Hairy fairies

young girl among the faeries

Young Girl Among The Fairies by Brian Froud

What’s fairies’ hair like?  We have a few scraps of evidence on the matter, which gives us some quite surprising answers.

Our tendency today is to envisage beautiful fays with gorgeous locks- and these ideas are not solely a product of our more recent benign and lovely image of our Good Neighbours.  It’s been said that the faes have a preference for taking fair-haired human children and this predilection seems to have been transferred to the abductors as well as the abductees.

In Victorian times, for example, Angus Macleod of Harris eulogised as follows:

“Their heavy brown hair was streaming down to their waist and its lustre was of the fair golden sun of summer.  Their skin was as white as the swan of the wave, and their voice was as melodious as the mavis of the wood, and they themselves were as beauteous of feature and as lithe of form as a picture, while their step was as lithe and stately and their minds as sportive as the little red hind of the hill.” (see Wentz, p.116)

One Welsh story informs us that the tylwyth teg ideal of beauty is red-hair and many of the more romantic accounts of fairy troops and fairy queens portray them with flowing, glossy manes.  This isn’t the whole story, though.

Shaggy Sith

In 1792 an account of the parish of Liberton in Edinburgh described the local fairy women as being “girls of diminutive size, dressed in green with dishevelled hair, who frequented sequestered places and at certain times conversed with men.”  Presumably those men weren’t put off the fairy lovers by the state of their hair.

A second contemporary report from Kirkmichael in Banffshire likewise described fairy women appearing to travellers, “with dishevelled hair floating over their shoulders and with faces more blooming than the vermeil blush of a summer morning.”  Perhaps the attraction for humans indeed is the fresh, natural look of the faes.

Lastly, Scottish writer Hugh Miller recorded a famous account of the ‘departure of the fairies.’  Two children saw a cavalcade of fairies riding away from Burn of Eathie on the Black Isle.  They were unattractive creatures dressed in old fashioned clothes and, from under their caps, “their wild uncombed locks shot out over their cheeks and foreheads.” (Miller, Old Red Sandstone, 1841, p.215)

This uncombed state may reflect nothing more than the fact that these are wild country dwellers who may have neither the leisure nor the lifestyle for much grooming.  Perhaps, in the circumstances, dread-locked fays are what really we ought to expect.  Even so, the state of the fairies’ hair frequently seems to reflect the character and attractiveness of the being as a whole.  The brownies and the less friendly goblins and hags almost always seem to be described as having shaggy, coarse, dark hair.  For human witnesses, it’s almost impossible to conceive of a malign entity that, at the same time, has sleek, groomed locks; our minds unconsciously reject such a pairing.  Nonetheless, some modern witnesses have described seeing faes with feathers growing in their hair- or even with feathers instead of hair. (See for instance John Dathen, Somerset Fairies and Pixies, p.30)

iro waterfall fairy

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Waterfall Fairy

Silky Selkies?

Let’s turn now to mermaids, creatures who traditionally have been renowned for their long hair (if only to preserve their womanly modesty).  Sightings of mermaids have described them variously as having short dark hair, flowing red locks, coarse hair, curly but oily green hair, and (most often) that flowing fair hair in which they take such great pride, sitting for hours on rocks combing it and admiring themselves in mirrors.

The lovely blonde mermaid in the sea is a cliché, but she’s not alone.  In Scottish rivers lives the freshwater mere-maid called the ceasg, a creature of great beauty (once you have reconciled yourself to the fact that she is half woman and half salmon).  Her hair has been described as being “long and flossy,” which I take to mean that it is very pale and silky- the name itself signifies a tuft of wool, linen or silk.

There are some much less appealing examples, though.  The Cornish water sprite, the bucca, has been said to have seaweed for hair.  One mermaid seen at Birsay on the Orkney mainland was recorded as being ‘covered in brown hair’, though whether this meant long hair covering her modesty or an actual covering of fur is not wholly clear.  This sighting brings us to the final curious case I’ll mention.  It’s another case from Orkney, of a man from Sourie in Sandwick who was carried off by the trows to Suleskerry, a rock outcrop in the sea fifty miles offshore.  The trows kept him there for what seemed to him like a few hours, before carrying him home again.  In fact, he’d been away for seven years.  This, in itself, meant that people had difficulties recognising him, a problem compounded by the fact that he was, it was said, “he was grown all over with hair on his return which so altered his appearance that his neighbours had some difficulty in recognising him.”  This may just be seven years without a barber, or it may perhaps be some more malign effect of fairy contact.  If it is the latter, it would be a particularly odd effect of close fairy contact.  It can also act as a reminder that not all fairies are quite what we anticipate- and that some of them can be furry beings, much against our expectations.

waterhouse, sketch-for-a-mermaid-1892

J M W Waterhouse

 

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Hairy fairies

  1. Sorry if this is a little off topic. I tried to find you on Twitter but, none of the John kruse there seem to be you. Anyway you talked about the mere-maids which made me think of the Fideal you talked about on “Mere maids- freshwater spirits of Britain”. I did some research about the Fideal and her fight with the hero Ewen however I only found this quote “Ewen killed the Fideal and the Fideal killed Ewen”

    Do you have any source for the Fideal and her battle with Ewen?

    Thanks

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    1. Gerard

      Thanks for the message. I checked the various books I have (Evans Wentz, Spence, Briggs etc), and there’s no mention of the fideal. She’s not mentioned in either J G Campbell or J F Campbell, either. As she comes from Loch Na Fideil near Gairloch, I suspect the only sources are going to be local guides to that area, such as Dixon’s book on Gairloch and Loch Maree. I suspect her fame derives as much from Brian Froud’s picture than from any mentions in well known fairy sources.

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  2. Katharine Briggs gives an entry to the Fideal (and her battle with Ewen) in her Encyclopedia of Fairies (1976). Her source was Donald Mackenzie, “Scottish Folklore and Folk Life” (1935, pp. 235-6). Mackenzie’s source was William John Watson, “Place Names of Ross and Cromarty” (1904, pp. 239, 281). Unfortunately, none of the three authors provide much more than what we already know.

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    1. Dan

      Thanks for this contribution! My poor record keeping (and memory) meant I forgot I’d read Mackenzie and got my reference from him. I’ve not seen Watson, but it sounds like I don’t need to. Clearly there’s an earlier Scottish/ Gaelic folklore source that they’ve drawn upon.

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  3. I know what you mean. If I wasn’t such an obsessive-compulsive note taker I would’ve gotten lost in the labyrinth a long time ago.

    I couldn’t find a source older than Watson (and he doesn’t state where he got his information), but in Volume 26 of the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness (1910), there’s an article by C. M. Robertson titled “Folklore from the West of Ross-shire” where he refers to Watson and expands on what he said about the Fideal.

    Watson’s book and the Transactions are both available on the Internet Archive if you’re interested in reading through them.

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    1. Dan

      Thanks for the Robertson reference- I will certainly have a look at that. I’ve read at least one volume from the Transactions, I’m sure: where would we be without Internet Archive?

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