Fairy Children- what we know

 

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Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Sometimes fairy was allowed to wear her wings for a little while.

Whilst much is written about the fairy theft of human children, and their substitution for elderly fairy changelings, a lot less is said about the fairies’ own offspring.  What do we know about them?

A Low Birth Rate

Starting at the very beginning, the evidence is that fairy births are few and far between and that the whole business of labour and nursing are problematic for our Good Neighbours.  For this reason, human midwives are called upon regularly to assist the fairy mother and women newly delivered of children here are frequently abducted to act as nurse maids for fairy infants.  In the story of The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor, the human abductee Grace informs her former lover, when he asks about children in Faery, that there are:

“Very few indeed,” she replied, “though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father.”

Little Girls Lost

Given how precious faery offspring must be, it’s notable how often they seem to get lost.  Most encounters with fairy children occur in cases where they have strayed or become lost or separated somehow.  For example, one evening on Shetland, a man found a strange straw box in his farmyard.  He put it in the house and went to feed his livestock, and when he returned inside, he heard an odd sound from inside the box, a little like “Foddle-dee-foodle-dee-doo” and the sound of feet kicking.  A voice called out, asking to be released, and he realised there was a trow child inside.  He promptly put the box outside again, hoping and assuming that the parents would return to collect their mislaid offspring.

This case sounds a little neglectful, although the man’s panic may be understood.  In another Shetland example, a little trow girl dressed in grey and brown was found lost by a family and was taken in for the night.  She slept in the same bed as the human children and, the next morning, heard her mother calling her home and left quite contentedly.  In recognition of this care, it appears, the children who shared a bed with the trow girl grew up to be happy and prosperous.

Another faery girl was found lost and alone near Tower Hill, Middleton-in-Teesdale in Northern England.  A woman took the child home, sat her by the fire and gave her bread and cheese to eat, but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity and returned her to the place by the river where she’d been found and where it was believed that the faeries came to bathe, in the hope that her parents would return for her- and several of stories indicate that they will do just that (see Janet Bord, Fairies, Appendix).

Sometimes the infants are just careless of their own safety, as was the case with a pixie child captured near Zennor, in West Cornwall.  A farmer was cutting furze when he spotted a young pixie asleep.  The man scooped him up and took him home, where he was named Bobby Griglans by his family.  The little boy would play contentedly by the hearth with the family’s children.  One day, when all the youngsters had slipped outside to play, the pixie’s parents appeared searching for him and he happily went home with them (Bottrell, Traditions of West Cornwall, vol.1, 74).

Accidents happen, of course, and there is evidence of normal care and parenting too.  For example, a fairy child fell ill and her mother approached a housewife living at Longhill, near Whithorn in southwest Scotland, for some milk for the poorly infant.  Fairy children can get sick and their families will take care of them.

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Margaret Tarrant, The Yellow Horned Poppy Fairy

Fairy Beauties

What do these infants look like? As I have suggested before, fairies’ faces may not always be as we might anticipate.  Much of the folklore evidence suggests something very much more alarming than the pretty girls of the illustrators such as Margaret Tarrant (above).

By way of illustration, the lost faery child found at Middleton in Teesdale had green clothes and red eyes- in light of which, perhaps there is negative evidence to hand as well.  It is a widespread belief that pretty, fair-haired and blue-eyed human babies are the most vulnerable to being snatched away by the fairies.  For example, along the border between England and Wales it was said that “fine and solid” country babies were the ones preferred.  It might be proposed that the human infants taken were chosen because they did not look like fairy offspring, with their surprisingly coloured countenances.

Summary

When we gather together the scattered evidence, some surprising patterns emerge.  The taking of changelings might suggest a want of family feeling on the part of the faes, but their own conduct suggests that they are just as good parents as any humans (and sometimes better, judging by the stories of the fairies providing child-care for our neglected infants).

Secondly, whilst we can often assume that the fairies are all lovely to behold, if we put together the different stories, we discover hints of something different.  Some look just like us; others very definitely do not.

 

The Perils of Fairy Food

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Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Fairy foodstuffs are mysterious.  Eating or drinking within fairyland is widely accepted to be a way of ensuring that you cannot escape back to your home: you take fairy nature within yourself- and therefore you must abstain from meals whilst visiting.  Sometimes, a wise friend might warn a person of the risks before they go- as was the case with a Ross-shire midwife called to a delivery in the knoll at Big Strath; sometimes the help comes from someone already there in Faerie.  In the Hertfordshire fairy-tale of the Green Lady, a girl working as a servant for the green (fairy) woman is warned by fish in a well where she draws water not to eat the household’s food.

What is odd, though, is that the converse of this rule is that, if you encounter fairy food and drink in the human world, refusing to eat it is the perilous thing.

Image result for margaret tarrant + strawberry jam thief
Margaret Tarrant, ‘Strawberry Jam Thief’

Always say yes

There are numerous examples of the potentially fatal consequences of not accepting fairy hospitality in this world.  The ill-effects may, indeed, be more to do with the offence taken by not eating what you’re offered rather than any quality inherent in the goods themselves.  The mildest response may be that the fairies exact an indirect revenge. On the Isle of Arran two men were ploughing up some fresh land and one joked that the fairies should feed them in recognition of their hard labour.  They duly found a table laid at the head of the field, but neither dared eat what had been provided, because of which the field never produced any crops.

A person may suffer physically, though.  The least may be physical chastisement: in one story from Devon a ploughman mended a fairy’s broken baking peel; cider was left in thanks, which the man happily drank.  His plough boy refused it- and was pinched mercilessly.

In comparison, in one Scottish account a ploughman felt thirsty and, hearing a butter churn, wished out loud for a drink from it.  A woman in green appeared and offered him some fresh buttermilk.  He refused this because her clothing made him suspect her supernatural nature.  She told him that, after a year had passed, he’d not be needing a drink at all and, sure enough, within twelve months he was dead.  A similar fate befell a man from the Isle of Man who refused to eat some oatmeal porridge offered by the fairies.

There is also a variant of the Scottish story involving two men working near a fairy knoll: one refuses the butter milk and dies within the year; the other drinks it gladly and is further rewarded with a wish- which was never to drown.  In a third such incident a man from the Isle of Harris passed a fairy knoll at Bearnairidh and heard churning.  He was thirsty and wished for a drink, but when a woman in green appeared and offered him fresh milk, he refused it.  She cursed him and, very shortly afterwards, he took a boat but drowned when it sank.

Intriguingly, it seems that the outright refusal to accept the offered food is what offends, rather than the details of the manner its consumption.  There is a record of an elderly Scottish woman called Nanzy who had long had friendly dealings with her local fairies.  She often met them when she was out and about and they gave her presents, such as rolls of fairy butter.  Now, she was too respectable a Christian woman to actually eat this, good as it looked, so she instead used for other household purposes.  These aren’t specified in the account, but must have included greasing pans and such like.  Given that there are stories of horses dying for refusing to touch fairy food, the indication is that even accepting a foodstuff from the faes and then feeding it to your pigs would not insult them.

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Outhwaite, ‘Refreshment’

Feast or foul?

What’s the food like, though?  Accounts vary.  A man from Dornoch in Sutherland was taken by the fairies and flew with them.  After this ordeal, they gave him beef, bread and fish to eat, but he complained afterwards that it was like “so much cork.”

This report is confirmed, amply, by others: a Perthshire woman who was abducted by the fairies said that the food she was offered looked very tempting, but that when she saw through the glamour, it was “only the refuse of the earth.”  Another Scottish abductee said grace over such a meal and then realised that it was nothing but horse dung.

In the majority of accounts, we’re told nothing about the meal itself, and have to assume that it was exactly like any human repast.  At the other end of the scale, one Scottish writer states that fairy bread tastes like the finest wheaten loaf mixed with honey and wine.

A final account fits better with this last report than those that allege that fairy food is nothing but inedible rubbish.  Two Shetland fishermen were caught by a storm and had to land their boat on the uninhabited island of Linga.  After a few days, conditions improved and one of them men took the boat, deserting his companion Thom.  However, that night Thom found a trow banquet taking place in the hut where he was sheltering.  The trows tried to chase him off but he resisted and fired his gun, causing the supernatural assembly to vanish, but leaving behind all their food.  He was able to survive extremely well on this for many days until his girlfriend sailed to find him.  She had been suspicious when the companion, Willie, returned alone and had tried to marry her, so she carried out a search.

piccolo

Summary

What’s the best advice to stay safe, then?  It seems to be this: if you’re here in this dimension and encounter a fairy, you can (and probably should) consume whatever you’re offered without any qualms.  If you have entered their dimension, it seems that any food present there will have been transformed too and ingesting it will be very risky.  Of course, navigating refusal diplomatically when you’re in someone else’s home is another matter again…

The Perils of Fairy Passion- sex & power

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Fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

I have described in previous posts the widely known physical attractiveness of fairies.  In Stuart verse, for example, we find praise for “the matchless features of the Fairy Queen” and for her “gracious eyes.”

Fairy partners were extremely attractive, but love for a fairy could be portrayed as obsessive, something that caused the human to sicken and to pine, as we see from Robert Armin’s The Valiant Welshman (1615, Act II, scene 5):

“Oh, the intolerable paine that I suffer from the love of the fairy Queen!  My heeles are all kybde [bruised] in the very heate of my affection, that runnes down into my legges; methinks I could eat up a whole Baker’s shoppe at a meale, to be eased of this love.”

Fairies were desirable partners simply because of their physical beauty.  However, a fairy’s lover could hope for great favour still- and the lover of the fairy queen (the most beauteous of all her kind) would naturally be even more highly honoured and rewarded.  At the same time, though, these supernaturals could prove to be possessive and demanding lovers- and vengeful if they felt neglected or slighted.

The trade-off between sex and gain, passion and pain, was therefore a difficult one, as we see from both folklore record and from romantic fiction.

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John Simmons, ‘Titania’

The Scottish Evidence

Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed a relationship with the fairy queen that involved both her worship (he and others assembled and kissed her “airrs” in reverence) but also regular sexual contact.  He said of her:

“the queen is very plesand, and wilbe auld and young quhen scho pleissis; scho mackis any king quhom she pleisis and leyis with any scho lykis.”

One of those whom the queen liked was Man.  Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had “conversit with hir bodily.” In other words, he ‘lay with her’ and, as a result of these “carnal dealings” they had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.

Over and above these numerous infants, Man had gained materially: he learned to diagnose and cure diseases in cattle and humans and he was taught charms to steal milk and corn, or to protect his neighbours’ fields against such fairy thefts.

Sex with a fairy often appears to have been the price (and the conduit) for supernatural powers.  Isobell Strathaquin, also from Aberdeen, was tried in the January of the previous year to Andro Man; she told the court that she acquired powers in this manner: she “learnit it at [from] ane elf man quha lay with hir.”

Elspeth Reoch of Orkney also gained the second sight from two fairy men, but it involved sexual harassment by one of them.  She told her 1616 trial that two men had approached her and called her “ane prettie” before giving her a charm to enable her to see the faes.  Later “ane farie man” called John Stewart came to her on two successive nights and ‘dealt with her,’ not allowing her to sleep and promising a “guidly fe” is she agreed to have sex with him.  She held out against his blandishments until the third night, when he touched her breast and them seemed to lie with her.  The next day she was struck dumb (in order to conceal the source of her prophetic powers) and had to wander the town and beg for her living, offering people the knowledge she received through her second sight.

Sometimes, it has to be admitted, boasting can come into these accounts.  Isobel Gowdie, from Auldearn near Nairn, was tried as a witch in 1662.  During her confession she seems to mock or tease her accusers with her account of the huge proportions of the devil’s ‘member.’  They were pressing her for confessions and they got them, with Isobel all the while expressing her modesty and Christian timidity over describing such shocking acts.

Sex in the Stories

The exchange of sex and skill is common between fairy and mortal.  In the poem and ballads of the same name, Thomas of Erceldoune was relaxing outside in the sunshine one day when he was approached by the gorgeous fairy queen.  After some resistance, she consented to lie with him “And, as the story tellus ful right, Seven tymes be hir he lay.”  Thomas is moved to these prodigious feats by her physical desirability (and, no doubt, by his own youthful vigour) but there’s a price to pay.  Initially after intercourse, the queen loses her beauty and becomes a hideous hag; secondly, her looks and youth may only be restored by her lover agreeing to spend seven years in Faery.  Thomas seems to have very little choice about this and has to leave immediately- although on the plus side, his travelling companion is restored to her former loveliness.  Once there, the riches start to flow to Thomas.  He is elegantly clothed and lives a life of luxurious leisure; what’s more, at the end of his time in Faery, he is endowed by the queen with special abilities.  In some versions of the tale, he becomes a skilled harper; in others he gains second sight.

The romance of Sir Launfal is comparable for the trade off between sex and wealth.  The fairy lady Tryamour summons the young knight to her in a forest.  She is reclining semi-naked in the heat and offers him a rich feast, followed by a sleepless night of sex.  The next morning, though, the nature of their transaction becomes clear: she promises to visit him regularly in secret but there are two conditions: “no man alive schalle me se” and, even more onerous:

“thou makst no bost of me…

And, yf thou doost, y warny the before,

Alle my love thou hast forlore.”

Assenting to the terms, he is given fine clothes, horses, armour and attendants and returns to the court of King Arthur.  Before, he had been poor and of no account, but now he is rich and gains status and respect.

In due course (albeit for honourable reasons) Launfal discloses his secret lover.  As with fairy money, this indiscretion might normally be expected to lose him Tryamour’s affections instantly and irreparably, but in this case she comes to Arthur’s court and carries him off to faery forever.

Summary

Fairy love and fairy magical abilities may be bestowed upon the lucky human, but that good fortune is plainly qualified.  The gifts are in fact an exchange; there must be a surrender on the part of the mortal recipient, which may be the loss of some of their independence or which may require a complete abandonment of their home, friends and family.   Perhaps the prize of fairy love and fairy knowledge are worth paying highly for, but, in earlier times, the cost of the bargain often turned out to be excessive, for fairy contact could prove fatal if revealed to the church and state.

A Note on the Scottish Witch Cases

As I highlighted before in my discussion of Ronald Hutton’s book, The Witch, I still harbour reservations about using the testimony from the Scottish witch trials.  I say above that Isobel Gowdie was ‘pressed’ for incriminating evidence.  This was literally true: boards were placed on suspects’ legs and piled with rocks.  We have a record of one victim of this crying out for it to stop and agreeing to confess whatever the court wanted.

Once these individuals had fallen into the authorities’ hands, their fate was pretty much sealed.  The sentence that almost all faced was to be ‘wyrrit and burnit,’ which means that they were tied to a stake, strangled and then burned.  For Elspeth Reoch, for example (NB Orcadian readers!) she was taken to the top of Clay Loan in Kirkwall where there is still a small area of grass; several local women suffered the same horrible fate on this spot.  We know too that one woman leaped from the top of a high prison tower in Perth to avoid execution.

Faced with the same circumstances, you too might agree to say whatever your inquisitors wanted you to say if it ended the misery.  How much can we trust this evidence then?  My feeling is that, whilst these might not be personal experiences, they still reflect what society as a whole believed to be the structure and conduct of the fairy folk.  If it did not convince the torturers, they might not have accepted it.  These confessions reflect the wider understanding of Faery in those days and need not be dismissed out of hand as the individual fantasy of a person desperate to stop the torture.

Finally: I have quite often quoted from the confessions of these individuals.  Whenever you read their names, spare a thought for them.  The worst that most did was to try to cure people and livestock at a time when medicines and health care were hugely limited.  To most of us, I’m sure these hardly sound like crimes, let alone capital offences.

This 16th-century woodcut depicts King James VI at the North Berwick witch trials, the case that first sparked his obsession with hunting. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Witches examined before King James I/VI

Carried Away: flying with the sluagh

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Daniel MacDonald, ‘The Fairy Wind (Sidhe Gaoithe)

The sluagh are the fairy host in the folklore of the Scottish Highlands.  In this region of Britain people may be abducted by being taken inside a fairy hill (a tomhan) or they may be snatched up and carried away by the sluagh.  I touched on this subject briefly in my posting on elf-shots, but return to it in more detail now.

‘Them’

The sluagh, or fairy host, is known by several names in Gaelic, all of which give us some clue as to their nature or origin.  Lewis Spence calls them the sluagh eotrom, meaning the ‘light’ or ‘aery’ host.  This may reflect their flight through the air, or even their physical nature.  The Reverend Kirk, meanwhile, distinguishes between the sluagh saoghalta and the sluagh sith.  The latter is the ‘fairy host’ and the former the ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ host.  If we understand that ‘sluagh’ more broadly denotes people or population, this makes sense of what Kirk says next: “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged.” In other words, once earthly people die, they join the fairy host instead (Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, ‘Succinct Accompt,’ 9 (10)).

Flying with the Sluagh

We can learn something more from actual experiences of contact with the host.  John MacPhee of Uist was outside his house one night when he heard a sound coming from the West (a notoriously fay direction) like the breaking of the sea.  He saw a mass of small men coming in a crowd from that direction and suddenly felt hot, as if a crowd of people had surrounded him and were pressing in, breathing upon him.  Then he was carried off at great speed, flying through the air to the graveyard at Dalibrog, seventeen miles distant.  For a moment or two he was set down, and the sensation of heat left him.  Then the host returned, he felt hot again, and was carried back to his home. After this experience, MacPhee became sickly and thin.  The man was evidently ‘elf-addled:’ he suffered some of the typical physical effects of fairy contact and, although the author of the account refers to the host as ‘the dead,’ their living physicality seems very much to contradict this description.  The same is true perhaps for those people who are taken repeatedly by the sluagh.  Physical mistreatment by the host can be a common experience, with victims being ‘rolled, dragged and trounced in mud and mire and pools.’  This can leave them terrorised and in extreme exhaustion and is often fatal.

The mass nature of the sluagh is apparent.  They travel in a multitude- according to one Scottish witness “in great clouds, up and down the face of the world like starlings.” As will be seen from subsequent testimonies, comparisons to flocks of birds or beasts are common.  For instance, on Barra Evans Wentz was told that the host went about at midnight, travelling in fine weather against the wind like a covey of birds (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 108).

How they fly

The host travels across the land by several means.  They can use whirlwinds, as Scottish witch suspect, Bessie Dunlop, attested.  She had been visited by twelve fairy folk who left her in “ane hideous uglie sowche of wind.” A sowche is a sough, a rushing or whistling.  This suggests violence, but in the Scottish Highlands these eddies of wind are also called the oiteag sluagh, the host’s breeze, suggestive of something more gentle.

The host can also travel on objects imbued with faery glamour, such as bulrushes, docks, ragwort and withered grass stems.  Humans who witness this can imitate the fairies’ actions and transfer their magic power to other items on which to fly, such as ploughs or loom beams.  Physical travel is not necessary, though, for a man in Sutherland was taken in spirit one night by the sluagh, even after his friends had forcibly restrained his body to try to prevent his abduction.  If a person is called to travel with the sluagh, there is no denying the summons.  In another instance, a man on Skye saw the host approaching and begged his friend to hold him tightly to prevent his abduction. Despite the friend’s best efforts, the victim began to ‘hop and dance’ before rising off the ground and being carried a couple of miles.

Why they fly

The reason for these journeys seems to be uniformly malicious.  The primary aim is to abduct humans, and secondary purposes are shooting elf-bolts at people and livestock or stealing human property- usually food and drink.  Some trows flew all the way from Shetland to Norway to abduct a newly married woman, for example, and some fairies in Moray conveyed a man to Paris, although much more local journeys are far more typical (Evans Wentz, 106).

Another reason for the host’s flight is to meet with enemies and to fight them.  There are numerous accounts of the hosts battling in the sky on cold and frosty nights (and especially at Halloween), leaving pools of blood (fuil nan sluagh) on the ground in the morning as testimony to their violent slaughter (Evans Wentz, 91).

Flight might be used to hunt or take people or animals, but the experience of flight itself might be sufficiently unpleasant to be a punishment in itself.  A minister in Ross-shire in Scotland had spoken slightingly of the fairies and they exacted their revenge by picking him up and carrying him head over heels through the air.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe
John Duncan, The Riders of the Sidhe; Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection

Defence against the Sluagh

The accounts so far, especially that of the man taken despite the best efforts of his friends to prevent it, might suggest that the sluagh are pretty much invincible and irresistible.  This is not the case, fortunately.  Very simple measures can defeat them.  Two abductions of women on the Isle of Arran were prevented by means of casting a reaping hook up into the mass of little people as they passed overhead, ‘like a swarm of bees.’  Being iron, this instantly released the captive being carried away.  Likewise, the use of Christian blessings is effective: a Shetland man flew with the host on a rush by imitating their spell (“Up hors, up hedik, up well ridden bolwind”) and he found himself taken with them to a cottage where a woman was in labour.  The plan was to take the new mother if she sneezed three times and no one ‘sained’ her.  She sneezed, but the man riding with the trows said ‘bless you’ and prevented her abduction.

These are magical defences; physical means of resistance tend to be much less certain and more risky.  Some men were tending the herds at Cornaigbeg Farm on Tiree when they heard something passing them on the road.  It sounded like a flock of sheep passing, but one of the dogs became very agitated and chased after it.  Eventually the poor hound returned- it had lost all its hair and was torn and bloody, dying soon afterwards.  As we’ve seen before, dogs and fairies frequently don’t mix.

Summary

The faeries have several means of flight– and several types of motion– so that riding straws or moving in a whirlwind are just a sample of their ways of getting about.