In Britain, yew trees are closely associated with churchyards. It’s sometimes said that this was ordained because yew wood was ideal for longbows, so that English kings wanted to preserve the trees by planting them in a protected environment. This is a nice story, but it’s plainly wrong, as very many yews far older than the Middle Ages can be found growing around churches, in addition to which they are to be found growing by wells and on ancient sites such as hill forts. Their significance stretches back much further than the Hundred Years War and is by no means linked to the Christian church.
An example of such a tree grows within the boundary of the church of Hope Bagot near Ludlow in Shropshire. I visited recently, drawn by the holy well and by the report of an ancient tree. The Hope Bagot yew is monumental: it is about eight metres or twenty five feet in circumference, very obviously of great age- at least 1000 years- and its canopy extends over a huge area, shading far more than the small bubbling well beneath its roots. It’s a remarkable sight and easily attests to the awe and majesty of these trees.
Yews are not regularly associated with faeries, unlike rowans and elders, but there are a number of accounts that demonstrate that these significant trees very properly do have supernatural associations. They have magical properties that make them significant to the faes.
Firstly, I have recounted elsewhere the story of the ‘meremaid‘ that lived in a pool at Marden in Herefordshire. Through some accident now forgotten, the church bell rolled into the pool and was captured by the maid. Horses tried to drag it out, but failed, and the villagers were advised by a ‘wise man’ that the job could only be accomplished using a team of sterile cows (called freemartins) equipped with yokes made of yew and fitted with bands of rowan (some accounts also say that the drivers had whips whose handles were made from rowan). The recovery had to be performed in silence. Everything was going well, with the bell being hauled steadily out of the mud, the meremaid fast asleep inside, when one of the men cried out in excitement. The maid awoke and plunged back into the pool dragging the bell with her. She angrily cried out that she’d have drowned the team as well, had not the magical woods prevented her: “If it had not been/ For your wittern (rowan) bands/ And your yew tree pin/ I should have had your twelve freemartins in.”
The second instance of a faery association with yew comes from Mathafarn, in Powys in mid-Wales. Wirt Sikes (British Goblins, 73) describes an abduction in a faery ring that occurred there in the Ffridd yr Ywen (the Yew Forest). Two farm labourers, Twm and Iago (Tom and Jack) were working in the wood one summer’s day when a mist descended. They thought evening had come and set off homewards, when they came across the yew that gave the wood its name, right at the heart of the forest. This was at a spot called the ‘Dancing Place of the Goblin,’ and the clearing was filled with a strange light. The pair decided it was not as late as they’d thought and decided to take a nap there. When Twm woke up, Iago had disappeared- abducted in a dance of the tylwyth teg under the yew tree. The rest of the story concerns Iago’s rescue, although this proves ultimately tragic: once he is pulled back into the world of men a whole year later, he eats food and crumbles away.
The last story takes us to Scotland. J G Campbell (Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, 1900, 173) describes the glaistig of Morvern. She haunted a lonely area of mountain, known as the Garbh-shlios, the rough country side, which extends along the coast from the Sound of Mull to Kingairloch, a distance of about seven miles. This glaistig herded the sheep and cattle that roamed over the wild pastures. She was said to be a small, but very strong, woman and she would take refuge at night in a particular yew tree (craobh iuthair), for protection from the wild animals that prowled over the ground. The glaistig once competed with a local man rowing a coracle across to the island of Lismore. He had thought himself to be a good rower, and he felt ashamed when he was bested by a woman- but he confessed that he never rowed so hard in all his life. When the boat reached the other shore, the mysterious little woman vanished and he realised he had tested his strength against the glaistig.
Yews appear in a lot of Irish legend too and are linked with the Tuatha De Danann. For example, there is Fer Hi (yew man) son of Fogabal (yew tree fork) who was the king of the sidhe of Cnoc Aine. Fer Hi played a harp in a yew tree and used his music to sow dissent between two mortals in order to take revenge upon one of them. The magical yew in which Fer Hi sat is described by the stories as “beautiful but venomous.”
What can be said in conclusion about yews in British faerylore? It’s evidently a wood with magical properties, one that can repel faes in the same way as rowan but which can also provide them with shelter. This is a contradictory nature, puzzling, but typically faery too. The trees’ magical power also protects and even sanctifies wells and other ancient sites.
A study of the folklore records reveals that a range of objects, many of them extremely ordinary, have been found to be efficacious as charms that ward off or repel fairy harm. They fall into several broad categories, although most of them are natural materials.
A number of commonly occurring rocks and such like substances seem to dispel the fairy presence. Iron is by far the most famous of these, being effective in any shape- whether a knife, a horse shoe, a pin or needle, pairs of tongs or the bolt of a door, but other less well-known (yet equally potent) materials include:
A hot coal thrown in a vat of brewing ale, which will prevent the fairies spoiling it. Likewise, live (that is burning) coals carried by travellers will prevent them being misled or abducted during their journey;
Amber beads sewn into a child’s clothes will prevent its abduction;
Salt will certainly drive off the fairies, scattered around or put into food stuffs that you don’t want stolen (I’ve discussed the power of salt separately);
In the Highlands, calves’ ears were smeared with tar just before May Day to protect them against theft;
The last, rather well known, natural object in this category is the so called adder stone, a naturally holed stone that could be worn around the neck to protect an individual or might be hung over a byre or stable to safeguard the livestock. When not in use, the stones were often kept safe in iron boxes which stopped the fairies trying to interfere with them. The antiquarian Edward Lhuyd, visiting Scotland in 1699, recorded that these ‘self-bored’ stones were also known as snake buttons, cock-knee stones, toad stones, snail stones and mole stones.
It is pretty well known that sprigs of rowan repels faeries; other plants equally repulsive to the faes are:
Fresh nettles, which, if laid on a milk churn will stop them hindering the churning (according to Manx belief). In this connection, see Guilpin’s play Skialaetheia (1598) in which a character says “I applaud myself, for nettle stinging thus this fayery elfe”;
Vervane and dill can dispel evil influences, as can milkwort and mugwort. Other handy herbs are mistletoe, nightshade, yarrow, groundsel, rue and the sap of ash trees. Burnt bindweed would safeguard a baby in a cradle, as would four leaved clover;
In Wales, meanwhile, it was said that a four leaved clover (combined, apparently, with nine grains of wheat) helped you to see the fairies- which would certainly enable you to avoid them if need be;
On the Hebrides, St John’s Wort and pearl wort both granted a general protection to cattle and people;
Sugar water, especially if it was served from a silver spoon or cup (or at least, from a receptacle containing a silver coin) would help ensure that a mother and her new born baby were safe from unwelcome faery attention. Even humble tea apparently drove fairies away in one Welsh case;
On Skye, oat cakes were said to have a protective effect. Quite whether this derives from the oats themselves or from the fact that they have been processed by baking and very possibly salted is less certain;
In county Durham, an elder branch was said to guard against witches and fairies. On the Isle of Man the fairies were said to dwell in elder trees, but elder springs could also be carried to ward off the faes- and even to strike them;
Also on Man, a willow cross would protect against bugganes and fynoderees, but how much efficacy derived from the wood and how much from the religious significance of the shape, I can’t tell (see later for religious items).
I’ve described the effects of stale urine before, but an odd variety of animal parts and by-products could prove revolting to fairies- some understandable, some more surprising:
Drawing blood was believed to drive off the fairies on Orkney and Shetland;
On the Isle of Man, two special animal bones were found to have powerful effect. These were the crosh bollan, which is the upper part of the palate of the wrass fish, and the so-called Thor’s Hammer, which is in fact from a sheep’s mouth and prevents fairy leading. Manx fishermen would carry the crosh bollan for protection at sea;
Burning leather repelled fairies from houses (see next section) as did the presence of a black cockerel;
Near Stirling, in central Scotland, it was recorded in 1795 that new born calves would be forced to eat a little dung as this would prevent both witches and elves harming or stealing them.
It’s quite well-known that red threads are effective against fairies, for example tied around a child’s throat to protect them from taking or woven into the hair of a cow’s tail to prevent the fairies stealing its milk. If you wanted to double your protection, securing a spring of rowan to someone or something with a red thread was recommended.
A burning rag carried round a woman in childbirth three times would stop the fairies taking her and her new born baby, it was said on Orkney and Shetland. It’s also reported that, when the trows smelled the smoke from the rag, they would express their displeasure in a rhyme: “Wig wag, jig jag,/ Ill healt so weel/ Thu wes sained/ Wi’ a linen rag.” To be fair, though, the smell of the smouldering material was probably the really effective part of this ceremony- for comparison, burning peats were also carried around farms on Shetland at Yule to ward off the trows. The combination of the smoke plus the flame (recall the lit coals earlier) appear to have been what discouraged the trows.
Wells & Well Water
As I have described previously, faery kind have an ambivalent relationship to wells, sometimes inhabiting them, sometimes avoiding them, sometimes giving their waters healing properties. In Wales, wells would be protected from the fairies by circling them with stones painted white; however the water from some springs was reputed to keep the fairies at bay- for example, St Leonards Well at Sheep’s Tor on Dartmoor.
Linked to the possibly erroneous belief that fairies are fallen angels or emissaries of the devil and, as such, innately antithetical to all aspects of Christian religion, items such as bibles, psalm and prayer books were constantly regarded as sure remedies against fairy threat. Even a few pages torn from a holy book could work, it was said in Scotland. It was found that an open bible could be especially potent, if carried around the person or place to be blessed and protected. On Shetland, plaiting crosses out of straws or the livestock’s tail hairs was a further precaution undertaken.
As will be seen, a variety of items carried with you can provide excellent protection against fairy interference and abduction. Properly equipped, you should not need to fear being pixie-led or being taken. Luckily, too, although some of these items are quite rare, many are readily available to all.
For further discussion, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021):
Deliberate leading astray is a fairy habit almost exclusively found in South West Britain. It is reported about as often in Cornwall and Devon, with about twenty-five per cent of cases taking places in other counties (Dorset and Somerset) and slightly fewer in Wales. Because it is primarily a phenomenon of South-West England, I will use the term pixie-led as a label for the process.
Here I’m only going to describe those fairy beings who, amongst their other activities, enjoy misleading humans. Those supernaturals that appear as moving lights and whose sole function is to mislead- wills of the wisp, Jack o’ Lanterns, Goblin Lanterns and such like- will not be my concern here. This reflects a fairly clear subdivision of types, but it is not perfect or binding. Pucks and Pooks in England and South Wales can often appear in all respects like a will of the wisp, although we know them to be more complex characters in addition to this (see for example, Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, 23).
Pixie-leading is a longstanding fairy practice that is well attested in literature. It can be traced back to the early fourteenth century. Jeremy Harte in Exploring Fairy Traditions (p.26) records a preacher’s sermon that describes one who has been “led at nyght with gobelyn, and erreth hider and thider.” The references multiply from the seventeenth century, for example from Francis Rous, who in his religious text Meditations of Instruction of 1616 compared those who pursue material wealth to:
“they [that] shall stumble into the same ditches, wherein they have seene many of their neighbours wallowing. This makes sport for the divel, and thus is man most truly fayry-led, even led aside by the spirits of darknesse…”
In an identical tone, Thomas Heyrick, in The New Atlantis of 1687, mentioned those who “Vainly like wilder’d men should wander round/ Be lost in senceless shapes on fairy ground” (p.51). Likewise, Beaumont and Fletcher in their play Wit at Several Weapons (c.1620), have a character complain:
“My ways are goblin led and the night elf still draws me from my home.” (II, 2)
Writing in the first half of the 1600s, poet Robert Herrick, a Devonshire parson, advised:
“If ye feare to be affrighted
When ye are (by chance) benighted,
In your Pocket for a trust
Carrie nothing but a Crust:
For that holy piece of Bread,
Charmes the danger, and the dread.”
Christopher Clobbery, who wrote in 1659, warned of “fairy elves who thee mislead … in to the mire, then at thy folly smile/ Yea, clap their hands for joy.” The remedy he advised was simple: “Old country folk, who pixie-leading fear/ Bear bread about them, to prevent harm.”
In the English Midlands, we know from Jabez Allies that you were not pixie-led but ‘poake-ledden,’ something which seems to be confirmed by the experience of Bishop Richard Corbet (author of the poem Rewards and Fairies), who became lost near Bosworth in 1640. He and his party were advised then to “Turne your cloakes/ … for Pucke is busy in these oakes./ If ever wee at Bosworth will be found/ Then turn your cloakes, for this is fairy ground.”
What is Pixie-Leading?
To be pixie-led is a very well-known phrase, but what does it actually entail? There are, in fact, at least half a dozen different experiences which are classed under this heading.
Changing the landscape or hiding the path
Using glamour so that the human victim no longer recognises where they are is the commonest way to confuse and lead astray a person. A few accounts will exemplify this: Once a Week magazine in 1867 reported how a young farmer was pixie-led one evening in an orchard, where he was trapped for two hours. In a Welsh incident, two young women returning to Llandysul from Lampeter fair were led in a field next to their home. They were lost for hours on a bright moonlit night, yards from their house. Lastly, a Cornish man called Glasson, making the short walk from Ludgvan to Gulval near Penzance, got completely lost and went in circles. In all these cases, and more, a familiar place became strange; land marks disappeared and panic set in.
Sometimes, the change made is to conceal the gate out of a field. Often, again, the enclosed space is very familiar to the victim and the moon may be shining, but the means of escape seems to vanish. To add to this, in several Cornish accounts the pixies also frustrate their victims’ attempts to get free by raising the field hedge whenever he finds a lower part he might have been able to climb over (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.1, p.57 and Enys Tregarthen, Folklore Tales, ‘The Enchanted Field’ (1911)).
In one case, something similar happened inside a house. A Welsh man woke up to see fairies in his bedroom dancing and eating. He tried to wake his wife, but couldn’t, and for four hours just had to watch the festivities. Eventually, the fairies left and he got out of bed to try to see where they had gone. However, he couldn’t find the bedroom door; it was only when he cried out in panic and woke the rest of his family that the spell was broken. For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.
Mist and Fog
The pixies are known for their ability to control the weather and this can be used as a way of trapping victims. Men travelling across Dartmoor from Crediton to Exeter were advised that, if a cloud descended, they should strip and sit on their clothes for half an hour or so. The pixies would in due course raise the fog thrown around them. Patience is evidently important in such cases. A woman on the Quantocks became demented with terror when the pixies caused an evening mist to rise suddenly around her, so that she was lost in a field minutes away from her home. For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.
The pixies may lure people away from their route with music, thereby getting them lost. This has been reported in Devon and in North Wales.
Just as a person may become trapped in a familiar field, they may step into a fairy ring and fall into the fairies’ power. A Somerset farmer coming home from market was led like this until he ended up exhausted by a briar bush that grew in three counties- a plant which magical properties that seems to have broken the spell he was under. Cornish fairy author Enys Tregarthen has called rings ‘Spriggan Traps.’
Perhaps related to this phenomenon is that of following a ‘piskey-path.’ Enys Tregarthen also described how these mysterious green paths can be seen on cliffs or meandering across the moors, still verdant when the bracken is dry and brown. Writing in 1630 in his View of Devonshire, Thomas Westcote mentioned how a person who got lost on Dartmoor would be “led in a pixy-path.” Here there is some definite, if unclear, link between these paths and being pixie-led.
In one Cornish story a man called Nicholas Annear was punished by the pixies for always rushing and hurrying. One day, he set out for market with his horse and cart. The pixies made it appear that the church tower at his destination was ahead, but he never got there. He drove his cart all day and never arrived.
Who do they pixies do this? They seem to have several motivations. Above all, there’s their love of mischief; they need no reason as such, other than the pleasure in mildly tormenting humans. However, they may feel the person needs to be punished for some reason (as in the case of Nicholas Annear above). If they have been insulted by a person, s/he will be targeted in revenge. For example, a North Yorkshire man who declared that he’d catch a fairy in a bottle was led astray for two hours as a result of his foolhardy boldness. Someone who has taken the fairies’ property will suffer too. A man from Bishop’s Lydeard in the Quantock Hills picked up a fairy grindstone as he was out walking and decided to keep it. A mist descended upon him and he was led through brambles all night. A woman from Selworthy parish on the Exmoor coast of Somerset saw a group of pixies; they were so upset by her intrusion that they led her all over the moor and through the woods. Any trespass upon the fairies’ privacy is bitterly resented.
An isolated example of retribution for trespass comes from Orkney, at the diametrically opposite end of the British Isles to Devon and Cornwall, where most of the accounts are located. In Redland parish on the mainland of Orkney there was a grass ‘gait’ (or path) used by the trows when passing from their hill to the sea shore at twilight. Two men in search of a midwife crossed the path one evening; for this disrespectful act one of them was led far astray by the trows.
Predictably, the pixie attitude to leading someone out of their way is great amusement. They are often said to be heard laughing or, even, clapping their hands with glee. They might sometimes be seen jumping about in front of the victim, mocking their situation (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 184). A clear indication of the blurring of differences between wills of the wisp and pixie-leading fairies is a description of the Dorset Jack o’ Lantern, who is seen as a ball of light hopping before a person and which sniggers and laughs if a victim is successfully lured into a pond; something very similar was described in Cornish story by Enys Tregarthen (Why Jen Pendogget Changed his Mind (1940)).
As for the human victims, how do they react? Inevitably, they will end up exhausted, frustrated and panic-stricken. They are often said in Cornwall to be left “mizzy-mazey” (Enys Tregarthen, The Enchanted Field). In Devon, the victim is said to be ‘mazed’ as a result, a neat term that is suggestive of being both amazed and lost (in a maze).
The consequences of being pixie-led can be much more serious, though. We’ve heard about terror and a loss of wits. A man who was pixie-led on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset had to be rescued after he was lured into a bog. He was ill for quite some time after this experience. A Devonshire man crossing Dartmoor near Chudleigh was pixie-led by the sound of music. He wandered for hours, trying to locate the source, and eventually collapsed in a faint. When he came round the next morning, he was able to make his way home, but he took to his bed, never rose again and soon afterwards died. In like manner a Welsh man, John Jacob of Bedwellty, was led astray by the fairies one night, following shapes that appeared and then vanished. At last he came to a neighbour’s house and was saved, but he was rendered mute by the experience and soon sickened and died.
If you are pixie-led, what can you do to free yourself? There are several tried and tested remedies.
Turning your clothes
The best known and easiest remedy is to turn an item of clothing- a hat might be turned back to front or a coat, pocket, glove or stocking might be turned inside out. It seems likely that this is effective because it changes your appearance and throws the pixies off the scent or releases you from the enchantment that traps you in a fairy ring. Wise travellers turn their clothes before they set out, so that they will be safe from enchantment throughout their journey. It’s worth adding, though, that in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Who Rode in a Pocket, the pixie’s presence in the victim’s clothing is the cause of their wandering astray- and the spell is only broken when she turns her pockets, thereby ejecting the mischievous passenger.
Making a Noise
Attracting the attention of other people who’ve not fallen under the pixie spell will work. This is effective in two ways. Either the rescuer calls out in reply to help guide the victim to safety or the pixie-led person makes a noise which attracts rescuers to where she or he is stranded. For instance, Abraham Stocke in Somerset had said that he had no time for pixies. They led him into a swamp one night when he was walking home from brass band practice. Luckily, he had his euphonium with him and was able to play it to alert his family and guide them to him. A person simply coming along and startling the victim out of their bemusement can often be enough to release them (for examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies).
It can help to carry something with you to protect yourself against pixie charms during your travels. This could be a cross made from rowan wood, a piece of bread (as we’ve seen already) or a sprig of the plant greater stitchwort. Rowan, or mountain ash, are also well-known for repelling supernaturals beings of all kinds (witches included). The stitchwort is more unusual and seems to be a uniquely Devonian remedy. The flower is called ‘pixies’ in the county and it is believed to be the special property of the pixies. Picking it will upset them, but apparently carrying it with you somehow has the effect of deflecting rather than attracting their ill-will.
Water (as often) can release the bewildered person. Drinking the water from Fitz’s Well, near Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor, dispels the glamour cast by the local pixies. Apparently any running water may have the same effect and, in fact, it is possible that falling in a stream might be sufficient to break the spell.
Summary & Further Reading
Pixie-leading is only really something to be concerned about if you’re out walking in unfamiliar places in Cornwall or Devon. The open moors are the likeliest locations, places where getting lost is, in any case, a considerable risk unless you’re well equipped with a map and compass. Outside this area, it is a remote risk: as we’ve seen from the folklore, there are only isolated cases from North Wales, North Yorkshire and Orkney.
In many ways, as I’ve described, the fairies can treat humans like their playthings and pixie-leading is one of the most acute examples of this. Unlike abductions, though, it is generally a very short-term and harmless experience. People can occasionally be led to perilous spots, such as marshes or cliff tops, and a few react very seriously to the stress of the experience, but for most it is an annoyance and a bit of a fright, but no more.
For another examination of the subject, see Simon Young’s article Pixy Led in Devon and the South West, which is available through Academia.com. I have, of course, read this, but in writing this posting I deliberately sought to reach my own conclusions based on the evidence that I had uncovered. Simon had access to a range of other sources and therefore reaches other useful conclusions on the subject. My posting on Glamour Housesdeals with a related phenomenon, though admittedly a deception by the fairies undertaken for benign purposes. My book, British Pixies, also examines the theme of pixy-leading in detail and in the wider context of pixie behaviour overall.
There is a procedure for ‘laying’ (or exorcising) fairies, just like ghosts. This seems to apply particularly to the boggarts of North West England and, it has to be said, the difference between boggarts and ghosts is not always clear-cut in the stories that are told. I’ve discussed before the uncertain relationship between fairies and the dead.
Laying the Lancashire boggarts
There are still quite a few spots identified where boggarts have been laid- for instance under a laurel tree at Hothersall Hall near Ribchester. Milk is poured on the tree roots, both for the benefit of the tree and to prolong the spell that imprisons the spirit. A stone head excavated locally now sits in a fork of the laurel’s trunk and is widely regarded as being ‘the boggart.’
At Towneley, Lancs, a deal was done with the boggart to banish him. He haunted a bridge over a small stream and demanded gifts from terrified travellers. In return for a promise that he would stay away as long as the trees were green, he was given the soul of the next living being to cross the bridge. The bargain was sealed by the locals by sending an old hen across the bridge; true to his word the boggart vanished and (of course) evergreen shrubs were quickly planted in the vicinity. There are two other locations in the same county where the terms of banishment were the same: the boggart agreed to stay away so long as certain evergreen plants might be found in leaf (holly and ivy). This doesn’t, perhaps, say much for the wits of the average boggart but it’s of a piece with the story of the farmer who agreed with a boggart who claimed rights over his field that they would take the above and below ground crops from the disputed land in alternate years. The farmer promptly planted potatoes followed by wheat- and the boggart received wheat roots and potato tops for his pains.
Boggart Bridge in Towneley Park
In Written Stone Lane, Dilworth, Lancashire, lies a slab of stone measuring nine by two by one feet, upon which is inscribed ‘Rauffe Radcliffe laid this stone to lye for ever, AD 1633.’ It’s believed that this was done to lay a boggart who had haunted the lane and scared travellers. A local farmer later decided to ignore Radcliffe’s wishes (and warning) and took the slab to use as a counter in his buttery. It took six horses several laborious hours to drag the rock to his farm and, after the stone was installed, nothing but misfortune followed. No pan or pot would ever stay upright upon it, eventually persuading the avaricious man to return the slab whence it came. It took only one horse a short while to pull the rock back and once it was restored the disturbances promptly ceased. In County Durham there’s another stone under which a boggart is said to be laid- and on which no weary traveller can ever sit and rest easily.
Sometimes prayers are used, underlining the uncertain position of boggarts and faeries in our theology. Are they some sort of evil spirit or simply antithetical to the Christian faith? Whatever the answer, some boggarts were harder to banish than others. Some might disappear through the ministrations of just one priest; others might need several praying as a team and, in a couple of instances, the fervent supplications of an entire village were needed to lay the sprite.
At Grislehurst in the same county of Lancashire a boggart was laid in spectacular manner, in a grave under an ash and a rowan tree and along with a staked cockerel. Despite the presence of the two fairy trees and the use of the stake, which we all know from vampire hunting, the method didn’t work, though, as in 1857 the creature was still reported to be terrifying locals at night.
We have no information as to how you trap your boggart in the first place. It’s been quite widely reported that in the town records for Yeadon, West Yorkshire, payments are shown being made to boggart catchers. The report of this is late Victorian but I’m not clear if the records themselves come from earlier in the nineteenth century or refer to an even earlier period. Either way, it seems that this expertise has now been lost, which is regrettable, given the fact that most fairy captures are entirely accidental.
The Cauld Lad
The layings described so far were ways of getting rid of nuisance boggarts and were brought about by humans. We should recall, however, the mournful song of the brownie called the ‘Cauld lad of Hilton.’ He wandered the Northumbrian hall crying:
“Wae’s me, wae’s me/The acorn’s not yet fallen from the tree/ That’s to grow the wood/ That’s to make the cradle/ That’s to rock the bairn/ That’s to grow to the man/ That’s to lay me!”
For the Cauld Lad, evidently, laying was a condition to be desired, to release him from his earthly bondage, and it was eventually achieved by that classic means of the gift of clothes.
It seems then that spirits might be laid to rest consensually and without violence. On this point I recommend the story Hobberdy Dick by pre-eminent fairy lore expert Katherine Briggs. This is an intelligent and well written fairy story- as much for adults as children- which makes good use of Brigg’s vast folklore knowledge and which concludes with an interesting speculation that laying with the gift of clothes was a form of salvation and redemption for the domestic spirit.
Nowadays, the association between fairies and the natural world seems obvious and fundamental to their character. I think this belief is relatively new and that it derives from two sources.
Firstly, during the last century or so the conception has emerged of fairies as nature spirits, beings whose purpose is to motivate and to shape the processes of nature, most especially the growth of plants. As such, it might be added, they tend to lose some of their individual personality and become incorporated into those natural systems themselves.
A rural community
The other origin of our idea of ‘nature fairies’ is a great deal older. Human representations of faery kind have always tended to mirror our own society, hence to medieval people it seemed obvious that the fae would live in a world much like their own, with the same organisation and occupations. There were fairy kings and queens, and the fairy court went out hunting deer with hounds. In the Middle Ages, too, we all lived much closer to nature, far more in contact with the cycles of growth, with the seasons and with woods and wildlife. The fairies accordingly were no different- and whilst human society has rapidly developed in recent centuries, our perceptions of faery have tended to remain rather more fixed.
Be that as it may, it seems right and proper to us that fairies should live in forests and be intimately associated with flowers, trees and springs. I have discussed these associations in a couple of my own postings on plants and fairy authority Morgan Daimler has also written on aspects of this subject on her own blog. Reading her thoughts sparked further musings of my own.
Richard Doyle, A fairy dance in a clearing.
Morgan has written about fairy trees and about fairy rings. She highlights some interesting points which I had overlooked or downplayed. As is well known, the rings are linked to fairy dancing. If you read a lot of the British poetry, especially that of the nineteenth century, you would get the impression that dancing in rings is, in fact, pretty much all that fairies do: it’s their defining characteristic, their main habit, their primary purpose or occupation even. Here are a couple of examples of this genre of verse, which had international appeal:
Thomas Hood, English poet, described the fairies as night time revellers who emerge from their flowery chambers-
“With lulling tunes to charm the air serener/ Or dance upon the grass to make it greener.” (The Midsummer fairies)
American poet Paul Dunbar likewise pictured how: “nightly they fling their lanterns out, / And shout and shout, they join the rout,/ And sing and sing, within the sweet enchanted ring.”
Now, usually it is said that it is the passing of fairy feet that makes the marks, but Morgan ponders whether instead the fays are drawn to dance by the clearly visible mycelium circles in the grass rather than the causation being the other way round. This certainly seems just as probable an explanation.
Charming as the sight of fairies tripping all in a circle might be, Morgan rightly emphasises that they are places of danger. The rings should never be damaged and she warns that spying on the dances, or joining in with them, may actually be perilous. These circles may even be traps, she suggests, deliberately set to lure in humans and to abduct them forever- or for extended periods. Morgan discusses too the disparity in the passage in time between faery and the mortal world; the captive dancer spins at a different rate to the human globe and may return to find their old life long passed.
head piece to chapter VI, ‘Round about our coal fire,’ 1734
One thing is undeniable: and that is that fairies and mushrooms/ toadstools have become an inseparable pairing in the popular imagination. The earliest example I’ve found is an illustration from the 1734 edition of Round about our coal fire, which incorporates all the key elements of the imagery (dancers, fly agaric, fairy knoll, moonlight). Little has changed since, although arguably the connection was strengthened considerably during the middle of last century when (it seemed) almost every children’s illustrator produced some variation on the theme. There are too many to reproduce, but the example by Florence Anderson below repeats many of the key motifs. The idea has been ramified in various directions too: the poet Madison Cawein, for example, saw toadstools as pixy houses and also imagined “The vat like cups of fungus, filled/ With the rain that fell last night” (Pixy wood). It’s said in Welsh folklore that the parasol mushrooms act as umbrellas to keep the fairies’ dance-sites dry (Robin Gwyndaf in Narvaez, Good people, 1991).
Florence Mary Anderson, ‘Fairy revels’
On the subject of fairy trees, Morgan examines the possibility that at least some fairies are tree spirits (or dryads) before turning to look at trees which simply have fairy associations. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the question as to whether fairies are plants, or live in plants, or simply prefer to frequent glades and meadows is still a matter of debate. I have a particular attachment to the old lady of the elder tree, so I was fascinated to read that in Ireland elder sap is believed to grant a second sight of the fairy rade. Elders and hawthorns both have strong fairy associations and their heady, musky, green sappy scents certainly serve as a sort of incense for me. Morgan also notes the dual role of the rowan- a spray of foliage can act as a charm against fairy intrusion but also as a means of seeing the good neighbours passing. I’ve discussed this in another post, but it’s a good example of the ‘contrary’ nature of many fairy things.
Finally, I’ve been flicking through my copy of Evans-Wentz’ Fairy faith in Celtic countries again and I noticed an intriguing little fairy tree fact. On page 176 he discusses the Cornish fairy that haunts the rock outcrop known as the Newlyn Tolcarne. The manner in which this spirit was summoned was to pronounce a charm whilst holding three dried leaves in your hand. These were one each from an ash, an oak and a thorn. Now, as some of you may instantly cry out: that’s the exclamation used by Rudyard Kipling’s Puck in Puck of Pook’s Hill (and in ‘Tree song‘ in the chapter in the book, Weland’s Forge).This story predates Evans-Wentz by just a few years, and it seems unlikely that either the old nurse to whom this story is ascribed, or Mr Maddern, a Penzance architect, who tells it, are likely to be recycling Kipling’s story. I’m not aware that Kipling ever visited Penwith, so that there’s at least some basis to suppose that these might be traces of a very ancient belief, surviving in both Sussex and Cornwall. Morgan debates in her recent book Fairies(pp.176-8) whether or not this is an authentic tradition or is one example of a trend she identifies for popular culture to create folklore: if the Cornish example is genuine and is not just the architect mixing up something he’d recently read with something his nurse told him decades earlier, then it seems that ‘oak, ash and thorn’ is far older than Morgan suspected.
In a recent post I described the best days of the week to see fairies (or to avoid them). There are also certain times of the year when they are more likely to be abroad in the mortal world, and when encounters are more likely- whether for good or ill. (I should confess at the start that I’ve broken my rule and included material from Ireland here, because it is so consistent with that of the British Isles.)
The bulk of the evidence on festivals and seasons comes from Scotland and Ireland. There is a little from Man, a couple of odd instances from England and Cornwall and from Wales all we really know is that there were three ‘spirit nights’, the Teir nos ysprydnos, when it was believed that supernatural beings of all descriptions were abroad (these were May Day, Midsummer Eve and Halloween). Despite any deficiencies, the accounts are nonetheless consistent. Two festivals stand out across Britain and Ireland- these are May Day and Halloween. On these occasions the fairies would be out and about in the world, partly for pleasure, sometimes because they moved home at these important times of the year.
On May Day fires were lit to scare away the fairies. This was done in Ireland, Scotland and on Man, where it was expressly the gorse that was burned. Both in Ireland and Man it was believed to be unlucky to give fire away to a neighbour at this time- perhaps because the protection from fairies was being dissipated. On Man, too, rowan, primroses and green boughs were gathered and laid before the doors of houses, stables and cattle sheds to exclude the fairies. The reason for these precautions seems to have been that this festival was the time when the fairies re-emerged after winter and held their first dances of the year. As they were freshly abroad in the world, again, they were deemed particularly dangerous. It was said to be unwise to draw water from a well for a drink after sunset. In Ireland, it was believed too that the sidhe would try to steal butter at this time of year; in Scotland, they stole milk from the cows. Also in Ireland it was considered that cutting blackthorn at this season would attract ill-fortune. In the worst cases, a sudden death would be regarded as an indicator of an abduction.
The next major seasonal festival of the year was Midsummer, but this has fewer fairy associations. In Ireland Beltaine fires were lit and once again these acted as barriers or discouragements to the sidhe folk.
Margaret Tarrant, Midsummer night
It was at Halloween (Samhain) that supernatural forces again became particularity dangerous. On this night the fairy folk were abroad once more, their last major excursion of the year, and mortals had to take precautions. In Ireland it was thought that the sidhe moved home on this night, whilst in Scotland the fairy court enjoyed its last processional ride (or rade). In the Outer Hebrides the season was said to be even more perilous as it was then that the fairy hosts fought amongst themselves, whilst in England this was the time of the year when the Wild Hunt rode through the nighttime skies of the South West. A person out on Halloween was in grave danger of being swept up with the fairy throng. The only way that the rade could be seen by a mortal without peril was to have rowan hung at their door (hence my use of the verse and illustration by Cicely Mary Barker at the head of this post). In Ireland offerings of food were left out near raths and other fairy sites in order to deflect their enmity. Conversely, it was said that this was the best time of year to rescue those abducted, as the doors of the fairy hills would be open.
Even if you did not encounter the fairies, the countryside could be tainted. For this reason, in Cornwall and in Ireland the advice was not to eat brambles after the end of October. As in May, cutting blackthorn was discouraged too in November. As at the start of the growing year, so at the end, torches were lit in the Highlands to keep the sidhe folk away.
Other dates with fairy links are Whitsuntide, when holy water was sprinkled inside Irish homes to ward off the sidhe and the season of Yule on Shetland, during which it was believed that the trows (trolls) would wander the island and enter human homes. In fact, the Highland community served by the Reverend Robert Kirk during the late seventeenth century regarded all the quarter days (Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and Halloween) as risky times when there was fairy danger.
John Duncan, The riders of the sidhe.
Whereas the evidence on days and times of day was rather less conclusive, it is possible with some certainty to point to festivals and seasons of the year, liminal turning points in the calendar, during which the portals to the supernatural open, or at least become more porous, allowing far greater access from one side to the other.
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.
‘Mother mushroom and her children’ by Edward Okun.
A range of plants have fairy associations, both good and bad. It is convenient to divide them into three broad types for our discussion.
We commonly conceive of elves and fairies living in woodland, whilst certain specific tree species have strong links to fairies. Thorn trees are magical throughout Britain and Ireland. For instance, Northumbrian fairies are said particularly to prefer dancing around thorns. From across the border comes a Scottish story of a man ploughing a field who made a special effort to protect an old hawthorn, known to be a fairy meeting place- by leaving an unploughed circle of turf around it- was rewarded with a fairy banquet and a life time’s luck and wisdom in consequence. I have mentioned before the Old Lady of the Elder Tree as well as the special status of oaks as places for dancing or even as homes. In The discovery of witchcraft of 1584 Reginald Scot listed the many different types of fairies with which mothers would scare their children (Book VII, chapter XV). He included “the man in the oke,” a supernatural whose characteristics and habits are now almost entirely lost to us.
Rowan trees, in contrast, repel fairies. Rowan set over your door will allow you to watch the fairies riding past without being drawn into their procession and a rowan cross worn about your person will prevent the fairies seizing you. Both gorse and holly acted as protective barriers to fairies around a home, although it has to be confessed that they keep out humans just as well!
Today we tend to think immediately of flower fairies, but there is a much older and richer lore of flowers associated with fairies. Fairy blooms include yellow flowers such as cowslips, broom, primroses and ragwort; the stems of the latter are used like witches’ broomsticks. Blue bells are protected by fairies, and lone children picking them in woods risk being abducted. Fox gloves are known in Wales as menyg ellyllon, elves’ gloves. The fairies also favour red campion, forget-me-not, scabious, wild thyme and, more unusually, tulips.
A strange tale from Devon describes how pixies near Tavistock loved to spend their nights in an old woman’s tulip bed and the flowers thrived from their beneficial presence. When she died her flower bed was converted by the next residents in the cottage to growing parsley and the pixies blighted it. An unknown plant was used by Dartmoor fairies to heal a servant maid they had previously lamed for refusing to put out water for them at night. In a similar dual role, it is said that foxglove juice can expel a changeling and cure a child who is suffering from ‘the feyry’- that is, one who has been elf-struck.
The primary protective plant against fairies is St John’s Wort, although verbena is also effective. I have discussed two other very important fairy plants separately: fern seed can confer invisibility whilst four-leaf clovers can dispel glamour.
The link between fairies and the fairy ring where they are alleged to dance is very well established, but the associations go deeper. Fairy butter (y menyn tylwyth teg) is a fungus found deep underground in limestone crevices and elf food (bwyd ellyllon) is a poisonous toadstool. In Northumberland, fairy butter is a soft orange fungus found around the roots of old trees.
The linking of fungi with goblins and elves is well known and of longstanding. Perhaps it partly derives from the dual nature of the mushrooms- they may be edible or poisonous. They are, of course, linked to fairy rings and indicate where the elves have been dancing. One of these is the ‘Fairy Cake Hebeloma’, which is poisonous; another is the highly edible Fairy Ring Champignon. The sudden appearance of toadstools may seem magical and mysterious. Their red colouring (for the traditionally red and white spotted fly agaric toadstool) may link them to red fairy clothes whilst their diminutive size may also explain the connection. Robert Herrick in his poem Oberon’s feast imagines “A little mushroom table spread” for the tiny fairy diners and in The fairies’ fegaries “Upon the mushroome’s head/ Our table cloth we spread.”
Puff balls have been called ‘Puck’s fist’ and, in his Fairy mythology, Keightley suggests that ‘Elf’s fist’ was an old Anglo-Saxon name for the mushrooms found in rings. Wirt Sikes inBritish goblinsrelates a Breconshire belief that gifts of fairy bread by the Tylwyth Teg, if not eaten immediately in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.
In the modern age, with the prevalent view of fairies as attractive and benign beings with whom we wish to make contact and commune, the concept of charms to protect ourselves from supernatural interference seems alien. However, as I have described previously, the view of faery was once very far from favourable and prophylactics were widely known.
Protecting against fairies
The folklore evidence offers a variety of means of keeping oneself safe from fairy visitations. The recorded methods are:
iron and steel– the supernatural race cannot abide forged metal in any form: the Reverend Kirk expressed it thus- “Iron hinders all the Opperations of those that travell in the Intrigues of these hidden Dominions.” In fact, metal is a double protection: the presence of iron items will prevent harm; touching with iron will drive fairies away. A scythe placed sharpened edge uppermost in a chimney will repel fairies; pins in the swaddling clothes, scissors hung over, or tongs laid upon, a cradle will prevent the substitution of a changeling (partly because the open blades will create a cross shape- see later); an iron bolt or lock on a door will guard a house, an axe placed under the pillow will protect the sleeper and striking a fairy with iron will result in its instant disappearance. In Wales the story of the fairy wife lost by accidentally striking her with the iron bit on a bridle was extremely common; contact with metal in these cases lost a loved one. Welsh folklore also records that if iron is thrown at a changeling or at a clinging fairy, the unwelcome presence will instantly be repelled (Rhys Celtic folklorepp.23 & 250). From time to time fairy hills will open and the sound of music will lure humans in; the best protective against never escaping is to place an knife at the exit so that the door cannot close again. If a person has been lured into dancing with the fairies in a ring, one way of recovering him or her is a touch with iron. Despite this widely attested aversion to ironmongery, it is curious to note that fairies will be found using metal items- John Rhys records them borrowing griddles and pots in Wales and there are regular stories of fairies asking humans to mend their implements. For example, a ploughman working in a field at Onehouse, just outside Stowmarket in Suffolk, was approached by a ‘sandy-coloured’ fairy for help mending his ‘peel.’ This was the long handled flat iron used for removing loaves from an oven. The ploughman easily repaired the broken handle and was very soon rewarded with hot cake fresh from the oven.
salt and fish– in Popular romances of the West of England, Robert Hunt records an interesting tale from Cornwall of a cow that was favoured by the fairies for its milk. When the milkmaid at Bosfrancan farm near St Buryan realised what was happening, she sought advice form a local cunning woman who advised that the pobel vean could not abide the smell of fish or the savour of salt or grease. Her recommendation was to rub the cows udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving. The advice worked, but the cow pined for her supernatural friends. Oddly, as mentioned in my earlier post on offerings to fairies, fishermen in nearby Newlyn appeased the spriggans with an offering of fish, indicating that the revulsion was not consistent. In Wales it was said that one means of driving off a changeling was to place salt on a shovel, make the sign of a cross in it and then to heat it over the fire (Rhys p.103);
turning clothes– a consistently deployed protection was to ‘turn your coat’, to turn a garment inside out as a way of defending oneself from fairy tricks. Two Cornish examples from Hunt illustrate the effectiveness of the remedy. A Mr Tresillian, returning late at night from Penzance to his home in St Levan, came upon the piskies dancing in their rings. He felt compelled to join them, at which point they swarmed upon him, stinging like bees. He retained enough presence of mind to turn his glove inside out and threw it at them, which instantly caused the throng to disappear. Secondly, an old widow living at Chy-an-wheal, above Carbis Bay, found that her home was favoured by the thievish spriggans of nearby Trencrom Hill. They resorted to her cottage to divide up their plunder and rewarded her tolerance of this by leaving her a coin after each visit. She hatched a plan to get more from them and, one night, secretly turned her shift inside out whilst the spriggans were present. This enabled her to seize a gold cup from them. The widow became a wealthy woman as a result, but she could never wear that shift again because, if she did, she suffered agonies.
herbs– certain plants are effective in repelling fairies. These include St John’s Wort, red verbena, daisies, ash, four leaf clover (this plant has the virtue both of dispelling glamour and enabling a person to see fairy folk as well as repelling them), and rowan. For example, a branch of mountain ash will help pull a trapped person out of a fairy ring, as the fairies dread the tree (Rhys pp.85 & 246). Katherine Briggs suggests that it is the red berries of the plant which have given it its reputation for warding off evil, but it has much wider magical power than this, as Robert Graves explained in The White Goddesschapter 10. Lastly, Wirt Sikes records in British goblins that a gorse hedge is an excellent protection against unwelcome visitors.
running water– fairy folk are unable to cross streams and rivers, so in any pursuit leaping from bank to bank will be a sure escape for the hunted human. Water courses running south are said to be especially efficacious. Oddly, nevertheless, fairies seem to have no objection to still water. They actively seek it out for washing themselves and they are from time to time associated with wells. For example John Rhys in Celtic folklore(1901, p.147 & chapter 6) notes the existence of several ‘fairy wells’in Wales which demanded attention from local people, in the absence of which they would overflow or flood.
faith– according to suspected witch John Walsh, when he was examined in prison in 1576, fairies only have influence over those whose Christian faith is weak or absent (although the evidence on the actual nature of fairy religion is unclear). It may be questionable how much to rely upon this statement given the position he was in: he understandably wished to deflect the accusations made against him and, accordingly, he wanted to present himself as an orthodox individual resistant to any satanic temptations. Be that as it may, it was widely known that the sign of the cross would dispel supernatural threats. Wirt Sikes in British goblins (p.63) gives an interesting summary of the Welsh beliefs in this respect: “There are special exorcisms and preventive measures to interfere with the fairies in their quest of infants. The most significant of these, throughout Cambria, is a general habit of piety. Any pious exclamation has value as an exorcism; but it will not serve as a preventive.”
self-bored stones– according to John Aubrey, if a person could locate stones through which natural erosion had created a hole (sometimes called ‘hag-stones’), they could protect their horses from night-riding by fairies by hanging the stones over each horse’s manger in the stables- or by tying the stone to the stable key. The fairies would not then be able to pass underneath.
touching grass– in his Celtic folklore John Rhys records a couple of Welsh traditions that a person may save themselves from fairy abduction by seizing hold of grass, apparently because the Tylwyth Teg are prevented from severing blades of grass.
An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).