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;
For the old owl in the 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.
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.
Doyle, Fairy Ring
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.
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.