“Poor Little Greenie:” Faeries and Little Green Men

The colour green has always been strangely linked to fairies. Older texts often refer to the Good Folk as being green, but in fact this almost always denotes their clothing colour- just as calling a faery ‘red’ or ‘black’ generally refers to their hair colour rather than saying anything about flesh tone. For example, the Devonshire pixies are reported “to be” green in colour but the same witness also went on to state that, if you wear green, “you’ll soon be mourning,” pretty clearly indicating that she was discussing the pixies’ clothing.

Green garments are a constant in faerylore across Britain and across time. In the Lincolnshire Fens in the east of England, for instance, the local nature spirits were called (amongst other things) the ‘Green Coaties.’  A similar term was used in Lancashire as well- see the references to the ‘Greenies’ in Bowker’s Goblin Tales.

In the Western Isles of Scotland, it was said that it was not advisable to sleep in a house where water for washing had not been put out at night for the fairies.  This was because the “slender one of the green coat” would come with her baby at night and wash it in the milk instead.  What’s notable is not only that the fairy woman (bean sith) is dressed in green but that (as is quite common in Gaelic speaking areas) she is described as “slender.”  This adjective often describes fairy females, perhaps indicating part of their believed allure: their willowy, juvenile bodies (or was it really an allusion to their emaciated, dangerously hungry bodies?) The association with green was especially strong in the Highlands. For instance, in Gaelic songs and prayers we may also find reference to the “slender woman of the green kirtle” (bean chaol a chota uaine) and, more generally, to the “tribe of the green mantles” (luchd nan trasganan uaine);

The trows of Shetland are described as looking like children of three or four years of age, small and ‘pirjink’ (neat) about the legs and clothed in tight green garments with green tapered caps. In Galloway, the story is told of two small boys dressed in green who were born from eggs.  They were said to have looked something like brownies, or mongrel fairies, but sadly they quickly vanished before much more could be learned about them.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Turning to Wales, the Green Lady of Caerphilly was a beautiful woman dressed in green who was met one day at the castle in the town by a man called Ieuan Owen.  She led him underground and along a very lengthy passage before they emerged beside a lake in a cavern.  There the green lady vanished, but another faery maiden then appeared and led Owen beneath the lake to a wonderful subterranean land.

My last example gives a rather different impression though, and perhaps opens up the possibility of something more sinister. In a Scottish story collected from an old nurse maid, she told how her mother had once nearly been drowned by a fairy being after she had fallen asleep beside a river.  The nurse’s mother awoke from her nap when she felt a tugging at her hair, as if someone or something trying to pull her into the water.  She leapt up, and then saw something “howd (bob) down the water like a green bunch of potato shaws (stalks).”  We can only note and puzzle over this account, which resembles nothing else I know of.  Perhaps the nurse’s mother saw the hair of a water sprite akin to Jenny Greenteeth, or the mane of a kelpie, or perhaps we have a sighting of some unique river faery.

As I have described previously, the greenness of British fairies goes right back to their early medieval origins and the Green Children who were discovered during the twelfth century at Woolpit in Suffolk. In that case, their greenness seemed to relate to their exclusively vegetarian, leguminous diet: Katharine Briggs speculated that their skin tone was the colour of death- although it might equally as well be the colour of Spring growth (if we have to read any symbolism at all into the preference). It might, too, represent their wild, rural nature- as with Robin Hood and his men in ‘Lincoln green.’ Whatever the truth, viridity seems to be a core part of British faery nature.

‘Gaily trip the fairies’- dances and the devil

fairy dance in a clearing doyle

Richard Doyle, Fairy Dance in a Clearing

“The tripping Fayry tricks shall play” Drayton, Muse’s Elysium, 8th Nymphal

Fairies are notorious for their tripping habits, dancing around grassy rings in the moonlight.  These joyful activities have become central to their nature and a cliché of fairy verse, as illustrated by just a handful of examples:

“Ouphe and goblin! imp and sprite!

Elf of eve! and starry Fay!

Ye that love the moon’s soft light,

Hither, hither wend your way;

Twine ye in the jocund ring,

Sing and trip it merrily,

Hand to hand, and wing to wing,

Round the wild witch-hazel tree.”

The culprit fay, Joseph Rodman Drake

“Trip it over moss and rock
To the owlet’s elvish tune”
The little people, Julius Madison Cawein

Also in the poem There are fairies, Cawein assures us:

“There are faeries; verily;
Verily:
For the old owl in the tree,
Hollow tree,
He who maketh melody
For them tripping merrily,
Told it me.”

Lastly, in another of his verses, Son of the Elf, Cawein describes how fairies-

“Or, beneath the owlet moon,
Trip it to the cricket’s tune…”

This is all very pretty and quaint and tends to reinforce the view that sees fairies as charming and harmless, all leisure and no malice.  It’s not the whole story.

Pixie Perspectives

There is something more to this idea of tripping dances than just poetic conventions, though.  In Somerset the green fairy rings are called ‘gallitraps’ and we are told by Ruth Tongue that they are produced by the pixies riding colts in circles in the fields.  If you step into a gallitrap, you are entirely with the pixies’ power.  If you have one foot in and one out, you can see them, but you can still escape. (Somerset Folklore, 1965, p.115)

The word gallitrap is rare and unusual to us now, but it was once much more familiar, particularly in certain parts of Britain.  As Ruth Tongue’s example shows, the word was in common use in the south-west of England, in the counties of Somerset, Gloucestershire and Devon.  In that region the gallitrap (or gallytrap or gallowtrap) was a mystic green circle from which a guilty person, having once stepped, would only escape by being delivered to justice.  They could only exit from the circle into the arms of the law or else would become “infatuated to their own discovery” as one writer expressed it- the circle would have affected them and they would feel driven to confess or to expose their own guilt.

In several parishes in Devon the ‘gallitrap’ was a patch of land hedged about and considered uncanny.  Anyone ‘feyed’ (or fated) to be hung for a crime who entered one of these fields would then be unable to leave again but would instead wander round in circles, searching vainly for the gate or stile, until the local parson was called to release them (thence into the custody of a magistrate).  The field is then, quite literally, a ‘gallow-trap.’  In this example, many readers will identify the very close parallels between this process and the experience of being pixie-led and also the links to green places reserved for the faes that I recently discussed.

Although this conception of the gallitrap seems some way away from fairy rings, they are intimately connected.  In the story Two Men of Mendip by Walter Raymond (1879), this scene occurs:

“She held out her finger and traced upon the parched grass the greener round of a pixie ring.  ‘We be in a gallow-trap’ she laughed.  ‘If either of us have a’ done wrong, ‘tis sure to be brought to light.  He started as if struck unawares, then with a low cry he hid his face in his hands… The superstition that any man of crime stepping into a fairy circle should surely come to justice was thrust out of her mind.’ (p.230)

Another dialect source confirms that in Somerset the word ‘gyaalitrap’ referred to the familiar pixie-ring in meadows and pastures.

It appears that, in south-west England, the idea of the gallitrap was steadily extended.  Firstly, it came to signify any mysterious circle, shape or sign.  Mary Palmer, a mid-eighteenth century documenter of Devonshire dialect, recorded how one of her interviewees had watched the village parson in the wood to see if he “made any zerckles or gallytraps”- if he drew any shapes on the ground.  It came about in time that gallytraps might be drawn inside, on tables, just as much as on the ground outside.  In turn, once the word was associated more with odd shapes than with grassy rings, it began to be applied to anything that was a bit misshapen, so that in due course in Gloucestershire the word was applied to frightful ornaments or head-dresses that people wore, or even to badly made tools.

fairy ring

Doyle, Fairy Ring

Highland Flings

There is then a large geographical gap before we encounter the term again in Scotland.  The word ‘gillatryp’ (although it has been subject to metathesis and the vowels have been swapped around) seems to be identical to ‘gallytrap’ and definitely shares the same supernatural connotations.  The gillatryp was originally the name of a witches’ dance but was also used as a nickname for a suspected witch.  For example, the Kirk Session of Essill in 1731 heard that “Margaret H. (Gillatryps) in Garmouth compeared and decleared herself penitent for her indecent practices in unseemly dances on 26th December last.”

A century and a half earlier, we see the word employed in its original sense.  At Elgin in 1596, “Magie Tailȝeour [and] Magie Thomsoune … confessit thame to be in ane dance callit gillatrype, singing a foull hieland sang…”

According to Isobel Goudie in 1662, the ‘maiden’ of the witches’ coven at Auldearn was nicknamed ‘Over the dyke with it’ because:

“The Devill [alwayis takis the] maiden in his hand nixt him, quhan they daunce Gillatrypes; and as they couped they would cry ‘over the dyke with it.”

These last examples link us back to our starting point, a dance with supernatural beings.  That appears to be the core of this word’s meaning and, whether linked to fairies, witches or to the devil, they were ill-omened things.

Further Reading

Readers may wish to refer to Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary or to George Henderson’s Folklore of the Northern Counties, p.278, footnote 2- information supplied on Devon by Sabine Baring-Gould. For more on the danger of faery rings, see my Darker Side of Faery, 2021; for further discussion of faery rings, take a look at my Faeries in the Natural World (2021):

darker side

Natural World