“Neither a lender nor a borrower be”- transactions with the fairies

Cloke baskets

Despite the apparent strength of the fairy economy, with its markets, agriculture and manufacture, as well as an apparent abundance of money, the Good Folk are still often portrayed in folklore accounts as dependent for many basic items of food or equipment upon their human neighbours. Shortages of provisions may reflect fluctuations in the availability of homegrown produce, but the seeming lack of basic utensils is more puzzling.  It is a regular feature of traditional accounts for fairies to approach humans to request the temporary load of an implement or of a small quantity of some foodstuff.

Loans to the faes

Part of the purposes of loans may be to establish a relationship of reciprocity between the two parties, which may then lead to other requests.  In one case, for instance, a very grand ‘fairy queen’ dressed in green came begging for oatmeal, something she repaid with the very best quality meal at the promised time.  It seems, though, that this may have been a preliminary to asking to use the lender’s water mill for grinding the fairy corn.  Something similar happened to a cottager living at Airlie in Angus-shire.  She was visited by a mysterious old woman asking to borrow salt one day, although the cottage stood alone with no neighbouring homes in sight.  The little woman regularly visited after that, borrowing and lending a variety of small articles and then disappearing behind a tree outside.  Eventually, the housewife was outside the cottage one day pouring away the household waste when the sith woman appeared again- but this time to ask her to tip her water elsewhere as it presently was running into the hollow by the tree where she lived. A very similar story was told on the Isle of Man, in which the relationship and obligations established through a loan of meal- and its repayment with an inexhaustible supply of meal wrapped in a cloth- culminated in a request that the farmer change around the way his cows were stabled in the byre, putting their troughs where their tails had been and so preventing their waste running down into the fairies’ home beneath.

As just seen in the Airlie case, a regular feature of these experiences is the sudden and unexplained appearance of the fairy borrower.  This reflects the invisible or hidden nature of most fairy homes.  The fae might suddenly vanish into the air or disappear into an unlikely location, such as down a hole or into a lake.

Why loan to the faes?

Whatever their reasons, fairies will frequently enter human homes seeking a loan.  Amongst the items borrowed have been salt, griddles, kettles, flour and oatmeal. Besides pure good neighbourliness, why should humans comply?  There are several very sound reasons.

Firstly, there is pure self-interest, in that not only are these loans returned, but they are always repaid, often several-fold.  As with all fairy gifts, these should never be rejected nor looked at askance.  A Kirkcudbrightshire family lent oatmeal to a fairy and received meal back in due course.  Everyone in the household was happy to eat this fairy food, except for one boy who worked as a farmhand- and he died shortly afterwards.  This case suggests that much of the lending to fairies is undertaken not out of a spirit of generosity, but in fear of the consequences of refusing a loan.

The-Trolls-and-the-Youngest-Tomte-Trollen-och-tomtepojken-by-Alfred-Smedberg-1909-art-by-John-Bauer-4

John Bauer, A troll (tomte), 1909

The recompense may be especially great if the person who lends is themselves deprived or inconvenienced in some way.  A faery woman visited a Highland home and asked for a cup of flour.  Even though supplies were low, as it was nearly time for the new harvest, the housewife gave her visitor what she asked for- and in return was granted a never-ending supply of meal.  The person who refuses to lend, particularly where they are very capable of helping, will end up with nothing.

Another motive, undoubtedly, is what the result of refusal may be.  A woman in Sutherland was visited by a fairy woman asking for the loan of a ‘lippie’ of meal (a lippie is a measure of dry goods like grain, and is one quarter of a peck).  Just as the housewife was about to hand some over, they both noticed that the corn drying kiln on the nearby hillside was ablaze.  The sith woman then told her the loan was no longer necessary, for she would soon have plenty (because what was destroyed would come to her.  Whether or not the fire was deliberately started by the sith folk is not clear).

Charms when loaning

In poor agricultural communities where food is in short supply and assets are limited, there may be understandable reluctance to part with goods, even for a short time.  One resolution to this was tried by a woman on Sanntraigh.  She had a very useful kettle (cooking pot) and a sith woman used to visit regularly to borrow it.  She wouldn’t speak, but would simply walk in and take the item.  The housewife, in response, would say:

“A smith is able to make/ Cold iron hot with coal./ The due of a kettle is bones,/ And to bring it back again whole.”

The sith woman would always return the kettle the next day, full of flesh and bones.  This arrangement continued happily for a long time, until one day the wife had to go away for a day and left her husband at home.  He was told what to say when the fairy visitor arrived, but in the event, he panicked and locked the door against her.  The sith woman had the pot anyway, making it fly out of the smoke hole in the roof.

After she returned home and found out what her husband had down, the wife was not pleased and she wanted her property back.  Angrily she went to the nearby knoll to recover her cooking pot.  The door was open and she walked in and picked it up, full of the remains of the faes’ last meal.  They set the dogs on her though, and whilst she managed to get home uninjured, she had to tip out all the contents along the way to distract the hounds.  The sith woman never came borrowing after that day and the family lost its supply of free meat.

The risks of faery loans

The fairies can be peremptory and intrusive, nonetheless, simply walking into houses unannounced and uninvited and helping themselves.  In one Scottish story a housewife was troubled by faery women suddenly appearing at her cottage asking to borrow items or, unbidden, undertaking household tasks for her, such as spinning wool into thread.  This became very tiresome and, on advice from a local wise man, the decision was made to demolish the house and rebuild it elsewhere.

Removing yourself from the faes is probably the best course of action: in one Welsh case a woman lost her temper with faes who kept coming to her house to borrow kitchen implements.  She demanded that they grant her two wishes in return for the item they wanted.  They agreed  and she asked that, when she awoke, the first item she touched would break (she wanted to get rid of a projecting stone in her wall) and the second would lengthen (she wanted to extend a roll of cloth she had). The faeries gave her exactly what she’d asked for- but the wishes didn’t come true as the woman had planned: the next morning the first thing she touched was her ankle, the second her nose.

Loans from the faes

Loans in the other direction are very rare indeed.  In the Airlie case mentioned earlier, a familiar pattern of mutual loans seems to have developed.  The only instance in which fairies habitually lent to humans was that of the Frensham cauldron, described by John Aubrey.  This unusually large pot could be borrowed by anyone in need, simply by going to the right spot and asking, at the same time specifying why it was needed and when it would be handed back.  Ultimately a borrower failed to restore it on the appointed day and the fairies refused to take it back.

Summary

The faery economy is far more complex and nuanced than we might at first suppose.  They have a full range of productive and commercial institutions, but there seem to be items that they cannot make, or choose not to make.  The latter explanation seems more likely; they live amongst human kind and, whether for neighbourly reasons or because they wish to have a measure of influence over us, they elect to create relationships of obligation and reciprocity between us.  We are then bound into their society then and subjected to their rules- which is just what they want.  There’s no need to wield magic to have control over the humans…

 

Silence is golden- in Faery

fairy song

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy Song

Speechless

On this blog I’ve many times returned to what is, for me, the fascinating subject of fairy speech.  As I’ve described previously, we expect to be able to communicate with our Good Neighbours and, most of the time, this happens without comment.  From time to time, however, the incomprehensibility of the fairy tongue is remarked upon.  We may draw several conclusions form this: either that they share- and have always shared- our speech with us, or that close proximity with us over centuries has made them bilingual- even though they may naturally, amongst themselves, speak another language entirely.  British fairies have been heard to speak English, Gaelic, Welsh and Anglo-Saxon as well as wholly unknown tongues: according to one Scottish witch suspect, Anne Cairns (tried and executed at Dumfries in April 1659), the ‘fferie’ were “not earthen folkis” and so spoke “no earthly talkis” but rather conversed with “ane eldridge voyce.”

a fairy song (2)

Rackham, Fairy song.

Silence is golden?

In this post I take a different tack: that contact with the fairies can require- or lead to- loss of one’s voice.  From this perspective, silence is the result of being near the fays or it is the safest option when they are near.

Elspeth Reoch was a young Orkney woman tried for witchcraft in March 1616.  She told her prosecutors that she had been in contact with the fairies on and off since she was twelve years old.  There is much that is interesting in her confessions, but here we are interested solely in the fact that she lost her voice after she had sex with one of two fairy men who approached her; this was to protect her against people’s questions as to how she had gained the second sight.  Elspeth lay with him and when she woke the next morning, she had “no power of her toung and could not speik.”

Diane Purkiss provides a full account of the case, along with considerable sociological and psychological theorising about Elspeth’s situation, in her book Troublesome Things.  It looks as though Elspeth derived some income from begging as a mute and from telling fortunes, but that her own family were angry about her silence and allowed her brother to beat her quite severely to try to get her to speak.  Purkiss’ speculations over gender roles and power may be justified, but let’s put Elspeth’s loss of voice in a wider context.

Barbara Bowndie of Kirkwall on Orkney was taken by the fairies for a day.  She told her trial in 1644 that this experience left her speechless for a further twenty four hours- as well it might.  Janet Morrison, a suspect witch from Bute, told her trial in 1662 that she had healed a girl who had been blasted by the ‘faryes.’  The child, daughter of a man called McPherson, was lying “without power of hand or foot and speechless.” Janet made her well with herbs.  In both these cases, loss of use of the tongue is the consequence of fairy proximity- whether deliberately inflicted or not; it is one symptom of being ‘elf-addled‘.

John Stewart, tried for sorcery at Irvine in 1618, had acquired knowledge of palmistry from the fairies whilst in Ireland.  One Halloween, he had met the king of faery and his court.  The king had touched John on his forehead with his staff (wand), which had the effect of blinding him in one eye and making him dumb.  Three years later he met the king again one Halloween and his sight and speech were restored.  He then met the fays regularly and acquired his skills from them.

Silence might also be enjoined upon a person meeting the fays.  The Reverend Robert Kirk stated that the “subterraneans [would] practice sleights for procuring a privacy to any of their mysteries.”  Any humans who had spent time with the faes under the hill might be “smit… without pain as with a puff of wind… or they strick them dumb.”  Bessie Dunlop is a very famous witch suspect, tried at Lyne in 1576.  Once again, her confessions are a rich and fascinating source, but I am interested only in one aspect.  A fairyman (or ghost) called Thom Read was her supernatural adviser, helping her with cures for sick people and cattle and locating lost and stolen goods.  On one occasion, Thom introduced her to twelve handsome fairy folk; before they met Thom forbade her to speak to them.  The ‘guid wichtis’ as Bessie called them greeted her and invited her to go with them to Faery/ Elfame.  As instructed, she did not reply and then they conferred amongst themselves- she didn’t know what they said “onlie sche saw thair lippis move.”  This suggests that they were audible when addressing her directly but when speaking privately amongst themselves they were inaudible, whether that was deliberate or just a feature of fairy speech.

It’s worth pointing out that in several modern cases witnesses have reported an identical experience: they see the fays speaking but they hear nothing (for example, see Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.48, 89 & 299).  In this connection too, we should note the scattered but consistent reports on telepathic communication, in which the barriers of the spoken word are overcome entirely (Johnson pp.20, 80, 89, 111, 163 & 262).

A woman of Rousay in Orkney, whose child was taken by the trows, was instructed how to recover her infant by force.  She had to break into the fairy lair, snatch back her baby and hit the fairy woman who’d abducted it with a bible, three times.  Throughout this encounter, not a word was to be spoken, otherwise the rescue would fail.

Finally, on certain other occasions Bessie Dunlop saw Thom Reid in public- in the street and in the churchyard- but had been enjoined not to speak to him.  She had been instructed that, on such occasions, she must never address him unless he had spoken to her first.  This may be as much to do with concealment as with matters of confidentiality or communication between dimensions, it has to be remarked.

It may be significant too that speech can be a way of dispelling fairy enchantment.  Those who are pixie-led or in the process of being taken by the fays can sometimes break the spell by crying out for help.  For example, a Manx woman who was surrounded on the road and jostled in a direction she didn’t want to go managed to free herself by calling her son (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith p.126).

Struck dumb?

Lastly, the fairies could also help with curing loss of speech.  Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried for witchcraft in May 1658, was a folk healer who diagnosed and treated a man whose tongue had been ‘taken’ by the fairies.  She advised him to use foxglove leaves and water taken from a south-running stream.  Likewise, the parson of Warlingham in Surrey during the 16th or 17th century made a manuscript collection of medicines and cures that were “taught him by the Fayries.”  One of these was for loss of speech: “take wormwood, stamp it, temper it with water, strain it and out a spoonful in the mouth.”

Conclusions & further reading

So, to conclude, we have tantalising glimpses of a fresh perspective on the fairy world.  Loss of speech may well be an integral part of that condition called ‘fairy blast,’ being ‘taken’ by the fairies or what I’ve termed ‘elf-addled.’  It may also be something that’s imposed or inflicted upon a person who has dealings with the fairies so as to ensure that their privacy is protected.

My other postings on this general subject include: That Strange Tongue, on fairy names and speech; A Hidden Tongue– fairy song and speech and Fairy Language.  

“Some kind of joy”- the meaning of fairy encounters

frederick cotman, spellbound

Frederick Cotman, Spellbound

How does contact with the fairies affect us?  I have often mentioned the more negative aspects of meeting fairies on human health- the consequences, both physical and psychological, associated with being ‘elf addled.’

Shock & awe

These adverse outcomes can be real and life changing- here are two further examples from the Isle of Man: a man who spied on fairies dancing in an old kiln was taken ill, and was left unable to walk for the remainder of his life, whilst another who watched fairies dancing through the keyhole of a deserted cottage was blinded for his impertinence.  These are the extreme outcomes.  Definitely, the common responses are terror, bewilderment and, naturally, surprise.  In Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies we read these not untypical accounts:

“The physical reaction was that Mr X’s wife was so completely unnerved as to be almost hysterical… The boy said he felt ‘weird.'” (p.115)

“He said he was stunned by the sight and one occasion had gone into a kind of swoon… he seemed partially ‘fairy-struck.'” (p.116)

Some people certainly can find fairy encounters very draining and are left ill and exhausted for some time afterwards.

Very understandably, many people will be amazed, awed, entranced and fascinated by what is happening to them.  One man wrote in 1973 of a meeting with a gnome which made him “neither disturbed nor excited, just curious to know more about him.” (Janet Bord, Fairies, p.72)

Elation

However, in this posting I’m going to focus upon the pleasant and spiritual results of a fairy encounter.  Beyond the natural astonishment and shock, there are far more positive responses.

For instance, some men walking along a road on the Isle of Man one night met three huge fairies coming the other way.  As they passed them, they felt a curious sensation, ‘as if lifted up.’  This reaction is very far from unique.  We find it echoed in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies by witnesses who describe their elation, exhilaration and sense of enhanced health.  One felt “as light as air” afterwards; another “had a rather exciting feeling like being on a great height, but I was in no way afraid.”  (pp.31, 144, 156, 192, 251, 254 & 296)

hutton lear glimpse

Hutton Lear, A glimpse of the fairies

Calm

Also from Man comes the following experience, recounted by a Mr J H Kelly to Evans Wentz (Fairy Faith p.134).  The witness was walking back from Laxey to Douglas one moonlit night when he heard voices and “was conscious of being in the midst of an invisible throng.”  The strange feeling continued for the distance of a mile or so “There was no fear or emotion or excitement, but perfect calm on my part” he recalled.  Eventually he turned off the main road and “there was a sudden and strange quietness and a sense of isolation came over me, as though the joy and peace of my life had departed with the invisible throng.”  He was left convinced of the reality of the fairy folk.  In Seeing Fairies several witnesses mentioned the sense of peace or calm they felt.

Confirmation

As in the Laxey case, and as is quite predictable, a fairy encounter will often create a true believer.  For example, Dorothy Tompkins saw a flying being in her garden and said to herself:

“This is not a butterfly or anything else, it is a fairy.  I am absolutely sure, and nothing and nobody must ever make me doubt it.”

Another of Johnson’s informants described the sighting as an “enlightening experience.  I knew something first hand, which I had not known before.” (pp.44, 46, 66, 112, 181 & 318)

Similar was the experience of Cynthia Montefiore, recorded in 1977.  She was with her mother in the family garden in Somerset, when they both saw a fairy hovering in a rose bush.  “We went back to the house astonished and enriched by our mutual experience…” (Bord p.69)

Even if the witness isn’t changed, the encounter will very often stay with them for the remainder of their lives: “one of the most vivid experiences of my life” said one.  Equally, there can be sadness to have seen a fairy and then never to see one again, and a longing to go back to an age when we might have been more open to such visions.

Comfort and joy

Many of the first hand accounts sent to Marjorie Johnson recount the happiness, even joy, that the sightings gave.  Often, too, the individuals derived comfort from the encounters.  Several had been sad or worried before, but afterwards felt restored and reassured (for example, pp.45, 223 or 254).

These sensations can stay with you, too.  Consider for example the words of a Welsh woman who spoke to researcher Robin Gwyndaf (in Narvaez, The Good People, 1997, p.181).  She described how her knowledge of the reality of the tylwyth teg made her feel: “it gives you some kind of joy to think about it,” she told him.

Friendly

A Hampshire woman called Sylvia Pigeon saw a fairy in her garden.  She recalled that:

“She felt love and compassion coming from the creature, that ‘it was looking at me with some delight, I would say… I had a feeling of love and friendliness.’” (Bord p.71)

An assurance of friendliness was communicated to several of those who described their fairy encounters to Johnson.

Mccubbin, what the little girl saw in the bush

McCubbin, What the little girl saw in the bush

“Like seeing beyond this world”

These sensations of happiness, love and personal development must surely be part of the reason why people so often connect fairy encounters with religious meaning.  Not only are they in touch with an otherworld- they feel uplifted and enhanced by it.

The end of the experience may also abruptly terminate the feelings of joy, though.  We saw this in the earlier account from the Isle of Man; something similar was felt by two boys who met two fairy youths and their mother on a beach on the island of Muck in about 1910.  They spoke to the fairies for some time and even shared their food.  After a while the Scottish boys’ sister arrived and spoke to them- “the spell was broken and immediately they became fearful, though before they had felt happy.” It is fascinating how often the intrusion of an external individual is necessary to break the fairy enchantment, although this is usually the welcome release from being pixy-led: for example, a woman unable to find her way out of a field in Cornwall was only rescued when a farm boy came wandering past; an Irish woman being led off by a crowd of fairies could only escape them by calling to her son and a Welsh man who had awoken at night to find fairies dancing and feasting in his bedroom could only find his way out of the room by crying out in panic and awakening the rest of his family (Bord, pp.15, 123 & 128).

Faery music

A special mention should be made here of the impression caused by hearing fairy music.  I have described before the impact the ceol sidhe can have and it’s worth repeating now.  The combination of contact with supernatural forces, conveyed in a form that naturally affects the human senses and emotions, can be extremely powerful.  For example, one of Johnson’s witnesses said that hearing the high and plaintive sound of undines signing was: “so alluring that I was filled with a strange longing.” Another told her that the sweet, unearthly music “will never be effaced from my memory.” (pp.328 & 329)

Further Reading

I have discussed in several posts the beneficial influence of fairy belief upon human culture; I also examine the broader ‘psychological’ aspects in my books British Fairies (Green Magic, 2017) and Faery (Llewellyn, March 2020).

elsie-gregory-children-watching-fairies-dancing

 

‘Gaily trip the fairies’- dances and the devil

 

 

fairy dance in a clearing doyle

Richard Doyle, Fairy Dance in a Clearing

“The tripping Fayry tricks shall play” Drayton, Muse’s Elysium, 8th Nymphal

Fairies are notorious for their tripping habits, dancing around grassy rings in the moonlight.  These joyful activities have become central to their nature and a cliché of fairy verse, as illustrated by just a handful of examples:

“Ouphe and goblin! imp and sprite!

Elf of eve! and starry Fay!

Ye that love the moon’s soft light,

Hither, hither wend your way;

Twine ye in the jocund ring,

Sing and trip it merrily,

Hand to hand, and wing to wing,

Round the wild witch-hazel tree.”

The culprit fay, Joseph Rodman Drake

“Trip it over moss and rock
To the owlet’s elvish tune”
The little people, Julius Madison Cawein

Also in the poem There are fairies, Cawein assures us:

“There are faeries; verily;
Verily:
For the old owl in the tree,
Hollow tree,
He who maketh melody
For them tripping merrily,
Told it me.”

Lastly, in another of his verses, Son of the Elf, Cawein describes how fairies-

“Or, beneath the owlet moon,
Trip it to the cricket’s tune…”

This is all very pretty and quaint and tends to reinforce the view that sees fairies as charming and harmless, all leisure and no malice.  It’s not the whole story.

Pixie Perspectives

There is something more to this idea of tripping dances than just poetic conventions, though.  In Somerset the green fairy rings are called ‘gallitraps’ and we are told by Ruth Tongue that they are produced by the pixies riding colts in circles in the fields.  If you step into a gallitrap, you are entirely with the pixies’ power.  If you have one foot in and one out, you can see them, but you can still escape. (Somerset Folklore, 1965, p.115)

The word gallitrap is rare and unusual to us now, but it was once much more familiar, particularly in certain parts of Britain.  As Ruth Tongue’s example shows, the word was in common use in the south-west of England, in the counties of Somerset, Gloucestershire and Devon.  In that region the gallitrap (or gallytrap or gallowtrap) was a mystic green circle from which a guilty person, having once stepped, would only escape by being delivered to justice.  They could only exit from the circle into the arms of the law or else would become “infatuated to their own discovery” as one writer expressed it- the circle would have affected them and they would feel driven to confess or to expose their own guilt.

In several parishes in Devon the ‘gallitrap’ was a patch of land hedged about and considered uncanny.  Anyone ‘feyed’ (or fated) to be hung for a crime who entered one of these fields would then be unable to leave again but would instead wander round in circles, searching vainly for the gate or stile, until the local parson was called to release them (thence into the custody of a magistrate).  The field is then, quite literally, a ‘gallow-trap.’  In this example, many readers will identify the very close parallels between this process and the experience of being pixie-led and also the links to green places reserved for the faes that I recently discussed.

Although this conception of the gallitrap seems some way away from fairy rings, they are intimately connected.  In the story Two Men of Mendip by Walter Raymond (1879), this scene occurs:

“She held out her finger and traced upon the parched grass the greener round of a pixie ring.  ‘We be in a gallow-trap’ she laughed.  ‘If either of us have a’ done wrong, ‘tis sure to be brought to light.  He started as if struck unawares, then with a low cry he hid his face in his hands… The superstition that any man of crime stepping into a fairy circle should surely come to justice was thrust out of her mind.’ (p.230)

Another dialect source confirms that in Somerset the word ‘gyaalitrap’ referred to the familiar pixie-ring in meadows and pastures.

It appears that, in south-west England, the idea of the gallitrap was steadily extended.  Firstly, it came to signify any mysterious circle, shape or sign.  Mary Palmer, a mid-eighteenth century documenter of Devonshire dialect, recorded how one of her interviewees had watched the village parson in the wood to see if he “made any zerckles or gallytraps”- if he drew any shapes on the ground.  It came about in time that gallytraps might be drawn inside, on tables, just as much as on the ground outside.  In turn, once the word was associated more with odd shapes than with grassy rings, it began to be applied to anything that was a bit misshapen, so that in due course in Gloucestershire the word was applied to frightful ornaments or head-dresses that people wore, or even to badly made tools.

fairy ring

Doyle, Fairy Ring

Highland Flings

There is then a large geographical gap before we encounter the term again in Scotland.  The word ‘gillatryp’ (although it has been subject to metathesis and the vowels have been swapped around) seems to be identical to ‘gallytrap’ and definitely shares the same supernatural connotations.  The gillatryp was originally the name of a witches’ dance but was also used as a nickname for a suspected witch.  For example, the Kirk Session of Essill in 1731 heard that “Margaret H. (Gillatryps) in Garmouth compeared and decleared herself penitent for her indecent practices in unseemly dances on 26th December last.”

A century and a half earlier, we see the word employed in its original sense.  At Elgin in 1596, “Magie Tailȝeour [and] Magie Thomsoune … confessit thame to be in ane dance callit gillatrype, singing a foull hieland sang…”

According to Isobel Goudie in 1662, the ‘maiden’ of the witches’ coven at Auldearn was nicknamed ‘Over the dyke with it’ because:

“The Devill [alwayis takis the] maiden in his hand nixt him, quhan they daunce Gillatrypes; and as they couped they would cry ‘over the dyke with it.”

These last examples link us back to our starting point, a dance with supernatural beings.  That appears to be the core of this word’s meaning and, whether linked to fairies, witches or to the devil, they were ill-omened things.

Further Reading

Readers may wish to refer to Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary or to George Henderson’s Folklore of the Northern Counties, p.278, footnote 2- information supplied on Devon by Sabine Baring-Gould.

 

 

Green faery places

Moony, mystical landscape with f
R J Enraght-Mooney, Mystical landscape with fairy

We’ve discussed before the location and identity of fairy land or where fairies might live.  In this post, I want to consider how they may live amongst us, in places specially designated or reserved for them.

Fairy knowes

These special sites might be for the living or for the dead.  It is well known that fairies live under hills, particularly in the north of England and in Scotland; sometimes people will enter them to join in with their dances, midwives will be invited in to help with childbirths and some folk will be abducted there to live in servitude.  These knolls or knowes are marked out by their distinctive rounded form and by the lushness of the vegetation growing upon them.  By their unique shape and isolation, they stand out as separate and unusual- and this should act as a warning to people.  It doesn’t always work this way, though, and the faery nature of these hills has been repeatedly underlined by reports concerning people who’ve violated them.

For example, in the Highlands on old man kept the hillock near his house very clean by clearing from it any animal droppings or other dirt.  He did this mainly because he liked to sit on the hill on summer evenings, but one dusk a small man he did not know appeared and thanked him for his care.  In return, he promised that if the man’s cattle should stray at night, they would be kept out of the crops.  A farmer who always avoided pasturing his horses and cows on a hillock and resisted taking turf from the knoll was rewarded by the faes who would drive his livestock to shelter whenever a storm arose at night.

By way of contrast, a man on Coll went to pull brambles from a hill and heard someone call out angrily to him from inside.  He ran away in fright.  A farmer who had a green knoll (or tolman) standing in front of his house used nightly to throw out all the waste household water there.  Eventually, he was confronted and asked to desist as the regular drenchings were spoiling the furniture and utensils of the people living inside.  Lastly, a man decided one evening to tether his horse to graze on a grassy mound where the pasture looked rich.  As he was hammering in the tether pin, a head appeared and asked him to tie his horse somewhere else, as the hole was letting the rainwater in and the peg had nearly hurt one of the inhabitants.

Burial grounds

There are also certain locations within the landscape that are reserved for the fairy dead.  For example, it was widely believed in the north of England that any green shady spot was a fairy burial ground.  Indeed, in 1847 it was reported in the Manx newspaper Mona’s Herald that a man called Quayle, living at Maughold on the island, had his house windows broken by the faes because he had ploughed up some land never before cultivated and, in so doing, had turned up bones from an old grave yard.

Set aside

It’s not just a matter of respecting sites already selected by the faes, though.  Some may be deliberately granted to them by human communities.  In Gloucestershire, presumably-valuable agricultural land was given up to the fairies: when the fields at Upton St Leonard’s were enclosed, an area called No Nation was left for the faeries’ use and tall trees were left in the new hedgerows as places in which the fays could hide.  This is a good example of showing the proper respect for the Good Folk, by appeasing them and adapting to living alongside them.

In the same way, in Berwickshire on the Scottish border with England, there’s a tradition of preserving areas called Clootie’s Craft (or croft) and Goodman’s Field, that were set aside in villages for the fairies and were never tilled or cropped.  It was considered extremely unlucky to dig or plough on these portions (just as fairy rings should never be disturbed), for:

“He who tills the fairies’ green

Nae luck again shall hae.”

There was another saying that, “If you put a spade in the Goodman’s craft… [the Devil] will shoot you with his shaft.”   A further rhyme, composed to warn locals against reckless cultivation, advised that:

“The craft lies bonny by Langton Lees

And is well liked by birds and bees.

If you plough it up, it’ll be your death,

For disturbing the sod where the fairies like to tread.”

a w crawford woodland fairies in the moonlight
A W Crawford, Woodland fairies in the moonlight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“A Gift from the Fair Folk”-Marc Bolan, British rock and Faery

T Rex 1

Rear cover of Unicorn, 1969

In a past post I discussed the faery influences detectable in the music of Led Zeppelin.  Now, following my series of posts looking at fae themes in British classical music of the early twentieth century, in opera, musical theatre, songs and chamber works, I want to bring our discussions up to date.

Much of the British rock music of the late sixties and early seventies was suffused with faery.  A very good example of this is the work of Marc Bolan, in the days when he performed as Tyrannosaurus Rex, and before he shortened the band name to T. Rex and became the glam star that we remember.

The fairy influence is especially strong in the four albums Bolan released between 1968 and 1970, but even as late as Ride a White Swan in 1972 there are traces of elvishness.  The album titles themselves betray the tenor of the songs included on them: they are My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows (which is all one title) and Prophets, Seers and Sages from 1968; 1969’s Unicorn and A Beard of Stars, released in the following year.

A Crooning Moon Rune

Certain themes appear repeatedly on these four albums.  There are, of course, repeated allusions to dwarves and fairies:

“Twelve years old, your elvish fingers toss your Beethoven hair” (‘Child Star,’ on My People);

“You’re a gift from the fair folk… A sprite in my house of sight” (‘Travelling Tragition,’ on Prophets)

“Fairy lights in her eyes/ Tame the water” (‘Pilgrim’s Tale,’ on Unicorn)

“She bathes in thunder/ The elves are under her” (‘Jewel,’ T. Rex, 1970)

“Tree wizard pure tongue … The swan king, the elf lord” (‘Suneye,’ T. Rex)

and, most especially for its mention of the sidhe folk:

“Fools have said the hills are dead/ But her nose is a rose of the Shee;/ A silver sword by an ancient ford,/ Was my gift from the child of the trees.” (‘Blessed Wild Apple Girl,’ Best of T.Rex, 1971).

There are, too, plentiful mentions of wizards, warlocks and magi, of myths and legends and of mysteries, such as unicorns.  Bolan references Narnia (‘Wonderful Brown-Skin Man’ on Prophets), King Arthur and the Matter of Britain: “Holy Grail Head, deep forest fed/ Weaving deep beneath the moon” (‘Conesuala’ on Prophets) or “Let’s make a quest for Avalon” (‘Stones for Avalon,’ on Unicorn) and (repeatedly) Beltane, including these lines:

“Wear a tall hat like a druid in the old days,

Wear a tall hat and a tatooed gown,

Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane…” (‘Ride a White Swan,’ on Ride a White Swan, 1972).

Bolan was, it seems, steeped in British folklore.  He wrote of ‘The Misty Coast of Albany’ (with its echoes of William Blake’s lines “All things begin & end in Albion’s ancient Druid rocky shore”) and of the magical woods “Elder, elm and oak.” (‘Iscariot’ and ‘Misty Coast,’ both on Unicorn).  Even so, the other major fascination and inspiration for Bolan seems to have been classical myth, most especially woodland creatures like satyrs and fauns.  On a mantelpiece at his home he kept a small statute of the god Pan, which he called ‘Poon,’ to whom he addressed little messages and requests. Bolan’s biographer Mark Paytress has described the god as “Marc’s muse.”  Of course, in this devotion he’s linked directly to Arnold Bax, John Ireland and Arthur Machen.

The pagan Greek world appears several times in Bolan’s lyrics, with allusions to satyrs, maenads and titans:

“The frowning moon, it tans the faun,/ Who holds the grapes for my love.” (‘Frowning Atahualpa,’ My People)

“a pagan temple to Zeus/ He drinks acorn juice” (‘Stacey Grove,’ Prophets)

“Alice eyes scan the mythical scene… We ran just like young fauns” (‘Scenescof Dynasty,’ Prophets)

 As this jumble of citations possibly indicates, there were so many allusions packed into Bolan’s songs that the verses tended not to tell any coherent story but rather to sketch impressionistic imagery for the listener: aural painting, let’s say, creating a mood or feeling.

T Rex 2

The back cover of the expanded version of Unicorn.

The jumble of influences and imagery extended to the band’s album covers, too.  Bolan loved the art of William Blake, Dali and Arthur Rackham and for the cover of the first album, My People, asked the designer to provide something that looked ‘like Blake.’  On the back of the sleeve of Unicorn there’s a black and white photo of Bolan and co-member Steve Peregrine Took (note the name, Tolkien fans).  The pair are posed with an array of meaningful objects, which include a book on the Cottingley fairies (supplied by photographer Peter Sanders) and several volumes from Bolan’s own collection- a child’s Shakespeare, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet and William Blake’s collected verse.  Collectively, these form a kind of key to Bolan’s writing.

Peel 68

John Peel and his gramophone, 1968: N.B. Fairport Convention album, folk fans.

Do you ken John Peel?

The Bolan story is made more intriguing for his association with radio DJ John Peel.  Peel will be well known to many British readers, but very possibly much less familiar to those from outside the UK.  Peel became an institution on BBC Radio One, with a weekly show late on Friday nights on which he played and promoted new music he had discovered.  He performed a major role introducing listeners to punk rock from 1976, but before that had favoured folk and dub.  Earlier still, he had been a good friend of Marc Bolan.

The pair met in late July or early August 1967 and quickly became close.  They spent a great deal of time together, professionally and socially, and Bolan one night gave Peel a hamster called Biscuit (in a night club- the poor creature spent the evening riding round on one of the turntables).

Peel was taken with Bolan’s warbling voice and began to feature Tyrannosaurus Rex prominently on his radio shows.  He had a regular column in the International Times in which he also promoted his new friend.  As an established and respected DJ Peel played frequently around the country and so could offer more direct help to his friend’s career.  He started to give Bolan live support sets to his DJ appearances: Peel had a regular slot at the club called Middle Earth in London’s Covent Garden and also took the band with him as part of his ‘John Peel Roadshow’ as it was grandly called- everyone crammed together in his car and heading up the motorway.

Not only did Peel promote Bolan’s music; he contributed to it.  He narrated the track Wood Story on the album My People Were Fair and wrote the sleeve notes:

“They rose out of the sad and scattered leaves of an older summer… They blossomed with the coming spring, children rejoiced and the earth sang with them.”

Peel provided a further narration on the album Unicorn and also started to appear as a sort of support act for his friends.  He read poetry to the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall, sitting cross-legged on the stage, and at the Tyrannosaurus Rex gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on January 13th 1969, Peel was billed to appear to “prove the existence of fairies,” as the flyers promised, by reading poetry to the audience.  In the face of this proof, they remained, it is reported, “politely silent.”  What could Peel have been reading?  Based on what we learned just now, I wonder if the DJ may have read selected poems from Shakespeare and Blake- and maybe John Keats too?

Peel made out later that he never really understood or sympathised with Bolan’s mythic leanings.  He claimed that he couldn’t understand the song lyrics because they were too ‘mystical’ and ‘hippie’ for him.  Nonetheless, there’s the evidence of those sleeve notes and we know too that the pair travelled, with their respective partners, to visit Glastonbury, capital of hippiedom since the days of Rutland Boughton, where Bolan was pictured on top of the Tor.

In later years Peel was a gruff and slightly cynical personality, so these ‘airy-fairy’ indulgences all feel rather difficult to reconcile with the older, more rational enthusiast for the Sex Pistols and Extreme Noise Terror.  Nevertheless, Peel’s overall verdict was that Tyrannosaurus Rex “were elfin to a degree beyond human understanding.”

Signs of the Times

Marc Bolan is now the best remembered fairy rock star of the period, but the fae influence was pervasive.

For example, Bob Johnson of folk-rockers Steeleye Span asked in an interview in 1976:

“Everything I do and think is based on England.  If I lived on the West Coast [of the USA] how on earth could I think about elves and fairies and goblins and old English castles and churches?”

So strong, in fact, was this spirit of place that, along with another band member, Johnson produced an electric folk opera The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1977). This was based upon the book of the same title by Edward, Lord Dunsany (an author in the vein of Machen and a great influence upon H. P. Lovecraft) and the record featured contributions from, amongst others, Welsh folk singer and Eurovision entrant Mary Hopkin, blues musician Alexis Korner and Christopher Lee, star of (amongst so many films) The Wicker Man.

elfland

The King of Elfland’s Daughter album cover.

Further Reading

You can listen to all Tyrannosaurus Rex’s albums on YouTube, of course; check out too the work of Dunsany and (even) Steeleye Span.  For more information on Marc Bolan, see these biographies: Paul Roland, Cosmic Dancer, 2012; Mark Paytress, Marc Bolan- The Rise and Fall of a Twentieth Century Superstar, 2003 and John Bramley, Marc Bolan- Beautiful Dreamer, 2017.  For John Peel see his autobiography Margrave of the Marches and Michael Heatley, John Peel, 2004.