Why is it that some fairies seem happy to undertake chores for humans, whether these are strenuous physical tasks or finishing off household jobs that haven’t been completed?
We are very familiar with the existence and activities of the brownie and related faery species (boggarts, broonies, gruagachs and glaistigs) who will attach themselves to a particular family, estate or farmstead and perform a variety of agricultural and domestic functions. I have analysed these relationships in some detail in my recent book Faery, but suffice to say that we may regard the interaction as some sort of contract for service, with the fairy being accepted as having a clear role and place within the household. In return for the work done, food, drink and, often, an allocated time to enjoy the shelter and warmth of the humans’ home are granted. The faery acquires a recognised position within the wider clan or ‘familia.’
Here, I’m rather more interested in the cases where the fairies appear very ready to do odd-jobs for humans. Remuneration may be provided, but there isn’t the long-term relationship that’s usually understood to exist with the brownies and boggarts. These arrangements can take a number of forms.
At Osebury, near Lulsley on the River Teme in Worcestershire, the tradition is that a broken implement left in the faery’s cave there will be mended for you. On Orkney it was believed that, if a spinning wheel was not working well, leaving it out overnight on a faery mound would fix it. There’s an unspoken arrangement that faulty items can be brought to the faery’s habitation and that a repair would be done without any apparent expectation of reward.
Then there are the cases where the fairy comes to the human home to do the work. On Guernsey it was said that the fairies would help industrious individuals. If an unfinished piece of knitting, such as a stocking, was left on the hearth or by the oven along with a bowl of porridge, by morning the work would be done and the bowl would be empty. However, if the reason that the task was unfinished was the person’s idleness, the faery response would be to deal out some blows instead. (MacCulloch, Guernsey Folklore, 203). On the island of Jersey it was reported that if servants left out unfinished work (such as needlework) with a piece of cake, the fairies would complete it overnight- and do much of the next day’s work too. (Folklore vol.25, 245) On the British mainland, in Staffordshire, the tradition was the same. Small household tasks would be carried out in return for gifts of food or tobacco. (‘Notes on Staffordshire Folklore’, W Witcutt, Folklore 1942, 89).
Somewhat comparable is information from the Scottish Highlands to the effect that a girl’s fairy lover, who lived near her home in a fairy hill, would help her out with her daily chores, such as cutting peat turfs for the fire. Of course, the motivation here was love, which may well distinguish it from the cases already described.
Somewhat at odds with most of the foregoing is a case recorded by MacDougall and Calder in 1910 in which a man’s laziness was encouraged by the fairies doing all his work for him at night. The miller of Mulinfenachan, near Duthil in Inverness-shire, who was called Strong Malcolm, used to put everything ready in his mill before he went to bed, knowing that all the grinding would be done by morning. If straw needed to be threshed for the cattle, or grain winnowed, these jobs would be done if the necessary tools and raw materials were left out. Anyone who tried to spy on the activities would be forcibly expelled.
None of this was done for him out of kindness, though. When another mill burned down locally, the fairies were heard to exclaim “We will have plenty of meal now… and Strong Malcolm must henceforth work for himself or starve.” The explanation of this account rests on two points. One is that food stuffs lost by fire or perhaps just dropped on the ground) went to the fairies as their rightful property. Secondly, it will be apparent that they had been taking a ‘commission’ for the work that they did for Malcolm. They had been keeping a share of all the flour, grain and such like- and with the fire, they no longer had to work for this. (Folk Tales and Fairy Lore, 187).
Although the Guernsey fairies objected to laziness, those at Duthil didn’t mind about this fault in Strong Malcolm- because it was profitable for them not to do so. The fairies intermeddle in human affairs, it seems, because there’s something in it for them. Hard work in exchange for a bowl of porridge might seem like a poor exchange to us, but with magical powers to accomplish the work, the labour could well look very different to them and, plainly, there’s something about human food (whether it’s the ingredients or the finished product) that’s irresistible to them- and worth all the effort.