Vision & Visibility in faery lore

Le Lavoir des Dames, Jersey

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.

The Fairy Well, at Poulton le Fylde, Blackpool

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.

Les Creux es faies, Guernsey

Stakhanovite Sprites: when faeries work too hard

I am very pleased to announce another new book, How Things Work in Faery, my guide to the faery economy, which has just been published by Green Magic. I’ve considered aspects of this subject regularly over the last few years and the new book pulls together all the different issues- faery farming, mining, money and their curious relationship with humans in all these areas. Readers will recall that I posted on the subject of faeries doing our chores not long ago. This willingness to undertake some of the more laborious aspects of human work seems to be ingrained in the fae temperament across the British Isles. For example, the trows on the mainland of Shetland would clean people’s homes and grind their corn, accepting clothes, bread and other food in return. Their attitude to recompense was complex though: for one family on the island of Yell they used to make shoes, wooden items and other goods, which the recipients were able to sell, making themselves rich. These trows never asked for payment for all their toiling and, in fact, when food and drink was left out for them, they were offended and left forever (having first eaten what was offered!)

A regular- and even stranger- feature of the folklore of the Scottish Highlands is the repeated reports of faeries causing a problem for humans by being too keen to work. We’re used to the idea of a few faeries voluntarily taking up residence with or near to humans, and helping out in the homes and farms: brownies, glaistigs, gruagachs, hobs and boggarts are the main examples of these. It’s also fairly common for humans to be taken temporarily or even permanently to provide a service: piping or midwifery (which are usually paid for), wet nurses and carers for children and simple domestic servants (or slaves). Fairies who are so willing to work that they become a nuisance is a different situation to all of these, but it’s frequently encountered.

Work, Work, Work

In Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, John Gregorson Campbell gives a good example of the problem of faeries who are too committed to their work.

“The Fairies staying in Dunvuilg came to assist a farmer in the vicinity in weaving and preparing cloth, and, after finishing the work in a wonderfully short space of time, called for more work. To get rid of his officious assistants, the farmer called outside the door that Dunvuilg was on fire. In some form or other it is extensively known, and in every locality the scene is laid in its own neighbourhood. In Mull the fairy residence is said to have been the bold headland in the south-west known as Dun Bhuirbh. Some say the elves were brought to the house by two old women, who were tired of spinning, and incautiously said they wished all the people in Dun Bhuirbh were there to assist. According to others, the elves were in the habit of coming to Tapull House in the Ross of Mull, and their excessive zeal made them very unwelcome. In Skye the event is said to have occurred at Dun Bhuirbh… The rhyme they had when they came to Tapull is known:


‘Let me comb, card, tease, spin, Get a weaving loom quick,
Water for fulling on the fire- Work, work, work.’
The cry they raised when going away, in the Skye version, runs:
‘Dun Bhuirbh on fire, Without dog or man, My balls of thread And my bags of meal.'”

In another version of this, recorded in John Francis Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the fairies run off fretting over their cheese moulds, butter pails, meal chests, goats and such like.

Campbell also mentions a man in Flodigarry who expressed a wish that his corn were reaped, even if it should be by fairy assistance. A host of fairies came and reaped the field in two nights. After doing this, they called for more work, and the man set them to empty the sea.

Generally it is an unwise wish by a human that their house or farm work was completed that brings the faeries to them. It might be weaving or household chores, but the fairies will appear instantly and will then do the task in record time whilst producing excellent results- the finest tweed is made in one Skye example, for instance. Then the fairies will not leave and are given increasingly desperate jobs to occupy them. A barn might be roofed, all the spring work on the farm might be completed, then they have to be asked to strip an entire hill of its heather, then the humans have to resort to trickery to relieve themselves of their helpers, who have become a nuisance by their enthusiasm and productivity. Emptying the sea with a sieve or being asked to build a bridge with bricks of sand tied with ropes of sand finally exhausts the fairies’ patience. In one Skye case, the housewife asked the sith folk to fight each other- which they obediently did- but grass never grew again on the spot where they shed each other’s blood. On Ben Doran, in Glencoe, a man called Echain wished for fairy aid cutting peat. They completed this in record time and asked for, so he had them strip the bracken from the hill; when they returned for another task, he set them to plaiting ropes of sand. They are thought still to be at work.

These accounts remind us of two significant aspects to living with fairy neighbours: they are always eavesdropping upon us and, even worse, they can punish us if we try to outwit them. Another Scottish writer, Patrick Graham, in Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery (1806) said that the fairies of Perthshire were “always, though invisibly, present…” This is the problem for humans- and it appears to be more acute at night.

There is in Scottish Gaelic folklore the concept of a ‘night wish’ (ordachadh oidhche): for example, a man on the Hebrides was digging in his fields when darkness forced him to stop. He wished his spring digging was completed- and a host of fairies immediately appeared and carried on with his labours, finishing the task by dawn. In this case the contentious issue was the fairies’ wages, which they negotiated after fulfilling his wish. The man had to agree to give a sheaf to each worker- and his entire harvest was taken. In an example from Skye, a man at Borve was looking at his fields and remarked, out loud, “That corn is ready to be cut!” Next morning he found that the entire crop had been reaped and stacked. Then a small man four feet high appeared and asked for pay. He only requested a few potatoes and a little pot, which seemed very modest and was readily given. However, he returned daily asking for more and more, until the desperate farmer had to resort to telling him that there was a fire at Dun Borve (an ancient broch and notorious as a fairy dwelling). These two cases also compound the problems of the humans by weakening their bargaining position- the work has been done and they’re under an obligation to their fairy neighbours, whether wished for or not (Folklore vols 11 & 33).

A similar report comes form Shetland. A crofter at Easter Colbinstoft suffered repeatedly from others’ cattle straying onto his land. He told his wife one night that he’d give his best cow to have a good wall right around his farm to protect it. When he woke up the next morning, he was stunned to see that just such a wall had been built overnight. The trows, of course, had heard him, had assembled a great crowd of workers and had done the job in record time. They’d also taken the best cow, which they reckoned had been promised to them in advance.

The Scottish fairies take their love of labour to extremes, but they are not isolated in their work ethic: the fairies of the Channel Islands display the same tendencies. I have mentioned before their willingness to complete domestic chores, but their attitude goes some distance beyond mere helpfulness in return for a gift of food. On Jersey, if a person wants work to be finished, it must simply be left out with a piece of cake and a bowl of milk overnight. On both Jersey and Guernsey, the fairies are noted for their skill in needlework and knitting and will repair clothes and complete garments to a high standard if the materials and tools are provided. Quite voluntarily too, the fairies of Saints Bay on Guernsey will repair farm carts and tools if they are left with a gift of food outside their cave.

Show Gratitude- Don’t Take for Granted

This preparedness to help should not be exploited, though. The Guernsey fairies assist those who are overwhelmed; they won’t help those who are behind with their tasks because they’re lazy. These individuals are knocked about when they’re asleep in bed.

Very similar Scottish examples can be found, too. Skye the fairies of Dun Bornaskitaig helped a poor widow by harvesting her entire oat crop in one night, reaping the grain and stacking it all neatly in sheaves. On the Isle of Lewis, the fairies were also known to undertake tasks if asked by humans. A man asked them to make a mast for his fishing boat out of the handle of his hammer;. One fairy died trying to complete the job; his brother succeeded, but cursed the human for his abuse of their help. The Shetland trows can impede the work of those they take against.

More Flaming Faeries…

Arthur Hughes, Jack o’ Lantern, 1872

Following up my April posting on faes that look like ‘Wheels on Fire,’ I’ve recently been researching the faerylore of the Channel Islands, and have come across some more strange manifestations of faery-kind.

The Guernsey phenomenon called le faeu boulanger (the rolling fire, but literally the ‘baker’s fire’) is something like a will of the wisp, but yet has its own unique features. Like the will, le faeu can indicate where treasure is buried, but islanders also say that it’s a spirit in pain, always wandering and seeking a delivery from its plight through suicide. It’s surprising to us, perhaps, to think of a supernatural desiring mortality– or even being able to kill itself- but the evidence confirms that this seems to be the case. If a knife is left with its haft stuck in the ground and the blade pointing up, le faeu will attack it and plunge itself repeatedly onto the blade, leaving drops of blood in the morning.

Behaving more like a will of the wisp, le faeu will pursue people, and the only solution then is to turn your coat (just as when you’re being pixy-led). One evening during the 1920s a man called Le Sauvage was walking home one night when he- and the lane along which he was passing- were bathed in a strange red glow. He then saw a ball of fire bounding across a field towards him. Despite the shock, he tore off his cap, pulled it inside out and jammed it on again. The fire vanished, as did the pervading glow. Le Sauvage then staggered home, but was so shocked that he could barely stir from a chair for the next twenty four hours.

In the late 1960s or early ’70s a man encountered an oval ball of light at Piemont on Guernsey. It was a couple of metres ahead of him and floating about 30cms off the ground. He was terrified and felt trapped, but discovered that if he took one step forward, the ball retreated by the same amount. He was able, very slowly therefore, to make his way towards his home until the light vanished. Other sightings of le faeu were also reported in the early 1970s, two on the beach and another in a field.

On the island of Jersey there is a related apparition, called the Wotho. This is a round ball, about 45cms in diameter. One man who saw it described how it rolled backwards and forwards in the road at his feet, stopping him advancing. This account puts me in mind of an experience relayed by the Reverend Edmund Jones in his book, A Relation of the Appartion of Spirits in the County of Monmouth (1813). Jones described an incident that occurred in the parish of Bedwas (pages 39-40):

“Mr Henry Llewellyn, having been sent by me… to fetch a load of Books… and coming home by night, towards Mynydduslwyn, having just passed by Clwyd yr Helygen ale-house, and being in dry, fair part of the lane, the Mare which he rode stood still, and would go no farther, but drew backward ; and presently he could see a living thing
round like a bowl, rolling from the right hand to the left, crossing the lane, moving sometimes slow, and sometimes very swift, swifter than a bird could fly, though it had neither wings nor feet ; altering also its size : it appeared three times, lesser one time than another; it appeared least when near him, and seemed to roll towards the Mare’s belly. The Mare then would go forward, but he stopped her to see more carefully what it was. He stayed, as he thought, about three minutes, to look at it ; but fearing to see a worse sight, thought it time to speak to it, and said, “What seekest thou, thou foul thing? In the Name of the Lord Jesus go away!” and, by speaking this it vanished, as if it sunk in the ground near the Mare’s feet. It appeared to be of a reddish colour with a mixture of an ash colour.”

These are very odd accounts indeed, but they remind us to be much more open to experiences than we are perhaps conditioned to be by the conventional preconception of the fairy as a tiny, winged female. Readers may also recall similar sightings reported in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies (2014). During the early 1940s a woman on a country walk in Kent saw a furry tennis ball rolling up a slope towards her. It briefly opened when it drew close to where she was sitting to reveal a pixie within- and then disappeared. Another woman, visiting Cornwall in the 1930s, saw a pisky who changed into “a long furry black roll, which gambolled about on the grass and then disappeared.”

Two other anomalous descriptions from Seeing Fairies are worth citing, just to confirm the very wide and unpredictable range of forms that supernatural beings may assume. As a child, a Miss Rosalie Fry lived at Glydach outside Swansea. Playing with her sister inside the house one day, they both saw “something they could only describe as being like a piece of the finest white chiffon, about eighteen inches square, [that] floated very slowly down into view… moving in an extraordinarily graceful, flowing manner and then, as slowly, wafted away up out of sight” and vanished. Johnson herself, along with her sister, had a similar experience in at home in Nottingham in 1971. In the street outside their house they saw what seemed to be “several white crinkled paper balls, but which, if viewed from the right angle, could have been wide, frilly dresses or tutus worn by tiny beings.” For some time they rolled and walked and danced in the road. A man walking his dog passed by, oblivious to the shapes (although his dog was not). After a while, the curious assembly vanished.

As I’ve said before, Faery can be a lot more mysterious than we allow ourselves to imagine…

Richard Doyle, A Poacher Encountering a Will of the Wisp, 1845

Further reading

The Channel Island accounts are from Marie de Garis, Folklore of Guernsey, 1975, and John L’Amy, Jersey Folklore, 1927. See also Johnson, Seeing Fairies, 2014, pages 28 and 236. The Fairy Census 2017 is also a very good source of unexpected faery forms.

Why do fairies do our chores?

Why is it that some fairies seem happy to undertake chores for humans, whether these are strenuous physical tasks or finishing off household jobs that haven’t been completed?

We are very familiar with the existence and activities of the brownie and related faery species (boggarts, broonies, gruagachs and glaistigs) who will attach themselves to a particular family, estate or farmstead and perform a variety of agricultural and domestic functions.  I have analysed these relationships in some detail in my recent book Faery, but suffice to say that we may regard the interaction as some sort of contract for service, with the fairy being accepted as having a clear role and place within the household.  In return for the work done, food, drink and, often, an allocated time to enjoy the shelter and warmth of the humans’ home are granted.  The faery acquires a recognised position within the wider clan or ‘familia.’

Here, I’m rather more interested in the cases where the fairies appear very ready to do odd-jobs for humans.  Remuneration may be provided, but there isn’t the long-term relationship that’s usually understood to exist with the brownies and boggarts.  These arrangements can take a number of forms.

At Osebury, near Lulsley on the River Teme in Worcestershire, the tradition is that a broken implement left in the faery’s cave there will be mended for you.  On Orkney it was believed that, if a spinning wheel was not working well, leaving it out overnight on a faery mound would fix it.  There’s an unspoken arrangement that faulty items can be brought to the faery’s habitation and that a repair would be done without any apparent expectation of reward.

Then there are the cases where the fairy comes to the human home to do the work.  On Guernsey it was said that the fairies would help industrious individuals.  If an unfinished piece of knitting, such as a stocking, was left on the hearth or by the oven along with a bowl of porridge, by morning the work would be done and the bowl would be empty.  However, if the reason that the task was unfinished was the person’s idleness, the faery response would be to deal out some blows instead.  (MacCulloch, Guernsey Folklore, 203).  On the island of Jersey it was reported that if servants left out unfinished work (such as needlework) with a piece of cake, the fairies would complete it overnight- and do much of the next day’s work too.  (Folklore vol.25, 245)  On the British mainland, in Staffordshire, the tradition was the same.  Small household tasks would be carried out in return for gifts of food or tobacco.  (‘Notes on Staffordshire Folklore’, W Witcutt, Folklore 1942, 89).

Somewhat comparable is information from the Scottish Highlands to the effect that a girl’s fairy lover, who lived near her home in a fairy hill, would help her out with her daily chores, such as cutting peat turfs for the fire.  Of course, the motivation here was love, which may well distinguish it from the cases already described.

Somewhat at odds with most of the foregoing is a case recorded by MacDougall and Calder in 1910 in which a man’s laziness was encouraged by the fairies doing all his work for him at night.  The miller of Mulinfenachan, near Duthil in Inverness-shire, who was called Strong Malcolm, used to put everything ready in his mill before he went to bed, knowing that all the grinding would be done by morning.  If straw needed to be threshed for the cattle, or grain winnowed, these jobs would be done if the necessary tools and raw materials were left out.  Anyone who tried to spy on the activities would be forcibly expelled.

None of this was done for him out of kindness, though.  When another mill burned down locally, the fairies were heard to exclaim “We will have plenty of meal now… and Strong Malcolm must henceforth work for himself or starve.”  The explanation of this account rests on two points.  One is that food stuffs lost by fire or perhaps just dropped on the ground) went to the fairies as their rightful property.  Secondly, it will be apparent that they had been taking a ‘commission’ for the work that they did for Malcolm.  They had been keeping a share of all the flour, grain and such like- and with the fire, they no longer had to work for this.  (Folk Tales and Fairy Lore, 187). 

Although the Guernsey fairies objected to laziness, those at Duthil didn’t mind about this fault in Strong Malcolm- because it was profitable for them not to do so. The fairies intermeddle in human affairs, it seems, because there’s something in it for them. Hard work in exchange for a bowl of porridge might seem like a poor exchange to us, but with magical powers to accomplish the work, the labour could well look very different to them and, plainly, there’s something about human food (whether it’s the ingredients or the finished product) that’s irresistible to them- and worth all the effort.