The fairies are everywhere; they are among us, at all times and in all places. When we address them as our Good Neighbours (or ‘Gude Neebers’ in Scots), the reference to their proximity is not idle politeness but a simple statement of fact. This reality was well known to previous generations, but the knowledge has been obscured for us now because of urbanisation and the dislocation of rural traditions. For our ancestors, though, the faeries were ever-present in their environment. Here are two examples.
On Shetland, folklorist Eliza Edmonston recorded in her 1809 book Sketches and Tales of the Shetland Islands (and with some irritation on her part at their gullibility) how amongst the local people:
“the knolls under which these ‘good people’ congregate, the solitary springs whence they fetch water and the especial evenings on which they busy themselves in mundane matters, are all heedfully noted and, at any other risk, avoided.” (p.22)
The daily routines of the trows were known- and human life was organised around them.
Secondly, there is the Clackmannanshire story of the Sautman of Tullibody. The ‘sautman’ was a merchant with a monopoly on the sale of salt- perhaps this was profitable work, or thirsty work, for he was also a drunkard. His wife constantly tried to get him to reform but he paid no attention until, exasperated, she wished the fairies would take her. Ever vigilant and ever willing to interfere maliciously in human affairs, they complied with her wish, snatching her up the chimney of their home. Now, Tullibody is a small town just east of Stirling. The story tells us that the wife was taken to the fairy palace at Cauldhame. This is a hill seven or so miles north of Tullibody (although there is another place of the same name about fifteen miles west, on the way to Aberfoyle, where the Reverend Robert Kirk lived, which might be a candidate). The woman was treated well there- like a queen- and, in due course, returned home to a sobered husband, but the point is that (as in Shetland) this hill was well-known to the people of the area to be a fairy dwelling.
An Enchanted Landscape
For many of us now, the intimate knowledge that our ancestors had of their surroundings is something we can only imagine. That intense familiarity was derived from working and walking within a neighbourhood on a daily basis. Not only would the minute changes of the seasons be known, but every feature of a landscape would be recorded in their memories: where firewood could be found, where there was good pasture, where berries grew and such like. To the inhabitants of such a world, every stone and tree would have its name and stories about them would be passed down from parent to child. It’s been said in recent years that we need to ‘re-enchant’ our world, which has been reduced by science and materialism to a mere source of consumable resources; for our predecessors, their environment was pervaded by enchantment.
Fairy hills, mounds, stones and trees and wells were everywhere, reflecting the fact that people lived side by side with the supernaturals. The need to keep on the right side of the faeries was accentuated by the fact that they weren’t distant and theoretical: they were there, in the next field, looking down from the nearest hill, listening and paying attention to our every action. The faery world interpenetrated our own and, knowing this, people structured their lives to accommodate this fact. As the example from Shetland earlier illustrates so well, we had a relationship rather like an old-fashioned weather house: when the fairies were out and about (at night) we stayed inside out of their way and vice versa. As long as the unspoken rules of time and place were observed, everyone was happy.