Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Fairy with bunnies and flower skipping rope
“Oh, band of mischievous fairies,/ That flicker and float about;”
(Old Donald, Menella Bute Smedley)
As many readers will know very well indeed, the Irish and Scottish Gaelic name for the fairies is sidh. One of the derivations of this term is from the word for ‘peace.’ Translations of the name therefore give us ‘the People of Peace,’ the ‘still folk’ or ‘the silently moving folk.’ One interpretation of ‘peace’ is that it is a euphemistic name– an expression of hope as much as a description, a form of wish or charm that the fays will be peaceful in their conduct and leave us mortals in peace, just as use of the ‘Good Neighbours’ aspires to a state of amity between supernaturals and humans.
I want in this post to discuss the other understanding of the phrase- the suggestion that the ‘peace’ in question is not an absence of conflict (either with humans or between the fairies themselves) but is descriptive of the manner of their movement.
“And in the fields of martial Cambria…/ Where light foot fairies skip from bank to bank.” (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594, attributed to Shakespeare)
Now, just how fairies might get about is generally take for granted and seldom remarked upon. We assume that they’ll walk, that they might ride their own faery horses or that they might fly with those pretty butterfly and dragonfly wings that they’ve so recently acquired. Perhaps rather more often than fluttering, fairies are taken to ‘teleport’ from one spot to another: witness Ariel in The Tempest, putting a girdle about the earth in forty minutes.
Movement through the air is particularly likely to be soundless, which may indeed explain the ‘people of peace’ epithet. John Gregorson Campbell believed that this was entirely appropriate in the circumstances:
“Sound is a natural adjunct of the motions of men, and its entire absence is unearthly, unnatural, not human. The name sith without doubt refers to ‘peace’ or silence of Airy motion, as contrasted to the stir and noise accompanying the movements and actions of men. The German ‘still folk’ is a name of corresponding import… They seem to glide or float along, rather than to walk.” (Superstitions of the Highlands and islands p.4).
Campbell compared the sound of the fairies’ movement to a rustling noise, like that of a gust of winds, or a silk gown, or a sword drawn sharply through the air.
“In they swept with a rustling sound/ Like dead leaves blown together.”
The fairies’ cobbler, Rosamond M. Watson
The soundlessness of fairy movement seems to be confirmed by an account collected by Welsh minister Edmund Jones. A girl of Trefethin parish told him how she had come across some fairies dancing under a crab tree. Regularly for three or four years after that time, either when she was going to or coming home from school, she would meet with them to dance in a barn. She recalled that they wore green and blue aprons, were of small stature and looked “oldish.” Most notable, though, was she never heard their feet whilst she was dancing with them; she took off her own shoes too to make no noise as it seemed displeasing to them.
Skipping and speeding
Other authorities believe that fairy motion was typified by its great speed, which is achieved without perceptible effort. The fays’ hands and feet may move so fast that they aren’t visible and they seem to glide through the air without touching the ground. A man who met some Scottish fairies on Halloween described to poet James Hogg how “their motions were so quick and momentary he could not well say what they were doing.” Supporting this, an account of Broonie the trow king from Orkney describes him as ‘gliding’ from farmstead to farmstead. Nonetheless, another witness reported how she saw a trow getting about by skipping- backwards (County folklore, vol.3 ,Shetland and Orkney).
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The acrobats
Swimming in the air
Is there anything else distinctive about fairy motion that can be gleaned from the sources?
There are a few intriguing mentions of unusual or characteristic movement. In The secret commonwealth the Reverend Robert Kirk describes how, with their bodies of “congealled Air” the sidh folk are “some tymes caried aloft” and that they “swim in the Air near the Earth” (c.1). Welsh Rev. Edmund Jones relates how Edmund Daniel of Arail saw fairies at Cefn Bach: they were “leaping and striking the air” in an undulating motion (The appearance of evil no.59). Lastly, a nineteenth century Yorkshire account describes the fays as being seen, early on summer mornings, in “rapid, confused motion.” These latter descriptions are so individual and unique as to lend them considerable authenticity.
Catch us if you can
The same man who told James Hogg about the fairies on Halloween also had another supernatural experience, when he saw a crowd of fays travelling up Glen Entertrony. At first he thought they were neighbours returning from the fair and tried to catch up with them to get the latest news. Although they were only twenty paces ahead of him, and he was running, he was never able to reach them- and all the time they seemed to him to be standing still in a circle. This puts me in mind of an incident from the Mabinogion. In the story of Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed, Pwyll is seated on top of a fairy hill when he sees fairy princess Rhiannon riding past. He tries to pursue her, but can never catch her up however hard he spurs his horse.
In the Scottish Highlands it is also believed that, when ‘the folk’ move about in groups, they travel in eddies of wind. In Gaelic such an eddy is known as `the people’s puff of wind’ (oiteag sluaigh) and its motion ‘travelling on tall grass stems’ (falbh air chuiseagan treorach). John Rhys recorded in Celtic folklore that the Welsh tylwyth teg were said to dance on the tops of rushes, again suggestive of a light and floating motion.
Whilst we’re talking about fairy movement, it may be worth mentioning here a curious observation by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor in his folk lore guide, The peat fire flame. He records the Highlands belief that fairies always approach from the West. My guess is that this is the direction associated with sunset and so, by extension, with death, and that it reflects the association of fairies with the dead, even if they are not ghosts or the dead themselves.
What can we conclude from this brief survey of allusive hints? The best we can probably say is that one way that fairies might be identified is by their particular gliding, floating movements.