I am very pleased to announce that Llewellyn Worldwide has now published Beyond Faery, the companion to my book Faerywhich they released in April this year.
As its full title indicates, in Beyond Faery- Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts, we’ve gone beyond the conventional boundaries and perceptions of the faes- as winged, female beings- to explore a much wider and wilder world of supernatural creatures. Many of these are far more dangerous- but perhaps, as a result, rather more predictable- that the humanoid fairies about whom I normally write.
The faery beasts that are the subject of this book share a number of traits that differentiate them from the more familiar members of fairy-kind. Firstly, they are- without exception- of conventional, human-world size. There are continual debates about the size of the human-like faes (as you’ll read in several of posts), but there is never any dispute that mermaids are the same size as we are and that the other creatures that resemble the mammals of this world- the dogs, horses, bulls and so on- are all the same size as their domesticated equivalents- if not somewhat bigger.
Secondly, the faery beasts have next to no conception of working with human beings to either assist them or to improve the natural world. Whilst the ‘eco-fairy’ has gained some vogue in recent decades, the faery beasts are far less complex creatures- or, we might say, more single minded in their purpose. Very many of them have one of two intentions: to scare us and/ or to kill and eat us. Mermaids are a bit different from this: they can enter into relationships with humans and raise families, but there is seldom any suggestion of any wider co-operation with us. They live in their world, we live in ours; they are in different dimensions- and the merfolk like to keep it that way.
These beasts are faery, then, in terms of their supernatural nature and their magical powers. They may look like the livestock or pets that we’re familiar with, but their behaviour is very different: their purpose and their powers are nothing like the ordinary dog’s or cow’s. In many ways, we might call them monsters.
I have already given readers a taste of what’s covered in the book in my recent postings, in which I’ve made use of material I’ve come across since the manuscript of Beyond Faery was finalised earlier this year. Those new examples supplement what you’ll find discussed in more detail in the chapters of the book. The text’s 270 pages long, including a glossary and a full bibliography.
I was a little surprised to note that Google has designated my book ‘controversial literature’- as, indeed, was the case for the previous book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk, too. On consideration, I quite like the thought of having written two controversial books. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you think it’s as subversive as this might suggest!
Britain is full of bogles, bogies and such like (and similarly named) creatures. They can often be hard to classify, as was remarked by an anonymous writer in 1833, discussing the works of Sir Walter Scott. The bogle called ‘the greetin bairn of the lake’ from the lowlands of Scotland was described by this author as part fairy, part ghost and part brownie- a puzzling mix.
Types of boggle
Boggles are creatures that can take a range of forms, as well as names. For instance, at Bryn-yr-Ellyllon (Elf Hill) near Mold in Clwyd, it was reported in the mid-nineteenth century that a skeleton dressed in gold had been seen, seated on the mound. This was hardly your typical ‘elf’ plainly.
James Nicolson, describing Shetland folklore in 1981, added to his discussion of trows and mermaids a general list of ‘hard to classify’ supernatural beasts, which included:
The skekill, a sort of trow that rode a horse that was black with white spots and had fifteen tails;
The marool, a fish with a crest of flame and eyes all over its head; and,
Tangie, who whipped up storms and tried to abduct girls.
Duncan MacInnes, describing Argyllshire, adds to this list a giant, or fuath, with seven heads, seven humps and seven necks.
Besides these assorted monsters, there were many beings that accorded better with our standard categorisation of the Faery world. On the Scottish borders lived the Brown Man of the Muirs, who protected the wildlife of the moors and took revenge upon those who ignored his warnings. This being appears to have been a type of duergar, or dwarf.
Slightly further south, in county Durham in the north-east of England, we encounter the Hedley Kow. The name might make us anticipate a bovine beast, but its nature was actually very fluid. It was a supreme shape-shifter: in one version of its story, in Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales, the Kow is successively seen as a pot full of gold coins, a lump of silver, a lump of iron, a stone and, finally, a horse- which galloped off laughing at the hapless victim of its pranks.
In the same area we find the brags, which are also shape-shifting beings. The Humbleknow brag, for example, was not visible, but would sound as if all the livestock on a farm had got loose- or else would sound like all the doors and windows in a house being driven in by a violent storm. It was awful to experience, but harmless. The Hylton Lane brag, by way of contrast, was visible- and appeared at night as a dog, calf, pony or woman, that would accompany any person walking between Sunderland and Hylton for a short distance before vanishing. Again, this was disconcerting, but not dangerous.
As may be observed, many of these beings have names that must share a common root- bugs, bogies, boggarts, bugganes and such like. A Welsh example is the bwgan. The bwgan of Nant y Cythraul in the north of the country is a very interesting example of the species. It is said to be the spirit of a fifteenth century monk who surrendered his soul to the devil and he can shapeshift, appearing in a number of surprising forms. These include a hare that is being hunted by the cwn annwnand a dog that will run alongside you- before disconcertingly bursting into flames.
The boggarts of northern England generally can take on the role of domestic brownies, doing household and farm chores, but they can just as easily appear as nuisance- or malign- shapeshifters. Henry More, in The Pre-Existency of the Soul (1647) describes aerial devils (as he terms them) who can endlessly change their form. “One while a man, after a comely maid… A snarling Dog or bristled Boar or a jug of milk if you’re thirsty.”
Various Victorian newspaper reports from Lancashire confirm the shape-shifting abilities of the boggart- as well as their close links to ghosts. The Copp Lane Boggart was seen as a headless woman, a white lady, a lady in brown silk who glided ahead of witnesses, a donkey and a large dog with a white neck and a tail like a sheaf of corn that curled over its back as far as its shoulders. The Spo Boggart was either a girl in a bonnet- not alarming at all- or a man dressed in black with cloven feet. A Whitegate Lane in Fylde, near Blackpool, the boggart was a white calf or decapitated woman who carried her head under her arm. Lastly, at Blackley, a boggart plagued a house with terrible noises- like a hen cackling, a steam whistle or a like child screaming- but only if you stood upon a certain flagstone. This stone was lifted and a jug containing bones was found beneath, following which the ghost was silenced. However, the occupants of the house still suffered from other nightly noises and saw an apparition of a young woman.
These creatures, when they live in close proximity to men, can become intolerable nuisances, which will often drive human households to try to escape them. Simple flight to another place never seems to work: there are numerous stories that culminate with the ‘punch-line,’ “Aye, we’re flitting,” in which a family try to move to a new house to get away from the boggart, only to find that it’s moving with them. More drastic measures are therefore required in many cases.
I’ve described before the practice of ‘laying,’ or exorcising boggarts. Here are two more examples. A ‘goblin’ was ‘put down’ at Llanwddyn Parish, Montgomeryshire, by means of trapping it in a quill and sealing that under a large boulder in a river. The Barcroft Hall boggart in Lancashire was driven off by the simple expedient of giving it a pair of clogs. This was done for the best reasons, because it had been seen barefoot and had been pitied, but it took the present as an insult and abandoned the farm. As many readers will immediately remember, the gift of clothes is one of the main means of driving away brownies and hobs (whether intentionally or not), a fact which underlines the close ties between boggarts and these other beings.
The Isle of Man has several bogle like beings. There, if you are unlucky, you may encounter:
This creature is invariably mischievous, if not malicious. The least of his misbehaviour is blowing smoke back down chimneys, pulling thatch off roofs and pushing sheep over cliffs. He travels around in a form resembling a spinning wheel, laughing all the while at humans’ misfortunes. Luckily, they’re not very bright and can fairly easily be outwitted and beaten. They are, nonetheless, terrifying creatures. The buggane of St Trinians is as big as a house with green hair and blazing eyes, but he can shape-shift, shrinking to the size of a beetle or a mouse, appearing like a large, dark calf or tearing off his head and throwing it at people like a blazing ball. Sometimes, the buggane can be entirely shapeless, just a black mist that engulfs and chokes a person.
The buggane seen at Ballakillingham was fairly representative of its kind in that it appeared as a large grey bulldog with an awful howl. It would lurk in the shadows, alarming travellers (much like the black dogs of England). However, this particular spirit had another quality. If your pig was sickly, if you collected dust from where the buggane walked at night and rubbed it on the pig’s back (along with saying the right charm) the pig would be healed.
Other buggane guises include a sack of chaff; a black monster the size of a haystack that fills the entire width of a road; a small creature the dimensions of a cat that can suddenly swell to the size of a horse and, even, a hybrid being that’s a man with a horse’s head and glowing eyes.
Various brave but foolhardy Manx men have tried to fight bugganes- almost always without success. Their ability to change size and shape makes them nearly impossible to defeat. The best way of dealing with one is to speak the absolute truth to it- something it apparently respects.
There is a strong belief on Man that connects bugganes to those who have been murdered or who have died unfairly. They seem to be the ghosts of those who have died without receiving justice- including, in one case, a man who was wrongfully executed for a murder he did not commit. Although they are generally said to inhabit caves, the bugganes that are some sort of ghost will be found haunting the site of their death.
The fynoderee is something like the mainland British brownie or hobgoblin, and will help out with heavy tasks on farms in return for just a little grain and a bowl of cream. He is generally helpful rather than dangerous, even though he is very strong and has shaggy black hair and fiery eyes.
In one Manx story, the fynoderee even took pity on a lonely man who had been cheated upon by his girlfriend and had fought with- and accidentally killed- his rival. The man lived in a cave and the fynoderee would leave him food and gather fire-wood for him. As the man grew older and less mobile, the spirit even planted a plantation of trees near to his shelter to make life easier for him.
The fynoderee can also be a solitary creature living in elder trees. He can cure sickness in animals, and can be summoned by humans using the right words and charms. The correct protocol is to take off your headgear and say to the being in the tree:
“Fynoderee, fynoderee,/ Come you down, for I can see.”
Then you must cross yourself three times. Getting the words wrong or neglecting to cross yourself can lead to disastrous consequences.
Although generally benign, if he’s vexed, the fynoderee can just as easily steal away a farm’s entire livestock, enchanting them rather like the god Pan. They can be subdued by singing, but driven off by the singing of hymns or (like a brownie) by being given clothes.
This creature can have two forms: human-like or a horse. In the shape of a handsome (if rather hairy) young man he will try to lure away young women with strings of pearls, very much like the Scottish kelpie or each uisge, but his intentions are not romantic but fatal. His true nature is often revealed by his pointed ears and his sharp, pointed teeth. One in horse form was revealed by his tail, which was three yards long.
Glashtins tend to live in deep pools in isolated rivers or behind water falls but, because of their predatory nature, they can be a severe nuisance that communities need to expel. In one story this was done by a man disguising himself as a woman and sitting spinning in his home until a number of young glashtins had gathered, interested in this new girl in the neighbourhood. He then surprised them by pelting them with burning turves, a shock that was sufficient to drive them off permanently.
There is another form of the glashtin who will assist on farms much like a fynoderee. They will thresh corn and sometimes take the form of a lamb to play amongst the flocks. The glashtin even may be seen as something like a tarroo-ushtey. These glashtins seem to be generally good-natured, for all their might, but they are dim and coarse and can take offence very easily.
My forthcoming book Beyond Faery examines all of these strange beings in details. The examples detailed here are more recent evidence I’ve turned up since the text of the new book was completed.
This second posting in advance of publication of my next book, Beyond Faery, examines some of the water beasts of Britain.
There are various faery beasts that infest fresh and salt water in the British Isles. They are primarily found in Scotland and they are primarily horse like.
These ‘water horses’ live in lakes. Usually people only encounter and have to deal with one, but at Loch Aird na h-uamh there are reported to be multiple horses. Some of these steeds, people have been brave enough to ride; some have even survived the attempt, though many of those who tried were drowned or torn to pieces.
Typical of the species is the horse found at Lochan-larig-eala near Breadalbane. It is a white horse and when it first appears on the lake side, it lies down on the grass and looks very placid and pretty. Nine children playing there once climbed on it- at which point it dashed for the water immediately. The child at the back was able to use the horse’s tail to swing off; the rest didn’t escape and it’s said that they were eaten and all that remained was their lungs, which floated ashore in due course. Some versions of this story say that it happened on a Sunday, so that the faery beast was actually being employed to punish children who were playing rather than attending church. In this second account, the boy who survived happened to have a few Bible pages in his pocket, which saved him.
Some water horses will submit to working for humans, just to be able to get near enough to kill one. The story is told of John MacInnes of Glenelg who was struggling with his farm work when he was approached by a stranger and offered assistance. He accepted, despite the odd conditions imposed, and immediately found a fine horse standing in his field. MacInnes used it for ploughing and was delighted to find that it was both strong and obedient. Things went very well for time, although every evening when the horse was stabled John had to make sure he threw earth from a mole-hill over its back and said a blessing. One night he forgot. The next day, as soon as they were out in the field, the horse grabbed him with its teeth and dragged him into the nearby loch. All that was ever recovered was his liver. The stipulation of the mole-hill is curious, but one way of trapping fairy cattle (and mermaids) on land is to sprinkle grave-yard earth across their path (Scottish Notes & Queries, vol.6, 1893).
There is an each uisge in Loch-nan-Spioradan in Strathspey, which is seen as a beautifully equipped horse. A local healer who managed to obtain the bit from this horse’s bridle found that it had great healing properties, especially for ‘maladies of the mind.’
Water horses are also known in Wales, where they’re called ceffyl y dwr. Like their more northerly counterparts, their habit is to tempt people to ride them- and then to destroy them. From the island of Guernsey there are reports of a white fairy horse that shared many of the traits of each-uisge. Its back could extend to accommodate as many victims as wanted to ride on it and, once the riders were settled, it would gallop off at alarming speed with its passengers unable to dismount. Luckily, on Guernsey, the aim of all this was relatively benign- it was just to give the victims a fright before they were dumped in a marsh.
The each uisge is a uniquely savage creature, most unlike the average horse used for riding (whether by humans or their fairy neighbours). From Breadalbane there also comes a report of a ‘fairy horse’ that was much more like the sort of animal known in the human world. A man spent an evening dancing in the sithean at Lawes. He enjoyed himself immensely and, at the end of the festivities, the fairies lent him a horse to get home, which flew through the air like lightning and dropped him down his chimney.
There are a number of less benign variations upon this supernatural steed. From Leeds, West Yorkshire, come reports of a ‘goblin horse’ that would allow people to mount it before it galloped off at high speed, shouting ‘I ride, Madge!’ and dumping the rider in a pond. Further north in Durham there are similar creatures called ‘brags.’ The Leeds area is also home to a ‘black dog’ apparition called the ‘padfoot’ (which I will discuss in a separate posting). These beings are notorious shapeshifters and, in one instance, it changed into a donkey which ran between a man’s legs and carried him off at speed to his home (to the accompaniment of clanking chains) before sinking into the earth.
The Isle of Man also has the mysterious ‘night horses,’ which seem to be a faery horse with some of the traits of the each uisge. These are found at night on roads, ready saddled and bridled, but if any is incautious enough to mount, he will find himself flying along at a terrifying pace before being dumped on the ground somewhere. The night horse seems to like to give shocks, but no more. The creature called the glashtyn, which can have human and equine form, is more deadly. In its horse shape it will carry off any who mount it and try to drown them in a nearby river or pool.
As mentioned, Wales has its own water horse, the ceffyl y dwr, which is in fact one of several water beasts known there- or, alternatively, there is a single water sprite that assumes a number of different forms. Amongst those identified, there is a thin old man who is seen in raging mountain streams, sometimes stretching out his bony arms to observers; there is the water horse proper that’s found in pools or in rivers, where it tries to seize fishermen’s lines and drag them into the waters, and, lastly, there’s a monstrous fish (generally a salmon) that will try to drag under those that hunt it. In one instance, a man who tried to spear it whilst out fishing on a Sunday was nearly drowned; he ascribed the fish’s attack to a righteous rage over his Sabbath breaking- something that’s also been said of the each uisge already, although this may be more a matter of his guilty conscience than the faery beast being recruited to policing the reformed religion.
Kelpies are often treated as being interchangeable with the each uisge, but whilst the former live in still fresh water, kelpies live in rivers or in the sea. They are just as unpleasant as the each. One sighted near Leurbost on the isle of Lewis in 1856 was described as looking like a “huge peat stack”- so large that a six oar boat could pass between the fins that were seen. Iit was up to forty feet in length, witnesses claimed, and it had swallowed whole a blanket left by the loch by girl tending cattle.
Kelpies have been called ‘sly devils.’ Very much like the each, the kelpie will often appear on the banks of a swollen stream, feeding tamely as a traveller approaches. If the person is already on a horse, the kelpie will trot across the stream ahead, suggesting that it is shallow and safe. If the person is on foot, he’ll be tempted to mount the horse and ride it across the river. If he does this, it will immediately gallop off with shrieks of terrifying laughter. Either way, the hapless traveller is overwhelmed by the flooding torrent. For these reasons, William Collins, in his Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, described how the kelpie will:
“Instant, furious, raise the whelming flood,
O’er its drowned banks, forbidding all return…”
So that victims are “Drown’d by the kaelpie’s wrath.”
Sometimes, it is possible to tame a kelpie by surprising it and slipping over its head a halter that has been blessed by having crosses cut into the cheek pieces. The beast can then be used for farm labour, pulling loads and ploughs and such like. It can’t escape as long as the bridle is kept on it, however badly it’s treated. Kelpies have been used like this to help build churches and castles all around Scotland.
Interestingly, like fairies, it’s said that kelpies can predict or see future events. They are said, around Buckhaven, to roar before a loss at sea. Likewise, at Rumbling Bridge in Clackmannanshire, the kelpie predicts drownings by lights and noises at night (although, admittedly, it is also that same kelpie that helps to drown many of these unfortunate people). At St Vigeans, near Arbroath, a kelpie had been used to build the church and, when finally released, it foretold the minister’s death by suicide and collapse of the church. Both these things happened in the early eighteenth century. The kelpie that was used to build the church of St Mungo’s in Dumfriesshire advised that a larger graveyard than had been planned ought to be laid out, as it would be needed one day to accommodate all the bodies from a nearby battle.
Given their violent propensities, people have often tried to hunt and exterminate kelpies living in their vicinity. This is, perhaps predictably, very difficult to do, because the kelpie is a hardy, elusive and indestructible creature. In the 1780s, for example, Highlanders tried to drag Loch Garn with nets to catch the underwater beast. They failed to catch it, after which they tried scattering lime in the loch to kill the monster. Neither succeeded.
In the far north of Scotland and on Orkney and Shetland you’ll encounter (if you’re very unlucky) the njugl or neogle, a creature seen near water mills that resembles a pony. It will stop the mill wheel to gain attention and, when the miller goes out to see what the problem might be, he will find the pony, saddled and bridled, grazing nearby. If he mounts it, it will dash for the water and leap off the bank, with both rider and mount vanishing in a flash of flame. Wiser millers chase the creature off with a red hot poker or similar. A notorious example of the nuggle used to plague the Orkney island of Hoy. It lived in a small lake on the north-east coast of the island, called the Water o’ Hoy, but frequented the ford over the Pegal Burn, a little further to the south, where it would try to catch hapless travellers.
In the Scottish Highlands and on Orkney and Shetland a variety of other terrifying and often hybrid beasts were known. Some of these are mentioned in my forthcoming posting on boggles. Here I’ll mention one that seemed to have no specific name. Over Yule on Shetland people were not expected to do any of their normal day to day activities or work. Once, however, two men went out fishing in defiance of the prohibition. They netted a monstrous creature that was half fish and half horse and which spoke, declaring to them: “Man who fished in Yule week/ Fortune never more did seek.” Once again, these supernatural beings seem to be recruited to back up religious rules and festivals.
As I have discussed previously, you may encounter fairy cattle owned by the good folk, which have their own identifying characteristics, but there are also water bulls, the tarbh uisge of the Highlands. The bulls of Glenlochay near Breadalbane are said to be brindled, red and yellow. A cow will abandon its herd and travel up the glen to the lochan, where she will bellow until the tarbh appears and mates with her. The hybrid offspring are known to be those of a tarbh because they are all black with curly hair.
On the Isle of Man, water bulls are also found, being called tarroo ushtey. They’re recognised by their shining coats and sharp ears. They often mix with normal herds of cattle, and rouse the fury of the bulls kept with them, although the tarroo seems indifferent to the rage of the farmer’s bull. They can be fierce, but they often move quite slowly, making a strange whirring sound.
In one Manx story a farmer objected to the bull grazing with his herds and consuming his valuable grass, so he drove it off several times. The result, though, was that blights struck his crops. A wise-woman told the man that he could subdue the tarroo with a stick made from rowan wood- which he duly did. Having the beast under his control, he resolved to sell it at the market. He was easily able to drive the bull there, but no-one seemed interested, despite the size and sleekness of the animal. Right at the end of the day, a man finally showed interest, but he asked the farmer to ride the bull to prove that it was tame and well-behaved. Desperate for the sale, he consented to this, but as soon as he’d mounted he dropped his rowan switch. This of course released the tarroo from his control and it bolted, nearly carrying the man off into a deep pool in the river. He narrowly escaped- and learned his lesson, which was to always show the proper respect to the fairies and the faery beasts.
Also found on the Isle of Man is the glashtin, a sort of bogie that will very commonly take on equine form and which will inhabit pools and rivers. Unlike the tarroo ushtey, the glashtin is said to mingle with the herds of horses kept by Manx farmers without any disturbance or hostility between the animals. However, the glashtins only liked to mate with pure Manx-bred ponies, and as the island’s horses interbred more and more with outside breeds, the glashtin was seen less and less.
If you’re interested to learn more, see too my separate posting on water beasts. Additionally, several chapters of Beyond Faery deal in detail with the many aspects of the lore of the inland and marine water beasts of Britain. The book is due for release in early November.
Michael Aislabie Denham (1801-1859) was an English merchant and collector of folklore. In the early part of his life he conducted his business in Hull; later he set up as a general merchant at Piercebridge, Co. Durham. He collected all sorts of local lore- sayings, songs and folktales- much of which he self-published. After his death many of his works were collected together and republished by the newly established Folklore Society as ‘The Denham Tracts.’
Denham recorded many valuable scraps of material. One of the most fascinating, found in the second volume of the Tracts, is this list of fairies and evil spirits. He drew upon a list already compiled by Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), perhaps supplementing this with another list found in George Gascoigne’s play The Buggbears (1565), and then adding many additional terms of his own, to produce this encyclopaedic inventory.
“Grose observes, too, that those born on Christmas Day cannot see spirits; which is another incontrovertible fact. What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hob- goblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubusses, spoorns, men-in- the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tails, knockers, elves, raw- heads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprats, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yett-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag- foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraithes, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gally-beggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars’ lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, buggaboes, kows or cowes, nickies, nacks, [necks] waiths, miffies, buckles, gholes, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy -carlins [Gyre-carling], pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricanns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles, korigans, sjlvans, succubuses, black-men, shadows, banshees, lian-banshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sybils, nick-nevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and cross-roads, were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit! [See Literary Gazette, December 1848, p.849]”
This is a daunting catalogue, impressive (intimidating even) in its length and detail, and a little depressing in the sense that so many of the names now seem unfamiliar. It’s clear how very rich the British fairy tradition once was, and how much has been lost in the last two hundred years.
Names We Know
In this discussion, I’d like to try to edit and order Denham’s rambling, and sometimes repetitive, list. It’s possible, I think, to bring a greater sense of organisation to this jumble of names, the result of which will be (I believe) a clearer sense of the nature of British fairydom. I’ll start by rejecting the words we know perfectly well, like brownies, hobgoblins and dobbies, Robin Goodfellow and puck (and puckle), knockers, pixies, elves/ ouphs, urchins, gnomes, changelings, dwarfs and the trows of Shetland and Orkney. All of these have already had plentiful discussion on this blog.
Words I’ll Ignore
I’ll also reject foreign and/or classical material: the satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, lars, tritons, centaurs, and nymphs; the continental kobolds, korrigans, foletti, and trolls; the Irish leprechauns and clurichauns. There are also a number of general magical or spirit related terms included that we can safely ignore: calcars (calkers or conjurors), sybils, wizards and witches. Quite a few names for the devil have been excluded, too, such as mahound (a medieval derivation from Mohammed) and tantarrabob, and I’ve passed over a range of words that seem to denote demons or evil spirits, such as imp, spurn/ spoorn, Tom-tumbler, miffies, freiths and freits and mares (as in nightmares).
There is a class of ghostly or ghoulish being included in the list that doesn’t really belong with faeries and goblins. These are the fetches, the spirit or double of a dying person, which are also called swaithes, wraithes, waffs, waiths and dopplegangers. Although there is a definite crossover between apparitions of the dead and the Faery, these entities are distinct from faeries. Denham’s thrummy-caps, and corpse lights or candles, belong in this category too. The death-hearses and hell-wains are what we’d call headless coachmen today, I think, although it’s worth noting in passing that ‘Hellwain’ was used as the name of a witch’s familiar by Christopher Middleton in his play The Witch (Act I, scene 2), in a speech by Hecate which makes direct allusion to the notorious trial of the withes of St Osyth in Essex in 1582. Other familiars invoked in this scene are Puckle and Robin (see the previous paragraph) and Pidgen, who strongly echoes the fairy Pigwiggen in Drayton’s Nymphidia.
Other ghost-like apparitions include scrags, break-necks, spectres, sprats (spirits or sprites) and kitty-witches. With these I have also included the northern ‘silkies’ and ‘cauld-lads’, although in fact these ghost-like beings can be hybrid creatures, possessing several of the characteristics of brownies as well as sometimes acting as a guardian in spirit or, conversely, as a bogle. The best known silky is that of Black Heddon in Northumberland and the most famous Cauld Lad was found at Hilton in the same county.
Denham also included in his inventory the names of supernatural creatures that very evidently aren’t fairies. There are giants, but also snapdragons, and fire-drakes. Fire-breathing serpents plainly don’t have any place in Faery.
A few final odds and ends remain. Denham’s word ‘tutgot’ is not a noun, but an adjective- it means someone who has been seized or possessed by a ‘tut,’ a sort of Lincolnshire goblin. ‘Chittiface’ means baby-faced; perhaps it was a sort of nursery bogie; the ‘gringe’ possibly is related to ‘grinch,’ which means a small thing- another small fiend perhaps. A hudskin is a foolish or clownish fellow (in the Lincolnshire dialect); perhaps it’s in the list for the same reason that madcaps and patches were included. A clabbernapper appears to be nothing more than a gossip; a ‘scrat’ is a Northern dialect term for a hermaphrodite. From these last entries, it looks as though he also included some insults or derogatory terms.
This pruning performed, we can then start to sort out the list that remains. Pre-industrial Britain was teeming with supernatural beings as we can tell, and Denham was possibly right to pity the person who possessed the second sight and who would have been afflicted by visions of hosts of faeries and goblins on all sides. In particular, Denham mentions that those born at Christmas would have had this ability: other days or times of day are also auspicious, such as Sundays or early in the morning.
Boggarts and Bogles
There is a large number of goblin-like beings listed, whose main attribute will be terrifying travellers and those visiting certain locations. Sir Walter Scott characterised these creatures very well as “freakish spirit[s], who delight rather to perplex and frighten mankind than either to serve or seriously to hurt them.” They include boggles, bugbears, boggy-boes, boggleboes, bogies, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, boguests, buckles, buggaboes, black-bugs, cutties (female bogles, from Scotland and the Border region), hobhoulards, tints, hodge-pokers, alholds, swarths and black-men (dark entities), mormos, dudmen and scar-bugs. One thing that Denham’s enumeration emphasises is the fact that the element ‘bug’ or ‘bogey’ is particularly applied to these beings- and not just in English, but in Welsh, Gaelic and many other Indo-European languages as well. What we can’t be certain about is how very different these many sprites may have been: Denham has indiscriminately thrown together names taken from all over Britain. Many are very local, meaning that many fewer actual types of bogey may have been identified by our ancestors than this long tally suggests.
Needless to say, the terminology is also not scientifically precise. For example, Denham’s ‘flay-boggarts’ are really a sort of domesticated spirit like a brownie or hobgoblin. They are boggarts, whom we would normally regard as unfriendly, but they live and work on farms like brownies, receiving food and drink in return for their considerable labours. Their willingness to undertake the hardest chores, such as threshing grain, is reflected in the name: the ‘flay-boggart’ is one with a flail, at work in the barn.
Another special category of boggart may be the phantasmal beasts that appear to terrify users of the highway or near certain landmarks such as churches. Amongst these are the numerous black dogs, barguests, old-shocks, pad-foots, pictrees and brags, shag-foals, kows or cowes, gytrashes, grants, gallytrots and gally-beggars. These creatures will appear at night in the form of hounds, calves, cows, donkeys, horses and large shaggy dark beasts of uncertain genus.
The black hounds just mentioned need to be distinguished from those types of hound that fly through the air and often foretell or mark a death. These include Denham’s Gabriel-hounds, yett-hounds and hell-hounds.
Wills of the Wisp
The phenomenon of the spirit light or ignis fatuus that leads people out of their way at night, getting them lost or luring them into bogs, is well-known across Britain and has attracted a variety of colourful local names. Denham uncovered many of these: hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tails, kit-a-can-sticks, Jinny-burnt-tails, Jack-in-the-Wads, friars’ lanthorns, Meg-with-the-wads, hob-and-lanthorns, spunks and Jemmy-burties.
Nursery and Cautionary Sprites
As I recently discussed in my post on Jenny Greenteeth, these creatures exist mainly to scare incautious or recalcitrant children into behaving better and/ or staying away from perilous places such as ponds and riverbanks. They include bloody-bones, raw-heads, Tom-pokers, hob-headlesses, mum-pokers, bonelesses and tod-lowries. Some of these sprites guard orchards and nut groves, amongst whom we reckon the melch-dicks and colt-pixies.
Denham enumerates quite a few fresh water spirits, living in rivers and pools. These include nisses and nixies, Peg-powlers, nickies and nacks. In this connection he quotes a verse from Keightley’s Fairy Mythology:
“Know you the nixies, gay and fair?
Their eyes are black, and green their hair,
They lurk in sedgy waters.”
The ‘white women’ he mentions frequently are spirits believed to be female that haunt springs and wells.
There are some Scots beings in the list, such as the hags nick-nevin and the gyre carlin. Scottish Highland creatures also appear, which include kelpies, shellycoats (a Lowland fresh-water bogle), banshees and lhiannan-shees (the fairy lovers). This more sexual sort of supernatural also includes the incubus and succubus.
There are lastly, some individually named fairy types who deserve a little separate mention:
Dunnies are is a small brownie-like beings found on the Scottish borders, and especially in Northumberland. The most famous is the Hazlerigg Dunnie which has been known to take the form of a horse in order to trick a rider into mounting him, before galloping off and tipping the horseman in a bog. The dunnie is also said to disguise itself as a plough-horse, only to vanish when the ploughman takes him into the stable;
Men-in-the-oak– there are scattered traditional references to this class of faery being. Whether they are a separate class, or just an alternative name for faeries found living in oak woods, is not clear. The ‘pucks’ were known to have frequented such forests, for example (see my Fairy Ballads), but more recently the oak-men have emerged as an independent fairy tribe, as in Beatrix Potter’s Fairy Caravan (1929);
Redcaps– wearing a red cap is a tell-tale sign of a faery across the British Isles, but Denham was probably thinking here of the ‘redcap’ of the Scottish Borders, a malevolent goblin said to dye its headwear in the blood of its victims;
Tom-thumbs– in the seventeenth century Tom Thumb was a small elf well-known to people in ballads and rhymes. Since then, he has been caught up by romance and fairy-tale and has lost almost all his supernatural nature. See my discussion of this in Fayerie;
Hobbits– Denham gives us a fascinating and isolated mention of these beings. We know nothing more about them from British tradition, but a sharp-eyed young professor spotted the word at some point during the 1920s, and the rest is history…; and,
Redmen: these are small, solitary elves of Northamptonshire, often found living near wells or in dells. If caught, he can lead his captor to his hidden hoard of gold.
Denham’s list is a disorganised heap of names but, as can be seen, with a little effort it can be organised to reveal the richness of British faerylore and the many and varied categories of fairy being that have been recognised, with their different habitats and habits. Although confirmation probably wasn’t wanting, all of this only goes to underline how complex British Faery is. One of the Manx witnesses interviewed by Evans Wentz, John Davies of Ballasalla, told him that “There are as many kinds of fairies as populations in our world.” Even when it has been edited and ordered, Denham’s list demonstrates how right Davies was.
I explore all of these further in my books Faeryand (especially) in Beyond Faery (forthcoming) which examines in detail the full range of faery beasts, goblins and hags.
I have written before of the fairies’ love of music (known as fonn-sith in Scotland) and of song. Songs are more, though, than just entertainment: they are magical.
The special status of song in fairy culture is demonstrated extremely well in a story from Highland Scotland. Angus Mór of Tomnahurich was a shepherd. He heard music coming from a fairy knoll, accompanied by the voice of his wife-to-be singing. Approaching the knoll, he peeped in but couldn’t see her. A fairy woman happened to be passing by so he seized her with his iron-tipped crook and demanded to know what was happening. She told him that he would only be able to save his intended if, at the end of that week, he could tell the fairy queen’s secret on the Bridge of Easan Dubh (the Black Falls). Seven days later Angus was on the bridge, where he heard a woman singing in a very fine voice. It was the queen, and the song itself was her secret. The last verse went as follows:
“There is music (ceol) in the hall of my dear,
There is gold in the land of Mackay,
But there is a song (oran) in Inverness,
That shall never be known.”
Big Angus cried out that he now knew every word of her song- and her secret with it. The Queen screamed in frustration, but he had effectively broken her spell, and she was forced to relinquish her claim to his wife.
James Halliwell long ago observed that “fairies always talk in rhyme” and it is true to say that many of their activities and many significant statements are accompanied by song. For example, fairies at work- grinding, churning or ‘waulking’ cloth- had special songs that went with those activities. Expressions of strong emotions, such as anger, love and grief, would also take a verse form (Halliwell, Popular Rhymes & Nursery Tales, 1849, p.190; Evans Wentz pp.102 & 112).
The use of verse and rhyme to formulate secrets was also common amongst faery-kind. Think, for example, of the British equivalents of Rumpelstiltskin, creatures such as Whuppity Stoorie and Sili Go Dwt: these goblin-like characters sing their secret to themselves, but are always overheard and undone:
“Little kens oor gude dame at hame,
That Whuppity Stoorie is my name!”
“Nimmy, nimmy not,
My name’s Tom Tit Tot” and,
“Little did she know
That Trwtyn Tratyn
Is my name.”
This last verse works much better in the original Welsh:
“Bychan a wydda’ hi
Yw f’enw i.”
Wordplay was something that supernaturals particularly respected and enjoyed- and a skill in it could prove crucial. Some fishermen from the Isle of Lewis were out in their boat when a mermaid briefly surfaced. They saw her ‘blood-charm’ (perhaps a reference to the fact that a mermaid’s shed blood will stir up the waves into a tempest) and, in any event, merely sighting a mermaid would normally have been interpreted as a sign of disaster. She resurfaced nearer to the boat and asked the helmsman for his ‘half-stanza.’ The steersman gave a clever answer, referring to his control over the ship, to which she said “It is well that you gave such a reply” and then sank out of sight. It appears that his quick wit and versifying pleased her, because the boat and the crew got home safely, although other ships out that day foundered and men drowned.
Closely comparable to this incident are the circumstances which gave rise to a ‘fairy song’ from Argyllshire. A fairy woman daily visited a mother and her new-born son, “with words and with singing of verses to try if she could ‘word’ him away with her.” Luckily, the mother always had a ready answer and was able to prevent her child being taken. The fairy woman in her verses successively disparaged the boy- in response to which his mother praised him- then she warned of the temptations of the girls in town as he got older, with their curly brown hair and their bouncy breasts (cìochan currach) and lastly the bean-sith admitted that she wanted him to be the herder of her sheep on the moor. The mother instead retorted that she hoped he’d be a warrior or a rich farmer.
Henry William Walker, A Fairy Bower
Mermaid wisdom is also often expressed in verse, as in this advice on health and diet:
“If they would drink nettles in March
And eat mugwort in May
So many braw maidens
Wadna gang to the clay.”
The same habit was known amongst fairies: for example, a man on the Island of Barra was sent to fetch a doctor for a seriously ill woman. It was a hot day and on his return journey he sat down on a fairy knoll for a rest and fell asleep. He awoke to hear a song “Ill it becomes a messenger, on an important message, to sleep on the ground in the open air.” (Evans Wentz p.114)
Faery song can have a sinister significance as well. The song of the kelpie, the supernatural horse that lives in Scottish rivers, is said to signify that it is in search of human blood. It is certainly known to sing in triumph when a person is already on its back and it is too late for them to escape. One song had these words:
“And ride weil, Davie
And by this night at ten o’clock,
Ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”
Another version, recorded in 1884, went as follows:
“Sit well, Janety, or ride well Davie
For this time morn, ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”
Pot Cravie is the English attempt at the Gaelic place-name Poll nan Craobhan, a deep pool on the River Spey. The song celebrates that the victim will be plunged into the kelpie’s lair and won’t be returning.
Another very famous fairy song is that of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. This was a lullaby, sung over the cradle of the new-born heir to the clan MacLeod by a fairy woman. It foretold the child’s strength in arms and that he would possess plenty of cattle and rich crops in the fields; it promised that he would be free from injury in battle and would enjoy a long life. Each verse of the song had a different tune. For many generations afterwards, the custom of the clan was to sing the protective charm over the baby heir (Evans Wentz p.99).
In summary, in Faerie speech and words in all their forms are magical and must be carefully guarded.
Arthur Rackham, A Fairy Orchestra, (from ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’), 1908
I recently visited the Orkney islands, a long planned holiday to see the many megalithic monuments there- the standing stones, burial chambers and cairns. The Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe were all well worth the trip, but it was good too to experience the scene of so much folklore that I’ve read.
The islands are quite bleak and treeless and are covered in lochs (mostly fresh water but a few salt water). The grey, cold water under grey cold skies (the weather wasn’t brilliant) made it very easy to imagine kelpies and tangies (the Gaelic speaking Highlanders’ each uisge or water horse) emerging from the waters and roaming the land in search of prey.
One day we crossed from the mainland to the island of Rousay, using the ferry Eynhallow from Tingwall jetty. Eynhallow (the first syllable is pronounced like ‘eye’) is one of the two islands inhabited by the fin folk, or selkies. Formerly it was called Hildaland, and was often hidden from human eyes whilst the fin-folk lived there during the summer months.
A man called Thorodale, who lived in Evie on the mainland, just across the sound from Eynhallow, lost his wife one day when she was abducted by a fin-man. He planned revenge and sought the advice of a wise ‘spae-woman’ on the island of Hoy. She told him how to see the hidden island of Hildaland. For nine moons, at midnight when the moon was full, Thorodale went nine times on his bare knees around the great Odin Stone of Stenness (this was a huge holed stone that no longer exists). For the duration of nine moons, he looked through the hole in the stone and wished for the power of seeing Hildaland. After repeating this for nine months one beautiful summer morning, just after sunrise, Thorodale looked out on the sea and saw that, in the middle of Eynhallow Sound, there lay a pretty little island, where no land had ever been seen before. Armed with salt and crosses to dispel the faery glamour, Thorodale rowed across to the revealed isle. He fought off the fin-men, rescued his wife and then sowed salt around the whole island, banishing the fin-folk forever and claiming it for men. Eynhallow is deserted today, but it is still protected- by a fearful tidal race of white crested standing waves.
I also visited Hoy, not to meet the spae-wife but to visit the stunning Dwarfie Stane, a burial chamber hollowed out of a massive boulder. It lies on a bleak hillside, just near the end of the Trowie Glen (the fairy valley). That anything like this was carved with stone tools alone is deeply impressive. The sound effects achieved by a single voice inside are also remarkable.
The last notable fae site was a burial chamber on Cuween Hill on the mainland, called the Tomb of the Beagles because of the dog bones found inside, but also known locally as the Fairy Knowe. It was a steep climb up to the site and a tight crawl along the entrance passage to get in, but it was very still and mysterious within. Outside the wind was blowing; inside there was thick silence and a sense of contact, not just with the Neolithic farmers who had been buried there but with the faes whose dwelling it subsequently became.
Lastly (on one of the coldest and wettest days of our trip!) we visited the farm museums at Kirbuster and Corrigall. These were especially interesting as they preserved traditional Orkney farm houses and it was fascinating to see the open peat fires in the centre of the main rooms, with the smoke curling up through the hole in the roof, and to imagine those many stories I’d read in which a changeling child was placed in a basket in the smoke from the hot peat flames and driven to fly up through the ‘lum’ (the smoke hole), forcing the trows into returning the stolen human infant.
Although the ability to shape-shift is often reckoned to be a standard fairy attribute, it is actually very rare amongst the fairies of Britain. Part of the reason for its prominence in popular imaginings is that it has one very well-known practitioner.
Glamour & invisibility
We ought perhaps to start with some definition of terms. We’re not talking here about the fairies’ power of invisibility. This appears to be pretty much universal, for British fairies at least; they can all vanish at will. Secondly, shape shifting should not be confused with the regular fairy use of ‘glamour’ whereby magic can conceal the real identity of supernatural beings. A good example arises in the stories of midwives taken at night to grand mansions to attend rich ladies in their childbirth. It’s only when the midwife accidentally touches some fairy ointment to her eye that her vision penetrates through the illusion to see that she’s really surrounded by misshapen elves in a cave.
Thirdly, by shape-shifting I’m not really concerned so much with the ability of spriggans to change their size. An example of this comes from the Cornish story ‘Cherry of Zennor.’ Cherry is approached by a gentleman to work for him; they reach his home after a long and slightly mysterious journey, which appears to be a passage into fairyland. All goes well until Cherry looks into a well where she sees many tiny fairies dancing- and her new master shrunk to the same size. Fascinating as this is, in this posting I’m really only interested in a complete change of form.
Hobgoblins and sweet Puck
In 1584 in his horror novella Beware the cat, William Baldwin wrote what’s probably our first clear statement of the fairies’ shape-shifting habits:
“I have read that … the ayry spirits which wee call Demones, of which kinde are Incubus and Succubus, Robin Good Fellow the Fairy and Goblins, which the Miners call Telchines, could at their pleasure take upon them any other sortes.”
Robin Goodfellow is our particular interest here. Also called Puck, this hobgoblin is the consummate master of transformation, as immortalised in Midsummer night’s dream, Act II, scene 1 in which Puck boasts to a fairy about his pranks:
“When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,/ Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:/ And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,/ In the very likeness of a roasted crab;/ And when she drinks, against her lips I bob/ And on her withered dewlap pour the ale./ The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,/ Sometimes for three foot stool mistaketh me;/ Then slip I from her bum, down topples she…”
All Shakespeare does here is give immortal form to the traditional character of Puck. Other texts of about the same time give other examples of his tricks- these are The life of Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests (1628) and a poem called The pranks of Puck that has been attributed to Ben Jonson. In these works Robin is endowed with his shape-shifting power by his fairy father Oberon, who tells him:
“Thou hast the power to change thy shape/ To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape./ Transformed thus, by any meanes,/ See none thou harm’st but knaves and queanes.”
In the course of the stories Puck dispenses rough justice and has simple slapstick fun in a huge variety of forms- for example:
livestock such as a horse, a dog and an ox,
wild animals including a fox, a hare, a bear and a frog;
birds, including a crow, an owl and a raven;
various spirits including a will of the wisp and a ghost; and,
various people, including a cripple, a soldier, a young maid and fiddler.
Fairies as birds
There are two brief mentions of British fays who can transform to birds. The hyter sprite, an obscure fairy of East Anglia, can also appear in the shape of a sandmartin and, from the Cornish story of The fairy dwelling on Silena Moor we learn that pixy abductee Grace Hutchens is more reconciled to her captivity by the fact that she can transform into a small bird and fly near to her former lover, Mr Noy. It’s perhaps also worth observing that these fairies’ wings are acquired by transformation, here, as they evidently don’t normally possess them…
There’s a catch to the Cornish pixies’ ability to transform, though. They can only change into birds and it seems each transformation shrinks the sprite so that eventually they dwindle away to virtually nothing.
Evidently Puck can become whatever he likes. Most other fairies are strictly limited in what they can become. The Scottish kelpie/ each uisge may appear either in male or horse form. In the former guise, he is a handsome young man who seeks to seduce young women and lure them to their doom; the lucky ones spot the telltale signs of his real nature- the sand or water weed caught in his hair, and make their escape. The others are carried off into a loch or the sea and drowned.
Conclusion and further reading
To finish, we can see how rare the power to change form is. In England it’s really just limited to Puck, although we have to note the interesting fact that a couple of the South Western fairies do have some special powers.
I have recently published an article in Faerie Magazine describing the significance of standing stones and stone circles in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. The standing stones of Craigh na Dun are central to the story, but there are other fairy incidents in the series that deserve our close attention.
The first scenario involves the finding of a changeling child; this that takes place in the first TV series episode 10 (‘By the pricking of my thumbs’) and in chapter 24 of the book Outlander (which was originally published as Cross Stitch).
These infants are traditionally called shag-bairns or shargies in Scotland. I’m not sure of the etymology; there’s a Lincolnshire fairy beast called the ‘shagfoal’ which may be related, although this very possibly has connotations of the naturally shaggy nature of the creature; perhaps elvish bairns are also curiously hairy for their age. Changeling elves usually are described as being thin, wizened and yellow in appearance but abnormal hairiness is not a typical characteristic, as far as I know.
In chapter 24 Claire Fraser is gathering plants in the woods with Geilis Duncan when she finds a baby laid in a hollowed rock, accompanied by a bowl of milk and some wild flowers tied with red thread. The child looks very ill and, in fact, dies very shortly afterwards. Claire’s outraged to find the infant abandoned but Geilis tells her not to interfere: the family will be in the vicinity and the child has been left out because it’s believed to have been changed by the fairies, an impression probably arising from the fact that its behaviour has changed and it has started to cry and fuss all the time. Infants who ceased to develop (who ‘dwined’) and who were constantly grizzling (winicky) were prime suspects of elvish substitution.
In the story, where the baby is found is a fairy knoll and the hope is that the Wee Folk, seeing one of their tribe exposed to the elements, will swap it back and that the parents will be able to retrieve their own child the next morning. As ever Claire wants to intervene but she is restrained first by Geilis and then Jamie.
The episode is a good representation of Scottish beliefs: James Napier in 1879 described how in the west of Scotland the practice was to take a suspected changeling to a fairy haunt- somewhere where the wind is heard to sough in a peculiar way in the trees, a place that is often near to a cairn, stone circle, green mound or dell. With certain ritual words the parents would then leave it, along with an offering of bread, milk, cheese, eggs and the flesh or fish or fowl. They would wait for an hour or two until after midnight and return to where the baby had been left in full expectation that the offering would have been taken and that this would be a sign that the fairies had accepted their own back again and had restored the human babe. The Outlander account could almost be modelled upon Napier’s description. The mention of red thread is also authentic as this was used to protect children and cattle from being taken by the fairies; it would be tied around their necks as a sort of amulet. (Napier, Folk lore or superstitious beliefs in the west of Scotland within this century). The offering of milk is authentic, for the fairies’ love of dairy products is well known, and the hollowed rock also fits with tradition (although often it was milk and beer that were poured into cup-shaped stones as offerings to the fairy folk.)
Gabaldon captures effectively the desperate response of many communities to the possibility of an elf being substituted for a healthy child. In what may appear to border upon irrationality, there was a conviction that only by forceful means could the changeling be expelled and the real baby recovered. This undoubtedly led to a good deal of child abuse- not just exposure but burning, drowning and beating. For example, in one Cornish case the frantic mother recruited her neighbours too to help her batter the pixie-substitute with brooms before leaving it overnight by a church stile. In the Outlander episode the infant dies, although not directly at the hands of its parents. Another Scottish remedy was what was called ‘nine mother’s meat’- the anxious parent would visit nine other mothers in her vicinity and beg from them each the gift of three different sorts of food which, being fed to a sickly child, would save it from abduction.
In Outlander this superstitious and powerless mood is reflected in the fact that Jamie Fraser, whilst being a rational man whose tutor taught him German, Latin and Greek and who has studied history and philosophy in France, will neither sleep on a fairy hill at night nor dare to contradict his neighbours in the matter of the taking of children by the fairies.
An t’each uisge– the water horse
The second mythical creature that appears in the first book, albeit a little more briefly, is the ‘water horse.’ It features in two separate chapters of Cross Stitch, although the second addresses more contemporary ideas of monsters and legend.
In chapter 18 Rupert tells stories to the encamped Highlanders. One concerns the waterhorse of Loch Garve, who takes a fancy to a human wife and carries the woman to his home beneath the waves. It’s icy and unhappy down there. so he gets a human builder to construct a fireplace for her so that she can warm herself by her hearth and cook proper hot human food, instead of subsisting upon snails and waterweed like her husband. In the next chapter Claire actually sees the waterhorse, except in the story it’s the Loch Ness monster, a prehistoric plesiosaur risen from the depths.
Diana Gabaldon’s version of the waterhorse is a good deal more benign that the folklore original. It’s true that the traditional kelpie carries off humans on its back, but this is not for the purpose of abducting a likely wife but rather with a view to drowning and consuming the hapless rider. Often all that remains are the victim’s heart and lungs, which are washed ashore by the side of the haunted loch. The true waterhorse– and related beasts- are all dreaded for their penchant for devouring unwary travellers and careless children. Some will set out to charm and seduce mortal females, but this is only as a preliminary to their destruction. No serious or long term affection is involved.
Whereas the changeling incident in Outlander confronts the harsh treatment of sickly children in earlier times, the fresh water monster is rationalised and made benign and thoughtful.
A long time ago, in an early posting on this blog, I discussed mermaids; I want now to return to the subject with some further reflections and information.
The little mermaid
Just like fairies, elves and pixies, it is very notable how the popular image of mermaids has improved and how they are coming to be regarded as wholly cute and attractive figures of myth. The illustrations to this posting by Hector Caffieri demonstrate an early stage in this trend; perhaps the best known contemporary example might be Disney’s Ariel, the little mermaid. In passing, it may be worthwhile making an additional observation on visual conventions. The cartoon Ariel, for one, is sanitised and winsome. Caffieri’s ‘Siren’ above is likewise a small girl, but it’s notable how the standard image has changed in the last century or so. Today, the fish scales extend to the waist; in Victorian times (as can be seen) they often started somewhat lower, requiring a more discrete treatment (or perhaps a chance for a little titillation).
Today, mermaids are viewed wholly as figures suitable for children to like, draw and to imitate, with mermaid tails being a widely available form of fun beach wear. It seems very likely that this more benign idea is derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 story of The little mermaid. The main character in this is presented as a model of Christian self sacrifice and goodness and has doubtless had a pervasive influence commensurate with the story’s popularity. For modern generations, the aforementioned cartoon version of the story from Disney has profoundly influenced popular views of marine supernaturals since its release in 1989. Other symptoms of these revised views of merfolk may be the 1984 film Splash starring Daryl Hannah and the very recent appearance of female entertainers playing mermaids for parties and corporate events.
Whilst terrestrial fairies have been the subject of prettification and miniaturisation since the late sixteenth century, this process has only been applied to mermaids during the last century and a half. The consequence is that a great deal more of the older folklore attitudes survive, both in stories and in poetry. Mermaids are still supernatural creatures deserving of awe, fear and mistrust. Kindliness was never one of the mermaid’s traditional traits and it is still not how other supernatural water beasts are perceived. In this respect, the dependable J K Rowling gives us a depiction more observant of folklore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (there called grindylows). It may be easier for us to identify with and to find attractive qualities in a being that lives solely on land; mermaids live in a different element in which a human cannot survive and this important distinction may help to preserve their distance from us and our healthy respect for that difference.
Caffieri, ‘Siren’ (Bonhams)
It’s also inescapable that most mermaids are depicted as young, beautiful, naked women. There’s probably a lot of psychology here if you’d like to find it. This iconography may tell us about relations between men and women: the separation between elements may be a metaphor for the difference between the sexes. It may equally just have something to say about sex more generally- that physical attraction is powerful, but dangerous; that we are entering a new and exposing environment when we entrust ourselves to another individual; that the lure of the strange and mysterious is strong but perilous. As with all supernatural partners, love for mermaids is enticing but full of risk: what is placed in jeopardy may be long term happiness, your present way of living and connections or, even, life itself.
Irish poet Francis Hackett (1883-1962) captured many of the conventional traits of the mermaid in his poem Sea dawn:
“From Wicklow to the throb of dawn
I walked out to the sea alone
And by the black rocks came upon
A being from a world unknown.
As proud she sat as any queen
On high, and naked as the air:
Her limbs were lustrous, and a sheen
Of sea-gold flowed from her flowing hair.
And as the spreading sea did swell
With dawns strange and brimming light
Her little breasts arose and fell
As if in concord with the sight.
Faint was the sea sound that she made
Of little waves that melt in sand
While with her honey hair she played
And arched the mirror in her hand.”
This evocation of adolescent allure may well now trigger thoughts of the recent controversy concerning J. M. Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the nymphs and its temporary removal from the walls of Manchester City Art Gallery. Both the picture and Hackett’s verse are of a piece and represent one powerful current of thought on mermaids and their nature.
Common mermaid themes
Across the world, there are several themes common to tales of merfolk. The principal of these are as follows:
they can punish those who offend them or who injure those whom they protect (see Hunt’s stories of the mermaid in Padstow Harbour and of The mermaid’s vengeance);
they can assume normal human form by magical means; and,
they can become involved in love affairs with mortals, whether that involves living for a while on land with the human or luring the human beneath the waves. The outcomes are seldom good (see Matthew Arnold, The merman’s lament).
As is the case in contact with all supernatural beings, involvement with merfolk is generally risky and involves an imbalance of power. Romantic attachments can be fatal whilst any information or ability gained from them is only obtained through coercion, whether that is bribery or physical force.
An art nouveau mermaid or water sprite
To repeat, as with the improvement in the character of fairies, the changed perception of merfolk is a relatively recent amelioration. Evidence of the earlier, much more dangerous, nature of these beings is still to be found in the Scottish accounts of water horses (associated with salt water), water bulls and other water beasts like kelpies, which are found in freshwater lochs. Their main occupation, it seems, is seducing mortals and luring them to their doom. James Hogg’s 1819 poem The mermaid is representative of this: the Maid of the Crystal Wave lures a young man to ‘places he should not have been and sights he should not have seen’ and it proves to be his ruin. Similarly in Charles Mackay’s 1851 ballad The Kelpie of Corryevreckan a handsome stranger on a horse rides off with love-struck Jessie, but then plunges beneath the waves with her, so that she is found drowned the next day. Poet Joseph Rodman Drake in his verse, To a friend, described travellers being terrorised by “the kelpie’s fang.”
It is notable that whilst mermaids might accidentally drown their lovers, it is not generally their intention, whereas the character of the water beasts is specifically to seek out humans in order to destroy them. In light of this, there is perhaps a case for excluding the latter from the category of ‘fairies.’ Mermaids are semi-human in form; the kelpie can take on human form whilst the water horses appear as animals alone and may be better described as monsters.
Lastly, what is particularly notable is the Highland Scottish link between water creatures and horses. Exactly why this should have been made is far from clear, but it is to be found across Northern Europe in Scandinavian folklore, from Iceland through to Denmark. It seems very likely that Viking settlement introduced this idea into the north of Scotland.
It has become a widespread belief that fairies are wholly benevolent and peaceable beings, to whom violence and antagonism towards humankind is anathema. This idea is probably reinforced by arguments for fairies being nature spirits and vegetarians.
This view of the supernatural realm would surprise our predecessors, who had a very different and more complex view of faery. Older folk lore portrays an other-world very similar to our own, with its own internal conflicts and with a range of responses to human-kind, from friendly to hostile.
fairy warfare– it seemed entirely reasonable to earlier generations that the fairies would disagree profoundly and might engage in armed conflict amongst themselves. The Reverend Kirk said that “These Subterraneans have Controversies, Doubts, Disputes, Feuds and Sidings of Parties … they transgress and commit Acts of Injustice and Sin.” As a result, they have “many disastrous Doings of their own, as … Fighting, Gashes, Wounds and Burialls…” As evidence of these conflicts, there is a Glamorganshire tradition of a fairy battle fought in the air between Aberdare and Merthyr. In the Hebrides Evans Wentz reported that it was believed that the fairy hosts always fought at Halloween, as evidence of which a red liquid produced by lichens after frost was believed in fact to be the blood of the fairy fallen. John Campbell, in his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, provides detail of a similar phenomenon. He describes a substance called elf-blood (fuil siochaire) which is found on the shores of the Hebrides; it is like a dark red stone and is full of holes. These bloodstones are connected to the red skies of the aurora borealis, which themselves are termed the ‘pool of blood’ and are a sign of fairy fighting above.
retributive violence– I have already in several postings referred to the fact that fairies were believed to impose a strict code of morals and conduct upon humans and to enforce this by forceful means. There seemed to be little hesitation about battering and injuring those of whom they disapproved. Offending individuals could certainly expect to be pinched mercilessly; they might also be jostled, assaulted, lamed and (for the offence of seeing through the fairy glamour) blinded.
thrashing- John Campbell recorded a series of curious tales about the conduct of fairy women, which I reproduce here:
“A herdsman at Baile-phuill, in the west end of Tiree, fell asleep on Cnoc Ghrianal, at the eastern base of Heynish Hill, on a fine summer afternoon. He was awakened by a violent slap on the ear. On rubbing his eyes, and looking up, he saw a woman, the most beautiful he had ever seen, in a green dress, with a brooch fastened in at the neck, walking away from him. She went westward and he followed her for some distance, but she vanished, he could not tell how…
A man in Mull, watching in the harvest field at night, saw a woman standing in the middle of a stream that ran past the field. He ran after her, and seemed sometimes to be close upon her, and again to be as far from her as ever. Losing temper he swore himself to the devil that he would follow till he caught her. When he said the words the object of his pursuit allowed herself to be overtaken, and showed her true character by giving him a sound thrashing. Every night after he had to meet her. He was like to fall into a decline through fear of her, and becoming thoroughly tired of the affair, he consulted an old woman of the neighbourhood, who advised him to take with him to the place of the appointment the ploughshare and his brother John. This would keep the Fairy woman from coming near him. The Fairy, however, said to him in a mumbling voice, “You have taken the ploughshare with you to-night, Donald, and big, pock-marked, dirty John your brother,” and catching him she administered a severer thrashing than ever. He went again to the old woman, and this time she made for his protection a thread, which he was to wear about his neck. He put it on, and instead of going to the place of meeting, remained at the fireside. The Fairy came, and, taking him out of the house, gave him a still severer thrashing. Upon this, the wise woman said she would make a chain to protect him against all the powers of darkness, though they came. He put this chain about his neck, and remained by the fireside. He heard a voice calling down the chimney, ‘I cannot come near you to-night, Donald, when the pretty smooth-white is about your neck.’…
A man in Iona, thinking daylight was come, rose and went to a rock to fish. After catching some fish, he observed he had been misled by the clearness of the moonlight, and set off home. On the way, as the night was so fine, he sat down to rest himself on a hillock. He fell asleep, and was awakened by the pulling of the fishing rod, which he had in his hand. He found the rod was being pulled in one direction, and the fish in another. He secured both, and was making off, when he heard sounds behind him as of a woman weeping. On his turning round to her, she said, “Ask news, and you will get news.” He answered, “I put God between us.” When he said this, she caught him and thrashed him soundly. Every night after he was compelled to meet her, and on her repeating the same words and his giving the same answer, was similarly drubbed. To escape from her persecutions he went to the Lowlands. When engaged there cutting drains, he saw a raven on the bank above him. This proved to be his tormentor, and, as usual, she thrashed him. He resolved to go to America. On the eve of his departure, his Fairy mistress met him and said, “You are going away to escape from me. If you see a hooded crow when you land, I am that crow.” On landing in America he saw a crow sitting on a tree, and knew it to be his old enemy. In the end the fairy dame killed him.”
These are odd accounts and a little difficult to explain. The man is compelled against his will to meet the fairy woman, but is then apparently beaten for doing so. The battery appears to be either a means of ensuring his obedience by instilling fear- and a hint that the fairy lover does not trust her charms- or it is a punishment for his temerity. Either way it suggests that fairies can be vindictive and contemptuous, even towards those they favour in some way.
cautionary violence– again, in an earlier on the warning use of fairy tales I have mentioned those spirits whose primary purpose seems to have been to scare and discipline children so as to encourage them to avoid dangerous locations such as ponds or river banks. Jenny Greenteeth and Peg Powler weren’t just names, though, nor would they merely give an errant child a fright: they would drag the disobedient infant beneath the water and drown them,
unprovoked violence– some supernaturals were malicious by nature and human encounters with them would almost invariably prove fatal. These include the Highland water horses, the each uisge/ aughisky, the kelpie and the shoopiltree of Shetland, all of which would lure people into mounting them and would then career at speed into a river or lake or into the sea, where the humans would be drowned and/ or devoured. There were other non-equine but equally maleficent and dangerous water spirits in Scotland, such as the fideal, the fuath, the peallaidh, the muilearteach and the cearb (the killer).In Wales the llamhigyn y dwr (the water leaper) and the afanc were known. All of these made a habit of tearing their unfortunate victims to pieces beneath the waves.
A broader perspective on fairy conduct confirms the impression of a fractious, rough and sometimes vicious society. Many aspects of their culture depended upon violence to some degree:
subsistence: a significant portion of the food and drink consumed in faery was stolen, usually by stealth but sometimes coercively- for example, in cases where livestock were stolen and then butchered; and,
leisure: the fairy idea of fun often involved tormenting people or their livestock- for example, the habit of ‘riding’ horses at night, a practice which left them weak and distressed in the mornings.
As this catalogue shows, traditional folk belief was a great deal less confident in the good nature of fairy kind than is the case with some contemporary commentators. The best counsel would be to approach with care- or better still to protect oneself with charms and to seek to avoid the ‘good neighbours’ altogether, to be on the safe side. Fairies were regarded as being as variable, unpredictable and potentially vicious as any imperfect human being.