The Perils of Fairy Food

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Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Fairy foodstuffs are mysterious.  Eating or drinking within fairyland is widely accepted to be a way of ensuring that you cannot escape back to your home: you take fairy nature within yourself- and therefore you must abstain from meals whilst visiting.  Sometimes, a wise friend might warn a person of the risks before they go- as was the case with a Ross-shire midwife called to a delivery in the knoll at Big Strath; sometimes the help comes from someone already there in Faerie.  In the Hertfordshire fairy-tale of the Green Lady, a girl working as a servant for the green (fairy) woman is warned by fish in a well where she draws water not to eat the household’s food.

What is odd, though, is that the converse of this rule is that, if you encounter fairy food and drink in the human world, refusing to eat it is the perilous thing.

Image result for margaret tarrant + strawberry jam thief
Margaret Tarrant, ‘Strawberry Jam Thief’

Always say yes

There are numerous examples of the potentially fatal consequences of not accepting fairy hospitality in this world.  The ill-effects may, indeed, be more to do with the offence taken by not eating what you’re offered rather than any quality inherent in the goods themselves.  The mildest response may be that the fairies exact an indirect revenge. On the Isle of Arran two men were ploughing up some fresh land and one joked that the fairies should feed them in recognition of their hard labour.  They duly found a table laid at the head of the field, but neither dared eat what had been provided, because of which the field never produced any crops.

A person may suffer physically, though.  The least may be physical chastisement: in one story from Devon a ploughman mended a fairy’s broken baking peel; cider was left in thanks, which the man happily drank.  His plough boy refused it- and was pinched mercilessly.

In comparison, in one Scottish account a ploughman felt thirsty and, hearing a butter churn, wished out loud for a drink from it.  A woman in green appeared and offered him some fresh buttermilk.  He refused this because her clothing made him suspect her supernatural nature.  She told him that, after a year had passed, he’d not be needing a drink at all and, sure enough, within twelve months he was dead.  A similar fate befell a man from the Isle of Man who refused to eat some oatmeal porridge offered by the fairies.

There is also a variant of the Scottish story involving two men working near a fairy knoll: one refuses the butter milk and dies within the year; the other drinks it gladly and is further rewarded with a wish- which was never to drown.  In a third such incident a man from the Isle of Harris passed a fairy knoll at Bearnairidh and heard churning.  He was thirsty and wished for a drink, but when a woman in green appeared and offered him fresh milk, he refused it.  She cursed him and, very shortly afterwards, he took a boat but drowned when it sank.

Intriguingly, it seems that the outright refusal to accept the offered food is what offends, rather than the details of the manner its consumption.  There is a record of an elderly Scottish woman called Nanzy who had long had friendly dealings with her local fairies.  She often met them when she was out and about and they gave her presents, such as rolls of fairy butter.  Now, she was too respectable a Christian woman to actually eat this, good as it looked, so she instead used for other household purposes.  These aren’t specified in the account, but must have included greasing pans and such like.  Given that there are stories of horses dying for refusing to touch fairy food, the indication is that even accepting a foodstuff from the faes and then feeding it to your pigs would not insult them.

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Outhwaite, ‘Refreshment’

Feast or foul?

What’s the food like, though?  Accounts vary.  A man from Dornoch in Sutherland was taken by the fairies and flew with them.  After this ordeal, they gave him beef, bread and fish to eat, but he complained afterwards that it was like “so much cork.”

This report is confirmed, amply, by others: a Perthshire woman who was abducted by the fairies said that the food she was offered looked very tempting, but that when she saw through the glamour, it was “only the refuse of the earth.”  Another Scottish abductee said grace over such a meal and then realised that it was nothing but horse dung.

In the majority of accounts, we’re told nothing about the meal itself, and have to assume that it was exactly like any human repast.  At the other end of the scale, one Scottish writer states that fairy bread tastes like the finest wheaten loaf mixed with honey and wine.

A final account fits better with this last report than those that allege that fairy food is nothing but inedible rubbish.  Two Shetland fishermen were caught by a storm and had to land their boat on the uninhabited island of Linga.  After a few days, conditions improved and one of them men took the boat, deserting his companion Thom.  However, that night Thom found a trow banquet taking place in the hut where he was sheltering.  The trows tried to chase him off but he resisted and fired his gun, causing the supernatural assembly to vanish, but leaving behind all their food.  He was able to survive extremely well on this for many days until his girlfriend sailed to find him.  She had been suspicious when the companion, Willie, returned alone and had tried to marry her, so she carried out a search.

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Summary

What’s the best advice to stay safe, then?  It seems to be this: if you’re here in this dimension and encounter a fairy, you can (and probably should) consume whatever you’re offered without any qualms.  If you have entered their dimension, it seems that any food present there will have been transformed too and ingesting it will be very risky.  Of course, navigating refusal diplomatically when you’re in someone else’s home is another matter again…