Fairies and stolen goods

Round about our coal fire

Fairies dancing near their hill, the door of which stands open

Readers will, by now I’m sure, be very familiar with the idea that fairies are inveterate thieves of human property.  In this post, I’ll challenge those preconceptions to some degree, and look at cases where they help us to retrieve items that we have lost or have been stolen.

The information we have on this is fairly limited and, unfortunately, all of it comes from the context of criminal trials, in which the defendant faced an allegation of witchcraft or something similar.

Fairy Knowledge

Most of the cases date from the sixteenth century.  The first concerns a woman from London, known to us only as “Mrs Croxton”, who lived in St Giles parish in the city in 1549.  All we know about her is that she offered to help find lost items, and this without the use of any charms or other magical techniques; instead, “she only speaketh with the fayrayes.”

About a decade and a half later a man called John Walsh was examined on suspicion of witchcraft in Dorset.  He had visited the fairies at their hills, either at noon or midnight, and acquired a range of information from them.  They told him who had been bewitched and they could also help him locate stolen goods.  With the fairies’ aid he had recovered several stolen horses, he claimed, and denied doing harm to anyone.

Scottish witches, with the devil and fairies under a knowe.

Witches’ Wisdom

The next example dates from 1576.  Bessie Dunlop, of Irvine in Scotland, was arrested after she had offered to help a man retrieve a stolen cloak.  Before this, she had been very active, it appears, identifying the whereabouts of stolen property and naming the culprits.  Her clientele ranged across the social spectrum including Lady Blair and Lady Thirdpart.  Bessie derived her abilities from a fairy man called Tom Reid, who had first approached her when she was alone in a field one day in 1572.  In consultation with Tom, Bessie was able to discover what had happened to the stolen goods and was also able to diagnose and offer cures for a range of illnesses.  Despite the good she appeared to have done within her community, Bessie was convicted of witchcraft and was strangled and then burned on November 8th 1576.

A century later (November 1677) a vagrant man called Donald McIlmichall was put on trial at the Tollbooth in Inveraray.  Initially the charge against him had been the theft of a cow, but it turned out on examination that he claimed to have visited the fairies under their hill on frequent occasions, joining their dances or providing the music for them.  This was all supposed to be kept secret.  When he told a friend of his visits, he had been stricken in the cheek by way of punishment.

Donald asked the fairies about the whereabouts of two horses stolen at Leismore and they were able to advise him.  They also voluntarily gave him information about a number of other stolen items, whose owners he duly informed.  Nonetheless, for the “horrid cryme of corresponding with the devil and consulting with him anent stolen goods and getting information for their discovery,” Donald was hanged and his goods forfeit.

These stories make for depressing reading, but much Scottish fairy information derives from witch trials, few of which ended happily for the victims.  What can we drive from these other than a sense of the human tragedy and cruelty involved?

Summary & further reading

Firstly, it seems fairly clear that the stolen goods involved weren’t stolen by the fays: the culprits were humans whose offences were exposed by supernatural means.  The fairies did plenty of stealing (food, mainly) but they don’t seem to have been betraying themselves here.

Secondly, this knowledge of secret acts has to be derived from the fairies’ powers of second sight.  We know already that the fays can see into the future; it asks a lot less to imagine that they might be aware of what is happening currently, or has happened, in a human community around them.  This readiness to tell tales about people seems to be related to the fairies tendency to prefer some individuals over others, with gifts of money and skills.  The people who could assist others in their  village or town, recovering for them lost property, would have gained prestige and, doubtless, rewards.  Indirectly, then, the fairies were bestowing wealth and fortune on those they favoured.

 

When to meet the fays: the best days and times

tarrant 2

Folk tradition is insistent upon the fact that there are certain days when fairies are more likely to be abroad in the world.  We can be certain, then, that there are more auspicious days in the week for seeing our good neighbours- the practical problem for us is the absence of consensus over which days.

The best days

The earliest account we have is from Wales, written by Richard Penry in his polemic The aequity of a humble supplication in 1587.  He asserts that certain soothsayers and enchanters claim “to walk on Tuesday and Thursday at night with the fairies, of which they brag themselves to have their knowledge.” In 1880, Wirt Sikes published British goblins, an account of fairy belief in Victorian Wales.  He identified Friday as the fairies’ day in South Wales, “when they have special command over the weather, and it is their whim to make the weather on Friday differ from that of other days of the week.” (p.268; see too Edmund Jones, The appearance of evilpara.116)  This may of course just be the nature of British weather and not evidence of any supernatural intervention….

In Scotland Friday was also identified as the day when misfortune was in the air and fairies roamed the human world.  To speak of them could attract them, as Sir Walter Scott described in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Bordersso that a highlander:

“Will on a Friday morn look pale,/ If asked to tell a fairy tale.” (Scott, Marmion, Introduction to Canto IV)

In fact, so great was the fear engendered by the superstition, that even naming the day was to be avoided.  Accordingly, Fridays were only mentioned as “the day of yonder town.”  By way of contrast, it was believed that the fairy folk could do no harm on Thursdays.

From Ireland comes evidence to confuse us if we believed some sort of pattern had been emerging from ourevidence.  One Irish researcher was told to avoid mention of the fairies on Mondays (Leland Duncan, writing of Leitrim in Folklore, vol.7, p.174).  Lady Wilde, though, was advised not to mention the sidhe folk on Wednesdays and Fridays (Ancient legends of Ireland, p.72), with the latter day being especially perilous.

There is a lot less evidence for England, but the Denham Tractsa collection of folklore for Northumberland and the Scottish Borders, record that Wednesday is “the fairies’ Sabbath or holiday.” (pp.86 & 115)

So, there we are: be on your guard on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and/ or Friday, but most especially on the latter day.  We might add that, on Shetland at least, Saturdays were also regarded as unfavourable as this was the day when the trows emerged and entered people’s homes.  It is probably understandable why Sundays are not ‘fairy days’ given the prevalent modern idea of an antipathy between Christian faith and Faery (see my recent post).  As for the fairies’ preference for Fridays, as Wirt Sikes observed, it was traditionally believed to be the day of the crucifixion by the church and so was a day thought to be subject to malign influences.

mt enchantress

Margaret Tarrant, The enchantress

The best times

“the fairy hour, the twilight shade of evening” (Ann Radcliffe, Athlin)

Not only did the fairies have favourite days on which to venture forth, they also favoured certain times of day.  Examined on suspicion of witchcraft in August 1566, Dorset healer John Walsh admitted that he had made contact with the local pixies, visiting the hills in which they dwelled “between the houres of twelve and one noon or at midnight.”  The Reverend Edmund Jones’ account of the fairy beliefs he had found in Aberystruth parish in Gwent in the 1770s echoed Walsh- to some extent.  The fairies had been encountered by parishioners at all hours of the night and day, but more at night than in the daytime and more in the morning and evening than at noon (p.69).  As I have described before, the link between fairies and the night time is especially strong and well established, invoking as it does our fear of the dark as well as more benign images of fays skipping in rings by moonlight (see my post on night-time and the fairies and my British fairies c.17).

tarrant

Margaret Tarrant, Twilight fairy

Further reading

See too my companion post on the best fairy festivals and seasons.  An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.