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.

Fairies and fertility

Cherry Blossom Fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

In East Anglia the local fairies are variously called the Yarthkins, the Tiddy Ones, the Strangers or the Greencoaties.  As the first name plainly shows, they are rooted in the local soil: ‘yarthkin’ derives from ‘earthkin’ and denotes a small spirit born from the land.  According to one witness interviewed by Victorian folklorist Mrs Balfour in the fens, the diminutive beings are so-called because “tha doolt i’ th’ mools” (‘they dwelt in the soft earth or mould’).  These ‘Strangers’ act as fertility spirits, helping the growth and ripening of plant life.  According to Mrs Balfour’s late nineteenth century account, in the spring they pinch the tree and flower buds to make them open and tug worms out of the earth; they help flowers bloom and green things grow and then, at harvest time, they make corn and fruits ripen.  Without their attention, the plants would shrivel, harvests would fail and people would go hungry.  In recognition of this, the Strangers receive tribute or offerings from the local people- the first share of any flowers, fruits or vegetables and the first taste of any meal or drink.  If neglected, these beings may be vindictive, affecting yields, making livestock sick and even causing children to pine away.  (see Folklore vol.2 1891)

In this posting I shall examine the fairies’ connection to plant growth and our reliance upon them for good harvests.  One theory about their origins popular with folklorists is that our modern fairies represent the minor fertility gods of Roman times and earlier (see for example Lewis Spence, British Fairy Origins).  Certainly, as the Yarthkins show, they can play a key role in fertility.

Examining the British records, you soon discover that there are plentiful indications that the fairies are intricately associated with the weather and plant growth and with the fertility of not just farm livestock but of people too.  They are, in general therefore, symbols of natural life in all its forms.

Midsummer Night’s Dream

The intimate links between the balance within Faery and the health of the human world is brought out in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Early in the play, Titania describes how her quarrel with Oberon has disrupted the natural world:

“Therefore, the winds, piping to us in vain,

As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea

Contagious fogs; which falling in the land

Have every pelting river made so proud

That they have overborne their continents:

The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,

The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn

Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;

The fold stands empty in the drowned field,

And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;

The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,

And the quaint mazes in the wanton green

For lack of tread are undistinguishable:

The human mortals want their winter here;

No night is now with hymn or carol blest:

Therefore, the moon, the governess of floods,

Pale in her anger, washes all the air,

That rheumatic diseases do abound:

And thorough this distemperature we see

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts

Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,

And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown

An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds

Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which:

And this same progeny of evils comes

From our debate, from our dissension;

We are their parents and original.” (Act II scene 1)

Summarising all of this in one phrase, Titania later tells Bottom that: “”I am a spirit of no common rate:/ The summer still doth tend upon my state.” (Act III, scene 1)

These lines provide vivid descriptions of the woes that can befall Nature if the fairies do not lend their guiding hand and support.  We know, too, from other sources, of their powers to control the weather, whether this relates to mermaids, pixies or Scottish hags.  Most often in folklore accounts we find these powers wielded to punish or harm humans who have in some way offended or violated fairy kind (as in pixies bringing down fogs to mislead travellers), but it must follow that they are able to influence the seasons and the sprouting and ripening of crops (see my Faery).

The fairies’ relationship to human fertility is apparent from the very last scene of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The weddings of Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander have taken place and the newly married couples have gone to their beds.  At this point the fairies enter the palace and Oberon instructs them:

“Now, until the break of day,

Through this house each fairy stray.

To the best bride-bed will we,

Which by us shall blessed be;

And the issue there create

Ever shall be fortunate.

So shall all the couples three

Ever true in loving be;

And the blots of Nature’s hand

Shall not in their issue stand;

Never mole, hare lip, nor scar,

Nor mark prodigious, such as are

Despised in nativity,

Shall upon their children be…” (Act V, scene 2)

The fairies promise the new human families many healthy children, a scene that reminds us of the broader role played by the fays in human childbirth.  The traditional functions of fairy queen Mab, for example, included acting as a midwife and also as a domestic goddess, especially in the dairy (see my Fayerie).

Folklore Accounts

It seems clear that earlier generations understood that the fairies controlled the natural world and that, as a result, they could bring either prosperity or ruin to communities.  Given this power, their propitiation was fundamental to life and health.  We see instances of this from all around the British Isles.

In one case, a Dartmoor sheep farmer’s flock was plagued by disease.  He concluded that the only way of saving his stock and his livelihood was to go to the top of a tor and there to sacrifice a sheep to the pixies- a move which promptly alleviated the problem.

At Halloween, on the Hebridean island of Lewis, the population would attend a church ceremony that included pouring ale into the sea in the hope that the sprite called ‘Shony’ (Seonaidh) would guarantee a good supply of seaweed in the year ahead; so too on the remote isle of St Kilda, where shells, pebbles, rags, pins, nails and coins were thrown in the sea.  Seaweed may not seem very important to most of us today, but it was a vital fertiliser and source of winter fodder for cattle, so a plentiful supply of ‘sea ware’ on the beaches was essential to survival.  This is nicely demonstrated by the story of a ghillie of the MacDonald clan on the Isle of Skye who saw a bean nighe (a type of banshee) washing a shroud at Benbecula.  He crept up behind her and seized her, thereby entitling himself to three wishes.  That, of all the things he chose, was a guarantee that the loch near his home would be full of seaweed indicates the significance of humble kelp to the economy.

Other Scottish examples of the influence of the supernatural over the health and fertility of livestock are to be found in the widespread habit of offering milk to glaistigs, urisks and gruagachs.  As I have described before, these brownie-like creatures have a direct influence upon the well-being of farm animals and cheating or neglecting them could only lead to ruin (this will be dealt with in greater detail in my forthcoming book Beyond Faery).

Something similar is seen in England, too, in respect of fruit and nut trees.  As I have examined before in a separate post, orchards are haunted by sprites whose role is to bring life to the trees and to protect the crop from thefts.  These faeries go by various names, Owd Goggy, Lazy Lawrence, Jack up the Orchard, the grig and the apple tree man.  At harvest time a few apples should always be left behind for them- an offering called the ‘pixy-word’ (or hoard)- and, if this is offering is made, the faeries will bless the crop.  See too my recent book Faery.

Modern Encounters

It is common nowadays to speak of fairies as ‘nature spirits.’  This isn’t quite the same thing as controllers of fertility, necessarily, as the latter function is less restrictive and allows scope for the fae to get up to other things too.

All the same, a couple of twentieth century reports suggest the sorts of things we may encounter them doing.  In 1973 ‘Circumlibra’ wrote to the Ley Hunter to describe a meeting with a gnome near Alderwasley in Derbyshire.  They met on a small mound and conversed telepathically and the human learned from the gnome that “his work was in breaking down decaying materials into food for plants.”  Interestingly, this being regarded himself as another human and not as any sort of ‘elemental.’   Secondly, Scot Ogilvie Crombie met a fawn-like creature in Edinburgh in 1966 who said that he ‘helped the trees to grow’ (see Janet Bord, Fairies, 72). In both these cases, as we can see, the fairies are actively tending and feeding plant life.

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

Look to the future: fairy prophesy

John Anster Fitzgerald - The Fairy's Funeral

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral

We are very familiar with fairies’ magical powers of creating glamour and, to a lesser extent, of shape-shifting, but they also have more oracular or psychic abilities.  They can detect lost or hidden items and they have the ability to see into the future and, if they wish, to make this knowledge known to humans.  For example, the Brownie of Castle Lachlan of Stralachan in Argyllshire was known for his prophetic powers.  The Welsh fairy king, Gwyn ap Nudd, was said in the Welsh Triads to have great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and could predict the future from them.

There are several ways in which prognostications might be revealed to humankind.

Actions disclose fate to clan or village

Firstly, the foreknowledge might be disclosed to a family, a household or a community by the fairy’s actions.  For instance, the glaistig of Island House on Tiree, was known to begin to work extra hard in advance of the arrival of unexpected visitors.  This additional effort alerted the household to advent of likely guests.

Another example of this kind of warning comes from those fays whose actions would foretell a death or tragedy.  The Scottish banshee and the related caointeach (keener) and bean-nighe are well known for this well known for this.  By their howls, or by washing winding sheets in rivers, they signify imminent death, but they are not alone.  The Ell Maid of Dunstaffnage Castle would cry out to warn of impending joy, or woe; on the Borders the powrie or dunter haunted old peel towers and made a noise like the pounding of flax or grain.  When this was louder than usual, or went on for longer, it was a sure sign of coming death or misfortune.

In South Wales the Reverend Edmund Jones reported related activities.  A man in a field in Carmarthenshire saw a fairy funeral procession pass by, singing psalms.  Soon afterwards a human funeral followed exactly the same route in the same manner.  At Aberystruth in about 1770 two men mowing in a field saw a marriage company processing by; another man passing at the same time saw nothing even though he was actually seen to meet with the wedding party.  The event turned out to presage the death of the third man’s employer and the marriage of his daughter.

froud bean nighe

Brain Froud, The bean-nighe

Actions reveal to individuals

Elsewhere the Reverend Jones wrote that the fairies “infallibly knew when a person was going to die.”  It follows from this that sometimes, rather than a general warning of a coming death, the fairies would appear to the victim him or herself.  Jones gives examples of this.  A man was travelling near Abertillery when he heard people talking.  He paused to listen, then heard the sound of a tree falling and a moan.  It soon transpired that what he had witnessed was the fairies predicting his own death by a fall from a tree.  In a very similar account, Jones described a young man at Hafod-y-dafel who saw a procession headed for the church.  Walking with the fairies were a child and a young adult male who suddenly vanished.  This proved to be a premonition: first the witness’ child fell ill and died; then he too sickened and passed away.

A very similar story is told in Lancashire.  Two men encountered a fairy funeral taking place at the church of St Mary near Penwortham Wood.  The fays were dressed in black and carrying a tiny coffin containing a doll like corpse which looked exactly like one of the two witnesses.  This man reached out to try to touch one of the mourners, causing the apparition instantly to vanish.  Within a month, he fell from a haystack and was killed.

Love foretold

As well as predicting individuals’ deaths, the fays could more happily disclose their future spouses to them.  The best example of this is the Borders brownie called Kilmoulis.  This being lived in mills by the grain kilns; on Halloween they would foretell love.  If a person threw a ball of thread into a pot and then started to rewind it into another ball, a point would come near the end of the yarn when Kilmoulis would hold on and stop the winding.  If you then asked “who holds?”, the brownie would name your spouse to be.  In East Yorkshire, some ‘fairy stones’ stood near Burdale (near Malton) and it was said that if a person visited these during the full moon, they would glimpse their future partner.

Conclusion

It seems that, living in two dimensions, the fairies have access to knowledge that is unavailable to mortals.  They can see through the material world and through time as it’s perceived by us to bring us knowledge we might not wish to acquire.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

Fairies and flowing water

Siegfried & The Rhinemaidens
Arthur Rackham, Rhine maidens

One curious aspect of fairy lore is the antipathy that some fairies have for water.  This only applies in certain situations, however, and may not be a general rule.

Water as a fairy necessity

Fairies, like humans, require water for basic necessities.  It’s pretty certain that they drink it: they are reputed to drink dew at the very least.  Without doubt they use water for bathing: there are numerous folk lore records of fairies expecting householders to leave out bowls of fresh water for them at night so that they and children may wash: plenty of examples are to be found in Rhys, Celtic folklore  (pp.56, 110, 151, 198, 221 & 240).  There’s also a story of fairies surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley.

According to the seventeenth century pamphlet, Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests, if no clean water was left out for the fairies’ night time ablutions, the usual reprisal would follow:

“we wash our children in their pottage, milk or beer or whatever we find: for the sluts that have not such things fitting we wash their faces and hands with a gilded child’s clout or else carry them to some river and duck them over head and ears.”

Similar stories are found across the country as far north as the Scottish Highlands: for example, in one Shetland example a trow mother washes her baby’s nappies in the water in which barley is soaking.

It hardly need be said that certain fairies live in water and plainly cannot have any objection to their natural environment.  Both fresh and salt water are inhabited, as I’ve discussed in previous posts on inland and marine mermaids.

Another fay link with water is found in the Scottish bean-nighe (the washer woman) and the related caointeach (the keener).  Both foretell deaths by washing clothes or winding sheets at fords or in streams; plainly they are not adverse to contact with running fresh water.   In fact, it’s said that power can be gained over the bean-nighe if you are able to come between her and the stream, indicating that her magic potential in some way derives from the water course.

Lastly, it’s worth recalling the fragments of evidence that children taken by the fairies can be somehow imbued with fairy magic not just by the application of green ointment but by dipping in certain springs and pools.

Fairy fear of water

Nevertheless, there is also evidence of fairies objecting to water that is flowing.  This is confirmed  by Evans-Wentz (p.38) for Ireland and for South West Scotland at least by J. F. Campbell in Popular tales of the west Highlands (volume 2, page 69).   The hideous nuckelavee of Orkney is a venomous creature, part human and part horse, but it couldn’t abide fresh water, meaning that it never came out in the rain and could be escaped by leaping a burn.  A dramatic example of this aversion comes from North Yorkshire: in Mulgrave Wood near Whitby lived a bogle or boggart by the name of Jeanie.  One day she chased a farmer who was riding by.  He galloped desperately for the nearest brook to escape her: just as she caught up with him and lashed out with her wand, his steed leapt the river.  Jeanie sliced the horse in half.  The front part, bearing the rider, fell on the far side and was safe, whilst Jeanie had to make do with the hind legs and haunches.

Any flowing watercourse will form an insurmountable barrier, it seems, but even more antithetical to the fays is water that flows in a southerly direction.  This is shown from a couple of accounts.  One way of expelling a changeling and recovering a human child from the fays that was practiced in the north east of Scotland was to wash the infant’s clothes in a south draining spring and then lay them to dry in the sun; if the clothes disappeared it meant that the fairies had accepted them and that the child would have been restored.  Secondly, in a previous post I have discussed the diagnosis of fairy-inflicted illnesses by ‘girdle-measuring.’  One practitioner I mentioned, Jennet Pearson, would wash the girdle in a south-flowing stream before treating the sick person.

There is also evidence that the high tide line on a beach had a similar barring effect on supernatural pursuers.  In the Highland story of Luran, he stole a goblet from the sith and escaped his angry pursuers by making for the shore.

There are contradictions to this, though.  In Superstitions of the Highlands J. F. Campbell expressed his opinion that running water was no barrier to fairies (p.50); a possible compromise position is Evelyn Simpson’s idea that it is only bad fairies who are obstructed, whilst well-intentioned ones may pass over unhindered (see Folklore in lowland Scotland, p.107).  Sometimes, too, it appears that even plain water can repel our good neighbours.  George Henderson has recounted a folk-tale from the isle of Uist in the Scottish Highlands in which the fairies are depicted calling at the door of a house for a ‘cake’ to come out to them: the inmates threw water on the cake, and it replied: ‘I can’t go, I am undone.’ (Survivals of belief amongst the Celts, 1911, p.219)  Here plain water seems enough to dispel the fairies’ magic.

I’ve written before about the contrary nature of much fairy lore.  It seems that there’ll always be exceptions to any rule we try to identify, but even so we may say that, in most cases, a river or stream will provide an effective barrier between you and supernatural harm.

undine
Arthur Rackham, Undine

Further reading

See too my post on fairies and wells.  An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.