Stakhanovite Sprites: when faeries work too hard

I am very pleased to announce another new book, How Things Work in Faery, my guide to the faery economy, which has just been published by Green Magic. I’ve considered aspects of this subject regularly over the last few years and the new book pulls together all the different issues- faery farming, mining, money and their curious relationship with humans in all these areas. Readers will recall that I posted on the subject of faeries doing our chores not long ago. This willingness to undertake some of the more laborious aspects of human work seems to be ingrained in the fae temperament across the British Isles. For example, the trows on the mainland of Shetland would clean people’s homes and grind their corn, accepting clothes, bread and other food in return. Their attitude to recompense was complex though: for one family on the island of Yell they used to make shoes, wooden items and other goods, which the recipients were able to sell, making themselves rich. These trows never asked for payment for all their toiling and, in fact, when food and drink was left out for them, they were offended and left forever (having first eaten what was offered!)

A regular- and even stranger- feature of the folklore of the Scottish Highlands is the repeated reports of faeries causing a problem for humans by being too keen to work. We’re used to the idea of a few faeries voluntarily taking up residence with or near to humans, and helping out in the homes and farms: brownies, glaistigs, gruagachs, hobs and boggarts are the main examples of these. It’s also fairly common for humans to be taken temporarily or even permanently to provide a service: piping or midwifery (which are usually paid for), wet nurses and carers for children and simple domestic servants (or slaves). Fairies who are so willing to work that they become a nuisance is a different situation to all of these, but it’s frequently encountered.

Work, Work, Work

In Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, John Gregorson Campbell gives a good example of the problem of faeries who are too committed to their work.

“The Fairies staying in Dunvuilg came to assist a farmer in the vicinity in weaving and preparing cloth, and, after finishing the work in a wonderfully short space of time, called for more work. To get rid of his officious assistants, the farmer called outside the door that Dunvuilg was on fire. In some form or other it is extensively known, and in every locality the scene is laid in its own neighbourhood. In Mull the fairy residence is said to have been the bold headland in the south-west known as Dun Bhuirbh. Some say the elves were brought to the house by two old women, who were tired of spinning, and incautiously said they wished all the people in Dun Bhuirbh were there to assist. According to others, the elves were in the habit of coming to Tapull House in the Ross of Mull, and their excessive zeal made them very unwelcome. In Skye the event is said to have occurred at Dun Bhuirbh… The rhyme they had when they came to Tapull is known:


‘Let me comb, card, tease, spin, Get a weaving loom quick,
Water for fulling on the fire- Work, work, work.’
The cry they raised when going away, in the Skye version, runs:
‘Dun Bhuirbh on fire, Without dog or man, My balls of thread And my bags of meal.'”

In another version of this, recorded in John Francis Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the fairies run off fretting over their cheese moulds, butter pails, meal chests, goats and such like.

Campbell also mentions a man in Flodigarry who expressed a wish that his corn were reaped, even if it should be by fairy assistance. A host of fairies came and reaped the field in two nights. After doing this, they called for more work, and the man set them to empty the sea.

Generally it is an unwise wish by a human that their house or farm work was completed that brings the faeries to them. It might be weaving or household chores, but the fairies will appear instantly and will then do the task in record time whilst producing excellent results- the finest tweed is made in one Skye example, for instance. Then the fairies will not leave and are given increasingly desperate jobs to occupy them. A barn might be roofed, all the spring work on the farm might be completed, then they have to be asked to strip an entire hill of its heather, then the humans have to resort to trickery to relieve themselves of their helpers, who have become a nuisance by their enthusiasm and productivity. Emptying the sea with a sieve or being asked to build a bridge with bricks of sand tied with ropes of sand finally exhausts the fairies’ patience. In one Skye case, the housewife asked the sith folk to fight each other- which they obediently did- but grass never grew again on the spot where they shed each other’s blood. On Ben Doran, in Glencoe, a man called Echain wished for fairy aid cutting peat. They completed this in record time and asked for, so he had them strip the bracken from the hill; when they returned for another task, he set them to plaiting ropes of sand. They are thought still to be at work.

These accounts remind us of two significant aspects to living with fairy neighbours: they are always eavesdropping upon us and, even worse, they can punish us if we try to outwit them. Another Scottish writer, Patrick Graham, in Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery (1806) said that the fairies of Perthshire were “always, though invisibly, present…” This is the problem for humans- and it appears to be more acute at night.

There is in Scottish Gaelic folklore the concept of a ‘night wish’ (ordachadh oidhche): for example, a man on the Hebrides was digging in his fields when darkness forced him to stop. He wished his spring digging was completed- and a host of fairies immediately appeared and carried on with his labours, finishing the task by dawn. In this case the contentious issue was the fairies’ wages, which they negotiated after fulfilling his wish. The man had to agree to give a sheaf to each worker- and his entire harvest was taken. In an example from Skye, a man at Borve was looking at his fields and remarked, out loud, “That corn is ready to be cut!” Next morning he found that the entire crop had been reaped and stacked. Then a small man four feet high appeared and asked for pay. He only requested a few potatoes and a little pot, which seemed very modest and was readily given. However, he returned daily asking for more and more, until the desperate farmer had to resort to telling him that there was a fire at Dun Borve (an ancient broch and notorious as a fairy dwelling). These two cases also compound the problems of the humans by weakening their bargaining position- the work has been done and they’re under an obligation to their fairy neighbours, whether wished for or not (Folklore vols 11 & 33).

A similar report comes form Shetland. A crofter at Easter Colbinstoft suffered repeatedly from others’ cattle straying onto his land. He told his wife one night that he’d give his best cow to have a good wall right around his farm to protect it. When he woke up the next morning, he was stunned to see that just such a wall had been built overnight. The trows, of course, had heard him, had assembled a great crowd of workers and had done the job in record time. They’d also taken the best cow, which they reckoned had been promised to them in advance.

The Scottish fairies take their love of labour to extremes, but they are not isolated in their work ethic: the fairies of the Channel Islands display the same tendencies. I have mentioned before their willingness to complete domestic chores, but their attitude goes some distance beyond mere helpfulness in return for a gift of food. On Jersey, if a person wants work to be finished, it must simply be left out with a piece of cake and a bowl of milk overnight. On both Jersey and Guernsey, the fairies are noted for their skill in needlework and knitting and will repair clothes and complete garments to a high standard if the materials and tools are provided. Quite voluntarily too, the fairies of Saints Bay on Guernsey will repair farm carts and tools if they are left with a gift of food outside their cave.

Show Gratitude- Don’t Take for Granted

This preparedness to help should not be exploited, though. The Guernsey fairies assist those who are overwhelmed; they won’t help those who are behind with their tasks because they’re lazy. These individuals are knocked about when they’re asleep in bed.

Very similar Scottish examples can be found, too. Skye the fairies of Dun Bornaskitaig helped a poor widow by harvesting her entire oat crop in one night, reaping the grain and stacking it all neatly in sheaves. On the Isle of Lewis, the fairies were also known to undertake tasks if asked by humans. A man asked them to make a mast for his fishing boat out of the handle of his hammer;. One fairy died trying to complete the job; his brother succeeded, but cursed the human for his abuse of their help. The Shetland trows can impede the work of those they take against.

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