Cuckoos in the Scottish elf-land


Peg Maltby

There are, in Scottish fairy tradition, some fascinating but scattered clues that offer us a new perspective upon that land known widely as elfame/ elphame (the home of the elves).


The earliest clue to the existence of a different tradition to that we know comes from a verse romance of the earlier fifteenth century, King Berdok.  The eponymous hero of the story is ruler of Babylon and for seven years woos a maid called Mayiola or Mayok, daughter of the King of Faery.  He affectionately calls her his “the golk of Maryland.”  A golk is a cuckoo; this particular specimen is said to be but three years old and to have but one eye- nevertheless, “King Berdok luvit her weill.”

The date of Berdok is uncertain, but it was known by poet William Dunbar (1460-1522) who referred to it in his own poem In Secreit Place This Hyndir Nicht, in which another lover refers to his amour as “my golk of Marie land.”

These verses give us two curious problems: what’s the link between cuckoos and fairies and what and where is Mary land?  The latter question is a little easier to resolve.  The place name also appears as Mirry/ May/ Maiden and Murrayland.  For example, in 1596 Thomas Leyis of Aberdeen (along with much of the rest of his family, in fact) was accused of witchcraft and of dancing around the market cross in the town with the devil.  His former girlfriend, Elspet Keid, turned against him and gave evidence against him that led to his execution.  Thomas had told his erstwhile lover that he would take her to Murrayland and there marry her- “a man at the foot of a certain mountain being sure to rise at his bidding, and supply them with all they wanted.”  Given his association with supernatural powers, it seems possible that Thomas is talking about a Faery under a hill here, although we must recognise the fact that in Scotland at the time Murrayland was a real place too- the territory of Clan Murray.

Lastly, there is a ballad, ‘The rain rins down through Mirry-land toune.’  This tells the story of a young man, Sir Hew, who is killed and butchered and thrown in a well by a woman.  His mother searches for him and his ghost tells her to fetch a winding sheet, whereupon:

“And at the back of Mirry-land toune,/ It’s there we twa shall meet.”

Given the established links between faery and the dead, it seems reasonable to assume that the town is question has some supernatural nature.

Where does this odd name derive from? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Virgin Mary, although in the Catholic Middle Ages her presence in people’s minds is very likely to have affected the pronunciation.  Rather, the root is older than that in Britain.  The word appears to descend from the Anglo-Saxon maere, word that is preserved in modern English as ‘nightmare.’  Clearly it denotes some supernatural being- a sprite or incubus- from which it is an easy step to ‘fairy’ and thence ‘fairyland.’

she looked like a fairy queen

Walter Crane, She looked like a fairy queen (1877)

Fairy cuckoos

What about the cuckoo?  This is trickier: in Northern Europe it is a bird associated with summer, certainly, being its best known harbinger.  In the story, The Cuckoo and the Merry Tree, by Frances Browne (1857), the merry tree is some sort of evergreen like laurel, growing at the world’s end, and the cuckoo brings leaves from it in spring.

However, there seems from the Scottish traditions to be a fairy link that is now largely lost.  For example, in the Highlands it used to be said that, if it rained when the sun also shone, either the sith folk were baking or a gowk was going to heaven.  I have read that the cuckoo was regarded as being sacred to the fairies, but I haven’t been able to authenticate this.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of other folklore tradition concerning the bird- for instance, it’s said that, on hearing the first cuckoo in spring, you must run three times in a circle sun-wise to ensure good luck for the rest of the year. In addition, it’s said that if you hear a cuckoo on April 14th, you should immediately turn over any coins that you have in your pocket.  Readers will spot the fairy congruences here: the circling sunwise and the ‘turning’ of an item to dispel supernatural bad luck.  These practices may, of course, just be examples of more general folk magic but even so they serve to confirm the ‘uncanny’ nature of the bird.

Further reading

For more on faery relations with different animals, see my earlier posting on moths and pixies and on fairy beasts.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

8 thoughts on “Cuckoos in the Scottish elf-land

  1. I can actually give you some pointers about why cuckoos are considered faerie birds. I’m a Scottish Gaelic speaker, and I’ve studied the folklore extensively. And what I’ve heard, both from books and the old tradition-bearers, is this:

    “This bird has been called eun sìth, or fairy bird, because it was believe to have its winter dwelling under-ground instead migrating.” (Alexander Robert Forbes, Gaelic Names of Beasts, 1905, p.260)

    I’m not sure if they thought the cuckoo burrowed underground and hibernated, or if they thought it just continued to live its usual life in the faeries’ realm. Nothing I’ve come across has made that clear. But the association between cuckoos and faeries definitely came from the idea that they spent part of the year underground.

    Here’s another passage from the book, page 263, in which I have added in brackets the modern forms to his very old-fashioned Gaelic spellings:

    “In the popular imagination, so connected with fairyland was the cuckoo, the very name was in a sense taboo. When referred to, it was deemed discreet not to speak of it by its proper name of “cuag,” [cuthag] but circumlocutorily and euphemistically rather, as “ian glas a cheitein,” [eun glas a’ Chéitein] the grey bird of early summertide; even at the present day the mysterious bird is frequently referred to by the same roundabout designation, so says Nether Lochaber, May 18, 1894.”

    And one other bit of lore, from the same page:

    “A cuckoo heard calling from a house-top or chimney (luidheir [luidhear]), presages death to one of the inmates within the year; though it is said to be lucky to hear its cry from the right-hand side. In Ireland, a cuckoo always appears to a certain family before a death in that family.”

    I’m sure I have more books that refer to the cuckoo, but Gaelic Names of Beasts was the only one I could remember off hand. Here’s a link to the book:
    Doing a quick search for the word “fairy” within it will net you a lot of interesting stuff!

    I’m really enjoying the blog, and am slowly working my way through from the beginning up to the present day! And I’m intending to look for your books!


    1. Fiona

      Thanks for this contribution- it’s really valuable. I probably wouldn’t ever have come across Forbes on my own so I really appreciate your contribution. The explanation certainly makes good sense.



  2. Delighted to have been helpful!

    You wouldn’t think it to look at the title, but Gaelic Names of Beasts is actually a valuable book for any fairy researcher. It has bits and pieces of information about quite a selection of supernatural creatures — the each-uisge, the each-sìth, the glaistig, the groisgeach, the tarbh-uisge, the ùraisg, and quite a few more. They’re all marked “fabulous” on his little Gaelic/English wordlist near the beginning.

    Forbes wasn’t a researcher of fairy lore, but he was so assiduous in collecting general lore about his creatures that he couldn’t help picking it up. He collected from people in a number of regions through Scotland and also Ireland (the Gaelic speakers of Scotland having always felt more akin to the Irish than to any of the rest of Britain, even the Lowland Scots), and he also collected every proverb he could find that mentioned any animal and put them all in the book. It’s an impressive work!

    Anyway, I’m glad I could direct you to another useful source to add to your impressive scholarship, and I look forward to your next post!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s