Ways to Spot the Tylwyth Teg

One of the Welsh coblynau

The faery folk of Wales, the tylwyth teg, seem to have some particular fashions of their own which make them unique. Here are two accounts that typify this.

I have mentioned before the valuable record of folklore to be found in Francis Kilvert’s Diaries. In December 1870 he spoke to David Price who lived near Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains. Price was a good parishioner, telling the Reverend Kilvert that faeries were seldom seen any more because people’s minds were on God instead, but he didn’t deny their existence, all the same; indeed, in a memorable phrase, he affirmed that “the faeries travel yet.” As evidence of this, he described a sighting by his own nephew who worked down a colliery in Monmouthshire. He had seen the faes dancing in a field to beautiful sweet music. They had all come over a stile very near to him, so there had been little mistaking what he witnessed. The young man described them as “very yellow in the face- between yellow and red- and dressed almost all in red.” He didn’t like seeing them, and was fully convinced of the reality of what he saw- as indeed was his uncle. The dancers were, the youth recalled, about the size of an eleven year old girl.

Compare this account to that of one Dr. Edward Williams, recorded for 1757. It took place at Bodfari, which is south-east of St Asaph in Denbighshire:

“On a fine summer day (about midsummer) between the hours of 12 at noon and one, my eldest sister and myself, our next neighbour’s children Barbara and Ann Evans, both older than myself, were in a field called Cae Caled near their house, all innocently engaged at play by a hedge under a tree, and not far from the stile next to that house, when one of us observed on the middle of the field a company of—what shall I call them?—beings, neither men, women, nor children, dancing with great briskness. They were full in view less than a hundred yards from us, consisting of about seven or eight couples: we could not well reckon them, owing to the briskness of their motions and the consternation with which we were struck at a sight so unusual. They were all clothed in red, a dress not unlike a military uniform, without hats, but their heads tied with handkerchiefs of a reddish colour, sprigged or spotted with yellow, all uniform in this as in habit, all tied behind with the corners hanging down their backs, and white handkerchiefs in their hands held loose by the corners. They appeared of a size somewhat less than our own, but more like dwarfs than children. On the first discovery we began, with no small dread, to question one another as to what they could be, as there were no soldiers in the country, nor was it the time for May dancers, and as they differed much from all the human beings we had ever seen. Thus alarmed we dropped our play, left our station, and made for the stile. Still keeping our eyes upon them we observed one of their company starting from the rest and making towards us with a running pace. I being the youngest was the last at the stile, and, though struck with an inexpressible panic, saw the grim elf just at my heels, having a full and clear, though terrific view of him, with his ancient, swarthy, and grim complexion. I screamed out exceedingly; my sister also and our companions set up a roar, and the former dragged me with violence over the stile on which, at the instant I was disengaged from it, this warlike Lilliputian leaned and stretched himself after me, but came not over. With palpitating hearts and loud cries we ran towards the house, alarmed the family, and told them our trouble. The men instantly left their dinner, with whom still trembling we went to the place, and made the most solicitous and diligent enquiry in all the neighbourhood, both at that time and after, but never found the least vestige of any circumstance that could contribute to a solution of this remarkable phenomenon. Were any disposed to question the sufficiency of this quadruple evidence, the fact having been uniformly and often attested by each of the parties and various and separate examinations, and call it a childish deception, it would do them no harm to admit that, comparing themselves with the scale of universal existence, beings with which they certainly and others with whom it is possible they may be surrounded every moment, they are but children of a larger size…”

This account is reproduced in Elias Owen’s Welsh Folklore, in Gwynn Jones’ Welsh Folklore & Folk Custom and in Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins. Sikes mistakenly refers to the beings seen as knockers or coblynau– mine faeries- hence the drawing at the head of this post. The text itself doesn’t give such an impression; perhaps Sikes inferred it from the the neckerchiefs tied round their heads- it’s not clear. There seems little reason for not calling them tylwyth teg.

The similarities between the two stories are intriguing and, as far as complexion and clothing go, they confirm what we learn elsewhere. Both Evans Wentz in The Fairy Faith and John Rhys in Celtic Folklore record that red was a particular colour preferred by the tylwyth teg for their clothes- hence the common habit of comparing them to little soldiers, the British redcoats of the time. As for their skin tones- well, on this point matters are somewhat less certain. It’s widely thought that tylwyth teg (the fair family) suggests that the Welsh faes tend to be pale and blond- and there’s certainly evidence to this effect. Nevertheless, as I’ve described before, there’s also material that indicates that a range of rather less healthy or natural skin tones might be encountered- absolute chalk white certainly being amongst them. See my British Fairies and Faery Lifecycle for more on these issues. Suffice to say, orange and crimson skin need not surprise us.

A view over Cae Caled cottage and the surrounding fields. NB: Cae Caled is a holiday cottage for two, if you feel like trying to meet the tylwyth teg yourselves…

“I get around”- some oddities of faery travel

I’ve posted several times on faery motion and movement, such as their use of whirlwinds; here I want to look at ways they may be transported by other beings. Although, these days, we tend to assume that faeries fly everywhere, there’s no trace of wings or of fluttering flight in the traditional records. They can, magically, ‘teleport‘ themselves from place to place or enchant items to carry them, it’s perfectly true, but most of the time they get around in very prosaic ways: on their own two feet, or on something else’s four feet.

It’s pretty well known that the faes ride horses (just as the surrounding human population would have done in times past) and these animals are always described as being proportionate to their size. If they’re the size of children, they’ll be mounted on ponies; if they’re seen smaller, the steeds might be as big as greyhounds. Just like humans, too, the faeries will use their horses for all suitable activities: they go out on their annual ‘rades’ in processions of horses, but they’ll also hunt on them, exactly as would human gentry and nobles. The horses are reputed to be very swift (“as fast as the wind”) and to be highly prized, being richly caparisoned when they are taken out.

Jean Baptiste Monge

Needless to say, it’s often easier to make use of someone else’s animals- that way you don’t have to stable or feed them, and it is widely known that faeries do just this, taking horses from farmer’s stables at night and riding them until they’re worn out. This process is frequently accompanied by the knotting of the horses’ manes and tails, at least some of this done ostensibly to provide the diminutive riders with reins and stirrups. These are necessary not just because the riders are often so much tinier than their mounts, but because they like to drive the horses at frenetic pace across the fields and moors. These exertions leave the horses exhausted and covered in a foam of sweat, much to the dismay of their human owners.

So far, so familiar, but it doesn’t stop there. If horses aren’t available, other four-legged beasts will do. On the Isle of Anglesey it was reported that the local tylwyth teg rode donkeys or (to be exact) they gave a mortal man one to ride when he travelled with them; this might, conceivably, have been some sort of joke or put down on their part: they got well-bred steeds and he got a bad tempered ass. Very definitely proportionate to the smaller breed of fae, in Nithsdale in southern Scotland the elves were reported to ride on cats. One assumes they used magic to control their mounts. On Shetland, the trows rode the farmers’ cows. When the cattle were released into the pastures in Spring, if any of them were found to be weak- or collapsed, frothing at the mouth- it was known to be because the trows had been riding it.

Erle Ferronniere, Fee au chat noir

Unlikely as cats sound, they are at least four legged. However, as we know, even two legged victims will do and there are reports from around the Britain Isles of unfortunate human victims being saddled and mounted to act as steeds for faeries overnight. Usually they are forced to carry riders around, although there is one report of a man taken and used as a cart horse in one Scottish sithean. According to the poem, Montgomerie’s Flyting of Polwarth, some of the Scottish elves were known to ride other two legged creatures: “Sum saidlit ane scho aip all grathit into green” (some saddled a she-ape, all clad in green).

Modern fantasy art shows faes riding birds and other wildlife. Pretty as these images are, and despite the fact that we are attracted to them because they emphasise the unity of the faeries with their environment, there is not very much traditional support for the idea. As we’ve just seen, we hear of the elves riding apes, but they must be few and far between in any part of Britain; it’s also reported that the Highland hag, the cailleach bheur, and her follower rides on wolves and swine. The Gyre Carling, another name for the faery queen in Fife, was also said to ride a pig: in one poem she “schup her on ane sow and is her gaitis gane” (she settled herself on a sow and went her ways). Making use of more common mammals and fowls is not reported.

Erle Ferroniere

Much of this suggests that the faeries are stuck in a pre-modern world- often our view of them. We like to romanticise their pre-industrial, rural aspects, whereas the evidence indicates that they move with the times just as their human neighbours do. Faery industry is known- dyeing and milling (for which see my How Things Work in Faery) but more pertinently, contemporary reports indicate that they will use cars, buses and aeroplanes to get around (see Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies for such sightings). Humans no longer need to employ horse power, although they will use them for special occasions and special purposes; the same would seem to be true of the faes.

Faeries and Yew Trees- some strange connections

Hope Bagot yew tree- note the ‘clooties’ tied on the limbs as offerings by visitors.

In Britain, yew trees are closely associated with churchyards. It’s sometimes said that this was ordained because yew wood was ideal for longbows, so that English kings wanted to preserve the trees by planting them in a protected environment. This is a nice story, but it’s plainly wrong, as very many yews far older than the Middle Ages can be found growing around churches, in addition to which they are to be found growing by wells and on ancient sites such as hill forts. Their significance stretches back much further than the Hundred Years War and is by no means linked to the Christian church.

An example of such a tree grows within the boundary of the church of Hope Bagot near Ludlow in Shropshire. I visited recently, drawn by the holy well and by the report of an ancient tree. The Hope Bagot yew is monumental: it is about eight metres or twenty five feet in circumference, very obviously of great age- at least 1000 years- and its canopy extends over a huge area, shading far more than the small bubbling well beneath its roots. It’s a remarkable sight and easily attests to the awe and majesty of these trees.

Yews are not regularly associated with faeries, unlike rowans and elders, but there are a number of accounts that demonstrate that these significant trees very properly do have supernatural associations. They have magical properties that make them significant to the faes.

Firstly, I have recounted elsewhere the story of the ‘meremaid‘ that lived in a pool at Marden in Herefordshire. Through some accident now forgotten, the church bell rolled into the pool and was captured by the maid. Horses tried to drag it out, but failed, and the villagers were advised by a ‘wise man’ that the job could only be accomplished using a team of sterile cows (called freemartins) equipped with yokes made of yew and fitted with bands of rowan (some accounts also say that the drivers had whips whose handles were made from rowan). The recovery had to be performed in silence. Everything was going well, with the bell being hauled steadily out of the mud, the meremaid fast asleep inside, when one of the men cried out in excitement. The maid awoke and plunged back into the pool dragging the bell with her. She angrily cried out that she’d have drowned the team as well, had not the magical woods prevented her: “If it had not been/ For your wittern (rowan) bands/ And your yew tree pin/ I should have had your twelve freemartins in.”

The second instance of a faery association with yew comes from Mathafarn, in Powys in mid-Wales. Wirt Sikes (British Goblins, 73) describes an abduction in a faery ring that occurred there in the Ffridd yr Ywen (the Yew Forest). Two farm labourers, Twm and Iago (Tom and Jack) were working in the wood one summer’s day when a mist descended. They thought evening had come and set off homewards, when they came across the yew that gave the wood its name, right at the heart of the forest. This was at a spot called the ‘Dancing Place of the Goblin,’ and the clearing was filled with a strange light. The pair decided it was not as late as they’d thought and decided to take a nap there. When Twm woke up, Iago had disappeared- abducted in a dance of the tylwyth teg under the yew tree. The rest of the story concerns Iago’s rescue, although this proves ultimately tragic: once he is pulled back into the world of men a whole year later, he eats food and crumbles away.

The last story takes us to Scotland. J G Campbell (Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, 1900, 173) describes the glaistig of Morvern. She haunted a lonely area of mountain, known as the Garbh-shlios, the rough country side, which extends along the coast from the Sound of Mull to Kingairloch, a distance of about seven miles. This glaistig herded the sheep and cattle that roamed over the wild pastures. She was said to be a small, but very strong, woman and she would take refuge at night in a particular yew tree (craobh iuthair), for protection from the wild animals that prowled over the ground. The glaistig once competed with a local man rowing a coracle across to the island of Lismore. He had thought himself to be a good rower, and he felt ashamed when he was bested by a woman- but he confessed that he never rowed so hard in all his life. When the boat
reached the other shore, the mysterious little woman vanished and he realised he had tested his strength against the glaistig.

Yews appear in a lot of Irish legend too and are linked with the Tuatha De Danann. For example, there is Fer Hi (yew man) son of Fogabal (yew tree fork) who was the king of the sidhe of Cnoc Aine. Fer Hi played a harp in a yew tree and used his music to sow dissent between two mortals in order to take revenge upon one of them. The magical yew in which Fer Hi sat is described by the stories as “beautiful but venomous.”

What can be said in conclusion about yews in British faerylore? It’s evidently a wood with magical properties, one that can repel faes in the same way as rowan but which can also provide them with shelter. This is a contradictory nature, puzzling, but typically faery too. The trees’ magical power also protects and even sanctifies wells and other ancient sites.

Seizing Faery Wives

Gwrag Annwn

I have suggested in the past that faery lovers such as the Scottish leannan sith can have a pretty possessive and pitiless attitude towards their human partners.  Poor attitudes to potential lovers are by no means something unique to fairy-kind’s treatment of humans.  Human males can be equally as bad in their attitudes towards faery females.

Numerous examples of this sort of behaviour come from Wales and can be found in the first volume of Professor John Rhys’ Celtic Folklore.  Almost always, these involve the tylwyth teg dancing in a faery ring.  Now, it’s perfectly true to say that although the faes very evidently greatly enjoy dancing and spend a lot of time engaged in it, one of the reasons for conducting their dances publicly in the open air seems to be to attract humans to them, so that they can be swept up in the excitement and then carried off to Faery.  Rhys has plenty of examples of this.  He also has plenty of examples of a human male- very typically a shepherd boy or farmer- who spots an attractive faery girl in the ring and, simply, kidnaps her- taking her against her will to be his ‘spouse.’

Here’s an example:

“One fine evening in the month of June a brave, adventurous youth… went to the banks of the Gwyrfai, not far from where it leaves Cwellyn Lake, and hid himself in the bushes near the spot where the folks of the Red Coats- the fairies- were wont to dance. The moon shone forth brightly without a cloud to intercept her light; all was quiet save where the Gwyrfai gently murmured on her bed, and it was not long before the young man had the satisfaction of seeing the fair family dancing in full swing. As he gazed on the subtle course of the dance, his eyes rested on a damsel, the most shapely and beautiful he had seen from his boyhood. Her agile movements and the charm of her looks inflamed him with love for her, to such a degree that he felt ready for any encounter in order to secure her to be his own. From his hiding place he watched every move for his opportunity; at last, with feelings of anxiety and dread, he leaped suddenly into the middle of the circle of the fairies. There, while their enjoyment of the dance was at its height, he seized her in his arms and carried her away to his home at Ystrad. But, as she screamed for help to free her from the grasp of him who had fallen in love with her, the dancing party disappeared like one’s breath in July. He treated her with the utmost kindness, and was ever anxious to keep her within his sight and in his possession. By dint of tenderness, he succeeded so far as to get her to consent to be his servant at Ystrad. And such a servant she turned out to be!”

In due course, he wins her over further and she consents to marry him. (Rhys, 44-45).  This is just one of at least half a dozen examples where the girl is forcibly seized or snatched from amongst her friends, family and people (see too Rhys pages 85, 86, 90, 126 & 128). 

A Manga leannan sith

Now, these violent takings are justified by the passionate love of the young man, but these are very weak excuses.  Rhys also recounts several stories where relationships develop more normally- a couple are attracted to each other, start to meet and slowly fall in love (see, for example, on pages 54, 61, 91 & 97).   Very plainly, kidnapping is not the only way of getting a faery lover.

Nonetheless, these methods have been used for centuries.  At page 71 of his book, Rhys retells the story of Gwestin of Gwestiniog, who snatches a faery lake woman to be his wife.  This affair is retold from Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialum which was written in the twelfth century.  Earlier still is the account of Wild Edric of Shropshire, who also bodily carried off a faery woman he spotted dancing with her sisters.

For that matter, it isn’t just faeries who are treated this way.  As I’ve described previously, mermaids and selkies are also trapped on land by men against their will and are made to become the men’s ‘wives.’  In almost all these cases, though, the marriages don’t last very long.  The selkies find their seal skins that the men had hidden from them with the clear intention of preventing their escape from the ‘marriage,’ which is plainly rather more like sexual slavery. As soon as they have the means, these wives will return home to the sea. In the Welsh cases, the woman’s consent to stay is conditional upon not being struck by her husband- usually with iron.  This is always breached and the faery vanishes instantly- not infrequently, taking her children and the cattle she brought as a dowry with her.

Why do human men think they can just capture supernatural partners?  To a great extent, no doubt, the folklore accounts reflect the attitudes and behaviours operating within human communities at the time they were recorded.  The faes are assumed to be sexist because the humans were.  The faery women are taken as something akin to slaves: they provide sexual services and- as we saw in the example I quoted- they are frequently extremely good around the house too. 

It may be that desperate measures are employed by the human male because he can’t think of any other way of bridging the gap between our dimension and the faery’s- and perhaps, too, he is worried that he might have only the one chance to see and to seize this girl.  This may be a factor, but I suspect that a stronger element in this litany of bad conduct is a feeling of contempt and lack of empathy for individuals from another race or species.  They seem to be regarded as being there for the taking, without opinions or rights of their own.  It’s an extremely unattractive dynamic but, as I remarked at the outset, it cuts both ways, to be honest: human girls are as likely to be carried off as unwilling wives/ sex slaves to Faery as the other way round. 

Selkie Girl

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

What’s in a Name? Using the right terms for the faeries

Recently I’ve been researching the pixies of south-west Britain for my book, British Pixies, and, in so doing, encountered serious problems in pinning down the basic terminology used by authors such as Robert Hunt and William Borlase and (presumably) their local Cornish sources.  There are at least five terms used to label the fairy folk of the south-west: pixies, pobel vean (little people), spriggans, knockers and buccas.  A couple of these words seem to be Cornish and, we might be tempted to suggest, are older and more authentic than some of the other terms.  The word pixie/ pisky would seem to be a later import, if we are correct in supposing that it is related to the pucks of England and the pwcca of Wales and is (probably) a Germanic word originally.  The bucca certainly seems to be an identical being.  Some of the folklore writers tried to make distinctions between this multiplicity of words: for instance, the pobel vean were said to be smaller and more beautiful; the knockers lived in mines; the spriggans were ugly and evil.  The truth is, though, that reading the sources, we find the words being used interchangeably, so that Cornish witnesses can speak of knockers as buccas or can use the latter word to denote both pixies and the pobel vean.

Precision seems both impossible and, very probably, unnecessary.  This example is reflective of a wider problem within the British Isles, where successive layers of incoming speech have led to an overlapping vocabulary, which can tempt us into imagining differences (or even similarities) that don’t exist.  Over and above this, of course, there is the additional problem of the faeries not wanting us to know what they really call themselves, for fear of giving us power over them). Here are a few other instances of the taxonomic confusion.

Isle of Man: the island’s fairies are often called the ferrish (singular)/ ferrishyn (plural)This could be a Manx word, but compare it with authentically Manx Celtic terms like mooinjer veggy or sleigh beggey, meaning the little people.  Ferrishyn seems suspiciously similar, to me, to the terms ferishers, feriers, fraries and, even, farisees/ pharisees used in Norfolk and Suffolk in the east of England.  On Orkney and Shetland you might encounter the pronunciation ferries. Recalling the Highland Gaelic tendency to turn a final ‘s’ into ‘sh,’ this could indicate the route by which Manx speakers arrived at ferrish.  Whatever the exact derivation, these are all dialect versions of ‘fairies’ and, as such, aren’t themselves hugely old.  Katherine Briggs drew a comparison with the feorin of the English North West, but, as Simon Young has demonstrated, this is most probably derived from ‘fear’- something that scares you. 

Wales: there seem to be several good, genuine, Welsh words in use, many of them euphemisms. These include tylwyth teg, bendith y mamau (the mother’s blessings), y dynion mwyn (the kind people), y teulu (the tribe), gwragedd anwyl (the beloved women), yr elod (‘the intelligences’- perhaps, the ‘wise’ or ‘all-knowing’ ones), pwcca and ellyllon.  All’s not what it seems, however.  As already mentioned, pwcca could just be a borrowing across the border.  Likewise, ellyllon is simply the Welsh rendering of the English ‘elves’ and even tylwyth teg, ‘the fair folk’ may be a mistaken rendering of fairies, based on the assumption that the core of the English word was ‘fair’ as in good-looking. I need hardly say that y goblin bach, the little goblin, is not a deeply authentic Welsh label.

England: the foregoing sections suggest the invasive power of the English language (which is true) but let’s not forget that Anglo-Saxon was itself steadily overwhelmed by subsequent influxes of Romance and other languages.  Old English ‘elf’ still survives, especially in lowland Scotland, but it generally plays second best to a French import, fay/ fairy, a word which has been adopted as a handy, catch-all labelOther continental importations include goblin, from the French gobelin, and Scandinavian troll (which is the root of the trows of Orkney and Shetland too).  Both goblin and trow seem to have been required because there wasn’t a decent English equivalent.  Anglo-Saxon had used the word dweorg, meaning a small, malicious elf-like being. This vanished from standard English- along with any concept of ‘dwarves’ as a species of supernatural entity.  In Dorset, there is still the derrick, a name that’s derived from dweorg and which is now applied to a little man who’s often said to be a local kind of pixie… 

Much more recently, as I’ve described before, we’ve imported Latin and Greek words like nymph, naiad and siren as extra terms to use in parallel with fairy, elf and mermaid.  We’ve also adopted entirely made-up names, such as gnome and sylph.  As mentioned in a previous posting, these were dreamed up by Paracelsus, but they’ve assumed a place in the language, to the extent that gnomes have even been accepted as a separate genus of fairy being.

These imported names can add variety to texts- and I’m as guilty as any of switching from one to another just to avoid monotony- but they can also create the impression that the landscape is peopled with a dense confusion of different types of being, whereas we may, in most instances, be dealing with only a handful of types.  Broadly, in Britain, we can probably narrow matters down to fairies/ elves and brownies/ hobs/ boggarts.  The rest is probably just a matter of differences of terminology (and this is before we’ve even considered all the very local names that exist: dobbies, powries, dunters, red caps, piskies etc etc)…. 

Emmeline Richardson

Faeries and the Christian faith

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Fairy Passage

The relationship of the Christian religion to fairy-kind is a very ambiguous or ambivalent one.  On the whole, faeries are regarded as alien beings who stand wholly and permanently outside the Christian community.  This can be seen most clearly in the various origin myths that have been formulated to situate fairies within a Christian world view.

Lost Souls

One common explanation is that the fairies are fallen angels who followed Lucifer when he staged his rebellion in heaven.  They were, however, left in limbo.  When the gates of heaven and hell were sealed, some of the rebel angels were isolated between the two.  They went to hide amidst the rocks and trees of earth until judgment day and so have become the fairies (see, for example, Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2, 327). In one version of this account of fairy origins, the decreasing sightings of fairies are also explained. Rather than being driven away by electric light and aeroplanes, it seems that the fairies are seen less because, in the last century, god has taken pity on the outcasts and has begun to let them back into heaven for a last chance (Drever, The Lure of the Kelpie, 1937).

Reflecting this view, there is a widespread story in Britain concerning the fairies’ anxiousness over their ultimate salvation.  A Scottish version can be found in Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, under the title of The Fairy’s Inquiry.

“A clergyman was returning home one night after visiting a sick member of his congregation. His way led by a lake and, as he proceeded, he was surprised to hear most melodious strains of music. He sat down to listen. The music seemed to approach coming over the lake accompanied by a light. At length he discerned a man walking on the water, attended by a number of little beings, some bearing lights, others musical instruments. At the beach the man dismissed his attendants, and then walking up to the minister saluted him courteously. He was a little grey-headed old man, dressed in rather an unusual garb. The minister having returned his salute begged of him to come and sit beside him. He complied with the request, and on being asked who he was, replied that he was one of the Daoine Shi. He added that he and they had originally been angels, but having been seduced into revolt by Satan, they had been cast down to earth where they were to dwell till the day of doom. His object now was, to ascertain from the minister what would be their condition after that awful day. The minister then questioned him on the articles of faith; but as his answers did not prove satisfactory, and as in repeating the Lord’s Prayer, he persisted in saying wert instead of art in heaven, he did not feel himself justified in holding out any hopes to him. The fairy then gave a cry of despair and flung himself into the loch, and the minister resumed his journey.”

Keightley, pages 385-6

This story implies an unhappiness with their indeterminate position, but another account states that the fairies can sometimes be heard in their knolls, singing a song that celebrates that they are not of the seed of Adam and Abraham but rather are descended from the ‘Proud Angel.’  On the Isle of Man, in fact, the little people are called the cloan moyrney, the ‘proud clan,’ and there is a prayer “jee saue mee voish cloan ny moyrn” (‘God save me from the children of pride’).

Another (very bizarre) origin myth tells how Jesus was walking the world and, one day, visited a poor woman in her cottage.  She had a very large family and, when she realised who was at the door, she hid a number of her children from her visitor.  Jesus was offended by her subterfuge and, when he left, declared that the concealed children would not be seen again, because he had turned them into fairies.  The story fails to make much sense on several levels, and the disproportionate cruelty of the response to the mother’s embarrassment is impossible to justify (though I recall it’s not entirely out of character with some episodes in the New Testament).  Why the woman should be ashamed at the size of her family is not explained and we can only assume that the account reflects some deeper discomfort with natural sexuality and fertility within the religion.

Symons, Earthly Paradise, 1934

Holy Innocents

Lastly, there are origin myths that are rather more benign, in that they do not judge the fairy folk- although they still exclude them from the Christian community and the perceived benefits of the faith.  As I have described before, in Cornwall it was said that the pixies were either ghosts or the dead returned or they were the souls of children who were still-born or who died before baptism (see, for example, Evans Wentz Fairy Faith pp.172, 179 & 183).  In Wales the tylwyth teg were sometimes explained as being the spirits of virtuous Druids or the ghosts of prehistoric races (Evans Wentz pp.147 & 148). Lastly, in Highland Scotland, there was a belief in spirits called taran who were children who had died unbaptised and now wandered the woods and wastes, lamenting their fate.  These little beings were often seen and evidently bore a close relationship or resemblance to the sith folk (see Shaw, History of the Province of Moray, 1775).

This last category of beings plainly comprises spirits who are without sin in Christian terms: they never lived long enough to sin, or they lived ‘good’ lives in times before Christianity existed.  All the same, they are outside the fold of the church and beyond salvation in conventional eschatology.  This underlines how different fairies are: whatever physical similarities there may be, they are from another world, another dimension, and, as such, they can never participate spiritually in the same experience as humans.

People of Peace

It is very strange, therefore, to turn to some of the prayers and charms contained in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs).  I have described charms included in these volumes previously: people would pray to the trinity and the saints for protection against fairies and the hosts and all the harm that they could inflict. So far, so familiar.

Turn, then, to this prayer for peace, which seeks to be with Jesus Christ in the dwelling of peace, the paradise of gentleness-

“and in the fairy bower of mercy.” (ann an siothbrugh na h-iochd)

(vol.3, 177)

A second prayer for peace also seeks the “peace of fairy bowers” (sith nan siothbrugh). Elsewhere Mary and Brigit are described as a fairy swan and a fairy duck of peace (lacha shith Mhoire na sith) respectively (vol.3, 269 & vol.1, 317).  Possibly the latter images combine some sense of lightness, softness and a magical quality (?)

These references are surprising and confusing.  The ‘fairy bower’ seems to mean the fairies’ normal dwelling: elsewhere Carmichael refers to “the fairy bower beneath the knoll” (vol.2. 286) whilst in another charm ‘fairy wort’ is picked on top of the ‘fairy bower’ (bruth) (vol.2, 162).  The Gaelic word brugh has several meanings: it can denote a large house or mansion, an underground dwelling, a fairy mound and, lastly, a fortified tower, which we generally know today as a broch.  It appears that all these meanings are wrapped up together in the prayers and invocations cited.  Brochs are, for example, sites of fairy presence and power.  For example, at Houstry in Caithness in 1810 a man took building materials from a ruined broch near his farm.  This incurred the deep displeasure of the sith folk living there, and they inflicted a plague upon the cattle of everyone living in the neighbourhood.  Secondly, at around the same date on Shetland, a fiddle player called Hakki Johnson was passing the Broch of Houlland one night when he heard music being played inside by the trows.  He was able to memorise the tune, which has been passed down since as the Wast Side Trows Reel.  A man on Skye who demolished the ‘fairy bower’ of Dun Gharsain at Bracadale in order to build some pens for his livestock only escaped a disastrous revenge from the fairies because he had been drinking milk from a cow that had grazed on the protective herb mothan.  This ‘bower’ again is termed a bruth and is, very evidently, a broch, one of several found beside Loch Bracadale.

In conclusion, we have to reconcile ourselves top the contradictory evidence that ‘fairy’ was used both in a negative sense, implying a threat that required holy protection, and (at the very same time) the fairies were associated with peace and other heavenly qualities…

Fairy Vengeance

Duncan Carse

One of the major perils of crossing the fairies is that they can be very likely to seek vengeance.  They have a vindictive streak, something which is not alleviated at all by their generally indifferent or uncaring attitude towards humankind.  We must add to this the problem that they are immortal: the fairies can wait to get their own back, not just through the perpetrator’s lifetime, but far down the generations (as Professor John Rhys described in Celtic Folklore vol.I, c.VII & vol.II pp.420-25). He speculated whether this delayed gratification was the result of their deathlessness or because some spell prevented prompter action; either way, the fairies can wait and innocent descendants can pay the price for an ancestor’s folly.

Rhys illustrated the vengeful aspect of the faery character with an account from Pantannas, near Beddgelert. A farmer sought to banish the tylwyth teg from his farm by ploughing up all the areas of grass sward (so that, effectively, they had nowhere left to dance). The man immediately began to see apparitions, or hear voices, threatening that Dial a ddaw, ‘Vengeance is coming.’ Soon after, all the farmer’s supply of corn was destroyed by fire, but serious as this loss was, the fairies declared it to be only the beginning of their inexorable and inflexible revenge. The farmer restored the grassy areas and pleaded with the fairies for mercy, and they returned to the land, but the threat of further action was not lifted- it was only postponed to his descendants. A century later, the warning voices were heard again (‘Dial a ddaw‘) and, soon enough, the vengeance was exacted. The son of the family disappeared at night, presumed to have been taken by the tylwyth teg at a fairy ring, and he was not seen again for several generations. When he finally returned, the world was changed and his name was only a dim memory and- as so often happens in Welsh stories- as soon as he touched something in the mortal world, he crumbled away to dust. What we gather from this is that the fairies won’t forget and that, to make matters worse, they are patient, leading to what seems to us humans like harsh and wholly unreasonable punishment meted out against future generations, who may not even understand why they are suffering.

A variety of offences will incur the fairies’ wrath.  I’ve already mentioned their adverse response to disbelief in their existence; other misdemeanours against them include:

  • Attacking the fairies: this is easily the most understandable case, perhaps.  A Norman knight who came upon fairies dancing at Beddgelert sets his hounds upon the happy throng.  His fate was first to get lost.  Then, when he managed to return home, he found his wife with her lover; the two men fought and the malicious knight died (Welsh Outlook, no.11, Nov.1st 1915, 431-2);
  • Even insults to fairies can elicit a severe response: a drunken man on the Isle of Man met some fairies dancing at Laxey. He swore at them and they chased him away by pelting him with gravel. This wasn’t sufficient though: soon his horse and cow died and, within six weeks, he died himself. I’ve mentioned before the Ballad of Mary O’Craignethan, in which a father rescues his kidnapped daughter from the fairy king. This happy outcome is marred, though, by the fact that- in his grief and rage- the father cursed the fairy folk. He is warned that “nane e’er cursed the Seelie Court and ever after thrave.” As predicted, the father dies soon after recovering his beloved Mary;
  • Trespassing on fairy ground: the fairies have been known (at the very least) to blunt farmers’ scythes if they try to mow the grass growing on a fairy ring. In a case reported from South-west Scotland, a farmer’s cow was killed because it had been annoying the fairies by standing on top of their house. Somewhat comparable may be the story of the walnut tree that once grew at Llandyn Hall, Llangollen, around which the faeries met at night to hold their wedding ceremonies.  When it was cut down in the nineteenth century, the faeries took their revenge, it was believed: one of the workmen involved in the felling was killed by a falling branch;
  • Damaging faery goods– usually we read stories in which humans are rewarded for mending broken faery tools. A Devonshire story reverses this. A boy found a pixie peel (baking implement) in a field. He broke it, saying “The pixies won’t bake any more bread.” He was instantly attacked and pinched, and couldn’t open his eyes for days (Folklore, vol.11, 213);
  • Spying: the faeries are notoriously secretive and retiring. A girl given a job as a housemaid by a ‘Green Lady,’ a fairy woman, was warned never to spy on her activities. Of course, the girl did- peeping through a keyhole at her mistress dancing with a bogey- and for this she was blinded (Folklore, vol.7);
  • Kidnapping: at Rudha Ban in Tarbet the wife of the head of the Macfarlane clan fell ill after the birth of a child and couldn’t nurse her baby.  Her husband kidnapped the wife of a local urisk and made her act as wet nurse.  In revenge for this affront, the urisk mutilated the family’s milkmaid.  In turn, he was hanged (Winchester, Traditions of Arrochar and Tarbet, 1916);
  • For attempted murder: at Hawker’s Cove, near Padstow, local man Tristram Bird discovered a mermaid one day whilst he was out hunting seals.  She was sat on a rock, combing her hair and looking as alluring as mermaids can; he instantly desired her and asked her to marry him.  She rejected the proposal and mocked him.  He threatened to shoot her, and she warned him he’d be sorry if he did.  He did- and he was.  Her fired at her and in response she cursed the harbour.  A storm blew up- and a sandbar blocked access from Padstow to the sea;
  • Failing to leave water out for them at night and to make them welcome in your home: when a family forgot one night to put out water, soap and towels for the visiting tylwyth teg, as was habitual, the peeved fairies overturned their stacks of peat outside (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886);
  • For meanness: a couple out walking on the Isle of Man met a small, crippled man begging.  Whilst the wife would have helped, the husband refused to give him any money, for which he was cursed.  They had a number of children subsequently- all the girls were born without disabilities, but all the boys were disabled just like the beggar (Manx Folklore, 1882-5).  In another Manx story, a man realised that the someone was stealing potatoes from his field after dark. He decided to sit out all night to catch the culprit. He discovered it was the fairies and, by the next morning, he was white and shaking and only able to struggle home and get into his bed, where he soon died. This was the penalty for begrudging a few spuds. A further Manx story concerns a girl baking at Bride.  She forgot the custom of sharing the resulting oat cake with the fairies but when she went up to sleep and got into bed, she received a blow to her face.  She knew this was a message from the fairies, so she went straight back down, baked a new cake and shared it with the Little People (Yn Lioar Manninagh, vol.2).

Some of these incidents are comprehensible, as acts of violence are met with violence.  In the later cases, though the response seems disproportionate to the incitement- but no-one ever suggested that fairies are proportionate people. The best policy is the utmost caution- and the utmost respect: be generous, share with them and at the same time don’t intrude.

Duncan Carse

Faery lore in Kilvert’s Diary

The Reverend Francis Kilvert is known for the diaries he kept between 1870 and 1879, when he was a vicar in various parishes in Herefordshire, along the border with Wales. These records provide valuable evidence of many aspects of rural life at the time- which includes scraps of folklore.

There are scattered references in Kilvert’s entries to faery belief. We can probably label these faery folk as the tylwyth teg, the Welsh fair folk, rather than seeing them as more anglicised beings. The border between Powys and Herefordshire is not sharp break between Welsh and English culture and there are plenty of Welsh place names to be found on the English side: doubtless alongside Welsh folk beliefs.

The rocks at Aberedw

Faery belief was beginning to fade at the time Kilvert wrote. He was told by David Price of Capel-y-ffin that “We don’t see them now because we have more faith in the Lord and don’t think of them.  But I believe the fairies travel yet…”  This was not complete disappearance or extinction, therefore; more, it was a matter of the human eye of faith failing, or being distracted by the Christian teachings heard in the Wesleyan chapels. The fairies were still there, but showed themselves less often than before. In July 1872, for example, Kilvert was told that the fairies had last been seen at the Rocks of Aberedw, in the Wye Valley, south of Builth Wells. The fair folk were, in any case, naturally elusive. Kilvert heard on Midsummer’s Day 1873 how the grandfather of Walter Brown of Marsh had once seen the fairies in a hedge in a lane. Sadly, by the time he had stopped his horse and cart and scrambled off, the tylwyth teg had vanished.

A farm at Llan-pica

At the same time, faery lore was still told to local children. Kilvert noted in October 1870 how boys feared the ‘Goblin Lantern’ and that ‘Hob with his Lantern’ was often seen at Sheepcot Pool at Wernwg. Wills of the wisp were still very real apparitions, therefore, and boys still turned their hats to save themselves from being pulled into faery rings to join their dances. The faeries remained a potent and persistent threat- as proved by the story of a girl from Llan-pica, near Painscastle, who was led astray by them and, it was reported, killed. This violence, especially against a child, is unusual, but the habit of stealing people, especially kids, is of course very familiar.

The tylwyth teg weren’t all bad, by any means. An old man at Rhos Goch Mill used to hear the fairies entering the mill at night and dancing to the sweet music of their fiddles. Indeed, a tune that (for no apparent reason) was titled ‘The Fall of Paris’ had, apparently, been taught to a human by the fairies. The association of the faes with songs and with tunes is very strong, and is known throughout the British Isles, from Wales and the Isle of Man up to Orkney and the Shetlands.

Rhos Goch Mill

Kilvert’s records of the fairies of the Marches, brief as it is, is fascinating, because it combines general and unique features together creating a very specific faerylore for this region- and one that is highly localised, and the more real and believable for the fact that the incidents can be sited so precisely.

How to Spot a Fairy

Fuseli, The Changeling

Our forebears often saw fairies- and knew that they had done so.  The certainty about the nature of experiences that is frequently disclosed in accounts is derived from various factors- circumstance, context, experience- but in no small measure it came from the witness knowing already what to expect. 

I’d like to look at this issue here, with particular reference to the identification of fairy changelings.  I’ll start with a couple of handbills from the 1690s which advertised ‘freak shows’ in London.  Even as recently as the nineteenth century, dead mermaids were put on display for the public to see; I assume that these were either confected fakes or they were the remains of manatees or seals or such like.  Live fairies are another matter entirely, though.

In 1690 a ‘changeling child’ was displayed at the Black Raven tavern, West Smithfield.  It was described as a “living skeleton,” which had been captured by Venetians from a Turkish ship.  The girl had been born to Hungarian parents and was nine years old, it was claimed, but she was only one foot six inches high.  Her legs, thighs and arms were very small “no bigger than a man’s thumb” and her face was as small as the palm of an adult’s hand, with a “very grave and solid” expression, as if she was sixty years of age.  If the girl was held up to the light, you could see all her ‘anatomy’ inside.  She never spoke, but mewled like a cat.  She had no teeth, but she had a voracious appetite all the same.

A second hand-bill of about the same date advertised a “living fairy” who could be seen at the Rose Tavern, Brydges Street, Covent Garden.  He was supposed to be 150 years old; he had been found around sixty years previously but had not aged since then.  His head was a “great piece of curiosity,” having no skull and “with several imperfections worthy of your observation.”

Doubtless both of these exhibits were profoundly disabled individuals who were being exploited by the proprietors of the touring show, but my interest is in the fact that they conformed to pre-existing ideas of what a fairy would look like.  What is, perhaps, most interesting is that the shared preconception seemed to be of a deformed and shrivelled creature- not at all the beautiful fairy princess we might be inclined to expect.

As I have often described before, one of the main occupations of British fairies was abducting people, most especially babies and young children.  Whilst a toddler might just wander off and not return, a baby in a cradle tended to be substituted for a fairy replacement- the changeling or ‘killcrop’ (a term seemingly taken from German: Luther discussed kilkropffs, for example, which is very possibly how the term became familiar and entered English). 

Changelings were accepted as being widespread and common.  For example, in December 1846 the Newcastle Courant carried a feature on the Devonshire pixies, in the course of which it was noted, casually and very much in passing, that a woman who was a fairy changeling was at that very time living in Totnes.  The people of South Devon were aware that this woman was a fairy and- it seems- were not especially surprised about that.  Part of their certainty must (again) have come from the fact that she looked like a fairy.  What did Victorians expect to see?

Scottish author James Napier recounted a changeling story in his book, Folklore, in 1879.  The child in question was suspected of having been swapped because “it seemed to have been pinched” and subsequently, it became very hungry, “gurning and yabbering constantly.”  These were give-away signs.  Another Scot, John Monteath, described in his book on Dunblane Traditions (1835) that changelings were “unearthly skin an’ bane gorbels.” In Scots, a gorbel is an unfledged bird, so this phrase is suggestive of the shrivelled, skinny look of the infant.  Likewise, in his story of ‘The Smith and the Fairies,’ John Francis Campbell described how the blacksmith’s son took to his bed and moped, becoming “thin, old and yellow.” (Popular Tales, vol.III)

In August 1892 the Dublin branch of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children issued its annual report.  Amongst the cases featured was that of a child neglected by its parents because they believed it to have been a changeling.  The reason for this (though it was probably worsened by their lack of care) was that the child was a “living skeleton,” which was exactly the term used for the girl advertised on the 1690 handbill.   On New Year’s Day 1898 the Hampshire and Portsmouth Telegraph carried a feature on Welsh superstitions associated with New Year’s Eve. The paper reprted that it was still felt to be vital to watch a child’s cradle at this turning point of the year lest the tylwyth teg snatch the babe and leave a plentyn newid (a ‘changed child’). This fairy would be a “frightful looking, shrunken, puling brat, not infrequently becoming idiotic.”  The paper added what a disgrace to the parents it was if such a substitution had been allowed to take place. 

What’s consistent in all these examples is the starved look of the infant- despite the fact that they frequently gobbled up food.  Perhaps it’s significant that in one Scottish poem a milkmaid wooed by a fairy gives her lover a crucifix to wear- and his glamour is dispelled, revealing him as a “brown, withered twig, so elf twisted and dry.”  In another Scottish account, a man is sure that his wife has been taken by the fairies rather than having died.  He has her coffin opened- and finds a dry leaf inside.

From the Welsh Evening Express, October 26th 1898

So fixed was the association between a whingeing child with an insatiable hunger and fairy abduction that Horlicks even made reference to the tradition in an advert for their product that ran during the late 1890s.

Although the Smithfield changeling was dumb, it was the preternatural knowledge and loquacity of the swapped infant that often gave away its true nature.  Lewis Spence tells the story of a Sutherland woman out walking one day when her one-year old baby suddenly recites some lines of verse.  She abandons the creature and runs home, fortunately finding her true child back in its cradle.

Changelings were not necessarily taken for malign reasons: the fairies often sought a playmate for their own children, but they didn’t give much thought to the feelings of the human family.  Such was the desperation of those parents to recover their own bairns that many terrible measures were attempted.  The case of leaving the child all alone out in the countryside that was just mentioned was very mild compared to some remedies.  For example, people resorted to threatening suspected changelings with red-hot pokers, holding them on shovels over the fire or placing them in hot ovens.  Such cruelty was provoked by the perfectly understandable anxiety to be reunited with the lost baby.  The abuse was bolstered by the assurance that it was justified because the child no longer looked the same- instead, it looked like fairy.

Further Reading

For a more extended consideration of this subject, see my books Middle Earth Cuckoos (2021) and Faery (2020).