Clouds of Fairies- evidence of fairy ‘swarms’

Lost in Wonderland by Alice Marshall

There are fairly frequent accounts that depict the faes as tiny beings that flock together in large masses, like insects or birds. Here I’m going to consider this quite unusual evidence.

Here’s a particularly vivid description from the Isle of Man.  One moonlit might, a man saw the fairies moving on a hill.  There were scores of them, he said, like a black rain cloud.  He tried to follow them, but they always stayed about twenty or thirty yards ahead of him and they steadily shrank in size until they disappeared completely. Comparable is a strange narrative recorded on the Channel island of Jersey. A farmer was setting out from his farm with a horse and cart when he saw a “cloud over the house.” He turned back straight away because he knew it was the fairies and, when he arrived back at the farm house, he found them ‘swarming up and down his yard.’ To get rid of them, he scattered wheat from his granary; each fairy picked up a grain and left (see Young, Magical Folk, 159).

This evasiveness and the cloud- like quality are fairly typical of accounts.  Very frequently the faes are said to behave and look like insects.  Manx folklorist Dora Broome twice described the fairies as “like a swarm of bees” (Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man 67 and More Fairy Tales 40).  Another Manx writer also said that the fairy host sounded first like humming bees, (Sophia Morrison, Manx Fairy Tales, ‘Billy Beg, Tom Beg & the Fairies.’)  A man on Arran working in a field saw something like a swarm of bees pass over him.  Throwing up his (iron) reaping hook, he found his wife drop to the ground before him.  The fairies had been in the process of abducting her.  (MacKenzie, Book of Arran, 267).

In a final Scottish example, a story called ‘The Laird of Balmachie’s Wife,’ the laird’s wife was abducted by the fairies when he was absent from home one day. As it happened, he was riding back when he encountered a crowd of fairies carrying a body on a litter. Drawing his sword, he claimed the captive in god’s name. The fairies vanished and he found that he’d rescued his wife- she told him that she had been carried off by a “multitude of fairies, [who] came in at the window, thronging like bees form a hive.” When the laird got home, he found his ‘wife’ in bed, complaining of feeling cold. He banked up the fire and then picked up his apparent wife as if to carry her to a chair nearer the fireplace. Instead, he threw her into it, knowing she was a stock left behind by the fairies. The creature shot up through the ceiling and roof like a rocket.

by Barbara Mary Campbell

Flocks of birds are the other common comparator.  A man at Benbecula in the Hebrides heard the sluagh go over- it sounded to him ‘like a flock of plovers.’  According to another Scottish witness the sluagh “in great clouds, up and down the face of the world like starlings” and another described them leaving their knoll on Halloween as being like “starlings swarming from their cave.” A man living near Harrogate once got up early to hoe his turnips.  When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green.  As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled like a flock of partridges.  In another Yorkshire report from Ilkley, fairies surprised whilst bathing in the spa there made a noise “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” when disturbed by the caretaker.

Finally, we have the experience of a man from Shetland, who was travelling home at night over the hills at Coningsburg when he was surrounded by trows in the form of mice.  There were so many around him, so thickly on the ground, that he said he couldn’t have put down a pin without hurting one.  This went on until dawn when he reached a small stream, at which moment the mass of mice all vanished.  A curious sequel followed.  Although the innumerable rodents had been surprising and inconvenient, they hadn’t been dangerous.  However, on the bridge over the brook there were three knights.  The man was so astonished, he uttered a curse, and the three men also disappeared- with a bang and a flash of blue flame.  One version of the ’Brother Mike’ story from Suffolk bears resemblance to this Scottish story: fairies are seen raiding the grain in a farmer’s barn in the form of “hundreds of little white mice; they all had red ears and red feet…” (Francis Young, Suffolk Fairylore, 130).

What does this tell us?  I have previously described the close links between fairies and bees, but it seems to make clear that, in some parts of Britain, the experience of encountering the fae is not a matter of meeting an individual who is the human sized- whether that’s an adult or, more often, a child.  Rather, we are dealing with a species who naturally move about in hosts, wheeling about much like large flocks of birds- or perhaps clouds of midges or flies.  Consistent with this, they are small- or even tiny.

For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Underground, Overground

ar elves

In this post I look at one of the places with which fairies are often associated- ancient sites– and then consider exactly how they are linked to these monuments.

Barrows and Standing Stones

There is a very longstanding link between faeries, megalithic structures and ancient burial tumuli.  Its exact nature, nevertheless, is a little hazy.  It’s not always clear if the faes are merely present at these sites from time to time (usually to dance) or whether they actually reside at- or under- them.

For example, at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, the faeries have been seen dancing- but also disappearing down a hole by the King Stone- implying that they were accessing their underground home by that route.  The Hurle Stane, near Chillingham in Northumberland, was a well-known site of faery assemblies.

On the Isle of Arran, faeries meet at the various stone circles on the island, but are especially closely linked to the megalithic complex at Machrie Moor: one of the stone circles here is a double ring called Fion-gal’s Cauldron Seat.  A faery or brownie was said to live below it- who was propitiated by pouring milk into a hole in the side of one of the stones.

suidhe core fhionn
Suidhe Coire Fhionn, Machrie Moor

It isn’t just single or grouped standing stones, though.  Prehistoric barrows also have very strong faery associations.  The round barrow at Carn Gluze, St Just, Cornwall, is the place of faery dances and burning lights at night.  A long barrow at Butcombe in Somerset is called the Fairy Toot; another barrow in the same county at Stoke Courcy is known as the Pixies’ Mound and another on Beaulieu Heath in Hampshire is called the Pixies’ Cave.  All these names strongly imply that our Good Neighbours were known to live beneath the mounds.  I have very often noted the presence of faes beneath natural ‘knolls’ or ‘knowes,’ so it makes sense for them to take up residence in man-made features too.  Many such sites are recognised in Scotland, too, often being sitheans (places were the sith people live).  Examples are found at Fowlis Wester, Perth (a barrow and stone circle), Carmylie, Forfar and at Kinross.

Part and parcel of this group of ideas is an instinctive respect- even reverence- that many people have had for ancient sites in their vicinity.  An Elgin man called Andro Man was accused in 1649 of setting up a standing stone and taking off his bonnet to it.  He insisted to the kirk presbytery that it was merely a boundary marker, but they made him break up the monolith all the same.  What’s most impressive about this case is how very late an expression of respect for menhirs this was.  Older beliefs were still found amongst rural populations until comparatively recently, though.  George Tyack, in his 1899 book on The Lore and Legend of the English Church, noted a belief on the Isle of Man that, if you pastured your sheep amidst a ‘druidic’ circle, the flock was bound to succumb to disease.  In his Second Manx Scrapbook, Walter Gill mentioned standing stones at Germans and Michael on the island that are called ‘white ladies’ and which were white washed to emphasise their ghostly significance.  ‘White ladies’ are most commonly spirits associated with springs and streams, so this is a fascinating merger of ideas.

The reason for treating stones respectfully is simple: if you fail to, the fairies using or living at the sites will have their revenge.  In British Goblins, Wirt Sikes tells the story of a Dark Age inscribed pillar standing on a tumulus at Banwan Bryddin, near Neath, which was removed by Lady Mackworth to adorn a grotto she was constructing in the grounds of her home.  Her workmen were unhappy over this, because the mound was well known to be a faery site, but the Lady had her way.  Soon after the grotto was completed, a terrible storm raged over the Neath Valley and a landslip completely buried her expensive new grotto.  The tylwyth teg had spoken.

AR fairy market

Faery Hillocks

As I have described, the faeries took up residence in barrows and other ancient sites found in prominent and/ or raised places- hillforts and other enclosures- because they were already familiar with living in distinctive or isolated hills.  Take, for example, a conical hill with a flat top near Strachar called Sian Sluai, the fairy hill of the host (sluagh); the home of the fairy queen at sith-chaillin near Fortingal, Perth; the many sioth-duns (fairy hills) around Buchanan, Perth, or the conical knoll called Harry’s Hill (Tom Eanraic) near Ardesier in Inverness, where the fairies met at night and where changeling children would be left overnight, in the hope of retrieving the stolen human baby.

Across Britain, in fact, fairies have been seen dancing on hills and disappearing into hills.  It is wholly unsurprising, therefore, to discover that many of the healers who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made their contact with the faes in hilly places.

Katharine Jonesdochter of Orkney in 1616 described how she saw the trows “on the hill called Greinfall at monie sindrie tymes.” Thomas Leys of Aberdeen, and his lover Elspeth Reid, told their 1597 trial that they knew of a hill where they could raise a spirit in any likeness they chose.  Katherine Ross said in 1590 that she “wald gang in Hillis to speik to the elf folk.”  John Stewart of Irvine regularly met with the fairies at Halloween on top of two hills near to the town (1618).  Isobel Haldane, from Perth, was carried from her bed one night to “ane hill-syde: the hill oppynit and scho enterit in” (1623).  Katharine Caray wandered amongst the hills of Caithness “at the doun going of the sun [and] ane great number of fairie men mett her” (1616).

From what we can tell, the faeries lived in prehistoric sites on hills; I’ll give a few examples from Wales.  The Iron Age hill fort known as Bryn y Pibion is definitely a faery dwelling, as it features in a ‘midwife’ story; the headland of Dinllain, defended by ancient earthworks, was a place for fairy dancing, after which they would raise a sod of earth and descended underground.  Another midwife attended a fairy birth here too.  Fairies gathered at the hillfort of Moeddin dressed in green to celebrate Mayday and, lastly, the prominent rock known as Ynys Geinon was connected to Craig y Nos castle by an underground passage, which the fairies reached by descending a golden ladder.

Conclusion

To conclude, therefore, we seem to have a double conjunction of associations.  The faeries were drawn to and lived beneath ancient stones and mounds; if those were also raised on hills- so much the better, as with the barrow called the Fairy Hillock at Carmylie in Forfar, which stands on the top of a hill.

Fairies and bees

Carse, bees

Duncan Carse

There is some strange connection between the faes and bees which, rather like their associations with the cuckoo, are now no longer as clear to us as once may have been the case.

The Voice of the Beehive

There is certainly a similarity in terms of appearance and sound between honey bees and faeries.  For example, a man on Arran was out cutting bracken one day when the fairy host flew over him.  He reported that he saw “something like a swarm of bees,” into which he threw his reaping hook.  The iron tool caused the faes to drop his wife, whom they had abducted, leaving a ‘stock’ behind in her bed.

This comparison to a flock of small creatures is common in eye-witness reports.  A man at Benbecula in the Hebrides heard the sluagh go over- it sounded to him ‘like a flock of plovers.’  A man living near Harrogate once got up early to hoe his turnips.  When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green.  As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled like flocks of partridges.  In another Yorkshire report from Ilkley, fairies surprised whilst bathing in the spa there made a noise “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” when disturbed by the caretaker.

The noise of the fairies, as well as their appearance, might resemble that of a hive of bees.  John Aubrey told a tale of his former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, who in 1633 came across a “faiery dance” (a green circle on the grass) on the Wiltshire downs and saw there sprites who were “making all manner of odd noyses.”  They objected to his intrusion on their dancing and swarmed at him, “making a quick humming noyse all the time.”  A fairy host described on the Isle of Man sounded first like humming bees, then like a waterfall and lastly like a marching and murmuring crowd as they drew progressively nearer to the witness. (Sophia Morrison, Manx Fairy Tales, ‘Billy Beg, Tom Beg & the Fairies.)

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Florence Anderson, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’

Bee-like Faes

Modern sightings have often compared fairies to insects (though admittedly butterflies, moths and dragonflies rather than bees) but ‘buzzing’ is a term used to describe their motion.  One woman in Florida saw a fairy riding a bee (for example Fairy Census no.s 5, 5A, 320, 400, 417, 475 & 251).  The weirdest sighting comes from Marjorie Johnson, Seeing Fairies:  a woman on holiday in mid-Cornwall during the 1930s described meeting a female cliff-dwelling pixie, who was about two feet in height and was covered in short dark brown hair with yellow rings on her body and arms, very much resembling a bumblebee (p.53).

Returning to the Manx faes, another traditional belief was that ‘bumbees’ are actually misbehaving fairies who have been turned into insects as a punishment by others in their community.  In Ireland, in the 1850s, a folklore collector was told that bees are fairies, who are in turn the souls of those deceased, a notion that connects us back to the longstanding ties between fairyland and the land of the dead.  The identity between fairies and bees is attested from Wales, too.  In British Goblins Wirt Sikes describes how those trying to destroy ancient megalithic monuments would face supernatural opposition, amongst which might be “swarms of bees, which are supposed to be fairies in disguise.”  (Notes & Queries, vol.10, 1854, p.500; Sikes p.383)

Lastly, mention ought to be made of the spirit called Browney, a Cornish fairy whom you’ll find listed by Katherine Briggs amongst others.  Simon Young (of the Fairy Investigation Society) has written an article, Against Taxonomy: The Fairy Families of Cornwall, which argues quite convincingly that this sprite- who was allegedly summoned to settle a swarm- was the product of confusion and misremembered stories, and never existed at all.

Further Reading

The fairy associations with moths is the subject of an earlier posting on this blog.  The fae ability to fly is also related to this, as is the existence (or not) of fairy wings. For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021).

hester margetson

Natural World