Manx Faeries- folklore & poetry

The fynoderee by Brian Froud

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 buggane and 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.

Sacrifices to fairies

Rene Cloke, An Autumn Offering

It’s not at all unusual for people to make regular offerings to fairies and, on certain occasions, to offer major sacrifices to them.

I’ve described before how it was the habit in the Scottish Highlands and islands to make regular offerings of milk to the gruagach and glaistig who often looked after the cattle on farms and in communities. Small quantities were poured out on special stones, perhaps after every milking or at certain times in the farming year.  In fact, at least as recently as the 1950s milk was still being put out overnight for the pixies on one Dartmoor farm.  

On Shetland, local people sacrificed ale or pins and coins to the water horse called shoopiltee to ensure good catches at sea.  At Halloween, the people of Lewis used to attend a church ceremony that included pouring ale into the sea in the hope that the sea spirit ‘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 into the sea.  All round Scotland, in fact, meat, drink and bread would be offered up.  On Orkney the custom was that the first fish caught on a hook when out line-fishing would be thrown back to ensure that the rest of the catch on that trip would be good. 

A very similar practice was known on the Isle of Man.  The islanders used to sacrifice rum to the buggane of Kione Dhoo headland, the liquor being poured into the sea by fishing boats from Port St Mary as they passed the promontory on their way to the Kinsale and Lerwick fishing grounds. Rum was occasionally thrown from the top of the cliff as well, with the words “Take that, evil spirit (or monster)!”. This dedication resembles that which accompanied the practice of throwing a fish to the mermen at sea “Gow shen, dooinney varrey!” (‘Take that, sea people.’) 

Another water beast was appeased in more blood thirsty fashion at Loch Maree in the Scottish Highlands. A terrible lake monster called Mourie inhabited this lake, to which bulls were sacrificed on August 25th each year.  Very similar was the tradition at Loch Wan in the Scottish Uplands, where local farmers offered the first lamb of the flock each year to the loch- otherwise they knew that half their sheep would drown in its waters before the season was out.

Further south, in the Lincolnshire Fens, the habit used to be to offer the first fruits of the harvest, as well as a share of any bread, beer and milk, to the local spirits called the ‘Strangers,’ ‘the Tiddy Ones’ or the ‘Green Coaties.’  People knew that if these offerings were neglected, the crops would fail and livestock would die.

The success of many regular household tasks was guaranteed by making sure of fairy good will.  For instance, on the Isle of Man, the faeries will help with the baking so long as a piece of the dough is stuck to the kitchen wall for them.  If such an offering isn’t made, the baker will face problems.  On Shetland the practice was to sprinkle every corner of a house with milk when butter was to be churned.  In many places in Scotland, just as with the milk offerings mentioned earlier, some of the wort from any household brew of ale would be poured out at the ’brownie stone’ to ensure a good fermentation.

Faery aid- or good will- was invoked in emergencies too.  One Dartmoor sheep farmer’s flock was plagued by disease; he concluded that the only remedy was to go to the top of a tor and slaughter a sheep as an offering to the pixies- a move which promptly alleviated the problem.  At Crawford Muir on Shetland in the 1770s a tenant was reported to have sacrificed a black lamb to the sea trows so as to reinforce curses he was placing upon his enemies.

Lastly, and most strikingly, in 1859 on the Isle of Man archaeologists opened a barrow near Tynwald Hill and excavated the prehistoric remains within.  After they had left, in order to atone for this desecration of a fairy site, a local farmer sacrificed and burned a heifer on the tumulus. This dedication to the spirits of the place is especially striking.  (Manchester Times, 2/4/1881, 4)

If we read such accounts in books on anthropology and ancient religion, we would unhesitatingly say that sacrifices were being made to the gods. In these cases, though, we have offerings made by people who would, I’m sure, have said that they were good Christian folk, going to church or chapel every Sunday and not in the least pagan. They would have denied ‘worshipping’ the fairies and in this I’m sure they would have been right. The goods given are more in the manner of a payment, part of a deal with the Good Folk who lived so near to them and had such an impact upon their lives and their environment. A bargain was being struck, with a powerful and sometimes troublesome neighbour, rather than a prayer being offered up to a nature deity. In some cases, such as the regular provision of milk and bread at night, it would have been framed as an act of welcome towards someone visiting your house. Admittedly, they were going to come in whether you liked it or not, but that was just more reason to want to make them feel at home. Our relationship with fairies has always been one in which there is a strange imbalance in power and nervousness on our part…

‘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

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 IV- Bogies, boggarts and bugganes

Postcard_000271 (2)

Britain is full of bogles, bogies and such like (and similarly named) creatures.  They can often be hard to classify, as was remarked by an anonymous writer in 1833, discussing the works of Sir Walter Scott.  The bogle called ‘the greetin bairn of the lake’ from the lowlands of Scotland was described by this author as part fairy, part ghost and part brownie- a puzzling mix.

Types of boggle

Boggles are creatures that can take a range of forms, as well as names.  For instance, at Bryn-yr-Ellyllon (Elf Hill) near Mold in Clwyd, it was reported in the mid-nineteenth century that a skeleton dressed in gold had been seen, seated on the mound.  This was hardly your typical ‘elf’ plainly.

James Nicolson, describing Shetland folklore in 1981, added to his discussion of trows and mermaids a general list of ‘hard to classify’ supernatural beasts, which included:

  • The skekill, a sort of trow that rode a horse that was black with white spots and had fifteen tails;
  • The marool, a fish with a crest of flame and eyes all over its head; and,
  • Tangie, who whipped up storms and tried to abduct girls.

Duncan MacInnes, describing Argyllshire, adds to this list a giant, or fuath, with seven heads, seven humps and seven necks.

Besides these assorted monsters, there were many beings that accorded better with our standard categorisation of the Faery world.  On the Scottish borders lived the Brown Man of the Muirs, who protected the wildlife of the moors and took revenge upon those who ignored his warnings.  This being appears to have been a type of duergar, or dwarf.

Slightly further south, in county Durham in the north-east of England, we encounter the Hedley Kow.  The name might make us anticipate a bovine beast, but its nature was actually very fluid.  It was a supreme shape-shifter: in one version of its story, in Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales, the Kow is successively seen as a pot full of gold coins, a lump of silver, a lump of iron, a stone and, finally, a horse- which galloped off laughing at the hapless victim of its pranks.

In the same area we find the brags, which are also shape-shifting beings.  The Humbleknow brag, for example, was not visible, but would sound as if all the livestock on a farm had got loose- or else would sound like all the doors and windows in a house being driven in by a violent storm.  It was awful to experience, but harmless.  The Hylton Lane brag, by way of contrast, was visible- and appeared at night as a dog, calf, pony or woman, that would accompany any person walking between Sunderland and Hylton for a short distance before vanishing.  Again, this was disconcerting, but not dangerous.

As may be observed, many of these beings have names that must share a common root- bugs, bogies, boggarts, bugganes and such like.  A Welsh example is the bwgan.  The bwgan of Nant y Cythraul in the north of the country is a very interesting example of the species.  It is said to be the spirit of a fifteenth century monk who surrendered his soul to the devil and he can shapeshift, appearing in a number of surprising forms.  These include a hare that is being hunted by the cwn annwn and a dog that will run alongside you- before disconcertingly bursting into flames.

boggart

Boggarts

The boggarts of northern England generally can take on the role of domestic brownies, doing household and farm chores, but they can just as easily appear as nuisance- or malign- shapeshifters.  Henry More, in The Pre-Existency of the Soul (1647) describes aerial devils (as he terms them) who can endlessly change their form.  “One while a man, after a comely maid… A snarling Dog or bristled Boar or a jug of milk if you’re thirsty.” 

Various Victorian newspaper reports from Lancashire confirm the shape-shifting abilities of the boggart- as well as their close links to ghosts.  The Copp Lane Boggart was seen as a headless woman, a white lady, a lady in brown silk who glided ahead of witnesses, a donkey and a large dog with a white neck and a tail like a sheaf of corn that curled over its back as far as its shoulders.  The Spo Boggart was either a girl in a bonnet- not alarming at all- or a man dressed in black with cloven feet.  A Whitegate Lane in Fylde, near Blackpool, the boggart was a white calf or decapitated woman who carried her head under her arm.  Lastly, at Blackley, a boggart plagued a house with terrible noises- like a hen cackling, a steam whistle or a like child screaming- but only if you stood upon a certain flagstone.  This stone was lifted and a jug containing bones was found beneath, following which the ghost was silenced.  However, the occupants of the house still suffered from other nightly noises and saw an apparition of a young woman.

These creatures, when they live in close proximity to men, can become intolerable nuisances, which will often drive human households to try to escape them.  Simple flight to another place never seems to work: there are numerous stories that culminate with the ‘punch-line,’ “Aye, we’re flitting,” in which a family try to move to a new house to get away from the boggart, only to find that it’s moving with them.  More drastic measures are therefore required in many cases.

I’ve described before the practice of ‘laying,’ or exorcising boggarts.  Here are two more examples.  A ‘goblin’ was ‘put down’ at Llanwddyn Parish, Montgomeryshire, by means of trapping it in a quill and sealing that under a large boulder in a river.  The Barcroft Hall boggart in Lancashire was driven off by the simple expedient of giving it a pair of clogs.  This was done for the best reasons, because it had been seen barefoot and had been pitied, but it took the present as an insult and abandoned the farm.  As many readers will immediately remember, the gift of clothes is one of the main means of driving away brownies and hobs (whether intentionally or not), a fact which underlines the close ties between boggarts and these other beings.

Manx Monsters

The Isle of Man has several bogle like beings.  There, if you are unlucky, you may encounter:

Bugganes

This creature is invariably mischievous, if not malicious.   The least of his misbehaviour is blowing smoke back down chimneys, pulling thatch off roofs and pushing sheep over cliffs.  He travels around in a form resembling a spinning wheel, laughing all the while at humans’ misfortunes.  Luckily, they’re not very bright and can fairly easily be outwitted and beaten.  They are, nonetheless, terrifying creatures.  The buggane of St Trinians is as big as a house with green hair and blazing eyes, but he can shape-shift, shrinking to the size of a beetle or a mouse, appearing like a large, dark calf or tearing off his head and throwing it at people like a blazing ball.  Sometimes, the buggane can be entirely shapeless, just a black mist that engulfs and chokes a person.

The buggane seen at Ballakillingham was fairly representative of its kind in that it appeared as a large grey bulldog with an awful howl.  It would lurk in the shadows, alarming travellers (much like the black dogs of England).  However, this particular spirit had another quality.  If your pig was sickly, if you collected dust from where the buggane walked at night and rubbed it on the pig’s back (along with saying the right charm) the pig would be healed.

Other buggane guises include a sack of chaff; a black monster the size of a haystack that fills the entire width of a road; a small creature the dimensions of a cat that can suddenly swell to the size of a horse and, even, a hybrid being that’s a man with a horse’s head and glowing eyes.

Various brave but foolhardy Manx men have tried to fight bugganes- almost always without success.  Their ability to change size and shape makes them nearly impossible to defeat.  The best way of dealing with one is to speak the absolute truth to it- something it apparently respects.

There is a strong belief on Man that connects bugganes to those who have been murdered or who have died unfairly.  They seem to be the ghosts of those who have died without receiving justice- including, in one case, a man who was wrongfully executed for a murder he did not commit.  Although they are generally said to inhabit caves, the bugganes that are some sort of ghost will be found haunting the site of their death.

Fynoderees

The fynoderee is something like the mainland British brownie or hobgoblin, and will help out with heavy tasks on farms in return for just a little grain and a bowl of cream.  He is generally helpful rather than dangerous, even though he is very strong  and has shaggy black hair and fiery eyes.

In one Manx story, the fynoderee even took pity on a lonely man who had been cheated upon by his girlfriend and had fought with- and accidentally killed- his rival.  The man lived in a cave and the fynoderee would leave him food and gather fire-wood for him.  As the man grew older and less mobile, the spirit even planted a plantation of trees near to his shelter to make life easier for him.

The fynoderee can also be a solitary creature living in elder trees.  He can cure sickness in animals, and can be summoned by humans using the right words and charms.  The correct protocol is to take off your headgear and say to the being in the tree:

“Fynoderee, fynoderee,/ Come you down, for I can see.”

Then you must cross yourself three times.  Getting the words wrong or neglecting to cross yourself can lead to disastrous consequences.

Although generally benign, if he’s vexed, the fynoderee can just as easily steal away a farm’s entire livestock, enchanting them rather like the god Pan.  They can be subdued by singing, but driven off by the singing of hymns or (like a brownie) by being given clothes.

Glashtins

This creature can have two forms: human-like or a horse.  In the shape of a handsome (if rather hairy) young man he will try to lure away young women with strings of pearls, very much like the Scottish kelpie or each uisgebut his intentions are not romantic but fatal.  His true nature is often revealed by his pointed ears and his sharp, pointed teeth. One in horse form was revealed by his tail, which was three yards long.

Glashtins tend to live in deep pools in isolated rivers or behind water falls but, because of their predatory nature, they can be a severe nuisance that communities need to expel.  In one story this was done by a man disguising himself as a woman and sitting spinning in his home until a number of young glashtins had gathered, interested in this new girl in the neighbourhood.  He then surprised them by pelting them with burning turves, a shock that was sufficient to drive them off permanently.

There is another form of the glashtin who will assist on farms much like a fynoderee.  They will thresh corn and sometimes take the form of a lamb to play amongst the flocks.  The glashtin even may be seen as something like a tarroo-ushtey.  These glashtins seem to be generally good-natured, for all their might, but they are dim and coarse and can take offence very easily.

Further Reading

My forthcoming book Beyond Faery examines all of these strange beings in details. The examples detailed here are more recent evidence I’ve turned up since the text of the new book was completed.