Cecil Collins, ‘The landscape of the threshold,’ 1962
There is a longstanding association between the fairies and barrows and megaliths, not just in Britain but across Europe. In earlier ages the fairy label was habitually chosen for these unexplained monuments. It may just have been a name- for instance, the Fairy Toot, in Somerset, Elf Howe near Folkton in Yorkshire, Fairy Knowe on Orkney, the Pookeen stone circle (the place of fairies/ pucks) at Clodagh, Co. Cork or the Fairy Stone (La Grand Menhir Brisee) in Brittany- but not infrequently fairies would be regarded as being more actively involved in the making of a site. The Champs les Roches stone rows in Brittany were made by fairies dumping stones they had been carrying; similarly, Tregomar menhir was dropped by a passing fairy. The allee couverte at Coat Menez Guen bears the marks of fairy fingers on two of its stones.
The extent of the fairy associations could vary:
- music and dancing- at Athgreany stone circle in Co. Wicklow the fairies play their pipes there at midnight; the fairies are also said to dance around the Hurle Stane in Northumberland. Numerous Dorset tumuli are remembered as ‘music barrows’ where, if you sit at midday, you will hear fairy music within- for example at Bottlebrush Down, near Wimbourne and also at Ashmore, Culliford Tree, Bincombe Bumps and Whitcombe;
- healing- the healing powers ascribed to the unusual holed stone arrangement at Men an Tol, Penwith, derive from the pisky linked to the site; and,
- dwellings: under stones- most commonly, ancient stones are sites of supernatural habitation, in one way or another. Passage graves are dwellings themselves- for example in Brittany at Barnenez, La roche aux fees and at La grotte aux fees, which they deliberately wrecked; a Cornish fogou near Constantine was called ‘the pixie house’ and in Ireland several stone circles are classified as lios, fairy forts, for example Grange in Limerick and Lissyviggeen in Kerry. The Irish legend is, in fact, that after their defeat by the invading Milesians, the fairy tribe of the Tuatha De Danaan retreated into an enchanted kingdom beneath raths and stones- such places as Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth in the Boyne valley now being their abodes. Ancient stones marking the access to fairyland are a common account throughout the British Isles- a hole or stairs beneath a menhir would lead to the faery realm-see for example my earlier post on fairy dwellings. The Humberstone in Leicestershire is a fairy dwelling, as too is St John’s Stone in Leicester itself.
- dwellings: under burial mounds- various ancient burial mounds are recalled in folk memory as the fairies’ homes: examples are to be found on Cley Hill in Wiltshire, at Cauldon Low and Long Low in Staffordshire (upon both of which the fairies were also known to dance, at the latter on Christmas Eve) and at Hob Hurst’s House, Deepdale and Monsal Dale in Derbyshire. It may be noted in passing that some of the stones linked with the fairies are in fact the remaining internal elements of tumuli- the so-called cromlechs such as Pentre Ifan in Wales and (it has been suggested) Men an Tol in Penwith.
Given the supernatural link to stones and tumuli, it was inevitable that people would invest the sites with magical powers. We have seen the curative properties of Men an Tol; conversely in Ireland and Scotland interference with or damage to stones was avoided through fear of fairy revenge. In Ireland the belief persists that disturbance could lead to crops or the home burning; in the Highlands Rev. Kirk recorded a prohibition upon taking turf or wood from a sithbruaich (a fairy hill).
Standing stones themselves have also been invested with spiritual power. Whether this is ascribed to their siting upon ley lines, or to fairy residents, it is still an element of our beliefs about standing stones. This posting is illustrated with a painting by English neo-romantic artist Cecil Collins, one of several works of his in which stones are anthropomorphised (see too Hymn, 1946 and 1956). These figures could well represent the fairy dwellers within the stones.
An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017); for further reflections on the use of fairies in interpreting and accommodating the past, see my post on fairies explaining the unexplained.