The sluagh are the fairy host in the folklore of the Scottish Highlands. In this region of Britain people may be abducted by being taken inside a fairy hill (a tomhan) or they may be snatched up and carried away by the sluagh. I touched on this subject briefly in my posting on elf-shots, but return to it in more detail now.
The sluagh, or fairy host, is known by several names in Gaelic, all of which give us some clue as to their nature or origin. Lewis Spence calls them the sluagh eotrom, meaning the ‘light’ or ‘aery’ host. This may reflect their flight through the air, or even their physical nature. The Reverend Kirk, meanwhile, distinguishes between the sluagh saoghalta and the sluagh sith. The latter is the ‘fairy host’ and the former the ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ host. If we understand that ‘sluagh’ more broadly denotes people or population, this makes sense of what Kirk says next: “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged.” In other words, once earthly people die, they join the fairy host instead (Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, ‘Succinct Accompt,’ 9 (10)).
Flying with the Sluagh
We can learn something more from actual experiences of contact with the host. John MacPhee of Uist was outside his house one night when he heard a sound coming from the West (a notoriously fay direction) like the breaking of the sea. He saw a mass of small men coming in a crowd from that direction and suddenly felt hot, as if a crowd of people had surrounded him and were pressing in, breathing upon him. Then he was carried off at great speed, flying through the air to the graveyard at Dalibrog, seventeen miles distant. For a moment or two he was set down, and the sensation of heat left him. Then the host returned, he felt hot again, and was carried back to his home. After this experience, MacPhee became sickly and thin. The man was evidently ‘elf-addled:’ he suffered some of the typical physical effects of fairy contact and, although the author of the account refers to the host as ‘the dead,’ their living physicality seems very much to contradict this description. The same is true perhaps for those people who are taken repeatedly by the sluagh. Physical mistreatment by the host can be a common experience, with victims being ‘rolled, dragged and trounced in mud and mire and pools.’ This can leave them terrorised and in extreme exhaustion and is often fatal.
The mass nature of the sluagh is apparent. They travel in a multitude- according to one Scottish witness “in great clouds, up and down the face of the world like starlings.” As will be seen from subsequent testimonies, comparisons to flocks of birds or beasts are common. For instance, on Barra Evans Wentz was told that the host went about at midnight, travelling in fine weather against the wind like a covey of birds (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 108).
How they fly
The host travels across the land by several means. They can use whirlwinds, as Scottish witch suspect, Bessie Dunlop, attested. She had been visited by twelve fairy folk who left her in “ane hideous uglie sowche of wind.” A sowche is a sough, a rushing or whistling. This suggests violence, but in the Scottish Highlands these eddies of wind are also called the oiteag sluagh, the host’s breeze, suggestive of something more gentle.
The host can also travel on objects imbued with faery glamour, such as bulrushes, docks, ragwort and withered grass stems. Humans who witness this can imitate the fairies’ actions and transfer their magic power to other items on which to fly, such as ploughs or loom beams. Physical travel is not necessary, though, for a man in Sutherland was taken in spirit one night by the sluagh, even after his friends had forcibly restrained his body to try to prevent his abduction. If a person is called to travel with the sluagh, there is no denying the summons. In another instance, a man on Skye saw the host approaching and begged his friend to hold him tightly to prevent his abduction. Despite the friend’s best efforts, the victim began to ‘hop and dance’ before rising off the ground and being carried a couple of miles.
Why they fly
The reason for these journeys seems to be uniformly malicious. The primary aim is to abduct humans, and secondary purposes are shooting elf-bolts at people and livestock or stealing human property- usually food and drink. Some trows flew all the way from Shetland to Norway to abduct a newly married woman, for example, and some fairies in Moray conveyed a man to Paris, although much more local journeys are far more typical (Evans Wentz, 106).
Another reason for the host’s flight is to meet with enemies and to fight them. There are numerous accounts of the hosts battling in the sky on cold and frosty nights (and especially at Halloween), leaving pools of blood (fuil nan sluagh) on the ground in the morning as testimony to their violent slaughter (Evans Wentz, 91).
Flight might be used to hunt or take people or animals, but the experience of flight itself might be sufficiently unpleasant to be a punishment in itself. A minister in Ross-shire in Scotland had spoken slightingly of the fairies and they exacted their revenge by picking him up and carrying him head over heels through the air.
Defence against the Sluagh
The accounts so far, especially that of the man taken despite the best efforts of his friends to prevent it, might suggest that the sluagh are pretty much invincible and irresistible. This is not the case, fortunately. Very simple measures can defeat them. Two abductions of women on the Isle of Arran were prevented by means of casting a reaping hook up into the mass of little people as they passed overhead, ‘like a swarm of bees.’ Being iron, this instantly released the captive being carried away. Likewise, the use of Christian blessings is effective: a Shetland man flew with the host on a rush by imitating their spell (“Up hors, up hedik, up well ridden bolwind”) and he found himself taken with them to a cottage where a woman was in labour. The plan was to take the new mother if she sneezed three times and no one ‘sained’ her. She sneezed, but the man riding with the trows said ‘bless you’ and prevented her abduction.
These are magical defences; physical means of resistance tend to be much less certain and more risky. Some men were tending the herds at Cornaigbeg Farm on Tiree when they heard something passing them on the road. It sounded like a flock of sheep passing, but one of the dogs became very agitated and chased after it. Eventually the poor hound returned- it had lost all its hair and was torn and bloody, dying soon afterwards. As we’ve seen before, dogs and fairies frequently don’t mix.
The faeries have several means of flight– and several types of motion– so that riding straws or moving in a whirlwind are just a sample of their ways of getting about. For more on abductions, the sluagh and The Darker Side of Faery, see my 2021 book of that title: