There are many aspects of human behaviour to which fairies take exception, such as meanness, rudeness and untidiness, but spying upon their activities is especially enraging to them. They value their privacy above all things. Although I recently noted how much the faeries hate those who doubt or mock their existence, it seems that the opposite is just as unwelcome: being too interested in them is disliked just as much as disbelief. Striking the right balance can be very hard indeed for us humans (consider here the story of a Manx midwife who was offered two cakes to eat by the faeries, one broken and one whole; she was told to eat as much as she liked, so long as it wasn’t the cake that was broken- or the whole one… Evans Wentz 127). A handful of examples of faery reactions to spying is offered here.
Many reports of the fairies’ vicious reactions to discovering that their private activities have been overlooked come from the Isle of Man. For example, some men riding home at night saw a light in an old kiln. One looked inside and saw a great crowd assembled but, almost instantly, the light went out and the witness was seized with sickness and found he could not walk. A similar Manx account ends even more unfortunately. Two men were walking home over the mountains at night when they passed an old, ruined cottage that was then being used as a cattle byre. However, on that night they heard music emanating from the house. The windows had been blocked up with turfs so one of the men peered through the keyhole of the door instead. He saw fairies dancing- but was seen himself almost immediately. The fiddler at the gathering jabbed the spy in his eye with his bow- and he was blinded from that date.
Such reactions were by no means unique to the Manx fairies. A Hertfordshire folktale, The Green Lady, concerns a girl who set out to seek her fortune and is given work as a housemaid by the fairy woman of the title (the story bears close resemblances to the Cornish story of Cherry of Zennor– and the several related accounts). The maid is warned not to eat the food in the house and not to spy on the activities of her mistress. The girl proves too nosey, though, and (like the Manx traveller) looks through the keyhole of one of the rooms on the woman’s house. Inside, the Green Lady is dancing with a bogey– and the maid loses her sight for this violation (although in this story she is able to restore her vision with a magic well in the grounds of the property).
In the Scottish Highlands, near Braemar, there lies the Big Stone of Cluny. This has always been known to be a gathering place of the sith folk and, one night, a man saw a number of tiny figures dancing on top of the stone. He watched for some time, as his fancy was taken by one fairy girl in particular, but she sensed his presence and flew at him in fury. He only just had time to say a prayer and protect himself from what could have been permanent injury. At Beddgelert in Snowdonia, another man spied upon the fairies when they were dancing. This time, though, he fell asleep where he was concealed and, whilst he slumbered, was bound with ropes and covered with gossamer. Search parties who looked for him the next day couldn’t see him and it was only the next night that the tylwyth teg freed him, after he had slept for a day and a half.
However much the faeries live in proximity to us- and are prepared to invade our homes and other buildings to use for their own purposes- they apply different rules and principles to themselves. Trespass upon human property, and constant listening in to human conversations, are perfectly acceptable, but the reverse is intolerable, whether it arose accidentally or deliberately. These dual standards, and the need constantly to keep on the right side of our Good Neighbours, has been a constant feature of British faerylore across the centuries.
The faeries’ adverse reactions to anything they consider to be incursions upon their rights and their privacy are described further in my Darker Side of Faery (2021):