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.

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.

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.

Faeries, Middle Earth & Race

Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006

Amazon have recently released a trailer for their new Lord of the Rings series and there has been disquiet amongst Tolkien fans to see that non-white characters are included amongst the cast. My own (British) newspaper devoted nearly a whole page to the debate this sparked.  In the course of the article, the journalist reporting suggested that there was already good precedent for such diversity in the Norse Prose Edda, which refers to the svartalfar- the dark or black elves (the journalist plainly understanding svart in the sense of ‘swarthy’ in English).  This suggestion was, I believe, entirely misconceived- firstly, because Norsemen actually referred to black people as ‘blue men’ (blaumenn).  Secondly, and equally as importantly, Old Norse speakers weren’t using the word ‘black’ in the modern sense seen in ‘Black Lives Matter.’  They deployed it as contrast to ‘white’ in the dark/ light or good/ evil dichotomy, as is made abundantly clear by the other ‘clan’ of elves mentioned in the Edda, the ljosalfar or ‘light elves.’

Crofton Croker, in Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland vol.3 (which largely isn’t about Ireland at all), discussed the Norse elves at some length. Quoting from the Grimm Brothers, he described the white, shining elves of light as being pure of colour and nearly transparent, dressed too in white or silver garments. They can be depicted as snow-white virgins who appear in the midday sunlight and disappear at dusk- the sun itself being called alfrodull (shining on the elves). Amongst these beings are the water elves who resemble white swans.

All in all, then, we can’t call on the Prose Edda to support Amazon’s decision to have a diverse cast.  Does this mean that there’s no basis for such an idea?  I’d say not, because, in fact, British faerylore and literature suggest that Amazon may not have strayed from tradition at all.  Interestingly, earlier eras appear to have been more open to ideas of varied faery skin tones than we may be today- a subject I reviewed in my book The Faery Lifecycle (2021).

Titania & her Changeling, Leochi, 2017 (on DeviantArt)

There’s a well-established tendency for us to assume that the British past was whiter than the present. In fact, a racially diverse population has been with us since Roman times (and, if we want to go back into the Mesolithic, Cheddar Man has been shown by DNA to be dark skinned, albeit blue-eyed). Certainly, during the Middle Ages British people were familiar enough with non-white neighbours- and that, apparently, included the Good Neighbours.

Medieval chronicler William of Newburgh, writing about England in the late 1100s, recounted the story of a man called Ketell, from North Yorkshire, who was accosted on the road by two little black men.  Although it is often the case in faery accounts that any colour mentioned relates to the faeries’ clothes, rather than to their complexion, the Latin text in this case reads “duos quasi Ethiopes parvulos.”  There’s no mistaking William’s meaning here: the men Ketell encountered looked like ‘two little black Africans.’  Much more recently, some men “with black faces and wee green coaties” were seen by Jenny Rogers, wife of the coachman on an estate in the Scottish Borders.  Once again, they seem to have been diminutive- judging by the coats anyway- and they don’t have a Caucasian skin tone.  Likewise, some little people seen by men working in the fields at Strathpeffer were reported to have had “very dark skins” (although we must admit that weather-beaten skin is another very common faery trait).

Similar diversity is found in faery writing too.  For example, in William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the faery court has very strong connections with the far east, with Titania and Oberon disputing over a boy “stolen from an Indian king” whose mother served as a “votaress” to Titania, the pair having been in the habit of sitting together gossiping in the “spiced Indian air, by night.”  Likewise, Milton in Paradise Lost imagined faeries as a “Pygmean race beyond the Indian mount.”  In 1819, the poet John Keats described a faery city “in midmost Ind [India]” where a “fay of colour” resided- although admittedly this character is presented as an unhappy exception to the ruling population, being “slave from top to toe/ Sent as a present…” 

These references all demonstrate that, into the early nineteenth century, there was no difficulty conceiving of a racially mixed Faery- even if the human evils of enslavement were reproduced there as well.  This may have been done primarily for exotic effect, but at the same time there was no apparent sense that non-white faeries were impossible to imagine, either for authors or their audiences.

We might go even further, though, for there is in fact quite a lot of evidence (especially in Tudor and Stuart– sixteenth and seventeenth century- British sources)- as well as some more recent Welsh sightings- that faery beings might have skin colourings radically different from our own.  Texts mention faes whose faces are chalk white, jet black, crimson, blue and green.  It’s quite possible that the faeries in green coats with black faces seen by Jenny Rogers were in fact to be counted amongst these faes.

We have forgotten some of the more ‘alien’ looking skin tones that our ancestors apparently took in their stride just as (it seems) we have forgotten the potentially racially mixed nature of earlier faery sightings.  As for Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, I suspect that he knew perfectly well what older generations had seen and written about.  He was extremely well read in traditional stories, as well as in the medieval literature and myth, in light of which he may well not have been that surprised or distressed by Amazon’s decision to include some black actors in their adaptation. 

CMU production of Midsummer Night’s Dream

Fays and Astral Love

A Sylph, by imarty on deviantart

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Lake Harris

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

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

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

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

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

Elves & Heroes, Donald Mackenzie 1909

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

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

THE WEE FOLK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BONNACH FALLAIDH (THE REMNANT BANNOCK)

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

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

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

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

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

THE BANSHEE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BLUE MEN OF THE MINCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

An t-Uraisg

THE URISK

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

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

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

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

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

MY GUNNA

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

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

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

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

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

THE GRUAGACH (MILKMAID’S SONG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE LITTLE OLD MAN OF THE BARN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YON FAIRY DOG

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

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

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

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

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

George William Joy, The Kelpie

THE WATER-HORSE

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

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

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

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

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

THE CHANGELING

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

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

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

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

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

MY FAIRY LOVER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Lights & Nimble Men

Image by Chris Murray/ BBC

I have previously alluded to the fact that there seem to be some now obscure and uncertain links between faeries and the stars. You may recall how Alan Garner in his 2021 book Treacle Warner made the eponymous faery hero of the book an inhabitant of the ‘Land of the Summer Stars.’

In the north of Scotland, there is a far surer link between the faeries under their knowes and the heavens. The faeries are thought to be responsible for the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis. The lights go by various names across Britain, such as the Perry Dancers in East Anglia; they are called the ‘Merry Dancers’ or Fir Chlis (Nimble Men) in Scotland. Their origins and faery connections also have several explanations.

According to one story (very obviously shaped by Christian beliefs), after the revolt of Satan the angels were cast out of heaven. Some fell to earth and became faeries; some fell into the sea and became the so-called Fir Gorm, the Blue Men of the Western Isles of Scotland; others fell only as far as the sky and are seen as the ‘Northern Streamers.’

Although the Merry Dancers are distinguished from the sluagh, who are notorious for hunting and abducting humans, theirs is still a violent existence. They are said to fight an everlasting battle, which we witness as the lights in the sky. The blood that’s shed during this conflict gathers at first as in a red cloud below the aurora, known as ‘the pool of blood,’ before falling to earth, where it can be seen congealed as ‘blood stones,’ called fuil siochaire or elves’ blood in the Hebrides. The fighting of the faery hosts at Halloween likewise leaves behind traces of blood, a red liquid that seeps from lichens after frost. In some accounts, the fighting takes place between different clans of the Fir Chlis for possession of a faery woman.

On Shetland the lights were once feared and were called the Fighting Lasses. Now their reputation seems to have ameliorated; they are referred to as the Pretty Dancers because, on still nights, you can hear the swish of their dresses as they glide about the sky. There is even a dance tune, perhaps learned from the faeries, called the Pretty Dancers’ Reel. William Allingham’s poem, The Fairies, reflects this more benign view, describing how the faes will go “up with music on cold starry nights/ To feast with the queen of the gay Northern Lights.”

Fir chlis over Callanais stone circle

Another poet, the Scottish folklorist Donald Mackenzie, wrote an even more detailed examination of this mythology in his poem The Nimble Men. It is included in his 1909 collection, Elves and Heroes, which I’ve mentioned before, and it’s short enough to include in full.

The Nimble Men

When Angus Ore, the wizard,
His fearsome wand will raise,
The night is filled with splendour,
And the north is all ablaze;
From clouds of raven blackness,
Like flames that leap on high-
All merrily dance the Nimble Men across the Northern Sky.

Now come the Merry Maidens,
All gowned in white and green,
While the bold and ruddy fellows
Will be flitting in between-
O to hear the fairy piper
Who will keep them tripping by!
The men and maids who merrily dance across the Northern Sky.

O the weird and waesome music,
And the never-faltering feet!
O their fast and strong embraces,
And their kisses hot and sweet!
There’s a lost and languished lover
With a fierce and jealous eye,
As merrily flit the Nimble Folk across the Northern Sky.

So now the dance is over,
And the dancers sink to rest-
There’s a maid that has two lovers,
And there’s one she loves the best;
He will cast him down before her,
She will raise him with a sigh-
Her love so bright who danced to-night across the Northern Sky.

Then up will leap the other,
And up will leap his clan-
O the lover and his company
Will fight them man to man-
All shrieking from the conflict
The merry maidens fly-
There’s a Battle Royal raging now across the Northern Sky.

Through all the hours of darkness
The fearsome fight will last;
They are leaping white with anger,
And the blows are falling fast-
And where the slain have tumbled
A pool of blood will lie-
O it’s dripping on the dark green stones from out the Northern Sky.

When yon lady seeks her lover
In the cold and pearly morn,
She will find that he has fallen
By the hand that she would scorn,
She will clasp her arms about him,
And in her anguish die!
O never again will trip the twain across the Northern Sky.”

This discussion of the Fir Chlis is adapted from my 2021 book, Faeries and the Natural World, published by Green Magic Press.

Trowie Tunes & Trows in Music

A trowie song & dance

I’ve previously written about faery music, what’s often termed ceol sidhe in Irish Gaelic, and people’s experiences of hearing it. In this posting I want to survey how faery music has more directly impacted human music, through borrowed tunes and as a source of inspiration to us.

The faes are renowned for their love of music (and dance) and for their skill in playing instruments. That skill can be conveyed to humans- one potential route for faery tunes to reach us, perhaps. The examples of this process seem to come almost entirely from the Highlands of Scotland, with gifts of proficiency in playing the bagpipes often bestowed- not uncommonly along with an enchanted set of pipes (or the chanter at least).

Across Britain, it has been common over the centuries for people to hear faeries displaying their instrumental skills, usually the sounds of music being overheard coming from below faery hills. Examples of such locales can be found from the Fairy Knowe on Skye to the ‘music barrows’ of southern England, for example at Bincombe Down and Culliford Tree in Dorset and Wick Moor, near Stogursey in Somerset. A rare exception to this ‘eavesdropping’ is found in the story of Finlay, grandson of the ‘Black Fairy’ on Mingulay, whose own faery lover used to play her harp to him.

A number of faery tunes have been copied and preserved in human music, most notably in Shetland and Wales, where they are still remembered and played. A famous Shetland tune is Be nort da deks o’ Voe, learned directly from the trows. There are several such so-called trowie or ferry tüns from the far northern isles; two Welsh examples are Cân y tylwyth teg and Ffarwel Ned Pugh

The usual process for acquisition is simply overhearing the reel being played and committing it to memory. Most often this happens when a musician happens to be sat on or near a faery knowe, but in one Shetland case, a man heard a trow piper playing the tune when a crowd of trows passed his house one morning, whilst he was still lying in his bed. On the Isle of Man, a man called Willy the Fairy (William Cain) during late Victorian and Edwardian times often heard fairies singing and playing instruments in Glen Helen at night and had learned several songs just by listening to them. In fact, quite a number of Manx tunes and songs are reported to have been borrowed by humans, being fairy compositions originally.

In a few cases the tunes are more consciously passed on. A piper called Fyfe from Reay in Perthshire spent many hours with the fairies, enjoying their music and honing his own skills- giving his playing a magical charm that made him much in demand at dances. Sometimes conferring musical ability seems almost incidental or accidental: a fairy woman visited a Perthshire home and tuned the family’s bagpipes for them. She then played a few tunes before leaving, but the three sons of the family were endowed with great prowess as pipers thereafter.

A major problem in transmission is that faery music can prove notoriously hard to remember. In his 1779 history of Aberystruth parish, the Reverend Edmund Jones reported that “everyone said [the music] was low and pleasant, but none could ever learn the tune.” On the Isle of Man, one musician had to return three times to the same spot where he’d heard faery music to be able to commit it to memory (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, pages 118 & 131). This aspect of the music has parallels with memories of time spent by mortals with the faeries ‘under the hill.’ Some have said they are unable to recall anything of what happened and what was said whilst they were there (although we may suspect that a diplomatic silence may actually be involved).

As for faeries and trows featuring in human music, Italian folk metal band Elvenking, for example, regularly refer to elvendom, elven legions and the elven king in their songs- see, for instance, ‘Oakenshield,’ ‘Banquet of Bards’ and, much more remarkably, ‘Trows’ Kind.’ This track, from the band’s 2006 album Winter Wake, is a unique catalogue of British folklore, from the Shetland trows “henking” at a dance, taking in southern Scottish Redcaps who are “greedy for silver and gold” to witches in the form of hares. ‘Henking’ is the distinctive limping dance performed by trows.

All in all, the song is a lament for a fading faery kind:

“Through years and centuries,
Through myth and poetry
Our race’s slowly dying
In the heart of mankind.”

At the same time, though, the lyrics are not sentimental about fae nature: they are “Nymphs of dark and lust- Fairy of bad fate!”- although it is also reported that-

“Somebody tells he has seen
Some of the little ones
Some even that have talked with them
So nice and handsome…”

Again, the wisest course of action over faery doings (and faery tunes) may be a discrete silence.

Overall, Elvenking seem to be under no illusions about the perilous truth of faery nature: they advise against getting involved- “Please, don’t be such a fool!” They know that faeries can be highly alluring, tempting humans into ill-advised sexual liaisons: “Desire grows, denial howls/ Your will has gone,” but the only likely outcome is enslavement and subjection.

For more information on the impact of Faery on human composers and songwriters, see my 2022 book, published on Amazon, The Faery Faith in British Music.

The Fairy Faith in British Music

Saga om ringen, the English edition of Dane Bo Hansson’s album

I have recently published The Faery Faith in British Music, which builds upon some of my previous postings to offer a comprehensive study of the impact of Faery on classical and contemporary music, in musical, operas and symphonies, over the last 150 years. Just as faeries have had a major influence in poetry and in art, they have been surprisingly prevalent in many different genres and styles of music- not just sonatas and concertos, but novelty records, pop songs, folk rock, prog rock, indie, goth and heavy metal. Artists who’ve dealt with faery themes range from the improbable (Cliff Richard) through the well known (Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Sigur Ros, Queen, Pink Floyd and Marc Bolan) to the obscure- the many thrash metal bands named after characters in the Silmarillion and singing in Elvish or in the Black Speech of the orcs of Mordor (really).

It turns out that the books of J R R Tolkien have had a huge impact on heavy metal around the world. This has been going on since the 1970s (Led Zeppelin sang about ring wraiths in The Battle of Evermore, for example) but it’ll probably come as no surprise to learn that huge impetus was given to this trend by the Peter Jackson films. Here, I’m going to give just one small example of the huge creativity that has been sparked.

Songs and albums have been composed around Middle Earth themes, from thrash metal tracks to entire metal operas. Some artists, however, have reacted to the Tolkien’s epics by wishing to sound as if they actually come from Middle Earth.  Jon Anderson, whom some readers might know as the former vocalist of British prog rock band Yes, in 2006 collaborated with several other musicians and singers, collectively called ‘The Fellowship,’ to record In Elven Lands, a collection of songs played on modern and antique instruments, such as the harp, lute, hurdy-gurdy and crumhorn, that was inspired by the writings of Tolkien.  The haunting track ‘Beware the Wolf’ provides the album with its name: the song follows a hunter “through woven woods in elven lands.”

Interviewed in August 2006 on the Howard Stern radio show in the USA, Anderson stated that he had acquired a spiritual adviser who “helped him see into the fourth dimension.” He also revealed that, since a magic mushroom experience some time previously, he had considered himself to be part of the “elf culture.” These experiences certainly help to explain his involvement in the album.

On the album, ‘The Fellowship’ took a musicological approach to imagining how the songs and tunes of the ancient cultures described by Tolkien might have sounded.  The metre and style he had employed for the verse in the books was copied for the tracks on the album (and, of course, the existence of these songs in the books provide both a template and a justification for all the bands I have mentioned to devise their own versions).  A variety of musical cultures from around the world inspired the different songs on In Elven Lands.  Thus, English folk tradition was drawn upon to represent Hobbit tunes; the elves’ music was based on mediaeval sacred music and the ballads of the troubadours. The music of Numenor was like Elvish- but with added Greek and Macedonian influences. The results are truly striking.  The album cover, too, is notable: it uses an image from a medieval manuscript and Elvish lettering, but generally has a restrained tone, like an album of classical or early music.

The subject matter for the songs on In Elven Lands is drawn from across the numerous writings of Tolkien, not just The Lord of the Rings but The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales and the Unfinished Tales as well.  The resulting tracks feature Quenya, Noldorin and Sindarin lyrics, alongside songs in modern English, Anglo-Saxon, and a kind of Neo-Elvish.  Carvin Knowles, producer of In Elven Lands, has said of the recording process that “[Anderson] was a real sport about singing in Elvish… Hearing Sindarin with his Yorkshire accent is enough to make any fan smile.”  (NB: in fact, Anderson is from Accrington in Lancashire, on the wrong side of the Pennines from Yorkshire, a very important distinction if you’re from either county…!) The Elven Lands album also includes a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Battle of Evermore’, transformed into a slow medieval ballad.

The richness of faery inspired music is astonishing. It is a demonstration of the ways in which Faery continues to enrich our culture– something that is often overlooked by those who dismiss faeries as only fir for little girls in pink dresses, wearing elasticated wings. Tell that to a fan of one of those thrash metal bands singing in Dwarvish… The Faery Faith in British Music is available from Amazon, either as an e-book (£5.95) or a paperback (£7.95).