“Neither a lender nor a borrower be”- transactions with the fairies

Cloke baskets

Despite the apparent strength of the fairy economy, with its markets, agriculture and manufacture, as well as an apparent abundance of money, the Good Folk are still often portrayed in folklore accounts as dependent for many basic items of food or equipment upon their human neighbours. Shortages of provisions may reflect fluctuations in the availability of homegrown produce, but the seeming lack of basic utensils is more puzzling.  It is a regular feature of traditional accounts for fairies to approach humans to request the temporary load of an implement or of a small quantity of some foodstuff.

Loans to the faes

Part of the purposes of loans may be to establish a relationship of reciprocity between the two parties, which may then lead to other requests.  In one case, for instance, a very grand ‘fairy queen’ dressed in green came begging for oatmeal, something she repaid with the very best quality meal at the promised time.  It seems, though, that this may have been a preliminary to asking to use the lender’s water mill for grinding the fairy corn.  Something similar happened to a cottager living at Airlie in Angus-shire.  She was visited by a mysterious old woman asking to borrow salt one day, although the cottage stood alone with no neighbouring homes in sight.  The little woman regularly visited after that, borrowing and lending a variety of small articles and then disappearing behind a tree outside.  Eventually, the housewife was outside the cottage one day pouring away the household waste when the sith woman appeared again- but this time to ask her to tip her water elsewhere as it presently was running into the hollow by the tree where she lived. A very similar story was told on the Isle of Man, in which the relationship and obligations established through a loan of meal- and its repayment with an inexhaustible supply of meal wrapped in a cloth- culminated in a request that the farmer change around the way his cows were stabled in the byre, putting their troughs where their tails had been and so preventing their waste running down into the fairies’ home beneath.

As just seen in the Airlie case, a regular feature of these experiences is the sudden and unexplained appearance of the fairy borrower.  This reflects the invisible or hidden nature of most fairy homes.  The fae might suddenly vanish into the air or disappear into an unlikely location, such as down a hole or into a lake.

Why loan to the faes?

Whatever their reasons, fairies will frequently enter human homes seeking a loan.  Amongst the items borrowed have been salt, griddles, kettles, flour and oatmeal. Besides pure good neighbourliness, why should humans comply?  There are several very sound reasons.

Firstly, there is pure self-interest, in that not only are these loans returned, but they are always repaid, often several-fold.  As with all fairy gifts, these should never be rejected nor looked at askance.  A Kirkcudbrightshire family lent oatmeal to a fairy and received meal back in due course.  Everyone in the household was happy to eat this fairy food, except for one boy who worked as a farmhand- and he died shortly afterwards.  This case suggests that much of the lending to fairies is undertaken not out of a spirit of generosity, but in fear of the consequences of refusing a loan.


John Bauer, A troll (tomte), 1909

The recompense may be especially great if the person who lends is themselves deprived or inconvenienced in some way.  A faery woman visited a Highland home and asked for a cup of flour.  Even though supplies were low, as it was nearly time for the new harvest, the housewife gave her visitor what she asked for- and in return was granted a never-ending supply of meal.  The person who refuses to lend, particularly where they are very capable of helping, will end up with nothing.

Another motive, undoubtedly, is what the result of refusal may be.  A woman in Sutherland was visited by a fairy woman asking for the loan of a ‘lippie’ of meal (a lippie is a measure of dry goods like grain, and is one quarter of a peck).  Just as the housewife was about to hand some over, they both noticed that the corn drying kiln on the nearby hillside was ablaze.  The sith woman then told her the loan was no longer necessary, for she would soon have plenty (because what was destroyed would come to her.  Whether or not the fire was deliberately started by the sith folk is not clear).

Charms when loaning

In poor agricultural communities where food is in short supply and assets are limited, there may be understandable reluctance to part with goods, even for a short time.  One resolution to this was tried by a woman on Sanntraigh.  She had a very useful kettle (cooking pot) and a sith woman used to visit regularly to borrow it.  She wouldn’t speak, but would simply walk in and take the item.  The housewife, in response, would say:

“A smith is able to make/ Cold iron hot with coal./ The due of a kettle is bones,/ And to bring it back again whole.”

The sith woman would always return the kettle the next day, full of flesh and bones.  This arrangement continued happily for a long time, until one day the wife had to go away for a day and left her husband at home.  He was told what to say when the fairy visitor arrived, but in the event, he panicked and locked the door against her.  The sith woman had the pot anyway, making it fly out of the smoke hole in the roof.

After she returned home and found out what her husband had down, the wife was not pleased and she wanted her property back.  Angrily she went to the nearby knoll to recover her cooking pot.  The door was open and she walked in and picked it up, full of the remains of the faes’ last meal.  They set the dogs on her though, and whilst she managed to get home uninjured, she had to tip out all the contents along the way to distract the hounds.  The sith woman never came borrowing after that day and the family lost its supply of free meat.

The risks of faery loans

The fairies can be peremptory and intrusive, nonetheless, simply walking into houses unannounced and uninvited and helping themselves.  In one Scottish story a housewife was troubled by faery women suddenly appearing at her cottage asking to borrow items or, unbidden, undertaking household tasks for her, such as spinning wool into thread.  This became very tiresome and, on advice from a local wise man, the decision was made to demolish the house and rebuild it elsewhere.

Removing yourself from the faes is probably the best course of action: in one Welsh case a woman lost her temper with faes who kept coming to her house to borrow kitchen implements.  She demanded that they grant her two wishes in return for the item they wanted.  They agreed  and she asked that, when she awoke, the first item she touched would break (she wanted to get rid of a projecting stone in her wall) and the second would lengthen (she wanted to extend a roll of cloth she had). The faeries gave her exactly what she’d asked for- but the wishes didn’t come true as the woman had planned: the next morning the first thing she touched was her ankle, the second her nose.

Loans from the faes

Loans in the other direction are very rare indeed.  In the Airlie case mentioned earlier, a familiar pattern of mutual loans seems to have developed.  The only instance in which fairies habitually lent to humans was that of the Frensham cauldron, described by John Aubrey.  This unusually large pot could be borrowed by anyone in need, simply by going to the right spot and asking, at the same time specifying why it was needed and when it would be handed back.  Ultimately a borrower failed to restore it on the appointed day and the fairies refused to take it back.


The faery economy is far more complex and nuanced than we might at first suppose.  They have a full range of productive and commercial institutions, but there seem to be items that they cannot make, or choose not to make.  The latter explanation seems more likely; they live amongst human kind and, whether for neighbourly reasons or because they wish to have a measure of influence over us, they elect to create relationships of obligation and reciprocity between us.  We are then bound into their society then and subjected to their rules- which is just what they want.  There’s no need to wield magic to have control over the humans…

See too my detailed discussion of this subject in my 2021 book How Things Work in Faery.

Lewis Carroll on pixies

pixie brian froud

One of Brian Froud’s bad fairies.

In this post I feature a paragraph of juvenilia from the family journal ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ which was ‘published’ by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and his brothers and sisters between 1850 and 1853 to entertain themselves and their parents.  The piece is of interest as an early work of fantasy by the future author of the Alice stories as well as being an example of Victorian ideas on pixies.

The text appears under the sub-title: ‘Zoological papers‘ and makes fun of the learned scientific, academic style (with footnotes).

Zoological papers: Pixies

“The origin of this curious race of creatures is not at present known: the best description we can collect of them is this, that they are a species of fairies about two feet high (1), of small and graceful figure; they are covered in a dark reddish kind of fur; the general expression of their faces is sweetness and good humour; the former quality is probably the reason why foxes are so fond of eating them. From Coleridge we learn the following additional facts; that they have ‘filmy pinions’ something like dragon flies’ wings, that they ‘sip the furze-flower’s fragrant dew’ (that, however, could only be for breakfast, as it would dry up before dinner-time), and that they are wont to ‘flash their faery feet in gamesome prank,’ or, in more common language, ‘to dance the polka (2) like winking.’

From an old English legend (3) which, as it is familiar with our readers, we need not here repeat, we learn that they have a strong affection for raw turnips, decidedly a more vulgar sort of food than ‘fragrant dew’; and from their using churns and kettles we conjecture that they are not unacquainted with tea, milk, butter &c. They are tolerably good architects, though their houses must unavoidably have something the appearance of large dog kennels, and they go to market occasionally, though from what source they get the money for this purpose has hitherto remained an unexplained mystery. This is all the information we have been able to collect on this interesting subject.

(1) So they are described by the inhabitants of Devonshire, who occasionally see them.

(2) Or any other step.

(3) A tradition, introduced into notice by the Editor.”

Now, it seems very likely that Carroll must have been reading Mrs Bray.  Her book, The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy , was published in 1836 and describes, in a series of letters to the poet Robert Southey, the traditions, legends and superstitions that surround the North Dartmoor town of Tavistock.  This is the most likely source for most of Carroll’s information: Mrs Bray’s children’s book, A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West, didn’t appear until 1854.

His fairy lore is on the whole, sound (excepting, I think, the turnips… as he confesses himself)  We do know that there was longstanding animosity between the Dartmoor foxes and pixies, which led to an ever-increasing effort by the latter to protect themselves.  The foxes hunted the pixies, digging them out of their underground homes and devouring them.  The pixies  responded by making iron shelters- which may, indeed, as Carroll suggests, look like dog kennels (R. King, ‘Folklore of Devonshire,’ Fraser’s Magazine, vol.8, 1873, p.781).

We know very well the fairies’ partiality for dairy products such as butter and milk, and it had long been a poetic conceit that tiny rural beings would drink dew and nectar from flowers.  We are also very familiar with their love of dance.  The use of kettles and the like is quite conventional: one common set of stories involves fairies seeking human aid to mend some basic item of domestic equipment- a stool or a ‘ped’ used to remove loaves from ovens; they made their own butter as well as stealing ours and would have needed a fully equipped kitchen for these tasks.  Tales of fairies at markets are also well-known, although their habit is often to thieve from the stalls rather than to buy.  In the frequent accounts of midwives who have cared for a fairy baby and, in the process, touched an eye with fairy ointment, the women are exposed when they spy a fairy at the market, whether buying or shoplifting.  Fairies often had gold, it is true, whether to purchase goods or to make gifts to chosen favourites.  Many writers have speculated about its source: was this money merely leaves and pebbles disguised by glamour (as was not unknown) or was it real currency, perhaps discovered by the fays underground?  Fairies were said to have abilities to help humans locate buried treasure, certainly, and access to ancient hoards might explain the unusual coins that often made up their payments.

Carroll’s pixies coincide very much with tradition, then, and even his jokey invention of their foxy fur coats is not entirely unheard of, as we know from more recent fairy sightings.  Nevertheless, the winged pixy is something of a surprise (though see Brian Froud’s image below) as is the description of them as always jolly.  As readers will know, they have a great tendency to mischief- hence the term ‘pixy-led.’


Another Froud pixie

Further reading

Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are classics and well worth reading if you’ve not already, albeit not fairy stories in any conventional sense.  I have also enjoyed reading Sean Conroy’s recent book, Alice in the Underground: Lewis Carroll and Alice in Modern Culturea book which examines many of the debated questions of Carroll’s life and work.  My own British Pixies (2021) looks at all aspects of the folklore of the pixies of South West England.