Famous Fairies. As you’ll see, the inspiration for the idea came from a series of postcards designed for the Salmon Company in the early 1950s by the British artist Lorna R. Steele. This appears to have been a typical six card set, which was possibly retailed together in a special envelope (for collectors) as well as being sold separately at newsagents and such like for people to use for messages and greetings.

Lorna Steele

As I describe in my Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century, Lorna Steele (1902-90) was born in North London and was encouraged to become an artist by her uncle, Frank Jenners, who was himself an illustrator and author.  She attended art school and then set up her own studio. She received early commissions for book illustrations from the University of London Press during the 1940s, providing illustrations for a variety of titles.  After the war, she was associated with J. Salmond of Sevenoaks for whom she wrote and illustrated several books and designed a number of series of postcards, such as Peeps at Pixies in 1947.

Steele’s fairies are bright and almost cartoonish and her vision of faery is, perhaps, one of the most prosaic of all the British fairy artists.  In humanising the beings, she often stripped them of all their magic and mystery, as might be seen in her postcard images of fairies at school, attending the market or posting their letters. Steele gave emphasis to the interaction between fairies and children, making them safe and approachable.

However, the Famous Fairies series is perhaps one of her most charming. It features several of the Famous Fairies that I have dealt with in my new book. Titania and Oberon are an obvious choice, as are Puck, the Cornish Pixie and (perhaps) the Will of the Wisp.

The borders of the cards are especially attractive, with their mushrooms, horse shoes and Halloween imagery. Steele’s fairies, with their whimsical eared caps, are firmly within the tradition of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant.

The final two cards in the series are surprising choices, as they are both figures from classical mythology- who arguably aren’t fairies at all. Admittedly, parallels have often been seen between Pan and Puck, and- in the absence of a clear conception of what Puck/ Robin Goodfellow looked like- Victorian painters especially resorted to the classical iconography of Pan- goat legs and horns (plus, perhaps, some wings)- to represent the most English of all supernatural personalities.

As for Neptune, well- little can be said. There are of course mermen in our folklore records, but very little trace of a king of the merfolk, such as this illustration depicts.

Famous British Fairies

Turning now to my new book: Famous Fairies: The Foremost Folk in Faeryland, it is a collection of short ‘biographies’ of the best known individuals in Faery. The text describes the careers and characters of nine of the most famous fairies to arise out of British faery-lore: Titania, Oberon, Ariel, Mab, Puck, King Arthur, Nimue, Tinker Bell and the native British equivalents of Rumpelstiltskin.

The history of each famous fairy is traced back to its origins and then their stories are followed through poetry, plays and paintings from late medieval times up to the present. Their lives and their deeds are examined in detail, with illustrations from literature and art.

The book describes exactly how and why these fairies became famous in the first place- and why they remain well-known and relevant even into the twenty-first century. As an essential guide to the key figures of faeryland, this book will help readers understand just why it is that these names are so familiar- and what it is about these faery personalities that made them renowned- across the world.

The book includes illustrations and a full bibliography. It’s available now from Amazon as a paperback and Kindle book, priced at £7.95 and £5.75 respectively.

The cover of the e-book: Pan by Henry Fuseli (1787-90)

Beyond Faery VII- Hags- and other horrid harpies

This posting is the last on the subject of my new book Beyond Faery.

Amongst the broad class of ‘faery beasts’ there is a clear category of female monsters, creatures we often label as hags. The dividing lines between hags, giantesses and witches are not always very clear and many of the Highland Scottish ‘hobgoblins,’ the gruagach, glaistig and uruisg, are primarily encountered as large, violent and unsightly females. In similar fashion, the dividing line between ‘hags’ and banshees is not exact- an important point to bear in mind when we realise that banshee (bean sith) means nothing more than ‘fairy woman.’ Likewise, the closely related bean nighe is nothing more or less than a ‘washer woman.’

In Scotland the best known ‘hag’ is the cailleach, a word generally glossed as ‘witch.’ For example, on the hills over Glendaruel there is a large stone called the cailleach-bhear, the ‘huge hag,’ which is said really to be a woman who herds cattle on the uplands. She has been described as the thunder personified; when she is angry she causes floods and, if cattle go missing during storms, it is because she has stolen them.

The banshee is best known popularly for singing at the time of a death. In the Scottish Highlands, this was particularly the role of the female being called the caointeach (the keener) but the bean nighe often marked impending death by washing the clothes or shrouds of those foredoomed to perish. Indicative of the combined, and complex, nature of these traditions is the Cowie of Goranberry Tower in Roxburghshire in the Scottish Borders. This male being bore all the hallmarks of a broonie (brownie) in that he got in peat for the fires, herded the sheep, harvested the grain, cut up wood, spun wool and ground corn. However, if he lamented, it was the sign of an imminent death in the family.

All the examples given so far are Scottish, but the Isle of Man had its own cailleach, known as the Caillagh ny Groamagh who was linked (like the Scottish one) to bad weather and the changing seasons. Wales too had its own versions of the hags and the banshees (the latter being called the cyhyraeth). The latter would be encountered first as a fierce rushing sound in the air, followed by a shriek that was so loud and appalling that listeners might be thrown to the ground. The cyhyraeth‘s cry presages an imminent death and the sound is heard to travel from the doomed individual’s home to the place of burial. In addition, the creature is often heard in advance of bad weather and it cries out three times, each quieter than the last, dwindling to a death rattle. An encounter with the cyhyraeth recounted in the Carmarthen Journal during September 1831 described a woman with black, dishevelled hair, deeply furrowed cheeks and corpse-like skin, loose lips, long, black fangs and horrible gashes on her body. In a manner reminiscent of the bean-nighe, she splashed her hands in a stream and wailed for her husband. Understandably, the witness fainted away in terror.

Another Welsh type of hag is the gwrach y rhibin, a being in the form of an immense and very hideous girl. The name has been explained as meaning ‘the hag of the dribble,’ the dribble being a trail of stones that she releases from the apron in which she carries them. She had coarse, bright red hair, sharp cheeks, a pointed nose and chin and just a few long and jagged teeth. She would appear suddenly to people at crossroads or at sharp turns in paths, howling horribly “Woe is me!” She might also appear outside the home of a sick person, calling their name. Her presence foretold the death either of the witness or of a relative of that unfortunate person. The former was an especially likely outcome, because her sudden appearance could either give the person a fatal shock or drive them mad with fear.

Another description of this ‘queen of terrors’ describes her as tall and yellow-skinned with a few front teeth that are one foot long and hair that sweeps the ground. She uses her teeth to dig graves for her victims and her hair to brush the earth back into the hole.

Britain is well supplied by hideous and terrifying female spirits. The examples cited here are cases I’ve turned up since I finished writing the text of Beyond Faery. More detailed and lengthy treatments will be found in the book, which is now available from all good book sellers etc.

Beyond Faery

I am very pleased to announce that Llewellyn Worldwide has now published Beyond Faery, the companion to my book Faery which they released in April this year.

As its full title indicates, in Beyond Faery- Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts, we’ve gone beyond the conventional boundaries and perceptions of the faes- as winged, female beings- to explore a much wider and wilder world of supernatural creatures. Many of these are far more dangerous- but perhaps, as a result, rather more predictable- that the humanoid fairies about whom I normally write.

The faery beasts that are the subject of this book share a number of traits that differentiate them from the more familiar members of fairy-kind. Firstly, they are- without exception- of conventional, human-world size. There are continual debates about the size of the human-like faes (as you’ll read in several of posts), but there is never any dispute that mermaids are the same size as we are and that the other creatures that resemble the mammals of this world- the dogs, horses, bulls and so on- are all the same size as their domesticated equivalents- if not somewhat bigger.

Secondly, the faery beasts have next to no conception of working with human beings to either assist them or to improve the natural world. Whilst the ‘eco-fairy’ has gained some vogue in recent decades, the faery beasts are far less complex creatures- or, we might say, more single minded in their purpose. Very many of them have one of two intentions: to scare us and/ or to kill and eat us. Mermaids are a bit different from this: they can enter into relationships with humans and raise families, but there is seldom any suggestion of any wider co-operation with us. They live in their world, we live in ours; they are in different dimensions- and the merfolk like to keep it that way.

These beasts are faery, then, in terms of their supernatural nature and their magical powers. They may look like the livestock or pets that we’re familiar with, but their behaviour is very different: their purpose and their powers are nothing like the ordinary dog’s or cow’s. In many ways, we might call them monsters.

Contents

The book’s chapters cover, firstly, the various water beasts: the mermaids, mere-maids (fresh water mermaids), river sprites, kelpies, water horses and water bulls and other less well-known creatures, such as the njugl and the shoopiltee. Then I turn to the land beasts, amongst whom I number the ‘hags,’ the banshees and similar; the hobs and goblins; the bogies, boggarts, brags and bugganes; the black daemon dogs; the fearsome faery beasts such as fae cats and bunnies and, lastly, the wills of the wisp.

Controversy?

I have already given readers a taste of what’s covered in the book in my recent postings, in which I’ve made use of material I’ve come across since the manuscript of Beyond Faery was finalised earlier this year. Those new examples supplement what you’ll find discussed in more detail in the chapters of the book. The text’s 270 pages long, including a glossary and a full bibliography.

I was a little surprised to note that Google has designated my book ‘controversial literature’- as, indeed, was the case for the previous book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk, too. On consideration, I quite like the thought of having written two controversial books. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you think it’s as subversive as this might suggest!

Beyond Faery VI: Spectral Hounds

Barguest by Earlnoir on Deviant Art

“Night-roaming ghosts by saucer eyeballs known,

The common spectres of each country town”

John Gay, ‘A True Story of an Apparition

As I have already described, phantom black dogs are encountered across Britain.  However, there seems to be a particular concentration of these faery beasts in Northern England, from Yorkshire and Lancashire up to the border with Scotland.  

Being myself from The North, and seeing as there are so many separate (albeit closely related) species or breeds of spectral hound, I thought they deserved a separate examination.

Defining the exact nature of the Black Dogs has challenged folklorists for well over a century.  They are variously described as ghosts, boggarts and goblins (although the dividing line between boggart and ghost is very hazy).  One writer, describing ‘Dog Fiends’ for the Northern Echo in August 1892, suggested that there were two types of spectre hounds.  There are those that are fiends (or demons), that have taken on dog form to harass humans, and there are those that are the spirits of the dead that return to earth as hounds in punishment for their mortal sins.  He cited, for example, a Hertfordshire woman who was hung at Tring as a suspected witch in 1751.  Thereafter, a black dog haunted the site of the gibbet.  Some of these hounds seem to be simply the ghosts of dogs, that come back to haunt their former master.

Whatever their exact nature, spectral hounds are ubiquitous and, almost always, alarming to those who meet them.  They share a number of common features, although there are minor differences between the varieties.

Barguest by Citizen Wolfie on Deviant Art

Barguest

The barguest, or bargheist, or bar-hest is one of the commonest types.  It has been suggested that the name derives from the dialect word ‘bar,’ meaning a gate or stile, although there is no particular evidence that these hounds only lurk around such spots.  In truth, what the Black Dog apparition might be called was dependent as much on location as behaviour and looks.  What was classed as a barguest at Tadcaster and east towards York and Selby might be termed a ‘padfoot’ further west, around Wakefield, Brighouse and Halifax and to the south of Leeds.

The barguest is regarded as a sign of imminent death.  If it’s heard outside the window of an invalid, there imminent demise is assured.  Apparently, death through sickness is not all that the barguest can foretell.  At Arncliffe, in Littondale in the Yorkshire Dales, a sighting of the hound predicted the death by suicide of a friend of the witness (he jumped from the bridge into the River Skirfare).

In an extension of this, it was said in the area around Leeds that the barguest would appear after a local dignitary had died.  It would then prowl through the vicinity and all the dogs kept there would emerge and follow it, barking and howling.  If an unlucky person crossed its path (on these occasions at least) the barguest would lash out with its paw, inflicting a wound that never healed.

The other function of the barguest seems to be to alarm those walking alone late at night.  It will follow the victim, often invisibly, although it may be felt brushing past and the sound of its chain may be heard.  When seen, the creature has been described as being as big as a sheep, with glowing eyes.  Another eye-witness compared it to a wolf or bear.  Some are alleged to have tusks as well as fearsome fangs and claws.  It appears that, unlike many of the faery kind, the barguest is able to cross running water, making it that much harder to escape.

Oddly, the barguest known to haunt the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne was regarded as friendly and was even described by one reporter as performing “all the offices of a public brownie.”  He did servants’ work and would swim the River Tyne to fetch a midwife to a woman in labour.  The barguest would then howl depending upon whether or not the new-born child is likely to survive.  Perhaps it is this association with childbirth that explains why, in the Craven district of Yorkshire, it’s said that a barguest will never harm a pregnant woman.

The usual form of the barguest is a large hound-like creature with heavy feet and saucer-like burning eyes, but it has also been seen as a white cow, a horse, ass, sheep or swine.

Padfoot

The padfoot is so-called because of the ‘pit-pat’ of his paws on the ground, often the first (and sometimes only) sign that he has joined you.  Although regarded as a kind of supernatural dog, the padfoot is said to roar rather than howl.

When he is seen, he looks like a large, smooth haired animal dragging a chain.  Anomalously, the padfoot at Horbury is seen as a white dog with blazing eyes.  The padfoot at Horbury can range in size from a small dog to something ‘as big as a mule.’  At Upton near Wakefield it was described as being between the size of a bear and a donkey, shaggy and very dark and with very heavy footsteps, ‘clomping’ along as if it wore shoes.

It is impossible to strike the animal- your blows will pass straight through it- and its presence alone can scare a witness to death.  The Upton padfoot was reported to be solid and physically violent: it crashed through a gate into a garden and then stampeded about, trying to uproot trees.  Comparably, a foolhardy Leeds man once tried to kick a padfoot he met- it seized him in its jaws and dragged him all the way home, through hedges and ditches.

The padfoot can rear up and walk on its two hind legs, or it may be seen apparently running on three.  The explanation of this is that its forefeet may be chained together, hence the sound of trailing links frequently described. 

Like the barguest, the padfoot will appear before a death.  It will prowl up and down outside the house of a mortally ill person, or will waylay those going to visit the invalid.  In some places, the beast also seems to have a regular ‘beat’ that it prowls at night.  At Rothwell near Leeds there was a flight of steps that had been worn down by its pacing.  If you should meet a padfoot, you should always allow it plenty of space to pass you by.  A man in Craven who failed to ‘give him the wall’ was mauled by the hound, and died within a few days.  Luckily, however, they are said not to be able to cross flowing water.

I was delighted, during my research, to discover that the padfoot was known in my home town of Barnsley, South Yorkshire.  Apparently, it was seen there as being harmless- as long as it wasn’t interfered with.  If it felt obstructed or threatened, though, it might savage a man or throw him over a wall.  Just as with the Newcastle barguest, the Barnsley padfoot has an association with childbirth.  The sight of it predicts a good delivery.  Nevertheless, the look and sound of the animal were so alarming that most midwives refused to travel alone to and from a patient’s home, and always insisted upon the husband of the woman fetching and accompanying them.

Lastly, the creature is only encountered at night and, certainly, one late Victorian writer claimed that the introduction of street lighting had unintentionally banished it from many of its former haunts.

Guytrash

The guytrash, the name of the phenomenon west of Leeds, is another omen of death.  Its name comes from the sound its feet make splashing through puddles in the road.  Unlike the barguest, the guytrash reportedly cannot cross running water.  The example at Ilkley has been described as being like a large black dog or ass.

The guytrash, like other hounds, can be seen in particular by those who possess the second sight through being born at midnight or on a Sunday.  It is possible for the person with the gift to transmit it to another person by touching them (if they really, truly want to be able to see a giant hound with huge, blazing eyes).

Trash and Skriker

Over the Pennine Hills into Lancashire, the phantom hound is called the ‘trash’ or ‘skriker.’The beast has been seen as a white horse or cow as well as in the form of a huge mastiff with broad feet, drooping ears, shaggy hair and the usual glowing eyes.  Besides the sound of its feet splashing through puddles, it’s known for its blood-curdling shrieks (hence ‘skriker’). 

Hundreds of these beasts are known around Lancashire, frequently haunting graveyards.  As always, they forewarn of a death, either in the family of the witness or one of that person’s friends.  The more clearly the skriker is visible, the sooner the death will occur. 

Seemingly, too, in some cases the skriker can inflict death.  That known at Colne lurked around the churchyard and the old Roman pavement there.  In one case it met a man and put its paws up on his shoulders so that it could look him full in the face.  The meeting was so shattering for him that he was stupefied and afterwards dwindled away until he died.  If you meet a skriker and you’re brave enough to try to follow it, the hound will retreat backwards before you, vanishing the instant your attention is distracted.

Some of the Lancashire hounds were known to be headless- just to add to their terrible aspect.  One such was known to haunt the vicinity of the Collegiate Church in Manchester.  On one occasion in 1825, it put its paws on a man’s shoulders and then drove him home at a furious speed.  This nuisance was laid for 999 years under the bridge over the River Irwell to Salford. 

Capelthwaite

This is a Westmorland hound whose appearances do not presage death- unlike the barguest.

Tatterfoal

In the extreme east of Yorkshire, near the North Sea coast, the same phantom entity is known as the ‘tatterfoal’ because of its shaggy coat.  At Easington, for example, its prowls between the very oldest houses in the district, trying to jump on the backs of people travelling at night so that it can hug them to death.

Formless Forms

In Beyond Faery I describe how some faery beasts appear in shapeless or amorphous manifestations.  Several of these are barguests.

For example, the generally benign barguest of Newcastle upon Tyne would now and again scare a drunk wandering home late at night by appearing before him like a ball of fire.  A woman called Sally Dransfield, who worked as a carrier between Leeds and Swillington in the mid-nineteenth century, often saw a barguest on the highway that rolled along before her like a woolpack, before it vanished suddenly into the hedge.  At Appletreewick in the Craven district of North Yorkshire, the guytrash was also seen as a woolpack that rolled and tumbled in front of a witness.  This was no insubstantial apparition: in this case it stopped suddenly and he fell over the thing.

Read More

This posting complements the chapter on black dogs included in my new book, Beyond Faery. As of November 8th, this is available on all formats through Amazon.com and as a Kindle book on Amazon.co.uk, with the print version being released in the UK on December 1st

Beyond Faery V: Wills of the Wisp

bocklin

Das Irrlicht, Arnold Bocklin, 1862

The spirits known as wills of the wisp, which in fact go by many local names, seem to have a single purpose, which is to try to lure people out of their way, something which may just get them lost or which may result in their deaths.  Their exact status as ‘fairies’ is a little uncertain.  They are clearly supernatural beings, and almost always of a solitary nature, but their precise classification is difficult; in some cases, they resemble ghosts. Nevertheless, the activities of the ‘pure’ wills of the wisp, who only have one manifestation, are shared with entities we would unhesitatingly describe as fairies- such as pixies, Robin Goodfellow and the various pucks and pwccas.  For this reason, I included a chapter on wills of the wisp in my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery.  The evidence presented here represents additional research I’ve undertaken, which complements the content of the book.

Scottish spunkies

Very typical of this family of sprites is Willy and the Wisp, who is seen around Buckhaven in Scotland.  He’s been called a “fiery devil” who leads people off their path in order to drown them or, at the very least, to cause them to stumble and fall, whether into a bog or over a bank or cliff.  He sometimes appears as sparks around a walker’s feet or as a candle shining in the dark two or three miles ahead of them. Like a rainbow, this light would recede before the advancing traveller.  He has also been known to lure boats into the shore, where they have foundered.  This entity is also called ‘spunky’ in Scotland, or ‘Dank Will,’ with his “deceitful lantern.”  

Interestingly, on the Hebridean island of South Uist it was said that the Will of the Wisp had not been seen before 1812.  A woman who went out one night to collect rue from the sand dunes was never seen again and it was thought that her ghost returned as the wandering light that was seen there frequently after that.  This is an intriguing example of the confusion, or uncertainty, that can exist over the interrelationship between Faery and the dead.

Southern Sprites

In Dorset, on the south coast of England, the Will or Jack o’ Lantern is seen as a hopping ball of light that precedes a traveller, attempting to lure the person off the road, perhaps into a pond or perhaps just to make them lost.  If it succeeds, you will hear it sniggering and laughing.  In Devon and Cornwall, too, the Jack o’ Lantern is known.  He has been known to attack lanterns carried by people, or to perch on the roofs of houses.   Generally, the light is like a small blue flame, but it has been seen as big as five feet in height.  It generally floats at a low level (about a metre off the ground), but can rise high into the air- or vanish, and then reappear again.  Sometimes it is fixed, sometimes it moves at considerable speed.  In the South West of England, as well as pools and marshes, the “pixy-lights” might try to lure people down abandoned mine shafts, which are still quite common in the region.

The Will is usually seen in more out of the way locations, such as mountains and lowland marshes, but by no means exclusively.  It has been sighted in water meadows or in domestic gardens as well.  When it is seen in church-yards, it is often called a ‘corpse candle,’ once again linking the phenomenon with the dead.

A very curious example of the phenomenon is the Will seen at Fringford Mill in Oxfordshire.  Witnesses have reported red lights that looked like gnomes, standing about three feet high.  They would bob up and down (as seems to be typical) but they also emitted a singing sound.  The lights would slowly approach to within about one foot of a person and then bob away again, apparently with the intention of leading the individual either into the mill stream or onto the highway.  Horses kept in the field next to the mill would be terrified by the apparition.  At Ascott under Wychwood, in the same county, the Will was called Jenny Burn Tail and once more resembled a human figure- a man holding a lantern.

Bell WoW

Guernsey Wills

Sometimes the Wills of the Wisp of Devon and Cornwall are seen indicating places where rich lodes of ore can be mined.  The Wills of the Channel Island of Guernsey have a comparable link to buried riches.  It is believed on the island that their appearance marks the site of concealed treasure.  This association can be exploited by Le Feu Belengier to lead those hopeful of finding lost wealth through bogs and brakes. 

Even so, the riches can be there for the finding by the determined.  The only problem is that the wandering fire will protect its treasure.  Stories are told on the island of a woman who dug where she saw a Will dancing and, in due course, uncovered a pan that seemed to be full of coins.  However, just before she was able to claim the riches, she was distracted and, when she turned back to the pan, it had been overturned and was empty.  In another case, a man who dug up a pot of coins looked away for a moment- to discover a huge black hound curled up in the hole.  Conversely, a man who excavated a pot full of sea-shells was canny enough not to be deterred.  He carried the seemingly worthless discovery home and, the next morning, awoke to find the shells transformed into coins.  This story is a reverse of the usual reports of money received from fairies turning into shells, leaves and mushrooms overnight. The common element of not taking your eye off the prize is generally encountered in respect of sightings of fairies themselves: if you see one, you should try to avoid blinking or looking away.  If you do allow yourself to be distracted, the fairy will disappear.

Welsh Wisps

The Will of the Wisp is very well known in Scotland, but he has a long history in Welsh folklore too.  Early in the nineteenth century, the road from Welshpool, on the Welsh border, to Shrewsbury in England was haunted around Onslow Hill by a ‘goblin’ who appeared as a ball of fire and would sit behind riders on their horses.  There were numerous reports of this being and generally people avoided travelling along this road by night if they could.  Not far away, at Marford near Wrexham, the Jack o’ Lantern was often seen early in the eighteenth century.  Typical of its tricks was an occasion when it led two men into a ditch after they had thought they could see the light of a farmhouse window and had aimed towards it.  Once the chosen victim was lost and soaked, the sprite would always dance about in glee over them.

Older Welsh sources more generally blame the ellyllon, the elves, for such sightings and misfortunes; another name for the Will of the Wisp is yr ellyll dan- ‘elf fire.’  This light, also called ‘bog fire’ has been described as being like the light of a lantern, that would dance ahead of riders, travelling at the same speed as them, or would appear as actual blue flames on the extremities of the horse and rider.  This Will was reported as late as 1898, but subsequent changes to farming practice and the draining of land seems to have scared many of them off.

In some parts of Wales, a number of specific, named sprites are identified as the cause of such mischief. Several are identified in Snowdonia.  The bwbach llwyd or ‘brown hobgoblin’ will appear on mountain tracks, dressed like a shepherd.  He lures travellers off the path before vanishing. Somehow related in the bodach glas who appears in front of people once a fog has descended.  He noiselessly hovers in front of them. always maintaining the same distance.  Lantern Jack, meanwhile, is a blue flame seen on paths at night. It grows steadily larger, leading people astray until the light is snuffed out with a peel of laughter.   

In south and east Wales the pwcca is a light that will lead on travellers, who think they are following another person with a lantern, until they find themselves on the very edge of a precipice.  The light then leaps out into the void and a peal of pwcca’s mocking laughter is heard.

The pwcca is a further reminder to us that the Will and the more familiar and corporeal Puck often blend into each other, so that being misled by a will of the wisp and being pixy-led can be very similar experiences.  The cross-over between the two is further underlined by the fact that, in some parts of Wales, the pwcca is more like a domestic brownie than a malign sprite.

The medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320-50) wrote two poems describing the Will.  Y Pwll Mawn, The Peat Pit, is desrcibed by him as being “the haunt of many a drowned wraith” whilst Ar Niwl Maith (On a Misty Walk) is an extended description of the perils of travel in poor visibility:

“My twisty traipse turns to clumsy labour

Like a hell,

Into a still bogmire,

Where in every hollow lurks

A hundred wry-mouthed elves.”

Similarly, in the Highlands, a Gaelic poem mentions “the busily roaming fairy woman, deluder of travellers…”

Wills of the Wisp and snake, Hermann Hendrich

More details and discussion will be found in the chapter dedicated to this subject in my forthcoming Beyond Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).

Beyond Faery IV- Bogies, boggarts and bugganes

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Britain is full of bogles, bogies and such like (and similarly named) creatures.  They can often be hard to classify, as was remarked by an anonymous writer in 1833, discussing the works of Sir Walter Scott.  The bogle called ‘the greetin bairn of the lake’ from the lowlands of Scotland was described by this author as part fairy, part ghost and part brownie- a puzzling mix.

Types of boggle

Boggles are creatures that can take a range of forms, as well as names.  For instance, at Bryn-yr-Ellyllon (Elf Hill) near Mold in Clwyd, it was reported in the mid-nineteenth century that a skeleton dressed in gold had been seen, seated on the mound.  This was hardly your typical ‘elf’ plainly.

James Nicolson, describing Shetland folklore in 1981, added to his discussion of trows and mermaids a general list of ‘hard to classify’ supernatural beasts, which included:

  • The skekill, a sort of trow that rode a horse that was black with white spots and had fifteen tails;
  • The marool, a fish with a crest of flame and eyes all over its head; and,
  • Tangie, who whipped up storms and tried to abduct girls.

Duncan MacInnes, describing Argyllshire, adds to this list a giant, or fuath, with seven heads, seven humps and seven necks.

Besides these assorted monsters, there were many beings that accorded better with our standard categorisation of the Faery world.  On the Scottish borders lived the Brown Man of the Muirs, who protected the wildlife of the moors and took revenge upon those who ignored his warnings.  This being appears to have been a type of duergar, or dwarf.

Slightly further south, in county Durham in the north-east of England, we encounter the Hedley Kow.  The name might make us anticipate a bovine beast, but its nature was actually very fluid.  It was a supreme shape-shifter: in one version of its story, in Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales, the Kow is successively seen as a pot full of gold coins, a lump of silver, a lump of iron, a stone and, finally, a horse- which galloped off laughing at the hapless victim of its pranks.

In the same area we find the brags, which are also shape-shifting beings.  The Humbleknow brag, for example, was not visible, but would sound as if all the livestock on a farm had got loose- or else would sound like all the doors and windows in a house being driven in by a violent storm.  It was awful to experience, but harmless.  The Hylton Lane brag, by way of contrast, was visible- and appeared at night as a dog, calf, pony or woman, that would accompany any person walking between Sunderland and Hylton for a short distance before vanishing.  Again, this was disconcerting, but not dangerous.

As may be observed, many of these beings have names that must share a common root- bugs, bogies, boggarts, bugganes and such like.  A Welsh example is the bwgan.  The bwgan of Nant y Cythraul in the north of the country is a very interesting example of the species.  It is said to be the spirit of a fifteenth century monk who surrendered his soul to the devil and he can shapeshift, appearing in a number of surprising forms.  These include a hare that is being hunted by the cwn annwn and a dog that will run alongside you- before disconcertingly bursting into flames.

boggart

Boggarts

The boggarts of northern England generally can take on the role of domestic brownies, doing household and farm chores, but they can just as easily appear as nuisance- or malign- shapeshifters.  Henry More, in The Pre-Existency of the Soul (1647) describes aerial devils (as he terms them) who can endlessly change their form.  “One while a man, after a comely maid… A snarling Dog or bristled Boar or a jug of milk if you’re thirsty.” 

Various Victorian newspaper reports from Lancashire confirm the shape-shifting abilities of the boggart- as well as their close links to ghosts.  The Copp Lane Boggart was seen as a headless woman, a white lady, a lady in brown silk who glided ahead of witnesses, a donkey and a large dog with a white neck and a tail like a sheaf of corn that curled over its back as far as its shoulders.  The Spo Boggart was either a girl in a bonnet- not alarming at all- or a man dressed in black with cloven feet.  A Whitegate Lane in Fylde, near Blackpool, the boggart was a white calf or decapitated woman who carried her head under her arm.  Lastly, at Blackley, a boggart plagued a house with terrible noises- like a hen cackling, a steam whistle or a like child screaming- but only if you stood upon a certain flagstone.  This stone was lifted and a jug containing bones was found beneath, following which the ghost was silenced.  However, the occupants of the house still suffered from other nightly noises and saw an apparition of a young woman.

These creatures, when they live in close proximity to men, can become intolerable nuisances, which will often drive human households to try to escape them.  Simple flight to another place never seems to work: there are numerous stories that culminate with the ‘punch-line,’ “Aye, we’re flitting,” in which a family try to move to a new house to get away from the boggart, only to find that it’s moving with them.  More drastic measures are therefore required in many cases.

I’ve described before the practice of ‘laying,’ or exorcising boggarts.  Here are two more examples.  A ‘goblin’ was ‘put down’ at Llanwddyn Parish, Montgomeryshire, by means of trapping it in a quill and sealing that under a large boulder in a river.  The Barcroft Hall boggart in Lancashire was driven off by the simple expedient of giving it a pair of clogs.  This was done for the best reasons, because it had been seen barefoot and had been pitied, but it took the present as an insult and abandoned the farm.  As many readers will immediately remember, the gift of clothes is one of the main means of driving away brownies and hobs (whether intentionally or not), a fact which underlines the close ties between boggarts and these other beings.

Manx Monsters

The Isle of Man has several bogle like beings.  There, if you are unlucky, you may encounter:

Bugganes

This creature is invariably mischievous, if not malicious.   The least of his misbehaviour is blowing smoke back down chimneys, pulling thatch off roofs and pushing sheep over cliffs.  He travels around in a form resembling a spinning wheel, laughing all the while at humans’ misfortunes.  Luckily, they’re not very bright and can fairly easily be outwitted and beaten.  They are, nonetheless, terrifying creatures.  The buggane of St Trinians is as big as a house with green hair and blazing eyes, but he can shape-shift, shrinking to the size of a beetle or a mouse, appearing like a large, dark calf or tearing off his head and throwing it at people like a blazing ball.  Sometimes, the buggane can be entirely shapeless, just a black mist that engulfs and chokes a person.

The buggane seen at Ballakillingham was fairly representative of its kind in that it appeared as a large grey bulldog with an awful howl.  It would lurk in the shadows, alarming travellers (much like the black dogs of England).  However, this particular spirit had another quality.  If your pig was sickly, if you collected dust from where the buggane walked at night and rubbed it on the pig’s back (along with saying the right charm) the pig would be healed.

Other buggane guises include a sack of chaff; a black monster the size of a haystack that fills the entire width of a road; a small creature the dimensions of a cat that can suddenly swell to the size of a horse and, even, a hybrid being that’s a man with a horse’s head and glowing eyes.

Various brave but foolhardy Manx men have tried to fight bugganes- almost always without success.  Their ability to change size and shape makes them nearly impossible to defeat.  The best way of dealing with one is to speak the absolute truth to it- something it apparently respects.

There is a strong belief on Man that connects bugganes to those who have been murdered or who have died unfairly.  They seem to be the ghosts of those who have died without receiving justice- including, in one case, a man who was wrongfully executed for a murder he did not commit.  Although they are generally said to inhabit caves, the bugganes that are some sort of ghost will be found haunting the site of their death.

Fynoderees

The fynoderee is something like the mainland British brownie or hobgoblin, and will help out with heavy tasks on farms in return for just a little grain and a bowl of cream.  He is generally helpful rather than dangerous, even though he is very strong  and has shaggy black hair and fiery eyes.

In one Manx story, the fynoderee even took pity on a lonely man who had been cheated upon by his girlfriend and had fought with- and accidentally killed- his rival.  The man lived in a cave and the fynoderee would leave him food and gather fire-wood for him.  As the man grew older and less mobile, the spirit even planted a plantation of trees near to his shelter to make life easier for him.

The fynoderee can also be a solitary creature living in elder trees.  He can cure sickness in animals, and can be summoned by humans using the right words and charms.  The correct protocol is to take off your headgear and say to the being in the tree:

“Fynoderee, fynoderee,/ Come you down, for I can see.”

Then you must cross yourself three times.  Getting the words wrong or neglecting to cross yourself can lead to disastrous consequences.

Although generally benign, if he’s vexed, the fynoderee can just as easily steal away a farm’s entire livestock, enchanting them rather like the god Pan.  They can be subdued by singing, but driven off by the singing of hymns or (like a brownie) by being given clothes.

Glashtins

This creature can have two forms: human-like or a horse.  In the shape of a handsome (if rather hairy) young man he will try to lure away young women with strings of pearls, very much like the Scottish kelpie or each uisgebut his intentions are not romantic but fatal.  His true nature is often revealed by his pointed ears and his sharp, pointed teeth. One in horse form was revealed by his tail, which was three yards long.

Glashtins tend to live in deep pools in isolated rivers or behind water falls but, because of their predatory nature, they can be a severe nuisance that communities need to expel.  In one story this was done by a man disguising himself as a woman and sitting spinning in his home until a number of young glashtins had gathered, interested in this new girl in the neighbourhood.  He then surprised them by pelting them with burning turves, a shock that was sufficient to drive them off permanently.

There is another form of the glashtin who will assist on farms much like a fynoderee.  They will thresh corn and sometimes take the form of a lamb to play amongst the flocks.  The glashtin even may be seen as something like a tarroo-ushtey.  These glashtins seem to be generally good-natured, for all their might, but they are dim and coarse and can take offence very easily.

Further Reading

My forthcoming book Beyond Faery examines all of these strange beings in details. The examples detailed here are more recent evidence I’ve turned up since the text of the new book was completed.

Beyond Faery III- Black dogs and other faery animals

Gabrielratchet

This posting is a further collection of material I have collected during my researches since I completed the manuscript of my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery: Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts.

The black dog is a faery beast that seems to be very typical of the southern half of Britain- that is England, Wales and Cornwall, plus the Channel Islands.  They have been reported since the Middle Ages.  

The black dog phenomenon

These creatures can be supernatural beings that appear sometimes in hound form, sometimes as other animals (or objects), or they may only ever be seen as terrifying hounds.

For example, on the Cotswold Hills black dog apparitions are very common.  Some seem to be the ghosts of humans (often murdered), some are dogs, many are evil and a few are even helpful, such as that at Birdlip Hill which guides lost travellers.  Far more representative of the species is the black dog that was sighted periodically during the nineteenth century at Barton Lane, Headington, Oxford.  This large hound had glowing eyes the size of saucers, something that’s a common (and highly alarming) trait of the species.

Many of these black phantom dogs have no special name, but in East Anglia they are often called ‘shugs,’ reflective of their shaggy appearance, whilst in the North of England there are several types of the species recognised, which go by the names of padfoot, guytrash, barguest and skriker.  I will deal with these northern types in a forthcoming posting.

On the Channel Island of Guernsey there is the black dog called Tchi-co, or La bete de la Tour.  It haunts the streets of St Peter Port and has the unearthly cry and huge flaming eyes typical of its kind.  These are combined with another regular feature, the sound of chains being dragged along the ground.  La bete is the size of a bear or a large calf but is sometimes invisible, its presence being indicated by the unearthly clanking and howling.  Several other such phantom dogs are known on the island: Le Chien Bodu is a black dog that portends death; another, pulling its chains along, prowls the Forest Road and can cause death by the shock it inflicts on witnesses.

Unfortunately, people have found that you can’t chase these creatures off, like normal dogs.  A man tried to strike a white hound he saw at Horbury in Yorkshire in 1880; his stick went straight through it and he received such a shock that he returned home, took to his bed, and died (see Magical Folk 55).   A headless hound that haunts Ville au Roi on Guernsey is similar: although it can be felt brushing past night-time travellers, it has no substance if you try to strike it.

The Pembrokeshire Herald in March 1853 carried a fascinating report of an encounter between a Church of England clergyman and a spectral hound.  The account summarises most of the characteristics described so far- but adds something new and troubling.  To begin with the dog was invisible, and the minister heard only its panting and the padding of its paws behind him as he walked.  Then he felt it brush past him and it revealed itself; it was blue, the size of a young calf and had eyes like glowing coals.  As just discussed, his reaction was to try to strike it with his walking stick- which passed through the beast harmlessly.  Luckily for the vicar, a coach happened to pass just that moment, so he flagged it down and boarded.  Given his lucky escape, he took a moment to close his eyes and calm down- only to discover that the dog was under the seat opposite him and was then see prowling outside his home.  Luckily, probably, this ‘stalking’ trait is unique amongst these hounds.

Generally, terror is the main result of an encounter with one of the black dogs.  However, ‘Hairy Jack’ at Grayingham in Lincolnshire was one of those that attacked solitary passers-by and the black hound of Rodway Hill in the Quantocks in Somerset left a man paralysed for the remainder of his life after it brushed against him.

Generally, religious ritual seems to be the only way of dealing with these hounds.   The black dog of Wilcote Wood near Wychwood on the Cotswolds was laid in an elaborate manner.  A new born baby and two clappers (bird scarers) were acquired.  A priest prayed over the baby and then threw one of the clappers in one pond and the other in a second pond nearby.  As long as the two are kept apart, it is said, the dog will never reappear. In another version of this story, the clapper was taken from a bell and the two parts put in the two ponds.  If, for some reason, the two are ever reunited, the hound will rise again.

Jacob Allies, in his 1852 description of the folklore of Worcestershire, described a fairly typical black dog that haunted a deep and gloomy lane near Alfrick.  It might be seen as a dark hound lying by the road, which would cause horses to freeze on the spot, but it also appeared to manifest as a wagon drawn by four black horses, a dark rider or a large crow, all of which could be accompanied by the sound of a terrible, hollow hammering.  The barguest of Glassensikes, near Darlington, is seen as a black dog that howls at midnight before a calamity, but it also manifests as a headless man or woman, a white cat or a rabbit.  The ‘bargest’ of Northorpe in Lindsey, Lincolnshire, haunted the graveyard there, reinforcing the ‘hell’ hound aspect of this species.

Hell Hounds

The black dogs are often confused or mingled with the aerial hell-hounds, known as the whist hounds, gabriel ratchets or dandy dogs.  In Wales there are the packs of the cwn bendith y mamau (fairy dogs), which were still heard on the slopes of Preseli a century ago, and the solitary ci bal, which ranges across the whole southern part of the country.  If it pursues you, you can escape by crossing running water (a way of escaping many faeries). 

Another name used for these Welsh hounds was cwn annwn, or hell hounds, which have been described in one report as small and either black with red spots- or red with black spots.  Those witnessed in Glamorgan are said to be blood red and dripping with gore; they howl in the air as if lamenting.  The related cwn wybir are reported to be heard at night in desolate spots (mountains and moorland) baying and yelling in the air.  They don’t seem to do any harm to mortals, as their prey is the spirits of the dead.

Similar creatures are also found in the South-West of Britain.  On Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, the dandy dogs are said to hunt the souls of the damned at night.  Further west, the ‘goblin hounds’ have been heard hunting hares across the downs between Truro and Redruth.  In Devon the wish hounds are silent black dogs seen in a pack that seem to threaten the living. Children can be protected from them by putting bread under their pillows.

Other faery beasts

There are many other fae beasts, albeit ones that seem consistently to keep to one form.  There is, for example, a white hare that is seen on the quays of the Cornish fishing village of Polperro.  It is harmless, but it predicts a coming storm.  White hares and rabbits are often seen in Lincolnshire and, significantly perhaps, it is said in Yorkshire and Worcestershire that if one crosses your path at night it is a sign of impending death.  For example, in 1891 one writer reported the case of a stonemason who had seen a white rabbit whilst out at night catching sparrows.  He was overcome with such terror that he went home, took to his bed and died (see Magical Folk 54-55).

At Finstock in the Cotswolds, the awful apparition is a nanny goat that drags a chain along.  At North Leigh in Oxfordshire, a headless calf is seen.  The white calf at Lackey Causey (causeway) in Lincolnshire is one of a number found in that county: it hid, or lived, in a drain under a bridge, from which it would emerge to try to lure travellers into the brook.

In all these cases, the fae beast is an animal that would, in normal circumstances, be regarded as harmless- even endearing- by a person who met it.  However, in their faery form they have features which both betray their supernatural origin and can be distressing to the witness.  

Faery Felines

From the Isle of Man there is a report of a very alarming fairy cat.  One night, a man was about to shut and lock his cottage door when he saw a white cat sitting just outside.  He went to shoo it away, but it would not move.  He then, unwisely, tried to kick it, in response to which it stood up and then swelled up to an enormous size, almost blocking out the sky.  Fortunately, it then walked away, leaving the cottager terrified…

This is by no means an isolated account.  Margaret Alexander was accused of witchcraft at Livingston in Scotland in March 1647.  She confessed that she had been “mightily troubled in her house at night with a rumbling and many kats had resorted there.”  Confirming the faery nature of these visitors, she recalled how, forty years earlier, a number of “kats” as big as sheep had appeared before her in one of the streets of the town.  They had then turned into men and women, some of whom were dead and some alive- implying strongly that they were faery beings.

A great deal less sinister was a kitten encountered by a gypsy family in a snowstorm on the Cotswolds.  It advised them to follow the sound of church bells and, by that means, they got to shelter out of the blizzard.  They were sure this benign creature was of supernatural origin (as it had to be- it spoke to them…)

Faery Pets and Livestock

It’s worthwhile just reminding ourselves that the fae are known to keep their own dogs (for guarding and hunting), cattle and horses (for riding and hunting).  These beasts have their distinctive characteristics, but they are quite distinct from the creatures described here.  The various monstrous I have described here animals operate autonomously, whereas the fairies’ hounds and herds are definitely under their control.

I have discussed fairy cattle previously; here, I’ll add a little more about the fairies’ hounds.  There is often something to identify them as being out of the ordinary: for instance, the cu sith or fairy dog of the Scottish Highlands is the size of a two year cow and is green- or even multi-coloured, with yellow feet, black sides and red ears.  The fae have been seen riding with their dogs, or processing on foot with them going two by two.  This suggests that they’re well-trained and obedient animals, whatever their appearance.  This isn’t always borne out by experience, however.

In one Welsh story a man walking in his garden was attacked by a fairy dog that looked like a greyhound.  It ran between his legs and carried him off at great speed, charging through bushes and hedges as it went.  Eventually, the unwilling rider managed to get off and stumbled home- only to discover that he’d been gone for two weeks.  In another example, a farmer from Sutherland in the north of Scotland was resting in his field after completing his ploughing when he heard the horns of a fairy hunting party nearby.  Suddenly, two large and threatening dogs advanced upon him, sniffing his knees.  Luckily, a disembodied voice called them off.

Conclusions

I’ve provided links to some of my previous postings on faery beasts and several chapters of Beyond Faery are devoted to the hounds and other animals.

Beyond Faery II: Faery water beasts

ceffyl 2

This second posting in advance of publication of my next book, Beyond Faeryexamines some of the water beasts of Britain.

There are various faery beasts that infest fresh and salt water in the British Isles.  They are primarily found in Scotland and they are primarily horse like.

Each uisge

These ‘water horses’ live in lakes.  Usually people only encounter and have to deal with one, but at Loch Aird na h-uamh there are reported to be multiple horses.  Some of these steeds, people have been brave enough to ride; some have even survived the attempt, though many of those who tried were drowned or torn to pieces.

Typical of the species is the horse found at Lochan-larig-eala near Breadalbane.  It is a white horse and when it first appears on the lake side, it lies down on the grass and looks very placid and pretty.  Nine children playing there once climbed on it- at which point it dashed for the water immediately.  The child at the back was able to use the horse’s tail to swing off; the rest didn’t escape and it’s said that they were eaten and all that remained was their lungs, which floated ashore in due course.  Some versions of this story say that it happened on a Sunday, so that the faery beast was actually being employed to punish children who were playing rather than attending church. In this second account, the boy who survived happened to have a few Bible pages in his pocket, which saved him.

Some water horses will submit to working for humans, just to be able to get near enough to kill one.  The story is told of John MacInnes of Glenelg who was struggling with his farm work when he was approached by a stranger and offered assistance. He accepted, despite the odd conditions imposed, and immediately found a fine horse standing in his field. MacInnes used it for ploughing and was delighted to find that it was both strong and obedient.  Things went very well for time, although every evening when the horse was stabled John had to make sure he threw earth from a mole-hill over its back and said a blessing.  One night he forgot.  The next day, as soon as they were out in the field, the horse grabbed him with its teeth and dragged him into the nearby loch.  All that was ever recovered was his liver.  The stipulation of the mole-hill is curious, but one way of trapping fairy cattle (and mermaids) on land is to sprinkle grave-yard earth across their path (Scottish Notes & Queries, vol.6, 1893).

There is an each uisge in Loch-nan-Spioradan in Strathspey, which is seen as a beautifully equipped horse.  A local healer who managed to obtain the bit from this horse’s bridle found that it had great healing properties, especially for ‘maladies of the mind.’

Water horses are also known in Wales, where they’re called ceffyl y dwr.  Like their more northerly counterparts, their habit is to tempt people to ride them- and then to destroy them.  From the island of Guernsey there are reports of a white fairy horse that shared many of the traits of each-uisge.  Its back could extend to accommodate as many victims as wanted to ride on it and, once the riders were settled, it would gallop off at alarming speed with its passengers unable to dismount.  Luckily, on Guernsey, the aim of all this was relatively benign- it was just to give the victims a fright before they were dumped in a marsh.  

Fairy Horses

The each uisge is a uniquely savage creature, most unlike the average horse used for riding (whether by humans or their fairy neighbours).  From Breadalbane there also comes a report of a ‘fairy horse’ that was much more like the sort of animal known in the human world.  A man spent an evening dancing in the sithean at Lawes.  He enjoyed himself immensely and, at the end of the festivities, the fairies lent him a horse to get home, which flew through the air like lightning and dropped him down his chimney. 

There are a number of less benign variations upon this supernatural steed.  From Leeds, West Yorkshire, come reports of a ‘goblin horse’ that would allow people to mount it before it galloped off at high speed, shouting ‘I ride, Madge!’ and dumping the rider in a pond.  Further north in Durham there are similar creatures called ‘brags.’  The Leeds area is also home to a ‘black dog’ apparition called the ‘padfoot’ (which I will discuss in a separate posting).  These beings are notorious shapeshifters and, in one instance, it changed into a donkey which ran between a man’s legs and carried him off at speed to his home (to the accompaniment of clanking chains) before sinking into the earth.

The Isle of Man also has the mysterious ‘night horses,’ which seem to be a faery horse with some of the traits of the each uisge. These are found at night on roads, ready saddled and bridled, but if any is incautious enough to mount, he will find himself flying along at a terrifying pace before being dumped on the ground somewhere. The night horse seems to like to give shocks, but no more. The creature called the glashtyn, which can have human and equine form, is more deadly. In its horse shape it will carry off any who mount it and try to drown them in a nearby river or pool.

As mentioned, Wales has its own water horse, the ceffyl y dwr, which is in fact one of several water beasts known there- or, alternatively, there is a single water sprite that assumes a number of different forms. Amongst those identified, there is a thin old man who is seen in raging mountain streams, sometimes stretching out his bony arms to observers; there is the water horse proper that’s found in pools or in rivers, where it tries to seize fishermen’s lines and drag them into the waters, and, lastly, there’s a monstrous fish (generally a salmon) that will try to drag under those that hunt it. In one instance, a man who tried to spear it whilst out fishing on a Sunday was nearly drowned; he ascribed the fish’s attack to a righteous rage over his Sabbath breaking- something that’s also been said of the each uisge already, although this may be more a matter of his guilty conscience than the faery beast being recruited to policing the reformed religion.

Kelpie

Kelpies

Kelpies are often treated as being interchangeable with the each uisge, but whilst the former live in still fresh water, kelpies live in rivers or in the sea.  They are just as unpleasant as the each.  One sighted near Leurbost on the isle of Lewis in 1856 was described as looking like a “huge peat stack”- so large that a six oar boat could pass between the fins that were seen. Iit was up to forty feet in length, witnesses claimed, and it had swallowed whole a blanket left by the loch by girl tending cattle.

Kelpies have been called ‘sly devils.’  Very much like the each, the kelpie will often appear on the banks of a swollen stream, feeding tamely as a traveller approaches.  If the person is already on a horse, the kelpie will trot across the stream ahead, suggesting that it is shallow and safe.  If the person is on foot, he’ll be tempted to mount the horse and ride it across the river.  If he does this, it will immediately gallop off with shrieks of terrifying laughter.  Either way, the hapless traveller is overwhelmed by the flooding torrent.  For these reasons, William Collins, in his Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, described how the kelpie will:

“Instant, furious, raise the whelming flood,

O’er its drowned banks, forbidding all return…” 

So that victims are “Drown’d by the kaelpie’s wrath.”

Sometimes, it is possible to tame a kelpie by surprising it and slipping over its head a halter that has been blessed by having crosses cut into the cheek pieces.  The beast can then be used for farm labour, pulling loads and ploughs and such like.  It can’t escape as long as the bridle is kept on it, however badly it’s treated.  Kelpies have been used like this to help build churches and castles all around Scotland.  

Interestingly, like fairies, it’s said that kelpies can predict or see future events.  They are said, around Buckhaven, to roar before a loss at sea.  Likewise, at Rumbling Bridge in Clackmannanshire, the kelpie predicts drownings by lights and noises at night (although, admittedly, it is also that same kelpie that helps to drown many of these unfortunate people).   At St Vigeans, near Arbroath, a kelpie had been used to build the church and, when finally released, it foretold the minister’s death by suicide and collapse of the church.  Both these things happened in the early eighteenth century.  The kelpie that was used to build the church of St Mungo’s in Dumfriesshire advised that a larger graveyard than had been planned ought to be laid out, as it would be needed one day to accommodate all the bodies from a nearby battle.

Given their violent propensities, people have often tried to hunt and exterminate kelpies living in their vicinity.  This is, perhaps predictably, very difficult to do, because the kelpie is a hardy, elusive and indestructible creature.  In the 1780s, for example, Highlanders tried to drag Loch Garn with nets to catch the underwater beast.  They failed to catch it, after which they tried scattering lime in the loch to kill the monster.  Neither succeeded.

tarbh

Other monsters

In the far north of Scotland and on Orkney and Shetland you’ll encounter (if you’re very unlucky) the njugl or neogle, a creature seen near water mills that resembles a pony.  It will stop the mill wheel to gain attention and, when the miller goes out to see what the problem might be, he will find the pony, saddled and bridled, grazing nearby.  If he mounts it, it will dash for the water and leap off the bank, with both rider and mount vanishing in a flash of flame.  Wiser millers chase the creature off with a red hot poker or similar.  A notorious example of the nuggle used to plague the Orkney island of Hoy.  It lived in a small lake on the north-east coast of the island, called the Water o’ Hoy, but frequented the ford over the Pegal Burn, a little further to the south, where it would try to catch hapless travellers.

In the Scottish Highlands and on Orkney and Shetland a variety of other terrifying and often hybrid beasts were known.  Some of these are mentioned in my forthcoming posting on boggles.  Here I’ll mention one that seemed to have no specific name.  Over Yule on Shetland people were not expected to do any of their normal day to day activities or work.  Once, however, two men went out fishing in defiance of the prohibition.  They netted a monstrous creature that was half fish and half horse and which spoke, declaring to them:  “Man who fished in Yule week/ Fortune never more did seek.”  Once again, these supernatural beings seem to be recruited to back up religious rules and festivals.

Water Bulls

As I have discussed previously, you may encounter fairy cattle owned by the good folk, which have their own identifying characteristics, but there are also water bulls, the tarbh uisge of the Highlands.  The bulls of Glenlochay near Breadalbane are said to be brindled, red and yellow.  A cow will abandon its herd and travel up the glen to the lochan, where she will bellow until the tarbh appears and mates with her.  The hybrid offspring are known to be those of a tarbh because they are all black with curly hair.  

On the Isle of Man, water bulls are also found, being called tarroo ushtey.  They’re recognised by their shining coats and sharp ears.   They often mix with normal herds of cattle, and rouse the fury of the bulls kept with them, although the tarroo seems indifferent to the rage of the farmer’s bull.  They can be fierce, but they often move quite slowly, making a strange whirring sound.

In one Manx story a farmer objected to the bull grazing with his herds and consuming his valuable grass, so he drove it off several times.  The result, though, was that blights struck his crops.  A wise-woman told the man that he could subdue the tarroo with a stick made from rowan wood- which he duly did.  Having the beast under his control, he resolved to sell it at the market.  He was easily able to drive the bull there, but no-one seemed interested, despite the size and sleekness of the animal.  Right at the end of the day, a man finally showed interest, but he asked the farmer to ride the bull to prove that it was tame and well-behaved.  Desperate for the sale, he consented to this, but as soon as he’d mounted he dropped his rowan switch.  This of course released the tarroo from his control and it bolted, nearly carrying the man off into a deep pool in the river.  He narrowly escaped- and learned his lesson, which was to always show the proper respect to the fairies and the faery beasts.

Also found on the Isle of Man is the glashtin, a sort of bogie that will very commonly take on equine form and which will inhabit pools and rivers.  Unlike the tarroo ushtey, the glashtin is said to mingle with the herds of horses kept by Manx farmers without any disturbance or hostility between the animals.  However, the glashtins only liked to mate with pure Manx-bred ponies, and as the island’s horses interbred more and more with outside breeds, the glashtin was seen less and less.

If you’re interested to learn more, see too my separate posting on water beasts.  Additionally, several chapters of Beyond Faery deal in detail with the many aspects of the lore of the inland and marine water beasts of Britain.  The book is due for release in early November.

Beyond Faery I: Mermaids and Selkies

 

hermann-moest-the-fishermans-dream
Hermann Moest, The Fisherman’s Dream

My next book, Beyond Faerywill be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in early November.  It examines the variety of ‘faery beasts’ that exist alongside the traditional faeries we’re familiar with- the kelpies, water bulls, black dogs, hobgoblins and others that make Faery so complex, fascinating- and dangerous.  For the next few weeks I’m going to examine some of these beings, using materials I’ve come across in my researches since the text of Beyond Faery was completed.  This week, we start in the ocean.

Jasmine_Becket_Griffith

A Mermaid by Jasmine Beckett-Griffith (with a nod to Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead)

Strange Fish

“Faith, I do grant,

This is the strangest Fish… some

Say ‘tis an o’er-grown Porpoise, others say,

‘Tis the fish caught in Cheshire; one, to whom

The rest agree, said that ‘twas a Mermaid.”

(Jasper Maine, The City Match, 1639, Act III, scene 1)

The merfolk- the mermaids and the selkies- have long fascinated humankind.   They are a complex as well as a beautiful people and both men and women seem to be drawn inexorably towards them.

There are in fact many different types of supernatural inhabiting the seas.  We are familiar with the mermaids (half-human, half-fish) and the selkies (humans who can put on a seal skin in order to travel through the sea) but in addition to these there are, for example:

  • Sea fairies– Cornish folklorist and writer Enys Tregarthen described these as being amongst the fairy family, but able to ride the waves.  She also identified cliff fairies, whose traits include a desire for doing good and healing injured animals and a liking for singing and dancing at dawn or sunset and,
  • Sea trows– on Orkney and Shetland the local fae folk, the trows, also inhabit the ocean and are said to be “great rolling creatures, tumbling in the waters” which are sometimes pulled up in fishermen’s nets.

“Yee mermaids faire,

That on the shores do plaine,

Your sea-greene haire

As yee in trammels knit your locks

Weepe ye; and so inforce the rocks

In heavy murmurs through the broad shores tell.”

(William Browne, Britannia’s Pastorals, II, Song I)

bowerley merboy

Mermaid beauty

The best known trait of the mermaid is, of course, her physical beauty and desirability.  In fact, traditional folklore is divided over the actual appearance of these beings.  One story from Shetland typifies the standard views.  Young Maikie found a selkie on some offshore rocks, a distance from her seal skin, which she’d shed on the beach.  He responded in the conventional way to her physical charms, admiring her snow white body, her fine legs and her bonnie yellow hair.  He hid her skin, offered her human clothes to wear and asked her to be his wife (which she was for a number of years, until she found her skin again and escaped to the sea). 

Another account was less complimentary: a mermaid encountered near Buchan was discovered combing her long brown hair hair- a traditional activity.  She had a small upper body with a thin neck, round head and small, flat face with white thick set teeth and small eyes.  Her lower half was like a cod, but with a double tail.  

A selection of other nineteenth century accounts reinforce the impression that the merfolk resemble us, but that their reported good looks are not always all that we tend to imagine:

  • Campbelltown, Argyll, 1811: a man was able to creep with a few paces of a mermaid lying on a rock and watched her for two hours.  She was six to seven feet in length, the upper half being white and the lower half brindled or reddish grey and covered in scales, terminating in a fin that was of greenish-red and shining, about twelve to fourteen inches wide.  The upper half was human, except that the arms were short and thin.  The creature had long brown hair and a human face with hollow eyes;
  • Ardeal, Argyll, 1814: the mermaid seen was very white, but with rosy cheeks.  She had long dark hair and arms that tapered to her hands, which were said to be only the size of those of an eight to ten year old child.  Her tail was like that of an immensely large cuddy fish or saith;
  • Port Charlotte, Argyll, 1857: a woman was seen in the sea at close range.  She had a full breast, dark complexion, fine hair in ringlets and a comely face;
  • Southside, Deerness, Orkney, 1890-94: a mermaid returned regularly to this spot in the summer months.  She was six to seven feet in length, with a little black head, white neck and a snow white body.  She sat on a rock waving her hands about; and,
  • lastly, older accounts still, from Tudor and Stuart times, record the “whooping noise” that the merfolk made and their sea green hair.  The mermaid’s long hair is frequently matched by the copious beards of the mermen.

The eyewitness descriptions are less consistently complimentary, then, and as Swan wrote in Speculum Mundi of 1634, “Mermaids and Menfish seem to me the most strange fish.”

All the same, the consensus seems to be that mermaids have a high opinion of their own good looks.  They are reputed to be very vain and their traditional attributes are a comb and a mirror, with which they pass hours sitting on rocks, combing their long hair (admittedly, one seen at Mumbles near Swansea in 1893 was combing her hair with a mackerel’s back bone).  They are also very partial to jewellery and can be wooed with rings and necklaces.

The most recent accounts don’t question the mermaids’ charms and it is very true to say that they are regularly sought by human males as their spouses.  As in the earlier example, selkies are continually portrayed as being captured and forced into marriage by men.  However, the traffic is not all one way.  Dora Broome in her Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man describes a mermaid who developed an obsessive passion for a young man from Port Le Murrey, and nearly managed to lure him away with her charms. In another Shetland story, a girl gathering shell-fish on a beach fell asleep in a cave after sitting down to eat her lunch.  Some months later she discovered she was pregnant and, when the baby was born, it had flippers instead of hands.  This she explained by the fact that, as she had wandered along the beach that day, she had been watched by a seal offshore.  It would seem that this creature had, in fact, been a selkie and that he had taken advantage of her sleep to rape her.  The best we can say about the selkie’s conduct is this: the girl then learned in a dream that, if she went to a nearby sea inlet, she would find silver coins that would pay for the child’s upbringing.

The love of a mermaid can be perilous and, on the Isle of Man, there seemed to be a settled procedure for freeing a hapless fisherman from a mermaid’s attentions.  To do this he needed help- and the right preparations.  Herring roe had to be boiled for three days and then dried and ground into a powder.  The human victim would consume this in a drink and then set to sea, protected by sprigs of vervain and a cross made of rowan wood.  As soon as the mermaid began to follow the boat, a charm had to be repeated:

“Ben-varrey, ben-varrey- go back to thy home,

  Til the sea from this island of Mannin doth roam,

Find a mate with a tail, for if thou X should wed,

In the deeps of the sea he’ll be drownded and dead.”

As soon as this verse has been completed, the vervain should be dropped in the waves and an iron knife should be stuck in the mast, which will summon up a storm, driving the mermaid beneath the surface and the ship back to land.

bowerley merkids

Merfolk habits

The merfolk are, of course, not just love interest for humans.  They have an independent and separate life.  They are said to herd fish out at sea and they have control over the weather and sea conditions, so that when breakers drive up onto the shore, the Welsh say “The mermaid is driving her sheep.” 

The merfolk’s supernatural powers are attested by a story from Padstow in Cornwall.  A man called Tristram Bird bought a hunting rifle and went out to try to shoot a seal.  Instead, he found a mermaid combing her hair and instantly conceived a passion for her.  She rejected his advances and his offer of marriage; he became angry and threatened to shoot her.  She warned him he’d be sorry but he fired off a shot anyway- in revenge for which she cursed Padstow’s harbour.  Very soon afterwards, a storm arose that created a sandbar across the mouth of the harbour, cutting it off from the sea.   It’s very evidently inadvisable to annoy or hurt a mermaid- on the Isle of Man it is said that if you vex a mermaid, you will never have an luck when you’re out fishing.

Mermaids are also said to pursue ships out at sea, trying to sink them.  In the old ballad, The Mermaid, she’s seen by the crew of a ship with her mirror, combing her hair. They instantly despair of reaching their homes- rightly, because she circles the ship three times- and then it sinks.  So strong was this belief that in Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Part III, Act III, scene 2) it is declared “I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall.”

The merfolk can foresee bad weather.  At Lamorna Cove in West Cornwall, a mermaid would appear, floating head and shoulders above the waves, whenever a storm was approaching.  On the small Channel Island of Sark, it’s said that the mermaids sit on rocks and sing before storms develop.  It’s not entirely clear from this whether they are foreseeing or actually causing the bad weather.  Folklorist Edgar MacCulloch reported this information and then observed that sailors on ships are attracted by the sound of the singing and come too close to shore, where they are then caught when the storm breaks.  This juxtaposition suggests he regarded the mermaids as malign and culpable.

It’s plain that merfolk need to be treated with cautious respect.  Around the Isle of Man mermaids are seemingly more numerous than mermen- they are certainly seen more frequently- and wise sailors know that, when they’re out at sea, they should never refer to them by the names used on land, so that the mermaid, the ben-varrey or pohllinagh, is called instead Joaney Gorm (‘Blue Joan’), a habit which must be linked to the name taboo so often found in folklore accounts.

bowerley mermum and babe

Mermaid gifts

Destructive as they may be, merfolk can also be healers.  As I’ve mentioned before, they are known for their understanding of herbs’ healing properties and they can pass on these skills and knowledge to chosen humans- often those who’ve done them a good turn, such as carrying them back to the sea when they’ve become stranded.

Mermaids can be a source of riches, as well as useful skills, for humans.  The Isle of Man ben-varrey I mentioned earlier demonstrated her affection for the fisherman she fancied by leaving him shells and seaweed, but others can offer a lot more than this.  In another Manx story, a man falls under the spell of a mermaid after he rescues her from being stranded at low tide.  He becomes preoccupied with her beauty and with the buried gold to which she guides him.  Having found this hoard of gold coins, he gives up his work as a fisherman and spends his days dreaming of the mermaid and what he can do with his new found wealth.  The problem is that the coins are antique Spanish gold that no-one will accept as currency, so the man and his wife have precious metals- but no income to buy food.

As several of these stories imply, the fundamental problem about relationships between humans and merfolk (and probably with all faery beings) is that we are from different dimensions and there is a gulf in comprehension between us.  The merfolk don’t really understand the complexities of human society- nor why we can’t follow them under the water.  Too often, indeed, the fate of the mermaid’s lover is, simply, to drown.

eichler see-rosen

Freshwater folk

As I have discussed before, there are also mermaid-like creatures that live in freshwater.  I’ve referred to these as ‘mere-maids’ to try to distinguish them, but throughout Britain there can be confusion about their true nature.  For example, in Banffshire in Scotland a mhaidan mara (maid of the sea) is seen in rivers just before they swell after a heavy rain.  She has an ‘enchanting’ figure and melodious voice, according to one late eighteenth century report, but her appearance always precedes an accident in the river; someone is sure to drown once she’s been spotted.

Foreseeing the future is a trait ascribed to the freshwater mermaids that lived in the moat of Blore castle in Staffordshire.  Over several mornings before the battle of Blore Heath in 1459, they rose to the surface and, whilst combing their hair, sang this prediction:

“Ere yet the haw-berry assumes its deep red,/ Embued shall this heath be with blood nobly shed.”

Our final freshwater maid combines the peril and charms of her marine cousins.  A boy was fishing on the River Towy when he hooked a huge salmon.  Hauling the fish into his coracle, he prepared to hit it on the head when he heard a voice asking him not to do so.  Looking again, he saw he’d hooked a beautiful young woman.  He decided she must be a demon and said he’d kill her anyway, to which she said she’d drown him first.  She asked him to be her lover, which he refused, so she grabbed him and took him down “yng ngwaelod yr afon” (“to the land under the river”).  She did this twice, nearly drowning him, before he decided that a salmon wife was the better option.  He had to cut the hook out of her top lip, doing which he splashed his face with her blood.  This, she declared, made him hers forever- and they had a long marriage with several children, all of whom had a scar on their upper lip like their mother.

I hope this may have whetted your appetite to explore the rich world that lies Beyond Faery. 

Jasmine Beckett-Griffith, Mermaid with Roses