David Scott, Ariel and Caliban, 1837.
In a previous post I examined evidence indicating that the fays have a distinctive gliding motion. Implicit in that is the possibility that they may be hovering above the surface of the ground, rather than being in contact and taking steps. It sounds from the reports as though they may not actually be flying, nor are they walking. In this post I return to the subject and pull together all the clues in traditional folklore on the subject of fairy locomotion.
Since the eighteenth century it has become very difficult to conceive of fairies without also picturing wings. Winged fairies are now consistently seen by witnesses- as in the recent Fairy Census- but the older folklore generally doesn’t describe them like this. How they get about then is not clear.
Fairies on foot
We know that the brownies definitely get around on foot. For instance, there’s a common story of a devoted domestic sprite in Scotland who walked daily from his dwelling to the house to which he was attached, crossing a stream by stepping stones on the way. One day, when the weather was bad and the water levels had risen, the people in the house didn’t expect to see him because the river was too treacherous to cross- but he impressed them with his commitment to his duties by walking a long distance out of his way in order to cross by a bridge. Plainly, if levitation or flight had been an option- he would have used it.
We also hear of fairies moving house. When they do so, they tend to move in a conventional human manner, with horses and carts. In one sighting from Sutherland during the late 1860s the witness saw three carts laden with furniture and other household possessions being dragged over the moorland where there was no road and in a direction in which no human habitation lay. When the church bells drove the pixies out of their home at Withypool on Exmoor, they borrowed a local farmer’s horse and cart to make the move. Various other isolated mentions of fays using carts and carriages can be found.
The same methods are, of course, used when the fairies decide to abandon a place. On the Isle of Man, when the flour mill was built at Colby, the local fairies gave up their former haunts. Early one morning they were seen climbing up into the mists and solitude of the mountain glens, with their household goods on their backs.
The only exception to these very mundane images comes from the Reverend Robert Kirk. In The secret commonwealth he described in chapter two how:
“They remove to other Lodgings at the Beginning of each Quarter of the Year … Their chamælion-lyke Bodies swim in the Air near the Earth with Bag and Bagadge…”
This quaint image is certainly highly suggestive of that floating motion I described in my previous posting. Nonetheless, there’s no suggestion of ‘teleporting’ from one location to another, nor of flight as such.
It’s worth mentioning here too the fact that some fays will also put to sea in boats, whether for pleasure trips or for fishing. Either way, they are expected to be tied to exactly the same forms of locomotion as humans.
Besides wagons and coaches, another very well known use of horses by the fairies is in the so-called ‘fairy rade’ in which the group often termed the ‘trooping fairies’ process about the countryside. Fairies will also hunt on horseback and there are frequent reports of this- especially from the Isle of Man. Yet again, though, there is some suggestion here of weightlessness. Describing the Nithsdale fairies, Cromek said that they rode steeds “whose hoof would not print the new ploughed land or dash the dew from the crop of a harebell” and that they never deviated from straight lines in their travels, going straight through hedges and across corn fields to their destinations without leaving a trace on the crops.
The fairies keep their own horses, but they will also ride human steeds at night (tying their manes in ‘elf-locks’ and on the Isle of Man they’ve even been known to commandeer people to ride around on).
The nearest we come to some indication of winged flight is a couple of Victorian descriptions of encounters. An example from West Yorkshire dates to about 1850. A man called Henry Roundell, of Washburn Dale near Harrogate, got up early one day to hoe his turnips. When he reached the field, he was astonished to discover that every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green, all of them singing in shrill cracked voices “like a lot of field crickets.” As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled ‘like flocks of partridges.’ Another nineteenth century account from nearby Ilkley tells of a crowd of fairies surprised whilst bathing in the local spa baths. The caretaker of the wells cried out in astonishment and “away the whole tribe went, helter skelter, toppling and tumbling, head over heels, heels over heeds, and all the while making a noise not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges.” As they fled there was a whirring noise, which sounds very like startled wings, but we are told that “the fairies were “bounding over the walls like squirrels.” In fact, if you look closely at both accounts, there’s no suggestion that they actually flew away like birds- merely that the startled commotion sounded similar to this.
Some fays (hobs and pixies) can transform themselves into birds, as we have see when discussing fairy shapeshifters, but this is a rare ability and is definitely not a widespread means of travel.
Can fairies fly then? The answer is- yes, but not with wings. The vast majority of British fairies have never been believed to have wings, in any case, but they don’t need them because they (or certain groups of them at least) can get around very well without. They are able to fly through the air by magical means; there seem to be three or four separate ways of achieving this.
One is by means of a simple spell. Various forms of words are recorded: naming the location to which you want to go might be enough in some cases. On other occasions, a magic formula is required, and the commonest of which we hear is the cry of “Horse and hattock!” It’s never made clear why these words are used, but we can hazard a few guesses. It’s known that fays can enchant plant stems to ride like horses through the air. For example Scottish poet Alexander Montgomerie mentions “When our good nighbours doe ryd … Some buckled on a bunwand, and some on a been” in his verse The Flyting between Montgomerie and Polwart (1585). Now, a hattock is no longer an everyday word in English, but it means a sheaf or stook of corn, so perhaps what we have here is a spell to turn a wheat or barley stem into a mount. There is of course an evident connection with witches’ broomsticks here, although it seems the fairies have a great deal more choices of flight available to them.
In Scotland and Ireland the fairy host, the sluagh, ride around the night sky, sometimes transporting hapless humans with them. It seems that this is how they get about, as no other form of transport is ever mentioned. For example, Sandy Gunn, of Houstry, near Dunbeath in the far north of Scotland, set out one summer morning sometime in the 1870s to visit his sister Betty. He never arrived at her house and did not return home in the evening. In fact, it wasn’t until the middle of the next day that he appeared, with a strange tale to tell. Walking up a hill called Cnoc-an-Crask he’d felt a gentle breeze. He’d lost his footing and been carried up into the air. All day and all night he flew across the country, before being gently returned to the same spot the next morning. In this case the flight seems to have been used mischievously (or even, perhaps, as a treat for the hapless human). In another case the flight is pure mischief, teasing and scaring the victim. A man at Fleshwick on the Isle of Man was caught up one night and transported over the fields until he got to the cliff edge, where the fays suddenly deposited him.
Flight could also be used as a punishment against one who’d offended or annoyed the sith. A Perthshire herdsman who had prevented the fairies carrying off a newborn child and its mother was promptly carried off through the air for six or seven miles and back again before being unceremoniously dropped down through the smoke hole of his father’s cottage. Here the aerial abduction is plainly a punishment for thwarting the fairies’ wills.
Similar stories come from Wales, too, and from them we learn that this form of flight is not necessarily pleasant for the human taken along. The Welsh fairies travel either above, in the middle of or below the wind. Above is a giddy and terrible sensation, whilst below involves being dragged through bush and brake. This was plainly the experience of one man whose case was described by the Reverend Edmund Jones in the late eighteenth century. A hunting party visited a pub kept by Richard the tailor, “one who resorted to the company of fairies.” One of the group went outside to relieve himself and was snatched up by a passing fairy band. He was with them all night, being carried all the way from Monmouthshire to Newport and back again. When he reappeared the next morning he “looked like he’d been pulled through thorns and briars.” He felt very ill and said that for part of his journey he had been insensible. Evidently he had been travelling below the wind (Jones, The appearance of evil, no.68).
A very similar – and vivid- description was given by Reginald Scot in his Discoverie of witchcraft of 1584 (Book III, c.IV):
“many such have been taken away by the said spirits for a fortnight or a month together, being carried with them in chariots through the air, over hills and dales, rocks and precipices, and passing over many countries and nations in the silence of the night, bereaved of their sense and commonly of their members to boot.”
The flying ‘chariots’ is a unique feature (although, as stated, we sometimes hear of ordinary terrestrial carriages and coaches) but Scot’s depiction of the effect of these prolonged aerial abductions certainly fits very well with the Rev. Jones’. A Manx commentator described those taken as being carried ‘insensible’ through the sky. Doubtless many of us might faint at the experience.
Naturally, some humans are exhilarated by the experience of flight and the novelty of visiting strange places in far lands. Others are keen to try it at first, but then find it’s not as enjoyable as they had hoped. A weaver joined the sluagh by pronouncing the magic words over his loom beam. To begin with all went well, until he saw the host flying off a precipice. At this point his courage failed him, he dropped to the ground and had to carry the beam all the way home on his shoulder
Next, a magical item can be used by the fairies to move around. In a story from Herefordshire, a boy lost in the woods finally comes across a cottage and is taken in by the two women living there. Later that night they put on white caps and fly off to a fairy dance. He uses a third spare cap to follow them, although he’s later admonished by them for his impudence.
Finally, fairies can travel in a whirlwind. This is again well known from Scotland and Ireland, but is also reported from as far away as Cornwall. The use of these eddies of wind by which to move about seem to offer the fairies two advantages: firstly, they are fast and secondly they will blind humans who encounter them, maintaining the fairies’ concealment and, perhaps, allowing them to conduct a bit of surreptitious thieving on the way.
See my other posts on whirling fairies and on fairy motion and too chapter 13 of my British fairies for a discussion of fairy pathways.