Fairies and Salt

Medieval wall-painting of demons interfering with butter churning

It’s quite well-known that, amongst the varied substances to which fairies object, everyday, ordinary salt is one of the most repellent for them. I wish here to examine the details of this and to try to understand what the objection may be.

An immediate observation must be that not all faery beings have the same difficulty. It probably need not be pointed out that merfolk, living in the ocean, have no such aversion- and the same applies to the Scottish water horse (the each uisge) and the Manx tarroo-ushtey or water bull, both of which tolerate both fresh and salt water. For land dwelling fairies, however, salinity can be abhorrent, meaning that they cannot enter or cross the sea (just as a flowing stream can be a barrier). Perhaps for the same reason, in the Scottish islands the area below high tide line, which is washed regularly by the sea, is seen as being safe from fairy intrusion.

The fairies’ loathing of salt can work in two related ways. It can be used as a deliberate defence against them, or it can unwittingly prevent them handling human goods.

Amongst the means used by midwives and neighbours to protect mothers in labour was sprinkling salt around the house and, after the baby was safely delivered, it could be guarded against abduction by putting salt in the newborn’s mouth. Related to this, there were several ways of expelling a changeling.  In Wales, one means of driving off a changeling was to place salt on a shovel, make the sign of a cross in it and then to heat it over the fire.

One of James Brown’s Household Fairies, with salt sellar…

Quite a lot of the best evidence on the protection of property comes from the Isle of Man. There, for example, it used to be said that salt thrown into- or at least placed underneath- a milk churn would avoid any interference by the fairies with the butter making process (salt was also placed beneath querns on the island). Compare to this the Cumberland belief that you should sprinkle salt on the fire whilst churning milk to prevent the fairies interfering.

Likewise, the Manx belief is that, if you’re carrying milk in a pail, you should add a small pinch of salt to it, which will ensure that the fairies don’t steal or spoil the contents during the journey. A very curious example of this situation was reported around 1882-85. A Manx woman had killed and butchered one of her calves and decided to send her son with a cut of the meat as a gift to a poor neighbour. In her hurry, however, the mother forgot to protect the joint by sprinkling salt on it. As the boy walked over to the friend’s house, the local fairies realised that the meat was vulnerable and they followed the youth- licking him until he was sore over his entire body. When he got home, his mother had to wash him all over in salt in order to dispel the fairies’ magic. It’s a little hard to explain exactly what happened here: perhaps in licking the ‘goodness’ out of the meat the fairies also touched the boy’s bare arms, legs and face, thereby subjecting him to their power with their spit…

An account from Cornwall tells of a cow that was favoured by the fairies for its milk.  When the milkmaid at Bosfrancan farm near St Buryan realised what was happening, she sought advice from a local cunning woman who advised the maid to rub the cow’s udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving, as the pobel vean (the little folk) couldn’t abide the smell or taste of fish or salt.

These protections may prove a double edged sword, however, as frustrating the fairies’ will can rebound against you. A Cumbrian farmer had left a churn of milk outside his cottage overnight to keep it cool.  Next morning a little of the milk was missing and he guessed the fairies had filched some.  Annoyed, he fetched some of the salt he kept in his cottage to ward off evil spirits and threw it into the churn.  When the fairies sampled the milk the next night they were outraged by his response and retaliated by spitting it out all over his smallholding.  Wherever they sprayed the salty milk, the grass died and would not regrow.

As I have mentioned previously, fairies love human loaves, but they are wary of our seasoning. A Manx woman was walking on the road when she heard music and followed the sound. She came upon the source, a group of fairies (whom she could hear but not see), who asked her what she was carrying in her pannier. She had bread with her and offered to share it with them, placing part of the oat cake on a nearby hedge. As the bread was made without salt, they accepted it and, in return for her generosity, promised her that she would never be without bread thereafter.

There are, however, a few accounts which contradict this fairly consistent evidence. The residents of a farm at Gorsey Bank, in Shropshire, suffered constant disturbance from two boggarts that lived there.  Worn down by this, the farmer decided to move to escape them.  This was done, but the family were dismayed to find that the boggarts followed them, bringing a salt box that had been left behind. On the Scottish Borders, people would offer salt to the water sprite of the River Tweed to ensure a good catch of fish each year.  Finally, in Gerald of Wales’ account of the fairy abductee Elidyr, amongst the faery vocabulary that the youth was able to recall years after his experience was the phrase Halgein ydorum, ‘bring salt.’ Contact is not always anathema therefore.

oh dear…

Finally, a report from Airlie, near Dundee in Scotland, tells of a shepherd’s family that moved into a new cottage. One day, despite there being no other houses anywhere nearby, a small woman appeared at the door asking to borrow a little salt. She returned an equivalent amount of salt the following day and, as she left, the shepherd’s wife watched her. The mysterious woman disappeared behind a tree and the family assumed she was a fairy. After a pattern of regular borrowing and returning items had developed, the supposition was confirmed when, one day, the old woman asked the wife to stop pouring away her waste water near the tree, as it ran down into the old woman’s house. The story is interesting for the details of the subterranean home, but the fairy woman’s willingness to handle salt is the notable aspect for our purposes here.

Katharine Briggs, in her Dictionary of Fairies, argues that salt is disliked by our Good Neighbours because it is a “universal symbol of preservation, eternity and of goodwill.” In alchemy, it can represent the earthly human body, thus perhaps opposing it to the fairies’ ‘astral’ forms, but I suspect the real derivation of our ideas about salt is from Graeco-Roman culture, in which salt was placed on the lips of neonates to ward off evil spirits. This seems to have been inherited by the Christian church in giving salt to a child before baptism and this ancient power of protection thereby passed into British folk traditions.

Beyond Faery

I am very pleased to announce that Llewellyn Worldwide has now published Beyond Faery, the companion to my book Faery which they released in April this year.

As its full title indicates, in Beyond Faery- Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts, we’ve gone beyond the conventional boundaries and perceptions of the faes- as winged, female beings- to explore a much wider and wilder world of supernatural creatures. Many of these are far more dangerous- but perhaps, as a result, rather more predictable- that the humanoid fairies about whom I normally write.

The faery beasts that are the subject of this book share a number of traits that differentiate them from the more familiar members of fairy-kind. Firstly, they are- without exception- of conventional, human-world size. There are continual debates about the size of the human-like faes (as you’ll read in several of posts), but there is never any dispute that mermaids are the same size as we are and that the other creatures that resemble the mammals of this world- the dogs, horses, bulls and so on- are all the same size as their domesticated equivalents- if not somewhat bigger.

Secondly, the faery beasts have next to no conception of working with human beings to either assist them or to improve the natural world. Whilst the ‘eco-fairy’ has gained some vogue in recent decades, the faery beasts are far less complex creatures- or, we might say, more single minded in their purpose. Very many of them have one of two intentions: to scare us and/ or to kill and eat us. Mermaids are a bit different from this: they can enter into relationships with humans and raise families, but there is seldom any suggestion of any wider co-operation with us. They live in their world, we live in ours; they are in different dimensions- and the merfolk like to keep it that way.

These beasts are faery, then, in terms of their supernatural nature and their magical powers. They may look like the livestock or pets that we’re familiar with, but their behaviour is very different: their purpose and their powers are nothing like the ordinary dog’s or cow’s. In many ways, we might call them monsters.

Contents

The book’s chapters cover, firstly, the various water beasts: the mermaids, mere-maids (fresh water mermaids), river sprites, kelpies, water horses and water bulls and other less well-known creatures, such as the njugl and the shoopiltee. Then I turn to the land beasts, amongst whom I number the ‘hags,’ the banshees and similar; the hobs and goblins; the bogies, boggarts, brags and bugganes; the black daemon dogs; the fearsome faery beasts such as fae cats and bunnies and, lastly, the wills of the wisp.

Controversy?

I have already given readers a taste of what’s covered in the book in my recent postings, in which I’ve made use of material I’ve come across since the manuscript of Beyond Faery was finalised earlier this year. Those new examples supplement what you’ll find discussed in more detail in the chapters of the book. The text’s 270 pages long, including a glossary and a full bibliography.

I was a little surprised to note that Google has designated my book ‘controversial literature’- as, indeed, was the case for the previous book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk, too. On consideration, I quite like the thought of having written two controversial books. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you think it’s as subversive as this might suggest!

Beyond Faery IV- Bogies, boggarts and bugganes

Postcard_000271 (2)

Britain is full of bogles, bogies and such like (and similarly named) creatures.  They can often be hard to classify, as was remarked by an anonymous writer in 1833, discussing the works of Sir Walter Scott.  The bogle called ‘the greetin bairn of the lake’ from the lowlands of Scotland was described by this author as part fairy, part ghost and part brownie- a puzzling mix.

Types of boggle

Boggles are creatures that can take a range of forms, as well as names.  For instance, at Bryn-yr-Ellyllon (Elf Hill) near Mold in Clwyd, it was reported in the mid-nineteenth century that a skeleton dressed in gold had been seen, seated on the mound.  This was hardly your typical ‘elf’ plainly.

James Nicolson, describing Shetland folklore in 1981, added to his discussion of trows and mermaids a general list of ‘hard to classify’ supernatural beasts, which included:

  • The skekill, a sort of trow that rode a horse that was black with white spots and had fifteen tails;
  • The marool, a fish with a crest of flame and eyes all over its head; and,
  • Tangie, who whipped up storms and tried to abduct girls.

Duncan MacInnes, describing Argyllshire, adds to this list a giant, or fuath, with seven heads, seven humps and seven necks.

Besides these assorted monsters, there were many beings that accorded better with our standard categorisation of the Faery world.  On the Scottish borders lived the Brown Man of the Muirs, who protected the wildlife of the moors and took revenge upon those who ignored his warnings.  This being appears to have been a type of duergar, or dwarf.

Slightly further south, in county Durham in the north-east of England, we encounter the Hedley Kow.  The name might make us anticipate a bovine beast, but its nature was actually very fluid.  It was a supreme shape-shifter: in one version of its story, in Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales, the Kow is successively seen as a pot full of gold coins, a lump of silver, a lump of iron, a stone and, finally, a horse- which galloped off laughing at the hapless victim of its pranks.

In the same area we find the brags, which are also shape-shifting beings.  The Humbleknow brag, for example, was not visible, but would sound as if all the livestock on a farm had got loose- or else would sound like all the doors and windows in a house being driven in by a violent storm.  It was awful to experience, but harmless.  The Hylton Lane brag, by way of contrast, was visible- and appeared at night as a dog, calf, pony or woman, that would accompany any person walking between Sunderland and Hylton for a short distance before vanishing.  Again, this was disconcerting, but not dangerous.

As may be observed, many of these beings have names that must share a common root- bugs, bogies, boggarts, bugganes and such like.  A Welsh example is the bwgan.  The bwgan of Nant y Cythraul in the north of the country is a very interesting example of the species.  It is said to be the spirit of a fifteenth century monk who surrendered his soul to the devil and he can shapeshift, appearing in a number of surprising forms.  These include a hare that is being hunted by the cwn annwn and a dog that will run alongside you- before disconcertingly bursting into flames.

boggart

Boggarts

The boggarts of northern England generally can take on the role of domestic brownies, doing household and farm chores, but they can just as easily appear as nuisance- or malign- shapeshifters.  Henry More, in The Pre-Existency of the Soul (1647) describes aerial devils (as he terms them) who can endlessly change their form.  “One while a man, after a comely maid… A snarling Dog or bristled Boar or a jug of milk if you’re thirsty.” 

Various Victorian newspaper reports from Lancashire confirm the shape-shifting abilities of the boggart- as well as their close links to ghosts.  The Copp Lane Boggart was seen as a headless woman, a white lady, a lady in brown silk who glided ahead of witnesses, a donkey and a large dog with a white neck and a tail like a sheaf of corn that curled over its back as far as its shoulders.  The Spo Boggart was either a girl in a bonnet- not alarming at all- or a man dressed in black with cloven feet.  A Whitegate Lane in Fylde, near Blackpool, the boggart was a white calf or decapitated woman who carried her head under her arm.  Lastly, at Blackley, a boggart plagued a house with terrible noises- like a hen cackling, a steam whistle or a like child screaming- but only if you stood upon a certain flagstone.  This stone was lifted and a jug containing bones was found beneath, following which the ghost was silenced.  However, the occupants of the house still suffered from other nightly noises and saw an apparition of a young woman.

These creatures, when they live in close proximity to men, can become intolerable nuisances, which will often drive human households to try to escape them.  Simple flight to another place never seems to work: there are numerous stories that culminate with the ‘punch-line,’ “Aye, we’re flitting,” in which a family try to move to a new house to get away from the boggart, only to find that it’s moving with them.  More drastic measures are therefore required in many cases.

I’ve described before the practice of ‘laying,’ or exorcising boggarts.  Here are two more examples.  A ‘goblin’ was ‘put down’ at Llanwddyn Parish, Montgomeryshire, by means of trapping it in a quill and sealing that under a large boulder in a river.  The Barcroft Hall boggart in Lancashire was driven off by the simple expedient of giving it a pair of clogs.  This was done for the best reasons, because it had been seen barefoot and had been pitied, but it took the present as an insult and abandoned the farm.  As many readers will immediately remember, the gift of clothes is one of the main means of driving away brownies and hobs (whether intentionally or not), a fact which underlines the close ties between boggarts and these other beings.

Manx Monsters

The Isle of Man has several bogle like beings.  There, if you are unlucky, you may encounter:

Bugganes

This creature is invariably mischievous, if not malicious.   The least of his misbehaviour is blowing smoke back down chimneys, pulling thatch off roofs and pushing sheep over cliffs.  He travels around in a form resembling a spinning wheel, laughing all the while at humans’ misfortunes.  Luckily, they’re not very bright and can fairly easily be outwitted and beaten.  They are, nonetheless, terrifying creatures.  The buggane of St Trinians is as big as a house with green hair and blazing eyes, but he can shape-shift, shrinking to the size of a beetle or a mouse, appearing like a large, dark calf or tearing off his head and throwing it at people like a blazing ball.  Sometimes, the buggane can be entirely shapeless, just a black mist that engulfs and chokes a person.

The buggane seen at Ballakillingham was fairly representative of its kind in that it appeared as a large grey bulldog with an awful howl.  It would lurk in the shadows, alarming travellers (much like the black dogs of England).  However, this particular spirit had another quality.  If your pig was sickly, if you collected dust from where the buggane walked at night and rubbed it on the pig’s back (along with saying the right charm) the pig would be healed.

Other buggane guises include a sack of chaff; a black monster the size of a haystack that fills the entire width of a road; a small creature the dimensions of a cat that can suddenly swell to the size of a horse and, even, a hybrid being that’s a man with a horse’s head and glowing eyes.

Various brave but foolhardy Manx men have tried to fight bugganes- almost always without success.  Their ability to change size and shape makes them nearly impossible to defeat.  The best way of dealing with one is to speak the absolute truth to it- something it apparently respects.

There is a strong belief on Man that connects bugganes to those who have been murdered or who have died unfairly.  They seem to be the ghosts of those who have died without receiving justice- including, in one case, a man who was wrongfully executed for a murder he did not commit.  Although they are generally said to inhabit caves, the bugganes that are some sort of ghost will be found haunting the site of their death.

Fynoderees

The fynoderee is something like the mainland British brownie or hobgoblin, and will help out with heavy tasks on farms in return for just a little grain and a bowl of cream.  He is generally helpful rather than dangerous, even though he is very strong  and has shaggy black hair and fiery eyes.

In one Manx story, the fynoderee even took pity on a lonely man who had been cheated upon by his girlfriend and had fought with- and accidentally killed- his rival.  The man lived in a cave and the fynoderee would leave him food and gather fire-wood for him.  As the man grew older and less mobile, the spirit even planted a plantation of trees near to his shelter to make life easier for him.

The fynoderee can also be a solitary creature living in elder trees.  He can cure sickness in animals, and can be summoned by humans using the right words and charms.  The correct protocol is to take off your headgear and say to the being in the tree:

“Fynoderee, fynoderee,/ Come you down, for I can see.”

Then you must cross yourself three times.  Getting the words wrong or neglecting to cross yourself can lead to disastrous consequences.

Although generally benign, if he’s vexed, the fynoderee can just as easily steal away a farm’s entire livestock, enchanting them rather like the god Pan.  They can be subdued by singing, but driven off by the singing of hymns or (like a brownie) by being given clothes.

Glashtins

This creature can have two forms: human-like or a horse.  In the shape of a handsome (if rather hairy) young man he will try to lure away young women with strings of pearls, very much like the Scottish kelpie or each uisgebut his intentions are not romantic but fatal.  His true nature is often revealed by his pointed ears and his sharp, pointed teeth. One in horse form was revealed by his tail, which was three yards long.

Glashtins tend to live in deep pools in isolated rivers or behind water falls but, because of their predatory nature, they can be a severe nuisance that communities need to expel.  In one story this was done by a man disguising himself as a woman and sitting spinning in his home until a number of young glashtins had gathered, interested in this new girl in the neighbourhood.  He then surprised them by pelting them with burning turves, a shock that was sufficient to drive them off permanently.

There is another form of the glashtin who will assist on farms much like a fynoderee.  They will thresh corn and sometimes take the form of a lamb to play amongst the flocks.  The glashtin even may be seen as something like a tarroo-ushtey.  These glashtins seem to be generally good-natured, for all their might, but they are dim and coarse and can take offence very easily.

Further Reading

My forthcoming book Beyond Faery examines all of these strange beings in details. The examples detailed here are more recent evidence I’ve turned up since the text of the new book was completed.

Beyond Faery II: Faery water beasts

ceffyl 2

This second posting in advance of publication of my next book, Beyond Faeryexamines some of the water beasts of Britain.

There are various faery beasts that infest fresh and salt water in the British Isles.  They are primarily found in Scotland and they are primarily horse like.

Each uisge

These ‘water horses’ live in lakes.  Usually people only encounter and have to deal with one, but at Loch Aird na h-uamh there are reported to be multiple horses.  Some of these steeds, people have been brave enough to ride; some have even survived the attempt, though many of those who tried were drowned or torn to pieces.

Typical of the species is the horse found at Lochan-larig-eala near Breadalbane.  It is a white horse and when it first appears on the lake side, it lies down on the grass and looks very placid and pretty.  Nine children playing there once climbed on it- at which point it dashed for the water immediately.  The child at the back was able to use the horse’s tail to swing off; the rest didn’t escape and it’s said that they were eaten and all that remained was their lungs, which floated ashore in due course.  Some versions of this story say that it happened on a Sunday, so that the faery beast was actually being employed to punish children who were playing rather than attending church. In this second account, the boy who survived happened to have a few Bible pages in his pocket, which saved him.

Some water horses will submit to working for humans, just to be able to get near enough to kill one.  The story is told of John MacInnes of Glenelg who was struggling with his farm work when he was approached by a stranger and offered assistance. He accepted, despite the odd conditions imposed, and immediately found a fine horse standing in his field. MacInnes used it for ploughing and was delighted to find that it was both strong and obedient.  Things went very well for time, although every evening when the horse was stabled John had to make sure he threw earth from a mole-hill over its back and said a blessing.  One night he forgot.  The next day, as soon as they were out in the field, the horse grabbed him with its teeth and dragged him into the nearby loch.  All that was ever recovered was his liver.  The stipulation of the mole-hill is curious, but one way of trapping fairy cattle (and mermaids) on land is to sprinkle grave-yard earth across their path (Scottish Notes & Queries, vol.6, 1893).

There is an each uisge in Loch-nan-Spioradan in Strathspey, which is seen as a beautifully equipped horse.  A local healer who managed to obtain the bit from this horse’s bridle found that it had great healing properties, especially for ‘maladies of the mind.’

Water horses are also known in Wales, where they’re called ceffyl y dwr.  Like their more northerly counterparts, their habit is to tempt people to ride them- and then to destroy them.  From the island of Guernsey there are reports of a white fairy horse that shared many of the traits of each-uisge.  Its back could extend to accommodate as many victims as wanted to ride on it and, once the riders were settled, it would gallop off at alarming speed with its passengers unable to dismount.  Luckily, on Guernsey, the aim of all this was relatively benign- it was just to give the victims a fright before they were dumped in a marsh.  

Fairy Horses

The each uisge is a uniquely savage creature, most unlike the average horse used for riding (whether by humans or their fairy neighbours).  From Breadalbane there also comes a report of a ‘fairy horse’ that was much more like the sort of animal known in the human world.  A man spent an evening dancing in the sithean at Lawes.  He enjoyed himself immensely and, at the end of the festivities, the fairies lent him a horse to get home, which flew through the air like lightning and dropped him down his chimney. 

There are a number of less benign variations upon this supernatural steed.  From Leeds, West Yorkshire, come reports of a ‘goblin horse’ that would allow people to mount it before it galloped off at high speed, shouting ‘I ride, Madge!’ and dumping the rider in a pond.  Further north in Durham there are similar creatures called ‘brags.’  The Leeds area is also home to a ‘black dog’ apparition called the ‘padfoot’ (which I will discuss in a separate posting).  These beings are notorious shapeshifters and, in one instance, it changed into a donkey which ran between a man’s legs and carried him off at speed to his home (to the accompaniment of clanking chains) before sinking into the earth.

The Isle of Man also has the mysterious ‘night horses,’ which seem to be a faery horse with some of the traits of the each uisge. These are found at night on roads, ready saddled and bridled, but if any is incautious enough to mount, he will find himself flying along at a terrifying pace before being dumped on the ground somewhere. The night horse seems to like to give shocks, but no more. The creature called the glashtyn, which can have human and equine form, is more deadly. In its horse shape it will carry off any who mount it and try to drown them in a nearby river or pool.

As mentioned, Wales has its own water horse, the ceffyl y dwr, which is in fact one of several water beasts known there- or, alternatively, there is a single water sprite that assumes a number of different forms. Amongst those identified, there is a thin old man who is seen in raging mountain streams, sometimes stretching out his bony arms to observers; there is the water horse proper that’s found in pools or in rivers, where it tries to seize fishermen’s lines and drag them into the waters, and, lastly, there’s a monstrous fish (generally a salmon) that will try to drag under those that hunt it. In one instance, a man who tried to spear it whilst out fishing on a Sunday was nearly drowned; he ascribed the fish’s attack to a righteous rage over his Sabbath breaking- something that’s also been said of the each uisge already, although this may be more a matter of his guilty conscience than the faery beast being recruited to policing the reformed religion.

Kelpie

Kelpies

Kelpies are often treated as being interchangeable with the each uisge, but whilst the former live in still fresh water, kelpies live in rivers or in the sea.  They are just as unpleasant as the each.  One sighted near Leurbost on the isle of Lewis in 1856 was described as looking like a “huge peat stack”- so large that a six oar boat could pass between the fins that were seen. Iit was up to forty feet in length, witnesses claimed, and it had swallowed whole a blanket left by the loch by girl tending cattle.

Kelpies have been called ‘sly devils.’  Very much like the each, the kelpie will often appear on the banks of a swollen stream, feeding tamely as a traveller approaches.  If the person is already on a horse, the kelpie will trot across the stream ahead, suggesting that it is shallow and safe.  If the person is on foot, he’ll be tempted to mount the horse and ride it across the river.  If he does this, it will immediately gallop off with shrieks of terrifying laughter.  Either way, the hapless traveller is overwhelmed by the flooding torrent.  For these reasons, William Collins, in his Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, described how the kelpie will:

“Instant, furious, raise the whelming flood,

O’er its drowned banks, forbidding all return…” 

So that victims are “Drown’d by the kaelpie’s wrath.”

Sometimes, it is possible to tame a kelpie by surprising it and slipping over its head a halter that has been blessed by having crosses cut into the cheek pieces.  The beast can then be used for farm labour, pulling loads and ploughs and such like.  It can’t escape as long as the bridle is kept on it, however badly it’s treated.  Kelpies have been used like this to help build churches and castles all around Scotland.  

Interestingly, like fairies, it’s said that kelpies can predict or see future events.  They are said, around Buckhaven, to roar before a loss at sea.  Likewise, at Rumbling Bridge in Clackmannanshire, the kelpie predicts drownings by lights and noises at night (although, admittedly, it is also that same kelpie that helps to drown many of these unfortunate people).   At St Vigeans, near Arbroath, a kelpie had been used to build the church and, when finally released, it foretold the minister’s death by suicide and collapse of the church.  Both these things happened in the early eighteenth century.  The kelpie that was used to build the church of St Mungo’s in Dumfriesshire advised that a larger graveyard than had been planned ought to be laid out, as it would be needed one day to accommodate all the bodies from a nearby battle.

Given their violent propensities, people have often tried to hunt and exterminate kelpies living in their vicinity.  This is, perhaps predictably, very difficult to do, because the kelpie is a hardy, elusive and indestructible creature.  In the 1780s, for example, Highlanders tried to drag Loch Garn with nets to catch the underwater beast.  They failed to catch it, after which they tried scattering lime in the loch to kill the monster.  Neither succeeded.

tarbh

Other monsters

In the far north of Scotland and on Orkney and Shetland you’ll encounter (if you’re very unlucky) the njugl or neogle, a creature seen near water mills that resembles a pony.  It will stop the mill wheel to gain attention and, when the miller goes out to see what the problem might be, he will find the pony, saddled and bridled, grazing nearby.  If he mounts it, it will dash for the water and leap off the bank, with both rider and mount vanishing in a flash of flame.  Wiser millers chase the creature off with a red hot poker or similar.  A notorious example of the nuggle used to plague the Orkney island of Hoy.  It lived in a small lake on the north-east coast of the island, called the Water o’ Hoy, but frequented the ford over the Pegal Burn, a little further to the south, where it would try to catch hapless travellers.

In the Scottish Highlands and on Orkney and Shetland a variety of other terrifying and often hybrid beasts were known.  Some of these are mentioned in my forthcoming posting on boggles.  Here I’ll mention one that seemed to have no specific name.  Over Yule on Shetland people were not expected to do any of their normal day to day activities or work.  Once, however, two men went out fishing in defiance of the prohibition.  They netted a monstrous creature that was half fish and half horse and which spoke, declaring to them:  “Man who fished in Yule week/ Fortune never more did seek.”  Once again, these supernatural beings seem to be recruited to back up religious rules and festivals.

Water Bulls

As I have discussed previously, you may encounter fairy cattle owned by the good folk, which have their own identifying characteristics, but there are also water bulls, the tarbh uisge of the Highlands.  The bulls of Glenlochay near Breadalbane are said to be brindled, red and yellow.  A cow will abandon its herd and travel up the glen to the lochan, where she will bellow until the tarbh appears and mates with her.  The hybrid offspring are known to be those of a tarbh because they are all black with curly hair.  

On the Isle of Man, water bulls are also found, being called tarroo ushtey.  They’re recognised by their shining coats and sharp ears.   They often mix with normal herds of cattle, and rouse the fury of the bulls kept with them, although the tarroo seems indifferent to the rage of the farmer’s bull.  They can be fierce, but they often move quite slowly, making a strange whirring sound.

In one Manx story a farmer objected to the bull grazing with his herds and consuming his valuable grass, so he drove it off several times.  The result, though, was that blights struck his crops.  A wise-woman told the man that he could subdue the tarroo with a stick made from rowan wood- which he duly did.  Having the beast under his control, he resolved to sell it at the market.  He was easily able to drive the bull there, but no-one seemed interested, despite the size and sleekness of the animal.  Right at the end of the day, a man finally showed interest, but he asked the farmer to ride the bull to prove that it was tame and well-behaved.  Desperate for the sale, he consented to this, but as soon as he’d mounted he dropped his rowan switch.  This of course released the tarroo from his control and it bolted, nearly carrying the man off into a deep pool in the river.  He narrowly escaped- and learned his lesson, which was to always show the proper respect to the fairies and the faery beasts.

Also found on the Isle of Man is the glashtin, a sort of bogie that will very commonly take on equine form and which will inhabit pools and rivers.  Unlike the tarroo ushtey, the glashtin is said to mingle with the herds of horses kept by Manx farmers without any disturbance or hostility between the animals.  However, the glashtins only liked to mate with pure Manx-bred ponies, and as the island’s horses interbred more and more with outside breeds, the glashtin was seen less and less.

If you’re interested to learn more, see too my separate posting on water beasts.  Additionally, several chapters of Beyond Faery deal in detail with the many aspects of the lore of the inland and marine water beasts of Britain.  The book is due for release in early November.

In search of Orkney trows

DSCF1809

The Stones of Stenness

I recently visited the Orkney islands, a long planned holiday to see the many megalithic monuments there- the standing stones, burial chambers and cairns.  The Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe were all well worth the trip, but it was good too to experience the scene of so much folklore that I’ve read.

The islands are quite bleak and treeless and are covered in lochs (mostly fresh water but a few salt water).  The grey, cold water under grey cold skies (the weather wasn’t brilliant) made it very easy to imagine kelpies and tangies (the Gaelic speaking Highlanders’ each uisge or water horse) emerging from the waters and roaming the land in search of prey.

One day we crossed from the mainland to the island of Rousay, using the ferry Eynhallow from Tingwall jetty.  Eynhallow (the first syllable is pronounced like ‘eye’) is one of the two islands inhabited by the fin folk, or selkies.  Formerly it was called Hildaland, and was often hidden from human eyes whilst the fin-folk lived there during the summer months.

A man called Thorodale, who lived in Evie on the mainland, just across the sound from Eynhallow, lost his wife one day when she was abducted by a fin-man.  He planned revenge and sought the advice of a wise ‘spae-woman’ on the island of Hoy.  She told him how to see the hidden island of Hildaland.  For nine moons, at midnight when the moon was full, Thorodale went nine times on his bare knees around the great Odin Stone of Stenness (this was a huge holed stone that no longer exists).  For the duration of nine moons, he looked through the hole in the stone and wished for the power of seeing Hildaland. After repeating this for nine months one beautiful summer morning, just after sunrise, Thorodale looked out on the sea and saw that, in the middle of Eynhallow Sound, there lay a pretty little island, where no land had ever been seen before.  Armed with salt and crosses to dispel the faery glamour, Thorodale rowed across to the revealed isle.  He fought off the fin-men, rescued his wife and then sowed salt around the whole island, banishing the fin-folk forever and claiming it for men.  Eynhallow is deserted today, but it is still protected- by a fearful tidal race of white crested standing waves.

DSCF1841

I also visited Hoy, not to meet the spae-wife but to visit the stunning Dwarfie Stane, a burial chamber hollowed out of a massive boulder.  It lies on a bleak hillside, just near the end of the Trowie Glen (the fairy valley).  That anything like this was carved with stone tools alone is deeply impressive.  The sound effects achieved by a single voice inside are also remarkable.

DSCF1842

The last notable fae site was a burial chamber on Cuween Hill on the mainland, called the Tomb of the Beagles because of the dog bones found inside, but also known locally as the Fairy Knowe.  It was a steep climb up to the site and a tight crawl along the entrance passage to get in, but it was very still and mysterious within.  Outside the wind was blowing; inside there was thick silence and a sense of contact, not just with the Neolithic farmers who had been buried there but with the faes whose dwelling it subsequently became.

DSCF1823

Lastly (on one of the coldest and wettest days of our trip!) we visited the farm museums at Kirbuster and Corrigall.  These were especially interesting as they preserved traditional Orkney farm houses and it was fascinating to see the open peat fires in the centre of the main rooms, with the smoke curling up through the hole in the roof, and to imagine those many stories I’d read in which a changeling child was placed in a basket in the smoke from the hot peat flames and driven to fly up through the ‘lum’ (the smoke hole), forcing the trows into returning the stolen human infant.

 

“In the likeness of a crab”- fairy shape shifters

paton_-_puck_and_fairies_from_a_midsummer_nights_dream

Joseph Noel Paton, Puck and the fairies

Although the ability to shape-shift is often reckoned to be a standard fairy attribute, it is actually very rare amongst the fairies of Britain.  Part of the reason for its prominence in popular imaginings is that it has one very well-known practitioner.

Glamour & invisibility

We ought perhaps to start with some definition of terms.  We’re not talking here about the fairies’ power of invisibility.  This appears to be pretty much universal, for British fairies at least; they can all vanish at will.  Secondly, shape shifting should not be confused with the regular fairy use of ‘glamour’ whereby magic can conceal the real identity of supernatural beings.  A good example arises in the stories of midwives taken at night to grand mansions to attend rich ladies in their childbirth.  It’s only when the midwife accidentally touches some fairy ointment to her eye that her vision penetrates through the illusion to see that she’s really surrounded by misshapen elves in a cave.

Thirdly, by shape-shifting I’m not really concerned so much with the ability of spriggans to change their size.  An example of this comes from the Cornish story ‘Cherry of Zennor.’  Cherry is approached by a gentleman to work for him; they reach his home after a long and slightly mysterious journey, which appears to be a passage into fairyland.  All goes well until Cherry looks into a well where she sees many tiny fairies dancing- and her new master shrunk to the same size.  Fascinating as this is, in this posting I’m really only interested in a complete change of form.

Hobgoblins and sweet Puck

In 1584 in his horror novella Beware the cat, William Baldwin wrote what’s probably our first clear statement of the fairies’ shape-shifting habits:

“I have read that … the ayry spirits which wee call Demones, of which kinde are Incubus and Succubus, Robin Good Fellow the Fairy and Goblins, which the Miners call Telchines, could at their pleasure take upon them any other sortes.”

Robin Goodfellow is our particular interest here.  Also called Puck, this hobgoblin is the consummate master of transformation, as immortalised in Midsummer night’s dream, Act II, scene 1 in which Puck boasts to a fairy about his pranks:

“When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,/ Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:/ And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,/ In the very likeness of a roasted crab;/ And when she drinks, against her lips I bob/ And on her withered dewlap pour the ale./ The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,/ Sometimes for three foot stool mistaketh me;/ Then slip I from her bum, down topples she…”

All Shakespeare does here is give immortal form to the traditional character of Puck.  Other texts of about the same time give other examples of his tricks- these are The life of Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests (1628) and a poem called The pranks of Puck that has been attributed to Ben Jonson. In these works Robin is endowed with his shape-shifting power by his fairy father Oberon, who tells him:

“Thou hast the power to change thy shape/ To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape./ Transformed thus, by any meanes,/ See none thou harm’st but knaves and queanes.”

In the course of the stories Puck dispenses rough justice and has simple slapstick fun in a huge variety of forms- for example:

  • livestock such as a horse, a dog and an ox,
  • wild animals including a fox, a hare, a bear and a frog;
  • birds, including a crow, an owl and a raven;
  • various spirits including a will of the wisp and a ghost; and,
  • various people, including a cripple, a soldier, a young maid and fiddler.

Fairies as birds

There are two brief mentions of British fays who can transform to birds.  The hyter sprite, an obscure fairy of East Anglia, can also appear in the shape of a sandmartin and, from the Cornish story of The fairy dwelling on Silena Moor we learn that pixy abductee Grace Hutchens is more reconciled to her captivity by the fact that she can transform into a small bird and fly near to her former lover, Mr Noy.  It’s perhaps also worth observing that these fairies’ wings are acquired by transformation, here, as they evidently don’t normally possess them…

There’s a catch to the Cornish pixies’ ability to transform, though.  They can only change into birds and it seems each transformation shrinks the sprite so that eventually they dwindle away to virtually nothing.

meeting the kelpie by camelid

Meeting the kelpie by Camelid on DeviantArt

Kelpies

Evidently Puck can become whatever he likes.  Most other fairies are strictly limited in what they can become.  The Scottish kelpie/ each uisge may appear either in male or horse form.  In the former guise, he is a handsome young man who seeks to seduce young women and lure them to their doom; the lucky ones spot the telltale signs of his real nature- the sand or water weed caught in his hair, and make their escape.   The others are carried off into a loch or the sea and drowned.

Conclusion and further reading

To finish, we can see how rare the power to change form is.  In England it’s really just limited to Puck, although we have to note the interesting fact that a couple of the South Western fairies do have some special powers.

Elsewhere I’ve posted about fairies’ physical forms and the solidity and reality of fays.  I discuss fairy magic generally in chapter 10 of my British fairies, 2017.

Fairy lore in ‘Outlander’

claire and changeling

I have recently published an article in Faerie Magazine describing the significance of standing stones and stone circles in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  The standing stones of Craigh na Dun are central to the story, but there are other fairy incidents in the series that deserve our close attention.

Changeling children

The first scenario involves the finding of a changeling child; this that takes place in the first TV series episode 10 (‘By the pricking of my thumbs’) and in chapter 24 of the book Outlander (which was originally published as Cross Stitch).

These infants are traditionally called shag-bairns or shargies in Scotland.  I’m not sure of the etymology; there’s a Lincolnshire fairy beast called the ‘shagfoal’ which may be related, although this very possibly has connotations of the naturally shaggy nature of the creature; perhaps elvish bairns are also curiously hairy for their age.  Changeling elves usually are described as being thin, wizened and yellow in appearance but abnormal hairiness is not a typical characteristic, as far as I know.

In chapter 24 Claire Fraser is gathering plants in the woods with Geilis Duncan when she finds a baby laid in a hollowed rock, accompanied by a bowl of milk and some wild flowers tied with red thread.  The child looks very ill and, in fact, dies very shortly afterwards.  Claire’s outraged to find the infant abandoned but Geilis tells her not to interfere: the family will be in the vicinity and the child has been left out because it’s believed to have been changed by the fairies, an impression probably arising from the fact that its behaviour has changed and it has started to cry and fuss all the time.  Infants who ceased to develop (who ‘dwined’) and who were constantly grizzling (winicky) were prime suspects of elvish substitution.

In the story, where the baby is found is a fairy knoll and the hope is that the Wee Folk, seeing one of their tribe exposed to the elements, will swap it back and that the parents will be able to retrieve their own child the next morning.  As ever Claire wants to intervene but she is restrained first by Geilis and then Jamie.

The episode is a good representation of Scottish beliefs: James Napier in 1879 described how in the west of Scotland the practice was to take a suspected changeling to a fairy haunt- somewhere where the wind is heard to sough in a peculiar way in the trees, a place that is often near to a cairn, stone circle, green mound or dell.  With certain ritual words the parents would then leave it, along with an offering of bread, milk, cheese, eggs and the flesh or fish or fowl.  They would wait for an hour or two until after midnight and return to where the baby had been left in full expectation that the offering would have been taken and that this would be a sign that the fairies had accepted their own back again and had restored the human babe.  The Outlander account could almost be modelled upon Napier’s description.  The mention of red thread is also authentic as this was used to protect children and cattle from being taken by the fairies; it would be tied around their necks as a sort of amulet. (Napier, Folk lore or superstitious beliefs in the west of Scotland within this century).  The offering of milk is authentic, for the fairies’ love of dairy products is well known, and the hollowed rock also fits with tradition (although often it was milk and beer that were poured into cup-shaped stones as offerings to the fairy folk.)

Gabaldon captures effectively the desperate response of many communities to the possibility of an elf being substituted for a healthy child.  In what may appear to border upon irrationality, there was a conviction that only by forceful means could the changeling be expelled and the real baby recovered.  This undoubtedly led to a good deal of child abuse- not just exposure but burning, drowning and beating.  For example, in one Cornish case the frantic mother recruited her neighbours too to help her batter the pixie-substitute with brooms before leaving it overnight by a church stile.  In the Outlander episode the infant dies, although not directly at the hands of its parents.  Another Scottish remedy was what was called ‘nine mother’s meat’- the anxious parent would visit nine other mothers in her vicinity and beg from them each the gift of three different sorts of food which, being fed to a sickly child, would save it from abduction.

In Outlander this superstitious and powerless mood is reflected in the fact that Jamie Fraser, whilst being a rational man whose tutor taught him German, Latin and Greek and who has studied history and philosophy in France, will neither sleep on a fairy hill at night nor dare to contradict his neighbours in the matter of the taking of children by the fairies.

Changeling Baby Closeup

An t’each uisge– the water horse

The second mythical creature that appears in the first book, albeit a little more briefly, is the ‘water horse.’  It features in two separate chapters of Cross Stitch, although the second addresses more contemporary ideas of monsters and legend.

In chapter 18 Rupert tells stories to the encamped Highlanders.  One concerns the waterhorse of Loch Garve, who takes a fancy to a human wife and carries the woman to his home beneath the waves.  It’s icy and unhappy down there. so he gets a human builder to construct a fireplace for her so that she can warm herself by her hearth and cook proper hot human food, instead of subsisting upon snails and waterweed like her husband.  In the next chapter Claire actually sees the waterhorse, except in the story it’s the Loch Ness monster, a prehistoric plesiosaur risen from the depths.

Diana Gabaldon’s version of the waterhorse is a good deal more benign that the folklore original.  It’s true that the traditional kelpie carries off humans on its back, but this is not for the purpose of abducting a likely wife but rather with a view to drowning and consuming the hapless rider.  Often all that remains are the victim’s heart and lungs, which are washed ashore by the side of the haunted loch.  The true waterhorse– and related beasts- are all dreaded for their penchant for devouring unwary travellers and careless children.  Some will set out to charm and seduce mortal females, but this is only as a preliminary to their destruction.  No serious or long term affection is involved.

Whereas the changeling incident in Outlander confronts the harsh treatment of sickly children in earlier times, the fresh water monster is rationalised and made benign and thoughtful.

Kelpie-2

Further reading

You can read my Outlander article here (FM#44_StandingStones).  I discussed fairies and megaliths more generally in a much earlier posting on the blog, too, and also covered the subject in my book, British fairies.

“Some war with reremice for their leathern wings”- the facts on fairy violence

2044511 (1)

It has become a widespread belief that fairies are wholly benevolent and peaceable beings, to whom violence and antagonism towards humankind is anathema.  This idea is probably reinforced by arguments for fairies being nature spirits and vegetarians.

This view of the supernatural realm would surprise our predecessors, who had a very different and more complex view of faery.  Older folk lore portrays an other-world very similar to our own, with its own internal conflicts and with a range of responses to human-kind, from friendly to hostile.

  • fairy warfare– it seemed entirely reasonable to earlier generations that the fairies would disagree profoundly and might engage in armed conflict amongst themselves. The Reverend Kirk said that “These Subterraneans have Controversies, Doubts, Disputes, Feuds and Sidings of Parties … they transgress and commit Acts of Injustice and Sin.”  As a result, they have “many disastrous Doings of their own, as … Fighting, Gashes, Wounds and Burialls…”  As evidence of these conflicts, there is a Glamorganshire tradition of a fairy battle fought in the air between Aberdare and Merthyr.  In the Hebrides Evans Wentz reported that it was believed that the fairy hosts always fought at Halloween, as evidence of which a red liquid produced by lichens after frost was believed in fact to be the blood of the fairy fallen.  John Campbell, in his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, provides detail of a similar phenomenon.  He describes a substance called elf-blood (fuil siochaire) which is found on the shores of the Hebrides; it is like a dark red stone and is full of holes.  These bloodstones are connected to the red skies of the aurora borealis, which themselves are termed the ‘pool of blood’ and are a sign of fairy fighting above.
  • retributive violence–  I have already in several postings referred to the fact that fairies were believed to impose a strict code of morals and conduct upon humans and to enforce this by forceful means.  There seemed to be little hesitation about battering and injuring those of whom they disapproved.  Offending individuals could certainly expect to be pinched mercilessly; they might also be jostled, assaulted, lamed and (for the offence of seeing through the fairy glamour) blinded.
  • thrashing-  John Campbell recorded a series of curious tales about the conduct of fairy women, which I reproduce here:

“A herdsman at Baile-phuill, in the west end of Tiree, fell asleep on Cnoc Ghrianal, at the eastern base of Heynish Hill, on a fine summer afternoon. He was awakened by a violent slap on the ear. On rubbing his eyes, and looking up, he saw a woman, the most beautiful he had ever seen, in a green dress, with a brooch fastened in at the neck, walking away from him. She went westward and he followed her for some distance, but she vanished, he could not tell how…

A man in Mull, watching in the harvest field at night, saw a woman standing in the middle of a stream that ran past the field. He ran after her, and seemed sometimes to be close upon her, and again to be as far from her as ever. Losing temper he swore himself to the devil that he would follow till he caught her. When he said the words the object of his pursuit allowed herself to be overtaken, and showed her true character by giving him a sound thrashing. Every night after he had to meet her. He was like to fall into a decline through fear of her, and becoming thoroughly tired of the affair, he consulted an old woman of the neighbourhood, who advised him to take with him to the place of the appointment the ploughshare and his brother John. This would keep the Fairy woman from coming near him. The Fairy, however, said to him in a mumbling voice, “You have taken the ploughshare with you to-night, Donald, and big, pock-marked, dirty John your brother,” and catching him she administered a severer thrashing than ever. He went again to the old woman, and this time she made for his protection a thread, which he was to wear about his neck. He put it on, and instead of going to the place of meeting, remained at the fireside. The Fairy came, and, taking him out of the house, gave him a still severer thrashing. Upon this, the wise woman said she would make a chain to protect him against all the powers of darkness, though they came. He put this chain about his neck, and remained by the fireside. He heard a voice calling down the chimney, ‘I cannot come near you to-night, Donald, when the pretty smooth-white is about your neck.’…

A man in Iona, thinking daylight was come, rose and went to a rock to fish. After catching some fish, he observed he had been misled by the clearness of the moonlight, and set off home. On the way, as the night was so fine, he sat down to rest himself on a hillock. He fell asleep, and was awakened by the pulling of the fishing rod, which he had in his hand. He found the rod was being pulled in one direction, and the fish in another. He secured both, and was making off, when he heard sounds behind him as of a woman weeping. On his turning round to her, she said, “Ask news, and you will get news.” He answered, “I put God between us.” When he said this, she caught him and thrashed him soundly. Every night after he was compelled to meet her, and on her repeating the same words and his giving the same answer, was similarly drubbed. To escape from her persecutions he went to the Lowlands. When engaged there cutting drains, he saw a raven on the bank above him. This proved to be his tormentor, and, as usual, she thrashed him. He resolved to go to America. On the eve of his departure, his Fairy mistress met him and said, “You are going away to escape from me. If you see a hooded crow when you land, I am that crow.” On landing in America he saw a crow sitting on a tree, and knew it to be his old enemy. In the end the fairy dame killed him.”

These are odd accounts and a little difficult to explain.  The man is compelled against his will to meet the fairy woman, but is then apparently beaten for doing so.  The battery appears to be either a means of ensuring his obedience by instilling fear- and a hint that the fairy lover does not trust her charms- or it is a punishment for his temerity.  Either way it suggests that fairies can be vindictive and contemptuous, even towards those they favour in some way.

  • cautionary violence– again, in an earlier on the warning use of fairy tales I have mentioned those spirits whose primary purpose seems to have been to scare and discipline children so as to encourage them to avoid dangerous locations such as ponds or river banks.  Jenny Greenteeth and Peg Powler weren’t just names, though, nor would they merely give an errant child a fright: they would drag the disobedient infant beneath the water and drown them,
  • unprovoked violence– some supernaturals were malicious by nature and human encounters with them would almost invariably prove fatal.  These include the Highland water horses, the each uisge/ aughisky, the kelpie and the shoopiltree of Shetland, all of which would lure people into mounting them and would then career at speed into a river or lake or into the sea, where the humans would be drowned and/ or devoured.  There were other non-equine but equally maleficent and dangerous water spirits in Scotland, such as the fideal, the fuath, the peallaidh, the muilearteach and the cearb (the killer).  In Wales the llamhigyn y dwr (the water leaper) and the afanc were known.  All of these made a habit of tearing their unfortunate victims to pieces beneath the waves.

A broader perspective on fairy conduct confirms the impression of a fractious, rough and sometimes vicious society.  Many aspects of their culture depended upon violence to some degree:

  • population: as described when discussing changelings , human children and wives might be taken by force to supplement the fairy race;
  • subsistence: a significant portion of the food and drink consumed in faery was stolen,  usually by stealth but sometimes coercively- for example, in cases where livestock were stolen and then butchered; and,
  • leisure: the fairy idea of fun often involved tormenting people or their livestock- for example, the habit of ‘riding’ horses at night, a practice which left them weak and distressed in the mornings.

As this catalogue shows, traditional folk belief was a great deal less confident in the good nature of fairy kind than is the case with some contemporary commentators.  The best counsel would be to approach with care- or better still to protect oneself with charms and to seek to avoid the ‘good neighbours’ altogether, to be on the safe side. Fairies were regarded as being as variable, unpredictable and potentially vicious as any imperfect human being.

“Cakes & cream”: more thoughts upon the fairy diet

fairy mab fuseli

Queen Mab, by Henry Fuseli

Staying recently on the Devon/ Cornish border, I found an entry in the accommodation guest book from a previous guest.  He had visited a local holy well that is protected by a benign elf, he said, before going on to observe that fairies are veggies and that we should look after the cows grazing on all sides of the cottage.  This set me thinking (about fairies, not cows); what’s the evidence for this assertion?  Are fairies vegetarian, or is this just modern wishful thinking, to fit with prevailing views of fairies as protectors of the environment?

Evidence

There are two very early sources that suggest that fairies avoid meat:

  • the Green Children of Woolpit in Suffolk, when first found in the early 12th century, were pale, their skin tinged green, and for some time after their discovery they would only eat raw green beans, refusing bread and other food;
  • Gerald of Wales (1188) tells the story of Elidyr who visited fairy land in his youth.  He claimed that these little people “never ate flesh or fish” and instead lived upon various milk dishes, made up into junkets and flavoured with saffron.

The fairy preference for dairy products was well known in Elizabethan folk lore.  Queen Mab loved junkets according to Milton (a junket is a mixture of curds and cream, sweetened and flavoured).  Ben Jonson has her consuming cream, too, and Brownies are conventionally rewarded for their housework with bowls of cream or milk.  The fairies are also known to bake cakes and bread and to drink cider and wine.  There is good evidence, then, that fairies prefer a vegetarian diet, though not a vegan one.

Fairy hunting

However, there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the sources.  Elidyr also told Gerald that the tiny beings he met kept horses and greyhounds.  The latter are hunting dogs and the elves were plainly equipped for the chase.  In the poem Sir Orfeo the hero meets the king of fairy when he is out hunting wild beasts with his hounds; the king is also said to hunt wild fowl, such as mallards, herons and cormorants, with his falcons. The Gabriel Hounds of Lancashire are fairy dogs; they are also called Gabriel Ratchets, a ratchet being a hound that hunted by scent rather than by sight.  The pursuit of all this game was presumably for some purpose other than mere sport.  We have to assume that the deer, boars and birds that were caught were all eaten and that these particular fairies were very far from veggie.  The bwca living on the beach at Newlyn in west Cornwall were given a share of the catch by local fishermen and they were doubtless expected to eat those fish. The Highland water horses, the cabaill ushtey and the each uisge, both carry off and consume cattle and children, as does the Welsh afanc.  

Each-Uisge

Each uisge‘ from Villains Wiki

What are we to conclude?  The folklore evidence is not unanimous, but then it seldom is.  There are different sorts of fairy and each will naturally have its own tastes and preferences.  Nonetheless, there is clearly a very old strand of belief that some fairies eat a limited diet excluding flesh, perhaps as an indicator of their otherness or of their sympathetic links to the natural world.

Kitsune and fairy beasts

oji

Hiroshige, ‘The new year fairy fires at Oji’

Fairy foxes

I’ve always been fascinated by the fairy foxes of Japan.  Foxes had always seemed mysterious to me as a child (because they were rarely and fleetingly seen- not so now that I am living in London!) and when I discovered the kitsune, the shape shifting supernatural foxes of Japanese mythology, I was immediately hooked.  These fairy foxes can speak, they can trick people, they can morph into human form or assume other, sometimes inanimate, shapes.  That unearthly wailing and yelping that foxes produce only confirmed and explained to me their reputation in the Orient and puzzled me as to why we did not tell similar stories.

In the British Isles, we have a tradition of fairy beasts, but it is not so strong.  The creatures tend to be solitary and do not have the scheming, magical nature of the kitsune.  The beasts are, nevertheless, antagonistic to human beings, by and large, a feature they definitely share with their eastern counterparts.  An encounter with a fairy beast is almost always perilous.  Meeting a fairy steed or hound at night will at least lead to a severe fright, if not an actual fatality.  They will chase the hapless wanderer, or seek to carry him off and drown him.

British fairy beasts

British fairy fauna take a number of forms:

  • horses- especially those found in water, such as the Scottish each uisge and the kelpie;
  • -dogs- such as the English barguest and gally trot;
  • cattle- like the Dun Cow of Kirkham;
  • ‘bogies’ such as the brag, trash, shock and Hedley Kow, monstrous beings that resemble dog/horse crosses; and,
  • selkies– the Highland seal folk who can take the form of seals but also appear as human-like by divesting their skins. It is perhaps these latter that most resemble the Japanese foxes, although they are generally far less openly dangerous and are more often at risk from men rather than the other way round.

We often conceive of fairies as exclusively anthropomorphic, but even a brief review of the folklore reveals that they come in a variety of forms, including shape-shifters.  This serves to emphasise the fact that the boundary between conventionally conceived fairies and ghosts, spirits, giants and monsters is fluid and uncertain.  By its nature, folk belief is not rigidly categorised; perhaps only the supernatural nature and undercurrent of peril are common to all these creatures.