Fairies and Salt

Medieval wall-painting of demons interfering with butter churning

It’s quite well-known that, amongst the varied substances to which fairies object, everyday, ordinary salt is one of the most repellent for them. I wish here to examine the details of this and to try to understand what the objection may be.

An immediate observation must be that not all faery beings have the same difficulty. It probably need not be pointed out that merfolk, living in the ocean, have no such aversion- and the same applies to the Scottish water horse (the each uisge) and the Manx tarroo-ushtey or water bull, both of which tolerate both fresh and salt water. For land dwelling fairies, however, salinity can be abhorrent, meaning that they cannot enter or cross the sea (just as a flowing stream can be a barrier). Perhaps for the same reason, in the Scottish islands the area below high tide line, which is washed regularly by the sea, is seen as being safe from fairy intrusion.

The fairies’ loathing of salt can work in two related ways. It can be used as a deliberate defence against them, or it can unwittingly prevent them handling human goods.

Amongst the means used by midwives and neighbours to protect mothers in labour was sprinkling salt around the house and, after the baby was safely delivered, it could be guarded against abduction by putting salt in the newborn’s mouth. Related to this, there were several ways of expelling a changeling.  In Wales, one means of driving off a changeling was to place salt on a shovel, make the sign of a cross in it and then to heat it over the fire.

One of James Brown’s Household Fairies, with salt sellar…

Quite a lot of the best evidence on the protection of property comes from the Isle of Man. There, for example, it used to be said that salt thrown into- or at least placed underneath- a milk churn would avoid any interference by the fairies with the butter making process (salt was also placed beneath querns on the island). Compare to this the Cumberland belief that you should sprinkle salt on the fire whilst churning milk to prevent the fairies interfering.

Likewise, the Manx belief is that, if you’re carrying milk in a pail, you should add a small pinch of salt to it, which will ensure that the fairies don’t steal or spoil the contents during the journey. A very curious example of this situation was reported around 1882-85. A Manx woman had killed and butchered one of her calves and decided to send her son with a cut of the meat as a gift to a poor neighbour. In her hurry, however, the mother forgot to protect the joint by sprinkling salt on it. As the boy walked over to the friend’s house, the local fairies realised that the meat was vulnerable and they followed the youth- licking him until he was sore over his entire body. When he got home, his mother had to wash him all over in salt in order to dispel the fairies’ magic. It’s a little hard to explain exactly what happened here: perhaps in licking the ‘goodness’ out of the meat the fairies also touched the boy’s bare arms, legs and face, thereby subjecting him to their power with their spit…

An account from Cornwall tells of a cow that was favoured by the fairies for its milk.  When the milkmaid at Bosfrancan farm near St Buryan realised what was happening, she sought advice from a local cunning woman who advised the maid to rub the cow’s udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving, as the pobel vean (the little folk) couldn’t abide the smell or taste of fish or salt.

These protections may prove a double edged sword, however, as frustrating the fairies’ will can rebound against you. A Cumbrian farmer had left a churn of milk outside his cottage overnight to keep it cool.  Next morning a little of the milk was missing and he guessed the fairies had filched some.  Annoyed, he fetched some of the salt he kept in his cottage to ward off evil spirits and threw it into the churn.  When the fairies sampled the milk the next night they were outraged by his response and retaliated by spitting it out all over his smallholding.  Wherever they sprayed the salty milk, the grass died and would not regrow.

As I have mentioned previously, fairies love human loaves, but they are wary of our seasoning. A Manx woman was walking on the road when she heard music and followed the sound. She came upon the source, a group of fairies (whom she could hear but not see), who asked her what she was carrying in her pannier. She had bread with her and offered to share it with them, placing part of the oat cake on a nearby hedge. As the bread was made without salt, they accepted it and, in return for her generosity, promised her that she would never be without bread thereafter.

There are, however, a few accounts which contradict this fairly consistent evidence. The residents of a farm at Gorsey Bank, in Shropshire, suffered constant disturbance from two boggarts that lived there.  Worn down by this, the farmer decided to move to escape them.  This was done, but the family were dismayed to find that the boggarts followed them, bringing a salt box that had been left behind. On the Scottish Borders, people would offer salt to the water sprite of the River Tweed to ensure a good catch of fish each year.  Finally, in Gerald of Wales’ account of the fairy abductee Elidyr, amongst the faery vocabulary that the youth was able to recall years after his experience was the phrase Halgein ydorum, ‘bring salt.’ Contact is not always anathema therefore.

oh dear…

Finally, a report from Airlie, near Dundee in Scotland, tells of a shepherd’s family that moved into a new cottage. One day, despite there being no other houses anywhere nearby, a small woman appeared at the door asking to borrow a little salt. She returned an equivalent amount of salt the following day and, as she left, the shepherd’s wife watched her. The mysterious woman disappeared behind a tree and the family assumed she was a fairy. After a pattern of regular borrowing and returning items had developed, the supposition was confirmed when, one day, the old woman asked the wife to stop pouring away her waste water near the tree, as it ran down into the old woman’s house. The story is interesting for the details of the subterranean home, but the fairy woman’s willingness to handle salt is the notable aspect for our purposes here.

Katharine Briggs, in her Dictionary of Fairies, argues that salt is disliked by our Good Neighbours because it is a “universal symbol of preservation, eternity and of goodwill.” In alchemy, it can represent the earthly human body, thus perhaps opposing it to the fairies’ ‘astral’ forms, but I suspect the real derivation of our ideas about salt is from Graeco-Roman culture, in which salt was placed on the lips of neonates to ward off evil spirits. This seems to have been inherited by the Christian church in giving salt to a child before baptism and this ancient power of protection thereby passed into British folk traditions.

Fairies and fertility

Cherry Blossom Fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

In East Anglia the local fairies are variously called the Yarthkins, the Tiddy Ones, the Strangers or the Greencoaties.  As the first name plainly shows, they are rooted in the local soil: ‘yarthkin’ derives from ‘earthkin’ and denotes a small spirit born from the land.  According to one witness interviewed by Victorian folklorist Mrs Balfour in the fens, the diminutive beings are so-called because “tha doolt i’ th’ mools” (‘they dwelt in the soft earth or mould’).  These ‘Strangers’ act as fertility spirits, helping the growth and ripening of plant life.  According to Mrs Balfour’s late nineteenth century account, in the spring they pinch the tree and flower buds to make them open and tug worms out of the earth; they help flowers bloom and green things grow and then, at harvest time, they make corn and fruits ripen.  Without their attention, the plants would shrivel, harvests would fail and people would go hungry.  In recognition of this, the Strangers receive tribute or offerings from the local people- the first share of any flowers, fruits or vegetables and the first taste of any meal or drink.  If neglected, these beings may be vindictive, affecting yields, making livestock sick and even causing children to pine away.  (see Folklore vol.2 1891)

In this posting I shall examine the fairies’ connection to plant growth and our reliance upon them for good harvests.  One theory about their origins popular with folklorists is that our modern fairies represent the minor fertility gods of Roman times and earlier (see for example Lewis Spence, British Fairy Origins).  Certainly, as the Yarthkins show, they can play a key role in fertility.

Examining the British records, you soon discover that there are plentiful indications that the fairies are intricately associated with the weather and plant growth and with the fertility of not just farm livestock but of people too.  They are, in general therefore, symbols of natural life in all its forms.

Midsummer Night’s Dream

The intimate links between the balance within Faery and the health of the human world is brought out in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Early in the play, Titania describes how her quarrel with Oberon has disrupted the natural world:

“Therefore, the winds, piping to us in vain,

As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea

Contagious fogs; which falling in the land

Have every pelting river made so proud

That they have overborne their continents:

The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,

The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn

Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;

The fold stands empty in the drowned field,

And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;

The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,

And the quaint mazes in the wanton green

For lack of tread are undistinguishable:

The human mortals want their winter here;

No night is now with hymn or carol blest:

Therefore, the moon, the governess of floods,

Pale in her anger, washes all the air,

That rheumatic diseases do abound:

And thorough this distemperature we see

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts

Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,

And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown

An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds

Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which:

And this same progeny of evils comes

From our debate, from our dissension;

We are their parents and original.” (Act II scene 1)

Summarising all of this in one phrase, Titania later tells Bottom that: “”I am a spirit of no common rate:/ The summer still doth tend upon my state.” (Act III, scene 1)

These lines provide vivid descriptions of the woes that can befall Nature if the fairies do not lend their guiding hand and support.  We know, too, from other sources, of their powers to control the weather, whether this relates to mermaids, pixies or Scottish hags.  Most often in folklore accounts we find these powers wielded to punish or harm humans who have in some way offended or violated fairy kind (as in pixies bringing down fogs to mislead travellers), but it must follow that they are able to influence the seasons and the sprouting and ripening of crops (see my Faery).

The fairies’ relationship to human fertility is apparent from the very last scene of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The weddings of Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander have taken place and the newly married couples have gone to their beds.  At this point the fairies enter the palace and Oberon instructs them:

“Now, until the break of day,

Through this house each fairy stray.

To the best bride-bed will we,

Which by us shall blessed be;

And the issue there create

Ever shall be fortunate.

So shall all the couples three

Ever true in loving be;

And the blots of Nature’s hand

Shall not in their issue stand;

Never mole, hare lip, nor scar,

Nor mark prodigious, such as are

Despised in nativity,

Shall upon their children be…” (Act V, scene 2)

The fairies promise the new human families many healthy children, a scene that reminds us of the broader role played by the fays in human childbirth.  The traditional functions of fairy queen Mab, for example, included acting as a midwife and also as a domestic goddess, especially in the dairy (see my Fayerie).

Folklore Accounts

It seems clear that earlier generations understood that the fairies controlled the natural world and that, as a result, they could bring either prosperity or ruin to communities.  Given this power, their propitiation was fundamental to life and health.  We see instances of this from all around the British Isles.

In one case, a Dartmoor sheep farmer’s flock was plagued by disease.  He concluded that the only way of saving his stock and his livelihood was to go to the top of a tor and there to sacrifice a sheep to the pixies- a move which promptly alleviated the problem.

At Halloween, on the Hebridean island of Lewis, the population would attend a church ceremony that included pouring ale into the sea in the hope that the sprite called ‘Shony’ (Seonaidh) would guarantee a good supply of seaweed in the year ahead; so too on the remote isle of St Kilda, where shells, pebbles, rags, pins, nails and coins were thrown in the sea.  Seaweed may not seem very important to most of us today, but it was a vital fertiliser and source of winter fodder for cattle, so a plentiful supply of ‘sea ware’ on the beaches was essential to survival.  This is nicely demonstrated by the story of a ghillie of the MacDonald clan on the Isle of Skye who saw a bean nighe (a type of banshee) washing a shroud at Benbecula.  He crept up behind her and seized her, thereby entitling himself to three wishes.  That, of all the things he chose, was a guarantee that the loch near his home would be full of seaweed indicates the significance of humble kelp to the economy.

Other Scottish examples of the influence of the supernatural over the health and fertility of livestock are to be found in the widespread habit of offering milk to glaistigs, urisks and gruagachs.  As I have described before, these brownie-like creatures have a direct influence upon the well-being of farm animals and cheating or neglecting them could only lead to ruin (this will be dealt with in greater detail in my forthcoming book Beyond Faery).

Something similar is seen in England, too, in respect of fruit and nut trees.  As I have examined before in a separate post, orchards are haunted by sprites whose role is to bring life to the trees and to protect the crop from thefts.  These faeries go by various names, Owd Goggy, Lazy Lawrence, Jack up the Orchard, the grig and the apple tree man.  At harvest time a few apples should always be left behind for them- an offering called the ‘pixy-word’ (or hoard)- and, if this is offering is made, the faeries will bless the crop.  See too my recent book Faery.

Modern Encounters

It is common nowadays to speak of fairies as ‘nature spirits.’  This isn’t quite the same thing as controllers of fertility, necessarily, as the latter function is less restrictive and allows scope for the fae to get up to other things too.

All the same, a couple of twentieth century reports suggest the sorts of things we may encounter them doing.  In 1973 ‘Circumlibra’ wrote to the Ley Hunter to describe a meeting with a gnome near Alderwasley in Derbyshire.  They met on a small mound and conversed telepathically and the human learned from the gnome that “his work was in breaking down decaying materials into food for plants.”  Interestingly, this being regarded himself as another human and not as any sort of ‘elemental.’   Secondly, Scot Ogilvie Crombie met a fawn-like creature in Edinburgh in 1966 who said that he ‘helped the trees to grow’ (see Janet Bord, Fairies, 72). In both these cases, as we can see, the fairies are actively tending and feeding plant life.

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

Fairy Herds- winning and losing good luck

flossie

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.

Elf Bulls

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.

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The Manx taroo ushtey, from Bamart

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.

Summary

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, FaeryMy 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):

The Perils of Fairy Food

iro- f banquet
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Fairy foodstuffs are mysterious.  Eating or drinking within fairyland is widely accepted to be a way of ensuring that you cannot escape back to your home: you take fairy nature within yourself- and therefore you must abstain from meals whilst visiting.  Sometimes, a wise friend might warn a person of the risks before they go- as was the case with a Ross-shire midwife called to a delivery in the knoll at Big Strath; sometimes the help comes from someone already there in Faerie.  In the Hertfordshire fairy-tale of the Green Lady, a girl working as a servant for the green (fairy) woman is warned by fish in a well where she draws water not to eat the household’s food.

What is odd, though, is that the converse of this rule is that, if you encounter fairy food and drink in the human world, refusing to eat it is the perilous thing.

Image result for margaret tarrant + strawberry jam thief
Margaret Tarrant, ‘Strawberry Jam Thief’

Always say yes

There are numerous examples of the potentially fatal consequences of not accepting fairy hospitality in this world.  The ill-effects may, indeed, be more to do with the offence taken by not eating what you’re offered rather than any quality inherent in the goods themselves.  The mildest response may be that the fairies exact an indirect revenge. On the Isle of Arran two men were ploughing up some fresh land and one joked that the fairies should feed them in recognition of their hard labour.  They duly found a table laid at the head of the field, but neither dared eat what had been provided, because of which the field never produced any crops.

A person may suffer physically, though.  The least may be physical chastisement: in one story from Devon a ploughman mended a fairy’s broken baking peel; cider was left in thanks, which the man happily drank.  His plough boy refused it- and was pinched mercilessly.

In comparison, in one Scottish account a ploughman felt thirsty and, hearing a butter churn, wished out loud for a drink from it.  A woman in green appeared and offered him some fresh buttermilk.  He refused this because her clothing made him suspect her supernatural nature.  She told him that, after a year had passed, he’d not be needing a drink at all and, sure enough, within twelve months he was dead.  A similar fate befell a man from the Isle of Man who refused to eat some oatmeal porridge offered by the fairies.

There is also a variant of the Scottish story involving two men working near a fairy knoll: one refuses the butter milk and dies within the year; the other drinks it gladly and is further rewarded with a wish- which was never to drown.  In a third such incident a man from the Isle of Harris passed a fairy knoll at Bearnairidh and heard churning.  He was thirsty and wished for a drink, but when a woman in green appeared and offered him fresh milk, he refused it.  She cursed him and, very shortly afterwards, he took a boat but drowned when it sank.

Intriguingly, it seems that the outright refusal to accept the offered food is what offends, rather than the details of the manner its consumption.  There is a record of an elderly Scottish woman called Nanzy who had long had friendly dealings with her local fairies.  She often met them when she was out and about and they gave her presents, such as rolls of fairy butter.  Now, she was too respectable a Christian woman to actually eat this, good as it looked, so she instead used for other household purposes.  These aren’t specified in the account, but must have included greasing pans and such like.  Given that there are stories of horses dying for refusing to touch fairy food, the indication is that even accepting a foodstuff from the faes and then feeding it to your pigs would not insult them.

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Outhwaite, ‘Refreshment’

Feast or foul?

What’s the food like, though?  Accounts vary.  A man from Dornoch in Sutherland was taken by the fairies and flew with them.  After this ordeal, they gave him beef, bread and fish to eat, but he complained afterwards that it was like “so much cork.”

This report is confirmed, amply, by others: a Perthshire woman who was abducted by the fairies said that the food she was offered looked very tempting, but that when she saw through the glamour, it was “only the refuse of the earth.”  Another Scottish abductee said grace over such a meal and then realised that it was nothing but horse dung.

In the majority of accounts, we’re told nothing about the meal itself, and have to assume that it was exactly like any human repast.  At the other end of the scale, one Scottish writer states that fairy bread tastes like the finest wheaten loaf mixed with honey and wine.

A final account fits better with this last report than those that allege that fairy food is nothing but inedible rubbish.  Two Shetland fishermen were caught by a storm and had to land their boat on the uninhabited island of Linga.  After a few days, conditions improved and one of them men took the boat, deserting his companion Thom.  However, that night Thom found a trow banquet taking place in the hut where he was sheltering.  The trows tried to chase him off but he resisted and fired his gun, causing the supernatural assembly to vanish, but leaving behind all their food.  He was able to survive extremely well on this for many days until his girlfriend sailed to find him.  She had been suspicious when the companion, Willie, returned alone and had tried to marry her, so she carried out a search.

piccolo

Summary

What’s the best advice to stay safe, then?  It seems to be this: if you’re here in this dimension and encounter a fairy, you can (and probably should) consume whatever you’re offered without any qualms.  If you have entered their dimension, it seems that any food present there will have been transformed too and ingesting it will be very risky.  Of course, navigating refusal diplomatically when you’re in someone else’s home is another matter again…

‘Cherry of Zennor’- a fairy adventure considered

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The cliffs near Trereen: Gurnard’s Head with Trereen Dinas promontory fort.

Like the ‘Fairy House on Selena Moor,’ this Cornish tale is taken from Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1st series, p. 118 et seq.  It’s another lengthy story with many fascinating fairy facets.

“Old Honey lived with his wife and family in a little hut of two rooms and a ‘talfat,’ (sleeping platform) on the cliff side of Trereen in Zennor. The old couple had half a score of children, who were all reared in this place. They lived as they best could on the produce of a few acres of ground, which were too poor to keep even a goat in good heart. The heaps of crogans (limpet shells) about the hut led one to believe that their chief food was limpets and gweans (periwinkles). They had, however, fish and potatoes most days, and pork and broth now and then of a Sunday. At Christmas and the Feast they had white bread. There was not a healthier nor a handsomer family in the parish than Old Honey’s. We are, however, only concerned with one of them, his daughter Cherry. Cherry could run as fast as a hare, and was ever full of frolic and mischief…

[The Penwith peninsula generally is rich with fairylore, and Zennor parish seems to be a hot spot, what with this story, the mermaid of Zennor and the captured pixie SkillywiddenThe area is also endowed with numerous megalithic sites, adding an even greater aura of ancient mystery to the landscape.]

Soon after Cherry got into her teens she became very discontented, because year after year her mother had been promising her a new frock… Cherry was sixteen. One of her playmates had a new dress smartly trimmed with ribbons, and she told Cherry how she had been to Nancledra to the preaching, and how she had ever so many sweethearts who brought her home. This put the volatile Cherry in a fever of desire. She declared to her mother she would go off to the “low countries”  (beyond Towednack) to seek for service, that she might get some clothes like other girls.

[Nancledra village is on the main road south to Penzance on Mount’s Bay, about halfway between north and south coasts. Towednack is smaller and nearer to Zennor.]

Her mother wished her to go to Towednack that she might have the chance of seeing her now and then of a Sunday.  “No, no!” said Cherry, “I’ll never go to live in the parish where the cow ate the bell-rope, and where they have fish and taties (potatoes) every day, and conger-pie of a Sunday, for a change.”

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The Highlands and Lowlands of Towednack parish

One fine morning Cherry tied up a few things in a bundle and prepared to start. She promised her father that she would get service as near home as she could, and come home at the earliest opportunity. The old man said she was bewitched, charged her to take care she wasn’t carried away by either the sailors or pirates, and allowed her to depart. Cherry took the road leading (south) to Ludgvan and Gulval. When she lost sight of the chimneys of Trereen (just north of Nancledra), she got out of heart and had a great mind to go home again. But she went on.

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Barrow on Lady Downs

At length she came to the “four cross roads” on the Lady Downs, sat herself down on a stone by the road-side, and cried to think of her home, which she might never see again.  Her crying at last came to an end, and she resolved to go home and make the best of it.  When she dried her eyes and held up her head she was surprised to see a gentleman coming towards her- for she couldn’t think where he came from; no one was to be seen on the Downs a few minutes before.  The gentleman wished her “morning,” enquired which was the road to Towednack, and asked Cherry where she was going.

[In another published version of the story, our young heroine at this point idly picks and crushes some fern fronds, the effect of which sees to be to conjure up the faery gentleman . The same book (Frances Olcott, The Book of Elves and Fairies, 1918) includes the poem Mabel on Midsummer Day by Mary Howitt, in which a girl is sent on an errand is warned that it’s a dangerous time of year and she must take care not to offend the Good Folk and neither “pluck the strawberry flower/ Nor break the lady-fern.” ]

“Cherry told the gentleman that she had left home that morning to look for service, but that her heart had failed her, and she was going back over the hills to Zennor again.  “I never expected to meet with such luck as this,” said the gentleman. “I left home this morning to seek for a nice clean girl to keep house for me, and here you are.”

He then told Cherry that he had been recently left a widower, and that he had one dear little boy, of whom Cherry might have charge. Cherry was the very girl that would suit him. She was handsome and cleanly. He could see that her clothes were so mended that the first piece could not be discovered; yet she was as sweet as a rose, and all the water in the sea could not make her cleaner. Poor Cherry said “Yes, sir,” to everything, yet she did not understand one quarter part of what the gentleman said. Her mother had instructed her to say “Yes, sir,” to the parson, or any gentleman, when, like herself, she did not understand them. The gentleman told her he lived but a short way off, down in the low countries; that she would have very little to do but milk the cow and look after the baby; so Cherry consented to go with him.

Away they went; he talking so kindly that Cherry had no notion how time was moving, and she quite forgot the distance she had walked.  At length they were in lanes, so shaded with trees that a checker of sunshine scarcely gleamed on the road. As far as she could see, all was trees and flowers. Sweet briars and honeysuckles perfumed the air, and the reddest of ripe apples hung from the trees over the lane.

Then they came to a stream of water as clear as crystal, which ran across the lane. It was, however, very dark, and Cherry paused to see how she should cross the river. The gentleman put his arm around her waist and carried her over, so that she did not wet her feet.

The lane was getting darker and darker, and narrower and narrower, and they seemed to be going rapidly down hill. Cherry took firm hold of the gentleman’s arm, and thought, as he had been so kind to her, she could go with him to the world’s end.  After walking a little further, the gentleman opened a gate which led into a beautiful garden, and said: “Cherry, my dear, this is the place we live in.”

[This whole journey is highly suggestive of a passage into a faery underworld.  Time seems to stretch, and, although Cornish lanes can be shady between their high stone hedges, this progress downhill and over a stream strongly indicates that the pair are crossing some sort of boundary into another world.  The fecundity of the countryside, in contrast to the bare moors off central Penwith, may be another indicator of this.]

“Cherry could scarcely believe her eyes. She had never seen anything approaching this place for beauty. Flowers of every dye were around her; fruits of all kinds hung above her; and the birds, sweeter of song than any she had ever heard, burst out into a chorus of rejoicing. She had heard granny tell of enchanted places. Could this be one of them? No. The gentleman was as big as the parson; and now a little boy came running down the garden walk shouting: “Papa, papa.”

The child appeared, from his size, to be about two or three years of age; but there was a singular look of age about him. His eyes were brilliant and piercing, and he had a crafty expression. As Cherry said, “He could look anybody down.”  Before Cherry could speak to the child, a very old dry-boned, ugly-looking woman made her appearance, and seizing the child by the arm, dragged him into the house, mumbling and scolding. Before, however, she was lost sight of, the old hag cast one look at Cherry, which shot through her heart “like a gimblet.”

[The man can’t be a fairy because he is human sized, Cherry reasons- he is not one of the ‘pobel vean.’  Nevertheless, the unusual nature of faery eyes is often remarked upon and may be a sure indicator of faery nature.]

“Seeing Cherry somewhat disconcerted, the master explained that the old woman was his late wife’s grandmother: that she would remain with them until Cherry knew her work, and no longer, for she was old and ill-tempered, and must go. At length, having feasted her eyes on the garden, Cherry was taken into the house, and this was yet more beautiful. Flowers of every kind grew everywhere, and the sun seemed to shine everywhere, and yet she did not see the sun.

[Light, without any discernible source for it, is another definitive trait of faery.  Gardens, have, of course, a strong fairy association.]

“Aunt Prudence- so was the old woman named- spread a table in a moment with a great variety of nice things, and Cherry made a hearty supper. She was how directed to go to bed, in a chamber at the top of the house, in which the child was to sleep also. Prudence directed Cherry to keep her eyes closed, whether she could sleep or not, as she might, perchance, see things which she would not like. She was not to speak to the child all night. She was to rise at break of day; then take the boy to a spring in the garden, wash him, and anoint his eyes with an ointment, which she would find in a crystal box in a cleft of the rock, but she was not on any account to touch her own eyes with it. Then Cherry was to call the cow; and having taken a bucket full of milk, to draw a bowl of the last milk for the boy’s breakfast. Cherry was dying with curiosity. She several times began to question the child, but he always stopped her with: “I’ll tell Aunt Prudence.” According to her orders, Cherry was up in the morning early. The little boy conducted the girl to the spring, which flowed in crystal purity from a granite rock, which was covered with ivy and beautiful mosses. The child was duly washed, and his eyes duly anointed. Cherry saw no cow, but her little charge said she must call the cow.”

[The instruction to Cherry to keep her eyes and mouth shut, to anoint the child’s eyes with water from a magical spring and to guard against touching her own with the salve are all quintessential fairy elements.  Numerous stories of midwives visiting Faery involve this plot element.  Not asking questions is another part of the pact that respects and preserves fairy mystery.]

“Pruit! pruit! pruit!” called Cherry, just as she would call the cows at home; when, lo! a beautiful great cow came from amongst the trees, and stood on the bank beside her.  Cherry had no sooner placed her hands on the cow’s teats than four streams of milk flowed down and soon filled the bucket. The boy’s bowl was then filled, and he drank it. This being done, the cow quietly walked away, and Cherry returned to the house to be instructed in her daily work.”

[I’ve discussed before the fairy love of dairy products. This bountiful and vaguely magical beast may be stolen– they’d say borrowed- from a local farmer, or it may be raised by the faes alone.]

“The old woman, Prudence, gave Cherry a capital breakfast, and then informed her that she must keep to the kitchen, and attend to her work there- to scald the milk, make the butter, and clean all the platters and bowls with water and gard (gravel sand). Cherry was charged to avoid curiosity. She was not to go into any other part of the house; she was not to try and open any locked doors.”

[It’s worthwhile remarking how like to servitude is Cherry’s sojourn here.  Most mortals taken to Faery work there as prisoners and slaves.  Cherry’s terms of service may sound better, but her lot seems the same.]

“After her ordinary work was done on the second day, her master required Cherry to help him in the garden, to pick the apples and pears, and to weed the leeks and onions.  Glad was Cherry to get out of the old woman’s sight.  Aunt Prudence always sat with one eye on her knitting, and the other boring through poor Cherry. Now and then she’d grumble: ‘I knew Robin would bring down some fool from Zennor- better for both that she had tarried away.’  Cherry and her master got on famously, though, and whenever Cherry had finished weeding a bed, her master would give her a kiss to show her how pleased he was.”

[Of course, taking human females for sex was the other reason they might be abducted. It may be significant that the fairy man shares a name with Robin Goodfellow]

“After a few days, old Aunt Prudence took Cherry into those parts of the house which she had never seen. They passed through a long dark passage. Cherry was then made to take off her shoes; and they entered a room, the floor of which was like glass, and all round, perched on the shelves, and on the floor, were people, big and small, turned to stone. Of some, there were only the head and shoulders, the arms being cut off; others were perfect. Cherry told the old woman she “wouldn’t cum ony furder for the wurld.” She thought from the first she was got into a land of Small People (i.e. the fairies) underground, only master was like other men; but now she know’d she was with the conjurers, who had turned all these people to stone. She had heard talk on ’em up in Zennor, and she knew they might at any moment wake up and eat her.”

[This scene is highly reminiscent of Sir Orfeo’s visit to the fairy king’s castle in the poem of that name.  The possibility that this faeryland is in fact some sort of abode of the dead is made clear here. The uncertain distinction between fairies and ghosts is common in British folklore: the Cornish pixies are said to be the spirits of dead children and Northern boggarts are almost entirely ghost-like.  Interestingly, we now learn that Cherry is not as simple or as trusting as she might have seemed and has had her suspicions all along- that she is in fact with the small people- an pobel vean.]

“Old Prudence laughed at Cherry, and drove her on, insisted upon her rubbing up a box, “like a coffin on six legs,” until she could see her face in it. Well, Cherry did not want for courage, so she began to rub with a will; the old woman standing by, knitting all the time, calling out every now and then: “Rub! rub! rub! Harder and faster!” At length Cherry got desperate, and giving a violent rub at one of the corners, she nearly upset the box. When, O Lor! it gave out such a doleful, unearthly sound, that Cherry thought all the stone people were coming to life, and with her fright she fell down in a fit. The master heard all this noise, and came in to inquire into the cause of the hubbub. He was in great wrath, kicked old Prudence out of the house for taking Cherry into that shut-up room, carried Cherry into the kitchen, and soon, with some cordial, recovered her senses. Cherry could not remember what had happened; but she knew there was something fearful in the other part of the house. But Cherry was mistress now- old Aunt Prudence was gone. Her master was so kind and loving that a year passed by like a summer day. Occasionally her master left home for a season; then he would return and spend much time in the enchanted apartments, and Cherry was certain she had heard him talking to the stone people. Cherry had everything the human heart could desire; but she was not happy; she would know more of the place and the people. Cherry had discovered that the ointment made the little boy’s eyes bright and strange, and she thought often that he saw more than she did; she would try; yes, she would!”

[The passage of time in faery is notoriously different from that on earth.  As ever, too, curiosity is sure to break the spell, just as with Pandora.]

tren

The barrows on Trendrine Hill, Towednack parish.

“Well, next morning the child was washed, his eyes anointed, and the cow milked; she sent the boy to gather her some flowers in the garden, and taking a “crurn” of ointment, she put it into her eye. Oh, her eye would be burned out of her head if Cherry had not run to the pool beneath the rock to wash her burning eye; when lo! she saw at the bottom of the water hundreds of little people, mostly ladies, playing-and there was her master, as small as the others, playing with them. Everything now looked different about the place. Small people were everywhere, hiding in the flowers sparkling with diamonds, swinging in the trees, and running and leaping under and over the blades of grass. The master never showed himself above the water all day; but at night he rode up to the house like the handsome gentleman she had seen before. He went to the enchanted chamber, and Cherry soon heard the most beautiful music.”

[This kind gentleman is in fact a shape-shifting fairy.  The fairy music that Cherry hears is further confirmation of the supernatural nature of all around her.]

“In the morning her master was off, dressed as if to follow the hounds. He returned at night, left Cherry to herself, and proceeded at once to his private apartments. Thus it was day after day, until Cherry could stand it no longer. So she peeped through the key-hole, and saw her master with lots of ladies, singing; while one dressed like a queen was playing on the coffin. Oh, how madly jealous Cherry became when she saw her master kiss this lovely lady. However, the next day the master remained at home to gather fruit. Cherry was to help him, and when, as usual, he looked to kiss her, she slapped his face, and told him to kiss the Small People, like himself, with whom he played under the water.

So he found out that Cherry had used the ointment. With much sorrow, he told her she must go home, that he would have no spy on his actions, and that Aunt Prudence must come back. Long before day, Cherry was called by her master. He gave her lots of clothes and other things; took her bundle in one hand, and a lantern in the other, and bade her follow him. They went on for miles on miles, all the time going up-hill, through lanes, and narrow passages. When they came at last on level ground, it was near daybreak. He kissed Cherry, told her she was punished for her idle curiosity; but that he would, if she behaved well, come sometimes on the Lady Downs to see her. Saying this, he disappeared. The sun rose, and there was Cherry seated on a granite stone, without a soul within miles of her- a desolate moor having taken the place of a smiling garden. Long, long did Cherry sit in sorrow, but at last she thought she would go home.

[The story culminates in the ejection from Faery for breaking the fairy rules.  This was the fate of Elidyr, amongst others, and Cherry had to be thankful for she was not blinded in the eye she had surreptitiously touched with the ointment.  This is, almost always, the fate of disobedient midwives.]

“Her parents had supposed her dead, and when they saw her, they believed her to be her own ghost. Cherry told her story, which every one doubted, but Cherry never varied her tale, and at last every one believed it. They say Cherry was never afterwards right in her head, and on moonlight nights, until she died, she would wander on to the Lady Downs to look for her master.”

[We end as so many similar stories end (see for example that of Mr Noy and the House on Silena Moor): the visitor to Faery returns home, like one given up ages ago for dead, but can never settle again.  Cherry’s sojourn in Faery has left her ‘elf-addled,’ and she cannot feel happy with mortal things ever again.]

zennor

Zennor quoit, visited April 2019.

Further reading

Cornish folklore is replete with accounts of supernatural beings.  In other posts I have examined fairies dancing at a spring, Cornish changelings and abduction by the piskies.

Fairy lore in ‘Outlander’

claire and changeling

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.

Changeling children

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.

Changeling Baby Closeup

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.

Kelpie-2

Further reading

You can read my Outlander article here (FM#44_StandingStones).  I discussed fairies and megaliths more generally in a much earlier posting on the blog, too, and also covered the subject in my book, British fairies.

“Cakes & cream”: more thoughts upon the fairy diet

fairy mab fuseli

Queen Mab, by Henry Fuseli

Staying recently on the Devon/ Cornish border, I found an entry in the accommodation guest book from a previous guest.  He had visited a local holy well that is protected by a benign elf, he said, before going on to observe that fairies are veggies and that we should look after the cows grazing on all sides of the cottage.  This set me thinking (about fairies, not cows); what’s the evidence for this assertion?  Are fairies vegetarian, or is this just modern wishful thinking, to fit with prevailing views of fairies as protectors of the environment?

Evidence

There are two very early sources that suggest that fairies avoid meat:

  • the Green Children of Woolpit in Suffolk, when first found in the early 12th century, were pale, their skin tinged green, and for some time after their discovery they would only eat raw green beans, refusing bread and other food;
  • Gerald of Wales (1188) tells the story of Elidyr who visited fairy land in his youth.  He claimed that these little people “never ate flesh or fish” and instead lived upon various milk dishes, made up into junkets and flavoured with saffron.

The fairy preference for dairy products was well known in Elizabethan folk lore.  Queen Mab loved junkets according to Milton (a junket is a mixture of curds and cream, sweetened and flavoured).  Ben Jonson has her consuming cream, too, and Brownies are conventionally rewarded for their housework with bowls of cream or milk.  The fairies are also known to bake cakes and bread and to drink cider and wine.  There is good evidence, then, that fairies prefer a vegetarian diet, though not a vegan one.

Fairy hunting

However, there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the sources.  Elidyr also told Gerald that the tiny beings he met kept horses and greyhounds.  The latter are hunting dogs and the elves were plainly equipped for the chase.  In the poem Sir Orfeo the hero meets the king of fairy when he is out hunting wild beasts with his hounds; the king is also said to hunt wild fowl, such as mallards, herons and cormorants, with his falcons. The Gabriel Hounds of Lancashire are fairy dogs; they are also called Gabriel Ratchets, a ratchet being a hound that hunted by scent rather than by sight.  The pursuit of all this game was presumably for some purpose other than mere sport.  We have to assume that the deer, boars and birds that were caught were all eaten and that these particular fairies were very far from veggie.  The bwca living on the beach at Newlyn in west Cornwall were given a share of the catch by local fishermen and they were doubtless expected to eat those fish. The Highland water horses, the cabaill ushtey and the each uisge, both carry off and consume cattle and children, as does the Welsh afanc.  

Each-Uisge

Each uisge‘ from Villains Wiki

What are we to conclude?  The folklore evidence is not unanimous, but then it seldom is.  There are different sorts of fairy and each will naturally have its own tastes and preferences.  Nonetheless, there is clearly a very old strand of belief that some fairies eat a limited diet excluding flesh, perhaps as an indicator of their otherness or of their sympathetic links to the natural world.