“Into the holes of the earth”

Arennig Fawr

A common origin story for the faeries is that they are a remnant of the angels that rebelled with Satan. As more and more angels quit heaven, god commanded that the doors of heaven and hell both be closed- “And those who were in were in, and those who were out were out; while the hosts who had left heaven and had not reached hell flew into the holes of the earth, like the stormy petrels. These are the Fairy Folk- ever since doomed to live under the ground, and only allowed to emerge where and when they are permitted.” This is a Scottish version recorded by Evans-Wentz in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (page 85). It echoes through his book, though. At Pontrhydfendigaid, a village about two miles from the railway-station called Strata Florida, Wentz met Mr. John Jones, aged ninety-four, who also confirmed that “the Tylwyth Teg live in holes in the hills…” (page 116). Equally, Wentz was told that the Breton faes live in “natural caverns or grottoes in the sea-cliffs” (203 & 211); the same was heard repeatedly in Ireland and elsewhere in Scotland (93), Man (117) and in Wales (144 & 149).

Let’s consider a few actual examples. Midwives have proved to be a good source of evidence on faery dwellings because their profession demands that they are taken to the woman in labour. Frequently, too, they come into contact with that green ointment which is used to anoint the newborn faery’s eyes- and which can dispel glamour if accidentally rubbed on a mortal’s eyes. Midwives, therefore, are taken into faery homes and frequently find the true nature of those homes revealed to them. Katherine Briggs, in her Dictionary of Fairies (pages 296-8) describes two such cases. The first is quite modern- from the 1920s: a district nurse at Greenhow Hill, near Pateley Bridge in North Yorkshire, was approached on a bus by a strange man who took her to a cave in the side of the hill where she attended a ‘pixie’ delivery. The second case Briggs cited was that of Eilian of Garth Dorwen, south of Caernarfon. Contact with the ointment meant that the midwife could see that the new mother “lay on a bundle of rushes and withered ferns in a large cave, with big stones all round her” rather than the fine room the woman had initially supposed.

Moel Eilio

This Welsh story was taken by Briggs from John Rhys’ Celtic Folklore (vol.1 page 213), a book which is full of references to the tylwyth teg living in caves. Rhys also gives evidence of caves that lead down into Faery (for instance at Croes Wylan, near Oswestry, [p.411] as well as other examples near Criccieth, Tal y Clegyr and Bettws y Coed) plus caves where treasure is concealed or where King Arthur and his men lie sleeping (often the same places). The fair folk were known to actually reside in caves at various locations (ten at least) around North Wales, amongst them Arennig Fawr, Trwyn Swch, Moel Eilio, Moel Hebog, Pantannas, Raven’s Rift, Ystradfellte and Tan yr Ogof (Rhys pages 457, 693, 83, 96, 176, 189, 191, 254 & 255). People were often captured by them in rings and then abducted to the caves. The latter seem to be the places where the tylwyth teg sheltered during the daytime, coming out at night to dance and to indulge in others activities- such as bathing their children in human homes.

An article published recently in the Fairy Investigation Society newsletter (issue 15) identified two other cave locations: one is in the slopes of Craig Rhiwarth hill fort in the Tanat Valley:

“The rings with which the southern slopes of the hill are more or less covered mark the exits from which the fairies emerged when twilight gathered, or mist descended, on the hill, and into which they disappeared again with the emergence of the full daylight.”

R. Richards, Montgomeryshire Collections, vol. 45, 1938, 196

(The Dartmoor pixies are reported to share the same habits, living under the moorland turf, or even the bogs, during the day and emerging at night. If discovered by humans and at too great a distance from the entrances to their homes, the pixies will take temporary shelter in rabbit holes- see my British Pixies for more).

Craig Rhiwarth

A second is the cavern in Llanymynech hill, near Oswestry, which has been long noted as
the home of a fairy clan, “to whom the neighbouring villages attribute many surprising and mischievous pranks. Whilst they have stopped to listen at the mouth of the cave, the people state that they have sometimes even heard the little elves in conversation, but this was always in such low whispers, that the words which were reverberated along the sides and roof of the cavern could not be distinguished. The stream that runs across a distant part of this cavern is celebrated as the place where the fairy washerwomen and labourers have been heard frequently at work.” (W. Bingley, Excursions in North Wales, 1839, 322-323)

Llanymynech Hill is also penetrated by a number of tunnels and “Tradition says this labyrinth communicated, by subterranean paths, with Carreghova Castle; and some persons aver that they have gone into it so far as to hear the rivers Fyrnwy and Tanat rolling over their heads, and that it leads down
to Fairy-land.” (R. Llwyd, History of Wales, 1832, 295)

Thomas Keightley (Fairy Mythology, 311-312) recounts the experience of a doctor who treats a patient in a hall inside a mountain. The author also describes a midwife (or howdie) who was taken to a cottage which turned out to be just the bare ground sheltered by an old oak tree. Neither of these are precisely located- other than being ‘somewhere’ in England- though the dialect term ‘howdie’ might indicate a northern origin. Similar to this is another Welsh account, dated to 1910, which tells of another district nurse who attended a woman in labour in a chamber that was formed of bushes around a bed of moss (Welsh Outlook 18(2)).

All these caves sound bare and without furniture, apparently unimproved by their faery inhabitants. A couple of examples from the seventeenth century suggest that the accommodation need not be so spartan. The famous ‘Fairy Boy of Leith,’ who claimed to have been a regular visitor ‘under the hill,’ described “that within there were brave, large rooms as well accommodated as most in Scotland.” The East Yorkshire story of the ‘White Powder’ tells of a “fair hall” under a hill where the faery queen held her court. Of course, both of these may just be the deceptions of glamour, concealing the reality of unadorned caves.

There’s a preponderance of Welsh cases in our list of cave dwellings, but I don’t think this implies that the tylwyth teg are uniquely poorer than the rest of British Faery. Of course, the possibility remains open, that the faery lifestyle is frequently a great deal more open-air and simple than we might expect.

I’ll finish with one last witness experience illustrative of this last interpretation- which was reported on Neil Rushton’s deadbutdreaming blog. This encounter occurred in East Anglia on the Icknield Way long distance footpath near Hitchin. A man was walking his dog one May evening twenty years ago.

“There were no other people around but as I climbed up the hill I could smell and see smoke. I came across several people who were camping in the ditch. I then realised with absolute astonishment that they looked really ‘odd’. They were small in height and size and most appeared very old and wrinkled – as if they had lived outside all their lives. They were weathered looking with dark or grey hair, tied back. There were about ten or twelve of them in total; men and women. At least two of the women were nursing babies, well wrapped up. I did not notice any children. The tents were very small, brown, very old looking and appeared to be of leather. Most of the tents had small fires outside with cooking utensils hanging over the fires.”

These mysterious people were camping out and gave every impression of having camped out for their entire lives. Perhaps it is indeed the case that the faeries are a hardened outdoor folk, inured to cold and wet weather (or simply less susceptible to it than we mortals are). I have suggested in my book on the Faery Lifecycle that they may feel frost and rain as much as us, pointing to the hobs who like to lie by farm fireplaces at night- but perhaps those hobs have just got soft through too much exposure to human comforts! Maybe the majority of faeries don’t mind (or don’t even notice) frugal shelters and poor climate- conditions that’d get us moaning within minutes…

Llanymynech Rocks

Fays and Astral Love

A Sylph, by imarty on deviantart

Quite a few readers of the blog show a persistent interest in questions of sex and faeries. Pondering this subject once again, I came across the ideas of one American preacher on angels, fays and sexual relations. Thomas Lake Harris (1823-1906) was a church minister, spiritualist prophet, poet, and vintner. He’s probably best remembered for establishing a series of religious communes, but his advanced ideas of human (and non-human) relationships are what interest us here.

Harris was born in Buckinghamshire, England, where he lived until he was five, when his family emigrated to the US.  He became a church minister aged only twenty-one but quickly became involved with Swedenborgian mysticism.  Swedenborg knew the Bible very well, and one of the passages that caught his attention was a statement by Jesus that there was no marriage in heaven- from which, logically, he deduced that paradise was a rather more promiscuous place than most of us might suppose- with angels being especially ‘friendly.’

Harris founded a short-lived spiritualist community in Virginia, where it was expected that angels would visit.  This failed after only two years, at which point he returned to Britain and spent several years preaching around the country.  He also began his career as a poet and author whilst living in London.  Eventually Harris returned to the USA, where he became involved in setting up other communities.  He visited Britain twice again before his death.

Harris developed a particular interest in human sexuality and his writing on sexual matters is directly linked to his beliefs in faeries.  Harris believed that folklore preserved a record of the truth of the existence of faeries and faeryland.  In fact, “the blessed host of the Fairies, came as a most merciful and delightful boon to all, directly from the bosom of the Divine Mother, to mitigate to the utmost possible degree all our afflictions.”

Faeries, Harris said, are “the minutest of the minute; impeccable Innocences, all in the human form.”  They are very numerous, often with multitudes associated with each individual, except that most people cannot see them.  Young children are able to- and Harris himself was fortunately blessed with “aromal vision” and could see the faes too, but he felt the power was latent within all- in fact, that all of us are fairies in our innermost essence.  The fays assist directly in the regeneration of the individual, both spiritually and physically, eliminating illness from our bodies so that we are in a fit state for the next stage of the process.

Much of Harris’ poetry is concerned with the ‘fays’ or fairy angels as he termed them.  Essentially angels in heaven are equated with fairies on earth, but the terminology can become quite confused, so that in one poem Harris declares “Lord Jesus was a fairy child,” and is now king of fairyland. 

Thomas Lake Harris

Harris claimed that, because of his gift of ‘aromal vision,’ he was in constant communication with fays.  He learned how to induce a trance-like state, in which he would travel to heaven, or an “interspace” equating to fairyland, where he could meet those ‘friendly’ angels. Moreover, Harris learned that it is possible for humans to marry fays (or ‘conjugal angels’)- and this is just what he did.  His wife or counterpart was the Lily Queen, of Lilistan, and, following their ‘celestial marriage,’ they had three angel children. Their spiritual union also made Harris immortal- until 1906 anyway. A lot of his poetry comprises love poems addressed to Lily.

Be warned, though: to enjoy celestial sex you’ve got to abstain from physical relations with other mortals here on earth. Of course, as we’ve seen, the rewards may well justify the price. To some readers, the core idea behind this may well seem familiar. You may recall that sixteenth and seventeenth century wizards such as John Dee, Elias Ashmole and William Lilly felt that contact with angels and faeries would only be possible if the individual conjuring them was in a ‘pure’ state, having fasted and abstained from various carnal pleasures for some weeks before hand. Later, the Rosicrucian text known as the Comte de Gabalis made the same recommendations when discussing marriage to sylphs, salamanders and other elementals.

It might be added that several of the communities with which Harris was associated practiced birth control by means of what they called Karezza– ‘coitus obstructus’ in formal medical terms.  This difficult and demanding practice may go some way to explain why astral relations might have seemed more attractive. 

Harris’ ideas are complex and copious, so this is only the barest summary of them.  They were taken up and promoted in Britain by homeopathic doctor Edward Berridge, who was also a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  Magician Aleister Crowley, who was broadly sympathetic to Harris’ theories, recorded that Berridge believed (like Harris) that he could invoke elemental spirits or “astral counterparts” for the purposes of carnal copulation.  Crowley also implied that accusations were made against Berridge that he had interfered with young female pupils; plainly sex with fairies would have been a lot safer.  Crowley certainly practiced astral travel and sexual relations. His technique was to envisage a separate ‘body of light,’ formed of ‘astral light,’ into which he transferred his consciousness and then sent forth to travel across the universe, exploring and interacting as he chose. At the end of this the body of light would return to the earth, re-merge with the physical body and enable the traveller to resume ‘normal consciousness.’ That’s the basic idea, anyway: I’ll leave to readers to practice of they so choose.

Edward Alexander (‘Aleister’) Crowley
by Leon Engers Kennedy, 1917-1918, National Portrait Gallery

Elves & Heroes, Donald Mackenzie 1909

In a couple of recent posts I’ve mentioned a collection of poems, Elves and Heroes, written by Scottish journalist and folklorist Donald Mackenzie in 1909. I’ve been familiar with Mackenzie’s work for some time, as he wrote the valuable Scottish Folk Lore and Folk Life in 1935- a book I’ve often cited in my own writing. He also wrote Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend in 1917 but had a wider interest in international mythology and legend, about which he published extensively. Only recently did I come across his first publication, Elves and Heroes, which is a small collection of verse about Scottish faeries and Gaelic heroes.

Each of his short poems is a concise summary of folk knowledge about a different supernatural being. I shall here simply quote them with a few brief notes and links to other postings on the same subjects.


In the knoll that is the greenest,
And the grey cliff side,
And on the lonely ben-top
The wee folk bide;
They’ll flit among the heather,
And trip upon the brae-
The wee folk, the green folk, the red folk and grey.

As o’er the moor at midnight
The wee folk pass,
They whisper ‘mong the rushes
And o’er the green grass;
All through the marshy places
They glint and pass away-
The light folk, the lone folk, the folk that will not stay.

O many a fairy milkmaid
With the one eye blind,
Is ‘mid the lonely mountains
By the red deer hind;
Not one will wait to greet me,
For they have naught to say-
The hill folk, the still folk, the folk that flit away.

When the golden moon is glinting
In the deep, dim wood,
There’s a fairy piper playing
To the elfin brood;
They dance and shout and turn about,
And laugh and swing and sway-
The droll folk, the knoll folk, the folk that dance alway.

O we that bless the wee folk
Have naught to fear,
And ne’er an elfin arrow
Will come us near;
For they’ll give skill in music,
And every wish obey-
The wise folk, the peace folk, the folk that work and play.

They’ll hasten here at harvest,
They will shear and bind;
They’ll come with elfin music
On a western wind;
All night they’ll sit among the sheaves,
Or herd the kine that stray-
The quick folk, the fine folk, the folk that ask no pay.

Betimes they will be spinning
The while we sleep,
They’ll clamber down the chimney,
Or through keyholes creep;
And when they come to borrow meal
We’ll ne’er them send away-
The good folk, the honest folk, the folk that work alway.

O never wrong the wee folk–
The red folk and green,
Nor name them on the Fridays,
Or at Hallowe’en;
The helpless and unwary then
And bairns they lure away-
The fierce folk, the angry folk, the folk that steal and slay.

This first poem is a fine, concise summary of our knowledge of the wee folk/ little people or sith of the Highlands. It lists all their good- and bad- qualities.


O, the good-wife will be singing
When her meal is all but done-
Now all my bannocks have I baked,
I’ve baked them all but one;
And I’ll dust the board to bake it,
I’ll bake it with a spell-
O, it’s Finlay’s little bannock
For going to the well.

The bannock on the brander
Smells sweet for your desire-
O my crisp ones I will count not
On two sides of the fire;
And not a farl has fallen
Some evil to foretell!-
O it’s Finlay’s little bannock
For going to the well.

The bread would not be lasting,
‘Twould crumble in your hand;
When fairies would be coming here
To turn the meal to sand-
But what will keep them dancing
In their own green dell?
O it’s Finlay’s little bannock
For going to the well.

Now, not a fairy finger
Will do my baking harm-
The little bannock with the hole,
O it will be the charm.
I knead it, I knead it, ‘twixt my palms,
And all the bairns I tell-
O it’s Finlay’s little bannock
For going to the well.

I’ve posted previously on the strange magical relationship between faeries and bread. Mackenzie builds on this to create a short dramatic monologue.


Knee-deep she waded in the pool-
The Banshee robed in green-
She sang yon song the whole night long,
And washed the linen clean;
The linen that would wrap the dead
She beetled on a stone,
She stood with dripping hands, blood-red,
Low singing all alone-

His linen robes are pure and white,
For Fergus More must die to-night!

‘Twas Fergus More rode o’er the hill,
Come back from foreign wars,
His horse’s feet were clattering sweet
Below the pitiless stars;
And in his heart he would repeat-
“O never again I’ll roam;
All weary is the going forth,
But sweet the coming home!”

His linen robes are pure and white,
For Fergus More must die to-night!

He saw the blaze upon his hearth
Come gleaming down the glen;
For he was fain for home again,
And rode before his men-
“‘Tis many a weary day,” he’d sigh,
“Since I would leave her side;
I’ll never more leave Scotland’s shore
And yon, my dark-eyed bride.”

His linen robes are pure and white,
For Fergus More must die to-night!

So dreaming of her tender love,
Soft tears his eyes would blind–
When up there crept and swiftly leapt
A man who stabbed behind–
“‘Tis you,” he cried, “who stole my bride,
This night shall be your last!” …
When Fergus fell, the warm, red tide
Of life came ebbing fast …

His linen robes are pure and white,
For Fergus More must die to-night!

The banshee (bean sith) is, in the most general sense, simply a faery woman. She can also be a family spirit that predicts and bewails death within a household or clan. In Mackenzie’s verse, she partakes too of the nature of the faery washerwoman, the bean nighe, and can be instrumental in causing the deaths she foresees.


When the tide is at the turning and the wind is fast asleep,
And not a wave is curling on the wide, blue Deep,
O the waters will be churning on the stream that never smiles,
Where the Blue Men are splashing round the charmed isles.

As the summer wind goes droning o’er the sun-bright seas,
And the Minch is all a-dazzle to the Hebrides;
They will skim along like salmon- you can see their shoulders gleam,
And the flashing of their fingers in the Blue Men’s Stream.

But when the blast is raving and the wild tide races,
The Blue Men ere breast-high with foam-grey faces;
They’ll plunge along with fury while they sweep the spray behind,
O, they’ll bellow o’er the billows and wail upon the wind.

And if my boat be storm-toss’d and beating for the bay,
They’ll be howling and be growling as they drench it with their spray-
For they’d like to heel it over to their laughter when it lists,
Or crack the keel between them, or stave it with their fists.

O weary on the Blue Men, their anger and their wiles!
The whole day long, the whole night long, they’re splashing round the isles;
They’ll follow every fisher- ah! they’ll haunt the fisher’s dream-
When billows toss, O who would cross the Blue Men’s Stream?

The Blue Men (fir gorm) are a particular kind of merman known to inhabit the channel called the Minch which separates the Inner Hebrides from the Scottish mainland. They have a generally poor reputation, as I describe in my study of ‘faery beasts’ Beyond Faery (2020).

An t-Uraisg


O the night I met the Urisk on the wide, lone moor!
Ah! would I be forgetting of The Thing that came with me?
For it was big and black as black, and it was dour as dour,
It shrank and grew and had no shape of aught I e’er did see.

For it came creeping like a cloud that’s moving all alone,
Without the sound of footsteps … and I heard its heavy sighs …
Its face was old and grey, and like a lichen-covered stone,
And its tangled locks were dropping o’er its sad and weary eyes.

O it’s never the word it had to say in anger or in woe–
It would not seek to harm me that had never done it wrong,
As fleet- O like the deer!- I went, or I went panting slow,
The waesome thing came with me on that lonely road and long.

O eerie was the Urisk that convoy’d me o’er the moor!
When I was all so helpless and my heart was full of fear,
Nor when it was beside me or behind me was I sure–
I knew it would be following- I knew it would be near!

The urisk (uraisg) is a creature of the highlands that seems to have a dual character. It (often she) can partake of the brownie-like nature of the gruagach (see below) and during winter- in return for food and shelter- it will perform labours around farms, but it can also be found inhabiting wild places, especially river, pools and waterfalls, when it will tend to be menacing to humans, at the very least. The urisk is, apparently, the offspring of a mortal and a leannan sith lover (see later). See my Beyond Faery for an extended discussion.


When my kine are on the hill,
Who will charm them from all ill?
While I’ll sleep at ease until
All the cocks are crowing clear.
Who’ll be herding them for me?
It’s the elf I fain would see-
For they’re safe as safe can be
When the Gunna will be near.

He will watch the long weird night,
When the stars will shake with fright,
Or the ghostly moon leaps bright
O’er the ben like Beltane fire.
If my kine would seek the corn,
He will turn them by the horn-
And I’ll find them all at morn
Lowing sweet beside the byre.

Croumba’s bard has second-sight,
And he’ll moan the Gunna’s plight,
When the frosts are flickering white,
And the kine are housed till day;
For he’ll see him perched alone
On a chilly old grey stone,
Nibbling, nibbling at a bone
That we’ll maybe throw away.

He’s so hungry, he’s so thin,
If he’d come we’d let him in,
For a rag of fox’s skin
Is the only thing he’ll wear.
He’ll be chittering in the cold
As he hovers round the fold,
With his locks of glimmering gold
Twined about his shoulders bare.

The gunna is another hob-like being of the Highlands. Very little is known about it- and almost all of that information is incorporated into Mackenzie’s poem. As the title discloses, the very close, almost proprietorial link between the being and a particular holding is distinctive.


The lightsome lad wi’ yellow hair,
The elfin lad that is so fair,
He comes in rich and braw attire-
To loose the kine within the byre-

My lightsome lad, my leering lad,
He’s tittering here; he’s tittering there-
I’ll hear him plain, but seek in vain
To find my lad wi’ yellow hair.

He’s dressed so fine, he’s dressed so grand,
A supple switch is in his hand;
I’ve seen while I a-milking sat
The shadow of his beaver hat.

My lightsome lad, my leering lad,
He’s tittering here; he’s tittering there-
I’ll hear him plain, but seek in vain
To find my lad wi’ yellow hair.

My chuckling lad, so full o’ fun,
Around the corners he will run;
Behind the door he’ll sometimes jink,
And blow to make my candle blink.

My lightsome lad, my leering lad,
He’s tittering here; he’s tittering there-
I’ll hear him plain, but seek in vain
To find my lad wi’ yellow hair.

The elfin lad that is so braw,
He’ll sometimes hide among the straw;
He’s sometimes leering from the loft-
He’s tittering low and tripping soft.

My lightsome lad, my leering lad,
He’s tittering here; he’s tittering there-
I’ll hear him plain, but seek in vain
To find my lad wi’ yellow hair.

And every time I’ll milk the kine
He’ll have his share- the luck be mine!
I’ll pour it in yon hollowed stone,
He’ll sup it when he’s all alone-

My lightsome lad, my leering lad,
He’s tittering here; he’s tittering there-
I’ll hear him plain, but seek in vain
To find my lad wi’ yellow hair.

O me! if I’d his milk forget,
Nor cream, nor butter I would get;
Ye needna’ tell- I ken full well-
On all my kine he’d cast his spell.

My lightsome lad, my leering lad,
He’s tittering here; he’s tittering there-
I’ll hear him plain, but seek in vain
To find my lad wi’ yellow hair.

On nights when I would rest at ease,
The merry lad begins to tease;
He’ll loose the kine to take me out,
And titter while I move about.

My lightsome lad, my leering lad,
He’s tittering here; he’s tittering there-
I’ll hear him plain, but seek in vain
To find my lad wi’ yellow hair.

The gruagach is another type of Highland hob that herds and protects cattle in return for a gift of milk. In most cases, the gruagach is viewed as female, but there is a Skye tradition of a male example. Mackenzie has mixed details from different folk lore accounts in his verse here- for example, the long golden hair comes from the West Highlands (see Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, vol.2 and my Beyond Faery (2020) for a fuller examination).


When all the big lads will be hunting the deer,
And no one for helping Old Callum comes near,
O who will be busy at threshing his corn?
Who will come in the night and be going at morn?

The Little Old Man of the Barn,
Yon Little Old Man-
A bodach forlorn will be threshing his corn,
The Little Old Man of the Barn.

When the peat will turn grey and the shadows fall deep,
And weary Old Callum is snoring asleep;
When yon plant by the door will keep fairies away,
And the horse-shoe sets witches a-wandering till day.

The Little Old Man of the Barn,
Yon Little Old Man-
Will thresh with no light in the mouth of the night,
The Little Old Man of the Barn.

For the bodach is strong though his hair is so grey,
He will never be weary when he goes away-
The bodach is wise- he’s so wise, he’s so dear-
When the lads are all gone, he will ever be near.

The Little Old Man of the Barn,
Yon Little Old Man-
So tight and so braw he will bundle the straw-
The Little Old Man of the Barn.

This is the bodachan sabhaill of the Perthshire Highlands, mentioned by Campbell but, again, little known. Along with the gunna, I have discussed the bodachan in my 2021 book on the economy of Faery, How Things Work in Faery.


‘Twas bold MacCodrum of the Seals,
Whose heart would never fail,
Would hear yon fairy ban-dog fierce
Come howling down the gale;
The patt’ring of the paws would sound
Like horse’s hoofs on frozen ground,
While o’er its back and curling round
Uprose its fearsome tail.

‘Twas bold MacCodrum of the Seals-
Yon man that hath no fears-
Beheld the dog with dark-green back
That bends not when it rears;
Its sides were blacker than the night,
But underneath the hair was white;
Its paws were yellow, its eyes were bright,
And blood-red were its ears.

‘Twas bold MacCodrum of the Seals-
The man who naught will dread-
Would wait it, stooping with his spear,
As nigh to him it sped;
The big black head it turn’d and toss’d,
“I’ll strike,” cried he, “ere I’ll be lost,”
For every living thing that cross’d
Its path would tumble dead.

‘Twas bold MacCodrum of the Seals-
The man who ne’er took fright-
Would watch it bounding from the hills
And o’er the moors in flight.
When it would leave the Uist shore,
Across the Minch he heard it roar-
Like yon black cloud it bounded o’er
The Coolin Hills that night.

Faery dogs (cu sith) are the hounds of the faery people (as distinct from the ‘gabriel ratchets’ of the aerial Wild Hunt and the many Black Dog apparitions of England and Wales). Mackenzie understands this distinction: his ‘ban-dog’ is a hound used for hunting by its fae owner and its unique colouring is distinctive as well, emphasising that it’s different from the dog breeds kept by humans.

George William Joy, The Kelpie


O the Water-Horse will come over the heath,
With the foaming mouth and the flashing eyes,
He’s black above and he’s white beneath-
The hills are hearing the awesome cries;
The sand lies thick in his dripping hair,
And his hoofs are twined with weeds and ware.

Alas! for the man who would clutch the mane-
There’s no spell to help and no charm to save!
Who rides him will never return again,
Were he as strong, O were he as brave
As Fin-mac-Coul, of whom they’ll tell-
He thrashed the devil and made him yell.

He’ll gallop so fierce, he’ll gallop so fast,
So high he’ll rear, and so swift he’ll bound-
Like the lightning flash he’ll go prancing past,
Like the thunder-roll will his hoofs resound-
And the man perchance who sees and hears,
He would blind his eyes, he would close his ears.

The horse will bellow, the horse will snort,
And the gasping rider will pant for breath-
Let the way be long, or the way be short,
It will have one end, and the end is death;
In yon black loch, from off the shore,
The horse will splash, and be seen no more.

The water horse (each uisge) lives in still fresh water (as against the river dwelling kelpie). It has an extensive folklore tradition attached to it, which I lay out in Beyond Faery.


By night they came and from my bed
They stole my babe, and left behind
A thing I hate, a thing I dread-
A changeling who is old and blind;
He’s moaning all the night and day
For those who took my babe away.

My little babe was sweet and fair,
He crooned to sleep upon my breast-
But O the burden I must bear!
This drinks all day and will not rest-
My little babe had hair so light-
And his is growing dark as night.

Yon evil day when I would leave
My little babe the stook behind!
The fairies coming home at eve
Upon an eddy of the wind,
Would cast their eyes with envy deep
Upon my heart’s-love in his sleep.

What holy woman will ye find
To weave a spell and work a charm?
A holy woman, pure and kind,
Who’ll keep my little babe from harm-
Who’ll make the evil changeling flee,
And bring my sweet one back to me?

I have written several times about changelings, faeries who are left in the place of stolen human infants. They are known across Britain, being called shargie bairns in Scotland. They are often aged faeries, who seem to need human care, but the faeries also have their reasons for wanting our children– whether it is as playmates for their own, to bolster their population or simply to act as slaves.


My fairy lover, my fairy lover,
My fair, my rare one, come back to me-
All night I’m sighing, for thee I’m crying,
I would be dying, my love, for thee.

Thine eyes were glowing like blue-bells blowing,
With dew-drops twinkling their silvery fires;
Thine heart was panting with love enchanting,
For mine was granting its fond desires.

My fairy lover, my fairy lover,
My fair, my rare one, come back to me-
All night I’m sighing, for thee I’m crying,
I would be dying, my love, for thee.

Thy brow had brightness and lily-whiteness,
Thy cheeks were clear as yon crimson sea;
Like broom-buds gleaming, thy locks were streaming,
As I lay dreaming, my love, of thee.

My fairy lover, my fairy lover,
My fair, my rare one, come back to me-
All night I’m sighing, for thee I’m crying,
I would be dying, my love, for thee.

Thy lips that often with love would soften,
They beamed like blooms for the honey-bee;
Thy voice came ringing like some bird singing
When thou wert bringing thy gifts to me.

My fairy lover, my fairy lover,
My fair, my rare one, come back to me-
All night I’m sighing, for thee I’m crying,
I would be dying, my love, for thee.

O thou’rt forgetting the hours we met in
The Vale of Tears at the even-tide,
Or thou’d come near me to love and cheer me,
And whisper clearly, “O be my bride!”

My fairy lover, my fairy lover,
My fair, my rare one, come back to me-
All night I’m sighing, for thee I’m crying,
I would be dying, my love, for thee.

What spell can bind thee? I search to find thee
Around the knoll that thy home would be-
Where thou did’st hover, my fairy lover,
The clods will cover and comfort me.

My fairy lover, my fairy lover,
My fair, my rare one, come back to me-
All night I’m sighing, on thee I’m crying,
I would be dying, my love, for thee.

The faery lover or leannan sith is a fascinating character of Scottish and Manx tradition. Although I have often described the attractions of faery lovers, the leannan sith often prove to be possessive, haunting, violent and frequently fatal partners whom men almost always regret meeting. They can be impossible to escape, though, following men to other continents and- even- attaching themselves to a brother once a previous lover has died. See my Love and Sex in Faeryland for more detail.

The Reformation & Faery Sightings

The Green Children

I’ve recently been reading Chris Gosden’s book The History of Magic, which is a fascinating survey of magic over the last 20 to 30,000 years. Considering ‘Medieval and Modern Magic in Europe’ he remarked:

“The Reformation changed much, of course. Religion shifted from being a communal matter to a more personal relationship with God.”

History of Magic, 392

This set me thinking. I’d already been considering how the Reformation impacted upon those who had contacts with faeries and led to them being branded as witches (see my recent post on the possible pardon for the Scottish witch victims). I wondered whether this communal to personal shift might have been a more general feature of our interaction with the supernatural.

Reviewing the oldest British accounts of faery encounters, it does seem to be the case that many of these were, indeed, more communal than individual experiences. For example, the two Green Children of Woolpit in Suffolk were found by people working in the fields and were delivered to the lord of the manor and his staff. Thereafter, they lived on the manor and, in due course, the survivor of the pair, a girl, married a local man (though she did have something of a reputation for promiscuity). This was sustained contact with a faery being on the part of dozens of people. The child faery called Malekin appeared at Dagworthy Castle to all the members of the lord’s household there- and for a prolonged period. The faery king encountered by King Herla attended a wedding with all his company and then invited Herla and his courtiers to attend a wedding in Faery. A few years ago I discussed the medieval poem A Disputison By-twene A Cristenemon and a Jew which features another journey by two men into ‘Faery’ and their encounters with large number of people. The story of Huon of Bordeaux involves a similar group interaction between Huon and his companion knights and the fairy king and his court. The poem Sir Orfeo is, essentially, the interaction between two noble courts- one human, one fae. Lastly, in the story of Wild Edric, the eponymous hero first encounters his future wife dancing with her sister faeries when he is out hunting alone- except for his accompanying page. However, the wedding of the mortal and the faery bride is a grand, public affair, and Edric and his new wife then go to see King William (the Conqueror) at his court in Westminster accompanied by many witnesses of her faery origin.

These examples of the most famous medieval faery encounters certainly suggest that interactions were very often enjoyed by large group of people. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, by any means. The Welsh story of Elidyr and the Golden Ball involves the boy visiting Faery alone; Thomas of Erceldoune was entirely alone on the Eildon Hills when the faery queen approached him; Gervase of Tilbury reported how a swineherd searching for a lost pig entered a cavern under Peveril Castle in the Peak District and eventually stumbled into Faery; William of Newbury described several cases in which lone men had fae encounters- such as the man who stole a faery goblet from a banquet taking place inside the East Yorkshire barrow known as Willy Howe. This is just a handful of possible examples from the Middle Ages.

Willy Howe, East Riding

Conversely, later encounters aren’t exclusively solitary. There is, for example, the eighteenth century case from Bodfari that I featured quite recently in which a group of children saw some of the tylwyth teg dancing. Only three years later, in July 1760, six people making hay in a field near Bedwellty witnessed a large number of faery beings flying over the nearby hilltops; in August 1862 in Carmarthenshire, two carters saw a group of the tylwyth teg dancing on a hill summit before vanishing from sight.

To return to the witch connection that triggered these speculations, they too were individual and personal interactions with the inhabitants of faery- often by visiting their halls under the hills. All the same, there is some indication that mass sightings and contacts have become a thing of the past and are far less experienced today.

If this is correct, what is it that has changed since the Middle Ages? Have the faeries become more shy or have we altered our social habits? I suspect the key difference is the way we organise ourselves socially and economically. Many of the early examples involve the whole staff of manors (what was called the familia– the lord, his family and the various domestic and farm servants). These households, living so closely together, aren’t replicated in modern Britain; the closest we’ve got in later generations (and highly comparable) may be the farming households who have contact with boggarts and, more commonly, brownies and hobs. They’ve lived in close contact with these beings and parents, children and maids are all familiar with them.

These last examples aside, we are perhaps more likely to be at home or to travel alone and, therefore, to have a greater chance of a solitary encounter. This is a substantial generalisation of our habits, but there’s no denying that the communal, multi-generational lifestyles enjoyed by our predecessors are much less typical today than they were. Smaller families, later marriage, the absence of domestic servants, the availability of personal transport in cars- all of these raise the likelihood that- if there is a contact with another dimension- it may be experienced alone- and without other witnesses.

T’boggart, under t’bed

If my suggestion is right, there’s one clear result of it: it’s much easier now for people to dismiss the faery encounter as a figment of the imagination, the result of too much beer, a trick of the light and such like. If a whole manor full of people saw the same thing, it was very much harder for anyone to convincingly argue that it was all in their heads. This individualisation of faery experiences must be part of the reason for the rise in faery disbelief. Perhaps, with the expansion of human settlement, our increased pollution of the environment- with noise as well as noxious substances- and the general acceleration of our lifestyles, our Good Neighbours have become more reluctant to reveal themselves (or are less noticed) but this may only compound the situation.