‘Fy nhy, eich ty’: my house, your house

Florence Anderson, The Artist at Home

The faeries are remarkably attracted to our homes.  For a people who (we are frequently told) have an aversion to all aspects of human civilisation- the noise and pollution, the electric lighting, the religion- there are still numerous examples of them being drawn to using our buildings.  Mills (both operational and disused) are popular, but our houses are even more attractive.

There are, of course, some fairies who live and work with us- the brownies, boggarts and hobs– but what I’m interested in here is the ‘wild,’ non-domesticated faeries who have their own homes and yet still choose to come and use ours.  It may be that our buildings are better than theirs: on this, the evidence is conflicting.  We hear plenty of accounts of people who visit palaces and grand mansions below ground, with halls that accommodate feasts and fine furnishings, but we also hear about dilapidated hovels.  For example, in 1910 a Welsh district nurse reportedly attended a birth in a fairy dwelling.  The room where the woman in labour was lying was formed of bushes; her bed was made of moss (Welsh Outlook, 1931). We can never be sure how much the finery is just glamour that disguises the much more humble reality.

Whatever the exact situation (and perhaps it’s just a matter of class and wealth), there are plenty of accounts of faeries entering our houses and making their presence felt there.

Firstly, the fairies tend to be very particular about the manner in which premises should be prepared for their uninvited nocturnal visits.  They like to find hearths swept, floors washed, good fires built up and water and towels set out for them to wash.  If all is in order, people might hope to be rewarded with small coins; if householders or their servants neglect these preparations, they can expect to be pinched or pulled out of their beds.  For example, a Mrs Owen on Anglesey described in 1886 how her mother used to ready the house for its night time visitors.  She had to set out two chairs, a candle, a basin of clean water, a towel and soap for them.  Then, when the family were in bed, the tylwyth teg would come down the chimney and would spend the entire night bathing.  In the morning, though, the towel would have been washed and dried, the basin would have been emptied and placed on the table and there would be gold sovereigns inside. (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886)

On Shetland, the trows seem even more fussy.  An untidy home might be cursed for a year and a day; the water that is left out has to come from particular wells.  Conversely, sometimes the visitors (as on the island of Guernsey) might come and do unfinished household chores– although they’ll expect a bowl of porridge in return.

Once the fairies have arrived, their presence is frequently burdensome.  The Manx fairies seem to treat local houses with great familiarity.  They will enter at night, bank up the fires and make use of the spinning wheels.  They too expect bread and water to be left out for them.  In particular, it was accepted on the island that on dark and stormy nights the little folk would need to be able to shelter somewhere and people would go to bed early to make way for them.  In The Fairy Faith, Evans Wentz records a witness saying that his grandfather’s family would sometimes be visited by a little white dog on cold winter’s nights. This was a fairy dog, and was a sign that the fairies themselves were on their way.  The family would then stop whatever they were doing and make the house ready (fire stoked and fresh water set out) before hurrying off to bed. (Wentz 122)

In Buckhaven in Fife, the fairies used to be very troublesome indeed, dancing around the chimneys, running through houses and (of course) stealing babies.  A Welsh man was asleep in his home at Bwlch y ddar, near Llangedwyn, outside Oswestry, when he awoke to find a small man fiddling and others dancing in the room.  He asked who the intruders were, and was told “Yspriddion yr awyr” (spirits of the air).  Then he asked why they were there, and was told that they planned to dance that night and the next.  He swore they wouldn’t- and they vanished.  Perhaps a better response came from one elderly Manx resident, whose house was used regularly at night for faery dancing. The old man was unable to sleep because of the racket, but one evening, hearing the fiddles being tuned downstairs, he got out of bed, descended and asked the fairies if he might join in with their dancing. He was invited to enjoy himself and participated in a couple of reels before finding himself so tired that he slept soundly the rest of the night. Thereafter, he was never troubled again, and wise people in the neighbourhood praised his actions: if he’d stormed in shouting, he’d have been cursed for life, but his friendly attitude won him the esteem of the little people.

Returning to Wales, it was reported in Edwardian times that one Glamorgan neighbourhood was “infested with fairies.”  In one farmhouse, the supernatural visitors annoyed the family continually and gave them no peace: if the occupants were in the kitchen, the fairies would be gambolling in the dairy; if they were in the cow byre, the faes would be dancing in the kitchen.  When the household sat down to a meal, they would be disturbed by noise in the next room.  Eventually, the fairies had to be exorcised (Rhondda Leader, 17/9/1904).

It should be plain that the best policy is to be tolerant and accommodating. The fairies will get into our homes and other buildings whatever we do- they can’t be locked out- so it seems only sensible to make them welcome and to make the best of their company. This attitude is likely to be rewarded; showing exasperation and meanness will only be viewed as disrespect– and will be punished suitably.

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