In a previous post I discussed the long-standing belief that the fairies are leaving Britain: it is an idea that has persisted through centuries, since at least the time of Chaucer, and which has been backed up by a number of sightings in late Victorian times.
A natural corollary of this idea is that, eventually, there will be only one fairy left, forlorn and forsaken. This figure is found in folk stories and in literature. In this post I want to examine the literature and folklore concerning this lonely being.
Several of the poems by Victorian writer Rosamund Marriott Watson deal with the idea of fairy abandonment of England. The one cited here is especially poignant, emphasising the isolation of the stranded individual.
The Last Fairy
Under the yellow moon, when the young men and maidens pass in the lanes,
Outcast I flit, looking down through the leaves of the elm-trees,
Peering out over the fields as their voices grow fainter;
Furtive and lone
Sometimes I steal through the green rushes down by the river,
Hearing shrill laughter and song while the rosy-limbed bathers
Gleam in the dusk.
Seen, they would pass me disdainful, or stone me unwitting;
No room is left in their hearts for my kinsfolk or me.
Fain would I, too, fading out like a moth in the twilight,
Follow my kin,
Whither I know not, and ever I seek but I find not-
Whither I know not, nor knoweth the wandering swallow;
‘Where are they, where?’
Oft-times I cry; but I hearken in vain for their footsteps,
Always in vain.
High in a last year’s nest, in the boughs of the pine-tree,
Musing I sit, looking up to the deeps of the sky,
Clasping my knees as I watch there and wonder, forsaken;
Ever the hollow sky
Voiceless and vast, and the golden moon silently sailing,
Look on my pain and they care not,
There is none that remembers:
Only the nightingale knows me- she knows and remembers-
Deep in the dusk of the thicket she sorrows for me.
Yet, on the wings of the wind sweeping over the uplands,
Murmuring echoes remembered- the ghosts of old voices
Faint as a dream, and uncertain as cloud-shadowed sunlight,
Fall on mine ear.
Whence do they call me? From golden-dewed valleys forgotten?
Or from the strongholds of eld, where red banners of sunset
Flame o’er the sea?
Or from anear, on the dim airy slopes of the dawn-world,
Over light-flowering meads between daybreak and sunrise
Level and grey?
Truly I know not, but steadfast and longing I listen,
Straining mine ears for the lilt of their tinkling laughter
Sweeter than sheep-bells at even; I watch and I hearken.
O for the summons to sound! for the pipes plaining shrilly,
Calling me home!
This poem is a romantic imagining of the deserted fairy. We get a glimpse of the real experience in the following Scottish account. This sad report of the loneliness of the last fay is told in The Gloaming Bucht, a tale that’s set in the Cheviot Hills near the border with England (from Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, George Douglas, 1901). The events related may have happened in the late eighteenth century.
“Speakin’ o’ fairies,” quoth Robbie Oliver (an old shepherd, who lived at Southdean in Jedwater, and died about 1830), “I can tell ye about the vera last fairy that was seen hereaway. When my faither, Peter Oliver, was a young man, he lived at Hyndlee, an’ herdit the Brocklaw. Weel, it was the custom to milk the yowes in thae days, an’ my faither was buchtin’ the Brocklaw yowes to twae young, lish, clever hizzies ne nicht i’ the gloamin’. Nae little daffin’ an’ gabbin’ gaed on amang the threesome, I’se warrant ye, till at last, just as it chanced to get darkish, my faither chancit to luik alang the lea at the head o’ the bucht, an’ what did he see but a wee little creaturie a’ clad i’ green, an’ wi’ lang hair, yellow as gowd, hingin’ round its shoulders, comin’ straight for him, whiles gi’en a whink o’ a greet an’ aye atween its hands raisin’ a queer, unyirthly cry: “Hae ye seen Hewie Milburn? Oh! hae ye seen Hewie Milburn?”
Instead of answering the creature, my faither sprang owre the bucht flake, to be near the lasses, saying, “Bliss us a’–what’s that?”
“Ha, ha! Patie lad,” quo’ Bessie Elliot, a free-spoken Liddesdale hempy; “theer a wife com’d for ye the nicht, Patie lad.”
“A wife!” said my faither; “may the Lord keep me frae sic a wife as that,” an’ he confessed till his deein’ day, he was in sic a fear that the hairs o’ his heed stuid up like the hirses of a hurcheon [hedgehog/ urchin]. The creature was nae bigger than a three-year-auld lassie, but feat an’ tight, lith o’ limb, as ony grown woman, an’ its face was the downright perfection o’ beauty, only there was something wild an’ unyirthly in its e’en that couldna be lookit at, faur less describit: it didna molest them, but aye taigilt on about the bucht, now an’ then repeatin’ its cry, “Hae ye seen Hewie Milburn?”
Sae they cam’ to nae ither conclusion than that it had tint [lost] its companion. When my faither an’ the lasses left the bucht, it followed them hame to the Hyndlee kitchen, where they offered it yowe brose, but it wad na tak’ onything, till at last a neer-do-weel callant made as if he wad grip it wi’ a pair o’ reed-het tangs, an’ it appeared to be offendit, an’ gaed awa’ doon the burnside, cryin’ its auld cry eerier an’ waesomer than ever, and disappeared in a bush o’ seggs.”
We have no real idea who Hewie Milburn might be, or how the pair might have come to be separated, but this is definitely a fairy couple (as the height and beauty of the woman attest, as well as the tell-tale green clothes). A related report comes from Caithness. The last fairies ever seen there said to have been were a comely mother with a freckled child with large webbed feet. They were observed to get into a boat and sail away from the shore, never to be seen again.
The Gloaming Bucht– in verse
The Roxburghshire folk story became a source of inspiration to Scottish poets. There is a long poem by James Telfer, who was brought up in the same district, which was inspired by the account, although he diverged quite radically from it with a an exploration of the magical effect of fairy song. The ballad is called The Gloamyne Buchte and can be found in Alexander Whitelaw’s Book of Scottish Ballads (1845).
There is another related poem by William Oliver, also published by Whitelaw and titled ‘The Last Fairy:
There was a voice heard on the fell, Crying so sadly, "All are gone, And I must bid this earth farewell; Oh why should I stay here alone? Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! I've sought the brake, I've sought the hill, The haunted glen and swelling river; I've sought the fountain, and the rill, And all are left, and left for ever. Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! Where'er the sunbeam tints the spray, That rises o'er the falling waters, I've needless, roamed the livelong day, In search of some of Faerie's daughters. Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! Each heather bell, each budding flower, That blooms in wold, or grassy lea, Each bosky shaw, each leafy bower, Is tenantless by all, save me. Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! No more now, through the moonlit night, With tinkling bells, and sounds of mirth, We hie, and scare the peasant wight, With strains by far too sweet for earth, Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! The new-made mother need not fear To leave ajar the cottage door; Alas! we never shall come near, To change the mortal's infant more. Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! No more, when as the eddying wind Shall whirl the autumn leaves in air, Shall there be dread, that elfin fiend, Or troop of wandering fays are there. Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! In palaces beneath the lake, Within the rock, or grassy hill, No more the sounds of mirth we make, But all are silent, sad, and still. Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! Farewell the ring, where through the dance, In winding maze, we deftly flew, Whilst flowing hair, and dress, would glance With sparkling gems of moonlit dew. Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! We were ere mortals had their birth, And long have watched their growing day; The light now beams upon the earth, And warns us that we must away. Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! Oh where are Thor and Woden now? Where Elfin sprite and Duergar gone? The great are fallen; we needs must bow, I may not stay, not even alone. Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! Ah me, the wandering summer breeze Shall bear our sighs, where'er it goes, Or floating 'mid the leafy trees, Or stealing odours from the rose. Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! These sighs, unknown shall touch the heart And with a secret language speak; To joy a soothing care impart; Add tears to smiles on beauty's cheek. Ealie, ealie, oh farewell! Farewell, farewell, for I must go To other realms, to other spheres; This mortal earth I leave with wo, With grief, with wailing, and with tears." Ealie, ealie, oh farewell!
Oliver (1800-1848) was actually from Newcastle upon Tyne and was a singer and songwriter.
Abandoned or Lost?
Apparently, then, some individuals get left behind, although we don’t know whether this is because the fairies leave in haste and accidentally miss out a member of their community or because it was a deliberate act, perhaps because the stranded fairy was a nuisance or a thief. We can’t be sure with the Cheviot or Caithness cases, but in another incident, from Shetland, it appears that a burdensome person might be abandoned. There was a fiddler called Rasnie who often played at trow dances and weddings. One day, not having heard fairy music for some time, he went to the ‘ferrie-knowe’ (the fairy hill) and entered. Inside there was just one old woman remaining; the rest of the trows had fled the preaching of the Gospel on Shetland and gone to live on the Faroes, along with the tangies and the brownies, but they had consciously left her behind.
I’ll close with a second wistful verse, this time by Scottish poet William Sharp, who wrote as Fiona Macleod. The premise here is rather different: that the fay was created by Merlin and cannot now find her maker, but the emotions are the same.
The Last Fay
I have wandered where the cuckoo fills
The woodlands with her magic voice:
I have wandered on the brows of hills
Where the last heavenward larks rejoice:
Far I have wandered by the wave.
By shadowy loch and swaying stream,
But never have I found the grave
Of him who made me a wandering Dream.
If I could find that lonely place
And him who lies asleep therein,
I’d bow my head and kiss his face
And sleep and rest and peace would win.
He made me, he who lies asleep
Hidden in some forgotten spot
Where winds sweep and rains weep
And foot of wayfarer cometh not:
He made me, Merlin, ages ago.
He shaped me in an idle hour,
He made a heart of fire to glow
And hid it in an April shower!
For I am but a shower that calls
A thin sweet song of rain, and pass:
Even the wind-whirled leaf that falls
Lingers awhile within the grass,
But I am blown from hill to vale,
From vale to hill like a bird’s cry
That shepherds hear a far-off wail
And wood folk as a drowsy sigh.
And I am tired, whom Merlin made.
I would lie down in the heart of June
And fall asleep in a leafy shade
And wake not till in the Faery Moon
Merlin shall rise our lord and king,
To leave for aye the tribes of Man,
And let the clarion summons ring
The kingdom of the Immortal Clan.
If but in some green place I’d see
An ancient tangled moss-like beard
And half-buried boulder of a knee
I should not flutter away a feared!
With leap of joy, with low glad cry
I’d sink beside the Sleeper fair:
He would not grudge my fading sigh
In the ancient stillness brooding there.
As a bonus, I’ll add ‘The Complaint of the Last Faun’ by Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-73). He was a highly successful and popular Victorian author who helped to familiarise the public with occult thinking- with the Rosicrucians, Le Comte de Gabalis, Paracelsus, Swedenborg, salamanders, sylphs and gnomes- all of which were mentioned in his novels Zanoni (1845) and A Strange Story (1862). Here he transposes the last fairy to Greece:
The moon on the Latmos mountain
Her pining vigil keeps;
And ever the silver fountain
In the Dorian valley weeps.
But gone are Endymion’s dreams;
And the crystal lymph
Bewails the nymph
Whose beauty sleeked the streams!
Round Arcady’s oak its green
The Bromian ivy weaves;
But no more is the satyr seen
Laughing out from the glossy leaves.
Hushed is the Lycian lute,
Still grows the seed
Of the Moenale reed,
But the pipe of Pan is mute!
The leaves in the noon-day quiver;
The vines on the mountains wave;
And Tiber rolls his river
As fresh by the Sylvan’s cave.
But my brothers are dead and gone;
And far away
From their graves I stray,
And dream of the past alone!
And the sun of the north is chill;
And keen is the northern gale;
Alas for the Song of the Argive hill;
And the dance in the Cretan vale!
The youth of the earth is o’er,
And its breast is rife
With the teeming life
Of the golden Tribes no more!
My race are more blest than I,
Asleep in their distant bed;
‘Twere better, be sure, to die
Than to mourn for the buried Dead:
To rove by the stranger streams,
At dusk and dawn
A lonely faun,
The last of the Grecian’s dreams.