The seelie and unseelie courts of Scottish fairies are a particular feature of the folklore of that country; the clear separation of the faes into good and bad groupings that’s entailed is almost unique in folklore. Moreover, the notion of the two courts has, in recent years, attracted considerable attention and popularity- notwithstanding the fact that they are not mentioned in the majority of the Scottish faery-lore texts and collections. Probably the majority of recorded Scottish folklore relates to the Highlands and Islands, the Gaelic (and Norse) speaking regions, which may explain why we have relatively little material documenting the two courts.
The Scots word ‘seelie’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon (ge)sælig/ sællic meaning ‘happy’ or ‘prosperous.’ The evolution of the word in Middle English and Scots seems to have been in two directions. One sense was ‘pious,’ ‘worthy,’ ‘auspicious’ or ‘blessed.’ The second development extended the meaning incrementally through ‘lucky,’ ‘cheerful,’ ‘innocent,’ and ‘simple,’ from whence it was a short final step to ‘simple-minded,’ as the modern English ‘silly’ denotes. Because of this evolution, as well as because of the dialectical differences between English and Scots, it is preferable to use ‘seelie’ rather than to try to translate it. In passing, we might observe that Scots is in many cases far nearer to original Anglo-Saxon than modern English, which has imported so many French and Latin words.
By late medieval and early modern times, ‘seelie’ or ‘seely’ in Scots meant happy or peaceable, as in ‘seely wights,’ and the ‘seely court,’ which was the ‘happy or pleasant court.’ It followed from this that ‘unseelie’ or ‘unsilly’ described something that was unhappy or wretched. The poet Dunbar referred to Satan’s “unsall meyne” (his “wretched troop of followers”), a phrase which could be a very appropriate term for the fairies; even more significantly, Montgomerie’s description of the fairy court mentioned how “an elf on an ape an unsel begat”- in other words, the pairing gave birth to a wretch or monster. (Dunbar, Evergreen, i 106; Montgomerie, The Flyting of Polwart)
Scots is the language of Lowland Scotland, and this gives us a sense of the realm of the seelie and unseelie courts. The unseelie court, therefore, might be expected to include such creatures as the red caps, shellycoat, the brown man of the muirs, the powrie, the dunter, and perhaps a hag like Gentle Annis; the seelie court, meanwhile, included the elves, the brownies and the doonie (see my Beyond Faery for details of many of these).
Most of our records of the usage of seelie and unseelie courts are not very old. We are told about them in McPherson’s Primitive Beliefs of North East Scotland (1929) and earlier in Charles Rogers’ Scotland, Social and Domestic (1884); surprisingly, perhaps, there is no mention of the terms in Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Borders (1802) or Letters on Demonology (1830) nor does Cromek allude to the concepts in his Remains of Nithsdale Song (1810). The ballad Allison Gross refers to the ‘Seelie Court’ but this song was only recorded in 1783- although it might not be unreasonable to see it as being at least two hundred years older.
A very early example of the use of seelie is to be found in a poem of 1584 by Robert Sempill, entitled Heir Followis the Legend of the Bishop of St. Androis Lyfe, Callit Mr. Patrick Adamsone, Alias Cousteane. The poem is a biting satire upon the high- ranking churchman of St Andrews, who became a target for criticism and mockery after he used the services of a healer called Alison Pearson to treat various ailments. She was later convicted as a witch. Sempill describes at one point:
“Ane carling of the Quene of Phareis,
That ewill win geir to elphyne careis;
Through all Braid Abane scho hes bene,
On horsbak on Hallow ewin;
And ay in seiking certayne nyghtis,
As scho sayis, with sur sillie wychtis…”
This servant of the fairy queen is a ‘carline’ or ‘carling’- a stout and bad-tempered woman and (by extension) a witch. She is seen riding out across Scotland (Albany) at Halloween with her loyal “sillie wychtis,” making it virtually certain that these ‘seelie wights’ are other members of the queen’s court.
‘Carling’ entered Northern Middle English (and Scots) from Old Norse kerling. The related word in southern English is ‘churl’ (directly from the Anglo-Saxon ceorl with only a minor vowel change). The hard initial consonant of ‘carline’ indicates the word’s Norse source- and might even imply an origin in the far north, in the Viking kingdom of Orkney and Shetland.
Whilst we’re debating questions of etymology, it’s also useful to consider what ‘court’ may have implied in Scots. Certainly, it meant the royal court and could, therefore, in context refer to the establishment of the king and queen of Elphame. The word also meant a retinue, company or troop- perhaps some formal assembly of individuals as against a mere mob. Andrew Wyntoune, for example, in his Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland (1420) described birds and wild beasts eating carrion as a “fey court”- a ‘doomed company,’ perhaps.
What do these two courts do to earn their names and reputations? The Gude Fairies or seelie court comprised elves whose numbers were augmented by babies who died of parental abuse, those who fell fighting in just battles and all other good and worthy folk who had, perhaps just the once, lapsed in some way and so could not access heaven. These good faeries help mankind: they provide bread to the poor and aged, seed corn to the hardworking but unlucky, and gifts to those they favoured- especially those who had themselves helped out the fairies with loans or gifts. If they are called on to assist a person, the seelie court will do so and will help with daily tasks. They cheer those afflicted and in despair.
The ranks of the unseelie court are made up with those who had given themselves up to the devil, bad men who died fighting, unmarried mothers stolen during childbirth and unbaptised babies. The wicked fairies are always ready to inflict harm and loss. They might shave victims out of spite, abduct people who placed themselves in their power, steal goods and kill cattle with elf shot.
Be warned, however, that we should not overstate the benignity of even the seelie court. For example, in the Ballad of Mary O’Craignethan, her father curses the seelie court after his daughter is abducted by a fairy man. He threatens to cut down their groves in revenge. The father is advised how to recover his child magically but at the same time he’s warned how unwise it is to make such threats. He manages to retrieve the young woman, in scenes very like the rescue of Tam Lin, but he soon dies, because “nane e’er curs’d the Seelie Court/ And ever after thrave.” It was well known in Scotland that conduct like that of Mary’s father could only mean that the person would pine away, having seen all their affairs go to ruin. An identical fate would befall any person who ploughed up a fairy ring.
For further consideration of this subject, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021):