I’ve posted several times on faery motion and movement, such as their use of whirlwinds; here I want to look at ways they may be transported by other beings. Although, these days, we tend to assume that faeries fly everywhere, there’s no trace of wings or of fluttering flight in the traditional records. They can, magically, ‘teleport‘ themselves from place to place or enchant items to carry them, it’s perfectly true, but most of the time they get around in very prosaic ways: on their own two feet, or on something else’s four feet.
It’s pretty well known that the faes ride horses (just as the surrounding human population would have done in times past) and these animals are always described as being proportionate to their size. If they’re the size of children, they’ll be mounted on ponies; if they’re seen smaller, the steeds might be as big as greyhounds. Just like humans, too, the faeries will use their horses for all suitable activities: they go out on their annual ‘rades’ in processions of horses, but they’ll also hunt on them, exactly as would human gentry and nobles. The horses are reputed to be very swift (“as fast as the wind”) and to be highly prized, being richly caparisoned when they are taken out.
Needless to say, it’s often easier to make use of someone else’s animals- that way you don’t have to stable or feed them, and it is widely known that faeries do just this, taking horses from farmer’s stables at night and riding them until they’re worn out. This process is frequently accompanied by the knotting of the horses’ manes and tails, at least some of this done ostensibly to provide the diminutive riders with reins and stirrups. These are necessary not just because the riders are often so much tinier than their mounts, but because they like to drive the horses at frenetic pace across the fields and moors. These exertions leave the horses exhausted and covered in a foam of sweat, much to the dismay of their human owners.
So far, so familiar, but it doesn’t stop there. If horses aren’t available, other four-legged beasts will do. On the Isle of Anglesey it was reported that the local tylwyth teg rode donkeys or (to be exact) they gave a mortal man one to ride when he travelled with them; this might, conceivably, have been some sort of joke or put down on their part: they got well-bred steeds and he got a bad tempered ass. Very definitely proportionate to the smaller breed of fae, in Nithsdale in southern Scotland the elves were reported to ride on cats. One assumes they used magic to control their mounts. On Shetland, the trows rode the farmers’ cows. When the cattle were released into the pastures in Spring, if any of them were found to be weak- or collapsed, frothing at the mouth- it was known to be because the trows had been riding it.
Unlikely as cats sound, they are at least four legged. However, as we know, even two legged victims will do and there are reports from around the Britain Isles of unfortunate human victims being saddled and mounted to act as steeds for faeries overnight. Usually they are forced to carry riders around, although there is one report of a man taken and used as a cart horse in one Scottish sithean. According to the poem, Montgomerie’s Flyting of Polwarth, some of the Scottish elves were known to ride other two legged creatures: “Sum saidlit ane scho aip all grathit into green” (some saddled a she-ape, all clad in green).
Modern fantasy art shows faes riding birds and other wildlife. Pretty as these images are, and despite the fact that we are attracted to them because they emphasise the unity of the faeries with their environment, there is not very much traditional support for the idea. As we’ve just seen, we hear of the elves riding apes, but they must be few and far between in any part of Britain; it’s also reported that the Highland hag, the cailleach bheur, and her follower rides on wolves and swine. The Gyre Carling, another name for the faery queen in Fife, was also said to ride a pig: in one poem she “schup her on ane sow and is her gaitis gane” (she settled herself on a sow and went her ways). Making use of more common mammals and fowls is not reported.
Much of this suggests that the faeries are stuck in a pre-modern world- often our view of them. We like to romanticise their pre-industrial, rural aspects, whereas the evidence indicates that they move with the times just as their human neighbours do. Faery industry is known- dyeing and milling (for which see my How Things Work in Faery) but more pertinently, contemporary reports indicate that they will use cars, buses and aeroplanes to get around (see Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies for such sightings). Humans no longer need to employ horse power, although they will use them for special occasions and special purposes; the same would seem to be true of the faes.
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…
I have recently described the risks and gains of entering into deals with the faeries, one of which is the potential problem that the Good folk simply don’t know when to stop assisting the people they’ve favoured. Here I want to say a little more about the benefits and costs of being helped by our Good Neighbours.
The faeries can sometimes surprise us with the help and knowledge that they are prepared to provide to us, uninvited and unrewarded. For example, an old woman from Arisdale on Yell had a long journey back to her home on a dark night. Suddenly, she felt people gripping her hands and asked who it was. Trows spoke, saying that they’d taken pity on her plight and had come to help her. They blew and it became as light as day, then they guided her home and disappeared as soon as her door was open. A similar tale from Skye involves a faery that carried a boy across a swollen stream so that he could get home safely on a stormy night.
Sometimes the faeries bestow their favours even more indiscriminately than this. On South Uist, anyone who saw the door open in a knoll could enter and the inhabitants would teach you a skill. A woman from Howmore went inside and learned to spin beautifully, taking the wool directly from the fleece, without spinning or carding first. We might note, in this connection, that it is possible that the ability may be passed to the human visitor almost unintentionally. William M’Kenzie was a weaver from Barcaldine near Oban. He entered a faery hill he saw open and joined a dance there. After a year and a day, he was rescued from the dancing by his friends (a very typical story across Britain). However, in this case, he returned home endowed with enhanced weaving skills: “he did more work in shorter time than any other” (Campbell, Superstitions, 66) and he was also a better piper than he’d been before. Another generous and spontaneous gift was made to a farmer on the island of Jersey. Ploughing fields one day at L’Etacq, the faeries turned the man’s plough share and horse’s hooves into silver.
The best known manifestation of faery favour is the granting of three wishes, but this can often be used for satirical purposes, as in the following Scottish example. A traveller couple were resting by the road when a little man appeared and offered to grant their wishes. When the pair reached the next town, the woman saw some potato mashers in a shop and wished she had one: instantly, it was in her hand. Her husband was angry because she’d wasted one of her magical wishes and he crossly wished it up her arse. Forthwith, it was there- and his last wish went on getting it out again… A very similar story, with a sausage on a wife’s nose, is also told in the Highlands.
The faeries can also display some unexpected skills. A gamekeeper by the name of Cameron, from Kilmaile in Inverness-shire, fell asleep outside one day. Whilst he slumbered, the faeries found his pocket watch and dismantled it. Cameron took the timepiece to a watch maker, but he couldn’t reassemble it at all. Luckily, though, a small bearded man in a blue suit suddenly appeared and quickly put the watch back together again.
It may come as little surprise to discover that fairy help isn’t always free. Conditions of various kinds may be attached, which may impose burdens on the recipient- or someone else. For instance, a farmer on Rannoch Moor near Glencoe heard the faeries talking amongst themselves, saying “some for me, some for you” as they apparently shared something out. He repeated what they said and found that his cows gave him record amounts of milk: unfortunately, though, there was less milk produced on other local farms that night. One person’s gain from the faes can often be another’s loss.
Fairy skills, when granted, must be properly respected by the lucky recipient. The MacCrimmons are a Skye family renowned for their piping skills and possess a silver bagpipe chanter given to them by a fairy woman. The original beneficiary of this gift met a faery who offered him the skill of sailing, might in battle or musical prowess. He chose the latter but was warned always to reverence the chanter that came with it. A descendant was once in a boat crossing a stormy stretch of sea- he wanted to play his pipes but was unable to do so because the boat was rocking so much on the swell. He threw down the pipes in annoyance and cursed the chanter- which promptly detached itself and leapt into the sea.
Sometimes, skills and good fortune are provided in return for services rendered to the faes. A midwife from Yell attended a birth in a trow home, which was reached down a staircase in a clifftop. After the delivery, she wasn’t paid but instead she was offered the choice of a long life or great knowledge. She chose the latter and became able to see what was to happen in the future. In Montgomeryshire on the Welsh border with England, a woman returning home one day came across a faery dog wandering stray and lost. She took it home and kept it safe under a brass pot. The next day the faeries appeared and she returned their dog to them. She was asked if she preferred a “clean or a dirty cow.” She chose dirty, which meant that her cows became the best milkers in the area.
In a final example from Guernsey, there was a farmhouse at St Saviour’s which was used annually by the local faes for a festival. The understanding with the residents was that they would bake buns for their guests and then go to bed early that night, leaving the food on the table with the door unlocked. If the faes enjoyed the baked goods provided, they would help the household all year. If they didn’t appreciate the food, they would play tricks on the family for twelve months.
All in all, probably, faery aid is not to be desired. Scottish folklore expert John Gregorson Campbell warned of their help that “Their interference is never productive of good in the end and may prove destructive. Men cannot therefore be sufficiently on their guard against them.” As for their gifts, Campbell said that they “have evil influence associated with them and, however inviting at first, are productive of bad luck in the end. No wise man will desire either their company or their kindness. When they come to a house to assist in any work, the sooner they are got rid of the better. If they are hired as servants their wages at first appear trifling, but will ultimately ruin their employer. It is unfortunate even to encounter any of the race, but to consort with them is disastrous in the extreme.” This is a dire assessment, but Campbell knew the Scottish folklore in detail. It will be evident that any dealings of any description with the faeries must be very carefully weighed up in advance (Campbell, Superstitions of the Highlands, 2 & 23).
Many of these themes are also examined in my recent book from Green Magic Publishing, How Things Work in Faery.
Transacting business with the faeries can be a process beset by problems that significantly reduce the apparent advantages that might be gained by humans through such dealings.
As I discussed in a previous post, the faes can indulge in spontaneous and gratuitous acts of kindness. A man from Anglesey, for instance, woke up one morning to find that his shirt had been washed overnight by the tylwyth teg, and besides which they had left him half a crown (two shillings and sixpence) wrapped up in the garment. Such acts as these are unpredictable and sporadic, so little reliance can- or should- be placed on them, and the favour is easy to lose.
The fairies can decide to undertake substantial tasks for some, but it would probably be unwise to found any thoughts of prosperity- or to make plans for the future- based upon their assistance. A farmer at Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye unwittingly employed three faery men to help with his harvest. They reaped a field and put the corn in stooks in the record time of just a few hours, but they would not associate with any of the other farm workers and they complained bitterly about their working conditions: about their bread, their drink and their employer. The farmer discovered how disgruntled these mysterious workers were by having his son eavesdrop on their conversations. He very was lucky indeed that this spying didn’t have an unfavourable outcome- as was the case for one farmer on Colonsay. He benefited considerably from the fact that every year the local faeries would voluntarily harvest and stack the crops in his fields. He never saw who bestowed such a favour upon him and, eventually, consumed by curiosity, he stayed up one night to see who was doing the work. A host of faeries appeared and the farmer tried to count them: this proved such an insult to his supernatural helpers’ generosity that he never had their aid again.
Faeries will, inexplicably and without invitation, undertake quite onerous chores on farms. Perhaps it is this that explains their parallel tendency to make free with the property of their human neighbours. For example, on Shetland, one family had a cooking kettle that the trows simply borrowed (or, we might say, took) for a whole year. It was a trow habit too to ‘borrow’ islanders’ boats. This was vexing enough, no doubt, but the trows never tied them up again when they’d finished with them, and simply left them loose in the harbour or unsecured on the beach. Indeed, human households often left buckets of water out for the trows as they had discovered that this was a way of preventing them interfering with other household utensils.
The trows will also enter into commercial transactions with humans, but their way of doing deals does not resemble our own. A tinker was wandering the islands selling metalware when he saw a small dark man standing by a door that led inside a mound. This man (clearly a trow) enquired what was for sale: the tinker replied that he had plates, bowls and cups in his basket. Suddenly, he found himself inside the hillock; as suddenly, he was outside again with his basket entirely emptied of goods- but with five gold sovereigns in their place. It’s not a normal way of conducting business for us, but it’s how the trow folk do it.
Compare another case, in which a Shetland fiddler was employed by some trows to provide music at a wedding in Norway. They carried him there in a boat at record speed, but after the festivities the man was told that if he wanted to be rowed back home again, he would have to pay for the privilege with one of his stock of cows. Reluctantly, he agreed, but as he was so far from home he felt he had very little choice. When the man got back to his family, he discovered his one night away had actually been three years. He was very angry at this and resolved that he was not going to pay for the return journey. Nevertheless, within a week or so the fiddler found that one of his cows was sickly and had stopped eating and drinking. The man realised that, in fact, it was only the form of a cow that survived and that the real beast had already been taken by the trows in exercise of their bargain.
Even a more straightforward bargain can turn out to have its alarming aspects. In Keightley’s Fairy Mythology there’s a Manx story called the ‘Fairy Chapman,’ which he borrowed from Waldron’s guide to the Isle of Man:
“A man being desirous of disposing of a horse he had at that time no great occasion for, and riding him to market for that purpose, was accosted in passing over the mountains by a little man in a plain dress, who asked him if he would sell his horse. “‘Tis the design I am going on,” replied he: on which the other desired to know the price. “Eight pounds,” said he. “No,” returned the purchaser, “I will give no more than seven, which if you will take, here is your money.” The owner thinking he had bid pretty fair, agreed with him, and the money being told out, the one dismounted and the other got on the back of the horse, which he had no sooner done than both beast and rider sunk into the earth immediately, leaving the person who had made the bargain in the utmost terror and consternation. As soon as he had a little recovered himself, he went directly to the parson of the parish, and related what had passed, desiring he would give his opinion whether he ought to make use of the money he had received or not. To whichhe replied, that as he had made a fair bargain, and no way circumvented nor endeavoured to circumvent the buyer, he saw no reason to believe, in case it was an evil spirit, it could have any power over him. On this assurance, he went home well satisfied, and nothing afterwards happened to give him any disquiet concerning this affair. This was told to Waldron by the person to whom it happened.”
Fairy Mythology, 398-399
My recent book, How Things Work in Faery, contains extended discussion of all these puzzling aspects of the faery economy.
It’s not at all unusual for people to make regular offerings to fairies and, on certain occasions, to offer major sacrifices to them.
I’ve described before how it was the habit in the Scottish Highlands and islands to make regular offerings of milk to the gruagachand glaistig who often looked after the cattle on farms and in communities. Small quantities were poured out on special stones, perhaps after every milking or at certain times in the farming year. In fact, at least as recently as the 1950s milk was still being put out overnight for the pixies on one Dartmoor farm.
On Shetland, local people sacrificed ale or pins and coins to the water horse called shoopiltee to ensure good catches at sea. At Halloween, the people of Lewis used to attend a church ceremony that included pouring ale into the sea in the hope that the sea spirit ‘shony’ (seonaidh) would guarantee a good supply of seaweed in the year ahead; so too on the remote isle of St Kilda, where shells, pebbles, rags, pins, nails and coins were thrown into the sea. All round Scotland, in fact, meat, drink and bread would be offered up. On Orkney the custom was that the first fish caught on a hook when out line-fishing would be thrown back to ensure that the rest of the catch on that trip would be good.
A very similar practice was known on the Isle of Man. The islanders used to sacrifice rum to the buggane of Kione Dhoo headland, the liquor being poured into the sea by fishing boats from Port St Mary as they passed the promontory on their way to the Kinsale and Lerwick fishing grounds. Rum was occasionally thrown from the top of the cliff as well, with the words “Take that, evil spirit (or monster)!”. This dedication resembles that which accompanied the practice of throwing a fish to the mermen at sea “Gow shen, dooinney varrey!” (‘Take that, sea people.’)
Another water beast was appeased in more blood thirsty fashion at Loch Maree in the Scottish Highlands. A terrible lake monster called Mourie inhabited this lake, to which bulls were sacrificed on August 25th each year. Very similar was the tradition at Loch Wan in the Scottish Uplands, where local farmers offered the first lamb of the flock each year to the loch- otherwise they knew that half their sheep would drown in its waters before the season was out.
Further south, in the Lincolnshire Fens, the habit used to be to offer the first fruits of the harvest, as well as a share of any bread, beer and milk, to the local spirits called the ‘Strangers,’ ‘the Tiddy Ones’ or the ‘Green Coaties.’ People knew that if these offerings were neglected, the crops would fail and livestock would die.
The success of many regular household tasks was guaranteed by making sure of fairy good will. For instance, on the Isle of Man, the faeries will help with the baking so long as a piece of the dough is stuck to the kitchen wall for them. If such an offering isn’t made, the baker will face problems. On Shetland the practice was to sprinkle every corner of a house with milk when butter was to be churned. In many places in Scotland, just as with the milk offerings mentioned earlier, some of the wort from any household brew of ale would be poured out at the ’brownie stone’ to ensure a good fermentation.
Faery aid- or good will- was invoked in emergencies too. One Dartmoor sheep farmer’s flock was plagued by disease; he concluded that the only remedy was to go to the top of a tor and slaughter a sheep as an offering to the pixies- a move which promptly alleviated the problem. At Crawford Muir on Shetland in the 1770s a tenant was reported to have sacrificed a black lamb to the sea trows so as to reinforce curses he was placing upon his enemies.
Lastly, and most strikingly, in 1859 on the Isle of Man archaeologists opened a barrow near Tynwald Hill and excavated the prehistoric remains within. After they had left, in order to atone for this desecration of a fairy site, a local farmer sacrificed and burned a heifer on the tumulus. This dedication to the spirits of the place is especially striking. (Manchester Times, 2/4/1881, 4)
If we read such accounts in books on anthropology and ancient religion, we would unhesitatingly say that sacrifices were being made to the gods. In these cases, though, we have offerings made by people who would, I’m sure, have said that they were good Christian folk, going to church or chapel every Sunday and not in the least pagan. They would have denied ‘worshipping’ the fairies and in this I’m sure they would have been right. The goods given are more in the manner of a payment, part of a deal with the Good Folk who lived so near to them and had such an impact upon their lives and their environment. A bargain was being struck, with a powerful and sometimes troublesome neighbour, rather than a prayer being offered up to a nature deity. In some cases, such as the regular provision of milk and bread at night, it would have been framed as an act of welcome towards someone visiting your house. Admittedly, they were going to come in whether you liked it or not, but that was just more reason to want to make them feel at home. Our relationship with fairies has always been one in which there is a strange imbalance in power and nervousness on our part…
There are fairly frequent accounts that depict the faes as tiny beings that flock together in large masses, like insects or birds. Here I’m going to consider this quite unusual evidence.
Here’s a particularly vivid description from the Isle of Man. One moonlit might, a man saw the fairies moving on a hill. There were scores of them, he said, like a black rain cloud. He tried to follow them, but they always stayed about twenty or thirty yards ahead of him and they steadily shrank in size until they disappeared completely. Comparable is a strange narrative recorded on the Channel island of Jersey. A farmer was setting out from his farm with a horse and cart when he saw a “cloud over the house.” He turned back straight away because he knew it was the fairies and, when he arrived back at the farm house, he found them ‘swarming up and down his yard.’ To get rid of them, he scattered wheat from his granary; each fairy picked up a grain and left (see Young, Magical Folk, 159).
This evasiveness and the cloud- like quality are fairly typical of accounts. Very frequently the faes are said to behave and look like insects. Manx folklorist Dora Broome twice described the fairies as “like a swarm of bees” (Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man 67 and More Fairy Tales 40). Another Manx writer also said that the fairy host sounded first like humming bees, (Sophia Morrison, Manx Fairy Tales, ‘Billy Beg, Tom Beg & the Fairies.’) A man on Arran working in a field saw something like a swarm of bees pass over him. Throwing up his (iron) reaping hook, he found his wife drop to the ground before him. The fairies had been in the process of abducting her. (MacKenzie, Book of Arran, 267).
In a final Scottish example, a story called ‘The Laird of Balmachie’s Wife,’ the laird’s wife was abducted by the fairies when he was absent from home one day. As it happened, he was riding back when he encountered a crowd of fairies carrying a body on a litter. Drawing his sword, he claimed the captive in god’s name. The fairies vanished and he found that he’d rescued his wife- she told him that she had been carried off by a “multitude of fairies, [who] came in at the window, thronging like bees form a hive.” When the laird got home, he found his ‘wife’ in bed, complaining of feeling cold. He banked up the fire and then picked up his apparent wife as if to carry her to a chair nearer the fireplace. Instead, he threw her into it, knowing she was a stock left behind by the fairies. The creature shot up through the ceiling and roof like a rocket.
Flocks of birds are the other common comparator. A man at Benbecula in the Hebrides heard the sluagh go over- it sounded to him ‘like a flock of plovers.’ According to another Scottish witness the sluagh “in great clouds, up and down the face of the world like starlings” and another described them leaving their knoll on Halloween as being like “starlings swarming from their cave.” A man living near Harrogate once got up early to hoe his turnips. When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green. As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled like a flock of partridges. In another Yorkshire report from Ilkley, fairies surprised whilst bathing in the spa there made a noise “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” when disturbed by the caretaker.
Finally, we have the experience of a man from Shetland, who was travelling home at night over the hills at Coningsburg when he was surrounded by trows in the form of mice. There were so many around him, so thickly on the ground, that he said he couldn’t have put down a pin without hurting one. This went on until dawn when he reached a small stream, at which moment the mass of mice all vanished. A curious sequel followed. Although the innumerable rodents had been surprising and inconvenient, they hadn’t been dangerous. However, on the bridge over the brook there were three knights. The man was so astonished, he uttered a curse, and the three men also disappeared- with a bang and a flash of blue flame. One version of the ’Brother Mike’ story from Suffolk bears resemblance to this Scottish story: fairies are seen raiding the grain in a farmer’s barn in the form of “hundreds of little white mice; they all had red ears and red feet…” (Francis Young, Suffolk Fairylore, 130).
What does this tell us? I have previously described the close links between fairies and bees, but it seems to make clear that, in some parts of Britain, the experience of encountering the fae is not a matter of meeting an individual who is the human sized- whether that’s an adult or, more often, a child. Rather, we are dealing with a species who naturally move about in hosts, wheeling about much like large flocks of birds- or perhaps clouds of midges or flies. Consistent with this, they are small- or even tiny.
For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):
This second posting in advance of publication of my next book, Beyond Faery, examines some of the water beasts of Britain.
There are various faery beasts that infest fresh and salt water in the British Isles. They are primarily found in Scotland and they are primarily horse like.
These ‘water horses’ live in lakes. Usually people only encounter and have to deal with one, but at Loch Aird na h-uamh there are reported to be multiple horses. Some of these steeds, people have been brave enough to ride; some have even survived the attempt, though many of those who tried were drowned or torn to pieces.
Typical of the species is the horse found at Lochan-larig-eala near Breadalbane. It is a white horse and when it first appears on the lake side, it lies down on the grass and looks very placid and pretty. Nine children playing there once climbed on it- at which point it dashed for the water immediately. The child at the back was able to use the horse’s tail to swing off; the rest didn’t escape and it’s said that they were eaten and all that remained was their lungs, which floated ashore in due course. Some versions of this story say that it happened on a Sunday, so that the faery beast was actually being employed to punish children who were playing rather than attending church. In this second account, the boy who survived happened to have a few Bible pages in his pocket, which saved him.
Some water horses will submit to working for humans, just to be able to get near enough to kill one. The story is told of John MacInnes of Glenelg who was struggling with his farm work when he was approached by a stranger and offered assistance. He accepted, despite the odd conditions imposed, and immediately found a fine horse standing in his field. MacInnes used it for ploughing and was delighted to find that it was both strong and obedient. Things went very well for time, although every evening when the horse was stabled John had to make sure he threw earth from a mole-hill over its back and said a blessing. One night he forgot. The next day, as soon as they were out in the field, the horse grabbed him with its teeth and dragged him into the nearby loch. All that was ever recovered was his liver. The stipulation of the mole-hill is curious, but one way of trapping fairy cattle (and mermaids) on land is to sprinkle grave-yard earth across their path (Scottish Notes & Queries, vol.6, 1893).
There is an each uisge in Loch-nan-Spioradan in Strathspey, which is seen as a beautifully equipped horse. A local healer who managed to obtain the bit from this horse’s bridle found that it had great healing properties, especially for ‘maladies of the mind.’
Water horses are also known in Wales, where they’re called ceffyl y dwr. Like their more northerly counterparts, their habit is to tempt people to ride them- and then to destroy them. From the island of Guernsey there are reports of a white fairy horse that shared many of the traits of each-uisge. Its back could extend to accommodate as many victims as wanted to ride on it and, once the riders were settled, it would gallop off at alarming speed with its passengers unable to dismount. Luckily, on Guernsey, the aim of all this was relatively benign- it was just to give the victims a fright before they were dumped in a marsh.
The each uisge is a uniquely savage creature, most unlike the average horse used for riding (whether by humans or their fairy neighbours). From Breadalbane there also comes a report of a ‘fairy horse’ that was much more like the sort of animal known in the human world. A man spent an evening dancing in the sithean at Lawes. He enjoyed himself immensely and, at the end of the festivities, the fairies lent him a horse to get home, which flew through the air like lightning and dropped him down his chimney.
There are a number of less benign variations upon this supernatural steed. From Leeds, West Yorkshire, come reports of a ‘goblin horse’ that would allow people to mount it before it galloped off at high speed, shouting ‘I ride, Madge!’ and dumping the rider in a pond. Further north in Durham there are similar creatures called ‘brags.’ The Leeds area is also home to a ‘black dog’ apparition called the ‘padfoot’ (which I will discuss in a separate posting). These beings are notorious shapeshifters and, in one instance, it changed into a donkey which ran between a man’s legs and carried him off at speed to his home (to the accompaniment of clanking chains) before sinking into the earth.
The Isle of Man also has the mysterious ‘night horses,’ which seem to be a faery horse with some of the traits of the each uisge. These are found at night on roads, ready saddled and bridled, but if any is incautious enough to mount, he will find himself flying along at a terrifying pace before being dumped on the ground somewhere. The night horse seems to like to give shocks, but no more. The creature called the glashtyn, which can have human and equine form, is more deadly. In its horse shape it will carry off any who mount it and try to drown them in a nearby river or pool.
As mentioned, Wales has its own water horse, the ceffyl y dwr, which is in fact one of several water beasts known there- or, alternatively, there is a single water sprite that assumes a number of different forms. Amongst those identified, there is a thin old man who is seen in raging mountain streams, sometimes stretching out his bony arms to observers; there is the water horse proper that’s found in pools or in rivers, where it tries to seize fishermen’s lines and drag them into the waters, and, lastly, there’s a monstrous fish (generally a salmon) that will try to drag under those that hunt it. In one instance, a man who tried to spear it whilst out fishing on a Sunday was nearly drowned; he ascribed the fish’s attack to a righteous rage over his Sabbath breaking- something that’s also been said of the each uisge already, although this may be more a matter of his guilty conscience than the faery beast being recruited to policing the reformed religion.
Kelpies are often treated as being interchangeable with the each uisge, but whilst the former live in still fresh water, kelpies live in rivers or in the sea. They are just as unpleasant as the each. One sighted near Leurbost on the isle of Lewis in 1856 was described as looking like a “huge peat stack”- so large that a six oar boat could pass between the fins that were seen. Iit was up to forty feet in length, witnesses claimed, and it had swallowed whole a blanket left by the loch by girl tending cattle.
Kelpies have been called ‘sly devils.’ Very much like the each, the kelpie will often appear on the banks of a swollen stream, feeding tamely as a traveller approaches. If the person is already on a horse, the kelpie will trot across the stream ahead, suggesting that it is shallow and safe. If the person is on foot, he’ll be tempted to mount the horse and ride it across the river. If he does this, it will immediately gallop off with shrieks of terrifying laughter. Either way, the hapless traveller is overwhelmed by the flooding torrent. For these reasons, William Collins, in his Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, described how the kelpie will:
“Instant, furious, raise the whelming flood,
O’er its drowned banks, forbidding all return…”
So that victims are “Drown’d by the kaelpie’s wrath.”
Sometimes, it is possible to tame a kelpie by surprising it and slipping over its head a halter that has been blessed by having crosses cut into the cheek pieces. The beast can then be used for farm labour, pulling loads and ploughs and such like. It can’t escape as long as the bridle is kept on it, however badly it’s treated. Kelpies have been used like this to help build churches and castles all around Scotland.
Interestingly, like fairies, it’s said that kelpies can predict or see future events. They are said, around Buckhaven, to roar before a loss at sea. Likewise, at Rumbling Bridge in Clackmannanshire, the kelpie predicts drownings by lights and noises at night (although, admittedly, it is also that same kelpie that helps to drown many of these unfortunate people). At St Vigeans, near Arbroath, a kelpie had been used to build the church and, when finally released, it foretold the minister’s death by suicide and collapse of the church. Both these things happened in the early eighteenth century. The kelpie that was used to build the church of St Mungo’s in Dumfriesshire advised that a larger graveyard than had been planned ought to be laid out, as it would be needed one day to accommodate all the bodies from a nearby battle.
Given their violent propensities, people have often tried to hunt and exterminate kelpies living in their vicinity. This is, perhaps predictably, very difficult to do, because the kelpie is a hardy, elusive and indestructible creature. In the 1780s, for example, Highlanders tried to drag Loch Garn with nets to catch the underwater beast. They failed to catch it, after which they tried scattering lime in the loch to kill the monster. Neither succeeded.
In the far north of Scotland and on Orkney and Shetland you’ll encounter (if you’re very unlucky) the njugl or neogle, a creature seen near water mills that resembles a pony. It will stop the mill wheel to gain attention and, when the miller goes out to see what the problem might be, he will find the pony, saddled and bridled, grazing nearby. If he mounts it, it will dash for the water and leap off the bank, with both rider and mount vanishing in a flash of flame. Wiser millers chase the creature off with a red hot poker or similar. A notorious example of the nuggle used to plague the Orkney island of Hoy. It lived in a small lake on the north-east coast of the island, called the Water o’ Hoy, but frequented the ford over the Pegal Burn, a little further to the south, where it would try to catch hapless travellers.
In the Scottish Highlands and on Orkney and Shetland a variety of other terrifying and often hybrid beasts were known. Some of these are mentioned in my forthcoming posting on boggles. Here I’ll mention one that seemed to have no specific name. Over Yule on Shetland people were not expected to do any of their normal day to day activities or work. Once, however, two men went out fishing in defiance of the prohibition. They netted a monstrous creature that was half fish and half horse and which spoke, declaring to them: “Man who fished in Yule week/ Fortune never more did seek.” Once again, these supernatural beings seem to be recruited to back up religious rules and festivals.
As I have discussed previously, you may encounter fairy cattle owned by the good folk, which have their own identifying characteristics, but there are also water bulls, the tarbh uisge of the Highlands. The bulls of Glenlochay near Breadalbane are said to be brindled, red and yellow. A cow will abandon its herd and travel up the glen to the lochan, where she will bellow until the tarbh appears and mates with her. The hybrid offspring are known to be those of a tarbh because they are all black with curly hair.
On the Isle of Man, water bulls are also found, being called tarroo ushtey. They’re recognised by their shining coats and sharp ears. They often mix with normal herds of cattle, and rouse the fury of the bulls kept with them, although the tarroo seems indifferent to the rage of the farmer’s bull. They can be fierce, but they often move quite slowly, making a strange whirring sound.
In one Manx story a farmer objected to the bull grazing with his herds and consuming his valuable grass, so he drove it off several times. The result, though, was that blights struck his crops. A wise-woman told the man that he could subdue the tarroo with a stick made from rowan wood- which he duly did. Having the beast under his control, he resolved to sell it at the market. He was easily able to drive the bull there, but no-one seemed interested, despite the size and sleekness of the animal. Right at the end of the day, a man finally showed interest, but he asked the farmer to ride the bull to prove that it was tame and well-behaved. Desperate for the sale, he consented to this, but as soon as he’d mounted he dropped his rowan switch. This of course released the tarroo from his control and it bolted, nearly carrying the man off into a deep pool in the river. He narrowly escaped- and learned his lesson, which was to always show the proper respect to the fairies and the faery beasts.
Also found on the Isle of Man is the glashtin, a sort of bogie that will very commonly take on equine form and which will inhabit pools and rivers. Unlike the tarroo ushtey, the glashtin is said to mingle with the herds of horses kept by Manx farmers without any disturbance or hostility between the animals. However, the glashtins only liked to mate with pure Manx-bred ponies, and as the island’s horses interbred more and more with outside breeds, the glashtin was seen less and less.
If you’re interested to learn more, see too my separate posting on water beasts. Additionally, several chapters of Beyond Faery deal in detail with the many aspects of the lore of the inland and marine water beasts of Britain. The book is due for release in early November.
My next book, Beyond Faery, will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in early November. It examines the variety of ‘faery beasts’ that exist alongside the traditional faeries we’re familiar with- the kelpies, water bulls, black dogs, hobgoblins and others that make Faery so complex, fascinating- and dangerous. For the next few weeks I’m going to examine some of these beings, using materials I’ve come across in my researches since the text of Beyond Faery was completed. This week, we start in the ocean.
(Jasper Maine, The City Match, 1639, Act III, scene 1)
The merfolk- the mermaids and the selkies- have long fascinated humankind. They are a complex as well as a beautiful people and both men and women seem to be drawn inexorably towards them.
There are in fact many different types of supernatural inhabiting the seas. We are familiar with the mermaids (half-human, half-fish) and the selkies (humans who can put on a seal skin in order to travel through the sea) but in addition to these there are, for example:
Sea fairies– Cornish folklorist and writer Enys Tregarthen described these as being amongst the fairy family, but able to ride the waves. She also identified cliff fairies, whose traits include a desire for doing good and healing injured animals and a liking for singing and dancing at dawn or sunset and,
Sea trows– on Orkney and Shetland the local fae folk, the trows, also inhabit the ocean and are said to be “great rolling creatures, tumbling in the waters” which are sometimes pulled up in fishermen’s nets.
“Yee mermaids faire,
That on the shores do plaine,
Your sea-greene haire
As yee in trammels knit your locks
Weepe ye; and so inforce the rocks
In heavy murmurs through the broad shores tell.”
(William Browne, Britannia’s Pastorals, II, Song I)
The best known trait of the mermaid is, of course, her physical beauty and desirability. In fact, traditional folklore is divided over the actual appearance of these beings. One story from Shetland typifies the standard views. Young Maikie found a selkie on some offshore rocks, a distance from her seal skin, which she’d shed on the beach. He responded in the conventional way to her physical charms, admiring her snow white body, her fine legs and her bonnie yellow hair. He hid her skin, offered her human clothes to wear and asked her to be his wife (which she was for a number of years, until she found her skin again and escaped to the sea).
Another account was less complimentary: a mermaid encountered near Buchan was discovered combing her long brown hair hair- a traditional activity. She had a small upper body with a thin neck, round head and small, flat face with white thick set teeth and small eyes. Her lower half was like a cod, but with a double tail.
A selection of other nineteenth century accounts reinforce the impression that the merfolk resemble us, but that their reported good looks are not always all that we tend to imagine:
Campbelltown, Argyll, 1811: a man was able to creep with a few paces of a mermaid lying on a rock and watched her for two hours. She was six to seven feet in length, the upper half being white and the lower half brindled or reddish grey and covered in scales, terminating in a fin that was of greenish-red and shining, about twelve to fourteen inches wide. The upper half was human, except that the arms were short and thin. The creature had long brown hair and a human face with hollow eyes;
Ardeal, Argyll, 1814: the mermaid seen was very white, but with rosy cheeks. She had long dark hair and arms that tapered to her hands, which were said to be only the size of those of an eight to ten year old child. Her tail was like that of an immensely large cuddy fish or saith;
Port Charlotte, Argyll, 1857: a woman was seen in the sea at close range. She had a full breast, dark complexion, fine hair in ringlets and a comely face;
Southside, Deerness, Orkney, 1890-94: a mermaid returned regularly to this spot in the summer months. She was six to seven feet in length, with a little black head, white neck and a snow white body. She sat on a rock waving her hands about; and,
lastly, older accounts still, from Tudor and Stuart times, record the “whooping noise” that the merfolk made and their sea green hair. The mermaid’s long hair is frequently matched by the copious beards of the mermen.
The eyewitness descriptions are less consistently complimentary, then, and as Swan wrote in Speculum Mundi of 1634, “Mermaids and Menfish seem to me the most strange fish.”
All the same, the consensus seems to be that mermaids have a high opinion of their own good looks. They are reputed to be very vain and their traditional attributes are a comb and a mirror, with which they pass hours sitting on rocks, combing their long hair (admittedly, one seen at Mumbles near Swansea in 1893 was combing her hair with a mackerel’s back bone). They are also very partial to jewellery and can be wooed with rings and necklaces.
The most recent accounts don’t question the mermaids’ charms and it is very true to say that they are regularly sought by human males as their spouses. As in the earlier example, selkies are continually portrayed as being captured and forced into marriage by men. However, the traffic is not all one way. Dora Broome in her Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man describes a mermaid who developed an obsessive passion for a young man from Port Le Murrey, and nearly managed to lure him away with her charms. In another Shetland story, a girl gathering shell-fish on a beach fell asleep in a cave after sitting down to eat her lunch. Some months later she discovered she was pregnant and, when the baby was born, it had flippers instead of hands. This she explained by the fact that, as she had wandered along the beach that day, she had been watched by a seal offshore. It would seem that this creature had, in fact, been a selkie and that he had taken advantage of her sleep to rape her. The best we can say about the selkie’s conduct is this: the girl then learned in a dream that, if she went to a nearby sea inlet, she would find silver coins that would pay for the child’s upbringing.
The love of a mermaid can be perilous and, on the Isle of Man, there seemed to be a settled procedure for freeing a hapless fisherman from a mermaid’s attentions. To do this he needed help- and the right preparations. Herring roe had to be boiled for three days and then dried and ground into a powder. The human victim would consume this in a drink and then set to sea, protected by sprigs of vervain and a cross made of rowan wood. As soon as the mermaid began to follow the boat, a charm had to be repeated:
“Ben-varrey, ben-varrey- go back to thy home,
Til the sea from this island of Mannin doth roam,
Find a mate with a tail, for if thou X should wed,
In the deeps of the sea he’ll be drownded and dead.”
As soon as this verse has been completed, the vervain should be dropped in the waves and an iron knife should be stuck in the mast, which will summon up a storm, driving the mermaid beneath the surface and the ship back to land.
The merfolk are, of course, not just love interest for humans. They have an independent and separate life. They are said to herd fish out at sea and they have control over the weather and sea conditions, so that when breakers drive up onto the shore, the Welsh say “The mermaid is driving her sheep.”
The merfolk’s supernatural powers are attested by a story from Padstow in Cornwall. A man called Tristram Bird bought a hunting rifle and went out to try to shoot a seal. Instead, he found a mermaid combing her hair and instantly conceived a passion for her. She rejected his advances and his offer of marriage; he became angry and threatened to shoot her. She warned him he’d be sorry but he fired off a shot anyway- in revenge for which she cursed Padstow’s harbour. Very soon afterwards, a storm arose that created a sandbar across the mouth of the harbour, cutting it off from the sea. It’s very evidently inadvisable to annoy or hurt a mermaid- on the Isle of Man it is said that if you vex a mermaid, you will never have an luck when you’re out fishing.
Mermaids are also said to pursue ships out at sea, trying to sink them. In the old ballad, The Mermaid, she’s seen by the crew of a ship with her mirror, combing her hair. They instantly despair of reaching their homes- rightly, because she circles the ship three times- and then it sinks. So strong was this belief that in Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Part III, Act III, scene 2) it is declared “I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall.”
The merfolk can foresee bad weather. At Lamorna Cove in West Cornwall, a mermaid would appear, floating head and shoulders above the waves, whenever a storm was approaching. On the small Channel Island of Sark, it’s said that the mermaids sit on rocks and sing before storms develop. It’s not entirely clear from this whether they are foreseeing or actually causing the bad weather. Folklorist Edgar MacCulloch reported this information and then observed that sailors on ships are attracted by the sound of the singing and come too close to shore, where they are then caught when the storm breaks. This juxtaposition suggests he regarded the mermaids as malign and culpable.
It’s plain that merfolk need to be treated with cautious respect. Around the Isle of Man mermaids are seemingly more numerous than mermen- they are certainly seen more frequently- and wise sailors know that, when they’re out at sea, they should never refer to them by the names used on land, so that the mermaid, the ben-varrey or pohllinagh, is called instead Joaney Gorm (‘Blue Joan’), a habit which must be linked to the name taboo so often found in folklore accounts.
Destructive as they may be, merfolk can also be healers. As I’ve mentioned before, they are known for their understanding of herbs’ healing properties and they can pass on these skills and knowledge to chosen humans- often those who’ve done them a good turn, such as carrying them back to the sea when they’ve become stranded.
Mermaids can be a source of riches, as well as useful skills, for humans. The Isle of Man ben-varrey I mentioned earlier demonstrated her affection for the fisherman she fancied by leaving him shells and seaweed, but others can offer a lot more than this. In another Manx story, a man falls under the spell of a mermaid after he rescues her from being stranded at low tide. He becomes preoccupied with her beauty and with the buried gold to which she guides him. Having found this hoard of gold coins, he gives up his work as a fisherman and spends his days dreaming of the mermaid and what he can do with his new found wealth. The problem is that the coins are antique Spanish gold that no-one will accept as currency, so the man and his wife have precious metals- but no income to buy food.
As several of these stories imply, the fundamental problem about relationships between humans and merfolk (and probably with all faery beings) is that we are from different dimensions and there is a gulf in comprehension between us. The merfolk don’t really understand the complexities of human society- nor why we can’t follow them under the water. Too often, indeed, the fate of the mermaid’s lover is, simply, to drown.
As I have discussed before, there are also mermaid-like creatures that live in freshwater. I’ve referred to these as ‘mere-maids’ to try to distinguish them, but throughout Britain there can be confusion about their true nature. For example, in Banffshire in Scotland a mhaidan mara (maid of the sea) is seen in rivers just before they swell after a heavy rain. She has an ‘enchanting’ figure and melodious voice, according to one late eighteenth century report, but her appearance always precedes an accident in the river; someone is sure to drown once she’s been spotted.
Foreseeing the future is a trait ascribed to the freshwater mermaids that lived in the moat of Blore castle in Staffordshire. Over several mornings before the battle of Blore Heath in 1459, they rose to the surface and, whilst combing their hair, sang this prediction:
“Ere yet the haw-berry assumes its deep red,/ Embued shall this heath be with blood nobly shed.”
Our final freshwater maid combines the peril and charms of her marine cousins. A boy was fishing on the River Towy when he hooked a huge salmon. Hauling the fish into his coracle, he prepared to hit it on the head when he heard a voice asking him not to do so. Looking again, he saw he’d hooked a beautiful young woman. He decided she must be a demon and said he’d kill her anyway, to which she said she’d drown him first. She asked him to be her lover, which he refused, so she grabbed him and took him down “yng ngwaelod yr afon” (“to the land under the river”). She did this twice, nearly drowning him, before he decided that a salmon wife was the better option. He had to cut the hook out of her top lip, doing which he splashed his face with her blood. This, she declared, made him hers forever- and they had a long marriage with several children, all of whom had a scar on their upper lip like their mother.
I hope this may have whetted your appetite to explore the rich world that lies Beyond Faery.
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 witha 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.
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.
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.
Here’s a question not often asked: how- and how often- do fairies keep themselves clean? We know that they have very strong opinions on the cleanliness of human homes, and that they will punish or reward maids and housewives according to what they find, but does this extend to their own dwellings and, for that matter, to their own persons?
When you start to look, you find that the evidence exists in some quantity- so here are the best conclusions I can reach. The need for the fairies to wash themselves and their clothes was accepted without question by our ancestors- for example, on the Isle of Man the saying was that “If rain falls when it’s sunny, the fairies are washing.”
“Til after long time myrke, when blest were windows, dares and lights,
And pales were fill’d, and hathes were swept, ‘gainst Farie Elves and sprits:”
(William Warner, Albion’s England, 1586, Book V, c.XXV)
There are plenty of reports that demonstrate that fairies do, definitely, wash themselves. As an outdoor people, living in woods and meadows, a lot of this bathing took place in natural bodies of water. For example, in Northamptonshire certain ‘faery pools’ are known where the faeries swim at night; at Brington, in fact, bathing faeries were seen by witnesses as recently as 1840. On the Isle of Man, beside the Gretch River, there’s a spot called the Fairy Ground where fairy mothers dressed in red used to be seen washing their babies.
It’s inevitable that encounters with fays are likely to occur at these bathing places. A Northumberland tale records how a little girl gathering primroses by the River Wear came upon some faeries washing in the river. In revenge for this invasion of their ablutions, she was abducted by them that same night and her father then had to follow a very complex ritual to be able to recover her. Sometimes, it’s the faery who’s vulnerable. From North Yorkshire comes a story of a faery girl found lost and alone near Tower Hill, Middleton-in-Teesdale. A woman took the child home and made her warm and fed her 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 bathed, in the hope that her parents would return for her (Bord, Fairies, Appendix, p.206).
In due course the faeries, who are ever a people alert to their own convenience and advantage, realised that they could wash themselves with far greater comfort in people’s homes. Initially the fays may have used water collected around human farms: there is one Welsh account of them bathing in a moat; but it then became the practice for them to enter the dwellings and to require that fresh water be left out in front of the fire or kiln for them. This may be seen as dependence- as Latham does in Elizabethan Fairies (p.118) but it probably should more properly be seen as proof of the fairies’ canny nature. Even so, if the householders did comply, they could generally anticipate a few silver coins being left behind for them in thanks. Perhaps this is why some even started to provide soap and towels to their supernatural visitors- less for reasons of kindness than greed (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886, p.196).
This habit must have started many centuries ago, because the provision of water has become established as- to all intents and purposes- a fairy right. Mrs Bray tells the story of a couple of maids in a house near Tavistock who forgot to put out a bucket for the pixies one night. Their response on finding the empty pail was to immediately go upstairs, enter the girls’ room by the keyhole and then surround their bed, loudly debating the best punishments for their laziness and neglect. The enraged pixies considered pinching, spoiling the maids’ best clothes, sending a tooth-ache or inflicting a red nose. One of the maids heard this and suggested getting up to put matters right; the other refused to stir ‘for all the pixies in Devonshire.’ The first maid did get up and fill the bucket- and was rewarded with silver pennies; the other was lamed for her obstinacy and rudeness (Bray, Tamar and Tavy, pp.188-9).
There is widespread testimony to the custom from across the British Isles, most frequently from the Isle of Man and from Wales. Sometimes hot water was preferred but, very curiously, it’s also reported that the tylwyth teg would choose to wash their children in the water in which human children have already been cleaned whilst in the Highlands the water used for washing men’s feet was most desirable (Rhys, Celtic Folklore 56, 110, 137, 151, 198 & 240).
Once established as a perquisite of the good neighbours, it was generally advisable to give them what they wanted, for fear of what they’d use instead. Householders need to be warned that the fays may wash in any liquid they find available (even if this is meant by the humans for cooking or drinking). Although they may not sound ideal for the purpose, fairies have taken revenge if no water was put out by bathing their infants in kit, the water in which oats were soaked in the Highlands, or in milk. In one incident on Shetland, trows entered a house at night to bathe a baby and found no water left out. Muttering “Mukka, mukka, dilla do,” they made use instead of the ‘swotts’ -or water in which sowens or oat-husks were steeped- to wash the child and its clothes, before pouring the liquid back into the keg from which it had been taken…
Whilst we’d never think of drinking water deliberately put out for washing, we might not expect or realise that cooking liquids would be used- and this could prove risky. In a case from Dunadd in Argyll, the fays one night washed a stolen child in milk left out for them by a farmhouse fire. This milk was wisely thrown away by the farmer the next morning, but his sheep dog lapped it up- and instantly died.
So established was this practice that, in Gloucestershire on Christmas Eve, the faeries were formally invited into homes. The fire was banked up and water was left out for their annual bath and, it was believed, if this was done good luck would be bound to follow for the next twelve months.
Fairies also noticed that humans built themselves places specially for bathing- and they’ve taken advantage of these too. There’s a well-known story of faeries surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley: when the caretaker William Butterfield arrived to open up he found at first that the key simply rotated in the lock without effect. He then tried to push the door open, but felt resistance from the other side. On finally forcing his way in, he was met with:
“whirr, whirr, whirr, such a noise and sight! All over the water and dipping into it was a lot of little creatures, all dressed in green from head to foot, none of them more than eighteen inches high, and making a chatter and a jabber thoroughly unintelligible. They seemed to be taking a bath, only they bathed with all their clothes on.”
They scattered as soon as William appeared, leaving no trace behind (Briggs, Fairies in tradition, 133-4).
Fairies wash their bodies then, albeit not that frequently, and, as we’ve just seen, they may save time and trouble by bathing fully clothed. This example aside, there is again sufficient evidence to show that the fairies do their washing just like us.
At least one spring, the Claymore well near Kettleness in Yorkshire, has been identified as a place where the faes wash their clothes and, in the Middleton-in-Teesdale case cited earlier, the fairies were also said to wash their clothes in the river Tees there (Bord p.206). J. G. Campbell has a very brief mention of a fisherman seeing green silk spread out to dry on the fairy knoll of Beinn Feall on Coll. The colour of the cloth, let alone its location, confirm its supernatural ownership.
An interesting story comes from the Isle of Man dated to the early twentieth century. A man reported that his father, when he was a boy, had come across the fairies doing their washing in the river at Glen Rushen. They were beating the clothes on the rocks and then hanging them to dry on gorse bushes. The boy crept close and stole a little cap, which was too small even for a human child to wear. He took it home to show his mother, but she told him to go straight back and replace it- which he did.
Several other spots on the same island are also sites of fairy laundering. A flat stone used to be pointed out in the Rhenab River where the fairies were both heard and seen- at night and early in the morning- washing their clothes. At an unnamed place in Arbory the fairies were often heard ” beetling and bleaching their clothes down at the stream” and, in another unidentified glen, children saw the fairies’ newly-washed linen spread out on a rock to dry according to a report in Chamber’s Journal from 1855.
Unsurprisingly, fairy clothes washing moved inside human homes, too. A Shetland fisherman who had been dozing by his fire awoke to find a trow using his feet as a clothes horse for drying her child’s clothes. When he shifted position and the washing fell in the ashes, she slapped his leg in irritation and, as a consequence, he and his descendants always limped.
The great unwashed?
I’ve discussed fairy smell previously and the question is obviously highly pertinent to the present topic. A young Yorkshire woman in late Victorian times told her vicar that she’d never seen the faeries but she had smelt them. Asked to describe the odour, she told him:
“If you have ever been a very crowded place of worship where the people have been congregated for some time, then you knew the smell.”
This very strongly suggests a sweaty, stale, unwashed smell and, of course, if they bathed but once a year that is only to be expected. All the same, the prevailing concern with regular supplies of water and with cleanly human homes tends to indicate that they are not a noisome folk. Perhaps fairies just smell different to humans, rather than dirty.
It’s also said that they object to bad smells in the human world (such as stale urine- a substance which was kept, ironically, for cleaning human clothes but which was a well-known fay-repellent). A very grubby fisherman from Port Erin on the Isle of Man was once forcibly washed by the fairies. He’d spied them swinging on gorse bushes, but this punishment seems to have been about something more than his intrusion on their privacy.
Lastly, there is the well-known story of Bettie Stogs from Cornwall. She and her husband were alcoholics and were neglecting themselves, their home and their baby. The pixies removed the infant, washed its clothes and left it near the cottage covered in flowers, by way of a salutary lesson to her.
For more discussion of faery physiology, anatomy and health, see my 2021 book ‘The Faery Lifecycle’: