Goblin harvest by Amelia Bowerley
“The Fairy Well of Lagnanay-
Lie nearer me, I tremble so,
Una, I’ve heard wise women say
(Hearken to my tale of woe)-
That if before the dews arise,
True maiden in its icy flow
With pure hand bathe her bosom thrice,
Three lady-brackens pluck likewise,
And three times round the fountain go,
She straight forgets her tears and sighs.”
The fairy well of Lagnanay, Samuel Ferguson
I have discussed in a previous post how some fairies have an aversion to running water. In contrast, though, still water has strong faery and magical properties and is, as hitherto described, the home of quite a few (largely fearsome) fays- the ‘meremaids’ of pools and lakes.
I want to look at the supernatural nature of ponds and wells in this posting. A folklore example of this that comes from East Yorkshire records how a troublesome bogle in Holderness was banished to a well, since called Robin Round Cap Well. In lowland Scotland the story was told of a girl who sat spinning wool on a distaff by a well when she looked in a saw a pot of gold beneath the surface. She marked the spot with her spindle and ran to tell her father. He suspected it was just fairy glamour intended to trap and drown her and, sure enough, when they returned to the place, the moor was covered in distaffs. Nonetheless, twelve men in green appeared and returned her original spindle with its wool all spun. Author Rose Fyleman was aware of the fay powers of water and, in The second adventure of the rainbow cat, the cat is given a bottle of fairy water from a magic well that bestows the ability to see through walls.
Writer and designer Feral Strumpet at the holy well at Mount Grace Priory, Osmotherly.
Holy (fairy) wells
Britain once was covered with ‘holy’ wells, many of which had no Christian association at all. They were wishing wells, places of prediction, and very many are likely to have been so regarded for millenia. These sites often still exist, but their supernatural links are now mostly forgotten; they are muddy springs in fields or neglected wells by roadsides. They still have a strong attraction for many, nonetheless.
Respect was shown to fairy wells in various ways. Offerings of pins were made at Bradwell in Derbyshire on Easter Sunday and at Wooler in Northumberland, whenever a person wanted a wish to come true. At various sites in Scotland, both buttons and pins were left. Perhaps the most famous of these was the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ on top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies. Given the fays’ well known liking for dairy products, such offerings seem entirely appropriate; the same can’t be said about the pins, though, as iron is always regarded as an effective way of repelling our good neighbours.
The wells had health giving properties, too, so that if a child had gone into a decline and was no longer thriving (it was ‘shargie’ and had been afflicted by ‘the fairy’) leaving a child overnight near a well would cure it. At Wooler, too, sickly children would be dipped in the well’s waters and bread and cheese left as an offering. If it was suspected that the child had in fact been substituted for a fairy changeling, well water might again be part of the remedy. At Chapel Euny in West Cornwall the way to expel a changeling and restore a human child was to dip the suspect infant in the well on the first three Wednesdays in May. Both the time of day and the time of year are particularly fay, as has been described before.
Given the supernatural properties of well water, it is unsurprising that they should be used to imbue the human children abducted by the fairies with fay properties. This is only evidenced in literature rather than folklore, but an excellent example is in the Scottish verse Kilmeny by James Hogg. She’s dipped in the waters of life to ensure that her youth and beauty never fade.
Poet, artist, musician Hannah Titania at her fairy well
There’s a complex and (as ever) contrary relationship between the faeries and water. It can be the medium in which they live, it can be protective against them and it can be used by them for magical purposes.
Many of us instinctively sense the links between fays, wells and some sort of supernatural presence. Fairies’ association with natural features may be part of this; perhaps the mysterious appearance of fresh water from underground had mysterious and magical qualities that also encouraged links to the Good Folk. The Tiddy Mun of the East Anglian fens, for example, was believed to control the flood waters and had to be propitiated with offerings of water. Fresh water can be both potion and poison; which will apply seems unpredictable and to depend very much upon place and personality.
See my posting on the Sennen fairies for an example of a sighting at a well.
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.