Ann Jeffries and the Pobel Vean

aj

Ann Jeffries was the daughter of a poor labouring man, who lived in the parish of St Teath in North Cornwall, between Wadebridge and Tintagel. She was born in 1626, and is supposed to have died in 1698.  The first written references to Ann appeared in March 1647, very soon after her faery experiences in 1645, and she was still alive in 1696 when Moses Pitt wrote about her (see later).

Our main account of her life is found in Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England (pages 127-9) from which the following passages are adapted.  

When she was nineteen years old, Ann, who was said to be a remarkably sharp and clever girl, went to live as a servant with the Pitt family. She was said to have been unusually bold and would do things which even boys feared to attempt. In those days everyone in Cornwall believed in fairies (the little folk or pobel vean in Cornish) and everybody feared them. They were the constant subject of gossip and rumour and this talk particularly captured Ann’s imagination and set her longing anxiously to meet with some of them. As a result, she was often out and about after sunset, turning up the fern leaves and looking into the bells of the foxglove to find a fairy, singing all the time this charm:

“Fairy fair and fairy bright;
Come and be my chosen sprite.”

Equally, she never allowed a moonlit night to pass without going down into the nearby valley and, walking beside the stream, she would sing another charm:

“Moon shines bright, waters run clear,
I am here, but where’s my fairy dear?”

The fairies spent a long time testing the poor girl; for, as they told her afterwards, they heard her perfectly well and never lost sight of her; but there they would be, looking on when she was seeking them, and they would run from frond to frond of the ferns, always just ahead of her when she was turning them up its her anxious search.  [NB- ferns are closely associated with faeries and with invisibility.]

One day Ann, having finished her morning’s work, was sitting knitting in the arbour in her master’s garden, when she fancied she heard some one moving aside the branches, as though endeavouring to look in upon her; and she thought it must be her sweetheart, so she resolved to take no notice. Ann went on steadily with her work and no sound was heard but the regular clicking of her knitting-needles. Presently she heard a suppressed laugh, and then again a rustle amidst the branches. The back of the arbour was towards the lane, and to enter the garden it was necessary to walk down the lane to the gate, which was, however, not many yards off.

At last Ann began to feel vexed that the intruder did not show himself, and she said peevishly, half out loud —

“You may stay there till the kueney (or cuney: moss, or mildew) grows on the gate, ere I’ll come to ‘ee.”

There was immediately peculiarly ringing and very musical laughter. Ann knew this wasn’t her lover’s laugh, and she felt afraid. Nonetheless, it was bright day, and she assured herself that no one would do her any mischief, as she knew herself to be a general favourite in the parish. Presently Ann felt sure that she’d heard the garden gate carefully opened and closed, so she waited anxiously. In a few moments she saw, standing at the entrance to the arbour, six little men, all clothed in green. They were beautiful little figures, and had very charming faces, and such bright eyes. The grandest of these visitors, who wore a red feather in his cap, advanced in front the others, and, making a most polite bow to Ann, addressed her familiarly in the kindest words. [Needless to observe, perhaps, the red and green clothes are very typical fairy garb.]

This gentleman looked so sweetly on Ann that she was charmed beyond measure, and she put down her hand as if shake hands with him, but instead he jumped into her palm and she lifted him into her lap. He then, without any more ado, he clambered upon her bosom and neck, and began kissing her. Ann never felt so delighted in her life as while this one little gentleman was playing with her; but presently he called his companion and they all clambered up by her dress as best they could, and kissed her neck, her lips, and her eyes. One of them ran his fingers over her eyes, and she felt as if they had been pricked with a pin. Suddenly Ann became blind, and she felt herself whirled through the air at a great rate. By and by, one of her little companions said something which sounded like “Tear away,” and Ann had her sight at once restored.

Ann found that she was in one of the most beautiful places- temples and palaces of gold and silver; trees laden with fruits and flowers; lakes full of gold and silver fish and the air full of birds of the sweetest song, and the more brilliant colours. Hundreds of ladies and gentlemen were walking about; hundreds more were idling in the most luxurious bowers, the fragrance of the flowers oppressing them with sense of delicious repose. Hundreds were also dancing or engaged in games of various kinds. Ann was, however, surprised to find that these happy people were no longer the small people she’d previously seen. There was now no more than the difference usually seen in a crowd, between their height and her own. Ann found herself arrayed in the most highly-decorated clothes. So grand, indeed, did she appear, that she doubted her identity.

[Ann’s fairyland is very similar to several others that I have described on the blog.  The cottage and garden where Cherry of Zennor lives bears some similarities, but Ann’s palatial surroundings are much closer to some of the medieval descriptions I’ve discussed.]

Ann was constantly attended by her six friends; but the finest gentleman, who had been the first to address her, continued her as her favourite, at which the others appeared to be very jealous. Eventually Ann and her favourite contrived to separate themselves, and they retired into some most lovely gardens, where they were hidden by the luxuriance of the flowers. They passed their time lovingly, and Ann wished this could continue forever. However, just when they were happiest, there was a great noise, and the five other fairies appeared at the head of a great crowd, all in a violent rage. Her lover drew his sword to defend her, but this was soon beaten down, and he lay wounded at her feet. Then the fairy who had blinded her again placed his hands upon her eyes, and all was dark. She heard strange noises, and felt herself whirled about and about, and as if a thousand flies were buzzing around her.

At length her eyes were opened, and Ann found herself on the ground in the arbour where she had been sitting in the morning, and many anxious faces were around her, all conceiving that she was recovering from a fit.  As a result of her faery experience, Ann found that she was endowed with clairvoyance and healing powers.  The first person she cured was her mistress, but her fame soon circulated within Cornwall and beyond.  

Ann had been given ointment by the fairies to cure “all distempers, sicknesses and sores” (such as the falling sickness and broken bones) and she was also granted the power to make herself invisible at will (perhaps the same ointment).  When she was later arrested, it was alleged that these fairies were in fact her imps or familiars. She denied this, saying rather that they had quoted holy scripture to her.  Ann never returned to Faery, but the Little Folk stayed near her, at least for the next few years.

We also have a first-hand account of some aspects of Ann’s story recounted by the son of the family for whom she worked as servant.  This was published in the form of a letter from Moses Pitt to the Right Reverend Father in God, Dr. Edward Fowler, Lord Bishop of Gloucester:

MOSES PITT’S LETTER RESPECTING ANNE JEFFERIES.

“An account of Anne Jefferies, now living in the county of Cornwall, who was fed for six months by a small sort of airy people, called fairies; and of the strange and wonderful cures she performed with salves and medicines she received from them, for which she never took one penny of her patients.”

Anne Jefferies, who was afterwards married to a farm labourer William Warren, was born in the parish of St Teath in December 1626, “and she is still living, 1696, being now in the 70th year of her age.” From the published narrative, we learn that Mr Humphrey Martin was asked by Moses Pitt to visit and examine Anne in 1693. Mr Martin writes, “As for Anne Jefferies, I have been with her the greater part of one day, and did read to her all that you wrote to me; but she would not own anything of it, as concerning the fairies, neither of any of the cures that she did. She answered, that if her own father were now alive, she would not discover to him those things which did happen then to her. I asked her the reason why she would not do it; she replied, that if she should discover it to you, that you would make books or ballads of it; and she said, that she would not have her name spread about the country in books or ballads of such things, if she might have five hundred pounds for it.” [As well as fear for her own reputation, you wonder if there was some fear of disclosing faery secrets as well.]

Mr Pitt’s correspondent went on to say that Anne was so frightened by the visitors she had in the arbour “that she fell into a kind of convulsion fit. But when they found her in this condition they took her into the house and put her to bed, and took great care of her. As soon as she recovered out of her fit, she cried out, ‘They are just gone out of the window- they are just gone out of the window. Do you not see them?'” Anne recovered, and “as soon as she recovered a little strength, she constantly went to church…  She took mighty delight in devotion, and in hearing the Word of God read and preached, although she herself could not read.”

Ann eventually told some portions of her story and cured numerous diseases amongst the people, by means of the powers she had derived from the fairy world. “People of all distempers, sicknesses, sores, and ages, came not only so far off as the Land’s End, but also from London, and were cured by her. She took no moneys of them, nor any reward that ever I knew or heard of, yet had she moneys at all times sufficient to supply her wants [This implies that she is receiving gifts of coins from the faeries].  She neither made nor bought any medicines or salves that ever I saw or heard of, yet wanted them not as she had occasion. She forsook eating our victuals, and was fed by these fairies from that harvest time to the next Christmas day; upon which day she came to our table and said, because it was that day, she would eat some roast beef with us, the which she did- I myself being then at the table.”

The fairies constantly attended upon Ann and they appear to have vied with each other to win her favour. They fed her, as we have been already told and the writer says that on one occasion site she “gave me a piece of her bread, which I did eat, and I think it was the most delicious bread that ever I did eat, either before or since.” Ann could render herself invisible, apparently at will. The fairies would come and dance with her in the orchard. She had a silver cup, given to her by the fairies, which she in turn gave to a local girl called Mary Martyn when she was about four years of age.

At last, “one John Tregeagle, Esq., who was steward to John Earl of Radnor, being a justice of peace in Cornwall, sent his warrant for Anne, and sent her to Bodmin jail, and there kept her a long time.”  Her offence was, apparently, not so much her claims of faery acquaintance (although that was certainly enough to get you into trouble in those days- and, in Scotland, to get you burnt at the stake).  More of a problem for Ann, however, was the fact that she was a staunch Church of England Royalist during the Civil War.  As we have seen, she was very devout, but she insisted on High Church services, which didn’t go down well with the increasingly powerful Puritans.  Possibly even worse than that was the fact that her prophecies for the future all foretold the victory of the King and the triumph of the bishops.  

The fairies had previously given Ann a warning that she would be apprehended.  When they did this, “she asked them if she should hide herself. They answered no; she should fear nothing, but go with the constable. So she went with the constable to the justice, and he sent her to Bodmin jail, and ordered the prison keeper that she should be kept without victuals, and she was so kept, and yet she lived, and that without complaining. But poor Ann lay in jail for a considerable time after; and also Justice Tregeagle, who was her great prosecutor, kept her in his house some time as a prisoner, and that without victuals.”  Apparently, after a year or so in Bodmin’s jail, she was released to a sort of house arrest in the home of the Mayor of Bodmin.  She held out, though, and eventually had to be released without charge, after which she took up a position with Moses Pitt’s widowed aunt in Padstow.

In the course of this account, we have a curious example of the fairies quoting Scripture; I’m not aware of another instance of this. On one occasion Ann, when seated with the family, was called three times. “Of all these three calls of the fairies, none heard them but Ann. After she had been in her chamber some time, she came to us again, with a Bible in her hand, and told us that when she came to the fairies, they said to her, ‘What ! has there been some magistrates and ministers with you, and dissuaded you from coming anymore to us, saying, we are evil spirits, and that it was all a delusion of the devil? Pray, desire them to read that place of Scripture, in the First Epistle of St. John, chap. iv. ver. I, ‘Dearly beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, whether they are of God;’ and this place of Scripture was turned down so in the said Bible. I told your lordship before, Anne could not read.”

Finally:

“And now, my lord, if your lordship expects that I should give you an account when, and upon what occasion, these fairies forsook our Anne, I must tell your lordship I am ignorant of that. She herself can best tell, if she would be prevailed upon to do so; and the history of it, and the rest of the passages of her life, would be very acceptable and useful to the most curious and inquisitive part of mankind.” (from An Historical Survey of the County of Cornwall, C. S. Gilbert 1817).

Cornwall's Bodmin Jail plans £12.5m Dark Walk attraction
The entrance to Bodmin jail

‘Genii loci’- fairies as spirits of place

Irina Sushelnitskaya
Irina Sushelnitskaya

No-one wants to see their home interfered with and no-one wants to damage a fairy’s house.  Unfortunately, given their habit of living under hills or even directly beneath human dwellings, the faeries are in a situation where their properties may be unwittingly damaged.  The problem for the human who does this is that the consequences might be serious.

Farmers, leave those knolls alone

For example, men building a new house on the Scottish island of Tiree took a stone from a nearby sithean or fairy hill.  They had ample warning to desist as the stone kept returning to the spot where they had found it- but they kept removing it again.  Eventually, one of the builders fell ill, at which point they realised their error, reburied the stone and gave up.

A comparable incident is reported from County Durham in northern England.  Soil was being dug from an old motte and bailey castle near Bishopton when a voice was heard to ask- “Is all well?”  The excavators confirmed that it was, to which the voice replied “Then keep well when you’re well and leave the Fairy Hill alone.”  This seems as unambiguous a warning as you could want- but in this case the men carried on digging regardless. Surprisingly, perhaps, they found a buried chest which, upon opening, was found to contain nothing but nails.  No disaster followed in this case, but perhaps there might have been gold or other treasure unearthed had they paid more attention to the fairy words.

The Durham men seem to have been very lucky when other examples are considered.  An Orkney farmer who dug into a fairy mound was confronted by a little grey man who angrily told him that, if he took another spadeful, six of his cows would die and, if he still persisted, there would be six funerals in the family.  The man went on- with predictable results.  In a comparable incident from Perthshire, three men set out to strip turf from the top of a fairy hill.  When they got there, they all felt suddenly exhausted and lay down for a nap.  On awakening later, each had been carried off some distance from the knoll, one finding himself a quarter of a mile away in a pool.  In Sutherland, a mill was destroyed and the miller chased off by the fairies because he had taken earth to construct the mill dam from a nearby knoll.

Fairy knolls really ought to be obvious places to avoid: in an incident I’ve mentioned before, a man who hammered a peg into a knoll to tether a horse was met with complaints from inside that he had made a hole that was letting the rain in.  He wisely and immediately agreed to tether his animal elsewhere.

chabas jeune naiade
Paul Chabas, Jeune Naiade

Subterranean Neighbours

Sometimes, rather than being under a prominent hill, the fairy dwelling will be found directly beneath your own.  John Rhys tells a tale of a Gwynedd farmer who used to go outside his house to relieve himself every night before bed.  One evening, a stranger appeared beside him complaining about his annoying behaviour. The farmer asked how he could be upsetting a man he’d never seen before, to which the stranger replied that his house was just below where they stood and, if the farmer placed his foot on the stranger’s, he would see this. The farmer complied and saw clearly that all the slops from his house went down the chimney of the other’s home, which stood far below in a street he’d never seen before. The fairy advised him to put his door in the other side of the house and that, if he did so, his cattle would never suffer from disease. The farmer obeyed and after that time he became prosperous man.  There are several versions of stories like this: in one, the grateful fairy later saves the householder’s life.

This proximity can cause problems for the fairy dwellers ‘downstairs’ but there can be inconvenience for the folk upstairs too.  In one Scottish story a housewife was troubled by fairy women suddenly appearing at her cottage asking to borrow items or, unbidden, undertaking household tasks for her.  A local wise man advised that the only way to escape the nusiance of this over-familiarity would be to demolish the existing house and rebuild it elsewhere.  The thatch and rafters were, however, to be left behind and burned, after sprinkling nine dishes of sea water upon them.  Later some men quarrying near the spot found bones buried, confirming for them that the place was frequented by ancestral spirits.

Spirits of Place

The fairies here seem very clearly to be genii loci- spirits of place.  In another example, they almost seem to be so intimately associated with a location that they are part of the fabric of a building itself.  Returning to the Scottish island of Tiree, there was once a house that was plagued by fairies.  They used to sit on the rafters in swarms and they would sometimes drop down and steal a potato from the pot over the fire.  Eventually, the tenant decided to move.  He built a new home some distance away but, unluckily, ran out of materials before he’d finished.  He took a stone from the old house to complete the job- which meant that the fairies came too.

Fascinatingly, in this connection, Samuel Hitchins in his 1824 History of Cornwall, had this to say of fairy belief in the county.  He felt that the fairy faith was fading, except amongst the aged and ‘unenlightened’ (i.e. ignorant!), but still:

“By some, even the places of their resort is still pointed out, and particular fields and lanes are distinguished as spots which they were accustomed to frequent.  To these bushes and hedges, near which they were presumed to assemble, some degrees of veneration are still attached.  An indefinite species of sanctity is still associated with their beaten circles [i.e. fairy rings where they danced] and it is thought unlucky to injure their haunts or throw any obstacle in their way.”

Hitchins noted too the Borlase, in his Antiquities, also observed how the Cornish still saw the spriggans and fairies as real beings and paid them a kind of veneration.  In other words, certain spots were treated almost as shrines because the pixies were linked so powerfully with them.  As I have speculated before, they may be viewed as being a part of the land itself.

Further Reading

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of  faery places and faery homes.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

Fairy Friends- desirable or not?

 

Hilda Cowham, The surprise
Hilda Cowham, The Surprise’

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.

Domestic Companions

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)

Grace Jones, Fairies' Good night 1924
Jones, The Fairies’ Goodnight, 1924

Faery Playmates

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.

Summary

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.

 

 

Fairy cleanliness

iro bath

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Here’s a question not often asked: how- and how often- do fairies keep themselves clean? We know that they have very strong opinions on the cleanliness of human homes, and that they will punish or reward maids and housewives according to what they find, but does this extend to their own dwellings and, for that matter, to their own persons?

When you start to look, you find that the evidence exists in some quantity- so here are the best conclusions I can reach.  The need for the fairies to wash themselves and their clothes was accepted without question by our ancestors- for example, on the Isle of Man the saying was that “If rain falls when it’s sunny, the fairies are washing.”

Bathing faes

“Til after long time myrke, when blest were windows, dares and lights,

And pales were fill’d, and hathes were swept, ‘gainst Farie Elves and sprits:”

(William Warner, Albion’s England, 1586, Book V, c.XXV)

There are plenty of reports that demonstrate that fairies do, definitely, wash themselves.  As an outdoor people, living in woods and meadows, a lot of this bathing took place in natural bodies of water.  For example, in Northamptonshire certain ‘faery pools’ are known where the faeries swim at night; at Brington, in fact, bathing faeries were seen by witnesses as recently as 1840.  On the Isle of Man, beside the Gretch River, there’s a spot called the Fairy Ground where fairy mothers dressed in red used to be seen washing their babies.

It’s inevitable that encounters with fays are likely to occur at these bathing places.  A Northumberland tale records how a little girl gathering primroses by the River Wear came upon some faeries washing in the river.  In revenge for this invasion of their ablutions, she was abducted by them that same night and her father then had to follow a very complex ritual to be able to recover her.  Sometimes, it’s the faery who’s vulnerable. From North Yorkshire comes a story of a faery girl found lost and alone near Tower Hill, Middleton-in-Teesdale.  A woman took the child home and made her warm and fed her but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity and returned her to the place by the river where she’d been found and where it was believed that the faeries bathed, in the hope that her parents would return for her (Bord, Fairies, Appendix, p.206).

In due course the faeries, who are ever a people alert to their own convenience and advantage, realised that they could wash themselves with far greater comfort in people’s homes.  Initially the fays may have used water collected around human farms: there is one Welsh account of them bathing in a moat; but it then became the practice for them to enter the dwellings and to require that fresh water be left out in front of the fire or kiln for them.  This may be seen as dependence- as Latham does in Elizabethan Fairies (p.118) but it probably should more properly be seen as proof of the fairies’ canny nature.  Even so, if the householders did comply, they could generally anticipate a few silver coins being left behind for them in thanks.  Perhaps this is why some even started to provide soap and towels to their supernatural visitors- less for reasons of kindness than greed (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886, p.196).

This habit must have started many centuries ago, because the provision of water has become established as- to all intents and purposes- a fairy right. Mrs Bray tells the story of a couple of maids in a house near Tavistock who forgot to put out a bucket for the pixies one night.  Their response on finding the empty pail was to immediately go upstairs, enter the girls’ room by the keyhole and then surround their bed, loudly debating the best punishments for their laziness and neglect.  The enraged pixies considered pinching, spoiling the maids’ best clothes, sending a tooth-ache or inflicting a red nose.  One of the maids heard this and suggested getting up to put matters right; the other refused to stir ‘for all the pixies in Devonshire.’  The first maid did get up and fill the bucket- and was rewarded with silver pennies; the other was lamed for her obstinacy and rudeness (Bray, Tamar and Tavy, pp.188-9).

There is widespread testimony to the custom from across the British Isles, most frequently from the Isle of Man and from Wales. Sometimes hot water was preferred but, very curiously, it’s also reported that the tylwyth teg would choose to wash their children in the water in which human children have already been cleaned whilst in the Highlands the water used for washing men’s feet was most desirable (Rhys, Celtic Folklore 56, 110, 137, 151, 198 & 240).

Once established as a perquisite of the good neighbours, it was generally advisable to give them what they wanted, for fear of what they’d use instead.  Householders need to be warned that the fays may wash in any liquid they find available (even if this is meant by the humans for cooking or drinking).  Although they may not sound ideal for the purpose, fairies have taken revenge if no water was put out by bathing their infants in kit, the water in which oats were soaked in the Highlands, or in milk.  In one incident on Shetland, trows entered a house at night to bathe a baby and found no water left out.  Muttering “Mukka, mukka, dilla do,” they made use instead of the ‘swotts’ -or water in which sowens or oat-husks were steeped- to wash the child and its clothes, before pouring the liquid back into the keg from which it had been taken…

Whilst we’d never think of drinking water deliberately put out for washing, we might not expect or realise that cooking liquids would be used- and this could prove risky.  In a case from Dunadd in Argyll, the fays one night washed a stolen child in milk left out for them by a farmhouse fire.  This milk was wisely thrown away by the farmer the next morning, but his sheep dog lapped it up- and instantly died.

So established was this practice that, in Gloucestershire on Christmas Eve, the faeries were formally invited into homes.  The fire was banked up and water was left out for their annual bath and, it was believed, if this was done good luck would be bound to follow for the next twelve months.

Fairies also noticed that humans built themselves places specially for bathing- and they’ve taken advantage of these too.  There’s a well-known story of faeries surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley:  when the caretaker William Butterfield arrived to open up he found at first that the key simply rotated in the lock without effect.  He then tried to push the door open, but felt resistance from the other side.  On finally forcing his way in, he was met with:

“whirr, whirr, whirr, such a noise and sight! All over the water and dipping into it was a lot of little creatures, all dressed in green from head to foot, none of them more than eighteen inches high, and making a chatter and a jabber thoroughly unintelligible.  They seemed to be taking a bath, only they bathed with all their clothes on.”

They scattered as soon as William appeared, leaving no trace behind (Briggs, Fairies in tradition, 133-4).

fairy laundry

Fairy laundry

Fairies wash their bodies then, albeit not that frequently, and, as we’ve just seen, they may save time and trouble by bathing fully clothed.  This example aside, there is again sufficient evidence to show that the fairies do their washing just like us.

At least one spring, the Claymore well near Kettleness in Yorkshire, has been identified as a place where the faes wash their clothes and, in the Middleton-in-Teesdale case cited earlier, the fairies were also said to wash their clothes in the river Tees there (Bord p.206).  J. G. Campbell has a very brief mention of a fisherman seeing green silk spread out to dry on the fairy knoll of Beinn Feall on Coll.  The colour of the cloth, let alone its location, confirm its supernatural ownership.

An interesting story comes from the Isle of Man dated to the early twentieth century.  A man reported that his father, when he was a boy, had come across the fairies doing their washing in the river at Glen Rushen.  They were beating the clothes on the rocks and then hanging them to dry on gorse bushes. The boy crept close and stole a little cap, which was too small even for a human child to wear.  He took it home to show his mother, but she told him to go straight back and replace it- which he did.

Several other spots on the same island are also sites of fairy laundering.  A flat stone used to be pointed out in the Rhenab River where the fairies were both heard and seen- at night and early in the morning- washing their clothes.  At an unnamed place in Arbory the fairies were often heard ” beetling and bleaching their clothes down at the stream” and, in another unidentified glen, children saw the fairies’ newly-washed linen spread out on a rock to dry according to a report in Chamber’s Journal from 1855.

Unsurprisingly, fairy clothes washing moved inside human homes, too.  A Shetland fisherman who had been dozing by his fire awoke to find a trow using his feet as a clothes horse for drying her child’s clothes.  When he shifted position and the washing fell in the ashes, she slapped his leg in irritation and, as a consequence, he and his descendants always limped.

The great unwashed?

I’ve discussed fairy smell previously and the question is obviously highly pertinent to the present topic.  A young Yorkshire woman in late Victorian times told her vicar that she’d never seen the faeries but she had smelt them.  Asked to describe the odour, she told him:

“If you have ever been a very crowded place of worship where the people have been congregated for some time, then you knew the smell.”

This very strongly suggests a sweaty, stale, unwashed smell and, of course, if they bathed but once a year that is only to be expected.  All the same, the prevailing concern with regular supplies of water and with cleanly human homes tends to indicate that they are not a noisome folk.  Perhaps fairies just smell different to humans, rather than dirty.

It’s also said that they object to bad smells in the human world (such as stale urine- a substance which was kept, ironically, for cleaning human clothes but which was a well-known fay-repellent). A very grubby fisherman from Port Erin on the Isle of Man was once forcibly washed by the fairies.  He’d spied them swinging on gorse bushes, but this punishment seems to have been about something more than his intrusion on their privacy.

Lastly, there is the well-known story of Bettie Stogs from Cornwall.  She and her husband were alcoholics and were neglecting themselves, their home and their baby. The pixies removed the infant, washed its clothes and left it near the cottage covered in flowers, by way of a salutary lesson to her.

For more discussion of faery physiology, anatomy and health, see my 2021 book ‘The Faery Lifecycle’:

A Cornish changeling

DSCF1799

The holy well at Carn Euny, April 2019 (note the strips of cloth tied to the tree as votive offerings)

Further to my last posting on the Sennen fairies, some more fairy reflections, based upon my recent visit to west Cornwall.

This story of a fairy changeling is taken from Bottrell’s Hearthside Tales vol. 2 pp.200-205.  I’ve edited it down to the most important details. It’s set in an attractive area at the heart of Penwith in West Cornwall.  Carn Brea is the first and last hill in the county, with stunning views around the coast to the north, west and south; on a clear day you can see the Isles of Scilly thirty miles off Land’s End. Brea hamlet lies just west of the hill and Brea Vean (‘little Brea’) just a short distance to the north.  A mile or so east is Bartinney Hill, topped by an Iron Age hillfort; on its south-east slopes lies Carn Euny, the site of the ruined chapel and holy wells, as well as a very well-preserved Iron Age village.  Further west still lie Sancreed village and church.

Here’s Bottrell’s account:

The Brea Vean changeling

“Hence, one might descend to the famous Chapel Uny Well, situated between Chapel Carn Brea and Bartine hills; the one crowned with its ruined chapel and the other with a castle. At Chapel Uny will be found a copious spring of as clear water as was ever seen. The only remains that can be identified, as having belonged to its ancient chapel, are a few dressed stones near the well. These, from their shape, would seem to have formed part of an arched door or window…

The Holy Well is, however, the most celebrated object in this vicinity; a few years ago, it was resorted to on the first three Wednesdays in May by scores of persons who had great faith in the virtue of its waters, which were considered very efficacious for curing most diseases incidental to childhood, and many ricketty babes are still bathed there at the stated times when the spring is believed to possess the most healing powers.  Belonging to this well and its neighbourhood there is a somewhat curious story, which we will relate just as it has often been told us by old people of the West Country.

A hundred years or more ago- one afternoon in harvest time- a woman called Jenny Trayer, who lived in Brea Vean (a little out-of-the-way place at the foot of Chapel Carn Brea) gave her baby suck, rocked it to sleep, then covered up the fire, turned down the brandis, placed fire-hook and furze-prong across the hearth for good luck, and, leaving the child alone, away she hastened over to Brea [for the celebration of the end of the harvest.  This went on very late and when Jenny returned home]  she opened her door, she saw, by the moonlight, that the cradle was overturned.  Straw and rags were on the floor, but no child was in sight.

Jenny groped round the room a long time; then, not finding any live embers among the ashes, she took the tinder-box and struck a light. “The more haste the worst speed.” It was a long time before she got the porvan (rush-wick) lit in the chill (iron lamp). In searching all the holes and corners, she came to the wood-corner and there among turves, ferns, and furze, she found the “cheeld,” fast asleep. Being very tired, she took up the child and went to bed. Next morning, when she looked at the babe, by daylight, it seemed to her that there was something strange about it—she didn’t know what—it was hearty enough, for it seemed never satisfied unless it was all the time sucking or eating it would roar like a bull if it hadn’t its will; and always wanted to be in her arms or eating pap.

The poor woman couldn’t do her “chars,” and had no rest of her life with the squalling, hungry brat. Yet, with all its sucking and eating, it seemed wasting to skin and bone. So it kept on all the winter—the more it ate the leaner it became. Many of the neighbours shook their heads when they saw it, and said they feared the “small people” had played her a trick that afternoon when she went to “neck-cutting.”

“Whether or no,” said they, “you can do nothing better, Jenny, than to bathe it in the Chapel Well as soon as May comes around.”

Accordingly, the first Wednesday in May she took it on her back and trudged away to Chapel Uny Well.  Three times she put it through the water from west to east, then dragged it three times round the well against the sun. Whether the bath made it any better or not she couldn’t tell in one week. The following Wednesday, however, the troublesome creature seemed to expect the jaunt, and to enjoy it as it rode away on her shoulder over hill and moor to the spring, where it had the same ducking again. The third Wednesday was a wet day; yet, not to spoil the spell, Jenny took the brat, placed it astride on her shoulder, held one foot in her hand, whilst he grasped her hair to keep himself steady, as they beat over the moors against wind and rain. The thing seemed to enjoy the storm, and crowed, like a cock, when the wind roared the loudest.

They had nearly passed round Chapel Carn Brea and were coming by some large rocks, near the open moor, when she heard a shrill voice, seemingly above her head, call out-

“Tredrill! Tredrill!  Thy wife and children greet thee well.”

Jenny was surprised to hear the shrill voice and nobody in sight. When she stopped an instant to look round, the thing on her shoulder cried out in a voice as shrill and loud-

“What care I for wife or child,
When I ride on Dowdy’s back to the Chapel Well,
And have got pap my fill?”

Frightened out of her senses, to hear the miserable little object talk like a man about his wife and his child, the poor woman cast it on the ground and there it lay sprawling, until she took courage, threw it across her shoulder, and ran back as fast as she could lay feet to ground till she came to Brea town. She stopped before some houses a little below Brea mansion, threw down the thing, that clung to her neck for dear life, on to a dung-heap beside the road.

The women of Brea all ran out to see what could be the matter. As soon as she recovered her breath, she told them what she had heard. “Ah,” exclaimed one, “didn’t I tell thee, months ago, that thee wert nussan a small body’s brat, ever since the neck-cuttan night, when thy child was spirited away, and that thing left in his place.”

“Shure enow,” said another, “anybody of common sense might see that. Only look at the thing there, sprawling upon his back in the mud. Did one ever see a Christian cheeld like that, with his goggle eyes, squinting one way; his ugly mouth drawn another, and his pinched-up nose all a-wry too?”

“And now, Jenny,” broke in the oldest crone, “’Tis lucky for ’e that I can tell ’e what you must do to get rid of this unlucky bucca [that is, a ‘puck’ or fairy], and get back thy own dear cheeld. Now there’s an old way, and I don’t know but it es the best; and that es to put the smale body upon the ashes’ pile and beat it well with a broom; then lay it naked under a church-way stile; there leave et, and keep out of sight and hearan till the turn of night; and, nine times out of ten, the thing will be took off and the stolen cheeld put in his place. There’s another plan but I never seed et tried—to make by night a smoky fire, with green ferns and dry. When the chimney and house are full of smoke as one can bear, throw the changeling on the hearth-stone; go out of the house; turn three times round; when one enters the right cheeld will be restored.”

The women of Brea- resolved to try what a beating on the ashes’ pile would do towards getting rid of the goblin- threw it on a heap near at hand and commenced belabouring it with their brooms. But they had scarcely touched it than it set up such a roar that it was heard in Brea mansion.  [The local landowner’s wife came and tried to stop them but the village women had little regard for their opinions as they were Quakers]

“who haven’t the grace,” said they, “to know anything about such creatures as spriggans, piskies, knackers (knockers of the mines) and other small folks, good or bad, that haunt our carns, moors, and mines; who can vanish or make themselves visible when and how they please, as all more enlightened folks know.”

The Brea women, in spite of the “unbelieving Quakers,” … determined to have their own way and waited till all was dark in the great house; then Jenny, with the bantling or spriggan, and another woman, who was very knowing about changelings, passed quietly up Brea town-place, and under a stile on the Church-way path crossing a field from Brea lane, they left the creature (then asleep) that had been such a plague to them.

Jenny returned to Brea Vean, and there stayed till morning. Being fatigued and worried she overslept herself, for it was nearly daybreak when she awoke and hurried away, between hopes and fears, to the stile; and there, sure enough, she found her own “dear cheeld,” sleeping on some dry straw. The infant was as clean, from head to foot, as water could make it, and wrapped up in a piece of old gay-flowered chintz; which small folks often covet and steal from furze-bushes, when it is placed there in the sun to dry.

Jenny nursed her recovered child with great care, but there was always something queer about it, as there always is about one that has been in the fairies’ power—if only for a few days. It was constantly ailing and complaining, and, as soon as it was able to toddle, it would wander far away to all sorts of out-of-the-way places… when he was about nine years of age the Squire took the changeling (as he was always called) into his service, but he was found to be such a poor simple innocent that he could never be trusted to work in the fields alone, much less with cattle, as a whim would take him, every now and then, to leave his work and wander away over hills and moors for days together. Yet he was found useful for attending to rearing cattle and sheep—then kept in great numbers on the unenclosed grounds of Brea. He was so careful of his master’s flock in lambing time that there was seldom any lost. Forsaken or weakly lambs were often given to him by the neighbours, and he contrived to rear them so well that, in a few years, he had a good flock of his own…

When he grew to man’s estate, however, he became subject to fits, and had to remain at home with his mother great part of his time. Yet, when the fits were over, nothing could restrain his propensity for wandering, and his sheep, goats, and even calves, always followed, and seemed equally to enjoy their rambles. He often talked to himself, and many believed that he was then holding converse with some of the fairy tribe, only visible to him, who enticed him to ramble among the earns, hills, and moors- their usual haunts.

When about thirty years of age he was missed for several days; and his flock had been noticed, staying longer than usual near the same place, on a moor between the Chapel Hill and Bartinné, and there- surrounded by his sheep- he was found, lying on a quantity of rushes which he had pulled and collected for making sheep-spans.  He lay, with his arm under his head, apparently in sweet sleep, but the poor changeling of Brea was dead.”

DSCF1803

Sancreed holy well, April 2019.  The glimmer inside is a night light candle we found on a ledge, along with a joss stick; note again the strips of cloth on the branches above.

The fairy well

I have written before about the magical properties of fairy wells, and several other accounts confirm the healing qualities of the Carn Euny well:

“Hither, on the first Wednesday in May, are still annually brought crippled or maimed children. At that period a bath is formed in front of the well by stopping up the course of the little stream with pieces of turf. Each child is stripped, and then made to drop a pin into the well itself, previously to being immersed three times in the bath. My informant, a native of the parish, told me that he had hardly, if ever, known the process to fail in giving relief. He also told me that the well was sometimes called the Giant’s Well- a title that seems inconsistent with the attribution of such great virtues.” (J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, Rambles in Western Cornwall by the Footsteps of the Giants, 1861).

Another account, from the mid-eighteenth century, states that:

“as a witness of its having done remarkable cures, it has a chapel adjoining to it, dedicated to St. Eunius, the ruins of which, consisting of much carved stone, bespeak it to have been formerly of no little note. The water has the reputation of drying humours as well as healing wounds…

The common people (of this as well as other countries) will not be content to attribute the benefit they receive to ordinary means; there must be something marvellous in all their cures. I happened, luckily, to be at this well upon the last day of the year, on which, according to vulgar opinion, it exerts its principal and most salutary powers. Two women were here who came from a neighbouring parish, and were busily employed in bathing a child. They both assured me that people who had a mind to receive any benefit from St. Euny’s well, must come and wash upon the first three Wednesdays in May. But to leave folly to its own delusion, it is certainly very gracious in Providence to distribute a remedy for so many disorders in a quality so universally found as cold is in every unmixed well water.” (William Borlase, Natural History of Cornwall, 1757, p.31)

Dr. Paris, in his Guide to Mount’s Bay, p.82, recorded that the water of the well was supposed to possess many miraculous virtues, especially in infantile mesenteric disease. Poorly children were dipped on the three first Wednesdays in May, and drawn through the pool three times against the sun and three times on the surrounding grass in the same direction.

Whatever the well’s properties, you’ll note that in this case the mother had to resort to far more unpleasant means to get rid of the changeling: he’s beaten (by all the local women) and then exposed, which was far from unusual (mis)treatment.  It’s also worthwhile emphasising the human boy’s physical and mental condition after his return from faery: he’s never well and he dies young, neither of which are unusual.

Gotch, Thomas Cooper, 1854-1931; A Golden Dream

A golden dream, Thomas Cooper Gotch

Sancreed well

The church of the parish here is that of Sancreed, which is just over two miles from Brea.  There too are the remains of an ancient chapel and a holy well (see above photo)- perhaps one of the largest and most impressive in Cornwall.  The church itself is an attractive building, but it is most notable for the fact that there are five Celtic crosses in the churchyard and because it is the resting place of several famous artists from the Newlyn school of painting.  Just to the south of the church are the graves of painters Stanhope Forbes, his wife Elizabeth Forbes and Thomas Cooper Gotch.  Whilst Stanhope Forbes mainly painted plein air scenes of Cornish farming and fishing life, his wife and Gotch both tended to prefer more mystical or mythical scenes.

Forbes-Green-Knight (2).jpg

Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, The green knight, from ‘King Arthur’s Wood.’

Further reading

A much longer and more detailed discussion of changelings and of the effects of fairy contact will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.  See too chapter 16 of my British Fairies (2017).

 

 

Sennen fairies

DSCF1764

The fairy spring at Sennen

This inspiration for this posting comes from an article on a fairy sighting written by E. Westlake, ‘A Traditional Hallucination’, which was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychic Research vol. 11 (1904), pages 191-193 and was much more recently reproduced in the Fairy Investigation Society Newsletter (New Series) no. 2 July 2015- which is where I first read it.

The experience took place in about 1888 at Sennen Cove, in the far west of Cornwall, and immediately fascinated me- because I know the village and because I knew I would probably visit before too long.  Both I and my wife have Cornish roots, some of her family still live in the county and, as a result (as well as the beauty of the place), we often go down.  This Easter we visited and I knew it was time to make a pilgrimage to the pisky well described in the Victorian report.

The incident was recounted to Mr Westlake, who visited Sennen in 1895, by Grace Penrose, a local woman aged 25, who had been about eighteen when she had her fairy experience.  Westlake wrote it up in 1897 (using his notes of the conversation from 1895) and it finally made it into print another seven years later. Grace’s story of ‘Little people at Sennen’ was this:

“One evening in August, I think it was in 1888, but am not sure to a year, we wanted some water from the well. It was late and Minnie [her elder sister] was afraid to go by herself, and I went with her to keep her company. It was a splendid night. The moon and stars were shining as bright as could be: the moon was overhead and one could see the sands and cliffs quite plain. Minnie had got down into the well – the bottom of which was dry on the near side and was bending down dipping up the water with a cup from the back of the well, which is deeper. I was standing by the side nearest the house with my back to the rock facing the little green of grass, but was looking to the right and watching Minnie in the well. She had been down a minute dipping up the water into the pitcher, when I heard a squeaking like mice.

I looked round, and there on the grass and about five feet in front of me were three little things like dolls about as high as a chair seat, dancing round and round with hands joined as fast as they could go; they were covering I should say as much ground as a big tray. They were dressed in a very thin white stuff like muslin, drawn in at the waist, and thrown all over their heads like a bride’s veil, so that I could not see their faces, and coming down over their arms. Their arms were stretched out rather drooping from the shoulder, and their hands were joined. I saw their hands very plainly, but did not distinguish fingers. They were as white as snow, hands and all. They had very small waists, no larger than the neck of that jug [6.5 inches]. Their dresses swell[ed] out at the bottom from the dancing; they were very long, and I don’t think I saw their feet, but they appeared to be dancing with a movement as though they were working their legs. They did not glide around. They went round pretty fast, as fast as real people. I’ve played like it before now. I watched them a minute [Note: This estimate is probably too great, for I find the time taken by three girls dancing around ‘two or three times as fast as they can’ is not more than 10 to 15 seconds] not longer; and they went around two or three times at least, as they were going round as fast as they could. They went around in the direction of the hands of a watch; and as gently as possible, with no sound of footsteps or rustling of dresses, but the squeaking noise kept up all the time. It was a pretty sound for mice, and louder – quite loud – one could have heard it I should think at a little distance.
Minnie in the well said, ‘Oh! What’s that! What’s that?’ (she told me afterwards she had heard the same noise as I had), and I said ‘Look! Look!’ And then as if they were frightened, they all ran together as quick as lightning up against the rock and they were out of sight in a moment.

I was that frightened, and was as white as a ghost when I came in. We looked at the clock and it was twelve. I have never been there before or since at that time of night. Mr Webber, a German, was in the house; and Mr Carter, who told me they were pixies, fairies you know. I had never heard or read of any such things before. Mother has since said that things were seen there [at the well] in times gone by, but I did not know of that then.”

Grace insisted that she had never had any other paranormal experiences nor suffered hallucinations.  Several details are especially fascinating about her account:

  • the tiny size of the fays, which fits quite well with popular tradition.  The comparison to a doll is something you’ll often see in the more recent reports;
  • their white colour, which is unusual but by no means unique in folklore encounters;
  • their fast spinning dance.  We know the fays for dancing on moonlit nights, but these rapid gyrations are unusual, but again not unheard of.  We should note too that they dance clockwise- ‘sunwise’- a direction that is generally thought to have magical connotations;
  • their high pitched squeaks, which once again are not conventional but which certainly fit with other reports as to their speech;
  • their disappearance into a solid rock face is fairly typical of fay disappearances;
  • the apparent loss of time.  It’s not entirely clear from Grace’s account, but she seems to imply that some hours may have been inexplicably lost during the experience.  Unaccounted passages of time, and the different passing of time in faery and in the human world, are regular incidents in fairy encounters.

The Journal titled Westlake’s article ‘A Traditional Hallucination’ and suggested that it was “obviously founded” on traditional lore- but this isn’t really true.  Had Grace been hallucinating this experience based upon her general knowledge of pixies and fairies, gleaned from books and popular stories, it would probably have been a great deal more conventional than it is.  We have dancing certainly, but we don’t have wings, green clothing, wands and other such standard fairy attributes.  The anomalies in the account argue for its truth.  So too does the fact that both sisters shared the experience- plus the fact that they were so close to the beings they saw.  Grace says the figures danced five feet away.  The path itself little over a metre wide so they were bound to be pretty near and so able to get a very good look.

DSCF1763

Westlake described the well as a “cavity between some granite blocks, about a yard square and deep, into which water drips from the hillside.”  It was approached by a steeply sloping and quite narrow path from the north (that is, from the village).  Beyond, to the east (that is, further uphill), he said there was an open space.

The site identified by the two girls was easily located on the Ordnance Survey map, lying on a steep footpath which leads up from the sea front road that runs through the village.  There’s more housing here than was the case in 1888 and it’s a busy thoroughfare leading from the heart of Sennen up to newer housing higher up the cliff.  Possibly it’s no busier than it was then, albeit holiday makers now replace local farmers and fishermen going about their business.

I was at first pessimistic about identifying the well, as lower down the slope there seemed to be considerable modern development (and, indeed, in one place builders were actively in the process of excavating the hillside to create space for a new dwelling).  Nevertheless, a walk of a few metres further brought me to the large rock that Grace mentioned, its identity as the source of the spring being confirmed by the abundant presence of water flowing beside the path.  Needless to say, with the advent of piped drinking water the well has been completely neglected and, as my photos show, it is seriously overgrown and silted up.  All the same, there was plentiful water present and, mentally removing the accumulated earth and plant material of 130 years, it was very easy to imagine the well as described by Grace and Westlake.

So, there I was.  Was I aware of the pisky presence?  No, I regret not. A hot, sunny bank holiday Monday with other tourists regularly walking past was probably not the ideal time: Grace saw the fairies on a moonlit August night, let’s recall.  I’d probably have to stay in Sennen to have any hope of repeating her encounter or- alternatively- buy the house next to the well.  This happened to be on the market at the time of our visit so, if you fancy living (quite literally) at Land’s End, with stunning views out over the sea (but facing fully into Atlantic gales in the winter), this is the place for you.  Mind, though, that your neighbours may turn out to be piskies, if they’re still in the vicinity.  That may be a blessing- or it may turn out to be a curse.

DSCF1765

Fairy festivals and seasons

cmb

Cicely Mary Barker, The mountain ash fairy

“They thought me, once, a magic tree

Of wondrous lucky charm,

And at the door they planted me

To keep the house from harm.”

In a recent post I described the best days of the week to see fairies (or to avoid them).  There are also certain times of the year when they are more likely to be abroad in the mortal world, and when encounters are more likely- whether for good or ill.  (I should confess at the start that I’ve broken my rule and included material from Ireland here, because it is so consistent with that of the British Isles.)

Evidence

The bulk of the evidence on festivals and seasons comes from Scotland and Ireland.  There is a little from Man, a couple of odd instances from England and Cornwall and from Wales all we really know is that there were three ‘spirit nights’, the Teir nos ysprydnos, when it was believed that supernatural beings of all descriptions were abroad (these were May Day, Midsummer Eve and Halloween). Despite any deficiencies, the accounts are nonetheless consistent.  Two festivals stand out across Britain and Ireland- these are May Day and Halloween.  On these occasions the fairies would be out and about in the world, partly for pleasure, sometimes because they moved home at these important times of the year.

May Day

On May Day fires were lit to scare away the fairies.  This was done in Ireland, Scotland and on Man, where it was expressly the gorse that was burned.  Both in Ireland and Man it was believed to be unlucky to give fire away to a neighbour at this time- perhaps because the protection from fairies was being dissipated.  On Man, too, rowan, primroses and green boughs were gathered and laid before the doors of houses, stables and cattle sheds to exclude the fairies.  The reason for these precautions seems to have been that this festival was the time when the fairies re-emerged after winter and held their first dances of the year.  As they were freshly abroad in the world, again, they were deemed particularly dangerous.  It was said to be unwise to draw water from a well for a drink after sunset.  In Ireland, it was believed too that the sidhe would try to steal butter at this time of year; in Scotland, they stole milk from the cows.  Also in Ireland it was considered that cutting blackthorn at this season would attract ill-fortune.  In the worst cases, a sudden death would be regarded as an indicator of an abduction.

Midsummer

The next major seasonal festival of the year was Midsummer, but this has fewer fairy associations.  In Ireland Beltaine fires were lit and once again these acted as barriers or discouragements to the sidhe folk.

Margaret Tarrant-Midsummer Night

Margaret Tarrant, Midsummer night

Halloween

It was at Halloween (Samhain) that supernatural forces again became particularity dangerous.  On this night the fairy folk were abroad once more, their last major excursion of the year, and mortals had to take precautions.  In Ireland it was thought that the sidhe moved home on this night, whilst in Scotland the fairy court enjoyed its last processional ride (or rade).  In the Outer Hebrides the season was said to be even more perilous as it was then that the fairy hosts fought amongst themselves, whilst in England this was the time of the year when the Wild Hunt rode through the nighttime skies of the South West.  A person out on Halloween was in grave danger of being swept up with the fairy throng. The only way that the rade could be seen by a mortal without peril was to have rowan hung at their door (hence my use of the verse and illustration by Cicely Mary Barker at the head of this post).  In Ireland offerings of food were left out near raths and other fairy sites in order to deflect their enmity.  Conversely, it was said that this was the best time of year to rescue those abducted, as the doors of the fairy hills would be open.

Even if you did not encounter the fairies, the countryside could be tainted.  For this reason, in Cornwall and in Ireland the advice was not to eat brambles after the end of October.  As in May, cutting blackthorn was discouraged too in November.  As at the start of the growing year, so at the end, torches were lit in the Highlands to keep the sidhe folk away.

Other festivals

Other dates with fairy links are Whitsuntide, when holy water was sprinkled inside Irish homes to ward off the sidhe and the season of Yule on Shetland, during which it was believed that the trows (trolls) would wander the island and enter human homes.  In fact, the Highland community served by the Reverend Robert Kirk during the late seventeenth century regarded all the quarter days (Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and Halloween) as risky times when there was fairy danger.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

John Duncan, The riders of the sidhe.

Whereas the evidence on days and times of day was rather less conclusive, it is possible with some certainty to point to festivals and seasons of the year, liminal turning points in the calendar, during which the portals to the supernatural open, or at least become more porous, allowing far greater access from one side to the other.

Further reading

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.