Underground, Overground

ar elves

In this post I look at one of the places with which fairies are often associated- ancient sites– and then consider exactly how they are linked to these monuments.

Barrows and Standing Stones

There is a very longstanding link between faeries, megalithic structures and ancient burial tumuli.  Its exact nature, nevertheless, is a little hazy.  It’s not always clear if the faes are merely present at these sites from time to time (usually to dance) or whether they actually reside at- or under- them.

For example, at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, the faeries have been seen dancing- but also disappearing down a hole by the King Stone- implying that they were accessing their underground home by that route.  The Hurle Stane, near Chillingham in Northumberland, was a well-known site of faery assemblies.

On the Isle of Arran, faeries meet at the various stone circles on the island, but are especially closely linked to the megalithic complex at Machrie Moor: one of the stone circles here is a double ring called Fion-gal’s Cauldron Seat.  A faery or brownie was said to live below it- who was propitiated by pouring milk into a hole in the side of one of the stones.

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Suidhe Coire Fhionn, Machrie Moor

It isn’t just single or grouped standing stones, though.  Prehistoric barrows also have very strong faery associations.  The round barrow at Carn Gluze, St Just, Cornwall, is the place of faery dances and burning lights at night.  A long barrow at Butcombe in Somerset is called the Fairy Toot; another barrow in the same county at Stoke Courcy is known as the Pixies’ Mound and another on Beaulieu Heath in Hampshire is called the Pixies’ Cave.  All these names strongly imply that our Good Neighbours were known to live beneath the mounds.  I have very often noted the presence of faes beneath natural ‘knolls’ or ‘knowes,’ so it makes sense for them to take up residence in man-made features too.  Many such sites are recognised in Scotland, too, often being sitheans (places were the sith people live).  Examples are found at Fowlis Wester, Perth (a barrow and stone circle), Carmylie, Forfar and at Kinross.

Part and parcel of this group of ideas is an instinctive respect- even reverence- that many people have had for ancient sites in their vicinity.  An Elgin man called Andro Man was accused in 1649 of setting up a standing stone and taking off his bonnet to it.  He insisted to the kirk presbytery that it was merely a boundary marker, but they made him break up the monolith all the same.  What’s most impressive about this case is how very late an expression of respect for menhirs this was.  Older beliefs were still found amongst rural populations until comparatively recently, though.  George Tyack, in his 1899 book on The Lore and Legend of the English Church, noted a belief on the Isle of Man that, if you pastured your sheep amidst a ‘druidic’ circle, the flock was bound to succumb to disease.  In his Second Manx Scrapbook, Walter Gill mentioned standing stones at Germans and Michael on the island that are called ‘white ladies’ and which were white washed to emphasise their ghostly significance.  ‘White ladies’ are most commonly spirits associated with springs and streams, so this is a fascinating merger of ideas.

The reason for treating stones respectfully is simple: if you fail to, the fairies using or living at the sites will have their revenge.  In British Goblins, Wirt Sikes tells the story of a Dark Age inscribed pillar standing on a tumulus at Banwan Bryddin, near Neath, which was removed by Lady Mackworth to adorn a grotto she was constructing in the grounds of her home.  Her workmen were unhappy over this, because the mound was well known to be a faery site, but the Lady had her way.  Soon after the grotto was completed, a terrible storm raged over the Neath Valley and a landslip completely buried her expensive new grotto.  The tylwyth teg had spoken.

AR fairy market

Faery Hillocks

As I have described, the faeries took up residence in barrows and other ancient sites found in prominent and/ or raised places- hillforts and other enclosures- because they were already familiar with living in distinctive or isolated hills.  Take, for example, a conical hill with a flat top near Strachar called Sian Sluai, the fairy hill of the host (sluagh); the home of the fairy queen at sith-chaillin near Fortingal, Perth; the many sioth-duns (fairy hills) around Buchanan, Perth, or the conical knoll called Harry’s Hill (Tom Eanraic) near Ardesier in Inverness, where the fairies met at night and where changeling children would be left overnight, in the hope of retrieving the stolen human baby.

Across Britain, in fact, fairies have been seen dancing on hills and disappearing into hills.  It is wholly unsurprising, therefore, to discover that many of the healers who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made their contact with the faes in hilly places.

Katharine Jonesdochter of Orkney in 1616 described how she saw the trows “on the hill called Greinfall at monie sindrie tymes.” Thomas Leys of Aberdeen, and his lover Elspeth Reid, told their 1597 trial that they knew of a hill where they could raise a spirit in any likeness they chose.  Katherine Ross said in 1590 that she “wald gang in Hillis to speik to the elf folk.”  John Stewart of Irvine regularly met with the fairies at Halloween on top of two hills near to the town (1618).  Isobel Haldane, from Perth, was carried from her bed one night to “ane hill-syde: the hill oppynit and scho enterit in” (1623).  Katharine Caray wandered amongst the hills of Caithness “at the doun going of the sun [and] ane great number of fairie men mett her” (1616).

From what we can tell, the faeries lived in prehistoric sites on hills; I’ll give a few examples from Wales.  The Iron Age hill fort known as Bryn y Pibion is definitely a faery dwelling, as it features in a ‘midwife’ story; the headland of Dinllain, defended by ancient earthworks, was a place for fairy dancing, after which they would raise a sod of earth and descended underground.  Another midwife attended a fairy birth here too.  Fairies gathered at the hillfort of Moeddin dressed in green to celebrate Mayday and, lastly, the prominent rock known as Ynys Geinon was connected to Craig y Nos castle by an underground passage, which the fairies reached by descending a golden ladder.

Conclusion

To conclude, therefore, we seem to have a double conjunction of associations.  The faeries were drawn to and lived beneath ancient stones and mounds; if those were also raised on hills- so much the better, as with the barrow called the Fairy Hillock at Carmylie in Forfar, which stands on the top of a hill.

Fairies- explaining the unexplained

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A ‘fairy loaf’- a fossil sea urchin

“The naturalists of the Dark Ages owed many obligations to our fairies, for whatever they found wonderful and could not account for, they easily got rid of by charging to their account.” (Brand, Popular antiquities, vol.2 p.285)

In earlier times fairies were regularly used to explain phenomena for which we had no scientific theory, such as fairy rings, fossils and archaeological artefacts.  This tendency was exacerbated by the habit of applying the word ‘fairy’ to anything that was mysterious and/ or small.  A good example might be old clay pipe stems, which readily became ‘fairy pipes’- even in places where they had been manufactured- Broseley in Shropshire for instance.  This is a curious testimony to the power of mythology over factual knowledge.

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A sample ‘fairy pipe’

There is a particular fitness to this tendency, because of the convention that fairies themselves are small and, perhaps, delicate, but why link the faeries with ancient monuments such as fortifications and burial mounds?  This has been done across Britain, from Shetland to Penwith in Cornwall.  Very commonly, these sites are rural, frequently remote and of great antiquity; they were built for purposes unknown by persons unknown and this inevitably has invited speculation.  How they were built is likewise unknown and this can enhance the aura of mystery or miraculousness.  The physical and imaginative distance separating us from these structures makes it easy to see them as products of Faerie.

Cissbury

Cissbury Ring hillfort

The kinds of sites that have been given names linking them to fairyland include barrows, standing stones, hillforts, flint workings and- even- Roman ruins.  Some examples of the folk lore associations follow:

  • Iron Age hillforts– in Sussex the fairies are known to dance at Torberry Hill and Cissbury forts;
  • the motte and bailey at Pulborough in the same county was the scene of a fairy funeral; and,
  • the ancient flint mines and earth works at Harrow Hill in Sussex have been identified by the some as the fays’ last home in England;
  • barrows at Batcombe and Stoney Littleton in Somerset are known as ‘fairy toots.’  In the same county fairy gold is buried at Cadbury hillfort and fairy pipes are found at Dolbury camp.  At the barrow called Pudding Pie Hill in North Yorkshire it’s said that if you run around it nine times and then stick a knife in the top, you will hear the fairies inside;
  • Hoarstones stone circle in Shropshire is a fairy ring in which six fairy women dance on moonlit nights;
  • burial cists on Shetland are ‘trow haunted’- they are places where the “peerie [tiny] Hillmen” will be encountered;  brochs as well as standing stones on the island are the same;
  • at the Roman sites at Bolitree and Kenchester in Herefordshire are also haunted by fairies and fairy money (Roman coins?) have been found there.  In one case a Roman mosaic pavement that was discovered in the county was promptly covered over again for fear of offending the fays.  In Oystermouth (Ystum Llwynarth) on Gower during the 1860s local people would not collect tesserae, the fragments of a Roman mosaic floor, found in the churchyard of All Saints church for fear that the fairies would haunt or torment them.

stoney littleton chamber

Stoney Littleton barrow- the ammonite fossil at the entrance

It’s particularly curious to note the Norman motte at Pulborough amongst these prehistoric monuments.  It must have been reasonably apparent that this site was a castle, yet a veneer of age and mystery seems to have been enough to attract the fairies.  In the remainder of the cases, the fay link is likely to have been engendered by several clear associations:

  • many of these sites were underground or the material came from beneath the soil.  As it’s well-known that fairyland is subterranean- a place of the dead perhaps- it made eminent sense to assume that they were fairy lairs;
  • fairies are well known to give money to their favourites and sometimes the coins are of unknown origin. Heavy Roman and Celtic currency would very obviously have been mistaken for fairy gold;
  • as the fairies have their own monarchy and court, they will need suitably grand locations to inhabit.  The ruins of old forts and palaces that we can see in the mortal world presumably have a supernatural form where the fairies dwell in feasting and revelry;
  • if fairies are the ancestral spirits of the land- its original inhabitants, perhaps- then all old burial sites and ceremonial structures must be their responsibility; and,
  • there is an age-old association between the fays and buried treasure and fairy gold is frequently related to ancient sites.  That at Dolebury sinks deeper of you try to dig for it.  In contrast, at Bury Ditches fort near Clun in Shropshire a pot of gold was buried by fairies, attached to which is a thin gold wire to help guide seekers to the treasure.  Intriguingly, on Blea Moor on the Pennines there once lived the Lile Hob.  This being was linked to buried treasure known to be in the area; when three silver armlets were discovered on the Moor, the hob disappeared forever.

Further reading

In a world lacking a truly historical sense and without the science of archaeology, the known world of the fairies was readily at hand to explain features and finds that otherwise were wholly without a place in the world as it was then conceived and understood.  They gave structure and sense to our predecessors and at the same time enchanted the land around them, giving its significance and even a sense of the sacred. They represented the spirit of the land- a potent source of imagery.

See too my postings on fairies and the past and fairies and megaliths.

My fairy philosophy

As regular visitors or long term readers of this blog may know, I have written three novels with a supernatural/ fairy theme.  Considering about these, I thought it might be helpful for me to be explicit about my approach to the subject- to outline some of the fundamental ideas that lie behind my postings.  Indeed, I realised that when I wrote the three novels (all of which predate British fairies, my factual study of the subject published last summer), I had not clearly or systematically expressed even to myself what exactly it was that I believed.

elder queen

As a preamble, the stories in question are The elder queenwhich is set in present day Devon and involves encounters between unemployed farm labourer Darren Carter and Saran, the eponymous ‘fairy queen’; Albion awake! a fantasy that mingles time travel to meet William Blake, Gerard Winstanley and other radical figures alongside contact with the Fairy Queen Maeve; and lastly a children’s story, The Derrickconcerning a summer holiday meeting in Dorset between a boy and members of the local fairy ‘tribe’ called Derricks.

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So, surveying what I have written, what are my fundamental preconceptions about fairy kind? What assumptions and prejudices may I be carrying over into my interpretation of the folklore sources?  The key features that come out seem quite consistent:

  • fairies are present here and now.  All my books have contemporary settings and the fae folk I have imagined are resident amongst us (if perhaps in more marginal areas) but they are not of the present.  Their speech and material culture is all slightly adrift from ours and there can be misunderstanding on both sides as a consequence;
  • fairies are like humans– they are of the same stature and form- no wings, therefore- although they may be marked out by the colour of their hair or their eyes.  Their lifespan is very different, however: in Albion awake! Maeve, whilst appearing to be a woman in her late thirties, is actually at least 5000 years old.  The Derrick is likewise ancient: you may recall how changelings are caught out with the ‘brewery of egg shells,’ causing them to exclaim how they have seen forests grown from acorns and die again.  Such are the timescales I imagine for my fay protagonists;
  • fairies are prepared to interact with humans- socially, intellectually and, quite often, sexually.  There may well be an element of exploitation by them in this- especially as-
  • they like to protect their privacy- fairies will tolerate contact with humans on their terms and at the times and places of their choosing.  Nonetheless, they wish to hold themselves apart from us, and resent any uninvited intrusion;
  • they are not to be antagonised or ignored– it follows from the above that trespasses into fairy territory may be punished (as Darren Carter discovers when he stumbles upon a fairy dance).  Attracting the antipathy of fairy kind is to be avoided because:
  • they are powerful- they have magical powers and they will not hesitate from using force against offending humans.  Darren experiences this, against himself and against others who threaten to disturb the fairy’s world.  In The Derrick an attempt to steal fairy gold leads to devastating retribution.  In Albion awake! Maeve can enable humans to travel through time and space.  Manipulating the human world is a matter of course to them;
  • the fairies have their own aims, objectives and agenda- this follows from what has already been said.  Interaction with humans is undertaken for their own ends.  It may be pleasurable (the sex) but it serves other, greater purposes too;
  • fairies expect respect and compliance with their wishes;
  • the fairies are a timeless part of the land.  It seems to come naturally to me to associate them with standing stones, burial mounds and other monuments and this is a feature repeated in all three stories: in The Elder Queen Darren meets Saran in an ancient ’round;’ in Albion awake! we variously encounter Maeve at Hambledon Hill hillfort, at the London Stone and at Boudicca’s Grave on Hampstead Heath.   The action of The Derrick is focused around yet another Iron Age fortification.  This intimate tie with the land and with ancient features of the landscape extends into the fairies’ attitude to pollution and environmental change.  Predictably, they don’t like it.  Queen Maeve concerns herself with preventing an extension to the runway of Heathrow Airport; Saran and her people forcibly disrupt attempts at fracking. My fairies are, it seems, eco-warriors.

That’s a summary of the key themes and characteristics that I realise unite all three books.  Unavoidably, too, they will shape my approach to my non-fiction writing too.

Central to all of the above is respect for tradition, as recorded in folklore and fairy tales.  My recommended bookshelf of fairy books describes what I think of as some of the essential texts you should have.

albion