I have written before about fresh and marine water spirits and about the connections between the faeries and rivers and wells; in this post I want to pull together various scattered strands and highlight the magical power that seems to link faeries and water.
Water is very often seen being used for its ability to heal disease inflicted by or associated with the faeries. As I have described previously, water that runs in a southerly direction- whether that’s a river or stream or the outflow from a spring or well- is deemed to be especially effective in curing sickness. It may have to be collected in silence and it may be used to a patient or that person’s shirts or blouse, but it was regularly prescribed by Scottish witchcraft suspects- presumably because of its perceived efficacy.
As well as treating faery inflicted disease, water also could have a role in diagnosing the cause of a person’s infirmity. Katharine Craigie, who was tried on Orkney in 1640, had told a sick man that she could discover whether he was afflicted by “ane hill spirit, a kirk spirit or a water spirit,” which are probably different types of trow. She did this by placing three stones in the household’s fire all day; these were then left under the house’s threshold overnight and, in the morning, were dropped separately into a bucket of water. The stone that “chirned and chirled” when it was dropped in the water indicated that a kirk spirit (probably a trow living in a nearby church yard) was the cause of the malady. Craigie used this technique to diagnose affliction by a hill spirit in a second case and, in 1617, Orkney woman Katharine Caray had diagnosed a sea spirit in the same manner. James Knarstoun, another Orkney healer, in 1633 also used three stones for the same purpose. He brought one from the shoreline, one from a hill (surely a fairy knoll) and one from a kirk yard and promised that, once the spirit was revealed, it could be “called home again.”
Isobell Strauthaquinn was tried for witchcraft in 1597. Her mother had learned her healing skills from her fairy lover. Amongst the techniques she seems to have passed on to Isobell was curing people with water in which the bones of the dead had been washed.
What’s puzzling and contradictory in all this is the fact that very often the healer’s abilities derived from the fairies in the first place. In Perth in 1623 three women, Isobel Haldane, Janet Trall and Margaret Hormscleugh, were all accused of witchcraft. They had healed using south running water and all three claimed to have started their careers as healers after visiting the fairies in their hills and, through this, being endowed with their medical knowledge. Also in Perth, in 1640, a man called John Gothray was presented before the Presbytery for his use of charms to heal townspeople. He too claimed to have been abducted by the fairies when he was younger and, since then, to have been visited monthly by his changeling brother (who’d been stolen when he was barely one month old), who taught him how to make medicines using various herbs mixed with water from a local spring.
In Gothray’s case, the spring water seemed to have unique healing properties. Many such sites were known across Britain. Often, too, the water was in some way able to predict the outcome of the illness. Near Fodderty in Ross and Cromarty, there was a well called Tom na domhnuich; its water would be collected before sunrise and the patient bathed in it, if it then looked clear they would recover- if brown, they would die. In 1839 we have a record of a woman going there to collect water for her sickly child. She had the fascinating experience of seeing a “creature with glaring eyes” diving into the well (some sort of black dog or bogle apparition, apparently). She decided to collect the water anyway and, after washing her child, it fell soundly asleep- something which was unusual and looked hopeful for its recovery. Sadly, it then died. The water in the same well might also predict death or recovery by the way it turned- clockwise for health, anti-clockwise for death.
At the well of Kirkholme, the rising of the water indicated recovery; at Muntluck if the water was low, it was a bad sign and if you drank from one Dumfries well and then vomited, recovery was impossible.
James Knarstoun, the Orkney healer, was able to determine what was afflicting Patrick Hobie’s daughter using water collected from St Mary’s Well on the island. It had to be fetched only between midnight and cockcrow- for, as is well known, with the coming of dawn the fairies’ power weakens and they have to flee the earth surface.
Wells have another curious link with faeries. At Sùl na bà near Nigg, in Ross and Cromarty, there was a spring where local people would leave changeling children overnight, along with gifts for the fairies. The hope was that these would be accepted as sufficient to persuade the faes to restore the stolen child by the next morning. A number of such sites were once recognised- some springs, but others fairy hills and the like.
Lastly, water could be instrumental in helping you to see the fairies. As I have mentioned before, it was customary in many parts of the country to leave out water for the faes to wash in overnight. In the Bodleian Library in Oxford there is a seventeenth century spell book containing various magical charms to summon fairies. One involves a lengthy ritual focused around collecting faery washing water. Performed around the time of a new moon, clean water was set out by a clean hearth with a clean towel. By the morning a white rime or grease would be seen on the water which was removed with a silver spoon. This grease was then to be used the next evening to anoint your eyes before sitting up all night before a table set out with fresh bread and ale. Fairies would come to eat the food and the watcher would be able to see them because of the grease on their eyes. Fairy expert Katharine Briggs explains that this must work because the fairies will have washed their children and, in so doing, will have washed from them some of the special ointment with which they’re anointed to give them the faery second sight.
See my recently released book, Faery, for more discussion of the links between the faes and water. For more on faery medicine, see my Faery Lifecycle, 2021: