Helpful Faeries

I have recently described the risks and gains of entering into deals with the faeries, one of which is the potential problem that the Good folk simply don’t know when to stop assisting the people they’ve favoured. Here I want to say a little more about the benefits and costs of being helped by our Good Neighbours.

The faeries can sometimes surprise us with the help and knowledge that they are prepared to provide to us, uninvited and unrewarded.  For example, an old woman from Arisdale on Yell had a long journey back to her home on a dark night.  Suddenly, she felt people gripping her hands and asked who it was.  Trows spoke, saying that they’d taken pity on her plight and had come to help her.  They blew and it became as light as day, then they guided her home and disappeared as soon as her door was open.  A similar tale from Skye involves a faery that carried a boy across a swollen stream so that he could get home safely on a stormy night.

Sometimes the faeries bestow their favours even more indiscriminately than this.  On South Uist, anyone who saw the door open in a knoll could enter and the inhabitants would teach you a skill.  A woman from Howmore went inside and learned to spin beautifully, taking the wool directly from the fleece, without spinning or carding first. We might note, in this connection, that it is possible that the ability may be passed to the human visitor almost unintentionally. William M’Kenzie was a weaver from Barcaldine near Oban. He entered a faery hill he saw open and joined a dance there. After a year and a day, he was rescued from the dancing by his friends (a very typical story across Britain). However, in this case, he returned home endowed with enhanced weaving skills: “he did more work in shorter time than any other” (Campbell, Superstitions, 66) and he was also a better piper than he’d been before. Another generous and spontaneous gift was made to a farmer on the island of Jersey.  Ploughing fields one day at L’Etacq, the faeries turned the man’s plough share and horse’s hooves into silver.

The best known manifestation of faery favour is the granting of three wishes, but this can often be used for satirical purposes, as in the following Scottish example.  A traveller couple were resting by the road when a little man appeared and offered to grant their wishes.  When the pair reached the next town, the woman saw some potato mashers in a shop and wished she had one: instantly, it was in her hand.  Her husband was angry because she’d wasted one of her magical wishes and he crossly wished it up her arse.  Forthwith, it was there- and his last wish went on getting it out again…  A very similar story, with a sausage on a wife’s nose, is also told in the Highlands.

The faeries can also display some unexpected skills.  A gamekeeper by the name of Cameron, from Kilmaile in Inverness-shire, fell asleep outside one day.  Whilst he slumbered, the faeries found his pocket watch and dismantled it.  Cameron took the timepiece to a watch maker, but he couldn’t reassemble it at all.  Luckily, though, a small bearded man in a blue suit suddenly appeared and quickly put the watch back together again.

It may come as little surprise to discover that fairy help isn’t always free.  Conditions of various kinds may be attached, which may impose burdens on the recipient- or someone else.  For instance, a farmer on Rannoch Moor near Glencoe heard the faeries talking amongst themselves, saying “some for me, some for you” as they apparently shared something out.  He repeated what they said and found that his cows gave him record amounts of milk: unfortunately, though, there was less milk produced on other local farms that night.  One person’s gain from the faes can often be another’s loss.

Fairy skills, when granted, must be properly respected by the lucky recipient.  The MacCrimmons are a Skye family renowned for their piping skills and possess a silver bagpipe chanter given to them by a fairy woman.  The original beneficiary of this gift met a faery who offered him the skill of sailing, might in battle or musical prowess.  He chose the latter but was warned always to reverence the chanter that came with it.  A descendant was once in a boat crossing a stormy stretch of sea- he wanted to play his pipes but was unable to do so because the boat was rocking so much on the swell.  He threw down the pipes in annoyance and cursed the chanter- which promptly detached itself and leapt into the sea.

Sometimes, skills and good fortune are provided in return for services rendered to the faes.  A midwife from Yell attended a birth in a trow home, which was reached down a staircase in a clifftop.  After the delivery, she wasn’t paid but instead she was offered the choice of a long life or great knowledge.  She chose the latter and became able to see what was to happen in the future. In Montgomeryshire on the Welsh border with England, a woman returning home one day came across a faery dog wandering stray and lost.  She took it home and kept it safe under a brass pot.  The next day the faeries appeared and she returned their dog to them.  She was asked if she preferred a “clean or a dirty cow.”  She chose dirty, which meant that her cows became the best milkers in the area.

In a final example from Guernsey, there was a farmhouse at St Saviour’s which was used annually by the local faes for a festival.  The understanding with the residents was that they would bake buns for their guests and then go to bed early that night, leaving the food on the table with the door unlocked.  If the faes enjoyed the baked goods provided, they would help the household all year.  If they didn’t appreciate the food, they would play tricks on the family for twelve months.

All in all, probably, faery aid is not to be desired. Scottish folklore expert John Gregorson Campbell warned of their help that “Their interference is never productive of good in the end and may prove destructive. Men cannot therefore be sufficiently on their guard against them.” As for their gifts, Campbell said that they “have evil influence associated with them and, however inviting at first, are productive of bad luck in the end. No wise man will desire either their company or their kindness. When they come to a house to assist in any work, the sooner they are got rid of the better. If they are hired as servants their wages at first appear trifling, but will ultimately ruin their employer. It is unfortunate even to encounter any of the race, but to consort with them is disastrous in the extreme.” This is a dire assessment, but Campbell knew the Scottish folklore in detail. It will be evident that any dealings of any description with the faeries must be very carefully weighed up in advance (Campbell, Superstitions of the Highlands, 2 & 23).

Many of these themes are also examined in my recent book from Green Magic Publishing, How Things Work in Faery.

Faeries & Sylphs in Wessex: the writing of John Cowper Powys

John Cowper Powys, author

Today, the name of writer John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) will be unfamiliar to most people. He was, nevertheless, a prolific writer of novels and poetry and was (and is) highly regarded by those who know his work. Part of his fall from favour may be related to the fact that none of his novels seem to be under 500 pages in length (although that’s never been a problem with Tolkien…)

The landscape, history and mythology of Wessex are at the centre of much of Powys’ work (despite his Welsh-ness). The supernatural penetrated his thinking and, even, his everyday life. Powys was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Wessex (the counties of Dorset, Somerset and western Hampshire) and he celebrated the region’s inherent mystery and antiquity- for example, one of his novels is Maiden Castle (1936), named after the Iron Age hillfort south of Dorchester. In the novel, this site is where is the character Uryen tries to raise the ancient gods. The fort is huge and impressive and has inspired other artists- for example, composer John Ireland‘s 1921 orchestral work Mai Dun and photographs and paintings by Paul Nash. The latter called the fort “the largest and most perfect earthwork in the world. To say it is the finest in Dorset is, perhaps, enough, for in no part of any country, I believe – not even in Wiltshire, where Avebury stands – can be found so complete a sequence of hill architecture…” He sensed its powerful aura too- its unsettling spirit of place- “Its presence to-day, after the immense passage of time, is miraculously undisturbed; the huge contours strike awe into even the most vulgar mind; the impervious nitwits who climbed on to the monoliths of Stonehenge to be photographed, slink out of the shadow of the Maiden uneasily.”

Paul Nash, Maiden Castle, 1943

Returning to John Cowper Powys, the author had a highly intimate relationship with faery-lore. Admittedly, he wrote a good deal of poetry that was very conventional in its approach. For example, in To Thomas Hardy he described how “fairy fingers ring the flowery bells,” he demanded in On the Downs- “Squeeze out the cowslip wine, O fairy hands!” and in To W B Yeats he imagined a time “when woods were free/ To elfin feet and fairy minstrelsy.”

In these poems Powys’ fairies are the very familiar faes of late Victorian verse: they are tiny, winged and frail (he addresses a straw blown in the wind as a “wandering elf”- although this image also brings to mind the habit of Highland Scottish fairies of travelling in small whirlwinds). The fae beings of Powys’ verse care for nature (clearing slugs and snails from blackthorn leaves in Fairies’ Song) and they are both inspiration and illusion.

However, there was a deeper and more powerful undercurrent in his verse. In his Autobiography, published in 1934, Powys described Wordsworth’s “cerebral mystical passion for young women.” He saw this as being intimately bound up with the Romantic poet’s abnormally sensual sensitivity to the elements and, Powys declared, Wordsworth wanted his girls to be “elemental.”

Elsewhere in the same book, Powys confessed to being a “nympholept or sylpholept” himself. He was powerfully attracted to slim, sylph-like young females and he was perfectly open in his books about this “erotic obsession.” His ideal sylph had long, slender thighs, narrow boyish hips and “ankles of ravishing perfection”- “as fragile as wild anemones.” Sylphs are, of course, the elemental beings of the air who form part of the mythology of Paracelsus. For Powys, these faery beings were a constant source of desire and distraction. His poem Blasphemy is addressed to a “fairy form [and] flower-like face” with “piteous tender breast.” He asks her “Why did you come with your childish grace/ And trouble my heart’s rest?” A verse written To my friends curses them because they “have driven the fairies far away/ Lest their white limbs should hide the heavenly crown.” For Powys, the fairies truly were succubi or lhiannan shee, supernatural lovers who haunted and possessed their human lovers.

This desire for thin nymphets is entwined with Powys’ perception that the great god Pan and all his retinue are still present and active in the world. A poem about Montacute House in Somerset assures us that “Here, undisturbed may dusky Dryads dream/ That Pan with all his music haunteth still…” Of course, Pan is alive still in Arcadia in Greece as well: his pipes are heard by all that heed, for “the beautiful must always last/ Secure from change” (Odi Profanum). For Powys, Pan is the god of lusty passion for nymphs (indeed, in his poem The Truth? he called on people to drop their masks and to admit that they were all, really, “satyrs shamelessly/ Goblins, Imps and Elves”). At the same time, though, Pan is also the deity of the natural world, found in plants, clouds and waters, driving life and fertility in everything.

Faery Dealings

Rackham, A Fairy Market

Transacting business with the faeries can be a process beset by problems that significantly reduce the apparent advantages that might be gained by humans through such dealings.

As I discussed in a previous post, the faes can indulge in spontaneous and gratuitous acts of kindness. A man from Anglesey, for instance, woke up one morning to find that his shirt had been washed overnight by the tylwyth teg, and besides which they had left him half a crown (two shillings and sixpence) wrapped up in the garment. Such acts as these are unpredictable and sporadic, so little reliance can- or should- be placed on them, and the favour is easy to lose.

The fairies can decide to undertake substantial tasks for some, but it would probably be unwise to found any thoughts of prosperity- or to make plans for the future- based upon their assistance. A farmer at Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye unwittingly employed three faery men to help with his harvest. They reaped a field and put the corn in stooks in the record time of just a few hours, but they would not associate with any of the other farm workers and they complained bitterly about their working conditions: about their bread, their drink and their employer. The farmer discovered how disgruntled these mysterious workers were by having his son eavesdrop on their conversations. He very was lucky indeed that this spying didn’t have an unfavourable outcome- as was the case for one farmer on Colonsay. He benefited considerably from the fact that every year the local faeries would voluntarily harvest and stack the crops in his fields. He never saw who bestowed such a favour upon him and, eventually, consumed by curiosity, he stayed up one night to see who was doing the work. A host of faeries appeared and the farmer tried to count them: this proved such an insult to his supernatural helpers’ generosity that he never had their aid again.

Faeries will, inexplicably and without invitation, undertake quite onerous chores on farms. Perhaps it is this that explains their parallel tendency to make free with the property of their human neighbours. For example, on Shetland, one family had a cooking kettle that the trows simply borrowed (or, we might say, took) for a whole year. It was a trow habit too to ‘borrow’ islanders’ boats. This was vexing enough, no doubt, but the trows never tied them up again when they’d finished with them, and simply left them loose in the harbour or unsecured on the beach. Indeed, human households often left buckets of water out for the trows as they had discovered that this was a way of preventing them interfering with other household utensils.

The trows will also enter into commercial transactions with humans, but their way of doing deals does not resemble our own. A tinker was wandering the islands selling metalware when he saw a small dark man standing by a door that led inside a mound. This man (clearly a trow) enquired what was for sale: the tinker replied that he had plates, bowls and cups in his basket. Suddenly, he found himself inside the hillock; as suddenly, he was outside again with his basket entirely emptied of goods- but with five gold sovereigns in their place. It’s not a normal way of conducting business for us, but it’s how the trow folk do it.

Compare another case, in which a Shetland fiddler was employed by some trows to provide music at a wedding in Norway. They carried him there in a boat at record speed, but after the festivities the man was told that if he wanted to be rowed back home again, he would have to pay for the privilege with one of his stock of cows. Reluctantly, he agreed, but as he was so far from home he felt he had very little choice. When the man got back to his family, he discovered his one night away had actually been three years. He was very angry at this and resolved that he was not going to pay for the return journey. Nevertheless, within a week or so the fiddler found that one of his cows was sickly and had stopped eating and drinking. The man realised that, in fact, it was only the form of a cow that survived and that the real beast had already been taken by the trows in exercise of their bargain.

Even a more straightforward bargain can turn out to have its alarming aspects. In Keightley’s Fairy Mythology there’s a Manx story called the ‘Fairy Chapman,’ which he borrowed from Waldron’s guide to the Isle of Man:

“A man being desirous of disposing of a horse he had at that time no great occasion for, and riding him to market for that purpose, was accosted in passing over the mountains by a little man in a plain dress, who asked him if he would sell his horse. “‘Tis the design I am going on,” replied he: on which the other desired to know the price. “Eight pounds,” said he. “No,” returned the purchaser, “I will give no more than seven, which if you will take, here is your money.” The owner thinking he had bid pretty fair, agreed with him, and the money being told out, the one dismounted and the other got on the back of the horse, which he had no sooner done than both beast and rider sunk into the earth immediately, leaving the person who had made the bargain in the utmost terror and consternation. As soon as he had a little recovered himself, he went directly to the parson of the parish, and related what had passed, desiring he would give his opinion whether he ought to make use of the money he had received or not. To which he replied, that as he had made a fair bargain, and no way circumvented nor endeavoured to circumvent the buyer, he saw no reason to believe, in case it was an evil spirit, it could have any power over him. On this assurance, he went home well satisfied, and nothing afterwards happened to give him any disquiet concerning this affair. This was told to Waldron by the person to whom it happened.”

Fairy Mythology, 398-399

My recent book, How Things Work in Faery, contains extended discussion of all these puzzling aspects of the faery economy.

Shargie bairns and tacharans: more thoughts on Scottish changelings

Arthur Rackham

I recently came across a valuable Scottish folklore resource, the website A Kist of Riches, www.tobarandualchais.co.uk. This provided a range of new accounts of changelings to supplement my recent book on changelings, Middle Earth Cuckoos. The website features hundreds of recordings, many in Gaelic: a changeling in Scots is a “shargie” or “shag” bairn, in Gaelic a tacharan or siofra/ siobhra.

The two main issues dealt with by the folklore on changelings are the identifying features of the faery substitutes and the ways of getting rid of them and retrieving the original babies. C. F. Gordon-Cumming, describing the Hebrides in 1883 recorded that:

“changelings are idiot children, wizened and emaciated, yet their utter childishness blends with occasional flashes of mother wit to convince people that it is a fairy child.”

What’s more, changelings tend to cry constantly and to have appetites and thirsts that can never be satisfied.

The sort of behaviour that will indicate unequivocally that the individual in the cradle is a great deal older than its bodily form might suggest include a range of adult actions, such as sticking out the tongue and blowing raspberries. A very common Scottish story concerns a visitor to a house to whom the changeling reveals himself. The tacharan might play tunes on a length of straw like a pipe, or on the chanter of bagpipes, or he might share a drop of whisky with the stranger. In one instance from the Isle of Lewis, once the parents had gone out the baby transformed into an old bearded man who then entertained a visiting tailor by playing on a pair of tongs. In another example, from Lochbroom, the child used to leap out of bed when the adults were absent, take on the form of a man and would then perform labour around the farm in return for meals. Another common Highland story concerns a changeling who asks a visiting cobbler to make him a pair of boots or shoes “that will fit a child but which will be fit for a king.”

A preternatural ability to speak is very likely to disclose the changeling’s truly aged nature. One on Skye ate constantly but only ever used one phrase “muc dhearg” (red pig). A local healer was able to drive him off by threatening him with a sword and responding “the devil’s red pig” (“Muc dhearg an Diabhail.”)

One tacharan, at Blairgowrie in Perthshire, on being expelled by the parents disappeared up the chimney, but not before saying that “he would have liked to have known his mother better.” At first glance, this might appear to be a polite and complimentary expression of regret, but I strongly suspect that it was meant to be quite the opposite- as the hearers would have instantly understood. This elderly faery male, in the guise of a baby, would have been enjoying regular breast feeds from the human woman, so his parting jibe was really a cruel reminder of what they had harboured in the literal bosom of the family.

Even so, as in one case reported from Llandwrgan in Wales, the exchange might not be spotted for months in the case of very young babies. In newborns, it would naturally take some while for the precocious or bad tempered nature of the substituted child to manifest itself; this is why it was often said that, at first, the changeling was undetectable because it looked exactly like the stolen child.

Although, of course, the presence of the changeling necessarily indicates the absence of the family’s original child, the presence of a shargie was not always entirely negative. One child at Gart na Damh on Islay was wholly dependent upon the care of its grandmother, and spent all its time lying in a specially constructed bed, but so long as it was alive and living with the family, they prospered. As soon as it died, their luck changed. In another case from Islay the child was seven feet tall and had never risen from its cradle, even though it was nineteen years old. One day the exasperated father set fire to the crib to drive the changeling out- which succeeded, but all the cows died too.

Once it has been realised by a family that the creature in the cradle is not their beloved baby, most parents not unnaturally want to be rid of it, especially because the belief is that the departure of the changeling will be matched by the reciprocal return of the human infant. The usual means of achieving this is to make life as unpleasant as possible for the shargie.

Remedies include beating with a stick and whipping; threatening the child with a pin or knife; throwing it off a cliff; by exposing it outside overnight (a faery knoll being an especially good spot) or by leaving it on a rock on the seashore as the tide comes in, or feeding the suspect child with porridge with “something added” (perhaps salt or an objectionable herb such as mothan/ pearlwort). Telling the faery that its home was on fire could well provoke it into leaping out of the cradle and running home. Another Shetland remedy was to scatter earth on the floor from a basket and then to sweep it out of the house, along with the trow changeling.

Fire is perennially viewed as a good cure, as has already been seen. One Shetland boy who became very lazy was exposed as a trow changeling (as least so far as his family were concerned) when the father set fire to his bed and the boy suddenly leapt energetically from it.

Across Scotland, perhaps the commonest means of exposing a ‘shargie bairn’ was to place horse dung on a griddle or shovel, put the baby on top of that, and then hold them over the fire. This combination of noisome substance and heat was guaranteed to send the changeling shooting up the chimney. Other responses by the child to this mistreatment- which would only serve to confirm the creature’s true nature- were curses and swearing or, in one instance, throwing sods of earth from the roof back down the chimney.

Once the true baby was restored, wise precautions then would be to tie a red thread around its wrist and to nail a horseshoe over the door. These sorts of precaution ought, obviously, to have been taken in advance- given the very widespread fear of faery takings- but given the stress and distraction of looking after a new baby (especially where there were other children to care for or a farm to run) it’s understandable how they could be overlooked just for a moment, allowing the ever watchful faes their chance.

Stakhanovite Sprites: when faeries work too hard

I am very pleased to announce another new book, How Things Work in Faery, my guide to the faery economy, which has just been published by Green Magic. I’ve considered aspects of this subject regularly over the last few years and the new book pulls together all the different issues- faery farming, mining, money and their curious relationship with humans in all these areas. Readers will recall that I posted on the subject of faeries doing our chores not long ago. This willingness to undertake some of the more laborious aspects of human work seems to be ingrained in the fae temperament across the British Isles. For example, the trows on the mainland of Shetland would clean people’s homes and grind their corn, accepting clothes, bread and other food in return. Their attitude to recompense was complex though: for one family on the island of Yell they used to make shoes, wooden items and other goods, which the recipients were able to sell, making themselves rich. These trows never asked for payment for all their toiling and, in fact, when food and drink was left out for them, they were offended and left forever (having first eaten what was offered!)

A regular- and even stranger- feature of the folklore of the Scottish Highlands is the repeated reports of faeries causing a problem for humans by being too keen to work. We’re used to the idea of a few faeries voluntarily taking up residence with or near to humans, and helping out in the homes and farms: brownies, glaistigs, gruagachs, hobs and boggarts are the main examples of these. It’s also fairly common for humans to be taken temporarily or even permanently to provide a service: piping or midwifery (which are usually paid for), wet nurses and carers for children and simple domestic servants (or slaves). Fairies who are so willing to work that they become a nuisance is a different situation to all of these, but it’s frequently encountered.

Work, Work, Work

In Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, John Gregorson Campbell gives a good example of the problem of faeries who are too committed to their work.

“The Fairies staying in Dunvuilg came to assist a farmer in the vicinity in weaving and preparing cloth, and, after finishing the work in a wonderfully short space of time, called for more work. To get rid of his officious assistants, the farmer called outside the door that Dunvuilg was on fire. In some form or other it is extensively known, and in every locality the scene is laid in its own neighbourhood. In Mull the fairy residence is said to have been the bold headland in the south-west known as Dun Bhuirbh. Some say the elves were brought to the house by two old women, who were tired of spinning, and incautiously said they wished all the people in Dun Bhuirbh were there to assist. According to others, the elves were in the habit of coming to Tapull House in the Ross of Mull, and their excessive zeal made them very unwelcome. In Skye the event is said to have occurred at Dun Bhuirbh… The rhyme they had when they came to Tapull is known:


‘Let me comb, card, tease, spin, Get a weaving loom quick,
Water for fulling on the fire- Work, work, work.’
The cry they raised when going away, in the Skye version, runs:
‘Dun Bhuirbh on fire, Without dog or man, My balls of thread And my bags of meal.'”

In another version of this, recorded in John Francis Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the fairies run off fretting over their cheese moulds, butter pails, meal chests, goats and such like.

Campbell also mentions a man in Flodigarry who expressed a wish that his corn were reaped, even if it should be by fairy assistance. A host of fairies came and reaped the field in two nights. After doing this, they called for more work, and the man set them to empty the sea.

Generally it is an unwise wish by a human that their house or farm work was completed that brings the faeries to them. It might be weaving or household chores, but the fairies will appear instantly and will then do the task in record time whilst producing excellent results- the finest tweed is made in one Skye example, for instance. Then the fairies will not leave and are given increasingly desperate jobs to occupy them. A barn might be roofed, all the spring work on the farm might be completed, then they have to be asked to strip an entire hill of its heather, then the humans have to resort to trickery to relieve themselves of their helpers, who have become a nuisance by their enthusiasm and productivity. Emptying the sea with a sieve or being asked to build a bridge with bricks of sand tied with ropes of sand finally exhausts the fairies’ patience. In one Skye case, the housewife asked the sith folk to fight each other- which they obediently did- but grass never grew again on the spot where they shed each other’s blood. On Ben Doran, in Glencoe, a man called Echain wished for fairy aid cutting peat. They completed this in record time and asked for, so he had them strip the bracken from the hill; when they returned for another task, he set them to plaiting ropes of sand. They are thought still to be at work.

These accounts remind us of two significant aspects to living with fairy neighbours: they are always eavesdropping upon us and, even worse, they can punish us if we try to outwit them. Another Scottish writer, Patrick Graham, in Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery (1806) said that the fairies of Perthshire were “always, though invisibly, present…” This is the problem for humans- and it appears to be more acute at night.

There is in Scottish Gaelic folklore the concept of a ‘night wish’ (ordachadh oidhche): for example, a man on the Hebrides was digging in his fields when darkness forced him to stop. He wished his spring digging was completed- and a host of fairies immediately appeared and carried on with his labours, finishing the task by dawn. In this case the contentious issue was the fairies’ wages, which they negotiated after fulfilling his wish. The man had to agree to give a sheaf to each worker- and his entire harvest was taken. In an example from Skye, a man at Borve was looking at his fields and remarked, out loud, “That corn is ready to be cut!” Next morning he found that the entire crop had been reaped and stacked. Then a small man four feet high appeared and asked for pay. He only requested a few potatoes and a little pot, which seemed very modest and was readily given. However, he returned daily asking for more and more, until the desperate farmer had to resort to telling him that there was a fire at Dun Borve (an ancient broch and notorious as a fairy dwelling). These two cases also compound the problems of the humans by weakening their bargaining position- the work has been done and they’re under an obligation to their fairy neighbours, whether wished for or not (Folklore vols 11 & 33).

A similar report comes form Shetland. A crofter at Easter Colbinstoft suffered repeatedly from others’ cattle straying onto his land. He told his wife one night that he’d give his best cow to have a good wall right around his farm to protect it. When he woke up the next morning, he was stunned to see that just such a wall had been built overnight. The trows, of course, had heard him, had assembled a great crowd of workers and had done the job in record time. They’d also taken the best cow, which they reckoned had been promised to them in advance.

The Scottish fairies take their love of labour to extremes, but they are not isolated in their work ethic: the fairies of the Channel Islands display the same tendencies. I have mentioned before their willingness to complete domestic chores, but their attitude goes some distance beyond mere helpfulness in return for a gift of food. On Jersey, if a person wants work to be finished, it must simply be left out with a piece of cake and a bowl of milk overnight. On both Jersey and Guernsey, the fairies are noted for their skill in needlework and knitting and will repair clothes and complete garments to a high standard if the materials and tools are provided. Quite voluntarily too, the fairies of Saints Bay on Guernsey will repair farm carts and tools if they are left with a gift of food outside their cave.

Show Gratitude- Don’t Take for Granted

This preparedness to help should not be exploited, though. The Guernsey fairies assist those who are overwhelmed; they won’t help those who are behind with their tasks because they’re lazy. These individuals are knocked about when they’re asleep in bed.

Very similar Scottish examples can be found, too. Skye the fairies of Dun Bornaskitaig helped a poor widow by harvesting her entire oat crop in one night, reaping the grain and stacking it all neatly in sheaves. On the Isle of Lewis, the fairies were also known to undertake tasks if asked by humans. A man asked them to make a mast for his fishing boat out of the handle of his hammer;. One fairy died trying to complete the job; his brother succeeded, but cursed the human for his abuse of their help. The Shetland trows can impede the work of those they take against.

Three Wishes: your dreams fulfilled by faeries?

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Cinderella

A cliché of faery lore is that the fairies grant our wishes, often in threes because this is a magical and significant number (at least in Christian tradition).  This is more the substance of fairy-tales and fairy godmother stories than authentic British folklore, but it’s not entirely without foundation in native accounts.

Mermaids seem especially prone to granting triple wishes.  Furthermore, as the Cornish story of Lutey and the mermaid demonstrates, mermaid vengeance may be postponed (as I recently described for the faeries too).  The mermaid first granted Lutey three wishes as a reward for returning her to the sea when she’d become stranded, but then refused to let go of him when they were in the surf, instead trying to drag him under the water.  The barking of his dog and the sight of his cottage on the shore broke her spell, and with a flash of his knife he forced her to let him go.  Nevertheless, the mermaid promised to return after nine (three times three) years- which she did, seizing him from a fishing boat out at sea.  The mermaid in the related Cornish story, The Old Man of Cury, grants a single wish, as does the Manx mermaid who falls for a man who woos her with gifts of apples.

John Bauer, Syv ønsker, The Seven Wishes

The fairy women of Scotland seem especially inclined to grant wishes to humans.  These skills may be taught, or exchanged for sex, or they may be given as rewards.  Often, the grant is offered conditionally: the recipient can have either ‘ingenuity without advantage’ or ‘advantage without ingenuity.’  One will be clever and highly skilled, but will never be rich; the other will make the man prosperous, but he will be stupid.  Abilities in crafts or music are often bestowed; even a great skill in thieving can be granted, apparently.  Sometimes, too, these awards are not really gifts at all, and a price may be exacted, which can even be the eventual forfeit of the human him or herself.  We saw this with Lutey; in the Scottish tale of Peter Waters of Caithness, he met a fairy woman at a well and she spontaneously offered to endow him with great prowess, either as a preacher or as a piper.  He chose to be a piper and she even gave him a set of pipes.  All she asked was that, in return, they meet again after seven years.  In the meantime, he won great fame and fortune for his music but when he duly returned to meet her at the well, he was never seen again (J. G. Campbell, Superstitions).

An unusual Scottish Gaelic story builds upon this general idea.  The fairy queen (who is generally identified with Fann, the embodiment of skill) was grieved by the lack of wisdom amongst many women in the world.  She therefore breathed on the fairy flax plant and issued a summons to every woman in the world to come to her knoll to be endowed with wisdom.  Many came and the queen appeared before them, carrying a limpet in which there was the ais or skill of wisdom.  Each woman was invited to drink from the shell, according to her faith and desire.  Sadly, the cup ran dry before all could drink (Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2).

There are other ways to get what you want from fairies though.  At Bewcastle, in Cumbria, there is a stone to which you can whisper your secret wishes; the fairies will then help you.  In several other instances, wishes are granted and skills bestowed as the result of bargains- although these deals are not always willing entered into by the faeries.  A boy who stripped turf from a faery knoll was persuaded to replace it on the basis that he would be helped in making the best chanter possible for his bagpipes.  A girl who agreed not to tether her cows on a knoll was then directed to grazing that never ceased and produced very rich milk.  Equally, a man who stuck his knife in the doorway of a faery hill refused to remove it until he had been granted piping skills.

All in all, there is a curious transactional relationship between humans and supernaturals. The faeries constantly and unrepentantly steal from us and use our property and possessions, but they will spontaneously grant valuable knowledge and skills or make gifts of gold. They will reward good deeds but at the same time lavish wealth on favourites who may seem to be chosen at random. In some cases love motivates their actions; in other cases they find themselves forced begrudgingly to comply. It’s a complex exchange of generosity and obligation, part of the tangled and frequently tortuous relationship that we have forged with the over the last thousand years or more of cohabitation on these islands.

Weber, Christmas Fairy

More Flaming Faeries…

Arthur Hughes, Jack o’ Lantern, 1872

Following up my April posting on faes that look like ‘Wheels on Fire,’ I’ve recently been researching the faerylore of the Channel Islands, and have come across some more strange manifestations of faery-kind.

The Guernsey phenomenon called le faeu boulanger (the rolling fire, but literally the ‘baker’s fire’) is something like a will of the wisp, but yet has its own unique features. Like the will, le faeu can indicate where treasure is buried, but islanders also say that it’s a spirit in pain, always wandering and seeking a delivery from its plight through suicide. It’s surprising to us, perhaps, to think of a supernatural desiring mortality– or even being able to kill itself- but the evidence confirms that this seems to be the case. If a knife is left with its haft stuck in the ground and the blade pointing up, le faeu will attack it and plunge itself repeatedly onto the blade, leaving drops of blood in the morning.

Behaving more like a will of the wisp, le faeu will pursue people, and the only solution then is to turn your coat (just as when you’re being pixy-led). One evening during the 1920s a man called Le Sauvage was walking home one night when he- and the lane along which he was passing- were bathed in a strange red glow. He then saw a ball of fire bounding across a field towards him. Despite the shock, he tore off his cap, pulled it inside out and jammed it on again. The fire vanished, as did the pervading glow. Le Sauvage then staggered home, but was so shocked that he could barely stir from a chair for the next twenty four hours.

In the late 1960s or early ’70s a man encountered an oval ball of light at Piemont on Guernsey. It was a couple of metres ahead of him and floating about 30cms off the ground. He was terrified and felt trapped, but discovered that if he took one step forward, the ball retreated by the same amount. He was able, very slowly therefore, to make his way towards his home until the light vanished. Other sightings of le faeu were also reported in the early 1970s, two on the beach and another in a field.

On the island of Jersey there is a related apparition, called the Wotho. This is a round ball, about 45cms in diameter. One man who saw it described how it rolled backwards and forwards in the road at his feet, stopping him advancing. This account puts me in mind of an experience relayed by the Reverend Edmund Jones in his book, A Relation of the Appartion of Spirits in the County of Monmouth (1813). Jones described an incident that occurred in the parish of Bedwas (pages 39-40):

“Mr Henry Llewellyn, having been sent by me… to fetch a load of Books… and coming home by night, towards Mynydduslwyn, having just passed by Clwyd yr Helygen ale-house, and being in dry, fair part of the lane, the Mare which he rode stood still, and would go no farther, but drew backward ; and presently he could see a living thing
round like a bowl, rolling from the right hand to the left, crossing the lane, moving sometimes slow, and sometimes very swift, swifter than a bird could fly, though it had neither wings nor feet ; altering also its size : it appeared three times, lesser one time than another; it appeared least when near him, and seemed to roll towards the Mare’s belly. The Mare then would go forward, but he stopped her to see more carefully what it was. He stayed, as he thought, about three minutes, to look at it ; but fearing to see a worse sight, thought it time to speak to it, and said, “What seekest thou, thou foul thing? In the Name of the Lord Jesus go away!” and, by speaking this it vanished, as if it sunk in the ground near the Mare’s feet. It appeared to be of a reddish colour with a mixture of an ash colour.”

These are very odd accounts indeed, but they remind us to be much more open to experiences than we are perhaps conditioned to be by the conventional preconception of the fairy as a tiny, winged female. Readers may also recall similar sightings reported in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies (2014). During the early 1940s a woman on a country walk in Kent saw a furry tennis ball rolling up a slope towards her. It briefly opened when it drew close to where she was sitting to reveal a pixie within- and then disappeared. Another woman, visiting Cornwall in the 1930s, saw a pisky who changed into “a long furry black roll, which gambolled about on the grass and then disappeared.”

Two other anomalous descriptions from Seeing Fairies are worth citing, just to confirm the very wide and unpredictable range of forms that supernatural beings may assume. As a child, a Miss Rosalie Fry lived at Glydach outside Swansea. Playing with her sister inside the house one day, they both saw “something they could only describe as being like a piece of the finest white chiffon, about eighteen inches square, [that] floated very slowly down into view… moving in an extraordinarily graceful, flowing manner and then, as slowly, wafted away up out of sight” and vanished. Johnson herself, along with her sister, had a similar experience in at home in Nottingham in 1971. In the street outside their house they saw what seemed to be “several white crinkled paper balls, but which, if viewed from the right angle, could have been wide, frilly dresses or tutus worn by tiny beings.” For some time they rolled and walked and danced in the road. A man walking his dog passed by, oblivious to the shapes (although his dog was not). After a while, the curious assembly vanished.

As I’ve said before, Faery can be a lot more mysterious than we allow ourselves to imagine…

Richard Doyle, A Poacher Encountering a Will of the Wisp, 1845

Further reading

The Channel Island accounts are from Marie de Garis, Folklore of Guernsey, 1975, and John L’Amy, Jersey Folklore, 1927. See also Johnson, Seeing Fairies, 2014, pages 28 and 236. The Fairy Census 2017 is also a very good source of unexpected faery forms.

Changelings- the cuckoos of Middle Earth

In a previous post, I described some of the identifying features of changelings, the faery individuals substituted for human babies, and what their descriptions tell us about human perceptions of faery-kind more generally.

Having accumulated a good deal of material on changelings in my recent research, I decided to assemble that into a small booklet or pamphlet, which I’ve now published through Amazon. Middle Earth Cuckoos- the Changeling Phenomenon in British Faerylore is a study of the key aspects of the faery practice of exchanging members of their kind for newly born human infants. It complements the examination of the subject included in chapter 12 of my 2020 book, FaeryA Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk.

The phenomenon of changelings swapped for children gives us a lot of information about faeries more generally. Here are two examples. Firstly (as I described in the previous post) the look of the changeling tells us a great deal about the appearance of the wider faery population.

In 1664 Londoner John Barrow published a biographical account, The Lord’s Arms Outstretched in an Answer of Prayer, or, A True Relation of the Wonderful Deliverance of James Barrow. James fell ill and had searched unsuccessfully for a diagnosis and cure from doctors, astrologers and apothecaries. One day, a rat appeared to him and seemed to enter his body, which made him act “very much like a changling.” What was meant by this was that he seemed to have fits, he choked on food and was unable to eat, and he lost all his strength and became unable to work as an apprentice. His starved and feeble appearance was, to those around him, typical of what a faery interloper would look like.

James became emaciated and thin and looked like an old man. The great age of changelings is another key indicator of their faery nature and getting them to reveal it is central to the process of exposing and expelling them. Here are two examples of this.

The son of a man on Islay was abducted by the faeries and was replaced with a sibhreach (a changeling). To confirm this substitution, the father was advised to trick the faery into revealing himself through the charade called the ‘brewery of egg shells.’ Across Britain, this method was known to be infallible in getting the aged faery cuckoo to admit who he really was. In this case, as in others, the changeling was fascinated by the odd procedure and exclaimed that, in all his 800 years of life, he’d never seen cooking in egg-shells. The impostor was promptly thrown on the fire and shot up through the roof. The true son was then recovered.

In a similar case from Guernsey, a mother was cooking limpets in their shells on her hearth. The changeling that had replaced her son was provoked to exclaim:

“I’m not of this year, nor the year before,
Nor yet of the time of King John of yore,
But in all my days and years, I ween,
So many pots boiling I’ve never seen.”

Once again, the creature was thrown on the fire and a fairy mother promptly appeared to swap the human child back for her own.

These cases confirm that faeries, if not actually immortal, have extremely long life spans. The Guernsey account was recorded in 1903; King John lived 1166 to 1216, suggesting an age even greater than that seen in the Scottish example.

Faeries and the Christian faith

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Fairy Passage

The relationship of the Christian religion to fairy-kind is a very ambiguous or ambivalent one.  On the whole, faeries are regarded as alien beings who stand wholly and permanently outside the Christian community.  This can be seen most clearly in the various origin myths that have been formulated to situate fairies within a Christian world view.

Lost Souls

One common explanation is that the fairies are fallen angels who followed Lucifer when he staged his rebellion in heaven.  They were, however, left in limbo.  When the gates of heaven and hell were sealed, some of the rebel angels were isolated between the two.  They went to hide amidst the rocks and trees of earth until judgment day and so have become the fairies (see, for example, Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2, 327). In one version of this account of fairy origins, the decreasing sightings of fairies are also explained. Rather than being driven away by electric light and aeroplanes, it seems that the fairies are seen less because, in the last century, god has taken pity on the outcasts and has begun to let them back into heaven for a last chance (Drever, The Lure of the Kelpie, 1937).

Reflecting this view, there is a widespread story in Britain concerning the fairies’ anxiousness over their ultimate salvation.  A Scottish version can be found in Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, under the title of The Fairy’s Inquiry.

“A clergyman was returning home one night after visiting a sick member of his congregation. His way led by a lake and, as he proceeded, he was surprised to hear most melodious strains of music. He sat down to listen. The music seemed to approach coming over the lake accompanied by a light. At length he discerned a man walking on the water, attended by a number of little beings, some bearing lights, others musical instruments. At the beach the man dismissed his attendants, and then walking up to the minister saluted him courteously. He was a little grey-headed old man, dressed in rather an unusual garb. The minister having returned his salute begged of him to come and sit beside him. He complied with the request, and on being asked who he was, replied that he was one of the Daoine Shi. He added that he and they had originally been angels, but having been seduced into revolt by Satan, they had been cast down to earth where they were to dwell till the day of doom. His object now was, to ascertain from the minister what would be their condition after that awful day. The minister then questioned him on the articles of faith; but as his answers did not prove satisfactory, and as in repeating the Lord’s Prayer, he persisted in saying wert instead of art in heaven, he did not feel himself justified in holding out any hopes to him. The fairy then gave a cry of despair and flung himself into the loch, and the minister resumed his journey.”

Keightley, pages 385-6

This story implies an unhappiness with their indeterminate position, but another account states that the fairies can sometimes be heard in their knolls, singing a song that celebrates that they are not of the seed of Adam and Abraham but rather are descended from the ‘Proud Angel.’  On the Isle of Man, in fact, the little people are called the cloan moyrney, the ‘proud clan,’ and there is a prayer “jee saue mee voish cloan ny moyrn” (‘God save me from the children of pride’).

Another (very bizarre) origin myth tells how Jesus was walking the world and, one day, visited a poor woman in her cottage.  She had a very large family and, when she realised who was at the door, she hid a number of her children from her visitor.  Jesus was offended by her subterfuge and, when he left, declared that the concealed children would not be seen again, because he had turned them into fairies.  The story fails to make much sense on several levels, and the disproportionate cruelty of the response to the mother’s embarrassment is impossible to justify (though I recall it’s not entirely out of character with some episodes in the New Testament).  Why the woman should be ashamed at the size of her family is not explained and we can only assume that the account reflects some deeper discomfort with natural sexuality and fertility within the religion.

Symons, Earthly Paradise, 1934

Holy Innocents

Lastly, there are origin myths that are rather more benign, in that they do not judge the fairy folk- although they still exclude them from the Christian community and the perceived benefits of the faith.  As I have described before, in Cornwall it was said that the pixies were either ghosts or the dead returned or they were the souls of children who were still-born or who died before baptism (see, for example, Evans Wentz Fairy Faith pp.172, 179 & 183).  In Wales the tylwyth teg were sometimes explained as being the spirits of virtuous Druids or the ghosts of prehistoric races (Evans Wentz pp.147 & 148). Lastly, in Highland Scotland, there was a belief in spirits called taran who were children who had died unbaptised and now wandered the woods and wastes, lamenting their fate.  These little beings were often seen and evidently bore a close relationship or resemblance to the sith folk (see Shaw, History of the Province of Moray, 1775).

This last category of beings plainly comprises spirits who are without sin in Christian terms: they never lived long enough to sin, or they lived ‘good’ lives in times before Christianity existed.  All the same, they are outside the fold of the church and beyond salvation in conventional eschatology.  This underlines how different fairies are: whatever physical similarities there may be, they are from another world, another dimension, and, as such, they can never participate spiritually in the same experience as humans.

People of Peace

It is very strange, therefore, to turn to some of the prayers and charms contained in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs).  I have described charms included in these volumes previously: people would pray to the trinity and the saints for protection against fairies and the hosts and all the harm that they could inflict. So far, so familiar.

Turn, then, to this prayer for peace, which seeks to be with Jesus Christ in the dwelling of peace, the paradise of gentleness-

“and in the fairy bower of mercy.” (ann an siothbrugh na h-iochd)

(vol.3, 177)

A second prayer for peace also seeks the “peace of fairy bowers” (sith nan siothbrugh). Elsewhere Mary and Brigit are described as a fairy swan and a fairy duck of peace (lacha shith Mhoire na sith) respectively (vol.3, 269 & vol.1, 317).  Possibly the latter images combine some sense of lightness, softness and a magical quality (?)

These references are surprising and confusing.  The ‘fairy bower’ seems to mean the fairies’ normal dwelling: elsewhere Carmichael refers to “the fairy bower beneath the knoll” (vol.2. 286) whilst in another charm ‘fairy wort’ is picked on top of the ‘fairy bower’ (bruth) (vol.2, 162).  The Gaelic word brugh has several meanings: it can denote a large house or mansion, an underground dwelling, a fairy mound and, lastly, a fortified tower, which we generally know today as a broch.  It appears that all these meanings are wrapped up together in the prayers and invocations cited.  Brochs are, for example, sites of fairy presence and power.  For example, at Houstry in Caithness in 1810 a man took building materials from a ruined broch near his farm.  This incurred the deep displeasure of the sith folk living there, and they inflicted a plague upon the cattle of everyone living in the neighbourhood.  Secondly, at around the same date on Shetland, a fiddle player called Hakki Johnson was passing the Broch of Houlland one night when he heard music being played inside by the trows.  He was able to memorise the tune, which has been passed down since as the Wast Side Trows Reel.  A man on Skye who demolished the ‘fairy bower’ of Dun Gharsain at Bracadale in order to build some pens for his livestock only escaped a disastrous revenge from the fairies because he had been drinking milk from a cow that had grazed on the protective herb mothan.  This ‘bower’ again is termed a bruth and is, very evidently, a broch, one of several found beside Loch Bracadale.

In conclusion, we have to reconcile ourselves top the contradictory evidence that ‘fairy’ was used both in a negative sense, implying a threat that required holy protection, and (at the very same time) the fairies were associated with peace and other heavenly qualities…

“Poor Little Greenie:” Faeries and Little Green Men

The colour green has always been strangely linked to fairies. Older texts often refer to the Good Folk as being green, but in fact this almost always denotes their clothing colour- just as calling a faery ‘red’ or ‘black’ generally refers to their hair colour rather than saying anything about flesh tone. For example, the Devonshire pixies are reported “to be” green in colour but the same witness also went on to state that, if you wear green, “you’ll soon be mourning,” pretty clearly indicating that she was discussing the pixies’ clothing.

Green garments are a constant in faerylore across Britain and across time. In the Lincolnshire Fens in the east of England, for instance, the local nature spirits were called (amongst other things) the ‘Green Coaties.’  A similar term was used in Lancashire as well- see the references to the ‘Greenies’ in Bowker’s Goblin Tales.

In the Western Isles of Scotland, it was said that it was not advisable to sleep in a house where water for washing had not been put out at night for the fairies.  This was because the “slender one of the green coat” would come with her baby at night and wash it in the milk instead.  What’s notable is not only that the fairy woman (bean sith) is dressed in green but that (as is quite common in Gaelic speaking areas) she is described as “slender.”  This adjective often describes fairy females, perhaps indicating part of their believed allure: their willowy, juvenile bodies (or was it really an allusion to their emaciated, dangerously hungry bodies?) The association with green was especially strong in the Highlands. For instance, in Gaelic songs and prayers we may also find reference to the “slender woman of the green kirtle” (bean chaol a chota uaine) and, more generally, to the “tribe of the green mantles” (luchd nan trasganan uaine);

The trows of Shetland are described as looking like children of three or four years of age, small and ‘pirjink’ (neat) about the legs and clothed in tight green garments with green tapered caps. In Galloway, the story is told of two small boys dressed in green who were born from eggs.  They were said to have looked something like brownies, or mongrel fairies, but sadly they quickly vanished before much more could be learned about them.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Turning to Wales, the Green Lady of Caerphilly was a beautiful woman dressed in green who was met one day at the castle in the town by a man called Ieuan Owen.  She led him underground and along a very lengthy passage before they emerged beside a lake in a cavern.  There the green lady vanished, but another faery maiden then appeared and led Owen beneath the lake to a wonderful subterranean land.

My last example gives a rather different impression though, and perhaps opens up the possibility of something more sinister. In a Scottish story collected from an old nurse maid, she told how her mother had once nearly been drowned by a fairy being after she had fallen asleep beside a river.  The nurse’s mother awoke from her nap when she felt a tugging at her hair, as if someone or something trying to pull her into the water.  She leapt up, and then saw something “howd (bob) down the water like a green bunch of potato shaws (stalks).”  We can only note and puzzle over this account, which resembles nothing else I know of.  Perhaps the nurse’s mother saw the hair of a water sprite akin to Jenny Greenteeth, or the mane of a kelpie, or perhaps we have a sighting of some unique river faery.

As I have described previously, the greenness of British fairies goes right back to their early medieval origins and the Green Children who were discovered during the twelfth century at Woolpit in Suffolk. In that case, their greenness seemed to relate to their exclusively vegetarian, leguminous diet: Katharine Briggs speculated that their skin tone was the colour of death- although it might equally as well be the colour of Spring growth (if we have to read any symbolism at all into the preference). It might, too, represent their wild, rural nature- as with Robin Hood and his men in ‘Lincoln green.’ Whatever the truth, viridity seems to be a core part of British faery nature.