How to Spot a Fairy Part Two: Clothes

As I have discussed in previous posts, you may be able to identify a fairy by their physical appearance (by examining their hair, their eyes, or their physique– whether small or wizened) but they may also be given away by their clothes

Faery clothing is often highly distinctive. Here are a few descriptions from around Britain which may help spotting fairies.  In Yorkshire the fairies are said to be small and to wear short jackets and petticoats, to have bands of red ‘cuddy’ crossed around their legs rather like puttees, and to wear pointed caps like sugar loaves.  I have been unable to find ‘cuddy’ with certainty in dictionaries- my best guess is that it is a dialect version of cude cloth, a sort of fine white material used for wrapping babies at baptism.

The Manx fairies have been sighted several times dressed all in green or in green with red caps- that may be peaked, made of leather and which are adorned with fairy lace.  In one case a ‘fairy bishop’ visited a woman living at South Barrule on the island.  He wore a tricorn hat of the eighteenth-century fashion.  The taste for slightly old-fashioned clothes seems rather common: the fairies encountered at their famous market on the Blackdown Hills wore “old country garb” of red, blue or green and “high crowned hats” (presumably the sort of tall, broad brimmed hats we associate with Puritan and Cavaliers). The Cornish pobel vean “dressed in bright green nether garments, sky-blue jackets, three cornered hats on the men and pointed ones on the ladies, all decked out with lace and silver bells.”

Shetland fairies, meanwhile, have been seen in tight green clothes with green tapered caps.  West Highland fairies too have been described as wearing “sharp caps like [those] which children make of rushes” which rise in a high conical shape.

Some Welsh fairies have been reported as being dressed in red and white, the men with a red triple cap, the women with a light headdress.  Another description is even more elaborate: the tylwyth teg were said to be “beautiful little people,” the girls wearing dresses like rainbows with ribbons in their hair and the males in red triple caps (whatever these may be, exactly).  The same account also said that the women might appear in white, scarlet or in blue petticoats.  In south-east Wales, certainly, in Montgomeryshire, the fairies are known as the ‘old elves of the blue petticoats’ (or trousers), so characteristic were their garments and their colour.

Some other Welsh faeries, seen as recently as 1910, were said to be of the stature of children aged about eight or ten, with brown withered faces and hands like tiny claws.  They wore russet red, some having conical close-fitting caps, others having handkerchiefs tied around their heads.  Interestingly, a widely reproduced story of some fairies seen dancing in Denbighshire in the late 1750s closely resembles details of this.  One summer’s day four children saw some dancers in a field.  There were fifteen or sixteen, dressed in red with red handkerchiefs spotted with yellow on their heads.  The children tried to get nearer, but were scared off when one of the dancers ran towards them with a very fierce expression (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, 414).

The pixies of the south-west of England seem especially prone to wearing antiquated clothes. For example, a male seen at Shaugh Bridge, on the south west edge of Dartmoor, in 1897 was dressed in a pointed hat, doublet and “short knicker things” coloured blue and red; four seen on Dartmoor in 1960 wore similar outfits: red doublets, red pointed caps and long green hose or stockings. The Cornish pixies adopt similar styles: at Penberth Cove the pixie women appeared very grandly in hooped petticoats with furbelows (pleated borders) and trains, fans and feathers.  A group seen in 1830 at St Kea were dressed in red cloaks and tall, black sugar loaf hats of an ‘old-fashioned style.’  William Bottrell recorded that the pobel vean wore three cornered hats and the women were seen in very pointed headwear, all decorated with lace and silver bells.

What seems to tie all these accounts together is, firstly, the bright colours that are preferred.  Most reports originate from country areas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when garments for most ordinary folk would have been fairly drab.  The colourful costumes bespeak an earlier age and a richer class.  Secondly, the headwear stands out, primarily because it is old-fashioned, whether of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; some of its sounds distinctly odd to us today, but was probably far less unusual to the witnesses.  Even so, the fairies appear to come to us from another dimension and dressed as if they are an aristocracy of another age.

This is anachronistic style of dress is still reflected (to some extent) in the popular renderings of faeries- as illustrated by the pictures included here. Both artists have opted for medieval peasant style hoods with long trailing points or curious ‘ears.’ These allow for some amusing suggestions of faery ears whilst also underlining their essential otherness. If you have read my book from last year, Faery Art of the Twentieth Century, you may recall that this sort of faux-medieval garment became a common indicator of fairies in children’s illustrations from the 1920s onwards.

So, to conclude, how can you spot a faery? Well, the trite and unhelpful answer seems to be: they’ll look like one (!) Their clothing will stand out as peculiar and old fashioned, even if everything else about them blends in. Watch out…

W. Heath Robinson, The Fairy’s Birthday

What’s in a Name? Using the right terms for the faeries

Recently I’ve been researching the pixies of south-west Britain for my book, British Pixies, and, in so doing, encountered serious problems in pinning down the basic terminology used by authors such as Robert Hunt and William Borlase and (presumably) their local Cornish sources.  There are at least five terms used to label the fairy folk of the south-west: pixies, pobel vean (little people), spriggans, knockers and buccas.  A couple of these words seem to be Cornish and, we might be tempted to suggest, are older and more authentic than some of the other terms.  The word pixie/ pisky would seem to be a later import, if we are correct in supposing that it is related to the pucks of England and the pwcca of Wales and is (probably) a Germanic word originally.  The bucca certainly seems to be an identical being.  Some of the folklore writers tried to make distinctions between this multiplicity of words: for instance, the pobel vean were said to be smaller and more beautiful; the knockers lived in mines; the spriggans were ugly and evil.  The truth is, though, that reading the sources, we find the words being used interchangeably, so that Cornish witnesses can speak of knockers as buccas or can use the latter word to denote both pixies and the pobel vean.

Precision seems both impossible and, very probably, unnecessary.  This example is reflective of a wider problem within the British Isles, where successive layers of incoming speech have led to an overlapping vocabulary, which can tempt us into imagining differences (or even similarities) that don’t exist.  Over and above this, of course, there is the additional problem of the faeries not wanting us to know what they really call themselves, for fear of giving us power over them). Here are a few other instances of the taxonomic confusion.

Isle of Man: the island’s fairies are often called the ferrish (singular)/ ferrishyn (plural)This could be a Manx word, but compare it with authentically Manx Celtic terms like mooinjer veggy or sleigh beggey, meaning the little people.  Ferrishyn seems suspiciously similar, to me, to the terms ferishers, feriers, fraries and, even, farisees/ pharisees used in Norfolk and Suffolk in the east of England.  On Orkney and Shetland you might encounter the pronunciation ferries. Recalling the Highland Gaelic tendency to turn a final ‘s’ into ‘sh,’ this could indicate the route by which Manx speakers arrived at ferrish.  Whatever the exact derivation, these are all dialect versions of ‘fairies’ and, as such, aren’t themselves hugely old.  Katherine Briggs drew a comparison with the feorin of the English North West, but, as Simon Young has demonstrated, this is most probably derived from ‘fear’- something that scares you. 

Wales: there seem to be several good, genuine, Welsh words in use, many of them euphemisms. These include tylwyth teg, bendith y mamau (the mother’s blessings), y dynion mwyn (the kind people), y teulu (the tribe), gwragedd anwyl (the beloved women), yr elod (‘the intelligences’- perhaps, the ‘wise’ or ‘all-knowing’ ones), pwcca and ellyllon.  All’s not what it seems, however.  As already mentioned, pwcca could just be a borrowing across the border.  Likewise, ellyllon is simply the Welsh rendering of the English ‘elves’ and even tylwyth teg, ‘the fair folk’ may be a mistaken rendering of fairies, based on the assumption that the core of the English word was ‘fair’ as in good-looking. I need hardly say that y goblin bach, the little goblin, is not a deeply authentic Welsh label.

England: the foregoing sections suggest the invasive power of the English language (which is true) but let’s not forget that Anglo-Saxon was itself steadily overwhelmed by subsequent influxes of Romance and other languages.  Old English ‘elf’ still survives, especially in lowland Scotland, but it generally plays second best to a French import, fay/ fairy, a word which has been adopted as a handy, catch-all labelOther continental importations include goblin, from the French gobelin, and Scandinavian troll (which is the root of the trows of Orkney and Shetland too).  Both goblin and trow seem to have been required because there wasn’t a decent English equivalent.  Anglo-Saxon had used the word dweorg, meaning a small, malicious elf-like being. This vanished from standard English- along with any concept of ‘dwarves’ as a species of supernatural entity.  In Dorset, there is still the derrick, a name that’s derived from dweorg and which is now applied to a little man who’s often said to be a local kind of pixie… 

Much more recently, as I’ve described before, we’ve imported Latin and Greek words like nymph, naiad and siren as extra terms to use in parallel with fairy, elf and mermaid.  We’ve also adopted entirely made-up names, such as gnome and sylph.  As mentioned in a previous posting, these were dreamed up by Paracelsus, but they’ve assumed a place in the language, to the extent that gnomes have even been accepted as a separate genus of fairy being.

These imported names can add variety to texts- and I’m as guilty as any of switching from one to another just to avoid monotony- but they can also create the impression that the landscape is peopled with a dense confusion of different types of being, whereas we may, in most instances, be dealing with only a handful of types.  Broadly, in Britain, we can probably narrow matters down to fairies/ elves and brownies/ hobs/ boggarts.  The rest is probably just a matter of differences of terminology (and this is before we’ve even considered all the very local names that exist: dobbies, powries, dunters, red caps, piskies etc etc)…. 

Emmeline Richardson

“Poor Little Greenie:” Faeries and Little Green Men

The colour green has always been strangely linked to fairies. Older texts often refer to the Good Folk as being green, but in fact this almost always denotes their clothing colour- just as calling a faery ‘red’ or ‘black’ generally refers to their hair colour rather than saying anything about flesh tone. For example, the Devonshire pixies are reported “to be” green in colour but the same witness also went on to state that, if you wear green, “you’ll soon be mourning,” pretty clearly indicating that she was discussing the pixies’ clothing.

Green garments are a constant in faerylore across Britain and across time. In the Lincolnshire Fens in the east of England, for instance, the local nature spirits were called (amongst other things) the ‘Green Coaties.’  A similar term was used in Lancashire as well- see the references to the ‘Greenies’ in Bowker’s Goblin Tales.

In the Western Isles of Scotland, it was said that it was not advisable to sleep in a house where water for washing had not been put out at night for the fairies.  This was because the “slender one of the green coat” would come with her baby at night and wash it in the milk instead.  What’s notable is not only that the fairy woman (bean sith) is dressed in green but that (as is quite common in Gaelic speaking areas) she is described as “slender.”  This adjective often describes fairy females, perhaps indicating part of their believed allure: their willowy, juvenile bodies (or was it really an allusion to their emaciated, dangerously hungry bodies?) The association with green was especially strong in the Highlands. For instance, in Gaelic songs and prayers we may also find reference to the “slender woman of the green kirtle” (bean chaol a chota uaine) and, more generally, to the “tribe of the green mantles” (luchd nan trasganan uaine);

The trows of Shetland are described as looking like children of three or four years of age, small and ‘pirjink’ (neat) about the legs and clothed in tight green garments with green tapered caps. In Galloway, the story is told of two small boys dressed in green who were born from eggs.  They were said to have looked something like brownies, or mongrel fairies, but sadly they quickly vanished before much more could be learned about them.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Turning to Wales, the Green Lady of Caerphilly was a beautiful woman dressed in green who was met one day at the castle in the town by a man called Ieuan Owen.  She led him underground and along a very lengthy passage before they emerged beside a lake in a cavern.  There the green lady vanished, but another faery maiden then appeared and led Owen beneath the lake to a wonderful subterranean land.

My last example gives a rather different impression though, and perhaps opens up the possibility of something more sinister. In a Scottish story collected from an old nurse maid, she told how her mother had once nearly been drowned by a fairy being after she had fallen asleep beside a river.  The nurse’s mother awoke from her nap when she felt a tugging at her hair, as if someone or something trying to pull her into the water.  She leapt up, and then saw something “howd (bob) down the water like a green bunch of potato shaws (stalks).”  We can only note and puzzle over this account, which resembles nothing else I know of.  Perhaps the nurse’s mother saw the hair of a water sprite akin to Jenny Greenteeth, or the mane of a kelpie, or perhaps we have a sighting of some unique river faery.

As I have described previously, the greenness of British fairies goes right back to their early medieval origins and the Green Children who were discovered during the twelfth century at Woolpit in Suffolk. In that case, their greenness seemed to relate to their exclusively vegetarian, leguminous diet: Katharine Briggs speculated that their skin tone was the colour of death- although it might equally as well be the colour of Spring growth (if we have to read any symbolism at all into the preference). It might, too, represent their wild, rural nature- as with Robin Hood and his men in ‘Lincoln green.’ Whatever the truth, viridity seems to be a core part of British faery nature.

Sacrifices to fairies

Rene Cloke, An Autumn Offering

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 gruagach and 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…

The Pied Piper of Elfame: fairy abductions of children

paton-fact-and-fancy-such-tricks-hath-strong-imagination 1863
Noel Paton, Fact and Fancy, 1863

It is well known that fairies try to steal new born babies and that they leave changelings behind in their place.  Here, I want to examine the evidence for the abduction of children older than toddlers and how this is achieved.  Babies can be snatched from their cradles; how are less helpless juveniles abducted?

There seem to be three broad strategies employed by the fairies in taking infants.  They kidnap them, they trick them or they lure them away.  There are ample examples to illustrate all of these ploys.  It was believed that the fairies were always on the lookout for chances to abduct infants (see, for example, Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 150).

Muriel Dawson
Muriel Dawson, Welcome to Fairyland

Obviously, it is easiest to kidnap children if they come willingly.  It is perfectly possible to achieve this by friendly means.  In one Scottish example, a little girl used to regularly play with the faeries under the Hill of Tulach at Monzie.  One day they cut a lock of her hair and told her that next time she visited she would stay with them for ever.  Fortunately, the child told her mother what had happened and she immediately worked various charms and never let her daughter out to play again.  A boy from Borgue in Kirkcudbrightshire used regularly to make extended visits to the Good Folk underground in the same manner; he was protected by suspending a crucifix blessed by a Catholic priest around his neck.  Indeed, in one case from Orkney, a little girl so pestered the local trows with repeated visits to their underground homes that, in their irritation, they breathed on her and paralysed her for life.

The Scottish ballad of Leesom Brand fits with the friendly visit pattern of journey to Faery.  A boy aged ten finds his way to “an unco’ land where wind never blew and no cocks ever crew.”  There he meets with and falls for a woman who is only eleven inches tall.  It is at this point that this story takes a slightly uncomfortable turn.  Despite her small statute this lady was “often in bed with men I’m told” and the young boy, despite his tender years, is no exception; he gets her pregnant, too, and it is this scandal that forces them both the flee back to the human world.

girl with faes

Simply opening the door to a human child might be enough to tempt it in, then. More often, some additional inducement was necessary.  It might be nothing more than playing upon the child’s curiosity, as in the Welsh medieval case of Elidyr.  He had run away from home after an argument and had hidden for two days on a river bank.  Two little men then appeared to him and invited him to go with them to “a country full of delights and sports.”  That was all he required to persuade him to go with them.  Somewhat comparable is the tale of a boy from St. Allen in Cornwall who was led into a Faery by a lovely lady.  He first strayed into a wood following the sound of music and after much wandering feel asleep.  When he awoke, a beautiful woman was with him and guided him through fantastic palaces. Eventually he was found by searchers, once again asleep.  Fascinatingly, Evans Wentz has a modern version of the Elidyr story, told to him near Strata Florida (see Fairy Faith 148;  Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 86, ‘The Lost Child’).

Some children require more material temptation.  On the Isle of Man, a girl was walking over a bridge when three little men appeared to her and offered her a farthing to go with them.  She wisely refused, knowing that consent would place her in their power for ever.  In Northumberland, at Chathill Farm near Alnwick, there was a well-known fairy ring.  It was reputed that, if a child danced around it nine times, she or he would be in the fairies’ control.  To encourage children to do this, the fairies used to leave food and other gifts at the ring and parents, in response, would tie bags containing the age-old remedy of peony roots and seeds around their infants’ necks as a protection against fairy harm.  Elsewhere in the north of England, it has been reported that the fairies would leave out fairy butter as bait for children.

margetson, fairy captive
Hester Margetson

These inducements to stray start to merge into out and out tricks.  For example, a boy lost on Dartmoor was found by his mother seated under an oak tree known to be a pixie haunt.  He told her that “two bundles of rags” had led him away- evidently, pixies in disguise so as to attract his attention and lull his suspicions.  As soon as the lights of his mother’s lantern appeared, these rags vanished (Hunt, Popular Romances, 96).

The kidnap can be covered by means of a changeling put in the abductee’s place.  The son of a blacksmith on the island of Islay, aged fourteen, suddenly fell ill and wasted away.  It was revealed to the father that, in fact, he had been taken by the fairies and a changeling left behind.  This the father exposed with the trick of brewing in egg shells and then violently expelled.  However, he had then to go to the fairy knoll to recover his son rather than the boy being automatically returned (as is the usual practice).  He was working for the fairies there as a blacksmith, which may explain their reluctance to part with him.

f1

Some children are snatched without ceremony.  In one case from the Isle of Man a boy sent to a neighbour’s house to borrow some candles at night was chased on his way home by a small woman and boy.  He ran, but only just kept ahead of them, and when he was back at his home, he had lost the power of speech and his hands and feet were twisted awry.  He remained this way for a week.  This could almost be a changeling story (see Evans Wentz 132).

sarah stilwell weber water babies
Sarah Stilwell Weber, Water Babies

Waldron tells of a ten-year-old girl from Ballasalla on the Isle of Man who had a lucky escape from such a kidnap attempt.  Out on an errand one day, she was detained by a crowd of little men. Some grabbed hold of her and declared their intention to take her with them; others in the party objected to the idea.  A fight broke out amongst the fairies and, because she had incited this discord, they spanked her but let her get away.  The truth of her account was seen in the little red hand prints marking her buttocks.

I have assumed so far, naturally, that parents would not wish to see their offspring taken to fairyland.  One incident contradicts this.  A woman from Badenoch in the Highlands was given shelter overnight in a fairy hill but, the next morning, she had to promise to surrender her child to them so as to be set free.  She agreed, but was to visit her daughter in the hill.  After a while, with no sign of things changing, the infant complained that she had been abandoned by her mother.  The woman scolded the girl for suggesting this and the fairies ejected her from the hill and never allowed her in again.  This suggestion that fairy abduction might sometimes be a boon for the child is confirmed by another source.  The verse ‘The Shepherd’s Dream,’ in William Warner’s Albion’s England, reveals that changelings were taken from mothers who beat or otherwise abused their progeny.

Going with the fairies need not be prolonged nor unpleasant, fortunately.  Many stories indicate that children will be well cared for in Faery.  A game keeper and his wife lived at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor. This couple had two children, and one morning when the wife had dressed the eldest she let her run away to play while she dressed the baby. In due course, father and mother realised that the child had disappeared. They searched for days with help from their neighbours, and even bloodhounds, without finding her. One morning a little time later some young men went to pick nuts from a clump of trees near the keeper’s house, and at there they came suddenly on the child, undressed, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.

Ezio Anichini, Peter Pan

There are, therefore, many ways of luring children into fairyland- some are friendly and almost consensual, others are more underhand and forcible.  The child’s treatment once in Faery will also vary: some will be well cared for and treated as fairy playmates; others may find themselves put to work in menial roles.  I discuss all the many aspects of these abductions and how to avoid them in my recently published book Faery.  The abduction of children is just one aspect of the Darker Side of Faery, a subject explored in detail in my book of that title, published in 2021darker side.

Fairy Children- what we know

 

iro sometimes fairy
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Sometimes fairy was allowed to wear her wings for a little while.

Whilst much is written about the fairy theft of human children, and their substitution for elderly fairy changelings, a lot less is said about the fairies’ own offspring.  What do we know about them?

A Low Birth Rate

Starting at the very beginning, the evidence is that fairy births are few and far between and that the whole business of labour and nursing are problematic for our Good Neighbours.  For this reason, human midwives are called upon regularly to assist the fairy mother and women newly delivered of children here are frequently abducted to act as nurse maids for fairy infants.  In the story of The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor, the human abductee Grace informs her former lover, when he asks about children in Faery, that there are:

“Very few indeed,” she replied, “though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father.”

Little Girls Lost

Given how precious faery offspring must be, it’s notable how often they seem to get lost.  Most encounters with fairy children occur in cases where they have strayed or become lost or separated somehow.  For example, one evening on Shetland, a man found a strange straw box in his farmyard.  He put it in the house and went to feed his livestock, and when he returned inside, he heard an odd sound from inside the box, a little like “Foddle-dee-foodle-dee-doo” and the sound of feet kicking.  A voice called out, asking to be released, and he realised there was a trow child inside.  He promptly put the box outside again, hoping and assuming that the parents would return to collect their mislaid offspring.

This case sounds a little neglectful, although the man’s panic may be understood.  In another Shetland example, a little trow girl dressed in grey and brown was found lost by a family and was taken in for the night.  She slept in the same bed as the human children and, the next morning, heard her mother calling her home and left quite contentedly.  In recognition of this care, it appears, the children who shared a bed with the trow girl grew up to be happy and prosperous.

Another faery girl was found lost and alone near Tower Hill, Middleton-in-Teesdale in Northern England.  A woman took the child home, sat her by the fire and gave her bread and cheese to eat, but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity and returned her to the place by the river where she’d been found and where it was believed that the faeries came to bathe, in the hope that her parents would return for her- and several of stories indicate that they will do just that (see Janet Bord, Fairies, Appendix).

Sometimes the infants are just careless of their own safety, as was the case with a pixie child captured near Zennor, in West Cornwall.  A farmer was cutting furze when he spotted a young pixie asleep.  The man scooped him up and took him home, where he was named Bobby Griglans by his family.  The little boy would play contentedly by the hearth with the family’s children.  One day, when all the youngsters had slipped outside to play, the pixie’s parents appeared searching for him and he happily went home with them (Bottrell, Traditions of West Cornwall, vol.1, 74).

Accidents happen, of course, and there is evidence of normal care and parenting too.  For example, a fairy child fell ill and her mother approached a housewife living at Longhill, near Whithorn in southwest Scotland, for some milk for the poorly infant.  Fairy children can get sick and their families will take care of them.

tarrant poppy
Margaret Tarrant, The Yellow Horned Poppy Fairy

Fairy Beauties

What do these infants look like? As I have suggested before, fairies’ faces may not always be as we might anticipate.  Much of the folklore evidence suggests something very much more alarming than the pretty girls of the illustrators such as Margaret Tarrant (above).

By way of illustration, the lost faery child found at Middleton in Teesdale had green clothes and red eyes- in light of which, perhaps there is negative evidence to hand as well.  It is a widespread belief that pretty, fair-haired and blue-eyed human babies are the most vulnerable to being snatched away by the fairies.  For example, along the border between England and Wales it was said that “fine and solid” country babies were the ones preferred.  It might be proposed that the human infants taken were chosen because they did not look like fairy offspring, with their surprisingly coloured countenances.

Summary

When we gather together the scattered evidence, some surprising patterns emerge.  The taking of changelings might suggest a want of family feeling on the part of the faes, but their own conduct suggests that they are just as good parents as any humans (and sometimes better, judging by the stories of the fairies providing child-care for our neglected infants).

Secondly, whilst we can often assume that the fairies are all lovely to behold, if we put together the different stories, we discover hints of something different.  Some look just like us; others very definitely do not.

 

‘The House on Selena Moor’- a story analysed

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A view west towards Silena Moor (in the valley) today

Here is an annotated version of this fascinating text, taken from William Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Second Series, Penzance 1873, pp.94-102

“When the ancient family of Noy flourished in Buryan, there was a large tract of unenclosed common, belonging to the farms of Pendrea, Selena, and Tresidder, which extended from Cotnewilly to Burnewhall, and branched off in other directions. Great part of this ground was swampy and produced a rank growth of rushes, water-flags, and coarse herbage. Many acres were gay in summer with cotton-grass, bog-beans, cucco-flowers, and other plants usually found in such soil. In some places were dry rocky banks overgrown with sloe-trees, moor-withey, furze, and brambles; these patches being surrounded by a broad extent of quaking bog or muddy soil appeared like islands in a marsh. There were also many springs, rivulets, and pools, that seldom froze, much frequented by wild-fowl in winter. Great part of this moorland was then impassable; horse-tracks leading to Burnewhall, Selena, and other farms, passed over the driest places, and were continued by rough causeways through swamps;—they were very bad roads at all seasons.

[Silena Moor is still to be found in Penwith, to the west of Newlyn on the main B3315 road to Land’s End.  It is to the south west of St Buryan and is an area of rough grass and scrub, as can just about be seen in the above photo.]

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The menhir overlooking Silena moor

“One afternoon in harvest, Mr. Noy, with some of his men, were over to Burnewhall helping his kinsfolk, the Pendars. As more hands were required for the next day, which was to be the gulthise (harvest home), soon after ‘croust‘ time (lunch time) he rode up to Church-town to get them…

Soon after ‘day-down’ Mr. Noy, followed by his dogs, left the public-house intending to return to Burnewhall, but he didn’t arrive there that night nor the next. The Pendars and their people thought he might have enjoyed himself at the Ship Inn till late, and then have gone home to Pendrea. Mr. Noy had no wife nor anybody else to be much alarmed about him, as he was a middle-aged or rather elderly bachelor. But next day when people from Church-town, Pendrea, and scores of neighbours from other farms, came with their horses to help and to feast at the gulthise, and nobody among them had seen or heard of Mr. Noy from the time he left the inn, they got somewhat uneasy; … Dame Pendar sent messengers round to all places where she thought Mr. Noy might have gone, and they returned, just as the feast was breaking up, without any tidings of him.

Then everyone became anxious, and as it was near daybreak they volunteered to disperse and search in every place they could think of before going to bed.  So away they went, some on horseback, others afoot, to examine mill-pools, stream-works, cliffs, and other dangerous places, near and far away. They returned at night, but nobody had seen or heard of the missing gentleman. Next morning horsemen were dispatched to other parishes, and as Mr. Noy was well known and liked there was a general turn out to hunt for him; but this day, too, was passed in a like fruitless search miles away.

On the third day, however, in the grey of the morning, a horse was heard to neigh, and dogs were heard barking among thickets on a piece of dry ground almost surrounded with bogs and pools, on Pendrea side of Selena Moor.  Now it happened that no one had thought of looking for Mr. Noy in this place so near home, but when with much ado, a score or so of men discovered a passable road into this sort of island in the bogs, there they saw Mr. Noy’s horse and hounds; the horse had found plenty of pasture there, but the dogs, poor things, were half-starved. Horse and dogs showed their joy, and led the way through thorns, furze, and brambles—that might have grown there hundreds of years—till they came to large ‘skaw’ [elder] trees and the ruins of an old bowjey [cowshed] or some such building that no one knew of.

[Note the presence of fairy elder trees at the remote spot where Noy is found.  The description of the spot as an ‘island’ may have resonances with the wider Celtic concept of faery as a normally inaccessible island in the sea]

“The horse stopped at what had been a doorway, looked around and whinnied; the dogs, followed by several people, pushed through the brambles that choked the entrance, and within they found Mr. Noy lying on the ground fast asleep. It was a difficult matter to arouse him; at last he awoke, stretched himself, rubbed his eyes, and said,

‘Why you are Burnewhall and Pendrea folks; however are ye all come here? To-day is to be the gulthise, and I am miles and miles away from home. What parish am I in? How could ‘e have found me? Have my dogs been home and brought ‘e here?’

Mr. Noy seemed like one dazed as we say, and all benumbed as stiff as a stake, so without staying to answer his questions, they gave him some brandy, lifted him on horseback, and left his steed to pick its way out, which it did readily enough, and a shorter one than they discovered.

[Note his physical and mental state– a good indicator of his recent contact with faerie.  Waking up in a strange place after a fairy encounter is a very common scene, especially to be found in Welsh stories of visits to unknown houses and inns on the moors.]

“Though told he was on his own ground, and less than half a mile from Burnewhall, he couldn’t make out the country as he said, till he crossed the running water that divides the farms. “But I am glad,” said he “however it came to pass, to have got back in time for the gulthise.” When they told him how the corn was all carried three days ago, he said they were joking, and wouldn’t believe it till he had seen all in the mowhay [barn] under thatch and roped down; that the loose straw was raked up, and all harvest implements put away till next season.”

[We have the classic lapse of time here, something that typifies the difference between Faery and the human world.  The mention of crossing streams may also be an indicator of a transition from faery back to the normal world.]

“Then whilst breakfast was getting ready, seated on a chimney-stool by a blazing fire, he told his neighbours that when he came to Cotnewilly, the night being clear, he thought he might as well make a short cut across the moor and save nearly a mile- as he had often done before in summer time- instead of going round by the stony bridle-path; but his horse, that was pretty much used to finding his own way when his master was tipsy, wanted to keep the usual road, and his rider, to baulk him, pulled farther off towards Pendrea side of the common than he would otherwise have done, and went on till he found himself in a part that was unknown to him; though he had been, as he thought, over every inch of it that man or beast could tread on, both in winter and summer. Getting alarmed at the strange appearance of everything around him, he tried in vain to retrace his steps, then gave the horse its head, and let it take its own course.

[This stumbling into a strange place in a familiar landscape is a very good example of the experience of being ‘pixy-led’.]

“Yet, instead of proceeding homeward, as was dobbin’s wont, it bore Mr. Noy to a land so crowded with trees that he had to alight and lead his steed. After wandering miles and miles, sometimes riding but oftener afoot, without seeing any habitation in this strange place, which he believed must be out of Buryan but in what parish he couldn’t tell, he at last heard strains of lively music, and spied lights glimmering through the trees and people moving about, which made him hope that he had arrived at some farm where they had a gulthise, and the harvest-folks were out, after supper, dancing in the town-place.

[Pretty obviously, Noy has crossed now into fairyland. This music and feasting is either some fairy event he has stumbled upon or is deliberately set up to lure him to them.]

“His dogs slunk back, and the horse wasn’t willing to go on, so he tied him to a tree, took his course through an orchard towards the lights, and came to a meadow where he saw hundreds of people, some seated at tables eating and drinking with great enjoyment apparently, and others dancing reels to the music of a crowd or tambourine—they are much the same thing—this was played by a damsel dressed in white, who stood on a heaping-stock just beside the house door, which was only a few paces from him.”

[The white dress may be indicative of fairy nature- and of course the reluctance of the dogs and horse to approach demonstrates their keener sense of otherworldliness- but then, they’ve not been in the Star Inn for several hours and they’re a good deal more alert than Mr Noy probably is as he comes upon this faery celebration.  Across Britain, the faeries are renowned for their love of feasting, music and dance, all of which are good ways of trapping unwary humans too.]

“The revellers, farther off, were all very smartly decked out, but they seemed to him, at least most of them, to be a set of undersized mortals; yet the forms and tables, with the drinking-vessels on them, were all in proportion to the little people. The dancers moved so fast that he couldn’t count the number of those that footed jigs and reels together, it almost made his head giddy only to look at their quick and intricate whirling movements.”

[We’re dealing here with pixies or ‘an pobel vean’ the little people of Cornwall.  As in many British stories, this is an encounter with small faeries– child height or less.]

“Noy noticed that the damsel who played the music was more like ordinary folks for stature, and he took her to be the master’s daughter, as, when one dance was ended, she gave the crowd to a little old fellow that stood near her, entered the house, fetched therefrom a black-jack [a leather jug], went round the tables and filled the cups and tankards that those seated, and others, handed to be replenished. Then, whilst she beat up a new tune for another set of dancers, Mr. Noy thought she cast a side-glance towards him; the music, he said, was so charming and lively that to save his soul he couldn’t refrain from going to join the dancers in a three-handed reel, but the girl with a frown and look of alarm, made a motion with her head for him to withdraw round a corner of the house out of sight. He remained gazing, however, and still advancing till she beckoned to the same little old man, to whom she spoke a few words, gave him the crowd to play, and leaving the company, went towards the orchard signalling to Mr. Noy to follow her, which he did. When out of the candle-glare and in a clear spot where moonlight shone, she waited for him. He approached and was surprised to see that the damsel was no other than a farmer’s daughter of Selena, one Grace Hutchens, who had been his sweetheart for a long while, until she died, three or four years ago; at least he had mourned her as dead, and she had been buried in St. Buryan Churchyard as such.”

[Grace is a fairy captive, a servant at the celebration rather than a participant.  She knows the danger of Noy joining in the dance, which is a classic way of being ‘taken.’]

“When Mr. Noy came within a yard or so, turning towards him, she said, ‘thank the stars, my dear William, that I was on the look-out to stop ye, or you would this minute be changed into the small people’s state like I am- woe is me.’ He was about to kiss her, ‘Oh, beware!” she exclaimed, “embrace me not, nor touch flower nor fruit; for eating a tempting plum in this enchanted orchard was my undoing. You may think it strange, yet it was all through my love for you that I am come to this.'”

[‘Changed into the fairy state‘ is a very important phrase.  Long presence in faery,  and especially consumption of food and drink there, will alter you both physically and mentally.  It’s interesting in this account that even touching one of the inhabitants can have the same effect.]

“‘People believed, and so it seemed, that I was found on the moor dead; it was also supposed that I must have dropped there in a trance, as I was subject to it. What was buried for me, however, was only a changeling, or sham body, never mine I should think, for it seems to me that I feel much the same still as when I lived to be your sweetheart.'”

[Abduction of people and livestock by a faked death, and the leaving behind of a ‘stock’ is a strategy used across Britain by the fays.  A log or plant stem might be used for people, or a slaughtered cow’s hide might be stuffed- or even left behind with an elderly elf hidden within.]

“As she said this several little voices squeaked, “Grace, Grace, bring us more beer and cider, be quick!”

[Note the small voices to go with the small bodies of the pobel vean- and their treatment of Grace as a slave.]

“‘Follow me into the garden, and remain there behind the house; be sure you keep out of sight, and don’t for your life, touch fruit or flower,’ said she, in conducting out Mr. Noy, who desired her to bring him a tankard of cider too. ‘No, my love, not for the world,’ she replied, ‘await me here, I’ll soon return. Sad is my lot to be stolen from the living and made housekeeper to these sprites,’ murmured Grace, in quitting the garden.

Over a few minutes she returned to Mr. Noy, led him into a bowery walk, where the music and noise of merriment didn’t overpower their voices, and said, ‘you know, my dear Willy, that I loved you much, but you can never know how dearly.’

‘Rest yourself,’ she continued pointing to a stone, ‘on that seat, whilst I tell ye what you never dreamt of.’ Mr. Noy seated himself as desired, and Grace related how one evening, about dusk, she was out on Selena Moor in quest of strayed sheep, when hearing him, in Pendrea ground, halloo and whistle to his dogs, she crossed over towards the sound in hopes of falling in with him, but missed her way among ferns higher than her head, and wandered on for hours amidst pools and shaking bogs without knowing whither.

After rambling many miles, as it seemed to her, she waded a brook and entered an orchard, then she heard music at a distance, and proceeding towards it, passed into a beautiful garden with alleys all bordered by roses and many sweet flowers, that she had never seen the like of. Apples and other tempting fruit dropped in the walks and hung over head, bursting ripe.”

[Again there is the idea of crossing a stream as a boundary into faery, a place that has some connotations of the garden of Eden.]

“This garden was so surrounded with trees and water- coming in every here and there among them- that, like one ‘piskey-led,’ all her endeavours to find a way out of it were in vain. The music, too, seemed very near at times, but she could see nobody. Feeling weary and athirst, she plucked a plum, that looked like gold in the clear starlight; her lips no sooner closed on the fruit than it dissolved to bitter water which made her sick and faint. She then fell on the ground in a fit, and remained insensible, she couldn’t say how long, ere she awoke to find herself surrounded by hundreds of small people, who made great rejoicing to get her amongst them, as they very much wanted a tidy girl who knew how to bake and brew, one that would keep their habitation decent, nurse the changed-children (i.e. the changelings) that weren’t so strongly made as they used to be, for want of more beef and good malt liquor, so they said.”

[The music is a lure, yet has no definite source- a clear example of ‘ceol sidhe.’ The fairy food, we note, may seem enticing but is unsatisfactory- even unpleasant, when actually eaten. We note too the fairy preference for neatness in humans and their complaints about the weakening of human stock found in the stolen infants.]

“At first she felt like one entranced and hardly knew how to ‘find herself’ in such strange company; even then, after many years’ experience, their mode of life seemed somewhat unnatural to her, for all among them is mere illusion or acting and sham. They have no hearts, she believed, and but little sense or feeling; what serves them, in a way, as such, is merely the remembrance of whatever pleased them when they lived as mortals- may be thousands of years ago.  What appear like ruddy apples and other delicious fruit, are only sloes, hoggans (haws) and blackberries. The sweet scented and rare flowers are no other than such as grow wild on every moor.”

[In this story the fays seem to be our deceased ancestors; there is, too, the familiar use of ‘glamour‘ to deceive.]

“In answer to Mr. Noy’s enquiries about small people’s dietary, Grace told him how she sickened, at first, on their washy food of honey-dew and berries—their ordinary sustenance—and how her stomach felt so waterish that she often longed for a bit of salt fish. The only thing she relished was goat’s milk, ‘for you must have often heard,’ said she, ‘that these animals are frequently seen on moors, or among carns and in other out-of-the-way places, miles from their homes. They are enticed away by small people to nourish their babes and changelings. There’s a score or more of goats here at times. Those cunning old he-ones that often come among a flock—no one knows whence—and disappear with the best milkers, are the decoys, being small people in such shapes. One may often notice in these venerable long-beards, when seen reposing on a rock, chewing their cuds, a look of more than human craftiness and a sly witch-like glance cast from the corner of their eyes.'”

[This story is firmly of the opinion that faery is a place of scant pleasures, for its all superficial and unreal; the food sounds unappetising in the main, although the fairy love of dairy products, especially those of goats, is confirmed.  The fact that fairy food was insubstantial and unhealthy for a human reminds us of the story of the Suffolk Green Children, in which the reverse was the case.]

“Looking at Mr. Noy for a moment with a melancholy expression, Grace sighed and continued, ‘I am now getting used to this sort of life and find it tolerable, the more so because the whole tribe behave to me with great kindness, the elderly men above all; you observed that little fellow to whom I spoke and who now plays the tambourine, I desired him to tell the rest, in case they inquired for me, that I was gone to look after the children, and he is so much attached to me as to do or say anything I request.’ Seeing Mr. Noy look somewhat lowering, Grace exclaimed, ‘Oh! my dear Willy, don’t be such a noddy as to be jealous, for he’s no other than vapour, and what he is pleased to think love, is no more substantial than fancy.’

Mr. Noy asked if there were any children among them besides those they stole and replaced with changelings?

‘Very few indeed,’ she replied, ‘though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father. For you must remember they are not of our religion,’ said she, in answer to his surprised look, ‘but star-worshippers. They don’t always live together like Christians and turtle-doves; considering their long existence such constancy would be tiresome for them, anyhow the small tribe seem to think so. And the old withered ‘kiskeys’* of men that one can almost see through, like puffs of smoke, are vainer than the young ones. May the Powers deliver them from their weakly frames! And indeed they often long for the time when they will be altogether dissolved in air, and so end their wearisome state of existence without an object or hope.'”

* the kiskey is the dried up stalk of the kegga, the water hemlock.

Midsummer night's dream

[I have discussed fairy physiology in an early posting and have examined too fairies’ mortality: they are long lived but not immortal, it appears.  The statement about star worship was discussed in my article on fairy religionParticularly notable is the fact that the Welsh fairy king, Gwyn ap Nudd, was said in the Welsh Triads to have great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and could predict the future from them.  The references to fairy salvation are a late, Christian interpolation into fairy-lore, transferring to the Good Neighbours our own concerns about heaven and hell, beliefs that may well not be theirs.]

“Grace also told him—but he didn’t remember exactly the words she spoke—that she was the more content with her condition since she was enabled to take the form of any bird she pleased, and thus gratify her desire to be near him, so that when he thought of her but little suspected her presence; she was mostly hovering round and watching him in the shape of some common small bird. Grace assured Mr. Noy of her everlasting love, yet as long as nature would permit him to retain his mortal form she would rather behold him in flesh and blood, than see him changed to her state. She also told him, that when he died, if he wished to join her, they would then be united and dwell in this fairy-land of the moors.”

[Changes in shape and in size are characteristic, it seems, of Cornish fairies with spriggans able to swell rapidly to the size of a giant and the fairy master of Cherry of Zennor varying between tiny and normal human stature.  The fairy associations with birds and with insects have been discussed in previous posts.]

“Mr. Noy wanted to know much more about these strange beings, and was about to enquire, when they again called, ‘Grace, Grace, where art thou so long? Bring us some drink quickly.’ She hastily entered the house, and that moment it came into his head that he, too, would have some liquor, disperse the small tribe, and save Grace.

Knowing that any garment turned inside out and cast among such sprites would make them flee, and happening to put his hand into his coat pocket, he felt there the gloves that he had worn for binding in the afternoon; quick as thought, he turned one inside out, put into it a small stone, and threw it among them; in an instant they all vanished with the house, Grace, and all the furniture. He just had time to glance round, and saw nothing but thickets and the roofless house of an old bowjey, when he received a blow on his forehead that knocked him down, yet he soon fell asleep and dozed away an hour or two he thought.”

[Turning a garment, whether coat, glove or hat, is a tried and tested solution to being piskey-led.  Throwing the item of clothing- most especially gloves, adds potency to the charm.]

“Those to whom Mr. Noy related his story, said that he had learnt nothing new from Grace, for old folks always believed of the fair people such things as she told him, and they disliked to be seen, above all by daylight, because they then looked aged and grim. It was said, too, that those who take animal forms get smaller and smaller with every change, till they are finally lost in the earth as muryans (ants), and that they passed winter, for the most part, in underground habitations, entered from cleves or carns. And it is held that many persons who appear to have died entranced, are not really dead, but changed into the fairy state.”

[A repetition of some of the themes already highlighted- faery and death, the change in physical state experienced there plus a statement of the underground location of faery.  The celebration seen above ground seems more likely them to have been intended to catch Noy- or just to enjoy a warm summer evening.]

“The recovered gentleman further informed them that he had remarked amongst the small folks, many who bore a sort of family-likeness to people he knew, and he had no doubt but some of them were changelings of recent date, and others their forefathers who died in days of yore, when they were not good enough to be admitted into heaven, nor so wicked as to be doomed to the worst of all places. Over a while, it is supposed they cease to exist as living beings, for which reason fewer of them are now beheld than were seen in old times.”

[Seeing neighbours believed to be dead still alive in faery is a common theme- for example, the story of ‘The Tacksman of Auchriachan.’ There’s a trace here too of the idea that fairies are fallen angels who were caught between heaven and hell when the doors of each were closed.  It’s got mixed up with concepts of abduction and stocks, though.]

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail) or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

[This is a poignant statement of the sense of bereavement felt by many returned from faery.  This yearning to get back to the joys of faery, however compromised they may be, is seen too in the story of ‘Cherry of Zennor’ and James Hogg’s poem ‘Kilmeny‘ amongst many othersNoy hopes to stumble upon Grace and her captors again at evening time, one of the liminal points in the day.]

Cherry of Zennor

an enactment of the Cornish story of ‘Cherry of Zennor

Further Reading

See too my posts on Cherry of Zennor, Cornish fairy dancing and Cornish changelings.

Hairy fairies

young girl among the faeries

Young Girl Among The Fairies by Brian Froud

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.

Shaggy Sith

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)

iro waterfall fairy

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Waterfall Fairy

Silky Selkies?

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.

waterhouse, sketch-for-a-mermaid-1892

J M W Waterhouse

 

 

 

 

 

“There is gold there”- fairies and buried treasure

Fairy treasure hunt, Doon hill, Cobleland, nixinnaturesblog.blogspot.com

A fairy treasure hunt in progress at Doon Hill, Cobleland, near Stirling (from nixinnaturesblog.blogspot.com)

Faery has long had a traditional connection with buried treasure.  As Keith Thomas described in his famous book, Religion and the decline of magic, there were once entirely rational bases for the expectation of finding hidden hoards: in the absence of a system of banking and safe deposits for savings, hiding wealth under beds or burying it in fields was as secure a protection as many could find (p.279).  In times of war or civil unrest, this was especially so, and for many reasons people might not have returned to reclaim their gold.  Finding forgotten or abandoned treasure was therefore far from impossible (and, of course metal detectorists still do it today).  The gold was out there, that was certain and- rather than rely upon mere luck- the recruitment of supernatural powers of all descriptions (not just fairies) was the resort of many.

Today, perhaps the best-known example of such a guide is the Irish leprechaun, of whom it’s said that catching one will lead you to his pot of gold.  Fairy treasure hunts have been reduced to a merely whimsical matter- a suitable theme for a little girl’s birthday party.  The subject is far more serious, complex and interesting than this, though, and there is a wealth of British examples to illustrate it (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 71 & 82).

Fairy hoards

There are many aspects to this subject, but the starting point must be the fact that fairies hoard gold, or at least know of its whereabouts.  It is said, for example, that fairy gold is stored at Cadbury camp in Dorset and also at Dolebury where, to make matters worse, the fairies’ magic makes it sink deeper into the ground should anyone come digging in search of it.  Thomas Nashe believed instead that the gold was continually moved about underground, so that none could find it.  Another writer, Thomas Heywood, was uncertain whether the booty was hidden from us because of the elves’ avarice, because God had forbidden our access to it, knowing men’s avarice, or because it was all, in fact, merely illusory.  As we proceed with this examination, you might indeed be inclined to see it all as a fairy deception sent to taunt us (Heywood, Hierarchie of Blessed Angels, 570).

Fairy Treasure Hunt in Progress, thecul-de-sac.blogspot.com

Fairy treasure hunt in progress for a sixth birthday party (thecul-de-sac.blogspot.com)

Ill-gotten gains?

As with fairy money, the source of this bullion is uncertain.  It may have been buried by humans in the past or it may have been collected by the fays.  There is even a suggestion that they may create it through alchemy: in Cornwall it was believed that lead left out on an ant’s nest would be transmuted by the pixies into silver at the new moon.

Fairy guardians

I’ve already mentioned how the fays may actively prevent our finding their wealth.  Sometimes they are more aggressive in defence of their hoards.  At Craufurdland bridge, near Kilmarnock, a brownie protected the pot of gold concealed in the pool beneath the crossing and successfully defeated an attempt to dam and drain the pool by playing a trick on the prospector- he raised the alarm for fire at the man’s home and, whilst the excavators were absent, pulled down the dam.  At Abernethy near Perth the buried gold of a Pictish king was guarded by a dwarf who fiercely assailed any man who came digging.  The threat of imminent violence also protected gold concealed at Trencrom hillfort in West Penwith in Cornwall: a man engaged in digging there noticed the sky darkening and, when he looked up, realised that a horde of spriggans was advancing upon him at speed, growing in size as they rapidly approached.  He wisely fled home, where he had to take to his bed for several weeks to recover (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.2, 245; see too Bowker, Goblin Tales, 104).

Human greed

Given that the fairies are in possession of great wealth, and given the instinctive greed of many humans, it is inevitable that many have turned their minds to discovering ways to convey this wealth out of the control of its original possessors.    Here the interaction between Faery and mortals becomes even more complicated and fraught.

Sometimes it proves possible to extort money from the fairies.  In Cornwall it was believed that a large quantity of gold was concealed around the ancient stone monuments of the county and that, if you could only capture a pisky, spriggan or knocker, it could be forced to disclose the whereabouts of the riches.  Of course, the supernatural being would know too that the human captor would become distracted as soon as precious metals got involved, creating opportunities to escape.  Nevertheless, the canny and determined individual might make himself rich very easily this way, as was the case for a man from Rockingham in Northamptonshire, who caught an elf called the ‘redman’ and constrained it to reveal its cache of gold.

Fairy favours

Force doesn’t have to be involved.  The fairies may willingly lead favoured individuals to the buried treasure- or may just place it in front of them.  For example, a Scottish pedlar in Ayrshire was approached by a fairy woman who wanted to buy one of the bowls he was selling.  He refused to sell to her for some reason and, a short while later, dropped his basketful of wares.  Remarkably, only the bowl the woman had asked for was broken, whilst, later that same day, he discovered a hidden treasure that more than compensated for the price of the lost vessel.

The fairies don’t always need a reason to bestow good fortune, though: a man came across the fairies dancing on the beach at Puckaster Cove on the Isle of Wight.  He joined the dance but, after a while, needed to sit and rest.  He sat down on something like a puffball mushroom which burst under his weight, showering gold dust everywhere.  The faeries gave him some of this before he parted from their company.

fairy-treasure-hunt, greenmumsblog.wordpress.com

Another fairy treasure hunt (greenmumsblog.wordpress.com)

Treasure seekers

Rather than giving the humans the wealth, the fairies might alternatively lead them to where it was concealed.  William Borlase, writing about Cornwall in 1769, mentioned the continuing belief in spriggans among the ‘vulgar’ inhabitants of the county.  With some superiority he recorded that the common folk:

“attribute to them large powers to rule the weather and to discover hidden treasures, and pay them a kind of veneration.” (Antiquities of the County of Cornwall, p.110)

Guidance might be given by various means: for instance, at Bury Castle near Clun in Shropshire it’s said that the fairies have left a thin gold wire to guide treasure seekers to the pot of gold they buried.  In The Secret Commonwealth (c.10), the Reverend Robert Kirk described how two women one night in 1676 both received a vision that treasure was buried in a nearby fairy hill.  Firstly, they each saw the hoard, then they heard a voice.  Going separately to the spot, they met and together dug up a vessel containing ancient coins, which they shared between them.  This vision was sent to the women at a time of famine, so that they might buy food for the people.  In a similar story from Wales, a boy called Guto Bach was guided by the fairies to look under a rock where he found gold and silver concealed, aid that was granted after his parents had lost their money in a shipwreck.

Lastly, the fairies might bestow a magical power to detect buried treasure upon an individual.  This gift was claimed in 1499 by Marion Clerk of Great Ashfield in Suffolk. She was prosecuted before a church court in Norwich for claiming that the faeries helped her locate buried treasure by providing her with a rod of holly for this purpose.  She had charged people 2/- for her treasure seeking service.

Access to free riches sounds enticing, but a condition might be attached. by the faes  For instance, at Bamburgh in Northumberland there is a rock where people may find caches of coins that have been placed there by the fairies.  This wealth cannot simply be pocketed, however: the finder is obliged to leave a silver coin of their own at the spot in order to ensure that the treasure will be found again.

Frustration?

Sometimes, though, despite the visions and the guidance, the prospectors fail to find the hidden gold.  What’s not clear is whether this was just down to their poor excavating or because the fairies never meant them to have it in the first place.  The folklore on this is contradictory.  An Aberdeen man called Walter Rolandson had been visited by a fairy in the form of a child twice a year for 27 years or so.  In 1601 it came to him in bed, sitting on his chest and calling his name.  He was told to go to a certain place and dig, for he would find gold, silver and other valuable property.  Ronaldson did so, but found nothing.  Despite his failure, he nevertheless remained convinced the riches were present: “there is gold there, gif it were weel sought” he told a church court.

Just a few years later, a woman called Susan Swapper, living in Rye in Sussex, was visited by four fairies at night.  They told her to dig for a pot of gold buried outside the town.  Naturally, she did as she was instructed, but failed to find the hoard; nonetheless, she met the fairy queen who told her that, if she was prepared to make submission to her, she would never want for money for the rest of her life.  A similar tale of riches withheld but some compensation offered instead comes from lowland Scotland.  A girl was sat by a well spinning wool on a distaff when she looked into the depths of the water and saw a pot of gold beneath the surface.  Marking the spot with her spindle, she ran to tell her father.  He suspected it was glamour intended to trap and drown her and, sure enough, when they returned together to the place, the moor was covered in distaffs.  Nonetheless, twelve men in green appeared and returned her original spindle with its wool all spun.

fairy-party-ideas-8

More party ideas from https://www.fun365.orientaltrading.com

Temptation?

On other occasions, the visions of hidden treasures are much more plainly a fairy tease.  In late 1662 the London household of the Mompessons were troubled by noises, such as drummings and the sound of money chinking.  The family were advised that this was the fairies indicating to them that coins were hidden somewhere about the house. On the Isle of Man, the fairies whispered to a man drowsing on his sofa about hidden gold; in shock he fell onto the floor, was ill for six months and was lamed for the remainder of his life.

Worse still are the cases where the fairies taunted the humans with a sight of the gold- and then withheld it from them.  This is demonstrated in two Welsh reports.  In one case a girl walking on the mountains near her home came upon a solid golden chair.  It was too heavy for her to have any hope of carrying it home, so she tried to mark the spot so that she could find her way back by using the thread from the spindle she had with her.  She tied one end to a stone by the chair and unravelled the ball as she made her way home; there was only just enough to lead her back to her parents’ cottage.  The next morning, of course, she found that the thread was gone and the prize was lost for ever.  In a comparable story a man discovered a cache of gold concealed in a cave.  His only way of being able to retrace his route was to cut chips from his walking staff to mark the way back to his farm.  The next morning, these too had disappeared.

Illusion?

These experiences take us back to one of our earlier points and very much confirm the suspicion that fairy gold is, very much of the time, purely a matter of illusion and temptation, a mockery of human cupidity that is never meant to be satisfied.

Intellectual wealth

From time to time riches are revealed to humans, but they are for those of a more discerning taste.  In two cases reported in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies the buried treasure comprised archaeological remains (pp.7 & 81).  For example in 1941 Louise Jones was walking near St Albans when she felt herself led by the fairies to discover the site of a Roman kiln.  Pottery sherds and roof tiles may not be excite everyone, but she was convinced that a glimpse of an elf had brought her luck.

treasure

Another birthday treasure hunt from http://www.themomcreative.com

A detailed further discussion of this subject is to be found in my 2021 publication with Green Magic Publishing, How Things Work in Faery.

Lewis Carroll on pixies

pixie brian froud

One of Brian Froud’s bad fairies.

In this post I feature a paragraph of juvenilia from the family journal ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ which was ‘published’ by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and his brothers and sisters between 1850 and 1853 to entertain themselves and their parents.  The piece is of interest as an early work of fantasy by the future author of the Alice stories as well as being an example of Victorian ideas on pixies.

The text appears under the sub-title: ‘Zoological papers‘ and makes fun of the learned scientific, academic style (with footnotes).

Zoological papers: Pixies

“The origin of this curious race of creatures is not at present known: the best description we can collect of them is this, that they are a species of fairies about two feet high (1), of small and graceful figure; they are covered in a dark reddish kind of fur; the general expression of their faces is sweetness and good humour; the former quality is probably the reason why foxes are so fond of eating them. From Coleridge we learn the following additional facts; that they have ‘filmy pinions’ something like dragon flies’ wings, that they ‘sip the furze-flower’s fragrant dew’ (that, however, could only be for breakfast, as it would dry up before dinner-time), and that they are wont to ‘flash their faery feet in gamesome prank,’ or, in more common language, ‘to dance the polka (2) like winking.’

From an old English legend (3) which, as it is familiar with our readers, we need not here repeat, we learn that they have a strong affection for raw turnips, decidedly a more vulgar sort of food than ‘fragrant dew’; and from their using churns and kettles we conjecture that they are not unacquainted with tea, milk, butter &c. They are tolerably good architects, though their houses must unavoidably have something the appearance of large dog kennels, and they go to market occasionally, though from what source they get the money for this purpose has hitherto remained an unexplained mystery. This is all the information we have been able to collect on this interesting subject.

(1) So they are described by the inhabitants of Devonshire, who occasionally see them.

(2) Or any other step.

(3) A tradition, introduced into notice by the Editor.”

Now, it seems very likely that Carroll must have been reading Mrs Bray.  Her book, The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy , was published in 1836 and describes, in a series of letters to the poet Robert Southey, the traditions, legends and superstitions that surround the North Dartmoor town of Tavistock.  This is the most likely source for most of Carroll’s information: Mrs Bray’s children’s book, A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West, didn’t appear until 1854.

His fairy lore is on the whole, sound (excepting, I think, the turnips… as he confesses himself)  We do know that there was longstanding animosity between the Dartmoor foxes and pixies, which led to an ever-increasing effort by the latter to protect themselves.  The foxes hunted the pixies, digging them out of their underground homes and devouring them.  The pixies  responded by making iron shelters- which may, indeed, as Carroll suggests, look like dog kennels (R. King, ‘Folklore of Devonshire,’ Fraser’s Magazine, vol.8, 1873, p.781).

We know very well the fairies’ partiality for dairy products such as butter and milk, and it had long been a poetic conceit that tiny rural beings would drink dew and nectar from flowers.  We are also very familiar with their love of dance.  The use of kettles and the like is quite conventional: one common set of stories involves fairies seeking human aid to mend some basic item of domestic equipment- a stool or a ‘ped’ used to remove loaves from ovens; they made their own butter as well as stealing ours and would have needed a fully equipped kitchen for these tasks.  Tales of fairies at markets are also well-known, although their habit is often to thieve from the stalls rather than to buy.  In the frequent accounts of midwives who have cared for a fairy baby and, in the process, touched an eye with fairy ointment, the women are exposed when they spy a fairy at the market, whether buying or shoplifting.  Fairies often had gold, it is true, whether to purchase goods or to make gifts to chosen favourites.  Many writers have speculated about its source: was this money merely leaves and pebbles disguised by glamour (as was not unknown) or was it real currency, perhaps discovered by the fays underground?  Fairies were said to have abilities to help humans locate buried treasure, certainly, and access to ancient hoards might explain the unusual coins that often made up their payments.

Carroll’s pixies coincide very much with tradition, then, and even his jokey invention of their foxy fur coats is not entirely unheard of, as we know from more recent fairy sightings.  Nevertheless, the winged pixy is something of a surprise (though see Brian Froud’s image below) as is the description of them as always jolly.  As readers will know, they have a great tendency to mischief- hence the term ‘pixy-led.’

pixy

Another Froud pixie

Further reading

Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are classics and well worth reading if you’ve not already, albeit not fairy stories in any conventional sense.  I have also enjoyed reading Sean Conroy’s recent book, Alice in the Underground: Lewis Carroll and Alice in Modern Culturea book which examines many of the debated questions of Carroll’s life and work.  My own British Pixies (2021) looks at all aspects of the folklore of the pixies of South West England.