I recently came across a valuable Scottish folklore resource, the website A Kist of Riches, www.tobarandualchais.co.uk. This provided a range of new accounts of changelings to supplement my recent book on changelings, Middle Earth Cuckoos. The website features hundreds of recordings, many in Gaelic: a changeling in Scots is a “shargie” or “shag” bairn, in Gaelic a tacharan or siofra/ siobhra.
The two main issues dealt with by the folklore on changelings are the identifying features of the faery substitutes and the ways of getting rid of them and retrieving the original babies. C. F. Gordon-Cumming, describing the Hebrides in 1883 recorded that:
“changelings are idiot children, wizened and emaciated, yet their utter childishness blends with occasional flashes of mother wit to convince people that it is a fairy child.”
What’s more, changelings tend to cry constantly and to have appetites and thirsts that can never be satisfied.
The sort of behaviour that will indicate unequivocally that the individual in the cradle is a great deal older than its bodily form might suggest include a range of adult actions, such as sticking out the tongue and blowing raspberries. A very common Scottish story concerns a visitor to a house to whom the changeling reveals himself. The tacharan might play tunes on a length of straw like a pipe, or on the chanter of bagpipes, or he might share a drop of whisky with the stranger. In one instance from the Isle of Lewis, once the parents had gone out the baby transformed into an old bearded man who then entertained a visiting tailor by playing on a pair of tongs. In another example, from Lochbroom, the child used to leap out of bed when the adults were absent, take on the form of a man and would then perform labour around the farm in return for meals. Another common Highland story concerns a changeling who asks a visiting cobbler to make him a pair of boots or shoes “that will fit a child but which will be fit for a king.”
A preternatural ability to speak is very likely to disclose the changeling’s truly aged nature. One on Skye ate constantly but only ever used one phrase “muc dhearg” (red pig). A local healer was able to drive him off by threatening him with a sword and responding “the devil’s red pig” (“Muc dhearg an Diabhail.”)
One tacharan, at Blairgowrie in Perthshire, on being expelled by the parents disappeared up the chimney, but not before saying that “he would have liked to have known his mother better.” At first glance, this might appear to be a polite and complimentary expression of regret, but I strongly suspect that it was meant to be quite the opposite- as the hearers would have instantly understood. This elderly faery male, in the guise of a baby, would have been enjoying regular breast feeds from the human woman, so his parting jibe was really a cruel reminder of what they had harboured in the literal bosom of the family.
Even so, as in one case reported from Llandwrgan in Wales, the exchange might not be spotted for months in the case of very young babies. In newborns, it would naturally take some while for the precocious or bad tempered nature of the substituted child to manifest itself; this is why it was often said that, at first, the changeling was undetectable because it looked exactly like the stolen child.
Although, of course, the presence of the changeling necessarily indicates the absence of the family’s original child, the presence of a shargie was not always entirely negative. One child at Gart na Damh on Islay was wholly dependent upon the care of its grandmother, and spent all its time lying in a specially constructed bed, but so long as it was alive and living with the family, they prospered. As soon as it died, their luck changed. In another case from Islay the child was seven feet tall and had never risen from its cradle, even though it was nineteen years old. One day the exasperated father set fire to the crib to drive the changeling out- which succeeded, but all the cows died too.
Once it has been realised by a family that the creature in the cradle is not their beloved baby, most parents not unnaturally want to be rid of it, especially because the belief is that the departure of the changeling will be matched by the reciprocal return of the human infant. The usual means of achieving this is to make life as unpleasant as possible for the shargie.
Remedies include beating with a stick and whipping; threatening the child with a pin or knife; throwing it off a cliff; by exposing it outside overnight (a faery knoll being an especially good spot) or by leaving it on a rock on the seashore as the tide comes in, or feeding the suspect child with porridge with “something added” (perhaps salt or an objectionable herb such as mothan/ pearlwort). Telling the faery that its home was on fire could well provoke it into leaping out of the cradle and running home. Another Shetland remedy was to scatter earth on the floor from a basket and then to sweep it out of the house, along with the trow changeling.
Fire is perennially viewed as a good cure, as has already been seen. One Shetland boy who became very lazy was exposed as a trow changeling (as least so far as his family were concerned) when the father set fire to his bed and the boy suddenly leapt energetically from it.
Across Scotland, perhaps the commonest means of exposing a ‘shargie bairn’ was to place horse dung on a griddle or shovel, put the baby on top of that, and then hold them over the fire. This combination of noisome substance and heat was guaranteed to send the changeling shooting up the chimney. Other responses by the child to this mistreatment- which would only serve to confirm the creature’s true nature- were curses and swearing or, in one instance, throwing sods of earth from the roof back down the chimney.
Once the true baby was restored, wise precautions then would be to tie a red thread around its wrist and to nail a horseshoe over the door. These sorts of precaution ought, obviously, to have been taken in advance- given the very widespread fear of faery takings- but given the stress and distraction of looking after a new baby (especially where there were other children to care for or a farm to run) it’s understandable how they could be overlooked just for a moment, allowing the ever watchful faes their chance.