Northern Lights & Nimble Men

Image by Chris Murray/ BBC

I have previously alluded to the fact that there seem to be some now obscure and uncertain links between faeries and the stars. You may recall how Alan Garner in his 2021 book Treacle Warner made the eponymous faery hero of the book an inhabitant of the ‘Land of the Summer Stars.’

In the north of Scotland, there is a far surer link between the faeries under their knowes and the heavens. The faeries are thought to be responsible for the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis. The lights go by various names across Britain, such as the Perry Dancers in East Anglia; they are called the ‘Merry Dancers’ or Fir Chlis (Nimble Men) in Scotland. Their origins and faery connections also have several explanations.

According to one story (very obviously shaped by Christian beliefs), after the revolt of Satan the angels were cast out of heaven. Some fell to earth and became faeries; some fell into the sea and became the so-called Fir Gorm, the Blue Men of the Western Isles of Scotland; others fell only as far as the sky and are seen as the ‘Northern Streamers.’

Although the Merry Dancers are distinguished from the sluagh, who are notorious for hunting and abducting humans, theirs is still a violent existence. They are said to fight an everlasting battle, which we witness as the lights in the sky. The blood that’s shed during this conflict gathers at first as in a red cloud below the aurora, known as ‘the pool of blood,’ before falling to earth, where it can be seen congealed as ‘blood stones,’ called fuil siochaire or elves’ blood in the Hebrides. The fighting of the faery hosts at Halloween likewise leaves behind traces of blood, a red liquid that seeps from lichens after frost. In some accounts, the fighting takes place between different clans of the Fir Chlis for possession of a faery woman.

On Shetland the lights were once feared and were called the Fighting Lasses. Now their reputation seems to have ameliorated; they are referred to as the Pretty Dancers because, on still nights, you can hear the swish of their dresses as they glide about the sky. There is even a dance tune, perhaps learned from the faeries, called the Pretty Dancers’ Reel. William Allingham’s poem, The Fairies, reflects this more benign view, describing how the faes will go “up with music on cold starry nights/ To feast with the queen of the gay Northern Lights.”

Fir chlis over Callanais stone circle

Another poet, the Scottish folklorist Donald Mackenzie, wrote an even more detailed examination of this mythology in his poem The Nimble Men. It is included in his 1909 collection, Elves and Heroes, which I’ve mentioned before, and it’s short enough to include in full.

The Nimble Men

When Angus Ore, the wizard,
His fearsome wand will raise,
The night is filled with splendour,
And the north is all ablaze;
From clouds of raven blackness,
Like flames that leap on high-
All merrily dance the Nimble Men across the Northern Sky.

Now come the Merry Maidens,
All gowned in white and green,
While the bold and ruddy fellows
Will be flitting in between-
O to hear the fairy piper
Who will keep them tripping by!
The men and maids who merrily dance across the Northern Sky.

O the weird and waesome music,
And the never-faltering feet!
O their fast and strong embraces,
And their kisses hot and sweet!
There’s a lost and languished lover
With a fierce and jealous eye,
As merrily flit the Nimble Folk across the Northern Sky.

So now the dance is over,
And the dancers sink to rest-
There’s a maid that has two lovers,
And there’s one she loves the best;
He will cast him down before her,
She will raise him with a sigh-
Her love so bright who danced to-night across the Northern Sky.

Then up will leap the other,
And up will leap his clan-
O the lover and his company
Will fight them man to man-
All shrieking from the conflict
The merry maidens fly-
There’s a Battle Royal raging now across the Northern Sky.

Through all the hours of darkness
The fearsome fight will last;
They are leaping white with anger,
And the blows are falling fast-
And where the slain have tumbled
A pool of blood will lie-
O it’s dripping on the dark green stones from out the Northern Sky.

When yon lady seeks her lover
In the cold and pearly morn,
She will find that he has fallen
By the hand that she would scorn,
She will clasp her arms about him,
And in her anguish die!
O never again will trip the twain across the Northern Sky.”

This discussion of the Fir Chlis is adapted from my 2021 book, Faeries and the Natural World, published by Green Magic Press.

Trowie Tunes & Trows in Music

A trowie song & dance

I’ve previously written about faery music, what’s often termed ceol sidhe in Irish Gaelic, and people’s experiences of hearing it. In this posting I want to survey how faery music has more directly impacted human music, through borrowed tunes and as a source of inspiration to us.

The faes are renowned for their love of music (and dance) and for their skill in playing instruments. That skill can be conveyed to humans- one potential route for faery tunes to reach us, perhaps. The examples of this process seem to come almost entirely from the Highlands of Scotland, with gifts of proficiency in playing the bagpipes often bestowed- not uncommonly along with an enchanted set of pipes (or the chanter at least).

Across Britain, it has been common over the centuries for people to hear faeries displaying their instrumental skills, usually the sounds of music being overheard coming from below faery hills. Examples of such locales can be found from the Fairy Knowe on Skye to the ‘music barrows’ of southern England, for example at Bincombe Down and Culliford Tree in Dorset and Wick Moor, near Stogursey in Somerset. A rare exception to this ‘eavesdropping’ is found in the story of Finlay, grandson of the ‘Black Fairy’ on Mingulay, whose own faery lover used to play her harp to him.

A number of faery tunes have been copied and preserved in human music, most notably in Shetland and Wales, where they are still remembered and played. A famous Shetland tune is Be nort da deks o’ Voe, learned directly from the trows. There are several such so-called trowie or ferry tüns from the far northern isles; two Welsh examples are Cân y tylwyth teg and Ffarwel Ned Pugh

The usual process for acquisition is simply overhearing the reel being played and committing it to memory. Most often this happens when a musician happens to be sat on or near a faery knowe, but in one Shetland case, a man heard a trow piper playing the tune when a crowd of trows passed his house one morning, whilst he was still lying in his bed. On the Isle of Man, a man called Willy the Fairy (William Cain) during late Victorian and Edwardian times often heard fairies singing and playing instruments in Glen Helen at night and had learned several songs just by listening to them. In fact, quite a number of Manx tunes and songs are reported to have been borrowed by humans, being fairy compositions originally.

In a few cases the tunes are more consciously passed on. A piper called Fyfe from Reay in Perthshire spent many hours with the fairies, enjoying their music and honing his own skills- giving his playing a magical charm that made him much in demand at dances. Sometimes conferring musical ability seems almost incidental or accidental: a fairy woman visited a Perthshire home and tuned the family’s bagpipes for them. She then played a few tunes before leaving, but the three sons of the family were endowed with great prowess as pipers thereafter.

A major problem in transmission is that faery music can prove notoriously hard to remember. In his 1779 history of Aberystruth parish, the Reverend Edmund Jones reported that “everyone said [the music] was low and pleasant, but none could ever learn the tune.” On the Isle of Man, one musician had to return three times to the same spot where he’d heard faery music to be able to commit it to memory (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, pages 118 & 131). This aspect of the music has parallels with memories of time spent by mortals with the faeries ‘under the hill.’ Some have said they are unable to recall anything of what happened and what was said whilst they were there (although we may suspect that a diplomatic silence may actually be involved).

As for faeries and trows featuring in human music, Italian folk metal band Elvenking, for example, regularly refer to elvendom, elven legions and the elven king in their songs- see, for instance, ‘Oakenshield,’ ‘Banquet of Bards’ and, much more remarkably, ‘Trows’ Kind.’ This track, from the band’s 2006 album Winter Wake, is a unique catalogue of British folklore, from the Shetland trows “henking” at a dance, taking in southern Scottish Redcaps who are “greedy for silver and gold” to witches in the form of hares. ‘Henking’ is the distinctive limping dance performed by trows.

All in all, the song is a lament for a fading faery kind:

“Through years and centuries,
Through myth and poetry
Our race’s slowly dying
In the heart of mankind.”

At the same time, though, the lyrics are not sentimental about fae nature: they are “Nymphs of dark and lust- Fairy of bad fate!”- although it is also reported that-

“Somebody tells he has seen
Some of the little ones
Some even that have talked with them
So nice and handsome…”

Again, the wisest course of action over faery doings (and faery tunes) may be a discrete silence.

Overall, Elvenking seem to be under no illusions about the perilous truth of faery nature: they advise against getting involved- “Please, don’t be such a fool!” They know that faeries can be highly alluring, tempting humans into ill-advised sexual liaisons: “Desire grows, denial howls/ Your will has gone,” but the only likely outcome is enslavement and subjection.

For more information on the impact of Faery on human composers and songwriters, see my 2022 book, published on Amazon, The Faery Faith in British Music.

Some Green Magic in the Gloom

I started the ‘British Fairies’ blog on WordPress in summer 2016. A little under a year later, Green Magic Publishing were kind enough to accept by book, British Fairies, for publication. Since then my knowledge and fascination with faeries has only deepened further and I have had the opportunity to undertake considerable extra research, especially through the British Library.

Lockdown from March 2020 had many downsides, but it enabled me to complete my two books for Llewellyn Worldwide (Faery and Beyond Faery). Then, as the pandemic began to stretch into a second year, I still had lots of unused material, lots of ideas (some part finished, some not even hatched) and a lot of time on my hands. Lockdown created an opportunity for uninterrupted concentration- and the result was a succession of faery titles. Pete Gotto at Green Magic was keen to give them coherence and to view them as a series and- as I’ve mentioned in a previous post- all of the most recent books have been given uniformity with Arthur Rackham themed covers. The result has been eight titles examining every aspect of faery life and lore.

Who’s Who in Faeryland is the most recent release, and offers a set of biographies of the best known characters in Faery (as well as some lesser known but still important figures).

The Faery Lifecycle is a detailed study of every aspect of faery biology: physiology, anatomy, reproduction, mortality and diet. This is a subject that hasn’t really be considered before and it seemed necessary to pull all the evidence together.

Faeries are intimately associated with the natural world in the minds of many- although the evidence, on examination, is not as conclusive as we might anticipate. This book looks at how our Good Neighbours actually fit in with and interact with their environment.

Seeing faeries as small and identified with the world of wild nature can create an impression that they are uniformly benign and harmless. Any honest appraisal of British faery tradition paints a very different picture, as this study makes clear.

The Isle of Man is rich in a complex faery tradition that is both unique and yet familiar. This book brings together all the information on the ferrishyn, bugganes, glashtyns, fynoderee, water bulls, water horses and mermaids to provide a complete statement of Manx Faery.

The pixies of the British South West are amongst some of the most famous and identifiable faery ‘types’ or ‘races’ in Britain. This handbook offers a detailed examination of their lifestyle and habits.

The faery economy is something we almost take for granted. Yet, in parallel to the mortal world, the faeries are farming, trading, building and manufacturing just like humans. As a complement to the Faery Lifecyle, this books considers how life in Faery operates.

***

Alongside these books, I was fortunate enough to be able to write two books on pagan deities (Aphrodite and Pan) with Green Magic and also to self-publish a few additional faery texts. Perhaps it’s time to slacken off the pace of research and writing now, but- if this blog interests you- have a look at the Green Magic website for a wide range of books that may appeal!

Faeries have been a fascination since my early twenties. Having the opportunity to focus upon them over the last few years- and making the choice to do so- has been immensely rewarding and absorbing. I hope you might find interest in some of the fruits of my passion and that you can share some of that delight. Of course- it’s not just inside with books: it’s outside with the elders and the hawthorns, with the hillocks and the hidden places…

The Fairy Faith in British Music

Saga om ringen, the English edition of Dane Bo Hansson’s album

I have recently published The Faery Faith in British Music, which builds upon some of my previous postings to offer a comprehensive study of the impact of Faery on classical and contemporary music, in musical, operas and symphonies, over the last 150 years. Just as faeries have had a major influence in poetry and in art, they have been surprisingly prevalent in many different genres and styles of music- not just sonatas and concertos, but novelty records, pop songs, folk rock, prog rock, indie, goth and heavy metal. Artists who’ve dealt with faery themes range from the improbable (Cliff Richard) through the well known (Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Sigur Ros, Queen, Pink Floyd and Marc Bolan) to the obscure- the many thrash metal bands named after characters in the Silmarillion and singing in Elvish or in the Black Speech of the orcs of Mordor (really).

It turns out that the books of J R R Tolkien have had a huge impact on heavy metal around the world. This has been going on since the 1970s (Led Zeppelin sang about ring wraiths in The Battle of Evermore, for example) but it’ll probably come as no surprise to learn that huge impetus was given to this trend by the Peter Jackson films. Here, I’m going to give just one small example of the huge creativity that has been sparked.

Songs and albums have been composed around Middle Earth themes, from thrash metal tracks to entire metal operas. Some artists, however, have reacted to the Tolkien’s epics by wishing to sound as if they actually come from Middle Earth.  Jon Anderson, whom some readers might know as the former vocalist of British prog rock band Yes, in 2006 collaborated with several other musicians and singers, collectively called ‘The Fellowship,’ to record In Elven Lands, a collection of songs played on modern and antique instruments, such as the harp, lute, hurdy-gurdy and crumhorn, that was inspired by the writings of Tolkien.  The haunting track ‘Beware the Wolf’ provides the album with its name: the song follows a hunter “through woven woods in elven lands.”

Interviewed in August 2006 on the Howard Stern radio show in the USA, Anderson stated that he had acquired a spiritual adviser who “helped him see into the fourth dimension.” He also revealed that, since a magic mushroom experience some time previously, he had considered himself to be part of the “elf culture.” These experiences certainly help to explain his involvement in the album.

On the album, ‘The Fellowship’ took a musicological approach to imagining how the songs and tunes of the ancient cultures described by Tolkien might have sounded.  The metre and style he had employed for the verse in the books was copied for the tracks on the album (and, of course, the existence of these songs in the books provide both a template and a justification for all the bands I have mentioned to devise their own versions).  A variety of musical cultures from around the world inspired the different songs on In Elven Lands.  Thus, English folk tradition was drawn upon to represent Hobbit tunes; the elves’ music was based on mediaeval sacred music and the ballads of the troubadours. The music of Numenor was like Elvish- but with added Greek and Macedonian influences. The results are truly striking.  The album cover, too, is notable: it uses an image from a medieval manuscript and Elvish lettering, but generally has a restrained tone, like an album of classical or early music.

The subject matter for the songs on In Elven Lands is drawn from across the numerous writings of Tolkien, not just The Lord of the Rings but The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales and the Unfinished Tales as well.  The resulting tracks feature Quenya, Noldorin and Sindarin lyrics, alongside songs in modern English, Anglo-Saxon, and a kind of Neo-Elvish.  Carvin Knowles, producer of In Elven Lands, has said of the recording process that “[Anderson] was a real sport about singing in Elvish… Hearing Sindarin with his Yorkshire accent is enough to make any fan smile.”  (NB: in fact, Anderson is from Accrington in Lancashire, on the wrong side of the Pennines from Yorkshire, a very important distinction if you’re from either county…!) The Elven Lands album also includes a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Battle of Evermore’, transformed into a slow medieval ballad.

The richness of faery inspired music is astonishing. It is a demonstration of the ways in which Faery continues to enrich our culture– something that is often overlooked by those who dismiss faeries as only fir for little girls in pink dresses, wearing elasticated wings. Tell that to a fan of one of those thrash metal bands singing in Dwarvish… The Faery Faith in British Music is available from Amazon, either as an e-book (£5.95) or a paperback (£7.95).

The Gyre Carlin & Nicnevin

Gyre Carling– Minor Oak, Nottingham

In the East of Scotland, especially in Fife, there is a spirit known as the gyre-carlin (or gy-carling and variants thereon). She is a female faery who’s particularly linked to cloth-making. It used to be said that, if unspun flax was not removed from the distaff at the end of the year, she would steal it all. Conversely, if asked by a woman for the endowment of skill in spinning, the gyre carling would enable the recipient to do three to four times as much work as other spinners. Despite these humble domestic aspects, though, the gyre-carlin had a more fearsome side to her character. She was the Lowland equivalent of the cailleach, or hag, being well-armed, violent and partially cannibalistic. Perhaps for this reason, she was also called Nicnevin (see below).

In 1584, Robert Sempill wrote a satirical poem attacking the bishop of St Andrews in Fife for having used the services of a healer called Alison Pearson to treat various ailments (I’ve mentioned Alison before in postings). She was later convicted as a witch, with clear reputational repercussions for the bishop. In his poem, Sempill described at one point how, on Halloween, “Ane carling of the Quene of Phareis” rides through all of Alba (Scotland) with her “sillie wychtis.” This servant of the fairy queen is a ‘carline’ or ‘carling’- a stout and bad-tempered woman and (by extension) a witch and she’s seen riding out with ‘seelie wights,’ who are other members of the faery queen’s ‘unseelie’ court.

The carline’s association with the last faery rade of the year at Halloween was widespread. Recording the folk belief of Dumfries and Galloway, Robert Cromek described her in this connection as “the mother of glamour, and near akin to Satan himself. She is believed to preside over the ‘ Hallowmass Rades,’ and mothers frequently frighten their children by threatening to give them to M’Neven, or the Gyre Carline.”

The word ‘carling’ that Sempill used had a pejorative sense of old woman, in the sense of a ‘crone’ or ‘hag’ but also giantess. In this guise, the carline appears in a Scots poem called ‘The Gyre Carling.’ The verse tells that she lived in a tower at Beattock, near Moffat, and ate the flesh of humans. She had a club of iron to defend herself- which she needed when she was besieged by the “king of fary” who came “with elffis mony ane” (with many elves). She fled from him and his pack of hounds by getting astride a pig: she “schup her on ane sow and is her gaitis gane” (she settled herself on a sow and went her ways). In David Lyndsay’s 1528 poem, The Dreme, the ‘Gyir Carlyng’ appears alongside the three headed giant, the Red Etin, implying that she was of comparably large and scary.

The gyre carline apparently enjoys the simple entertainment of outdoor sports. It was reported in the late eighteenth century that, during winter nights, “Gyar Carlins” and faeries could be heard curling on frozen lochs. In addition to these benign activities, however, they would stop humans who were out and about at Halloween and stuff them full of butter and beare awns (barley husks); they were also prone to taking children and leaving changelings.

Although many of the places named in association with the gyre-carline are in the south of Scotland, it must also be observed that she was known throughout the country. In Sutherland, in the very north of the mainland, she was, once again, associated with spinning. The carline only appeared twice in the year, at Candlemas (February 2nd) and on Shrove Tuesday, at which seasons she took the form of an old woman (as her name partly implies). If the drive band were not removed from a household’s spinning wheel, she would commandeer it and work through the night, making so much noise that the family was woken and then kept awake with fear. Houses had to be prepared in advance of her arrival, most notably setting out a bowl of fresh water so that she could bathe her child, whom she brought with her (a trait which clearly links her with wider faery kind).

Nicnevin

The female being known as Nicnevin may well be identical with the Gyre Carling. There are various interpretations of this faery female’s name: it may mean ‘daughter of heaven’ or something like ‘daughter of bones.’ She has, in addition, been linked to the Irish war goddess Badb, who is also called Neamhain; hence, the being is the child of the deity. Other spellings provide alternative derivations, such as NicNaomhin, ‘daughter of the little saint’ and NicCreamhain, ‘daughter of the little tree man.’

Nicnevin seems, like the gyre, to be a giantess, hence Walter Scott called her a hag and a “gigantic and malignant female” whom he linked to witches and who rides on storms. A witch from Crieff tried in about 1615 was called Catherine Nevin, reinforcing this association. One authority has suggested that she got her surname from her neighbours because they identified her with the faery queen. The same may well be the case for another ‘witch’ and folk healer, Margaret NicLevine of Bute, who was tried in 1662.

The poet Montgomerie described this female riding on Halloween riding with the elf king and queen and their court:

“Nicniven, with hir nymphes in number anew [enough]…
The king of phairie, and his court, with the elf queine,
With mony elrich incubus was rydand that nycht.”

Early in the last century, the name of Nicnevin was still associated with Faery. A woman from Quarff on Shetland claimed to be acquainted with some local trows among whom was one Sara Neven.

This posting is an extract from a chapter in my latest book published by Green Magic Publishing, which is called Who’s Who In Faeryland.