Changelings- the cuckoos of Middle Earth

In a previous post, I described some of the identifying features of changelings, the faery individuals substituted for human babies, and what their descriptions tell us about human perceptions of faery-kind more generally.

Having accumulated a good deal of material on changelings in my recent research, I decided to assemble that into a small booklet or pamphlet, which I’ve now published through Amazon. Middle Earth Cuckoos- the Changeling Phenomenon in British Faerylore is a study of the key aspects of the faery practice of exchanging members of their kind for newly born human infants. It complements the examination of the subject included in chapter 12 of my 2020 book, FaeryA Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk.

The phenomenon of changelings swapped for children gives us a lot of information about faeries more generally. Here are two examples. Firstly (as I described in the previous post) the look of the changeling tells us a great deal about the appearance of the wider faery population.

In 1664 Londoner John Barrow published a biographical account, The Lord’s Arms Outstretched in an Answer of Prayer, or, A True Relation of the Wonderful Deliverance of James Barrow. James fell ill and had searched unsuccessfully for a diagnosis and cure from doctors, astrologers and apothecaries. One day, a rat appeared to him and seemed to enter his body, which made him act “very much like a changling.” What was meant by this was that he seemed to have fits, he choked on food and was unable to eat, and he lost all his strength and became unable to work as an apprentice. His starved and feeble appearance was, to those around him, typical of what a faery interloper would look like.

James became emaciated and thin and looked like an old man. The great age of changelings is another key indicator of their faery nature and getting them to reveal it is central to the process of exposing and expelling them. Here are two examples of this.

The son of a man on Islay was abducted by the faeries and was replaced with a sibhreach (a changeling). To confirm this substitution, the father was advised to trick the faery into revealing himself through the charade called the ‘brewery of egg shells.’ Across Britain, this method was known to be infallible in getting the aged faery cuckoo to admit who he really was. In this case, as in others, the changeling was fascinated by the odd procedure and exclaimed that, in all his 800 years of life, he’d never seen cooking in egg-shells. The impostor was promptly thrown on the fire and shot up through the roof. The true son was then recovered.

In a similar case from Guernsey, a mother was cooking limpets in their shells on her hearth. The changeling that had replaced her son was provoked to exclaim:

“I’m not of this year, nor the year before,
Nor yet of the time of King John of yore,
But in all my days and years, I ween,
So many pots boiling I’ve never seen.”

Once again, the creature was thrown on the fire and a fairy mother promptly appeared to swap the human child back for her own.

These cases confirm that faeries, if not actually immortal, have extremely long life spans. The Guernsey account was recorded in 1903; King John lived 1166 to 1216, suggesting an age even greater than that seen in the Scottish example.

Fairies and bees

Carse, bees

Duncan Carse

There is some strange connection between the faes and bees which, rather like their associations with the cuckoo, are now no longer as clear to us as once may have been the case.

The Voice of the Beehive

There is certainly a similarity in terms of appearance and sound between honey bees and faeries.  For example, a man on Arran was out cutting bracken one day when the fairy host flew over him.  He reported that he saw “something like a swarm of bees,” into which he threw his reaping hook.  The iron tool caused the faes to drop his wife, whom they had abducted, leaving a ‘stock’ behind in her bed.

This comparison to a flock of small creatures is common in eye-witness reports.  A man at Benbecula in the Hebrides heard the sluagh go over- it sounded to him ‘like a flock of plovers.’  A man living near Harrogate once got up early to hoe his turnips.  When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green.  As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled like flocks of partridges.  In another Yorkshire report from Ilkley, fairies surprised whilst bathing in the spa there made a noise “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” when disturbed by the caretaker.

The noise of the fairies, as well as their appearance, might resemble that of a hive of bees.  John Aubrey told a tale of his former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, who in 1633 came across a “faiery dance” (a green circle on the grass) on the Wiltshire downs and saw there sprites who were “making all manner of odd noyses.”  They objected to his intrusion on their dancing and swarmed at him, “making a quick humming noyse all the time.”  A fairy host described on the Isle of Man sounded first like humming bees, then like a waterfall and lastly like a marching and murmuring crowd as they drew progressively nearer to the witness. (Sophia Morrison, Manx Fairy Tales, ‘Billy Beg, Tom Beg & the Fairies.)


Florence Anderson, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’

Bee-like Faes

Modern sightings have often compared fairies to insects (though admittedly butterflies, moths and dragonflies rather than bees) but ‘buzzing’ is a term used to describe their motion.  One woman in Florida saw a fairy riding a bee (for example Fairy Census no.s 5, 5A, 320, 400, 417, 475 & 251).  The weirdest sighting comes from Marjorie Johnson, Seeing Fairies:  a woman on holiday in mid-Cornwall during the 1930s described meeting a female cliff-dwelling pixie, who was about two feet in height and was covered in short dark brown hair with yellow rings on her body and arms, very much resembling a bumblebee (p.53).

Returning to the Manx faes, another traditional belief was that ‘bumbees’ are actually misbehaving fairies who have been turned into insects as a punishment by others in their community.  In Ireland, in the 1850s, a folklore collector was told that bees are fairies, who are in turn the souls of those deceased, a notion that connects us back to the longstanding ties between fairyland and the land of the dead.  The identity between fairies and bees is attested from Wales, too.  In British Goblins Wirt Sikes describes how those trying to destroy ancient megalithic monuments would face supernatural opposition, amongst which might be “swarms of bees, which are supposed to be fairies in disguise.”  (Notes & Queries, vol.10, 1854, p.500; Sikes p.383)

Lastly, mention ought to be made of the spirit called Browney, a Cornish fairy whom you’ll find listed by Katherine Briggs amongst others.  Simon Young (of the Fairy Investigation Society) has written an article, Against Taxonomy: The Fairy Families of Cornwall, which argues quite convincingly that this sprite- who was allegedly summoned to settle a swarm- was the product of confusion and misremembered stories, and never existed at all.

Further Reading

The fairy associations with moths is the subject of an earlier posting on this blog.  The fae ability to fly is also related to this, as is the existence (or not) of fairy wings. For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021).

hester margetson

Natural World

Cuckoos in the Scottish elf-land


Peg Maltby

There are, in Scottish fairy tradition, some fascinating but scattered clues that offer us a new perspective upon that land known widely as elfame/ elphame (the home of the elves).


The earliest clue to the existence of a different tradition to that we know comes from a verse romance of the earlier fifteenth century, King Berdok.  The eponymous hero of the story is ruler of Babylon and for seven years woos a maid called Mayiola or Mayok, daughter of the King of Faery.  He affectionately calls her his “the golk of Maryland.”  A golk is a cuckoo; this particular specimen is said to be but three years old and to have but one eye- nevertheless, “King Berdok luvit her weill.”

The date of Berdok is uncertain, but it was known by poet William Dunbar (1460-1522) who referred to it in his own poem In Secreit Place This Hyndir Nicht, in which another lover refers to his amour as “my golk of Marie land.”

These verses give us two curious problems: what’s the link between cuckoos and fairies and what and where is Mary land?  The latter question is a little easier to resolve.  The place name also appears as Mirry/ May/ Maiden and Murrayland.  For example, in 1596 Thomas Leyis of Aberdeen (along with much of the rest of his family, in fact) was accused of witchcraft and of dancing around the market cross in the town with the devil.  His former girlfriend, Elspet Keid, turned against him and gave evidence against him that led to his execution.  Thomas had told his erstwhile lover that he would take her to Murrayland and there marry her- “a man at the foot of a certain mountain being sure to rise at his bidding, and supply them with all they wanted.”  Given his association with supernatural powers, it seems possible that Thomas is talking about a Faery under a hill here, although we must recognise the fact that in Scotland at the time Murrayland was a real place too- the territory of Clan Murray.

Lastly, there is a ballad, ‘The rain rins down through Mirry-land toune.’  This tells the story of a young man, Sir Hew, who is killed and butchered and thrown in a well by a woman.  His mother searches for him and his ghost tells her to fetch a winding sheet, whereupon:

“And at the back of Mirry-land toune,/ It’s there we twa shall meet.”

Given the established links between faery and the dead, it seems reasonable to assume that the town is question has some supernatural nature.

Where does this odd name derive from? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Virgin Mary, although in the Catholic Middle Ages her presence in people’s minds is very likely to have affected the pronunciation.  Rather, the root is older than that in Britain.  The word appears to descend from the Anglo-Saxon maere, word that is preserved in modern English as ‘nightmare.’  Clearly it denotes some supernatural being- a sprite or incubus- from which it is an easy step to ‘fairy’ and thence ‘fairyland.’

she looked like a fairy queen

Walter Crane, She looked like a fairy queen (1877)

Fairy cuckoos

What about the cuckoo?  This is trickier: in Northern Europe it is a bird associated with summer, certainly, being its best known harbinger.  In the story, The Cuckoo and the Merry Tree, by Frances Browne (1857), the merry tree is some sort of evergreen like laurel, growing at the world’s end, and the cuckoo brings leaves from it in spring.

However, there seems from the Scottish traditions to be a fairy link that is now largely lost.  For example, in the Highlands it used to be said that, if it rained when the sun also shone, either the sith folk were baking or a gowk was going to heaven.  I have read that the cuckoo was regarded as being sacred to the fairies, but I haven’t been able to authenticate this.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of other folklore tradition concerning the bird- for instance, it’s said that, on hearing the first cuckoo in spring, you must run three times in a circle sun-wise to ensure good luck for the rest of the year. In addition, it’s said that if you hear a cuckoo on April 14th, you should immediately turn over any coins that you have in your pocket.  Readers will spot the fairy congruences here: the circling sunwise and the ‘turning’ of an item to dispel supernatural bad luck.  These practices may, of course, just be examples of more general folk magic but even so they serve to confirm the ‘uncanny’ nature of the bird.

Further reading

For more on faery relations with different animals, see my earlier posting on moths and pixies and on fairy beasts.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World