How to Spot a Fairy Part Two: Clothes

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…

W. Heath Robinson, The Fairy’s Birthday

Helpful Faeries

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.

Faery Dealings

Rackham, A Fairy Market

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 which he 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.

Stakhanovite Sprites: when faeries work too hard

I am very pleased to announce another new book, How Things Work in Faery, my guide to the faery economy, which has just been published by Green Magic. I’ve considered aspects of this subject regularly over the last few years and the new book pulls together all the different issues- faery farming, mining, money and their curious relationship with humans in all these areas. Readers will recall that I posted on the subject of faeries doing our chores not long ago. This willingness to undertake some of the more laborious aspects of human work seems to be ingrained in the fae temperament across the British Isles. For example, the trows on the mainland of Shetland would clean people’s homes and grind their corn, accepting clothes, bread and other food in return. Their attitude to recompense was complex though: for one family on the island of Yell they used to make shoes, wooden items and other goods, which the recipients were able to sell, making themselves rich. These trows never asked for payment for all their toiling and, in fact, when food and drink was left out for them, they were offended and left forever (having first eaten what was offered!)

A regular- and even stranger- feature of the folklore of the Scottish Highlands is the repeated reports of faeries causing a problem for humans by being too keen to work. We’re used to the idea of a few faeries voluntarily taking up residence with or near to humans, and helping out in the homes and farms: brownies, glaistigs, gruagachs, hobs and boggarts are the main examples of these. It’s also fairly common for humans to be taken temporarily or even permanently to provide a service: piping or midwifery (which are usually paid for), wet nurses and carers for children and simple domestic servants (or slaves). Fairies who are so willing to work that they become a nuisance is a different situation to all of these, but it’s frequently encountered.

Work, Work, Work

In Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, John Gregorson Campbell gives a good example of the problem of faeries who are too committed to their work.

“The Fairies staying in Dunvuilg came to assist a farmer in the vicinity in weaving and preparing cloth, and, after finishing the work in a wonderfully short space of time, called for more work. To get rid of his officious assistants, the farmer called outside the door that Dunvuilg was on fire. In some form or other it is extensively known, and in every locality the scene is laid in its own neighbourhood. In Mull the fairy residence is said to have been the bold headland in the south-west known as Dun Bhuirbh. Some say the elves were brought to the house by two old women, who were tired of spinning, and incautiously said they wished all the people in Dun Bhuirbh were there to assist. According to others, the elves were in the habit of coming to Tapull House in the Ross of Mull, and their excessive zeal made them very unwelcome. In Skye the event is said to have occurred at Dun Bhuirbh… The rhyme they had when they came to Tapull is known:


‘Let me comb, card, tease, spin, Get a weaving loom quick,
Water for fulling on the fire- Work, work, work.’
The cry they raised when going away, in the Skye version, runs:
‘Dun Bhuirbh on fire, Without dog or man, My balls of thread And my bags of meal.'”

In another version of this, recorded in John Francis Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the fairies run off fretting over their cheese moulds, butter pails, meal chests, goats and such like.

Campbell also mentions a man in Flodigarry who expressed a wish that his corn were reaped, even if it should be by fairy assistance. A host of fairies came and reaped the field in two nights. After doing this, they called for more work, and the man set them to empty the sea.

Generally it is an unwise wish by a human that their house or farm work was completed that brings the faeries to them. It might be weaving or household chores, but the fairies will appear instantly and will then do the task in record time whilst producing excellent results- the finest tweed is made in one Skye example, for instance. Then the fairies will not leave and are given increasingly desperate jobs to occupy them. A barn might be roofed, all the spring work on the farm might be completed, then they have to be asked to strip an entire hill of its heather, then the humans have to resort to trickery to relieve themselves of their helpers, who have become a nuisance by their enthusiasm and productivity. Emptying the sea with a sieve or being asked to build a bridge with bricks of sand tied with ropes of sand finally exhausts the fairies’ patience. In one Skye case, the housewife asked the sith folk to fight each other- which they obediently did- but grass never grew again on the spot where they shed each other’s blood. On Ben Doran, in Glencoe, a man called Echain wished for fairy aid cutting peat. They completed this in record time and asked for, so he had them strip the bracken from the hill; when they returned for another task, he set them to plaiting ropes of sand. They are thought still to be at work.

These accounts remind us of two significant aspects to living with fairy neighbours: they are always eavesdropping upon us and, even worse, they can punish us if we try to outwit them. Another Scottish writer, Patrick Graham, in Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery (1806) said that the fairies of Perthshire were “always, though invisibly, present…” This is the problem for humans- and it appears to be more acute at night.

There is in Scottish Gaelic folklore the concept of a ‘night wish’ (ordachadh oidhche): for example, a man on the Hebrides was digging in his fields when darkness forced him to stop. He wished his spring digging was completed- and a host of fairies immediately appeared and carried on with his labours, finishing the task by dawn. In this case the contentious issue was the fairies’ wages, which they negotiated after fulfilling his wish. The man had to agree to give a sheaf to each worker- and his entire harvest was taken. In an example from Skye, a man at Borve was looking at his fields and remarked, out loud, “That corn is ready to be cut!” Next morning he found that the entire crop had been reaped and stacked. Then a small man four feet high appeared and asked for pay. He only requested a few potatoes and a little pot, which seemed very modest and was readily given. However, he returned daily asking for more and more, until the desperate farmer had to resort to telling him that there was a fire at Dun Borve (an ancient broch and notorious as a fairy dwelling). These two cases also compound the problems of the humans by weakening their bargaining position- the work has been done and they’re under an obligation to their fairy neighbours, whether wished for or not (Folklore vols 11 & 33).

A similar report comes form Shetland. A crofter at Easter Colbinstoft suffered repeatedly from others’ cattle straying onto his land. He told his wife one night that he’d give his best cow to have a good wall right around his farm to protect it. When he woke up the next morning, he was stunned to see that just such a wall had been built overnight. The trows, of course, had heard him, had assembled a great crowd of workers and had done the job in record time. They’d also taken the best cow, which they reckoned had been promised to them in advance.

The Scottish fairies take their love of labour to extremes, but they are not isolated in their work ethic: the fairies of the Channel Islands display the same tendencies. I have mentioned before their willingness to complete domestic chores, but their attitude goes some distance beyond mere helpfulness in return for a gift of food. On Jersey, if a person wants work to be finished, it must simply be left out with a piece of cake and a bowl of milk overnight. On both Jersey and Guernsey, the fairies are noted for their skill in needlework and knitting and will repair clothes and complete garments to a high standard if the materials and tools are provided. Quite voluntarily too, the fairies of Saints Bay on Guernsey will repair farm carts and tools if they are left with a gift of food outside their cave.

Show Gratitude- Don’t Take for Granted

This preparedness to help should not be exploited, though. The Guernsey fairies assist those who are overwhelmed; they won’t help those who are behind with their tasks because they’re lazy. These individuals are knocked about when they’re asleep in bed.

Very similar Scottish examples can be found, too. Skye the fairies of Dun Bornaskitaig helped a poor widow by harvesting her entire oat crop in one night, reaping the grain and stacking it all neatly in sheaves. On the Isle of Lewis, the fairies were also known to undertake tasks if asked by humans. A man asked them to make a mast for his fishing boat out of the handle of his hammer;. One fairy died trying to complete the job; his brother succeeded, but cursed the human for his abuse of their help. The Shetland trows can impede the work of those they take against.

Sacrifices to fairies

Rene Cloke, An Autumn Offering

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 gruagach and 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…

Fairy Children- what we know

 

iro sometimes fairy
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Sometimes fairy was allowed to wear her wings for a little while.

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 with a 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.

tarrant poppy
Margaret Tarrant, The Yellow Horned Poppy Fairy

Fairy Beauties

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.

Summary

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.

 

Hairy fairies

young girl among the faeries

Young Girl Among The Fairies by Brian Froud

What’s fairies’ hair like?  We have a few scraps of evidence on the matter, which gives us some quite surprising answers.

Our tendency today is to envisage beautiful fays with gorgeous locks- and these ideas are not solely a product of our more recent benign and lovely image of our Good Neighbours.  It’s been said that the faes have a preference for taking fair-haired human children and this predilection seems to have been transferred to the abductors as well as the abductees.

In Victorian times, for example, Angus Macleod of Harris eulogised as follows:

“Their heavy brown hair was streaming down to their waist and its lustre was of the fair golden sun of summer.  Their skin was as white as the swan of the wave, and their voice was as melodious as the mavis of the wood, and they themselves were as beauteous of feature and as lithe of form as a picture, while their step was as lithe and stately and their minds as sportive as the little red hind of the hill.” (see Wentz, p.116)

One Welsh story informs us that the tylwyth teg ideal of beauty is red-hair and many of the more romantic accounts of fairy troops and fairy queens portray them with flowing, glossy manes.  This isn’t the whole story, though.

Shaggy Sith

In 1792 an account of the parish of Liberton in Edinburgh described the local fairy women as being “girls of diminutive size, dressed in green with dishevelled hair, who frequented sequestered places and at certain times conversed with men.”  Presumably those men weren’t put off the fairy lovers by the state of their hair.

A second contemporary report from Kirkmichael in Banffshire likewise described fairy women appearing to travellers, “with dishevelled hair floating over their shoulders and with faces more blooming than the vermeil blush of a summer morning.”  Perhaps the attraction for humans indeed is the fresh, natural look of the faes.

Lastly, Scottish writer Hugh Miller recorded a famous account of the ‘departure of the fairies.’  Two children saw a cavalcade of fairies riding away from Burn of Eathie on the Black Isle.  They were unattractive creatures dressed in old fashioned clothes and, from under their caps, “their wild uncombed locks shot out over their cheeks and foreheads.” (Miller, Old Red Sandstone, 1841, p.215)

This uncombed state may reflect nothing more than the fact that these are wild country dwellers who may have neither the leisure nor the lifestyle for much grooming.  Perhaps, in the circumstances, dread-locked fays are what really we ought to expect.  Even so, the state of the fairies’ hair frequently seems to reflect the character and attractiveness of the being as a whole.  The brownies and the less friendly goblins and hags almost always seem to be described as having shaggy, coarse, dark hair.  For human witnesses, it’s almost impossible to conceive of a malign entity that, at the same time, has sleek, groomed locks; our minds unconsciously reject such a pairing.  Nonetheless, some modern witnesses have described seeing faes with feathers growing in their hair- or even with feathers instead of hair. (See for instance John Dathen, Somerset Fairies and Pixies, p.30)

iro waterfall fairy

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Waterfall Fairy

Silky Selkies?

Let’s turn now to mermaids, creatures who traditionally have been renowned for their long hair (if only to preserve their womanly modesty).  Sightings of mermaids have described them variously as having short dark hair, flowing red locks, coarse hair, curly but oily green hair, and (most often) that flowing fair hair in which they take such great pride, sitting for hours on rocks combing it and admiring themselves in mirrors.

The lovely blonde mermaid in the sea is a cliché, but she’s not alone.  In Scottish rivers lives the freshwater mere-maid called the ceasg, a creature of great beauty (once you have reconciled yourself to the fact that she is half woman and half salmon).  Her hair has been described as being “long and flossy,” which I take to mean that it is very pale and silky- the name itself signifies a tuft of wool, linen or silk.

There are some much less appealing examples, though.  The Cornish water sprite, the bucca, has been said to have seaweed for hair.  One mermaid seen at Birsay on the Orkney mainland was recorded as being ‘covered in brown hair’, though whether this meant long hair covering her modesty or an actual covering of fur is not wholly clear.  This sighting brings us to the final curious case I’ll mention.  It’s another case from Orkney, of a man from Sourie in Sandwick who was carried off by the trows to Suleskerry, a rock outcrop in the sea fifty miles offshore.  The trows kept him there for what seemed to him like a few hours, before carrying him home again.  In fact, he’d been away for seven years.  This, in itself, meant that people had difficulties recognising him, a problem compounded by the fact that he was, it was said, “he was grown all over with hair on his return which so altered his appearance that his neighbours had some difficulty in recognising him.”  This may just be seven years without a barber, or it may perhaps be some more malign effect of fairy contact.  If it is the latter, it would be a particularly odd effect of close fairy contact.  It can also act as a reminder that not all fairies are quite what we anticipate- and that some of them can be furry beings, much against our expectations.

waterhouse, sketch-for-a-mermaid-1892

J M W Waterhouse

 

 

 

 

 

In search of Orkney trows

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The Stones of Stenness

I recently visited the Orkney islands, a long planned holiday to see the many megalithic monuments there- the standing stones, burial chambers and cairns.  The Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe were all well worth the trip, but it was good too to experience the scene of so much folklore that I’ve read.

The islands are quite bleak and treeless and are covered in lochs (mostly fresh water but a few salt water).  The grey, cold water under grey cold skies (the weather wasn’t brilliant) made it very easy to imagine kelpies and tangies (the Gaelic speaking Highlanders’ each uisge or water horse) emerging from the waters and roaming the land in search of prey.

One day we crossed from the mainland to the island of Rousay, using the ferry Eynhallow from Tingwall jetty.  Eynhallow (the first syllable is pronounced like ‘eye’) is one of the two islands inhabited by the fin folk, or selkies.  Formerly it was called Hildaland, and was often hidden from human eyes whilst the fin-folk lived there during the summer months.

A man called Thorodale, who lived in Evie on the mainland, just across the sound from Eynhallow, lost his wife one day when she was abducted by a fin-man.  He planned revenge and sought the advice of a wise ‘spae-woman’ on the island of Hoy.  She told him how to see the hidden island of Hildaland.  For nine moons, at midnight when the moon was full, Thorodale went nine times on his bare knees around the great Odin Stone of Stenness (this was a huge holed stone that no longer exists).  For the duration of nine moons, he looked through the hole in the stone and wished for the power of seeing Hildaland. After repeating this for nine months one beautiful summer morning, just after sunrise, Thorodale looked out on the sea and saw that, in the middle of Eynhallow Sound, there lay a pretty little island, where no land had ever been seen before.  Armed with salt and crosses to dispel the faery glamour, Thorodale rowed across to the revealed isle.  He fought off the fin-men, rescued his wife and then sowed salt around the whole island, banishing the fin-folk forever and claiming it for men.  Eynhallow is deserted today, but it is still protected- by a fearful tidal race of white crested standing waves.

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I also visited Hoy, not to meet the spae-wife but to visit the stunning Dwarfie Stane, a burial chamber hollowed out of a massive boulder.  It lies on a bleak hillside, just near the end of the Trowie Glen (the fairy valley).  That anything like this was carved with stone tools alone is deeply impressive.  The sound effects achieved by a single voice inside are also remarkable.

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The last notable fae site was a burial chamber on Cuween Hill on the mainland, called the Tomb of the Beagles because of the dog bones found inside, but also known locally as the Fairy Knowe.  It was a steep climb up to the site and a tight crawl along the entrance passage to get in, but it was very still and mysterious within.  Outside the wind was blowing; inside there was thick silence and a sense of contact, not just with the Neolithic farmers who had been buried there but with the faes whose dwelling it subsequently became.

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Lastly (on one of the coldest and wettest days of our trip!) we visited the farm museums at Kirbuster and Corrigall.  These were especially interesting as they preserved traditional Orkney farm houses and it was fascinating to see the open peat fires in the centre of the main rooms, with the smoke curling up through the hole in the roof, and to imagine those many stories I’d read in which a changeling child was placed in a basket in the smoke from the hot peat flames and driven to fly up through the ‘lum’ (the smoke hole), forcing the trows into returning the stolen human infant.

 

Fairy cleanliness

iro bath

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

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.”

Bathing faes

“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).

fairy laundry

Fairy laundry

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’:

“The swart fairy of the mine”- industrial elves

lee dwarfs

Alan Lee, Dwarfs, from Faeries

There’s lots of evidence for fairies being just as active as humans in extracting the earth’s resources and in manufacturing.  This may jar somewhat with the notion of winged flower fairies, but that convention forgets the fact that gnomes, as first imagined by Paracelsus, are very intimately connected to the mineral riches of the earth.  Fairies can seem just as interested as humans in money and treasure, so it’s worth considering where these riches might come from.

Going underground

There are two principal industrial activities in which fairies are involved.  These are metal working and mining.  The fays mine for both coal and ores and they have been associated with the tin mines of the South West of England, the lead mines of the Long Mynd in Shropshire and with the copper mines of Cumberland and North Yorkshire.

There are two principal types of mine fairy- the knockers of the South West of England (also called ‘nuggies,’ ‘bockles,’ ‘gathons’ or ‘buccas’) are very well known.  In the coal and metal ore mines of Wales, we find the coblynau (i.e. goblins).  Other named mine spirits are the Blue-Cap of the Northumberland coalmines, a very strong being who moved the wheeled coal tubs on the underground railways, and the Cutty Soams of County Durham, who were mine bogles, known for their vengeful mischief- which included such pranks as cutting the traces (or ‘soams’) on the underground coal wagons.

Appearance

Despite the differing regional names, it seems safe to treat most of these beings as one underground species.  The knockers and coblynau are very hard working sprites who are frequently heard but very seldom seen; the sounds of their picks, their wheelbarrows and the falls of stone they cause is heard deep in mines.  Occasionally they may be spotted working or lounging near the entrances to mines, and those who have seen them describe beings the size of a one or two-year-old child (about eighteen inches high), with large heads and ugly old men’s faces; they are dressed just like human miners.

Early in the last century, a girl called Carol George was on the beach at Porthtowan, on the north coast of Cornwall, when she saw in the mine adit that opened onto the beach a group of small people, only six inches high and dressed in white.  They disappeared almost as soon as they were spotted, but sound more like pixies than knockers (Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, p.93)

Blue Cap apparently has no physical form, but his presence is indicated by a light blue flame which settles on the wagons he moves.  The other exception is the mine pixy ‘gathon’ (if Mrs Bray is to be believed, at any rate).  She describes him as naked and fat, with large ears and a long bushy tail (Peeps at Pixies, p.10).

Activities

The mine sprites have diminutive tools and equipment matching that of the human miners and labour tirelessly- digging, transporting and winding their coal and ore to the surface.  In the masque The fairies’ farewell, presented at Coleorton on Candlemas Day 1618, we hear a further description of the fairies’ labours:

“blacke faeries … ye dancing spiritts of the Pittes: … helpe them hole & drive sharp theire Picks & their moindrils, keepe away the dampe & keepe in theire Candles, draine the Sough & hold them out of ye hollows…”

Wirt Sykes, in British Goblins (p.24)claimed that all this frenetic subterranean labour  was just for show but accomplished nothing at all. The writer of A pleasant treatise of witches (1673) explained that this was because these mine elves “busy themselves chiefly in imitating the operations men … these seem to laugh, to be cloathed like workmen, to dig the earth, and to do many things they do not, mocking sometimes the workmen but seldome or never hurting them.”

These views might be correct- or it might instead be the case that human observers never saw any evidence of tangible results in this world.  Blue-Cap is the exception here, as he assisted the human miners and, perfectly reasonably, expected to be paid for his work at the same rate as every other ‘putter’ who moved the coal around the tramways.  Rather like fairies borrowing flour from householders, he insisted upon being given the exact agreed sum and would refuse underpaid wages or leave behind any surplus.  Evidently, Blue Caps were not brownies and neither toiled for free nor accepted very modest payment in kind.

Though often heard at night (in the North Yorkshire lead mines this earned them the name of the ‘Ghostly Shift’), these spirits never worked in the mines on Saturdays or on Christian holidays and, in respect for this, the miners too would avoid working on the same days.  The sprites also objected to whistling and to use of the sign of the cross, which were therefore proscribed.

The knockers will guide favoured miners to good seams or lodes by various means.  Where no excavation has yet been started they may indicate promising places to dig.  The sprites may dance in rings to indicate spots where men will strike rich ore.  Digging wherever a will o’ the wisp is seen is also reputed to lead you to a profitable lode.  The Reverend Edmund Jones of Gwent gives a very interesting account of a version of this habit.  One morning a William Evans of Hafod-y-dafel in the parish was crossing the Beacon Mountain when he saw an opencast coal mine where none existed.  The fairies were cutting coal, filling sacks and loading horses.  This vision is unexplained and, on the face of it, is merely a kind of fairy pantomime, serving no discernible purpose.  However, another report from Wales suggests a different interpretation.  Lewis Morris, a correspondent of the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1754, described how, before Esgair y Mwyn lead mine was discovered near Pontrhydfendigaid in Cardiganshire, the local fairies had been observed (and heard) by many people to be hard at work, both day and night.  When the mine was established in 1751, though, they disappeared.  The same was also the case at Llwyn Llwyd lead mine near Ysbyty Ystwyth, not far from Esgair y Mwyn.  These two cases suggest that the Brecon Beacons vision may well have been an indication of a rich coal seam just beneath the surface (a prediction similar to the incident of the fairy railway sighted on the Isle of Man that I mentioned in a recent post).

Once a new mine has been started, through their tapping underground the fairies point the way to mineral riches.  They will also warn of impending disaster- often by making three distinct knocks against the rock.  Generally, then, their presence is welcomed by miners- their noises are not found alarming and it’s said to be good luck to see the pixies dancing in the adit of a mine.

The sounds made by knockers can be prolonged and are not easily explained by other means.  For example, at Llwyn Llwyd voices, blasting, clearing spoil, levelling roadways, boring, pick-axeing and (most notably) pumping were all heard- when there were no pumps working within a mile of the shafts and when, in any case, pumps were very quiet when in operation.  Although they may sometimes be heard just once a month or once a year, in 1799 in some mines on Anglesey the knockers were heard repeatedly over a period of weeks.

As with all supernatural helpers, the knockers are averse to humans being too inquisitive.  Although the sounds of their work indicate how and where to dig, if miners stop their work to listen to the knockers, they will also cease their labours.  If they’re overlooked, they may pelt stones at the spies- or simply vanish.  The sounds of their excavations may point to rich veins of ore- or they may just be mischievous and meant to mislead.

As with many fairy types, those who offend them or try to take advantage of them will be punished and those miners who betray the source of their good fortune will lose the knockers’ favour.  At the same time, they claimed a share of human property.  This might just be a small portion of the miners’ food or of their candle tallow, but there are also accounts of bargains struck whereby the knockers were promised some of the profits of a rich vein in return for guidance locating it.  It hardly needs to be said that reneging on such deals would lead to ruin and even death, whilst boasting of fairy aid in finding rich seams of ore will guarantee that the good fortune is lost.  Mrs Bray’s mine pixy, Gathon, is depicted as a typical prank-playing sprite, but he also helps the oppressed and the poor, a not uncommon fairy trait.

The fairies may also be found in coal pits; from Scotland we have a report that from time to time they would leave their tiny tools behind as physical evidence of their labours.  We have one account from Derbyshire in the nineteenth century of the colliers of Curbar leaving a share of the coal they dug for the fairies to ensure good luck.

In some way, then, whether they were mining themselves or simply oversaw the shafts, these local fairies had a close interest in the industry.

Heavy metals

Despite Sykes’ doubts about the productiveness of fairy labours, it seems very reasonable to suppose that ore and coal were extracted and that these formed the raw materials of other enterprises in fairyland.

In The Secret Commonwealth the Reverend Robert Kirk reports that the fairies “strike Hammers, and do such lyke Services within the little Hillocks they most haunt” (chapter 1).  The trows of Shetland are particularly renowned for their skills working brass, iron and other metals and they have been known to pass on these skills to fortunate human children who have been taken to live with them ‘under the hill.’  As I’ve noted before, it’s a curious contradiction that we can have reports of these metalworking abilities at the same time as being repeatedly assured that fairies loath and avoid items made of iron.

The only way of reconciling these two accounts is to assume that man-made iron is anathema to them but that their own products, imbued in some way with Faery properties, are harmless.  Certainly we hear of fairies having cutlery for eating and drinking vessels of precious metals- and of course brownies will undertake all sorts of farm tasks for humans- such as reaping corn and hay- that unavoidably involve the use of iron and steel tools.

Conclusion

As I’ve argued before, fairy society is a good deal more complex and more industrious than we might initially assume.  Whether they’re farming, mining or at market, trading the fruits of those labours, the fays can work just as hard as humans and be just as interested in commerce.

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

gnome

Brian Froud, A gnome.