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.
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.