As I have described previously, both on this blog and in detail in my 2020 book, Faery, there is quite a lot of evidence for the fact that our Good Neighbours have a distinctive smell. I’ve come across a little more evidence on this, which is well worth considering.
In 1650, at Dunoon on the island of Bute, a woman called Finwell Hyndman was accused of witchcraft. She was said to disappear for twenty four hours every three months and, when she returned, she was crazed and weary and had “such a wyld smell that none could come neir hir.” She couldn’t explain her absences to the community, which made it pretty clear to everyone that she had been ‘away with the fairies.’
Perhaps the people of Kingarth parish were correct about Finwell. The smell that was so noticeable and inexplicable might have been a clear sign of Hyndman’s contact with the faeries. That would unquestionably have been the interpretation placed on matters on the Isle of Man, where the smell of fairies was a well-known phenomenon, and was said to be sour and strong.
For instance, a certain Mrs C., living in Arbory parish in the south of Man, one day in December 1891 went to the stream near her cottage for water. There was, she said, a terrible stench “between a burnt rag and a stink” she said, and so “thick” on the bank that she could scarcely breathe. This was the smell of fairies, who had obviously only recently departed. A girl on the island also smelled them once- and then lost her sense of smell- although this could conceivably have been a punishment for her involuntary exclamation of “What a stink!” which would naturally have offended the tetchy faes.
It shouldn’t necessarily surprise us to learn that the faes, as a separate race or species from us, should have their own odour that is unique to them and enables us to detect their presence. Many people seem to find the scent overpowering or unpleasant, but such things can be a matter of individual preference and physiology, of course. It works the other way round too: in the relevant section on my book Faery I quote from a Manx story in which a hidden human is discovered by the faeries because of his smell. In addition, as I described in my previous posting, it is well established in magical texts that fairies should be attracted by burning incense and by the person working the spell being scrupulously clean and using clean clothes and table cloths, towels and the like. In this context, it may be worth adding that effective ways of driving fairies off, or holding them at bay, include burning rags or old shoes- the stench created is offensive to the fays’ sensitive noses (which makes you wonder if they really smell like burnt rags themselves, as Mrs C on Man alleged).