Fairies dancing near their hill, the door of which stands open
Readers will, by now I’m sure, be very familiar with the idea that fairies are inveterate thieves of human property. In this post, I’ll challenge those preconceptions to some degree, and look at cases where they help us to retrieve items that we have lost or have been stolen.
The information we have on this is fairly limited and, unfortunately, all of it comes from the context of criminal trials, in which the defendant faced an allegation of witchcraft or something similar.
Most of the cases date from the sixteenth century. The first concerns a woman from London, known to us only as “Mrs Croxton”, who lived in St Giles parish in the city in 1549. All we know about her is that she offered to help find lost items, and this without the use of any charms or other magical techniques; instead, “she only speaketh with the fayrayes.”
About a decade and a half later a man called John Walsh was examined on suspicion of witchcraft in Dorset. He had visited the fairies at their hills, either at noon or midnight, and acquired a range of information from them. They told him who had been bewitched and they could also help him locate stolen goods. With the fairies’ aid he had recovered several stolen horses, he claimed, and denied doing harm to anyone.
Scottish witches, with the devil and fairies under a knowe.
The next example dates from 1576. Bessie Dunlop, of Irvine in Scotland, was arrested after she had offered to help a man retrieve a stolen cloak. Before this, she had been very active, it appears, identifying the whereabouts of stolen property and naming the culprits. Her clientele ranged across the social spectrum including Lady Blair and Lady Thirdpart. Bessie derived her abilities from a fairy man called Tom Reid, who had first approached her when she was alone in a field one day in 1572. In consultation with Tom, Bessie was able to discover what had happened to the stolen goods and was also able to diagnose and offer cures for a range of illnesses. Despite the good she appeared to have done within her community, Bessie was convicted of witchcraft and was strangled and then burned on November 8th 1576.
A century later (November 1677) a vagrant man called Donald McIlmichall was put on trial at the Tollbooth in Inveraray. Initially the charge against him had been the theft of a cow, but it turned out on examination that he claimed to have visited the fairies under their hill on frequent occasions, joining their dances or providing the music for them. This was all supposed to be kept secret. When he told a friend of his visits, he had been stricken in the cheek by way of punishment.
Donald asked the fairies about the whereabouts of two horses stolen at Leismore and they were able to advise him. They also voluntarily gave him information about a number of other stolen items, whose owners he duly informed. Nonetheless, for the “horrid cryme of corresponding with the devil and consulting with him anent stolen goods and getting information for their discovery,” Donald was hanged and his goods forfeit.
These stories make for depressing reading, but much Scottish fairy information derives from witch trials, few of which ended happily for the victims. What can we drive from these other than a sense of the human tragedy and cruelty involved?
Summary & further reading
Firstly, it seems fairly clear that the stolen goods involved weren’t stolen by the fays: the culprits were humans whose offences were exposed by supernatural means. The fairies did plenty of stealing (food, mainly) but they don’t seem to have been betraying themselves here.
Secondly, this knowledge of secret acts has to be derived from the fairies’ powers of second sight. We know already that the fays can see into the future; it asks a lot less to imagine that they might be aware of what is happening currently, or has happened, in a human community around them. This readiness to tell tales about people seems to be related to the fairies tendency to prefer some individuals over others, with gifts of money and skills. The people who could assist others in their village or town, recovering for them lost property, would have gained prestige and, doubtless, rewards. Indirectly, then, the fairies were bestowing wealth and fortune on those they favoured.