British faeries have a curious and contradictory relationship to humans’ ability to see them.
On the one hand, the faes are not infrequently associated with springs and wells that have the power of curing defects and diseases in human eyes. La Fontaine des Mittes on Jersey was one such: it cured both dumbness and sore eyes. This fountain is inhabited by two faeries (or nymphs), called Arna and Aiuna, whose presence perhaps is related to its curative properties. Compare, though, another Jersey site, Le Lavoir des Dames (fairies’ bathing place) off Sorrel Point. If you spied on the faes bathing there, they’d blind you. Readers may well be familiar with the fact that blinding (or striking dumb) are common punishments for violating faery privacy or glamour. The commonest victims are midwives who acquire- by accident- the ability to see through faery concealment whilst attending at a confinement. The midwives later see the faery father or some such person at a market- frequently stealing- and they are deprived of their (second) sight more or less violently. This may involve a breath or dust in the eye, a light touch or it may require physically and violently putting the eye out. A Guernsey woman who assisted at a fairy birth at the mound called Le Creux es Faies got baby spit in her eyes; fairy spit also subsequently stopped her seeing les p’tits gens ever again.
Other faery sites with healing powers include a well at Bugley in Wiltshire which relieved sore eyes, whilst the water of the Faeries’ Well near Blackpool treated weak eyes. Note that a mother who took some of this water to help her daughter’s failing vision tried it first on her own eyes before applying it to her child- for the entirely understandable maternal reason that she didn’t want to harm her child further. This accidentally and unintentionally bestowed the second sight upon her and for this abuse of the waters’ healing properties she was duly blinded by a fairy man at a market. In passing, we may speculate as to whether the daughter too gained the second sight- and why the faes seem not to have been so concerned about that risk. Perhaps where the water is applied as a cure, it has no ‘side-effects,’ perhaps (as is often said) children naturally have the second sight and can see the faeries anyway.
Lastly, elf arrows are said to be a good treatment for sore eyes and for this reason (as well as to protect themselves against elf assaults and to be able to cure their livestock) people would collect them.
In the Hertfordshire fairy-tale of the Green Lady, a poor girl finds employment as servant to a faery woman. One of her chores is fetching water from a well and the fish in that well warn her to neither eat the lady’s food nor to spy upon her. The girl ignores the second injunction and sees the woman dancing with a bogie. She’s found out and is blinded as a punishment, but the fairy well water restores her sight.
On the Isle of Man, a man who accidentally saw the fairies one night in a pea field near Jurby, witnessing a great crowd of little people dancing in red cloaks, was blinded for life by an old fairy woman who spotted him. Another, who spied on them when they were dancing by looking through the keyhole of a deserted cottage, was blinded with a poke from the bow of the fiddle for his impertinence. The Manx Little People will often expand their flocks by stealing sheep from humans. To do this, they use their glamour to make it impossible for a shepherd to accurately count the sheep he’s tending. The only remedy is for him to wash his eyes in running water first.
Scottish witch suspect John Stewart was rendered dumb- and blind in one eye- after the fairy king struck him with a white rod. This seems to have been a preliminary to teaching him some of the faeries’ secrets and magical knowledge. Perhaps we might say that some of his human senses were deliberately restricted before they were expanded by the acquisition of faery powers. Stewart’s sight and speech were restored in due course.
Our Good Neighbours can be highly touchy, though. A Victorian report from Wrexham tells of a fairy that blinded a person just because he looked at it. A very similar account comes from Exmoor: a person who ‘had dealings’ with the pixies later saw them thieving at the market in Minehead. When she protested, she was blinded. There is no mention of midwifery being involved, which may imply that her mere association with the fairies gave her the second sight.
The faery folk of Wales, the tylwyth teg, seem to have some particular fashions of their own which make them unique. Here are two accounts that typify this.
I have mentioned before the valuable record of folklore to be found in Francis Kilvert’s Diaries. In December 1870 he spoke to David Price who lived near Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains. Price was a good parishioner, telling the Reverend Kilvert that faeries were seldom seen any more because people’s minds were on God instead, but he didn’t deny their existence, all the same; indeed, in a memorable phrase, he affirmed that “the faeries travel yet.” As evidence of this, he described a sighting by his own nephew who worked down a colliery in Monmouthshire. He had seen the faes dancing in a field to beautiful sweet music. They had all come over a stile very near to him, so there had been little mistaking what he witnessed. The young man described them as “very yellow in the face- between yellow and red- and dressed almost all in red.” He didn’t like seeing them, and was fully convinced of the reality of what he saw- as indeed was his uncle. The dancers were, the youth recalled, about the size of an eleven year old girl.
Compare this account to that of one Dr. Edward Williams, recorded for 1757. It took place at Bodfari, which is south-east of St Asaph in Denbighshire:
“On a fine summer day (about midsummer) between the hours of 12 at noon and one, my eldest sister and myself, our next neighbour’s children Barbara and Ann Evans, both older than myself, were in a field called Cae Caled near their house, all innocently engaged at play by a hedge under a tree, and not far from the stile next to that house, when one of us observed on the middle of the field a company of—what shall I call them?—beings, neither men, women, nor children, dancing with great briskness. They were full in view less than a hundred yards from us, consisting of about seven or eight couples: we could not well reckon them, owing to the briskness of their motions and the consternation with which we were struck at a sight so unusual. They were all clothed in red, a dress not unlike a military uniform, without hats, but their heads tied with handkerchiefs of a reddish colour, sprigged or spotted with yellow, all uniform in this as in habit, all tied behind with the corners hanging down their backs, and white handkerchiefs in their hands held loose by the corners. They appeared of a size somewhat less than our own, but more like dwarfs than children. On the first discovery we began, with no small dread, to question one another as to what they could be, as there were no soldiers in the country, nor was it the time for May dancers, and as they differed much from all the human beings we had ever seen. Thus alarmed we dropped our play, left our station, and made for the stile. Still keeping our eyes upon them we observed one of their company starting from the rest and making towards us with a running pace. I being the youngest was the last at the stile, and, though struck with an inexpressible panic, saw the grim elf just at my heels, having a full and clear, though terrific view of him, with his ancient, swarthy, and grim complexion. I screamed out exceedingly; my sister also and our companions set up a roar, and the former dragged me with violence over the stile on which, at the instant I was disengaged from it, this warlike Lilliputian leaned and stretched himself after me, but came not over. With palpitating hearts and loud cries we ran towards the house, alarmed the family, and told them our trouble. The men instantly left their dinner, with whom still trembling we went to the place, and made the most solicitous and diligent enquiry in all the neighbourhood, both at that time and after, but never found the least vestige of any circumstance that could contribute to a solution of this remarkable phenomenon. Were any disposed to question the sufficiency of this quadruple evidence, the fact having been uniformly and often attested by each of the parties and various and separate examinations, and call it a childish deception, it would do them no harm to admit that, comparing themselves with the scale of universal existence, beings with which they certainly and others with whom it is possible they may be surrounded every moment, they are but children of a larger size…”
This account is reproduced in Elias Owen’s Welsh Folklore, in Gwynn Jones’ Welsh Folklore & Folk Custom and in Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins. Sikes mistakenly refers to the beings seen as knockers or coblynau– mine faeries- hence the drawing at the head of this post. The text itself doesn’t give such an impression; perhaps Sikes inferred it from the the neckerchiefs tied round their heads- it’s not clear. There seems little reason for not calling them tylwyth teg.
The similarities between the two stories are intriguing and, as far as complexion and clothing go, they confirm what we learn elsewhere. Both Evans Wentz in The Fairy Faith and John Rhys in Celtic Folklore record that red was a particular colour preferred by the tylwyth teg for their clothes- hence the common habit of comparing them to little soldiers, the British redcoats of the time. As for their skin tones- well, on this point matters are somewhat less certain. It’s widely thought that tylwyth teg (the fair family) suggests that the Welsh faes tend to be pale and blond- and there’s certainly evidence to this effect. Nevertheless, as I’ve described before, there’s also material that indicates that a range of rather less healthy or natural skin tones might be encountered- absolute chalk white certainly being amongst them. See my British Fairies and Faery Lifecycle for more on these issues. Suffice to say, orange and crimson skin need not surprise us.
About eighteen months ago, I examined the long list of faeries and other sprites that had been assembled during the early nineteenth century in the so-called Denham Tracts. As I remarked then, one aspect of this list is that it reminds us how many faery names have become utterly unfamiliar and mysterious to us.
In this posting, I want to go back to the Denham list to have a look of some of the more obscure and puzzling of these words.
caddies: A term from Yorkshire, the diminutive of the rare cad(d)- a spirit. In John Hutton’s A Tour to the Caves, in the Environs of Ingleborough and Settle (1781), caddy is given as a word for a ghost or bugbear. It is very clearly a sort of supernatural being, as two examples will show. “One of these cadds or familiars still knocking over their pillow,” was used by Francis Osborne in his Advice to a Son, (1656) page 36, whilst “Rebellion wants no cad nor elfe/ But is a perfect witchcraft of itself,” appears in ‘Elegies,’ by Henry King, Poems (1657).
calcars: mentioned by both Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) and by Denham, the word appears to derive from the verb calculare. Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words defines ‘calcar’ as an astrologer, ‘to calke’ being to calculate or to cast a figure or nativity. In John Bale’s 1538 play Kynge Johan “calking” is mentioned along with conjuring, coining and other frauds (1838 edition, page 71). Nevertheless, it has also been connected to caucher and related to the French noun ‘cauchemare,’ a nightmare. Overall, though, it seems to be more to do with sorcery and magic than with Faery.
chittifaces: Skeat’s Glossary of Tudor and Stuart Words and Wright’s Dialect Dictionary define this as someone with a thin and pinched face, a freckled visage or a small baby face. It also is defined as a puellulus improbulus– a bad little girl. It might be used contemptuously: Thomas Otway’s 1683 play, The Souldiers Fortune, includes the line “Now, now, you little Witch, now you Chitsface” (Act 3, scene 1).
Possibly related is Chaucer’s term ‘chichevache’ which is used in the ‘Clerk’s Tale’ in the Canterbury Tales, line 1188– “Lest Chichevache yow swelwe in hire entraille!” [swallow you in her insides]. John Lydgate’s early fifteenth century poem Bycorne & Chychevache reaffirms that “Chichevache eteþe wymmen goode.” This a monster that devours obedient wives (and therefore is very hungry, according to Chaucer’s joke). In Lydgate’s verse, the creature is contrasted satirically with the bicorn, part panther and part cow, which eats devoted husbands and is, apparently, very well fed and plump. Denham mentions bygorns in his list as well.
We might also note that in French chevaucher means simply ‘to ride a horse,’ so that a connotation of nightmare may have been incorporated into this name as well.
clabbernappers: Some topographical and historical research reveals that in Southfleet parish in Kent there once was a large cave known that was called the Clabber Napper’s Hole. The related legend, as transcribed in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1803 and reprinted in vol.26 for December 1846, was that the occupier of the cave was a kidnapper or freebooter. The article proposed that clabber derived from “caer l’abre,” the dwelling in the woods, though there is no attempt to explain why a Welsh word and a French word would be combined- as is frequent in old and dodgy etymologies where words with suitable meanings are randomly put together with no thought for historical likelihood.
A more literal interpretation of the name might suggest that it was simply an onomatopoeic word, the meaning of which was a sort of noisy abductor (of children). The Clabber Napper might, therefore, have been a sort of nursery sprite used to scare children. If so, it might have been adopted by the putative smugglers to keep people away from their lair, or it might have been used by parents to discourage their children from playing there.
gringes: in some old dialects, to gringe or grange means to grind the teeth (Dickinson’s 1878 Glossary of Words and Phrases Pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland). On that basis we might imagine another nursery sprite- a monster that grinds its teeth a lot and is used to keep children in their beds at night.
Miffies: Miffy is a nickname for the devil in Gloucestershire according to Thomas Wright’s Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English vol.2. Presumably it is related to Old French maufé meaning the devil. In addition, ‘miff’ means displeasure or ill humour, hence the modern meaning of being or feeling miffed over something.
Mock-beggars: There are numerous places known as Mockbeggar, Mock Beggar, or some variant thereon. E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1894, defines Mock-Beggar Hall as an ostentatious dwelling whose mean spirited and stingy owners will turn away the poor from their door.
This is the literal interpretation of the phrase; however, John Florio’s 1611 dictionary of English and Italian, Queen Anna’s New World of Words, defines ‘beffana’ as a bugbear or scarecrow, which might explain how it got into Denham’s list.
Nickies & Nacks: these are water sprites- Denham also mentions the related nixies (but this is just an adaptation of the German name nixe and first seems to have been used about 1816 by Sir Walter Scott) and nisses, which might be another pronunciation of the word, but is much more likely to be taken from Swedish and Danish, a nisse being a sort of domestic goblin or brownie. Keightley seems to have been one of the first to use it in print in the Fairy Mythology (1828), so it is again a late borrowing and not an authentic British sprite; the nisse’s role had already been long filled by our own brownies and hobs.
Nicks, necks and nickies all can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon nicer or nicor, becoming nekir and nyker in Middle English. All the Germanic languages of the continent have related words with a similar meaning. The nickie, neck or nack is a supernatural being found living in the sea or in inland waters- other familiar terms might be water-demon or kelpie. In Middle English the word was also used to denote a siren or mermaid. The creature first appeared in the poem Beowulf as a dreadful creature of the night; it continued to be deadly and terrible in subsequent centuries.
In Layamon’s Brut of about 1200 (lines 10851-2) we are told about a lake in Scotland “Þat water is unimete brade; nikeres þer baðieð inne; þer is ælvene ploȝe in atteliche pole” (The water is immeasurably broad; nikers bathe there; there too is the play of elves in the hideous pool).
The Ayenbiteof Inwite (Prick of Conscience) of 1340 (line 61) describes to us the how sea creatures called “nykeren… habbeþ bodyes of wyfman and tayl of visse” (have the bodies of women and the tails of fish). Like sirens, according to Robert Mannyng in 1338, the nikers will sing to sailors a “mery song þat drecched þam ferly long [tormented them for a long time].” The Treatise of Ghostly Battle (1500) also describes their tricks to lure men: “The nykare or meremaydene, that cast opone the water syde dyverse thyngis whyche semene fayre to mane, but anone as he taketh hit, she taketh hyme ande devoureth hym.” This image persisted into Victorian times: in 1853 in Hypatia Charles Kingsley had a character ask “’What is a nicor, Agilmund?’ ‘A sea-devil who eats sailors.’”
The word nick or neck has almost completely faded from English, except for the river spirit known as Nicky Nicky Nye on the Welsh-English border. Its loss is a shame, as it would overcome the confusion between inland and marine mermaids that we now have- and which made me suggest the coinage ‘meremaid‘ as a substitute.
A secondary meaning (but one that is now the common understanding of the word), is demon or devil. So, in 1481, William Caxton’s translation of the History of Reynard Fox contains a reference to “fowle nyckers, Come they out of helle?” This meaning was preserved in the poem, ‘Nickar the Soulless,’ published by Sebastian Evans in Macmillan’s Magazine for 1863 (and later in Brother Fabian’s Manuscript and Other Poems, 1865). Nickar, the devil, makes a deal for a man’s soul so that he may see again and marry the naked fairy girl he once saw bathing in a river. Today, of course, we still refer to ‘Old Nick.’
Spoorns & spurns: ‘Spurn’ generally denoted a fight or a spur but in the Dorset dialect it meant an evil spirit. Keightley speculated that both “Calcar and Sporn (spurs?) may be the same, from the idea of riding” and hence some kind of nightmare, an evil spirit that rode people in their sleep and caused frightening dreams and paralysis (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, note to page 334).
Tantarrabobs: ‘Tantara’ and ‘tantaran’ was a noise or distubance (as in a tantrum). Tantarabobus, Tantarabobs, or Tankerabogus were variants upon a South Western dialect name for the Devil; it also denoted a noisy playful child. Thus, tantara-bogus was a noisy bogle (Joseph Wright, English Dialect Dictionary).
Thrummy-caps: According to Henry Farnie in his Fife Coast from Queensferry to Fifeness (1860, 112-113) Thrummy-cap was the vindictive ghost of a drowned carpenter who haunted the harbour where he died. James Halliwell-Phillips meanwhile reported that thrummy-caps were faeries from Northumberland and were “Queer looking little old men” who lived in the vaults and cellars of castles (Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words, 1848).
It’s not wholly clear how or why this relates to the above, but ‘thrum’ means a weaver’s ends, the extremity of the warp on the loom that can’t be woven. It is a piece of material about nine inches in width. Thrum therefore meant a frayed fringe or tuft, so that a thrummy-cap would be a ragged or shaggy looking hat knitted from these off-cuts of coarse woven woollen cloth. Perhaps, rather like the Redcaps of the same area, the Northumbrian thrummy-caps were associated with the distinctive headgear.
Tints: As a noun, the word is defined as being an obscure northern term for goblin. Another sense of the word ‘tint’ is a tiny touch, scrap or taste whilst ‘tinte’ means lost (coming from a Middle English verb of that meaning, tine, to lose (J. Wright, English Dialect Dictionary). Tinted was therefore ‘lost’ or ‘neglected.’ As well as to lose or to be lost, tine/ tyne could also mean to trouble or to be troubled or distressed.
There is a story in which an Eskdale goblin named Gilpin Horner was heard two men crying out “Tint, tint, tint,” the word in this context apparently meaning ‘lost.’ They responded to his cry, “What de’il’s tint you?” (Who the devil’s lost- or even taken- you) and the goblin then appeared to them, “something like a human form, but surprisingly little, distorted in features and misshapen in limbs.” The men fled and Horner pursued them and took up residence in the home of one of the pair. It was “undoubtedly flesh and blood” as it ate and drank with the family and had a taste for cream. This treat it stole to eat whenever it could; it was also cruel to the children if they provoked it. One day, though, a voice was heard calling the goblin’s name and it leapt up and left for ever. (George Allan, Life of Sir Walter Scott, Baronet: With Critical Notices of His Writings, 1834, 247-248).
In another legend from the Borders area, a man tried to taunt the duergars of the Simonside Hills in Northumberland by going out one night calling “Tint! tint!” The duergars at first appeared with little lights near a bog, trying to lure him in- much like a will of the wisp– but the story concludes with an “innumerable multitude” of them with “hideous visages” and clubs in their hands, surrounding the man. He tried to fight them off with his staff but they had no physical forms and, every time he struck out, he only seemed to multiply the number assailing him, until he collapsed in a faint until morning (Charles Tibbits, Folk-lore and Legends: English, 1890,182-183).
Wirrikows: the Scottish wirry-cowe, worricow, and variations thereon, was a bugbear or goblin; the name might also be used for a scarecrow or for the devil himself. The name probably comes from a combination of the words ‘worry’ (in the sense of harassment) and ‘cowe’ or hobgoblin. Denham mentions “kows or cowes” separately in his list. An example is the Hedley Kowe of Hedley near Ebchester, which was a mischievous bogie that could take a variety of forms in order to play tricks on its hapless victims (see my Beyond Faery, 2020).
Examples of the Scottish word’s usage are found in Thomas Donaldson’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect of 1809: “Where harpie, imp, an’ warricoe/ An’ goblins dwell” and in Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 novel Black Dwarf– “They do say there’s a sort o’ worricows and lang-nebbed things about the land” (ii, in Tales of my Landlord, 1st Series, I, 51).
The wirrikow was, apparently, a dreadful thing to meet: James Hogg refers in The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818) to “the waefu’ [woeful] wirricowe.” In James Lumsden’s play, Doun I’Th’ Loudons (1908, page 276) the sprite is described as “Hump-backit an’ bow’d- a wirricow- And scrimply [barely] fowre feet three!” He had a red face, according to Hogg (“haffats in a lowe”) and would make people scream with fear and alarm. For example, she “Scream’d at ilk clough, an’ skrech’d at ilka how, As sair as she had seen the wirry-cow” (A. Ross Helenore, 1768, 77).
As I said at the start, much has been lost from British folklore, with only tantalising scraps remaining. However, with some digging in etymological and dialect dictionaries, we can start to restore some idea of what our ancestors knew (and feared).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Faeryfor 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.
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.
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.
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;
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.
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 Gnometo contend with. That- and Drake’s song- bear strong similarities.
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.
I discuss this subject as well in my recently published book, The Darker Side of Faeries, available directly from Green Magicand the usual outlets. As the name indicates, it’s a close look at all the more dangerous aspects of the faery character.
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 bugganeand 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.