There are two sorts of fairy cattle: there are the supernatural ‘water beasts,’ the water bulls of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man, which are magical and live under water (but are relatively harmless) and there are the less magical herds of cattle kept by the faes themselves.
Crodh mara & crodh sith
The fairies’ own livestock are the crodh mara, the fairy sea cows of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the fairy cattle or crodh sith of the Scottish mainland and the gwartheg y llyn, the Welsh ‘lake cattle’, that are frequently brought to marriages with men by the beautiful lake maidens- and just as frequently are taken away again by them when the relationship ends or when some taboo is breached. These beasts may be livestock belonging to fairies, but they are by and large without any fairy characteristics of their own. The dividing line between fairy cattle as simple chattels and fae beasts, as otherworld creatures, is a very fine one, though; here are two examples.
Victorian fairy expert Crofton Croker gathered some very interesting information on ‘elf-bulls.’ He described how, in Scotland at the end of harvest, the farmers’ cattle would be gathered into the cleared fields to graze the ‘aftermath.’ They might be seen to run about, bellowing, without apparent or visible cause. However, if a person cared to take the risk, they might look through a knot hole in a piece of wood or through the hole made in a cow’s hide by the strike of an elf-bolt (both well-attested ways of penetrating fairy glamour) and the source of the disturbance would be revealed. An elf bull would be seen, fighting with the strongest bull in the herd and mating with the cows. The price of this revelation was the loss of sight in the eye used, however. As I’ve described previously, the cows are naturally able to see the fairy beings, the second sight being innate.
Elf bulls are smaller than conventional ones, mousy in colour with upright ears, short horns and legs, and hair that is short, smooth and glossy like an otter’s pelt. They are supernaturally strong and courageous and linger around rivers, grazing on the banks at night.
Catching a Fairy Cow
These creatures, as I’ve said, may voluntarily mix with farm livestock and leave their hybrid offspring amongst those herds as well. They can be trapped too. At Shewbost on the Hebrides the crodh mara used to come ashore to graze and the local people were able to catch them and add them to their own stock by the simple measure of sprinkling maistir (stale urine) across their path back to the sea, as I’ve described previously.
On Skye, the cattle were known only to graze in certain spots on land and it was common to hear their fairy owners calling them home again at night. They could be caught by strewing earth across their route back to the sea; soil taken from a churchyard being especially favoured.
How to Lose a Fairy Herd
One Scottish farmer had a cow that, every May, would suddenly leave the herd in its pasture and make her way to the adjacent river bank. She would swim across to a small island in the stream and stay there for a few hours before returning. In due course a calf would be born, displaying many of the characteristics of an elf-bull. This went on for many years, but eventually one Christmas the farmer, sitting by the fire with his family, suggested that the time had come to cull her. She had given many years of milk and calves, but she was ageing and less productive. The cow, however, heard their plans- and had understood. She bellowed, broke out of the cowshed and charged down to the river bank, where she swam to the island and disappeared forever. Even worse, she took all her offspring with her.
Nearly identical events are told involving a couple on the Scottish island of Pabbay: they found there an abandoned cow and from it bred their entire herd. Once again, after some years had passed, they decided that the time had come to slaughter their original cow. It overheard and left with all its daughters, vanishing into the sea. The ‘abandoned’ beast had in fact been one of the crodh mara. In both these accounts the cow’s comprehension and its ability to vanish clearly set it aside from normal members of a herd. Unlike many of the gwartheg y llyn in the Welsh stories, these cattle are not called away by their fairy owners- rather they leave of their own accord.
‘The Wild Calf’
A very attractive story, related to the preceding ones, concerns the ‘Wild Calf’ of the Highlands. This was an invisible cow that would visit farms at night. If the farmer went out to his byre in darkness and embraced the supernatural calf, he would gain great good fortune in cattle keeping: he’d become a very successful cattle breeder, he would always have healthy and productive herds and he would become very rich. However, one farmer was visited by the Calf sometime during the mid-nineteenth century and was too scared of the dark to go out to his byre without a candle. Because he took the light, he breached that fairy condition of secrecy that attached to the rewards he would have received. The Calf vanished- and was never seen again.
As we know, the fairies aren’t just great lovers of milk and cream; they are very active beef and dairy farmers. I also discuss fairy livestock in chapter 5 of my recently published book, Faery. My next book, Beyond Faery, published in November 2020 by Llewellyn, specifically examines the magical water bulls and horses of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man.
For more on the faeries’ interactions with animals , livestock and nature more generally, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):