Remote Killing- an unwelcome faery skill

Bean nighe by Energiaelca1 on Deviant Art

Worryingly, for those interested in faerylore, it seems that faery-kind possess the ability to kill humans without necessarily intending to do so and/ or without any direct or violent measures against them. I will give various examples of this.

Sometimes, simply being ion the faery’s presence can be fatal. For instance, a woman in Ross-shire one time came across a bean nighe (a faery washerwoman) cleaning clothes in a stream. The bean offered to row the woman across the nearby loch, help she accepted gratefully, but she was dead within a year. (As you may recall if you have read my book Beyond Faery, the bean nighe is seen as predicting imminent deaths, but here she is the medium as well). In a similar Highland account, a girl met a green lady beside a loch. The colour of the woman’s clothes would immediately have raised alarm, yet all that happened was that she asked the girl if the water there was deep. Soon after this faery encounter, the girl was dead. Elsewhere in Ross-shire, the belief in the fatal effects of faery conversation were underlined. One witness described how there were two types of little people- land and sea faeries. If the latter speak to you, you will soon drown; if the former addressed you, you know you will be short-lived.

Faery touch might be fatal too. A Shetland man was returning from fishing one night when he saw a trow hillock open and dancing within. He was invited in and had a great time. On departing, one of the trows clapped the fisherman on the shoulder in a friendly way. The spot turned sore and, within a short time, he was dead.

Most curious of all are several stories of Scottish faery beings that reveal a macabre and alarming power to kill remotely, without needing to touch or be in the presence of the victim.

The first concerns a bauchan or bogan that haunted a human farm at Lochaber. There was a powerful love-hate relationship between the faery and the farmer and they often fought. One time, after the farmer had had a confrontation with the bauchan, he realised that he’d lost his best handkerchief. He searched for it and came across the bauchan sitting, rubbing the cloth on a rough stone. Challenged, the bauchan remarked “It’s well you’ve come, Callum: I’d have been your death if I’d rubbed a hole in this.”

This curious incident is not entirely isolated. Glenmoriston, at the southern end of Loch Ness, was haunted by a hag called the Cailleach a’ Craich. Her habit was to waylay solitary travellers, pull of their caps, and then dance on these on the highway until a hole had been worn through- which would prove fatal to the owner (see my Beyond Faery, c.7).

A third case concerns a man called Donald who was celebrating his wedding to his neighbour’s daughter. The party ran out of whisky so Donald went to get some more. Returning home, he was crossing a bridge when a small woman appeared to him in a flash of light. She pulled of his scarf or neckerchief and then proceeded to wash this in the river below, cackling to herself. Donald returned to the party but started to feel weak. He was advised that what the woman was doing was rubbing a hole in his heart and that he had to retrieve his scarf from her, although this had to be done without violence. He recovered the item, but he struck the faery with a stick whilst doing so, which cursed him then to nightly fights with her for the next seven years.

Why is it that damaging an item of clothing might kill its former wearer? The reasoning seems to be that something of the person’s spirit or life force is transferred to the garment and can be accessed and destroyed through it. The same sort of thinking lies behind one of the folk healing techniques that was often viewed as ‘sorcery’ in the Scottish witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of these purported witches (individuals who had often acquired their healing knowledge from the faes) were able to diagnose and then treat illnesses and afflictions using people’s shirts and blouses. These were often washed in south-flowing streams and put on again, the sickness or evil influence being washed away and the charmed water having a beneficial effect on the patient.

A Cailleach

I discuss this subject as well in my recently published book, The Darker Side of Faeries, available directly from Green Magic and the usual outlets. As the name indicates, it’s a close look at all the more dangerous aspects of the faery character.

‘Wheels on Fire’- it’s Faery, but not as we know it…

“Wheel’s on fire
Rolling down the road
Just notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode”

Bob Dylan/ Rick Danko

Faery kind need not always appear in anthropomorphic form. I have described before the Scottish kelpies and each uisge and the shape shifting capabilities of several supernatural beings, such as Puck and the Isle of Man bogie called the buggane.

Transformations into animals might still seem relatively understandable, given the British tradition of semi-fish-like mermaids and selkies or the very widespread idea of the ‘Black Dog.’ However, fairies can sometimes take completely non-animal forms. I was inspired to examine these by Simon Young’s article on the Rolling Wool Bogie and in my book Beyond Faery I described the variety of ‘soft’ apparitions (looking like jelly, or balls or bales of wool or grass) as well as some very bizarre ‘hard’ forms that have been adopted.

There are quite a few examples of the ‘hard’ manifestations, from all around the British Isles.  At Hellsgill, Nether Auchinleck, in Clydesdale, a sprite in the shape of the outer rim of a cartwheel would come bounding down the brae, heading straight for any night time traveller.  Just as it looked to be about to collide with its victim, the wheel would vanish with an eldritch laugh.  Other such Scottish ‘wheels’ have been reported.  A man called Alexander, of Buaile Mor on South Unst, was fishing in a stream one night when he saw a figure approaching downstream.  He called to the stranger to step away from the water so as not to frighten the fish; the man complied but then Alexander realised something like a mill-wheel was rolling towards him.  Hurriedly, he gathered up his catch and gear and made off.  The fish he’d caught he hid under a rock and then headed for the nearest house.  Crossing the moor, however, he was repeatedly thrown down.  The next morning, returning to collect his catch, Alexander found that all had gone save for one he had ripped the head off by standing on it during his hurried departure the night before. 

At Lag nam Bocan (Bogle’s Hollow), on South Uist, a woman saw an iron car wheel rim rolling along the road.  A comparable- and equally inexplicable- incident occurred at Mynydduslwyn in Gwent: a reddish grey object, round like a bowl, was encountered rolling back and forth across a lane.  The witness believed it was a living thing, because it grew larger and smaller as it moved; he enquired what in God’s name it was, and the apparition instantly disappeared.  Perhaps it’s significant too that the Orkney monsters, the nuggle and the shoopiltee, are said to have tails resembling a water-wheels.

Two comparable examples from the Isle of Man, which were regarded as manifestations of the buggane, are described in Manx Notes and Queries for 1904:

“A man, when he was young, was seeing the girls home late in the night, and when coming to the end of beyr yn clagh glass (the grey stone road), he beard a great noise, and he looked in every direction, but could see nothing, and the noise was coming nearer. He did not know what to do, so he got over the hedge, but the noise was just over him, and he looked up and saw a thing like a big wheel of fire. It was going round at a great speed, and went towards Ballacurry and when it was near that place it vanished, and he saw no more of it

Second Account– A man was coming along the grey stone road in Ballakillowey, and he met a big wheel of fire, going around at a fearful rate, but remaining in the same place, and he could not get past, so he went back and took another road, but he met the wheel again at the next opening, and he went across the fields to shun it, but when he came to the high road the wheel was there again, but he ventured to pass it and got away. It made a great noise with whirling round.”

As I described in my book Beyond Faery, published last year, faery kind are capable of taking quite unexpected and baffling forms. That book argued for an expansion of ‘faery’ to include a range of supernatural beings in animal (rather than humanoid) form, but it will be clear that we actually need to expand our horizons far more broadly to encompass all the potential manifestations that have been encountered.

by ‘nachtwulf’ on DeviantArt

Beyond Faery VII- Hags- and other horrid harpies

This posting is the last on the subject of my new book Beyond Faery.

Amongst the broad class of ‘faery beasts’ there is a clear category of female monsters, creatures we often label as hags. The dividing lines between hags, giantesses and witches are not always very clear and many of the Highland Scottish ‘hobgoblins,’ the gruagach, glaistig and uruisg, are primarily encountered as large, violent and unsightly females. In similar fashion, the dividing line between ‘hags’ and banshees is not exact- an important point to bear in mind when we realise that banshee (bean sith) means nothing more than ‘fairy woman.’ Likewise, the closely related bean nighe is nothing more or less than a ‘washer woman.’

In Scotland the best known ‘hag’ is the cailleach, a word generally glossed as ‘witch.’ For example, on the hills over Glendaruel there is a large stone called the cailleach-bhear, the ‘huge hag,’ which is said really to be a woman who herds cattle on the uplands. She has been described as the thunder personified; when she is angry she causes floods and, if cattle go missing during storms, it is because she has stolen them.

The banshee is best known popularly for singing at the time of a death. In the Scottish Highlands, this was particularly the role of the female being called the caointeach (the keener) but the bean nighe often marked impending death by washing the clothes or shrouds of those foredoomed to perish. Indicative of the combined, and complex, nature of these traditions is the Cowie of Goranberry Tower in Roxburghshire in the Scottish Borders. This male being bore all the hallmarks of a broonie (brownie) in that he got in peat for the fires, herded the sheep, harvested the grain, cut up wood, spun wool and ground corn. However, if he lamented, it was the sign of an imminent death in the family.

All the examples given so far are Scottish, but the Isle of Man had its own cailleach, known as the Caillagh ny Groamagh who was linked (like the Scottish one) to bad weather and the changing seasons. Wales too had its own versions of the hags and the banshees (the latter being called the cyhyraeth). The latter would be encountered first as a fierce rushing sound in the air, followed by a shriek that was so loud and appalling that listeners might be thrown to the ground. The cyhyraeth‘s cry presages an imminent death and the sound is heard to travel from the doomed individual’s home to the place of burial. In addition, the creature is often heard in advance of bad weather and it cries out three times, each quieter than the last, dwindling to a death rattle. An encounter with the cyhyraeth recounted in the Carmarthen Journal during September 1831 described a woman with black, dishevelled hair, deeply furrowed cheeks and corpse-like skin, loose lips, long, black fangs and horrible gashes on her body. In a manner reminiscent of the bean-nighe, she splashed her hands in a stream and wailed for her husband. Understandably, the witness fainted away in terror.

Another Welsh type of hag is the gwrach y rhibin, a being in the form of an immense and very hideous girl. The name has been explained as meaning ‘the hag of the dribble,’ the dribble being a trail of stones that she releases from the apron in which she carries them. She had coarse, bright red hair, sharp cheeks, a pointed nose and chin and just a few long and jagged teeth. She would appear suddenly to people at crossroads or at sharp turns in paths, howling horribly “Woe is me!” She might also appear outside the home of a sick person, calling their name. Her presence foretold the death either of the witness or of a relative of that unfortunate person. The former was an especially likely outcome, because her sudden appearance could either give the person a fatal shock or drive them mad with fear.

Another description of this ‘queen of terrors’ describes her as tall and yellow-skinned with a few front teeth that are one foot long and hair that sweeps the ground. She uses her teeth to dig graves for her victims and her hair to brush the earth back into the hole.

Britain is well supplied by hideous and terrifying female spirits. The examples cited here are cases I’ve turned up since I finished writing the text of Beyond Faery. More detailed and lengthy treatments will be found in the book, which is now available from all good book sellers etc.

Beyond Faery

I am very pleased to announce that Llewellyn Worldwide has now published Beyond Faery, the companion to my book Faery which they released in April this year.

As its full title indicates, in Beyond Faery- Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts, we’ve gone beyond the conventional boundaries and perceptions of the faes- as winged, female beings- to explore a much wider and wilder world of supernatural creatures. Many of these are far more dangerous- but perhaps, as a result, rather more predictable- that the humanoid fairies about whom I normally write.

The faery beasts that are the subject of this book share a number of traits that differentiate them from the more familiar members of fairy-kind. Firstly, they are- without exception- of conventional, human-world size. There are continual debates about the size of the human-like faes (as you’ll read in several of posts), but there is never any dispute that mermaids are the same size as we are and that the other creatures that resemble the mammals of this world- the dogs, horses, bulls and so on- are all the same size as their domesticated equivalents- if not somewhat bigger.

Secondly, the faery beasts have next to no conception of working with human beings to either assist them or to improve the natural world. Whilst the ‘eco-fairy’ has gained some vogue in recent decades, the faery beasts are far less complex creatures- or, we might say, more single minded in their purpose. Very many of them have one of two intentions: to scare us and/ or to kill and eat us. Mermaids are a bit different from this: they can enter into relationships with humans and raise families, but there is seldom any suggestion of any wider co-operation with us. They live in their world, we live in ours; they are in different dimensions- and the merfolk like to keep it that way.

These beasts are faery, then, in terms of their supernatural nature and their magical powers. They may look like the livestock or pets that we’re familiar with, but their behaviour is very different: their purpose and their powers are nothing like the ordinary dog’s or cow’s. In many ways, we might call them monsters.

Contents

The book’s chapters cover, firstly, the various water beasts: the mermaids, mere-maids (fresh water mermaids), river sprites, kelpies, water horses and water bulls and other less well-known creatures, such as the njugl and the shoopiltee. Then I turn to the land beasts, amongst whom I number the ‘hags,’ the banshees and similar; the hobs and goblins; the bogies, boggarts, brags and bugganes; the black daemon dogs; the fearsome faery beasts such as fae cats and bunnies and, lastly, the wills of the wisp.

Controversy?

I have already given readers a taste of what’s covered in the book in my recent postings, in which I’ve made use of material I’ve come across since the manuscript of Beyond Faery was finalised earlier this year. Those new examples supplement what you’ll find discussed in more detail in the chapters of the book. The text’s 270 pages long, including a glossary and a full bibliography.

I was a little surprised to note that Google has designated my book ‘controversial literature’- as, indeed, was the case for the previous book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk, too. On consideration, I quite like the thought of having written two controversial books. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you think it’s as subversive as this might suggest!

Beyond Faery VI: Spectral Hounds

Barguest by Earlnoir on Deviant Art

“Night-roaming ghosts by saucer eyeballs known,

The common spectres of each country town”

John Gay, ‘A True Story of an Apparition

As I have already described, phantom black dogs are encountered across Britain.  However, there seems to be a particular concentration of these faery beasts in Northern England, from Yorkshire and Lancashire up to the border with Scotland.  

Being myself from The North, and seeing as there are so many separate (albeit closely related) species or breeds of spectral hound, I thought they deserved a separate examination.

Defining the exact nature of the Black Dogs has challenged folklorists for well over a century.  They are variously described as ghosts, boggarts and goblins (although the dividing line between boggart and ghost is very hazy).  One writer, describing ‘Dog Fiends’ for the Northern Echo in August 1892, suggested that there were two types of spectre hounds.  There are those that are fiends (or demons), that have taken on dog form to harass humans, and there are those that are the spirits of the dead that return to earth as hounds in punishment for their mortal sins.  He cited, for example, a Hertfordshire woman who was hung at Tring as a suspected witch in 1751.  Thereafter, a black dog haunted the site of the gibbet.  Some of these hounds seem to be simply the ghosts of dogs, that come back to haunt their former master.

Whatever their exact nature, spectral hounds are ubiquitous and, almost always, alarming to those who meet them.  They share a number of common features, although there are minor differences between the varieties.

Barguest by Citizen Wolfie on Deviant Art

Barguest

The barguest, or bargheist, or bar-hest is one of the commonest types.  It has been suggested that the name derives from the dialect word ‘bar,’ meaning a gate or stile, although there is no particular evidence that these hounds only lurk around such spots.  In truth, what the Black Dog apparition might be called was dependent as much on location as behaviour and looks.  What was classed as a barguest at Tadcaster and east towards York and Selby might be termed a ‘padfoot’ further west, around Wakefield, Brighouse and Halifax and to the south of Leeds.

The barguest is regarded as a sign of imminent death.  If it’s heard outside the window of an invalid, there imminent demise is assured.  Apparently, death through sickness is not all that the barguest can foretell.  At Arncliffe, in Littondale in the Yorkshire Dales, a sighting of the hound predicted the death by suicide of a friend of the witness (he jumped from the bridge into the River Skirfare).

In an extension of this, it was said in the area around Leeds that the barguest would appear after a local dignitary had died.  It would then prowl through the vicinity and all the dogs kept there would emerge and follow it, barking and howling.  If an unlucky person crossed its path (on these occasions at least) the barguest would lash out with its paw, inflicting a wound that never healed.

The other function of the barguest seems to be to alarm those walking alone late at night.  It will follow the victim, often invisibly, although it may be felt brushing past and the sound of its chain may be heard.  When seen, the creature has been described as being as big as a sheep, with glowing eyes.  Another eye-witness compared it to a wolf or bear.  Some are alleged to have tusks as well as fearsome fangs and claws.  It appears that, unlike many of the faery kind, the barguest is able to cross running water, making it that much harder to escape.

Oddly, the barguest known to haunt the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne was regarded as friendly and was even described by one reporter as performing “all the offices of a public brownie.”  He did servants’ work and would swim the River Tyne to fetch a midwife to a woman in labour.  The barguest would then howl depending upon whether or not the new-born child is likely to survive.  Perhaps it is this association with childbirth that explains why, in the Craven district of Yorkshire, it’s said that a barguest will never harm a pregnant woman.

The usual form of the barguest is a large hound-like creature with heavy feet and saucer-like burning eyes, but it has also been seen as a white cow, a horse, ass, sheep or swine.

Padfoot

The padfoot is so-called because of the ‘pit-pat’ of his paws on the ground, often the first (and sometimes only) sign that he has joined you.  Although regarded as a kind of supernatural dog, the padfoot is said to roar rather than howl.

When he is seen, he looks like a large, smooth haired animal dragging a chain.  Anomalously, the padfoot at Horbury is seen as a white dog with blazing eyes.  The padfoot at Horbury can range in size from a small dog to something ‘as big as a mule.’  At Upton near Wakefield it was described as being between the size of a bear and a donkey, shaggy and very dark and with very heavy footsteps, ‘clomping’ along as if it wore shoes.

It is impossible to strike the animal- your blows will pass straight through it- and its presence alone can scare a witness to death.  The Upton padfoot was reported to be solid and physically violent: it crashed through a gate into a garden and then stampeded about, trying to uproot trees.  Comparably, a foolhardy Leeds man once tried to kick a padfoot he met- it seized him in its jaws and dragged him all the way home, through hedges and ditches.

The padfoot can rear up and walk on its two hind legs, or it may be seen apparently running on three.  The explanation of this is that its forefeet may be chained together, hence the sound of trailing links frequently described. 

Like the barguest, the padfoot will appear before a death.  It will prowl up and down outside the house of a mortally ill person, or will waylay those going to visit the invalid.  In some places, the beast also seems to have a regular ‘beat’ that it prowls at night.  At Rothwell near Leeds there was a flight of steps that had been worn down by its pacing.  If you should meet a padfoot, you should always allow it plenty of space to pass you by.  A man in Craven who failed to ‘give him the wall’ was mauled by the hound, and died within a few days.  Luckily, however, they are said not to be able to cross flowing water.

I was delighted, during my research, to discover that the padfoot was known in my home town of Barnsley, South Yorkshire.  Apparently, it was seen there as being harmless- as long as it wasn’t interfered with.  If it felt obstructed or threatened, though, it might savage a man or throw him over a wall.  Just as with the Newcastle barguest, the Barnsley padfoot has an association with childbirth.  The sight of it predicts a good delivery.  Nevertheless, the look and sound of the animal were so alarming that most midwives refused to travel alone to and from a patient’s home, and always insisted upon the husband of the woman fetching and accompanying them.

Lastly, the creature is only encountered at night and, certainly, one late Victorian writer claimed that the introduction of street lighting had unintentionally banished it from many of its former haunts.

Guytrash

The guytrash, the name of the phenomenon west of Leeds, is another omen of death.  Its name comes from the sound its feet make splashing through puddles in the road.  Unlike the barguest, the guytrash reportedly cannot cross running water.  The example at Ilkley has been described as being like a large black dog or ass.

The guytrash, like other hounds, can be seen in particular by those who possess the second sight through being born at midnight or on a Sunday.  It is possible for the person with the gift to transmit it to another person by touching them (if they really, truly want to be able to see a giant hound with huge, blazing eyes).

Trash and Skriker

Over the Pennine Hills into Lancashire, the phantom hound is called the ‘trash’ or ‘skriker.’The beast has been seen as a white horse or cow as well as in the form of a huge mastiff with broad feet, drooping ears, shaggy hair and the usual glowing eyes.  Besides the sound of its feet splashing through puddles, it’s known for its blood-curdling shrieks (hence ‘skriker’). 

Hundreds of these beasts are known around Lancashire, frequently haunting graveyards.  As always, they forewarn of a death, either in the family of the witness or one of that person’s friends.  The more clearly the skriker is visible, the sooner the death will occur. 

Seemingly, too, in some cases the skriker can inflict death.  That known at Colne lurked around the churchyard and the old Roman pavement there.  In one case it met a man and put its paws up on his shoulders so that it could look him full in the face.  The meeting was so shattering for him that he was stupefied and afterwards dwindled away until he died.  If you meet a skriker and you’re brave enough to try to follow it, the hound will retreat backwards before you, vanishing the instant your attention is distracted.

Some of the Lancashire hounds were known to be headless- just to add to their terrible aspect.  One such was known to haunt the vicinity of the Collegiate Church in Manchester.  On one occasion in 1825, it put its paws on a man’s shoulders and then drove him home at a furious speed.  This nuisance was laid for 999 years under the bridge over the River Irwell to Salford. 

Capelthwaite

This is a Westmorland hound whose appearances do not presage death- unlike the barguest.

Tatterfoal

In the extreme east of Yorkshire, near the North Sea coast, the same phantom entity is known as the ‘tatterfoal’ because of its shaggy coat.  At Easington, for example, its prowls between the very oldest houses in the district, trying to jump on the backs of people travelling at night so that it can hug them to death.

Formless Forms

In Beyond Faery I describe how some faery beasts appear in shapeless or amorphous manifestations.  Several of these are barguests.

For example, the generally benign barguest of Newcastle upon Tyne would now and again scare a drunk wandering home late at night by appearing before him like a ball of fire.  A woman called Sally Dransfield, who worked as a carrier between Leeds and Swillington in the mid-nineteenth century, often saw a barguest on the highway that rolled along before her like a woolpack, before it vanished suddenly into the hedge.  At Appletreewick in the Craven district of North Yorkshire, the guytrash was also seen as a woolpack that rolled and tumbled in front of a witness.  This was no insubstantial apparition: in this case it stopped suddenly and he fell over the thing.

Read More

This posting complements the chapter on black dogs included in my new book, Beyond Faery. As of November 8th, this is available on all formats through Amazon.com and as a Kindle book on Amazon.co.uk, with the print version being released in the UK on December 1st

Beyond Faery V: Wills of the Wisp

bocklin

Das Irrlicht, Arnold Bocklin, 1862

The spirits known as wills of the wisp, which in fact go by many local names, seem to have a single purpose, which is to try to lure people out of their way, something which may just get them lost or which may result in their deaths.  Their exact status as ‘fairies’ is a little uncertain.  They are clearly supernatural beings, and almost always of a solitary nature, but their precise classification is difficult; in some cases, they resemble ghosts. Nevertheless, the activities of the ‘pure’ wills of the wisp, who only have one manifestation, are shared with entities we would unhesitatingly describe as fairies- such as pixies, Robin Goodfellow and the various pucks and pwccas.  For this reason, I included a chapter on wills of the wisp in my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery.  The evidence presented here represents additional research I’ve undertaken, which complements the content of the book.

Scottish spunkies

Very typical of this family of sprites is Willy and the Wisp, who is seen around Buckhaven in Scotland.  He’s been called a “fiery devil” who leads people off their path in order to drown them or, at the very least, to cause them to stumble and fall, whether into a bog or over a bank or cliff.  He sometimes appears as sparks around a walker’s feet or as a candle shining in the dark two or three miles ahead of them. Like a rainbow, this light would recede before the advancing traveller.  He has also been known to lure boats into the shore, where they have foundered.  This entity is also called ‘spunky’ in Scotland, or ‘Dank Will,’ with his “deceitful lantern.”  

Interestingly, on the Hebridean island of South Uist it was said that the Will of the Wisp had not been seen before 1812.  A woman who went out one night to collect rue from the sand dunes was never seen again and it was thought that her ghost returned as the wandering light that was seen there frequently after that.  This is an intriguing example of the confusion, or uncertainty, that can exist over the interrelationship between Faery and the dead.

Southern Sprites

In Dorset, on the south coast of England, the Will or Jack o’ Lantern is seen as a hopping ball of light that precedes a traveller, attempting to lure the person off the road, perhaps into a pond or perhaps just to make them lost.  If it succeeds, you will hear it sniggering and laughing.  In Devon and Cornwall, too, the Jack o’ Lantern is known.  He has been known to attack lanterns carried by people, or to perch on the roofs of houses.   Generally, the light is like a small blue flame, but it has been seen as big as five feet in height.  It generally floats at a low level (about a metre off the ground), but can rise high into the air- or vanish, and then reappear again.  Sometimes it is fixed, sometimes it moves at considerable speed.  In the South West of England, as well as pools and marshes, the “pixy-lights” might try to lure people down abandoned mine shafts, which are still quite common in the region.

The Will is usually seen in more out of the way locations, such as mountains and lowland marshes, but by no means exclusively.  It has been sighted in water meadows or in domestic gardens as well.  When it is seen in church-yards, it is often called a ‘corpse candle,’ once again linking the phenomenon with the dead.

A very curious example of the phenomenon is the Will seen at Fringford Mill in Oxfordshire.  Witnesses have reported red lights that looked like gnomes, standing about three feet high.  They would bob up and down (as seems to be typical) but they also emitted a singing sound.  The lights would slowly approach to within about one foot of a person and then bob away again, apparently with the intention of leading the individual either into the mill stream or onto the highway.  Horses kept in the field next to the mill would be terrified by the apparition.  At Ascott under Wychwood, in the same county, the Will was called Jenny Burn Tail and once more resembled a human figure- a man holding a lantern.

Bell WoW

Guernsey Wills

Sometimes the Wills of the Wisp of Devon and Cornwall are seen indicating places where rich lodes of ore can be mined.  The Wills of the Channel Island of Guernsey have a comparable link to buried riches.  It is believed on the island that their appearance marks the site of concealed treasure.  This association can be exploited by Le Feu Belengier to lead those hopeful of finding lost wealth through bogs and brakes. 

Even so, the riches can be there for the finding by the determined.  The only problem is that the wandering fire will protect its treasure.  Stories are told on the island of a woman who dug where she saw a Will dancing and, in due course, uncovered a pan that seemed to be full of coins.  However, just before she was able to claim the riches, she was distracted and, when she turned back to the pan, it had been overturned and was empty.  In another case, a man who dug up a pot of coins looked away for a moment- to discover a huge black hound curled up in the hole.  Conversely, a man who excavated a pot full of sea-shells was canny enough not to be deterred.  He carried the seemingly worthless discovery home and, the next morning, awoke to find the shells transformed into coins.  This story is a reverse of the usual reports of money received from fairies turning into shells, leaves and mushrooms overnight. The common element of not taking your eye off the prize is generally encountered in respect of sightings of fairies themselves: if you see one, you should try to avoid blinking or looking away.  If you do allow yourself to be distracted, the fairy will disappear.

Welsh Wisps

The Will of the Wisp is very well known in Scotland, but he has a long history in Welsh folklore too.  Early in the nineteenth century, the road from Welshpool, on the Welsh border, to Shrewsbury in England was haunted around Onslow Hill by a ‘goblin’ who appeared as a ball of fire and would sit behind riders on their horses.  There were numerous reports of this being and generally people avoided travelling along this road by night if they could.  Not far away, at Marford near Wrexham, the Jack o’ Lantern was often seen early in the eighteenth century.  Typical of its tricks was an occasion when it led two men into a ditch after they had thought they could see the light of a farmhouse window and had aimed towards it.  Once the chosen victim was lost and soaked, the sprite would always dance about in glee over them.

Older Welsh sources more generally blame the ellyllon, the elves, for such sightings and misfortunes; another name for the Will of the Wisp is yr ellyll dan- ‘elf fire.’  This light, also called ‘bog fire’ has been described as being like the light of a lantern, that would dance ahead of riders, travelling at the same speed as them, or would appear as actual blue flames on the extremities of the horse and rider.  This Will was reported as late as 1898, but subsequent changes to farming practice and the draining of land seems to have scared many of them off.

In some parts of Wales, a number of specific, named sprites are identified as the cause of such mischief. Several are identified in Snowdonia.  The bwbach llwyd or ‘brown hobgoblin’ will appear on mountain tracks, dressed like a shepherd.  He lures travellers off the path before vanishing. Somehow related in the bodach glas who appears in front of people once a fog has descended.  He noiselessly hovers in front of them. always maintaining the same distance.  Lantern Jack, meanwhile, is a blue flame seen on paths at night. It grows steadily larger, leading people astray until the light is snuffed out with a peel of laughter.   

In south and east Wales the pwcca is a light that will lead on travellers, who think they are following another person with a lantern, until they find themselves on the very edge of a precipice.  The light then leaps out into the void and a peal of pwcca’s mocking laughter is heard.

The pwcca is a further reminder to us that the Will and the more familiar and corporeal Puck often blend into each other, so that being misled by a will of the wisp and being pixy-led can be very similar experiences.  The cross-over between the two is further underlined by the fact that, in some parts of Wales, the pwcca is more like a domestic brownie than a malign sprite.

The medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320-50) wrote two poems describing the Will.  Y Pwll Mawn, The Peat Pit, is desrcibed by him as being “the haunt of many a drowned wraith” whilst Ar Niwl Maith (On a Misty Walk) is an extended description of the perils of travel in poor visibility:

“My twisty traipse turns to clumsy labour

Like a hell,

Into a still bogmire,

Where in every hollow lurks

A hundred wry-mouthed elves.”

Similarly, in the Highlands, a Gaelic poem mentions “the busily roaming fairy woman, deluder of travellers…”

Wills of the Wisp and snake, Hermann Hendrich

More details and discussion will be found in the chapter dedicated to this subject in my forthcoming Beyond Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).

Beyond Faery III- Black dogs and other faery animals

Gabrielratchet

This posting is a further collection of material I have collected during my researches since I completed the manuscript of my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery: Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts.

The black dog is a faery beast that seems to be very typical of the southern half of Britain- that is England, Wales and Cornwall, plus the Channel Islands.  They have been reported since the Middle Ages.  

The black dog phenomenon

These creatures can be supernatural beings that appear sometimes in hound form, sometimes as other animals (or objects), or they may only ever be seen as terrifying hounds.

For example, on the Cotswold Hills black dog apparitions are very common.  Some seem to be the ghosts of humans (often murdered), some are dogs, many are evil and a few are even helpful, such as that at Birdlip Hill which guides lost travellers.  Far more representative of the species is the black dog that was sighted periodically during the nineteenth century at Barton Lane, Headington, Oxford.  This large hound had glowing eyes the size of saucers, something that’s a common (and highly alarming) trait of the species.

Many of these black phantom dogs have no special name, but in East Anglia they are often called ‘shugs,’ reflective of their shaggy appearance, whilst in the North of England there are several types of the species recognised, which go by the names of padfoot, guytrash, barguest and skriker.  I will deal with these northern types in a forthcoming posting.

On the Channel Island of Guernsey there is the black dog called Tchi-co, or La bete de la Tour.  It haunts the streets of St Peter Port and has the unearthly cry and huge flaming eyes typical of its kind.  These are combined with another regular feature, the sound of chains being dragged along the ground.  La bete is the size of a bear or a large calf but is sometimes invisible, its presence being indicated by the unearthly clanking and howling.  Several other such phantom dogs are known on the island: Le Chien Bodu is a black dog that portends death; another, pulling its chains along, prowls the Forest Road and can cause death by the shock it inflicts on witnesses.

Unfortunately, people have found that you can’t chase these creatures off, like normal dogs.  A man tried to strike a white hound he saw at Horbury in Yorkshire in 1880; his stick went straight through it and he received such a shock that he returned home, took to his bed, and died (see Magical Folk 55).   A headless hound that haunts Ville au Roi on Guernsey is similar: although it can be felt brushing past night-time travellers, it has no substance if you try to strike it.

The Pembrokeshire Herald in March 1853 carried a fascinating report of an encounter between a Church of England clergyman and a spectral hound.  The account summarises most of the characteristics described so far- but adds something new and troubling.  To begin with the dog was invisible, and the minister heard only its panting and the padding of its paws behind him as he walked.  Then he felt it brush past him and it revealed itself; it was blue, the size of a young calf and had eyes like glowing coals.  As just discussed, his reaction was to try to strike it with his walking stick- which passed through the beast harmlessly.  Luckily for the vicar, a coach happened to pass just that moment, so he flagged it down and boarded.  Given his lucky escape, he took a moment to close his eyes and calm down- only to discover that the dog was under the seat opposite him and was then see prowling outside his home.  Luckily, probably, this ‘stalking’ trait is unique amongst these hounds.

Generally, terror is the main result of an encounter with one of the black dogs.  However, ‘Hairy Jack’ at Grayingham in Lincolnshire was one of those that attacked solitary passers-by and the black hound of Rodway Hill in the Quantocks in Somerset left a man paralysed for the remainder of his life after it brushed against him.

Generally, religious ritual seems to be the only way of dealing with these hounds.   The black dog of Wilcote Wood near Wychwood on the Cotswolds was laid in an elaborate manner.  A new born baby and two clappers (bird scarers) were acquired.  A priest prayed over the baby and then threw one of the clappers in one pond and the other in a second pond nearby.  As long as the two are kept apart, it is said, the dog will never reappear. In another version of this story, the clapper was taken from a bell and the two parts put in the two ponds.  If, for some reason, the two are ever reunited, the hound will rise again.

Jacob Allies, in his 1852 description of the folklore of Worcestershire, described a fairly typical black dog that haunted a deep and gloomy lane near Alfrick.  It might be seen as a dark hound lying by the road, which would cause horses to freeze on the spot, but it also appeared to manifest as a wagon drawn by four black horses, a dark rider or a large crow, all of which could be accompanied by the sound of a terrible, hollow hammering.  The barguest of Glassensikes, near Darlington, is seen as a black dog that howls at midnight before a calamity, but it also manifests as a headless man or woman, a white cat or a rabbit.  The ‘bargest’ of Northorpe in Lindsey, Lincolnshire, haunted the graveyard there, reinforcing the ‘hell’ hound aspect of this species.

Hell Hounds

The black dogs are often confused or mingled with the aerial hell-hounds, known as the whist hounds, gabriel ratchets or dandy dogs.  In Wales there are the packs of the cwn bendith y mamau (fairy dogs), which were still heard on the slopes of Preseli a century ago, and the solitary ci bal, which ranges across the whole southern part of the country.  If it pursues you, you can escape by crossing running water (a way of escaping many faeries). 

Another name used for these Welsh hounds was cwn annwn, or hell hounds, which have been described in one report as small and either black with red spots- or red with black spots.  Those witnessed in Glamorgan are said to be blood red and dripping with gore; they howl in the air as if lamenting.  The related cwn wybir are reported to be heard at night in desolate spots (mountains and moorland) baying and yelling in the air.  They don’t seem to do any harm to mortals, as their prey is the spirits of the dead.

Similar creatures are also found in the South-West of Britain.  On Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, the dandy dogs are said to hunt the souls of the damned at night.  Further west, the ‘goblin hounds’ have been heard hunting hares across the downs between Truro and Redruth.  In Devon the wish hounds are silent black dogs seen in a pack that seem to threaten the living. Children can be protected from them by putting bread under their pillows.

Other faery beasts

There are many other fae beasts, albeit ones that seem consistently to keep to one form.  There is, for example, a white hare that is seen on the quays of the Cornish fishing village of Polperro.  It is harmless, but it predicts a coming storm.  White hares and rabbits are often seen in Lincolnshire and, significantly perhaps, it is said in Yorkshire and Worcestershire that if one crosses your path at night it is a sign of impending death.  For example, in 1891 one writer reported the case of a stonemason who had seen a white rabbit whilst out at night catching sparrows.  He was overcome with such terror that he went home, took to his bed and died (see Magical Folk 54-55).

At Finstock in the Cotswolds, the awful apparition is a nanny goat that drags a chain along.  At North Leigh in Oxfordshire, a headless calf is seen.  The white calf at Lackey Causey (causeway) in Lincolnshire is one of a number found in that county: it hid, or lived, in a drain under a bridge, from which it would emerge to try to lure travellers into the brook.

In all these cases, the fae beast is an animal that would, in normal circumstances, be regarded as harmless- even endearing- by a person who met it.  However, in their faery form they have features which both betray their supernatural origin and can be distressing to the witness.  

Faery Felines

From the Isle of Man there is a report of a very alarming fairy cat.  One night, a man was about to shut and lock his cottage door when he saw a white cat sitting just outside.  He went to shoo it away, but it would not move.  He then, unwisely, tried to kick it, in response to which it stood up and then swelled up to an enormous size, almost blocking out the sky.  Fortunately, it then walked away, leaving the cottager terrified…

This is by no means an isolated account.  Margaret Alexander was accused of witchcraft at Livingston in Scotland in March 1647.  She confessed that she had been “mightily troubled in her house at night with a rumbling and many kats had resorted there.”  Confirming the faery nature of these visitors, she recalled how, forty years earlier, a number of “kats” as big as sheep had appeared before her in one of the streets of the town.  They had then turned into men and women, some of whom were dead and some alive- implying strongly that they were faery beings.

A great deal less sinister was a kitten encountered by a gypsy family in a snowstorm on the Cotswolds.  It advised them to follow the sound of church bells and, by that means, they got to shelter out of the blizzard.  They were sure this benign creature was of supernatural origin (as it had to be- it spoke to them…)

Faery Pets and Livestock

It’s worthwhile just reminding ourselves that the fae are known to keep their own dogs (for guarding and hunting), cattle and horses (for riding and hunting).  These beasts have their distinctive characteristics, but they are quite distinct from the creatures described here.  The various monstrous I have described here animals operate autonomously, whereas the fairies’ hounds and herds are definitely under their control.

I have discussed fairy cattle previously; here, I’ll add a little more about the fairies’ hounds.  There is often something to identify them as being out of the ordinary: for instance, the cu sith or fairy dog of the Scottish Highlands is the size of a two year cow and is green- or even multi-coloured, with yellow feet, black sides and red ears.  The fae have been seen riding with their dogs, or processing on foot with them going two by two.  This suggests that they’re well-trained and obedient animals, whatever their appearance.  This isn’t always borne out by experience, however.

In one Welsh story a man walking in his garden was attacked by a fairy dog that looked like a greyhound.  It ran between his legs and carried him off at great speed, charging through bushes and hedges as it went.  Eventually, the unwilling rider managed to get off and stumbled home- only to discover that he’d been gone for two weeks.  In another example, a farmer from Sutherland in the north of Scotland was resting in his field after completing his ploughing when he heard the horns of a fairy hunting party nearby.  Suddenly, two large and threatening dogs advanced upon him, sniffing his knees.  Luckily, a disembodied voice called them off.

Conclusions

I’ve provided links to some of my previous postings on faery beasts and several chapters of Beyond Faery are devoted to the hounds and other animals.

Beyond Faery II: Faery water beasts

ceffyl 2

This second posting in advance of publication of my next book, Beyond Faeryexamines some of the water beasts of Britain.

There are various faery beasts that infest fresh and salt water in the British Isles.  They are primarily found in Scotland and they are primarily horse like.

Each uisge

These ‘water horses’ live in lakes.  Usually people only encounter and have to deal with one, but at Loch Aird na h-uamh there are reported to be multiple horses.  Some of these steeds, people have been brave enough to ride; some have even survived the attempt, though many of those who tried were drowned or torn to pieces.

Typical of the species is the horse found at Lochan-larig-eala near Breadalbane.  It is a white horse and when it first appears on the lake side, it lies down on the grass and looks very placid and pretty.  Nine children playing there once climbed on it- at which point it dashed for the water immediately.  The child at the back was able to use the horse’s tail to swing off; the rest didn’t escape and it’s said that they were eaten and all that remained was their lungs, which floated ashore in due course.  Some versions of this story say that it happened on a Sunday, so that the faery beast was actually being employed to punish children who were playing rather than attending church. In this second account, the boy who survived happened to have a few Bible pages in his pocket, which saved him.

Some water horses will submit to working for humans, just to be able to get near enough to kill one.  The story is told of John MacInnes of Glenelg who was struggling with his farm work when he was approached by a stranger and offered assistance. He accepted, despite the odd conditions imposed, and immediately found a fine horse standing in his field. MacInnes used it for ploughing and was delighted to find that it was both strong and obedient.  Things went very well for time, although every evening when the horse was stabled John had to make sure he threw earth from a mole-hill over its back and said a blessing.  One night he forgot.  The next day, as soon as they were out in the field, the horse grabbed him with its teeth and dragged him into the nearby loch.  All that was ever recovered was his liver.  The stipulation of the mole-hill is curious, but one way of trapping fairy cattle (and mermaids) on land is to sprinkle grave-yard earth across their path (Scottish Notes & Queries, vol.6, 1893).

There is an each uisge in Loch-nan-Spioradan in Strathspey, which is seen as a beautifully equipped horse.  A local healer who managed to obtain the bit from this horse’s bridle found that it had great healing properties, especially for ‘maladies of the mind.’

Water horses are also known in Wales, where they’re called ceffyl y dwr.  Like their more northerly counterparts, their habit is to tempt people to ride them- and then to destroy them.  From the island of Guernsey there are reports of a white fairy horse that shared many of the traits of each-uisge.  Its back could extend to accommodate as many victims as wanted to ride on it and, once the riders were settled, it would gallop off at alarming speed with its passengers unable to dismount.  Luckily, on Guernsey, the aim of all this was relatively benign- it was just to give the victims a fright before they were dumped in a marsh.  

Fairy Horses

The each uisge is a uniquely savage creature, most unlike the average horse used for riding (whether by humans or their fairy neighbours).  From Breadalbane there also comes a report of a ‘fairy horse’ that was much more like the sort of animal known in the human world.  A man spent an evening dancing in the sithean at Lawes.  He enjoyed himself immensely and, at the end of the festivities, the fairies lent him a horse to get home, which flew through the air like lightning and dropped him down his chimney. 

There are a number of less benign variations upon this supernatural steed.  From Leeds, West Yorkshire, come reports of a ‘goblin horse’ that would allow people to mount it before it galloped off at high speed, shouting ‘I ride, Madge!’ and dumping the rider in a pond.  Further north in Durham there are similar creatures called ‘brags.’  The Leeds area is also home to a ‘black dog’ apparition called the ‘padfoot’ (which I will discuss in a separate posting).  These beings are notorious shapeshifters and, in one instance, it changed into a donkey which ran between a man’s legs and carried him off at speed to his home (to the accompaniment of clanking chains) before sinking into the earth.

The Isle of Man also has the mysterious ‘night horses,’ which seem to be a faery horse with some of the traits of the each uisge. These are found at night on roads, ready saddled and bridled, but if any is incautious enough to mount, he will find himself flying along at a terrifying pace before being dumped on the ground somewhere. The night horse seems to like to give shocks, but no more. The creature called the glashtyn, which can have human and equine form, is more deadly. In its horse shape it will carry off any who mount it and try to drown them in a nearby river or pool.

As mentioned, Wales has its own water horse, the ceffyl y dwr, which is in fact one of several water beasts known there- or, alternatively, there is a single water sprite that assumes a number of different forms. Amongst those identified, there is a thin old man who is seen in raging mountain streams, sometimes stretching out his bony arms to observers; there is the water horse proper that’s found in pools or in rivers, where it tries to seize fishermen’s lines and drag them into the waters, and, lastly, there’s a monstrous fish (generally a salmon) that will try to drag under those that hunt it. In one instance, a man who tried to spear it whilst out fishing on a Sunday was nearly drowned; he ascribed the fish’s attack to a righteous rage over his Sabbath breaking- something that’s also been said of the each uisge already, although this may be more a matter of his guilty conscience than the faery beast being recruited to policing the reformed religion.

Kelpie

Kelpies

Kelpies are often treated as being interchangeable with the each uisge, but whilst the former live in still fresh water, kelpies live in rivers or in the sea.  They are just as unpleasant as the each.  One sighted near Leurbost on the isle of Lewis in 1856 was described as looking like a “huge peat stack”- so large that a six oar boat could pass between the fins that were seen. Iit was up to forty feet in length, witnesses claimed, and it had swallowed whole a blanket left by the loch by girl tending cattle.

Kelpies have been called ‘sly devils.’  Very much like the each, the kelpie will often appear on the banks of a swollen stream, feeding tamely as a traveller approaches.  If the person is already on a horse, the kelpie will trot across the stream ahead, suggesting that it is shallow and safe.  If the person is on foot, he’ll be tempted to mount the horse and ride it across the river.  If he does this, it will immediately gallop off with shrieks of terrifying laughter.  Either way, the hapless traveller is overwhelmed by the flooding torrent.  For these reasons, William Collins, in his Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, described how the kelpie will:

“Instant, furious, raise the whelming flood,

O’er its drowned banks, forbidding all return…” 

So that victims are “Drown’d by the kaelpie’s wrath.”

Sometimes, it is possible to tame a kelpie by surprising it and slipping over its head a halter that has been blessed by having crosses cut into the cheek pieces.  The beast can then be used for farm labour, pulling loads and ploughs and such like.  It can’t escape as long as the bridle is kept on it, however badly it’s treated.  Kelpies have been used like this to help build churches and castles all around Scotland.  

Interestingly, like fairies, it’s said that kelpies can predict or see future events.  They are said, around Buckhaven, to roar before a loss at sea.  Likewise, at Rumbling Bridge in Clackmannanshire, the kelpie predicts drownings by lights and noises at night (although, admittedly, it is also that same kelpie that helps to drown many of these unfortunate people).   At St Vigeans, near Arbroath, a kelpie had been used to build the church and, when finally released, it foretold the minister’s death by suicide and collapse of the church.  Both these things happened in the early eighteenth century.  The kelpie that was used to build the church of St Mungo’s in Dumfriesshire advised that a larger graveyard than had been planned ought to be laid out, as it would be needed one day to accommodate all the bodies from a nearby battle.

Given their violent propensities, people have often tried to hunt and exterminate kelpies living in their vicinity.  This is, perhaps predictably, very difficult to do, because the kelpie is a hardy, elusive and indestructible creature.  In the 1780s, for example, Highlanders tried to drag Loch Garn with nets to catch the underwater beast.  They failed to catch it, after which they tried scattering lime in the loch to kill the monster.  Neither succeeded.

tarbh

Other monsters

In the far north of Scotland and on Orkney and Shetland you’ll encounter (if you’re very unlucky) the njugl or neogle, a creature seen near water mills that resembles a pony.  It will stop the mill wheel to gain attention and, when the miller goes out to see what the problem might be, he will find the pony, saddled and bridled, grazing nearby.  If he mounts it, it will dash for the water and leap off the bank, with both rider and mount vanishing in a flash of flame.  Wiser millers chase the creature off with a red hot poker or similar.  A notorious example of the nuggle used to plague the Orkney island of Hoy.  It lived in a small lake on the north-east coast of the island, called the Water o’ Hoy, but frequented the ford over the Pegal Burn, a little further to the south, where it would try to catch hapless travellers.

In the Scottish Highlands and on Orkney and Shetland a variety of other terrifying and often hybrid beasts were known.  Some of these are mentioned in my forthcoming posting on boggles.  Here I’ll mention one that seemed to have no specific name.  Over Yule on Shetland people were not expected to do any of their normal day to day activities or work.  Once, however, two men went out fishing in defiance of the prohibition.  They netted a monstrous creature that was half fish and half horse and which spoke, declaring to them:  “Man who fished in Yule week/ Fortune never more did seek.”  Once again, these supernatural beings seem to be recruited to back up religious rules and festivals.

Water Bulls

As I have discussed previously, you may encounter fairy cattle owned by the good folk, which have their own identifying characteristics, but there are also water bulls, the tarbh uisge of the Highlands.  The bulls of Glenlochay near Breadalbane are said to be brindled, red and yellow.  A cow will abandon its herd and travel up the glen to the lochan, where she will bellow until the tarbh appears and mates with her.  The hybrid offspring are known to be those of a tarbh because they are all black with curly hair.  

On the Isle of Man, water bulls are also found, being called tarroo ushtey.  They’re recognised by their shining coats and sharp ears.   They often mix with normal herds of cattle, and rouse the fury of the bulls kept with them, although the tarroo seems indifferent to the rage of the farmer’s bull.  They can be fierce, but they often move quite slowly, making a strange whirring sound.

In one Manx story a farmer objected to the bull grazing with his herds and consuming his valuable grass, so he drove it off several times.  The result, though, was that blights struck his crops.  A wise-woman told the man that he could subdue the tarroo with a stick made from rowan wood- which he duly did.  Having the beast under his control, he resolved to sell it at the market.  He was easily able to drive the bull there, but no-one seemed interested, despite the size and sleekness of the animal.  Right at the end of the day, a man finally showed interest, but he asked the farmer to ride the bull to prove that it was tame and well-behaved.  Desperate for the sale, he consented to this, but as soon as he’d mounted he dropped his rowan switch.  This of course released the tarroo from his control and it bolted, nearly carrying the man off into a deep pool in the river.  He narrowly escaped- and learned his lesson, which was to always show the proper respect to the fairies and the faery beasts.

Also found on the Isle of Man is the glashtin, a sort of bogie that will very commonly take on equine form and which will inhabit pools and rivers.  Unlike the tarroo ushtey, the glashtin is said to mingle with the herds of horses kept by Manx farmers without any disturbance or hostility between the animals.  However, the glashtins only liked to mate with pure Manx-bred ponies, and as the island’s horses interbred more and more with outside breeds, the glashtin was seen less and less.

If you’re interested to learn more, see too my separate posting on water beasts.  Additionally, several chapters of Beyond Faery deal in detail with the many aspects of the lore of the inland and marine water beasts of Britain.  The book is due for release in early November.

Beyond Faery I: Mermaids and Selkies

 

hermann-moest-the-fishermans-dream
Hermann Moest, The Fisherman’s Dream

My next book, Beyond Faerywill be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in early November.  It examines the variety of ‘faery beasts’ that exist alongside the traditional faeries we’re familiar with- the kelpies, water bulls, black dogs, hobgoblins and others that make Faery so complex, fascinating- and dangerous.  For the next few weeks I’m going to examine some of these beings, using materials I’ve come across in my researches since the text of Beyond Faery was completed.  This week, we start in the ocean.

Jasmine_Becket_Griffith

A Mermaid by Jasmine Beckett-Griffith (with a nod to Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead)

Strange Fish

“Faith, I do grant,

This is the strangest Fish… some

Say ‘tis an o’er-grown Porpoise, others say,

‘Tis the fish caught in Cheshire; one, to whom

The rest agree, said that ‘twas a Mermaid.”

(Jasper Maine, The City Match, 1639, Act III, scene 1)

The merfolk- the mermaids and the selkies- have long fascinated humankind.   They are a complex as well as a beautiful people and both men and women seem to be drawn inexorably towards them.

There are in fact many different types of supernatural inhabiting the seas.  We are familiar with the mermaids (half-human, half-fish) and the selkies (humans who can put on a seal skin in order to travel through the sea) but in addition to these there are, for example:

  • Sea fairies– Cornish folklorist and writer Enys Tregarthen described these as being amongst the fairy family, but able to ride the waves.  She also identified cliff fairies, whose traits include a desire for doing good and healing injured animals and a liking for singing and dancing at dawn or sunset and,
  • Sea trows– on Orkney and Shetland the local fae folk, the trows, also inhabit the ocean and are said to be “great rolling creatures, tumbling in the waters” which are sometimes pulled up in fishermen’s nets.

“Yee mermaids faire,

That on the shores do plaine,

Your sea-greene haire

As yee in trammels knit your locks

Weepe ye; and so inforce the rocks

In heavy murmurs through the broad shores tell.”

(William Browne, Britannia’s Pastorals, II, Song I)

bowerley merboy

Mermaid beauty

The best known trait of the mermaid is, of course, her physical beauty and desirability.  In fact, traditional folklore is divided over the actual appearance of these beings.  One story from Shetland typifies the standard views.  Young Maikie found a selkie on some offshore rocks, a distance from her seal skin, which she’d shed on the beach.  He responded in the conventional way to her physical charms, admiring her snow white body, her fine legs and her bonnie yellow hair.  He hid her skin, offered her human clothes to wear and asked her to be his wife (which she was for a number of years, until she found her skin again and escaped to the sea). 

Another account was less complimentary: a mermaid encountered near Buchan was discovered combing her long brown hair hair- a traditional activity.  She had a small upper body with a thin neck, round head and small, flat face with white thick set teeth and small eyes.  Her lower half was like a cod, but with a double tail.  

A selection of other nineteenth century accounts reinforce the impression that the merfolk resemble us, but that their reported good looks are not always all that we tend to imagine:

  • Campbelltown, Argyll, 1811: a man was able to creep with a few paces of a mermaid lying on a rock and watched her for two hours.  She was six to seven feet in length, the upper half being white and the lower half brindled or reddish grey and covered in scales, terminating in a fin that was of greenish-red and shining, about twelve to fourteen inches wide.  The upper half was human, except that the arms were short and thin.  The creature had long brown hair and a human face with hollow eyes;
  • Ardeal, Argyll, 1814: the mermaid seen was very white, but with rosy cheeks.  She had long dark hair and arms that tapered to her hands, which were said to be only the size of those of an eight to ten year old child.  Her tail was like that of an immensely large cuddy fish or saith;
  • Port Charlotte, Argyll, 1857: a woman was seen in the sea at close range.  She had a full breast, dark complexion, fine hair in ringlets and a comely face;
  • Southside, Deerness, Orkney, 1890-94: a mermaid returned regularly to this spot in the summer months.  She was six to seven feet in length, with a little black head, white neck and a snow white body.  She sat on a rock waving her hands about; and,
  • lastly, older accounts still, from Tudor and Stuart times, record the “whooping noise” that the merfolk made and their sea green hair.  The mermaid’s long hair is frequently matched by the copious beards of the mermen.

The eyewitness descriptions are less consistently complimentary, then, and as Swan wrote in Speculum Mundi of 1634, “Mermaids and Menfish seem to me the most strange fish.”

All the same, the consensus seems to be that mermaids have a high opinion of their own good looks.  They are reputed to be very vain and their traditional attributes are a comb and a mirror, with which they pass hours sitting on rocks, combing their long hair (admittedly, one seen at Mumbles near Swansea in 1893 was combing her hair with a mackerel’s back bone).  They are also very partial to jewellery and can be wooed with rings and necklaces.

The most recent accounts don’t question the mermaids’ charms and it is very true to say that they are regularly sought by human males as their spouses.  As in the earlier example, selkies are continually portrayed as being captured and forced into marriage by men.  However, the traffic is not all one way.  Dora Broome in her Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man describes a mermaid who developed an obsessive passion for a young man from Port Le Murrey, and nearly managed to lure him away with her charms. In another Shetland story, a girl gathering shell-fish on a beach fell asleep in a cave after sitting down to eat her lunch.  Some months later she discovered she was pregnant and, when the baby was born, it had flippers instead of hands.  This she explained by the fact that, as she had wandered along the beach that day, she had been watched by a seal offshore.  It would seem that this creature had, in fact, been a selkie and that he had taken advantage of her sleep to rape her.  The best we can say about the selkie’s conduct is this: the girl then learned in a dream that, if she went to a nearby sea inlet, she would find silver coins that would pay for the child’s upbringing.

The love of a mermaid can be perilous and, on the Isle of Man, there seemed to be a settled procedure for freeing a hapless fisherman from a mermaid’s attentions.  To do this he needed help- and the right preparations.  Herring roe had to be boiled for three days and then dried and ground into a powder.  The human victim would consume this in a drink and then set to sea, protected by sprigs of vervain and a cross made of rowan wood.  As soon as the mermaid began to follow the boat, a charm had to be repeated:

“Ben-varrey, ben-varrey- go back to thy home,

  Til the sea from this island of Mannin doth roam,

Find a mate with a tail, for if thou X should wed,

In the deeps of the sea he’ll be drownded and dead.”

As soon as this verse has been completed, the vervain should be dropped in the waves and an iron knife should be stuck in the mast, which will summon up a storm, driving the mermaid beneath the surface and the ship back to land.

bowerley merkids

Merfolk habits

The merfolk are, of course, not just love interest for humans.  They have an independent and separate life.  They are said to herd fish out at sea and they have control over the weather and sea conditions, so that when breakers drive up onto the shore, the Welsh say “The mermaid is driving her sheep.” 

The merfolk’s supernatural powers are attested by a story from Padstow in Cornwall.  A man called Tristram Bird bought a hunting rifle and went out to try to shoot a seal.  Instead, he found a mermaid combing her hair and instantly conceived a passion for her.  She rejected his advances and his offer of marriage; he became angry and threatened to shoot her.  She warned him he’d be sorry but he fired off a shot anyway- in revenge for which she cursed Padstow’s harbour.  Very soon afterwards, a storm arose that created a sandbar across the mouth of the harbour, cutting it off from the sea.   It’s very evidently inadvisable to annoy or hurt a mermaid- on the Isle of Man it is said that if you vex a mermaid, you will never have an luck when you’re out fishing.

Mermaids are also said to pursue ships out at sea, trying to sink them.  In the old ballad, The Mermaid, she’s seen by the crew of a ship with her mirror, combing her hair. They instantly despair of reaching their homes- rightly, because she circles the ship three times- and then it sinks.  So strong was this belief that in Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Part III, Act III, scene 2) it is declared “I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall.”

The merfolk can foresee bad weather.  At Lamorna Cove in West Cornwall, a mermaid would appear, floating head and shoulders above the waves, whenever a storm was approaching.  On the small Channel Island of Sark, it’s said that the mermaids sit on rocks and sing before storms develop.  It’s not entirely clear from this whether they are foreseeing or actually causing the bad weather.  Folklorist Edgar MacCulloch reported this information and then observed that sailors on ships are attracted by the sound of the singing and come too close to shore, where they are then caught when the storm breaks.  This juxtaposition suggests he regarded the mermaids as malign and culpable.

It’s plain that merfolk need to be treated with cautious respect.  Around the Isle of Man mermaids are seemingly more numerous than mermen- they are certainly seen more frequently- and wise sailors know that, when they’re out at sea, they should never refer to them by the names used on land, so that the mermaid, the ben-varrey or pohllinagh, is called instead Joaney Gorm (‘Blue Joan’), a habit which must be linked to the name taboo so often found in folklore accounts.

bowerley mermum and babe

Mermaid gifts

Destructive as they may be, merfolk can also be healers.  As I’ve mentioned before, they are known for their understanding of herbs’ healing properties and they can pass on these skills and knowledge to chosen humans- often those who’ve done them a good turn, such as carrying them back to the sea when they’ve become stranded.

Mermaids can be a source of riches, as well as useful skills, for humans.  The Isle of Man ben-varrey I mentioned earlier demonstrated her affection for the fisherman she fancied by leaving him shells and seaweed, but others can offer a lot more than this.  In another Manx story, a man falls under the spell of a mermaid after he rescues her from being stranded at low tide.  He becomes preoccupied with her beauty and with the buried gold to which she guides him.  Having found this hoard of gold coins, he gives up his work as a fisherman and spends his days dreaming of the mermaid and what he can do with his new found wealth.  The problem is that the coins are antique Spanish gold that no-one will accept as currency, so the man and his wife have precious metals- but no income to buy food.

As several of these stories imply, the fundamental problem about relationships between humans and merfolk (and probably with all faery beings) is that we are from different dimensions and there is a gulf in comprehension between us.  The merfolk don’t really understand the complexities of human society- nor why we can’t follow them under the water.  Too often, indeed, the fate of the mermaid’s lover is, simply, to drown.

eichler see-rosen

Freshwater folk

As I have discussed before, there are also mermaid-like creatures that live in freshwater.  I’ve referred to these as ‘mere-maids’ to try to distinguish them, but throughout Britain there can be confusion about their true nature.  For example, in Banffshire in Scotland a mhaidan mara (maid of the sea) is seen in rivers just before they swell after a heavy rain.  She has an ‘enchanting’ figure and melodious voice, according to one late eighteenth century report, but her appearance always precedes an accident in the river; someone is sure to drown once she’s been spotted.

Foreseeing the future is a trait ascribed to the freshwater mermaids that lived in the moat of Blore castle in Staffordshire.  Over several mornings before the battle of Blore Heath in 1459, they rose to the surface and, whilst combing their hair, sang this prediction:

“Ere yet the haw-berry assumes its deep red,/ Embued shall this heath be with blood nobly shed.”

Our final freshwater maid combines the peril and charms of her marine cousins.  A boy was fishing on the River Towy when he hooked a huge salmon.  Hauling the fish into his coracle, he prepared to hit it on the head when he heard a voice asking him not to do so.  Looking again, he saw he’d hooked a beautiful young woman.  He decided she must be a demon and said he’d kill her anyway, to which she said she’d drown him first.  She asked him to be her lover, which he refused, so she grabbed him and took him down “yng ngwaelod yr afon” (“to the land under the river”).  She did this twice, nearly drowning him, before he decided that a salmon wife was the better option.  He had to cut the hook out of her top lip, doing which he splashed his face with her blood.  This, she declared, made him hers forever- and they had a long marriage with several children, all of whom had a scar on their upper lip like their mother.

I hope this may have whetted your appetite to explore the rich world that lies Beyond Faery. 

Jasmine Beckett-Griffith, Mermaid with Roses

Fairy Herds- winning and losing good luck

flossie

There are two sorts of fairy cattle: there are the supernatural ‘water beasts,’ the water bulls of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man, which are magical and live under water (but are relatively harmless) and there are the less magical herds of cattle kept by the faes themselves.

Crodh mara & crodh sith

The fairies’ own livestock are the crodh mara, the fairy sea cows of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the fairy cattle or crodh sith of the Scottish mainland and the gwartheg y llyn, the Welsh ‘lake cattle’, that are frequently brought to marriages with men by the beautiful lake maidens- and just as frequently are taken away again by them when the relationship ends or when some taboo is breached.  These beasts may be livestock belonging to fairies, but they are by and large without any fairy characteristics of their own.  The dividing line between fairy cattle as simple chattels and fae beasts, as otherworld creatures, is a very fine one, though; here are two examples.

Elf Bulls

Victorian fairy expert Crofton Croker gathered some very interesting information on ‘elf-bulls.’  He described how, in Scotland at the end of harvest, the farmers’ cattle would be gathered into the cleared fields to graze the ‘aftermath.’ They might be seen to run about, bellowing, without apparent or visible cause.  However, if a person cared to take the risk, they might look through a knot hole in a piece of wood or through the hole made in a cow’s hide by the strike of an elf-bolt (both well-attested ways of penetrating fairy glamour) and the source of the disturbance would be revealed.  An elf bull would be seen, fighting with the strongest bull in the herd and mating with the cows.  The price of this revelation was the loss of sight in the eye used, however.  As I’ve described previously, the cows are naturally able to see the fairy beings, the second sight being innate.

Elf bulls are smaller than conventional ones, mousy in colour with upright ears, short horns and legs, and hair that is short, smooth and glossy like an otter’s pelt.  They are supernaturally strong and courageous and linger around rivers, grazing on the banks at night.

bamart-taroo-ushtey-1-131bbeea-vu29
The Manx taroo ushtey, from Bamart

Catching a Fairy Cow

These creatures, as I’ve said, may voluntarily mix with farm livestock and leave their hybrid offspring amongst those herds as well.  They can be trapped too.  At Shewbost on the Hebrides the crodh mara used to come ashore to graze and the local people were able to catch them and add them to their own stock by the simple measure of sprinkling maistir (stale urine) across their path back to the sea, as I’ve described previously.

On Skye, the cattle were known only to graze in certain spots on land and it was common to hear their fairy owners calling them home again at night.  They could be caught by strewing earth across their route back to the sea; soil taken from a churchyard being especially favoured.

How to Lose a Fairy Herd

One Scottish farmer had a cow that, every May, would suddenly leave the herd in its pasture and make her way to the adjacent river bank.  She would swim across to a small island in the stream and stay there for a few hours before returning.  In due course a calf would be born, displaying many of the characteristics of an elf-bull.  This went on for many years, but eventually one Christmas the farmer, sitting by the fire with his family, suggested that the time had come to cull her.  She had given many years of milk and calves, but she was ageing and less productive.  The cow, however, heard their plans- and had understood. She bellowed, broke out of the cowshed and charged down to the river bank, where she swam to the island and disappeared forever.  Even worse, she took all her offspring with her.

Nearly identical events are told involving a couple on the Scottish island of Pabbay: they found there an abandoned cow and from it bred their entire herd.  Once again, after some years had passed, they decided that the time had come to slaughter their original cow.  It overheard and left with all its daughters, vanishing into the sea.  The ‘abandoned’ beast had in fact been one of the crodh mara.  In both these accounts the cow’s comprehension and its ability to vanish clearly set it aside from normal members of a herd.  Unlike many of the gwartheg y llyn in the Welsh stories, these cattle are not called away by their fairy owners- rather they leave of their own accord.

‘The Wild Calf’

A very attractive story, related to the preceding ones, concerns the ‘Wild Calf’ of the Highlands.  This was an invisible cow that would visit farms at night.  If the farmer went out to his byre in darkness and embraced the supernatural calf, he would gain great good fortune in cattle keeping: he’d become a very successful cattle breeder, he would always have healthy and productive herds and he would become very rich.  However, one farmer was visited by the Calf sometime during the mid-nineteenth century and was too scared of the dark to go out to his byre without a candle.  Because he took the light, he breached that fairy condition of secrecy that attached to the rewards he would have received.  The Calf vanished- and was never seen again.

Summary

As we know, the fairies aren’t just great lovers of milk and cream; they are very active beef and dairy farmers.  I also discuss fairy livestock in chapter 5 of my recently published book, FaeryMy next book, Beyond Faery, published in November 2020 by Llewellyn, specifically examines the magical water bulls and horses of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man.

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