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.
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.
Yeats and the seaside sidhe
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.
Seashore fairies, Henry Howard (1769-1847)
Fays on holiday?
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 play, chapter 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.
Much more recent sightings have confirmed that this link persists, rare as it is. A Mrs Clara Reed was on holiday at Looe in Cornwall in 1943 when she saw a sea fairy, dressed in a skirt of shells with a bodice of seaweed and shells round her neck. She spoke with the fairy at the water’s edge, and was told the future: that her sick husband would not die. A flying fairy being was also seen hovering on the beach in British Columbia during the 1970s (Johnson, Seeing fairies, p.125; Fairy Census no.194).
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.
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.