A fairy treasure hunt in progress at Doon Hill, Cobleland, near Stirling (from nixinnaturesblog.blogspot.com)
Faery has long had a traditional connection with buried treasure. As Keith Thomas described in his famous book, Religion and the decline of magic, there were once entirely rational bases for the expectation of finding hidden hoards: in the absence of a system of banking and safe deposits for savings, hiding wealth under beds or burying it in fields was as secure a protection as many could find (p.279). In times of war or civil unrest, this was especially so, and for many reasons people might not have returned to reclaim their gold. Finding forgotten or abandoned treasure was therefore far from impossible (and, of course metal detectorists still do it today). The gold was out there, that was certain and- rather than rely upon mere luck- the recruitment of supernatural powers of all descriptions (not just fairies) was the resort of many.
Today, perhaps the best-known example of such a guide is the Irish leprechaun, of whom it’s said that catching one will lead you to his pot of gold. Fairy treasure hunts have been reduced to a merely whimsical matter- a suitable theme for a little girl’s birthday party. The subject is far more serious, complex and interesting than this, though, and there is a wealth of British examples to illustrate it (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 71 & 82).
There are many aspects to this subject, but the starting point must be the fact that fairies hoard gold, or at least know of its whereabouts. It is said, for example, that fairy gold is stored at Cadbury camp in Dorset and also at Dolebury where, to make matters worse, the fairies’ magic makes it sink deeper into the ground should anyone come digging in search of it. Thomas Nashe believed instead that the gold was continually moved about underground, so that none could find it. Another writer, Thomas Heywood, was uncertain whether the booty was hidden from us because of the elves’ avarice, because God had forbidden our access to it, knowing men’s avarice, or because it was all, in fact, merely illusory. As we proceed with this examination, you might indeed be inclined to see it all as a fairy deception sent to taunt us (Heywood, Hierarchie of Blessed Angels, 570).
Fairy treasure hunt in progress for a sixth birthday party (thecul-de-sac.blogspot.com)
As with fairy money, the source of this bullion is uncertain. It may have been buried by humans in the past or it may have been collected by the fays. There is even a suggestion that they may create it through alchemy: in Cornwall it was believed that lead left out on an ant’s nest would be transmuted by the pixies into silver at the new moon.
I’ve already mentioned how the fays may actively prevent our finding their wealth. Sometimes they are more aggressive in defence of their hoards. At Craufurdland bridge, near Kilmarnock, a brownie protected the pot of gold concealed in the pool beneath the crossing and successfully defeated an attempt to dam and drain the pool by playing a trick on the prospector- he raised the alarm for fire at the man’s home and, whilst the excavators were absent, pulled down the dam. At Abernethy near Perth the buried gold of a Pictish king was guarded by a dwarf who fiercely assailed any man who came digging. The threat of imminent violence also protected gold concealed at Trencrom hillfort in West Penwith in Cornwall: a man engaged in digging there noticed the sky darkening and, when he looked up, realised that a horde of spriggans was advancing upon him at speed, growing in size as they rapidly approached. He wisely fled home, where he had to take to his bed for several weeks to recover (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.2, 245; see too Bowker, Goblin Tales, 104).
Given that the fairies are in possession of great wealth, and given the instinctive greed of many humans, it is inevitable that many have turned their minds to discovering ways to convey this wealth out of the control of its original possessors. Here the interaction between Faery and mortals becomes even more complicated and fraught.
Sometimes it proves possible to extort money from the fairies. In Cornwall it was believed that a large quantity of gold was concealed around the ancient stone monuments of the county and that, if you could only capture a pisky, spriggan or knocker, it could be forced to disclose the whereabouts of the riches. Of course, the supernatural being would know too that the human captor would become distracted as soon as precious metals got involved, creating opportunities to escape. Nevertheless, the canny and determined individual might make himself rich very easily this way, as was the case for a man from Rockingham in Northamptonshire, who caught an elf called the ‘redman’ and constrained it to reveal its cache of gold.
Force doesn’t have to be involved. The fairies may willingly lead favoured individuals to the buried treasure- or may just place it in front of them. For example, a Scottish pedlar in Ayrshire was approached by a fairy woman who wanted to buy one of the bowls he was selling. He refused to sell to her for some reason and, a short while later, dropped his basketful of wares. Remarkably, only the bowl the woman had asked for was broken, whilst, later that same day, he discovered a hidden treasure that more than compensated for the price of the lost vessel.
The fairies don’t always need a reason to bestow good fortune, though: a man came across the fairies dancing on the beach at Puckaster Cove on the Isle of Wight. He joined the dance but, after a while, needed to sit and rest. He sat down on something like a puffball mushroom which burst under his weight, showering gold dust everywhere. The faeries gave him some of this before he parted from their company.
Another fairy treasure hunt (greenmumsblog.wordpress.com)
Rather than giving the humans the wealth, the fairies might alternatively lead them to where it was concealed. William Borlase, writing about Cornwall in 1769, mentioned the continuing belief in spriggans among the ‘vulgar’ inhabitants of the county. With some superiority he recorded that the common folk:
“attribute to them large powers to rule the weather and to discover hidden treasures, and pay them a kind of veneration.” (Antiquities of the County of Cornwall, p.110)
Guidance might be given by various means: for instance, at Bury Castle near Clun in Shropshire it’s said that the fairies have left a thin gold wire to guide treasure seekers to the pot of gold they buried. In The Secret Commonwealth (c.10), the Reverend Robert Kirk described how two women one night in 1676 both received a vision that treasure was buried in a nearby fairy hill. Firstly, they each saw the hoard, then they heard a voice. Going separately to the spot, they met and together dug up a vessel containing ancient coins, which they shared between them. This vision was sent to the women at a time of famine, so that they might buy food for the people. In a similar story from Wales, a boy called Guto Bach was guided by the fairies to look under a rock where he found gold and silver concealed, aid that was granted after his parents had lost their money in a shipwreck.
Lastly, the fairies might bestow a magical power to detect buried treasure upon an individual. This gift was claimed in 1499 by Marion Clerk of Great Ashfield in Suffolk. She was prosecuted before a church court in Norwich for claiming that the faeries helped her locate buried treasure by providing her with a rod of holly for this purpose. She had charged people 2/- for her treasure seeking service.
Access to free riches sounds enticing, but a condition might be attached. by the faes For instance, at Bamburgh in Northumberland there is a rock where people may find caches of coins that have been placed there by the fairies. This wealth cannot simply be pocketed, however: the finder is obliged to leave a silver coin of their own at the spot in order to ensure that the treasure will be found again.
Sometimes, though, despite the visions and the guidance, the prospectors fail to find the hidden gold. What’s not clear is whether this was just down to their poor excavating or because the fairies never meant them to have it in the first place. The folklore on this is contradictory. An Aberdeen man called Walter Rolandson had been visited by a fairy in the form of a child twice a year for 27 years or so. In 1601 it came to him in bed, sitting on his chest and calling his name. He was told to go to a certain place and dig, for he would find gold, silver and other valuable property. Ronaldson did so, but found nothing. Despite his failure, he nevertheless remained convinced the riches were present: “there is gold there, gif it were weel sought” he told a church court.
Just a few years later, a woman called Susan Swapper, living in Rye in Sussex, was visited by four fairies at night. They told her to dig for a pot of gold buried outside the town. Naturally, she did as she was instructed, but failed to find the hoard; nonetheless, she met the fairy queen who told her that, if she was prepared to make submission to her, she would never want for money for the rest of her life. A similar tale of riches withheld but some compensation offered instead comes from lowland Scotland. A girl was sat by a well spinning wool on a distaff when she looked into the depths of the water and saw a pot of gold beneath the surface. Marking the spot with her spindle, she ran to tell her father. He suspected it was glamour intended to trap and drown her and, sure enough, when they returned together to the place, the moor was covered in distaffs. Nonetheless, twelve men in green appeared and returned her original spindle with its wool all spun.
On other occasions, the visions of hidden treasures are much more plainly a fairy tease. In late 1662 the London household of the Mompessons were troubled by noises, such as drummings and the sound of money chinking. The family were advised that this was the fairies indicating to them that coins were hidden somewhere about the house. On the Isle of Man, the fairies whispered to a man drowsing on his sofa about hidden gold; in shock he fell onto the floor, was ill for six months and was lamed for the remainder of his life.
Worse still are the cases where the fairies taunted the humans with a sight of the gold- and then withheld it from them. This is demonstrated in two Welsh reports. In one case a girl walking on the mountains near her home came upon a solid golden chair. It was too heavy for her to have any hope of carrying it home, so she tried to mark the spot so that she could find her way back by using the thread from the spindle she had with her. She tied one end to a stone by the chair and unravelled the ball as she made her way home; there was only just enough to lead her back to her parents’ cottage. The next morning, of course, she found that the thread was gone and the prize was lost for ever. In a comparable story a man discovered a cache of gold concealed in a cave. His only way of being able to retrace his route was to cut chips from his walking staff to mark the way back to his farm. The next morning, these too had disappeared.
These experiences take us back to one of our earlier points and very much confirm the suspicion that fairy gold is, very much of the time, purely a matter of illusion and temptation, a mockery of human cupidity that is never meant to be satisfied.
From time to time riches are revealed to humans, but they are for those of a more discerning taste. In two cases reported in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies the buried treasure comprised archaeological remains (pp.7 & 81). For example in 1941 Louise Jones was walking near St Albans when she felt herself led by the fairies to discover the site of a Roman kiln. Pottery sherds and roof tiles may not be excite everyone, but she was convinced that a glimpse of an elf had brought her luck.
A detailed further discussion of this subject is to be found in my 2021 publication with Green Magic Publishing, How Things Work in Faery.