‘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.

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