The Reverend Robert Kirk, in The Secret Commonweath, makes some fascinating remarks about the fairies’ habit of shooting ‘elf-arrows’ at people:
“Those who are unseened or unsanctified (called Fey) are said to be pierced or wounded with those People’s Weapons, which makes them do somewhat verie unlike their former Practice, causing a sudden Alteration, yet the Cause thereof unperceavable at present; nor have they Power (either they cannot make use of their natural Powers, or ask’t not the heavenly Aid) to escape the Blow impendent…
They also pierce Cows or other Animals, usewally said to be Elf-shot, whose purest Substance (if they die) these Subterraneans take to live on, viz. the aereal and ætherial Parts, the most spirituous Matter for prolonging of Life … leaving the terrestrial behind. The Cure of such Hurts is, only for a Man to find out the Hole with his Finger; as if the Spirits flowing from a Man’s warme Hand were Antidote sufficient against their poyson’d Dairts.” (chapter 8)
Two features of his account are especially striking: one is how the arrows change the character of the people that they strike; the second is Kirk’s later observation that cattle hit by the fairy arrows can be healed by the laying-on of hands.
The firing of elf-bolts was a practice especially associated with the so-called saighead sith (the archer fairies) who are numbered amongst the sluagh sith or fairy host. They will fly over the length and breadth of the land at night, picking off their chosen targets as they go.
As Kirk indicates, the fairy arrows are used by the sith not as a way of killing people or cattle but as a means of abducting victims. Numerous examples of this may be found. For example, the practice is described in the Shetland ballad, King Orfeo, which is a version of the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo. In the ballad-
“The king, he has a-huntin’ gane
An’ left his lady all alane
The Elfin King wi’ his dairt
Pierced his lady tae the hert…”
In one reported example, a woman at Glen Cannel on Mull was shot and replaced by a log of alderwood. To earthly eyes these victims appear to have died, but in reality, they have been taken. Women were an especial target, but in a case from Gortan in Argyll a cooper was the subject as the fairies needed some barrels to be made. Scottish witch suspect Jonet Morrison explained that “quhen they are schott ther is no recoverie for it and if the schott be in the heart they died presently but if be not at the heart they will die in a while with it yet will at least die with it…” In other words, it’s always fatal.
Witch-suspect Isobel Gowdie, interrogated in 1662, gave a similar account:
“…we may shoot them dead at owr pleasour. Any that ar shot be us, their sowell will goe to hevin, bot ther bodies remains with us, and will flie as horses to us, as small as strawes.”
Folklore authority J. G. Campbell recorded that the strike would take the power from the person’s limbs, so that they could not defend themselves or escape. Sometimes, they would not die but rather fall ill, in which cases they would have been replaced with an elderly elf who inhabited their body and received care in the victim’s stead.
Cattle were taken in the same manner. When the elf-bolt struck a cow, it would be found in distress, rolling its eyes and bawling as if suffering from a malignant cramp. If the shot was not instantly fatal it would leave an indentation on the skin that slowly killed the beast. Either way, when it died, it was not in fact dead but rather an effigy had been left behind and the cow itself had been taken to the fairy knoll to milk. Likewise, a living semblance of a cow might be left behind, but it would eat and drink prodigiously without fattening or producing milk.
Sometimes shooting with a bolt is inflicted not for the purposes of abduction but in order to punish the human. The fairies might take offence over some perceived slight by a person or they might feel that their moral code has been breached. For example, a couple at Herbusta on Skye were reaping by moonlight. The husband was struck by a bolt because the fairies objected to them being out in the field at night (presumably because they considered it their time of day).
Elf-bolts have every resemblance to Neolithic flint arrows. According to witch-suspect Isobel Gowdie, they are made by the devil, who roughs out the shape before passing them to elf-boys who finish them off using some sharp instrument like a needle to knap the sharp edges and point.
There was some difference of opinion as to how the bolts were fired. Some saw them as being just like human arrows. Poet Cromek rather fancifully described how the bows were made from the ribs of men who had been buried at spots where three lairds’ lands met, the quivers were made from the sloughed skin of adders and the shafts were fashioned from the stems of bog-reeds. According to Isobel Gowdie the arrow points were not fired at all, but were rather flipped forcefully from the thumbnail.
The oddest aspect of the sluagh’s hunting expeditions was the fact that the fairies themselves could not fire their own arrows at their intended victims. They had to take a mortal with them to perform this act for them. Numerous sources confirm this curious disability. For example, in one story from the Highlands, a man saw the fairies making a bow and knew that this was for him and that they were about to carry him off. He begged his friends to hold him tightly so that he could not be taken, but it happened anyway. The disadvantage with this reliance is that the human hunter was often reluctant to shot the targets, often because they knew the person selected. For instance, in the case of the woman from Glen Cannel on Mull, the man taken by the sluagh first shot at a lamb, which rose through the window out of the woman’s house. The faes were not pleased and he was forced by them to shoot again. In other cases reported, the human captive would deliberately miss or shot a sheep and a hen instead. As Isobel Gowdie said: “Som tymes we misse; bot if they twitch [touch], be it beast or man or woman, it will kill, tho they had an jack [mail-coat] upon them.” She went on, with clear regret: “Bot that quhich troubles my conscience most, is the killing of several persones, with the arrowes quhich I gott from the divell.”
Given the constant threat of being shot and taken, what could the human population do to protect themselves? There were several lines of defence, luckily enough.
Firstly, there were charms that could be recited to protect person and property. On the island of South Uist, for example, a ‘herding blessing’ was sung whilst tending the cattle. It asked St Bridget to protect the stock against a variety of dangers, including “the arrows of the slim fairy women” (o saighde nam ban seaga sith).” At his trial for witchcraft in 1607 ‘fairy doctor’ Bartie Paterson confessed to invoking the holy trinity to guard cattle against “arrowschot” amongst other types of ‘shot’ directed at them. In the Outer Hebrides, a person would be protected outside if they carried with them a sieve in one hand and a piece of coal in the other. If you were able to come by an elf bolt that had previously been fired, simply carrying that with you was thought to be a complete defence against being struck yourself.
There are various practical steps that can be taken to diminish the risk that you will ever become the target of an attack by the sluagh. It’s believed that the host (and fairies generally) will make their approach from the west. That being the case, leaving westerly windows open after sunset is always a bad idea, because it tempts the sluagh to shoot arrows in, especially if a cow is being milked beside that window. Another protection, which is useful where a window is needed for ventilation, is to place an iron bar across it. Then, the iron will stop fairies and fairy arrows from entering.
Cattle ploughing are deemed a particular target, but there are simple precautions that can be taken, even out in the fields. Both in Durham, in the North of England, and in Scotland, the practice was to put a bend in the furrows when the fields were being ploughed. The reason for this was said to be that the fairies aimed along the ridges when trying to strike the oxen. The curve simply but effectively ruined their aim.
If, despite charms and physical measures, a cow or a person was still struck, there were various cures that could be administered. In many communities a ‘fairy doctor’ would be able to detect when sickness arose from being shot with a dart and could then prescribe a remedy. On Shetland, for example, the suspected ‘trow-shot’ cow would be felt all over. If a dimple, marking the site where the bolt hit, was located, a page of the Bible would be rolled up tightly and put into the depression for a little while. Then it was removed, and with it the cattle’s affliction went. Washing the injured cow, or giving it water to drink in which an old elf-arrow had been steeped, were other tried and tested remedies. Putting tar between the cows’ horns was also, apparently, helpful.
For more on this subject and on the ‘Darker Side of Faery,’ see my 2021 book: