Shargie bairns and tacharans: more thoughts on Scottish changelings

Arthur Rackham

I recently came across a valuable Scottish folklore resource, the website A Kist of Riches, www.tobarandualchais.co.uk. This provided a range of new accounts of changelings to supplement my recent book on changelings, Middle Earth Cuckoos. The website features hundreds of recordings, many in Gaelic: a changeling in Scots is a “shargie” or “shag” bairn, in Gaelic a tacharan or siofra/ siobhra.

The two main issues dealt with by the folklore on changelings are the identifying features of the faery substitutes and the ways of getting rid of them and retrieving the original babies. C. F. Gordon-Cumming, describing the Hebrides in 1883 recorded that:

“changelings are idiot children, wizened and emaciated, yet their utter childishness blends with occasional flashes of mother wit to convince people that it is a fairy child.”

What’s more, changelings tend to cry constantly and to have appetites and thirsts that can never be satisfied.

The sort of behaviour that will indicate unequivocally that the individual in the cradle is a great deal older than its bodily form might suggest include a range of adult actions, such as sticking out the tongue and blowing raspberries. A very common Scottish story concerns a visitor to a house to whom the changeling reveals himself. The tacharan might play tunes on a length of straw like a pipe, or on the chanter of bagpipes, or he might share a drop of whisky with the stranger. In one instance from the Isle of Lewis, once the parents had gone out the baby transformed into an old bearded man who then entertained a visiting tailor by playing on a pair of tongs. In another example, from Lochbroom, the child used to leap out of bed when the adults were absent, take on the form of a man and would then perform labour around the farm in return for meals. Another common Highland story concerns a changeling who asks a visiting cobbler to make him a pair of boots or shoes “that will fit a child but which will be fit for a king.”

A preternatural ability to speak is very likely to disclose the changeling’s truly aged nature. One on Skye ate constantly but only ever used one phrase “muc dhearg” (red pig). A local healer was able to drive him off by threatening him with a sword and responding “the devil’s red pig” (“Muc dhearg an Diabhail.”)

One tacharan, at Blairgowrie in Perthshire, on being expelled by the parents disappeared up the chimney, but not before saying that “he would have liked to have known his mother better.” At first glance, this might appear to be a polite and complimentary expression of regret, but I strongly suspect that it was meant to be quite the opposite- as the hearers would have instantly understood. This elderly faery male, in the guise of a baby, would have been enjoying regular breast feeds from the human woman, so his parting jibe was really a cruel reminder of what they had harboured in the literal bosom of the family.

Even so, as in one case reported from Llandwrgan in Wales, the exchange might not be spotted for months in the case of very young babies. In newborns, it would naturally take some while for the precocious or bad tempered nature of the substituted child to manifest itself; this is why it was often said that, at first, the changeling was undetectable because it looked exactly like the stolen child.

Although, of course, the presence of the changeling necessarily indicates the absence of the family’s original child, the presence of a shargie was not always entirely negative. One child at Gart na Damh on Islay was wholly dependent upon the care of its grandmother, and spent all its time lying in a specially constructed bed, but so long as it was alive and living with the family, they prospered. As soon as it died, their luck changed. In another case from Islay the child was seven feet tall and had never risen from its cradle, even though it was nineteen years old. One day the exasperated father set fire to the crib to drive the changeling out- which succeeded, but all the cows died too.

Once it has been realised by a family that the creature in the cradle is not their beloved baby, most parents not unnaturally want to be rid of it, especially because the belief is that the departure of the changeling will be matched by the reciprocal return of the human infant. The usual means of achieving this is to make life as unpleasant as possible for the shargie.

Remedies include beating with a stick and whipping; threatening the child with a pin or knife; throwing it off a cliff; by exposing it outside overnight (a faery knoll being an especially good spot) or by leaving it on a rock on the seashore as the tide comes in, or feeding the suspect child with porridge with “something added” (perhaps salt or an objectionable herb such as mothan/ pearlwort). Telling the faery that its home was on fire could well provoke it into leaping out of the cradle and running home. Another Shetland remedy was to scatter earth on the floor from a basket and then to sweep it out of the house, along with the trow changeling.

Fire is perennially viewed as a good cure, as has already been seen. One Shetland boy who became very lazy was exposed as a trow changeling (as least so far as his family were concerned) when the father set fire to his bed and the boy suddenly leapt energetically from it.

Across Scotland, perhaps the commonest means of exposing a ‘shargie bairn’ was to place horse dung on a griddle or shovel, put the baby on top of that, and then hold them over the fire. This combination of noisome substance and heat was guaranteed to send the changeling shooting up the chimney. Other responses by the child to this mistreatment- which would only serve to confirm the creature’s true nature- were curses and swearing or, in one instance, throwing sods of earth from the roof back down the chimney.

Once the true baby was restored, wise precautions then would be to tie a red thread around its wrist and to nail a horseshoe over the door. These sorts of precaution ought, obviously, to have been taken in advance- given the very widespread fear of faery takings- but given the stress and distraction of looking after a new baby (especially where there were other children to care for or a farm to run) it’s understandable how they could be overlooked just for a moment, allowing the ever watchful faes their chance.

Changelings- the cuckoos of Middle Earth

In a previous post, I described some of the identifying features of changelings, the faery individuals substituted for human babies, and what their descriptions tell us about human perceptions of faery-kind more generally.

Having accumulated a good deal of material on changelings in my recent research, I decided to assemble that into a small booklet or pamphlet, which I’ve now published through Amazon. Middle Earth Cuckoos- the Changeling Phenomenon in British Faerylore is a study of the key aspects of the faery practice of exchanging members of their kind for newly born human infants. It complements the examination of the subject included in chapter 12 of my 2020 book, FaeryA Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk.

The phenomenon of changelings swapped for children gives us a lot of information about faeries more generally. Here are two examples. Firstly (as I described in the previous post) the look of the changeling tells us a great deal about the appearance of the wider faery population.

In 1664 Londoner John Barrow published a biographical account, The Lord’s Arms Outstretched in an Answer of Prayer, or, A True Relation of the Wonderful Deliverance of James Barrow. James fell ill and had searched unsuccessfully for a diagnosis and cure from doctors, astrologers and apothecaries. One day, a rat appeared to him and seemed to enter his body, which made him act “very much like a changling.” What was meant by this was that he seemed to have fits, he choked on food and was unable to eat, and he lost all his strength and became unable to work as an apprentice. His starved and feeble appearance was, to those around him, typical of what a faery interloper would look like.

James became emaciated and thin and looked like an old man. The great age of changelings is another key indicator of their faery nature and getting them to reveal it is central to the process of exposing and expelling them. Here are two examples of this.

The son of a man on Islay was abducted by the faeries and was replaced with a sibhreach (a changeling). To confirm this substitution, the father was advised to trick the faery into revealing himself through the charade called the ‘brewery of egg shells.’ Across Britain, this method was known to be infallible in getting the aged faery cuckoo to admit who he really was. In this case, as in others, the changeling was fascinated by the odd procedure and exclaimed that, in all his 800 years of life, he’d never seen cooking in egg-shells. The impostor was promptly thrown on the fire and shot up through the roof. The true son was then recovered.

In a similar case from Guernsey, a mother was cooking limpets in their shells on her hearth. The changeling that had replaced her son was provoked to exclaim:

“I’m not of this year, nor the year before,
Nor yet of the time of King John of yore,
But in all my days and years, I ween,
So many pots boiling I’ve never seen.”

Once again, the creature was thrown on the fire and a fairy mother promptly appeared to swap the human child back for her own.

These cases confirm that faeries, if not actually immortal, have extremely long life spans. The Guernsey account was recorded in 1903; King John lived 1166 to 1216, suggesting an age even greater than that seen in the Scottish example.

Fairy wells

Goblin harvest amelia bowerley

Goblin harvest by Amelia Bowerley

“The Fairy Well of Lagnanay-
Lie nearer me, I tremble so,
Una, I’ve heard wise women say
(Hearken to my tale of woe)-
That if before the dews arise,
True maiden in its icy flow
With pure hand bathe her bosom thrice,
Three lady-brackens pluck likewise,
And three times round the fountain go,
She straight forgets her tears and sighs.”

The fairy well of Lagnanay, Samuel Ferguson

I have discussed in a previous post how some fairies have an aversion to running water.  In contrast, though, still water has strong faery and magical properties and is, as hitherto described, the home of quite a few (largely fearsome) fays- the ‘meremaids’ of pools and lakes.

I want to look at the supernatural nature of ponds and wells in this posting.  A folklore example of this that comes from East Yorkshire records how a troublesome bogle in Holderness was banished to a well, since called Robin Round Cap Well.  In lowland Scotland the story was told of a girl who sat spinning wool on a distaff by a well when she looked in a saw a pot of gold beneath the surface.  She marked the spot with her spindle and ran to tell her father.  He suspected it was just fairy glamour intended to trap and drown her and, sure enough, when they returned 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.  Author Rose Fyleman was aware of the fay powers of water and, in The second adventure of the rainbow cat, the cat is given a bottle of fairy water from a magic well that bestows the ability to see through walls.

me_fairy_well

Writer and designer Feral Strumpet at the holy well at Mount Grace Priory, Osmotherly.

Holy (fairy) wells

Britain once was covered with ‘holy’ wells, many of which had no Christian association at all.  They were wishing wells, places of prediction, and very many are likely to have been so regarded for millenia. These sites often still exist, but their supernatural links are now mostly forgotten; they are muddy springs in fields or neglected wells by roadsides.  They still have a strong attraction for many, nonetheless.

Respect was shown to fairy wells in various ways.  Offerings of pins were made at Bradwell in Derbyshire on Easter Sunday and at Wooler in Northumberland, whenever a person wanted a wish to come true.  At various sites in Scotland, both buttons and pins were left.  Perhaps the most famous of these was the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ on top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies.  Given the fays’ well known liking for dairy products, such offerings seem entirely appropriate; the same can’t be said about the pins, though, as iron is always regarded as an effective way of repelling our good neighbours.

eichler nixe
Reinhold Maximilian Eichler, The Nixie (from Jugend magazine, 1898)

Healing wells

The wells had health giving properties, too, so that if a child had gone into a decline and was no longer thriving (it was ‘shargie’ and had been afflicted by ‘the fairy’) leaving a child overnight near a well would cure it.  At Wooler, too, sickly children would be dipped in the well’s waters and bread and cheese left as an offering.  If it was suspected that the child had in fact been substituted for a fairy changeling, well water might again be part of the remedy.  At Chapel Euny in West Cornwall the way to expel a changeling and restore a human child was to dip the suspect infant in the well on the first three Wednesdays in May.  Both the time of day and the time of year are particularly fay, as has been described before.

Given the supernatural properties of well water, it is unsurprising that they should be used to imbue the human children abducted by the fairies with fay properties.  This is only evidenced in literature rather than folklore, but an excellent example is in the Scottish verse Kilmeny by James Hogg.  She’s dipped in the waters of life to ensure that her youth and beauty never fade.  

hannah-titania-jewelry-fairy-well-222531971

Poet, artist, musician Hannah Titania at her fairy well

Conclusions

There’s a complex and (as ever) contrary relationship between the faeries and water.  It can be the medium in which they live, it can be protective against them and it can be used by them for magical purposes.

Many of us instinctively sense the links between fays, wells and some sort of supernatural presence.  Fairies’ association with natural features may be part of this; perhaps the mysterious appearance of fresh water from underground had mysterious and magical qualities that also encouraged links to the Good Folk.  The Tiddy Mun of the East Anglian fens, for example, was believed to control the flood waters and had to be propitiated with offerings of water.  Fresh water can be both potion and poison; which will apply seems unpredictable and to depend very much upon place and personality.

Further reading

See my posting on the Sennen fairies for an example of a sighting at a well.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.