Fairies and stolen goods

Round about our coal fire

Fairies dancing near their hill, the door of which stands open

Readers will, by now I’m sure, be very familiar with the idea that fairies are inveterate thieves of human property.  In this post, I’ll challenge those preconceptions to some degree, and look at cases where they help us to retrieve items that we have lost or have been stolen.

The information we have on this is fairly limited and, unfortunately, all of it comes from the context of criminal trials, in which the defendant faced an allegation of witchcraft or something similar.

Fairy Knowledge

Most of the cases date from the sixteenth century.  The first concerns a woman from London, known to us only as “Mrs Croxton”, who lived in St Giles parish in the city in 1549.  All we know about her is that she offered to help find lost items, and this without the use of any charms or other magical techniques; instead, “she only speaketh with the fayrayes.”

About a decade and a half later a man called John Walsh was examined on suspicion of witchcraft in Dorset.  He had visited the fairies at their hills, either at noon or midnight, and acquired a range of information from them.  They told him who had been bewitched and they could also help him locate stolen goods.  With the fairies’ aid he had recovered several stolen horses, he claimed, and denied doing harm to anyone.

Scottish witches, with the devil and fairies under a knowe.

Witches’ Wisdom

The next example dates from 1576.  Bessie Dunlop, of Irvine in Scotland, was arrested after she had offered to help a man retrieve a stolen cloak.  Before this, she had been very active, it appears, identifying the whereabouts of stolen property and naming the culprits.  Her clientele ranged across the social spectrum including Lady Blair and Lady Thirdpart.  Bessie derived her abilities from a fairy man called Tom Reid, who had first approached her when she was alone in a field one day in 1572.  In consultation with Tom, Bessie was able to discover what had happened to the stolen goods and was also able to diagnose and offer cures for a range of illnesses.  Despite the good she appeared to have done within her community, Bessie was convicted of witchcraft and was strangled and then burned on November 8th 1576.

A century later (November 1677) a vagrant man called Donald McIlmichall was put on trial at the Tollbooth in Inveraray.  Initially the charge against him had been the theft of a cow, but it turned out on examination that he claimed to have visited the fairies under their hill on frequent occasions, joining their dances or providing the music for them.  This was all supposed to be kept secret.  When he told a friend of his visits, he had been stricken in the cheek by way of punishment.

Donald asked the fairies about the whereabouts of two horses stolen at Leismore and they were able to advise him.  They also voluntarily gave him information about a number of other stolen items, whose owners he duly informed.  Nonetheless, for the “horrid cryme of corresponding with the devil and consulting with him anent stolen goods and getting information for their discovery,” Donald was hanged and his goods forfeit.

These stories make for depressing reading, but much Scottish fairy information derives from witch trials, few of which ended happily for the victims.  What can we drive from these other than a sense of the human tragedy and cruelty involved?

Summary & further reading

Firstly, it seems fairly clear that the stolen goods involved weren’t stolen by the fays: the culprits were humans whose offences were exposed by supernatural means.  The fairies did plenty of stealing (food, mainly) but they don’t seem to have been betraying themselves here.

Secondly, this knowledge of secret acts has to be derived from the fairies’ powers of second sight.  We know already that the fays can see into the future; it asks a lot less to imagine that they might be aware of what is happening currently, or has happened, in a human community around them.  This readiness to tell tales about people seems to be related to the fairies tendency to prefer some individuals over others, with gifts of money and skills.  The people who could assist others in their  village or town, recovering for them lost property, would have gained prestige and, doubtless, rewards.  Indirectly, then, the fairies were bestowing wealth and fortune on those they favoured.

 

Farming fairies

C A Doyle -fairy-folk-celebrating-around-plough

Charles Altamont Doyle, Fairy folk celebrating around a plough

Our conventional view of the faeries is of a people of wild or wooded places whose life is one long round of leisure and pleasure- dancing, feasting and the like.  At the same time, we don’t tend to imagine them having any concerns with bread-winning or the means of production- indeed, a strong antipathy for such occupations has often been imagined.  There’s a widespread rhyme in Scotland to the effect that:

Where the scythe cuts and the sock (plough) rives,/ Hae done wi’ fairies and bee-bykes.”

This gloomy view is mistaken.  To begin with, a moment’s reflection will remind us of the farm labouring brownies, for example, and when the sources are examined, consistent fairy links to agriculture are revealed- as are their interests in manufacture, mining, cloth-making, building and the like.  The fairy economy is as complex as our own.

Fairies are often believed to rely solely upon stolen dairy products and corn, preying on them “as do Crowes and Mice” as Robert Kirk put it (Secret Commonwealth c.1).  In fact, they have been observed actively involving themselves in all aspects of farming.  As I’ve discussed before, they have their own goats and other livestock.  These are distinctly different from humans’ beasts, although the faeries may also acquire ours, sometimes by surreptitiously luring them away and sometimes slightly more honestly.  In the book A pleasant treatise of witches, the author recounted a story he had heard of a pregnant sow that was fed daily by the fairies with bread and milk.  When farrowing time came, they clearly felt they were entitled to the fruit of their investment in the pig: they took all the piglets but left their value in silver behind.  This wasn’t theft, but it wasn’t a normal purchase either and, as such, is the epitome of Faery.  It’s non-consensual for the human farmer, it asserts a presumed right over our goods and, yet, there is something in exchange.

We know too from the reports of visitors that the fays have their own fields and orchards in fairyland underground, but most witnesses of course don’t see them there.  The Reverend Kirk believed that our landscape here and there showed the marks of the fairies’ cultivation from a time that preceded the country’s occupation by humankind:

“Albeit, when severall Countreys were uninhabited by us, these had their easy Tillage above Ground, as we now.  The Print of those Furrows do yet remaine to be seen on the Shoulders of very high Hills, which was done when champayn Ground was Wood and Forrest.” (chapter 2)

The fairies have since retreated to their subterranean realms which means that, usually, the fays are only to be encountered participating in human farming activities.  In fact, they have shown an interest in our pastoral and dairy production, in fruit growing, in horticulture and in the cultivation of grain crops.

god-speed-the-plough-charles-altamont-doyle

Charles Altamont Doyle, God speed the plough

Fairies in the corn fields

It’s often reported that the fairies bake their own bread- bread of superlative flavour- and of course the grain for that has to come from somewhere.  It’s not all stolen, by any means, although there are plenty of stories from across England of fairies filching corn, grain by grain, from granaries, whilst on the island of Islay it’s said that the local fairies claim the top grain from every stalk- and will have harvested it in well before the farmer enters the field with his scythes.

Some fairies seem to play some sort of protective role towards human cultivation, being almost like minor agricultural deities.  Across England, for example, there’s a host of sprites whose sole function seems to be guarding orchards, fruit bushes and nut groves from the depredations of thieves and children.  From Scotland, we have the curious tale of ‘Jeanie’s Granny.’  When she was a child, Jeanie’s grandmother got up one night to steal some newly harvested grain so as to feed her horse.  When she got to the fields, she saw a tiny woman hopping from stook to stook; the child became scared and ran home without stealing any corn.  In another story from Dartmoor, a man was annoyed to find that all his stooks of harvested corn were disturbed over night.  He decided to watch the following night to see what the cause might be and , just as he had suspected, pixies appeared and began to pull all the stooks into one corner of the field.  Very possibly this was being done by them as the first age of building a rick, but the pixies were too small to make a good job of it and the farmer interrupted them- at which point they vanished.  (They might alternatively have been preparing to steal the crop, which would have been much more in character: in a story from Ardnamurchan in the Highlands, a man outwitted the fairies who’d been reaping his crop at night by leaving a wise old man in the field.  When fairies appeared and started to harvest the grain, he then counted their number out loud and by this simple means banished them forever.)

Garden gnomes

We also come across lots of fairies working in gardens and vegetable patches.  These are the beings often described as gnomes and it seems that their dedication to plant life is so great that they will cultivate human plots merely for the satisfaction of seeing healthy fruit and vegetables.  The most curious story comes from West Yorkshire from about 1850.  A man called Henry Roundell of Washburn Dale near Harrogate got up early to hoe the weeds in his crop of turnips.  When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row being hoed by a host of tiny men in green, all of them singing shrilly.  As soon as he entered the field, they fled like scattered birds.

a-scarecrow-charles-altamont-doyle

Charles Altamont Doyle, A scarecrow

Dairy fairies

There’s a definite close association between fairies and cattle- and that may not be just because they want to consume their milk and cream.  For example, William Bottrell recounts the story of Rosy, the fine red milk cow of the Pendar family of Baranhual farm in Penwith.  She gave twice the milk of the other cows, but would often disappear from the farm in the evenings.  Eventually, Molly the milkmaid discovered the reason: a four-leaf clover was included in the pad of herbs she used to carry the milk pail on her head and it enabled her to see that the cow was surrounded by dancing fairies, who were taking turns to milk her and stroking and tickling the beast in between.  The cow was evidently very happy in their company.  The farmer’s wife decided to wash the cow’s udders in brine to terminate the fairy thefts, but the only result was that Rosy ceased to give any milk at all.

A related account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland is the reminiscence of an old woman who, as a small girl, had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field.  She was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing (G. Sutherland, Folklore gleanings, p.22).  As stated at the start, there’s a definite affinity between the little people and cows which benefits the milk yield.

Scottish ‘brownies’

The classic farming fairy is the domestic brownie, who will undertake all the tasks necessary to run a human smallholding.  He’ll tend the cattle and sheep, milk the cows, reap the crops, thresh the grain and involve himself in all other aspects of processing the produce of the farm.  Brownies help out on a permanent basis with farming tasks, but other fairy types can be recruited to provide ‘temporary labour’ in times of need.  From North-East Scotland there’s the story of the ‘Red Cappies’ who were called on to assist with threshing grain.  Generally across the Highlands you’ll find the Gaelic tradition of the ceaird-chomuinn (‘association craft’) whereby people can be endowed with particular skills by the faes, such as the ability to undertake prodigious feats of ploughing, sowing and harrowing.

Over and above the familiar English brownie and Lowland Scottish broonie, there’s a host of other (Highland) Scottish beings with particular farming connections who are also worth examining:

  • gruagach- this being looks after the cattle of a farm or a village, for which duties she receives a daily bowl of whey or a regular offering of milk poured out over a holed stone or special slab of rock.  She has long golden hair and is dressed in green.  She sings to the cattle and keeps them safe from all disease or accident.  She is very strong and in one story a gruagach killed itself through overwork, trying to thrash an entire barn full of corn in one night.  Like many of her kind, if she’s offered clothes she’ll desert a farm and if her regular helping of milk is forgotten, she’ll wreak havoc, turning the cows into the crops and such like;
  • glaistig- this being is often portrayed as a violent hag, but her more benign aspect is as a dairy maid and cow-herd, seldom being seen but using her powerful voice to keep the cattle in check.  She’s said to be a human woman who’s been placed under a fairy enchantment and thereby has acquired a fairy nature.  For this reason, the glaistig can sometimes shape-shift into the form of a dog to better herd and protect the livestock.  She lives on farms but is a solitary being.  She expects a pail of milk nightly and will react angrily if this is withheld or forgotten.  In some places milk is also offered at other important points in the farming year, such as when the cattle are first left out overnight each year and when they are brought inside for winter;
  • urisk- a brownie-like spirit who lives in wild places but who will undertake farm chores in return for a bowl of cream.  He is very strong and clever and can be savage if provoked.  The urisk is said to be half-human and half-fay;
  • King Broonie- on Orkney, a type of trow that particularly took care of a farm’s corn.  He objected to being watched and, if he felt that he was being spied upon, would scatter the ricks;
  • hogboon- a Shetland version of the brownie who undertakes agricultural labouring tasks in return for food.  The name derives from the Norse haug bui, meaning mound-dweller, because they were believed to inhabit the ancient burial mounds;
  • gunna– is another sort of brownie who cares for cattle and keeps them away from cliffs and out of the fields of growing crops.  He is very thin, with long yellow hair, and is dressed only in a fox skin; and,
  • bodachan sabhaill (the little old man of the barn) is a spirit who will help older farmers with their threshing.

What I think is particularly striking about this group of beings is how many of them are semi-wild sprites, often with a parallel reputation for violent acts, and yet they’re entrusted with a farm’s valuable assets.  Of course, the farmers don’t recruit them: the faery cowherds are generally inherited or volunteer themselves, but it is nonetheless a curious relationship.  The spirit of the wilderness accommodates itself to the human subjugation of the landscape.

c a doyle eavesdroppers

Charles Altamont Doyle, Eavesdroppers

Summary

In conclusion, although our tendency is to imagine carefree and pleasure loving fairies, the reality is often more complex.  They grow their own food, like any community must, and many are very hard working- even on behalf of human kind and in return for quite informal arrangements as to recompense.

For more detail on this subject, see my book How Things Work in Faery (2021).

Traditional material in the Fairy Census

Cottingley harebell posie Elsie

Elsie Wright presented with a posy of harebells

The Fairy Investigation Society‘s recent Fairy Census, published in January this year and covering 2014-2017, is a fascinating snapshot of contemporary perceptions of the fairy realm.  As I have already discussed, there is much that is new in modern fairy sightings, but there is also much that seems to come straight from traditional folklore sources, mixed up with the more contemporary and anomalous experiences.  There are quite a few experiences which would be very familiar to our ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although the examples of each are all quite limited in number.

The sorts of aspects of Faery I’m discussing here tend to be those that sit less well with the benign image of fays that has become so prevalent now.  Here are a few examples:

  • Hiding or moving things– the mischievous removal or concealment of personal possessions, often keys or jewellery, was reported a few times;
  • Pixie-led– in a second manifestation of fairy mischief, there was a handful of cases in which individuals found themselves lost or going in circles in a familiar place or within a small area where the exits were nearby and clear;
  • Abductions– in only ten cases (1% of the total) there seemed to have been an attempt to abduct a person (half involved adults and half children). Several times a strong feeling of compulsion was reported, often tempered by a sense of fear- even in situations where the fairies’ conduct was not in itself threatening: for example, they seemed to be dancing or playing;
  • Time distortion– it’s well known that time can pass very differently in Faery and this was mentioned in several reports. Most often hours were lost or unaccounted for.  Memorably, one witness described the sensation as “time felt twisty” (no.225);
  • Music– traditional accounts very frequently link music and dancing with fairy sightings. In the Census music was heard in only 11% of cases.  In half of these bells the music came from bells, although sounds like pipes, voices and drums were also reported.  Six of the witnesses compared what they heard to Irish or ‘Celtic’ music. As regular readers may recall, ceol sidhe is an especially Irish phenomenon;
  • Dancing– once the commonest pastime of our good neighbours, this was mentioned but in only 3% of the modern cases;
  • Conventional terms were often resorted to as a frame of reference or as a label for what the person experienced. Mention is quite often made in the Census of pixies, dryads, elves, gnomes, dwarves, leprechauns, brownies and goblins.  The traditional dress associated with these were reasonably common too- clothes of green, red and brown and caps, quite often pointed.  The most interesting of these accepted fairy ‘types’ were the four mentions of ‘banshees.’  The being’s hollow, mourning cry was what provoked the identification; in two of the cases, a death was felt to be directly related to the premonition; and,
  • Fairy temperament– many contemporary writers describe faes as kind, friendly and helpful- full of good will to humans and to the natural world. The older idea of fairy character was generally a lot darker and echoes of this are to be found in some of the Census cases.  Witnesses sensed anger, hostility and even outright malice in about 3% of cases; they felt fear in 6%.  In one instance in the Census- and one in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies– there was an impression that the fairy was mocking the human for some reason (Census no.475; Johnson p.24).  Balancing these negative emotions, there were also a few reports in which the human sensed the fairy’s interest or curiosity in them or what they were doing.

Cottingley 3

Elsie Wright again

The Census therefore presents us with an intriguing combination of traditional and wholly novel elements.  Only a few of the encounters involve interaction, so that the majority are descriptions of brief sightings (frequently of flying beings).  Nevertheless we come away with the impression that fairy encounters are an evolving body of law, with new perceptions or reactions added to the older understandings.

See too my posting on who believes in fairies for some further discussion of the Census statistics and their breakdown by age and gender.

Cottingley 2

 

Goblin market- the fairy economy

 

ArthurRackham_GoblinMarket_100

Goblin market, Arthur Rackham

“Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy.”

Goblin market, Christina Rossetti.

Faery was imagined in many respects as mirroring human society: brownies undertook house work, farm labour and other domestic chores like spinning and sewing, whilst the ‘trooping fairies’ and pixies had their own king and queen, a royal court, dances and hunts.  These parallels extended to frequenting fairs and markets.

Fairy theft

On one hand, this mirroring of human commerce seems incongruous: one notorious fairy trait was to steal human food products (or, at least) the nourishment within them.  In his Secret commonwealth Robert Kirk described how the fairies fed on “the Foyson or substance of Corns and Liquors or corn itself that grows on the Surface of the Earth” (s.2).  As a result, he said, “When we have plenty, they have Scarcity at their Homes” meaning that “We then … do labour for that abstruse People, as weill as for ourselves” (s.3).  Milk from which the goodness has been extracted floats like a cork on water, he alleged.

The fairies stole these products by a variety of methods:

  • in a hazel switch (for milk);
  • by stealthy theft- corn, Kirk said, “these Fairies steal away, partly invisible, partly preying on the Grain as do Crowes and Mice.”
  • by ropes- “What Food they extract from us is conveyed to their Homes by Secret Paths, as sume skilfull Women do the Pith and Milk from their Neighbours Cows into their own Cheife-hold thorow a Hair-tedder, at a great distance, by Airt Magic…;”
  • by leaving a stock in place of a stolen cow (as in the story The Tacksman of Auchriachan) or by leaving an old man rolled in a cow skin; and,
  • by thieving from market stalls.  The fairies are sometimes encountered in a market place, invisible to all but the person who has touched fairy ointment on an eye and who thereby is no longer fooled by fairy glamour.  The punishment for observing the fairies at work is loss of sight in the eye effected.

Fairy trade

Nonetheless, fairies are also said to indulge in labour and trade just like humans.  One Welsh tale reports them mining and undertaking farming tasks such as mowing and herding, just like their human neighbours. They build extensively and they manufacture cloth.  These are just other instances of the close parallels between our society and theirs.

Fairies participated enthusiastically in commerce.  The famous fair on the Blackdown Hills featured pewterers, pedlars and fruit and ale sellers (Keightley, Fairy mythology pp.294-5).  Another well-known fair was held by the pixies near Breage in Cornwall (Wentz Fairy faith in Celtic countries p.171). Kirk also states that the industrious sidh women spin, dye, weave and embroider and that they bake bread and strike hammers in their hills. John Rhys in Celtic folklore records fairies attending markets and fairs all over Wales and paying good prices for the wares (though sometimes they are spotted stealing, too).  He also noted the skill of fairies in spinning, weaving, mining and cobbling.  Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (pp.9 and 10) likewise recorded that the fairy folk living on islands off the Pembroke and Carmarthen coast (the Plant Rhys Dwfn) regularly visited the markets at Laugharne and Milford Haven, at which they always paid the exact price and never spoke to the stall holders.  An informant providing evidence to John Rhys observed that the fairies’ chatter at night always peaked when the prices were high at Llangefni market (Wentz p.139).

Fairy gold

Some folk tales certainly indicate that fairies possess their own independent wealth, in the form of gold, silver and cattle, though it must be conceded that this may originally have been stolen from humans, as pilfering was consistently reported to be a key element in the elvish economy (Wentz pp.106. 144, 147 & 151).  An odd account from Wales records the fairly common practice of fairies leaving gold in return for a water left out by humans- except in this case the coins were said to be of unknown provenance, not British currency but unfamiliar pieces marked with a harp on one side (John Rhys, Celtic folklore p.6).

Apparently, if one is polite and respectful, it is even possible for humans to trade with the fairies at their own markets. Ruth Tongue heard such an account in Somerset, the most interesting aspect of which is that change given in dry leaves became gold and silver at home the next day- contrary to the normal nature of fairy ‘gold’ (County folklore- Somerset, vol.8, p.112).  This amenability to a human presence is rare though- normally the intrusion is resented.

Fairy dependence

Despite all this evidence of a separate fairy economy, there was also a constant theme in folklore of the fair folk being to some degree dependent upon humans for the provision of basic items.  Frequently, they might rely upon people to provide them with heated water for bathing; they also seemed to lack various basic domestic items and skills to satisfy which they had to resort to human aid.  For example a broken plough or baking ‘peel’ would have to be repaired by a man and the fairies regularly borrowed kitchen gear from their mortal neighbours.  Recompense in the form of food was generally made (Rhys pp.63, 220, 221, 227, 228, 229 & 241).

Abductions

Finally, in Rossetti’s imagining the market was used as a way of luring in innocent humans and as such is another version of the abduction theme in fairy lore. It is however anomalous to the tradition of fairy markets, though, and in truth Goblin market is a product of literature rather than folk imagination.  In the poem, Jeanie had tasted the goblins’ fruits and “pined and pined away/ Sought them by night and day,/ Found them no more but dwindled and grew grey.”

Summary

In summary, one’s assessment of the balance of the faery economy between booty and barter in large measure will depend upon whether or not you regard them as primarily malign or benign.  A detailed discussion of the fairy temperament will be reserved for a later post.  For earlier generations, it will be obvious that the concept of thieving fairies provided a ready explanation of poor harvests, declining yields and lost or mislaid items.  Our ‘good neighbours’, meanwhile, might be expected to prefer pilfering to purchasing as it involved a great deal less effort to live on the fruits of others’ labours; moreover, they were considerably aided in their larceny by their ability to disappear.  One final consideration obtrudes itself: according to John Rhys (Celtic folklore c.VII) fairies can only count to five, the total fingers on one hand.  This greatly limited their numerical skills, plainly, and might incline one more to the belief that theft would be preferred to honest trade…

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017); for an extended and far more detailed discussion, see my 2021 book How Things Work in Faery.  See too my posting on Cakes and cream on the fairy diet and my separate discussions of faery money and faery treasure.