To be clear at the outset, this posting is not about fairies fluttering from flower to flower on their gauzy wings. In the dialect of northern England, and certainly south Yorkshire where I grew up, a flit is a move of home. Common enough with humans, it is, surprisingly, something for which fairy kind is also known, contradicting preconceptions of their timeless presence in particular localities, under certain distinctive fairy hills, in groves or near standing stones.
Our best and most picturesque account comes from the Rev. Robert Kirk in the Secret Commonwealth. In chapter 2 he describes how:
“They remove to other Lodgings at the Beginning of each Quarter of the Year, so traversing till Doomsday, being imputent and [impotent of?] staying in one Place, and finding some Ease by so purning [journeying] and changing Habitations. Their chamælion-lyke Bodies swim in the Air near the Earth with Bag and Bagadge; and at such revolution of Time, Seers, or Men of the second sight, (Fæmales being seldome so qualified) have very terrifying Encounters with them, even on High Ways; who therefoir uswally shune to travell abroad at these four Seasons of the Year…”
Aside from the wandering tendency of the sidh folk, what is noticeable too is that they seem tied to the points in the human calendar when leases tended to expire (although it might fairly be remarked that these themselves mark the major seasonal festivals of the year- the solstices and equinoxes. Secondly, there is the quaintly appealing image of the fairies floating along with their luggage. Given their magical powers, you might suppose there were easier ways to move house.
This constant motion may, perhaps, explain some of the fairies’ notorious elusiveness. Over and above a natural preference for change, there are a few other reasons why fairies might change their residences:
- they are driven from their homes- the supernaturals may find themselves obliged to move either because they no longer feel welcome in their abode or because physical conditions there have become intolerable. The first situation tends to arise with brownies- well meaning householders will try to give them clothes as a reward for their hard work or in pity at their nakedness, but this always causes offence and can lead to loss of the being’s voluntary labouring. The second impulse for departure is very frequently the noise of church bells, which the creatures can find unbearable. Such stories come from Inkberrow in Worcestershire and from Exmoor. The pixies residing on a farm at Withypool had to retreat to the other side of Winsford Hill, a distance of around four to five miles, to escape the sound of the ‘ding-dongs.’ For this they begged use of the farmer’s cart and horses, another instance of the very physical inconvenience caused to them (just like us).
- they flit with their families- I have mentioned this before hen discussing brownies and boggarts: sometimes humans can find their supernatural housemates (typically boggarts) so vexing that they resolve the move away and leave them. This always proves impossible; at some point during the removal it will be discovered that the entire household including the sprite has packed up and is on the move: a voice from within the cart piled high with belongings will confirm “aye, we’re flitting.” Very frequently the response to this is simply to turn round and head back to the old, familiar home.
These rather aberrational accounts make fairies seem much like us: their tenancies expire, their neighbours get on their nerves and, rather than sorting out the problem where they are, they move on. It humanises and domesticates them as well, in several of the cases, as stressing their inextricable links with humankind.
Perhaps the other aspect of these reports is to instil in us an expectation and acceptance that fairies may remove themselves from our locale. For many hundreds of years it has been said that ‘fairies used to be seen round here- but no longer.’ Herein lies the reason: they have not ceased to exist, they have simply moved elsewhere. The explanation helps sustain the belief; we don’t see them anymore, but someone else does now and- perhaps- some others might move into our neighbourhood soon if we’re lucky.
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.