I’ve recently been reading Chris Gosden’s book The History of Magic, which is a fascinating survey of magic over the last 20 to 30,000 years. Considering ‘Medieval and Modern Magic in Europe’ he remarked:
“The Reformation changed much, of course. Religion shifted from being a communal matter to a more personal relationship with God.”
History of Magic, 392
This set me thinking. I’d already been considering how the Reformation impacted upon those who had contacts with faeries and led to them being branded as witches (see my recent post on the possible pardon for the Scottish witch victims). I wondered whether this communal to personal shift might have been a more general feature of our interaction with the supernatural.
Reviewing the oldest British accounts of faery encounters, it does seem to be the case that many of these were, indeed, more communal than individual experiences. For example, the two Green Children of Woolpit in Suffolk were found by people working in the fields and were delivered to the lord of the manor and his staff. Thereafter, they lived on the manor and, in due course, the survivor of the pair, a girl, married a local man (though she did have something of a reputation for promiscuity). This was sustained contact with a faery being on the part of dozens of people. The child faery called Malekin appeared at Dagworthy Castle to all the members of the lord’s household there- and for a prolonged period. The faery king encountered by King Herla attended a wedding with all his company and then invited Herla and his courtiers to attend a wedding in Faery. A few years ago I discussed the medieval poem A Disputison By-twene A Cristenemon and a Jew which features another journey by two men into ‘Faery’ and their encounters with large number of people. The story of Huon of Bordeaux involves a similar group interaction between Huon and his companion knights and the fairy king and his court. The poem Sir Orfeo is, essentially, the interaction between two noble courts- one human, one fae. Lastly, in the story of Wild Edric, the eponymous hero first encounters his future wife dancing with her sister faeries when he is out hunting alone- except for his accompanying page. However, the wedding of the mortal and the faery bride is a grand, public affair, and Edric and his new wife then go to see King William (the Conqueror) at his court in Westminster accompanied by many witnesses of her faery origin.
These examples of the most famous medieval faery encounters certainly suggest that interactions were very often enjoyed by large group of people. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, by any means. The Welsh story of Elidyr and the Golden Ball involves the boy visiting Faery alone; Thomas of Erceldoune was entirely alone on the Eildon Hills when the faery queen approached him; Gervase of Tilbury reported how a swineherd searching for a lost pig entered a cavern under Peveril Castle in the Peak District and eventually stumbled into Faery; William of Newbury described several cases in which lone men had fae encounters- such as the man who stole a faery goblet from a banquet taking place inside the East Yorkshire barrow known as Willy Howe. This is just a handful of possible examples from the Middle Ages.
Conversely, later encounters aren’t exclusively solitary. There is, for example, the eighteenth century case from Bodfari that I featured quite recently in which a group of children saw some of the tylwyth teg dancing. Only three years later, in July 1760, six people making hay in a field near Bedwellty witnessed a large number of faery beings flying over the nearby hilltops; in August 1862 in Carmarthenshire, two carters saw a group of the tylwyth teg dancing on a hill summit before vanishing from sight.
To return to the witch connection that triggered these speculations, they too were individual and personal interactions with the inhabitants of faery- often by visiting their halls under the hills. All the same, there is some indication that mass sightings and contacts have become a thing of the past and are far less experienced today.
If this is correct, what is it that has changed since the Middle Ages? Have the faeries become more shy or have we altered our social habits? I suspect the key difference is the way we organise ourselves socially and economically. Many of the early examples involve the whole staff of manors (what was called the familia– the lord, his family and the various domestic and farm servants). These households, living so closely together, aren’t replicated in modern Britain; the closest we’ve got in later generations (and highly comparable) may be the farming households who have contact with boggarts and, more commonly, brownies and hobs. They’ve lived in close contact with these beings and parents, children and maids are all familiar with them.
These last examples aside, we are perhaps more likely to be at home or to travel alone and, therefore, to have a greater chance of a solitary encounter. This is a substantial generalisation of our habits, but there’s no denying that the communal, multi-generational lifestyles enjoyed by our predecessors are much less typical today than they were. Smaller families, later marriage, the absence of domestic servants, the availability of personal transport in cars- all of these raise the likelihood that- if there is a contact with another dimension- it may be experienced alone- and without other witnesses.
If my suggestion is right, there’s one clear result of it: it’s much easier now for people to dismiss the faery encounter as a figment of the imagination, the result of too much beer, a trick of the light and such like. If a whole manor full of people saw the same thing, it was very much harder for anyone to convincingly argue that it was all in their heads. This individualisation of faery experiences must be part of the reason for the rise in faery disbelief. Perhaps, with the expansion of human settlement, our increased pollution of the environment- with noise as well as noxious substances- and the general acceleration of our lifestyles, our Good Neighbours have become more reluctant to reveal themselves (or are less noticed) but this may only compound the situation.
About eighteen months ago, I examined the long list of faeries and other sprites that had been assembled during the early nineteenth century in the so-called Denham Tracts. As I remarked then, one aspect of this list is that it reminds us how many faery names have become utterly unfamiliar and mysterious to us.
In this posting, I want to go back to the Denham list to have a look of some of the more obscure and puzzling of these words.
caddies: A term from Yorkshire, the diminutive of the rare cad(d)- a spirit. In John Hutton’s A Tour to the Caves, in the Environs of Ingleborough and Settle (1781), caddy is given as a word for a ghost or bugbear. It is very clearly a sort of supernatural being, as two examples will show. “One of these cadds or familiars still knocking over their pillow,” was used by Francis Osborne in his Advice to a Son, (1656) page 36, whilst “Rebellion wants no cad nor elfe/ But is a perfect witchcraft of itself,” appears in ‘Elegies,’ by Henry King, Poems (1657).
calcars: mentioned by both Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) and by Denham, the word appears to derive from the verb calculare. Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words defines ‘calcar’ as an astrologer, ‘to calke’ being to calculate or to cast a figure or nativity. In John Bale’s 1538 play Kynge Johan “calking” is mentioned along with conjuring, coining and other frauds (1838 edition, page 71). Nevertheless, it has also been connected to caucher and related to the French noun ‘cauchemare,’ a nightmare. Overall, though, it seems to be more to do with sorcery and magic than with Faery.
chittifaces: Skeat’s Glossary of Tudor and Stuart Words and Wright’s Dialect Dictionary define this as someone with a thin and pinched face, a freckled visage or a small baby face. It also is defined as a puellulus improbulus– a bad little girl. It might be used contemptuously: Thomas Otway’s 1683 play, The Souldiers Fortune, includes the line “Now, now, you little Witch, now you Chitsface” (Act 3, scene 1).
Possibly related is Chaucer’s term ‘chichevache’ which is used in the ‘Clerk’s Tale’ in the Canterbury Tales, line 1188– “Lest Chichevache yow swelwe in hire entraille!” [swallow you in her insides]. John Lydgate’s early fifteenth century poem Bycorne & Chychevache reaffirms that “Chichevache eteþe wymmen goode.” This a monster that devours obedient wives (and therefore is very hungry, according to Chaucer’s joke). In Lydgate’s verse, the creature is contrasted satirically with the bicorn, part panther and part cow, which eats devoted husbands and is, apparently, very well fed and plump. Denham mentions bygorns in his list as well.
We might also note that in French chevaucher means simply ‘to ride a horse,’ so that a connotation of nightmare may have been incorporated into this name as well.
clabbernappers: Some topographical and historical research reveals that in Southfleet parish in Kent there once was a large cave known that was called the Clabber Napper’s Hole. The related legend, as transcribed in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1803 and reprinted in vol.26 for December 1846, was that the occupier of the cave was a kidnapper or freebooter. The article proposed that clabber derived from “caer l’abre,” the dwelling in the woods, though there is no attempt to explain why a Welsh word and a French word would be combined- as is frequent in old and dodgy etymologies where words with suitable meanings are randomly put together with no thought for historical likelihood.
A more literal interpretation of the name might suggest that it was simply an onomatopoeic word, the meaning of which was a sort of noisy abductor (of children). The Clabber Napper might, therefore, have been a sort of nursery sprite used to scare children. If so, it might have been adopted by the putative smugglers to keep people away from their lair, or it might have been used by parents to discourage their children from playing there.
gringes: in some old dialects, to gringe or grange means to grind the teeth (Dickinson’s 1878 Glossary of Words and Phrases Pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland). On that basis we might imagine another nursery sprite- a monster that grinds its teeth a lot and is used to keep children in their beds at night.
Miffies: Miffy is a nickname for the devil in Gloucestershire according to Thomas Wright’s Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English vol.2. Presumably it is related to Old French maufé meaning the devil. In addition, ‘miff’ means displeasure or ill humour, hence the modern meaning of being or feeling miffed over something.
Mock-beggars: There are numerous places known as Mockbeggar, Mock Beggar, or some variant thereon. E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1894, defines Mock-Beggar Hall as an ostentatious dwelling whose mean spirited and stingy owners will turn away the poor from their door.
This is the literal interpretation of the phrase; however, John Florio’s 1611 dictionary of English and Italian, Queen Anna’s New World of Words, defines ‘beffana’ as a bugbear or scarecrow, which might explain how it got into Denham’s list.
Nickies & Nacks: these are water sprites- Denham also mentions the related nixies (but this is just an adaptation of the German name nixe and first seems to have been used about 1816 by Sir Walter Scott) and nisses, which might be another pronunciation of the word, but is much more likely to be taken from Swedish and Danish, a nisse being a sort of domestic goblin or brownie. Keightley seems to have been one of the first to use it in print in the Fairy Mythology (1828), so it is again a late borrowing and not an authentic British sprite; the nisse’s role had already been long filled by our own brownies and hobs.
Nicks, necks and nickies all can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon nicer or nicor, becoming nekir and nyker in Middle English. All the Germanic languages of the continent have related words with a similar meaning. The nickie, neck or nack is a supernatural being found living in the sea or in inland waters- other familiar terms might be water-demon or kelpie. In Middle English the word was also used to denote a siren or mermaid. The creature first appeared in the poem Beowulf as a dreadful creature of the night; it continued to be deadly and terrible in subsequent centuries.
In Layamon’s Brut of about 1200 (lines 10851-2) we are told about a lake in Scotland “Þat water is unimete brade; nikeres þer baðieð inne; þer is ælvene ploȝe in atteliche pole” (The water is immeasurably broad; nikers bathe there; there too is the play of elves in the hideous pool).
The Ayenbiteof Inwite (Prick of Conscience) of 1340 (line 61) describes to us the how sea creatures called “nykeren… habbeþ bodyes of wyfman and tayl of visse” (have the bodies of women and the tails of fish). Like sirens, according to Robert Mannyng in 1338, the nikers will sing to sailors a “mery song þat drecched þam ferly long [tormented them for a long time].” The Treatise of Ghostly Battle (1500) also describes their tricks to lure men: “The nykare or meremaydene, that cast opone the water syde dyverse thyngis whyche semene fayre to mane, but anone as he taketh hit, she taketh hyme ande devoureth hym.” This image persisted into Victorian times: in 1853 in Hypatia Charles Kingsley had a character ask “’What is a nicor, Agilmund?’ ‘A sea-devil who eats sailors.’”
The word nick or neck has almost completely faded from English, except for the river spirit known as Nicky Nicky Nye on the Welsh-English border. Its loss is a shame, as it would overcome the confusion between inland and marine mermaids that we now have- and which made me suggest the coinage ‘meremaid‘ as a substitute.
A secondary meaning (but one that is now the common understanding of the word), is demon or devil. So, in 1481, William Caxton’s translation of the History of Reynard Fox contains a reference to “fowle nyckers, Come they out of helle?” This meaning was preserved in the poem, ‘Nickar the Soulless,’ published by Sebastian Evans in Macmillan’s Magazine for 1863 (and later in Brother Fabian’s Manuscript and Other Poems, 1865). Nickar, the devil, makes a deal for a man’s soul so that he may see again and marry the naked fairy girl he once saw bathing in a river. Today, of course, we still refer to ‘Old Nick.’
Spoorns & spurns: ‘Spurn’ generally denoted a fight or a spur but in the Dorset dialect it meant an evil spirit. Keightley speculated that both “Calcar and Sporn (spurs?) may be the same, from the idea of riding” and hence some kind of nightmare, an evil spirit that rode people in their sleep and caused frightening dreams and paralysis (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, note to page 334).
Tantarrabobs: ‘Tantara’ and ‘tantaran’ was a noise or distubance (as in a tantrum). Tantarabobus, Tantarabobs, or Tankerabogus were variants upon a South Western dialect name for the Devil; it also denoted a noisy playful child. Thus, tantara-bogus was a noisy bogle (Joseph Wright, English Dialect Dictionary).
Thrummy-caps: According to Henry Farnie in his Fife Coast from Queensferry to Fifeness (1860, 112-113) Thrummy-cap was the vindictive ghost of a drowned carpenter who haunted the harbour where he died. James Halliwell-Phillips meanwhile reported that thrummy-caps were faeries from Northumberland and were “Queer looking little old men” who lived in the vaults and cellars of castles (Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words, 1848).
It’s not wholly clear how or why this relates to the above, but ‘thrum’ means a weaver’s ends, the extremity of the warp on the loom that can’t be woven. It is a piece of material about nine inches in width. Thrum therefore meant a frayed fringe or tuft, so that a thrummy-cap would be a ragged or shaggy looking hat knitted from these off-cuts of coarse woven woollen cloth. Perhaps, rather like the Redcaps of the same area, the Northumbrian thrummy-caps were associated with the distinctive headgear.
Tints: As a noun, the word is defined as being an obscure northern term for goblin. Another sense of the word ‘tint’ is a tiny touch, scrap or taste whilst ‘tinte’ means lost (coming from a Middle English verb of that meaning, tine, to lose (J. Wright, English Dialect Dictionary). Tinted was therefore ‘lost’ or ‘neglected.’ As well as to lose or to be lost, tine/ tyne could also mean to trouble or to be troubled or distressed.
There is a story in which an Eskdale goblin named Gilpin Horner was heard two men crying out “Tint, tint, tint,” the word in this context apparently meaning ‘lost.’ They responded to his cry, “What de’il’s tint you?” (Who the devil’s lost- or even taken- you) and the goblin then appeared to them, “something like a human form, but surprisingly little, distorted in features and misshapen in limbs.” The men fled and Horner pursued them and took up residence in the home of one of the pair. It was “undoubtedly flesh and blood” as it ate and drank with the family and had a taste for cream. This treat it stole to eat whenever it could; it was also cruel to the children if they provoked it. One day, though, a voice was heard calling the goblin’s name and it leapt up and left for ever. (George Allan, Life of Sir Walter Scott, Baronet: With Critical Notices of His Writings, 1834, 247-248).
In another legend from the Borders area, a man tried to taunt the duergars of the Simonside Hills in Northumberland by going out one night calling “Tint! tint!” The duergars at first appeared with little lights near a bog, trying to lure him in- much like a will of the wisp– but the story concludes with an “innumerable multitude” of them with “hideous visages” and clubs in their hands, surrounding the man. He tried to fight them off with his staff but they had no physical forms and, every time he struck out, he only seemed to multiply the number assailing him, until he collapsed in a faint until morning (Charles Tibbits, Folk-lore and Legends: English, 1890,182-183).
Wirrikows: the Scottish wirry-cowe, worricow, and variations thereon, was a bugbear or goblin; the name might also be used for a scarecrow or for the devil himself. The name probably comes from a combination of the words ‘worry’ (in the sense of harassment) and ‘cowe’ or hobgoblin. Denham mentions “kows or cowes” separately in his list. An example is the Hedley Kowe of Hedley near Ebchester, which was a mischievous bogie that could take a variety of forms in order to play tricks on its hapless victims (see my Beyond Faery, 2020).
Examples of the Scottish word’s usage are found in Thomas Donaldson’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect of 1809: “Where harpie, imp, an’ warricoe/ An’ goblins dwell” and in Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 novel Black Dwarf– “They do say there’s a sort o’ worricows and lang-nebbed things about the land” (ii, in Tales of my Landlord, 1st Series, I, 51).
The wirrikow was, apparently, a dreadful thing to meet: James Hogg refers in The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818) to “the waefu’ [woeful] wirricowe.” In James Lumsden’s play, Doun I’Th’ Loudons (1908, page 276) the sprite is described as “Hump-backit an’ bow’d- a wirricow- And scrimply [barely] fowre feet three!” He had a red face, according to Hogg (“haffats in a lowe”) and would make people scream with fear and alarm. For example, she “Scream’d at ilk clough, an’ skrech’d at ilka how, As sair as she had seen the wirry-cow” (A. Ross Helenore, 1768, 77).
As I said at the start, much has been lost from British folklore, with only tantalising scraps remaining. However, with some digging in etymological and dialect dictionaries, we can start to restore some idea of what our ancestors knew (and feared).
Regular readers of the blog will have noticed that, over the last few years, I have frequently made use of faery examples from the Isle of Man (although, strictly, it’s stretching my rule of sticking only to British folklore). However, the Manx ‘little people’ are too fascinating and too numerous to ignore- and it’s not just faery folk, either, we have the fynoderee, the glashtyn, the buggane, the tarroo ushtey (water bull), mermaids (the ben varrey) and other faery beasts to study as well. I have examined many of them as part of my wider studies of Faery (for example in 2020’s Beyond Faery), but it struck me earlier this year that it could be helpful to pull all this unique island material together into a single volume- and so Manx Faeries- The Little People of the Isle of Man has recently been published by Green Magic. There has been no comprehensive attempt to gather all the Manx faery lore into a single devoted volume and- given the richness of Manx tradition- this seemed to me to need to be done.
Many of the Manx creatures are parallel to British faery types, without being exactly identical. The faery horses and bulls resemble those of the Scottish Highlands, whilst having their own individual characteristics. The bugganeand the fynoderee are comparable to British mainland beings such as the bogies, boggarts and hobgoblins, but they are again separate and different. There are, nonetheless, many similarities of behaviour: a love of dancing and hunting, a taste for causing mischief, a habit of abducting babies children and adults. The fatal faery lover, the lhiannan shee, is an especially notable feature of human-faery interactions on the island.
What’s more, Manx faery lore offers lots of additional information and perspectives on the nature of Faery in the British Isles as a whole. Within quite a small surface area, the island comprises a microcosm of British Faery, encompassing individuals from across the wide spectrum of the supernatural family, yet it also has some utterly unique and fascinating types. I have posted fairly recently about the strange ‘burning wheel‘ faes that are a feature most notably of Manx lore; to these I might add the curious faery dogs, cats, pigs and sheep, the odd spectral horses and the multi-form glashtyn. There is plenty to absorb and amaze us.
Manx Faery Verse
Back in 2019, I self-published Victorian Fairy Verse, which gathered fairy poetry in English from Britain, Ireland and the USA. I overlooked the Isle of Man, however, and have rectified that oversight in the new book. A handful of Manx residents preserved the native folklore, not just by collecting stories and experiences but by composing poetry with faery themes. Here is an additional example, a 1901 poem called The Phynnodderee by Rev. Drummond Brown- which I have copied from the Manx Literature site on Flickr (it’s pretty long and, to be frank, I couldn’t quite face typing it all out from scratch- so please excuse and tolerate the cut and pasted page copies).
As I’ve said, the fynoderee of Manx tradition (there are several spellings, distinguished by more or less consonants) is akin to the English hobgoblin: it’s large and strong and helps around farms, but it’s also a bit dim. The fynoderee can become very attached to some people and may show them great kindness; the species are also associated with individual farms or holdings, to which they are tied as ‘spirits of the land.’ Whilst they reside there, they guarantee the fertility of the soil and the animals living on it. If they leave, it can mean ruin. Very much like English and Scottish brownies and hobs, it is unfortunately the case that the fynoderee can be touchy and easily offended. If a farmer takes pity on their hairy, naked state and provides a gift of clothes, they can be so upset as to disappear for ever. Mainland brownies and hobs seem peeved by the mere idea of clothing– or sometimes by the quality of the garments presented; the Manx fynoderee, by contrast, objects to them because he knows they will make him ill (a more comprehensible response, at least). It has been said that the agriculture of the island as a whole has been in decline for at least a century because of the thoughtless alienation of the various fynoderee.
In his poem, Drummond Brown has romanticised the creature considerably, not just with his elegant romantic verse but with his story of its origin. He starts with a good summary of the fynoderee‘s characteristics, but then alleges that he was once a handsome faery knight, punished for loving a mortal.
The Reverend Drummond Brown also wrote a poem about a musician abducted under a hill to a faery dance (a very common folklore theme). You can read this too on the same Manx website.
I am very pleased to announce another new book, How Things Work in Faery, my guide to the faery economy, which has just been published by Green Magic. I’ve considered aspects of this subject regularly over the last few years and the new book pulls together all the different issues- faery farming, mining, money and their curious relationship with humans in all these areas. Readers will recall that I posted on the subject of faeries doing our chores not long ago. This willingness to undertake some of the more laborious aspects of human work seems to be ingrained in the fae temperament across the British Isles. For example, the trows on the mainland of Shetland would clean people’s homes and grind their corn, accepting clothes, bread and other food in return. Their attitude to recompense was complex though: for one family on the island of Yell they used to make shoes, wooden items and other goods, which the recipients were able to sell, making themselves rich. These trows never asked for payment for all their toiling and, in fact, when food and drink was left out for them, they were offended and left forever (having first eaten what was offered!)
A regular- and even stranger- feature of the folklore of the Scottish Highlands is the repeated reports of faeries causing a problem for humans by being too keen to work. We’re used to the idea of a few faeries voluntarily taking up residence with or near to humans, and helping out in the homes and farms: brownies, glaistigs, gruagachs, hobs and boggarts are the main examples of these. It’s also fairly common for humans to be taken temporarily or even permanently to provide a service: piping or midwifery (which are usually paid for), wet nurses and carers for children and simple domestic servants (or slaves). Fairies who are so willing to work that they become a nuisance is a different situation to all of these, but it’s frequently encountered.
Work, Work, Work
In Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, John Gregorson Campbell gives a good example of the problem of faeries who are too committed to their work.
“The Fairies staying in Dunvuilg came to assist a farmer in the vicinity in weaving and preparing cloth, and, after finishing the work in a wonderfully short space of time, called for more work. To get rid of his officious assistants, the farmer called outside the door that Dunvuilg was on fire. In some form or other it is extensively known, and in every locality the scene is laid in its own neighbourhood. In Mull the fairy residence is said to have been the bold headland in the south-west known as Dun Bhuirbh. Some say the elves were brought to the house by two old women, who were tired of spinning, and incautiously said they wished all the people in Dun Bhuirbh were there to assist. According to others, the elves were in the habit of coming to Tapull House in the Ross of Mull, and their excessive zeal made them very unwelcome. In Skye the event is said to have occurred at Dun Bhuirbh… The rhyme they had when they came to Tapull is known:
‘Let me comb, card, tease, spin, Get a weaving loom quick, Water for fulling on the fire- Work, work, work.’ The cry they raised when going away, in the Skye version, runs: ‘Dun Bhuirbh on fire, Without dog or man, My balls of thread And my bags of meal.'”
In another version of this, recorded in John Francis Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the fairies run off fretting over their cheese moulds, butter pails, meal chests, goats and such like.
Campbell also mentions a man in Flodigarry who expressed a wish that his corn were reaped, even if it should be by fairy assistance. A host of fairies came and reaped the field in two nights. After doing this, they called for more work, and the man set them to empty the sea.
Generally it is an unwise wish by a human that their house or farm work was completed that brings the faeries to them. It might be weaving or household chores, but the fairies will appear instantly and will then do the task in record time whilst producing excellent results- the finest tweed is made in one Skye example, for instance. Then the fairies will not leave and are given increasingly desperate jobs to occupy them. A barn might be roofed, all the spring work on the farm might be completed, then they have to be asked to strip an entire hill of its heather, then the humans have to resort to trickery to relieve themselves of their helpers, who have become a nuisance by their enthusiasm and productivity. Emptying the sea with a sieve or being asked to build a bridge with bricks of sand tied with ropes of sand finally exhausts the fairies’ patience. In one Skye case, the housewife asked the sith folk to fight each other- which they obediently did- but grass never grew again on the spot where they shed each other’s blood. On Ben Doran, in Glencoe, a man called Echain wished for fairy aid cutting peat. They completed this in record time and asked for, so he had them strip the bracken from the hill; when they returned for another task, he set them to plaiting ropes of sand. They are thought still to be at work.
These accounts remind us of two significant aspects to living with fairy neighbours: they are always eavesdropping upon us and, even worse, they can punish us if we try to outwit them. Another Scottish writer, Patrick Graham, in Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery (1806) said that the fairies of Perthshire were “always, though invisibly, present…” This is the problem for humans- and it appears to be more acute at night.
There is in Scottish Gaelic folklore the concept of a ‘night wish’ (ordachadh oidhche): for example, a man on the Hebrides was digging in his fields when darkness forced him to stop. He wished his spring digging was completed- and a host of fairies immediately appeared and carried on with his labours, finishing the task by dawn. In this case the contentious issue was the fairies’ wages, which they negotiated after fulfilling his wish. The man had to agree to give a sheaf to each worker- and his entire harvest was taken. In an example from Skye, a man at Borve was looking at his fields and remarked, out loud, “That corn is ready to be cut!” Next morning he found that the entire crop had been reaped and stacked. Then a small man four feet high appeared and asked for pay. He only requested a few potatoes and a little pot, which seemed very modest and was readily given. However, he returned daily asking for more and more, until the desperate farmer had to resort to telling him that there was a fire at Dun Borve (an ancient broch and notorious as a fairy dwelling). These two cases also compound the problems of the humans by weakening their bargaining position- the work has been done and they’re under an obligation to their fairy neighbours, whether wished for or not (Folklore vols 11 & 33).
A similar report comes form Shetland. A crofter at Easter Colbinstoft suffered repeatedly from others’ cattle straying onto his land. He told his wife one night that he’d give his best cow to have a good wall right around his farm to protect it. When he woke up the next morning, he was stunned to see that just such a wall had been built overnight. The trows, of course, had heard him, had assembled a great crowd of workers and had done the job in record time. They’d also taken the best cow, which they reckoned had been promised to them in advance.
The Scottish fairies take their love of labour to extremes, but they are not isolated in their work ethic: the fairies of the Channel Islands display the same tendencies. I have mentioned before their willingness to complete domestic chores, but their attitude goes some distance beyond mere helpfulness in return for a gift of food. On Jersey, if a person wants work to be finished, it must simply be left out with a piece of cake and a bowl of milk overnight. On both Jersey and Guernsey, the fairies are noted for their skill in needlework and knitting and will repair clothes and complete garments to a high standard if the materials and tools are provided. Quite voluntarily too, the fairies of Saints Bay on Guernsey will repair farm carts and tools if they are left with a gift of food outside their cave.
Show Gratitude- Don’t Take for Granted
This preparedness to help should not be exploited, though. The Guernsey fairies assist those who are overwhelmed; they won’t help those who are behind with their tasks because they’re lazy. These individuals are knocked about when they’re asleep in bed.
Very similar Scottish examples can be found, too. Skye the fairies of Dun Bornaskitaig helped a poor widow by harvesting her entire oat crop in one night, reaping the grain and stacking it all neatly in sheaves. On the Isle of Lewis, the fairies were also known to undertake tasks if asked by humans. A man asked them to make a mast for his fishing boat out of the handle of his hammer;. One fairy died trying to complete the job; his brother succeeded, but cursed the human for his abuse of their help. The Shetland trows can impede the work of those they take against.
Why is it that some fairies seem happy to undertake chores for humans, whether these are strenuous physical tasks or finishing off household jobs that haven’t been completed?
We are very familiar with the existence and activities of the brownie and related faery species (boggarts, broonies, gruagachs and glaistigs) who will attach themselves to a particular family, estate or farmstead and perform a variety of agricultural and domestic functions. I have analysed these relationships in some detail in my recent book Faery, but suffice to say that we may regard the interaction as some sort of contract for service, with the fairy being accepted as having a clear role and place within the household. In return for the work done, food, drink and, often, an allocated time to enjoy the shelter and warmth of the humans’ home are granted. The faery acquires a recognised position within the wider clan or ‘familia.’
Here, I’m rather more interested in the cases where the fairies appear very ready to do odd-jobs for humans. Remuneration may be provided, but there isn’t the long-term relationship that’s usually understood to exist with the brownies and boggarts. These arrangements can take a number of forms.
At Osebury, near Lulsley on the River Teme in Worcestershire, the tradition is that a broken implement left in the faery’s cave there will be mended for you. On Orkney it was believed that, if a spinning wheel was not working well, leaving it out overnight on a faery mound would fix it. There’s an unspoken arrangement that faulty items can be brought to the faery’s habitation and that a repair would be done without any apparent expectation of reward.
Then there are the cases where the fairy comes to the human home to do the work. On Guernsey it was said that the fairies would help industrious individuals. If an unfinished piece of knitting, such as a stocking, was left on the hearth or by the oven along with a bowl of porridge, by morning the work would be done and the bowl would be empty. However, if the reason that the task was unfinished was the person’s idleness, the faery response would be to deal out some blows instead. (MacCulloch, Guernsey Folklore, 203). On the island of Jersey it was reported that if servants left out unfinished work (such as needlework) with a piece of cake, the fairies would complete it overnight- and do much of the next day’s work too. (Folklore vol.25, 245) On the British mainland, in Staffordshire, the tradition was the same. Small household tasks would be carried out in return for gifts of food or tobacco. (‘Notes on Staffordshire Folklore’, W Witcutt, Folklore 1942, 89).
Somewhat comparable is information from the Scottish Highlands to the effect that a girl’s fairy lover, who lived near her home in a fairy hill, would help her out with her daily chores, such as cutting peat turfs for the fire. Of course, the motivation here was love, which may well distinguish it from the cases already described.
Somewhat at odds with most of the foregoing is a case recorded by MacDougall and Calder in 1910 in which a man’s laziness was encouraged by the fairies doing all his work for him at night. The miller of Mulinfenachan, near Duthil in Inverness-shire, who was called Strong Malcolm, used to put everything ready in his mill before he went to bed, knowing that all the grinding would be done by morning. If straw needed to be threshed for the cattle, or grain winnowed, these jobs would be done if the necessary tools and raw materials were left out. Anyone who tried to spy on the activities would be forcibly expelled.
None of this was done for him out of kindness, though. When another mill burned down locally, the fairies were heard to exclaim “We will have plenty of meal now… and Strong Malcolm must henceforth work for himself or starve.” The explanation of this account rests on two points. One is that food stuffs lost by fire or perhaps just dropped on the ground) went to the fairies as their rightful property. Secondly, it will be apparent that they had been taking a ‘commission’ for the work that they did for Malcolm. They had been keeping a share of all the flour, grain and such like- and with the fire, they no longer had to work for this. (Folk Tales and Fairy Lore, 187).
Although the Guernsey fairies objected to laziness, those at Duthil didn’t mind about this fault in Strong Malcolm- because it was profitable for them not to do so. The fairies intermeddle in human affairs, it seems, because there’s something in it for them. Hard work in exchange for a bowl of porridge might seem like a poor exchange to us, but with magical powers to accomplish the work, the labour could well look very different to them and, plainly, there’s something about human food (whether it’s the ingredients or the finished product) that’s irresistible to them- and worth all the effort.
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).
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.
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):
It’s frequently said that children are especially able to see the fairies- perhaps because of their innate innocence, perhaps because they are endowed with a sort of second sight and so are open to wonder and magic and are not closed off mentally by rationality and ‘good sense,’ as adults can be.
Children’s Second Sight
The folklore evidence as to the existence of special powers in children is equivocal. The sheer number of accounts that could be analysed mean that a statistical test of this is impractical, so I rely on my anecdotal impression of all the reports I’ve read to say that there’s no special bias towards infants: any one of any age and any sex is liable to see the Good Folk, it seems from the folk stories. However, we can be a bit more scientific about the more recent reports. Consolidating the cases of sightings from the Fairy Census and from Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies, it’s possible to say that around a third of witnesses were children. Of these, about 80% were girls.
What do the above statistics tell us? Well, for developed countries, the proportion of children seems high. In the UK, those under 18 make up about 21% of the population; in the USA it’s 24%, whilst 14% of the German population are 17 and under. It seems, then, that children are indeed now slightly more likely to experience a fairy encounter; and girls are obviously significantly more likely. Whether this is reflective of genuine differences, or of a sexist tendency for it to be acceptable for female children to express such ideas, and for boys not to do so, is much less clear.
Acquiring Second Sight
On the whole, though, age appears to be much less a factor in seeing fairies than other influences. Doubtless a pre-existing predisposition to belief- even an expectation that a fairy might be seen- must help. In earlier generations, other explanations for being able to see supernaturals were advanced. For example, those born on a Sunday were said to be more prone to second sight (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.81); others said that it was those born early in the morning who acquired the gift (Spence, British Fairy Tradition, p.160). Some people might be genetically more likely to have these experiences; others may acquire the second sight as a gift from the fairies.
The fact seems to be that some people are lucky enough to have the second sight and the majority of others are not. The ability does not discriminate by any physical factors. For example, Martin Martin, touring the Hebridean islands in the eighteenth century, reported the local belief that not only children, but horses and cows as well, were all believed to be endowed with the ability to see the sith folk
The differential nature of the gift is demonstrated very well in an account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland. In 1937 an old woman told a folklorist how, as a small girl, she had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field. The little girl was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing. Very possibly, however, if the mother had held her daughter’s hand, she would have seen the Good Folk- it’s very common for the sight to be easily transferred by contact in this manner.
Sightings by Children
Now, to turn to my illustrations, which are largely taken from postcards and books of the 1920s and 1930s. What will be apparent instantly is that the authors and artists of this period were quite blase about the experience of contact with the faes. Although, as I have explained several times in previous postings, people (especially children) are very vulnerable to abduction, you might know nothing of this danger from these pictures. Instead, it’s all rather charming and lovely. Kids- and in particular girls- are encouraged to hope for these encounters and to plunge into them without hesitation.
Suggesting to anyone, especially guileless infants, that a free and easy approach to fairy contact is advisable seems- in light of all the folklore evidence- to be extremely unwise, even reckless. Clearly, by the interwar period, the fairies had been reduced in the minds of many to harmless and probably unreal little beings- just perfect for amusing little girls. Margaret Tarrant- presumably in a play upon the name of the junior girl guiding organisation, the Brownies, and the domestic fairies of British tradition, also called brownies– seems to actively promote contact as a harmless pastime for young Guides. The human Brownies were so-called (I assume) because they were encouraged and expected to undertake lots of little household chores for mother (just like their supernatural counterparts); the risk is, of course, that they’ll be kidnapped and made into slaves for the fairies.
There’s seldom a hint in all these images that any wariness is required. A few suggest a hesitation on the child’s part, or a sensible inclination to spy from a place of concealment, but most of the subjects make no attempt to protect themselves, or appear to experience any apprehension. All I can say is- you have been warned….
The fairy themed children’s books and postcards that were so abundant during the interwar period enriched our visual culture immensely- I’m thinking especially of the work of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and their flower fairy illustrations but, as this post shows, many other artists were active during those decades as well.
However, these artists showed little awareness of or respect for British folk tradition and the fairies they promoted to the card buying public were almost exclusively sweet and harmless. Nevertheless, others (such as Marjorie Johnson) maintained actual contact with Faery and, as some of the recent encounters in the Fairy Census demonstrate, the Good Folk are still temperamental and potentially perilous.
In a book published in 2017, American art historian Susan Casteras contributed a chapter on Victorian fairy painting. She perceptively remarked how nudity, which is very far from being an inherent element in folklore, became something that the Victorians chose to exaggerate in their visions of fairyland. Many paintings of the period, she rightly observed, were all about “flaunting nudity for its own sake rather than as a supposedly accurate transcription of faery lore.” (S. Casteras, ‘Winged Fantasies: Constructions of Childhood, Adolescence and Sexuality in Victorian Fairy Painting’ in Marilyn Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, c.8, 127-8)
Looking at John Simmons’ painting above, you cannot help but agree with the second part of Casteras’ comment- although Simmons was a particular offender, producing a number of ‘pin-up’ canvases. What about the folklore evidence, though? Victorian pictures- and more recently the work of Alan Lee, Brian Froud and Peter Blake– have habituated us to the idea of a Faery full of frolicking nudes, but how traditional is this?
The honest answer has to be that there’s very little sign of nudity in the older accounts of Faery. In my post on fairy abductions of children, I mentioned the story of a girl who temporarily went missing in Devon. A game keeper and his wife living at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor, had two children, and one morning the eldest girl went out to play while her mother dressed her baby sister. In due course, the parents realised that the older child had disappeared and several days of frantic and fruitless searching followed. Eventually, after hope had nearly been lost, the girl was found quite near to her home, completely undressed and without her clothes, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly with her toes. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.
Now, this girl was a human infant and there may have been several reasons why the pixies might have taken off all her clothes. They may have objected to human things; they may have thought a ‘natural’ state was healthier and preferable. Whatever the exact explanation, it’s one of the few instances where there’s a suggestion that nudity might be the normal condition in Faery.
A calendar illustration by Mabel Rollins Harris
The other evidence is all qualified in one way or another. Mermaids don’t have clothes, but that’s for very obvious reasons. Men are forever falling in love at first sight with these creatures, but you may well suspect that coming across a uninhibited and naked female is a pretty strong draw in any case.
Some fairies don’t ‘need’ clothes at all because they’re naturally very hairy: the brownies, hobgoblins and the Manx fynoderee are all examples of these. Their shaggy pelts were covering enough. It’s almost always this kind of faery that is the subject of a story in which a reward of clothes for services rendered alienates the helpful being. Typically, a brownie or boggart with work faithfully on a farm, threshing grain, carrying hay and tending the livestock, all for very little reward except some bread and milk left out ta night. After a while, the curiosity of the farmer overcomes good sense and the creature’s labours are spied upon. It’s seen to be (at the very best), dressed in tattered rags and (at the worst) completely naked. Pity is taken and new clothes are made in recognition of its hardwork, but all that’s achieved is to offend the fae, who recites a short verse- and leaves forever.
Lastly, the only other definite example of bare fairy flesh is one I’ve discussed several times previously and one in which ulterior motives are very important. In the medieval romance of Sir Launval, the young knight is summoned into the presence of the fairy lady, Tryamour. She’s found in a pavilion in a forest, relaxing on a couch on a hot summer’s day.
“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert; Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May, / Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day, / He segh never non so pert.””
“because of the heat, she’d undone her dress nearly to her waist; she lay uncovered; she was as white as a lily in May, or snow falling on a winter’s day; he’d never seen anyone so pert.”
Tryamour’s plan is to seduce Launval and, plainly, lying there topless and available is a pretty good scheme for winning his attention. It’s not normal behaviour in Faery, though, anymore than it is on the earth surface. Most of the accounts we have of the appearance of fairies describe their clothes– their style and their colour; we are not told that they are provocatively naked.
Nude fairies, therefore, seem to be a Victorian obsession; they are the soft porn of their day. As has been described before, it was acceptable to display bare breasts in art, but only so long as it was justifiable and/ or distant from the present day. Painting classical nymphs, oriental harems and fairyland let artists get away with it. they seized the opportunity- regardless of the fact that the folklore provided almost no basis for this.
Fairies can rarely be described as genuinely friendly to human kind, it is sad to report. They will be lovers and parents of children, it is true, and they may take a liking to an individual and bestow gifts upon them, but the commonest interactions tend to be antagonism or avoidance, as I’ve often described. Amicable relations are very infrequently described, which is why I’ve gathered together the scattered references here.
As might be expected, we are most likely to become acquainted with those faes who live closest to us. In the British Library there’s a seventeenth century manuscript that deals with spirits such as the brownies, hobgoblins and Robin Goodfellows. It explains how these are:
“more familiar and domestical that the others … [which] abide in one place more than another so that almost never depart from some particular houses, as though they were their proper mansions, making in them sundrie noises, rumours, mockeries, gawds and jests, without doing any harm at all, and some have heard them play at gitterns and Jew’s harps and ring bells and to make answer to those that call to them, and speake with certain signes, laughters and merry gestures, so that those of the house come at last to be so familiar and well acquainted with them that they fear them not all.” (MS Harleian 6482)
This comfortable familiarity is reflected in two other stories of such spirits. The first dates from the reign of Richard I, from Dagworth in Suffolk. The manor house of Sir Osbern de Bradwell became the home of a being called Malekin, a small changeling girl who had apparently been abducted from her home in nearby Lavenham by the fairies.
“At first, the knight’s wife and his whole family were exceedingly terrified by her conversation, but having become accustomed to her words and the ridiculous things she did, they talked to her confidently and familiarly, asking her about many things. She spoke in English, according to the dialect of the region, but occasionally even in Latin and discoursed on the Scriptures to the knight’s chaplain… She could be heard and felt, but hardly ever seen, except once when she was seen by a chamber maid in the shape of a very tiny infant who was dressed in a kind of white tunic…”
Malekin also consumed food and drink that was left out for her and was evidently very much a part of the household. Much more recently, something similar is told about Yorkshire farmer George Gilbertson and his family, who shared their home with a boggart (although it was never seen). It was practical joker, as is the way with boggarts, but the children of the house found that it would play happily with them- if they pushed items through a knot hole in a cupboard, the boggart would immediately pop them back out again. The children called this ‘laiking [playing, in Yorkshire dialect] wi’ t’boggart.’ (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.307)
Faeries can, therefore, be quite pleasant house guests, as long as you can put up with their high spirits and practical sense of humour. They are often most friendly with domestic staff: Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft described how they would “sport themselves in the night by tumbling and fooling with servants and shepherds in country houses” and Robin Goodfellow (or Puck) was particularly known for his friendliness towards maids, performing their chores for them at night- although this was generally done secretly and anonymously without any suggestion of an amicable, social relationship as well (Scot, 1584, Book III, c.4)
There’s also evidence of faeries befriending lonely servants and farm maids and entertaining them with music, dance and company. I’ll cite three cases, all from the West of Britain. John Rhys tells the story of Eilian of Garth Dorwen, near Carmarthen. She was hired by an elderly couple to help on their farm. Eilian got into the habit of spinning outside in a meadow by moonlight, where the tylwyth teg would visit her and sing and dance as she worked. Eventually, the girl disappeared with the fairies and it later turned out that she had been taken to be a fairy wife. (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 211-212).
Very close to this story is that of Shui Rhys of Cardiganshire. She looked after her parents’ cows and often stayed out in the fields very late. She was told off by her mother and blamed the spirits: little people in green would come to her, dance and play music around her and speak to her in a language she couldn’t understand. These contacts were allowed to continue, for fear of offending the fairies, but it was a risky strategy and, eventually, Shui disappeared just like Eilian (Sikes, British Goblins 67-69).
The story of Anne Jeffries from Cornwall is comparable to these. She had deliberately gone out, trying to make contact with the fairies by repeating little verses to summon them, and eventually they came to her in her garden. Six little men in green appeared to her one day, showered her with kisses- and then carried her off to Faery. She stayed there only a short while, until a violent dispute arose over her affections, after which she was ejected, but the fairies continued to favour her with healing knowledge and a supply of food.
These examples have to be viewed more ambivalently, as the fairies’ great friendliness to these isolated girls seem to have been a pretext for lulling their suspicions prior to abducting them. These ulterior motives may well sound rather more familiar and fit rather better with the impression of fairy character that most folk accounts give.
Fairies will be amicable and accommodating, therefore, but it seems that it is often done with a view to what might be received in return. Fairy authority Katharine Briggs, in her 1978 book Vanishing People, gave this rather harsh summary of the fairy temperament:
“the kindness of the fairies was often capricious and little mercy mingled with their justice… We are dealing with a pendulous people, trembling on the verge of annihilation, whose mirth is often hollow and whose beauty is precarious and glamorous. From such, no great compassion can be expected.” (p.161)
Fairy friendship is available, therefore, but it should always be approached with caution. Their amity towards humans may not be as open and free as we would expect from other people.
Charles Altamont Doyle, Fairy folk celebrating around a plough
Our conventional view of the faeries is of a people of wild or wooded places whose life is one long round of leisure and pleasure- dancing, feasting and the like. At the same time, we don’t tend to imagine them having any concerns with bread-winning or the means of production- indeed, a strong antipathy for such occupations has often been imagined. There’s a widespread rhyme in Scotland to the effect that:
Where the scythe cuts and the sock (plough) rives,/ Hae done wi’ fairies and bee-bykes.”
This gloomy view is mistaken. To begin with, a moment’s reflection will remind us of the farm labouring brownies, for example, and when the sources are examined, consistent fairy links to agriculture are revealed- as are their interests in manufacture, mining, cloth-making, building and the like. The fairy economy is as complex as our own.
Fairies are often believed to rely solely upon stolen dairy products and corn, preying on them “as do Crowes and Mice” as Robert Kirk put it (Secret Commonwealth c.1). In fact, they have been observed actively involving themselves in all aspects of farming. As I’ve discussed before, they have their own goats and other livestock. These are distinctly different from humans’ beasts, although the faeries may also acquire ours, sometimes by surreptitiously luring them away and sometimes slightly more honestly. In the book A pleasant treatise of witches, the author recounted a story he had heard of a pregnant sow that was fed daily by the fairies with bread and milk. When farrowing time came, they clearly felt they were entitled to the fruit of their investment in the pig: they took all the piglets but left their value in silver behind. This wasn’t theft, but it wasn’t a normal purchase either and, as such, is the epitome of Faery. It’s non-consensual for the human farmer, it asserts a presumed right over our goods and, yet, there is something in exchange.
We know too from the reports of visitors that the fays have their own fields and orchards in fairyland underground, but most witnesses of course don’t see them there. The Reverend Kirk believed that our landscape here and there showed the marks of the fairies’ cultivation from a time that preceded the country’s occupation by humankind:
“Albeit, when severall Countreys were uninhabited by us, these had their easy Tillage above Ground, as we now. The Print of those Furrows do yet remaine to be seen on the Shoulders of very high Hills, which was done when champayn Ground was Wood and Forrest.” (chapter 2)
The fairies have since retreated to their subterranean realms which means that, usually, the fays are only to be encountered participating in human farming activities. In fact, they have shown an interest in our pastoral and dairy production, in fruit growing, in horticulture and in the cultivation of grain crops.
Charles Altamont Doyle, God speed the plough
Fairies in the corn fields
It’s often reported that the fairies bake their own bread- bread of superlative flavour- and of course the grain for that has to come from somewhere. It’s not all stolen, by any means, although there are plenty of stories from across England of fairies filching corn, grain by grain, from granaries, whilst on the island of Islay it’s said that the local fairies claim the top grain from every stalk- and will have harvested it in well before the farmer enters the field with his scythes.
Some fairies seem to play some sort of protective role towards human cultivation, being almost like minor agricultural deities. Across England, for example, there’s a host of sprites whose sole function seems to be guarding orchards, fruit bushes and nut groves from the depredations of thieves and children. From Scotland, we have the curious tale of ‘Jeanie’s Granny.’ When she was a child, Jeanie’s grandmother got up one night to steal some newly harvested grain so as to feed her horse. When she got to the fields, she saw a tiny woman hopping from stook to stook; the child became scared and ran home without stealing any corn. In another story from Dartmoor, a man was annoyed to find that all his stooks of harvested corn were disturbed over night. He decided to watch the following night to see what the cause might be and , just as he had suspected, pixies appeared and began to pull all the stooks into one corner of the field. Very possibly this was being done by them as the first age of building a rick, but the pixies were too small to make a good job of it and the farmer interrupted them- at which point they vanished. (They might alternatively have been preparing to steal the crop, which would have been much more in character: in a story from Ardnamurchan in the Highlands, a man outwitted the fairies who’d been reaping his crop at night by leaving a wise old man in the field. When fairies appeared and started to harvest the grain, he then counted their number out loud and by this simple means banished them forever.)
We also come across lots of fairies working in gardens and vegetable patches. These are the beings often described as gnomes and it seems that their dedication to plant life is so great that they will cultivate human plots merely for the satisfaction of seeing healthy fruit and vegetables. The most curious story comes from West Yorkshire from about 1850. A man called Henry Roundell of Washburn Dale near Harrogate got up early to hoe the weeds in his crop of turnips. When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row being hoed by a host of tiny men in green, all of them singing shrilly. As soon as he entered the field, they fled like scattered birds.
Charles Altamont Doyle, A scarecrow
There’s a definite close association between fairies and cattle- and that may not be just because they want to consume their milk and cream. For example, William Bottrell recounts the story of Rosy, the fine red milk cow of the Pendar family of Baranhual farm in Penwith. She gave twice the milk of the other cows, but would often disappear from the farm in the evenings. Eventually, Molly the milkmaid discovered the reason: a four-leaf clover was included in the pad of herbs she used to carry the milk pail on her head and it enabled her to see that the cow was surrounded by dancing fairies, who were taking turns to milk her and stroking and tickling the beast in between. The cow was evidently very happy in their company. The farmer’s wife decided to wash the cow’s udders in brine to terminate the fairy thefts, but the only result was that Rosy ceased to give any milk at all.
A related account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland is the reminiscence of an old woman who, as a small girl, had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field. She was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing (G. Sutherland, Folklore gleanings, p.22). As stated at the start, there’s a definite affinity between the little people and cows which benefits the milk yield.
The classic farming fairy is the domestic brownie, who will undertake all the tasks necessary to run a human smallholding. He’ll tend the cattle and sheep, milk the cows, reap the crops, thresh the grain and involve himself in all other aspects of processing the produce of the farm. Brownies help out on a permanent basis with farming tasks, but other fairy types can be recruited to provide ‘temporary labour’ in times of need. From North-East Scotland there’s the story of the ‘Red Cappies’ who were called on to assist with threshing grain. Generally across the Highlands you’ll find the Gaelic tradition of the ceaird-chomuinn (‘association craft’) whereby people can be endowed with particular skills by the faes, such as the ability to undertake prodigious feats of ploughing, sowing and harrowing.
Over and above the familiar English brownie and Lowland Scottish broonie, there’s a host of other (Highland) Scottish beings with particular farming connections who are also worth examining:
gruagach- this being looks after the cattle of a farm or a village, for which duties she receives a daily bowl of whey or a regular offering of milk poured out over a holed stone or special slab of rock. She has long golden hair and is dressed in green. She sings to the cattle and keeps them safe from all disease or accident. She is very strong and in one story a gruagach killed itself through overwork, trying to thrash an entire barn full of corn in one night. Like many of her kind, if she’s offered clothes she’ll desert a farm and if her regular helping of milk is forgotten, she’ll wreak havoc, turning the cows into the crops and such like;
glaistig- this being is often portrayed as a violent hag, but her more benign aspect is as a dairy maid and cow-herd, seldom being seen but using her powerful voice to keep the cattle in check. She’s said to be a human woman who’s been placed under a fairy enchantment and thereby has acquired a fairy nature. For this reason, the glaistig can sometimes shape-shift into the form of a dog to better herd and protect the livestock. She lives on farms but is a solitary being. She expects a pail of milk nightly and will react angrily if this is withheld or forgotten. In some places milk is also offered at other important points in the farming year, such as when the cattle are first left out overnight each year and when they are brought inside for winter;
urisk- a brownie-like spirit who lives in wild places but who will undertake farm chores in return for a bowl of cream. He is very strong and clever and can be savage if provoked. The urisk is said to be half-human and half-fay;
King Broonie- on Orkney, a type of trow that particularly took care of a farm’s corn. He objected to being watched and, if he felt that he was being spied upon, would scatter the ricks;
hogboon- a Shetland version of the brownie who undertakes agricultural labouring tasks in return for food. The name derives from the Norse haug bui, meaning mound-dweller, because they were believed to inhabit the ancient burial mounds;
gunna– is another sort of brownie who cares for cattle and keeps them away from cliffs and out of the fields of growing crops. He is very thin, with long yellow hair, and is dressed only in a fox skin; and,
bodachan sabhaill (the little old man of the barn) is a spirit who will help older farmers with their threshing.
What I think is particularly striking about this group of beings is how many of them are semi-wild sprites, often with a parallel reputation for violent acts, and yet they’re entrusted with a farm’s valuable assets. Of course, the farmers don’t recruit them: the faery cowherds are generally inherited or volunteer themselves, but it is nonetheless a curious relationship. The spirit of the wilderness accommodates itself to the human subjugation of the landscape.
Charles Altamont Doyle, Eavesdroppers
In conclusion, although our tendency is to imagine carefree and pleasure loving fairies, the reality is often more complex. They grow their own food, like any community must, and many are very hard working- even on behalf of human kind and in return for quite informal arrangements as to recompense.