“I get around”- some oddities of faery travel

I’ve posted several times on faery motion and movement, such as their use of whirlwinds; here I want to look at ways they may be transported by other beings. Although, these days, we tend to assume that faeries fly everywhere, there’s no trace of wings or of fluttering flight in the traditional records. They can, magically, ‘teleport‘ themselves from place to place or enchant items to carry them, it’s perfectly true, but most of the time they get around in very prosaic ways: on their own two feet, or on something else’s four feet.

It’s pretty well known that the faes ride horses (just as the surrounding human population would have done in times past) and these animals are always described as being proportionate to their size. If they’re the size of children, they’ll be mounted on ponies; if they’re seen smaller, the steeds might be as big as greyhounds. Just like humans, too, the faeries will use their horses for all suitable activities: they go out on their annual ‘rades’ in processions of horses, but they’ll also hunt on them, exactly as would human gentry and nobles. The horses are reputed to be very swift (“as fast as the wind”) and to be highly prized, being richly caparisoned when they are taken out.

Jean Baptiste Monge

Needless to say, it’s often easier to make use of someone else’s animals- that way you don’t have to stable or feed them, and it is widely known that faeries do just this, taking horses from farmer’s stables at night and riding them until they’re worn out. This process is frequently accompanied by the knotting of the horses’ manes and tails, at least some of this done ostensibly to provide the diminutive riders with reins and stirrups. These are necessary not just because the riders are often so much tinier than their mounts, but because they like to drive the horses at frenetic pace across the fields and moors. These exertions leave the horses exhausted and covered in a foam of sweat, much to the dismay of their human owners.

So far, so familiar, but it doesn’t stop there. If horses aren’t available, other four-legged beasts will do. On the Isle of Anglesey it was reported that the local tylwyth teg rode donkeys or (to be exact) they gave a mortal man one to ride when he travelled with them; this might, conceivably, have been some sort of joke or put down on their part: they got well-bred steeds and he got a bad tempered ass. Very definitely proportionate to the smaller breed of fae, in Nithsdale in southern Scotland the elves were reported to ride on cats. One assumes they used magic to control their mounts. On Shetland, the trows rode the farmers’ cows. When the cattle were released into the pastures in Spring, if any of them were found to be weak- or collapsed, frothing at the mouth- it was known to be because the trows had been riding it.

Erle Ferronniere, Fee au chat noir

Unlikely as cats sound, they are at least four legged. However, as we know, even two legged victims will do and there are reports from around the Britain Isles of unfortunate human victims being saddled and mounted to act as steeds for faeries overnight. Usually they are forced to carry riders around, although there is one report of a man taken and used as a cart horse in one Scottish sithean. According to the poem, Montgomerie’s Flyting of Polwarth, some of the Scottish elves were known to ride other two legged creatures: “Sum saidlit ane scho aip all grathit into green” (some saddled a she-ape, all clad in green).

Modern fantasy art shows faes riding birds and other wildlife. Pretty as these images are, and despite the fact that we are attracted to them because they emphasise the unity of the faeries with their environment, there is not very much traditional support for the idea. As we’ve just seen, we hear of the elves riding apes, but they must be few and far between in any part of Britain; it’s also reported that the Highland hag, the cailleach bheur, and her follower rides on wolves and swine. The Gyre Carling, another name for the faery queen in Fife, was also said to ride a pig: in one poem she “schup her on ane sow and is her gaitis gane” (she settled herself on a sow and went her ways). Making use of more common mammals and fowls is not reported.

Erle Ferroniere

Much of this suggests that the faeries are stuck in a pre-modern world- often our view of them. We like to romanticise their pre-industrial, rural aspects, whereas the evidence indicates that they move with the times just as their human neighbours do. Faery industry is known- dyeing and milling (for which see my How Things Work in Faery) but more pertinently, contemporary reports indicate that they will use cars, buses and aeroplanes to get around (see Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies for such sightings). Humans no longer need to employ horse power, although they will use them for special occasions and special purposes; the same would seem to be true of the faes.

Faeries and Yew Trees- some strange connections

Hope Bagot yew tree- note the ‘clooties’ tied on the limbs as offerings by visitors.

In Britain, yew trees are closely associated with churchyards. It’s sometimes said that this was ordained because yew wood was ideal for longbows, so that English kings wanted to preserve the trees by planting them in a protected environment. This is a nice story, but it’s plainly wrong, as very many yews far older than the Middle Ages can be found growing around churches, in addition to which they are to be found growing by wells and on ancient sites such as hill forts. Their significance stretches back much further than the Hundred Years War and is by no means linked to the Christian church.

An example of such a tree grows within the boundary of the church of Hope Bagot near Ludlow in Shropshire. I visited recently, drawn by the holy well and by the report of an ancient tree. The Hope Bagot yew is monumental: it is about eight metres or twenty five feet in circumference, very obviously of great age- at least 1000 years- and its canopy extends over a huge area, shading far more than the small bubbling well beneath its roots. It’s a remarkable sight and easily attests to the awe and majesty of these trees.

Yews are not regularly associated with faeries, unlike rowans and elders, but there are a number of accounts that demonstrate that these significant trees very properly do have supernatural associations. They have magical properties that make them significant to the faes.

Firstly, I have recounted elsewhere the story of the ‘meremaid‘ that lived in a pool at Marden in Herefordshire. Through some accident now forgotten, the church bell rolled into the pool and was captured by the maid. Horses tried to drag it out, but failed, and the villagers were advised by a ‘wise man’ that the job could only be accomplished using a team of sterile cows (called freemartins) equipped with yokes made of yew and fitted with bands of rowan (some accounts also say that the drivers had whips whose handles were made from rowan). The recovery had to be performed in silence. Everything was going well, with the bell being hauled steadily out of the mud, the meremaid fast asleep inside, when one of the men cried out in excitement. The maid awoke and plunged back into the pool dragging the bell with her. She angrily cried out that she’d have drowned the team as well, had not the magical woods prevented her: “If it had not been/ For your wittern (rowan) bands/ And your yew tree pin/ I should have had your twelve freemartins in.”

The second instance of a faery association with yew comes from Mathafarn, in Powys in mid-Wales. Wirt Sikes (British Goblins, 73) describes an abduction in a faery ring that occurred there in the Ffridd yr Ywen (the Yew Forest). Two farm labourers, Twm and Iago (Tom and Jack) were working in the wood one summer’s day when a mist descended. They thought evening had come and set off homewards, when they came across the yew that gave the wood its name, right at the heart of the forest. This was at a spot called the ‘Dancing Place of the Goblin,’ and the clearing was filled with a strange light. The pair decided it was not as late as they’d thought and decided to take a nap there. When Twm woke up, Iago had disappeared- abducted in a dance of the tylwyth teg under the yew tree. The rest of the story concerns Iago’s rescue, although this proves ultimately tragic: once he is pulled back into the world of men a whole year later, he eats food and crumbles away.

The last story takes us to Scotland. J G Campbell (Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, 1900, 173) describes the glaistig of Morvern. She haunted a lonely area of mountain, known as the Garbh-shlios, the rough country side, which extends along the coast from the Sound of Mull to Kingairloch, a distance of about seven miles. This glaistig herded the sheep and cattle that roamed over the wild pastures. She was said to be a small, but very strong, woman and she would take refuge at night in a particular yew tree (craobh iuthair), for protection from the wild animals that prowled over the ground. The glaistig once competed with a local man rowing a coracle across to the island of Lismore. He had thought himself to be a good rower, and he felt ashamed when he was bested by a woman- but he confessed that he never rowed so hard in all his life. When the boat
reached the other shore, the mysterious little woman vanished and he realised he had tested his strength against the glaistig.

Yews appear in a lot of Irish legend too and are linked with the Tuatha De Danann. For example, there is Fer Hi (yew man) son of Fogabal (yew tree fork) who was the king of the sidhe of Cnoc Aine. Fer Hi played a harp in a yew tree and used his music to sow dissent between two mortals in order to take revenge upon one of them. The magical yew in which Fer Hi sat is described by the stories as “beautiful but venomous.”

What can be said in conclusion about yews in British faerylore? It’s evidently a wood with magical properties, one that can repel faes in the same way as rowan but which can also provide them with shelter. This is a contradictory nature, puzzling, but typically faery too. The trees’ magical power also protects and even sanctifies wells and other ancient sites.

Faes and the Natural World

Cicely Bridget Martin, The Fairy in the Meadow, 1909

As I observe in my latest book, Faeries in the Natural World, there is a strong prevailing view at present that the faes are intimately connected to the environment and are actively concerned about pollution and habitat degradation, sometimes working with human intermediaries to mitigate harm and to reverse changes. This view has been around since the 1960s, when the environmental movement first began to appear.

An early literary example of the developing sense that human industrialisation and pollution could actively injure faery kind comes from Alan Garner’s Moon of Gomrath (1963). The elves of this story suffer from “smoke sickness.” They complain that “it is the dirt and ugliness and unclean air that men have worshipped these two hundred years that have driven the lios-alfar [the light elves of Norse myth] to the trackless places and the broken lands… You should hear their lungs. That is what men have done.” This is a clear indictment of human society in the wake of the first environmental classic, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in September 1962.

Even before that, though, there was a strong belief that there was antipathy between faes and modern life. Numerous writers from the mid-Victorian period onwards alleged that trains, noise, smoke and general encroachment on the countryside was steadily driving faeries into the remoter and less inhabited spots; Welsh writers in particular argued this, but any more rural location where commerce trespassed- quarrying or mills in the Lake District, the Highlands and on the Isle of Man or Shetland, for example- was recognised as antithetical to the faery and trow populations. The 1909 painting at the head of this post is another illustration; we might be surprised that such a sensitivity comes from the Edwardian period, but there it is: the British artist, Cicely Bridget Martin (1879-1947), could see the contradiction between faery life and the litter left behind by human picnickers. A hundred years later, though, and we would pretty much take such a barbed comment on waste and wildlife damage for granted.

None of this withstanding, the folklore evidence that associates the faeries with an environmentalist position is a good deal more limited than we might anticipate. That’s not to say that evidence for “eco-faeries” doesn’t exist (pixies are described protecting foxes from hunts or caring for wildlife in winter, for example, as well as their sometimes intimate associations with certain trees and flowers) but it can be found alongside the faeries setting up their own mines, mills and dye works and such like (see my recent book, How Things Work in Faery for full details of this). Victorian poets and painters delighted in emphasising the faes’ links to nature: suggesting that they paint butterflies’ wings, for instance, and it is very likely that these images have been influential in shaping subsequent generations’ views of the place of the faeries in the natural world. As much as anything, their ‘green’ credentials derive from the fact that they live in the woods and fields- from which we assume that they must want to defend the natural world. I’d say a fairer reading would be to say that they want to defend their homes and resources from human disruption and invasion; they want to carry on using that land themselves as they choose. As they happen to be have fairly non-industrialised and non-intensive economy, this gives the impression that they are all for sustainability, low carbon and rewilding. I suspect this is really a matter of us humans applying our labels to their motives: coupled with a large degree of guilt.

Certainly, the latter half of the last century saw a steep rise in the perception that the faeries were alarmed over the climate crisis and the degradation of ecosystems- and that they wanted to recruit humans to help halt the damage they were doing. Quite often too, for that matter, Pan and the nymphs of the natural world- and the devas of the Theosophists- were also heard to deliver the same messages. However we may wish to interpret this (as warnings from the supernatural world or, perhaps, as expressions of the human witnesses’ own unconscious worries) the import is the same: the situation is urgent and humans need to take into account the welfare of those beings that can’t express their distress.

Eileen Soper, Silky and the Snail

For fuller discussion of all aspects of the faery relationship to the natural world, see my latest book from Green Magic Publishing. This looks not only at the environmentalism of the faes, but also examines how Faery affects the fertility of humans as well as their livestock, considers how faeries influence the weather, how they interact with a range of wild animals, plants, trees and fungi and the locations with which they are most closely associated in the natural world- not just faery rings but wells, high places and ancient sites.

Faeries and candles: some curious facts

Mike Cockrill- Blue Christmas- The Christmas Fairy

The fae relationship with the humble and everyday candle is rather more complex and magical than we might initially imagine. Four examples illustrate different aspects of this.

Fae beings are sometimes compared to candles- that is, when they appear in the form of points of light and especially when seen as the will of the wisp– looking like a lantern to lead travellers astray. In such a form they have often been compared explicitly to candle flames . In the form of the canwyll corph (corpse candle) in Wales, they appear to predict an imminent death. For both phenomena, see c.12 of my Beyond Faery (2020).

Faeries also make normal everyday use of the light that candles provide- for example, the lhiannan shee of the Isle of Man performs the role of a washer woman akin to the bean nighe of the Scottish Highlands. She will be seen at night, washing clothes in a river by the light of a taper. Perhaps, too, just like humans, faeries can be comforted by the homely light. At Manor Farm, East Halton, in Lincolnshire, the resident hob was something of a nuisance, because he could use his great strength for pranks as well as undertaking chores. The residents of the farm were said to leave a candle lit in a window every night ‘to keep the Hob quiet.’

Candles have more magical properties, though. In County Durham, there was once a great fear of pregnant women and unbaptised babies being stolen by the ever watchful faeries (as nurse maids and as changelings), so the practice was to leave a candle burning all night in the same room as the cradle. Some explanation of the reasoning behind this might come from an incident reported on the Isle of Man.  A confined mother was being watched over at night by two women.  They kept feeling drowsy and, as soon they started to fall asleep, the candle in the room would dim.  The pair would then awaken with a start, brought on by their fear of the little folk, and the flame would flare up again.  This happened several times until they awoke to find the expectant mother out of bed and an argument taking place outside.  The fairies had been in the act of taking her but the women’s waking had disturbed and defeated them. These examples suggest that candle light can have some power to dispel faery power, or to keep them at bay, and it may in fact be this that was being exploited against the hob on Manor Farm.

In Arkengarthdale in North Yorkshire, a man laid a bogle in his cottage by opening his bible, lighting a candle and then pronouncing the injunction “Now then, you can read, or dance, or die as you like.” The bogle was observed to vanish in the form of a grey cat and wasn’t seen again for many years. However- as is often the case- the banishment was not permanent. One day the man met the bogle again on the stairs of his house- and this spelled his doom. Shortly after the encounter he left home to go to his work in a local mine, and died in an accident. This use of the candle as part of the exorcism ceremony may have simply relied upon the precedent of church practices, of course, but the flame might also have had special properties against the bogle.

A poor widow from Reeth (the neighbouring parish to Arkengarthdale) suffered inconvenience and loss when her neighbour stole some candles from her. The thief soon found himself haunted by a bogle; he tried shooting it but it had no body that could be wounded (of course). The next day it came to him, warning “I’m neither bone nor flesh nor blood, thou canst not harm me. Give back the candles, but I must take something from thee.” It plucked an eyelash, which may seem harmless enough, except that his eye ‘twinkled’ for ever after that day. The protection given to the poor woman may indicate faery morality, but perhaps the particular concern over candles suggests an extra, magical dimension to the story.

Lastly, we have a record of magical candles being used by Scottish faeries. A man’s wife was abducted into the faery hill at Pollochaig in Inverness-shire. Another local man had been given some enchanted wax candles by the sith folk, the sort they use to light their nocturnal dances (although more poetic and romantic accounts of such festivities tend to describe them using glow-worms for illumination) . This favoured individual lent the husband one but warned that the Good Neighbours would use tricks to try to steal it back and defeat him. Just as predicted, the husband lost the candle. He borrowed one after another, making repeated (failed) attempts to enter the sithean until he finally succeeded and got his wife back, but- sadly- by this point all those magical candles had been used up.

To sum up, the faery interaction with candles seem to be threefold. They can use them for conventional lighting purposes but tapers may also be used magically, both against the faes and by them. The exact significance of this is still hard to determine: our limited folklore evidence illustrates the situations but doesn’t presently provide quite enough detail for us to really understand the dynamics.

Cicely Mary Barker, The Christmas Tree Fairy

Puckwudgie and European influence

Recently I was researching another faery subject entirely when I was led to refer to the chapter on North American faery beings in Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook’s Magical Folk (2018). Peter Muise there describes the ‘Puritans and Pukwudgies’ of New England, arguing that the European invaders largely lost their own faery lore as they crossed the Atlantic, but discovered the rich supernatural world of Native American belief- which was slowly assimilated.

This isn’t the whole story, as two other chapters in Magical Folk make clear. Later Irish and Scottish settlers, especially in Atlantic Canada, did import their faery belief with them- and I know from my own reading of British sources that there are several Scottish stories that explicitly discuss Highland faes, such as the leannan sith and the bochan, who travel with emigrants to North America. It might be better to say that the English settlers were less likely to carry their faery folk with them- and Muise discussed why this might be so.

A second point concerns the pukwudgie/ puckwudgie. This spirit is now probably the best known of the North American ‘faeries’ and modern sightings seem to be on the increase, as Muise has described. However, as his chapter title indicates, most of this modern lore comes from New England, to which the pukwudgie is, strictly, a stranger. He is a spirit of the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes area- not of New England, which had its own indigenous beings (which are known about and which survive- amongst the indigenous population still and, to a degree, amongst the offcomers). Various writers, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seem to have been responsible for popularising the pukwudgie and extending his range. Literary uses of faery lore often do this- spreading beings such as pixies and leprechauns far beyond their natural habitats and (arguably) obscuring the local differences.

Be that as it may (and you can read the chapter in Magical Folk, which is highly recommended for your book shelves) what struck me was the strong similarities between North American faery behaviour and that of the British faes. Here are a few examples, taken from Muise:

  • pukwudgies and other Algonquian spirits have magical powers and can shape shift or make themselves invisible;
  • they can act as wills of the wisp (often seen as balls of light) and lead people into swamps or over cliffs;
  • they have a nasty habit of pestering women and girls, luring them into forests where they seduce them. Once a human female has been involved with a faery male, she can never settle back into society and marry;
  • they shoot poisoned arrows at victims;
  • they are immortal– unless killed by humans;
  • their gaze can blight a person and cause the victim to sicken and die;
  • they can grant three wishes;
  • they have high pitched voices;
  • they steal human goods but can be appeased with gifts of food;
  • they don’t like to be talked about by humans and will take revenge if they know this has happened; and,
  • they are skilled in healing using herbs.

All these characteristics and habits can be found in British folklore. I have provided links to posts I’ve made in the past on exactly these subjects. Now, there seem to be two explanations for these remarkably close parallels. One is that faery temperament, physiology and powers are pretty much the same the whole world over. As such, we shouldn’t expect any real difference between a pukwudgie and a boggart, just as we wouldn’t dream of imagining there would be any differences (except of culture) between- say- an Inuit, a European and an aboriginal Australian. The other explanation is that there has- in fact- been a great deal more immigration of European faeries into North America than we realised. The least sign of this, perhaps, is the optional spelling of Puck-wudgie: does this reveal an almost unconscious identification between the pucks of the English midlands with the Ojibwe sprite?

This is a big subject and one in which I have too little knowledge to make pronouncements. Nevertheless, the similarities of supernatural behaviour are notable and demand examination and explanation. Perhaps all North American faery survivals have really been crossbred with British faes from East Anglia and the South West, with the faery population being swamped and colonised just as much as the aboriginal possessors, or perhaps they’re really all one race, despite superficial differences, just as humans are.

The pukwudgie by Kitty-Grim on Deviant Art

Final trivia fact: I got to thinking about this after I came across the 1972 song ‘Puckwudgie‘ by cor-blimey Cockney comedian of the 1950s and ’60s, Charlie Drake. British readers of a certain age may recall Charlie from comedy specials and black and white films shown on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; I never anticipated a faery link, but there you go. I might well say the same of David Bowie- yet we have The Laughing Gnome to contend with. That- and Drake’s song- bear strong similarities.

Remote Killing- an unwelcome faery skill

Bean nighe by Energiaelca1 on Deviant Art

Worryingly, for those interested in faerylore, it seems that faery-kind possess the ability to kill humans without necessarily intending to do so and/ or without any direct or violent measures against them. I will give various examples of this.

Sometimes, simply being ion the faery’s presence can be fatal. For instance, a woman in Ross-shire one time came across a bean nighe (a faery washerwoman) cleaning clothes in a stream. The bean offered to row the woman across the nearby loch, help she accepted gratefully, but she was dead within a year. (As you may recall if you have read my book Beyond Faery, the bean nighe is seen as predicting imminent deaths, but here she is the medium as well). In a similar Highland account, a girl met a green lady beside a loch. The colour of the woman’s clothes would immediately have raised alarm, yet all that happened was that she asked the girl if the water there was deep. Soon after this faery encounter, the girl was dead. Elsewhere in Ross-shire, the belief in the fatal effects of faery conversation were underlined. One witness described how there were two types of little people- land and sea faeries. If the latter speak to you, you will soon drown; if the former addressed you, you know you will be short-lived.

Faery touch might be fatal too. A Shetland man was returning from fishing one night when he saw a trow hillock open and dancing within. He was invited in and had a great time. On departing, one of the trows clapped the fisherman on the shoulder in a friendly way. The spot turned sore and, within a short time, he was dead.

Most curious of all are several stories of Scottish faery beings that reveal a macabre and alarming power to kill remotely, without needing to touch or be in the presence of the victim.

The first concerns a bauchan or bogan that haunted a human farm at Lochaber. There was a powerful love-hate relationship between the faery and the farmer and they often fought. One time, after the farmer had had a confrontation with the bauchan, he realised that he’d lost his best handkerchief. He searched for it and came across the bauchan sitting, rubbing the cloth on a rough stone. Challenged, the bauchan remarked “It’s well you’ve come, Callum: I’d have been your death if I’d rubbed a hole in this.”

This curious incident is not entirely isolated. Glenmoriston, at the southern end of Loch Ness, was haunted by a hag called the Cailleach a’ Craich. Her habit was to waylay solitary travellers, pull of their caps, and then dance on these on the highway until a hole had been worn through- which would prove fatal to the owner (see my Beyond Faery, c.7).

A third case concerns a man called Donald who was celebrating his wedding to his neighbour’s daughter. The party ran out of whisky so Donald went to get some more. Returning home, he was crossing a bridge when a small woman appeared to him in a flash of light. She pulled of his scarf or neckerchief and then proceeded to wash this in the river below, cackling to herself. Donald returned to the party but started to feel weak. He was advised that what the woman was doing was rubbing a hole in his heart and that he had to retrieve his scarf from her, although this had to be done without violence. He recovered the item, but he struck the faery with a stick whilst doing so, which cursed him then to nightly fights with her for the next seven years.

Why is it that damaging an item of clothing might kill its former wearer? The reasoning seems to be that something of the person’s spirit or life force is transferred to the garment and can be accessed and destroyed through it. The same sort of thinking lies behind one of the folk healing techniques that was often viewed as ‘sorcery’ in the Scottish witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of these purported witches (individuals who had often acquired their healing knowledge from the faes) were able to diagnose and then treat illnesses and afflictions using people’s shirts and blouses. These were often washed in south-flowing streams and put on again, the sickness or evil influence being washed away and the charmed water having a beneficial effect on the patient.

A Cailleach

I discuss this subject as well in my recently published book, The Darker Side of Faeries, available directly from Green Magic and the usual outlets. As the name indicates, it’s a close look at all the more dangerous aspects of the faery character.

Manx Faeries- folklore & poetry

The fynoderee by Brian Froud

Regular readers of the blog will have noticed that, over the last few years, I have frequently made use of faery examples from the Isle of Man (although, strictly, it’s stretching my rule of sticking only to British folklore). However, the Manx ‘little people’ are too fascinating and too numerous to ignore- and it’s not just faery folk, either, we have the fynoderee, the glashtyn, the buggane, the tarroo ushtey (water bull), mermaids (the ben varrey) and other faery beasts to study as well. I have examined many of them as part of my wider studies of Faery (for example in 2020’s Beyond Faery), but it struck me earlier this year that it could be helpful to pull all this unique island material together into a single volume- and so Manx Faeries- The Little People of the Isle of Man has recently been published by Green Magic. There has been no comprehensive attempt to gather all the Manx faery lore into a single devoted volume and- given the richness of Manx tradition- this seemed to me to need to be done.

Many of the Manx creatures are parallel to British faery types, without being exactly identical. The faery horses and bulls resemble those of the Scottish Highlands, whilst having their own individual characteristics. The buggane and the fynoderee are comparable to British mainland beings such as the bogies, boggarts and hobgoblins, but they are again separate and different. There are, nonetheless, many similarities of behaviour: a love of dancing and hunting, a taste for causing mischief, a habit of abducting babies children and adults. The fatal faery lover, the lhiannan shee, is an especially notable feature of human-faery interactions on the island.

What’s more, Manx faery lore offers lots of additional information and perspectives on the nature of Faery in the British Isles as a whole. Within quite a small surface area, the island comprises a microcosm of British Faery, encompassing individuals from across the wide spectrum of the supernatural family, yet it also has some utterly unique and fascinating types. I have posted fairly recently about the strange ‘burning wheel‘ faes that are a feature most notably of Manx lore; to these I might add the curious faery dogs, cats, pigs and sheep, the odd spectral horses and the multi-form glashtyn. There is plenty to absorb and amaze us.

Manx Faery Verse

Back in 2019, I self-published Victorian Fairy Verse, which gathered fairy poetry in English from Britain, Ireland and the USA. I overlooked the Isle of Man, however, and have rectified that oversight in the new book. A handful of Manx residents preserved the native folklore, not just by collecting stories and experiences but by composing poetry with faery themes. Here is an additional example, a 1901 poem called The Phynnodderee by Rev. Drummond Brown- which I have copied from the Manx Literature site on Flickr (it’s pretty long and, to be frank, I couldn’t quite face typing it all out from scratch- so please excuse and tolerate the cut and pasted page copies).

As I’ve said, the fynoderee of Manx tradition (there are several spellings, distinguished by more or less consonants) is akin to the English hobgoblin: it’s large and strong and helps around farms, but it’s also a bit dim. The fynoderee can become very attached to some people and may show them great kindness; the species are also associated with individual farms or holdings, to which they are tied as ‘spirits of the land.’ Whilst they reside there, they guarantee the fertility of the soil and the animals living on it. If they leave, it can mean ruin. Very much like English and Scottish brownies and hobs, it is unfortunately the case that the fynoderee can be touchy and easily offended. If a farmer takes pity on their hairy, naked state and provides a gift of clothes, they can be so upset as to disappear for ever. Mainland brownies and hobs seem peeved by the mere idea of clothing– or sometimes by the quality of the garments presented; the Manx fynoderee, by contrast, objects to them because he knows they will make him ill (a more comprehensible response, at least). It has been said that the agriculture of the island as a whole has been in decline for at least a century because of the thoughtless alienation of the various fynoderee.

In his poem, Drummond Brown has romanticised the creature considerably, not just with his elegant romantic verse but with his story of its origin. He starts with a good summary of the fynoderee‘s characteristics, but then alleges that he was once a handsome faery knight, punished for loving a mortal.

The Reverend Drummond Brown also wrote a poem about a musician abducted under a hill to a faery dance (a very common folklore theme). You can read this too on the same Manx website.

Spirits of Place: faeries and the land

Eleanor Brickdale, A Sprite

“The green land’s name that a charm encloses,

It never was writ in the traveller’s chart…”

Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘A Ballad of Dreamland’

In his introduction to the 1974 reprint of Alfred Watkins’ ley line classic, The Old Straight Track, John Michell noted how both Watkins and the Reverend Francis Kilvert invoked the “same genius terrae britannicae” of the red Herefordshire earth.  This genius, the ‘spirit of the British land,’ is very much what we are describing when we discuss British fairies.

The painter Paul Nash sought to discover and free the imprisoned spirit of the land, the motive power that animated the British landscape.  He deeply felt that a spirit of place, a genius loci, inhabited the soil and scenery and that certain poets in particular sensed it.  William Blake, he felt, “perceived among many things the hidden significance of the land he always called Albion”  (Personal Statement, Unit One, 1934).  Poet Herbert Read described Nash as having “profound intuitions” that enabled him to “reveal the immemorial values in the landscape.” He saw “an animistic landscape, the sacred habitation of familiar spirits” in which many natural elements were synthesised in a “druidic ritual” (Read, Paul Nash, Penguin Modern Painters, 1944). Through his strong sense of the character and spirit of individual places, Nash felt that he could witness “another aspect of the accepted world…” In this, he saw himself merely to be continuing a tradition initiated by Wordsworth, who had built up a mythology founded upon a “systematic animation of the inanimate, which attributes life and feeling to non-human nature.”

Intriguingly, Nash repeatedly drew analogies between human life and the lives of trees: he was keenly aware of how the tree was rooted in the soil and dependent upon earth and landscape. In a letter written in August 1912 the painter even went so far as to declare that he painted trees as though they were human because “I sincerely love and worship trees and know that they are people- and wonderfully beautiful people.” These ideas make his comments upon Ivinghoe Beacon, on the Chiltern Hills, more fascinating: it was, he recalled, “an enchanted place… where you might meet anything from a polecat to a dryad.” The woodland spirits were alive and active for Nash.

Nash, Avebury

Elsewhere, Nash wrote that “The idea of giving life to inanimate objects is as old as almost any record of fable.  It has varied in its conception throughout very different histories,” which included fairy lore and mythology.  This “endowment of natural objects, organic but not human, with active powers or personal influences” lies at the core of faery belief, I also believe (Nash, ‘The Life of the Inanimate Object,’ Country Life, May 1st 1937).  The artist had recently visited the Avebury megaliths for the first time and “the holy stones of the Great Circle” had evidently impressed him deeply.  He continued that “it is not a question of a particular stone being the house of the spirit- the stone itself has its spirit, it is alive.” This idea of animating inanimate objects was very old indeed, “a commonplace in fairy tale and which occurs quite naturally also in most mythologies.”  

Sketching at Silbury Hill near Avebury, Nash recalled that:

“I felt that I had divined the secret of that paradoxical pyramid.  Such things do happen in England, quite naturally, but they are not recognised for what they are- the true yield of the land, indeed, but also works of art; identical with the intimate spirit inhabiting these gentle fields, yet not the work of chance or the elements, but directed by an intelligent purpose ruled by an authentic vision.”

(‘A Characteristic,’ Architectural Record, March, 1937, 39-40)

Nash’s revelation at Silbury encouraged him to intensify his search for “A character which frankly disclosed a national inspiration, something whose lineaments seemed almost redolent of place and time within the limits of these shores.”

Nash in the Forest of Dean, 1938

As well as the Avebury complex, Nash was especially devoted to the twin Oxfordshire hills called the Wittenham Clumps, which he returned to paint throughout his life. The legends attached to the Clumps enhanced their mystery for him: one of the hills was an ancient fort where it was said that treasure was buried, guarded by a phantom raven. Beneath the hills were long barrows and an ancient forest. The place had, he said, “a compelling magic.”

Earlier writer Maurice Hewlett had had the same perception as Nash.  In his 1913 novella The Lore of Proserpine, he recorded how “I have seen spirits, beings… and have observed them as part of the landscape, no more extraordinary than grazing cattle or wheeling plover.”  A little later, he added that he regarded them as a “natural fact… a part of the landscape” (‘The Soul at the Window,’ The Lore of Proserpine, 1913). 

As we just saw, Nash discussed the ‘yield’ of the land when describing Silbury. Earlier investigators had (incredibly) dismissed the stone circle and avenues as purely natural features, but he rightly saw them as more than a simple geological formation. Elsewhere he discussed how his art would become preoccupied with “one landscape [and the] flowers and fungi which it yields.” This suggests that, almost like crops or the native fauna and flora, the faery folk are a natural outgrowth of the soil.  I think we can usefully borrow a further term from English land law and talk about the ‘burden’ of the land: this is a term denoting certain costs or obligations that come with a certain body of land.  In faery terms, these will be their right and expectation to be given a share of food products, to be able to use the occupiers’ homes and other buildings and (even) to have certain areas of land set aside and preserved solely for them. They are a continual presence on the land- and a continual influence upon its usage and meaning.

I feel, therefore, that British fairies are in many respects bound up and directly expressive of the landscape within which they live.  Pixies, the tylwyth teg, the ‘yarthkins‘ of East Anglian, they are a part of the terrain in which they reside, they are the animating spirit of those moors, mountains and fens. The wild and aggressive spriggans, buccas and piskies of the south-west arguably manifest the rugged nature of the region they inhabit; so too the tiddy ones or yarthkins of the Fens, rising as they do from the waterways and peaty soils of that region. They are the original and most fundamental yield of the land.

Nash, Bleached Objects

To conclude, I need hardly say that these ideas are not by any means uniquely mine. Well known faery artist Brian Froud, for example, has said that “Faeries are the inner nature of each land and a reflection of the inner nature of our souls.” The people of each nation are shaped by their environment; so too are the supernatural beings of that country and, as a result, there is a continual circular interaction between them all.

Further reading: see too my previous posting on genii loci discussing other aspects of this subject. See too my book, Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

A Fae’s Anatomy

I’m delighted to say that Green Magic has recently published my examination of the Faery Lifecycle, a birth to death study of the physiology and anatomy of fairy-kind. In this post, I want to add a few additional examples to those that I included in the text.

All aspects of faery biology and health are examined in the new book, so here are a few examples of the issues that I’ve examined.

Height: much of our folklore evidence indicates that faeries are, normally, about the height of human children. For example, in Lanbestan parish, Wales in 1902 it was reported that snow was found marked by a dance of the tylwyth teg– “as if formed by hundreds of children in little pump shoes.”

Plentiful other evidence confirms this junior stature: seven or eight faeries dressed in green who were seen on Jura were estimated to be about three feet high; on Islay about twenty unknown children dressed in green were seen playing on a hill by some kids going home. They did not know who the strangers were and it was assumed that could only have been sith. On the Shetland island of Yell “peerie” (tiny) men the size of dolls were seen dancing on the tips of docks and reeds.

Physique– in build and form, the faeries are generally believed to be exactly like us, but there are occasional exceptions to this, such as the statement by Scottish witch suspect Janet Boyman that she had once seen a faery man near an “elrich well” who looked fine from the front, but who from the rear was “wasted like a stick.” The Danish elle maids are also said to be strangely hollow at the back.

Disability amongst faes is not unknown, as with Oberon, king of the fairies in the romance Huon of Bordeaux. This powerful monarch is “of height but three fote and crokyd shulderyd.” At a very much later date, Hugh Miller described the last faeries seen in northern Scotland as being “stunted, misgrown, ugly creatures with unkempt locks.”

The faeries’ status as physical or spiritual beings has remained uncertain for centuries. John Gregorson Campbell, in Superstitions of the Highlands, describes them as “the counterparts of mankind, but substantial and unreal, outwardly invisible.” I’ve added the emphasis to stress their paradoxical nature.

Sex and children: there has long been a debate about whether or not faeries can reproduce- whether, indeed, they have a physical body capable of any such contact. I have described before long-term sexual relationships between humans and faeries, something which seems decisively to settle these doubts, but there are still those who assert that faeries have no need to breed, being immortal, and- in fact- cannot do so. I have already described many cases in which faeries have indeed been killed deliberately or accidentally; their life spans seem to be very long, but not eternal.

All in all, they seem to be very much like us- with one problematic exception. Campbell reports that faery women cannot breast feed their own children, which is why they will so often abduct women recently delivered of babies as wet nurses or, at the very least, will beg for a feed for their babies from a breast feeding mother.

Cleanliness and health: I have examined this issue in a previous post, but we know for certain that the faes keep themselves clean by bathing themselves and by washing their clothes- as was the case in a cave near Llanymynech in Wales.

Faery diet: in Wales, the tylwyth teg are said to subsist upon fruit, flowers, nuts, honey and cream. The latter is left for them by humans, the rest they can forage for themselves in the countryside- fresh and organic. The faeries are so much like us that they enjoy alcohol too- and have even been discovered by humans in a state of intoxication.

Illness & cures: for all their healthy diet and care over cleanliness, the faes can get sick and, in response, they have developed a considerable knowledge of the healing properties of many wild plants. Such is the faeries knowledge that humans have been known frequently to try to steal their knowledge or their actual medicines. Campbell tells the story of ‘Callum Clerk and his sore leg.’ Clark was a bully and nuisance in his community:

“Some six generations ago there lived in Port Bhissta, on Tiree, a dark, fierce man, known as Big Malcolm Clark (Callum mor mac-a-Cheirich). He was a very strong man, and in his brutal violence produced the death of several people… When sharpening knives, old women in Tiree said, “Friday in Clark’s town” (Di-haoine am baile mhic-a-Chleirich), with the object of making him and his the objects of fairy wrath. One evening, as he was driving a tether-pin into a hillock, a head was popped up out of the ground, and told him to take some other place for securing his beast, as he was letting the rain into `their’ dwelling. Some time after this he had a painfully sore leg. He went to the shi-en, where the head had appeared, and, finding it open, entered in search of a cure for his leg. The fairies told him to put `earth on the earth.’ He applied every kind of earth he could think of to the leg, but without effect. At the end of three months, he went again to the hillock, and when entering put steel in the door. He was told to go out, but he would not, nor would he withdraw the steel till told the proper remedy. At last, he was told to apply the red clay of a small loch in the neighbourhood (criadh ruadh lochan ni’h fhonhairle). He did so, and the leg was cured.”

This knowledge could be extorted from the faeries, or it might be granted willingly. Alleged witch Alison Pearson saw the elves making their ointments in pans on the fire and was taught to make the same cures by them- as a poem quoted by Sir Walter Scott in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders shows:

“For ony herb scho likes to luke;
It will instruct her how to tak it,
In saws and sillubs how to mak it;
With stones that meikle mair can doe,
In leich craft, where scho lays them toe:
A thousand maladeis scho hes mendit;”

Cornish servant Anne Jeffries was another such beneficiary for, as Scott described:

“[Anne’s mistress] accidentally hurt her leg, and, at her return, Anne cured it, by stroking it with her hand. She appeared to be informed of every particular, and asserted, that she had this information from the fairies, who had caused the misfortune. After this, she performed numerous cures, but would never receive money for them… She had always a sufficient stock of salves and medicines, and yet neither made, nor purchased any; nor did she ever appear to be in want of money… The report of the strange cures which she performed, soon attracted the attention of both ministers and magistrates. The ministers endeavoured to persuade her, that the fairies by which she was haunted, were evil spirits, and that she was under the delusion of the devil.”

The reaction of her community- and outcome- is typical of the period (the mid seventeenth century).

What may be apparent is that we are able to speak with some clarity on virtually all aspects of the physiology and anatomy of the faery folk. There are a few areas of debate, although even in these the balance of the evidence we have from folklore tends to favour one view of other pretty definitely. This means that we can confidently describe the faery lifecycle from birth to death and so more fully understand how our Good Neighbours work.

The Song of the Siren: when mermaids sing

E. S. Hardy, A Little Mermaid

“Bewitching, like the wanton mermaid’s song” Shakespeare, Venus & Adonis

By analogy with sirens, we are led to believe that mermaids have beautiful and enticing singing voices. Most of the British folklore evidence actually contradicts this: they are certainly alluring, though it seems to be their hair, their good looks and their topless state that generally draws men towards them.

Welsh folklorist Professor John Rhys was certain that mermaids were no singers. For example, he recounts the story of a Caernarfonshire fisherman who came across a mermaid in a cave. Translating (rather freely) from the original Welsh version published in Cymru Fu, Rhys describes how “at first she screeched wildly” when the man discovered her, but then calmed down and entered into a relationship with the human. The couple had children, but she never lost her close link to the sea, meaning that one time when they were out in a boat that was overtaken by a storm she was able to calm it by whispering to the waves. The storm was evidently of more than meteorological origin, because it was accompanied by “the most unearthly screeches and noises.”

Recounting the fate of a mermaid who became stranded on the shore at Conway and was left to die of exposure by the locals, Rhys quotes from a rhyme: “Y forforwyn ar y traeth/ Crio gwaeddu’n arw wnaeth.” He translates this as “The stranded mermaid on the beach/ Did sorely cry and sorely screech,” though the literal and less poetic version is “The mermaid on the beach / Crying, crying loudly.” (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 1901, 117-119 & 199)

Rhys was evidently firmly convinced that mermaids are tuneless shriekers. This seems to have some echoes in an account from the Scottish island of Mull. In the waters around Mull there lives a ‘water witch’ (an cailleach uisge), a malign creature who is consciously contrasted in folklore to the mermaid (maighdean mara), a being who meant no harm. The cailleach is old and dresses in weeds, but her voice, apparently, sounds young. She ensures that she always sits with the light behind her, dazzling the observer, so that she seems young and attractive to that person. She is accompanied by two seal familiars, one black and one white (these would seem to be selkies, because one caught in the late eighteenth century fought her way out of the fishing net, leaving strands of a woman’s hair behind). If any man laughs at the cailleach’s song, the seals will upset his boat.

Whatever their musical accomplishments, on the Channel Island of Sark it was believed that the local mermaids would sit on rocks offshore and sing just before storms blew in, their voices attracting ships to veer too close to the coast. Conversely, there is a newspaper report I quote in my book Beyond Faery that described how mermaids were to be seen nightly at the mouth of the River Dee in Aberdeen, singing “harmonious lays” in their “charming, sweet, melodious voices.” Their performances concluded with God Save the King. Given that this was in 1688, the year of the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution,’ in which Protestant William of Orange dethroned Catholic James II, we must strongly suspect that a political statement was being made here under cover of a miraculous sighting. Whether the mermaids were Jacobite supporters isn’t clear.

Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909, by Herbert James Draper

The Sark tales, linking the songs to shipwrecks, are far more authentic sounding. For all their physical charms, mermaids tend to be deadly. Here are three Scottish examples of this. A Shetland man did a deal with a selkie, in which he would get a mermaid wife in return for giving the selkie a knife. The new wife was delivered, but she promptly drowned the man, whilst the selkie used the blade to cut all the fishing lines in the harbour.

On South Uist, a fishing crew spotted a mermaid. The Hebridean tradition was to throw items to her and Domhnall threw his knife. She caught this and dived out of sight. By taking his sacrifice, it was a sign that Domhnall would drown within the year- which he did. Lastly, on North Uist, a man walking home came across a mermaid on the shore who told him that he had to answer a question for her- or she would kill him. She asked “When were you in greatest danger?” He replied that there had been two occasions: when he was born and when he first learned to walk. Perhaps by boldly refusing to acknowledge that he was at that present moment in great peril, it seems he broke the spell. He was able to drive the mermaid off- very strangely and inexplicably by throwing a large round cheese at her head…

Alluring as they may be, the best advice always with the merfolk is to steer clear (often quite literally). Their love and their gifts are almost always perilous pleasures to enjoy; they may look like charming playmates- but beware…

Rosa Petherick, Mermaid playing