Transacting business with the faeries can be a process beset by problems that significantly reduce the apparent advantages that might be gained by humans through such dealings.
As I discussed in a previous post, the faes can indulge in spontaneous and gratuitous acts of kindness. A man from Anglesey, for instance, woke up one morning to find that his shirt had been washed overnight by the tylwyth teg, and besides which they had left him half a crown (two shillings and sixpence) wrapped up in the garment. Such acts as these are unpredictable and sporadic, so little reliance can- or should- be placed on them, and the favour is easy to lose.
The fairies can decide to undertake substantial tasks for some, but it would probably be unwise to found any thoughts of prosperity- or to make plans for the future- based upon their assistance. A farmer at Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye unwittingly employed three faery men to help with his harvest. They reaped a field and put the corn in stooks in the record time of just a few hours, but they would not associate with any of the other farm workers and they complained bitterly about their working conditions: about their bread, their drink and their employer. The farmer discovered how disgruntled these mysterious workers were by having his son eavesdrop on their conversations. He very was lucky indeed that this spying didn’t have an unfavourable outcome- as was the case for one farmer on Colonsay. He benefited considerably from the fact that every year the local faeries would voluntarily harvest and stack the crops in his fields. He never saw who bestowed such a favour upon him and, eventually, consumed by curiosity, he stayed up one night to see who was doing the work. A host of faeries appeared and the farmer tried to count them: this proved such an insult to his supernatural helpers’ generosity that he never had their aid again.
Faeries will, inexplicably and without invitation, undertake quite onerous chores on farms. Perhaps it is this that explains their parallel tendency to make free with the property of their human neighbours. For example, on Shetland, one family had a cooking kettle that the trows simply borrowed (or, we might say, took) for a whole year. It was a trow habit too to ‘borrow’ islanders’ boats. This was vexing enough, no doubt, but the trows never tied them up again when they’d finished with them, and simply left them loose in the harbour or unsecured on the beach. Indeed, human households often left buckets of water out for the trows as they had discovered that this was a way of preventing them interfering with other household utensils.
The trows will also enter into commercial transactions with humans, but their way of doing deals does not resemble our own. A tinker was wandering the islands selling metalware when he saw a small dark man standing by a door that led inside a mound. This man (clearly a trow) enquired what was for sale: the tinker replied that he had plates, bowls and cups in his basket. Suddenly, he found himself inside the hillock; as suddenly, he was outside again with his basket entirely emptied of goods- but with five gold sovereigns in their place. It’s not a normal way of conducting business for us, but it’s how the trow folk do it.
Compare another case, in which a Shetland fiddler was employed by some trows to provide music at a wedding in Norway. They carried him there in a boat at record speed, but after the festivities the man was told that if he wanted to be rowed back home again, he would have to pay for the privilege with one of his stock of cows. Reluctantly, he agreed, but as he was so far from home he felt he had very little choice. When the man got back to his family, he discovered his one night away had actually been three years. He was very angry at this and resolved that he was not going to pay for the return journey. Nevertheless, within a week or so the fiddler found that one of his cows was sickly and had stopped eating and drinking. The man realised that, in fact, it was only the form of a cow that survived and that the real beast had already been taken by the trows in exercise of their bargain.
Even a more straightforward bargain can turn out to have its alarming aspects. In Keightley’s Fairy Mythology there’s a Manx story called the ‘Fairy Chapman,’ which he borrowed from Waldron’s guide to the Isle of Man:
“A man being desirous of disposing of a horse he had at that time no great occasion for, and riding him to market for that purpose, was accosted in passing over the mountains by a little man in a plain dress, who asked him if he would sell his horse. “‘Tis the design I am going on,” replied he: on which the other desired to know the price. “Eight pounds,” said he. “No,” returned the purchaser, “I will give no more than seven, which if you will take, here is your money.” The owner thinking he had bid pretty fair, agreed with him, and the money being told out, the one dismounted and the other got on the back of the horse, which he had no sooner done than both beast and rider sunk into the earth immediately, leaving the person who had made the bargain in the utmost terror and consternation. As soon as he had a little recovered himself, he went directly to the parson of the parish, and related what had passed, desiring he would give his opinion whether he ought to make use of the money he had received or not. To whichhe replied, that as he had made a fair bargain, and no way circumvented nor endeavoured to circumvent the buyer, he saw no reason to believe, in case it was an evil spirit, it could have any power over him. On this assurance, he went home well satisfied, and nothing afterwards happened to give him any disquiet concerning this affair. This was told to Waldron by the person to whom it happened.”
Fairy Mythology, 398-399
My recent book, How Things Work in Faery, contains extended discussion of all these puzzling aspects of the faery economy.
It’s not at all unusual for people to make regular offerings to fairies and, on certain occasions, to offer major sacrifices to them.
I’ve described before how it was the habit in the Scottish Highlands and islands to make regular offerings of milk to the gruagachand glaistig who often looked after the cattle on farms and in communities. Small quantities were poured out on special stones, perhaps after every milking or at certain times in the farming year. In fact, at least as recently as the 1950s milk was still being put out overnight for the pixies on one Dartmoor farm.
On Shetland, local people sacrificed ale or pins and coins to the water horse called shoopiltee to ensure good catches at sea. At Halloween, the people of Lewis used to attend a church ceremony that included pouring ale into the sea in the hope that the sea spirit ‘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 into the sea. All round Scotland, in fact, meat, drink and bread would be offered up. On Orkney the custom was that the first fish caught on a hook when out line-fishing would be thrown back to ensure that the rest of the catch on that trip would be good.
A very similar practice was known on the Isle of Man. The islanders used to sacrifice rum to the buggane of Kione Dhoo headland, the liquor being poured into the sea by fishing boats from Port St Mary as they passed the promontory on their way to the Kinsale and Lerwick fishing grounds. Rum was occasionally thrown from the top of the cliff as well, with the words “Take that, evil spirit (or monster)!”. This dedication resembles that which accompanied the practice of throwing a fish to the mermen at sea “Gow shen, dooinney varrey!” (‘Take that, sea people.’)
Another water beast was appeased in more blood thirsty fashion at Loch Maree in the Scottish Highlands. A terrible lake monster called Mourie inhabited this lake, to which bulls were sacrificed on August 25th each year. Very similar was the tradition at Loch Wan in the Scottish Uplands, where local farmers offered the first lamb of the flock each year to the loch- otherwise they knew that half their sheep would drown in its waters before the season was out.
Further south, in the Lincolnshire Fens, the habit used to be to offer the first fruits of the harvest, as well as a share of any bread, beer and milk, to the local spirits called the ‘Strangers,’ ‘the Tiddy Ones’ or the ‘Green Coaties.’ People knew that if these offerings were neglected, the crops would fail and livestock would die.
The success of many regular household tasks was guaranteed by making sure of fairy good will. For instance, on the Isle of Man, the faeries will help with the baking so long as a piece of the dough is stuck to the kitchen wall for them. If such an offering isn’t made, the baker will face problems. On Shetland the practice was to sprinkle every corner of a house with milk when butter was to be churned. In many places in Scotland, just as with the milk offerings mentioned earlier, some of the wort from any household brew of ale would be poured out at the ’brownie stone’ to ensure a good fermentation.
Faery aid- or good will- was invoked in emergencies too. One Dartmoor sheep farmer’s flock was plagued by disease; he concluded that the only remedy was to go to the top of a tor and slaughter a sheep as an offering to the pixies- a move which promptly alleviated the problem. At Crawford Muir on Shetland in the 1770s a tenant was reported to have sacrificed a black lamb to the sea trows so as to reinforce curses he was placing upon his enemies.
Lastly, and most strikingly, in 1859 on the Isle of Man archaeologists opened a barrow near Tynwald Hill and excavated the prehistoric remains within. After they had left, in order to atone for this desecration of a fairy site, a local farmer sacrificed and burned a heifer on the tumulus. This dedication to the spirits of the place is especially striking. (Manchester Times, 2/4/1881, 4)
If we read such accounts in books on anthropology and ancient religion, we would unhesitatingly say that sacrifices were being made to the gods. In these cases, though, we have offerings made by people who would, I’m sure, have said that they were good Christian folk, going to church or chapel every Sunday and not in the least pagan. They would have denied ‘worshipping’ the fairies and in this I’m sure they would have been right. The goods given are more in the manner of a payment, part of a deal with the Good Folk who lived so near to them and had such an impact upon their lives and their environment. A bargain was being struck, with a powerful and sometimes troublesome neighbour, rather than a prayer being offered up to a nature deity. In some cases, such as the regular provision of milk and bread at night, it would have been framed as an act of welcome towards someone visiting your house. Admittedly, they were going to come in whether you liked it or not, but that was just more reason to want to make them feel at home. Our relationship with fairies has always been one in which there is a strange imbalance in power and nervousness on our part…
Why is it that some fairies seem happy to undertake chores for humans, whether these are strenuous physical tasks or finishing off household jobs that haven’t been completed?
We are very familiar with the existence and activities of the brownie and related faery species (boggarts, broonies, gruagachs and glaistigs) who will attach themselves to a particular family, estate or farmstead and perform a variety of agricultural and domestic functions. I have analysed these relationships in some detail in my recent book Faery, but suffice to say that we may regard the interaction as some sort of contract for service, with the fairy being accepted as having a clear role and place within the household. In return for the work done, food, drink and, often, an allocated time to enjoy the shelter and warmth of the humans’ home are granted. The faery acquires a recognised position within the wider clan or ‘familia.’
Here, I’m rather more interested in the cases where the fairies appear very ready to do odd-jobs for humans. Remuneration may be provided, but there isn’t the long-term relationship that’s usually understood to exist with the brownies and boggarts. These arrangements can take a number of forms.
At Osebury, near Lulsley on the River Teme in Worcestershire, the tradition is that a broken implement left in the faery’s cave there will be mended for you. On Orkney it was believed that, if a spinning wheel was not working well, leaving it out overnight on a faery mound would fix it. There’s an unspoken arrangement that faulty items can be brought to the faery’s habitation and that a repair would be done without any apparent expectation of reward.
Then there are the cases where the fairy comes to the human home to do the work. On Guernsey it was said that the fairies would help industrious individuals. If an unfinished piece of knitting, such as a stocking, was left on the hearth or by the oven along with a bowl of porridge, by morning the work would be done and the bowl would be empty. However, if the reason that the task was unfinished was the person’s idleness, the faery response would be to deal out some blows instead. (MacCulloch, Guernsey Folklore, 203). On the island of Jersey it was reported that if servants left out unfinished work (such as needlework) with a piece of cake, the fairies would complete it overnight- and do much of the next day’s work too. (Folklore vol.25, 245) On the British mainland, in Staffordshire, the tradition was the same. Small household tasks would be carried out in return for gifts of food or tobacco. (‘Notes on Staffordshire Folklore’, W Witcutt, Folklore 1942, 89).
Somewhat comparable is information from the Scottish Highlands to the effect that a girl’s fairy lover, who lived near her home in a fairy hill, would help her out with her daily chores, such as cutting peat turfs for the fire. Of course, the motivation here was love, which may well distinguish it from the cases already described.
Somewhat at odds with most of the foregoing is a case recorded by MacDougall and Calder in 1910 in which a man’s laziness was encouraged by the fairies doing all his work for him at night. The miller of Mulinfenachan, near Duthil in Inverness-shire, who was called Strong Malcolm, used to put everything ready in his mill before he went to bed, knowing that all the grinding would be done by morning. If straw needed to be threshed for the cattle, or grain winnowed, these jobs would be done if the necessary tools and raw materials were left out. Anyone who tried to spy on the activities would be forcibly expelled.
None of this was done for him out of kindness, though. When another mill burned down locally, the fairies were heard to exclaim “We will have plenty of meal now… and Strong Malcolm must henceforth work for himself or starve.” The explanation of this account rests on two points. One is that food stuffs lost by fire or perhaps just dropped on the ground) went to the fairies as their rightful property. Secondly, it will be apparent that they had been taking a ‘commission’ for the work that they did for Malcolm. They had been keeping a share of all the flour, grain and such like- and with the fire, they no longer had to work for this. (Folk Tales and Fairy Lore, 187).
Although the Guernsey fairies objected to laziness, those at Duthil didn’t mind about this fault in Strong Malcolm- because it was profitable for them not to do so. The fairies intermeddle in human affairs, it seems, because there’s something in it for them. Hard work in exchange for a bowl of porridge might seem like a poor exchange to us, but with magical powers to accomplish the work, the labour could well look very different to them and, plainly, there’s something about human food (whether it’s the ingredients or the finished product) that’s irresistible to them- and worth all the effort.
This second posting in advance of publication of my next book, Beyond Faery, examines some of the water beasts of Britain.
There are various faery beasts that infest fresh and salt water in the British Isles. They are primarily found in Scotland and they are primarily horse like.
These ‘water horses’ live in lakes. Usually people only encounter and have to deal with one, but at Loch Aird na h-uamh there are reported to be multiple horses. Some of these steeds, people have been brave enough to ride; some have even survived the attempt, though many of those who tried were drowned or torn to pieces.
Typical of the species is the horse found at Lochan-larig-eala near Breadalbane. It is a white horse and when it first appears on the lake side, it lies down on the grass and looks very placid and pretty. Nine children playing there once climbed on it- at which point it dashed for the water immediately. The child at the back was able to use the horse’s tail to swing off; the rest didn’t escape and it’s said that they were eaten and all that remained was their lungs, which floated ashore in due course. Some versions of this story say that it happened on a Sunday, so that the faery beast was actually being employed to punish children who were playing rather than attending church. In this second account, the boy who survived happened to have a few Bible pages in his pocket, which saved him.
Some water horses will submit to working for humans, just to be able to get near enough to kill one. The story is told of John MacInnes of Glenelg who was struggling with his farm work when he was approached by a stranger and offered assistance. He accepted, despite the odd conditions imposed, and immediately found a fine horse standing in his field. MacInnes used it for ploughing and was delighted to find that it was both strong and obedient. Things went very well for time, although every evening when the horse was stabled John had to make sure he threw earth from a mole-hill over its back and said a blessing. One night he forgot. The next day, as soon as they were out in the field, the horse grabbed him with its teeth and dragged him into the nearby loch. All that was ever recovered was his liver. The stipulation of the mole-hill is curious, but one way of trapping fairy cattle (and mermaids) on land is to sprinkle grave-yard earth across their path (Scottish Notes & Queries, vol.6, 1893).
There is an each uisge in Loch-nan-Spioradan in Strathspey, which is seen as a beautifully equipped horse. A local healer who managed to obtain the bit from this horse’s bridle found that it had great healing properties, especially for ‘maladies of the mind.’
Water horses are also known in Wales, where they’re called ceffyl y dwr. Like their more northerly counterparts, their habit is to tempt people to ride them- and then to destroy them. From the island of Guernsey there are reports of a white fairy horse that shared many of the traits of each-uisge. Its back could extend to accommodate as many victims as wanted to ride on it and, once the riders were settled, it would gallop off at alarming speed with its passengers unable to dismount. Luckily, on Guernsey, the aim of all this was relatively benign- it was just to give the victims a fright before they were dumped in a marsh.
The each uisge is a uniquely savage creature, most unlike the average horse used for riding (whether by humans or their fairy neighbours). From Breadalbane there also comes a report of a ‘fairy horse’ that was much more like the sort of animal known in the human world. A man spent an evening dancing in the sithean at Lawes. He enjoyed himself immensely and, at the end of the festivities, the fairies lent him a horse to get home, which flew through the air like lightning and dropped him down his chimney.
There are a number of less benign variations upon this supernatural steed. From Leeds, West Yorkshire, come reports of a ‘goblin horse’ that would allow people to mount it before it galloped off at high speed, shouting ‘I ride, Madge!’ and dumping the rider in a pond. Further north in Durham there are similar creatures called ‘brags.’ The Leeds area is also home to a ‘black dog’ apparition called the ‘padfoot’ (which I will discuss in a separate posting). These beings are notorious shapeshifters and, in one instance, it changed into a donkey which ran between a man’s legs and carried him off at speed to his home (to the accompaniment of clanking chains) before sinking into the earth.
The Isle of Man also has the mysterious ‘night horses,’ which seem to be a faery horse with some of the traits of the each uisge. These are found at night on roads, ready saddled and bridled, but if any is incautious enough to mount, he will find himself flying along at a terrifying pace before being dumped on the ground somewhere. The night horse seems to like to give shocks, but no more. The creature called the glashtyn, which can have human and equine form, is more deadly. In its horse shape it will carry off any who mount it and try to drown them in a nearby river or pool.
As mentioned, Wales has its own water horse, the ceffyl y dwr, which is in fact one of several water beasts known there- or, alternatively, there is a single water sprite that assumes a number of different forms. Amongst those identified, there is a thin old man who is seen in raging mountain streams, sometimes stretching out his bony arms to observers; there is the water horse proper that’s found in pools or in rivers, where it tries to seize fishermen’s lines and drag them into the waters, and, lastly, there’s a monstrous fish (generally a salmon) that will try to drag under those that hunt it. In one instance, a man who tried to spear it whilst out fishing on a Sunday was nearly drowned; he ascribed the fish’s attack to a righteous rage over his Sabbath breaking- something that’s also been said of the each uisge already, although this may be more a matter of his guilty conscience than the faery beast being recruited to policing the reformed religion.
Kelpies are often treated as being interchangeable with the each uisge, but whilst the former live in still fresh water, kelpies live in rivers or in the sea. They are just as unpleasant as the each. One sighted near Leurbost on the isle of Lewis in 1856 was described as looking like a “huge peat stack”- so large that a six oar boat could pass between the fins that were seen. Iit was up to forty feet in length, witnesses claimed, and it had swallowed whole a blanket left by the loch by girl tending cattle.
Kelpies have been called ‘sly devils.’ Very much like the each, the kelpie will often appear on the banks of a swollen stream, feeding tamely as a traveller approaches. If the person is already on a horse, the kelpie will trot across the stream ahead, suggesting that it is shallow and safe. If the person is on foot, he’ll be tempted to mount the horse and ride it across the river. If he does this, it will immediately gallop off with shrieks of terrifying laughter. Either way, the hapless traveller is overwhelmed by the flooding torrent. For these reasons, William Collins, in his Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, described how the kelpie will:
“Instant, furious, raise the whelming flood,
O’er its drowned banks, forbidding all return…”
So that victims are “Drown’d by the kaelpie’s wrath.”
Sometimes, it is possible to tame a kelpie by surprising it and slipping over its head a halter that has been blessed by having crosses cut into the cheek pieces. The beast can then be used for farm labour, pulling loads and ploughs and such like. It can’t escape as long as the bridle is kept on it, however badly it’s treated. Kelpies have been used like this to help build churches and castles all around Scotland.
Interestingly, like fairies, it’s said that kelpies can predict or see future events. They are said, around Buckhaven, to roar before a loss at sea. Likewise, at Rumbling Bridge in Clackmannanshire, the kelpie predicts drownings by lights and noises at night (although, admittedly, it is also that same kelpie that helps to drown many of these unfortunate people). At St Vigeans, near Arbroath, a kelpie had been used to build the church and, when finally released, it foretold the minister’s death by suicide and collapse of the church. Both these things happened in the early eighteenth century. The kelpie that was used to build the church of St Mungo’s in Dumfriesshire advised that a larger graveyard than had been planned ought to be laid out, as it would be needed one day to accommodate all the bodies from a nearby battle.
Given their violent propensities, people have often tried to hunt and exterminate kelpies living in their vicinity. This is, perhaps predictably, very difficult to do, because the kelpie is a hardy, elusive and indestructible creature. In the 1780s, for example, Highlanders tried to drag Loch Garn with nets to catch the underwater beast. They failed to catch it, after which they tried scattering lime in the loch to kill the monster. Neither succeeded.
In the far north of Scotland and on Orkney and Shetland you’ll encounter (if you’re very unlucky) the njugl or neogle, a creature seen near water mills that resembles a pony. It will stop the mill wheel to gain attention and, when the miller goes out to see what the problem might be, he will find the pony, saddled and bridled, grazing nearby. If he mounts it, it will dash for the water and leap off the bank, with both rider and mount vanishing in a flash of flame. Wiser millers chase the creature off with a red hot poker or similar. A notorious example of the nuggle used to plague the Orkney island of Hoy. It lived in a small lake on the north-east coast of the island, called the Water o’ Hoy, but frequented the ford over the Pegal Burn, a little further to the south, where it would try to catch hapless travellers.
In the Scottish Highlands and on Orkney and Shetland a variety of other terrifying and often hybrid beasts were known. Some of these are mentioned in my forthcoming posting on boggles. Here I’ll mention one that seemed to have no specific name. Over Yule on Shetland people were not expected to do any of their normal day to day activities or work. Once, however, two men went out fishing in defiance of the prohibition. They netted a monstrous creature that was half fish and half horse and which spoke, declaring to them: “Man who fished in Yule week/ Fortune never more did seek.” Once again, these supernatural beings seem to be recruited to back up religious rules and festivals.
As I have discussed previously, you may encounter fairy cattle owned by the good folk, which have their own identifying characteristics, but there are also water bulls, the tarbh uisge of the Highlands. The bulls of Glenlochay near Breadalbane are said to be brindled, red and yellow. A cow will abandon its herd and travel up the glen to the lochan, where she will bellow until the tarbh appears and mates with her. The hybrid offspring are known to be those of a tarbh because they are all black with curly hair.
On the Isle of Man, water bulls are also found, being called tarroo ushtey. They’re recognised by their shining coats and sharp ears. They often mix with normal herds of cattle, and rouse the fury of the bulls kept with them, although the tarroo seems indifferent to the rage of the farmer’s bull. They can be fierce, but they often move quite slowly, making a strange whirring sound.
In one Manx story a farmer objected to the bull grazing with his herds and consuming his valuable grass, so he drove it off several times. The result, though, was that blights struck his crops. A wise-woman told the man that he could subdue the tarroo with a stick made from rowan wood- which he duly did. Having the beast under his control, he resolved to sell it at the market. He was easily able to drive the bull there, but no-one seemed interested, despite the size and sleekness of the animal. Right at the end of the day, a man finally showed interest, but he asked the farmer to ride the bull to prove that it was tame and well-behaved. Desperate for the sale, he consented to this, but as soon as he’d mounted he dropped his rowan switch. This of course released the tarroo from his control and it bolted, nearly carrying the man off into a deep pool in the river. He narrowly escaped- and learned his lesson, which was to always show the proper respect to the fairies and the faery beasts.
Also found on the Isle of Man is the glashtin, a sort of bogie that will very commonly take on equine form and which will inhabit pools and rivers. Unlike the tarroo ushtey, the glashtin is said to mingle with the herds of horses kept by Manx farmers without any disturbance or hostility between the animals. However, the glashtins only liked to mate with pure Manx-bred ponies, and as the island’s horses interbred more and more with outside breeds, the glashtin was seen less and less.
If you’re interested to learn more, see too my separate posting on water beasts. Additionally, several chapters of Beyond Faery deal in detail with the many aspects of the lore of the inland and marine water beasts of Britain. The book is due for release in early November.
Fairy partners were extremely attractive, but love for a fairy could be portrayed as obsessive, something that caused the human to sicken and to pine, as we see from Robert Armin’s The Valiant Welshman (1615, Act II, scene 5):
“Oh, the intolerable paine that I suffer from the love of the fairy Queen! My heeles are all kybde [bruised] in the very heate of my affection, that runnes down into my legges; methinks I could eat up a whole Baker’s shoppe at a meale, to be eased of this love.”
Fairies were desirable partners simply because of their physical beauty. However, a fairy’s lover could hope for great favour still- and the lover of the fairy queen (the most beauteous of all her kind) would naturally be even more highly honoured and rewarded. At the same time, though, these supernaturals could prove to be possessive and demanding lovers- and vengeful if they felt neglected or slighted.
The trade-off between sex and gain, passion and pain, was therefore a difficult one, as we see from both folklore record and from romantic fiction.
The Scottish Evidence
Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed a relationship with the fairy queen that involved both her worship (he and others assembled and kissed her “airrs” in reverence) but also regular sexual contact. He said of her:
“the queen is very plesand, and wilbe auld and young quhen scho pleissis; scho mackis any king quhom she pleisis and leyis with any scho lykis.”
One of those whom the queen liked was Man. Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had “conversit with hir bodily.” In other words, he ‘lay with her’ and, as a result of these “carnal dealings” they had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.
Over and above these numerous infants, Man had gained materially: he learned to diagnose and cure diseases in cattle and humans and he was taught charms to steal milk and corn, or to protect his neighbours’ fields against such fairy thefts.
Sex with a fairy often appears to have been the price (and the conduit) for supernatural powers. Isobell Strathaquin, also from Aberdeen, was tried in the January of the previous year to Andro Man; she told the court that she acquired powers in this manner: she “learnit it at [from] ane elf man quha lay with hir.”
Elspeth Reoch of Orkney also gained the second sight from two fairy men, but it involved sexual harassment by one of them. She told her 1616 trial that two men had approached her and called her “ane prettie” before giving her a charm to enable her to see the faes. Later “ane farie man” called John Stewart came to her on two successive nights and ‘dealt with her,’ not allowing her to sleep and promising a “guidly fe” is she agreed to have sex with him. She held out against his blandishments until the third night, when he touched her breast and them seemed to lie with her. The next day she was struck dumb (in order to conceal the source of her prophetic powers) and had to wander the town and beg for her living, offering people the knowledge she received through her second sight.
Sometimes, it has to be admitted, boasting can come into these accounts. Isobel Gowdie, from Auldearn near Nairn, was tried as a witch in 1662. During her confession she seems to mock or tease her accusers with her account of the huge proportions of the devil’s ‘member.’ They were pressing her for confessions and they got them, with Isobel all the while expressing her modesty and Christian timidity over describing such shocking acts.
Sex in the Stories
The exchange of sex and skill is common between fairy and mortal. In the poem and ballads of the same name, Thomas of Erceldoune was relaxing outside in the sunshine one day when he was approached by the gorgeous fairy queen. After some resistance, she consented to lie with him “And, as the story tellus ful right, Seven tymes be hir he lay.” Thomas is moved to these prodigious feats by her physical desirability (and, no doubt, by his own youthful vigour) but there’s a price to pay. Initially after intercourse, the queen loses her beauty and becomes a hideous hag; secondly, her looks and youth may only be restored by her lover agreeing to spend seven years in Faery. Thomas seems to have very little choice about this and has to leave immediately- although on the plus side, his travelling companion is restored to her former loveliness. Once there, the riches start to flow to Thomas. He is elegantly clothed and lives a life of luxurious leisure; what’s more, at the end of his time in Faery, he is endowed by the queen with special abilities. In some versions of the tale, he becomes a skilled harper; in others he gains second sight.
The romance of Sir Launfal is comparable for the trade off between sex and wealth. The fairy lady Tryamour summons the young knight to her in a forest. She is reclining semi-naked in the heat and offers him a rich feast, followed by a sleepless night of sex. The next morning, though, the nature of their transaction becomes clear: she promises to visit him regularly in secret but there are two conditions: “no man alive schalle me se” and, even more onerous:
“thou makst no bost of me…
And, yf thou doost, y warny the before,
Alle my love thou hast forlore.”
Assenting to the terms, he is given fine clothes, horses, armour and attendants and returns to the court of King Arthur. Before, he had been poor and of no account, but now he is rich and gains status and respect.
In due course (albeit for honourable reasons) Launfal discloses his secret lover. As with fairy money, this indiscretion might normally be expected to lose him Tryamour’s affections instantly and irreparably, but in this case she comes to Arthur’s court and carries him off to faery forever.
Fairy love and fairy magical abilities may be bestowed upon the lucky human, but that good fortune is plainly qualified. The gifts are in fact an exchange; there must be a surrender on the part of the mortal recipient, which may be the loss of some of their independence or which may require a complete abandonment of their home, friends and family. Perhaps the prize of fairy love and fairy knowledge are worth paying highly for, but, in earlier times, the cost of the bargain often turned out to be excessive, for fairy contact could prove fatal if revealed to the church and state.
A Note on the Scottish Witch Cases
As I highlighted before in my discussion of Ronald Hutton’s book, The Witch, I still harbour reservations about using the testimony from the Scottish witch trials. I say above that Isobel Gowdie was ‘pressed’ for incriminating evidence. This was literally true: boards were placed on suspects’ legs and piled with rocks. We have a record of one victim of this crying out for it to stop and agreeing to confess whatever the court wanted.
Once these individuals had fallen into the authorities’ hands, their fate was pretty much sealed. The sentence that almost all faced was to be ‘wyrrit and burnit,’ which means that they were tied to a stake, strangled and then burned. For Elspeth Reoch, for example (NBOrcadian readers!) she was taken to the top of Clay Loan in Kirkwall where there is still a small area of grass; several local women suffered the same horrible fate on this spot. We know too that one woman leaped from the top of a high prison tower in Perth to avoid execution.
Faced with the same circumstances, you too might agree to say whatever your inquisitors wanted you to say if it ended the misery. How much can we trust this evidence then? My feeling is that, whilst these might not be personal experiences, they still reflect what society as a whole believed to be the structure and conduct of the fairy folk. If it did not convince the torturers, they might not have accepted it. These confessions reflect the wider understanding of Faery in those days and need not be dismissed out of hand as the individual fantasy of a person desperate to stop the torture.
Finally: I have quite often quoted from the confessions of these individuals. Whenever you read their names, spare a thought for them. The worst that most did was to try to cure people and livestock at a time when medicines and health care were hugely limited. To most of us, I’m sure these hardly sound like crimes, let alone capital offences.
What’s fairies’ hair like? We have a few scraps of evidence on the matter, which gives us some quite surprising answers.
Our tendency today is to envisage beautiful fays with gorgeous locks- and these ideas are not solely a product of our more recent benign and lovely image of our Good Neighbours. It’s been said that the faes have a preference for taking fair-haired human children and this predilection seems to have been transferred to the abductors as well as the abductees.
In Victorian times, for example, Angus Macleod of Harris eulogised as follows:
“Their heavy brown hair was streaming down to their waist and its lustre was of the fair golden sun of summer. Their skin was as white as the swan of the wave, and their voice was as melodious as the mavis of the wood, and they themselves were as beauteous of feature and as lithe of form as a picture, while their step was as lithe and stately and their minds as sportive as the little red hind of the hill.” (see Wentz, p.116)
One Welsh story informs us that the tylwyth teg ideal of beauty is red-hair and many of the more romantic accounts of fairy troops and fairy queens portray them with flowing, glossy manes. This isn’t the whole story, though.
In 1792 an account of the parish of Liberton in Edinburgh described the local fairy women as being “girls of diminutive size, dressed in green with dishevelled hair, who frequented sequestered places and at certain times conversed with men.” Presumably those men weren’t put off the fairy lovers by the state of their hair.
A second contemporary report from Kirkmichael in Banffshire likewise described fairy women appearing to travellers, “with dishevelled hair floating over their shoulders and with faces more blooming than the vermeil blush of a summer morning.” Perhaps the attraction for humans indeed is the fresh, natural look of the faes.
Lastly, Scottish writer Hugh Miller recorded a famous account of the ‘departure of the fairies.’ Two children saw a cavalcade of fairies riding away from Burn of Eathie on the Black Isle. They were unattractive creatures dressed in old fashioned clothes and, from under their caps, “their wild uncombed locks shot out over their cheeks and foreheads.” (Miller, Old Red Sandstone, 1841, p.215)
This uncombed state may reflect nothing more than the fact that these are wild country dwellers who may have neither the leisure nor the lifestyle for much grooming. Perhaps, in the circumstances, dread-locked fays are what really we ought to expect. Even so, the state of the fairies’ hair frequently seems to reflect the character and attractiveness of the being as a whole. The brownies and the less friendly goblins and hags almost always seem to be described as having shaggy, coarse, dark hair. For human witnesses, it’s almost impossible to conceive of a malign entity that, at the same time, has sleek, groomed locks; our minds unconsciously reject such a pairing. Nonetheless, some modern witnesses have described seeing faes with feathers growing in their hair- or even with feathers instead of hair. (See for instance John Dathen, Somerset Fairies and Pixies, p.30)
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Waterfall Fairy
Let’s turn now to mermaids, creatures who traditionally have been renowned for their long hair (if only to preserve their womanly modesty). Sightings of mermaids have described them variously as having short dark hair, flowing red locks, coarse hair, curly but oily green hair, and (most often) that flowing fair hair in which they take such great pride, sitting for hours on rocks combing it and admiring themselves in mirrors.
The lovely blonde mermaid in the sea is a cliché, but she’s not alone. In Scottish rivers lives the freshwater mere-maid called the ceasg, a creature of great beauty (once you have reconciled yourself to the fact that she is half woman and half salmon). Her hair has been described as being “long and flossy,” which I take to mean that it is very pale and silky- the name itself signifies a tuft of wool, linen or silk.
There are some much less appealing examples, though. The Cornish water sprite, the bucca, has been said to have seaweed for hair. One mermaid seen at Birsay on the Orkney mainland was recorded as being ‘covered in brown hair’, though whether this meant long hair covering her modesty or an actual covering of fur is not wholly clear. This sighting brings us to the final curious case I’ll mention. It’s another case from Orkney, of a man from Sourie in Sandwick who was carried off by the trows to Suleskerry, a rock outcrop in the sea fifty miles offshore. The trows kept him there for what seemed to him like a few hours, before carrying him home again. In fact, he’d been away for seven years. This, in itself, meant that people had difficulties recognising him, a problem compounded by the fact that he was, it was said, “he was grown all over with hair on his return which so altered his appearance that his neighbours had some difficulty in recognising him.” This may just be seven years without a barber, or it may perhaps be some more malign effect of fairy contact. If it is the latter, it would be a particularly odd effect of close fairy contact. It can also act as a reminder that not all fairies are quite what we anticipate- and that some of them can be furry beings, much against our expectations.
I recently visited the Orkney islands, a long planned holiday to see the many megalithic monuments there- the standing stones, burial chambers and cairns. The Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe were all well worth the trip, but it was good too to experience the scene of so much folklore that I’ve read.
The islands are quite bleak and treeless and are covered in lochs (mostly fresh water but a few salt water). The grey, cold water under grey cold skies (the weather wasn’t brilliant) made it very easy to imagine kelpies and tangies (the Gaelic speaking Highlanders’ each uisge or water horse) emerging from the waters and roaming the land in search of prey.
One day we crossed from the mainland to the island of Rousay, using the ferry Eynhallow from Tingwall jetty. Eynhallow (the first syllable is pronounced like ‘eye’) is one of the two islands inhabited by the fin folk, or selkies. Formerly it was called Hildaland, and was often hidden from human eyes whilst the fin-folk lived there during the summer months.
A man called Thorodale, who lived in Evie on the mainland, just across the sound from Eynhallow, lost his wife one day when she was abducted by a fin-man. He planned revenge and sought the advice of a wise ‘spae-woman’ on the island of Hoy. She told him how to see the hidden island of Hildaland. For nine moons, at midnight when the moon was full, Thorodale went nine times on his bare knees around the great Odin Stone of Stenness (this was a huge holed stone that no longer exists). For the duration of nine moons, he looked through the hole in the stone and wished for the power of seeing Hildaland. After repeating this for nine months one beautiful summer morning, just after sunrise, Thorodale looked out on the sea and saw that, in the middle of Eynhallow Sound, there lay a pretty little island, where no land had ever been seen before. Armed with salt and crosses to dispel the faery glamour, Thorodale rowed across to the revealed isle. He fought off the fin-men, rescued his wife and then sowed salt around the whole island, banishing the fin-folk forever and claiming it for men. Eynhallow is deserted today, but it is still protected- by a fearful tidal race of white crested standing waves.
I also visited Hoy, not to meet the spae-wife but to visit the stunning Dwarfie Stane, a burial chamber hollowed out of a massive boulder. It lies on a bleak hillside, just near the end of the Trowie Glen (the fairy valley). That anything like this was carved with stone tools alone is deeply impressive. The sound effects achieved by a single voice inside are also remarkable.
The last notable fae site was a burial chamber on Cuween Hill on the mainland, called the Tomb of the Beagles because of the dog bones found inside, but also known locally as the Fairy Knowe. It was a steep climb up to the site and a tight crawl along the entrance passage to get in, but it was very still and mysterious within. Outside the wind was blowing; inside there was thick silence and a sense of contact, not just with the Neolithic farmers who had been buried there but with the faes whose dwelling it subsequently became.
Lastly (on one of the coldest and wettest days of our trip!) we visited the farm museums at Kirbuster and Corrigall. These were especially interesting as they preserved traditional Orkney farm houses and it was fascinating to see the open peat fires in the centre of the main rooms, with the smoke curling up through the hole in the roof, and to imagine those many stories I’d read in which a changeling child was placed in a basket in the smoke from the hot peat flames and driven to fly up through the ‘lum’ (the smoke hole), forcing the trows into returning the stolen human infant.
One curious aspect of fairy lore is the antipathy that some fairies have for water. This only applies in certain situations, however, and may not be a general rule.
Water as a fairy necessity
Fairies, like humans, require water for basic necessities. It’s pretty certain that they drink it: they are reputed to drink dew at the very least. Without doubt they use water for bathing: there are numerous folk lore records of fairies expecting householders to leave out bowls of fresh water for them at night so that they and children may wash: plenty of examples are to be found in Rhys, Celtic folklore (pp.56, 110, 151, 198, 221 & 240). There’s also a story of fairies surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley.
According to the seventeenth century pamphlet, Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests, if no clean water was left out for the fairies’ night time ablutions, the usual reprisal would follow:
“we wash our children in their pottage, milk or beer or whatever we find: for the sluts that have not such things fitting we wash their faces and hands with a gilded child’s clout or else carry them to some river and duck them over head and ears.”
Similar stories are found across the country as far north as the Scottish Highlands: for example, in one Shetland example a trow mother washes her baby’s nappies in the water in which barley is soaking.
It hardly need be said that certain fairies live in water and plainly cannot have any objection to their natural environment. Both fresh and salt water are inhabited, as I’ve discussed in previous posts on inland and marine mermaids.
Another fay link with water is found in the Scottish bean-nighe (the washer woman) and the related caointeach (the keener). Both foretell deaths by washing clothes or winding sheets at fords or in streams; plainly they are not adverse to contact with running fresh water. In fact, it’s said that power can be gained over the bean-nighe if you are able to come between her and the stream, indicating that her magic potential in some way derives from the water course.
Lastly, it’s worth recalling the fragments of evidence that children taken by the fairies can be somehow imbued with fairy magic not just by the application of green ointment but by dipping in certain springs and pools.
Fairy fear of water
Nevertheless, there is also evidence of fairies objecting to water that is flowing. This is confirmed by Evans-Wentz (p.38) for Ireland and for South West Scotland at least by J. F. Campbell in Popular tales of the west Highlands (volume 2, page 69). The hideous nuckelavee of Orkney is a venomous creature, part human and part horse, but it couldn’t abide fresh water, meaning that it never came out in the rain and could be escaped by leaping a burn. A dramatic example of this aversion comes from North Yorkshire: in Mulgrave Wood near Whitby lived a bogle or boggart by the name of Jeanie. One day she chased a farmer who was riding by. He galloped desperately for the nearest brook to escape her: just as she caught up with him and lashed out with her wand, his steed leapt the river. Jeanie sliced the horse in half. The front part, bearing the rider, fell on the far side and was safe, whilst Jeanie had to make do with the hind legs and haunches.
Any flowing watercourse will form an insurmountable barrier, it seems, but even more antithetical to the fays is water that flows in a southerly direction. This is shown from a couple of accounts. One way of expelling a changeling and recovering a human child from the fays that was practiced in the north east of Scotland was to wash the infant’s clothes in a south draining spring and then lay them to dry in the sun; if the clothes disappeared it meant that the fairies had accepted them and that the child would have been restored. Secondly, in a previous post I have discussed the diagnosis of fairy-inflicted illnesses by ‘girdle-measuring.’ One practitioner I mentioned, Jennet Pearson, would wash the girdle in a south-flowing stream before treating the sick person.
There is also evidence that the high tide line on a beach had a similar barring effect on supernatural pursuers. In the Highland story of Luran, he stole a goblet from the sith and escaped his angry pursuers by making for the shore.
There are contradictions to this, though. In Superstitions of the Highlands J. F. Campbell expressed his opinion that running water was no barrier to fairies (p.50); a possible compromise position is Evelyn Simpson’s idea that it is only bad fairies who are obstructed, whilst well-intentioned ones may pass over unhindered (see Folklore in lowland Scotland, p.107). Sometimes, too, it appears that even plain water can repel our good neighbours. George Henderson has recounted a folk-tale from the isle of Uist in the Scottish Highlands in which the fairies are depicted calling at the door of a house for a ‘cake’ to come out to them: the inmates threw water on the cake, and it replied: ‘I can’t go, I am undone.’ (Survivals of belief amongst the Celts, 1911, p.219) Here plain water seems enough to dispel the fairies’ magic.
I’ve written before about the contrary nature of much fairy lore. It seems that there’ll always be exceptions to any rule we try to identify, but even so we may say that, in most cases, a river or stream will provide an effective barrier between you and supernatural harm.
See too my post on fairies and wells. An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.