I have recently described the risks and gains of entering into deals with the faeries, one of which is the potential problem that the Good folk simply don’t know when to stop assisting the people they’ve favoured. Here I want to say a little more about the benefits and costs of being helped by our Good Neighbours.
The faeries can sometimes surprise us with the help and knowledge that they are prepared to provide to us, uninvited and unrewarded. For example, an old woman from Arisdale on Yell had a long journey back to her home on a dark night. Suddenly, she felt people gripping her hands and asked who it was. Trows spoke, saying that they’d taken pity on her plight and had come to help her. They blew and it became as light as day, then they guided her home and disappeared as soon as her door was open. A similar tale from Skye involves a faery that carried a boy across a swollen stream so that he could get home safely on a stormy night.
Sometimes the faeries bestow their favours even more indiscriminately than this. On South Uist, anyone who saw the door open in a knoll could enter and the inhabitants would teach you a skill. A woman from Howmore went inside and learned to spin beautifully, taking the wool directly from the fleece, without spinning or carding first. We might note, in this connection, that it is possible that the ability may be passed to the human visitor almost unintentionally. William M’Kenzie was a weaver from Barcaldine near Oban. He entered a faery hill he saw open and joined a dance there. After a year and a day, he was rescued from the dancing by his friends (a very typical story across Britain). However, in this case, he returned home endowed with enhanced weaving skills: “he did more work in shorter time than any other” (Campbell, Superstitions, 66) and he was also a better piper than he’d been before. Another generous and spontaneous gift was made to a farmer on the island of Jersey. Ploughing fields one day at L’Etacq, the faeries turned the man’s plough share and horse’s hooves into silver.
The best known manifestation of faery favour is the granting of three wishes, but this can often be used for satirical purposes, as in the following Scottish example. A traveller couple were resting by the road when a little man appeared and offered to grant their wishes. When the pair reached the next town, the woman saw some potato mashers in a shop and wished she had one: instantly, it was in her hand. Her husband was angry because she’d wasted one of her magical wishes and he crossly wished it up her arse. Forthwith, it was there- and his last wish went on getting it out again… A very similar story, with a sausage on a wife’s nose, is also told in the Highlands.
The faeries can also display some unexpected skills. A gamekeeper by the name of Cameron, from Kilmaile in Inverness-shire, fell asleep outside one day. Whilst he slumbered, the faeries found his pocket watch and dismantled it. Cameron took the timepiece to a watch maker, but he couldn’t reassemble it at all. Luckily, though, a small bearded man in a blue suit suddenly appeared and quickly put the watch back together again.
It may come as little surprise to discover that fairy help isn’t always free. Conditions of various kinds may be attached, which may impose burdens on the recipient- or someone else. For instance, a farmer on Rannoch Moor near Glencoe heard the faeries talking amongst themselves, saying “some for me, some for you” as they apparently shared something out. He repeated what they said and found that his cows gave him record amounts of milk: unfortunately, though, there was less milk produced on other local farms that night. One person’s gain from the faes can often be another’s loss.
Fairy skills, when granted, must be properly respected by the lucky recipient. The MacCrimmons are a Skye family renowned for their piping skills and possess a silver bagpipe chanter given to them by a fairy woman. The original beneficiary of this gift met a faery who offered him the skill of sailing, might in battle or musical prowess. He chose the latter but was warned always to reverence the chanter that came with it. A descendant was once in a boat crossing a stormy stretch of sea- he wanted to play his pipes but was unable to do so because the boat was rocking so much on the swell. He threw down the pipes in annoyance and cursed the chanter- which promptly detached itself and leapt into the sea.
Sometimes, skills and good fortune are provided in return for services rendered to the faes. A midwife from Yell attended a birth in a trow home, which was reached down a staircase in a clifftop. After the delivery, she wasn’t paid but instead she was offered the choice of a long life or great knowledge. She chose the latter and became able to see what was to happen in the future. In Montgomeryshire on the Welsh border with England, a woman returning home one day came across a faery dog wandering stray and lost. She took it home and kept it safe under a brass pot. The next day the faeries appeared and she returned their dog to them. She was asked if she preferred a “clean or a dirty cow.” She chose dirty, which meant that her cows became the best milkers in the area.
In a final example from Guernsey, there was a farmhouse at St Saviour’s which was used annually by the local faes for a festival. The understanding with the residents was that they would bake buns for their guests and then go to bed early that night, leaving the food on the table with the door unlocked. If the faes enjoyed the baked goods provided, they would help the household all year. If they didn’t appreciate the food, they would play tricks on the family for twelve months.
All in all, probably, faery aid is not to be desired. Scottish folklore expert John Gregorson Campbell warned of their help that “Their interference is never productive of good in the end and may prove destructive. Men cannot therefore be sufficiently on their guard against them.” As for their gifts, Campbell said that they “have evil influence associated with them and, however inviting at first, are productive of bad luck in the end. No wise man will desire either their company or their kindness. When they come to a house to assist in any work, the sooner they are got rid of the better. If they are hired as servants their wages at first appear trifling, but will ultimately ruin their employer. It is unfortunate even to encounter any of the race, but to consort with them is disastrous in the extreme.” This is a dire assessment, but Campbell knew the Scottish folklore in detail. It will be evident that any dealings of any description with the faeries must be very carefully weighed up in advance (Campbell, Superstitions of the Highlands, 2 & 23).
Many of these themes are also examined in my recent book from Green Magic Publishing, How Things Work in Faery.