‘Eco-Fairies’- old or new?

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A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), suggested that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies, books that adult pagans had seen as and absorbed as children.  Is this really true?  Is the view of faeries as green champions really so recent and untraditional a development?

In fact, there is a reasonable amount of evidence to indicate that faeries have been connected with nature conservation and environmental causes for a quite long time.  For example, there is a widespread popular story of a woodcutter just about to fell a tree who is stopped by the appearance of a fairy being from beneath the ground.  This is described as having happened as far apart in Britain as Northamptonshire and Nithsdale in the Scottish Borders.  The idea of faeries as active defenders of the natural world was therefore accepted in folk belief from at least the start of the nineteenth century, a situation that was reflected in the literature of the time.  In his 1810 poem Alice Brand, Sir Walter Scott had the elfin king demand:

“Why sounds yon stroke on the beech and oak,

Our moonlight circle’s screen,

Or who comes here to chase the deer,

Beloved of our Elfin Queen?”

In the ballad of Tam Lin, the young Tam appears to his lover-to-be, Janet, after she plucks a rose in the forest.  He complains that she has taken the flower without his permission.  Similarly, in the ballad Hynde Etin complaint is made by the fairy when nuts are picked, “For I’m the guardian of the wood/ and ye maun [must] let it be.”  Whether this is environmental stewardship or cases of trespass on private land is not entirely clear, but the faeries are evidently highly protective of their natural resources.  We might see those faeries that protect (human) orchards and nut groves, such as Owd Goggie, in a similar light.

Lastly, an article carried by the Welsh Western Mail in September 1878 described the industry that had brought prosperity to Nant y Glo and Blaenau, in Gwent, albeit at the cost of the local woodlands.  The extensive tree-felling was dated back some ninety years to the time when ironworking first started in the area and demand for charcoal expanded steeply.  Before then, we are told, the fairies had protected the trees of the hills and valleys thereabouts.  These were yr tylwyth teg yn y coed, the fairies of the wood, who often used to be seen assembled under the female oaks there, and who guarded the trees and harmed those that felled them.  Sadly, however, they couldn’t resist against the “inroads of a gross material civilisation” (as the writer called it, even then) and they were driven off west into less spoiled parts of the Principality.  These sentiments might surprise us from a Victorian, but they demonstrate that environmental awareness, and a sense of the faeries’ role as eco-guardians, might not be that new.

Jacobean Precedents

As far back as the start of the seventeenth century, in fact, there is evidence of the fairies being seen as friends and protectors of wildlife and the natural world.  Sir William Browne in Britannia’s Pastorals imagined the fairies

“Teaching the little birds to build their nests,/ And in their singing how to keepen rests…”

The ‘eco-fairy’ as a concept is not new, therefore, even if the label is.  An examination of the folklore and literary sources discloses three interrelated functions that the faes were believed to undertake: they cared for small mammals and birds; they had a special link with certain flowers and trees and, lastly, they assumed a more general supervisory role over the natural world, keeping it in balance and preventing over-exploitation and pollution.

Fairies’ Furry Friends

Fairies not only lived and played in the countryside- according to Victorian poetry they talked to the birds, taught them how to sing and kept their eggs warm in the nest by curling up to sleep beside them.  Poet Rose Fyleman, famous for There’s a Fairy at the Bottom of my Garden, in her verse A Fairy Went A-Marketing, imagined how a fae might buy pet fish and birds and then set them free.  For Fyleman, fairies and wildlife were best of friends, with robins serving as a page in the fairy court and tiny faes living contentedly in flowers.

Verse and popular conceptions went hand in hand, as there are reported encounters with fairies helping birds find berries in the snow and looking after wildlife in wintry weather.  Early Victorian child poet, Annie Isabella Brown, imagined fairies describing how:

“We gathered flannel-mullen leaves,

Against the winter’s cold;

To keep the little dormouse warm,

Within its hedgerow hold.”

Poet Menella Bute Smedley also imagined the fairies “twisting threads of bloom and light” to make butterflies’ wings.

Flower Fairies

Just as there was active supernatural involvement with the animal kingdom, folk tradition identifies two aspects to the relationship between fairies and plants. They are attracted to certain herbs, whether supernaturally or for merely utilitarian reasons (foxgloves, for example, are called fairy gloves and fairy thimbles) and, secondly, the fairies are said inhabit certain trees, such as oaks, thorns and elders.  It was a relatively easy transition from these associations to come up with the idea of flower fairies as popularised by artists Cicely Baker and Margaret Tarrant, but the foundations of this twentieth century phenomenon are much deeper and older (see Lewis Spence, British Fairy Tradition, pp.178-80).

It looks as though the first step towards the flower fairy idea was to emphasise the affinity between fairies and particular flowers.  Next, it was an easy step to conceive of the spirits living in those flowers and the miniaturisation of the fairies popularised by Shakespeare and his contemporaries assisted with this.  Inevitably, too, the fairy character began to be softened by association with bloom, scent and colour.

This change seems to have proceeded from the seventeenth century, judging by scattered indications in our literature.  For instance, William Browne (1588-1643) in his verse The Rose imagined that “the nimble fairies by the pale-faced moon/ Water’d the root and kissed her pretty shade.”  From the eighteenth century there is good literary evidence for the idea of fairies taking up residence in flowers.  Coleridge, for example, described “Fays/ That sweetly nestle in the foxglove bells.” His contemporary George Darley imagined little fairies with scented wings emerging at night from blossoms and flitting from flower to flower enjoying nectar like wine (George Darley (1795-1846), What the Toys do at Night and The Elf Toper).

By the late nineteenth century this idea was exceedingly widespread: American poet Madison Julius Cawein repeatedly housed his fays in toadstools or in blooms and in his adult fairy tale, Phantastes, Scottish author George MacDonald described how “the flowers die because the fairies go away, not that the fairies disappear because the flowers die.  The flowers seem a sort of house for them, or outer bodies, which they can put on and off when they please… you would see a strange resemblance, almost a oneness between the flower and the fairy… [but] whether all flowers have fairies, I cannot determine.”  When J. M. Barrie adopted these ideas for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, he was simply making use of an already well-established idea- although the success of his books and plays took it to a much wider audience.

Consequent upon inhabiting flowers, other connections were seen- for example, gardens become an ideal place to see fairies according to the poetry of Philip Bourke Marston and others.  It was also during the nineteenth century that the fairies’ role as conservers of plant life was crystallised.  In The Fairy’s Promise Edwin Arnold had fairies promise to help a love-sick poet because “Thou hast never plucked daisy or heather bell/ From the emerald braes where the fairies dwell.”   The fairies’ floral duties are spelled out in detail in The Wounded Daisy by Menella Bate Smedley.  They are to be found at work in the corners of meadows:

“Perhaps you’ll see them… setting the lilies steady,
Before they begin to grow;
Or getting the rosebuds ready
Before it is time to blow.
A fairy was mending a daisy
Which someone had torn in half…”

According to numerous nineteenth century poets the fairies shaped and inspired growth and, even, taught the plants how to grow at special schools over the winter.

Finally, Menella Bute Smedley made an important leap by involving humans as partners in the task of caring for the natural world:

“Then pull up the weeds with a will,/ And fairies will cherish the flowers.” (A Slight Confusion)

There are, then, two conceptions of the exact interrelationship between fairies and the natural world.  The first is that they exist simply as a part of the natural world and its processes.  The second, and more significant, is that they act as ‘guardians of nature’, actively watching over plants, animals and the earth as a whole and keeping the intricate systems in balance.

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Fairies and the Green Revolution

Many contemporary writers on fairy matters stress how the faes are opposed to intensive agriculture, to overuse of fertilisers, to pollution and to general environmental degradation.  It would be easy to imagine that these ideas have been imported into the faery faith since the 1960s, but the examples given so far make it abundantly clear that they were present in folklore and, thence it would seem, in literature, well before any conception of the harms of over-intensive cultivation even occurred to the scientific community.

Fairies have always been linked more closely to rural and uncultivated locations than to towns, although it would be wrong to suggest that they’re never seen in urban places (and the evidence of the recent Fairy Census and of the witness accounts recorded in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies both suggest this is changing anyway).  Even in the countryside, though, they’re not a people solely of wild places and woods.  They often live and work around human farms (the Hobs and the Brownie type of spirit) and they frequently take advantage of the human environment, using mills and dancing in pastures and meadows at night.  There is no antipathy with agriculture as such, therefore.

That said, ideas of fairies as a champion of more traditional, organic, self-sufficient production date back to the mid-nineteenth century at the very latest.  For example, folklorist 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).

Conclusion

Works such as Peter Pan and the various Flower Fairies books unquestionably popularised the conception of the fairy as protector and champion of nature, but these ideas had been around since Elizabethan times and had been consolidating during the Victorian period. Such perceptions of the faeries are, arguably, as traditional as notions of them dancing in rings and stealing children.  The ‘green fairy’ is not some hippy, environmentalist creation, grafted on in recent decades, but is a fundamental element of the nature of Faery.

Margaret Tarrant, Brimstone Fairy

Fairies and holly trees

Cicely Mary Barker, The Holly Fairy

In a previous post I have discussed the close links between fairies and elder trees. As a seasonal posting today, I’m examining fairies and their relationship to holly.

I was recently browsing the journal, Welsh Outlook- A Monthly Journal of National Social Progress, in the collection of the National Library of Wales. The title doesn’t sound too promising for those searching for faerylore, but luckily I wasn’t put off. In volume 2, issue 10 (October 1915) there was an article on Snowdon Folklore, which recounted the story of Merfyn Ffowc, a shepherd.

Merfyn got lost in a thick mist on the mountains near Cwn Llan and, after wandering for some time, he heard a voice crying out in distress from higher above him. He clambered up a steep rock-face to find a small woman trapped in a cleft into which she had slipped. She was dressed in green, with silver shoes, and spoke a language he couldn’t understand- evidently a fairy. He carried her down the cliff and, almost as soon as they had reached the bottom, two men appeared, calling out for ‘Silifrit.’ Appreciative of Merfyn’s rescue, they presented him with a holly staff as a sign of their gratitude, and almost instantly vanished.

It turned out that this staff was lucky. Within the year Merfyn married a rich widow and his flocks expanded amazingly: every ewe gave him two lambs. It seems, however, that he didn’t fully appreciate (or recognise) the role of the fairy gift in his good fortune. As a result, he was caught one night in a terrible storm as he returned home from an evening drinking in Beddgelert and he lost his holly staff in the raging wind and rain. With the stick went all Merfyn’s new prosperity: all his sheep were washed away in the floods and he ended up poorer than he had started.

The holly staff seems to have had a magical significance for the fairy donors- as other examples will show. As for the fairy’s name, this type of name is something I’ve discussed in an earlier posting as well as in my book Famous Fairies.

The Welsh story immediately reminded me of another one, much older and from the other side of Britain. On June 17th 1499 in Norwich, John and Agnes Clerk and their daughter, Marion, appeared before a church court accused of sorcery. The family lived in Great Ashfield in Suffolk where the daughter had developed a reputation as a healer, soothsayer and finder of buried treasure. Marion immediately confessed everything, admitting that the fairies helped her whenever she needed information. Amongst their assistance was a holly stick that they had given her: her mother had taken it to the church on Palm Sunday, mixed up with the palm fronds, to be blessed, and Marion then used the stick to find treasure.

Margaret Tarrant

Two cases; two holly sticks from the faeries. What more do we know about the connection between this tree and the Good Folk? The plain answer has to be: not a lot. Katharine Briggs mentions in her Dictionary of Fairies that the holly is a fairy tree, along with the better known elder, oak and rowan, but she does not offer us more than this. In the traditional Scots ballad of The Elfin Knight, holly is mentioned in the refrain in two versions of the song: for example, “Sing green bush, holly and ivy.” See versions K & L in Child’s Ballads– these two refrains strongly indicate a faery or supernatural association with the shrub.

Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, gives a very full treatment of the magical and mythical significance of this shrub. He finds associations with the legends of King Arthur, Robin Hood and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He also traces much deeper Druidic, Classical and Biblical links. None of these are specifically fae, but the symbolic power of the tree seems very clear.

Reverting to British folklore, in the Scottish Highlands, holly is recorded as having been used to ward off the sith folk at New Year. Perhaps its potency derives from its prickles (cut gorse is used in another story to defend against the faeries), from its evergreen (and therefore ‘immortal’) qualities and from its red berries. Just as with the rowan, which is regularly used as a protection against faery attack, red is a very powerful and defensive colour.

As I have described before, the countryside is full of shrubs and herbs that have positive and negative fairy associations. I have discussed the elder tree in an earlier post and I examine other faery plants in chapter 5 of my book Faery (2020).

Margaret Tarrant

Lewis Carroll, Puck & Faeries

Fairies and Nautilus Illustration by E. Gertrude Thomson
‘Fairies & Nautilus,’ by Thomas, from Three Sunsets

In an earlier post, I discussed famous the youthful writings on pixies by Lewis Carroll, author of the ‘Alice’ stories. Carroll is not really a writer of ‘fairy tales,’ however strange and fantastical his books may have been, but he did not neglect them entirely.

Firstly, there is his follow-up to the Alice stories, Sylvie and Bruno (1889). This book is far less well-known than the two Alice adventures- and for good reason, as it really isn’t that good. However, it gives a very good idea of the image of fairies that Carroll harboured. His view of the Good Folk can be both sentimental- and yet cautious and honest. For example, from chapter 13: “All Fairies understand Doggee- that is, Dog-language” or, this lengthy passage from chapter 14:

“In the first place, I want to know—dear Child who reads this!—why Fairies should always be teaching us to do our duty, and lecturing us when we go wrong, and we should never teach them anything? You can’t mean to say that Fairies are never greedy, or selfish, or cross, or deceitful, because that would be nonsense, you know. Well then, don’t you think they might be all the better for a little lecturing and punishing now and then?

I really don’t see why it shouldn’t be tried, and I’m almost sure that, if you could only catch a Fairy, and put it in the corner, and give it nothing but bread and water for a day or two, you’d find it quite an improved character- it would take down its conceit a little, at all events.

The next question is, what is the best time for seeing Fairies? I believe I can tell you all about that.

The first rule is, that it must be a very hot day- that we may consider as settled: and you must be just a little sleepy- but not too sleepy to keep your eyes open, mind. Well, and you ought to feel a little- what one may call “fairyish”- the Scotch call it “eerie,” and perhaps that’s a prettier word; if you don’t know what it means, I’m afraid I can hardly explain it; you must wait till you meet a Fairy, and then you’ll know.

And the last rule is, that the crickets should not be chirping… I looked about in all directions for the little creature, but there was no trace of her- and my ‘eerie’ feeling was quite gone off, and the crickets were chirping again merrily- so I knew she was really gone. And now I’ve got time to tell you the rule about the crickets. They always leave off chirping when a Fairy goes by- because a Fairy’s a kind of queen over them, I suppose- at all events it’s a much grander thing than a cricket- so whenever you’re walking out, and the crickets suddenly leave off chirping, you may be sure that they see a Fairy.”

Sylvie & Bruno, c.14

On the more positive side, Carroll describes how Sylvie changes from a little girl into a fairy and he states categorically “I may tell you, besides, that she had no wings (I don’t believe in Fairies with wings), and that she had quantities of long brown hair and large earnest brown eyes, and then I shall have done all I can to give you an idea of her.”

Carroll’s collection of verse, Three Sunsets and Other Poems, which was published ten years later than Sylvie and Bruno in 1898, includes two poems on a clear fae theme: Puck Lost and Puck Found:

Puck Lost

Puck has fled the haunts of men:
Ridicule has made him wary:
In the woods, and down the glen,
No one meets a Fairy!

“Cream!” the greedy Goblin cries—
Empties the deserted dairy—
Steals the spoons, and off he flies.
Still we seek our Fairy!

Ah! What form is entering?
Lovelit eyes and laughter airy!
Is not this a better thing,
Child, whose visit thus I sing,
Even than a Fairy?

Nov. 22, 1891.

Victorian Fairy Verse | British Fairies

Puck Found

Puck has ventured back agen:
Ridicule no more affrights him:
In the very haunts of men
Newer sport delights him.

Capering lightly to and fro,
Ever frolicking and funning—
“Crack!” the mimic pistols go!
Hark! The noise is stunning!

All too soon will Childhood gay
Realise Life’s sober sadness.
Let’s be merry while we may,
Innocent and happy Fay!
Elves were made for gladness!

Nov. 25, 1891.

The illustrations for Three Sunsets were provided by Emily Gertrude Thomson. She had illustrated William Allingham’s famous verse ‘The Fairies’ in 1878 and Carroll had so admired her wrote that he wrote to the publisher asking for her address.  The two met for the first time in June 1879 at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). Their rendezvous was fascinating: Carroll arrived holding the hands of two little girls. He asked one to point out Thomson and she quickly indicated the artist, though none had met before. Carroll’s explanation of this was that he asked the child to identify the “young lady who knew fairies…”

Carroll was a difficult author to work for. He constantly intervened in his artists’ work, making suggestions and asking for alterations to completed drawings.  The writer had very fixed and peculiar ideals of beauty.  For example, he stipulated that all the fairies, and all the babies, in Thomson’s pictures should be girls, adding that he much preferred nude girls, although “no living child is perfect in form.” Thomson duly supplied for the book a series of twelve plates of very pleasingly pretty and shapely little girls, reclining nude beneath ferns, flowers and mushrooms. They have very little to do with the content of the book, but they are attractive pictures and- perhaps most importantly- they met the aesthetic and personal standards of Lewis Carroll, who was (as is known) a keen collector of little girls as his ‘nieces.’ 

How to Spot a Fairy

Fuseli, The Changeling

Our forebears often saw fairies- and knew that they had done so.  The certainty about the nature of experiences that is frequently disclosed in accounts is derived from various factors- circumstance, context, experience- but in no small measure it came from the witness knowing already what to expect. 

I’d like to look at this issue here, with particular reference to the identification of fairy changelings.  I’ll start with a couple of handbills from the 1690s which advertised ‘freak shows’ in London.  Even as recently as the nineteenth century, dead mermaids were put on display for the public to see; I assume that these were either confected fakes or they were the remains of manatees or seals or such like.  Live fairies are another matter entirely, though.

In 1690 a ‘changeling child’ was displayed at the Black Raven tavern, West Smithfield.  It was described as a “living skeleton,” which had been captured by Venetians from a Turkish ship.  The girl had been born to Hungarian parents and was nine years old, it was claimed, but she was only one foot six inches high.  Her legs, thighs and arms were very small “no bigger than a man’s thumb” and her face was as small as the palm of an adult’s hand, with a “very grave and solid” expression, as if she was sixty years of age.  If the girl was held up to the light, you could see all her ‘anatomy’ inside.  She never spoke, but mewled like a cat.  She had no teeth, but she had a voracious appetite all the same.

A second hand-bill of about the same date advertised a “living fairy” who could be seen at the Rose Tavern, Brydges Street, Covent Garden.  He was supposed to be 150 years old; he had been found around sixty years previously but had not aged since then.  His head was a “great piece of curiosity,” having no skull and “with several imperfections worthy of your observation.”

Doubtless both of these exhibits were profoundly disabled individuals who were being exploited by the proprietors of the touring show, but my interest is in the fact that they conformed to pre-existing ideas of what a fairy would look like.  What is, perhaps, most interesting is that the shared preconception seemed to be of a deformed and shrivelled creature- not at all the beautiful fairy princess we might be inclined to expect.

As I have often described before, one of the main occupations of British fairies was abducting people, most especially babies and young children.  Whilst a toddler might just wander off and not return, a baby in a cradle tended to be substituted for a fairy replacement- the changeling or ‘killcrop’ (a term seemingly taken from German: Luther discussed kilkropffs, for example, which is very possibly how the term became familiar and entered English). 

Changelings were accepted as being widespread and common.  For example, in December 1846 the Newcastle Courant carried a feature on the Devonshire pixies, in the course of which it was noted, casually and very much in passing, that a woman who was a fairy changeling was at that very time living in Totnes.  The people of South Devon were aware that this woman was a fairy and- it seems- were not especially surprised about that.  Part of their certainty must (again) have come from the fact that she looked like a fairy.  What did Victorians expect to see?

Scottish author James Napier recounted a changeling story in his book, Folklore, in 1879.  The child in question was suspected of having been swapped because “it seemed to have been pinched” and subsequently, it became very hungry, “gurning and yabbering constantly.”  These were give-away signs.  Another Scot, John Monteath, described in his book on Dunblane Traditions (1835) that changelings were “unearthly skin an’ bane gorbels.” In Scots, a gorbel is an unfledged bird, so this phrase is suggestive of the shrivelled, skinny look of the infant.  Likewise, in his story of ‘The Smith and the Fairies,’ John Francis Campbell described how the blacksmith’s son took to his bed and moped, becoming “thin, old and yellow.” (Popular Tales, vol.III)

In August 1892 the Dublin branch of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children issued its annual report.  Amongst the cases featured was that of a child neglected by its parents because they believed it to have been a changeling.  The reason for this (though it was probably worsened by their lack of care) was that the child was a “living skeleton,” which was exactly the term used for the girl advertised on the 1690 handbill.   On New Year’s Day 1898 the Hampshire and Portsmouth Telegraph carried a feature on Welsh superstitions associated with New Year’s Eve. The paper reprted that it was still felt to be vital to watch a child’s cradle at this turning point of the year lest the tylwyth teg snatch the babe and leave a plentyn newid (a ‘changed child’). This fairy would be a “frightful looking, shrunken, puling brat, not infrequently becoming idiotic.”  The paper added what a disgrace to the parents it was if such a substitution had been allowed to take place. 

What’s consistent in all these examples is the starved look of the infant- despite the fact that they frequently gobbled up food.  Perhaps it’s significant that in one Scottish poem a milkmaid wooed by a fairy gives her lover a crucifix to wear- and his glamour is dispelled, revealing him as a “brown, withered twig, so elf twisted and dry.”  In another Scottish account, a man is sure that his wife has been taken by the fairies rather than having died.  He has her coffin opened- and finds a dry leaf inside.

From the Welsh Evening Express, October 26th 1898

So fixed was the association between a whingeing child with an insatiable hunger and fairy abduction that Horlicks even made reference to the tradition in an advert for their product that ran during the late 1890s.

Although the Smithfield changeling was dumb, it was the preternatural knowledge and loquacity of the swapped infant that often gave away its true nature.  Lewis Spence tells the story of a Sutherland woman out walking one day when her one-year old baby suddenly recites some lines of verse.  She abandons the creature and runs home, fortunately finding her true child back in its cradle.

Changelings were not necessarily taken for malign reasons: the fairies often sought a playmate for their own children, but they didn’t give much thought to the feelings of the human family.  Such was the desperation of those parents to recover their own bairns that many terrible measures were attempted.  The case of leaving the child all alone out in the countryside that was just mentioned was very mild compared to some remedies.  For example, people resorted to threatening suspected changelings with red-hot pokers, holding them on shovels over the fire or placing them in hot ovens.  Such cruelty was provoked by the perfectly understandable anxiety to be reunited with the lost baby.  The abuse was bolstered by the assurance that it was justified because the child no longer looked the same- instead, it looked like fairy.

Clouds of Fairies- evidence of fairy ‘swarms’

Lost in Wonderland by Alice Marshall

There are fairly frequent accounts that depict the faes as tiny beings that flock together in large masses, like insects or birds. Here I’m going to consider this quite unusual evidence.

Here’s a particularly vivid description from the Isle of Man.  One moonlit might, a man saw the fairies moving on a hill.  There were scores of them, he said, like a black rain cloud.  He tried to follow them, but they always stayed about twenty or thirty yards ahead of him and they steadily shrank in size until they disappeared completely. Comparable is a strange narrative recorded on the Channel island of Jersey. A farmer was setting out from his farm with a horse and cart when he saw a “cloud over the house.” He turned back straight away because he knew it was the fairies and, when he arrived back at the farm house, he found them ‘swarming up and down his yard.’ To get rid of them, he scattered wheat from his granary; each fairy picked up a grain and left (see Young, Magical Folk, 159).

This evasiveness and the cloud- like quality are fairly typical of accounts.  Very frequently the faes are said to behave and look like insects.  Manx folklorist Dora Broome twice described the fairies as “like a swarm of bees” (Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man 67 and More Fairy Tales 40).  Another Manx writer also said that the fairy host sounded first like humming bees, (Sophia Morrison, Manx Fairy Tales, ‘Billy Beg, Tom Beg & the Fairies.’)  A man on Arran working in a field saw something like a swarm of bees pass over him.  Throwing up his (iron) reaping hook, he found his wife drop to the ground before him.  The fairies had been in the process of abducting her.  (MacKenzie, Book of Arran, 267).

In a final Scottish example, a story called ‘The Laird of Balmachie’s Wife,’ the laird’s wife was abducted by the fairies when he was absent from home one day. As it happened, he was riding back when he encountered a crowd of fairies carrying a body on a litter. Drawing his sword, he claimed the captive in god’s name. The fairies vanished and he found that he’d rescued his wife- she told him that she had been carried off by a “multitude of fairies, [who] came in at the window, thronging like bees form a hive.” When the laird got home, he found his ‘wife’ in bed, complaining of feeling cold. He banked up the fire and then picked up his apparent wife as if to carry her to a chair nearer the fireplace. Instead, he threw her into it, knowing she was a stock left behind by the fairies. The creature shot up through the ceiling and roof like a rocket.

by Barbara Mary Campbell

Flocks of birds are the other common comparator.  A man at Benbecula in the Hebrides heard the sluagh go over- it sounded to him ‘like a flock of plovers.’  According to another Scottish witness the sluagh “in great clouds, up and down the face of the world like starlings” and another described them leaving their knoll on Halloween as being like “starlings swarming from their cave.” A man living near Harrogate once got up early to hoe his turnips.  When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green.  As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled like a flock of partridges.  In another Yorkshire report from Ilkley, fairies surprised whilst bathing in the spa there made a noise “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” when disturbed by the caretaker.

Finally, we have the experience of a man from Shetland, who was travelling home at night over the hills at Coningsburg when he was surrounded by trows in the form of mice.  There were so many around him, so thickly on the ground, that he said he couldn’t have put down a pin without hurting one.  This went on until dawn when he reached a small stream, at which moment the mass of mice all vanished.  A curious sequel followed.  Although the innumerable rodents had been surprising and inconvenient, they hadn’t been dangerous.  However, on the bridge over the brook there were three knights.  The man was so astonished, he uttered a curse, and the three men also disappeared- with a bang and a flash of blue flame.  One version of the ’Brother Mike’ story from Suffolk bears resemblance to this Scottish story: fairies are seen raiding the grain in a farmer’s barn in the form of “hundreds of little white mice; they all had red ears and red feet…” (Francis Young, Suffolk Fairylore, 130).

What does this tell us?  I have previously described the close links between fairies and bees, but it seems to make clear that, in some parts of Britain, the experience of encountering the fae is not a matter of meeting an individual who is the human sized- whether that’s an adult or, more often, a child.  Rather, we are dealing with a species who naturally move about in hosts, wheeling about much like large flocks of birds- or perhaps clouds of midges or flies.  Consistent with this, they are small- or even tiny.