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 ‘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.
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.
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).