A Pardon for the Witches

The Guardian newspaper for December 20th 2021 carried a report to the effect that it was likely that the 3837 people tried (and often executed) for witchcraft in Scotland between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries were likely to be pardoned.

This is the result of a two year campaign by the Witches of Scotland group, which has led to a bill being introduced in the Scottish Parliament. The relevant Scottish statute, under which the individuals were charged, tortured and (in two thirds of cases) executed- usually by strangling and burning- was repealed in 1736. The victims of the Witchcraft Act 1563 nevertheless have remained classed as convicted criminals. Hopefully, this is soon set to change- some twenty years after a similar pardon was granted by Massachusetts to the victims of Salem.

Our interest in witches is, of course, that the accused, in England as well as in Scotland, often disclosed links with faeries. It appears that this was often confessed as there was an outdated and mistaken belief on the part of many that faeries were not to be equated with demons and that, as a result, confessing to contacts was not so bad. This was wrong: 89% of those who mentioned faery aid were executed according to research. The fundamental problem was that, under the Catholic church, although faeries were hardly ‘approved’ of, they were not explicitly evil or demoniacal. However, when Protestantism prevailed across most of Britain, it brought with it a far more literal approach to the Bible and its applications. Faeries are not mentioned in the Bible; demons are; therefore, faeries have to be demons if they’re anything. The Catholic church had tolerated a notion that the faes might be fallen angels, but there was no textual sanction for this and so the view prevailed that contact with faeries could only be regarded as liaison with the devil.

Scottish faery expert Lizanne Henderson has suggested that the language barrier between Lowland Scots speakers and Highland Gaelic speakers may have meant that many of the latter (who were often also still Catholic) may have failed to realise the sea-change that took place in the law and social attitudes during the sixteenth century. This may very well be true, but it was coupled with a belief on the part of many witch suspects that there was no contradiction between Christianity and faeries. Their cures might be applied, for example, whilst invoking the holy trinity. For most ordinary people, the faeries did not stand outside the created world and the Christian universe. They were part of it and subject to the same divine powers.

As I have often described on this blog and in my various books, what the accused ‘witches’ disclosed was seldom negative or destructive behaviour. The faeries provided them with cures for human and animal diseases; they helped find lost items; they sometimes provided glimpses of the future and- as I have frequently described- they entered into sexual and emotional relationships with individual humans and raised families with them.

The confessions extorted from victims such as Bessie Dunlop, Alison Pearson, Andro Man and Stein Maltman give us a fascinating glimpse of how ordinary people understood and interacted with Faery five hundred years ago. Their testimonies are very valuable and I have very frequently quoted from the records of their interrogations and trials. These texts can seem like mines of precious faerylore, but we should never forget their origin. Harmless people who provided valuable services to their communities (healing and comfort especially) were subjected to physical and mental torture in prison- having weights piled on their legs, for example- in order to make them confess to what their accusers wanted to hear. They were then publicly killed in a cruel and gruesome manner. Families and friends lost loved ones and communities lost helpful members. A pardon is long overdue, but we can also honour their memories by acknowledging the insights they bequeathed to us- however unwillingly.

The Seelie and Unseelie Courts

The Seelie Court by Amarenth

The seelie and unseelie courts of Scottish fairies are a particular feature of the folklore of that country; the clear separation of the faes into good and bad groupings that’s entailed is almost unique in folklore.  Moreover, the notion of the two courts has, in recent years, attracted considerable attention and popularity- notwithstanding the fact that they are not mentioned in the majority of the Scottish faery-lore texts and collections.  Probably the majority of recorded Scottish folklore relates to the Highlands and Islands, the Gaelic (and Norse) speaking regions, which may explain why we have relatively little material documenting the two courts.

The Scots word ‘seelie’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon (ge)sælig/ sællic meaning ‘happy’ or ‘prosperous.’  The evolution of the word in Middle English and Scots seems to have been in two directions.  One sense was ‘pious,’ ‘worthy,’ ‘auspicious’ or ‘blessed.’  The second development extended the meaning incrementally through ‘lucky,’ ‘cheerful,’ ‘innocent,’ and ‘simple,’ from whence it was a short final step to ‘simple-minded,’ as the modern English ‘silly’ denotes.  Because of this evolution, as well as because of the dialectical differences between English and Scots, it is preferable to use ‘seelie’ rather than to try to translate it.  In passing, we might observe that Scots is in many cases far nearer to original Anglo-Saxon than modern English, which has imported so many French and Latin words.

By late medieval and early modern times, ‘seelie’ or ‘seely’ in Scots meant happy or peaceable, as in ‘seely wights,’ and the ‘seely court,’ which was the ‘happy or pleasant court.’  It followed from this that ‘unseelie’ or ‘unsilly’ described something that was unhappy or wretched.  The poet Dunbar referred to Satan’s “unsall meyne” (his “wretched troop of followers”), a phrase which could be a very appropriate term for the fairies; even more significantly, Montgomerie’s description of the fairy court mentioned how “an elf on an ape an unsel begat”- in other words, the pairing gave birth to a wretch or monster.  (Dunbar, Evergreen, i 106; Montgomerie, The Flyting of Polwart)

Scots is the language of Lowland Scotland, and this gives us a sense of the realm of the seelie and unseelie courts.  The unseelie court, therefore, might be expected to include such creatures as the red caps, shellycoat, the brown man of the muirs, the powrie, the dunter, and perhaps a hag like Gentle Annis; the seelie court, meanwhile, included the elves, the brownies and the doonie (see my Beyond Faery for details of many of these). 

The Unseelie Court by Ameluria

Most of our records of the usage of seelie and unseelie courts are not very old.  We are told about them in McPherson’s Primitive Beliefs of North East Scotland (1929) and earlier in Charles Rogers’ Scotland, Social and Domestic (1884); surprisingly, perhaps, there is no mention of the terms in Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Borders (1802) or Letters on Demonology (1830) nor does Cromek allude to the concepts in his Remains of Nithsdale Song (1810).  The ballad Allison Gross refers to the ‘Seelie Court’ but this song was only recorded in 1783- although it might not be unreasonable to see it as being at least two hundred years older. 

A very early example of the use of seelie is to be found in a poem of 1584 by Robert Sempill, entitled Heir Followis the Legend of the Bishop of St. Androis Lyfe, Callit Mr. Patrick Adamsone, Alias Cousteane.  The poem is a biting satire upon the high- ranking churchman of St Andrews, who became a target for criticism and mockery after he used the services of a healer called Alison Pearson to treat various ailments.  She was later convicted as a witch.  Sempill describes at one point:

“Ane carling of the Quene of Phareis,

That ewill win geir to elphyne careis;

Through all Braid Abane scho hes bene,

On horsbak on Hallow ewin;

And ay in seiking certayne nyghtis,

As scho sayis, with sur sillie wychtis…”

This servant of the fairy queen is a ‘carline’ or ‘carling’- a stout and bad-tempered woman and (by extension) a witch.  She is seen riding out across Scotland (Albany) at Halloween with her loyal “sillie wychtis,” making it virtually certain that these ‘seelie wights’ are other members of the queen’s court.

‘Carling’ entered Northern Middle English (and Scots) from Old Norse kerling. The related word in southern English is ‘churl’ (directly from the Anglo-Saxon ceorl with only a minor vowel change).  The hard initial consonant of ‘carline’ indicates the word’s Norse source- and might even imply an origin in the far north, in the Viking kingdom of Orkney and Shetland.

Whilst we’re debating questions of etymology, it’s also useful to consider what ‘court’ may have implied in Scots.  Certainly, it meant the royal court and could, therefore, in context refer to the establishment of the king and queen of Elphame.  The word also meant a retinue, company or troop- perhaps some formal assembly of individuals as against a mere mob.  Andrew Wyntoune, for example, in his Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland (1420) described birds and wild beasts eating carrion as a “fey court”- a ‘doomed company,’ perhaps.

What do these two courts do to earn their names and reputations?  The Gude Fairies or seelie court comprised elves whose numbers were augmented by babies who died of parental abuse, those who fell fighting in just battles and all other good and worthy folk who had, perhaps just the once, lapsed in some way and so could not access heaven.  These good faeries help mankind: they provide bread to the poor and aged, seed corn to the hardworking but unlucky, and gifts to those they favoured- especially those who had themselves helped out the fairies with loans or gifts.  If they are called on to assist a person, the seelie court will do so and will help with daily tasks.  They cheer those afflicted and in despair. 

The ranks of the unseelie court are made up with those who had given themselves up to the devil, bad men who died fighting, unmarried mothers stolen during childbirth and unbaptised babies.  The wicked fairies are always ready to inflict harm and loss.  They might shave victims out of spite, abduct people who placed themselves in their power, steal goods and kill cattle with elf shot.

Be warned, however, that we should not overstate the benignity of even the seelie court.  For example, in the Ballad of Mary O’Craignethan, her father curses the seelie court after his daughter is abducted by a fairy man.  He threatens to cut down their groves in revenge.  The father is advised how to recover his child magically but at the same time he’s warned how unwise it is to make such threats.  He manages to retrieve the young woman, in scenes very like the rescue of Tam Lin, but he soon dies, because “nane e’er curs’d the Seelie Court/ And ever after thrave.”  It was well known in Scotland that conduct like that of Mary’s father could only mean that the person would pine away, having seen all their affairs go to ruin.  An identical fate would befall any person who ploughed up a fairy ring.

The Unseelie Court in Shadowhunters

For further consideration of this subject, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

Fairy herbs

Waterhouse_JW_-_The_Sorceress_1913
J W Waterhouse, The Sorceress, 1913

I have previously drawn attention to the various herbal remedies prepared and prescribed by faeries.  In this post I add a few more ingredients to the fairy pharmacopeia.

Ointments

We know very well that the fairies collected and processed plants for medicine.  Suspected witch Alesoun Peirsoun spent seven years visiting Elfame and had seen the Good Neighbours making salves in pans over fires, using herbs picked before sunrise.  The trows of Shetland did the exactly same because, in the story of Farquhar’s Pig (a pig was a small earthenware jar or bottle), a container of healing ointment is obtained from them (against their will) by claiming it in God’s name.  This invocation rendered them powerless to stop the human seizing the vessel.

In some sources we are simply told, very frustratingly, that the fairies used ‘herbs.’  For example, in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Purse she describes “herbs and flowers wet with fairy dew” being gathered to make eye salves and other ointments, but we aren’t given any more detail than this.  The ‘green herbes’ used by Bartie Paterson in 1607 are another instance of this vagueness.

Medicines & powders

Luckily, the records are often a lot more specific and helpful.  According to the manuscript, Sloane MS 73 f.125, a person who has been taken by elves can be treated as follows:

“Take the root of gladen and make a poudre thereof, and ȝeve the sike both in his metes and in his drynkes, and he schal be hool within ix days and ix nyȝtes, or be deed, for certeyn.”

‘Gladen’ is the common iris, formerly called orris root.  When fresh, it is poisonous; dried, it used to be employed as a flavouring.  In this form it would at least do no harm, so the patient’s recovery of their whole health, or their death, probably couldn’t be ascribed to their treatment.  The rather fatalistic attitude of the text might suggest that the author knew that the treatment would make no difference and that, instead, nature would take its course.  (NB: in Norfolk ‘gladen’ denotes the cat’s tail, or bulrush, a plant with absolutely no known medicinal or food properties).

In 1597 four Edinburgh women were tried for alleged witchcraft and for being associated with the “Farie-folk.’  They appear to have been traditional healers, claiming to have been taught their remedies by the Good Folk.  Christian Lewinstoun, for example, made one treatment by mixing fresh butter with a ‘sweet wort.’ She bathed one of her patients in woodbine and resin and  treated heart disease in another by seething broom and chamomile in white wine.  The former herb has many medicinal properties, including reducing the narrowing of blood vessels; chamomile, too, has a range of healing properties. This suggests that we have here a folk remedy with some genuine benefits.

Lewinstoun also, much less wisely, prescribed mercury (both as a salve and as a drink) to at least two sick people.  The element is highly toxic- although ‘trained’ physicans used it without hesitation during the same period.  Another of the group who faced trial, Jonet Stewart, advised bathing in red nettles and alexanders; she also made a salve by seething alexanders in butter.  Alexanders can promote appetite, aid digestion and act as a mild diuretic and disinfectant.  Nettles share these properties and can reduce inflammation, so again there were some healing properties to these ingredients and certainly nothing magical.

Elsewhere in Scotland flax (the ‘blue-eyed one of the fairy woman’ or, in Gaelic, gorm-shuileach na mna sith) was used as a medicine as well as to protect people against the elves and the sluagh.  In Wales the plant ‘purging flax’ was called llin y tylwyth teg, or fairy flax.  Flax seeds have a range of medicinal properties, as their continued use today demonstrates, so that we have, again, a good indication of a genuine folk cure.

Further Reading

See my posts on fairy inflicted illnesses, physical as well as psychological, and on the treatments, which included the use of still and running water and belts as well as herbs.  See to my Faerychapters 12 and 13.  There is also detailed discussion of the faeries’ healing powers in my 2021 book The Faery Lifecycle:

faery-lifecycle-cover

Fairy Knot Magic

The spinning wheel
Lilian Amy Govey- from ‘Dreams and Fairies’ series, 1922

I’ve written before about fairy magic involving intricate hand gestures.  Here I want to pursue that general idea.

In Ben Jonson’s masque of 1610, Oberon the Fairy Prince, two satyrs discuss celebrations organised by Oberon.  One asks if they shall “Tie about our tawny wrists/ Bracelets of the fairy twists?”  What is this referring to? What on earth does it imply?

Faery Twists

It seems that knots and twists are something intimately linked to fairies.  They will, of course, twist animal and human hair.  The faeries like to take and ride human horses at night, at the same time tightly knotting their manes into ‘pixy locks.’ These knots seem to function in part as stirrups and bridles, but they also seem to be a sign of fairy control.  For example, a Perthshire man who was taken from his garden by the faeries was returned three days later with his hair all in knots- visible, physical evidence of his abduction.  The knots have a practical function, therefore, but they appear to represent more than that.

Knot Magic & Healing

Scottish fairies are reported to dance around a fire at Halloween, throwing knotted blue ribbons over their left shoulders with their left hands.  Those who then pick up the ribbons will fall into the fairies’ power and may be abducted by them at any moment.

These actions are plainly some sort of magic spell.  The tying and releasing of knots is a long-established means of binding sickness to a person, or of freeing them from it.  It is seen very often in folk medicine and in witchcraft and the Scottish witch trials of the seventeenth century supply several examples.

Jonet Morrison of the Isle of Bute, who was tried in 1662, cured a sick baby by tying a knotted and beaded string around it for forty-eight hours, which was then removed and placed on a cat.  The cat instantly died, proving that the illness had been transferred from the child to it.  The power of knots for protecting or cursing is revealed most powerfully in the account of a woman condemned as a witch at St Andrews in 1572.  She faced the usual punishment for such an offence- strangling at the stake and burning- but she had betrayed no fear or alarm about her fate until her jailers removed from her a white cloth “like a collore craig [a collar or neck cloth] with stringes, whair on was mony knottes.”  After this was taken away, she despaired.  We may compare the fact that accused witch, Isobel Haldane, from Orkney, had been found to have “thrie grassis bound in a knot” in her home, a circumstance that only added to the weight of evidence against her.

Isobel Gowdie, of Auldearn near Nairn, was investigated for witchcraft in 1662.  She gave a fulsome and lengthy confession that included a couple of uses of knotted threads.  To steal milk from sheep and cows, she told her inquisitors that she and the other witches in her coven would take their tethers and “pull the tow and twyn it and plait it in the wrong way… and we draw the tedder (sua maid) [so made] in betwixt the cowes hinder foot and owt between the cowes forder foot and thereby take the milk.”

Secondly, the witches interfered with the dyeing vats of Alexander Cummings of Auldearn.  They took “a thread of each cullor of yairne… and did cast thrie knots on each thread… and did put the threidis in the fatt, withersones abowt in the fatt [stirring anti-clockwise] and thairby took the heall strength of the fatt away, that it could litt [dye] nothing bot onlie blak, according to the culor of the Divell.”

MWM 1
from the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

These practices made their way into Scots verse as well.  Alexander Montgomerie composed the Flyting of Polwart in the early 1580s as a ritualised mocking of Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth.  The latter was extravagantly insulted, amongst other things being accused of being born of an elf and then abandoned.  His baptism proceeded in this manner, with the child being bound to Hecate:

“Syne bare-foot and bare-leg’d to babtize that bairne

Till a water they went be a wood side,

They fand the shit all beshitten in his awin shearne [faeces],

On three headed Hecatus to heir them they cryde

As we have found in the field this fundling forfairne,

First his faith he forsakes in thee to confyde,

Be vertue of thir words and this raw yearne,

And whill this thrise thretty knots on this blew threed byd…”

Another verse was provoked by the trial of accused witch Alison Peirson in 1588.  She was discovered to have treated the Bishop of St Andrews, amongst other sick persons, and poet Robert Sempill subsequently attacked the bishop for his ungodly conduct, accusing him of “sorcerie and incantationes,” amongst which were spells involving “south rinning wellis” and “knottis of strease [straws].”

MWM 2
from the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

Curing with Hoops

What I regard as a related curing practice involved passing people through loops of yarn; the idea of release seems to be shared between the two.  Janet Trall, of Blackruthen, admitted in 1623 that she had cured a man called Robert Soutar in such a way.  She passed him through a “hesp of yarn, and afterwards cut it in nine parts, and buried it in three lords’ lands.”  Janet had learned these skills from the fairies, she said.  Thomas Geace from Fife also passed patients through yarn, in one case burning the thread afterwards.

There are plenty of other Scottish examples.  Andro Man from Aberdeen would administer cures by passing patients nine times through “ane hespe of unvatterit [undyed] yarn” and by then passing a cat nine times through in the opposite direction.  Once again, the illness passes to the unfortunate cat, which promptly dies.  A number of Edinburgh women, tried as witches in 1597, had treated patients by passing them through garlands made of green woodbine.  Some did this three times, others nine times.  One woman went through three times on three occasions twenty-four hours apart; in another instance the garland was cut up into nine pieces and burned after the ritual.

Knots & Knowledge

We have previously discussed the fairies’ power of seeing what is to come and to tell fortunes, and there is also a little evidence that knots and threads were used to foretell the future.  In this there must be a strong echo, or imitation, of the Greek Fates.  Whatever the exact source, in Alexander Montgomerie’s mocking poem, The Flyting of Polwart, his target or victim Polwart is alleged to have been raised by the hag Nicneven, who:

“With chairmes from Cathness and Chanrie of Ross,

Whais [whose] cunning consistis in casting a clew…”

‘Casting a clew’ seems to refer to reading the future in threads.

Protective Threads

Lastly, knotted threads could inflict or transfer harm, but they could also guard against it.  In the Scottish Highlands, threads called snaithean were used to protect children and livestock from attack by fairies or witches.  Lengths of wool, coloured either red or black, would be tied around the neck or a beast’s tail accompanied by a prayer and a charm that invoked aid from the trinity, Mary and various saints.

Much of this seems to come together in the ballad Willy’s Lady:

“Oh wha has loosed the nine witch knots

   That was amo that ladie’s locks?

 ‘And wha has taen out the kaims [combs] of care

   That hangs amo that ladie’s hair?

   ‘And wha’s taen down the bush o’ woodbine

   That hang atween her bower and mine?…

   O Willie has loosed the nine witch knots

   That was amo that ladie’s locks.

   And Willie’s taen out the kaims o care

   That hang amo that ladie’s hair.

   And Willie’s taen down the bush o’ woodbine

   That hang atween her bower and thine…

   And now he’s gotten a bonny young son,

   And mickle grace be him upon.”

(Child Ballad no.6; see my Fairy Ballads & Rhymes)

MWM3
from the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

This magic is just aspect of the faeries magical powers, an ability often used to the disadvantage and loss of humans, as I describe in my 2021 book, The Darker Side of Faery.

darker side

“Let me grab your soul away”- faeries, souls and the dead

fitzgerald Fairy_passage

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy passage

Fairies and the dead have always had some ill-defined relationship, but in an account of folk beliefs in North East Scotland, I came across this fascinating note:

“It is said that, if a person dies of consumption, the fairies steal the soul from the body and animate another person with it.” (Shaw, The history of the province of Moray, 1827, p.278)

In the far north of Scotland, fairy abductions of humans can include not just a physical kidnapping but the abstraction of a person’s vital essence, leaving an inanimate stock behind: their soul is in Faery and a lifeless shell remains.  Related to this may be the Shetland belief that trows can only appear in human form if they can find someone who’s not been protected by a ‘saining’ or blessing. There is one story in which two trows attend a Yule dance in the form of two small boys whose mother had forgotten to bless them before she went out for the night’s festivities.  When they were exposed for what they were, the trows vanished from the dance, but the boys didn’t return to their beds.  They were found the next day dead in a deep snowdrift.  Fairy ‘possession’ can lead to real or simulated death, then, as well as following on from it.

Virtuous Pagans?

This particular Scottish manifestation is unique, but the idea that fairies (or, at least, some of them) have an association with the souls of the dead is widespread in the British Isles.  It has been speculated that the pixies of the south-west might be the souls of unbaptised children, or those delivered stillborn, or perhaps the spirits of virtuous druids and other non-Christians.  The mine sprites (the ‘knockers’ in the South West) were the souls of ancient miners and there are traces of a belief that bees and moths were spirits in some form.  In Wales as well the tylwyth teg were thought to be the spirits of virtuous druids who had died in pre-Christian times, whilst on the Isle of Man the belief was that the fairies represented the souls of those who died before the Flood (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, pp.183, 169, 179, 177, 178, 147 & 123).

Faery Dogs

In Yorkshire, the supernatural hounds called the Gabriel Ratchets were believed to be the form taken by infants who died before baptism; they would circle their parents home overhead at night.  Other ‘faery beasts’ such as the black dogs, shugs and shocks were regarded as portents of death in the counties where they were seen.  The Welsh equivalent of these hounds, called the Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven.

Faery Limbo

Certain people- those who died early, unexpectedly or by violence- would go to live with the fairies in a sort of limbo.  This is a concept found across Britain in folklore, ballad and poetry from at least the Middle Ages.  Sir Walter Scott used it in his ballad ‘Alice Brand’ which is incorporated into his novel The Lady of the Lake.  Alice and her lover Richard are hiding in the greenwood; the Elfin King hears them cutting his trees and sends a goblin to chastise them:

“Up, Urgan, up! to yon mortal hie,

 For thou wert christen’d man:

For cross or sign thou wilt not fly,

 For mutter’d word or ban.”

When the goblin finds the pair, Alice confronts him and asks how he fell under the king’s power.  He replies:

“It was between the night and day,

 When the Fairy King has power,

That I sunk down in a sinful fray,

And ’twixt life and death, was snatch’d away

To the joyless Elfin bower.”

Alice is then able to release from this captive state by making the sign of the cross three times.

Witches’ Faery Helpers

What appeared so frequently in verse and story merely reflected genuine folk belief, as is confirmed by the evidence given by several Scottish witchcraft suspects.  For example, Alison Peirson told her inquisitors that several deceased members of her family were to be found in the court of Elphame, including her uncle William Simpson; Andro Man claimed that he knew “sindrie dead men in thair cumpanie” (one of whom was the late King James IV, who had died at the Battle of Flodden).  Bessy Dunlop revealed that the laird of Auchenreath, who had died nine years previously, was to be seen amongst the fairy rade whilst her particular ‘familiar,’ a man called Thom Reid, had fallen at the battle of Pinkie some 29 years earlier.  Elspeth Reoch’s fairy intermediary was a relative called John Stewart, who had been murdered at sunset- a violent and early death at a liminal time of day.

Lewis Spence examines some of the thought behind these folklore traditions in his classic British Fairy Origins.  The soul is often conceived as a small person and it is easy to understand how the little folk and the spirit homunculus might become confused.  Walter Evans-Wentz, in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, also espoused the theory that (some at least of) the fairies are the souls of the dead, something which he set within a wider Celtic ‘Legend of the Dead.’  He said that:

“the striking likenesses constantly appearing in our evidence between the ordinary apparitional fairies and the ghosts of the dead show that there is often no essential and sometimes no distinguishable difference between these two orders of beings, nor between the world of the dead and fairyland.” (Spence pp.68, 70 & 80; Evans Wentz pp.280 & 493)

The Reverend Robert Kirk in the Secret Commonwealth goes so far as to argue that, whilst the bodies of the dead lie in their graves in the churchyard, their souls inhabit the fairy knowes that are so often found in proximity to Highland churches.  He confirmed that fairies were, therefore, believed by some with the second sight to be “departed souls, attending awhile in this inferior state, and clothed with Bodies procured through their Almsdeeds in this Lyfe… but if any were so impious as to have given no Alms, they say when the Souls of such do depart, they sleep in an unactive state till they resume the terrestrial Bodies again.”  Other seers believed that the souls of the dying people became wraiths, and the apparitions of black dogs which I mentioned earlier, and yet others were convinced that the fairies were “a numerous People by themselves, having their own polities.”  He mentioned too other beliefs that people’s “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged” and that some will “go to the Siths (or People at Rest, and in respect of us, in Peace) before the natural Period of their Lyfe expire…”  These ideas seem very clearly to be identical with the idea that those murdered or otherwise killed violently end up in faery.  Seventeenth century Scottish opinion on the nature of fairykind was divided then, but it was apparently as common to see them as some manifestation of human dead as it was to consider them to be a separate form of life.

Poet Robert Sempill put these ideas into verse, describing how one suspected witch:

“names our nyboris sex or sewin, (6 or 7)

That we belevit had bene in heawin.”

“Fairies or devils- whatsoe’er you be’-the belief in witches and fairies”

willimot

Fairies and witches have long been seen as linked and comparable, as the title quotation from Thomas Dekker’s The Spanish Moor’s Tragedy illustrates (Act III scene 2).  In his book on witchcraft, Geoffrey Parrinder observed that “there is undoubtedly much similarity between the activities ascribed to fairies and to witches.”  These included the ability to fly, their preference for night time, their thefts of children and the foyson of food and their ability to kill remotely.

These links and crossovers are of longstanding.  For example Chaucer in The Merchants Tale mentions “Pluto, that is the king of faerie” (i, 10101) and Dunbar in The Golden terge also alludes to “Pluto, that elricke incubus/ In cloke of grene…”  One of the charges made by the English against Jean d’Arc was that she had frequented the Fairy Tree at Dompre and had joined in the fairies’ dances.

Witch trials

By the sixteenth century the two beliefs were very confused and intermixed.  Old women were accused of being witches and of flying in the air or dancing with the fairies, even though, as Reginald Scot pointed out, their age and lameness could make them “unapt” for such activities (Discovery of witchcraft Book V c.IX and Book XII c.III).  Fairies attended the witches sabbats and left rings on the grass  whilst the witches would visit the fairy queen in her hill (Daemonologie c.V).  Hecate, the mother witch and the queen of fairy all became compounded in the popular mind, as with the Gyre-Carlin or Nicnevin of Lowland Scotland; she rode at night with her court of ‘nymphs’ and incubi (Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy, ‘On fairies’ IV).  Oberon became the ‘king of shadows’ in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was believed that the habit of taking of changelings was because the fairies had to pay a tithe of souls to Hell each year.  In George Peele’s Battle of Alcazar “You bastards of the Night and Erebus, Fiends, fairies, hags” are summoned (Act IV, scene 2) and in Spenser’s Epithalamion it is prayed “Ne let the Pouke, nor other evil sprights/ Ne let mischievous witches with their charms/ Ne let hob Goblins, names whose sense we see not/ Fray us with things that be not” (lines 340-3).  Witches obeyed the commands of the fairy queen, Diana or Herodias, according to Scot (Book III c.XVI).  In summary, hell and fairyland became essentially identical and for Reginald Scot the terms fairy and witch were interchangeable.  Likewise for John Lyly, writing Endimion in 1585: for him fairies were synonymous with ‘hags’ and ‘fayre fiendes’ (Act IV, scene 3).

Reformation

To this mix the Reformation added another layer of confusion and prejudice.  Puritans had two objections to faery.  Firstly, it had to be accommodated with scripture and, as the fairies weren’t angels, they had to be devils.  Secondly, fairies were one of the impositions of Rome.  King James VI condemned the belief as “one of the sortes of illusiones … of Papistrie” (Daemonologie, c.V).  In Richard Corbet’s Rewards and fairies “the fairies were of the old profession/ Their songs were Ave Maries/ Their dances were procession.”  Dr Samuel Harsenet, Archbishop of York, in his 1603 Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures called Mercury ‘Prince of the fairies’ and asked “What a world of hel-worke, devil-worke and Elve-worke, had we walking amongst us heere in England” when the Popish mists had fogged our eyes?  Later he declared “These are the times wherein we are sicke, and mad of Robin Goodfellow and the devil, to walke again amongst us…” (pp.134 & 166).

A rational few, such as Reginald Scot, dismissed the belief in witches as delusion and knavery, just as much as the dwindling belief in fairies, and felt sure that in time to come both would be equally ‘derided and contemned’ (Book VII c.II).

Sadly, such rationality was slow to establish itself and in the short term the witch craze swept Britain between about 1550 and 1650.  Diane Purkiss, in The witch in history (1996), has observed how fairy beliefs were converted into witch beliefs and were reproduced in the accusations and confessions of witches.  In fact, a range of materials were recycled by people- plays, ballads, news gossip, chapbooks- to create their own stories and to reflect their own agendas, concerns and conflicts.  For example, Joan Tyrrye applied the common ‘fairy midwife’ story to herself, saying that she was blinded in one eye by a fairy she met in Taunton market.  Others spoke of witches appearing dressed in green, the fairy colour.  The problem was that, in the prevailing intellectual climate, old wives’ tales of fairyland were no longer credible and were instead interpreted as accounts of demons.

Fairy healing

Some ‘cunning folk’ (healers and herbalists) tried to argue that through the fairies they only practiced white magic and that the supernatural help they received was only to cure and to do good.  For example, Bessie Dunlop of Ayrshire was accused in 1578 of sorcery and witchcraft.  She admitted that the fairies had helped her heal sick people (and cattle) and to find lost things.  Likewise, Alison Pearson of Byrehill faced similar charges in 1588: she pleaded that a green man had introduced her to the fairy court and that the fairies had taught her remedies.  Joan Tyrrye of Somerset swore that the fairies gave her only good and godly powers and showed what herbs would rid folk of witchcraft.  John Walsh of Dorset said that he too was taught by the fairies under the hills to recognise and treat those bewitched.

These justifications were often advanced; other examples are Isobel Haldane of Perth in 1623, Agnes Hancock of Somerset in 1438, Andro Man of Aberdeen in 1597, Christian Livingstone of Leith in 1557 and, in 1616, Elspeth Rioch and Katharine Jonesdochter of Orkney.  All claimed to have been taught by the fairies, in Man’s case by the fairy queen herself.  Such a defence seldom helped the accused, even when the supernatural powers acquired were used to alleviate the effects of witchcraft or fairy affliction.  Sir Walter Scott observed sadly that “the Scottish law did not acquit those who accomplished even praiseworthy actions, such as remarkable cures, by mysterious remedies” (Demonology letter VI).  For the accusers there were no ‘good spirits’; the suspected witches had consorted with the devil and there could be but one conclusion: Rioch, Jonesdochter,  Dunlop and Pearson, for instance, were all burned.  In the climate of the time, any contact with fairies rendered the person automatically a witch.  Communication with the fairy court was a primary charge against Alison Pearson and against Jean Weir of Dalkeith in 1670.

It is to be noted that gifts of healing and prophecy are not traditionally associated with faery.  There are a couple of Highland examples of endowment with musical abilities and there is the fictional account of True Thomas the Rhymer, who was given seer’s powers by the fairy queen (despite, as Sir Walter Scott puts it, his objections to “this inconvenient and involuntary adhesion to veracity, which would make him, as he thought, unfit for church or for market, for king’s court or for lady’s bower”).  That these supernatural attributes are ascribed to fairies only in witch trials is a strong indicator that they were being turned to as a less serious justification for the accused’s former activities.

Fairies and familiars

Witches were believed to have familiars who guided and assisted them.  Academic and writer Diane Purkiss has suggested that stories told of brownies and other household fairies were reformulated by those suspicious of witchcraft and were understood instead to be accounts of demonic familiars (see The witch in history pp.135-138 and Troublesome things pp.153-4).  This is definitely explicit in a pamphlet from 1650, The strange witch at Greenwich, that described the mischievous tricks of a particular spirit, such as throwing utensils and clothing around, along with “other such reakes and mad merry pranks,as strange as ever Hobgoblins, pinching fairies and Robin Goodfellow acted in houses in old times among Dairy Wenches and kitchen Maides.”

The records show that these often seemed to have ‘traditional fairy’ names such as Robin, Piggin, Hob and Puckle.  Admitting regular contacts with a fairy would be interpreted and condemned as possessing a familiar.  For example, Joan Willimot of Rutland had a spirit called Pretty blown into her mouth in the shape of a fairy.  It subsequently visited her weekly and identified to her those of her neighbours who were “stricken and forespoken” (i.e. bewitched).  Anne Jefferies of St Teath, Cornwall, was carried off the fairyland by six tiny green men and was given ointment to cure “all distempers, sicknesses and sores” (such as the falling sickness and broken bones) and was also granted the power to make herself invisible at will.  When she was arrested, it was alleged that these fairies were in fact her imps or familiars.  She denied this, saying rather that they quoted scripture to her.

In some cases the supernatural contact seemed more obviously evidence of black magic.  Katherine Munro, Lady Fowlis, “made us of the artillery of Elf-land to destroy her stepson and sister in law” (Walter Scott, Letters on demonology, letter V).  Elf-bolts (flint arrow heads) were fired at pictures or her two victims.  Similarly, Isobel Goudie of Nairn visited the fairy queen’s court and saw Satan and the elves making the arrow heads with which Goudie and other witches then slew various people.  Other such instances from Scottish witch trials are Katherine Ross, 1590, Christiane Roiss, 1577 and Marion McAlester, 1590.  We can see here how fairy beliefs had become interchangeable with witch beliefs, so that elf-shot had been converted into bewitching.

Conclusion

To conclude, it is convenient to quote Sir Walter Scott in his sixth letter on demonology:

“With the fairy popular creed fell, doubtless, many subordinate articles of credulity in England, but the belief in witches kept its ground. It was rooted in the minds of the common people, as well by the easy solution it afforded of much which they found otherwise hard to explain, as in reverence to the Holy Scriptures, in which the word witch, being used in several places, conveyed to those who did not trouble themselves about the nicety of the translation from the Eastern tongues, the inference that the same species of witches were meant as those against whom modern legislation had, in most European nations, directed the punishment of death. These two circumstances furnished the numerous believers in witchcraft with arguments in divinity and law which they conceived irrefragable. They might say to the theologist, Will you not believe in witches? the Scriptures aver their existence;—to the jurisconsult, Will you dispute the existence of a crime against which our own statute-book, and the code of almost all civilized countries, have attested, by laws upon which hundreds and thousands have been convicted, many or even most of whom have, by their judicial confessions, acknowledged their guilt and the justice of their punishment? It is a strange scepticism, they might add, which rejects the evidence of Scripture, of human legislature, and of the accused persons themselves.”

This rational analysis did many poor creatures little good: the Bible commanded that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and those clinging to older traditional beliefs and practices could find themselves trapped and accused.  In the early modern period the frame of belief had shifted and no space remained for benign spirits.  Thomas Heywood captured this in Hierarchy of the blessed angels (1635), when he spoke of:

“…wicked spirits, such as we call/ Hobgoblins, Fairies, Satyrs, and those all/ Sathan by strange illusions doth employ…”

Fortunately for the hapless victims of the witch hunts, humanism and scientific rationality eventually displaced Protestant scaremongering.  Nonetheless, once established, the associations between fairy and sorcery were hard to sever: it is surely no coincidence that Shelley labelled his Queen Mab as “queen of spells” in his eponymous poem.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

coven

The summer solstice celebrated by the Cornish coven that also photographed a fairy encounter