Shapeshifting faeries

Elizabeth Shippen Green, ‘So haunted’

The relationship between faeries and some animals can be rather more complex than we might initially suppose. They can be on good terms, and the faeries may sometimes take on the form of certain creatures, but the link seems to run deeper than this.

I’ll start with a mention of goats, which I’ve discussed before. Goats seem to have a supernatural reputation anyway- see, for instance, a nanny goat seen dragging a chain at Finstock in the Cotswolds. On the island of Guernsey a phantom nanny goat haunted a lane at La Coin de la Biche; it would appear in front of a horse and cart, rear up and place its front hooves on the cart and cause the horse to freeze with fear. These ghostly goats were clearly terrifying apparitions related to the more common Black Dog that haunts much of England. Yet there’s more.

From Highland Scotland comes the story of a man who was plagued by faery cows (cro sith) doing damage in his grain crops. He was unable to catch them until a faery woman appeared and advised that he needed to eat a barley bannock turned on the griddle and the milk of black goats. I’ve mentioned the magic properties of bread associated with faeries before; the goat’s milk is new and was plainly efficacious. He ate what he’d been advised and caught a dun cow that then gave him plenty of milk and calves.

Then we have a report from Sutherland in the north of Scotland, recorded in July 1960 (on the tobar an duilcheas website). A man was resting on a knoll (a faery hill, we may suppose). He saw what he thought was a herd of goats approaching, but, as it got nearer, he realised that the figures were in fact small people, dressed in different colours. This is especially intriguing: from a distance the sith folk look like four footed animals, but up close their true nature is revealed- and there’s no resemblance to goats at all.

I’ll now to turn to horses. A fairly common Highland experience is meeting a faery woman at a dance and then discovering that, beautiful as she is, she has horse’s hooves- a discovery which understandably makes her dancing partner flee. One variant on this, reported from Golspie, has a sequel: the man the next day sees a colt in the road. He follows it until it enters a cave, from which- a little while later- a woman emerges and starts to dance. The bean sith (faery woman) is in some way both horse and humanoid (and these cases seem separate from discussions of the kelpie and each uisge) [ see, Nicholson, Golspie, 1877, 15]. In another version of this incident (from Ross-shire) the man playing music for the dance sees the girl’s horse hooves and stops playing in surprise. All the rest of the company then drop dead.

Lastly, an even stranger case from the west of Ross-shire. It is a variant of a common story in which some hunters, sheltering at night in a shieling in the wilds and playing music to pass the time, wish they had partners to dance with and- suddenly- find that four young and friendly women arrive at their door. One of the men becomes suspicious of their visitors when he sees that one of his companions is bleeding (they are vampire-like females). He goes outside, saying he needs to relieve himself, and one of the deadly girls follows, holding on to his plaid. He runs off and she gives chase, her three friends encouraging her- to which she replies “Chaill mise mo dhubhach, ‘s dh’ ith thusa do dhubhach” (I have lost my sorrow, and you ate your fill). She’s young and a swift runner but, before she can catch him (and this is the key bit for me), the man hides in a stable amongst the horses until dawn and the faery is unable to touch him there. Her own equine nature seems to prevent her spilling blood near other horses.

These assorted examples all indicate that faery nature is more complex than we may often assume. We’ve seen the same before with birds and moths– other species where the distinctions can seem blurred or permeable. It’s easy enough to think of the faeries as humans with special powers, but the stories examined here suggest that the boundaries with other species are much more fluid than we might suppose- or that their outward form is much more malleable than we might imagine. Magic suffuses everything.

Robin Hood Faeries

Although a good deal of the recorded folklore portrays the faeries as self-interested and insular, there are some notable exceptions. The best known are the brownies, lobs, hobs and boggarts who will live in close proximity to humans and perform tasks on their behalf, just like a farm hand or domestic servant. Then there are the unpredictable acts of generosity, in which an individual is inexplicably favoured and showered with gifts. A related group of cases are those where it is the poor and disadvantaged who, it seems, are deliberately helped. These are the ‘Robin Hood’ activities I want to examine here.

Examples of interventions by faeries that our current UK government would call ‘levelling up’ can be found across the whole of the British Isles. We’ll start our survey in Wales. The good deeds of the tylwyth teg have included guiding a man home when he was lost in the mist (a typically random act of kindness, taking pity on an individual in a moment of need) and more systematic patterns of providing poor people with food when they were hungry (although we should admit that these provisions might well have been stolen from elsewhere).  Needless to say, perhaps, but the tylwyth teg will object if they are spied upon when performing good works.  So, when the ellyllon agreed to help a very poor farmer called Rowli Pugh by doing all the chores on his holding, he prospered- until his wife allowed curiosity to get the better of caution- and watched them one night. 

One eighteenth century informant was of the opinion that the tylwyth teg took money from bad, rich people in order to give it to good, poor folk.  Given their reputation for thievery, it’s hardly a surprise to learn that the fair folk were believed to steal money from farmer’s pockets at fairs, leaving instead their own coins, which looked real enough until the possessor tried to spend them- at which point they vanished.  Furthermore, it’s certainly the case that at least one of the cases of coins left lying around for people to discover involved a very poor man (a poor shoemaker in fragile health, who regularly found silver shillings- until his wife forced him to say where they were coming from).  Likewise, the story of Guto Bach, a little boy who was befriended by the tylwyth teg, concludes with his parents losing all their money in a shipwreck; the faeries intercede, though, telling Guto to look under a large rock, where he found gold and silver hidden.  Perhaps, then, this ‘Robin Hood’ trait attributed to the tylwyth teg is authentic.

In Scotland, the ‘Gude Fairies’ of the seelie court justify their name by helping mankind in a variety of ways. They are said to bring comfort and support to those afflicted and in despair. This can include providing bread to the poor and aged, seed corn to the hardworking, but unlucky, and gifts to those they choose to favour- especially those who had themselves at some point helped out the fairies with loans or gifts.  If they are called on to assist a person in their work, the seelie court will do so and will help with daily tasks. 

In another example, a poor man on Skye had his only cow unjustly taken from him. The faeries took pity on his unjust deprivation and alleviated his hardship by bringing him another cow. It was a fine, healthy looking beast- except for the fact that it was covered in water weeds (suggesting it was one of the faery cows or cro sith). A very similar story comes from the Scottish Lowlands. During a severe drought Sandy Bell’s cattle and sheep died. He had always been kind to the faeries, so they decided to reciprocate. One evening, a stocking full of gold fell down his chimney. He bought two cows and then faeries then advised him to pasture them in Gowan Dell. This small valley was known to be full of rushes, gorse and briars- scarcely good grazing- but Sandy did as he was advised and found that there was, in fact, rich grass there. It proved inexhaustible and his cows produced plenty of milk. When others tried to find pasture there, though, all they discovered was a worthless thicket. Sandy survived the drought and prospered from then on.

Similar charitable activities are reported from England. In one story from Dore in South Yorkshire, a hob thrush features:

“Once upon a time there was a poor shoemaker who could not earn enough to keep himself and his family. This grieved him very much, but one morning, when he came downstairs, he found a piece of leather which he had cut out already made into a pair of shoes, which were beautifully finished.  He sold these shoes the same day, and with the money he bought as much leather as would make two pairs of shoes. The next morning, he found that this leather too had been made into shoes, but he did not know who had done it. In this way his stock of shoes kept always getting bigger. He very much wished to know who had made the shoes, so he told his wife he would stay up all night and watch, and then he found Hob Thrust at work upon the leather. As soon as Hob Thrust had finished a pair of shoes the shoemaker took them and put them into a cupboard. Immediately after that Hob Thrust finished another pair, which the shoemaker also took up and put away. Then he made first one pair of shoes and then another so fast that the little shop was soon filled with them, and as there was no more room in the house the shoemaker threw the shoes out of the window as fast as Hob Thrust could make them.”

The early seventeenth century broadsheet, Robin Goodfellow, his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests, shows a surprisingly modern and commercial approach to charitable aid. We are informed that the fairies would lend money to the poor to assist them- but would not charge interest: “For the use demand we nought, Our own is all we desire.” There’s a sting in the tail, though. Amongst ‘the trickes of women fayries’ we’re told that:

“We often use to dwell in some great hill, and from thence we doe lend money to any poore man or woman that hath need; but if they bring it not againe at the day appointed, we doe not only punish them with pinching, but also in their goods, so that they never thrive till they have payd us.”

As ever (and just as we saw in the case of Rowli Pugh), faery aid has to be received with discretion. A man of Evershot, Dorset, had for a long time been very poor but suddenly started to find a shilling under his door every morning.  He saved the money and in time was able to buy some sheep, then some pigs, so that gradually he became rich.  His neighbours marvelled at his wealth and, at last, he confessed how his prosperity had begun.  He was instantly struck lame and became bed-ridden, remaining that way for many months

Lastly, a couple of Manx examples. Supernatural help- and the wealth it leads to- may not be all they appear. The story of the Fisherman and the Ben-Varrey describes how poor fisherman sees a ben-varrey (a mermaid) in a dream and she advises him to dig near his house.  He does so and finds a buried chest, “full of gold pieces of money, queer old coins with strange markings.”  The fisherman stops working, thinking he has become wealthy for the rest of his life, but the money turns out to be worthless to him, as everyone in the local town is suspicious and refuses to take the gold. 

Secondly, the buggan ny Hushtey lived in a large cave on the coast of the Isle of Man and had no liking for idle people, it was said.  Nonetheless, this work ethic was paired with a sense of pity for the less fortunate.  When Poor Robin of nearby Chou Traa lost his faithful dog and a barrel full of buttermilk through a cruel prank, the buggane took care of him by bringing in the cows, lighting the fire and boiling the kettle, ready for when he came home. 

So far, so good. However, the loss of the company of his dog at the same time made Robin depressed, so that he slept poorly, got up late and fell behind with his farm tasks.  The buggane may have helped him during his crisis, but it still disliked laziness (displaying a very Victorian, self-help sort of attitude, we might remark). Late one evening when Robin was still out in the field ploughing by the light of a lantern, the buggane made the plough horse bolt through a hedge.  It was found dead the next day, near to the entrance to the buggane’s cave- and this provoked the villagers into blocking the hole and then placing a stone cross there to bar the buggane’s passage

Faeries will intervene in human affairs in a variety of ways- many of them, to be honest, extremely unwelcome. However, their generosity and kindness are not to be dismissed or deprecated- they can save people from ruin and starvation- but, even so, they are subject to strict limits and conditions.

Faery Magic Caps

Fairy Ring, Hester Margetson

Since Harry Potter introduced us to the sorting hat, we’ve been quite familiar with the idea of hats with magic powers, but the idea goes back much further than J K Rowling’s stories- as far, I’d suggest as Perseus, who wore Hermes’ helmet of invisibility so that he could kill Medusa the Gorgon. In Britain, the history of magic headwear involves both faeries and mermaids.

I’ll start with the mermaid cases, which, in a way, are the most surprising. A folk tale from Sutherlandshire, recorded in Folk Lore Journal in 1888, tells how a man caught a mermaid at Lochinver by taking her pouch and belt, in which she kept her glass, comb and “some sort of life preserver that helps her swim.” It may be surprising enough to hear that mermaids have any clothes or accessories at all- our general conception is that they’re entirely naked- but, at the same time, we’re familiar with the idea that they are vain creatures who admire themselves in mirrors and comb their long (green or blue) hair. That the mermaid might need help to swim seems even more remarkable. However, it’s not an isolated report. The Sutherland case seems a bit uncertain about what the item actually was; another from Cape Wrath tells us much more clearly. In an interview recorded in July 1960 a witness recalled the story of a local man who captured a mermaid for a wife- by taking “her red cap, without which she could not go under the waves” (see the tobar an duilcheas website).

Caps with magical properties are- in fact- rather common in Faery. As a small initial example, Henry Irwin Jenkinson reported from the Isle of Man in 1874 that a man had seen some faery dogs at East Baldwin; they were running about in a gill there, wearing red caps.

The faeries themselves wear headgear, which bestow glamour upon them. This idea goes back a very long way. It’s mentioned in one of the oldest English faery accounts, that of the spirit called Malekin who haunted the manor of Dagworth in Suffolk some time during the 1190s. Malekin seems to have been a human child who was kidnapped by the faeries from her mother when they were out in the fields one day. At the time of her apperance, she had already spent seven years in Faery and expected to spend another seven there before she could return to the human world. She was given food by the household and regularly spoke with them. One thing she told the family was that “she and others made use of a certain hat, because it restored them to invisibility.” As we shall see, this function echoed down the ages.

In the north of Yorkshire, it’s said that faeries can’t be seen dancing in rings, unless they take their caps off. As is so often the case with faery glamour, this magic rubs off. A man in Annandale invited to a faery wedding was given a cap to wear during the celebrations. At some point he made the mistake of taking it off- and immediately found himself back in his own barn on his farm. Folklorist Ella Leather recounted the Herefordshire folk story of a boy who got lost in woods and was taken in at night by two old women. They woke at midnight, put on two caps and said “here’s off,” which took them to a faery ring. The boy copied what they did and joined them in the dance and then flew with them to a lord’s cellar where he drank too much wine. Facing execution for this theft, he is saved by a woman appearing on the scaffold with another magic cap.

Lastly, there is the story of a woman from Arisaig, near Lochaber in Inverness-shire, who was given a cap by the local faery folk. It had the power to cure the illness of any who wore it. Evidently (as I’ve said before) faery magic is not innate. It can be bestowed by anointing with the special green faery salve, it may come from books of spells and special spoken charms- and it might come from items of clothing.

Dagworth Hall

Some Northern Sights

Hob Holes at Runswick Bay

I’ve just returned from a week away in North Yorkshire, a trip with a several faery highlights. Part of the time, we were staying near Robin Hood’s Bay, just south of Whitby, a town now famed for its links with Bram Stoker, Dracula and- by extension- Goth and steam punk visitors. By poor planning, we missed the Goth festival by a week and, as a result, the only vaguely gothy person we saw appeared to be only thirteen years old- just a bairn. All the same, we enjoyed the jet jewellery and the ruins of the abbey of St Hilda.

Nearer to where we were staying was a small bay called Boggle Hole. This had to be visited, as you’ll understand. Sadly, the tide was in, so neither hole nor boggle could be seen… However:

To the north of Whitby was a small seaside resort called Sandsend, sitting at the foot of a very steep hill called Lythe Bank. Both were of personal significance to me, as my great great grandmother’s family used to go on holiday there in mid-Victorian times (and I still have the postcards they bought to prove it). Running up the valley behind Sandsend is Mulgrave Wood- another key faery site. In the wood there used to live a violent and ill-tempered sprite called Jeanie.  Locals were unsure whether to call her a bogle or a faery but, certainly, she didn’t like to be called by the name she’d been allotted.  One man who did so was pursued viciously by her; she killed his horse and he only escaped her by crossing a stream. For better or worse, the woods are closed in May, so I’ll need to visit again to try to meet Jeanie.

Slightly further north again was Runswick Bay, on the south shore of which the map shows the ‘Hob Holes.’ At some point, a hob lived in a cave here and would cure children of the whooping cough if invoked with this verse: “Hob! Hob! Ma bairn’s getten kin-cough/ Take’t off! Take’t off!” Not having a sickly child with me, I didn’t recite the verse and risk annoying the hob… Another helpful hob is reported to live at Hob Garth near Mulgrave. In 1760, a misunderstanding arose between two local farmers and one of them escalated it into a feud by breaking his neighbour’s hedges and setting his sheep free. Mysteriously, though, the damage was repaired, the sheep were returned and much worse damage was inflicted on the guilty party. This happened a second time and locals realised that the local hob had sided with one of the pair. Soon after, the favoured farmer met a little old man, bent double over a walking stick, and with very long hair and very large feet, hands, eyes and mouth, who assured him that in years to come he would always do well at lambing time. This subsequently happened, whilst the malicious neighbour lost many sheep.

We then spent a few days further west in the Yorkshire Dales. Whilst there, we visited the small town of Barnard Castle on the River Tees (for British readers: “to test my eyesight” of course). The Tees, especially slightly further downstream at Piercebridge, is inhabited by the malign water sprite called ‘Peg Powler’.  She drags incautious children from the banks under the choppy waters of the river; the foam on the river’s surface is called Peg Powler’s Suds, or cream, depending upon how agitated the water has become. I was excited to see the Tees looking churned up and covered in Peg’s suds on the day we were there.

Tower Hill, at Middleton

Slightly further upstream from Barnard Castle is the village of Middleton in Teesdale. I considered visiting there too because Janet Bord’s book, Fairies, describes how a lost faery girl with red eyes was found alone near Tower Hill at Middleton. The woman who found her took the child home, sat her by the fire and gave her bread and cheese to eat, but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity on her distress and decided to return her to the place by the river where she’d been found. This was a spot where it was believed that the faeries came to bathe, so it was hoped and assumed that the girl’s parents would return for her. However, close study of the map revealed no Tower Hill, so we decided not to wander the countryside with no idea of where we were headed. This turned out to be fortunate: I checked my sources when I got home- and realised that Bord may have made a mistake. There is a Tower Hill on the Tees, but it’s several miles downstream (east of Darlington) between Middleton St George and Middleton One Row, in an area called Dinsdale. The hill is actually the motte of a Norman castle, just the sort of green hill that faeries might frequent (this is certainly the case at Bishopton, which is only a few miles away to the north, where some men digging in the hill were warned off by a disembodied faery voice).

It was good to actually see several of these locations; I’ve discussed many of the boggarts, bogles and hobs in my Beyond Faery, but it helps to get a feel of the real location and a sense of how remote (or not) they are. In most cases, these incidents took place in places full of human activity. The faeries were living on the people’s doorsteps.

Changelings in ‘Katla’

The new and the old Gríma in Katla

I’ve just finished watching the Netflix series Katla from Iceland- and decided to give a quick plug to a fascinating and clever modern faery story.

Without wanting to give too much plot away, the volcano called Katla has been erupting for a year, devastating the local community. Suddenly, people start to appear who are either dead or from the past. They are termed umskiftingar (translated as ‘changelings‘ in the subtitles)- although my Icelandic dictionary tells me the correct word ought to be skiptimenn and that the term used in the series means ‘transitions.’

Now, I’m no expert on the folklore of the Icelandic álfar (elves), although I’d certainly expect there to be some sort of changeling phenomenon very like that in British faerylore. Katla makes intelligent and quite modern use of the concept: these present-day changelings are born in a volcanic vent under a glacier and they appear in people’s lives where there is unfinished psychological business, grief and bereavement. They can be a violent and distressing presence, but they seem to be meant to help individuals resolve problems and recover- unlike the authentic changelings of British tradition which, as they are substitutes for stolen babies, bring loss and upset where there was none before.

Anyway, it’s weird and shocking in places, but recommended.

Gríma and the returned Ása

Ash Tree Faeries

Researching something else entirely, I realised I had gathered together a number of references to the connection between faeries and ash trees. I thought it was worthwhile pulling these together, simply to show the breadth of their ties to the natural world. We are used to reading about links to hawthorns and elders, and about their aversion to the rowan/ mountain ash, but the folklore is richer than this. There are, of course, the many herbs and flowers with faery associations as well as other trees- oaks, yews and- it seems- ash.

Visiting Largs in Ayrshire, Highland folklorist John Gregorson Campbell was told this story:

“A man cut a slip from an ash-tree growing near a Fairy dwelling. On his way home in the evening he stumbled and fell. He heard the Fairies give a laugh at his mishap. Through the night he was hoisted away, and could tell nothing of what happened till in the morning he found himself in the byre, astride on a cow, and holding on by its horns.”

Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands, 1900, 78

The strong (we might say excessive) faery reaction to a branch being cut from the tree clearly indicates that they felt a strong affinity for the ash and wished to act to protect it. We are familiar with this behaviour in cases where people have sought to fell thorns or elders.

This story seems reasonably understandable, in itself, but it sits oddly with other folk traditions. For example, around Rhyl, North Wales in the late 1880s, it was recorded that ash sap was given to babies to stop the tylwyth teg taking them (Llangollen Advertiser, Nov.9th 1888). The same was reported for the Scottish Highlands in Choice Notes & Queries for 1859. The note added that the sap was a powerful astringent that protects against both faeries and witches. The practice was, as soon as a baby had been born, for the midwife or nurse to put one end of a green stick of ash in the fire. Sap will ooze from the other end, which was caught in a spoon and then fed to the neonate (see ‘Curious Creeds’ in Newcastle Courant, Sept. 6th 1890 page 1).

I have also read that the tree’s seeds, the ash keys, might be placed in cradles to guard against changelings. We have an apparent contradiction, then: the faeries will protect an ash tree, but they are also repelled by it. Perhaps there’s some almost homeopathic property being exploited here.

The role of the ash in human health in Britain seems well established. Gilbert White, in the Natural History of Selborne, recorded that sickly children might be passed naked through a cleft in a pollard ash before dawn in order to cure ruptures. The cleft would often be made specially for this purpose and would then be bound up again afterwards, healing over as the child also healed. There might even be a longer term link between the health and survival of the tree and that of the person. Harm to the tree would be reflected in the healed person’s body and life-span, meaning that people could become highly protective of the tree that had cured them. This custom survived in several rural parts of England (such as Somerset and Suffolk) as late as the 1880s and ’90s. There is even a report of a child being passed through an ash at Terling in Essex in 1925.

Sidney Hartland (author of The Science of Fairy Tales) wrote about these ash tree cures in the journal Folklore for 1896 (vol.7 pages 303-6). His accounts of ceremonies don’t mention any faery aspect, but they include fascinating detail: in both Suffolk and Somerset, the child was put through three times. In the first county, three different people had to do this; at Bishop’s Lydeard in Somerset the sick child was passed through from a virgin girl to a boy. The patient had to be face-up as this was done. At Terling the infant had to be naked as it was passed from father to mother (C. Mason Craven, Essex- Its Forest, Folk & Folklore, 1928, 120).

There may, too, be some much deeper tie with Norse and, possibly, Anglo-Saxon myths of Yggdrasil, the ash tree supporting the universe- which, of course, includes Alfheim, home of the elves. In fact, as Robert Graves records in the White Goddess, the ash tree has significance in Greek and Irish mythology as well. It seems that we only have the merest traces of something more complex and significant.

For a broader discussion of faeries, plants and the natural world, see my recent book with Green Magic Publishing on the subject.