Shargie bairns and tacharans: more thoughts on Scottish changelings

Arthur Rackham

I recently came across a valuable Scottish folklore resource, the website A Kist of Riches, www.tobarandualchais.co.uk. This provided a range of new accounts of changelings to supplement my recent book on changelings, Middle Earth Cuckoos. The website features hundreds of recordings, many in Gaelic: a changeling in Scots is a “shargie” or “shag” bairn, in Gaelic a tacharan or siofra/ siobhra.

The two main issues dealt with by the folklore on changelings are the identifying features of the faery substitutes and the ways of getting rid of them and retrieving the original babies. C. F. Gordon-Cumming, describing the Hebrides in 1883 recorded that:

“changelings are idiot children, wizened and emaciated, yet their utter childishness blends with occasional flashes of mother wit to convince people that it is a fairy child.”

What’s more, changelings tend to cry constantly and to have appetites and thirsts that can never be satisfied.

The sort of behaviour that will indicate unequivocally that the individual in the cradle is a great deal older than its bodily form might suggest include a range of adult actions, such as sticking out the tongue and blowing raspberries. A very common Scottish story concerns a visitor to a house to whom the changeling reveals himself. The tacharan might play tunes on a length of straw like a pipe, or on the chanter of bagpipes, or he might share a drop of whisky with the stranger. In one instance from the Isle of Lewis, once the parents had gone out the baby transformed into an old bearded man who then entertained a visiting tailor by playing on a pair of tongs. In another example, from Lochbroom, the child used to leap out of bed when the adults were absent, take on the form of a man and would then perform labour around the farm in return for meals. Another common Highland story concerns a changeling who asks a visiting cobbler to make him a pair of boots or shoes “that will fit a child but which will be fit for a king.”

A preternatural ability to speak is very likely to disclose the changeling’s truly aged nature. One on Skye ate constantly but only ever used one phrase “muc dhearg” (red pig). A local healer was able to drive him off by threatening him with a sword and responding “the devil’s red pig” (“Muc dhearg an Diabhail.”)

One tacharan, at Blairgowrie in Perthshire, on being expelled by the parents disappeared up the chimney, but not before saying that “he would have liked to have known his mother better.” At first glance, this might appear to be a polite and complimentary expression of regret, but I strongly suspect that it was meant to be quite the opposite- as the hearers would have instantly understood. This elderly faery male, in the guise of a baby, would have been enjoying regular breast feeds from the human woman, so his parting jibe was really a cruel reminder of what they had harboured in the literal bosom of the family.

Even so, as in one case reported from Llandwrgan in Wales, the exchange might not be spotted for months in the case of very young babies. In newborns, it would naturally take some while for the precocious or bad tempered nature of the substituted child to manifest itself; this is why it was often said that, at first, the changeling was undetectable because it looked exactly like the stolen child.

Although, of course, the presence of the changeling necessarily indicates the absence of the family’s original child, the presence of a shargie was not always entirely negative. One child at Gart na Damh on Islay was wholly dependent upon the care of its grandmother, and spent all its time lying in a specially constructed bed, but so long as it was alive and living with the family, they prospered. As soon as it died, their luck changed. In another case from Islay the child was seven feet tall and had never risen from its cradle, even though it was nineteen years old. One day the exasperated father set fire to the crib to drive the changeling out- which succeeded, but all the cows died too.

Once it has been realised by a family that the creature in the cradle is not their beloved baby, most parents not unnaturally want to be rid of it, especially because the belief is that the departure of the changeling will be matched by the reciprocal return of the human infant. The usual means of achieving this is to make life as unpleasant as possible for the shargie.

Remedies include beating with a stick and whipping; threatening the child with a pin or knife; throwing it off a cliff; by exposing it outside overnight (a faery knoll being an especially good spot) or by leaving it on a rock on the seashore as the tide comes in, or feeding the suspect child with porridge with “something added” (perhaps salt or an objectionable herb such as mothan/ pearlwort). Telling the faery that its home was on fire could well provoke it into leaping out of the cradle and running home. Another Shetland remedy was to scatter earth on the floor from a basket and then to sweep it out of the house, along with the trow changeling.

Fire is perennially viewed as a good cure, as has already been seen. One Shetland boy who became very lazy was exposed as a trow changeling (as least so far as his family were concerned) when the father set fire to his bed and the boy suddenly leapt energetically from it.

Across Scotland, perhaps the commonest means of exposing a ‘shargie bairn’ was to place horse dung on a griddle or shovel, put the baby on top of that, and then hold them over the fire. This combination of noisome substance and heat was guaranteed to send the changeling shooting up the chimney. Other responses by the child to this mistreatment- which would only serve to confirm the creature’s true nature- were curses and swearing or, in one instance, throwing sods of earth from the roof back down the chimney.

Once the true baby was restored, wise precautions then would be to tie a red thread around its wrist and to nail a horseshoe over the door. These sorts of precaution ought, obviously, to have been taken in advance- given the very widespread fear of faery takings- but given the stress and distraction of looking after a new baby (especially where there were other children to care for or a farm to run) it’s understandable how they could be overlooked just for a moment, allowing the ever watchful faes their chance.

Faeries and the Christian faith

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Fairy Passage

The relationship of the Christian religion to fairy-kind is a very ambiguous or ambivalent one.  On the whole, faeries are regarded as alien beings who stand wholly and permanently outside the Christian community.  This can be seen most clearly in the various origin myths that have been formulated to situate fairies within a Christian world view.

Lost Souls

One common explanation is that the fairies are fallen angels who followed Lucifer when he staged his rebellion in heaven.  They were, however, left in limbo.  When the gates of heaven and hell were sealed, some of the rebel angels were isolated between the two.  They went to hide amidst the rocks and trees of earth until judgment day and so have become the fairies (see, for example, Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2, 327). In one version of this account of fairy origins, the decreasing sightings of fairies are also explained. Rather than being driven away by electric light and aeroplanes, it seems that the fairies are seen less because, in the last century, god has taken pity on the outcasts and has begun to let them back into heaven for a last chance (Drever, The Lure of the Kelpie, 1937).

Reflecting this view, there is a widespread story in Britain concerning the fairies’ anxiousness over their ultimate salvation.  A Scottish version can be found in Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, under the title of The Fairy’s Inquiry.

“A clergyman was returning home one night after visiting a sick member of his congregation. His way led by a lake and, as he proceeded, he was surprised to hear most melodious strains of music. He sat down to listen. The music seemed to approach coming over the lake accompanied by a light. At length he discerned a man walking on the water, attended by a number of little beings, some bearing lights, others musical instruments. At the beach the man dismissed his attendants, and then walking up to the minister saluted him courteously. He was a little grey-headed old man, dressed in rather an unusual garb. The minister having returned his salute begged of him to come and sit beside him. He complied with the request, and on being asked who he was, replied that he was one of the Daoine Shi. He added that he and they had originally been angels, but having been seduced into revolt by Satan, they had been cast down to earth where they were to dwell till the day of doom. His object now was, to ascertain from the minister what would be their condition after that awful day. The minister then questioned him on the articles of faith; but as his answers did not prove satisfactory, and as in repeating the Lord’s Prayer, he persisted in saying wert instead of art in heaven, he did not feel himself justified in holding out any hopes to him. The fairy then gave a cry of despair and flung himself into the loch, and the minister resumed his journey.”

Keightley, pages 385-6

This story implies an unhappiness with their indeterminate position, but another account states that the fairies can sometimes be heard in their knolls, singing a song that celebrates that they are not of the seed of Adam and Abraham but rather are descended from the ‘Proud Angel.’  On the Isle of Man, in fact, the little people are called the cloan moyrney, the ‘proud clan,’ and there is a prayer “jee saue mee voish cloan ny moyrn” (‘God save me from the children of pride’).

Another (very bizarre) origin myth tells how Jesus was walking the world and, one day, visited a poor woman in her cottage.  She had a very large family and, when she realised who was at the door, she hid a number of her children from her visitor.  Jesus was offended by her subterfuge and, when he left, declared that the concealed children would not be seen again, because he had turned them into fairies.  The story fails to make much sense on several levels, and the disproportionate cruelty of the response to the mother’s embarrassment is impossible to justify (though I recall it’s not entirely out of character with some episodes in the New Testament).  Why the woman should be ashamed at the size of her family is not explained and we can only assume that the account reflects some deeper discomfort with natural sexuality and fertility within the religion.

Symons, Earthly Paradise, 1934

Holy Innocents

Lastly, there are origin myths that are rather more benign, in that they do not judge the fairy folk- although they still exclude them from the Christian community and the perceived benefits of the faith.  As I have described before, in Cornwall it was said that the pixies were either ghosts or the dead returned or they were the souls of children who were still-born or who died before baptism (see, for example, Evans Wentz Fairy Faith pp.172, 179 & 183).  In Wales the tylwyth teg were sometimes explained as being the spirits of virtuous Druids or the ghosts of prehistoric races (Evans Wentz pp.147 & 148). Lastly, in Highland Scotland, there was a belief in spirits called taran who were children who had died unbaptised and now wandered the woods and wastes, lamenting their fate.  These little beings were often seen and evidently bore a close relationship or resemblance to the sith folk (see Shaw, History of the Province of Moray, 1775).

This last category of beings plainly comprises spirits who are without sin in Christian terms: they never lived long enough to sin, or they lived ‘good’ lives in times before Christianity existed.  All the same, they are outside the fold of the church and beyond salvation in conventional eschatology.  This underlines how different fairies are: whatever physical similarities there may be, they are from another world, another dimension, and, as such, they can never participate spiritually in the same experience as humans.

People of Peace

It is very strange, therefore, to turn to some of the prayers and charms contained in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs).  I have described charms included in these volumes previously: people would pray to the trinity and the saints for protection against fairies and the hosts and all the harm that they could inflict. So far, so familiar.

Turn, then, to this prayer for peace, which seeks to be with Jesus Christ in the dwelling of peace, the paradise of gentleness-

“and in the fairy bower of mercy.” (ann an siothbrugh na h-iochd)

(vol.3, 177)

A second prayer for peace also seeks the “peace of fairy bowers” (sith nan siothbrugh). Elsewhere Mary and Brigit are described as a fairy swan and a fairy duck of peace (lacha shith Mhoire na sith) respectively (vol.3, 269 & vol.1, 317).  Possibly the latter images combine some sense of lightness, softness and a magical quality (?)

These references are surprising and confusing.  The ‘fairy bower’ seems to mean the fairies’ normal dwelling: elsewhere Carmichael refers to “the fairy bower beneath the knoll” (vol.2. 286) whilst in another charm ‘fairy wort’ is picked on top of the ‘fairy bower’ (bruth) (vol.2, 162).  The Gaelic word brugh has several meanings: it can denote a large house or mansion, an underground dwelling, a fairy mound and, lastly, a fortified tower, which we generally know today as a broch.  It appears that all these meanings are wrapped up together in the prayers and invocations cited.  Brochs are, for example, sites of fairy presence and power.  For example, at Houstry in Caithness in 1810 a man took building materials from a ruined broch near his farm.  This incurred the deep displeasure of the sith folk living there, and they inflicted a plague upon the cattle of everyone living in the neighbourhood.  Secondly, at around the same date on Shetland, a fiddle player called Hakki Johnson was passing the Broch of Houlland one night when he heard music being played inside by the trows.  He was able to memorise the tune, which has been passed down since as the Wast Side Trows Reel.  A man on Skye who demolished the ‘fairy bower’ of Dun Gharsain at Bracadale in order to build some pens for his livestock only escaped a disastrous revenge from the fairies because he had been drinking milk from a cow that had grazed on the protective herb mothan.  This ‘bower’ again is termed a bruth and is, very evidently, a broch, one of several found beside Loch Bracadale.

In conclusion, we have to reconcile ourselves top the contradictory evidence that ‘fairy’ was used both in a negative sense, implying a threat that required holy protection, and (at the very same time) the fairies were associated with peace and other heavenly qualities…

‘Seek and you shall not find’- chance in fairy encounters

girl & Fs

Is it feasible to go searching for fairies?  Many authorities on the subject say not.  Janet Bord, in Fairies- Encounters with Little People, wrote that:

“Very often, people who see fairies come across them suddenly and unexpectedly; certainly they are not thinking about them at the time of the encounter. It may be that a certain detachment of mind may be a prerequisite to having what is clearly some kind of psychic experience, and the lone traveller is well placed to be in a receptive condition.” (p.35)

Seventeenth century antiquary John Aubrey agreed with this modern opinion.  He wrote in his Natural History of Wiltshire that:

“indeede it is saide they seldom appeare to any persons who go to seeke for them.”

The fairies choose whether and when to reveal themselves to mortals, appearing and disappearing at will.

In light of these comments, it’s very interesting to note an aspect of supernatural belief from the Scottish Highlands.  A very useful charm against fairy magic is the herb called mothan in Gaelic (pearlwort), but for it to be effective it had to be gathered “gun iarraidh” (‘without searching’- literally, ‘without asking’).  Another authority on Highland folklore confirms this, recording that another plant used to protect livestock from fairy blight, St John’s Wort, had to be picked whilst repeating the following charm:

“Unsearched for and unsought/ For luck of sheep I pluck thee.”

Lastly, Cornish fairy writer Enys Tregarthen, in her 1911 story Hunting Fairies, indicates that a human will never find pixie gold by deliberately searching for it.  Having failed to locate treasure by watching for pixies digging, her character Carveth throws away his pick axe carelessly.  He is told to dig wherever it happens to fall- and by this means he finds a crock of coins.

What can we learn from these scraps of information?  As we know very well, the fairies are a secretive and private people who don’t like to be intruded or spied upon.  We can’t petition them, praying for them to give us things or to make our wishes come true. They may choose for their own reasons to do this for those they decide to favour, but they aren’t to be begged or imprecated.  They are in control, over those whom they help and those to whom they reveal themselves.

It’s all about luck, therefore.  Randomness rules.  If you hunt them- they’ll elude you; if you take what comes- you may be rewarded.

b'fast Fs