Fairy festivals and seasons


Cicely Mary Barker, The mountain ash fairy

“They thought me, once, a magic tree

Of wondrous lucky charm,

And at the door they planted me

To keep the house from harm.”

In a recent post I described the best days of the week to see fairies (or to avoid them).  There are also certain times of the year when they are more likely to be abroad in the mortal world, and when encounters are more likely- whether for good or ill.  (I should confess at the start that I’ve broken my rule and included material from Ireland here, because it is so consistent with that of the British Isles.)

The bulk of the evidence on festivals and seasons comes from Scotland and Ireland.  There is a little from Man, a couple of odd instances from England and Cornwall and from Wales all we really know is that there were three ‘spirit nights’, the Teir nos ysprydnos, when it was believed that supernatural beings of all descriptions were abroad (these were May Day, Midsummer Eve and Halloween). Despite any deficiencies, the accounts are nonetheless consistent.  Two festivals stand out across Britain and Ireland- these are May Day and Halloween.

On May Day fires were lit to scare away the fairies.  This was done in Ireland, Scotland and on Man, where it was expressly the gorse that was burned.  Both in Ireland and Man it was believed to be unlucky to give fire away to a neighbour at this time- perhaps because the protection from fairies was being dissipated.  On Man, too, rowan, primroses and green boughs were gathered and laid before the doors of houses, stables and cattle sheds to exclude the fairies.  The reason for these precautions seems to have been that this festival was the time when the fairies re-emerged after winter and held their first dances of the year.  As they were freshly abroad in the world, again, they were deemed particularly dangerous.  It was said to be unwise to draw water from a well for a drink after sunset.  In Ireland, it was believed too that the sidhe would try to steal butter at this time of year; in Scotland, they stole milk from the cows.  Also in Ireland it was considered that cutting blackthorn at this season would attract ill-fortune.  In the worst cases, a sudden death would be regarded as an indicator of an abduction.

The next major seasonal festival of the year was Midsummer, but this has fewer fairy associations.  In Ireland Beltaine fires were lit and once again these acted as barriers or discouragements to the sidhe folk.

Margaret Tarrant-Midsummer Night

Margaret Tarrant, Midsummer night

It was at Halloween (Samhain) that supernatural forces again became particularity dangerous.  On this night the fairy folk were abroad once more, their last major excursion of the year, and mortals had to take precautions.  In Ireland it was thought that the sidhe moved home on this night, whilst in Scotland the fairy court enjoyed its last processional ride (or rade).  In the Outer Hebrides the season was said to be even more perilous as it was then that the fairy hosts fought amongst themselves, whilst in England this was the time of the year when the Wild Hunt rode through the nighttime skies of the South West.  A person out on Halloween was in grave danger of being swept up with the fairy throng. The only way that the rade could be seen by a mortal without peril was to have rowan hung at their door (hence my use of the verse and illustration by Cicely Mary Barker at the head of this post).  In Ireland offerings of food were left out near raths and other fairy sites in order to deflect their enmity.  Conversely, it was said that this was the best time of year to rescue those abducted, as the doors of the fairy hills would be open.

Even if you did not encounter the fairies, the countryside could be tainted.  For this reason, in Cornwall and in Ireland the advice was not to eat brambles after the end of October.  As in May, cutting blackthorn was discouraged too in November.  As at the start of the growing year, so at the end, torches were lit in the Highlands to keep the sidhe folk away.

Other dates with fairy links are Whitsuntide, when holy water was sprinkled inside Irish homes to ward off the sidhe and the season of Yule on Shetland, during which it was believed that the trows (trolls) would wander the island and enter human homes.  In fact, the Highland community served by the Reverend Robert Kirk during the late seventeenth century regarded all the quarter days (Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and Halloween) as risky times when there was fairy danger.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

John Duncan, The riders of the sidhe.

Whereas the evidence on days and times of day was rather less conclusive, it is possible with some certainty to point to festivals and seasons of the year, liminal turning points in the calendar, during which the portals to the supernatural open, or at least become more porous, allowing far greater access from one side to the other.


My fairy philosophy

As regular visitors or long term readers of this blog may know, I have written three novels with a supernatural/ fairy theme.  Considering about these, I thought it might be helpful for me to be explicit about my approach to the subject- to outline some of the fundamental ideas that lie behind my postings.  Indeed, I realised that when I wrote the three novels (all of which predate British fairies, my factual study of the subject published last summer), I had not clearly or systematically expressed even to myself what exactly it was that I believed.

elder queen

As a preamble, the stories in question are The elder queenwhich is set in present day Devon and involves encounters between unemployed farm labourer Darren Carter and Saran, the eponymous ‘fairy queen’; Albion awake! a fantasy that mingles time travel to meet William Blake, Gerard Winstanley and other radical figures alongside contact with the Fairy Queen Maeve; and lastly a children’s story, The Derrickconcerning a summer holiday meeting in Dorset between a boy and members of the local fairy ‘tribe’ called Derricks.


So, surveying what I have written, what are my fundamental preconceptions about fairy kind? What assumptions and prejudices may I be carrying over into my interpretation of the folklore sources?  The key features that come out seem quite consistent:

  • fairies are present here and now.  All my books have contemporary settings and the fae folk I have imagined are resident amongst us (if perhaps in more marginal areas) but they are not of the present.  Their speech and material culture is all slightly adrift from ours and there can be misunderstanding on both sides as a consequence;
  • fairies are like humans– they are of the same stature and form- no wings, therefore- although they may be marked out by the colour of their hair or their eyes.  Their lifespan is very different, however: in Albion awake! Maeve, whilst appearing to be a woman in her late thirties, is actually at least 5000 years old.  The Derrick is likewise ancient: you may recall how changelings are caught out with the ‘brewery of egg shells,’ causing them to exclaim how they have seen forests grown from acorns and die again.  Such are the timescales I imagine for my fay protagonists;
  • fairies are prepared to interact with humans- socially, intellectually and, quite often, sexually.  There may well be an element of exploitation by them in this- especially as-
  • they like to protect their privacy- fairies will tolerate contact with humans on their terms and at the times and places of their choosing.  Nonetheless, they wish to hold themselves apart from us, and resent any uninvited intrusion;
  • they are not to be antagonised or ignored– it follows from the above that trespasses into fairy territory may be punished (as Darren Carter discovers when he stumbles upon a fairy dance).  Attracting the antipathy of fairy kind is to be avoided because:
  • they are powerful- they have magical powers and they will not hesitate from using force against offending humans.  Darren experiences this, against himself and against others who threaten to disturb the fairy’s world.  In The Derrick an attempt to steal fairy gold leads to devastating retribution.  In Albion awake! Maeve can enable humans to travel through time and space.  Manipulating the human world is a matter of course to them;
  • the fairies have their own aims, objectives and agenda- this follows from what has already been said.  Interaction with humans is undertaken for their own ends.  It may be pleasurable (the sex) but it serves other, greater purposes too;
  • fairies expect respect and compliance with their wishes;
  • the fairies are a timeless part of the land.  It seems to come naturally to me to associate them with standing stones, burial mounds and other monuments and this is a feature repeated in all three stories: in The Elder Queen Darren meets Saran in an ancient ’round;’ in Albion awake! we variously encounter Maeve at Hambledon Hill hillfort, at the London Stone and at Boudicca’s Grave on Hampstead Heath.   The action of The Derrick is focused around yet another Iron Age fortification.  This intimate tie with the land and with ancient features of the landscape extends into the fairies’ attitude to pollution and environmental change.  Predictably, they don’t like it.  Queen Maeve concerns herself with preventing an extension to the runway of Heathrow Airport; Saran and her people forcibly disrupt attempts at fracking. My fairies are, it seems, eco-warriors.

That’s a summary of the key themes and characteristics that I realise unite all three books.  Unavoidably, too, they will shape my approach to my non-fiction writing too.


‘Come unto these yellow sands’- seaside fairies


Thomas Maybank, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (1906)

It is generally (perfectly correctly) our assumption that fairies and elves are beings of woodland and groves.  They may from time to time be found out on rough moorland (pixies and spriggans in the south west of England) or even in human homes and farm buildings (brownies) but we very rarely imagine them at the seaside.  This is mistaken; they have been sighted there and this post presents the scattered evidence for this.


Richard Dadd, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (1841)

Although in classical mythology the Nereids and Oceanids were marine nymphs, there is only a little traditional British material locating supernaturals on the seashore (for example, at Newlyn in Cornwall the bucca living on the strand had to be offered a share of the catch by fishermen hoping for success) and it is probably Shakespeare in The Tempest who first created the association in the popular mind.  In Act 1 scene 2, Ariel famously sings:

“Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Curtsied when you have, and kiss’d
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Hark, hark!”

Here we have the conventional fairy circle dance transposed from a glade or meadow, where a fairy ring springs up, to the strand-a novelty that appears to be almost entirely the playwright’s invention.  Milton seems to have imitated this scene in Comus: “And on the Tawny Sands and Shelves, Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves” (lines 117-118).  Without doubt, Shakespeare’s song has provided inspiration to painters ever since, as is illustrated here, and it seems to have created a lasting acceptance that fairies might quite properly be encountered so far from their normal haunts.  Scenes from The Tempest and, of course, Midsummer Night’s Dream were standard fare for Victorian fairy artists, but also we find seashore sprites unconnected with these famous plays.

Robert Huskisson, ‘Come unto these yellow sands,’ (1847)

From the early nineteenth century we have the painting Fairies on the seashore by Henry Howard (see below).  What exactly this tropical scene illustrates is uncertain; it may be his own idea, it may be drawn from literature: Ann Radcliffe in The mysteries of Udolpho (1794) wrote some lines about a sea nymph, who sings:

“Where e’er ye are who love my lay/ Come when red sunset tints the wave,

To the still sands, where fairies play,/ There in cool seas, I love to lave.”

Around the same time Elizabeth Landon wrote an entire poem entitled Fairies on the seashore, which features flower, rainbow and music fairies as well as a sea fairy riding in a nautilus shell in the moonlight.

tarrant sea shore fs

In the late nineteenth century it seems likely that W. B. Yeats drew upon native Irish tradition, rather than any English literary or artistic works, when in 1889 he wrote his famous poem The stolen child.  It is voiced by fairies who are abducting a human infant- they tempt the child to accompany them to where:

“the moon glosses/ The dim grey sands with light/ Far off by furthest Rosses/ We foot it all the night,/ Weaving olden dances.”

The scene is Rosses Sands in County Sligo, a place known as a “great fairy locality” according to Yeats himself.  It would be easy enough to assume that these lines were simply the work of a great poetic imagination, but this would be mistaken.  Yeats, like his friends William Russell (AE) and Ella Young, actually met fairies. In his collected letters he tells of an encounter at the Rosses that took place about the time that the verse was composed, when he met and conversed with the queen of fairy and her troop.  In this respect, Yeats prefigures our last evidence by several decades.

fairies on sea shore henry howard

Seashore fairies, Henry Howard (1769-1847)

Finally, in the twentieth century, we have actual sightings of fairies on the beach recorded, incidents which appear to exactly replicate Thomas Maybank’s 1906 version of Ariel’s song (rather than Margaret Tarrant’s more Peter Pan-ish and homely image).  In July 1921 Geoffrey Hodson saw some “queer little elf-like forms” playing on the beach at Blackpool.  They had elfish faces, large heads and ears, little round bodies, short thin legs with webbed feet and were three to six inches tall.  They played amongst the seaweed and stones, but did not go in the water; they seemed unconcerned by the presence of human holidaymakers (Fairies at work and playchapter 1).  In Conan Doyle’s Coming of the fairies, published in the same year, he reproduced an account by Mrs Ethel Wilson of Worthing of seeing fairies on the beach on sunny days: they were like little dolls with beautiful bright hair, she told him.  Unlike Hodson’s elves, these beings played in the sea and rode on the waves, constantly moving and dancing about.  These are fascinating sightings, though it is inescapable that the fays seem to have travelled to the coast very much in tandem with British day-trippers.

To conclude, the evidence is patchy and much of it is from literature rather than folklore, but the indication is that fairies might be found in any natural scene, from the sea shore to the mountain top.  If we conceive of them as nature spirits, this would of course be exactly what we would expect.

Why do elves have pointed ears?


Image from https://clayscence.deviantart.com/art/Asrai-533408670

Author and fairy expert Morgan Daimler has asked a very important question in a recent posting on her blog.  Although I have written myself about fairy physiology, this particular question is one that I have overlooked.

The posting is a very thorough and valuable examination of a fascinating aspect of the subject and Morgan rightly, I think, suggests Christian influence as the source of this feature.

I’ve been conducting my own research recently into the evolution of contemporary views of faerie, and reading the piece made me look back at my record of twentieth century sightings. It’s fascinating to note that pointed ears are mentioned by the likes of Hodson and Conan Doyle, but only in a very small percentage of cases. Long noses are just as common, and we also read about big ears and no ears. A couple of references to ‘elfish’ faces probably suggest that the conventions were well established as early (at least) as the 1920s, just as Morgan have stated in her own discussion.

Suffice to say, pointy ears are embedded in popular iconography, but it’s probably not a traditional conception and its origins seem to be a source to some degree hostile to the fairy belief.

Review- ‘Folk’ by Zoe Gilbert


As soon as I saw the cover of this new book, I knew I wanted to read it.  The gothic William Morris design in bold red, black and yellow grabbed my eye and convinced me, even before I’d picked it up, that it would be of interest.

I was right.  The story concerns the fictional island of Neverness and the small community living there.  Told in a succession of brief episodes that gradually intertwine and- it becomes apparent- stretch out over decades, the novel has a strange aura of mystery and magic, yet these are at the same time deeply incorporated into the everyday lives of the island dwellers.

It’s not exactly a fairy story nor is it about fairies, but there is a supernatural presence throughout.  There’s a witch, talk of changelings, a shadowy ‘Gorse Mother’ lurking deep in the thickets, there are hallucinatory drugs and there’s a ‘water bull,’ the scary and dangerous taroo-ushtey of the Isle of Man and tarbh uisge of Highland Scotland.  This supernatural water creature seduces and carries off one of the local girls.  His love is intoxicating, irresistible- and fatal.

The story is beautifully told, fast paced and enjoyable.  Worth a read.


When to meet the fays: the best days and times

tarrant 2

Folk tradition is insistent upon the fact that there are certain days when fairies are more likely to be abroad in the world.  We can be certain, then, that there are more auspicious days in the week for seeing our good neighbours- the practical problem for us is the absence of consensus over which days.

The earliest account we have is from Wales, written by Richard Penry in his polemic The aequity of a humble supplication in 1587.  He asserts that certain soothsayers and enchanters claim “to walk on Tuesday and Thursday at night with the fairies, of which they brag themselves to have their knowledge.” In 1880, Wirt Sikes published British goblins, an account of fairy belief in Victorian Wales.  He identified Friday as the fairies’ day in South Wales, “when they have special command over the weather, and it is their whim to make the weather on Friday differ from that of other days of the week.” (p.268; see too Edmund Jones, The appearance of evilpara.116)  This may of course just be the nature of British weather and not evidence of any supernatural intervention….

In Scotland Friday was also identified as the day when misfortune was in the air and fairies roamed the human world.  To speak of them could attract them, as Sir Walter Scott described in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Bordersso that a highlander:

“Will on a Friday morn look pale,/ If asked to tell a fairy tale.” (Scott, Marmion, Introduction to Canto IV)

In fact, so great was the fear engendered by the superstition, that even naming the day was to be avoided.  Accordingly, Fridays were only mentioned as “the day of yonder town.”  By way of contrast, it was believed that the fairy folk could do no harm on Thursdays.

From Ireland comes evidence to confuse us if we believed some sort of pattern had been emerging from ourevidence.  One Irish researcher was told to avoid mention of the fairies on Mondays (Leland Duncan, writing of Leitrim in Folklore, vol.7, p.174).  Lady Wilde, though, was advised not to mention the sidhe folk on Wednesdays and Fridays (Ancient legends of Ireland, p.72), with the latter day being especially perilous.

There is a lot less evidence for England, but the Denham Tractsa collection of folklore for Northumberland and the Scottish Borders, record that Wednesday is “the fairies’ Sabbath or holiday.” (pp.86 & 115)

So, there we are: be on your guard on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and/ or Friday, but most especially on the latter day.  We might add that, on Shetland at least, Saturdays were also regarded as unfavourable as this was the day when the trows emerged and entered people’s homes.  It is probably understandable why Sundays are not ‘fairy days’ given the prevalent modern idea of an antipathy between Christian faith and Faery (see my recent post).  As for the fairies’ preference for Fridays, as Wirt Sikes observed, it was traditionally believed to be the day of the crucifixion by the church and so was a day thought to be subject to malign influences.

mt enchantress

Margaret Tarrant, The enchantress

“the fairy hour, the twilight shade of evening” (Ann Radcliffe, Athlin)

Not only did the fairies have favourite days on which to venture forth, they also favoured certain times of day.  Examined on suspicion of witchcraft in August 1566, Dorset healer John Walsh admitted that he had made contact with the local pixies, visiting the hills in which they dwelled “between the houres of twelve and one noon or at midnight.”  The Reverend Edmund Jones’ account of the fairy beliefs he had found in Aberystruth parish in Gwent in the 1770s echoed Walsh- to some extent.  The fairies had been encountered by parishioners at all hours of the night and day, but more at night than in the daytime and more in the morning and evening than at noon (p.69).  As I have described before, the link between fairies and the night time is especially strong and well established, invoking as it does our fear of the dark as well as more benign images of fays skipping in rings by moonlight (see my posting and my British fairies c.17).


‘The good people’- a review


A fiction addition to my ‘fairy bookshelf.’

I generally occupy the same seat in the library where I frequently work  and on the shelves opposite me in the fiction section was a hardback book, The good people by Hannah Kent.  As soon as I saw the title, I knew it would be a fairy-themed story, as those ‘good people’ are the daoine maithe in Irish Gaelic.

Having a lull in my research, I took the book out and read it in a few days.  It is a very well written tale (literary, elegant and inventive) about life in the west of Ireland in the mid-1860s.  It is not a fairy story as such, but it examines the social impact of a belief in a fairy presence and in magically induced illness and ill-fortune.

A sick and disabled child is identified as a changeling: on the one hand the family of the infant take increasingly desperate steps to expel the fairy and to recover the lost boy from under the fairy hill; on the other hand the wider community blames the changeling child as the source of a run of bad luck and poor harvests in the valley where they live.  The damaging impact of these beliefs on individuals and social relationships is what Kent examines so well in this novel.  The account is based on a true story, in every way as tragic as the burning of 26 year old Bridget Cleary in 1895- she was a woman whom her husband and neighbours had become convinced had been abducted by the local sidhe folk and who had to be recovered by means as violent as those inflicted upon baby Micheál in Kent’s story.

The good people is a very well structured and well told novel.  Kent may not be a believer, but her account of fairy belief in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century is highly detailed and beautifully articulated.  A recommended read.

‘A hidden tongue’- Fairy song and speech


MEX2 05z Ella Young SW 388

Ella Young
“Sweet voices call us through the air;
New languages we understand.
Is this our own world, grown so fair?
Sir Knight, we are in Fairy-Land!”
(In fairyland, by Lucy Larcom)
I have written previously about fairy language, posting on this blog and discussing the question in chapter 3 of my British fairies.  I wish to return to this subject to discuss some intriguing evidence.
The typical treatment of the matter of fairy speech in the literature is either to use it as a source of humour or to regard it as a area so obscure and insoluble that little meaningful can be said.  The two extremes are illustrated by the following authorities.  Ben Jonson in The alchemist opted for the frivolous and mocking approach.  His elves enter crying “Titi, titi, titi…” which allegedly means “Pinch him or he will never confess.”  Dapper, the dupe of this scene, declares that he has told the truth, to which the elves respond “Ti, ti, ti, ti, to, ta”- ‘he does equivocate.’  Similar nonsense is spouted by the fairies in Thomas Randolph’s Amyntas of 1632.  You wonder whether this is all just a play on the name Titania.
The other view may be represented by the Reverend Edmund Jones, in his discussion of contemporary fairy beliefs in Gwent in the 1770s (A geographical, historical and religious account of the parish of Aberystruth). His description is typical of many of the Welsh texts and accounts of about that time: he states that the fairies are often heard talking together “but the words are seldom heard” (p.69).  This is either because they were indistinct, or because they were spoken in neither Welsh nor English.  We learn that Scottish brownies are “a’ rough but the mouth”- that is, they may be hairy but they speak softly. Conversely once, on Shetland, a girl saw a ‘grey woman’ wandering and “making a noise like scolding” in a “hidden tongue.”  Here the speech reported was both harsh to hear as well as incomprehensible.
All that we can gather, then, is that fairy speech neither sounds like ours nor is it comprehensible.  It may be recognisable, nonetheless, as language: in the story of the Fairy revels on the Gump at St. Just (Hunt, Popular romances of the West of England, p.85) an old man hears fairies on the Gump singing hymns “in a language unknown.”   Even so, fay speech has also been said to be high-pitched or even bird-like.  Walter de la Mare in one poem describes bands of fairies “chattering like grasshoppers” (The ruin); in another, The unfinished dream, he overhears them “talking their unearthly scattered talk together…  Ageless in mien and speech.”  This perhaps captures the experience, but none of it helps us much in discovering the exact nature of fairy language- nor in actual communication with our good neighbours.
We have, though, the testimony of Irish seer and poet Ella Young (see At the gates of dawn, 2011).  She heard fairy music and song and tried to record the words she heard.  If her account provides a half accurate transcription of actual speech, we would have the most tantalising evidence we possess for the language of the Irish sidhe folk (at least).  Young kept an account in her diary for the summer of 1917 in which she described what she had heard in the far northwest of Ireland.  On August 28th she heard ‘a great litany of chants and responses with words in an unknown language’- “Abaktha… nyetho… wyehoo.”  On September 1st a chorus sang the word “Beeya” repeatedly; this was followed on October 9th by chanting “Balaclóo… Beeya…” and it culminated on October 17th with an extended ‘Gregorian chant’ of which she recorded what she could:

“Hy bermillu, hy dramel, heroó, wyehóobilik, kyeyóubilik, wyehóo, balalóo…”

This may of course all be the product of a deluded mind: on September 8th Young wrote quite frankly that “my head has been for several days quite normal” as a consequence of which she had heard neither music nor song from the sidhe people.  All we can say is that, if it is genuine, it is untainted testimony of fairy speech.  Young’s experiences predate Tolkien and his confection of elvish languages from Welsh and Finnish; there could be no imitation of his pervasive influence nor, for that matter, does Gaelic appear to have shaped what she heard.  If her snatches of verse resemble anything at all, it’s some Algonquin tongue from New England.  It’s worth recording that Young was not alone in her claims to have met and conversed with fairies.  As respected a figure as poet William Butler Yeats made the same claims at the same time.

The words transcribed by Young may be complete nonsense; in practical terms, without a ‘Rosetta stone’ to give us a key to translation, they might as well be gobbledegook.  Nevertheless, it is an intriguing account and readers must draw their own conclusions…  The words of poet Philip Dayre are a fitting conclusion to this note.  In his verse, An invocation, he calls on the fairies to return to earth, asking:

“Who to human tongues shall teach,

That forgotten fairy speech,

By whose aid the world of old,

Did with Nature commune hold?”

Restoration of this lost unity might be the reward awaiting the person who finds that fairy Rosetta stone.

And with that, Namárië



Fern seed and invisibility

faerie spell Alan Lee

‘Faerie spell’, by Alan Lee

“We have the receipt of fern seed: we walk invisible”

(Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I, Act 2, scene 1)

It is widely believed that the seed of ferns has magical powers.  On the continent it is used to disclose treasure; in Britain it brings love or conjures invisibility, as indicated by the line from Henry IV above.

Samuel Bamford, witness of the Peterloo massacre, records a Lancashire tradition that the fern seed was used to obtain the heart of a loved one and he tells the tale of an attempt to gather some in a highly melodramatic manner (Passages in the life of a radical, cc.20-22- see below).  In Michael Drayton’s epic poem Nimphidia we find the fays, like mortals, using fern seed to win a loved one’s affections.  We have discussed fairy glamour in previous posts, so it is of great interest that fern seed is also said to confer invisibility upon the possessor and was used for this property by both the fairies and by mortals; like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson referred to this usage in his play The New Inn- “I had/ No medicine to go invisible/ No fern seed in my pocket.” (New Inn, Act 1, scene 6).  Both playwrights were confident that their audiences would understand the reference.

Supernatural use of ferns is found from time to time in fairy literature.  In one version of the Cornish story of Cherry of Zennor, the young heroine is depicted pausing at a cross roads, uncertain which way to head.  She idly picks and crushes some fern fronds, the effect of which is to conjure up a fairy gentlemen who becomes her employer and her suitor (see Frances Olcott, The book of elves and fairies, 1918, c.VIII). The same book includes the poem Mabel on Midsummer Day by Mary Howitt.  The girl is sent on an errand to her grandmother’s, but is warned that it is Midsummer Day “when all the fairy people/ From elf-land come away.”  It’s a dangerous time of year, then, and she must take care not to offend the fairies, for example she should not “pluck the strawberry flower/ Nor break the lady-fern.”

To add to the mystery of the process, the seed could only be seen and gathered on Midsummer’s Eve when it was shed from the plants’ fronds.  William Browne in Britannia’s pastorals refered to the “wondrous one-night seeding ferne.”  This night is also the eve of the feast of St John the Baptist, and it was said that the fern seed fell at the precise moment of his birth.

The process of collection and the fairy link are described more fully by Thomas Jackson in A treatise concerning the original of unbelief, 1625, pp.178-9:

“It was my happe since I undertook the Ministrie to question an ignorant soule… what he saw or heard when he watch’t the falling of the Ferne-seed at an unseasonable and suspitious houre.  Why (quoth he) … doe you think that the devil hath ought to do with that good seed? No: it is in the keeping of the King of Fayries and he, I know, will do me no harm: yet he had utterly forgotten this King’s name until I remembered it unto him out of my reading of Huon of Bordeaux.” (i.e. Oberon)

Given the strong supernatural associations, it is not surprising that collecting the fees was accompanied by some measure of risk, as told by Richard Bovet in Pandaemonium, p.217:

“Much discourse about the gathering of Fern-seed (which is looked upon as a Magical herb) on the night of Midsummer’s Eve, and I remember I was told of one that went to gather it, and the Spirits whistlit by his ears like bullets and sometimes struck his Hat or other parts of his Body. In fine: though that he had gotten a quantity of it, and secured it in papers and a Box besides, when he came home he found it all empty.  But probably this appointing of times and hours is the Devil’s institution.”

Great precautions were taken to protect the collector with charms and spells (see Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Borders, II p.27).  Samuel Bamford’s account describes the kind of ritual and incantations that had to accompany the attempt to gather the seed and the ghastly retribution that might befall the seeker who erred in their supplications or who was deemed unsuitable by the spirits.  The fern was to be found in Boggart, or Fairy, Clough (gorge) and the collectors went there bearing items including an earthen ware dish, a pewter platter and a skull lined with moss and clay and with a tress of the hair of the loved one attached.  Various forms of words were recited whilst the seed was shaken onto the plates with a hazel rod.

The magical powers of fern seen were recalled even into the modern era, as witnessed by the poem The spell by Madison Julius Cawein, in which the fairy connection and the power to win a loved one are both invoked:

“St John hath told me what to do

To search and find the ferns that grow

The fern seed that the faeries know;

Then sprinkle fern seed in my shoe,

And haunt the steps of you, my dear,

And haunt the steps of you.”

In conclusion, herbal means to acquire fairy powers are commonly found and usually employ ingredients from plants commonly available.  The only practical issue seems to be that collecting sufficient to produce a usable amount is likely to be extremely time consuming and may demand a very large amount of luck.  In other words, the offer of fairy glamour is held out to us but, rather like a mirage, it is forever retreating before us.

“A witchery of sound”- ‘ceol sidhe’ or fairy music

ceol sidhe

‘Flute fairy’ by Svetlana Chezhina

“There’s many feet on the moor to-night, and they fall so light as they turn and pass,
So light and true that they shake no dew from the featherfew and the hungry grass.
I drank no sup and I broke no crumb of their food, but dumb at their feast sat I;
For their dancing feet and their piping sweet, now I sit and greet till I’m like to die.

Oh kind, kind folk, to the words you spoke I shut my ears and I would not hear!
And now all day what my own kin say falls sad and strange on my careless ear;
For I’m listening, listening, all day long to a fairy song that is blown to me,
Over the broom and the canna’s bloom, and I know the doom of the Ceol-Sidhe.

I take no care now for bee or bird, for a voice I’ve heard that is sweeter yet.
My wheel stands idle: at death or bridal apart I stand and my prayers forget.
When Ulick speaks of my wild-rose cheeks and his kind love seeks out my heart that’s cold,
I take no care though he speaks me fair for the new love casts out the love that’s cold.

I take no care for the blessed prayer, for my mother’s hand or my mother’s call.
There ever rings in my ear and sings, a voice more dear and more sweet than all.
Cold, cold’s my breast, and broke’s my rest, and oh it’s blest to be dead I’d be,
Held safe and fast from the fairy blast, and deaf at last to the Ceol-Sidhe!”

This poem, ‘The fairy music’ by Nora Chesson Hopper, captures the enchantment and other worldliness that it is associated with fairy music.  Previously I have discussed the fairies’ liking for music and song and what seems to be the generally pleasure-seeking nature of their existence (see my earlier posting as well as chapter 11 of my British fairies).  According to John Dunbar of Invereen, one of folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz’ Highland informants, the fairies were “awful for music, and used to be heard often playing the bagpipes.” (The fairy faith in Celtic countries, p.95)

What I would like to do now in this posting is to discuss the actual nature and sound of that fairy music, based upon the first hand testimonies of those who have claimed to have been fortunate enough to have heard it.  Nonetheless, there are a number of themes associated with fairy music which we may quickly recap:

  • the music is often heard coming from particular knolls, hills or barrows, in which the fairies are taken to reside.  This is a very common local story and it can be found from the Fairy Knowe on Skye to the ‘music barrows’ of southern England, for example at Bincombe Down and Culliford Tree in Dorset and Wick Moor, near Stogursey in Somerset.
  • fairy musical skills and even instruments can be granted to fortunate humans.  There are several sets of bagppies in Scotland alleged to be fairy gifts.  Fairy musical ability could be a blessing that made a man and his heirs rich (Evans- Wentz p.103). It could also be a curse, too: the favoured one might die young, being taken back by the fairies to play for them (Evans-Wentz p.40).
  • conversely, talented human musicians were from time to time abducted to satisfy the powerful fairy need for music and dance.  Almost always they met the fate of all who tarry in Faery.  They believed that they had played for just a night, but find all transformed on their return home.
  • fairy music can have magical or enchanting power- for example, from Ireland come stories of those who, on hearing it, felt compelled to dance- and then had to continue until they dropped from sheer exhaustion (Evans-Wentz p.69).  Coleridge in his poem The eolian harp described “Such a soft floating witchery of sound/ As twilight Elfins make;”  deliberately or not, a spell seemed to be cast upon the listening human; and,
  • occasionally, humans are able to commit a fairy tune to memory and contribute it to the mortal repertoire.  One such is Be nort da deks o’ Voe from Shetland. Two Welsh examples are Cân y tylwyth teg and Ffarwel Ned Pugh (see Wirt Sikes, British goblins c.7 and also Evans Wentz pp.118 & 131- two examples from Man).

The last two points are of particular significance into an enquiry into what fairy music actually sounds like.  Most of our older sources are not very helpful on this.  In his history of Aberystruth parish, the Reverend Edmund Jones in 1779 is typical of the vague descriptions normally found: “everyone said [the music] was low and pleasant, but none could ever learn the tune.”  Gathering evidence for his book The fairy faith in Celtic countries, Evans-Wentz was told that fairy music consisted of tunes not of this world, unlike anything a mortal man ever heard (pp.124 & 24), being the finest, grandest and most beautiful kind (pp.32, 47 & 57).


‘A little night music’ by David Delamare

Evidently the otherworldly nature of the music gave witnesses problems when they later tried to describe their experiences.  The testimony of those of a more artistic temperament might therefore prove more enlightening.  Poet and mystic George Russell (AE) told Evans-Wentz that he first listened to the music in the air on a hillside in County Sligo.  He heard “what seemed to be the sound of bells, and was trying to understand these aerial clashings in which wind seemed to break upon wind in an ever-changing musical silvery sound.” (p.61)  This leads us much closer to the reality and, in fact, the best account comes from a close friend of Russell and his wife, the visionary writer Ella Young.  Over the summer of 1917 and into 1918 she repeatedly heard the ceol sidhe, which in her opinion surpassed human symphonies.  Interestingly the very same description was used on the Isle of Man in the 1720s (Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook, Magical folk, 2018p.173).

The fairy music was, Young said, “orchestral and of amazing richness and complexity.”  The melodies could be exquisite, sometimes like very fast reels, at others slow and wistful.  On August 27th 1917 she described “a certain monotony like slow moving waves with a running melody on the crests.”  Interwoven with this might be voices singing in an unknown tongue, either solo or resembling Gregorian chant.  Young noted “delicate and intricate rhythms” in a variety of tempos, including “music of stricken anvils.”  She heard a “myriad, myriad instruments” among which she mentioned cymbals, bells (both silvery tinkling and deep tolling), trumpets, harps, violins, drums, pipes, organs and bagpipes.  Several times, though, she could not compare the sound to anything she knew from earthly ensembles; she heard “very high notes- higher than any human instrument could produce,” “something like a Jew’s harp” and “a curious reedy instrument.”  Again, Young was not alone in this: George Waldron recorded that on Man in the 1720s islanders would hear “Musick, as could proceed from no earthly instruments” (Magical folk, p.173).

Despite her eloquence and sensitivity, Young struggled to give a clear account; it was “not music I can describe… it is beyond words.”   Moreover, she found it “difficult to recall this music and the sensation it creates.”  Nevertheless, she wrote (in terms similar to Russell’s) that the orchestral sound resembled a “wave or gush of wind” and that its effect was to create “a sense of freedom and exultation.”

Young harboured some doubts over her aural visions.  She wrote on September 9th 1917 that “my head has been for several days quite normal,” but then she heard the sounds again and concluded “I think the singing in my head was really astral.” In other words, its origin was aethereal and unearthly.  She believed that all could hear the same if only they drew closer to nature and had a peaceful and patient heart.

It is difficult to know quite what to make of this.  Young herself admitted concerns over her own sanity, but at the same time W. B. Yeats and both AE and his wife heard the same “faery chimes” and “solemn undertone” of song.  Either they all hallucinated together or these highly detailed and circumstantial experiences record some actual sensations.  The consensus, at least amongst poets, was certainly to confirm that pipes and, particularly, bells were characteristic of fairy music (see for example Ceol sidhe by Francis Ledwidge or Fairy ring by Abbie Farwell Brown).

cicely-mary-barker-fairy orchestra

Cicely Mary Barker, ‘Fairy orchestra’

In conclusion, whatever its nature, the idea of fairy music has always had an aura of mystery and enchantment and, as such, has always attracted poets.  The opening verse from Nora Hopper embodied this, but even a poet like Rose Fyleman, whose fairy verse was generally very anodyne and was aimed at a junior audience, could still suggest a little of that magical strangeness; here’s her poem ‘Fairy music’:

“When the fiddlers play their tunes you may sometimes hear,
Very softly chiming in, magically clear,
Magically high and sweet, the tiny crystal notes
Of fairy voices bubbling free from tiny fairy throats.

When birds at break of day chant their morning prayers,
Or on sunny afternoons pipe ecstatic airs,
Comes an added rush of sound to the silver din-
Songs of fairy troubadours gaily joining in.

When athwart the drowsy fields summer twilight falls,
Through the tranquil air there float elfin madrigals,
And in wild November nights, on the winds astride,
Fairy hosts go rushing by, singing as they ride.

Every dream that mortals dream, sleeping or awake,
Every lovely fragile hope- these the fairies take,
Delicately fashion them and give them back again
In tender, limpid melodies that charm the hearts of men.”

Perhaps our best response is to hope to share Ella Young’s experiences and to know for ourselves that “This astral music is very much in sound delicately beautiful.”  As Irish poet William Sharp wrote in his verse The nine desires, it is “The desire of the poet, the soft, low music of the Tribe of the Green Mantles.”