Feasting with Faeries- more than just a meal?

The Fairy Banquet- John Anster Fitzgerald

A number of sixteenth and seventeenth century books of magic have survived, in which spells for conjuring up a variety of spirits, from devils to angels to faeries, are often recorded. The faeries are summoned for a number of purposes- to help find hidden treasure, to bestow upon the magic practitioner a ring of invisibility and, as I have mentioned previously, so that the (male) wizard can have sex with one of them.

A component of several of these spells is a ritual that involves laying out a meal for the faery guests. I will cite a few examples here before moving on to consider why providing food and drink was considered to be so necessary. Cynically and flippantly, I suppose, we might suggest that in those cases where sex was the aim, this was just a case of wining and dining your date… but I think we could do much better than this- and that it helps to put such meals in the wider context of human-fae interactions.

My first example of this so-called ‘table ritual’ or ‘meal of the faeries’ is given in full in the Appendix to my Love and Sex in Fairyland. It comes from a manuscript in the British Library and is for the purposes of going invisible:

“In the day and houre of Venus make two circles that one may touche the other so as thou mayeste goe between, out of one and in to the other. In one circle make a faire bed with new washed shetes, sweet and well smyllinge. Also thou moste have a table to the length of three cubits and in bredthe a cubit and a halfe. Let the feet be of laurel and the table of swete wode and theron a clene clothe newe washed with rosewater and dryed and layd thear on three newe knyves and a new copefull of watter and fyne breade of pure, goode wheat flour. And sette so the table that the mydeste stande in the circle.

British Library manuscript, Sloane 3850, ff.145-166

The magician then summons three spirits, called Michel, Chicam, and Burfee, using a Latin charm. When they have appeared, the instruction is as follows:

“Which sayd, three tymes thou shall see three fair women that shall bryng with them most ryall meates and wyn [‘royal food and wine’] and come to the table. But take heed that thou sit, for they shall make thee great chear and cut thy meat and bed [bid] ye drynk, but yet eate not with them. But thou shalle se one of them that is fayrest and she shall make ye no chere. Then pryvily put thy sceptre to the hight of hir face and stand in the circle and kisse hir…”

The faery is then conjured to lie down on the nearby bed and have sex with the man, before which she gives him the all important ring of invisibility (he mustn’t forget to secure this before the nookie commences, otherwise he has [sort of] wasted his time and effort…)

Next, in Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, which was published in English in 1655, we find this ritual printed:

“Lastly, when you would invocate these kinde of Spirits, you ought to prepare a Table in the place of invocation, covered with clean linen; where-upon you shall set new bread, and running water or milk in new earthen vessels, and new knives. And you shall make a fire, whereupon a perfume shall be made [incense is thrown in the flames]. But let the Invocant go unto the head of the Table, and round about it let there be seats placed for the Spirits, as you please; and the Spirits being called, you shall invite them to drink and eat. But if perchance you shall fear any evil Spirit, then draw a Circle about it, and let that part of the Table at which the Invocant sits, be within the Circle, and the rest of the Table without the Circle.”

Agrippa, Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, translated by Robert Turner, 1655, 69.

The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet, which dates to about 1620-30, contains a similar conjuring ritual:

“To have Conference with the Fairies… And when you will work the night before the new or full of the Moon, if there be a Table in the Room Set a new Bowl full of new Ale upon the board and iii new white cloths with iii new knives with white hafts. This done make a fair fire of sweet cloven wood. Then sit in a Chair with your face towards the fire. Then take your [pre-prepared ointment] forth and anoint your Eyes therewith And sit silent And see all the house be quiet and at rest. And when you have sitten so a while you shall see iii women come in. But say nothing but nod your head at them as you shall see them do to you And they will go to the Table and eat and drink, when they have done let the first pass And the second But the third you may take and ask what you will of her.”

Grimoire, 288-289
Fairy Banquet, Arthur Rackham, 1906

A fourth summoning procedure, which is recorded in a manuscript that once belonged to Elias Ashmole, is specifically designed to attract the sort of faeries who will lead a magician to hidden treasure:

“These spirits may be also called upon as the other, in such places where either they haunt or foremost frequent in, and the place which is appointed or set apart for action must be Suffumigated with good Aromatic Odours, and a Clean Cloth spread on the Ground or a table nine foot Distant from the Circle, upon which there must be Either a Chicken or any Kind of small joint, or piece of meat handsomely Roasted, and a white mantle, a Basin or little Dish like a Coffee Dish of fair Running water, half a pint of Salt in a bottle, a bottle of Ale Containing a Quart, Some food and a pint of Cream in a Dish provided. Ceremonies they are much pleased & delighted with; and doth allure them to friendly familiarity willingly & Readily fulfilling your desires &c: without much Difficulty, and some have used no Circle at all, to the Calling of these spirits, but only being Clean, was heard and apparelled, sit at another table or place only Covered with Clean Linen Cloth, nine foot Distant & so invocate.”

Sloane MS 3824, 1649; see D Rankine, A Book of Treasure Spirits, 2009, 101

There are several elements in these spells which resonate with other practices and interactions that we know from British folklore. Firstly, there is a general habit of hospitality and conviviality between humans and the Good Neighbours. They share meals with us and vice versa- except that matters aren’t anywhere near as straightforward as that. Secondly, the insistence upon cleanliness- in both the linen and the utensils- will be very familiar, for we know how much the faeries appreciate a well-kept home and will reward the householder and domestic servants who are diligent in this. It’s very likely, as well, that there’s a magical aspect to this insistence on clean or new items: I’m sure it relates just as much to the parallel need for the magician to come to the ritual ‘pure,’ having fasted and abstained from drink, tobacco and sex for a period prior to the conjuring.

Now, as readers will know, humans are from time to time invited to participate in banquets with faeries, typically after coming across festivities taking place inside a faery hill, the doors being open for ventilation and the light and the sound of music and voices spilling out. As we know, such offers have to be accepted with caution, for eating or drinking what’s on offer will often trap the unwary guest in Faery- or, at best, will turn out to be a lot less appetising than it appears (because the food is dead leaves or even dung). We note in the first example given that the magus is advised not to consume what his charming guests bring with them- although, surprisingly perhaps, kissing and other intimacy seems to be perfectly acceptable.

When it comes to human food, the situation can’t honestly be called ‘hospitality.’ As readers will recall, it’s very common for faeries to come to houses at night where they will expect to have been left bread and water and/ or the necessary items for washing and drying themselves. People provide these supplies, more out of fear of the consequences of failing to do so than because they’re feeling especially friendly or welcoming. Another nocturnal visitor, the brownie, lob or boggart, will also demand that milk, cream and bread are set out by the fire for them- this is, at least, offered in return for various laborious chores (such as threshing) being performed, but- once again- neglecting to cater for your supernatural helper can only ensure that all the work that’s been done is promptly undone- with an even greater mess made on top as well.

There is, though, a broader habit of sharing food- and crops and other agricultural produce- with the Good Neighbours. In Scotland a little of the milking was always offered to the local gruagach, loireag or glaistig. To ensure a good harvest, the Cornish habit was that when the reapers were eating in the fields, they would always throw a piece of bread over their shoulder and spill a few drops of their beer at meal break. Miners on the peninsula would take care to leave a crumb of their lunch for the knockers in the mine and Newlyn fishermen would offer a few fish from their catch to the bucca so as to guarantee that the next trip to sea would be equally fruitful. These ideas seem to be somewhere between an offering and an indication of the faeries’ sense that they’re entitled by right to a share of all the goods and food that we produce.

Food operates between faery and human in different ways, therefore. Faery food given to us is dangerous, because it is a vector or vehicle for faery magic- which is nearly always intended to entrap us. Human food fed to faes functions more in the manner of protection money; it’s hoped that- if the faeries appreciate what they’ve been given- they won’t torment the person offering the gesture of familiarity and hospitality. In this respect, when the human magicians propose that the faeries sit down to feast with them, they are interacting just as any two groups of people would together- they break bread in order to seal some kind of transaction or to confirm amity and peace. This is expressed explicitly in the Sloane manuscript, where it’s admitted of the ‘treasure faeries’ that “Ceremonies they are much pleased & delighted with; and doth allure them to friendly familiarity willingly & Readily fulfilling your desires.” Short of saying- “you give them food and beer and they’ll give you wealth,” we couldn’t be much more frank about the motivations involved.


‘Married to the Mab’- Faery-Human Marriage in Britain

Queen Mab by blackvelvetwings on DeviantArt

The most recent issue of the Fairy Investigation Society newsletter (issue 17) included an article by Morgan Daimler on faery/ human marriages. She takes a broad approach in her discussion, considering examples from Ireland, Denmark, Germany and France as well as Britain. As regular visitors to the blog will know, I tend to be a bit more chauvinistic here on the British Fairies pages, and the piece set me thinking about the uniquely British aspects of the subject.

In recalling the cases of marriage I had read about, what immediately struck me was how they tended to be distributed to the west and north of Britain, with very few in the south-east- in other words in England. The story of Wild Edric comes from Shropshire- that is, the north-west Midlands- but the most of the recorded stories relate to over the border, in Wales, or much further north in the Highlands and the northern isles. I’m not sure what this tells us about the attractiveness of English males to fairy women; probably it’s not wholly flattering.

Cornwall is another blank, largely, which may be surprising in that the prevalence of Welsh and Highland cases might incline us to speculate that faery marriage is a feature of ‘Celtic’ regions. The Cornish stories of Cherry of Zennor, Jenny Permuen and of the ‘Fairy Master’ all have undertones of sex and marriage; all three human females are nubile girls who are employed by older widowers to act as carers for their orphaned children. The happily-ever-after outcome you might anticipate in a typical fairy tale is that she marries her employer and starts a new family with him. This doesn’t happen in the Cornish examples though. Love is also in the air in the Cornish tale of Ann Jefferies, but the affection one faery shows for her ends up causing dissension, for which she’s blamed and is ejected from faeryland. Cornish girls seem to have major problems settling down with supernatural suitors.

Pondering this, another thought struck me. In Wales (and, predominantly, in North Wales- Sir Caernarfon and Lleyn) the bulk of the ‘faery marriage’ cases concern the so-called gwragedd annwn, generally called ‘lake maidens’ in English and widely accepted as being faeries. In fact, the name more literally might be translated as ‘hell women’ or ‘underworld wives,’ and their exact status is somewhat anomalous when compared to the tylwyth teg proper. In origin and in nature the gwragedd might better be considered alongside some of the lake spirits and fae women of Arthurian myth- the Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay. In the case of the latter, of course, the ‘fay’ element of her name denotes magical powers rather than faery nature.

The singular of the Welsh word, gwraig, means woman or wife. Closely related is another word, gwrach, which has the sense of hag, crone or witch. In Cornish, gwrah is more simply just ‘witch’- as in the west Penwith place-name Crows an Wra, the witch’s cross. The little settlement itself, on the main road to the grimness that is the Land’s End visitor centre, is almost entirely devoid of magical or mysterious qualities, but it sits in an ancient and ritual landscape. Just to the north-west is the hill of Carn Brea, topped by two burial chambers; to the north is Bartinney, with its cairns and Bartine hillfort; to the north-east is Carn Euny ancient settlement and holy well; to the east Boscawen-Un stone circle. A little further north is the setting for William Bottrell’s story of Uter Bosence and the Piskey, in which a man was piskey led and ended up being terrorised by a gang of spriggans led by a pixie goat. The pobel vean have been sighted dancing at nearby Sennen and Trevescan. My point here is that the ‘witch’ of the hamlet of Crows inhabited a hallowed environment which was separated from the supernatural world by the thinnest of veils. Her witchiness may have been as much a matter of her contacts and associations as anything innate. This may indicate some of the connotations of the Welsh gwraig as well.

Anyway, returning to North Wales, several families were reported by Professor John Rhys to trace their descent from one of the lake women- amongst them the Pellings of the area around Llanberis and Caernarfon and the Symachaid of Llyn Corwrion. One of the offspring of the former, William Williams of Llandegai, claimed ancestry from a woman called Penelope and declared “The best blood in my own veins is this fairy’s.” Penelope’s name was given to her children, who in time came to be called the ‘Pellings,’ but one suspects some sort of educated intrusion into this story, as her name is Greek, the most famous bearers being Odysseus’ wife and a dryad of Mount Kyllene in Arcadia, mother of Pan by Hermes. William Williams may have called her a fairy, but this lass (and all of her kind) were no ordinary representatives of the tylwyth teg. It may be for this reason that one folklorist who examined these ‘fairy brides’ called the Welsh accounts a “unique sub-group” of this class of story of human-fae marriage and talked advisedly about the gwragedd as ‘human’ and as ‘supernatural women’ (Juliette Wood, ‘The Fairy Bride Legend in Wales,’ in Folklore, vol.103, 1992, 58, 60 & 66).

We could say much the same about the exceptionalism of many other human marriages with supernatural partners. In Wales, and even more so in Scotland, Orkney and Shetland, relationships are recorded with merfolk and with selkies. I have written about these in some detail in my book, Beyond Faery, but- as the title implies- they aren’t strictly faeries either. If these cases are subtracted from the total number of British examples, you’re actually left with quite a reduced roster of life partnerships between humans and members of the sith, tylwyth teg and faeries. A good example of such a union comes from North Wales:

“At Dolgellau a faery woman bathed in a pool every summer night and most locals would avoid the spot out of respect for her privacy. A young man called Hugh Evans couldn’t resist spying on a naked faery girl and, when he did, was so taken with her that he asked her to marry him.  She consented on condition that she should be allowed to go off on her own at night and that he should never interfere in this, nor ask her any questions.  One night Hugh’s curiosity got the better of him (yet again) and he tried to follow her out of their bedroom window, but he fell and broke his leg. She nursed him until he was well again- and then left him forever.”

This story epitomises some of the general features of human/faery marriage that Morgan Daimler notes in her article. The partnerships often involve a measure of coercion (from both sides) such as capture or abduction. Even in the more voluntary cases, as we might classify this one, persuasion to submit over a period of time might be required (remember the fussiness of the gwragedd annwn over the bread they’re offered by suitors?) and the human’s commitment might be tested with conditions, prohibitions and taboos. Violation of these apparently cannot be forgiven and the relationship has to be terminated. With the lake maidens, striking the fae wife, most particularly with iron, must be avoided. When- ultimately- this rule is breached, the spouse departs, taking with her all property she brought to the match (as Morgan also notes).

The dowry brought with her by the gwraig in so many of the Welsh accounts is a feature worth dwelling upon. She contributes material wealth (usually cattle, rarely money) and, hence, prosperity, to the marriage. She adds to this with offspring and with the skills that she transmits to them. When she departs, after the taboo that she has imposed has been broken, the husband and his farm cease to prosper. These brides very obviously have economic, and therefore, social power; this influence, notably, isn’t diminished by the fact that she’s coming into a unfamiliar world. The wife retains her autonomy and influence- which, I think, tells us something about faery society: that it is largely matriarchal and operates under the rule of a faery queen.

Another key feature- and a testament to the bonds of love and attachment that can develop- is the fact that one party normally has to cross the dimensions from Faery to middle earth, or vice versa. The Dolgellau faery tries to have the best of both worlds, it seems, with her nights spent (I presume) with her own kind. In the story of the mermaid of Zennor, though, her chosen partner, local boy Mathey Trewella, went to live with her under the sea. These arrangements rarely seem to work out well, though, as if the pull of home is stronger than any familial affection. The Orkney story of Johnny Croy describes how he managed to secure a mermaid wife by snatching her precious golden comb. To win it back, she struck a bargain with him- that she would live with him on his farm for seven years and that he would then go with her to visit her family under the sea. During the first part of their marriage, they had seven children. When the time came to go under the waves, Johnny’s mother branded her youngest grandchild on its buttock with a red-hot cross. This brutal measure prevented the mermaid taking her baby with her- but the rest of the family disappeared forever beneath the sea. A similar sort of story is told about the Caernarfonshire mermaid called Nefyn. She eventually consented to be a man’s wife after he had trapped her on dry land, but the match was plainly less than wholly voluntary, and she also had to surrender to her husband her magic swimming cap.  The couple became well off and had ten sets of twins together, but it transpired that the reason for Nefyn’s self-sacrifice was to learn a song that she had heard her husband singing.  Once she had acquired the tune, she returned to her merfolk family.  Her husband went with her for a while, but eventually returned home, where their children had remained.

One way or another, most faery-human marriages seem to be starkly transactional- one side submits for reasons of material gain- and they also involve a degree of coercion that’s barely concealed by any subsequent ‘success’ arising from the match, in terms of children or prosperity.

Gwragedd Annwn by Janey Jane on DeviantArt

Flower Fairies- art & nature

May Fairy

For the remainder of this year, the space on the wall by my desk is graced with a Flower Fairies calendar, received as a free gift under my wife’s subscription to Simply Crochet magazine. The calendar marks the months and seasons with appropriate amigurumi faeries based on the famous flower faery designs. I was pleased to see this theme for 2023 (and to have the images as my companion for the next twelve months), as I’ve written in the past about these faeries and their creator, Cicely Mary Barker, and her famous series of books about them are highly attractive for their illustrations and short verses.

Cicely Mary Barker was born in West Croydon in June 1895.  She continued to live in the same area with her family for much of her life, never marrying.  Because she was a frail and sickly child, needing special meals and suffering from epilepsy, Barker never had a formal school education.  She was tutored at home by a nanny and spent much of her childhood reading and drawing.  Both her parents were artistic, and Cicely herself showed artistic promise at an early age, a talent which her family actively encouraged.  She joined Croydon Art Society in 1908 and in 1911, aged 16, won second prize in a poster competition held by the group.  She was made a life member that same year.  With her father’s help, young Cicely sold her first postcard design in 1910, her first book illustrations were published in 1911 and her first poetry appeared in magazines and annuals in 1912.  She became a professional illustrator from the age of twenty, thereafter being able to support herself and her family from her earnings- a remarkable achievement for one so young and a testament to her artistic (and probably commercial) abilities.

Barker is best known for her Flower Fairies series of children’s books.  She seems to have received her fairy inspiration from several sources- from Kate Greenaway, Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, J. M. Barrie and Arthur Rackham. As a girl Cicely was given Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, illustrated by Rackham, in 1908 and she was also a great fan of the Peter Pan stage play. Fellow artist Margaret Tarrant (see earlier) was another significant influence- the two were friends and may have encouraged and inspired each other- to the extent that Barker depicted Tarrant as the Apple Blossom fairy in her Flower Fairy Alphabet. 

Daffodil fairy

Cicely Barker’s first fairy themed work appeared in 1918, a set of postcards titled Elves and Fairies, which took its title from Ida Rentoul Outhwaite’s book of 1916.  Soon after, the Cottingley case brought the possible reality of fairyland nearer to many people, and the growing enthusiasm for fay themes at all levels of society no doubt encouraged Barker, just as it contemporaneously encouraged her friend Tarrant.  In 1923 Blackie published Barker’s Flower Fairies of the Spring, which combined her watercolour paintings with verses she had composed (though readers may feel that poetry was not her strength).  Such was the success of this book that it was followed by editions on the flowers of Summer in 1925 and of Autumn in 1926.  They were then issued in a single volume, The Book of Flower Fairies,in 1927.  Barker added A Flower Fairy Alphabet in 1934 and then Flower Fairies of the Trees in 1940, of the Garden in 1944 and of the Wayside in 1948.  These were in turn all combined as Fairies of the Flowers and Trees in 1950. This series has become classics of faery art. Barker also wrote two fairy tales, The Lord of Rushie River (1936) and Groundsel and Necklaces (now called The Fairy’s Gift) in 1946.

The original Daffodil fairy

Barker doesn’t seem to have been a faery believer, sadly; her motivation appears to have been wholly decorative and artistic.  She was a devout Anglican throughout her life and, in the foreword to 1948’s Flower Fairies of the Wayside, she wrote:

“I have never seen a fairy; the fairies and all about them as just ‘pretend.’ (It is nice to pretend about fairies.)  Now, I think children will be able to tell the true parts from the pretend parts of these books.” 

She took great trouble to research and reproduce the plants correctly and used local Croydon children as her models, with special costumes made for them to wear. Perhaps because of this, one biographer has contrasted Barker’s with Margaret Tarrant’s fairies saying that the latter look “more elfin, rather than real children.”

Barker’s original Holly fairy

The verses that accompanied the watercolours in Barker’s eight books portray a highly conventional fairy-land.  It’s peopled entirely by children under ten; occasionally these boys and girls are joined by baby and toddler siblings, although there is no attempt to explain where they may have come from.  All of these supernaturals must be understood to be of diminutive dimensions, no more than ten or twelve centimetres tall at the most.

Holly fairy

Barker’s Faery is a place of love and companionship, of kindness and of laughter.  The fairies are always busy with play, feasting, dancing and song; their main emotion is joy.  Pipe music and fairy balls are repeatedly mentioned.  Very little intrudes upon this constant delight.  Taking too many catkins might make the fairies cry, but the tears are soon consoled; elves may injure themselves, but they are soon treated with the herb self-heal.  Dancing at night under the moon is a traditional touch, as are “elfin coats of green” and there is a sense that fairies are as old as the seasons. We are told that it is “At the edge of the woodland/ Where good fairies dwell…” and there are some mentions of faery kings and queens.  Barker only departs notably from established fairy lore in her rhyme for mountain ash: 

“They thought me once a magic tree

Of wondrous lucky charm

And at the door they planted me

To keep the house from harm.

They have no fear of witchcraft now,

Yet here I am today…”

She treats the shrub solely as a bar against witches, but rowan was in fact regarded as just as effective against fairies. Perhaps Barker didn’t want to mention anything which impinged on the childhood innocence and playfulness of her vision of fairy-land. Nonetheless, even in this simple and innocent world, though, there is just a hint of another Faerie.  One author has described one of the alphabet fairies as follows: “The more mystical and sensual side of fairy-land is epitomised by the Jasmine fairy.  In the heat of the summer the ‘cool green bowers’ and ‘sweet-scented flowers’ are particularly seductive.” This sensuousness is unusual though. On the whole Barker’s flower fairies are charming in their purity, delicacy and prettiness- features which have assured their enduring popularity. They bear only tenuous links to the faeries of British tradition, but over the last century they have nevertheless been inspirational and meaningful enough for people to effectively create their own tradition. The books and their imagery also underline, once again, the significant role that Faery has played in British culture, providing writers and artists with the raw material for their own creativity.

The text of this posting is adapted from the relevant chapter of my book on twentieth century faery art.

What faery names may tell us

Bendith ei mamau by Nezart on DeviantArt

Writing my last posting on the tylwyth teg and ancient sites in Wales, I started to wonder about the names used by the Welsh and Cornish for their faery folk and whether those labels might tell us anything about human perceptions of their Good Neighbours.

Wishing for the Best

As I’ve often described before, the names used to refer- frequently obliquely- to the Good Folk (which is a good example of the trait), tend to be euphemistic and apotropaic. They seek primarily to avoid identifying the fae too directly whilst simultaneously being respectful and, having too, the nature of a charm, aiming to bring about the quality of relations described in the label (that is, friendliness and good neighbourliness).

We might regard the Welsh terms tylwyth teg and bendith ei mamau in just this light: the ‘fair family’ and the ‘mothers’ blessings’ are encouraged to be kindly and benign by calling them that. Dynion mywn (kind people) and gwragedd anwyl (dear wives or women) are chosen to work in the same way.

Nonetheless, I wonder if we can learn a little more. The tylwyth teg are a ‘family,’ likewise the offshore-dwelling faeries of Dyfed are called the Plant Rhys Ddyfn, ‘the children of Rhys the Deep (or Wise).’ Welsh, as many readers will know, is one of the Brythonic branch of Celtic languages, also termed P-Celtic in contrast to the so-called Q-Celtic tongues like Gaelic. The differentiation depends on how initial P in Brythonic becomes an initial C or K sound in the Gaelic of Scotland and Ireland. Hence plant in Welsh is found as clann in Gaelic. Now, we all know the word ‘clan,’ with its connotations of an extended family group and unity of bloodline and loyalty; my speculation is that a similar sense of ‘tribe’ or consanguineous nation might be applied to the Welsh faeries. To be sure, one Manx term for the island’s little people was cloan moyrney (the proud clan).

Bendith eu mamau may carry something of that too. The literal translation is ‘the blessings of their mothers,’ which is suggestive of a wish that they will behave as well to strangers as they would to their own mothers: Professor John Rhys observed how the phrase implied that “each fairy was such a delightful offspring as to constitute, him or herself, a blessing to his or her mother.” However, the label simultaneously underlines the links of descent within faery society. Another term that is encountered occasionally, y teulu, the ‘tribe’ or ‘family,’ certainly bears this interpretation. All these names may indicate a solidarity and cohesiveness amongst faery-kind that stands in opposition to us mortals, the less united people of Middle Earth. The faeries’ natural community and unified conduct is probably reflected in their liking for mass circle dancing, in their frequent processions (often known as the ‘faery rade’) and, in the case of the Plant Rhys, in their adherence to the social rules laid down by their ancestor that have maintained harmony amongst them whilst keeping their home and life ways secret from humans.

Size Matters

Although they are rather more familiar, I think we should also note what some other names have to tell us. Another Welsh euphemism is dynion teg bach, ‘the little fair men.’ There’s flattery and hopefulness here, but there’s also a simple descriptiveness: contrasted to humans, the faeries aren’t that tall.

An equivalent Cornish term, an pobel vean (the little people), may actually be even more informative. As I have mentioned previously, in Cornwall one theory of faery origins was that they were the souls of children who were still-born or who had died before baptism (see, for example, Evans Wentz Fairy Faith pp.172, 179 & 183). Logically, these ghosts or spirits would reappear resembling how they had been in life: in other words, child-sized; they were, literally, the ‘little people.’

Faery Motion

I have written several posts looking at the ways that the faeries get around. Less attention has been paid to the sound that they might cause, but the Scottish folklorist John Gregorson Campbell had something to say on this matter:

“The names by which these dwellers underground are known are mostly derivative from the word sìth (pronounced shee). As a substantive (in which sense it is ordinarily used) sìth means ‘peace,’ and, as an adjective, is applied solely to objects of the supernatural world, particularly to the Fairies and whatever belongs to them. Sound is a natural adjunct of the motions of men, and its entire absence is unearthly, unnatural, not human. The name sìth without doubt refers to the ‘peace’ or silence of Fairy motion, as contrasted with the stir and noise accompanying the movements and actions of men. The German ‘stille volk’ is a name of corresponding import. The Fairies come and go with noiseless steps, and their thefts or abductions are done silently and unawares to men. The wayfarer resting beside a stream, on raising his eyes, sees the Fairy woman, unheard in her approach, standing on the opposite bank. Men know the Fairies4 have visited their houses only by the mysterious disappearance of the substance of their goods, or the sudden and unaccountable death of any of the inmates or of the cattle. Sometimes the elves are seen entering the house, gliding silently round the room, and going out again as noiselessly as they entered. When driven away they do not go off with tramp and noise, and sounds of walking such as men make, or melt into thin air, as spirits do, but fly away noiselessly like birds or hunted deer. They seem to glide or float along rather than to walk.” 

Campbell, Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, 1900, 3-4

So, in summary, many of the frequently applied names are not mere words or wishful thinking, but convey to us directly and vividly the impression that faery contacts had upon those in former generations who were so much more accustomed to meet with the tylwyth teg and pobel vean in their everyday lives, whilst walking to the cow shed or working in the fields.

The Tylwyth Teg- Ancient Dwellers on the Land?

Bryn yr Hen Bobl burial chamber

In Wales, various sites are especially connected to the faeries, the tylwyth teg, as places where they dwell. These include ancient sites such as barrows and hillforts and spaces reached underground from river banks, caves, lakes or mountain sides. These associations with ancient sites are something I’ve also discussed in my Spirits of the Land, as well as in my specific examination of the Welsh Fairies.

One Welsh burial mound linked explicitly with the faeries is the barrow called Bryn yr Ellyllon (the Elves’ Hill) which was near Mold (the site is now under a front garden in a housing estate). Here, in 1827, a woman returning late at night from market saw a skeleton-like being sitting on top of the mound.  It was dressed in gold “as bright as the sun” she said.  Another report states that a headless warrior on a grey horse guarded the location.  Six years after the vision of the skeleton, road builders uncovered a stunning Bronze Age gold cape from inside the round barrow. The name of the spot clearly suggests that local people had long had supernatural experiences there. Another barrow closely linked to the fair folk is the Giant’s Grave at Glascwm in Powys, which reportedly is watched over by them. Equally, the fair folk have been seen dancing there on a barrow at Banwan Bryddin near Neath.

Although there are no recorded legends that I’ve been able to locate, these cases put me in mind of a Neolithic site on Ynys Mon/ Anglesey. A chambered tomb near Llanfair is called Bryn yr Hen Bobl– the hill of the old (or ancient) people. Who exactly these ancient folk might have been believed to be by the earlier population can’t be determined for sure but- given the faery-link that is so frequently made with other tombs- I’m reasonably confident in suggesting that we’re taking about the tylwyth teg here. Former residents in the area may have sensed that the monument was constructed by much older human populations, but the British folklore tendency is not to ascribe mysterious structures to previous human inhabitants but to supernatural builders.

The Bryn from a distance

Fascinatingly, one euphemistic term used for the ‘little folk’ in Cornwall is ‘the Old People’- which would have been something like an hen pobel in Cornish originally. This alone argues for us more confidently understanding the Welsh name as a faery reference. We can go further though. Katherine Briggs records in her Dictionary of Fairies (1977, 317) that the name derives from the fact that the Cornish faeries were regarded as the souls of the ancient heathen dwellers on the peninsula. Walter Evans Wentz recorded evidence of the same belief, writing that “pixies were often supposed to be the souls of the prehistoric dwellers of this country” (Fairy Faith, 176). He encountered exactly the same notion in Wales. A Mr Ceredig Davies of Llanilar, near Aberystwyth, told him that “by many of the old people, the tylwyth teg were classed as spirits… Many of the Welsh looked upon the tylwyth teg or fairies as the spirits of the Druids, dead before the time of Christ who, being too good to be cast into Hell, were allowed to wander freely about on earth.” Equally, a John Jones of Pontrhydfendigaid told him that his grandfather and a companion had once heard singing in the air in a field where they were digging a ditch. Soon afterwards, ancient remains were found, and the pair “naturally decided, on account of the singing, that the bones and urns were of the tylwyth teg” (Fairy Faith, 147 & 148). It looks as though, in interpreting Hen Bobl, all roads lead to the same conclusion: whether we understand the phrase to mean the faeries, or the ancient druidic people who became faeries, the significance is the same- and this is a possibility that may be further enhanced by the knowledge that Ynys Mon was the last stronghold of the Druids against the Romans. What better place to commemorate their dead, therefore?

As I propose in Spirits of the Land, whatever the precise reasons for ancient monuments originally being treated as faery sites, the key aspect of the belief is that it creates a deep link between the landscape and the faery folk.  In addition, it integrates with our history as well as with landforms, explaining the presence of mysterious mounds or standing stones and giving a powerful sense of continuity.  Not only might the faeries be in-dwelling in wells, springs and hills, they inhabit the oldest built structures in the country as well, emphasising the extent to which they are embedded within our topography, mythology and culture. For the Welsh speaking population of Ynys Mon, it’s arguable therefore that the Hen Bobl stood for a very profound and longstanding connection with the island. Representing, as they do, an older wave of settlement of the British Isles than the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Lloegr (England), we might suggest that when the Celtic people referred to an ‘ancient folk’ who were felt to be present at Bryn yr Hen Bobl, they were discussing an extremely ancient presence on the land indeed.

Welsh Faeries

I’m delighted to announce the publication of a new book through Green Magic Publishing, Welsh Fairies- The Tylwyth Teg. This complements my original Green Magic book, British Fairies, as well as British Pixies and Manx Fairies.

The main purpose of the book is to highlight how the tylwyth teg differ in detail from the wider British faery family. I think their uniqueness lies in certain physical features- such as their strangely pale complexions- and certain cultural characteristics- their musicality and their close links to oak trees and to mines.

In the January 2022 issue of the Fairy Investigation Society newsletter (no. 15), Michael Swords wrote a very interesting article on ‘True’ Close Encounters with the Tylwyth Teg in Anglesey in the Early 1800s. In this, he considered some accounts of faery encounters that were reported in the journal Y Cymmrodor in 1886 (the cases are featured in my new book, naturally). Before examining the evidence from Ynys Mon/ Anglesey, Swords surveyed faery sightings in Wales as a whole (and mapped the results of this review of the published literature).

Analysing the map, which is reproduced newsletter, in the Swords noted that there were:

“[A] great collection of incidents darkening the southeastern area (Glamorgan and Gwent, spilling into Monmouthshire.) This is the location of Cardiff and the densest population area of Wales… This, in UFO research, would represent a typical population-related density of cases. Plenty of potential witnesses but, more importantly, some amounts of persons who want to ask witnesses questions about their experiences and then write them down.”

FIS newsletter 15, pages 22-23

Swords also noted that, in the northeast of the country, there is another relatively dense population area (near to big cities
in England such as Liverpool and Manchester) but nowhere near the case reports seen in the south. He proposed that this was a reflection of the fact that the area was under-investigated. Cases existed in these locales, he felt sure, but very few interested parties went out into the villages and asked about or recorded them. Equally, mid-Wales- which is a mountainous area with low population- had very few reported cases. His intuition was that this area had been almost entirely un-investigated by folklorists. Likewise, were it not for the folklorist who recorded his researches in Y Cymmrodor, there would be very little from around Gwynedd or Ynys Mon (that is, the north-west of the country).

Swords then proceeded to select, from the reported cases for the whole country, those that he found most convincing. The first of these is the ‘Bodfari incident‘ which I have described in a previous posting. The author also ventured drawing what the witnesses reported. As he noted “All of the cases describe personages of a child-like size, and therefore in the three-to-four-foot-tall range. This places them squarely in the range of the common beings seen in the better cases elsewhere in the literature, whether old or modern.” His illustrations include several small ‘gnome’ or dwarf like figures, one dressed in green and another in red, looking like a small Santa Claus. There is also a curious doll-like female who was met repeatedly at Newborough on Ynys Mon, as she would visit a Mrs Roberts to borrow her griddle (gradel in the Welsh that both parties spoke) for baking her bread. The faery girl would thank Mrs Roberts for her loan by giving her a loaf . Here, Swords observed wisely- “I wondered about the ‘iron’ here and if that was an inconsistency which should invalidate the case. Then it occurred to me that I needed to get a little more humility as to whether I understand enough about the thinking processes of fairies to order them about as to what sort of rules they decide to lay down for we humans.” As longer term readers will appreciate, my effort on this blog is always to try to avoid ‘human’ interpretations of non-human activities and to endeavour (perhaps without the requisite humility!) to understand what the faeries are doing on their own terms and not ours.

Swords’ valuable overall summary of the Welsh sightings is as follows:

“The overall assessment of the better Welsh cases is that several incidents of the following stand out: fairies trooping along rural roads or natural areas, fairies playing music and circle-dancing, sometimes near brooks, fairies interacting with rural and farming people in classic brownie ‘tit-for tat’ fashion, and occasional interactions with a solitary [member of the] tylwyth teg. A few cases exhibit hostility, but they are not the norm.”

FIS no.15 page 25

Swords then gives an outline of the half dozen faery accounts that a Mr W. Cobb heard and recorded during a visit to Holyhead in 1885- and which he subsequently regarded as significant and credible enough to report in the journal Y Cymmrodor. The various short stories deal with very typical faery themes: gifts of money that are revoked upon disclosure; leaving out water, soap and towels for the faeries when they enter a house to bathe at night (three incidents); the tylwyth teg undertaking threshing in a barn; and, a visit to the faeries and riding with them. Swords sees the underlying thread to all of these as being “a slightly touchy but generally benign interaction between humans and fairies” in a tit for tat or give and take style. He asks, rhetorically, if this is typical of the tylwyth teg; I think we could say that it’s typical of the British faery as a whole: they are (by and large) the ‘Good Neighbours’ by which name we know them (the Welsh equivalent being Bendith y Mamau- the mothers’ blessings, with the same general sense), subject always to the proviso that offence can be taken and that major breakdowns in relations can, from time to time, take place.

In conclusion, Swords had this to say of Cobb’s cases. His main witness, a Mrs. Owen, firmly believed what she passed onto him partly because, although she hadn’t seen faeries herself, she had been the recipient of gifts of faery money. Much more importantly, though, she believed because she had been told by both her parents about their own faery encounters. These were, to quote Swords, “spectacular, [and] strange and wonderful [yet] told without frills or any great adventure or revelations, just matter-of-factly as if this sort of thing is common knowledge. No one is claiming any special status about themselves, nor boasting nor glory. Something happened. Then it went away. In UFO research, as in many anomalous incidents, this is the prime clue that we are dealing with something that the witness believes to be objectively true.” A point I’ve often made is that I think we ought to take faery reports seriously simply because they have been made consistently and regularly over centuries. They are, by and large, part of the fabric of everyday- usually rural- life, being- to some extent- no different from seeing a fox or a badger in terms of uniqueness, although plainly they carry with them a far greater mystique and magical charge.

Finally, Swords reviewed how we should assess the Ynys Mon accounts- or for that matter, the many other very similar ones from around Wales and around Britain as a whole. In doing so, I feel he sympathised with the position I’ve just set out:

“[Either] many of the people of Anglesey- and Wales in general- were sitting around amusing themselves by telling similar lies and fantasies, or those same people were telling rather short and nearly pointless stories of their mostly brief encounters with entities that they were certain were real elements in their surroundings.”

The article’s author was inclined to take the view that the many witnesses “were talking about realities and not made-up foolishness.” That has always been my approach on this blog, and in Welsh Faeries just as in my other books, I accept that the Welsh witnesses over the last few centuries knew exactly what they saw and felt. It was neither deception nor delusion, but a genuine experience of contact.

Some North Wales faeries (according to North Wales Live in June 2018)

Faeries and Farm Animals: A Difficult Relationship

Fairy Knots Folktale by dejan-delic on DeviantArt

Although, as I have described before, faeries are generally regarded as excellent at animal husbandry, their relationship with the livestock domesticated by humans is not always straightforward. They generally get on well with cattle, who seemed to like being milked by the fae folk, and they have a particularly good relationship with goats, but their interactions with dogs can often be hostile and perilous for the dogs. A few Scottish and other cases give us further insights into the interactions between the Good Folk and farm animals.

The faeries’ relationship with horses is notably complex. They have their own horses, but they still like to ride those kept by us, stealing the steeds from people’s stables at night. The animals are always returned, but they are often left exhausted and sweaty the following morning. On the Isle of Man in the eighteenth century, the folklore collector George Waldron met one man who had lost four of his steeds through overexertion by riders from the fairy hunt.  Despite the harsh treatment of many horses, though, there are apparently some that enjoy the thrill of racing with the fairies.  If they are left to graze loose in a field overnight, and the hunt passes nearby, some horses will escape to gallop with the hounds.  All the same, it may be that this generally poor treatment explains the wariness- if not fear- displayed by horses when they detect a fae presence.

Example of horses’ edginess when faeries might be present come from around the British Isles. At Fairy Bridge, on the Isle of Skye, for example, it was impossible to ride or lead or drive a horse over the bridge at night. This was because they could see the faeries dancing there and would not pass. In West Yorkshire in England it was said that horses, when they reared for no apparent reason, did so because they could see a boggart. To the rider, it would look like a stone or some other harmless object, but the steed could see through the glamour and would shy away.

This evidence from Yorkshire suggests some extra sensitivity- or even the second sight– on the part of the livestock. That this is the case seems to be confirmed by a Manx example. There was a gate on a path in one parish on the island where a fairy was sometimes seen standing- he looked like a man in a long brown coat with bright buttons, but the figure was of more than human height. Horses disliked passing through the gate late at night, and cattle would always keep away from it. Each of the two cairns in a field further along the same path was believed to have a guardian buggane (a creature akin in many respects to the boggart).

Secondly, it once happened in Orry’s Dale, on the Isle of Man, that no bread delivery took place because the baker’s cart horse was able to see the fairies after dark and would take fright.  On the particular occasion recorded, as it was getting near dusk the boy delivering the bread decided not to risk the horse rearing or bolting- and had gone home instead.

Finally, we have an example which indicates that, for all their skills in animal rearing and for all their benign interactions with some livestock, there is still a gulf between the faery and the human worlds- or, at least- a limit to the degree of interaction they will tolerate. At Greshornish on the Isle of Skye there was an area of especially lush pasture called the Aird. Its verdancy seems to have been the result of the fact that it was a faery pasture. Despite the richness of the sward, the local population never grazed their sheep there. If they ever dared to put out a flock to pasture, the sheep would run in circles, go mad and swiftly die. Humans cannot eat faery food for risk of being trapped in faery; apparently, human farm stock cannot eat faery food because it is fatally poisonous for them. Whether this is because the constitutions of the faery animals and those kept by humans are fundamentally incompatible, or because the faeries had ‘cursed’ their pasture at Greshornish so as to protect it, isn’t wholly clear. Given that facts that faery cows can graze terrestrial pastures and interbreed with human herds- and that the Scottish and Manx water bulls (the tarbh uisge and tarroo ushtey respectively) can do exactly the same- inclines me to believe that the deadly grass was a defence against trespassers rather than a sign of deeper physiological incompatibilities.

Tarroo Ushtey sculpture on the Isle of Man

Faeries Crossing Water- Some Contradictions

Nuckelavee by James Torrance, 1901

It’s pretty well established that faery kind can’t cross flowing water. This is fortunate, as it enables escape by those fleeing them after stealing their possessions, or by those running away from a being that wants to devour them. For example, individuals have got away by this simple strategy from a pursuing boggart, the monstrous nuckelavee on Orkney and a blood thirsty each uisge (water horse) at Trotternish on Skye. In this case some young women let an old female spend the night sheltering with them in their shieling. One awoke in the middle of the night to discover their old visitor sinking her teeth into the arm of another of the sleepers. The first girl leapt up and fled, but the old woman assumed her horse form and made chase. The galloping mare was catching up but- little way from Bracadale church- the girl jumped over a stream and, at the same time, the cocks crowed. The each uisge could not cross the stream and the fugitive was safe. It’s of course extremely puzzling that a water horse has difficulties with water; the explanation would appear to be that the natural habitat of the each uisge is either the sea or freshwater lakes. A flowing river is different, somehow, and because of this forms an impenetrable barrier. The same looks to be the case with the nuckelavee: they live in the sea and can come up on land to ravage the livestock, but are in trouble if they encounter fresh water- which includes rain, oddly enough. One wet days, they won;t come ashore at all…

Then again, a kelpie in human form wanted to cross the River Dee at Inchbare one stormy night. The boatman agreed to take him across- and charged no fee for this. As his passenger departed, a song was heard:

“The Dee shall be quiet and merciful ever
While you and your sons have a boat on the river.”

Perhaps being in the boat was what made the difference for the kelpie, but more likely it was the fact that the kelpie’s native habitat is deep pools in rivers. All the same, why it couldn’t just swim in that case isn’t clear; perhaps it was just lazy, or tired (and why not?).

A bauchan

The Scottish bauchan or bogan (a type of bogie) can cross the sea. In one story from Lochaber a farmer had a love-hate relationship with the bauchan who lived in the vicinity. The pair often used to fight each other, but at the same time the bauchan would gather fuel for the farm in bitter weather and helped the family move house. When the farmer had to leave his land because of the Highland clearances, the bauchan travelled with him to the United States and (in the shape of a goat) helped clear the new land he settled. Perhaps, again, being insulated from the sea by the ship they sailed on was the key thing.

The same ability to cross oceans applies to the Scottish faery-lover, the leannan sith. Evans-Wentz (Fairy Faith 112) recounted how a man from Barra, called Lachlann, had a fairy lover who used to visit him nightly, to the point that he was becoming exhausted by her demands and was beginning to fear her affection. He decided to flee to Canada to escape her, but she quickly found out, and could be heard lamenting by women milking the cattle at evening on the meadows. Nonetheless, when Lachlann reached Nova Scotia, he found the fairy had followed him there. She might have sailed secretly with him, or possibly she might have just used her magical powers to transport herself there. Of course, if she could do that, you begin to wonder why some of the others didn’t. It appears that the inherent defensive properties of fresh flowing water are too formidable even for the faeries’ powers.

For more details of some of the ‘faery beasts’ described here, see my Beyond Faery.

Faeries, Wraiths and Mourning

Cyhyraeth by Cher-Ro on DeviantArt

Recently, researching another subject entirely (my book Waiting for Utopia) I read an article written in International Times in 1971. The author, called on ‘Joy,’ was discussing the legends of King Arthur, which are often called ‘the Matter of Britain.’ She described what this mythical Britain, what she termed the ‘Enchanted Island’ meant to her. Britain was:

“The island I love.  Now, this love has nothing to do with what is generally called Patriotism.  I do not stand and salute the flag.  I do not care for the British Empire. And yet, there is this mysterious quality I cannot pin down into words- there is a magic that, regardless of any truth, reality or words, holds my heart and soul for Britain.”

She went on to discuss the Druids, White Horses, Avalon and Glastonbury- a place where “the presence of our remote ancestors can strongly be felt,” leaving you with a longing for “something you have never seen.”

I immediately understood what Joy had been describing- a feeling that couldn’t easily be put into words in English and part of what I have tried to invoke in my recent Spirits of the Land. At the same time, it set my mind wandering down various by-ways of British folklore and myth, straying from Arthur to wraiths by indirect routes.

The first thing that occurred to me was that the Welsh, though, do have a single word for part of what Joy was trying to describe. The Welsh word hiraeth may be translated as meaning “a deep yearning, grief or sadness for a place, or time, or persons, that no longer exist, and so can never be restored or visited.”


Now, this word hiraeth may already seem to be familiar to some readers from faery lore. Also from Welsh comes the near homophone ‘cyhyraeth,’ the name for that country’s equivalent of the banshee. The name derives from the Welsh cyhyr meaning flesh or muscles and relates to the being’s corpse like appearance, but it also suggests for me the idea of creature who laments with and beside the bereaved. The cyhyraeth– a skeletal moaning spirit who makes a “doleful, dreadful noise in the night,” disturbing people’s sleep and sounding like the groans of the dying. Her cry presages a funeral or an epidemic or precedes bad weather on the coast. The unpleasant groaning is heard three times, each time getting nearer but at the same time quieter and less shrill. The cyhyraeth can be heard several months before the death it marks, or it can replicate the circumstances of the death, for example by following the future route of the funeral cortege, by coming to rest at the point where a grave will be dug or by moving along the shore line with lights showing before a shipwreck occurs. In some places the cyhyraeth seems to be a more physical spirit, passing through the streets and lanes of a neighbourhood and rattling on the windows and doors of every house in addition to its awful groans (see my Beyond Faery).

The Welsh cyhyraeth is related to the Highland faery woman or bean-sith called the caointeach– the (little) weeper or ‘keener’ (the English verb ‘to keen’ comes from the very same Gaelic root, ‘caoine’ meaning to cry or to weep). We might think of them both as ‘co-mourners,’ who share in a family’s grief. The Highland tradition was to have professional keeners at a wake and funeral; the caointeach was merely the faery equivalent of these human lamenters.

Some believe that the caointeach exclusively forebodes violent death, such as in fighting, whilst others say that she has much more of a role as a banshee for a clan than marking deaths in a wider community. She has been described as a typical faery woman- small and dressed in green, only as big as a child. The keener tends to emerge at night, meaning that she is seen far less than she is heard. Her voice has been described as a mournful wailing, bitter weeping, screams or, even, as sounding like splashing water. She haunts the vicinity of houses, circling them clockwise (see again my Beyond Faery).


In the Highlands, we find another example of a faery parallel to human life. This is the co-walker or joint eater, a being that was described best by the Reverend Robert Kirk in his Secret Commonwealth. This is what he had to say:

“They are clearly seen by these Men of the Second Sight to eat at Funeralls [and] Banquets; hence many of the Scottish-Irish will not taste Meat at these Meittings, lst they have Communion with, or be poysoned by, them. So are they seen to carrie the Beer or Coffin with the Corps among the middle-earth Men to the Grave. Some Men of that exalted Sight (whither by Art or Nature) have told me they have seen at these Meittings a Doubleman, or the Shape of some Man in two places; that is, a superterranean and a subterranean Inhabitant, perfectly resembling one another in all Points, whom he notwithstanding could easily distinguish one from another, by some secret Tockens and Operations, and so go speak to the Man his Neighbour and Familiar, passing by the Apparition or Resemblance of him… They call this Reflex-man a Co-walker, every way like the Man, as a Twin-brother and Companion, haunting him as his shadow, as is oft seen and known among Men (resembling the Originall,) both before and after the Originall is dead, and wes also often seen of old to enter a Hous, by which the People knew that the Person of that Liknes wes to Visite them within a few days. This Copy, Echo, or living Picture, goes att last to his own Herd. It accompanied that Person so long and frequently for Ends best known to it selfe, whither to guard him from the secret Assaults of some of its own Folks, or only as ane sportfull Ape to counterfeit all his Actions… They avouch that a Heluo, or Great-eater, hath a voracious Elve to be his attender, called a Joint-eater or Just-halver, feeding on the Pith or Quintessence of what the Man eats; and that therefoir he continues Lean like a Hawke or Heron, notwith standing his devouring Appetite…”

Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, c.3

It’s clear that Kirk considered these co-walkers, doppelgangers and joint eaters to be faeries or elves, members of the sith folk, rather than ghosts or other spirits. He returned to the subject later in the book. Those with the second sight, “If they sie the Species of any Person who is sick to die, they sie them covered over with the shrowding Sheet.” They don’t solely predict imminent death though: he heard of an account of a woman seen with a spirit at her shoulder; this man turned out to be her future husband (although, tragically, he died soon after their marriage). He also recorded that “Seers [those with the second sight] avouch that severals who go to the Siths before the natural Period of their Lyfe expire, do frequently appear to them” (Kirk, A Succinct Accompt of Lord Tarbott’s Relations). Clearly, Kirk’s classification of the faery or sith people was a good deal wider than we might anticipate to day, given that he included within it these co-walkers, the spirits of the departed and- for that matter- what we’d term poltergeists.

An everyday street scene in Whitby, North Yorkshire (during the Goth weekend)


Very similar beings are known in England as well as Scotland, called variously fetches and swarths in Cumberland, waffs in Yorkshire, waughs in Durham and Northumberland and wraiths in the rest of the country. William Henderson, in his account of the Folklore of the Northern Counties (1866, pages 30-31) gives several examples of waffs and wraiths. He states that “presages of death are very common on the Border [with Scotland]”- phenomena that can include the sound of bells, chirping crickets and the howling of dogs, but “the most fatal is to see your own wraith walking to or away from you at noon or before sunset.” He continued: “the wraith is an apparition exactly like a living person and its appearance to that person, or others, is commonly thought an omen of death.” Henderson then gave several examples from the north-east of England. One, from Whitby, concerned a man awaiting surgery, who saw his own waff and realised (correctly) that he would not survive the operation. In the other cases, an individual saw another person’s waff, either just before they died or at the moment of their decease. No less a figure than John Wesley recounted the story of a waugh or spirit from Bishopswearmouth that returned to pester his grand-daughter until she secured her inheritance. Henderson also provided the text for the Folklore Society’s book on northern folklore and he recounted there another story set in Whitby, on this occasion concerning a man from Guisborough who saw his own waff whilst visiting a shop in the little port. This man acted firmly towards the apparition, asking “What’s thou doin’ here? Thou’s after no good, I’ll go bail. Get thy ways yom [home] with thee!” Apparently the waff slunk off, duly chastened- and the man didn’t die soon afterwards (Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties & The Borders, 1879, 46). Here, Game of Thrones fans will recall Syrio Forel’s advice to Arya Stark: “What do we say to the god of death? Not today!”

In the rest of England, wraiths are typically encountered on special nights of the year (very often on St Mark’s Eve- April 24th) when a person keeping vigil in the porch of the parish church will see the forms of those due to die during the next year entering the church. This belief is reported from Dorstone in Herefordshire (on Halloween), at Walton le Dale in Lancashire (on Christmas Eve), at Child’s Ercall in Shropshire (on New Year’s Eve) and at Crowcombe in Somerset (on Midsummer Eve). A common danger was to recognise your own wraith amidst the congregation of the doomed, as at Derwent Woodlands in Derbyshire, where the custom was for the vicar to preach a ‘Sermon of the Dead’ to an empty church on the last Sunday in December. The new vicar in the parish rejected the idea of continuing such a superstitious tradition, but when the day came he felt compelled to go and- sure enough- saw himself sitting amongst the spirits in the pews. John Aubrey also reported a case where the gift of seeing wraiths ran in a family. The three daughters of the Earl of Holland (of Holland Park in west London), all met themselves shortly before their premature deaths (Miscellanies, 1696).

Returning to the Reverend Kirk, his conception was evidently of a kind of partnership with the fae. The co-walkers, rather like the caointeach, perform functions parallel to activities in the mortal world. They share human grief, and are so well-attuned to individual human’s lives that they can foresee and foreshadow their deaths. It’s a fascinating and different angle on our usual perspectives on faery life.

The Cost of Faery Bargains

Loch Guinach, 1866

Over history, humans have entered into transactions with our faery neighbours but, whatever their attractions, these deals can incorporate some very hard terms- aspects that might well make us think twice about such contracts. Either the human party to the deal may be cheated or- far worse- they may find that the price exacted is one they would not choose to pay.

A prime illustration of this must be a son of the MacCrimmon family, pipers to clan MacLeod on Skye. The boy lacked the bagpiping skills that were a talent of the rest of his family. He was approached by the faery queen with a proposal that she give him a silver chanter which would endow him with incomparable skill on the instrument- at a price. The cost of the gift was that, after seven years, he would have to meet her again. He agreed to this and found great fame and reward with his newly acquired expertise but, on the appointed day, he returned to meet the queen- and was never seen again.

A comparably tragic tale comes from Loch Guinach, near Kingussie in the Highlands. A very poor man who could not support his family went to the loch in despair, intending to drown himself. He met a faery woman there who promised that she’d make him prosperous, on condition that whatever he met on first returning to his home would become hers in a year’s time. The man consented to this. As he got home his entire family rushed out to meet him, but fortunately his dog raced ahead and got to him first. The man ought to have been relieved that neither his wife or any of his children had been quicker, but he was very attached to this particular animal and, a year later, refused to give it to the bean sith. Instead, he offered himself- and the faery didn’t quibble. He was told to come again after another year, but in the meantime she kept the dog. At the next meeting, she gave him a puppy his dog had produced and told him that he would only see the old dog one more time. This proved to be true. Many years later the man was in his sheepfold when the old dog suddenly appeared and barked three times. He realised that this was an instruction that, in three days time, he must go to the loch and there he would die.

Even when a bargain goes against the faeries’ immediate interests, they’re able to turn it to their favour in the longer term. So, a man called Robin Oig was hunting in Glenmore one day when he met a party of fairies marching with music.  He claimed a fine set of bag pipes with silver, jewelled chanter and drones by means of the time-honoured trick of throwing his bonnet and crying out “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine.”  The faeries had to agree to the exchange and to relinquish the pipes to him, being obliged to comply with this formula, but when he got home, he discovered what he had obtained was a puff ball mushroom with some broken spikes of grass stuck in it.

Our Good Neighbours are always beside us and seem to have a canny knowledge of our weaknesses. They know what humans won’t be able to resist- and how to come out on top in transactions. This isn’t to say that they can’t be tricked or out-negotiated, but the best advice is probably not to overestimate your cleverness or your bargaining skills- and always to be cautious and wary.