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 megaliths

Landscape of the Threshold 1962 by Cecil Collins 1908-1989

Cecil Collins, ‘The landscape of the threshold,’ 1962

There is a longstanding association between the fairies and barrows and megaliths, not just in Britain but across Europe.  In earlier ages the fairy label was habitually chosen for these unexplained monuments.  It may just have been a name- for instance, the Fairy Toot, in Somerset, Elf Howe near Folkton in Yorkshire, Fairy Knowe on Orkney, the Pookeen stone circle (the place of fairies/ pucks) at Clodagh, Co. Cork or the Fairy Stone (La Grand Menhir Brisee) in Brittany- but not infrequently fairies would be regarded as being more actively involved in the making of a site. The Champs les Roches stone rows in Brittany were made by fairies dumping stones they had been carrying; similarly,  Tregomar menhir was dropped by a passing fairy.  The allee couverte at Coat Menez Guen bears the marks of fairy fingers on two of its stones.

The extent of the fairy associations could vary:

  • music and dancing- at Athgreany stone circle in Co. Wicklow the fairies play their pipes there at midnight; the fairies are also said to dance around the Hurle Stane in Northumberland.  Numerous Dorset tumuli are remembered as ‘music barrows’ where, if you sit at midday, you will hear fairy music within- for example at Bottlebrush Down, near Wimbourne and also at Ashmore, Culliford Tree, Bincombe Bumps and Whitcombe;
  • healing- the healing powers ascribed to the unusual holed stone arrangement at Men an Tol, Penwith, derive from the pisky linked to the site; and,
  • dwellings: under stones- most commonly, ancient stones are sites of supernatural habitation, in one way or another.  Passage graves are dwellings themselves- for example in Brittany at Barnenez, La roche aux fees and at La grotte aux fees, which they deliberately wrecked; a Cornish fogou near Constantine was called ‘the pixie house’ and in Ireland several stone circles are classified as lios, fairy forts, for example Grange in Limerick and Lissyviggeen in Kerry.  The Irish legend is, in fact, that after their defeat by the invading Milesians, the fairy tribe of the Tuatha De Danaan retreated into an enchanted kingdom beneath raths and stones- such places as Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth in the Boyne valley now being their abodes.  Ancient stones marking the access to fairyland are a common account throughout the British Isles- a hole or stairs beneath a menhir would lead to the faery realm-see for example my earlier post on fairy dwellings.  The Humberstone in Leicestershire is a fairy dwelling, as too is St John’s Stone in Leicester itself.
  • dwellings: under burial mounds- various ancient burial mounds are recalled in folk memory as the fairies’ homes: examples are to be found on Cley Hill in Wiltshire, at Cauldon Low and Long Low in Staffordshire (upon both of which the fairies were also known to dance,  at the latter on Christmas Eve) and at Hob Hurst’s House, Deepdale and Monsal Dale in Derbyshire.  It may be noted in passing that some of the stones linked with the fairies are in fact the remaining internal elements of tumuli- the so-called cromlechs such as Pentre Ifan in Wales and (it has been suggested) Men an Tol in Penwith.

Given the supernatural link to stones and tumuli, it was inevitable that people would invest the sites with magical powers.  We have seen the curative properties of Men an Tol; conversely in Ireland and Scotland interference with or damage to stones was avoided through fear of fairy revenge.  In Ireland the belief persists that disturbance could lead to crops or the home burning; in the Highlands Rev. Kirk recorded a prohibition upon taking turf or wood from a sithbruaich (a fairy hill).

Standing stones themselves have also been invested with spiritual power.  Whether this is ascribed to their siting upon ley lines, or to fairy residents, it is still an element of our beliefs about standing stones.  This posting is illustrated with a painting by English neo-romantic artist Cecil Collins, one of several works of his in which stones are anthropomorphised (see too Hymn, 1946 and 1956).  These figures could well represent the fairy dwellers within the stones.

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017); for further reflections on the use of fairies in interpreting and accommodating the past, see my post on fairies explaining the unexplained.