British faeries have a curious and contradictory relationship to humans’ ability to see them.
On the one hand, the faes are not infrequently associated with springs and wells that have the power of curing defects and diseases in human eyes. La Fontaine des Mittes on Jersey was one such: it cured both dumbness and sore eyes. This fountain is inhabited by two faeries (or nymphs), called Arna and Aiuna, whose presence perhaps is related to its curative properties. Compare, though, another Jersey site, Le Lavoir des Dames (fairies’ bathing place) off Sorrel Point. If you spied on the faes bathing there, they’d blind you. Readers may well be familiar with the fact that blinding (or striking dumb) are common punishments for violating faery privacy or glamour. The commonest victims are midwives who acquire- by accident- the ability to see through faery concealment whilst attending at a confinement. The midwives later see the faery father or some such person at a market- frequently stealing- and they are deprived of their (second) sight more or less violently. This may involve a breath or dust in the eye, a light touch or it may require physically and violently putting the eye out. A Guernsey woman who assisted at a fairy birth at the mound called Le Creux es Faies got baby spit in her eyes; fairy spit also subsequently stopped her seeing les p’tits gens ever again.
Other faery sites with healing powers include a well at Bugley in Wiltshire which relieved sore eyes, whilst the water of the Faeries’ Well near Blackpool treated weak eyes. Note that a mother who took some of this water to help her daughter’s failing vision tried it first on her own eyes before applying it to her child- for the entirely understandable maternal reason that she didn’t want to harm her child further. This accidentally and unintentionally bestowed the second sight upon her and for this abuse of the waters’ healing properties she was duly blinded by a fairy man at a market. In passing, we may speculate as to whether the daughter too gained the second sight- and why the faes seem not to have been so concerned about that risk. Perhaps where the water is applied as a cure, it has no ‘side-effects,’ perhaps (as is often said) children naturally have the second sight and can see the faeries anyway.
Lastly, elf arrows are said to be a good treatment for sore eyes and for this reason (as well as to protect themselves against elf assaults and to be able to cure their livestock) people would collect them.
In the Hertfordshire fairy-tale of the Green Lady, a poor girl finds employment as servant to a faery woman. One of her chores is fetching water from a well and the fish in that well warn her to neither eat the lady’s food nor to spy upon her. The girl ignores the second injunction and sees the woman dancing with a bogie. She’s found out and is blinded as a punishment, but the fairy well water restores her sight.
On the Isle of Man, a man who accidentally saw the fairies one night in a pea field near Jurby, witnessing a great crowd of little people dancing in red cloaks, was blinded for life by an old fairy woman who spotted him. Another, who spied on them when they were dancing by looking through the keyhole of a deserted cottage, was blinded with a poke from the bow of the fiddle for his impertinence. The Manx Little People will often expand their flocks by stealing sheep from humans. To do this, they use their glamour to make it impossible for a shepherd to accurately count the sheep he’s tending. The only remedy is for him to wash his eyes in running water first.
Scottish witch suspect John Stewart was rendered dumb- and blind in one eye- after the fairy king struck him with a white rod. This seems to have been a preliminary to teaching him some of the faeries’ secrets and magical knowledge. Perhaps we might say that some of his human senses were deliberately restricted before they were expanded by the acquisition of faery powers. Stewart’s sight and speech were restored in due course.
Our Good Neighbours can be highly touchy, though. A Victorian report from Wrexham tells of a fairy that blinded a person just because he looked at it. A very similar account comes from Exmoor: a person who ‘had dealings’ with the pixies later saw them thieving at the market in Minehead. When she protested, she was blinded. There is no mention of midwifery being involved, which may imply that her mere association with the fairies gave her the second sight.
Regular readers of the blog will have noticed that, over the last few years, I have frequently made use of faery examples from the Isle of Man (although, strictly, it’s stretching my rule of sticking only to British folklore). However, the Manx ‘little people’ are too fascinating and too numerous to ignore- and it’s not just faery folk, either, we have the fynoderee, the glashtyn, the buggane, the tarroo ushtey (water bull), mermaids (the ben varrey) and other faery beasts to study as well. I have examined many of them as part of my wider studies of Faery (for example in 2020’s Beyond Faery), but it struck me earlier this year that it could be helpful to pull all this unique island material together into a single volume- and so Manx Faeries- The Little People of the Isle of Man has recently been published by Green Magic. There has been no comprehensive attempt to gather all the Manx faery lore into a single devoted volume and- given the richness of Manx tradition- this seemed to me to need to be done.
Many of the Manx creatures are parallel to British faery types, without being exactly identical. The faery horses and bulls resemble those of the Scottish Highlands, whilst having their own individual characteristics. The bugganeand the fynoderee are comparable to British mainland beings such as the bogies, boggarts and hobgoblins, but they are again separate and different. There are, nonetheless, many similarities of behaviour: a love of dancing and hunting, a taste for causing mischief, a habit of abducting babies children and adults. The fatal faery lover, the lhiannan shee, is an especially notable feature of human-faery interactions on the island.
What’s more, Manx faery lore offers lots of additional information and perspectives on the nature of Faery in the British Isles as a whole. Within quite a small surface area, the island comprises a microcosm of British Faery, encompassing individuals from across the wide spectrum of the supernatural family, yet it also has some utterly unique and fascinating types. I have posted fairly recently about the strange ‘burning wheel‘ faes that are a feature most notably of Manx lore; to these I might add the curious faery dogs, cats, pigs and sheep, the odd spectral horses and the multi-form glashtyn. There is plenty to absorb and amaze us.
Manx Faery Verse
Back in 2019, I self-published Victorian Fairy Verse, which gathered fairy poetry in English from Britain, Ireland and the USA. I overlooked the Isle of Man, however, and have rectified that oversight in the new book. A handful of Manx residents preserved the native folklore, not just by collecting stories and experiences but by composing poetry with faery themes. Here is an additional example, a 1901 poem called The Phynnodderee by Rev. Drummond Brown- which I have copied from the Manx Literature site on Flickr (it’s pretty long and, to be frank, I couldn’t quite face typing it all out from scratch- so please excuse and tolerate the cut and pasted page copies).
As I’ve said, the fynoderee of Manx tradition (there are several spellings, distinguished by more or less consonants) is akin to the English hobgoblin: it’s large and strong and helps around farms, but it’s also a bit dim. The fynoderee can become very attached to some people and may show them great kindness; the species are also associated with individual farms or holdings, to which they are tied as ‘spirits of the land.’ Whilst they reside there, they guarantee the fertility of the soil and the animals living on it. If they leave, it can mean ruin. Very much like English and Scottish brownies and hobs, it is unfortunately the case that the fynoderee can be touchy and easily offended. If a farmer takes pity on their hairy, naked state and provides a gift of clothes, they can be so upset as to disappear for ever. Mainland brownies and hobs seem peeved by the mere idea of clothing– or sometimes by the quality of the garments presented; the Manx fynoderee, by contrast, objects to them because he knows they will make him ill (a more comprehensible response, at least). It has been said that the agriculture of the island as a whole has been in decline for at least a century because of the thoughtless alienation of the various fynoderee.
In his poem, Drummond Brown has romanticised the creature considerably, not just with his elegant romantic verse but with his story of its origin. He starts with a good summary of the fynoderee‘s characteristics, but then alleges that he was once a handsome faery knight, punished for loving a mortal.
The Reverend Drummond Brown also wrote a poem about a musician abducted under a hill to a faery dance (a very common folklore theme). You can read this too on the same Manx website.
As I have discussed in previous posts, you may be able to identify a fairy by their physical appearance (by examining their hair, their eyes, or their physique– whether small or wizened) but they may also be given away by their clothes.
Faery clothing is often highly distinctive. Here are a few descriptions from around Britain which may help spotting fairies. In Yorkshire the fairies are said to be small and to wear short jackets and petticoats, to have bands of red ‘cuddy’ crossed around their legs rather like puttees, and to wear pointed caps like sugar loaves. I have been unable to find ‘cuddy’ with certainty in dictionaries- my best guess is that it is a dialect version of cude cloth, a sort of fine white material used for wrapping babies at baptism.
The Manx fairies have been sighted several times dressed all in green or in green with red caps- that may be peaked, made of leather and which are adorned with fairy lace. In one case a ‘fairy bishop’ visited a woman living at South Barrule on the island. He wore a tricorn hat of the eighteenth-century fashion. The taste for slightly old-fashioned clothes seems rather common: the fairies encountered at their famous market on the Blackdown Hills wore “old country garb” of red, blue or green and “high crowned hats” (presumably the sort of tall, broad brimmed hats we associate with Puritan and Cavaliers). The Cornish pobel vean “dressed in bright green nether garments, sky-blue jackets, three cornered hats on the men and pointed ones on the ladies, all decked out with lace and silver bells.”
Shetland fairies, meanwhile, have been seen in tight green clothes with green tapered caps. West Highland fairies too have been described as wearing “sharp caps like [those] which children make of rushes” which rise in a high conical shape.
Some Welsh fairies have been reported as being dressed in red and white, the men with a red triple cap, the women with a light headdress. Another description is even more elaborate: the tylwyth teg were said to be “beautiful little people,” the girls wearing dresses like rainbows with ribbons in their hair and the males in red triple caps (whatever these may be, exactly). The same account also said that the women might appear in white, scarlet or in blue petticoats. In south-east Wales, certainly, in Montgomeryshire, the fairies are known as the ‘old elves of the blue petticoats’ (or trousers), so characteristic were their garments and their colour.
Some other Welsh faeries, seen as recently as 1910, were said to be of the stature of children aged about eight or ten, with brown withered faces and hands like tiny claws. They wore russet red, some having conical close-fitting caps, others having handkerchiefs tied around their heads. Interestingly, a widely reproduced story of some fairies seen dancing in Denbighshire in the late 1750s closely resembles details of this. One summer’s day four children saw some dancers in a field. There were fifteen or sixteen, dressed in red with red handkerchiefs spotted with yellow on their heads. The children tried to get nearer, but were scared off when one of the dancers ran towards them with a very fierce expression (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, 414).
The pixies of the south-west of England seem especially prone to wearing antiquated clothes. For example, a male seen at Shaugh Bridge, on the south west edge of Dartmoor, in 1897 was dressed in a pointed hat, doublet and “short knicker things” coloured blue and red; four seen on Dartmoor in 1960 wore similar outfits: red doublets, red pointed caps and long green hose or stockings. The Cornish pixies adopt similar styles: at Penberth Cove the pixie women appeared very grandly in hooped petticoats with furbelows (pleated borders) and trains, fans and feathers. A group seen in 1830 at St Kea were dressed in red cloaks and tall, black sugar loaf hats of an ‘old-fashioned style.’ William Bottrell recorded that the pobel vean wore three cornered hats and the women were seen in very pointed headwear, all decorated with lace and silver bells.
What seems to tie all these accounts together is, firstly, the bright colours that are preferred. Most reports originate from country areas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when garments for most ordinary folk would have been fairly drab. The colourful costumes bespeak an earlier age and a richer class. Secondly, the headwear stands out, primarily because it is old-fashioned, whether of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; some of its sounds distinctly odd to us today, but was probably far less unusual to the witnesses. Even so, the fairies appear to come to us from another dimension and dressed as if they are an aristocracy of another age.
This is anachronistic style of dress is still reflected (to some extent) in the popular renderings of faeries- as illustrated by the pictures included here. Both artists have opted for medieval peasant style hoods with long trailing points or curious ‘ears.’ These allow for some amusing suggestions of faery ears whilst also underlining their essential otherness. If you have read my book from last year, Faery Art of the Twentieth Century, you may recall that this sort of faux-medieval garment became a common indicator of fairies in children’s illustrations from the 1920s onwards.
So, to conclude, how can you spot a faery? Well, the trite and unhelpful answer seems to be: they’ll look like one (!) Their clothing will stand out as peculiar and old fashioned, even if everything else about them blends in. Watch out…
The relationship of the Christian religion to fairy-kind is a very ambiguous or ambivalent one. On the whole, faeries are regarded as alien beings who stand wholly and permanently outside the Christian community. This can be seen most clearly in the various origin myths that have been formulated to situate fairies within a Christian world view.
One common explanation is that the fairies are fallen angels who followed Lucifer when he staged his rebellion in heaven. They were, however, left in limbo. When the gates of heaven and hell were sealed, some of the rebel angels were isolated between the two. They went to hide amidst the rocks and trees of earth until judgment day and so have become the fairies (see, for example, Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2, 327). In one version of this account of fairy origins, the decreasing sightings of fairies are also explained. Rather than being driven away by electric light and aeroplanes, it seems that the fairies are seen less because, in the last century, god has taken pity on the outcasts and has begun to let them back into heaven for a last chance (Drever, The Lure of the Kelpie, 1937).
Reflecting this view, there is a widespread story in Britain concerning the fairies’ anxiousness over their ultimate salvation. A Scottish version can be found in Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, under the title of The Fairy’s Inquiry.
“A clergyman was returning home one night after visiting a sick member of his congregation. His way led by a lake and, as he proceeded, he was surprised to hear most melodious strains of music. He sat down to listen. The music seemed to approach coming over the lake accompanied by a light. At length he discerned a man walking on the water, attended by a number of little beings, some bearing lights, others musical instruments. At the beach the man dismissed his attendants, and then walking up to the minister saluted him courteously. He was a little grey-headed old man, dressed in rather an unusual garb. The minister having returned his salute begged of him to come and sit beside him. He complied with the request, and on being asked who he was, replied that he was one of the Daoine Shi. He added that he and they had originally been angels, but having been seduced into revolt by Satan, they had been cast down to earth where they were to dwell till the day of doom. His object now was, to ascertain from the minister what would be their condition after that awful day. The minister then questioned him on the articles of faith; but as his answers did not prove satisfactory, and as in repeating the Lord’s Prayer, he persisted in saying wert instead of art in heaven, he did not feel himself justified in holding out any hopes to him. The fairy then gave a cry of despair and flung himself into the loch, and the minister resumed his journey.”
Keightley, pages 385-6
This story implies an unhappiness with their indeterminate position, but another account states that the fairies can sometimes be heard in their knolls, singing a song that celebrates that they are not of the seed of Adam and Abraham but rather are descended from the ‘Proud Angel.’ On the Isle of Man, in fact, the little people are called the cloan moyrney, the ‘proud clan,’ and there is a prayer “jee saue mee voish cloan ny moyrn” (‘God save me from the children of pride’).
Another (very bizarre) origin myth tells how Jesus was walking the world and, one day, visited a poor woman in her cottage. She had a very large family and, when she realised who was at the door, she hid a number of her children from her visitor. Jesus was offended by her subterfuge and, when he left, declared that the concealed children would not be seen again, because he had turned them into fairies. The story fails to make much sense on several levels, and the disproportionate cruelty of the response to the mother’s embarrassment is impossible to justify (though I recall it’s not entirely out of character with some episodes in the New Testament). Why the woman should be ashamed at the size of her family is not explained and we can only assume that the account reflects some deeper discomfort with natural sexuality and fertility within the religion.
Lastly, there are origin myths that are rather more benign, in that they do not judge the fairy folk- although they still exclude them from the Christian community and the perceived benefits of the faith. As I have described before, in Cornwall it was said that the pixies were either ghosts or the dead returned or they were the souls of children who were still-born or who died before baptism (see, for example, Evans Wentz Fairy Faith pp.172, 179 & 183). In Wales the tylwyth teg were sometimes explained as being the spirits of virtuous Druids or the ghosts of prehistoric races (Evans Wentz pp.147 & 148). Lastly, in Highland Scotland, there was a belief in spirits called taran who were children who had died unbaptised and now wandered the woods and wastes, lamenting their fate. These little beings were often seen and evidently bore a close relationship or resemblance to the sith folk (see Shaw, History of the Province of Moray, 1775).
This last category of beings plainly comprises spirits who are without sin in Christian terms: they never lived long enough to sin, or they lived ‘good’ lives in times before Christianity existed. All the same, they are outside the fold of the church and beyond salvation in conventional eschatology. This underlines how different fairies are: whatever physical similarities there may be, they are from another world, another dimension, and, as such, they can never participate spiritually in the same experience as humans.
People of Peace
It is very strange, therefore, to turn to some of the prayers and charms contained in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs). I have described charms included in these volumes previously: people would pray to the trinity and the saints for protection against fairies and the hosts and all the harm that they could inflict. So far, so familiar.
Turn, then, to this prayer for peace, which seeks to be with Jesus Christ in the dwelling of peace, the paradise of gentleness-
“and in the fairy bower of mercy.” (ann an siothbrugh na h-iochd)
A second prayer for peace also seeks the “peace of fairy bowers” (sith nan siothbrugh). Elsewhere Mary and Brigit are described as a fairy swan and a fairy duck of peace (lacha shith Mhoire na sith) respectively (vol.3, 269 & vol.1, 317). Possibly the latter images combine some sense of lightness, softness and a magical quality (?)
These references are surprising and confusing. The ‘fairy bower’ seems to mean the fairies’ normal dwelling: elsewhere Carmichael refers to “the fairy bower beneath the knoll” (vol.2. 286) whilst in another charm ‘fairy wort’ is picked on top of the ‘fairy bower’ (bruth) (vol.2, 162). The Gaelic word brugh has several meanings: it can denote a large house or mansion, an underground dwelling, a fairy mound and, lastly, a fortified tower, which we generally know today as a broch. It appears that all these meanings are wrapped up together in the prayers and invocations cited. Brochs are, for example, sites of fairy presence and power. For example, at Houstry in Caithness in 1810 a man took building materials from a ruined broch near his farm. This incurred the deep displeasure of the sith folk living there, and they inflicted a plague upon the cattle of everyone living in the neighbourhood. Secondly, at around the same date on Shetland, a fiddle player called Hakki Johnson was passing the Broch of Houlland one night when he heard music being played inside by the trows. He was able to memorise the tune, which has been passed down since as the Wast Side Trows Reel. A man on Skye who demolished the ‘fairy bower’ of Dun Gharsain at Bracadale in order to build some pens for his livestock only escaped a disastrous revenge from the fairies because he had been drinking milk from a cow that had grazed on the protective herb mothan. This ‘bower’ again is termed a bruth and is, very evidently, a broch, one of several found beside Loch Bracadale.
In conclusion, we have to reconcile ourselves top the contradictory evidence that ‘fairy’ was used both in a negative sense, implying a threat that required holy protection, and (at the very same time) the fairies were associated with peace and other heavenly qualities…
It’s not at all unusual for people to make regular offerings to fairies and, on certain occasions, to offer major sacrifices to them.
I’ve described before how it was the habit in the Scottish Highlands and islands to make regular offerings of milk to the gruagachand glaistig who often looked after the cattle on farms and in communities. Small quantities were poured out on special stones, perhaps after every milking or at certain times in the farming year. In fact, at least as recently as the 1950s milk was still being put out overnight for the pixies on one Dartmoor farm.
On Shetland, local people sacrificed ale or pins and coins to the water horse called shoopiltee to ensure good catches at sea. At Halloween, the people of Lewis used to attend a church ceremony that included pouring ale into the sea in the hope that the sea spirit ‘shony’ (seonaidh) would guarantee a good supply of seaweed in the year ahead; so too on the remote isle of St Kilda, where shells, pebbles, rags, pins, nails and coins were thrown into the sea. All round Scotland, in fact, meat, drink and bread would be offered up. On Orkney the custom was that the first fish caught on a hook when out line-fishing would be thrown back to ensure that the rest of the catch on that trip would be good.
A very similar practice was known on the Isle of Man. The islanders used to sacrifice rum to the buggane of Kione Dhoo headland, the liquor being poured into the sea by fishing boats from Port St Mary as they passed the promontory on their way to the Kinsale and Lerwick fishing grounds. Rum was occasionally thrown from the top of the cliff as well, with the words “Take that, evil spirit (or monster)!”. This dedication resembles that which accompanied the practice of throwing a fish to the mermen at sea “Gow shen, dooinney varrey!” (‘Take that, sea people.’)
Another water beast was appeased in more blood thirsty fashion at Loch Maree in the Scottish Highlands. A terrible lake monster called Mourie inhabited this lake, to which bulls were sacrificed on August 25th each year. Very similar was the tradition at Loch Wan in the Scottish Uplands, where local farmers offered the first lamb of the flock each year to the loch- otherwise they knew that half their sheep would drown in its waters before the season was out.
Further south, in the Lincolnshire Fens, the habit used to be to offer the first fruits of the harvest, as well as a share of any bread, beer and milk, to the local spirits called the ‘Strangers,’ ‘the Tiddy Ones’ or the ‘Green Coaties.’ People knew that if these offerings were neglected, the crops would fail and livestock would die.
The success of many regular household tasks was guaranteed by making sure of fairy good will. For instance, on the Isle of Man, the faeries will help with the baking so long as a piece of the dough is stuck to the kitchen wall for them. If such an offering isn’t made, the baker will face problems. On Shetland the practice was to sprinkle every corner of a house with milk when butter was to be churned. In many places in Scotland, just as with the milk offerings mentioned earlier, some of the wort from any household brew of ale would be poured out at the ’brownie stone’ to ensure a good fermentation.
Faery aid- or good will- was invoked in emergencies too. One Dartmoor sheep farmer’s flock was plagued by disease; he concluded that the only remedy was to go to the top of a tor and slaughter a sheep as an offering to the pixies- a move which promptly alleviated the problem. At Crawford Muir on Shetland in the 1770s a tenant was reported to have sacrificed a black lamb to the sea trows so as to reinforce curses he was placing upon his enemies.
Lastly, and most strikingly, in 1859 on the Isle of Man archaeologists opened a barrow near Tynwald Hill and excavated the prehistoric remains within. After they had left, in order to atone for this desecration of a fairy site, a local farmer sacrificed and burned a heifer on the tumulus. This dedication to the spirits of the place is especially striking. (Manchester Times, 2/4/1881, 4)
If we read such accounts in books on anthropology and ancient religion, we would unhesitatingly say that sacrifices were being made to the gods. In these cases, though, we have offerings made by people who would, I’m sure, have said that they were good Christian folk, going to church or chapel every Sunday and not in the least pagan. They would have denied ‘worshipping’ the fairies and in this I’m sure they would have been right. The goods given are more in the manner of a payment, part of a deal with the Good Folk who lived so near to them and had such an impact upon their lives and their environment. A bargain was being struck, with a powerful and sometimes troublesome neighbour, rather than a prayer being offered up to a nature deity. In some cases, such as the regular provision of milk and bread at night, it would have been framed as an act of welcome towards someone visiting your house. Admittedly, they were going to come in whether you liked it or not, but that was just more reason to want to make them feel at home. Our relationship with fairies has always been one in which there is a strange imbalance in power and nervousness on our part…
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):
“Wheel’s on fire Rolling down the road Just notify my next of kin This wheel shall explode”
Bob Dylan/ Rick Danko
Faery kind need not always appear in anthropomorphic form. I have described before the Scottish kelpies and each uisge and the shape shifting capabilities of several supernatural beings, such as Puck and the Isle of Man bogie called the buggane.
Transformations into animals might still seem relatively understandable, given the British tradition of semi-fish-like mermaids and selkies or the very widespread idea of the ‘Black Dog.’ However, fairies can sometimes take completely non-animal forms. I was inspired to examine these by Simon Young’s article on the Rolling Wool Bogie and in my book Beyond Faery I described the variety of ‘soft’ apparitions (looking like jelly, or balls or bales of wool or grass) as well as some very bizarre ‘hard’ forms that have been adopted.
There are quite a few examples of the ‘hard’ manifestations, from all around the British Isles. At Hellsgill, Nether Auchinleck, in Clydesdale, a sprite in the shape of the outer rim of a cartwheel would come bounding down the brae, heading straight for any night time traveller. Just as it looked to be about to collide with its victim, the wheel would vanish with an eldritch laugh. Other such Scottish ‘wheels’ have been reported. A man called Alexander, of Buaile Mor on South Unst, was fishing in a stream one night when he saw a figure approaching downstream. He called to the stranger to step away from the water so as not to frighten the fish; the man complied but then Alexander realised something like a mill-wheel was rolling towards him. Hurriedly, he gathered up his catch and gear and made off. The fish he’d caught he hid under a rock and then headed for the nearest house. Crossing the moor, however, he was repeatedly thrown down. The next morning, returning to collect his catch, Alexander found that all had gone save for one he had ripped the head off by standing on it during his hurried departure the night before.
At Lag nam Bocan (Bogle’s Hollow), on South Uist, a woman saw an iron car wheel rim rolling along the road. A comparable- and equally inexplicable- incident occurred at Mynydduslwyn in Gwent: a reddish grey object, round like a bowl, was encountered rolling back and forth across a lane. The witness believed it was a living thing, because it grew larger and smaller as it moved; he enquired what in God’s name it was, and the apparition instantly disappeared. Perhaps it’s significant too that the Orkney monsters, the nuggle and the shoopiltee, are said to have tails resembling a water-wheels.
Two comparable examples from the Isle of Man, which were regarded as manifestations of the buggane, are described in Manx Notes and Queries for 1904:
“A man, when he was young, was seeing the girls home late in the night, and when coming to the end of beyr yn clagh glass (the grey stone road), he beard a great noise, and he looked in every direction, but could see nothing, and the noise was coming nearer. He did not know what to do, so he got over the hedge, but the noise was just over him, and he looked up and saw a thing like a big wheel of fire. It was going round at a great speed, and went towards Ballacurry and when it was near that place it vanished, and he saw no more of it
Second Account– A man was coming along the grey stone road in Ballakillowey, and he met a big wheel of fire, going around at a fearful rate, but remaining in the same place, and he could not get past, so he went back and took another road, but he met the wheel again at the next opening, and he went across the fields to shun it, but when he came to the high road the wheel was there again, but he ventured to pass it and got away. It made a great noise with whirling round.”
As I described in my book Beyond Faery, published last year, faery kind are capable of taking quite unexpected and baffling forms. That book argued for an expansion of ‘faery’ to include a range of supernatural beings in animal (rather than humanoid) form, but it will be clear that we actually need to expand our horizons far more broadly to encompass all the potential manifestations that have been encountered.
As many humans have discovered, having a faery lover can prove to be a terrible burden and strain. Although you might initially feel a great sense of joy, pride and accomplishment, this often vanishes as the true cost of your lover becomes apparent.
The attraction is simply explained. Fairy women are renowned to be great beauties– which is why, in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, the Roman general greets the Egyptian queen as a “great fairy” (IV, 8). To describe her as a fae is the only way of doing justice to her looks. As well as beauty, fairy lovers and wives can bring advantages, such as supernatural skills and knowledge, but they can be demanding and jealous lovers too.
The Manx female fairy called the lhiannan shee is a very good example of this. Dora Broome (Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man 36) describes one such lhiannan shee. She woes her chosen man by leaving him a chest full of gold and a golden length of mermaid’s hair, but she also hangs around his home, sighing and trying to catch his eye, which the man knows could be fateful for him. He decides to get married, thinking that this will put her off, but the plan doesn’t work. The fairy woman continues to hang around, disturbing the newly wed couple, until the husband eventually catches sight of the fairy’s lovely face looking through the window. She was “more beautiful than moonlight on water or the first primrose in Spring.” The man falls under her spell instantly and abandons his wife for seven years. When he finally returns, his wife has remarried and her first husband has been reduced to a white haired, haggard wreck- and can never escape his fairy pursuer.
Broome says that the charms against a lhiannan shee are to say the Lord’s prayer quickly if you glimpse her and to always carry with you a magical object, such as twig of cuirn (rowan or mountain ash) or a fish bone called a bollan. Both are highly effective at repelling fairies, apparently. Powerful protection is needed, though, because “the face of the Fairy Woman is lovelier than a dream and lonelier than a sea-bird’s cry.”
In another story, The Fisherman and the Ben-Varrey, Broome describes how a mermaid with lovely blue eyes and golden hair has a similarly bewitching effect on a poor man. She gives him a chest of old golden coins and the sound of her voice as she sings on the rocks on the shore is so enticing that he would join her and drown had it not been for his wife locking the door. The money turns out to be a curse, because everyone assumes it must be stolen, whilst the family end up poorer than ever because the fisherman stops fishing, believing he has wealth for life. By luck, all the money is lost- which lifts the spell- but it’s clear that sooner or later the ben-varrey would have claimed him.
The lhiannan shee’s influence upon a man can be malign, causing him to waste away and to lose his wits and friends. For example, a large burly man took up with a fairy woman. He started to share all his food and drink with her, often putting his cup behind him so that she could drink (even though no-one else saw her). As time passed, he began to laugh and talk to himself when alone (or so it seemed to others). He also became paranoid about people trying to listen in to his conversations with her- although he claimed that the shee girl was telling him when he was being spied upon. It is particularly dangerous to speak to one, as it puts you at her mercy: in late Victorian times a man described meeting one in the fields near Rushen on Man and being very tempted to chat to her because she was so charming and lovely, but he knew not to do so because a friend of his had done this and had then been haunted by her, with the shee woman even following him into pubs and drinking his beer.
In 1904, a Manx author was able to identify at least half a dozen known lhiannan shees on the island. One at Glendowan was living with a man; another at Sorby had been seen chasing her husband and several others had been sighted wandering (or prowling) on their own, for example at Port Erin, where she was seen walking up the mountain.
The lhiannan shee is especially notable for the fact that she pursued and attached herself to men. This proximity often came to be termed ‘haunting’ because it was too intense and obsessive and, both on Man and in the Highlands, there are stories of men who fled overseas to escape their fairy lovers, only to find that they had followed them across oceans. The Scottish and Manx shee women are extreme cases, but any fairy relationship can prove burdensome and demanding for the human partner. In Wales, as is known from numerous stories, winning the fae woman in the first place can be difficult (see the accounts about tempting them with bread) and the marriage is almost always subject to strict obligations or taboos. Normally, these involve keeping iron away from the fairy female, but there’s a very similar tale told of Dolgellau pool. A fairy would bathe there on summer evenings and Hugh Evans dared to spy on her- and fell in love. She consented to marry on the stipulation that he would allow her to continue to go off alone at nights and never interfere or ask questions about this. He agreed, but then became consumed with curiosity and tried to follow her one night. Hugh fell and broke his leg doing this and, once she had nursed him back to health, she left him forever.
In one Scottish story, the relentlessness of the fairy attachment is starkly revealed. A shepherd heard pipes playing and had to follow the sound of music. He was drawn onwards for weeks, months, seasons, living on roots and berries as he wandered. Finally he crossed the sea and, on the far shore, was met by a piper dressed in green who invited him to accept the love of a faery girl who had seen him with his flocks and had lured him to this place.
Many of the faery lovers I have described in previous posts can seem more passive, assigned the sorts of roles and attitudes allocated to women in the past. On the surface this may be true, but it underestimates their power and planning.
I have several times before mentioned the fairy women Tryamour in the story of Sir Launfal. She is not unique. In the Lay of Graelent, for example, the young knight is riding in a forest one May day when he comes upon a naked maiden bathing in a fountain, with her clothes hanging nearby on a bush. He seizes them, in response to which she calls him by name and asks him to at least leave her shift. Graelent relents and allows her to come out of the water and dress, but then he’s overcome with lust and “did with her what he pleased.” After what amounts to a rape, he begs her pardon, which she grants, before revealing that she had gone to the forest with the express intention of meeting him. She then offers him fine clothes and money on condition that he binds himself to her and keeps their relationship secret. Ultimately, the lady raises Graelent from death and disappears with him (strongly suggestive of Arthur and Morgan le Fay and clearly indicative of her fairy nature). This final departure to fairyland is repeated in Sir Launfal.
The Lay of Guingamor is quite similar. The knight is hunting in a forest when he finds a maiden bathing in a spring and combing her hair (rather like a mermaid). She is “long limbed and softly rounded” and, once again, he snatches her clothes to bring her within his power. As before, though, it seems that her presence is far from accidental. She addresses him by name and promises him love and gifts. Guingamor then accompanies her to her palace, where a stay of three days lasts for three hundred years in human time. These distortions in time as a familiar feature of passage between dimensions.
Finally, the lay called Le chevalier qui fist parler les cons et les culs involves another hunting knight discovering three nymphs bathing in a fountain. They are “so seeming wise and beautiful, one might surmise that they were fairies in mortal guise.” As soon as the knight’s squire sees the fays’ “white charms, their pretty bosoms, haunches, arms” he (yet again) snatches their clothes and rides off. It is his master who restores their dresses to them, in return for which he is granted three powers- to be welcome everywhere and to be able to make “parler les cons et les culs” (to make cunts and arses talk…). A bizarre gift, but there you go…
It will have been noted from the previous paragraphs that fairy lovers are, in the British Isles, predominantly female. Whereas Ireland has the gean cannah, the love talker, as a male equivalent to the leanan-sidhe, there are really no equivalent terrestrial beings in Britain. There is, however, the northern Scottish tradition of male selkies, who will form sexual relationships with human women and father children. Often, though, these relationships are brief and, not uncommonly, they’re non-consensual. Selkie men seem prone to impregnating human women and abandoning them (see my posting on the chapter on selkies in my book Beyond Faery and, too, the ballad the Selkie of Sule Skerry).
There’s more discussion and examples of the lhiannan shee in my book Faerywhilst in Beyond FaeryI give extended consideration to the problems of human relationships with merfolk. My new book, Love and Sex in Faeryland, examines this subject at length.
I recently described how we can use a variety of substances and objects as charms against fairies. In this posting, I look at how some actions and words can have a like effect.
Some of the effective actions will be familiar to readers from wider magical practice. For example, drawing a circle around yourself- especially if an iron or steel point is used to do this- will guard an individual from a range of harms, including malign fairies Making the sign of the Christian cross is widely believed to be effective in the same manner as, of course, are Christian prayers or the invocation of holy names, typically the trinity, but also individual saints.
Some actions are less explicable. For example, there is a very peculiar (and frustratingly incomplete) account recorded in Charles Rogers Social Life in Scotland (1886). He describes how the fairies abducted the wife of the miller of Menstrie but how, when riddling meal one day at the door of his barn, he stood in a particular stance or posture that had the effect of breaking the spell and recovering his spouse. Rogers doesn’t expand on this, leaving us desperate for details.
More typically, it was forms of words that were effective against the faes (over and above simply blessing yourself and calling on god). Volume III of Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs) of 1900 contains a range of spoken charms that offer protection against fairies. Many of these are addressed to individual saints, including as Brigit, Mary, Michael, Peter, James, John and Columba. Their assistance is sought either against generalised perils or to help with specific threats.
For example, on waking in the morning you can pray to “Ward off the bane of the fairy women” (these ban sith were plainly seen as a persistent danger, as several prayers are concerned with them); the fairies of the knolls (siodach nan cnoc) are also mentioned. The sith folk as a whole were seen as especially threatening on Thursdays (when a blessing could be intoned against them) and at the time of death, when a person might prayer to be shielded against the evil of the fairies (bho arrais nan sidh).
More precisely identified risks include fairy arrows or darts (which are mentioned in several prayers) and the fairy host or sluagh. One notably vivid prayer to Brigit seeks her blessing to ensure that:
“No seed of the fairy host shall lift me,
Nor seed of airy host shall lift me.”
“Cha tog siodach mi
Cha tog sluagach mi”
As well as people, household items and equipment might be protected, as in this blessing for a loom against gruagachs and fairy women: “Bho gach gruagach is ban-sith.”
William Mackenzie also recorded Gaelic Incantations that he heard on the Hebrides before 1895. He came across a charm against injuries to the spleen and liver by fairies as well as more comprehensive charms guarding against the ‘nine slender fairies’ (‘s air naoi bean seang sithe) or against a more pervasive malign fairy influence:
“We repudiate their evil tricks,
(May) their back be to us,
May their face be from us,
Through merit of the passion and death of our saviour.”
The Mona Miscellany of 1873 records a very similar incantation from the Isle of Man that was to be said at night to protect a home from fairy incursions:
“The peace of God and the peace of man,
The peace of God on Columb Killey,
On each window and each door,
And on every hole admitting moonlight,
And on the place of my rest
And the peace of God on myself.”
Directly comparable to this is a grace that was recorded from a resident of Skye, Farquhar Beaton, during the 1840s, when he was one hundred years old. Nightly he prayed for protection for the old and young, wives and children, sheep and cattle against the ‘power and dominion of the fairies’ (o churnhach agus cheannas nan sithichean). Some might perhaps question the credulity of the people saying such prayers, but as Beaton himself said- “My own two eyes beheld them; my own two ears heard them” (Mo dhu shuil fein a chunnaic iad; mo dha chluas fein a chual iad.) He’d seen the threat and he was taking no chances…
One thing to bear in mind with all of these charms, I am sure, is the need to repeat them in the exact form in which they have been formulated. The Isle of Man also supplies a very good example of this, which is to be found in Dora Broome’s Fairy Tales of the Isle of Man. A man wanted to find a fynoderee to help cure his sickly cow and his wife told him a charm to repeat to lure one out of a tree and into his power:
Come down, for I can see.”
The being would then follow the husband anywhere, but she warned him to cross himself three times immediately afterwards, for fear of butcheragh (witchcraft, or bad magic). Of course, the husband forgot the gesture to go with the words, and bad luck followed: his cow recovered, but it then disappeared along with the fynoderee- and all the other animals and birds living on the farm.
For more on protections against faeries, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021). My Manx Faeries examines the fynoderee and other beings from the Isle of Man in more detail.
As I have described previously, both on this blog and in detail in my 2020 book, Faery, there is quite a lot of evidence for the fact that our Good Neighbours have a distinctive smell. I’ve come across a little more evidence on this, which is well worth considering.
In 1650, at Dunoon on the island of Bute, a woman called Finwell Hyndman was accused of witchcraft. She was said to disappear for twenty four hours every three months and, when she returned, she was crazed and weary and had “such a wyld smell that none could come neir hir.” She couldn’t explain her absences to the community, which made it pretty clear to everyone that she had been ‘away with the fairies.’
Perhaps the people of Kingarth parish were correct about Finwell. The smell that was so noticeable and inexplicable might have been a clear sign of Hyndman’s contact with the faeries. That would unquestionably have been the interpretation placed on matters on the Isle of Man, where the smell of fairies was a well-known phenomenon, and was said to be sour and strong.
For instance, a certain Mrs C., living in Arbory parish in the south of Man, one day in December 1891 went to the stream near her cottage for water. There was, she said, a terrible stench “between a burnt rag and a stink” she said, and so “thick” on the bank that she could scarcely breathe. This was the smell of fairies, who had obviously only recently departed. A girl on the island also smelled them once- and then lost her sense of smell- although this could conceivably have been a punishment for her involuntary exclamation of “What a stink!” which would naturally have offended the tetchy faes.
It shouldn’t necessarily surprise us to learn that the faes, as a separate race or species from us, should have their own odour that is unique to them and enables us to detect their presence. Many people seem to find the scent overpowering or unpleasant, but such things can be a matter of individual preference and physiology, of course. It works the other way round too: in the relevant section on my book Faery I quote from a Manx story in which a hidden human is discovered by the faeries because of his smell. In addition, as I described in my previous posting, it is well established in magical texts that fairies should be attracted by burning incense and by the person working the spell being scrupulously clean and using clean clothes and table cloths, towels and the like. In this context, it may be worth adding that effective ways of driving fairies off, or holding them at bay, include burning rags or old shoes- the stench created is offensive to the fays’ sensitive noses (which makes you wonder if they really smell like burnt rags themselves, as Mrs C on Man alleged).
See more too in my 2021 book, The Faery Lifecycle: