Fairy Herds- winning and losing good luck

flossie

There are two sorts of fairy cattle: there are the supernatural ‘water beasts,’ the water bulls of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man, which are magical and live under water (but are relatively harmless) and there are the less magical herds of cattle kept by the faes themselves.

Crodh mara & crodh sith

The fairies’ own livestock are the crodh mara, the fairy sea cows of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the fairy cattle or crodh sith of the Scottish mainland and the gwartheg y llyn, the Welsh ‘lake cattle’, that are frequently brought to marriages with men by the beautiful lake maidens- and just as frequently are taken away again by them when the relationship ends or when some taboo is breached.  These beasts may be livestock belonging to fairies, but they are by and large without any fairy characteristics of their own.  The dividing line between fairy cattle as simple chattels and fae beasts, as otherworld creatures, is a very fine one, though; here are two examples.

Elf Bulls

Victorian fairy expert Crofton Croker gathered some very interesting information on ‘elf-bulls.’  He described how, in Scotland at the end of harvest, the farmers’ cattle would be gathered into the cleared fields to graze the ‘aftermath.’ They might be seen to run about, bellowing, without apparent or visible cause.  However, if a person cared to take the risk, they might look through a knot hole in a piece of wood or through the hole made in a cow’s hide by the strike of an elf-bolt (both well-attested ways of penetrating fairy glamour) and the source of the disturbance would be revealed.  An elf bull would be seen, fighting with the strongest bull in the herd and mating with the cows.  The price of this revelation was the loss of sight in the eye used, however.  As I’ve described previously, the cows are naturally able to see the fairy beings, the second sight being innate.

Elf bulls are smaller than conventional ones, mousy in colour with upright ears, short horns and legs, and hair that is short, smooth and glossy like an otter’s pelt.  They are supernaturally strong and courageous and linger around rivers, grazing on the banks at night.

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The Manx taroo ushtey, from Bamart

Catching a Fairy Cow

These creatures, as I’ve said, may voluntarily mix with farm livestock and leave their hybrid offspring amongst those herds as well.  They can be trapped too.  At Shewbost on the Hebrides the crodh mara used to come ashore to graze and the local people were able to catch them and add them to their own stock by the simple measure of sprinkling maistir (stale urine) across their path back to the sea, as I’ve described previously.

On Skye, the cattle were known only to graze in certain spots on land and it was common to hear their fairy owners calling them home again at night.  They could be caught by strewing earth across their route back to the sea; soil taken from a churchyard being especially favoured.

How to Lose a Fairy Herd

One Scottish farmer had a cow that, every May, would suddenly leave the herd in its pasture and make her way to the adjacent river bank.  She would swim across to a small island in the stream and stay there for a few hours before returning.  In due course a calf would be born, displaying many of the characteristics of an elf-bull.  This went on for many years, but eventually one Christmas the farmer, sitting by the fire with his family, suggested that the time had come to cull her.  She had given many years of milk and calves, but she was ageing and less productive.  The cow, however, heard their plans- and had understood. She bellowed, broke out of the cowshed and charged down to the river bank, where she swam to the island and disappeared forever.  Even worse, she took all her offspring with her.

Nearly identical events are told involving a couple on the Scottish island of Pabbay: they found there an abandoned cow and from it bred their entire herd.  Once again, after some years had passed, they decided that the time had come to slaughter their original cow.  It overheard and left with all its daughters, vanishing into the sea.  The ‘abandoned’ beast had in fact been one of the crodh mara.  In both these accounts the cow’s comprehension and its ability to vanish clearly set it aside from normal members of a herd.  Unlike many of the gwartheg y llyn in the Welsh stories, these cattle are not called away by their fairy owners- rather they leave of their own accord.

‘The Wild Calf’

A very attractive story, related to the preceding ones, concerns the ‘Wild Calf’ of the Highlands.  This was an invisible cow that would visit farms at night.  If the farmer went out to his byre in darkness and embraced the supernatural calf, he would gain great good fortune in cattle keeping: he’d become a very successful cattle breeder, he would always have healthy and productive herds and he would become very rich.  However, one farmer was visited by the Calf sometime during the mid-nineteenth century and was too scared of the dark to go out to his byre without a candle.  Because he took the light, he breached that fairy condition of secrecy that attached to the rewards he would have received.  The Calf vanished- and was never seen again.

Summary

As we know, the fairies aren’t just great lovers of milk and cream; they are very active beef and dairy farmers.  I also discuss fairy livestock in chapter 5 of my recently published book, FaeryMy next book, Beyond Faery, published in November 2020 by Llewellyn, specifically examines the magical water bulls and horses of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man.

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

“Al on snowe white stedes” – fairy animals

gwartheg

A number of domesticated beasts are also associated with fairies, showing how often their society imitated and paralleled our own.  Sometimes this livestock was imagined as being its normal size, so as to match human sized fairies; on other occasions the creatures were diminutive, just like their supernatural owners.  Some of the creatures were larger than their counterparts in the human world, enhancing the fear associated with their unearthly origins.

Fairy livestock

We find regular reference to:

  • goats– I have discussed fairy goats before.  They were very well known in Wales, but the Cornish were also aware of the link.  For example, William Bottrell recorded that wherever goats preferred to graze would be certain to be places frequented by the pixies.  In the Highlands of Perthshire it was believed that the fairies lived on goat’s milk.

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  • horses– fairies liked hunting and processing and for this horses were nearly essential.  In the poem Sir Orfeo the fairy king arrives to seduce the knight’s wife with his ladies and retainers, “Al on snowe white stedes.”  In the Scottish poem Young Tamlane the fairies process on black, brown and white mounts whilst in Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen appears astride a ‘palfrey.’ We also hear of Welsh fairies hunting on grey horses and- from an old woman in the Vale of Neath in 1827- an account of fairies seen riding white horses ‘no bigger than dogs.’  These Welsh fairies were said to ride in the air, never coming to ground.  Appropriately, fairy horses were renowned for their swiftness.  In contrast to these generally small and pale-hued steeds, a horse that collected a midwife to attend a fairy labour near Tavistock was coal black with eyes ‘like balls of fire’…  John Campbell in Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands suggested that the fairy horses might not be real, at all, but just enchanted ragweed stems, on which fairies so often flew through the air like broomsticks.  This might indeed have been the case in the north of Scotland, at least.
  • deer– in the Highlands fairies were especially associated with the red deer and, indeed,  it was believed by some that they were their only cattle.  It was also alleged that fairy women could transform themselves into deer and might be captured in this guise.
  • dogs- for the fairies’ great sport of hunting, hounds are required.  Searching to recover his wife, Sir Orfeo meets the king of fairy riding out “with hundes berkyng.”  Likewise in Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen is met with “hir greyehundes” and “Hir raches.”  The latter are ‘rachets’- specially bred hunting dogs.  The Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) of Welsh legend were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven. They dashed through the air on stormy nights, terrifying the mortals below.  More dainty, perhaps, were the “milk white hounds” that accompanied the elfin ladies of the lakes.  In stark contrast, the ‘people of peace’ of the Scottish Highlands possessed dogs the size of bullocks, which were dark green (though paling towards their feet). These hounds’ tails either curled tightly on their backs or appeared flat, even plaited.  They were kept as ferocious watchdogs for the fairy knolls and were said to move by gliding in straight lines.
  • cats: fairy felines were apparently the size of human dogs, black with a white spot on their chests, their backs constantly arched and their fur bristled.
  • cattle– Irish fairy cattle are famed for their distinctive appearance: they are white with red ears.  In Britain, though, such distinctive characteristics are not so regularly recorded, but in Wales the “comely milk white kine” were definitely famed.  These were the gwartheg y llyn,  the ‘lake cattle’, that were frequently brought to marriages with human males by the beautiful and mesmerising lake maidens.  Alternatively they might mingle and interbreed naturally with human herds (and are clearly envisaged as being of normal proportions and appearance).  If (when) the fairy wife is later rejected or insulted, her departure will also inevitably mean the departure of the fairy beasts from her husband’s herd.  The same is bound to occur if the human farmer tries to slaughter the fairy cattle, as this too will be interpreted as demonstrating a want of respect for the owners/ donors.  In the Scottish Highlands fairy cattle typically were dun coloured and hornless, but on Skye they were red speckled and could cross the sea.
  • other livestock– In British goblins Wirt Sikes says that the Welsh fairies may appear in the shape of sheep, poultry and pigs.  It is not wholly clear from his account whether these are fairy animals or fairies in the form of animals.  Whatever the exact situation, these creatures were often reported as being seen flying or rising from pastures up into the sky.

In summary, there seem to be a number of common features to fairy animals. They are very commonly pure white- a sure sign of their supernatural nature- and most commonly airborne (another clear indication of their enchanted nature). Although in many respects, their behaviour was identical with that of normal farm beasts, they were prone to appear and disappear unpredictably.  As with all fairy gifts, poor treatment of them guarantees their loss.

cnn-annwn

cwn annwn

“Rewards and fairies”- gifts from the Good Neighbours

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Edmund Dulac, ‘Elves and fairies’ (The Tempest)

“It was told me that I should be rich by the fairies” Winter’s Tale, Act III, scene 3.

“although their gifts were sometimes valuable, they were usually wantonly given and unexpectedly resumed.” (Sir Walter Scott, Letters on demonology, letter IV)

In a previous on offerings to the fairies I noted that the divining line between worship and bargain was a difficult one to define with precision.  I wish to return to this area, discussing here definite gifts from fairykind to humans.

Folklore writer Christine Emerick has pointed out the curious contrast between Celtic fairy gifts and those of the Teutonic elves.  The former look valuable but prove to be worthless, whilst the latter are the reverse.  In British folktales, there is a blending of these extremes.

Fairy gifts

This unprovoked benevolence could take a variety of forms:

  • Regular gifts of food or money might be found by a lucky individual- for instance, at Willie How barrow in Yorkshire a local man was told he would find a guinea coin on top of the burial mound everyday, so long as he did not disclose his good fortune;
  • A skill might be conferred upon a fortunate recipient, such as the ability to play the bagpipes;
  • A helpful deed might be rewarded: in one Welsh story a farmer removed a rooks nest from a tree near his crops.  It had also overshadowed a fairy ring and they rewarded him for his act.  Providing bathing water for fairy families would likewise receive more than its due;
  • The provision of a service- such as carrying out a repair on a tool or acting as midwife- could be rewarded with more than the payment commensurate with the job.  In another Welsh example, a midwife received a life time’s supply of money for her assistance to the mother.  A curious tale from Ipstones in Staffordshire describes a woman whose child was substituted for a changeling.  Unlike most such maternal victims, she accepted the fairy child imposed upon her and cared for it as her own.  In return, whenever she wished for money, it would appear.  This bounty ceased when the infant sickened and died;
  • As indicated by the last example, a gift or gifts might be given, or the lucky individual might more generally enjoy good luck and prosperity, with good fortune and bounty taking many forms in their lives.  For instance, a highlander who gave his plaid to wrap a newborn fairy baby enjoyed good luck ever afterwards.  A supply of inexhaustible food is variant upon this;
  • there could be the gift of health and healing.  Several sites are linked associated with this: passing a child through the men an tol in Cornwall could cure rickets;  a well at Bugley in Wiltshire relieved sore eyes and the Hob Hole in  North Yorkshire was beneficial against whooping cough in children.  These properties might be conceived of as fairy beneficence or, perhaps, proof of their magic powers; and,
  • lastly, there is the very old concept of the fairy godmother and her gifts to the newborn.  This is recorded as early as the twelfth century in Layamon’s Brut: when King Arthur was born “alven hine ivengen; heo bigolen that child mid galdere swithe stronge”- ‘elves took him; they enchanted that child with magic most strong:’ the fairies gave him riches, long life, prowess and virtues.  These stories remained current in the seventeenth century, when Milton wrote how “at thy birth, the fairy ladies daunc’t upon the hearth/ And sweetly singing round about thy bed/ Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping head” (Vacation exercise).

Gifts were made to children as well as adults; anyone could attract the fairies’ favour and there did not need necessarily to be a specific reason, although exercise of the fairies’ esteemed virtues of generosity and hospitality tended to attract favourable attention: if a human is prepared to give freely s/he may enjoy the same in return.  It did help, though, to accept the first gift readily and without conditions.  Reginald Scot in The discovery of witchcraft (Book III, c.iV) recorded the tradition that fairies would favour servants and shepherds in country houses, “leaving bread, butter and choose sometimes with them, which if they refuse to eat, some mischief shall undoubtedly befall them by means of these fairies…”  Two stories confirm this belief.  A man given some food for mending a fairy’s spade was rewarded with food.  His companion counselled against eating it; the other cheerfully partook and benefitted for the rest of his life as a consequence of his spontaneous and trusting nature.  Similar accounts come from Pensher, County Durham (plough horses die because the farmer refuses to eat the bread and butter left for him) and from Lupton in Westmorland, where the horse that ate the fairy food lived and the other which refused to do so perished.

Problems with fairy gifts

Sometimes fairy generosity can become excessive, in that they will steal from others to benefit the preferred person.  Neighbours’ barns and granaries may be emptied in order to fill that of the blessed one.

“[they] give me jewels here…  oh, you must not tell though.” (Ben Jonson, The silent woman.)

However, fairy gifts are made subject to a strict rule that they are respected and are not disclosed.  In all the cases so far mentioned, boasting about money from the fairies would guarantee that the bounty would terminate.  In one sad case, a boy who found regular small sums of money was beaten by his father on suspicion of being a thief.  He finally confessed, which instantly ended the family’s good fortune, much to the parents’ bitter regret (Rhys Celtic folklore pp.37-38).  Loss of the bounty could be the least of the penalties inflicted for want of discretion though: Massinger in The fatal dowry warns “But not a word of it- ’tis fairies treasure/ Which but revealed brings on the blabber’s ruin” (Act IV, scene 1) whilst in The Honest Man’s Fortune we are likewise reminded of this fact: “fairy favours/ Wholesome if kept, but poison if discovered.”

Closely related to this condition are the gwartheg y llyn,  the lake cattle, which are frequently brought to marriages by lake maidens or which mingle and interbreed with human herds. If (when) the wife is later rejected or insulted, her departure will also inevitably mean the departure of the fairy beasts.  The same is bound to occur if the human farmer tries to slaughter the fairy cattle, as this too will be interpreted as demonstrating a want of respect for the owners/ donors.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).