Faeries & human clothing- what’s the problem?

Images by Erle Ferroniere

We know that faeries wear clothes. So distinctive in fact are these garments- or, at least- their colours, that they can be used as a short-hand or euphemistic term to refer to the faeries themselves. Hence, all around Britain, communities refer to their Good Neighbours as the ‘green coats’ or the ‘green gowns,’ or some similar label.

Clothing of some description, therefore, is normal and unremarkable- although certain beings, most typically hobs, boggarts and brownies, are frequently encountered in a naked state. This usually seems to be because they’re so hairy that other coverings are simply unnecessary.

Consider these two cases,though. A little girl from Chudleigh on Dartmoor who was abducted by the pixies and was missing for several days. Despite all the search parties organised by her family, there was no sign of her, until a couple of local youths went to a spot very near her home, and found her sitting on her own, in good health, playing contentedly, but stripped of all her clothes. The only explanation the family could find was that the pixies had taken her as a playmate for a time, had looked after her, yet had felt that they could not tolerate what she was wearing.

A second incident from Argyllshire is especially interesting in this context. This time an adult, a man’s wife, was abducted by the local faeries. Over a period of two months she kept returning nightly to her home to tidy the house and to care for their children, although the husband never saw her. Eventually, one day, he was walking in a wood when he heard her voice calling his name. She was hidden in a hazel bush, saying that she wanted to come home but couldn’t because she had no clothes to wear. He had to bring her a garment so that she could be freed and could return to her family. Once again, the faes had taken away what she’d been wearing when she was kidnapped- and it appears that part of the reason was that the items represented some continuing link to her ‘old’ life.

Many readers will know that the domestic faeries- the brownies, boggarts, lobs and hobs that I mentioned just now- will act as devoted and untiring workers, happily undertaking all manner of laborious tasks– until they are offered clothes. This act of kindness and pity (on the part of the human) will be viewed as a gross insult by the faery and they will depart forever.

The grounds for taking such exception vary. Sometimes it’s not the clothes themselves that cause offence, but the fabric (they’re offered linen instead of wool, usually). Far more regularly, it’s the whole idea of being asked to wear human garments that is so objectionable. There appear to be several reasons why this is such an unforgivable affront. We know from the response of one Manx fynoderee that wearing mortal clothes would make him ill. This is a good reason for rejecting them, but it’s not mentioned in any of the other accounts from mainland Britain.

Possibly what’s offensive is the implication that the natural nakedness of the brownie ought to be covered up- that it’s shameful. We do hear, though, that clothes aren’t completely absent, but they are rags. Maybe here, too, the implicit criticism is cause of the upset.

Another suggestion (that I made before in 2020’s Faery) is that- for the intended faery recipient- the symbolism of the gift of clothes is a subjection to human mastery. The brownie- farmer relationship is very clearly one involving a sort of commercial transaction- work’s done in return for food and shelter- but the provision of clothes apparently oversteps the limits by formally making the brownie a servant of the human, or (even) incorporates the faery much more formally into the human household. Some loss of independence and identity looks to be involved- hence the strength of the adverse reaction to the offer.

These suggestions notwithstanding, and given the cases involving humans that I’ve mentioned, the stronger possibility would appear to be that the very fact that the clothes are human is the source of the problem. They may carry their own ‘glamour’ with them, a quality that offends the faeries, or inhibits their own magic or- conceivably- has some physical effect on them, as with the fynoderee. Whatever it is, wearing human clothing represents too strong an association with the mortal world and, as such, it has to be severed in the case of captives by stripping them or, for the faeries, it has to be avoided. For humans, we might even, perhaps, think of the process of being denuded as a sort of ‘rebirth’ into their new lives in Faery.

See my Manx faeries for a complete description of the fynoderee and its habits.

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Witches & Faeries

Luis Ricardo Falero, The Witch, 1882

Several years ago I looked at the links between faeries and witches. Additionally, I have often used evidence from Scottish witch trials to understand how our predecessors perceived and interacted with faeries in early modern times. I return to the subject today with a particular focus on the parallels between them.

Incantation, Ludovic Alleaume

There are many aspects of the nature and powers claimed for witches that are identical to those traditionally allocated to the faeries- for example:

  • they can both make themselves invisible;
  • they can hear the words that people are speaking even when they are distant;
  • they can both shapeshift (though witches prefer to appear as hares, whereas faeries tend to favour goat or bird form);
  • they each steal milk from cattle in the fields (though the witches may do this by shapeshifting into the form of hedgehogs);
  • they like dancing in groups;
  • they can’t cross running water;
  • they frequently use their magic powers to exact revenge on mortals, by tormenting them or their livestock- or by killing them. In the case of the latter, the animal’s death will resemble that of beasts killed by elf-shot;
  • they can fly;
  • they have healing powers, learning the use of herbs and (curiously) how to undo the malign actions of others of their kind;
  • they can see into the future;
  • they ride horses and animals at night; and,
  • they are often kept away by the same sorts of charm.

These shared magical powers must give us pause for consideration. Why have witches been endowed with so many of the abilities to cast ‘glamour‘ traditionally possessed by faeries?

The English literature professor and historian Diane Purkiss (author of a very valuable book on faeries, Troublesome Things) has also written on The Witch in History (1996). She observed how often faeries became involved in the confessions of accused Scottish witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and she argued that “fairy beliefs [were] converted into witch beliefs, even though this often led to incredible and improbable statements.” Faery beliefs and folk tales were, she suggests “reused” in confessions and depositions given by the accused individuals. This was done to meet the demands of inquisitors, who insisted on hearing something from their victims. Producing these accounts satisfied the authorities and- crucially probably- it stopped the torture. However, it also had the effect of weaving witch and faery belief together, so that information previously only associated with faeries became interchangeable with ideas about witches. The consequence of the so-called ‘witch craze,’ therefore, has been to confuse and dilute faerylore, meaning that subsequent generations gain the impression that there’s no essential difference between witches and faeries and, diminishing the formerly unique status of many faery powers.

The crossover between witches and faeries is especially interesting in respect of the matter of witches’ familiars (or ‘imps’), a subject to which I’ll return in the very near future.

Eugene Grasset, Three Women & Wolves

‘The Testimony of Tradition’- some thoughts on British faerylore

Bayliss, Almost into Fairyland

Carl Jung observed that “”The most important thing is not the understanding and interpretation of fantasies, but always the experiencing of them.”

The Testimony of Tradition is a book, published in 1890 by David MacRitchie. The main argument of the text is that fairies can be ‘explained’ as memories of previous populations of the British Isles (called the Lapps and the Picts in the book). They were, allegedly, a smaller and more primitive people, who were pushed to the margins of the habitable land by the incoming iron-using Celts. They were recalled as a short statured, stone tool using folk, who lived in underground shelters and caves and who lurked on the margins of later settlers’ civilisations, stealing food at night. The book’s theory had considerable impact at the time (witness several tales about ‘pygmy’ Turanians by Arthur Machen) but it is now rejected; there is simply no evidence at all that Stone Age people were any shorter than modern humans nor any less capable of adapting to new technologies.

However, the scientific fashion of providing rational explanations for faery phenomena is one that has persisted. One example might be diagnosing the ‘symptoms’ of changelings as evidence that these reports of faery substituted children were, in fact, various instances of mental and physical disability or of developmental diseases. One individual reviewing my 2020 book Faery expressed disappointment that I hadn’t dealt with such arguments (which are laid out in detail in Peter Narvaez’ book The Good People). As I said in my response to that comment on Goodreads, the reason I hadn’t covered the subject was that I viewed these medical explanations as human attempts to classify faery phenomena and, as such, they had no place in the text I was trying to write.

Recently, I have undertaken a number of radio and magazine interviews to promote my 2021 books British Pixies and Manx Faeries. Interviewers inevitably asked whether or not “I’m a believer.” My response was always this: for the best part of a thousand years (at least) people have had faery encounters and have recorded a fairly consistent account of the nature of faery folk across Britain. My inclination is to take those reports seriously; rather than describe them or (even) explain them away as folk science, the approach I’ve taken in my posts here and in my books has been to say this: these people knew what they saw, what they dealt with- and we should pay them the respect of taking them seriously. Generation and after generation of our ancestors have had these experiences (and people still are, as the Fairy Census shows), so either they’re all deluded or there’s something behind it, supported by a wealth of tradition.

In 1853, Charles Dickens wrote that “In a utilitarian age, it is a matter of grave importance that Fairy Tales should be respected.” That’s been my approach for the last six years- to treat faerylore seriously, examining it not as a subject fit only for children but as the experience of adults, accumulated over centuries. It’s worth adding,too, that the last century and a half (or so) has sought to add additional layers to British tradition- Rosicrucian and Theosophical ideas of nature spirits, devas and the like. Much of this, in my view, is not founded on the evidence of authentic British accounts and is, quite often, little different from imaginative fiction. Overall, I’ve tried to be pretty purist about these matters, concentrating on the evidence of the British Isles alone for the simple reason that Ireland, France, Denmark and so on are different countries with different traditions. Mixing them all together into a generic ‘faery’ figure again disrespects a millennium of separate cultural development and experience and (I’d argue) disrespects the faery folk themselves. I’m sure they’d disagree that they’re all the same…

So, there we are, a sort of mission statement. In any case, whatever we might think about them and their existence, faeries have been incredibly influential upon our culture for hundreds and hundreds of years. Whether in poetry, fiction, art or music, they have shaped and fired our imaginations- reason enough alone to write about them.

So, to conclude, I’d say that, whilst academics write about folklore in order to explain the strange beliefs of people in the past, what I’m trying to do here is to write ‘faerylore,’ explaining to you how the faeries are. We might call it a sort of faery anthropology. What this blog’s about is how faeries behave and how faery society operates.

Breakfast with the faeries

Children and Faery- a dangerous liaison?

It’s widely- and wrongly- assumed by the majority of people that faeries are a subject fit only- and, in fact, intended only- for children. This prejudice has grown up over the last two centuries but- as regular readers of this blog will know very well- it is utterly misleading. When the inhabitants of the British Isles first became aware of their supernatural neighbours, they understood very well how dangerous they could be. Given all my postings over the last six years, I need hardly underline or repeat this- sex, violence, theft and kidnapping are fairly typical of the state of affairs between humans and faeries. The mistrust and mistreatment goes both ways, but clearly magical opponents have got some advantages in such a struggle. I published a book last year titled The Darker Side of Faery, purely to remind ourselves of the true nature of our Good Neighbours. They can be benign and helpful- if they want to- and if they receive the respect that’s due to them. Equally, my 2020 book, Beyond Faery, dealt with the variety of faery beasts that exist: many of these, if has to be recognised, have no good side at all.

Still, today you’d think that faeries are all pink wings, tiaras, wands and fluttering niceness. They’re small, they’re harmless, and when little girls dress up to look like them, they show us what faeries really look like. Don’t be fooled. This is a sales exercise by the Victorians. They created a market for lavish story books for children, and faery tales (in both the wide and narrow senses of that term) were popular material- illustrated with bright, colourful and appealing illustrations. Faery tales started by being moral instruction, but have steadily degenerated into the flower faeries and other such airy-fairy niceness. Faeries aren’t nice- and we shouldn’t fool ourselves that they are.

We can watch the process happening, though. Take, for example, Ochil Fairy Tales, published in 1912 by R. Menzies Fergusson. We do see the darker side of faery- a miller’s wife kidnapped, a man detained for a year in a dance under a knowe, food stolen and three unbelievers punished by the faeries for refusing to pay them the common courtesy of accepting the fact of their existence- but there are also three stories in which the faes take good and/or beautiful children into Faery and entertain them, just because they seem to like human infants so much. In the stories of Ochil Rose, Archie Ogilvie and Little Angus the little ones are shown wonders, honoured and treated- and are then returned safe and sound to their families. These barely seem to be the same faeries as those that mistreat two men because they’re drunkards, molest a witch or abduct a skilled pipe player for ever because they feel the need of his skills at dancing. Looking beyond the content of the Ochil Tales, these are definitely not the same faeries who substitute babies for changelings or who kidnap infants to perform their menial chores for them. Fergusson seems to want to have the best of both both worlds: faeries who are friendly and kind- and faeries who are difficult, if not dangerous, neighbours.

Perhaps most perverse of all is the fact that Fergusson prefaces his book with the poem The Wee Folk by the journalist and folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1873-1936). This verse, which is taken from Mackenzie’s 1909 collection, Elves and Heroes, is a fine description of the contrary qualities of the little folk as we understand them, but one stanza is especially notable:

“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.”

Perhaps Fergusson was moved to borrow the poem because of the generally upbeat tone of Mackenzie’s Preface to his book of verse, which perhaps reinforced Fergusson’s own more positive view of the sith. Mackenzie stated (apparently addressing his book to a girl, a Miss Yule of Tarradale) that:

“it is evident from Highland folk-tales that the fairies were oftener the friends than the foes of mankind. When men and women were lured to their dwellings they rarely suffered injury; indeed, the fairies appeared to have taken pleasure in their company. To such as they favoured they imparted the
secrets of their skill in the arts of piping, of sword-making, etc. At sowing time or harvest they were at the service of human friends. On the needy they took pity. They never failed in a promise; they never forgot an act of kindness, which they invariably rewarded seven-fold. Against those who wronged them they took speedy vengeance.”

The statements here are true- we’ve only recently considered the ‘Robin Hood‘ tendency amongst faeries and I’ve written before about faery gifts of money or skills. They are generous, but they’re more often harsh. I’ve discussed before the particular vulnerability of children to being abducted by faeries- whether it’s as playmates or as slaves. I think it’s notable that the trows of Orkney and Shetland are reported to appear mostly to children under the age of ten (see Narvaez, The Good People, 131). I don’t think we should suppose that this is the result of any friendliness or affection towards infants- nor should we get too transported by notions of the innocence of childhood opening the eyes to other dimensions. I reluctantly suspect that the trows may be revealing themselves to the age group they’re most likely to abduct.

Although the Ochil Fairy Tales is aimed at a junior readership, Fergusson seemed unable to suppress the entire truth. Faeries are fascinating- but they’re not child’s play. They can certainly be kind- but they can also be nasty. This salutary fact should never be hidden.

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.