Underground, Overground

ar elves

In this post I look at one of the places with which fairies are often associated- ancient sites– and then consider exactly how they are linked to these monuments.

Barrows and Standing Stones

There is a very longstanding link between faeries, megalithic structures and ancient burial tumuli.  Its exact nature, nevertheless, is a little hazy.  It’s not always clear if the faes are merely present at these sites from time to time (usually to dance) or whether they actually reside at- or under- them.

For example, at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, the faeries have been seen dancing- but also disappearing down a hole by the King Stone- implying that they were accessing their underground home by that route.  The Hurle Stane, near Chillingham in Northumberland, was a well-known site of faery assemblies.

On the Isle of Arran, faeries meet at the various stone circles on the island, but are especially closely linked to the megalithic complex at Machrie Moor: one of the stone circles here is a double ring called Fion-gal’s Cauldron Seat.  A faery or brownie was said to live below it- who was propitiated by pouring milk into a hole in the side of one of the stones.

suidhe core fhionn
Suidhe Coire Fhionn, Machrie Moor

It isn’t just single or grouped standing stones, though.  Prehistoric barrows also have very strong faery associations.  The round barrow at Carn Gluze, St Just, Cornwall, is the place of faery dances and burning lights at night.  A long barrow at Butcombe in Somerset is called the Fairy Toot; another barrow in the same county at Stoke Courcy is known as the Pixies’ Mound and another on Beaulieu Heath in Hampshire is called the Pixies’ Cave.  All these names strongly imply that our Good Neighbours were known to live beneath the mounds.  I have very often noted the presence of faes beneath natural ‘knolls’ or ‘knowes,’ so it makes sense for them to take up residence in man-made features too.  Many such sites are recognised in Scotland, too, often being sitheans (places were the sith people live).  Examples are found at Fowlis Wester, Perth (a barrow and stone circle), Carmylie, Forfar and at Kinross.

Part and parcel of this group of ideas is an instinctive respect- even reverence- that many people have had for ancient sites in their vicinity.  An Elgin man called Andro Man was accused in 1649 of setting up a standing stone and taking off his bonnet to it.  He insisted to the kirk presbytery that it was merely a boundary marker, but they made him break up the monolith all the same.  What’s most impressive about this case is how very late an expression of respect for menhirs this was.  Older beliefs were still found amongst rural populations until comparatively recently, though.  George Tyack, in his 1899 book on The Lore and Legend of the English Church, noted a belief on the Isle of Man that, if you pastured your sheep amidst a ‘druidic’ circle, the flock was bound to succumb to disease.  In his Second Manx Scrapbook, Walter Gill mentioned standing stones at Germans and Michael on the island that are called ‘white ladies’ and which were white washed to emphasise their ghostly significance.  ‘White ladies’ are most commonly spirits associated with springs and streams, so this is a fascinating merger of ideas.

The reason for treating stones respectfully is simple: if you fail to, the fairies using or living at the sites will have their revenge.  In British Goblins, Wirt Sikes tells the story of a Dark Age inscribed pillar standing on a tumulus at Banwan Bryddin, near Neath, which was removed by Lady Mackworth to adorn a grotto she was constructing in the grounds of her home.  Her workmen were unhappy over this, because the mound was well known to be a faery site, but the Lady had her way.  Soon after the grotto was completed, a terrible storm raged over the Neath Valley and a landslip completely buried her expensive new grotto.  The tylwyth teg had spoken.

AR fairy market

Faery Hillocks

As I have described, the faeries took up residence in barrows and other ancient sites found in prominent and/ or raised places- hillforts and other enclosures- because they were already familiar with living in distinctive or isolated hills.  Take, for example, a conical hill with a flat top near Strachar called Sian Sluai, the fairy hill of the host (sluagh); the home of the fairy queen at sith-chaillin near Fortingal, Perth; the many sioth-duns (fairy hills) around Buchanan, Perth, or the conical knoll called Harry’s Hill (Tom Eanraic) near Ardesier in Inverness, where the fairies met at night and where changeling children would be left overnight, in the hope of retrieving the stolen human baby.

Across Britain, in fact, fairies have been seen dancing on hills and disappearing into hills.  It is wholly unsurprising, therefore, to discover that many of the healers who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made their contact with the faes in hilly places.

Katharine Jonesdochter of Orkney in 1616 described how she saw the trows “on the hill called Greinfall at monie sindrie tymes.” Thomas Leys of Aberdeen, and his lover Elspeth Reid, told their 1597 trial that they knew of a hill where they could raise a spirit in any likeness they chose.  Katherine Ross said in 1590 that she “wald gang in Hillis to speik to the elf folk.”  John Stewart of Irvine regularly met with the fairies at Halloween on top of two hills near to the town (1618).  Isobel Haldane, from Perth, was carried from her bed one night to “ane hill-syde: the hill oppynit and scho enterit in” (1623).  Katharine Caray wandered amongst the hills of Caithness “at the doun going of the sun [and] ane great number of fairie men mett her” (1616).

From what we can tell, the faeries lived in prehistoric sites on hills; I’ll give a few examples from Wales.  The Iron Age hill fort known as Bryn y Pibion is definitely a faery dwelling, as it features in a ‘midwife’ story; the headland of Dinllain, defended by ancient earthworks, was a place for fairy dancing, after which they would raise a sod of earth and descended underground.  Another midwife attended a fairy birth here too.  Fairies gathered at the hillfort of Moeddin dressed in green to celebrate Mayday and, lastly, the prominent rock known as Ynys Geinon was connected to Craig y Nos castle by an underground passage, which the fairies reached by descending a golden ladder.

Conclusion

To conclude, therefore, we seem to have a double conjunction of associations.  The faeries were drawn to and lived beneath ancient stones and mounds; if those were also raised on hills- so much the better, as with the barrow called the Fairy Hillock at Carmylie in Forfar, which stands on the top of a hill.

Green faery places

Moony, mystical landscape with f
R J Enraght-Mooney, Mystical landscape with fairy

We’ve discussed before the location and identity of fairy land or where fairies might live.  In this post, I want to consider how they may live amongst us, in places specially designated or reserved for them.

Fairy knowes

These special sites might be for the living or for the dead.  It is well known that fairies live under hills, particularly in the north of England and in Scotland; sometimes people will enter them to join in with their dances, midwives will be invited in to help with childbirths and some folk will be abducted there to live in servitude.  These knolls or knowes are marked out by their distinctive rounded form and by the lushness of the vegetation growing upon them.  By their unique shape and isolation, they stand out as separate and unusual- and this should act as a warning to people.  It doesn’t always work this way, though, and the faery nature of these hills has been repeatedly underlined by reports concerning people who’ve violated them.

For example, in the Highlands on old man kept the hillock near his house very clean by clearing from it any animal droppings or other dirt.  He did this mainly because he liked to sit on the hill on summer evenings, but one dusk a small man he did not know appeared and thanked him for his care.  In return, he promised that if the man’s cattle should stray at night, they would be kept out of the crops.  A farmer who always avoided pasturing his horses and cows on a hillock and resisted taking turf from the knoll was rewarded by the faes who would drive his livestock to shelter whenever a storm arose at night.

By way of contrast, a man on Coll went to pull brambles from a hill and heard someone call out angrily to him from inside.  He ran away in fright.  A farmer who had a green knoll (or tolman) standing in front of his house used nightly to throw out all the waste household water there.  Eventually, he was confronted and asked to desist as the regular drenchings were spoiling the furniture and utensils of the people living inside.  Lastly, a man decided one evening to tether his horse to graze on a grassy mound where the pasture looked rich.  As he was hammering in the tether pin, a head appeared and asked him to tie his horse somewhere else, as the hole was letting the rainwater in and the peg had nearly hurt one of the inhabitants.

Burial grounds

There are also certain locations within the landscape that are reserved for the fairy dead.  For example, it was widely believed in the north of England that any green shady spot was a fairy burial ground.  Indeed, in 1847 it was reported in the Manx newspaper Mona’s Herald that a man called Quayle, living at Maughold on the island, had his house windows broken by the faes because he had ploughed up some land never before cultivated and, in so doing, had turned up bones from an old grave yard.

Set aside

It’s not just a matter of respecting sites already selected by the faes, though.  Some may be deliberately granted to them by human communities.  In Gloucestershire, presumably-valuable agricultural land was given up to the fairies: when the fields at Upton St Leonard’s were enclosed, an area called No Nation was left for the faeries’ use and tall trees were left in the new hedgerows as places in which the fays could hide.  This is a good example of showing the proper respect for the Good Folk, by appeasing them and adapting to living alongside them.

In the same way, in Berwickshire on the Scottish border with England, there’s a tradition of preserving areas called Clootie’s Craft (or croft) and Goodman’s Field, that were set aside in villages for the fairies and were never tilled or cropped.  It was considered extremely unlucky to dig or plough on these portions (just as fairy rings should never be disturbed), for:

“He who tills the fairies’ green

Nae luck again shall hae.”

There was another saying that, “If you put a spade in the Goodman’s craft… [the Devil] will shoot you with his shaft.”   A further rhyme, composed to warn locals against reckless cultivation, advised that:

“The craft lies bonny by Langton Lees

And is well liked by birds and bees.

If you plough it up, it’ll be your death,

For disturbing the sod where the fairies like to tread.”

a w crawford woodland fairies in the moonlight
A W Crawford, Woodland fairies in the moonlight

For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

“Under a broad bank”- fairy portals

paton belle dame

Sir Noel Paton, The Belle Dame sans merci

I have previously discussed visits to fairylands underground; in this post I want to briefly examine the entrances to those places- the portals where a human might most likely encounter a fay being.

The folklore, literary sources and popular ballads are very consistent in the identifying the sorts of places or environments in which a meeting with a fae is likely.  What appears to unify the locations is the fact that they all share a solitary or unique feature; they will stand out in the landscape.  These distinctive sites are as follows:

  • lone trees– a tree standing isolated in a prominent position is noticeable and memorable in any case, but very often marks a fae portal.  For instance, Thomas of Erceldoune meets the fairy queen at the ‘Eildon tree’ (in one version of the poem it is described as a “dern tree”- that is ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’).  In the romance of the same name, knight Sir Launfal is approached by two fairy maidens whilst sitting in the shade of a tree one hot undrentide during the feast of Trinity (late May or early June).  In the Scottish ballad of Allison Gross, a man is turned into a dragon (or ‘worm’) by witch Alison and is left to coil himself around a tree.  Lone trees are magical,  definitely.  However, we can go further and suggest that these fairy trees are very likely to be either may (hawthorn) trees, as these are notorious fairy haunts, and apple trees.  In the ballad of Young Tamlane he’s carried off by the elfin queen having fallen asleep underneath an apple and the wife of Sir Orfeo is stolen away from her husband by the fairies whilst sitting one early May morning in an orchard, beneath an “ympe tree”- a grafted apple.
  • free standing hills- fairies are well known to live under burial mounds and it appears that distinct and conspicuous hills of any description will be likely fairy spots at which contact can be made.  English poets Thomas Campion and Thomas Browne both imagined the fairy queen regally seated upon a grassy knoll (“All ladies that do sleep” and Britannia’s Pastorals, Book I, Song II, lines 396-404) whilst in folklore many everyday activities conducted upon a fairy hill could prove dangerous for humans, whether that was cutting turf, sitting, playing or just sleeping.
  • grassy banks and slopes- these are often mentioned specifically, but could very well just be part of a fairy hill rather than a separate feature in the landscape; it’s not always clear.  Thomas of Erceldoune lay down on Huntlie bank on a May morning ; in the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer we hear that he reclines on a grassy bank.  There’s a definite suggestion that part of the process may involve a tired person lying down to rest, drifting off to sleep, and, in that semi-conscious state, being able to make contact with faery.  In the medieval poem Piers Plowman the narrator is out on the Malvern Hills on a May morning; “weori of wandringe” he went to rest “undur a brod banke bi a bourne syde.”  It is then that he beholds “a ferly- a feyrie” (a wonder of fairy origin).  In Edmund Spencer’s poem The Faery Queen Prince Arthur similarly lies down to sleep on verdant grass after wandering in a forest and has a vision of the Fairy Queen lying down beside him (Book I, canto IX, stanzas 13-14).  Elsewhere in his epic Spenser imagines that “Nymphes and Faeries by banckes did sit”- there is clearly a close association here between faes and these slightly secluded locations (Book I, canto X, stanza 65).
  • Daisies- the magical communion with Faery is further enhanced, it seems, it there are daisies on the bank.  In Allison Gross the fairy queen comes to sit on a “gowany bank” near to where the frightful worm coils about the tree.  It may be significant too that in the ballad of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight the wicked knight comes to the maid when she sits in her bower on the first of May, surrounded by daisies.  They are one of the archetypal fairy flowers.

It will be evident from these examples that, whilst the place is important, the time of day (undrentideand the time of year (very typically early May/ Beltane) are also highly significant in bringing about an encounter.  Combine all the right factors and a meeting with a faery is a very strong possibility.

Katherine_Cameron-Thomas_the_Rhymer

Katherine Cameron, Thomas the Rhymer