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.

Fairy taboos- reflections on some posts by Morgan Daimler

watching the fairies, beatrice goldsmith

Beatrice Goldsmith, Watching the fairies, 1925

On her blog Living liminally, Morgan has written a useful series of posts giving guidelines to interaction between humans and faery.  I encourage readers to have a look at these and also at my own post on fairy temperament.  I’ll only offer a few supplementary remarks here.

Thanking fairies

Morgan’s first fairy taboo is never to say thank you.  This isn’t just a matter of avoiding verbal gratitude: gifts to fairies that acknowledged some obligation- or even suggest some reciprocity may exist between our two worlds- are as likely to offend.  I have mentioned before the inadvisability of giving clothes to brownies– this can at the very least drive them away, at the worst antagonise them to such a degree that become a blight upon a household.

Privacy

Morgan’s second post is on the taboo of privacy, something that is clearly closely related to the former.  All the evidence confirms that discretion in respect of fairy contact is the only advisable approach: they do not like boasting or talkativeness on the part of humans.  Perhaps it suggests that they are taken for granted; it certainly betrays their own secrecy and privacy.  As I have alluded to several times, disclosure by a person that they are favourites of the fairies almost invariably results in the termination of that favour.

Names

The proper and respectful use of names is the third taboo Morgan has covered.  Fairies’ names are a source of power and must be handled circumspectly.  As a rule it is better to avoid references that may draw their attention to you; if the fairies must be mentioned, euphemisms that are complimentary seem to be preferable.  As Morgan rightly observes, some of the labels chosen are merely descriptive, whether of the appearance of the supernatural being or of the location in which s/he is found; this neutral approach may well be safest.  It’s also worth emphasising, as she does in a separate post on the power of names, that keeping back your own name from the fairies is just as important (something illustrated by the Ainsel series of stories, such as that of Meg Moulach).  Fairies withhold their names from us to stop us getting power over them and the reverse is just as true; put simply, if they have a grievance against you, it’s harder for them to find you if they don’t have your name!  Nonetheless, I’ve always felt rather uncomfortable about this strand of thought about the fays.  On the one hand it seems to suggest that humans are cleverer than their good neighbours and that a bit of cunning can outwit them or can trick them into betraying their names themselves.  At the same time, it introduces an element of deceit into the relationship, a want of openness and honesty that runs directly counter to other precepts on promoting good relations with fairies.

Food

Most recently Morgan has discussed food taboos and fairies.  This is a complex area: partaking of food (much like joining in a fairy dance) can be a way of succumbing to their magic.  At the same time, the faes often seem dependent upon human provisions (whether these are acquired as offerings or stolen).  As I’ve debated before, quite whether some of these gifts these represent propitiation or some sort of bargain is never wholly clear.  What we can say for certain is that they particularly like to consume dairy produce such as cream.

Etiquette

In a separate post dated May 4th 2017 Morgan makes the interesting suggestion that our past use of fairy as a derogatory term denoting a loose woman or a gay man might be the cause of our Good Neighbours’ dislike for the word.  This is certainly a very interesting suggestion; I had tended to see it the other way round: that the sense of unashamed and uninhibited sexuality on the part of the fairies was transferred to human conduct, but became derogatory in the process.

Generally, Morgan places considerable stress upon proper etiquette in our relations with the fair folk.  As I’ve repeated myself here and in several other posts, this is eminently good advice.  Given that they are a powerful people, mostly hidden from us and working to their own undisclosed agenda, conduct that propitiates or, at the very least, does not antagonise the fae surely is the only sensible course of action.

“A votaress of my order”- offerings to fairies

The-Cheese-Well

The cheese well

One of the explanations of the belief in fairies is that they are the degraded remnants of former gods, the traces of ancient pantheistic belief in Britain.  The habit of making offerings of one description or another to these beings lends support to this theory but, as we shall see, the evidence presents a confusing picture of what people understood themselves to be doing.  The recorded practices could be worship, or they could even be something akin to a commercial transaction.

Offerings to fairies

The offerings take several forms.  The first is a general gift made to ‘the fairies’ as a sign of respect and propitiation.  Several examples of this come from Scotland: in the Highlands and Islands it was common for milk to be poured on stones with hollows in them in order to ensure the protection of the herds of cattle.  On top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, there was  the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies.  If we see the fairies as once having been gods, then these marks of honour aimed at appeasing the ‘good neighbours,’ averting ill fortune and ensuring their continuing good will, appear to be strong confirmation of divine origins.

Similarly, on Lewis farmers would wade out into the waves and pour beer into the sea, invoking the water-spirit Shoney and asking for a good harvest of seaweed for the fields. Comparable conduct was found in the South West of England: miners would give up a portion of their lunches to the ‘knockers’ in the mine, hoping that they would then be led to the best lodes of tin, and at Newlyn the pixies living between low and high water mark, the bucca, would be offered a ‘cast’ of three fish so as to guarantee a good catch in the nets.  These ‘sacrifices’ made with a view to a specific outcome are a very familiar aspects of human interactions with divinities.  They also imply that the fairies possessed some kind of control over the sea and its contents.  This is not a typical fairy attribute, although the Cornish spriggans were said to have power over the weather and could call on thunder and lightning when they wished to.

In England there is an example of a more direct exchange between human and fairy.  There was a belief that elder trees were inhabited by the ‘old lady of the elder tree.‘  If a person wished to cut some branches from a bush, a vow had to be made: ‘Old Lady, if you let me take some of your wood now, you can take some of mine when I’m a tree.’ Omission of this promise could lead to disaster- fire or illness in the household.

Secondly, there are examples of offerings being made in return for which a gift of money might be expected from the fairies.  An example comes from Llanberis, in Snowdonia, from the 1750s: the practice was for farm maids to place a jug of fresh sweet milk and a clean towel on a stone in the morning.  When they later returned, the jug would have been emptied by the Tylwyth Teg and a handful of coins would have been left.  This kind of exchange between humans and fairies is very closely associated with the reports of fairies leaving small sums of silver for chosen people- albeit on the strict condition that they maintain secrecy as to the source of their new found prosperity.  Violation of this would inevitably terminate the fairies’ good favour.  These practices clearly are a kind of bargain as much as an oblation.  An interesting variant on this practice comes from Wirt Sikes in British goblins (p.22).  He tells of  a “servant girl who attended to the cattle on the Trwyn farm, near Abergwyddon, [who] used to take food to ‘Master. Pwca,’ as she called the elf. A bowl of fresh milk and a slice of white bread were the component parts of the goblin’s repast, and were placed on a certain spot where he got them. One night the girl, moved by the spirit of mischief, drank the milk and ate most of the bread, leaving for Master Pwca only water and crusts. Next morning she found that the fastidious fairy had left the food untouched. Not long after, as the girl was passing the lonely spot where she had hitherto left Pwca his food, she was seized under the arm pits by fleshly hands (which, however, she could not see), and subjected to a castigation of a most mortifying character. Simultaneously there fell upon her ear in good set Welsh a warning not to repeat her offence on peril of still worse treatment.”  This might be read as either divine punishment for disrespect or simply revenge for a practical joke.

Domestic offerings

The exchanges just described were made in the open air or in uninhabited or deserted buildings.  Throughout Britain, though, there was a very similar practice of householders leaving out bread, milk or clean, warm water for the fairies at night.  Once again, a small gift might be anticipated in the morning.  Sometimes, the coins were more like a reward- a clean and neat house was appreciated by the nocturnal visitors and was acknowledged by a couple of coppers.  Some writers were in no doubt as to the nature of these interactions.  Robert Burton, in Anatomy of melancholy (1621), understood fairies to be erstwhile deities “which have been in former times adored with much superstition, with sweeping their houses and setting of a pail of clean water, good victuals and the like, and then they should not be pinched but find money in their shoes and be fortunate in their enterprises.”  Avoidance of punishment was a clear motivation: John Aubrey noted that, until the reign of King James I, country folk were “wont to please the fairies, that they might do no shrewd turnes, by sweeping clean the Hearth and setting by it a dish of fair water and halfe sadd bread, whereon was set a messe of milke sopt with white bread.  And on the morrow they should find a groat” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaism, 1687 pp.29 & 125).

Offerings to brownies

The last kind of fairy offering we should note is that made to known individual beings- most commonly the brownies and  other domestic hobgoblins of English and lowland Scottish folklore.  A kind of bargain is again involved in these cases.  The brownie undertakes some “drudgery work” in the house or on the farmstead (threshing, mowing, cleaning) and gets remuneration. However, it was fundamental to the transaction that this gift of cream, milk or cake did not seem like a direct payment.  The items were ‘left out’, available for the brownie to find and consume, but they were not explicitly given to the hobgoblin in return for the labours undertaken.  If the offering was too plainly intended for the spirit- the worst  examples being specially-made clothes to cover their hairy nakedness- then the brownie would take offence and would either leave the holding in a huff or, worse still, remain but as a malevolent presence.

An example of this tradition is found in Scot’s Discoverie of witchcraft (1584): “your grandams maides were woont to sett a boll of milke before … Robin Good Fellow for grinding of the malt or mustard and sweeping the house at midnight: and you have heard that he would chafe exceedingly if the maide or the goodwife of the house, having compassion on his nakedness, laid anie clothes for him, besides his messe of white bread and milke which was his standing fee” (Book IV, c.X).   Milton, in L’Allegro, gives a similar account of the country dweller’s stories of brownies:

“Tells how the drudging goblin sweat,
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath thresh’d the corn
That ten day-labourers could not end;
Then lies him down, the lubber fiend,
And stretch’d out all the chimney’s length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And crop-full out of doors he flings,
Ere the first cock his matin rings.”

the_brownies_and_other_tales_

A curious example of domestic interaction between humans and fairies which sits somewhere between the brownie and ‘neatness rewarded’ is a story from Stowmarket in Suffolk, recorded in the mid-nineteenth century.  An old man in the town was regularly visited by the ‘ferriers’ or ‘ferrishers’ (as they were termed in the county) who used to meet in his home; he recalled that they wore long green coats and yellow shoes.  He kept his house scrupulously clean for them and in return the ferriers supplied faggots which they put in his oven and, from time to time, would leave a shilling for him under a chair leg.  When he spoke about these visits, he lost their favour.  It’s hard to say in this account who is more beholden to whom- there’s an equality of exchange which obscures any suggestion of devotion.

The exact relationship between fairies and humans is, on the evidence of these examples, confused and ill-defined.  This need not be too surprising, given that such uncertainty exists as to the origins of the fairy belief.  In the first examples, maintaining the benevolence of the supernatural realm was a key element in the folk customs.  The later examples, though, whilst made in propitiative guise, should really be seen as bargains.  In return for labour or for food a payment is made; the pretence is that these are offerings but actual truth appears to be that the fairies are the supplicants, a relationship that Katherine Briggs identified when she spoke of the ‘dependence of the fairies’ upon humans.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).