‘Gaily trip the fairies’- dances and the devil

fairy dance in a clearing doyle

Richard Doyle, Fairy Dance in a Clearing

“The tripping Fayry tricks shall play” Drayton, Muse’s Elysium, 8th Nymphal

Fairies are notorious for their tripping habits, dancing around grassy rings in the moonlight.  These joyful activities have become central to their nature and a cliché of fairy verse, as illustrated by just a handful of examples:

“Ouphe and goblin! imp and sprite!

Elf of eve! and starry Fay!

Ye that love the moon’s soft light,

Hither, hither wend your way;

Twine ye in the jocund ring,

Sing and trip it merrily,

Hand to hand, and wing to wing,

Round the wild witch-hazel tree.”

The culprit fay, Joseph Rodman Drake

“Trip it over moss and rock
To the owlet’s elvish tune”
The little people, Julius Madison Cawein

Also in the poem There are fairies, Cawein assures us:

“There are faeries; verily;
Verily:
For the old owl in the tree,
Hollow tree,
He who maketh melody
For them tripping merrily,
Told it me.”

Lastly, in another of his verses, Son of the Elf, Cawein describes how fairies-

“Or, beneath the owlet moon,
Trip it to the cricket’s tune…”

This is all very pretty and quaint and tends to reinforce the view that sees fairies as charming and harmless, all leisure and no malice.  It’s not the whole story.

Pixie Perspectives

There is something more to this idea of tripping dances than just poetic conventions, though.  In Somerset the green fairy rings are called ‘gallitraps’ and we are told by Ruth Tongue that they are produced by the pixies riding colts in circles in the fields.  If you step into a gallitrap, you are entirely with the pixies’ power.  If you have one foot in and one out, you can see them, but you can still escape. (Somerset Folklore, 1965, p.115)

The word gallitrap is rare and unusual to us now, but it was once much more familiar, particularly in certain parts of Britain.  As Ruth Tongue’s example shows, the word was in common use in the south-west of England, in the counties of Somerset, Gloucestershire and Devon.  In that region the gallitrap (or gallytrap or gallowtrap) was a mystic green circle from which a guilty person, having once stepped, would only escape by being delivered to justice.  They could only exit from the circle into the arms of the law or else would become “infatuated to their own discovery” as one writer expressed it- the circle would have affected them and they would feel driven to confess or to expose their own guilt.

In several parishes in Devon the ‘gallitrap’ was a patch of land hedged about and considered uncanny.  Anyone ‘feyed’ (or fated) to be hung for a crime who entered one of these fields would then be unable to leave again but would instead wander round in circles, searching vainly for the gate or stile, until the local parson was called to release them (thence into the custody of a magistrate).  The field is then, quite literally, a ‘gallow-trap.’  In this example, many readers will identify the very close parallels between this process and the experience of being pixie-led and also the links to green places reserved for the faes that I recently discussed.

Although this conception of the gallitrap seems some way away from fairy rings, they are intimately connected.  In the story Two Men of Mendip by Walter Raymond (1879), this scene occurs:

“She held out her finger and traced upon the parched grass the greener round of a pixie ring.  ‘We be in a gallow-trap’ she laughed.  ‘If either of us have a’ done wrong, ‘tis sure to be brought to light.  He started as if struck unawares, then with a low cry he hid his face in his hands… The superstition that any man of crime stepping into a fairy circle should surely come to justice was thrust out of her mind.’ (p.230)

Another dialect source confirms that in Somerset the word ‘gyaalitrap’ referred to the familiar pixie-ring in meadows and pastures.

It appears that, in south-west England, the idea of the gallitrap was steadily extended.  Firstly, it came to signify any mysterious circle, shape or sign.  Mary Palmer, a mid-eighteenth century documenter of Devonshire dialect, recorded how one of her interviewees had watched the village parson in the wood to see if he “made any zerckles or gallytraps”- if he drew any shapes on the ground.  It came about in time that gallytraps might be drawn inside, on tables, just as much as on the ground outside.  In turn, once the word was associated more with odd shapes than with grassy rings, it began to be applied to anything that was a bit misshapen, so that in due course in Gloucestershire the word was applied to frightful ornaments or head-dresses that people wore, or even to badly made tools.

fairy ring

Doyle, Fairy Ring

Highland Flings

There is then a large geographical gap before we encounter the term again in Scotland.  The word ‘gillatryp’ (although it has been subject to metathesis and the vowels have been swapped around) seems to be identical to ‘gallytrap’ and definitely shares the same supernatural connotations.  The gillatryp was originally the name of a witches’ dance but was also used as a nickname for a suspected witch.  For example, the Kirk Session of Essill in 1731 heard that “Margaret H. (Gillatryps) in Garmouth compeared and decleared herself penitent for her indecent practices in unseemly dances on 26th December last.”

A century and a half earlier, we see the word employed in its original sense.  At Elgin in 1596, “Magie Tailȝeour [and] Magie Thomsoune … confessit thame to be in ane dance callit gillatrype, singing a foull hieland sang…”

According to Isobel Goudie in 1662, the ‘maiden’ of the witches’ coven at Auldearn was nicknamed ‘Over the dyke with it’ because:

“The Devill [alwayis takis the] maiden in his hand nixt him, quhan they daunce Gillatrypes; and as they couped they would cry ‘over the dyke with it.”

These last examples link us back to our starting point, a dance with supernatural beings.  That appears to be the core of this word’s meaning and, whether linked to fairies, witches or to the devil, they were ill-omened things.

Further Reading

Readers may wish to refer to Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary or to George Henderson’s Folklore of the Northern Counties, p.278, footnote 2- information supplied on Devon by Sabine Baring-Gould. For more on the danger of faery rings, see my Darker Side of Faery, 2021; for further discussion of faery rings, take a look at my Faeries in the Natural World (2021):

darker side

Natural World

Green faery places

Moony, mystical landscape with f
R J Enraght-Mooney, Mystical landscape with fairy

We’ve discussed before the location and identity of fairy land or where fairies might live.  In this post, I want to consider how they may live amongst us, in places specially designated or reserved for them.

Fairy knowes

These special sites might be for the living or for the dead.  It is well known that fairies live under hills, particularly in the north of England and in Scotland; sometimes people will enter them to join in with their dances, midwives will be invited in to help with childbirths and some folk will be abducted there to live in servitude.  These knolls or knowes are marked out by their distinctive rounded form and by the lushness of the vegetation growing upon them.  By their unique shape and isolation, they stand out as separate and unusual- and this should act as a warning to people.  It doesn’t always work this way, though, and the faery nature of these hills has been repeatedly underlined by reports concerning people who’ve violated them.

For example, in the Highlands on old man kept the hillock near his house very clean by clearing from it any animal droppings or other dirt.  He did this mainly because he liked to sit on the hill on summer evenings, but one dusk a small man he did not know appeared and thanked him for his care.  In return, he promised that if the man’s cattle should stray at night, they would be kept out of the crops.  A farmer who always avoided pasturing his horses and cows on a hillock and resisted taking turf from the knoll was rewarded by the faes who would drive his livestock to shelter whenever a storm arose at night.

By way of contrast, a man on Coll went to pull brambles from a hill and heard someone call out angrily to him from inside.  He ran away in fright.  A farmer who had a green knoll (or tolman) standing in front of his house used nightly to throw out all the waste household water there.  Eventually, he was confronted and asked to desist as the regular drenchings were spoiling the furniture and utensils of the people living inside.  Lastly, a man decided one evening to tether his horse to graze on a grassy mound where the pasture looked rich.  As he was hammering in the tether pin, a head appeared and asked him to tie his horse somewhere else, as the hole was letting the rainwater in and the peg had nearly hurt one of the inhabitants.

Burial grounds

There are also certain locations within the landscape that are reserved for the fairy dead.  For example, it was widely believed in the north of England that any green shady spot was a fairy burial ground.  Indeed, in 1847 it was reported in the Manx newspaper Mona’s Herald that a man called Quayle, living at Maughold on the island, had his house windows broken by the faes because he had ploughed up some land never before cultivated and, in so doing, had turned up bones from an old grave yard.

Set aside

It’s not just a matter of respecting sites already selected by the faes, though.  Some may be deliberately granted to them by human communities.  In Gloucestershire, presumably-valuable agricultural land was given up to the fairies: when the fields at Upton St Leonard’s were enclosed, an area called No Nation was left for the faeries’ use and tall trees were left in the new hedgerows as places in which the fays could hide.  This is a good example of showing the proper respect for the Good Folk, by appeasing them and adapting to living alongside them.

In the same way, in Berwickshire on the Scottish border with England, there’s a tradition of preserving areas called Clootie’s Craft (or croft) and Goodman’s Field, that were set aside in villages for the fairies and were never tilled or cropped.  It was considered extremely unlucky to dig or plough on these portions (just as fairy rings should never be disturbed), for:

“He who tills the fairies’ green

Nae luck again shall hae.”

There was another saying that, “If you put a spade in the Goodman’s craft… [the Devil] will shoot you with his shaft.”   A further rhyme, composed to warn locals against reckless cultivation, advised that:

“The craft lies bonny by Langton Lees

And is well liked by birds and bees.

If you plough it up, it’ll be your death,

For disturbing the sod where the fairies like to tread.”

a w crawford woodland fairies in the moonlight
A W Crawford, Woodland fairies in the moonlight

For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World