Carried Away: flying with the sluagh

41_Macdonald
Daniel MacDonald, ‘The Fairy Wind (Sidhe Gaoithe)

The sluagh are the fairy host in the folklore of the Scottish Highlands.  In this region of Britain people may be abducted by being taken inside a fairy hill (a tomhan) or they may be snatched up and carried away by the sluagh.  I touched on this subject briefly in my posting on elf-shots, but return to it in more detail now.

‘Them’

The sluagh, or fairy host, is known by several names in Gaelic, all of which give us some clue as to their nature or origin.  Lewis Spence calls them the sluagh eotrom, meaning the ‘light’ or ‘aery’ host.  This may reflect their flight through the air, or even their physical nature.  The Reverend Kirk, meanwhile, distinguishes between the sluagh saoghalta and the sluagh sith.  The latter is the ‘fairy host’ and the former the ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ host.  If we understand that ‘sluagh’ more broadly denotes people or population, this makes sense of what Kirk says next: “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged.” In other words, once earthly people die, they join the fairy host instead (Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, ‘Succinct Accompt,’ 9 (10)).

Flying with the Sluagh

We can learn something more from actual experiences of contact with the host.  John MacPhee of Uist was outside his house one night when he heard a sound coming from the West (a notoriously fay direction) like the breaking of the sea.  He saw a mass of small men coming in a crowd from that direction and suddenly felt hot, as if a crowd of people had surrounded him and were pressing in, breathing upon him.  Then he was carried off at great speed, flying through the air to the graveyard at Dalibrog, seventeen miles distant.  For a moment or two he was set down, and the sensation of heat left him.  Then the host returned, he felt hot again, and was carried back to his home. After this experience, MacPhee became sickly and thin.  The man was evidently ‘elf-addled:’ he suffered some of the typical physical effects of fairy contact and, although the author of the account refers to the host as ‘the dead,’ their living physicality seems very much to contradict this description.  The same is true perhaps for those people who are taken repeatedly by the sluagh.  Physical mistreatment by the host can be a common experience, with victims being ‘rolled, dragged and trounced in mud and mire and pools.’  This can leave them terrorised and in extreme exhaustion and is often fatal.

The mass nature of the sluagh is apparent.  They travel in a multitude- according to one Scottish witness “in great clouds, up and down the face of the world like starlings.” As will be seen from subsequent testimonies, comparisons to flocks of birds or beasts are common.  For instance, on Barra Evans Wentz was told that the host went about at midnight, travelling in fine weather against the wind like a covey of birds (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 108).

How they fly

The host travels across the land by several means.  They can use whirlwinds, as Scottish witch suspect, Bessie Dunlop, attested.  She had been visited by twelve fairy folk who left her in “ane hideous uglie sowche of wind.” A sowche is a sough, a rushing or whistling.  This suggests violence, but in the Scottish Highlands these eddies of wind are also called the oiteag sluagh, the host’s breeze, suggestive of something more gentle.

The host can also travel on objects imbued with faery glamour, such as bulrushes, docks, ragwort and withered grass stems.  Humans who witness this can imitate the fairies’ actions and transfer their magic power to other items on which to fly, such as ploughs or loom beams.  Physical travel is not necessary, though, for a man in Sutherland was taken in spirit one night by the sluagh, even after his friends had forcibly restrained his body to try to prevent his abduction.  If a person is called to travel with the sluagh, there is no denying the summons.  In another instance, a man on Skye saw the host approaching and begged his friend to hold him tightly to prevent his abduction. Despite the friend’s best efforts, the victim began to ‘hop and dance’ before rising off the ground and being carried a couple of miles.

Why they fly

The reason for these journeys seems to be uniformly malicious.  The primary aim is to abduct humans, and secondary purposes are shooting elf-bolts at people and livestock or stealing human property- usually food and drink.  Some trows flew all the way from Shetland to Norway to abduct a newly married woman, for example, and some fairies in Moray conveyed a man to Paris, although much more local journeys are far more typical (Evans Wentz, 106).

Another reason for the host’s flight is to meet with enemies and to fight them.  There are numerous accounts of the hosts battling in the sky on cold and frosty nights (and especially at Halloween), leaving pools of blood (fuil nan sluagh) on the ground in the morning as testimony to their violent slaughter (Evans Wentz, 91).

Flight might be used to hunt or take people or animals, but the experience of flight itself might be sufficiently unpleasant to be a punishment in itself.  A minister in Ross-shire in Scotland had spoken slightingly of the fairies and they exacted their revenge by picking him up and carrying him head over heels through the air.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe
John Duncan, The Riders of the Sidhe; Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection

Defence against the Sluagh

The accounts so far, especially that of the man taken despite the best efforts of his friends to prevent it, might suggest that the sluagh are pretty much invincible and irresistible.  This is not the case, fortunately.  Very simple measures can defeat them.  Two abductions of women on the Isle of Arran were prevented by means of casting a reaping hook up into the mass of little people as they passed overhead, ‘like a swarm of bees.’  Being iron, this instantly released the captive being carried away.  Likewise, the use of Christian blessings is effective: a Shetland man flew with the host on a rush by imitating their spell (“Up hors, up hedik, up well ridden bolwind”) and he found himself taken with them to a cottage where a woman was in labour.  The plan was to take the new mother if she sneezed three times and no one ‘sained’ her.  She sneezed, but the man riding with the trows said ‘bless you’ and prevented her abduction.

These are magical defences; physical means of resistance tend to be much less certain and more risky.  Some men were tending the herds at Cornaigbeg Farm on Tiree when they heard something passing them on the road.  It sounded like a flock of sheep passing, but one of the dogs became very agitated and chased after it.  Eventually the poor hound returned- it had lost all its hair and was torn and bloody, dying soon afterwards.  As we’ve seen before, dogs and fairies frequently don’t mix.

Summary

The faeries have several means of flight– and several types of motion– so that riding straws or moving in a whirlwind are just a sample of their ways of getting about.  For more on abductions, the sluagh and The Darker Side of Faery, see my 2021 book of that title:

darker side

Fairies and bees

Carse, bees

Duncan Carse

There is some strange connection between the faes and bees which, rather like their associations with the cuckoo, are now no longer as clear to us as once may have been the case.

The Voice of the Beehive

There is certainly a similarity in terms of appearance and sound between honey bees and faeries.  For example, a man on Arran was out cutting bracken one day when the fairy host flew over him.  He reported that he saw “something like a swarm of bees,” into which he threw his reaping hook.  The iron tool caused the faes to drop his wife, whom they had abducted, leaving a ‘stock’ behind in her bed.

This comparison to a flock of small creatures is common in eye-witness reports.  A man at Benbecula in the Hebrides heard the sluagh go over- it sounded to him ‘like a flock of plovers.’  A man living near Harrogate once got up early to hoe his turnips.  When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green.  As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled like flocks of partridges.  In another Yorkshire report from Ilkley, fairies surprised whilst bathing in the spa there made a noise “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” when disturbed by the caretaker.

The noise of the fairies, as well as their appearance, might resemble that of a hive of bees.  John Aubrey told a tale of his former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, who in 1633 came across a “faiery dance” (a green circle on the grass) on the Wiltshire downs and saw there sprites who were “making all manner of odd noyses.”  They objected to his intrusion on their dancing and swarmed at him, “making a quick humming noyse all the time.”  A fairy host described on the Isle of Man sounded first like humming bees, then like a waterfall and lastly like a marching and murmuring crowd as they drew progressively nearer to the witness. (Sophia Morrison, Manx Fairy Tales, ‘Billy Beg, Tom Beg & the Fairies.)

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Florence Anderson, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’

Bee-like Faes

Modern sightings have often compared fairies to insects (though admittedly butterflies, moths and dragonflies rather than bees) but ‘buzzing’ is a term used to describe their motion.  One woman in Florida saw a fairy riding a bee (for example Fairy Census no.s 5, 5A, 320, 400, 417, 475 & 251).  The weirdest sighting comes from Marjorie Johnson, Seeing Fairies:  a woman on holiday in mid-Cornwall during the 1930s described meeting a female cliff-dwelling pixie, who was about two feet in height and was covered in short dark brown hair with yellow rings on her body and arms, very much resembling a bumblebee (p.53).

Returning to the Manx faes, another traditional belief was that ‘bumbees’ are actually misbehaving fairies who have been turned into insects as a punishment by others in their community.  In Ireland, in the 1850s, a folklore collector was told that bees are fairies, who are in turn the souls of those deceased, a notion that connects us back to the longstanding ties between fairyland and the land of the dead.  The identity between fairies and bees is attested from Wales, too.  In British Goblins Wirt Sikes describes how those trying to destroy ancient megalithic monuments would face supernatural opposition, amongst which might be “swarms of bees, which are supposed to be fairies in disguise.”  (Notes & Queries, vol.10, 1854, p.500; Sikes p.383)

Lastly, mention ought to be made of the spirit called Browney, a Cornish fairy whom you’ll find listed by Katherine Briggs amongst others.  Simon Young (of the Fairy Investigation Society) has written an article, Against Taxonomy: The Fairy Families of Cornwall, which argues quite convincingly that this sprite- who was allegedly summoned to settle a swarm- was the product of confusion and misremembered stories, and never existed at all.

Further Reading

The fairy associations with moths is the subject of an earlier posting on this blog.  The fae ability to fly is also related to this, as is the existence (or not) of fairy wings. For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021).

hester margetson

Natural World

‘Horse and hattock’- Fairy motion- Part Two

Scott Ariel & Caliban

David Scott, Ariel and Caliban, 1837.

In a previous post I examined evidence indicating that the fays have a distinctive gliding motion.  Implicit in that is the possibility that they may be hovering above the surface of the ground, rather than being in contact and taking steps.  It sounds from the reports as though they may not actually be flying, nor are they walking.  In this post I return to the subject and pull together all the clues in traditional folklore on the subject of fairy locomotion.

Since the eighteenth century it has become very difficult to conceive of fairies without also picturing wings.  Winged fairies are now consistently seen by witnesses- as in the recent Fairy Census- but the older folklore generally doesn’t describe them like this.  How they get about then is not clear.

Fairies on foot

We know that the brownies definitely get around on foot.  For instance, there’s a common story of a devoted domestic sprite in Scotland who walked daily from his dwelling to the house to which he was attached, crossing a stream by stepping stones on the way.  One day, when the weather was bad and the water levels had risen, the people in the house didn’t expect to see him because the river was too treacherous to cross- but he impressed them with his commitment to his duties by walking a long distance out of his way in order to cross by a bridge.  Plainly, if levitation or flight had been an option- he would have used it.

We also hear of fairies moving house.  When they do so, they tend to move in a conventional human manner, with horses and carts.  In one sighting from Sutherland during the late 1860s the witness saw three carts laden with furniture and other household possessions being dragged over the moorland where there was no road and in a direction in which no human habitation lay.  When the church bells drove the pixies out of their home at Withypool on Exmoor, they borrowed a local farmer’s horse and cart to make the move.  Various other isolated mentions of fays using carts and carriages can be found.

The same methods are, of course, used when the fairies decide to abandon a place.  On the Isle of Man, when the flour mill was built at Colby, the local fairies gave up their former haunts.  Early one morning they were seen climbing up into the mists and solitude of the mountain glens, with their household goods on their backs.

The only exception to these very mundane images comes from the Reverend Robert Kirk.  In The secret commonwealth he described in chapter two how:

“They remove to other Lodgings at the Beginning of each Quarter of the Year … Their chamælion-lyke Bodies swim in the Air near the Earth with Bag and Bagadge…”

This quaint image is certainly highly suggestive of that floating motion I described in my previous posting.  Nonetheless, there’s no suggestion of ‘teleporting’ from one location to another, nor of flight as such.

It’s worth mentioning here too the fact that some fays will also put to sea in boats, whether for pleasure trips or for fishing. Either way, they are expected to be tied to exactly the same forms of locomotion as humans.

Mounted fairies

Besides wagons and coaches, another very well known use of horses by the fairies is in the so-called ‘fairy rade’ in which the group often termed the ‘trooping fairies’ process about the countryside.  Fairies will also hunt on horseback  and there are frequent reports of this- especially from the Isle of Man.  Yet again, though, there is some suggestion here of weightlessness.  Describing the Nithsdale fairies, Cromek said that they rode steeds “whose hoof would not print the new ploughed land or dash the dew from the crop of a harebell” and that they never deviated from straight lines in their travels, going straight through hedges and across corn fields to their destinations without leaving a trace on the crops.

The fairies keep their own horses, but they will also ride human steeds at night (tying their manes in ‘elf-locks’ and on the Isle of Man they’ve even been known to commandeer people to ride around on).

doyle-fary-queen

Richard Doyle

Flying fairies?

The nearest we come to some indication of winged flight is a couple of Victorian descriptions of encounters.  An example from West Yorkshire dates to about 1850.  A man called Henry Roundell, of Washburn Dale near Harrogate, got up early one day to hoe his turnips.  When he reached the field, he was astonished to discover that every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green, all of them singing in shrill cracked voices “like a lot of field crickets.”   As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled ‘like flocks of partridges.’  Another nineteenth century account from nearby Ilkley tells of a crowd of fairies surprised whilst bathing in the local spa baths.  The caretaker of the wells cried out in astonishment and “away the whole tribe went, helter skelter, toppling and tumbling, head over heels, heels over heeds, and all the while making a noise not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges.”  As they fled there was a whirring noise, which sounds very like startled wings, but we are told that “the fairies were “bounding over the walls like squirrels.”  In fact, if you look closely at both accounts, there’s no suggestion that they actually flew away like birds- merely that the startled commotion sounded similar to this.

Some fays (hobs and pixies) can transform themselves into birds, as we have see when discussing fairy shapeshifters, but this is a rare ability and is definitely not a widespread means of travel.

Magical flight

Can fairies fly then?  The answer is- yes, but not with wings.  The vast majority of British fairies have never been believed to have wings, in any case, but they don’t need them because they (or certain groups of them at least) can get around very well without.  They are able to fly through the air by magical means; there seem to be three or four separate ways of achieving this.

One is by means of a simple spell.  Various forms of words are recorded: naming the location to which you want to go might be enough in some cases.  On other occasions, a magic formula is required, and the commonest of which we hear is the cry of “Horse and hattock!”  It’s never made clear why these words are used, but we can hazard a few guesses.  It’s known that fays can enchant plant stems to ride like horses through the air.  For example Scottish poet Alexander Montgomerie mentions “When our good nighbours doe ryd … Some buckled on a bunwand, and some on a been” in his verse The Flyting between Montgomerie and Polwart (1585).  Now, a hattock is no longer an everyday word in English, but it means a sheaf or stook of corn, so perhaps what we have here is a spell to turn a wheat or barley stem into a mount.  There is of course an evident connection with witches’ broomsticks here, although it seems the fairies have a great deal more choices of flight available to them.

In Scotland and Ireland the fairy host, the sluagh, ride around the night sky, sometimes transporting hapless humans with them.  It seems that this is how they get about, as no other form of transport is ever mentioned.  For example, Sandy Gunn, of Houstry, near Dunbeath in the far north of Scotland, set out one summer morning sometime in the 1870s to visit his sister Betty.  He never arrived at her house and did not return home in the evening.  In fact, it wasn’t until the middle of the next day that he appeared, with a strange tale to tell.  Walking up a hill called Cnoc-an-Crask he’d felt a gentle breeze.  He’d lost his footing and been carried up into the air.  All day and all night he flew across the country, before being gently returned to the same spot the next morning.  In this case the flight seems to have been used mischievously (or even, perhaps, as a treat for the hapless human).  In another case the flight is pure mischief, teasing and scaring the victim.  A man at Fleshwick on the Isle of Man was caught up one night and transported over the fields until he got to the cliff edge, where the fays suddenly deposited him.

Flight could also be used as a punishment against one who’d offended or annoyed the sith.  A Perthshire herdsman who had prevented the fairies carrying off a newborn child and its mother was promptly carried off through the air for six or seven miles and back again before being unceremoniously dropped down through the smoke hole of his father’s cottage.  Here the aerial abduction is plainly a punishment for thwarting the fairies’ wills.

Similar stories come from Wales, too, and from them we learn that this form of flight is not necessarily pleasant for the human taken along.  The Welsh fairies travel either above, in the middle of or below the wind.  Above is a giddy and terrible sensation, whilst below involves being dragged through bush and brake.  This was plainly the  experience of one man whose case was described by the Reverend Edmund Jones in the late eighteenth century.  A hunting party visited a pub kept by Richard the tailor, “one who resorted to the company of fairies.”  One of the group went outside to relieve himself and was snatched up by a passing fairy band.  He was with them all night, being carried all the way from Monmouthshire to Newport and back again.  When he reappeared the next morning he “looked like he’d been pulled through thorns and briars.”  He felt very ill and said that for part of his journey he had been insensible.  Evidently he had been travelling below the wind (Jones, The appearance of evil, no.68).

A very similar – and vivid- description was given by Reginald Scot in his Discoverie of witchcraft of 1584 (Book III, c.IV):

“many such have been taken away by the said spirits for a fortnight or a month together, being carried with them in chariots through the air, over hills and dales, rocks and precipices, and passing over many countries and nations in the silence of the night, bereaved of their sense and commonly of their members to boot.”

The flying ‘chariots’ is a unique feature (although, as stated, we sometimes hear of ordinary terrestrial carriages and coaches) but Scot’s depiction of the effect of these prolonged aerial abductions certainly fits very well with the Rev. Jones’.  A Manx commentator described those taken as being carried ‘insensible’ through the sky.  Doubtless many of us might faint at the experience.

Naturally, some humans are exhilarated by the experience of flight and the novelty of visiting strange places in far lands.  Others are keen to try it at first, but then find it’s not as enjoyable as they had hoped.  A weaver joined the sluagh by pronouncing the magic words over his loom beam.  To begin with all went well, until he saw the host flying off a precipice.  At this point his courage failed him, he dropped to the ground and had to carry the beam all the way home on his shoulder

Next, a magical item can be used by the fairies to move around.  In a story from Herefordshire, a boy lost in the woods finally comes across a cottage and is taken in by the two women living there.  Later that night they put on white caps and fly off to a fairy dance.  He uses a third spare cap to follow them, although he’s later admonished by them for his impudence.

Finally, fairies can travel in a whirlwind.  This is again well known from Scotland and Ireland, but is also reported from as far away as Cornwall.  The use of these eddies of wind by which to move about seem to offer the fairies two advantages: firstly, they are fast and secondly they will blind humans who encounter them, maintaining the fairies’ concealment and, perhaps, allowing them to conduct a bit of surreptitious thieving on the way.

Further reading

See my other posts on whirling fairies and on fairy motion and too chapter 13 of my British fairies for a discussion of fairy pathways.

 

 

 

 

‘Planes, trains and automobiles’- fairies and transport

train

“Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.”

(‘From a railway carriage‘ by Robert Louis Stevenson)

This posting may seem bizarre to many readers.  Industrialisation and modern technology are normally assumed to be entirely at odds with the rural world of the fairies as we generally conceive them.  To a large extent, of course, this is perfectly true- and yet, we know they are craftspeople and they have their industries: they are metal workers, they are builders, there are fairy spinners and weavers.  There isn’t a complete contradiction between Faery and mechanics and production.

Our folklore evidence as well as more recent sightings suggest that fairies have a variety of ways of getting around.  We may assume that they fly or use magic all the time, but it seems not.  They have also been spotted in horse-drawn coaches, traps, caravans and carts as well as riding ponies and even deer (see for example Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies pp.35, 55, 64 & 251 or Fairy Census, numbers 29, 38 & 177).

Railways, though? What need have they of the speed of trains when the fays can fly?  These are perfectly valid points.  Equally, we have heard of them fleeing the noise and clamour of the human world, whether that is church bells (for which stories come from Exmoor and Worcestershire) and the noise of a factory- from the Isle of Man there is an account of the island fairies seen fleeing the new steam mill built at Colby for the continued solitude and silence of the glens and mountains.  A ploughman heard a “low, pathetic, forlorn moaning” and saw waves of the little folk heading up the hillside with their possessions on their backs.

Likewise, the railways: describing the island for his Practical guide of 1874, Henry Irwin Jenkinson admitted that belief in the Manx fairies was dying out under the assault of the education and rationalism of the younger generation.  Worse still, he wrote:

“Now there are railways and the island is overrun with tourists every summer, the last haunts of the good people will be invaded and they will have to move elsewhere.” (p.75).

The fear of modern mechanised transport expelling the supernatural residents was in fact expressed as early as the 1840s, when a correspondent of Notes and Queries had worried that railway engines would drive fairies far away from “Merry England.” (vol.9, 1860, p.259)

Yet, we also have this bizarre story: in the south of the island, a man reported sighting fairies operating a railway- before the first track had even been laid on Man, which was as late as 1873.

“There was a man from Santon told me last night that an uncle of his used to see the fairies very often, while he was alive, and knew a great deal about them. He was often telling the people about the railway line, more than 20 years before anyone thought about it. He was seeing the fairies very often practising on it in the moonlight, and he could point out where the line was to be, as he was seeing fairy trains going along so often… The man said the railway line was made on the very spot he told them, more than 20 years before it was proposed.”

In isolation, this story seems to make no sense at all.  However, the same man went on to say that his uncle was able to predict how good the fishing season would be according to the types of fairy he saw in and around his home.  Now, this link between seeing fairies and predicting the future is not new.  Other examples from the Isle of Man include mock funeral processions, which would foretell a death, and fairy baptisms, which will indicate the sex of an expected baby.  In this context, although the apparition was a long time in advance of the event portrayed, it was completely not out of the ordinary for fairy behaviour.

Further, the involvement of the fays with mechanical transport is a trend that has begun to emerge in the more recent reports of sightings.  Obviously, fairies need neither planes, nor trains, nor automobiles to be able to fly or to travel around, but they seem to have some partiality to showing themselves to us with our modern technology.  Most famous is the ‘Wollaton incident’ in Nottingham in 1979 when a number of little men were seen driving around a park in hovering cars.  Unique as it is in many respects, the sighting is not alone.  A small girl and her sisters in Cornwall in the 1940s were woken one night by a buzzing sound.  Looking out of her bedroom window, they  saw a small gnome-like man driving a tiny red car in circles.  In 1929 two children under ten living in Hertford witnessed a fairy flying a biplane over their garden (see Janet Bord, Fairies, pp.73-76).

As well as motor vehicles, there appears to be a developing fairy fascination with machinery.  Marjorie Johnson records cases of fairies drawn to type-writers and sewing machines, as well as an incident when some ‘leprechauns’ diagnosed a fault in a bus engine (Seeing fairies pp.101 & 322-2).  Fairies have also been seen by train passengers, on the platform or keeping pace with the train itself (Census numbers 169 & 456), and by those in cars, when again the fays fly alongside the vehicle (Census numbers 105 & 213).

All this suggests that, just as fairy magic can be fascinating for us, the wonder of humans’ technical marvels may be just as intriguing for them.

Further reading

Simon Young, editor of the Fairy census and of Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies, has also discussed this subject in a paper available online through Academia.

hopley

A glimpse of modernity in the background of Edward Hopley’s Puck and the moth (c.1853)