Fairies in Drag- and other curious stories

I’ve written before about the considerable evidence for diversity in Faery, both of race and of sexuality. Nevertheless, there are some suggestions of intolerance towards similar conduct by humans. There is a curiously inconclusive feeling story in Evans Wentz’ Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries that I have never been sure how to handle.  It’s set at Barra Head on the Isle of Barra in the Western Hebrides, and it tells how:

“a fairy woman used to come to a man’s window almost every night as though looking to see if the family was home. The man grew suspicious, and decided the fairy woman was watching her chance to steal his wife, so he proposed a plan. It was then (and still is) the custom after thatching a house to rope it across with heather-spun ropes, and, at the time, the man was busy spinning some of them; so he told his wife to take his place that night to spin the heather-rope, and said he would take her place at the spinning-wheel. They were thus placed when the fairy woman made the usual look in at the window, and she seeing that her intention was understood, said to the man, “You are yourself at the spinning-wheel and your wife is spinning the heather-rope.”

Fairy Faith, p.104.

It’s not at all clear from this brief account why the changes of place and work in the cottage foiled the fairy woman so successfully.  However, I recently got a clue from a story told by Edgar MacCulloch about a fairy incident on Guernsey (Guernsey Folklore, 215-7)  This concerns the baking activities of Le Grand and Le Petit Colin, who seem to have been two household fairies known on the island. 

The story goes as follows. A man and his wife occupied a small, simple cottage at St. Brioc. Both of them were kept very busy scraping a living together.  Amongst her occupations was spinning. Nightly, after her husband had already gone to bed, she would sit up late at her spinning wheel by the dim light of the “crâset” (cresset).

While thus occupied one night, she heard a knock at the door, and a voice enquiring whether the oven was hot, and whether a batch of dough might be baked in it. A voice from inside the house asked who was there, and, on hearing that it was Le Petit Colin, the door opened to let him in. She then heard the noise of the dough being placed in the oven, and a conversation between the two, from which she learned that the person already in the house with her was the fairy Le Grand Colin. After a time, the bread was taken out of the oven and the mysterious visitor departed, leaving behind him on the table a nicely baked cake, with an intimation that it was given in return for the use of the oven.

These visits were repeated frequently and at regular intervals and the woman at last mentioned them to her husband. He was immediately seized by a strong desire to witness the events, despite his wife begging him that he should leave them well alone. His will prevailed and it was settled that the next night the husband would take his wife’s place at the wheel, disguised in her clothes, and that she should go to bed. Knowing that her husband could not spin, she didn’t put any flax or wool on the distaff, so as to prevent her husband, in turning the wheel, from spoiling it. He’d not been long at his post, and was pretending to spin, when the expected visitor came. Although the man could see nothing, he heard one of the two say to the other:

“File, filiocque,

Rien en brocque,

Barbe à cé ser

Pas l’autre ser.”

“There’s flax on the distaff,

But nothing is spun;

Tonight, there’s a beard,

T’other night there was none.”

Upon which- both the fairies were heard to quit the house as if in anger, and were never again known to revisit it.

Once again, we have a role reversal, with the man undertaking a female task, and further compounding this action by wearing his wife’s clothes.  What are we to make of these two narratives?

It may be (possibly) that the fairies object to men in drag, but I think it’s really more about changes of appearance and identity defeating or frustrating them.  We know that one of the solutions to being pixie-led is to turn your coat or another garment.  As Katharine Briggs described, turning the clothes works as a change of identity, that frees the individual from the fairy enchantment.  The same theory seems to have been at play in the Scottish Highlands when boys were protected against being abducted by the fairies by means of disguising them in girl’s dresses (see Barbara Fairweather, Folklore of Glencoe and North Lorn, 1974). 

It appears to be the case that the fairies can, in certain circumstances at least, be fairly easily out-witted.  Perhaps, too, the simple action by the human target is an indication to the fairy that she or he knows what’s happening, at which point they decide to abandon their plan because they are likely now to meet resistance.

The Pied Piper of Elfame: fairy abductions of children

paton-fact-and-fancy-such-tricks-hath-strong-imagination 1863
Noel Paton, Fact and Fancy, 1863

It is well known that fairies try to steal new born babies and that they leave changelings behind in their place.  Here, I want to examine the evidence for the abduction of children older than toddlers and how this is achieved.  Babies can be snatched from their cradles; how are less helpless juveniles abducted?

There seem to be three broad strategies employed by the fairies in taking infants.  They kidnap them, they trick them or they lure them away.  There are ample examples to illustrate all of these ploys.  It was believed that the fairies were always on the lookout for chances to abduct infants (see, for example, Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 150).

Muriel Dawson
Muriel Dawson, Welcome to Fairyland

Obviously, it is easiest to kidnap children if they come willingly.  It is perfectly possible to achieve this by friendly means.  In one Scottish example, a little girl used to regularly play with the faeries under the Hill of Tulach at Monzie.  One day they cut a lock of her hair and told her that next time she visited she would stay with them for ever.  Fortunately, the child told her mother what had happened and she immediately worked various charms and never let her daughter out to play again.  A boy from Borgue in Kirkcudbrightshire used regularly to make extended visits to the Good Folk underground in the same manner; he was protected by suspending a crucifix blessed by a Catholic priest around his neck.  Indeed, in one case from Orkney, a little girl so pestered the local trows with repeated visits to their underground homes that, in their irritation, they breathed on her and paralysed her for life.

The Scottish ballad of Leesom Brand fits with the friendly visit pattern of journey to Faery.  A boy aged ten finds his way to “an unco’ land where wind never blew and no cocks ever crew.”  There he meets with and falls for a woman who is only eleven inches tall.  It is at this point that this story takes a slightly uncomfortable turn.  Despite her small statute this lady was “often in bed with men I’m told” and the young boy, despite his tender years, is no exception; he gets her pregnant, too, and it is this scandal that forces them both the flee back to the human world.

girl with faes

Simply opening the door to a human child might be enough to tempt it in, then. More often, some additional inducement was necessary.  It might be nothing more than playing upon the child’s curiosity, as in the Welsh medieval case of Elidyr.  He had run away from home after an argument and had hidden for two days on a river bank.  Two little men then appeared to him and invited him to go with them to “a country full of delights and sports.”  That was all he required to persuade him to go with them.  Somewhat comparable is the tale of a boy from St. Allen in Cornwall who was led into a Faery by a lovely lady.  He first strayed into a wood following the sound of music and after much wandering feel asleep.  When he awoke, a beautiful woman was with him and guided him through fantastic palaces. Eventually he was found by searchers, once again asleep.  Fascinatingly, Evans Wentz has a modern version of the Elidyr story, told to him near Strata Florida (see Fairy Faith 148;  Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 86, ‘The Lost Child’).

Some children require more material temptation.  On the Isle of Man, a girl was walking over a bridge when three little men appeared to her and offered her a farthing to go with them.  She wisely refused, knowing that consent would place her in their power for ever.  In Northumberland, at Chathill Farm near Alnwick, there was a well-known fairy ring.  It was reputed that, if a child danced around it nine times, she or he would be in the fairies’ control.  To encourage children to do this, the fairies used to leave food and other gifts at the ring and parents, in response, would tie bags containing the age-old remedy of peony roots and seeds around their infants’ necks as a protection against fairy harm.  Elsewhere in the north of England, it has been reported that the fairies would leave out fairy butter as bait for children.

margetson, fairy captive
Hester Margetson

These inducements to stray start to merge into out and out tricks.  For example, a boy lost on Dartmoor was found by his mother seated under an oak tree known to be a pixie haunt.  He told her that “two bundles of rags” had led him away- evidently, pixies in disguise so as to attract his attention and lull his suspicions.  As soon as the lights of his mother’s lantern appeared, these rags vanished (Hunt, Popular Romances, 96).

The kidnap can be covered by means of a changeling put in the abductee’s place.  The son of a blacksmith on the island of Islay, aged fourteen, suddenly fell ill and wasted away.  It was revealed to the father that, in fact, he had been taken by the fairies and a changeling left behind.  This the father exposed with the trick of brewing in egg shells and then violently expelled.  However, he had then to go to the fairy knoll to recover his son rather than the boy being automatically returned (as is the usual practice).  He was working for the fairies there as a blacksmith, which may explain their reluctance to part with him.

f1

Some children are snatched without ceremony.  In one case from the Isle of Man a boy sent to a neighbour’s house to borrow some candles at night was chased on his way home by a small woman and boy.  He ran, but only just kept ahead of them, and when he was back at his home, he had lost the power of speech and his hands and feet were twisted awry.  He remained this way for a week.  This could almost be a changeling story (see Evans Wentz 132).

sarah stilwell weber water babies
Sarah Stilwell Weber, Water Babies

Waldron tells of a ten-year-old girl from Ballasalla on the Isle of Man who had a lucky escape from such a kidnap attempt.  Out on an errand one day, she was detained by a crowd of little men. Some grabbed hold of her and declared their intention to take her with them; others in the party objected to the idea.  A fight broke out amongst the fairies and, because she had incited this discord, they spanked her but let her get away.  The truth of her account was seen in the little red hand prints marking her buttocks.

I have assumed so far, naturally, that parents would not wish to see their offspring taken to fairyland.  One incident contradicts this.  A woman from Badenoch in the Highlands was given shelter overnight in a fairy hill but, the next morning, she had to promise to surrender her child to them so as to be set free.  She agreed, but was to visit her daughter in the hill.  After a while, with no sign of things changing, the infant complained that she had been abandoned by her mother.  The woman scolded the girl for suggesting this and the fairies ejected her from the hill and never allowed her in again.  This suggestion that fairy abduction might sometimes be a boon for the child is confirmed by another source.  The verse ‘The Shepherd’s Dream,’ in William Warner’s Albion’s England, reveals that changelings were taken from mothers who beat or otherwise abused their progeny.

Going with the fairies need not be prolonged nor unpleasant, fortunately.  Many stories indicate that children will be well cared for in Faery.  A game keeper and his wife lived at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor. This couple had two children, and one morning when the wife had dressed the eldest she let her run away to play while she dressed the baby. In due course, father and mother realised that the child had disappeared. They searched for days with help from their neighbours, and even bloodhounds, without finding her. One morning a little time later some young men went to pick nuts from a clump of trees near the keeper’s house, and at there they came suddenly on the child, undressed, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.

Ezio Anichini, Peter Pan

There are, therefore, many ways of luring children into fairyland- some are friendly and almost consensual, others are more underhand and forcible.  The child’s treatment once in Faery will also vary: some will be well cared for and treated as fairy playmates; others may find themselves put to work in menial roles.  I discuss all the many aspects of these abductions and how to avoid them in my recently published book Faery.  The abduction of children is just one aspect of the Darker Side of Faery, a subject explored in detail in my book of that title, published in 2021darker side.