Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Here’s a question not often asked: how- and how often- do fairies keep themselves clean? We know that they have very strong opinions on the cleanliness of human homes, and that they will punish or reward maids and housewives according to what they find, but does this extend to their own dwellings and, for that matter, to their own persons?
When you start to look, you find that the evidence exists in some quantity- so here are the best conclusions I can reach. The need for the fairies to wash themselves and their clothes was accepted without question by our ancestors- for example, on the Isle of Man the saying was that “If rain falls when it’s sunny, the fairies are washing.”
“Til after long time myrke, when blest were windows, dares and lights,
And pales were fill’d, and hathes were swept, ‘gainst Farie Elves and sprits:”
(William Warner, Albion’s England, 1586, Book V, c.XXV)
There are plenty of reports that demonstrate that fairies do, definitely, wash themselves. As an outdoor people, living in woods and meadows, a lot of this bathing took place in natural bodies of water. For example, in Northamptonshire certain ‘faery pools’ are known where the faeries swim at night; at Brington, in fact, bathing faeries were seen by witnesses as recently as 1840. On the Isle of Man, beside the Gretch River, there’s a spot called the Fairy Ground where fairy mothers dressed in red used to be seen washing their babies.
It’s inevitable that encounters with fays are likely to occur at these bathing places. A Northumberland tale records how a little girl gathering primroses by the River Wear came upon some faeries washing in the river. In revenge for this invasion of their ablutions, she was abducted by them that same night and her father then had to follow a very complex ritual to be able to recover her. Sometimes, it’s the faery who’s vulnerable. From North Yorkshire comes a story of a faery girl found lost and alone near Tower Hill, Middleton-in-Teesdale. A woman took the child home and made her warm and fed her but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity and returned her to the place by the river where she’d been found and where it was believed that the faeries bathed, in the hope that her parents would return for her (Bord, Fairies, Appendix, p.206).
In due course the faeries, who are ever a people alert to their own convenience and advantage, realised that they could wash themselves with far greater comfort in people’s homes. Initially the fays may have used water collected around human farms: there is one Welsh account of them bathing in a moat; but it then became the practice for them to enter the dwellings and to require that fresh water be left out in front of the fire or kiln for them. This may be seen as dependence- as Latham does in Elizabethan Fairies (p.118) but it probably should more properly be seen as proof of the fairies’ canny nature. Even so, if the householders did comply, they could generally anticipate a few silver coins being left behind for them in thanks. Perhaps this is why some even started to provide soap and towels to their supernatural visitors- less for reasons of kindness than greed (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886, p.196).
This habit must have started many centuries ago, because the provision of water has become established as- to all intents and purposes- a fairy right. Mrs Bray tells the story of a couple of maids in a house near Tavistock who forgot to put out a bucket for the pixies one night. Their response on finding the empty pail was to immediately go upstairs, enter the girls’ room by the keyhole and then surround their bed, loudly debating the best punishments for their laziness and neglect. The enraged pixies considered pinching, spoiling the maids’ best clothes, sending a tooth-ache or inflicting a red nose. One of the maids heard this and suggested getting up to put matters right; the other refused to stir ‘for all the pixies in Devonshire.’ The first maid did get up and fill the bucket- and was rewarded with silver pennies; the other was lamed for her obstinacy and rudeness (Bray, Tamar and Tavy, pp.188-9).
There is widespread testimony to the custom from across the British Isles, most frequently from the Isle of Man and from Wales. Sometimes hot water was preferred but, very curiously, it’s also reported that the tylwyth teg would choose to wash their children in the water in which human children have already been cleaned whilst in the Highlands the water used for washing men’s feet was most desirable (Rhys, Celtic Folklore 56, 110, 137, 151, 198 & 240).
Once established as a perquisite of the good neighbours, it was generally advisable to give them what they wanted, for fear of what they’d use instead. Householders need to be warned that the fays may wash in any liquid they find available (even if this is meant by the humans for cooking or drinking). Although they may not sound ideal for the purpose, fairies have taken revenge if no water was put out by bathing their infants in kit, the water in which oats were soaked in the Highlands, or in milk. In one incident on Shetland, trows entered a house at night to bathe a baby and found no water left out. Muttering “Mukka, mukka, dilla do,” they made use instead of the ‘swotts’ -or water in which sowens or oat-husks were steeped- to wash the child and its clothes, before pouring the liquid back into the keg from which it had been taken…
Whilst we’d never think of drinking water deliberately put out for washing, we might not expect or realise that cooking liquids would be used- and this could prove risky. In a case from Dunadd in Argyll, the fays one night washed a stolen child in milk left out for them by a farmhouse fire. This milk was wisely thrown away by the farmer the next morning, but his sheep dog lapped it up- and instantly died.
So established was this practice that, in Gloucestershire on Christmas Eve, the faeries were formally invited into homes. The fire was banked up and water was left out for their annual bath and, it was believed, if this was done good luck would be bound to follow for the next twelve months.
Fairies also noticed that humans built themselves places specially for bathing- and they’ve taken advantage of these too. There’s a well-known story of faeries surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley: when the caretaker William Butterfield arrived to open up he found at first that the key simply rotated in the lock without effect. He then tried to push the door open, but felt resistance from the other side. On finally forcing his way in, he was met with:
“whirr, whirr, whirr, such a noise and sight! All over the water and dipping into it was a lot of little creatures, all dressed in green from head to foot, none of them more than eighteen inches high, and making a chatter and a jabber thoroughly unintelligible. They seemed to be taking a bath, only they bathed with all their clothes on.”
They scattered as soon as William appeared, leaving no trace behind (Briggs, Fairies in tradition, 133-4).
Fairies wash their bodies then, albeit not that frequently, and, as we’ve just seen, they may save time and trouble by bathing fully clothed. This example aside, there is again sufficient evidence to show that the fairies do their washing just like us.
At least one spring, the Claymore well near Kettleness in Yorkshire, has been identified as a place where the faes wash their clothes and, in the Middleton-in-Teesdale case cited earlier, the fairies were also said to wash their clothes in the river Tees there (Bord p.206). J. G. Campbell has a very brief mention of a fisherman seeing green silk spread out to dry on the fairy knoll of Beinn Feall on Coll. The colour of the cloth, let alone its location, confirm its supernatural ownership.
An interesting story comes from the Isle of Man dated to the early twentieth century. A man reported that his father, when he was a boy, had come across the fairies doing their washing in the river at Glen Rushen. They were beating the clothes on the rocks and then hanging them to dry on gorse bushes. The boy crept close and stole a little cap, which was too small even for a human child to wear. He took it home to show his mother, but she told him to go straight back and replace it- which he did.
Several other spots on the same island are also sites of fairy laundering. A flat stone used to be pointed out in the Rhenab River where the fairies were both heard and seen- at night and early in the morning- washing their clothes. At an unnamed place in Arbory the fairies were often heard ” beetling and bleaching their clothes down at the stream” and, in another unidentified glen, children saw the fairies’ newly-washed linen spread out on a rock to dry according to a report in Chamber’s Journal from 1855.
Unsurprisingly, fairy clothes washing moved inside human homes, too. A Shetland fisherman who had been dozing by his fire awoke to find a trow using his feet as a clothes horse for drying her child’s clothes. When he shifted position and the washing fell in the ashes, she slapped his leg in irritation and, as a consequence, he and his descendants always limped.
The great unwashed?
I’ve discussed fairy smell previously and the question is obviously highly pertinent to the present topic. A young Yorkshire woman in late Victorian times told her vicar that she’d never seen the faeries but she had smelt them. Asked to describe the odour, she told him:
“If you have ever been a very crowded place of worship where the people have been congregated for some time, then you knew the smell.”
This very strongly suggests a sweaty, stale, unwashed smell and, of course, if they bathed but once a year that is only to be expected. All the same, the prevailing concern with regular supplies of water and with cleanly human homes tends to indicate that they are not a noisome folk. Perhaps fairies just smell different to humans, rather than dirty.
It’s also said that they object to bad smells in the human world (such as stale urine- a substance which was kept, ironically, for cleaning human clothes but which was a well-known fay-repellent). A very grubby fisherman from Port Erin on the Isle of Man was once forcibly washed by the fairies. He’d spied them swinging on gorse bushes, but this punishment seems to have been about something more than his intrusion on their privacy.
Lastly, there is the well-known story of Bettie Stogs from Cornwall. She and her husband were alcoholics and were neglecting themselves, their home and their baby. The pixies removed the infant, washed its clothes and left it near the cottage covered in flowers, by way of a salutary lesson to her.
For more discussion of faery physiology, anatomy and health, see my 2021 book ‘The Faery Lifecycle’: