Since Harry Potter introduced us to the sorting hat, we’ve been quite familiar with the idea of hats with magic powers, but the idea goes back much further than J K Rowling’s stories- as far, I’d suggest as Perseus, who wore Hermes’ helmet of invisibility so that he could kill Medusa the Gorgon. In Britain, the history of magic headwear involves both faeries and mermaids.
I’ll start with the mermaid cases, which, in a way, are the most surprising. A folk tale from Sutherlandshire, recorded in Folk Lore Journal in 1888, tells how a man caught a mermaid at Lochinver by taking her pouch and belt, in which she kept her glass, comb and “some sort of life preserver that helps her swim.” It may be surprising enough to hear that mermaids have any clothes or accessories at all- our general conception is that they’re entirely naked- but, at the same time, we’re familiar with the idea that they are vain creatures who admire themselves in mirrors and comb their long (green or blue) hair. That the mermaid might need help to swim seems even more remarkable. However, it’s not an isolated report. The Sutherland case seems a bit uncertain about what the item actually was; another from Cape Wrath tells us much more clearly. In an interview recorded in July 1960 a witness recalled the story of a local man who captured a mermaid for a wife- by taking “her red cap, without which she could not go under the waves” (see the tobar an duilcheas website).
Caps with magical properties are- in fact- rather common in Faery. As a small initial example, Henry Irwin Jenkinson reported from the Isle of Man in 1874 that a man had seen some faery dogs at East Baldwin; they were running about in a gill there, wearing red caps.
The faeries themselves wear headgear, which bestow glamour upon them. This idea goes back a very long way. It’s mentioned in one of the oldest English faery accounts, that of the spirit called Malekin who haunted the manor of Dagworth in Suffolk some time during the 1190s. Malekin seems to have been a human child who was kidnapped by the faeries from her mother when they were out in the fields one day. At the time of her apperance, she had already spent seven years in Faery and expected to spend another seven there before she could return to the human world. She was given food by the household and regularly spoke with them. One thing she told the family was that “she and others made use of a certain hat, because it restored them to invisibility.” As we shall see, this function echoed down the ages.
In the north of Yorkshire, it’s said that faeries can’t be seen dancing in rings, unless they take their caps off. As is so often the case with faery glamour, this magic rubs off. A man in Annandale invited to a faery wedding was given a cap to wear during the celebrations. At some point he made the mistake of taking it off- and immediately found himself back in his own barn on his farm. Folklorist Ella Leather recounted the Herefordshire folk story of a boy who got lost in woods and was taken in at night by two old women. They woke at midnight, put on two caps and said “here’s off,” which took them to a faery ring. The boy copied what they did and joined them in the dance and then flew with them to a lord’s cellar where he drank too much wine. Facing execution for this theft, he is saved by a woman appearing on the scaffold with another magic cap.
Lastly, there is the story of a woman from Arisaig, near Lochaber in Inverness-shire, who was given a cap by the local faery folk. It had the power to cure the illness of any who wore it. Evidently (as I’ve said before) faery magic is not innate. It can be bestowed by anointing with the special green faery salve, it may come from books of spells and special spoken charms- and it might come from items of clothing.
I’ve just returned from a week away in North Yorkshire, a trip with a several faery highlights. Part of the time, we were staying near Robin Hood’s Bay, just south of Whitby, a town now famed for its links with Bram Stoker, Dracula and- by extension- Goth and steam punk visitors. By poor planning, we missed the Goth festival by a week and, as a result, the only vaguely gothy person we saw appeared to be only thirteen years old- just a bairn. All the same, we enjoyed the jet jewellery and the ruins of the abbey of St Hilda.
Nearer to where we were staying was a small bay called Boggle Hole. This had to be visited, as you’ll understand. Sadly, the tide was in, so neither hole nor boggle could be seen… However:
To the north of Whitby was a small seaside resort called Sandsend, sitting at the foot of a very steep hill called Lythe Bank. Both were of personal significance to me, as my great great grandmother’s family used to go on holiday there in mid-Victorian times (and I still have the postcards they bought to prove it). Running up the valley behind Sandsend is Mulgrave Wood- another key faery site. In the wood there used to live a violent and ill-tempered sprite called Jeanie. Locals were unsure whether to call her a bogle or a faery but, certainly, she didn’t like to be called by the name she’d been allotted. One man who did so was pursued viciously by her; she killed his horse and he only escaped her by crossing a stream. For better or worse, the woods are closed in May, so I’ll need to visit again to try to meet Jeanie.
Slightly further north again was Runswick Bay, on the south shore of which the map shows the ‘Hob Holes.’ At some point, a hob lived in a cave here and would cure children of the whooping cough if invoked with this verse: “Hob! Hob! Ma bairn’s getten kin-cough/ Take’t off! Take’t off!” Not having a sickly child with me, I didn’t recite the verse and risk annoying the hob… Another helpful hob is reported to live at Hob Garth near Mulgrave. In 1760, a misunderstanding arose between two local farmers and one of them escalated it into a feud by breaking his neighbour’s hedges and setting his sheep free. Mysteriously, though, the damage was repaired, the sheep were returned and much worse damage was inflicted on the guilty party. This happened a second time and locals realised that the local hob had sided with one of the pair. Soon after, the favoured farmer met a little old man, bent double over a walking stick, and with very long hair and very large feet, hands, eyes and mouth, who assured him that in years to come he would always do well at lambing time. This subsequently happened, whilst the malicious neighbour lost many sheep.
We then spent a few days further west in the Yorkshire Dales. Whilst there, we visited the small town of Barnard Castle on the River Tees (for British readers: “to test my eyesight” of course). The Tees, especially slightly further downstream at Piercebridge, is inhabited by the malign water sprite called ‘Peg Powler’. She drags incautious children from the banks under the choppy waters of the river; the foam on the river’s surface is called Peg Powler’s Suds, or cream, depending upon how agitated the water has become. I was excited to see the Tees looking churned up and covered in Peg’s suds on the day we were there.
Slightly further upstream from Barnard Castle is the village of Middleton in Teesdale. I considered visiting there too because Janet Bord’s book, Fairies, describes how a lost faery girl with red eyes was found alone near Tower Hill at Middleton. The woman who found her took the child home, sat her by the fire and gave her bread and cheese to eat, but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity on her distress and decided to return her to the place by the river where she’d been found. This was a spot where it was believed that the faeries came to bathe, so it was hoped and assumed that the girl’s parents would return for her. However, close study of the map revealed no Tower Hill, so we decided not to wander the countryside with no idea of where we were headed. This turned out to be fortunate: I checked my sources when I got home- and realised that Bord may have made a mistake. There is a Tower Hill on the Tees, but it’s several miles downstream (east of Darlington) between Middleton St George and Middleton One Row, in an area called Dinsdale. The hill is actually the motte of a Norman castle, just the sort of green hill that faeries might frequent (this is certainly the case at Bishopton, which is only a few miles away to the north, where some men digging in the hill were warned off by a disembodied faery voice).
It was good to actually see several of these locations; I’ve discussed many of the boggarts, bogles and hobs in my Beyond Faery, but it helps to get a feel of the real location and a sense of how remote (or not) they are. In most cases, these incidents took place in places full of human activity. The faeries were living on the people’s doorsteps.
I’ve just finished watching the Netflix series Katla from Iceland- and decided to give a quick plug to a fascinating and clever modern faery story.
Without wanting to give too much plot away, the volcano called Katla has been erupting for a year, devastating the local community. Suddenly, people start to appear who are either dead or from the past. They are termed umskiftingar (translated as ‘changelings‘ in the subtitles)- although my Icelandic dictionary tells me the correct word ought to be skiptimenn and that the term used in the series means ‘transitions.’
Now, I’m no expert on the folklore of the Icelandic álfar (elves), although I’d certainly expect there to be some sort of changeling phenomenon very like that in British faerylore. Katla makes intelligent and quite modern use of the concept: these present-day changelings are born in a volcanic vent under a glacier and they appear in people’s lives where there is unfinished psychological business, grief and bereavement. They can be a violent and distressing presence, but they seem to be meant to help individuals resolve problems and recover- unlike the authentic changelings of British tradition which, as they are substitutes for stolen babies, bring loss and upset where there was none before.
Anyway, it’s weird and shocking in places, but recommended.
Researching something else entirely, I realised I had gathered together a number of references to the connection between faeries and ash trees. I thought it was worthwhile pulling these together, simply to show the breadth of their ties to the natural world. We are used to reading about links to hawthorns and elders, and about their aversion to the rowan/ mountain ash, but the folklore is richer than this. There are, of course, the many herbs and flowers with faery associations as well as other trees- oaks, yews and- it seems- ash.
Visiting Largs in Ayrshire, Highland folklorist John Gregorson Campbell was told this story:
“A man cut a slip from an ash-tree growing near a Fairy dwelling. On his way home in the evening he stumbled and fell. He heard the Fairies give a laugh at his mishap. Through the night he was hoisted away, and could tell nothing of what happened till in the morning he found himself in the byre, astride on a cow, and holding on by its horns.”
Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands, 1900, 78
The strong (we might say excessive) faery reaction to a branch being cut from the tree clearly indicates that they felt a strong affinity for the ash and wished to act to protect it. We are familiar with this behaviour in cases where people have sought to fell thorns or elders.
This story seems reasonably understandable, in itself, but it sits oddly with other folk traditions. For example, around Rhyl, North Wales in the late 1880s, it was recorded that ash sap was given to babies to stop the tylwyth teg taking them (Llangollen Advertiser, Nov.9th 1888). The same was reported for the Scottish Highlands in Choice Notes & Queries for 1859. The note added that the sap was a powerful astringent that protects against both faeries and witches. I have also read that the tree’s seeds, the ash keys, might be placed in cradles to guard against changelings. We have an apparent contradiction, then: the faeries will protect an ash tree, but they are also repelled by it. Perhaps there’s some almost homeopathic property being exploited here.
The role of the ash in human health in Britain seems well established. Gilbert White, in the Natural History of Selborne, recorded that sickly children might be passed naked through a cleft in a pollard ash before dawn in order to cure ruptures. The cleft would often be made specially for this purpose and would then be bound up again afterwards, healing over as the child also healed. There might even be a longer term link between the health and survival of the tree and that of the person. Harm to the tree would be reflected in the healed person’s body and life-span, meaning that people could become highly protective of the tree that had cured them. This custom survived in some rural parts of England (such as Somerset and Suffolk) as late as the 1880s and ’90s.
Sidney Hartland (author of The Science of Fairy Tales) wrote about these ash tree cures in the journal Folklore for 1896 (vol.7 pages 303-6). His accounts of ceremonies don’t mention any faery aspect, but they include fascinating detail: in both Suffolk and Somerset, the child was put through three times. In the first county, three different people had to do this; at Bishop’s Lydeard in Somerset the sick child was passed through from a virgin girl to a boy. The patient had to be face-up as this was done.
There may, too, be some much deeper tie with Norse and, possibly, Anglo-Saxon myths of Yggdrasil, the ash tree supporting the universe- which, of course, includes Alfheim, home of the elves. In fact, as Robert Graves records in the White Goddess, the ash tree has significance in Greek and Irish mythology as well. It seems that we only have the merest traces of something more complex and significant.
For a broader discussion of faeries, plants and the natural world, see my recent book with Green Magic Publishing on the subject.
Last year I published British Pixieswith Green Magic Publishing. I’ve recently been undertaking media interviews to promote the book and, in discussion with journalists and radio hosts, the question of contemporary sightings came up several times. This made me think about our more recent sources of information, the Fairy Census2014-17 and Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies (plus a few cases mentioned by Janet Bord in Fairies) so I decided to have a look what the reports from the English ‘pixie counties’- Cornwall, Somerset and Devon- have to tell us about encounters in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
First of all, some parameters. The witness evidence stretches from the Mendips and Minehead on Exmoor in the east as far west as the Penwith peninsula and St Ives. One case (at least) dates back to before the Second World War, but most come from the 1990s and subsequent decades. We might also exclude, quickly, what we’re not going to say very much about. There are, for example, five experiences of faery music, which has been heard both inside and out; there are four ‘faery beasts‘ reported- a tiny cat, a small blue horse the size of a dog, a reptilian tree spirit and an ent-like animated tree seen in an urban street. In four cases, moving lights were observed- of which, one group resolved into winged fairies; another group were associated with some ‘gnomes’ whilst a pixie being was seen to actually glow or have a halo.
I’ve had to be a bit rough and ready with my classification of the beings seen and other people could well sort out the evidence quite differently to me. As I’m trying to track down the modern pixie, I’ve (perhaps arbitrarily) lumped together all small, brown humanoids, whether their observers called them gnomes, goblins or (indeed) pixies. In eight cases people actually labelled what they’d seen explicitly as pixies; one Cornish man also saw what he called a bucca in his garden though, as I discuss at the start of British Pixies, it’s not entirely clear that there is any strict taxonomic separation between the ‘pixies,’ ‘spriggans,’ ‘knockers,’ pobel vean (little people) or buccas of the South West.
A line may be drawn rather arbitrarily, too, between pixies and other fairies and elves. Overall, I found 58 reports of faery beings in the widest sense. Of these, I think 22 (38%) could be classed as pixies. Another 26 (45%) we might call faeries or elves. Amongst these there were 15 (25% of the overall total) that were recorded by witnesses as having wings. I won’t go on about this aspect again here, other than to remark that wings are (as you know!) not part of British faery tradition. Nuff said.
As for them there piskies, many entirely meet our preconceptions of the type or species. They were small (typically between one foot and three feet tall), looked weathered, had long hair and bushy beards and were dressed in brown (some green and red garments are also reported). One figure seen in Somerset looked to be covered in leaves and branches; a pair of pixies spotted in a wood near Minehead had little conical hats made of wood.
There were some quite aberrant sightings though. Up on the Penwith moors near Men an Tol, a couple saw a young man, of normal human height, but running barefoot at considerable speed. He seemed friendly, but was encountered only at a distance, his clothes appearing ‘unusual’ or home-made so far as they could tell. I’ve lumped him with the pixies, tho’ perhaps I shouldn’t. Weirder still were two beings met by a woman on the coast somewhere near St Austell in the 1930s. The male was two feet tall, lithe and brown she said; the female seemed to be covered in hair like a horse and was striped yellow and brown. They were very chatty. Having lived in St Austell and close by, it’s frustrating indeed not to have any better guide as to location. Equally vague- and just marginally weirder- was a small man in black seen on the coast on the Cornwall/ Devon border- up north of Bude, somewhere, we must suppose. This character turned into a furry rolling cylinder as the witness watched.
Shapeshifting isn’t entirely unheard of, needless to say. A gnome met in a lane near Polperro transformed into a tree stump before the little girl’s parents caught up with her and saw him; a small man about 1′ 6″ tall seen swinging on a fence on the Mendips changed into some wisps of straw. Several of the beings simply vanished, as is the faery way.
What’s the pixie habitat, these days? In eighteen cases we have a clear statement of location. Two were sighted inside- the rest were outdoors. Six were seen in woods, three on the coast and the same number in gardens, lanes and fields. Some of them were busy. Six little men, about 8″ tall, stopped a car in a Cornish lane because they were carrying a ladder across the road. Two cars, each containing several passengers, watched a strange shuffling figure about 2′ 6″ tall slowly cross a lane somewhere on the moors between St Ives and Land’s End. Some ‘gnomes’ seen in a Cornish wood were tidying up the leaves and twigs. Back on the north coast, two pixie men were seen apparently sawing down a gorse bush.
There were interactions with people too. The Polperro pixie seemed cheery and the St Austell ‘husband and wife’ were very talkative, but an ugly little man somewhat resembling a frog or an artichoke (one assumes, he was green, therefore) was very cross when his hiding place in a pile of logs was disturbed. A pixie seen in the hedge by a road in Cornwall pointed accusingly at a man as he drove past at speed; the man was so stunned by this that he slowed down- and therefore probably avoided an nasty accident just around the next sharp corner. Finally, a woman sitting quietly on a log in the woods at Berry Pomeroy castle near Totnes in Devon must have unwittingly trespassed on a pixie’s privacy, because he ran along the log and slapped her in the face without provocation.
So- what can we conclude from this curious catalogue? Well, the pixies are still there, getting on with their business, it appears. Many look exactly like the pixies of folk tradition, although other beings that don’t are still labelled pixies by the witnesses, perhaps because they were seen in the South West and therefore ‘had’ to be pixies. There have, though, been some very strange experiences indeed and- we must recognise- more people came across what they saw as brightly coloured winged faeries. As I’ve remarked before about the Fairy Census, it can present us with results that challenge fundamentally our preconceptions about the nature of ‘faery.’ This has always tended to persuade me that these witnesses were being entirely honest about what they saw: if they wanted to pretend to have seen a faery, you might expect them to describe it in the current conventional terms- like Tinker Bell or a flower faery. As reader Eternal Anglo Seax remarked in a comment on one of my recent postings “Would it be passé to do the Shakespeare quote about books and philosophies?” Clearly, we shouldn’t be too didactic about these things…
I recently met a friend who used to live in Ireland in the early 1970s. He had an old farmhouse that had been built inside a rath (an embanked Iron Age farmstead). He and his wife wanted to create a vegetable plot, but the ideal spot was obstructed by two large boulders. A neighbouring farmer was asked to come over in his tractor to help remove the offending rocks. When he arrived, the neighbour glanced at the stones embedded in the rath banks and announced that the work couldn’t be done (not by him anyway). “There’s rooms down there,” was all he’d say- before returning home in his tractor. The boulders stayed where they were- and the inhabitants of those rooms, the sidhe folk, were left undisturbed and un-riled. Odd things still happened in the farmhouse, but nothing on the scale of the harassment that would have been provoked had the faery dwellings been seriously interfered with.
Such incidents were- and are- common in Ireland, and Janet Bord in Fairies gives quite a few examples. Roads are diverted to avoid certain rocks and thorn trees; farm improvements are not hazarded. A similar circumspection prevails in Iceland too. However, in Britain, this caution and self-preservation does not any longer seem to exist. There’s plenty of evidence that it once did, but it appears that the British have since become reckless, or careless, or both.
As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, the faeries frequently live beneath rounded hills, known in the Scottish Highlands as knolls or knowes in English and sithein or tolman in Gaelic. These are normally distinguished by their shape and by the lush green of the grass on them. They provide privacy for the inhabitants, yet at the same time they indicate to humans the faery presence- and the need to approach with caution. You’d think this would act as a warning to people to keep well away, but it doesn’t always work out this way, and, though there’re stories of humans rewarded for showing respect to and, wherever possible avoiding, faery hillocks, there are far more concerning people who’ve violated them.
The wise know these sites are the faeries’ and they take care of them. For instance, in the Highlands an old man kept the hillock near his house very clean by clearing from it any animal droppings or other dirt. He did this mainly because he liked to sit on there on summer evenings, but one dusk a small man whom he didn’t know appeared and thanked him for his care. In return, the stranger promised that if the man’s cattle should stray at night, they would be kept out of the crops. A second farmer, who always avoided pasturing his horses and cows on a hillock and resisted taking turf from the knoll, was rewarded by the faes who would drive his livestock to shelter whenever a storm arose at night.
Knowing that the faeries are down below, some people even go so far as to make offerings to them there. On the Isle of Arran the faeries are especially closely linked to the megalithic complex of Machrie Moor. One of the stone circles there is a double ring called Fion-gal’s Cauldron Seat, beneath which a faery or brownie is known to live. He used to be propitiated by pouring milk into a hole in the side of one of the stones.
We have far more accounts of when things go wrong– for the obvious reason that they serve as lessons for the rest of us. A man on island of Coll went to pull brambles from a faery knowe but heard someone call out angrily to him from inside. He ran away in fright. Even quite minor trespasses can provoke very hostile responses. A man travelling over a hill near Loch Awe paused to rest at the summit, but two enraged faeries appeared and gave him a severe warning not to lounge about on the top of their home. However, he dated to pass the same way again and this time was assaulted by three faeries, who warned him never to come back on pain of even worse.
Fortunately, the faeries will often give the intruder a warning first. Three Perthshire men set out to strip turf from the top of a knoll. When they got there, they all felt suddenly exhausted and lay down for a nap. On awaking later, each had been carried off some distance, one finding himself a quarter of a mile away in a pool. In the similar story, The Fairies of Merlin’s Craig, the offending turf cutter was abducted and forced to swear never to take turves again before he was freed.
An equally non-violent and yet compelling way of getting a human to remedy a trespass is seen in the case of a Scottish woman who dreamed that she was visited by a strange female complaining that the stake used for tethering a cow was letting rain fall onto her child’s cradle. The first night this happened, the woman dismissed it. After the same dream three nights in a row, she realised that it was a message, so she went, closed up the hole she’d made- and ended the dream warnings. In more common versions of this incident, the person who hammers a peg into a knoll to tether a horse is met with complaints from inside that he has made a hole that’s causing a leak. He wisely and immediately agrees to tether his animal elsewhere; sometimes, in gratitude, the inhabitants direct him to the best grazing nearby.
A well known example from Gwynedd in North Wales features a different sort of leak upsetting the faeries. A farmer used to go outside his house to relieve himself every night before bed. One evening, a stranger appeared beside the man complaining about his annoying behaviour. The farmer asked how he could be upsetting a neighbour he’d never seen before, to which the stranger replied that his house was just below where they stood and, if the farmer placed his foot on the other’s, he’d see this. The farmer complied and with the transferred second sight saw clearly that all the slops from his house were going down the chimney of the other’s home, which stood far below in a street he’d never seen before. The faery advised him to put his door in the other side of the house and that, if he did so, his cattle would never suffer from disease.The farmer obeyed and after that time he was prosperous man.
Men building a new house on the Scottish island of Tiree took a stone from a nearby sithean or fairy hill. They had ample warning to desist as the stone kept returning nightly to the place where they found it- but they kept removing it the following day. Eventually, one of the builders fell ill, at which point they realised their error, reburied the stone and gave up. A comparable incident is reported from County Durham in Northern England. Soil was being dug from an old castle near Bishopton when a voice was heard to ask- “Is all well?” The excavators confirmed that it was, to which the voice replied “Then keep well when you’re well and leave the Fairy Hill alone.”
If the human won’t take the hint, he must accept the consequences, which can be dire. An Orkney farmer who dug into a faery mound was confronted by a little grey man who angrily told him that, if he dared to take another spadeful, six of his cows would die and, if he still persisted, there would be six funerals in the family. The man went on- with predictable results. Even disturbances in the vicinity of a fairy knoll can be fatal. On Islay it was decided to reclaim some waste land surrounding a hillock called Cnoc an-t Sithein (Fairy Hill). It should probably have been pretty obvious that this land had been left fallow for a good reason; nonetheless, ploughing started. The first ploughman was killed by one of his horses in an accident; the next person set to the task was cursed with great bad luck. A similar catalogue of misfortunes befell a man on Guernsey who partially demolished La Rocque qui Sonne dolmen. The local faeries then implacably but steadily destroyed every aspect of his life and business. A miller at Rosehall, near Lairg in Sutherland, dug earth from a knoll for his mill dam. The fairies responded instantly, swarming at him and driving him into the sea some twenty miles away before returning to destroy his new mill. This seems relatively mild compared to two cases in which farmers destroyed knolls, as a result of which cattle plague blighted their cows and then spread to all the herds in the district.
So, we have stories from the length and breadth of the British Isles attesting to the belief of past generations that there were, indeed, ‘rooms down there’ and that they had to be respected and preserved. There’s almost no trace of that now. We can even see it vanishing. Samuel Hitchins, in his History of Cornwall (1824 ), said that the faery faith was fading in the county, except amongst the aged and uneducated, but even so:
“By some, even the places of their resort are still pointed out, and particular fields and lanes are distinguished as spots which they were accustomed to frequent. To these bushes and hedges, near which they were presumed to assemble, some degrees of veneration are still attached. An indefinite species of sanctity is still associated with their beaten circles [i.e. faery rings] and it is thought unlucky to injure their haunts or throw any obstacle in their way.”
The traces of respect for faery sites lingered, therefore, in the early nineteenth century. I’d be prepared to bet that it actually persisted a lot later than this, given the continuous human tendency to think that it’s their grandparents’ generation who believed in such things- never their own. Hitchins’ mention of faery rings is, I’d say, significant, because in England it’s probably the case that wariness over rings (both entering them and deliberately damaging them)- and possibly certain trees too, such as the elder– has lasted longer than misgivings associated with hills. Nevertheless, we have become disconnected from the knowledge of our ancestors, perhaps because of the urbanisation and dislocation of the Industrial Revolution. That fact that we’ve forgotten what they learned through bitter experience doesn’t, of course, mean that the faeries have necessarily moved away. There are still ‘rooms down there‘- and we overlook this at our peril.
Many of the cases mentioned are discussed in greater detail in my Darker Side of Faery. See, too, my Faeries & The Natural World and 2020’s Faery.
In 1910, researching his seminal Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, Walter Evans Wentz travelled around Wales interviewing witnesses. In North Caernarfonshire, he recorded the local prominence given to belief in bwganod, goblins or bogies. In Montgomeryshire, he met a Mr D. Davies-Williams, who recalled:
“When I was a boy there was very much said… especially about the Bwganod, plural of Bwgan, meaning a sprite, ghost, hobgoblin, or spectre. The Bwganod were supposed to appear at dusk, in various forms, animal and human; and grown-up people as well as children had great fear of them.”
Fairy Faith, 1911, 143 & 145
The bwgan may be unfamiliar to many readers, but it is a fascinating example of one of those supernatural beings that sits on the very borderline between the humanoid and more approachable ‘faery’ (or, strictly, tylwyth teg or ellyll, as we’re discussing Wales) and those creatures that are verging towards being murderous monsters. There are plenty of these across Britain- the redcap of Northern England is another that springs to mind- and their exact classification (if we’re going to try to be scientific about this) is tricky. In my encyclopaedia of faery beasts, Beyond Faery, I elected to place the goblins over the boundary, but- as will become clear- it’s not so easy to be clear cut.
The bwgan has relatives around the British Isles- on the Isle of Man there’s the boaj (The Cambrian, Dec.16th 1887, 6) and in Scotland there’s the bauchan, whose name is very clearly related. They all share similar characteristics: the Welsh term bwganbrain (scare-crow) gives you an idea what we’ll find. The Weekly News & Chronicle for May 2nd 1903 summarised the bwgan as “a terrible something of an ethereal nature,” which nicely captures the amorphous threat and sense of terror that may be associated with it. There’s a nut-wood near Holywell that’s haunted by the Bwgan Coed-y-Nant whilst, in the same county, the BwganNant-y-Cythraul was a sort of ghost that appeared in the form of a man, a hare or a dog (Flintshire Observer, 15/1/1885, 5; Caernarfon & Denbigh Herald, 27/9/1879, 8). Thus, the Amman Valley Chronicle in 1919 offered a further definition: the English ‘bogeyman’ in Welsh finds equivalents in the bwgan, bwbach and the bwcci bo– to which you can compare ‘buggaboo‘ (Chronicle, 15/5/1919, 4).
Bwganod can haunt and they have some kinship to ghosts (and, for that matter, boggarts) and, as such, they can be laid by some form of religious or magical ceremony.
The Welsh poet and writer Thomas Gwynn Jones wrote an excellent study of Welsh Folklore & Customs in 1930. He began his chapter on the faeries by distinguishing the tylwyth teg as being “non-ghostly apparitions” in contrast to the bwca, bwci and bwbach that are ghost-like and scary (in Middle Welsh the verb bwbachu means ‘to scare). Elsewhere in the book Gwynn Jones epitomised the bwbach, bwci and bwgan as “haunting spirits, essentially ghosts,” beings whose terrifying potential was enhanced by their shapeshifting abilities (Welsh Folklore & Customs, 32 & 51). The bwbach llwyd of the mountains near Beddgelert could appear as a shepherd on mountain tracks, suddenly disappearing, or would haunt lowland fields, frightening children- who were warned to beware him (just as Mr Davies-Williams recalled of his own youth earlier).
The confusing thing is that the bwbach, which is obviously treated as very similar to the bwgan, can have a far more benign and domestic reputation. Here we need to go back a little earlier than Evans Wentz for a good account of the goblin’s nature. Wirt Sikes, in his British Goblins of 1880, told several stories about the being. At the start of his book, he broadly classified the bwbachod as “household fairies,” which definitely doesn’t sound very ghost-like (p.12). Later, he expanded on this:
“The Bwbach, or Boobach, is the good-natured goblin which does good turns for the tidy Welsh maid, who wins its favour by a certain course of behaviour recommended by long tradition. The maid having swept the kitchen, makes a good fire the last thing at night, and having put the churn, filled with cream, on the whitened hearth, with a basin of fresh cream for the Bwbach on the hob, goes to bed to await the event. In the morning she finds (if she is in luck) that the Bwbach has emptied the basin of cream, and plied the churn-dasher so well that the maid has but to give a thump or two to bring the butter in a great lump. Like the Ellyll which it so much resembles, the Bwbach does not approve of dissenters and their ways, and especially strong is its aversion to total abstainers.”
Sikes, British Goblins, 31
Sikes then went on to tell an amusing story of a bwbach from Ceredigion that took against a Baptist preacher who was a guest in the house it was attached to. The preacher loved his prayers, and not pints of strong ale by a fire with good company, and the bwbach accordingly tormented him until he was driven out of the district. This behaviour might be regarded as ‘haunting,’ but the bwbach’s tricks, pulling away stools and scaring horses, might well remind us of the hobgoblin Puck, whilst Sikes’ general description is incontestably of a being a great deal more like a brownie than a ghost. As Sikes went on to remark:
“The same confusion in outlines which exists regarding our own Bogie and Hobgoblin gives the Bwbach a double character, as a household fairy and as a terrifying phantom. In both aspects it is ludicrous, but in the latter it has dangerous practices. To get into its clutches under certain circumstances is no trifling matter, for it has the power of whisking people off through the air. Its services are brought into requisition for this purpose by troubled ghosts who cannot sleep on account of hidden treasure they want removed; and if they can succeed in getting a mortal to help them in removing the treasure, they employ the Bwbach to transport the mortal through the air…”
Later in the book, the parallels with brownies and boggarts are underlined with the story of the bwbach of Hendrefawr farm in Merioneth. He was a constant nuisance to the family so they decided to move house to escape him. The attempt failed, because the bwbach was found to be ‘flitting‘ with the family and its furniture- something that brownies and hobgoblins do too (Sikes, p.117). Underlining the kinship, Sikes elsewhere stated that “the Bwbach is usually brown, often hairy” (p.133). Later still (p.190), he compared the creature to the pwca, remarking that “It might be urged that this spirit was a Bwbach, if a fairy at all…” With this last remark, we are almost back to square one, as the ambivalent status of the bwbach and bwgan are once again underlined.
As these examples demonstrate, even within a relatively small geographical area, the experiences and definitions of supernatural entities can be quite different- if not contradictory- so that drawing strict lines between ‘species’ and temperaments can be very difficult. Of course, we may well make matters harder for ourselves through a mistaken wish to imbue faeries with only friendly and helpful traits. As the folklore tradition demonstrates repeatedly, there’s an undeniable ‘dark side’ to faery which, if we bear it in mind, may make the negative qualities of the bwbach and bwgan seem far less anomalous.
The bwbach and bwgan are by no means unique in Britain , though. Very similar indeed is the English boggart, a being with an almost identical dual personality. There are plenty of stories of boggarts performing a domestic role equivalent to that of the brownie- undertaking farm chores and living and eating in the farmhouse. Yet this helpful and relatively friendly being can also (as it were, in the wild) prove at the very least terrifying if not outright dangerous. It haunts certain locations, scares travellers, plays malevolent pranks and occasionally inflicts fatal vengeance on those that annoy it. Indeed, the domestic boggart can react with some fury if it feels insulted or underappreciated. The folklore of the British Isles is, therefore, rich and complex. Faery folk are not monochrome characters that are either wholly benevolent or entirely monstrous. They- like us- can be complicated and unpredictable, sometimes good, sometimes very bad.
Alfred Waagner (1886-1960) was an Austrian painter and illustrator who, as a young man, was fully expected by his family to progress through a distinguished and successful career as a chemist or a mechanical engineer. Instead, after completing his scientific studies in 1907, he followed an interest in painting aroused by his study of colour chemistry and began to study art at the Vienna School of Applied Arts.
Within a year of his graduation in 1912, he was exhibiting work (two still lifes and a female nude- [madchenakt]) at the ‘alternative’ Vienna Secession. Thereafter, Waagner continued to be associated with the Secessionists, standing in opposition to the conventions of ‘academic’ art and aligning with the vanguard of new developments such as Symbolism. His inspiration by Gustav Klimt, as well as by earlier renaissance painters such as Hans Baldung Grien, have…
Amazon have recently released a trailer for their new Lord of the Rings series and there has been disquiet amongst Tolkien fans to see that non-white characters are included amongst the cast. My own (British) newspaper devoted nearly a whole page to the debate this sparked. In the course of the article, the journalist reporting suggested that there was already good precedent for such diversity in the Norse Prose Edda, which refers to the svartalfar- the dark or black elves (the journalist plainly understanding svart in the sense of ‘swarthy’ in English). This suggestion was, I believe, entirely misconceived- firstly, because Norsemen actually referred to black people as ‘blue men’ (blaumenn). Secondly, and equally as importantly, Old Norse speakers weren’t using the word ‘black’ in the modern sense seen in ‘Black Lives Matter.’ They deployed it as contrast to ‘white’ in the dark/ light or good/ evil dichotomy, as is made abundantly clear by the other ‘clan’ of elves mentioned in the Edda, the ljosalfar or ‘light elves.’
Crofton Croker, in Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland vol.3 (which largely isn’t about Ireland at all), discussed the Norse elves at some length. Quoting from the Grimm Brothers, he described the white, shining elves of light as being pure of colour and nearly transparent, dressed too in white or silver garments. They can be depicted as snow-white virgins who appear in the midday sunlight and disappear at dusk- the sun itself being called alfrodull (shining on the elves). Amongst these beings are the water elves who resemble white swans.
All in all, then, we can’t call on the Prose Edda to support Amazon’s decision to have a diverse cast. Does this mean that there’s no basis for such an idea? I’d say not, because, in fact, British faerylore and literature suggest that Amazon may not have strayed from tradition at all. Interestingly, earlier eras appear to have been more open to ideas of varied faery skin tones than we may be today- a subject I reviewed in my book The Faery Lifecycle (2021).
There’s a well-established tendency for us to assume that the British past was whiter than the present. In fact, a racially diverse population has been with us since Roman times (and, if we want to go back into the Mesolithic, Cheddar Man has been shown by DNA to be dark skinned, albeit blue-eyed). Certainly, during the Middle Ages British people were familiar enough with non-white neighbours- and that, apparently, included the Good Neighbours.
Medieval chronicler William of Newburgh, writing about England in the late 1100s, recounted the story of a man called Ketell, from North Yorkshire, who was accosted on the road by two little black men. Although it is often the case in faery accounts that any colour mentioned relates to the faeries’ clothes, rather than to their complexion, the Latin text in this case reads “duos quasi Ethiopes parvulos.” There’s no mistaking William’s meaning here: the men Ketell encountered looked like ‘two little black Africans.’ Much more recently, some men “with black faces and wee green coaties” were seen by Jenny Rogers, wife of the coachman on an estate in the Scottish Borders. Once again, they seem to have been diminutive- judging by the coats anyway- and they don’t have a Caucasian skin tone. Likewise, some little people seen by men working in the fields at Strathpeffer were reported to have had “very dark skins” (although we must admit that weather-beaten skin is another very common faery trait).
Similar diversity is found in faery writing too. For example, in William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the faery court has very strong connections with the far east, with Titania and Oberon disputing over a boy “stolen from an Indian king” whose mother served as a “votaress” to Titania, the pair having been in the habit of sitting together gossiping in the “spiced Indian air, by night.” Likewise, Milton in Paradise Lost imagined faeries as a “Pygmean race beyond the Indian mount.” In 1819, the poet John Keats described a faery city “in midmost Ind [India]” where a “fay of colour” resided- although admittedly this character is presented as an unhappy exception to the ruling population, being “slave from top to toe/ Sent as a present…”
These references all demonstrate that, into the early nineteenth century, there was no difficulty conceiving of a racially mixed Faery- even if the human evils of enslavement were reproduced there as well. This may have been done primarily for exotic effect, but at the same time there was no apparent sense that non-white faeries were impossible to imagine, either for authors or their audiences.
We might go even further, though, for there is in fact quite a lot of evidence (especially in Tudor and Stuart– sixteenth and seventeenth century- British sources)- as well as some more recent Welsh sightings- that faery beings might have skin colourings radically different from our own. Texts mention faes whose faces are chalk white, jet black, crimson, blue and green. It’s quite possible that the faeries in green coats with black faces seen by Jenny Rogers were in fact to be counted amongst these faes.
We have forgotten some of the more ‘alien’ looking skin tones that our ancestors apparently took in their stride just as (it seems) we have forgotten the potentially racially mixed nature of earlier faery sightings. As for Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, I suspect that he knew perfectly well what older generations had seen and written about. He was extremely well read in traditional stories, as well as in the medieval literature and myth, in light of which he may well not have been that surprised or distressed by Amazon’s decision to include some black actors in their adaptation.
A common origin story for the faeries is that they are a remnant of the angels that rebelled with Satan. As more and more angels quit heaven, god commanded that the doors of heaven and hell both be closed- “And those who were in were in, and those who were out were out; while the hosts who had left heaven and had not reached hell flew into the holes of the earth, like the stormy petrels. These are the Fairy Folk- ever since doomed to live under the ground, and only allowed to emerge where and when they are permitted.” This is a Scottish version recorded by Evans-Wentz in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (page 85). It echoes through his book, though. At Pontrhydfendigaid, a village about two miles from the railway-station called Strata Florida, Wentz met Mr. John Jones, aged ninety-four, who also confirmed that “the Tylwyth Teg live in holes in the hills…” (page 116). Equally, Wentz was told that the Breton faes live in “natural caverns or grottoes in the sea-cliffs” (203 & 211); the same was heard repeatedly in Ireland and elsewhere in Scotland (93), Man (117) and in Wales (144 & 149).
Let’s consider a few actual examples. Midwives have proved to be a good source of evidence on faery dwellings because their profession demands that they are taken to the woman in labour. Frequently, too, they come into contact with that green ointment which is used to anoint the newborn faery’s eyes- and which can dispel glamour if accidentally rubbed on a mortal’s eyes. Midwives, therefore, are taken into faery homes and frequently find the true nature of those homes revealed to them. Katherine Briggs, in her Dictionary of Fairies (pages 296-8) describes two such cases. The first is quite modern- from the 1920s: a district nurse at Greenhow Hill, near Pateley Bridge in North Yorkshire, was approached on a bus by a strange man who took her to a cave in the side of the hill where she attended a ‘pixie’ delivery. The second case Briggs cited was that of Eilian of Garth Dorwen, south of Caernarfon. Contact with the ointment meant that the midwife could see that the new mother “lay on a bundle of rushes and withered ferns in a large cave, with big stones all round her” rather than the fine room the woman had initially supposed.
This Welsh story was taken by Briggs from John Rhys’ Celtic Folklore (vol.1 page 213), a book which is full of references to the tylwyth teg living in caves. Rhys also gives evidence of caves that lead down into Faery (for instance at Croes Wylan, near Oswestry, [p.411] as well as other examples near Criccieth, Tal y Clegyr and Bettws y Coed) plus caves where treasure is concealed or where King Arthur and his men lie sleeping (often the same places). The fair folk were known to actually reside in caves at various locations (ten at least) around North Wales, amongst them Arennig Fawr, Trwyn Swch, Moel Eilio, Moel Hebog, Pantannas, Raven’s Rift, Ystradfellte and Tan yr Ogof (Rhys pages 457, 693, 83, 96, 176, 189, 191, 254 & 255). People were often captured by them in rings and then abducted to the caves. The latter seem to be the places where the tylwyth teg sheltered during the daytime, coming out at night to dance and to indulge in others activities- such as bathing their children in human homes.
An article published recently in the Fairy Investigation Society newsletter (issue 15) identified two other cave locations: one is in the slopes of Craig Rhiwarth hill fort in the Tanat Valley:
“The rings with which the southern slopes of the hill are more or less covered mark the exits from which the fairies emerged when twilight gathered, or mist descended, on the hill, and into which they disappeared again with the emergence of the full daylight.”
R. Richards, Montgomeryshire Collections, vol. 45, 1938, 196
(The Dartmoor pixies are reported to share the same habits, living under the moorland turf, or even the bogs, during the day and emerging at night. If discovered by humans and at too great a distance from the entrances to their homes, the pixies will take temporary shelter in rabbit holes- see my British Pixiesfor more).
A second is the cavern in Llanymynech hill, near Oswestry, which has been long noted as the home of a fairy clan, “to whom the neighbouring villages attribute many surprising and mischievous pranks. Whilst they have stopped to listen at the mouth of the cave, the people state that they have sometimes even heard the little elves in conversation, but this was always in such low whispers, that the words which were reverberated along the sides and roof of the cavern could not be distinguished. The stream that runs across a distant part of this cavern is celebrated as the place where the fairy washerwomen and labourers have been heard frequently at work.” (W. Bingley, Excursions in North Wales, 1839, 322-323)
Llanymynech Hill is also penetrated by a number of tunnels and “Tradition says this labyrinth communicated, by subterranean paths, with Carreghova Castle; and some persons aver that they have gone into it so far as to hear the rivers Fyrnwy and Tanat rolling over their heads, and that it leads down to Fairy-land.” (R. Llwyd, History of Wales, 1832, 295)
Thomas Keightley (Fairy Mythology, 311-312) recounts the experience of a doctor who treats a patient in a hall inside a mountain. The author also describes a midwife (or howdie) who was taken to a cottage which turned out to be just the bare ground sheltered by an old oak tree. Neither of these are precisely located- other than being ‘somewhere’ in England- though the dialect term ‘howdie’ might indicate a northern origin. Similar to this is another Welsh account, dated to 1910, which tells of another district nurse who attended a woman in labour in a chamber that was formed of bushes around a bed of moss (Welsh Outlook 18(2)).
All these caves sound bare and without furniture, apparently unimproved by their faery inhabitants. A couple of examples from the seventeenth century suggest that the accommodation need not be so spartan. The famous ‘Fairy Boy of Leith,’ who claimed to have been a regular visitor ‘under the hill,’ described “that within there were brave, large rooms as well accommodated as most in Scotland.” The East Yorkshire story of the ‘White Powder’ tells of a “fair hall” under a hill where the faery queen held her court. Of course, both of these may just be the deceptions of glamour, concealing the reality of unadorned caves.
There’s a preponderance of Welsh cases in our list of cave dwellings, but I don’t think this implies that the tylwyth teg are uniquely poorer than the rest of British Faery. Of course, the possibility remains open, that the faery lifestyle is frequently a great deal more open-air and simple than we might expect.
I’ll finish with one last witness experience illustrative of this last interpretation- which was reported on Neil Rushton’s deadbutdreaming blog. This encounter occurred in East Anglia on the Icknield Way long distance footpath near Hitchin. A man was walking his dog one May evening twenty years ago.
“There were no other people around but as I climbed up the hill I could smell and see smoke. I came across several people who were camping in the ditch. I then realised with absolute astonishment that they looked really ‘odd’. They were small in height and size and most appeared very old and wrinkled – as if they had lived outside all their lives. They were weathered looking with dark or grey hair, tied back. There were about ten or twelve of them in total; men and women. At least two of the women were nursing babies, well wrapped up. I did not notice any children. The tents were very small, brown, very old looking and appeared to be of leather. Most of the tents had small fires outside with cooking utensils hanging over the fires.”
These mysterious people were camping out and gave every impression of having camped out for their entire lives. Perhaps it is indeed the case that the faeries are a hardened outdoor folk, inured to cold and wet weather (or simply less susceptible to it than we mortals are). I have suggested in my book on the Faery Lifecyclethat they may feel frost and rain as much as us, pointing to the hobs who like to lie by farm fireplaces at night- but perhaps those hobs have just got soft through too much exposure to human comforts! Maybe the majority of faeries don’t mind (or don’t even notice) frugal shelters and poor climate- conditions that’d get us moaning within minutes…