We’ve discussed before the location and identity of fairy land or where fairies might live. In this post, I want to consider how they may live amongst us, in places specially designated or reserved for them.
These special sites might be for the living or for the dead. It is well known that fairies live under hills, particularly in the north of England and in Scotland; sometimes people will enter them to join in with their dances, midwives will be invited in to help with childbirths and some folk will be abducted there to live in servitude. These knolls or knowes are marked out by their distinctive rounded form and by the lushness of the vegetation growing upon them. By their unique shape and isolation, they stand out as separate and unusual- and this should act as a warning to people. It doesn’t always work this way, though, and the faery nature of these hills has been repeatedly underlined by reports concerning people who’ve violated them.
For example, in the Highlands on old man kept the hillock near his house very clean by clearing from it any animal droppings or other dirt. He did this mainly because he liked to sit on the hill on summer evenings, but one dusk a small man he did not know appeared and thanked him for his care. In return, he promised that if the man’s cattle should stray at night, they would be kept out of the crops. A farmer who always avoided pasturing his horses and cows on a hillock and resisted taking turf from the knoll was rewarded by the faes who would drive his livestock to shelter whenever a storm arose at night.
By way of contrast, a man on Coll went to pull brambles from a hill and heard someone call out angrily to him from inside. He ran away in fright. A farmer who had a green knoll (or tolman) standing in front of his house used nightly to throw out all the waste household water there. Eventually, he was confronted and asked to desist as the regular drenchings were spoiling the furniture and utensils of the people living inside. Lastly, a man decided one evening to tether his horse to graze on a grassy mound where the pasture looked rich. As he was hammering in the tether pin, a head appeared and asked him to tie his horse somewhere else, as the hole was letting the rainwater in and the peg had nearly hurt one of the inhabitants.
There are also certain locations within the landscape that are reserved for the fairy dead. For example, it was widely believed in the north of England that any green shady spot was a fairy burial ground. Indeed, in 1847 it was reported in the Manx newspaper Mona’s Herald that a man called Quayle, living at Maughold on the island, had his house windows broken by the faes because he had ploughed up some land never before cultivated and, in so doing, had turned up bones from an old grave yard.
It’s not just a matter of respecting sites already selected by the faes, though. Some may be deliberately granted to them by human communities. In Gloucestershire, presumably-valuable agricultural land was given up to the fairies: when the fields at Upton St Leonard’s were enclosed, an area called No Nation was left for the faeries’ use and tall trees were left in the new hedgerows as places in which the fays could hide. This is a good example of showing the proper respect for the Good Folk, by appeasing them and adapting to living alongside them.
In the same way, in Berwickshire on the Scottish border with England, there’s a tradition of preserving areas called Clootie’s Craft (or croft) and Goodman’s Field, that were set aside in villages for the fairies and were never tilled or cropped. It was considered extremely unlucky to dig or plough on these portions (just as fairy rings should never be disturbed), for:
“He who tills the fairies’ green
Nae luck again shall hae.”
There was another saying that, “If you put a spade in the Goodman’s craft… [the Devil] will shoot you with his shaft.” A further rhyme, composed to warn locals against reckless cultivation, advised that:
“The craft lies bonny by Langton Lees
And is well liked by birds and bees.
If you plough it up, it’ll be your death,
For disturbing the sod where the fairies like to tread.”
For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):