“Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.”
(‘From a railway carriage‘ by Robert Louis Stevenson)
This posting may seem bizarre to many readers. Industrialisation and modern technology are normally assumed to be entirely at odds with the rural world of the fairies as we generally conceive them. To a large extent, of course, this is perfectly true- and yet, we know they are craftspeople and they have their industries: they are metal workers, they are builders, there are fairy spinners and weavers. There isn’t a complete contradiction between Faery and mechanics and production.
Our folklore evidence as well as more recent sightings suggest that fairies have a variety of ways of getting around. We may assume that they fly or use magic all the time, but it seems not. They have also been spotted in horse-drawn coaches, traps, caravans and carts as well as riding ponies and even deer (see for example Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies pp.35, 55, 64 & 251 or Fairy Census, numbers 29, 38 & 177).
Railways, though? What need have they of the speed of trains when the fays can fly? These are perfectly valid points. Equally, we have heard of them fleeing the noise and clamour of the human world, whether that is church bells (for which stories come from Exmoor and Worcestershire) and the noise of a factory- from the Isle of Man there is an account of the island fairies seen fleeing the new steam mill built at Colby for the continued solitude and silence of the glens and mountains. A ploughman heard a “low, pathetic, forlorn moaning” and saw waves of the little folk heading up the hillside with their possessions on their backs.
Likewise, the railways: describing the island for his Practical guide of 1874, Henry Irwin Jenkinson admitted that belief in the Manx fairies was dying out under the assault of the education and rationalism of the younger generation. Worse still, he wrote:
“Now there are railways and the island is overrun with tourists every summer, the last haunts of the good people will be invaded and they will have to move elsewhere.” (p.75).
The fear of modern mechanised transport expelling the supernatural residents was in fact expressed as early as the 1840s, when a correspondent of Notes and Queries had worried that railway engines would drive fairies far away from “Merry England.” (vol.9, 1860, p.259)
Yet, we also have this bizarre story: in the south of the island, a man reported sighting fairies operating a railway- before the first track had even been laid on Man, which was as late as 1873.
“There was a man from Santon told me last night that an uncle of his used to see the fairies very often, while he was alive, and knew a great deal about them. He was often telling the people about the railway line, more than 20 years before anyone thought about it. He was seeing the fairies very often practising on it in the moonlight, and he could point out where the line was to be, as he was seeing fairy trains going along so often… The man said the railway line was made on the very spot he told them, more than 20 years before it was proposed.”
In isolation, this story seems to make no sense at all. However, the same man went on to say that his uncle was able to predict how good the fishing season would be according to the types of fairy he saw in and around his home. Now, this link between seeing fairies and predicting the future is not new. Other examples from the Isle of Man include mock funeral processions, which would foretell a death, and fairy baptisms, which will indicate the sex of an expected baby. In this context, although the apparition was a long time in advance of the event portrayed, it was completely not out of the ordinary for fairy behaviour.
Further, the involvement of the fays with mechanical transport is a trend that has begun to emerge in the more recent reports of sightings. Obviously, fairies need neither planes, nor trains, nor automobiles to be able to fly or to travel around, but they seem to have some partiality to showing themselves to us with our modern technology. Most famous is the ‘Wollaton incident’ in Nottingham in 1979 when a number of little men were seen driving around a park in hovering cars. Unique as it is in many respects, the sighting is not alone. A small girl and her sisters in Cornwall in the 1940s were woken one night by a buzzing sound. Looking out of her bedroom window, they saw a small gnome-like man driving a tiny red car in circles. In 1929 two children under ten living in Hertford witnessed a fairy flying a biplane over their garden (see Janet Bord, Fairies, pp.73-76).
As well as motor vehicles, there appears to be a developing fairy fascination with machinery. Marjorie Johnson records cases of fairies drawn to type-writers and sewing machines, as well as an incident when some ‘leprechauns’ diagnosed a fault in a bus engine (Seeing fairies pp.101 & 322-2). Fairies have also been seen by train passengers, on the platform or keeping pace with the train itself (Census numbers 169 & 456), and by those in cars, when again the fays fly alongside the vehicle (Census numbers 105 & 213).
All this suggests that, just as fairy magic can be fascinating for us, the wonder of humans’ technical marvels may be just as intriguing for them.
Simon Young, editor of the Fairy census and of Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies, has also discussed this subject in a paper available online through Academia.
A glimpse of modernity in the background of Edward Hopley’s Puck and the moth (c.1853)