“That strange tongue”- fairy names and speech

blake-puck

Sir Peter BlakePuck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth & Mustardseed, 1984

I’ve discussed fairy language and fairy names several times before, but in this posting I want to return again to the theme, considering specifically whether or not it may be possible to learn something more about fairy speech by a study of fairy names.

Of course, most traditional fairies are anonymous- they guard their names from a humans as a source of power.  The spinning stories in which a fairy’s name has to be guessed (Rumpelstiltskin, Perrifool etc) are examples which demonstrate magical conservation of a name combined with a fascinating sample of fairy names.

NB: I take the title of this post from a line in Thomas Randolph’s play, Amyntas, of around 1632.  In Act III character Dorylas instructs his “Bevy of Fairies” to “sing here a Fairy catch/ In that strange tongue I taught you.”  The ditty that follows is “Nos beata fauni proles” (We, happy children of fauns); evidently Latin is a fairy language (for more on which, see later).

Language

The manner in which fairies will be named will, of course, reflect the language they habitually use (unless, of course, fairy speech is preserved for use between themselves, and for their names, whilst they stick to our tongue with us).  Some new examples from the Isle of Man give us a bit more insight into this area.

It appears that, a lot of the time at least, the Manx fairies spoke Manx, what the native islanders called Gaelg. A few accounts recorded in the collection Yn Lioar Manninagh confirm that the fairies were heard conversing in “yallick.”  This seems to have been taken rather for granted, but all the same there are other reports in which they are said to speak “a foreign tongue.”  They may sometimes be overheard talking together at night, but they cannot be understood.

Manx folklore expert Charles Roeder, in his book Skeealyn Cheeil Chiolee (Manx Folk Tales), 1913, reported this theory about their speech:

“I have not heard anything about the fairies this long time.  There is no-one hearing them but the woman in the little shop.  She heard them at midnight one winter night in an elder tree, speaking a language she couldn’t understand.  As she drew near, they whispered in her ear- but she couldn’t understand.  Perhaps they were foreign fairies, visiting the Isle of Man, for in old tales the fairies speak Manx.  The Manx fairies have gone, or they have changed their language- like the people. Perhaps the fairies couldn’t understand English so they changed their language out of spite: they can be spiteful when offended.” (para.2)

Another witness suggested to him: “perhaps this [unknown] language is the language of fairyland, but whether that’s above or below earth no-one can tell.” (para.3)

Fairies may be bilingual in human languages too, it seems.  In 1910 two boys on the isle of Muck in the Hebrides met two tiny green boys on the beach.   These fairies spoke to them in both Gaelic and English.  We could speculate at length whether either was their native language or whether they had mastered both simply for the convenience of talking to the local humans.  The fairies informed the boys that they would be leaving the island for good soon, but that other fairies would be arriving.  We might therefore even go as far as to suggest that the fays next ‘posting’ was in an English speaking area, hence their skill.

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Names

In the catalogue of recorded fairy names, what’s fictional and fanciful is entangled and entwined with what’s derived from tradition and personal encounters. It’s very hard to separate out the jokey, made-up names, the ones that are modelled on classical Greek or Roman or Biblical sources, the everyday human names and those few that are left that don’t sound like anything familiar at all- and so, perhaps, are the most authentic.

The classical type of name was especially popular in Renaissance times.  Reginald Scot mentions three fairy sisters, Milia, Archilia and Sibylia, who might assist magicians in their conjuring.  His near contemporary William Lilly one time tried to conjure the queen of fairies, whom he called Micol and which sounds very like Hebrew.

From Stornoway on Shetland we hear a number of Gaelic names, many of which seem to be nicknames or perhaps names used to avoid saying the fay’s true name: there are Deocan nam Beann (milkwort), Popar, Peulagan and Conachay (little conch).  The trows of the northern isles have a variety of names, some of which retain hints of Viking Norse whilst others just sound like nicknames: Gimp, Kork, Tring, Tivla, Fivla, Hornjultie, Peester-a-leeti, Skoodern Humpi, Bannock Feet and Hempie the Ferry-louper.  On the Isle of Man we hear of a fairy king called (prosaically) Philip and his queen, Bahee, which is at least exotic enough to sound more authentic.

Meaning maybe hidden in names which are not English.  There is a group of Welsh fays, especially connected with weaving and spinning, whose names are alliterative but may imply more than that.  These include Sili Ffrit, Sili Go Dwt, Trwtyn Tratyn, Gwarwyn a Throt and Jili Ffrwtan.  The last is a well known amorous fairy: her first name seems to be just another representation of the sili (shili) of the first two names; ffrwtan, as you may guess, appears to be related to the word ‘fruit’ though ffrwtian means ‘spluttering.’  Sili may be derived from the word sil meaning spawn or small fry and so denotes something tiny- possibly very apt for a fay.  Professor John Rhys suggested that the “throt” name relates to similar spinning fairies elsewhere in Britain like Tom Tit Tot and Habetrot.  Equally likely, they may all just be nonsense names, chosen for their pleasing sounds.  What we can say with greater certainty is that they’re going to be names applied by humans to the tylwyth teg rather than chosen by the fays themselves.

The prettification of fays that has set in since the Mustardseed and Peaseblossom of Shakespeare has also given us the Moonbeam and Dewdrop mentioned in Bowker’s Goblin Tales; similar whimsy and a sense of harmony are produced by Modilla and Podilla, the names of pixies encountered at Brent on Dartmoor (Crossing, Tales of Dartmoor Pixies, 1890).

Spiritualist Daphne Charters met a vast number of nature spirits, amongst whom were Normus, Gorgus, Myrris, Movus, Mirilla, Namsos, Sirilla, Nuvic, Nixus, Lyssis, Tanchon and Persion.  She also encountered two Chinese fairies who rejoiced in the fairly un-Oriental names of Perima and Sulac.  Her great friend and supporter, Air Chief Marshall Dowding, was puzzled by the Latin sounding names of many of these fays, but are much thought concluded that the simple explanation was this: that the Romans had adopted fairy names, not the other way around!  Given what we saw in the play Amyntas earlier, we might conclude that the Air Chief Marshall knew what he was talking about…

Our newest evidence comes from the recently completed Fairy Census.  The names recorded by witnesses are, like those in Marjorie Johnson’s book, Seeing fairies (see my earlier post on Fairy Names), a mix of the conventional and bizarre.  Faeries variously identified themselves as Effeny, Sylvizz, La Belle Courtland, Goldenrod, Zee and Specia (Census numbers 117, 244, 307, 326, 383 and 438).  Two beings, which were either gnomes or brownies, were called Snodgrass and Grosswart (no.164).

We have a spectrum here from the everyday, through the traditional, to the mildly exotic.  What emerges seems to be a mixture of classical inherited names, conventional contemporary names and some which might be dismissed as made up or might alternatively be thought of as examples of genuine fairy appellations.  It’s a puzzling mixture, contrasting with the fairly high degree of consensus we find amongst witnesses over fairy dress and appearance.

Perhaps what we can identify in this catalogue are the close parallels with the nature of the language spoken by faes: sometimes it’s familiar, sometimes archaic, occasionally it is unknown and hard to understand.  There may well be problems for us humans reproducing the sounds and combinations we hear in fairy names, causing us to substitute something more familiar and pronounceable.

“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk,

Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine,

Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles,

But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.”

As a final thought, if you do come to know the name of a fairy, it should always be treated with the utmost respect and care, like a closely guarded secret.  Fairy names are a taboo subject: they are a source of power and they must be handled circumspectly.

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Fairy names for humankind

Whilst we’re discussing terminology and labels, we may as well just glance at what fairies call us.  Manx fairies are recorded as referring to us as “middle world men” which is a very neutral, purely descriptive name.  In the ballad of Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen refers to Thomas as a “man of mould” and in later Welsh folklore we read similar terms: “dead man” or “man of earth.”  For the fays, plainly, what distinguishes us from them is our mortality- or rather, our shorter life spans because, as I have discussed before in the context of killing fairies, they are not actually immortal but endure much longer than we do.

Further Reading

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve addressed the question of fairy language and speech several times on this blog; see too my posting on silence in Faery: the cases when the faes take speech away from their favourites and abductees.

 

On my fairy bookshelf: ‘The Green Child’ by Herbert Read

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I’d been meaning to read The green child for some time but had thought that it was only available in the original edition of 1934.  Then I realised I could get a modern reprint from my library: I prefer to read a hard-copy book, myself, but you can download it or read it on Internet Archive.

I was attracted to the story because it’s based upon the medieval English story of the Green Children, who were discovered at Woolpit village in Suffolk.  This story (transposed to the early 19th century) is a starting point for Read’s book, but it’s quite a long way from a simple retelling of that puzzling account.

Read was an anarchist poet and art critic.  Probably his 1931 Penguin book The meaning of art is what he’s best remembered for today.  The green child is his only novel.  Given his intellectual background, it’s not especially surprising that it’s a pretty philosophical text.  It may best be compared to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia- probably also on my recommended reading list…

The main character of the story is a man called Henry Oliver, who as a young man leaves his Suffolk home in search of adventure and ends up leading a revolution in a small South American country.  As ‘Dr Olivero’ he becomes head of state and spends several decades establishing a perfect system of government there- it’s a sort of socialist commonwealth free of class and capital.  Eventually, nostalgic for his home and curious about the Green Child, who had appeared just before he departed, Olivero returns home.

The Green Child is still alive but is a homesick alien.  Olivero rescues her from her human husband and they find their way back to her subterranean home.  The last third of the book then describes the perfect intellectual society created by the ‘fairies’ underground.  The relationship between Olivero and Siloen, the Green Child, rapidly fades from view as Read examines the fairy philosophy that structures their culture.

It’s fair to say it’s an odd book.  I read it hoping for a great deal more fairy story and was hopeful that this would be delivered when Olivero and Siloen flee the human world.  It wasn’t to be- and I’m probably content that it was a library book and not one I’d bought.  Nevertheless, if you’re curious, it’s readily available and it’s certainly thought provoking.

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“The swart fairy of the mine”- industrial elves

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Alan Lee, Dwarfs, from Faeries

There’s lots of evidence for fairies being just as active as humans in extracting the earth’s resources and in manufacturing.  This may jar somewhat with the notion of winged flower fairies, but that convention forgets the fact that gnomes, as first imagined by Paracelsus, are very intimately connected to the mineral riches of the earth.  Fairies can seem just as interested as humans in money and treasure, so it’s worth considering where these riches might come from.

Going underground

There are two principal industrial activities in which fairies are involved.  These are metal working and mining.  The fays mine for both coal and ores and they have been associated with the tin mines of the South West of England, the lead mines of the Long Mynd in Shropshire and with the copper mines of Cumberland and North Yorkshire.

There are two principal types of mine fairy- the knockers of the South West of England (also called ‘nuggies,’ ‘bockles,’ ‘gathons’ or ‘buccas’) are very well known.  In the coal and metal ore mines of Wales, we find the coblynau (i.e. goblins).  Other named mine spirits are the Blue-Cap of the Northumberland coalmines, a very strong being who moved the wheeled coal tubs on the underground railways, and the Cutty Soams of County Durham, who were mine bogles, known for their vengeful mischief- which included such pranks as cutting the traces (or ‘soams’) on the underground coal wagons.

Appearance

Despite the differing regional names, it seems safe to treat most of these beings as one underground species.  The knockers and coblynau are very hard working sprites who are frequently heard but very seldom seen; the sounds of their picks, their wheelbarrows and the falls of stone they cause is heard deep in mines.  Occasionally they may be spotted working or lounging near the entrances to mines, and those who have seen them describe beings the size of a one or two-year-old child (about eighteen inches high), with large heads and ugly old men’s faces; they are dressed just like human miners.

Early in the last century, a girl called Carol George was on the beach at Porthtowan, on the north coast of Cornwall, when she saw in the mine adit that opened onto the beach a group of small people, only six inches high and dressed in white.  They disappeared almost as soon as they were spotted, but sound more like pixies than knockers (Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, p.93)

Blue Cap apparently has no physical form, but his presence is indicated by a light blue flame which settles on the wagons he moves.  The other exception is the mine pixy ‘gathon’ (if Mrs Bray is to be believed, at any rate).  She describes him as naked and fat, with large ears and a long bushy tail (Peeps at Pixies, p.10).

Activities

The mine sprites have diminutive tools and equipment matching that of the human miners and labour tirelessly- digging, transporting and winding their coal and ore to the surface.  In the masque The fairies’ farewell, presented at Coleorton on Candlemas Day 1618, we hear a further description of the fairies’ labours:

“blacke faeries … ye dancing spiritts of the Pittes: … helpe them hole & drive sharp theire Picks & their moindrils, keepe away the dampe & keepe in theire Candles, draine the Sough & hold them out of ye hollows…”

Wirt Sykes, in British Goblins (p.24)claimed that all this frenetic subterranean labour  was just for show but accomplished nothing at all. The writer of A pleasant treatise of witches (1673) explained that this was because these mine elves “busy themselves chiefly in imitating the operations men … these seem to laugh, to be cloathed like workmen, to dig the earth, and to do many things they do not, mocking sometimes the workmen but seldome or never hurting them.”

These views might be correct- or it might instead be the case that human observers never saw any evidence of tangible results in this world.  Blue-Cap is the exception here, as he assisted the human miners and, perfectly reasonably, expected to be paid for his work at the same rate as every other ‘putter’ who moved the coal around the tramways.  Rather like fairies borrowing flour from householders, he insisted upon being given the exact agreed sum and would refuse underpaid wages or leave behind any surplus.  Evidently, Blue Caps were not brownies and neither toiled for free nor accepted very modest payment in kind.

Though often heard at night (in the North Yorkshire lead mines this earned them the name of the ‘Ghostly Shift’), these spirits never worked in the mines on Saturdays or on Christian holidays and, in respect for this, the miners too would avoid working on the same days.  The sprites also objected to whistling and to use of the sign of the cross, which were therefore proscribed.

The knockers will guide favoured miners to good seams or lodes by various means.  Where no excavation has yet been started they may indicate promising places to dig.  The sprites may dance in rings to indicate spots where men will strike rich ore.  Digging wherever a will o’ the wisp is seen is also reputed to lead you to a profitable lode.  The Reverend Edmund Jones of Gwent gives a very interesting account of a version of this habit.  One morning a William Evans of Hafod-y-dafel in the parish was crossing the Beacon Mountain when he saw an opencast coal mine where none existed.  The fairies were cutting coal, filling sacks and loading horses.  This vision is unexplained and, on the face of it, is merely a kind of fairy pantomime, serving no discernible purpose.  However, another report from Wales suggests a different interpretation.  Lewis Morris, a correspondent of the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1754, described how, before Esgair y Mwyn lead mine was discovered near Pontrhydfendigaid in Cardiganshire, the local fairies had been observed (and heard) by many people to be hard at work, both day and night.  When the mine was established in 1751, though, they disappeared.  The same was also the case at Llwyn Llwyd lead mine near Ysbyty Ystwyth, not far from Esgair y Mwyn.  These two cases suggest that the Brecon Beacons vision may well have been an indication of a rich coal seam just beneath the surface (a prediction similar to the incident of the fairy railway sighted on the Isle of Man that I mentioned in a recent post).

Once a new mine has been started, through their tapping underground the fairies point the way to mineral riches.  They will also warn of impending disaster- often by making three distinct knocks against the rock.  Generally, then, their presence is welcomed by miners- their noises are not found alarming and it’s said to be good luck to see the pixies dancing in the adit of a mine.

The sounds made by knockers can be prolonged and are not easily explained by other means.  For example, at Llwyn Llwyd voices, blasting, clearing spoil, levelling roadways, boring, pick-axeing and (most notably) pumping were all heard- when there were no pumps working within a mile of the shafts and when, in any case, pumps were very quiet when in operation.  Although they may sometimes be heard just once a month or once a year, in 1799 in some mines on Anglesey the knockers were heard repeatedly over a period of weeks.

As with all supernatural helpers, the knockers are averse to humans being too inquisitive.  Although the sounds of their work indicate how and where to dig, if miners stop their work to listen to the knockers, they will also cease their labours.  If they’re overlooked, they may pelt stones at the spies- or simply vanish.  The sounds of their excavations may point to rich veins of ore- or they may just be mischievous and meant to mislead.

As with many fairy types, those who offend them or try to take advantage of them will be punished and those miners who betray the source of their good fortune will lose the knockers’ favour.  At the same time, they claimed a share of human property.  This might just be a small portion of the miners’ food or of their candle tallow, but there are also accounts of bargains struck whereby the knockers were promised some of the profits of a rich vein in return for guidance locating it.  It hardly needs to be said that reneging on such deals would lead to ruin and even death, whilst boasting of fairy aid in finding rich seams of ore will guarantee that the good fortune is lost.  Mrs Bray’s mine pixy, Gathon, is depicted as a typical prank-playing sprite, but he also helps the oppressed and the poor, a not uncommon fairy trait.

The fairies may also be found in coal pits; from Scotland we have a report that from time to time they would leave their tiny tools behind as physical evidence of their labours.  We have one account from Derbyshire in the nineteenth century of the colliers of Curbar leaving a share of the coal they dug for the fairies to ensure good luck.

In some way, then, whether they were mining themselves or simply oversaw the shafts, these local fairies had a close interest in the industry.

Heavy metals

Despite Sykes’ doubts about the productiveness of fairy labours, it seems very reasonable to suppose that ore and coal were extracted and that these formed the raw materials of other enterprises in fairyland.

In The Secret Commonwealth the Reverend Robert Kirk reports that the fairies “strike Hammers, and do such lyke Services within the little Hillocks they most haunt” (chapter 1).  The trows of Shetland are particularly renowned for their skills working brass, iron and other metals and they have been known to pass on these skills to fortunate human children who have been taken to live with them ‘under the hill.’  As I’ve noted before, it’s a curious contradiction that we can have reports of these metalworking abilities at the same time as being repeatedly assured that fairies loath and avoid items made of iron.

The only way of reconciling these two accounts is to assume that man-made iron is anathema to them but that their own products, imbued in some way with Faery properties, are harmless.  Certainly we hear of fairies having cutlery for eating and drinking vessels of precious metals- and of course brownies will undertake all sorts of farm tasks for humans- such as reaping corn and hay- that unavoidably involve the use of iron and steel tools.

Conclusion

As I’ve argued before, fairy society is a good deal more complex and more industrious than we might initially assume.  Whether they’re farming, mining or at market, trading the fruits of those labours, the fays can work just as hard as humans and be just as interested in commerce.

For more detail on this subject, see my book How Things Work in Faery (2021).

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Brian Froud, A gnome.

Farming fairies

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Charles Altamont Doyle, Fairy folk celebrating around a plough

Our conventional view of the faeries is of a people of wild or wooded places whose life is one long round of leisure and pleasure- dancing, feasting and the like.  At the same time, we don’t tend to imagine them having any concerns with bread-winning or the means of production- indeed, a strong antipathy for such occupations has often been imagined.  There’s a widespread rhyme in Scotland to the effect that:

Where the scythe cuts and the sock (plough) rives,/ Hae done wi’ fairies and bee-bykes.”

This gloomy view is mistaken.  To begin with, a moment’s reflection will remind us of the farm labouring brownies, for example, and when the sources are examined, consistent fairy links to agriculture are revealed- as are their interests in manufacture, mining, cloth-making, building and the like.  The fairy economy is as complex as our own.

Fairies are often believed to rely solely upon stolen dairy products and corn, preying on them “as do Crowes and Mice” as Robert Kirk put it (Secret Commonwealth c.1).  In fact, they have been observed actively involving themselves in all aspects of farming.  As I’ve discussed before, they have their own goats and other livestock.  These are distinctly different from humans’ beasts, although the faeries may also acquire ours, sometimes by surreptitiously luring them away and sometimes slightly more honestly.  In the book A pleasant treatise of witches, the author recounted a story he had heard of a pregnant sow that was fed daily by the fairies with bread and milk.  When farrowing time came, they clearly felt they were entitled to the fruit of their investment in the pig: they took all the piglets but left their value in silver behind.  This wasn’t theft, but it wasn’t a normal purchase either and, as such, is the epitome of Faery.  It’s non-consensual for the human farmer, it asserts a presumed right over our goods and, yet, there is something in exchange.

We know too from the reports of visitors that the fays have their own fields and orchards in fairyland underground, but most witnesses of course don’t see them there.  The Reverend Kirk believed that our landscape here and there showed the marks of the fairies’ cultivation from a time that preceded the country’s occupation by humankind:

“Albeit, when severall Countreys were uninhabited by us, these had their easy Tillage above Ground, as we now.  The Print of those Furrows do yet remaine to be seen on the Shoulders of very high Hills, which was done when champayn Ground was Wood and Forrest.” (chapter 2)

The fairies have since retreated to their subterranean realms which means that, usually, the fays are only to be encountered participating in human farming activities.  In fact, they have shown an interest in our pastoral and dairy production, in fruit growing, in horticulture and in the cultivation of grain crops.

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Charles Altamont Doyle, God speed the plough

Fairies in the corn fields

It’s often reported that the fairies bake their own bread- bread of superlative flavour- and of course the grain for that has to come from somewhere.  It’s not all stolen, by any means, although there are plenty of stories from across England of fairies filching corn, grain by grain, from granaries, whilst on the island of Islay it’s said that the local fairies claim the top grain from every stalk- and will have harvested it in well before the farmer enters the field with his scythes.

Some fairies seem to play some sort of protective role towards human cultivation, being almost like minor agricultural deities.  Across England, for example, there’s a host of sprites whose sole function seems to be guarding orchards, fruit bushes and nut groves from the depredations of thieves and children.  From Scotland, we have the curious tale of ‘Jeanie’s Granny.’  When she was a child, Jeanie’s grandmother got up one night to steal some newly harvested grain so as to feed her horse.  When she got to the fields, she saw a tiny woman hopping from stook to stook; the child became scared and ran home without stealing any corn.  In another story from Dartmoor, a man was annoyed to find that all his stooks of harvested corn were disturbed over night.  He decided to watch the following night to see what the cause might be and , just as he had suspected, pixies appeared and began to pull all the stooks into one corner of the field.  Very possibly this was being done by them as the first age of building a rick, but the pixies were too small to make a good job of it and the farmer interrupted them- at which point they vanished.  (They might alternatively have been preparing to steal the crop, which would have been much more in character: in a story from Ardnamurchan in the Highlands, a man outwitted the fairies who’d been reaping his crop at night by leaving a wise old man in the field.  When fairies appeared and started to harvest the grain, he then counted their number out loud and by this simple means banished them forever.)

Garden gnomes

We also come across lots of fairies working in gardens and vegetable patches.  These are the beings often described as gnomes and it seems that their dedication to plant life is so great that they will cultivate human plots merely for the satisfaction of seeing healthy fruit and vegetables.  The most curious story comes from West Yorkshire from about 1850.  A man called Henry Roundell of Washburn Dale near Harrogate got up early to hoe the weeds in his crop of turnips.  When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row being hoed by a host of tiny men in green, all of them singing shrilly.  As soon as he entered the field, they fled like scattered birds.

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Charles Altamont Doyle, A scarecrow

Dairy fairies

There’s a definite close association between fairies and cattle- and that may not be just because they want to consume their milk and cream.  For example, William Bottrell recounts the story of Rosy, the fine red milk cow of the Pendar family of Baranhual farm in Penwith.  She gave twice the milk of the other cows, but would often disappear from the farm in the evenings.  Eventually, Molly the milkmaid discovered the reason: a four-leaf clover was included in the pad of herbs she used to carry the milk pail on her head and it enabled her to see that the cow was surrounded by dancing fairies, who were taking turns to milk her and stroking and tickling the beast in between.  The cow was evidently very happy in their company.  The farmer’s wife decided to wash the cow’s udders in brine to terminate the fairy thefts, but the only result was that Rosy ceased to give any milk at all.

A related account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland is the reminiscence of an old woman who, as a small girl, had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field.  She was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing (G. Sutherland, Folklore gleanings, p.22).  As stated at the start, there’s a definite affinity between the little people and cows which benefits the milk yield.

Scottish ‘brownies’

The classic farming fairy is the domestic brownie, who will undertake all the tasks necessary to run a human smallholding.  He’ll tend the cattle and sheep, milk the cows, reap the crops, thresh the grain and involve himself in all other aspects of processing the produce of the farm.  Brownies help out on a permanent basis with farming tasks, but other fairy types can be recruited to provide ‘temporary labour’ in times of need.  From North-East Scotland there’s the story of the ‘Red Cappies’ who were called on to assist with threshing grain.  Generally across the Highlands you’ll find the Gaelic tradition of the ceaird-chomuinn (‘association craft’) whereby people can be endowed with particular skills by the faes, such as the ability to undertake prodigious feats of ploughing, sowing and harrowing.

Over and above the familiar English brownie and Lowland Scottish broonie, there’s a host of other (Highland) Scottish beings with particular farming connections who are also worth examining:

  • gruagach- this being looks after the cattle of a farm or a village, for which duties she receives a daily bowl of whey or a regular offering of milk poured out over a holed stone or special slab of rock.  She has long golden hair and is dressed in green.  She sings to the cattle and keeps them safe from all disease or accident.  She is very strong and in one story a gruagach killed itself through overwork, trying to thrash an entire barn full of corn in one night.  Like many of her kind, if she’s offered clothes she’ll desert a farm and if her regular helping of milk is forgotten, she’ll wreak havoc, turning the cows into the crops and such like;
  • glaistig- this being is often portrayed as a violent hag, but her more benign aspect is as a dairy maid and cow-herd, seldom being seen but using her powerful voice to keep the cattle in check.  She’s said to be a human woman who’s been placed under a fairy enchantment and thereby has acquired a fairy nature.  For this reason, the glaistig can sometimes shape-shift into the form of a dog to better herd and protect the livestock.  She lives on farms but is a solitary being.  She expects a pail of milk nightly and will react angrily if this is withheld or forgotten.  In some places milk is also offered at other important points in the farming year, such as when the cattle are first left out overnight each year and when they are brought inside for winter;
  • urisk- a brownie-like spirit who lives in wild places but who will undertake farm chores in return for a bowl of cream.  He is very strong and clever and can be savage if provoked.  The urisk is said to be half-human and half-fay;
  • King Broonie- on Orkney, a type of trow that particularly took care of a farm’s corn.  He objected to being watched and, if he felt that he was being spied upon, would scatter the ricks;
  • hogboon- a Shetland version of the brownie who undertakes agricultural labouring tasks in return for food.  The name derives from the Norse haug bui, meaning mound-dweller, because they were believed to inhabit the ancient burial mounds;
  • gunna– is another sort of brownie who cares for cattle and keeps them away from cliffs and out of the fields of growing crops.  He is very thin, with long yellow hair, and is dressed only in a fox skin; and,
  • bodachan sabhaill (the little old man of the barn) is a spirit who will help older farmers with their threshing.

What I think is particularly striking about this group of beings is how many of them are semi-wild sprites, often with a parallel reputation for violent acts, and yet they’re entrusted with a farm’s valuable assets.  Of course, the farmers don’t recruit them: the faery cowherds are generally inherited or volunteer themselves, but it is nonetheless a curious relationship.  The spirit of the wilderness accommodates itself to the human subjugation of the landscape.

c a doyle eavesdroppers

Charles Altamont Doyle, Eavesdroppers

Summary

In conclusion, although our tendency is to imagine carefree and pleasure loving fairies, the reality is often more complex.  They grow their own food, like any community must, and many are very hard working- even on behalf of human kind and in return for quite informal arrangements as to recompense.

For more detail on this subject, see my book How Things Work in Faery (2021).

“Under a broad bank”- fairy portals

paton belle dame

Sir Noel Paton, The Belle Dame sans merci

I have previously discussed visits to fairylands underground; in this post I want to briefly examine the entrances to those places- the portals where a human might most likely encounter a fay being.

The folklore, literary sources and popular ballads are very consistent in the identifying the sorts of places or environments in which a meeting with a fae is likely.  What appears to unify the locations is the fact that they all share a solitary or unique feature; they will stand out in the landscape.  These distinctive sites are as follows:

  • lone trees– a tree standing isolated in a prominent position is noticeable and memorable in any case, but very often marks a fae portal.  For instance, Thomas of Erceldoune meets the fairy queen at the ‘Eildon tree’ (in one version of the poem it is described as a “dern tree”- that is ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’).  In the romance of the same name, knight Sir Launfal is approached by two fairy maidens whilst sitting in the shade of a tree one hot undrentide during the feast of Trinity (late May or early June).  In the Scottish ballad of Allison Gross, a man is turned into a dragon (or ‘worm’) by witch Alison and is left to coil himself around a tree.  Lone trees are magical,  definitely.  However, we can go further and suggest that these fairy trees are very likely to be either may (hawthorn) trees, as these are notorious fairy haunts, and apple trees.  In the ballad of Young Tamlane he’s carried off by the elfin queen having fallen asleep underneath an apple and the wife of Sir Orfeo is stolen away from her husband by the fairies whilst sitting one early May morning in an orchard, beneath an “ympe tree”- a grafted apple.
  • free standing hills- fairies are well known to live under burial mounds and it appears that distinct and conspicuous hills of any description will be likely fairy spots at which contact can be made.  English poets Thomas Campion and Thomas Browne both imagined the fairy queen regally seated upon a grassy knoll (“All ladies that do sleep” and Britannia’s Pastorals, Book I, Song II, lines 396-404) whilst in folklore many everyday activities conducted upon a fairy hill could prove dangerous for humans, whether that was cutting turf, sitting, playing or just sleeping.
  • grassy banks and slopes- these are often mentioned specifically, but could very well just be part of a fairy hill rather than a separate feature in the landscape; it’s not always clear.  Thomas of Erceldoune lay down on Huntlie bank on a May morning ; in the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer we hear that he reclines on a grassy bank.  There’s a definite suggestion that part of the process may involve a tired person lying down to rest, drifting off to sleep, and, in that semi-conscious state, being able to make contact with faery.  In the medieval poem Piers Plowman the narrator is out on the Malvern Hills on a May morning; “weori of wandringe” he went to rest “undur a brod banke bi a bourne syde.”  It is then that he beholds “a ferly- a feyrie” (a wonder of fairy origin).  In Edmund Spencer’s poem The Faery Queen Prince Arthur similarly lies down to sleep on verdant grass after wandering in a forest and has a vision of the Fairy Queen lying down beside him (Book I, canto IX, stanzas 13-14).  Elsewhere in his epic Spenser imagines that “Nymphes and Faeries by banckes did sit”- there is clearly a close association here between faes and these slightly secluded locations (Book I, canto X, stanza 65).
  • Daisies- the magical communion with Faery is further enhanced, it seems, it there are daisies on the bank.  In Allison Gross the fairy queen comes to sit on a “gowany bank” near to where the frightful worm coils about the tree.  It may be significant too that in the ballad of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight the wicked knight comes to the maid when she sits in her bower on the first of May, surrounded by daisies.  They are one of the archetypal fairy flowers.

It will be evident from these examples that, whilst the place is important, the time of day (undrentideand the time of year (very typically early May/ Beltane) are also highly significant in bringing about an encounter.  Combine all the right factors and a meeting with a faery is a very strong possibility.

Katherine_Cameron-Thomas_the_Rhymer

Katherine Cameron, Thomas the Rhymer

A nation underground- subterranean fairies

Rackham Kensington Gdns
Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

In this post I want to return to the question of fairy dwellings and fairyland.  Fairyland is very often conceived of as a place below the ground surface; here I want to examine that in considerable detail.

The idea of a subterranean Faery is something that has long been embedded in both folklore and literature.  For example, in a masque presented for Queen Elizabeth by the Earl of Hertford in 1591 we are introduced to the monarch:

“I that abide in places underground,/ Aureola, the Queene of Fairy land…”

Much later, the Duchess of Newcastle imagined that “The Fairy Queen’s large Kingdome got by birth/ Is the circled centre of the Earth,” a place bejewelled with all the gems and ores we might anticipate to find in a mine.

Without doubt, this hidden realm would be a place of mystery.  John Aubrey in the late seventeenth century wrote that:

“Some were led away by fairies, as was a Hind riding upon Hackpen… So was a shepherd of Mr Brown of Winterbourne Abbas… the ground opened and he was brought to strange places underground.”

I want to go too to those strange places, to discover the way and to see what’s there.

How to get access

It’s very widely accepted that fairyland is subterranean, but that raises a host of problems.  How deep is it?  Where are the access points?

It’s also very widely believed that one very common location for fairy dwellings is under small hills.  This is especially common in Scotland, where many small mounds are called ‘fairy knowe’ or ‘knolls.’ An alternative name for the trows of Shetland is the ‘hill men.’ These hills may be natural mounds or they may be prehistoric burial tumuli.  Neolithic barrows are regarded as fairy homes from Yorkshire right up to Sutherland and including the Isle of Man.

Either way, the fairies aren’t buried very deep and getting in presents less challenges.  Very few people ever simply pick up a spade and start digging (wisely, as it’s very likely to have serious repercussions).  More often they wait for a door to reveal itself: this may happen at special times of year such as Halloween or perhaps because there’s a special celebration taking place within the hill and the doors are thrown open to let out the heat and noise.  The simple and direct approach was employed by one poor East Yorkshire man in the story of the White Powder.  He was instructed simply to walk up to the door of the mound and to knock three times to be granted entry and led into the presence of the fairy queen.

In some people’s opinion, fairyland is a good deal deeper than the thickness of some turfs.  Its location therefore won’t be at all obvious and it follows that the ways in will be equally well concealed.  For example, the pixies of Dartmoor are believed to live beneath the bogs that cover that landscape.  This is an excellent strategy for keeping unwelcome visitors away, although there is some suggestion that rabbit holes on the moor may be a way in to this particular wonderland.  There are a lot to try though…

Normally, the road to fairyland is a lot better concealed and a lot more forbidding.  A variety of entrances have been identified:

  • beneath river banks- this is known especially in Wales, as in the story of Elidyr, who is taken by two little men under the hollow bank of a river;
  • under standing stones- this perpetuates the prehistoric link seen with barrows and is a legend linked with various sites including the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. In the Welsh tale of Einion and Olwen fairyland is accessed by an oval stone and then by a path and stairs, which are illuminated by a whitish-blue glow radiating from the steps themselves;
  • beneath Roman ruins- the remains of a military encampment high on Mellor Moor near Blackburn were said to be the ruins of a fairy city that had sunk beneath the ground due to an earthquake. The disappeared metropolis was still inhabitable, though, and church bells could sometimes be heard ringing beneath the turf;
  • under lakes- a fairy woman was seen to come and go from beneath the waters of Llyn Rhosddu on the Isle of Anglesey;
  • in a well- in Cornish fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor the girl Cherry is employed as a maid in a house that might itself be in fairyland, but she also sees her fairy master dancing when she looks down into a well in the garden;
  • behind waterfalls- the queen of the Craven fairies is reputed to live concealed behind Jennet’s Foss, near to Malham;
  • in cliffs- another inaccessible route into faery is from a cave in a cliff face. Cornishman Richard Vingoe entered fairyland this way at a spot near Land’s End.  Many hours of walking eventually led him to a “pleasant looking country”;
  • through deep caverns- Gervase of Tilbury, in his Otia Imperialia, described how a swine herd lost a pregnant sow and decided to look for her in the Peak Cavern near Peveril castle in Derbyshire. He wandered a long way until he emerged into a new country.  At Cwm Mabus near Llanrhystyd in Wales there are caves called Craig Rhydderch where the tylwyth teg are said to live and at Llanymynech near Oswestry is Ogo Hole, another entrance to faery;
  • the place called by the Scots ‘Mirryland’ or ‘Maidenland’ is said to be beneath a mountain;
  • in one Welsh account from 1860 a man called John Davies of Aberayron joined a fairy dance on Cilcennin Hill and spent the whole night with the tylwyth teg.  The revel was only disturbed the next morning by an old woman following the sound of music- at which the fairies all disappeared down some steps leading underground;
  • down long tunnels- the Green Children of Woolpit followed a long tunnel or passageway until they came out into the Suffolk landscape.

Whatever the exact route in, it is often long and dark.  The journey to faery may take several days (forty in the case of Thomas the Rhymer) and may involve difficult passages of wading through deep waters.  In the story of Cornish maid Anne Jefferies, she is snatched up and carried through the air, whirling through space with a sound like the buzzing of a thousand bees in her ears.  The fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor in one sense makes its fairyland real by presenting it as a pleasant manor house and gardens, but it is reached by a route very like the underground passages- Cherry is led down long lanes, shaded by high hedges and is carried over several streams before, after much travel, she and her fairy master arrive at their destination.

it’s worth lastly noting that tunnels sometimes provide the access from the human world to fairylands that are also on the earth surface.  These are frequently seen in Wales, where passages lead out onto an isle in a lake or to an offshore island in the sea.

How do we see?

Given that fairyland is far below ground, how do we see anything once we’re there?  Is Faery the “darksome den” that Golding described in his translation of Ovid, or is it bright? This is one of the greatest puzzles, but the sources are quite uniform in telling us what the conditions are, even if they don’t explain them to us.

The Green Children described a place without a sun, but where there was a “degree of light like that which is after sunset.”  In the poem Huon of Bordeaux we are told that it is the gold and silver with which the buildings are constructed that illuminate the place.  In the story of King Herla, faery is entered through a cave in a high cliff and (more reasonably) is lit by many torches.

Elidyr described the fairyland he visited as “obscure, not illuminated with the light of the full sun.”  Rather, the days were cloudy and the nights very dark without either moon or stars.  It’s cool and dim in fairyland.  The visitor to Faery in the story of the White Powder also reported that the light there was “indifferent, as it is with us in the twilight.”  Perhaps because of this dinginess, the people of ‘St Martin’s Land,’ where the Green Children were born, were all of a green tinge.

In contrast, Sir Orfeo’s fairyland, reached after a journey of three miles or so starting beneath a rock, was “as bright so sonne on somers day.”  Likewise, after a long dark passage, the land under the Peak District was bright and open.  Equally, the swineherd described by Gervase of Tilbury found that the place he reached was enjoying its summer, and that the harvest was taking place, whereas he had left winter behind him on the earth’s surface.

What do we see?

The fairyland found underground is largely indistinguishable from the land left behind on the surface.  There are pastures, fields and orchards, where crops grow, sheep graze and fruit and flowers grow in abundance.  There are birds in the air and woods full of game.  The land may be quite level, an open plain without hills but threaded by rivers running between lakes.  The fairyland visited by Einion and Olwen fairyland was a fine, wooded, fertile country extending for miles underground and dotted with mansions and with well-watered, lush pastures.  An early nineteenth century account from Nithsdale tells of a ‘delicious country’ with fields of ripening corn and ‘looping burnies’ reached by a door halfway up the sunny side of a fairy knoll.

There are palaces and castles, like any medieval royal city (although in Faery these may be made from precious metals and gems) but there are ordinary civic amenities too.  Thomas Keightley recalled a conversation with a young woman in Norfolk who told him that the fairies were a people dressed in white who lived underground where they built houses, bridges and other edifices.  Proof of this comes from a commonly told Welsh story of a man who’s reproved by a hitherto unknown fairy neighbour for pouring his household slops down the other’s chimney.  Invited to place his foot on the other’s, the human sees that, far beneath his front yard, there is a street of houses he had never seen before.  These are just ordinary fairy cottages deep beneath an ordinary Welsh farmer’s cottage.

Some of the later British descriptions moved away from rolling verdant countryside to focus upon the dwellings of the fays.  For example, in the case of the ‘White Powder,’ the man visited the court of the fairy queen “in a fair hall.”  On the Isle of man, a traveller crossing Skyhill at night was taken inside the hill, where he saw a large hall with a grand feast in progress.  Likewise the so-called ‘Fairy Boy of Leith’ (account published 1684) told of visiting the fairies under a hill between Edinburgh and Leith and there enjoying music and feasting.  He entered through “a great pair of gates” and found “brave, large rooms as well accommodated as any in Scotland.”  Aberdeen man Andro Man, arrested on suspicion of witchcraft in 1598, told his interrogators that when he entered the residence of the fairy queen, he had noted in particular their “fair coverit” tables.

According to some Scottish stories, we may also see the start of three roads: the thorny road of the righteous to heaven, the broad road of the wicked to hell and a bonny looking road finally leading to Faery.  These ‘ferlies’ (wonders) are described in the old Scots  ballads Thomas the Rhymer, Young Tamlane and The Queen of Elfland’s Nourice.

There is an interesting last detail in the story of Anne Jefferies.  When she first encounters the fairies in her Cornish home, they are ‘the little people’ only a few inches tall, but in Faery they are all of normal human size (or else Anne has shrunk).  The fairy master in Cherry of Zennor looks tiny when seen at the bottom of the well  in the garden but resumes his human dimensions when he returns to the house.

Getting home again

This can be as hard as getting into fairy in the first place.  Some people, we must confess, never make it back to where they started.  The Green Children, dazzled by the heat and light of the surface, became bewildered and were completely unable to find the entrance to the passage from which they emerged.

For others the process can be relatively straightforward, albeit with longer term implications.  Richard Vingoe was led to a carn near Nanjizel where he emerged into the air.  He was so exhausted by the journey that he slept for a week and, if fact, was never the same again.

Elidyr was able to come and go from his faery, visiting his mother as he wished, until he tried to steal a golden ball from his fairy friends.  He was pursued and the ball was recovered, after which he could never find again the entrance in the river bank, even though he searched for a year.

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Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Conclusions

In many respects fairyland underground is a mirror image of our earth surface world- and this includes the climate.  Of course, there are also traditions that make it less homely and familiar, such as those which view it as some sort of land of the dead and those which treat it as far more magical and strange.