We’re inclined to imagine fairies as pastoral beings, wandering freely in flowery meadows. A large part of this imagery comes from Shakespeare and other Renaissance British poets, who wrote so much about Colin, Chloris and nymphs… At the same time, as we’ve seen in previous postings, there is evidence in opposition to this, showing them to be active farmers as well as being builders, miners and metalworkers.
Confusingly, though, the faes are at the very same time reputed to flee human agricultural and manufacturing activity. There’s a widespread rhyme in Scotland to the effect that:
“Where the scythe cuts and the sock (plough) rives,
Hae done wi’ fairies and bee-bykes.”
This couplet indicates that intensive arable repels the fays, something confirmed by an account from Menstrie, in Clackmannanshire, which blamed modern agrarian methods and commercial enterprise: the fairies fled “stone fences, cotton mills and the copse destroying plough.”
Crop raising hasn’t been the only source of faery discontent, however. Evans Wentz in the 1900s heard in Scotland that the Highland clearances also drove off the sith. Highlander John Dunbar of Invereen told him that “no one sees them now because every place on this parish where they used to appear has been put into sheep and deer and grouse and shooting.” A vision of them fighting with sheep was seen, in fact, as a premonition of what was the follow (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 94).
Moreover, it’s not just the growing of food to which the faeries object, apparently, but processing the produce too. For example, on the Isle of Man, when the steam flour mill was built at Colby, the local fairies gave up their former haunts. Early one morning they were seen climbing up into the mists and solitude of the mountain glens, with their household goods piled high on their backs and lamenting loudly.
And yet- the faeries have been known regularly to use human water mills to grind their own flour. There is even a story from Cleitinn, outside Pitlochry, that suggests that the local fairies were operating their own mill there. If you left a sack of grain there in the evening, by the next morning it would have been ground for you, with a small amount of meal retained as a fee.
Steam powered mills have reportedly scared off the Manx faes. Likewise, the railways: describing the island for his Practical Guide of 1874, Henry Irwin Jenkinson wrote:
“Now there are railways, and the island is overrun with tourists every summer, the last haunts of the good people will be invaded and they will have to move elsewhere.” (p.75).
The fear of modern mechanised transport expelling the supernatural residents from a neighbourhood had in fact been expressed as early as the 1840s, when a correspondent of Notes and Queries had worried that railway engines would drive fairies far away from “Merry England.” It’s said too that Glenshee in Perthshire was once full of fairies, but the arrival of steam whistles (whether on locomotives or factories is not clear) drove them away.
Yet, we also have a bizarre and contrary story from the south of the Isle of Man. A local man reported sighting fairies operating a railway- before the first track had even been laid, which was as late as 1873:
“He was often telling the people about the railway line, more than twenty years before anyone thought about it. He was seeing the fairies very often practising on it in the moonlight, and he could point out where the line was to be, as he was seeing fairy trains going along so often… “
This vision seems to be a manifestation of the fairies’ power to see the future and their tendency to convey that knowledge to us by acting it out. Even so, it is a little odd that they should want to pass this information in this manner, if they objected so vehemently to the outcome.
Furthermore, the involvement of the fays with mechanical transport is a trend that has begun to emerge distinctly in more recent reports of sightings. Obviously, the fairies have no need of modern technology, but they seem to like to appear with it, all the same. Most famous is the ‘Wollaton incident’ in Nottingham in 1979 when a number of little men were seen driving around a park in hovering cars. Some girls in Cornwall in the 1940s woke one night and saw a small gnome-like man driving a tiny red car in circles outside their house. In 1929 two young children in Hertford witnessed a fairy flying a biplane over their garden (see Janet Bord, Fairies, pp.73-76).
As well as motor vehicles, there appears to be a developing fairy fascination with machinery. Marjorie Johnson records cases of fairies drawn to type-writers and sewing machines, as well as an incident when some ‘leprechauns’ diagnosed a fault in a bus engine (Seeing Fairies pp.101 & 322-2).
It is easy to fall back on the excuse that the fairies are ‘contrary’ and that they can demonstrate diametrically opposed traits at the same time, but we probably have to do better at explaining the evidence than this.
We know that the fairies are generally secretive people, and part of their response to industrialisation must be born of an aversion to the encroaching spread of human influence. We know too of them fleeing any manifestation of the noise and clamour of the human world. This began early, with a dislike of church bells (for which stories come from Exmoor and Worcestershire), so a desire to escape modern mechanical noise is entirely predictable. For instance, the glaistig of Glen Duror was already a solitary being but, it was reported, she quit the area entirely once steamers appeared on Loch Linnhe and blasting started in the new quartz quarry. In the same vein, when the mill at Kiondroghad on the Isle of Man was run overnight one time, the fays threw a broom at the millers in warning. They may have disliked the noise- but they might just as well have been objecting to what they regarded as their rightful evening use of the mill being disturbed.
Faeries aren’t against manufacture or cultivation as such, therefore. To some degree, double standards are probably at work, with activities disliked when humans perform them which would have raised no complaint if the faeries had been involved. Their interests and their convenience are always their first considerations. Be that as it may- the fairies are curious and they are prepared to move with the times: they will adopt human innovations if it suits or amuses them. In general, though, they appear to prefer less intensive modes of production- more handicraft as against mass manufacture, more traditional forms of cultivation as against mechanised farming. We might venture to say that they are more likely to be organic and low impact in their approach- something that fuels the conception of them being ‘eco-guardians’- a subject to which we’ll return.