‘Adar Rhiannon’- fairy birds

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Adar Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

In Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins you will find the story of Shon ap Shenkin:

“Shon ap Shenkin was a young man who lived hard by Pant Shon Shenkin [in Carmarthenshire]. As he was going afield early one fine summer’s morning, he heard a little bird singing, in a most enchanting strain, on a tree close by his path. Allured by the melody he sat down under the tree until the music ceased, when he arose and looked about him. What was his surprise at observing that the tree, which was green and full of life when he sat down, was now withered and barkless! Filled with astonishment he returned to the farm-house which he had left, as he supposed, a few minutes before; but it also was changed, grown older, and covered with ivy. In the doorway stood an old man whom he had never before seen; he at once asked the old man what he wanted there. ‘What do I want here?’ ejaculated the old man, reddening angrily; ‘that’s a pretty question! Who are you that dare to insult me in my own house?’ ‘In your own house? How is this? where’s my father and mother, whom I left here a few minutes since, whilst I have been listening to the charming music under yon tree, which, when I rose, was withered and leafless?’ ‘Under the tree!-music! what’s your name?’ ‘Shon ap Shenkin.’ ‘Alas, poor Shon, and is this indeed you!’ cried the old man. ‘I often heard my grandfather, your father, speak of you, and long did he bewail your absence. Fruitless inquiries were made for you; but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree would be dried up. Embrace me, my dear uncle, for you are my uncle—embrace your nephew.’ With this the old man extended his arms, but before the two men could embrace, poor Shon ap Shenkin crumbled into dust on the doorstep.” (Sikes pp.92-94)

In several respects this is a typical story about the differential passage of time in Faery and the mortal risks faced by a human returning home.  Such accounts date back to King Herla in the Middle Ages.  Of course, Shon is not aware of any journey to Faery at all; he simply sat in the shade by the roadside, but somehow was transported from this world.

However, what interests me in the tale are two of the details- the tree and the bird.  The tree is said to be a sycamore, which is unusual; it would not have surprised me to learn that it was a hawthorn (or perhaps an elder).  These are notorious fairy trees with which the Good Folk and magical properties have always been closely associated; sycamores don’t seem to have these traditional associations.

The other feature is the bird.  I have discussed the faery nature of certain insects (bees and moths) and fairies fleeing a human’s presence have not infrequently been compared to birds, but the evidence of a fairy nature is much harder to find in the fairylore of the British Isles.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

Scraps of evidence are present, nonetheless.  Evans Wentz mentions Breton fairies who take the form of ducks, swans and magpies (an especially significant bird in British folklore) whilst in Ireland fairies and some of the goddesses of the Tuatha de Danaan appear as crows.  (Fairy Faith pp.200 & 305-7)  From the Isle of Man, there is a fascinating little story about a notorious fairy woman whose beauty was deadly to local men.  She would bewitch them with her charms and then lead groups of them together int the sea, where they drowned.  The people resolved to end this slaughter and plotted to catch and kill her.  To escape, the fairy took the form of a wren.  She survived, but every New Year’s Day she must become a wren once more and face being hunted and killed in a traditional January 1st ceremony.

From Oxfordshire there comes the story of True John and Greedy Jack, a tale that pits a man favoured by the fairies against a jealous neighbour.  Both farmers had apple trees, but John’s produced abundant fruit and were always full of crowds of small green birds whilst, at night, small lights were seen in the branches, accompanied by singing and perfume.  Jack was envious and one day tried shooting at the trees with a shot gun to scare off the birds and damage the fruit.  Instead, it was his own fruit that were peppered with shot and the birds pecked at his face.  After this, Jack lost all his luck.  When John died, Jack cut down the bounteous tree hoping to drive the birds to live in his own, but instead a mighty wind arose and flattened his orchard.  Neither the birds nor the lights were seen again.  Both for their colour and for their close association to the lights, these are very obviously faery birds, a fact that should have been clear to Jack.  From that, it should have been clear in turn that he could not force the fairies into favouring him over his rival.  His downfall followed inexorably.  The protective role of faeries towards apple trees is something I’ve commented upon in several previous posts, too.

Lastly, as Sikes himself records, there is the ancient Welsh legend of the Birds of Rhiannon (Adar Rhiannon). Rhiannon is one of the goddesses or fairy women of Welsh myth.  Their song can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep.”  In a clear sign of their magical or faery nature, the birds can be remote but sound as if they are very near.

This legend appears in the Mabinogion in the story of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr (Branwen ferch Llŷr). Seven men only had escaped from a large force that had followed King Bran across the sea to fight the Irish.  Bran himself had died of his wounds, but had commanded the survivors to cut off his head and bury it under Tower Hill in London. On their way there, the men paused at Harlech in North Wales to rest and feast. Three birds came and began singing to them so sweetly that all the songs they had ever heard before seemed unpleasant in comparison.  The feast and birdsong were so enchanting, they remained listening for seven years.  (see Sikes p.2 and Evans Wentz pp.329 & 334)

The sweetness of song and the dislocation of time (for a period of years of considerable magical significance) are found in the Welsh myth just as in the story of Sion ap Senkin.  It seems clear from these scattered remnants that there was once a much completer knowledge of the nature and powers of faery birds, something that we have sadly lost with the passage of the years.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

For more on fairy animals generally, see my recently published book Faery.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

Underground, Overground

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In this post I look at one of the places with which fairies are often associated- ancient sites– and then consider exactly how they are linked to these monuments.

Barrows and Standing Stones

There is a very longstanding link between faeries, megalithic structures and ancient burial tumuli.  Its exact nature, nevertheless, is a little hazy.  It’s not always clear if the faes are merely present at these sites from time to time (usually to dance) or whether they actually reside at- or under- them.

For example, at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, the faeries have been seen dancing- but also disappearing down a hole by the King Stone- implying that they were accessing their underground home by that route.  The Hurle Stane, near Chillingham in Northumberland, was a well-known site of faery assemblies.

On the Isle of Arran, faeries meet at the various stone circles on the island, but are especially closely linked to the megalithic complex at Machrie Moor: one of the stone circles here is a double ring called Fion-gal’s Cauldron Seat.  A faery or brownie was said to live below it- who was propitiated by pouring milk into a hole in the side of one of the stones.

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Suidhe Coire Fhionn, Machrie Moor

It isn’t just single or grouped standing stones, though.  Prehistoric barrows also have very strong faery associations.  The round barrow at Carn Gluze, St Just, Cornwall, is the place of faery dances and burning lights at night.  A long barrow at Butcombe in Somerset is called the Fairy Toot; another barrow in the same county at Stoke Courcy is known as the Pixies’ Mound and another on Beaulieu Heath in Hampshire is called the Pixies’ Cave.  All these names strongly imply that our Good Neighbours were known to live beneath the mounds.  I have very often noted the presence of faes beneath natural ‘knolls’ or ‘knowes,’ so it makes sense for them to take up residence in man-made features too.  Many such sites are recognised in Scotland, too, often being sitheans (places were the sith people live).  Examples are found at Fowlis Wester, Perth (a barrow and stone circle), Carmylie, Forfar and at Kinross.

Part and parcel of this group of ideas is an instinctive respect- even reverence- that many people have had for ancient sites in their vicinity.  An Elgin man called Andro Man was accused in 1649 of setting up a standing stone and taking off his bonnet to it.  He insisted to the kirk presbytery that it was merely a boundary marker, but they made him break up the monolith all the same.  What’s most impressive about this case is how very late an expression of respect for menhirs this was.  Older beliefs were still found amongst rural populations until comparatively recently, though.  George Tyack, in his 1899 book on The Lore and Legend of the English Church, noted a belief on the Isle of Man that, if you pastured your sheep amidst a ‘druidic’ circle, the flock was bound to succumb to disease.  In his Second Manx Scrapbook, Walter Gill mentioned standing stones at Germans and Michael on the island that are called ‘white ladies’ and which were white washed to emphasise their ghostly significance.  ‘White ladies’ are most commonly spirits associated with springs and streams, so this is a fascinating merger of ideas.

The reason for treating stones respectfully is simple: if you fail to, the fairies using or living at the sites will have their revenge.  In British Goblins, Wirt Sikes tells the story of a Dark Age inscribed pillar standing on a tumulus at Banwan Bryddin, near Neath, which was removed by Lady Mackworth to adorn a grotto she was constructing in the grounds of her home.  Her workmen were unhappy over this, because the mound was well known to be a faery site, but the Lady had her way.  Soon after the grotto was completed, a terrible storm raged over the Neath Valley and a landslip completely buried her expensive new grotto.  The tylwyth teg had spoken.

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Faery Hillocks

As I have described, the faeries took up residence in barrows and other ancient sites found in prominent and/ or raised places- hillforts and other enclosures- because they were already familiar with living in distinctive or isolated hills.  Take, for example, a conical hill with a flat top near Strachar called Sian Sluai, the fairy hill of the host (sluagh); the home of the fairy queen at sith-chaillin near Fortingal, Perth; the many sioth-duns (fairy hills) around Buchanan, Perth, or the conical knoll called Harry’s Hill (Tom Eanraic) near Ardesier in Inverness, where the fairies met at night and where changeling children would be left overnight, in the hope of retrieving the stolen human baby.

Across Britain, in fact, fairies have been seen dancing on hills and disappearing into hills.  It is wholly unsurprising, therefore, to discover that many of the healers who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made their contact with the faes in hilly places.

Katharine Jonesdochter of Orkney in 1616 described how she saw the trows “on the hill called Greinfall at monie sindrie tymes.” Thomas Leys of Aberdeen, and his lover Elspeth Reid, told their 1597 trial that they knew of a hill where they could raise a spirit in any likeness they chose.  Katherine Ross said in 1590 that she “wald gang in Hillis to speik to the elf folk.”  John Stewart of Irvine regularly met with the fairies at Halloween on top of two hills near to the town (1618).  Isobel Haldane, from Perth, was carried from her bed one night to “ane hill-syde: the hill oppynit and scho enterit in” (1623).  Katharine Caray wandered amongst the hills of Caithness “at the doun going of the sun [and] ane great number of fairie men mett her” (1616).

From what we can tell, the faeries lived in prehistoric sites on hills; I’ll give a few examples from Wales.  The Iron Age hill fort known as Bryn y Pibion is definitely a faery dwelling, as it features in a ‘midwife’ story; the headland of Dinllain, defended by ancient earthworks, was a place for fairy dancing, after which they would raise a sod of earth and descended underground.  Another midwife attended a fairy birth here too.  Fairies gathered at the hillfort of Moeddin dressed in green to celebrate Mayday and, lastly, the prominent rock known as Ynys Geinon was connected to Craig y Nos castle by an underground passage, which the fairies reached by descending a golden ladder.

Conclusion

To conclude, therefore, we seem to have a double conjunction of associations.  The faeries were drawn to and lived beneath ancient stones and mounds; if those were also raised on hills- so much the better, as with the barrow called the Fairy Hillock at Carmylie in Forfar, which stands on the top of a hill.

‘Seek and you shall not find’- chance in fairy encounters

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Is it feasible to go searching for fairies?  Many authorities on the subject say not.  Janet Bord, in Fairies- Encounters with Little People, wrote that:

“Very often, people who see fairies come across them suddenly and unexpectedly; certainly they are not thinking about them at the time of the encounter. It may be that a certain detachment of mind may be a prerequisite to having what is clearly some kind of psychic experience, and the lone traveller is well placed to be in a receptive condition.” (p.35)

Seventeenth century antiquary John Aubrey agreed with this modern opinion.  He wrote in his Natural History of Wiltshire that:

“indeede it is saide they seldom appeare to any persons who go to seeke for them.”

The fairies choose whether and when to reveal themselves to mortals, appearing and disappearing at will.

In light of these comments, it’s very interesting to note an aspect of supernatural belief from the Scottish Highlands.  A very useful charm against fairy magic is the herb called mothan in Gaelic (pearlwort), but for it to be effective it had to be gathered “gun iarraidh” (‘without searching’- literally, ‘without asking’).  Another authority on Highland folklore confirms this, recording that another plant used to protect livestock from fairy blight, St John’s Wort, had to be picked whilst repeating the following charm:

“Unsearched for and unsought/ For luck of sheep I pluck thee.”

Lastly, Cornish fairy writer Enys Tregarthen, in her 1911 story Hunting Fairies, indicates that a human will never find pixie gold by deliberately searching for it.  Having failed to locate treasure by watching for pixies digging, her character Carveth throws away his pick axe carelessly.  He is told to dig wherever it happens to fall- and by this means he finds a crock of coins.

What can we learn from these scraps of information?  As we know very well, the fairies are a secretive and private people who don’t like to be intruded or spied upon.  We can’t petition them, praying for them to give us things or to make our wishes come true. They may choose for their own reasons to do this for those they decide to favour, but they aren’t to be begged or imprecated.  They are in control, over those whom they help and those to whom they reveal themselves.

It’s all about luck, therefore.  Randomness rules.  If you hunt them- they’ll elude you; if you take what comes- you may be rewarded.

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Wedgwood Fairyland

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I have argued before that faery has had a profound influence on many aspects of culture, especially in the visual arts.  I have illustrated my posts with a wide range of images, from oil paintings to postcards, but not previously ceramics.  However, pottery also proved a popular vehicle for fairy imagery, from the ‘Boo-Boos’ of Mabel Lucie Attwell to some very high quality pieces produced by the famous Wedgwood company.

‘Fairyland lustre ware’ is one of Wedgwood’s best-known (and most highly collectable) ceramic ranges. It was the project of one designer, Daisy Makeig-Jones.  The contemporary fashion was for geometric Art Deco designs, but Jones’ work seemed  to  appeal to a public wearied and depressed by the First World War.

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The Artist

Susannah Margaretta ‘Daisy’ Makeig-Jones (1881–1945) was born in Wath-upon-Dearne near Rotherham, Yorkshire, the eldest of seven children. As a child, she was taught by a governess at home before attended a boarding school near Rugby, where her artistic talent was identified and encouraged. When her family moved to Torquay, she entered the town’s school of art. She then moved to London to live with an aunt whilst attending Chelsea art school.

Jones wanted to develop an independent career as an artist but had to wait until her late twenties to realise this.  An introduction from a relative to the managing director of Wedgwood encouraged in Jones the hope that she might train to become a ceramic designer. She was immediately enthusiastic about this idea and wrote to Wedgwood, who were at first reluctant.  To become a successful designer she would first have to learn the basic principles and processes of ceramic manufacture, which would mean working on the factory floor. The long apprenticeship and the social gulf between Jones, a doctor’s daughter, and the factory hands were both concerns to the company’s management. Nonetheless, she was not to be discouraged and her persistence secured her a position. In 1909, at the age of twenty-eight, she travelled to Staffordshire to begin training as an apprentice pottery painter.

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Jones showed great promise and was promoted to the permanent staff in August 1911. For a while she designed nursery ware in the studio of the company’s art director (using illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen as a model) but in January 1914 she finally achieved her ambition to become a designer with a studio of her own.

Jones was attracted to fanciful designs and began to produce imitations of Oriental dragon patterns in 1913 in what was called ‘ordinary lustre ware.’ She moved on to her signature Fairyland Lustre design in 1915. In creating these new patterns on bone china (also new to Wedgwood), Jones was influenced by illustrations in children’s story books, such as H J Ford’s pictures for Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books, which she had loved as a girl, as well as illustrations by Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen.  She rarely drew fairies herself, using other artists’ figures within an overall decorative scheme of her own devising.  Jones also drew upon the rich colours and designs of old oriental porcelain. Daisy produced fantasy landscapes peopled by magical figures such as fairies and elves, all in glowing, jewel-like colours picked out with gold.

Jones’ promotion within Wedgwood was unusual not only because she was a woman, but also because she rose from within the company’s ranks, an exception to their usual practice of bringing in well-known and established designers from outside.  Apparently, this rapid success was not good for Jones’ character.  She became self-important and domineering and would not take advice from her employers; this personal trait was compounded by her higher social standing and family links to the Wedgwood family.  Some staff alleged that she seemed more interested in fairies and elves and mythical worlds rather than the real one of harsh economic facts.  She was not prepared or able to change her way of working and, eventually, in April 1931, she was asked to retire.  She initially refused and carried on working in her studio.  A confrontation followed, of course, and Jones left Wedgwood in a fury, having had all her designs smashed.  Her career was over and she returned to Devon to live with her family.  Jones died in 1945.

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Fairyland Lustre

The Fairyland line was a boon to the Wedgwood company, as business had fallen off with the outbreak of war, a loss of revenue compounding a range of pre-existing financial difficulties.   The new Fairyland Lustre series proved extremely popular because, New York antiques dealer Nicholas Dawes has surmised, “Many Europeans were looking for something to escape from the horrors of war,” and Jones’ designs were “escapist [and] fantastical.”  This may be correct: we have seen previously how artists responded to the Great War: some by taking shelter in fairyland (such as Algernon Blackwood and Edward Elgar,  Bernard Sleigh, Estella Canziani, Robert Graves, J R R Tolkien, Rose Fyleman and Francis Ledwidge), others by confronting it and recruiting faery to the war effort.

A large part of the success of the Fairyland lustreware range was the beautiful effects that Jones achieved by combining modern technical innovations and an ancient glazing technique that mixed gold, silver and copper metallic oxide pigments in oil before painting them onto the pottery. After firing, the metal melts into a very thin, lustrous, reflective film that produces an iridescent effect. The complexity of the process and the cost of the raw materials meant that, at the time, the pieces were considered expensive, but were still a commercial success for the company.

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A trade booklet titled Wedgwood Fairyland Ware from 1921 described the line in these terms:

“The doors of Fairyland are many but hard to find. Some are hidden in hollow trees or caves, others are in wells or lakes, or at the bottom of the sea. It’s possible to get there by climbing up a rainbow, a sunbeam, a moonbeam or by getting a leprechaun to make you a pair of fairy shoes.”

Fairyland Lustre line proved immensely popular across in the United States during the 1920s, providing Wedgwood with a popular and expensive product with which to penetrate the lucrative American market. Soon, however, Jones’ Art Nouveau fairies faded from fashion as tastes changed and the line was progressively discontinued from 1929.  Wedgwood hired a new art director and moved on to more austere modern styles, abandoning the expensive multi-coloured glazes as the world entered economic depression.

The range comprised sixty-two patterns made until 1931 or available by special order until 1941.  Its contemporary popularity is attested by the fact that it was quickly imitated. Besides its artistic significance, it is highly collectable today and can command very high prices.

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Further Reading

For more information, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

 

 

‘Spirits of another sort’- Fairy Immortality

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Jean-Baptiste Monge, White Fairy

Although I have discussed previously the evidence that fairies can be murdered, the general view of fairy-kind is that they’re immortal.  Certainly, literary representations describe faery characters in these terms- and it’s reasonable to assume that authors mostly just reflected the prevailing beliefs of their time.

Immortal faes

The situation is well illustrated in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The dispute between Titania and Oberon that’s central to the plot arises over an orphaned human child.  Titania tells us that his mother “being mortal, of that boy did die” and that, “for her sake, I do rear up her boy.”  Oberon quarrels with her over possession of the child and the land is blighted “The human mortals want their winter here” the queen says (II, 1).  Later, Peaseblossom addresses Titania’s new lover, Bottom, with a cry of “Hail mortal!” (III, 1) It’s very evident from all three lines that the faeries see a stark distinction between their state and ours.  The boy’s mother died in childbirth; although they may need to assistance of human midwifes, this could never happen to a fairy woman.  Oberon simply confirms this difference when he declares to Puck “we are spirits of another sort” (III, 2).

The medieval poem, Thomas of Erceldoune, expresses the distinction between the faery state and ours in one simple phrase.  Thomas meets the fairy queen and wants to have sex with her; she knows this will impair her unearthly beauty and exclaims to him:

“Man of molde, thou will be merre (mar)”

Thomas is a mortal being of Middle Earth and will inevitably return to the dust from which he came.  This sharp contrast in our natures is brought out in the stories of those humans taken for many years into Faery and who, upon finally returning home, crumble into dust as soon as they touch another mortal or consume earthly food.  In his account of Welsh folklore from 1896, it is fascinating to read that Elias Owen was told that, in just the same way, the tylwyth teg call us humans ‘dead men’ or ‘men of earth’ (Welsh Folklore, p.11).  Humans are also sometimes called ‘children of Eve,’ indicative, at the very least, of our different lines of descent.

There is, also, a little evidence that fairies seek to make their human captives immortal like themselves.  In Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess we are told how the elves dance at night beside a well:

“dipping often times

Their stolen children, so to make them free

From dying flesh and dull mortality.” (Act I, scene 2)

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Monge, Blue Fairy

Faery fatalities

How do we square this conviction of faery deathlessness with the evidence of faeries being killed quite easily by men?  One explanation is, simply, that the faeries are mortal but that their life spans are very much longer than ours- so extended, in fact, that they are for all intents and purposes immortal.  This was certainly the view that the Reverend Robert Kirk took in The Secret Commonwealth.

The other explanation is one that Tolkien endorsed.  As is very clear from Lord of the Rings, disease and age cannot kill an elf, but they can die in battle- and therefore can be murdered.  This qualified state may well seem a lot less desirable than any idea of perpetual youth and health.  We find a depiction of it in another literary treatment of supernatural immortality- in Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso.  The ‘sorceress’ Manto explains how:

“We are so born that all ills we sustain,

Save only death; but you must realise

Our Immortality is tinged with pain

As sharp as death and all that it implies.”  (Book 43, stanza 98)

We may set against this the statement by Cornish author Enys Tregarthen that the pobel vean (the little people) showed their age by getting younger and fairer- or, at least, the fairy royalty did (The Pisky Purse, 1905).

Summary & Further Reading

In conclusion, we humans, with our mayfly lives, just can’t be sure as to the truth about fairy mortality.  We read of fairy funerals witnessed by humans from time to time; perhaps these are best interpreted as ceremonies for those who have finally reached the end of their very long lives or for those who have been the unfortunate victims of assassination and war.

For more discussion of fairy life and mortality, see my recently published FaeryFor more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

Glamour houses- a strange faery illusion

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A Band of Fairies, by John Philip Wagner

A man was lost in the dark in deep snow on top of the Cotswold Hills near Dursley in Gloucestershire.  Unexpectedly, and to his relief, he came across an inn where he found a room for the night.  He slept well and found an excellent breakfast laid out for him the next morning.  When he was ready to leave, he could not find any staff around so he placed two guineas in payment for his accommodation on the counter before continuing his journey.  Arriving at his destination, he told his friends of his good fortune the previous night, but they said there was no such inn in the place he described.  Returning to the spot to settle the argument, he found no sign of the tavern, but his coins were lying in the snow.

This story is one of the most interesting examples of what I’m calling ‘glamour houses,’ grand buildings that are created by the fairies to accommodate humans, but which disappear by the following morning.  I’ll describe the various accounts we have and then consider why the fairies should go to this trouble.

The Phenomenon

The ‘glamour house’ phenomenon seems to be a feature of the fairies of Wales and the borders of England.  The vast majority of the examples come from North Wales.  All of the cases take place at night; in several the human is lost in bad weather.

In a couple of examples, the traveller is a farmer returning from a fair (one at Pwllheli in Lleyn; the other at Beddgelert near Snowdon).  This fact may, of course, make us suspicious that each had been drinking after a good day buying and selling.  The same might be said of a man called Ianto, who was returning home very late after a wedding.  The rest of the cases don’t give grounds for such doubts, though.  A shepherd from Cwm Llan, near Beddgelert, went out onto the mountain to search of his flock and got lost in mist;  a harpist setting out from his home at Ysbyty Ifan to walk to Bala was also caught by mist and lost his way so that he fell in a bog; people returning home after peeling rushes at Llithfaen, near Llanaelhaearn on Lleyn, came across a fairy dance.

However they find themselves far from home in the dark, the usual experience of the ‘glamour house’ is to be invited in, either to receive shelter or even to join in festivities, whether that may be a wedding celebration or simply communal singing and dancing.  The traveller is made welcome, fed, warmed and, eventually, given a comfortable bed for the night, in which they sleep well after their wandering and the good company they’ve enjoyed.  The sequel is always the same: they awake next morning to find the house or tavern vanished.  The man returning from Pwllheli awoke on a pile of ashes; more commonly, the man finds himself lying on heather or rushes, perhaps with a clump of moss for his pillow.  The Bala harpist found himself in a sheepfold, with his dog licking his face.  Ianto had the luckiest escape, for after being ‘pixy-led’ by music through bogs and thickets, he awoke not in a fine house but on the very edge of a precipice.

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Arthur Rackham, Kensington Gardens

Key Features

To summarise the experiences then, people are out wandering very late at night; they may be lost or they may be in danger from fog or a blizzard.  They are given somewhere warm to sleep and, generally, awake outside under blue skies the next day.  The Dursley story is slightly different in that the illusion persists well into the next day, after the man has ridden off to meet his friends in Stroud. The only major departure from this pattern is an account from Llyn Bwch in the north of Ynys Mon (Anglesey).  Here young people would regularly go out on moonlit nights to see the fairies celebrating.  They would find a grand palace standing where none existed during the day time and would see the fairies there, dancing and enjoying themselves.  In the mornings afterwards, the palace would have vanished but fairy rings might be seen and fairy money might often be found.

Motivations

Who do the fairies do this? To begin with, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the fairies are perfectly capable of building such structures in reality- whether for themselves or for human customers.  Secondly, their magical powers are such that they can easily construct the simulacrum of a house, inn or palace that appears to a visitor to be physical and real but yet which is nothing but glamour.  A good example of this comes from the ballad of the Wee Wee Man.  The narrator of the song meets the fairy man of the title when he is out walking.  He is invited to visit the fairy’s ‘bonny bower’ which stands on a nearby green:

“… we cam to a bonny ha’;/  The roof was o’ the beaten gowd,/ The flure was o’ the crystal a’. / When we cam there, wi’ wee wee knichts/   War ladies dancing, jimp and sma’,/  But in the twinkling of an eie,/ Baith green and ha’ war clein awa’.”

The Wee Wee Man creates the illusion of a splendid hall, built of sumptuous materials, but it can vanish in an instant.  This exactly what we see in these stories of transitory inns.

We might say that this is an excellent way to lure humans into your clutches and an elaborate form of pixy-leading and, it is true, Ianto ends up in the fine house where he sleeps after vainly following fairy music and voices for miles in the dark. There is some mischief involved, but very little, and no-one is ever harmed or abducted in these incidents.

On the whole, though, deliberate deception does not seem to be the aim.  Whilst it’s correct to observe that none of the splendid rooms the people see, the luxurious beds in which they sleep, the food they eat or the pleasant people they meet are really there, or are what they seem, the aim nonetheless appears to be to help or even protect a lost traveller. At the very least they are given free entertainment and food.

All of this may seem to be a strange and elaborate way of behaving, but the fairies can be extravagant with their favourites.  The practice is, in this way, related to the habit of the fairies to adopted favoured humans and to grant them money– in light of which it’s interesting to note that the lost shepherd from Cwm Llan found silver coins in his shoes when he awoke and, weekly for a long time after that, he would find a coin between two stones at the spot where he had slept (until he told someone about his luck, of course).

For more discussion of this subject- and other faery illusions, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side

‘Genii loci’- fairies as spirits of place

Irina Sushelnitskaya
Irina Sushelnitskaya

No-one wants to see their home interfered with and no-one wants to damage a fairy’s house.  Unfortunately, given their habit of living under hills or even directly beneath human dwellings, the faeries are in a situation where their properties may be unwittingly damaged.  The problem for the human who does this is that the consequences might be serious.

Farmers, leave those knolls alone

For example, men building a new house on the Scottish island of Tiree took a stone from a nearby sithean or fairy hill.  They had ample warning to desist as the stone kept returning to the spot where they had found it- but they kept removing it again.  Eventually, one of the builders fell ill, at which point they realised their error, reburied the stone and gave up.

A comparable incident is reported from County Durham in northern England.  Soil was being dug from an old motte and bailey castle near Bishopton when a voice was heard to ask- “Is all well?”  The excavators confirmed that it was, to which the voice replied “Then keep well when you’re well and leave the Fairy Hill alone.”  This seems as unambiguous a warning as you could want- but in this case the men carried on digging regardless. Surprisingly, perhaps, they found a buried chest which, upon opening, was found to contain nothing but nails.  No disaster followed in this case, but perhaps there might have been gold or other treasure unearthed had they paid more attention to the fairy words.

The Durham men seem to have been very lucky when other examples are considered.  An Orkney farmer who dug into a fairy mound was confronted by a little grey man who angrily told him that, if he took another spadeful, six of his cows would die and, if he still persisted, there would be six funerals in the family.  The man went on- with predictable results.  In a comparable incident from Perthshire, three men set out to strip turf from the top of a fairy hill.  When they got there, they all felt suddenly exhausted and lay down for a nap.  On awakening later, each had been carried off some distance from the knoll, one finding himself a quarter of a mile away in a pool.  In Sutherland, a mill was destroyed and the miller chased off by the fairies because he had taken earth to construct the mill dam from a nearby knoll.

Fairy knolls really ought to be obvious places to avoid: in an incident I’ve mentioned before, a man who hammered a peg into a knoll to tether a horse was met with complaints from inside that he had made a hole that was letting the rain in.  He wisely and immediately agreed to tether his animal elsewhere.

chabas jeune naiade
Paul Chabas, Jeune Naiade

Subterranean Neighbours

Sometimes, rather than being under a prominent hill, the fairy dwelling will be found directly beneath your own.  John Rhys tells a tale of a Gwynedd farmer who used to go outside his house to relieve himself every night before bed.  One evening, a stranger appeared beside him complaining about his annoying behaviour. The farmer asked how he could be upsetting a man he’d never seen before, to which the stranger replied that his house was just below where they stood and, if the farmer placed his foot on the stranger’s, he would see this. The farmer complied and saw clearly that all the slops from his house went down the chimney of the other’s home, which stood far below in a street he’d never seen before. The fairy advised him to put his door in the other side of the house and that, if he did so, his cattle would never suffer from disease. The farmer obeyed and after that time he became prosperous man.  There are several versions of stories like this: in one, the grateful fairy later saves the householder’s life.

This proximity can cause problems for the fairy dwellers ‘downstairs’ but there can be inconvenience for the folk upstairs too.  In one Scottish story a housewife was troubled by fairy women suddenly appearing at her cottage asking to borrow items or, unbidden, undertaking household tasks for her.  A local wise man advised that the only way to escape the nusiance of this over-familiarity would be to demolish the existing house and rebuild it elsewhere.  The thatch and rafters were, however, to be left behind and burned, after sprinkling nine dishes of sea water upon them.  Later some men quarrying near the spot found bones buried, confirming for them that the place was frequented by ancestral spirits.

Spirits of Place

The fairies here seem very clearly to be genii loci- spirits of place.  In another example, they almost seem to be so intimately associated with a location that they are part of the fabric of a building itself.  Returning to the Scottish island of Tiree, there was once a house that was plagued by fairies.  They used to sit on the rafters in swarms and they would sometimes drop down and steal a potato from the pot over the fire.  Eventually, the tenant decided to move.  He built a new home some distance away but, unluckily, ran out of materials before he’d finished.  He took a stone from the old house to complete the job- which meant that the fairies came too.

Fascinatingly, in this connection, Samuel Hitchins in his 1824 History of Cornwall, had this to say of fairy belief in the county.  He felt that the fairy faith was fading, except amongst the aged and ‘unenlightened’ (i.e. ignorant!), but still:

“By some, even the places of their resort is still pointed out, and particular fields and lanes are distinguished as spots which they were accustomed to frequent.  To these bushes and hedges, near which they were presumed to assemble, some degrees of veneration are still attached.  An indefinite species of sanctity is still associated with their beaten circles [i.e. fairy rings where they danced] and it is thought unlucky to injure their haunts or throw any obstacle in their way.”

Hitchins noted too the Borlase, in his Antiquities, also observed how the Cornish still saw the spriggans and fairies as real beings and paid them a kind of veneration.  In other words, certain spots were treated almost as shrines because the pixies were linked so powerfully with them.  As I have speculated before, they may be viewed as being a part of the land itself.

Further Reading

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of  faery places and faery homes.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World