“Like little soldiers”- fae warfare

jasmine becket-griffith unseelier court war (2)

‘The unseelie court- war’ by Jasmine Becket-Griffith

I have discussed fae mortality and violence previously; here I examine the context within which fairy deaths might occur.

According to some traditional folklore accounts, there are fairy kings and queens; we know some of their names from literary sources, of course: they include Oberon, Mab and Titania.  There is next to no evidence, though, on these monarchs’ kingdoms.  Is there a single realm or many within the island of Britain?  We do not know, but the partial information we have on fairy armies and fairy battles supports the suspicion that there are numerous warring tribes or polities.  This would not be in the least surprising, given reports of endemic violence from Ireland and Brittany (See Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 44, 46, 50, 55, 57, 74, 207 & 211).

Fairy soldiers

Fairies are often described as looking like soldiers in eighteenth and nineteenth century British sources.  For example, an old Cornish woman quoted by Robert Hunt compared them to “little sodgers.”  We should not, however, be misled by these accounts.  All they’re really telling us is that the beings sighted were wearing red (and possibly green) jackets; British soldiers at this time were, of course, called the ‘red coats’ and provided a ready analogy for witnesses (for example Hunt, Popular Romances, 118; Bord, Fairies, 32).

From time to time, nonetheless, armed fays have been sighted.  The trows on Orkney have sometimes been spotted wearing armour.  A boy abducted by the fairies on Islay in exchange for a changeling was eventually freed by his blacksmith father and returned home; it transpired that he had learned how to forge swords whilst he was away “under the hill.”  Lastly, at the opposite end of the country, a host of spriggans encountered by smugglers on the beach of Mounts Bay at Eastern Green, just outside Penzance, were armed with bows and arrows, spears and slings and were organised in rank and file with marching music provided by pipes, cymbals and tambourines (Briggs, Dictionary, p.132).

This Cornish report leads us to the second very frequent type of report from witnesses.  It’s quite common for people to see fairies en masse, apparently drilling like bodies of soldiers.  There were said to be scores or even hundreds on the Eastern Green; several very similar examples come from the Isle of Man.  In one case a man saw an ‘army’ dressed in red; in a second two men met a fairy army on the road at Mull.  They were all dressed in red caps and coats, some mounted, some on foot, and they so filled the highway that the men had to climb over the hedge and wait for quite some time for the host to pass.  A third experience, dated to about 1830, involved a man later to become a member of the Manx Parliament, the House of Keys.  Out one October night on the way to a harvest supper he and a friend saw a supernatural light in a field, within which a “great crowd of little beings” dressed in red “moved back and forth amid the circle of light, as they formed into order like troops drilling.”  Lastly, on Mellor Moor on the Pennines near Blackburn during the mid-eighteenth century, fairies were often said to appear “in military array … their revolutions conforming in every respect to the movement of modern troops.” (See Bord, Fairies, pp.36 & 42; Wentz p.133).

In an incident at Lochaweside in Argyll, a shepherd carrying a lost sheep home saw a cave in a rock face where he’d never seen one before.  Plainly suspecting it was a fairy location, he put his knife into a gap in the rock before taking his time studying what was inside.  What he saw was a collection of weapons, including guns and swords.  Just then the sheep started to escape and, in dashing to catch it, the shepherd dislodged the knife.  When he looked again, the cave was gone and he saw only bare rock.  The disappearance of the weapons cache only confirmed the impression that this was no earthly armoury.


What are these troops exercising for?  Why have they hoarded all these arms?  Direct accounts of fairy fighting are much rarer.  We are told by Mrs Bray that there was a protracted war between the pixies and the fairies for control of Devonshire and Dartmoor.  We also read of a woman lost in mist who saw a pixie battle being fought on the ramparts of Castle-an-Dinas in mid-Cornwall (though, when the fog cleared, though, there was no trace of any fighting).

The best example comes from Wales, though:

“There is a tradition among the Glamorgan peasantry of a fairy battle fought on the mountain between Merthyr and Aberdare, in which the pigmy combatants were on horseback. There appeared to be two armies, one of which was mounted on milk-white steeds, and the other on horses of jet-black. They rode at each other with the utmost fury and their swords could be seen flashing in the air like so many penknife blades. The army on the white horses won the day, and drove the black-mounted force from the field. The whole scene then disappeared in a light mist.” (Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, p.107)

What is especially interesting about this is the fact that there is also a tale of conflict between the white fairy king and the black at Strath Spey in Scotland.  They are said to be locked in perpetual struggle over the white king’s wife.  This story may give us a hint as to the fairies’ motivation for their aggression.  For the Spey kings, the prize is possession of a woman; Shakespeare may take us a little nearer the truth with his notion in Midsummer Night’s Dream of Oberon and Titania feuding over a changeling boy.  It seems very like that the motive for fairy wars is control of resources- and for the faes those contested assets are human, whether it is produce they can steal from us or individuals whom they can abduct.

Finally, in one way or another, humans are intimately associated with fairy warfare.  For our penultimate example we return to the Isle of Man.

“A woman walking over Barrule met two fairy armies going to battle, which was to begin on the ringing of a bell; she pulled the bell, and in consequence both armies attacked her, and kept her prisoner for three years, when she escaped.”

Lastly, at Loch Gruinart on Islay a battle was fought in August 1598 between the MacLeans and the MacDonalds.  Just before the two sides clashed, the MacLean chief was approached by a “tiny fellow of the brownie order” who offered his services in the coming fighting.  The MacLean dismissed help from someone so diminutive, so the ‘Black Elf’ went off to the MacDonald camp and made the same proposal, which was gratefully accepted.  The additional one hundred warriors tilted the odds in favour of the MacDonalds and, in fact, it was the Black Elf who killed the MacLean leader.

mosquito's hunger, david revoy

‘Mosquito’s hunger’ by David Revoy

Intercommunal strife is just one aspect of the ‘Darker Side of Faery’ as described in my 2021 book:

‘The Immortal Hour’- Avalon, Opera & Faerie


‘The Immortal Hour’

My consideration of the period of the First World War and its impact on visions of faery continues with this posting on the work of Rutland Boughton.  He may be unknown to almost all readers, but he’s a fascinating subject for many reasons- for his fae operas, for his radical political views and as the founder of the original Glastonbury Festival.

He’s been described as a “socialist, patriot, musician and domestic genius, an agnostic of deep religious feeling and a man of many contradictory characteristics.”

rb by cw

The young Boughton by Christina Walshe

Boughton was born in Aylesbury in 1878.  His family ran a grocer’s shop which was not particularly successful, meaning that his schooling and prospects were limited.  However, through luck and hard work, he managed to establish the musical career he had aspired to and, by the early 1900s, he was developing a reputation as a teacher and composer.  He was working in Birmingham and his experience there with choirs convinced him of “the immense civilising influence of music and he began to feel that music, and art generally, might one day succeed where religion had failed.”  He pursued these thoughts in a book, Music Drama of the Future, in 1911.  He had become aware of:

“the truly popular nature of all the greatest art and of the fact that the greatest artists acquire their superhuman power by acting as the expression of the ‘oversoul’ of a people.”

Boughton was a great admirer of Wagner and argued that he had chosen folk subjects for his operas (such as the Rheingold) because these myths had been produced by this ‘oversoul.’

British legend and British drama

Music Drama of the Future formed a sort of manifesto for Boughton.  He wanted to produce heroic music dramas based upon the British ‘national scriptures’- stories like the legends of King Arthur which were the birth right of the British people.  In addition, he wanted to create a national theatre where this might be done and which might lie at the heart of a larger community.  He argued that previous attempts at communes had failed because they lacked a religious centre- a function that this new theatre could perform.  He realised that he needed to find a “civically conscious” place where he could co-operate with the inhabitants to develop a “new city” focused on the drama venue.

Around this time too, Boughton began to collaborate with writer Reginald Buckley.  They shared a mutual love of Wagner, Ruskin, Milton, Dante and Tennyson and each wanted to write ‘music drama.’  Buckley had already written a text called Arthur of Britain and had been searching for a composer.  Boughton had already identified the Arthurian myths as a subject. He saw them as the “best tap into the mystical heart of Great Britain.”


A social experiment

There were various false starts in the plan for establishing the national theatre.  Boughton proposed a summer school at Hindhead in 1912 and then went on to consider Letchworth Garden City as a possible setting for his experiment.  By 1913, however, he’d chosen Glastonbury in Somerset as the best location in which to found his “English Bayreuth” and moved into a large house called Chalice Well where he also opened a school of music and drama.  The aim of this was to train local singers, instrumentalists and dancers so that they could perform in the festivals, which would take place four times a year, at Easter, Whitsuntide, August and at Christmas. His plans were ambitious and unusual: he envisaged a festival linked to a commune for artists who preferred a country life and who felt that they should earn their livings through art combined with running a co-operative farm.  In 1916 he wrote that “the whole business is for me as much a sociological as an aesthetic thing.”  He and Buckley wanted to control the performances of their works completely, but they also wanted to involve the local community actively in all aspects of the festivals- performing, designing clothes and scenery and choreographing dances.

Boughton was evidently ahead of his time- a fact demonstrated by his unconventional love life.  He had married in 1903 but the marriage had not been wise or successful.  Whilst in Birmingham he had formed a relationship with a music lover called Christine Walshe and in 1911 he left his wife and moved in with Christina.

The first Glastonbury Festival of Music Drama and Mystic Drama opened on August 5th 1914- the day after Britain entered the First World War.  It featured performances of ‘A chapel in Lyonesse’ based on a poem by William Morris and the Immortal Hour, based on the faery play of that name by Scottish poet Fiona Macleod (real name, William Sharp).  We’ll discuss this opera in more detail later, but it proved extremely popular and has been called “England’s greatest fairy opera.”  The Immortal Hour was performed again at Easter 1915 and again in August 1916.  That summer saw the first performance too of Boughton and Buckley’s opera The Round Table.

glasto_000105 (2)

 ‘Music of the duration’

Just as the 1916 Festival ended, Boughton received his call-up papers from the Army.  He appealed this to a tribunal, on the grounds that his work in Glastonbury was “of national importance.”  In this he may have found encouragement from Lloyd George who, in 1916, had asked “Why should we not sing during the war?” He had been speaking in support for the annual eisteddfod but Boughton might well have drawn a parallel with his own English venture.

The authorities did not accept Boughton’s case- even though he argued that the Glastonbury festivals could draw money away from Bayreuth and Oberammergau- and for the next two years the festival was suspended whilst he served King and country.  It has to be admitted, though, that whilst other artists like Tolkien, Ledwidge or Graves served on the front line, Boughton never did.  He was bandmaster of a succession of regiments. Nevertheless, when in December 1918 The Times newspaper reviewed the music composed during the war it recognised Boughton’s contribution to the ‘artistic war effort’.

Morris, Carey Boynes, 1882-1968; Rutland Boughton (1878-1960)

The older Boughton

Return to Avalon

As soon as the war was over, Boughton began planning the revival of the festival.  He moved to a new and larger house called Mount Avalon which served as a school and hostel and at the first post-war festival, in August 1920, he presented The Immortal Hour, The Round Table and the new opera written with Buckley, The Birth of Arthur. 

 The revived festival as an idea, and the individual performances, attracted great praise and encouragement, but there was too a universal feeling that it could not grow as it should so long as it was staged in the cramped Assembly Rooms in Glastonbury High Street, in which there was neither space for larger audiences nor for the performers.  Nonetheless, there were great hopes for the future and admiration for the way all the performers were able to contribute- as well as to develop their skills.  The Times had, for example, been impressed how the school’s teachers had “discovered the children of the town to be fairies, nymphs, water sprites and elves.”

ih_000104 (2)

The festival continued until 1927 but steadily declined, despite successful national tours.  A major contributing factor was Boughton’s ‘adulterous’ circumstances combined with his left-wing opinions.  In 1923 he separated from Christina and moved in with one of his local pupils, a woman called Kathleen.  This was scandalous in the Glastonbury of the 1920s- pupils were withdrawn from the schools and money was withheld for developing a dedicated theatre in the town.  Money, too, had always been a problem: the festival launched with appeals for funds and always made a loss.  Eventually the festival company went into liquidation; nevertheless, it had presented 350 stage performances and 100 concerts during its existence and permanently had an effect on the little town of Glastonbury.  As many readers will know, the town itself is now a centre for alternative spirituality and lifestyles- a place where today Boughton’s love life would scarcely raise an eyebrow; secondly, as all readers will surely know, there is the modern Glastonbury Festival; organiser Michael Eavis must have derived some inspiration for this from the 1920s forerunner (even though the present day event is not, strictly, in Glastonbury at all, but several miles east).

In November 1927 Boughton moved to a smallholding at Kilcot on the edge of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, where he and Kathleen raised a family, kept pigs, goats and hens and grew vegetables and cider apples.  From this point on, his career also sank steadily into obscurity- something he ascribed (perhaps with a hint of paranoia) to his political views.


Rutland & Kathleen in later life


The early 1920s Boughton was involved with the London Labour Choral Union.  Along with Herbert Morrison, he believed that “working class music making could be an invigorating element in Socialist politics and culture.”   The choral union was indeed a vital part of Labour Party culture until it was cut as an unaffordable luxury.

Before then, though, Boughton had joined the Communist Party, expressing his belief in organised control by the workers.  He identified personally with this because he felt that, as a composer, he had very little control over the fruits of his labour.  Boughton resigned from the Party in 1929 because he felt he had been undervalued and underused, but rejoined in 1945, only to quit again in 1956 over the invasion of Hungary.

It was only very late in his life that Boughton returned to the Arthurian Cycle, which he had largely abandoned after the death of Buckley in 1919.  He wrote the final two operas, Galahad and Avalon, in the mid-1940s.  The final scene of Avalon shows his continuing belief in Socialist principles: the Lady of the Lake reveals three visions of the past, present and future to the dying King Arthur.  These are the star of Bethlehem, the white star of hope shining over his own land and, finally, a red star that will rise in the east.  At the outset, the composer had seen Arthur as “an essentially British fount of inspiration” but clearly over the decades it changed from Wagnerian epic to a political tract with strong religious overtones.  The cycle as a whole may not be a success, but it has been described as “an extraordinary demonstration of artistic courage and determination- a ruin perhaps, but undeniably impressive.”  Certainly, the cycle to many seemed to represent the raison d’etre of a national festival founded in Avalon; the dramas were the source of the festival’s vitality and its justification.


William Sharp- the artist formerly known as Fiona Macleod


“I have gone out and seen the lands of Faery/ And have found sorrow and peace and beauty there.” (Dreams within dreams, Fiona Macleod)

Myth and faerie magic suffuse much of Boughton’s work.  They are of course present in the Arthurian cycle, but he also wrote a range of other songs and operas based on fairy poems.  These include Faery people, based on a poem by Mary Webb, and a large number of poems by Fiona Macleod, amongst which are Dalua and Avalon, part of Boughton’s Six Celtic Choruses. 

The most important of these latter works is The Immortal Hour.  Christina Walshe was very influential in developing Boughton’s taste for Irish and Scottish mythology; she was half Irish and was a great supporter of the ‘Celtic revival.’ Boughton studied Hebridean folk songs before writing the music for The Hour and, whilst he was absent in the army in September 1918, she arranged performances of W. B. Yeats’ play The land of heart’s desire and of The Immortal Hour.

Fiona Macleod was the secret pseudonym of William Sharp (1855-1905), something kept secret during his lifetime. Sharp was a Scottish author, a prolific writer of poetry, plays and literary biography.  He was much involved in the ‘Celtic revival’ in Scotland and became familiar with W. B. Yeats.  Like Yeats, he was a member of Alistair Crowley’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  Consonant with these occult interests, Macleod/ Sharp wrote a great deal of mystical and mythical verse, amongst which are small a number with an explicit fairy theme, including The bugles of dreamland, The hills of Ruel, The moon child, The lords of shadow, Dreams within dreams and The last fay.  Sharp was plainly very familiar with the key elements of Gaelic fairy belief and with the overall mood of magic and sadness that pervades Celtic legend.  These are powerful elements in the Immortal Hour,  which is a verse drama of some seventy pages concerned with Celtic myths of the sidh folk and based on the Irish story Tochmarc Étaíne, the ‘Wooing of Etain.’

Macleod’s Immortal Hour has been described as being ideal for Boughton as it was “a legend only half told, with meanings hinted at, never spoken out.”  This left him free to mould the work into any musical shape that appealed.  He did so, but still left much to the audience’s imaginations.  As The Times acknowledged in 1919, “the vague imagery of Fiona Macleod was easy to catch in music- and easy to dissipate.” Boughton had captured it effectively.  Whilst the original play was “visionary and vague” the opera was visionary but not vague- full of tunes that haunt you.

Macleod’s play is very short- only two brief acts- and not a great deal happens in it.  In the first act fairy princess Etain and High King of Ireland, Eochaid, are brought together by fairy trickster Dalua.  In the second act Etain’s former lover, Midir, comes from faery in search of her.  She remembers her former life and departs with him and Dalua casts a spell of death over Eochaid.  The drama is perhaps best known for the recurring ‘fairy song’:

“How beautiful they are, the lordly ones, who dwell in the hills, in the hollow hills.”

Mary Webb’s poem ‘Fairy led’ was used as the basis for Boughton’s ‘Fairy song:’

“The fairy people flouted me,
Mocked me, shouted me–
They chased me down the dreamy hill and beat me with a wand.
Within the wood they found me, put spells on me and bound me
And left me at the edge of day in John the Miller’s pond.

Beneath the eerie starlight
Their hair shone curd-white;
Their bodies were all twisted like a lichened apple-tree;
Feather-light and swift they moved,
And never one the other loved,
For all were full of ancient dreams and dark designs on me.

With noise of leafy singing
And white wands swinging,
They marched away amid the grass that swayed to let them through.
Between the yellow tansies
Their eyes, like purple pansies,
Peered back on me before they passed all trackless in the dew.”

Final thoughts

Boughton combined many intriguing characteristics- he was a social radical, he was interested in self sufficiency and communal living, he had an intense spirituality without being conventionally religious and he recognised the potential power of music, poetry and myth in our lives.  Boughton reasserted the place of the Arthurian legends and of Avalon in British culture in the twentieth century and, significantly for us here, he is a notable example of the power of Faery in art.

Further reading

I’ve written more about the impact of the fairy faith on British music, on the composers Arnold Bax and John Ireland.  This essay should be read in conjunction with my discussions of Tolkien, Bernard Sleigh and his map of faery and the role of the arts during the Great War.

For more on Broughton, and the influence of Faery in classical and contemporary music, see my 2022 book The Faery Faith in British Music which is available from Amazon, either as an e-book (£5.95) or a paperback (£7.95).


“White fairie money”- fairy cash


Faery gold by Amy Brown

“White money, Puck, white fairie money…” (The Mask at Cole Orton, 1618)

There is much speculation and confusion about the nature of fairy wealth- or the need of fairies for it.  Their economy often seems to function without the need for currency at all: rather, they transact all commerce solely on the basis of barter.  At the same time, it was alleged to Evans-Wentz that the fairies ‘have plenty of money at their command, which they could bestow on people whom they liked.’ (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, p.142)

The sources of faery wealth

Where exactly all the coins that are given to human favourites come from is an interesting question.   We might conclude that the money they leave is actually stolen, lost by people or perhaps comes from a hidden hoard the faeries have discovered- which may explain the ancient or unknown coins that are sometimes received by way of payment (on the Welsh Borders finds of Roman coins were often thought to be fairy money).  In Wales it has been alleged that the tylwyth teg steal from the rich to assist the poor- like Robin Hood- and there is no denying the evidence that they have assisted those in need.

There are other possible sources of their wealth, though.  One Stuart period text casts the faes in a less favourable light that the Welsh view just mentioned; instead, they were reputed to lend money to the poor- and to be tough when timely repayment wasn’t made.  Alternatively, the fays have been known to enter into contracts with humans- for example, for building work, for which they have agreed payment (admittedly, though, they sometimes set their terms after the event, doing the work first and then demanding recompense from the obligated human).  They have also been known to make ‘profit sharing’ agreements with humans- usually miners.  In one highly anomalous report, Crossing described how Dartmoor pixies were left coins by cottagers to persuade them to tidy their houses.  This runs directly counter to the usual arrangement whereby a coin is left in recognition of a home being made clean and tidy for when the fairies visit at night.  Although this would provide our pixies with a source of ready cash, you can’t help but think that someone got this story mixed up (Tales of Dartmoor Pixies, c.3).

Linda ravenscroft f gold

Avalon’s gold by Linda Ravenscroft

The uses of faery wealth

The fairies have coin, it appears, because they have dealings with humans and because they know that- to us- hard cash is important.  For this reason, they acquire money in order to pay people for services rendered to them (such as caring for a changeling child) or to reward those whom they choose to favour (for instance, a man who played football with them was left with the football- full of gold coins).  They may be very generous in these cases, for example giving a life time’s supply of gold or a purse that never empties.

In contrast to these cases, there are plenty where money received from the fairies does not turn out to be all that it seemed.  Payments or gifts turn out later to be shells, withered leaves, dead flowers, paper or horse dung.  Sometimes there’s a reason for this: the recipient has betrayed fairy confidences or has been rude or ungrateful; sometimes the transformation doesn’t appear to be deserved and the fairies just seem to be mean.  The opposite transformation may take place as well, though.  Change given as leaves or pebbles may turn out to be gold.


Fairy Jewels, by Helen Jacobs

The perils of faery wealth

“I see you labour with some serious thing,/ And think (like fairies’ treasure) to reveal it,/ Will cause it to vanish.”   (Nathan Field, Woman is a Weathercock, (1609), Act I, scene i)

As has already been suggested, fairy money can be conditional upon discretion.  Almost always, as soon as the source of unexplained wealth is confessed, it is lost forever and cannot be regained.  This is a consistent and very well-known folklore theme: for example, in Beaumont and Fletcher’s play The Honest Man’s Fortune, a character warns, “For when they talk once, ‘tis like fairy money, They get no more…”(Act V, 1). In the most serious cases, the person who betrays the confidence might die.

A story about the need to be discrete about the source of your fairy gold also gives another clue as to the nature of fairy money itself.  A Norfolk ploughman one day found a brand-new silver shilling at the end of a furrow.  Next day there were two- and then three and so forth.  He then faced a two-fold problem- he had to account for his new found and exponentially increasing wealth and he had to explain why all this money seemed to be freshly minted.  Local traders began to refuse his suspect cash and his employer dismissed him.  Finally, the ploughman admitted to his wife where it was all coming from, knowing at the same time that his confession would terminate their riches forever.  Fairy money can be a curse as well as a favour then- and there is a least a hint that the fairies themselves might be illegal coiners.

A final intriguing twist upon this theme comes from a Scottish folktale told about a midwife from Lochranza on the northern tip of the Isle of Arran who was taken to attend the fairy queen.  The boy who fetches her is a human enslaved under an enchantment for twenty-one years; he is able to give her various warnings how to behave when she is in Faery.  He particularly tells her not to accept payment in either gold or silver from the faes and to throw away any gifts they may give her.  She obeys his instructions, casting away the presents made to her after she has left the fairy hill.  The items explode into flames- and would have burned her home down had she kept them.


From the Water babies, by Warwick Goble.

Further reading

In my last post I examined fairies access to buried treasure in detail; see too my essays on faery metal working skills, which may explain how they can mint fresh coinage, and on the fairy economy more generally.

This subject is also discussed in detail in my 2021 book, How Things Work in Faery.

“There is gold there”- fairies and buried treasure

Fairy treasure hunt, Doon hill, Cobleland, nixinnaturesblog.blogspot.com

A fairy treasure hunt in progress at Doon Hill, Cobleland, near Stirling (from nixinnaturesblog.blogspot.com)

Faery has long had a traditional connection with buried treasure.  As Keith Thomas described in his famous book, Religion and the decline of magic, there were once entirely rational bases for the expectation of finding hidden hoards: in the absence of a system of banking and safe deposits for savings, hiding wealth under beds or burying it in fields was as secure a protection as many could find (p.279).  In times of war or civil unrest, this was especially so, and for many reasons people might not have returned to reclaim their gold.  Finding forgotten or abandoned treasure was therefore far from impossible (and, of course metal detectorists still do it today).  The gold was out there, that was certain and- rather than rely upon mere luck- the recruitment of supernatural powers of all descriptions (not just fairies) was the resort of many.

Today, perhaps the best-known example of such a guide is the Irish leprechaun, of whom it’s said that catching one will lead you to his pot of gold.  Fairy treasure hunts have been reduced to a merely whimsical matter- a suitable theme for a little girl’s birthday party.  The subject is far more serious, complex and interesting than this, though, and there is a wealth of British examples to illustrate it (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 71 & 82).

Fairy hoards

There are many aspects to this subject, but the starting point must be the fact that fairies hoard gold, or at least know of its whereabouts.  It is said, for example, that fairy gold is stored at Cadbury camp in Dorset and also at Dolebury where, to make matters worse, the fairies’ magic makes it sink deeper into the ground should anyone come digging in search of it.  Thomas Nashe believed instead that the gold was continually moved about underground, so that none could find it.  Another writer, Thomas Heywood, was uncertain whether the booty was hidden from us because of the elves’ avarice, because God had forbidden our access to it, knowing men’s avarice, or because it was all, in fact, merely illusory.  As we proceed with this examination, you might indeed be inclined to see it all as a fairy deception sent to taunt us (Heywood, Hierarchie of Blessed Angels, 570).

Fairy Treasure Hunt in Progress, thecul-de-sac.blogspot.com

Fairy treasure hunt in progress for a sixth birthday party (thecul-de-sac.blogspot.com)

Ill-gotten gains?

As with fairy money, the source of this bullion is uncertain.  It may have been buried by humans in the past or it may have been collected by the fays.  There is even a suggestion that they may create it through alchemy: in Cornwall it was believed that lead left out on an ant’s nest would be transmuted by the pixies into silver at the new moon.

Fairy guardians

I’ve already mentioned how the fays may actively prevent our finding their wealth.  Sometimes they are more aggressive in defence of their hoards.  At Craufurdland bridge, near Kilmarnock, a brownie protected the pot of gold concealed in the pool beneath the crossing and successfully defeated an attempt to dam and drain the pool by playing a trick on the prospector- he raised the alarm for fire at the man’s home and, whilst the excavators were absent, pulled down the dam.  At Abernethy near Perth the buried gold of a Pictish king was guarded by a dwarf who fiercely assailed any man who came digging.  The threat of imminent violence also protected gold concealed at Trencrom hillfort in West Penwith in Cornwall: a man engaged in digging there noticed the sky darkening and, when he looked up, realised that a horde of spriggans was advancing upon him at speed, growing in size as they rapidly approached.  He wisely fled home, where he had to take to his bed for several weeks to recover (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.2, 245; see too Bowker, Goblin Tales, 104).

Human greed

Given that the fairies are in possession of great wealth, and given the instinctive greed of many humans, it is inevitable that many have turned their minds to discovering ways to convey this wealth out of the control of its original possessors.    Here the interaction between Faery and mortals becomes even more complicated and fraught.

Sometimes it proves possible to extort money from the fairies.  In Cornwall it was believed that a large quantity of gold was concealed around the ancient stone monuments of the county and that, if you could only capture a pisky, spriggan or knocker, it could be forced to disclose the whereabouts of the riches.  Of course, the supernatural being would know too that the human captor would become distracted as soon as precious metals got involved, creating opportunities to escape.  Nevertheless, the canny and determined individual might make himself rich very easily this way, as was the case for a man from Rockingham in Northamptonshire, who caught an elf called the ‘redman’ and constrained it to reveal its cache of gold.

Fairy favours

Force doesn’t have to be involved.  The fairies may willingly lead favoured individuals to the buried treasure- or may just place it in front of them.  For example, a Scottish pedlar in Ayrshire was approached by a fairy woman who wanted to buy one of the bowls he was selling.  He refused to sell to her for some reason and, a short while later, dropped his basketful of wares.  Remarkably, only the bowl the woman had asked for was broken, whilst, later that same day, he discovered a hidden treasure that more than compensated for the price of the lost vessel.

The fairies don’t always need a reason to bestow good fortune, though: a man came across the fairies dancing on the beach at Puckaster Cove on the Isle of Wight.  He joined the dance but, after a while, needed to sit and rest.  He sat down on something like a puffball mushroom which burst under his weight, showering gold dust everywhere.  The faeries gave him some of this before he parted from their company.

fairy-treasure-hunt, greenmumsblog.wordpress.com

Another fairy treasure hunt (greenmumsblog.wordpress.com)

Treasure seekers

Rather than giving the humans the wealth, the fairies might alternatively lead them to where it was concealed.  William Borlase, writing about Cornwall in 1769, mentioned the continuing belief in spriggans among the ‘vulgar’ inhabitants of the county.  With some superiority he recorded that the common folk:

“attribute to them large powers to rule the weather and to discover hidden treasures, and pay them a kind of veneration.” (Antiquities of the County of Cornwall, p.110)

Guidance might be given by various means: for instance, at Bury Castle near Clun in Shropshire it’s said that the fairies have left a thin gold wire to guide treasure seekers to the pot of gold they buried.  In The Secret Commonwealth (c.10), the Reverend Robert Kirk described how two women one night in 1676 both received a vision that treasure was buried in a nearby fairy hill.  Firstly, they each saw the hoard, then they heard a voice.  Going separately to the spot, they met and together dug up a vessel containing ancient coins, which they shared between them.  This vision was sent to the women at a time of famine, so that they might buy food for the people.  In a similar story from Wales, a boy called Guto Bach was guided by the fairies to look under a rock where he found gold and silver concealed, aid that was granted after his parents had lost their money in a shipwreck.

Lastly, the fairies might bestow a magical power to detect buried treasure upon an individual.  This gift was claimed in 1499 by Marion Clerk of Great Ashfield in Suffolk. She was prosecuted before a church court in Norwich for claiming that the faeries helped her locate buried treasure by providing her with a rod of holly for this purpose.  She had charged people 2/- for her treasure seeking service.

Access to free riches sounds enticing, but a condition might be attached. by the faes  For instance, at Bamburgh in Northumberland there is a rock where people may find caches of coins that have been placed there by the fairies.  This wealth cannot simply be pocketed, however: the finder is obliged to leave a silver coin of their own at the spot in order to ensure that the treasure will be found again.


Sometimes, though, despite the visions and the guidance, the prospectors fail to find the hidden gold.  What’s not clear is whether this was just down to their poor excavating or because the fairies never meant them to have it in the first place.  The folklore on this is contradictory.  An Aberdeen man called Walter Rolandson had been visited by a fairy in the form of a child twice a year for 27 years or so.  In 1601 it came to him in bed, sitting on his chest and calling his name.  He was told to go to a certain place and dig, for he would find gold, silver and other valuable property.  Ronaldson did so, but found nothing.  Despite his failure, he nevertheless remained convinced the riches were present: “there is gold there, gif it were weel sought” he told a church court.

Just a few years later, a woman called Susan Swapper, living in Rye in Sussex, was visited by four fairies at night.  They told her to dig for a pot of gold buried outside the town.  Naturally, she did as she was instructed, but failed to find the hoard; nonetheless, she met the fairy queen who told her that, if she was prepared to make submission to her, she would never want for money for the rest of her life.  A similar tale of riches withheld but some compensation offered instead comes from lowland Scotland.  A girl was sat by a well spinning wool on a distaff when she looked into the depths of the water and saw a pot of gold beneath the surface.  Marking the spot with her spindle, she ran to tell her father.  He suspected it was glamour intended to trap and drown her and, sure enough, when they returned together 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.


More party ideas from https://www.fun365.orientaltrading.com


On other occasions, the visions of hidden treasures are much more plainly a fairy tease.  In late 1662 the London household of the Mompessons were troubled by noises, such as drummings and the sound of money chinking.  The family were advised that this was the fairies indicating to them that coins were hidden somewhere about the house. On the Isle of Man, the fairies whispered to a man drowsing on his sofa about hidden gold; in shock he fell onto the floor, was ill for six months and was lamed for the remainder of his life.

Worse still are the cases where the fairies taunted the humans with a sight of the gold- and then withheld it from them.  This is demonstrated in two Welsh reports.  In one case a girl walking on the mountains near her home came upon a solid golden chair.  It was too heavy for her to have any hope of carrying it home, so she tried to mark the spot so that she could find her way back by using the thread from the spindle she had with her.  She tied one end to a stone by the chair and unravelled the ball as she made her way home; there was only just enough to lead her back to her parents’ cottage.  The next morning, of course, she found that the thread was gone and the prize was lost for ever.  In a comparable story a man discovered a cache of gold concealed in a cave.  His only way of being able to retrace his route was to cut chips from his walking staff to mark the way back to his farm.  The next morning, these too had disappeared.


These experiences take us back to one of our earlier points and very much confirm the suspicion that fairy gold is, very much of the time, purely a matter of illusion and temptation, a mockery of human cupidity that is never meant to be satisfied.

Intellectual wealth

From time to time riches are revealed to humans, but they are for those of a more discerning taste.  In two cases reported in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies the buried treasure comprised archaeological remains (pp.7 & 81).  For example in 1941 Louise Jones was walking near St Albans when she felt herself led by the fairies to discover the site of a Roman kiln.  Pottery sherds and roof tiles may not be excite everyone, but she was convinced that a glimpse of an elf had brought her luck.


Another birthday treasure hunt from http://www.themomcreative.com

A detailed further discussion of this subject is to be found in my 2021 publication with Green Magic Publishing, How Things Work in Faery.

“With white wands swinging”- fairy queens and magic wands

hester margetson

Magic wands

Wands have been symbols of power for millennia.  They denote civic office and, since at least the 1300s, they have symbolised and conveyed magic power.  In the grimoire The Oathbound book of Honorius, hazel and laurel staffs are used for magical operations such as summoning demons.  They are four sided with names and figures written upon them.  In the fourteenth century Italian text, The Key of Solomon, demons are conjured and lost items are found with procedures which involve the use of wands and staffs.  The former are made from hazel or other nut wood, the staffs from elder, cane or rosewood.  They must be of one year’s growth only and must be cut with a single stroke on a propitious day at sunrise.  They should be inscribed with figures on a similarly suitable day and at an auspicious time.  The text recommends that wands should be long enough for a person to draw a circle around themselves.

In the ballad of the same name, the witch Allison Gross makes her magic with a conjurer’s staff:

“Then out she has taken a silver wand
She’s turned her three times round and round
She muttered such words till my strength it did fail
And she’s turned me into an ugly worm.”

In the ballad The Laily Worm and the Mackerel of the Sea, a silver wand is used to reverse the spell and to turn the worm back into a gentle knight.

Both William Lilly and Elias Ashmole, whose rituals for conjuring fairies have been preserved for us, make ample reference to the use of wands in their ceremonies.  Reginald Scot records similar practices in Discourse on witches.

iro- fair flys through night sky

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, A fairy flies through the night sky.

Fairy wands

Given these magical associations, it was inevitable that those fairies being summoned should acquire their own wands too and this image has certainly become embedded in our iconography and therefore, so it would seem, in our visions of them.

Wands are not mentioned very much in traditional British folklore, but Evans Wentz mentions a Breton tale in which a white fairy wand is used to enter Faery: it is struck twice against a rock in a cross shape in order to open the portal to fairyland. Wentz also suggests that the faes’ wands may be derived from those believed to have been used by druids.  (Fairy faith pp.202 & 343-4; Luzel, Contes popularies, vol.1, p.3 ‘La fille qui se maria un mort’)

The fairy wand makes a central appearance in the traditional story ‘Kate Crackernuts’ which is from Orkney.  Princess Kate was victim of a jealous stepmother, who used magic to cover her good looks with a sheep’s head.  Her stepsister, also called Kate, was angry at what her mother had done; together the two escape from their palace and go to live in another kingdom.   There stepsister Kate discovers that the prince of the realm lies sick in his bed because he goes to dance under the hill with the fairies every night and, even more importantly, that a fairy child in the knoll possesses a wand which will cure her sister.  By rolling hazelnuts, she is able to distract the little boy and seize the wand, enabling her to free her sister of the sheep’s head.  Faithful Kate then cures the elf-addled prince and everyone (of course) then marries and lives happily ever after.

However, Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provides us with a dozen modern examples of faes wielding wands.  The wand is often the attribute of an individual fairy identified as a fairy queen by witnesses, a distinguished person who will often wear a crown or coronet as well- though in one sighting in a Nottingham dentist’s surgery, a group of ballet dancing fairies each waved a wand.  It should be remarked that the crowns and tiaras seen on the brows of these faery queens may be another human interpolation: as with wands, there’s no necessary reason why the fays should imitate our indicators of rank- nor that these regalia should signify the same things to them, even if they do.

The wands seen by Johnson’s witnesses are noted as being made of silver, gold or crystal; a couple emit light; a quarter of them have stars on the end.  In one case, the wand produces magic- a twist of it by the fairy queen fills a room with other dancing fairies.

The wand seems to have become inseparable from the fairy in the minds of many.  Literature, art and supernatural experiences all reinforce each other.  We perhaps expect to see a wand, meaning that- whatever the fae may actually be holding- there’s a tendency for it to be labelled as a wand regardless.

Here’s Fairy led by English poet Mary Webb (1881-1927) as a closing example of what has shaped our perceptions so powerfully:

“The fairy people flouted me,
Mocked me, shouted me–
They chased me down the dreamy hill and beat me with a wand.
Within the wood they found me, put spells on me and bound me
And left me at the edge of day in John the miller’s pond.

Beneath the eerie starlight
Their hair shone curd-white;
Their bodies were all twisted like a lichened apple-tree;
Feather-light and swift they moved,
And never one the other loved,
For all were full of ancient dreams and dark designs on me.

With noise of leafy singing
And white wands swinging,
They marched away amid the grass that swayed to let them through.
Between the yellow tansies
Their eyes, like purple pansies,
Peered back on me before they passed all trackless in the dew.”


There’s more on faery magic and its deployment (and a great deal less about pretty girls in lip gloss and eye shadow wielding wands) in my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side