“Builded all of burnished gold”- fairy buildings

Elven_city_by_Nagare-Boshi

An elven city, by Nagare-Boshi

It may seem to run counter to our intuition to think of fairies as building physical structures.  I have described fairy dwellings previously, mostly implying that they were natural features like caves and hills (see too chapter 4 of my British fairies).   This is the case, but our predecessors readily assumed and accepted that a great deal more could be achieved by their supernatural neighbours.  Indeed, fairy-kind seemed to excel at constructing grand accommodation for themselves.  Here are a few early examples.

The folklore evidence

In the poem of Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas enters fairyland and sees a “faire castell” next to a town and tower; “In erthe es none lyke theretill.”  In the twelfth century story of King Herla the fairy king occupies a ‘splendid mansion.’  These tales convey some general impression of what the fairies could build, but the poem Sir Orfeo provides much more detail (what follows is J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation of the Middle English text):

“A castle he saw amid the land
princely and proud and lofty stand;
the outer wall around it laid
of shining crystal clear was made.
A hundred towers were raised about
with cunning wrought, embattled stout;
and from the moat each buttress bold
in arches sprang of rich red gold.
The vault was carven and adorned
with beasts and birds and figures horned;
within were halls and chambers wide
all made of jewels and gems of pride;
the poorest pillar to behold
was builded all of burnished gold.”

These beliefs in a parallel world of splendid palaces and fortifications persisted into the nineteenth century.  Thomas Keightley recalled a conversation with a young woman in Norfolk who told him that the fairies were a people dressed in white who lived underground where they built houses, bridges and other edifices.

Building for mortals

These fairies were building for themselves in their own realms, but they would interact with humans in construction projects too.  There seem to be three different situations in which fairies got involved in building structures in the human world. Firstly, this occurred under duress.  There are several instances where fairies were compelled, against their will, to carry out tasks for a human.  Michael Scot, a stone mason, drank a magic potion and thereby got control over the fairies.  He commanded them to build roads and bridges around Scotland.  A similar tale is told of Donald Duibheal Mackay.  On the Isle of Skye the Great Barn of Minguinish was roofed by the sidh as a ransom for a captured companion (see my post on captured fairies).  Lastly, a fairy queen banished some troublesome elves from Cnoc-n’an-Bocan (Bogle-knowe, or Hobgoblin-hill, near to Menteith) into a book, The red book of Menteith.  The condition was that they would only be released when the laird of Menteith opened the volume.  Eventually, this happened by mistake.  Instantly, fairies appeared before him demanding work. Not knowing what work to set them to, his lordship hit upon the plan of making a road onto the island where his castle stood. They began, but the Earl realised that, if they continued, his hitherto impregnable retreat would be made vulnerable, so instead he asked them to make for him a rope of sand. They began this latter task without finishing the former, and finding their new work too much for them, they resolved to abandon that part done and depart, to the relief of the Earl.

Scottish sites

Secondly, a large number of Scottish sites claim to have been built by fairies.  One, the Drocht na Vougha (fairy bridge) in Sutherland, was for their own convenience to shorten the journey time around Dornoch Firth; however, it benefited humans too and, when one traveller blessed the builders,  the bridge sank beneath the waves.  Many other places are alleged to have been built by fairies- sometimes in a night, such as the castles at Dunscaith and Duntulm- or by such laborious means as passing the stones from person to person over a great distance (Corstophine church and Abernethy tower). Other fairy buildings include Glasgow cathedral, Linlithgow palace, Peebles bridge and the castles at Dunstanburgh and Edinburgh.  All this effort to create edifices only used by humans might seem puzzling, but we are told that the church of St Mary’s at Dundee was built for gold, so that the good neighbours’ motivation in these labours might actually be very familiar indeed.

The wrong place

Lastly, there are numerous sites where the fairies did not build, as such, but objected to the site chosen and moved the assembled masonry blocks elsewhere by supernatural means overnight.  These appear exclusively to be churches.  Those at Rochdale, Samlesbury, Winwick, Newchurch in Rossendale, Burnley, Ince, Gadshill, Isle of Wight, Holme on the Wolds and Hinderwell are all associated with legends that the original location selected proved unacceptable to the fairies and that, eventually, after repeated efforts, the humans had to choose a new site.  Sometimes the fairies appeared in human form to do this, sometimes as pigs.

Fairy_Sandcastles_by_John_Philip_Wagner (2)

Fairy sandcastles, by John P. Wagner

Commentary

There are several comments to make on these records.  Firstly, it’s notable how most are Scottish or come from the north of England.  It seems that the more northerly fairies were the skilled stone masons, though why this should be we simply can’t speculate. Secondly, whilst we can understand why they should wish to build for themselves or hinder  building at places to which they had some special attachment, their willingness to work for humans (even for gold) is less comprehensible, especially as that included buildings for religious purposes- something to which they normally violently objected (as seen at Drocht na Vougha).

Perhaps part of the association in story tellers minds was between the magic of faery and particularly remarkable buildings. Palaces and churches might possibly have seemed so grand and impressive in their scale and decoration that they seemed, metaphorically and romantically, the work ‘of fairy hands.’

The other consideration that must be noted is the possibility that much of what was seen (especially during visits to fairyland) was simply ‘glamour‘- it had no physical reality.  We are familiar with stories of midwives taken to assist fairy women in labour who believe that they are in fine houses until they accidentally touch their eyelids with ointment intended for the fairy newborn and see that, in reality, they are in a ruined building or a cave.  Given their magical powers, indeed, one wonders why the good folk would bother at all with the labour of actually piling stone on stone when it could (presumably) all be achieved by the wave of a hand (or wand).

Fairy_Bridge_Isle_Of_Man.jpeg

Fairy Bridge, Isle of Man

Further reading

I discuss elsewhere the cities and palaces that might be found in fairyland underground and the strange Welsh otherworldly fortresses.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

Catching fairies- human abductions of fairy kind

colli

from the series ‘Catching fairies’ by Matt Collishaw

“The fairies have lost a fairy,
They don’t know what to do;
The rumours about her vary,
And all of them can’t be true.
They say she stood on a lily,
And fell in its depths immense;
But I don’t think she’d be so silly,
For she was a fairy of sense!”

Trial by Jury by Menella Bute Smedley

We are very familiar with the idea of fairy folk stealing humans, whether that is infants swapped for changelings or older men and women taken as lovers, wet-nurses and midwives (see the earlier posting on being ‘away with the fairies’ or chapter 21 of my British fairies). There is also some evidence of the reverse process- for fairies being captured by humans.

As might be expected, fairies are captured extremely rarely and when it happens it seems to be a combination of extremely good luck, cunning and agility.  In two poems, Europe and The fairy, William Blake describes catching fairies in his hat.  In the former verse, he does this “as boys knock down a butterfly.”  Blake used the same butterfly simile in the latter poem, which describes how:

“So a Fairy sung/ From the leaves I sprung/ He leaped from the spray, to flee away/ But in my hat I caught/ He shall soon be taught.”

Speed and surprise are essential to catching a magical creature, as is reiterated in the poem, The opal dream cave by Katherine Mansfield, which also demonstrates that the long term outcome can be tragic or disappointing:

“In an opal dream cave I found a fairy:
Her wings were frailer than flower petals –
Frailer far than snowflakes.
She was not frightened, but poised on my finger,
Then delicately walked into my hand.
I shut the two palms of my hands together
And held her prisoner.
I carried her out of the opal cave,
Then opened my hands.
First she became thistledown,
Then a mote in a sunbeam,
Then–nothing at all.
Empty now is my opal dream cave. “

The captive fairy stories

These incidents of fairy capture break down into three types, depending upon their outcomes:

  1. the captive fairy dies- Keeping fairies as playthings in the human world is cruel and dooms them, attractive as it may sound-I’d like to tame a fairy/ To keep it on a shelf” (The child and the fairies).  In the Suffolk story ‘Brother Mike’ a fairy is caught by a farmer in the act of stealing corn from his barn.  He puts the creature in his hat and takes back to the farmhouse for the amusement of his children.  The captive is tethered to the kitchen window and there he pines away and dies, refusing all food. This compares to the story of the Green Children, also from Suffolk.  These two infants strayed from faery into the human world; the boy of the pair soon died of grief. From Cheshire and Shropshire come tales of the water fairy called the asrai. This mysterious being, in the form of a young, naked woman, is from time to time dredged in fishing nets from lakes and meres.  When exposed to the air they never last long, simply melting away in the bottom of the fishing boat before it reaches the shore.
  2. the captive fairy is forced to act against her will- Near Lochaber in Scotland a man somehow captured a malevolent glaistig that had haunted the neighbourhood.  He imprisoned it in an outhouse and, as a condition of its release, made it swear to leave the area and to no longer molest the population.  He and his family were thereafter cursed with bad luck for his  efforts.  A Welsh story from Llanberis concerns a lake maiden, a gwrag annwn, who is lured ashore with an apple and caught by a man.  She agrees under compulsion to marry him, but the marriage is subject to conditions which, as always happens in these stories, were eventually breached.  Lastly, from the Isle of Skye there comes an account of mass compulsion. A builder was asked to construct a byre to hold 365 cows at Minguinish.  When he had finished the walls, he realised that he knew of no way of roofing over the vast space.  Heading home, he encountered and caught a fairy.  He was immediately besieged by other fairies seeking to release their companion; the terms of his ransom were that they roofed the Great Byre, which they did overnight.
  3. the captive fairy escapes- the most numerous of these accounts culminate in the fairy’s return home.  Sometimes, as with the Green Children, the fairy is simply lost and is taken in by humans.  This is the case in the Cornish story of Coleman Gray.  The pixie boy is found wandering and distressed and is cared for by a human family, until one day he hears his mother calling and returns to her.  More often the fairy is caught, although not always intentionally.  An account from Dartmoor describes how a woman returning from market met a pixie gambolling on the path in front of her.  She snatched it up, put it in her empty basket and latched the lid. For a while he complained loudly in a strange tongue.  When he fell silent, she opened the lid to check on him and found that he had disappeared.  From Lancashire there comes a story of two poachers who were out ferreting and who, instead of rabbits, flushed two fairies from a burrow into their sacks.  They were so alarmed by the voices crying out from inside the sacks that they dropped them and ran home.  The next day the sacks were retrieved, empty and neatly folded.  It seems that the fairies bore no ill will for the incident; likewise in the story of Skillywidden, a pixie captured at Treridge near Zennor, the fairy does not seem too put out by his ordeal.  A farmer was cutting furze when he spotted the young pixie asleep.  He scooped it up and took it home where it played contentedly by the hearth with his children.  However, one day when they all slipped outside to play, the pixie’s parents appeared searching for him and he readily went home with them.  Readers may note that there is a farm called Skillywadden to the south of Trendrine Hill where this incident took place; this may therefore be prime fairy catching country…

It is also notable from these examples how often it is the case that a juvenile fairy is caught.  Presumably the reason for this is quite simply that they are less cautious and less alert to danger than their parents.  Secondly, whilst contact with fairies is generally something to be discouraged, in most of these cases there are no ill consequences for the captors; in fact, in several cases the human children play with the fairy child on terms of amity and equality.  In some of the other cases, it appears that the fairies may have accepted that it was their own want of care or simple bad luck that led to their capture and, as a result, no vengeance is exacted.

asrai

An asrai, by Clayscence

Further reading

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.