Robin Hood Faeries

Although a good deal of the recorded folklore portrays the faeries as self-interested and insular, there are some notable exceptions. The best known are the brownies, lobs, hobs and boggarts who will live in close proximity to humans and perform tasks on their behalf, just like a farm hand or domestic servant. Then there are the unpredictable acts of generosity, in which an individual is inexplicably favoured and showered with gifts. A related group of cases are those where it is the poor and disadvantaged who, it seems, are deliberately helped. These are the ‘Robin Hood’ activities I want to examine here.

Examples of interventions by faeries that our current UK government would call ‘levelling up’ can be found across the whole of the British Isles. We’ll start our survey in Wales. The good deeds of the tylwyth teg have included guiding a man home when he was lost in the mist (a typically random act of kindness, taking pity on an individual in a moment of need) and more systematic patterns of providing poor people with food when they were hungry (although we should admit that these provisions might well have been stolen from elsewhere).  Needless to say, perhaps, but the tylwyth teg will object if they are spied upon when performing good works.  So, when the ellyllon agreed to help a very poor farmer called Rowli Pugh by doing all the chores on his holding, he prospered- until his wife allowed curiosity to get the better of caution- and watched them one night. 

One eighteenth century informant was of the opinion that the tylwyth teg took money from bad, rich people in order to give it to good, poor folk.  Given their reputation for thievery, it’s hardly a surprise to learn that the fair folk were believed to steal money from farmer’s pockets at fairs, leaving instead their own coins, which looked real enough until the possessor tried to spend them- at which point they vanished.  Furthermore, it’s certainly the case that at least one of the cases of coins left lying around for people to discover involved a very poor man (a poor shoemaker in fragile health, who regularly found silver shillings- until his wife forced him to say where they were coming from).  Likewise, the story of Guto Bach, a little boy who was befriended by the tylwyth teg, concludes with his parents losing all their money in a shipwreck; the faeries intercede, though, telling Guto to look under a large rock, where he found gold and silver hidden.  Perhaps, then, this ‘Robin Hood’ trait attributed to the tylwyth teg is authentic.

In Scotland, the ‘Gude Fairies’ of the seelie court justify their name by helping mankind in a variety of ways. They are said to bring comfort and support to those afflicted and in despair. This can include providing bread to the poor and aged, seed corn to the hardworking, but unlucky, and gifts to those they choose to favour- especially those who had themselves at some point helped out the fairies with loans or gifts.  If they are called on to assist a person in their work, the seelie court will do so and will help with daily tasks. 

In another example, a poor man on Skye had his only cow unjustly taken from him. The faeries took pity on his unjust deprivation and alleviated his hardship by bringing him another cow. It was a fine, healthy looking beast- except for the fact that it was covered in water weeds (suggesting it was one of the faery cows or cro sith). A very similar story comes from the Scottish Lowlands. During a severe drought Sandy Bell’s cattle and sheep died. He had always been kind to the faeries, so they decided to reciprocate. One evening, a stocking full of gold fell down his chimney. He bought two cows and then faeries then advised him to pasture them in Gowan Dell. This small valley was known to be full of rushes, gorse and briars- scarcely good grazing- but Sandy did as he was advised and found that there was, in fact, rich grass there. It proved inexhaustible and his cows produced plenty of milk. When others tried to find pasture there, though, all they discovered was a worthless thicket. Sandy survived the drought and prospered from then on.

Similar charitable activities are reported from England. In one story from Dore in South Yorkshire, a hob thrush features:

“Once upon a time there was a poor shoemaker who could not earn enough to keep himself and his family. This grieved him very much, but one morning, when he came downstairs, he found a piece of leather which he had cut out already made into a pair of shoes, which were beautifully finished.  He sold these shoes the same day, and with the money he bought as much leather as would make two pairs of shoes. The next morning, he found that this leather too had been made into shoes, but he did not know who had done it. In this way his stock of shoes kept always getting bigger. He very much wished to know who had made the shoes, so he told his wife he would stay up all night and watch, and then he found Hob Thrust at work upon the leather. As soon as Hob Thrust had finished a pair of shoes the shoemaker took them and put them into a cupboard. Immediately after that Hob Thrust finished another pair, which the shoemaker also took up and put away. Then he made first one pair of shoes and then another so fast that the little shop was soon filled with them, and as there was no more room in the house the shoemaker threw the shoes out of the window as fast as Hob Thrust could make them.”

The early seventeenth century broadsheet, Robin Goodfellow, his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests, shows a surprisingly modern and commercial approach to charitable aid. We are informed that the fairies would lend money to the poor to assist them- but would not charge interest: “For the use demand we nought, Our own is all we desire.” There’s a sting in the tail, though. Amongst ‘the trickes of women fayries’ we’re told that:

“We often use to dwell in some great hill, and from thence we doe lend money to any poore man or woman that hath need; but if they bring it not againe at the day appointed, we doe not only punish them with pinching, but also in their goods, so that they never thrive till they have payd us.”

As ever (and just as we saw in the case of Rowli Pugh), faery aid has to be received with discretion. A man of Evershot, Dorset, had for a long time been very poor but suddenly started to find a shilling under his door every morning.  He saved the money and in time was able to buy some sheep, then some pigs, so that gradually he became rich.  His neighbours marvelled at his wealth and, at last, he confessed how his prosperity had begun.  He was instantly struck lame and became bed-ridden, remaining that way for many months

Lastly, a couple of Manx examples. Supernatural help- and the wealth it leads to- may not be all they appear. The story of the Fisherman and the Ben-Varrey describes how poor fisherman sees a ben-varrey (a mermaid) in a dream and she advises him to dig near his house.  He does so and finds a buried chest, “full of gold pieces of money, queer old coins with strange markings.”  The fisherman stops working, thinking he has become wealthy for the rest of his life, but the money turns out to be worthless to him, as everyone in the local town is suspicious and refuses to take the gold. 

Secondly, the buggan ny Hushtey lived in a large cave on the coast of the Isle of Man and had no liking for idle people, it was said.  Nonetheless, this work ethic was paired with a sense of pity for the less fortunate.  When Poor Robin of nearby Chou Traa lost his faithful dog and a barrel full of buttermilk through a cruel prank, the buggane took care of him by bringing in the cows, lighting the fire and boiling the kettle, ready for when he came home. 

So far, so good. However, the loss of the company of his dog at the same time made Robin depressed, so that he slept poorly, got up late and fell behind with his farm tasks.  The buggane may have helped him during his crisis, but it still disliked laziness (displaying a very Victorian, self-help sort of attitude, we might remark). Late one evening when Robin was still out in the field ploughing by the light of a lantern, the buggane made the plough horse bolt through a hedge.  It was found dead the next day, near to the entrance to the buggane’s cave- and this provoked the villagers into blocking the hole and then placing a stone cross there to bar the buggane’s passage

Faeries will intervene in human affairs in a variety of ways- many of them, to be honest, extremely unwelcome. However, their generosity and kindness are not to be dismissed or deprecated- they can save people from ruin and starvation- but, even so, they are subject to strict limits and conditions.

Ash Tree Faeries

Researching something else entirely, I realised I had gathered together a number of references to the connection between faeries and ash trees. I thought it was worthwhile pulling these together, simply to show the breadth of their ties to the natural world. We are used to reading about links to hawthorns and elders, and about their aversion to the rowan/ mountain ash, but the folklore is richer than this. There are, of course, the many herbs and flowers with faery associations as well as other trees- oaks, yews and- it seems- ash.

Visiting Largs in Ayrshire, Highland folklorist John Gregorson Campbell was told this story:

“A man cut a slip from an ash-tree growing near a Fairy dwelling. On his way home in the evening he stumbled and fell. He heard the Fairies give a laugh at his mishap. Through the night he was hoisted away, and could tell nothing of what happened till in the morning he found himself in the byre, astride on a cow, and holding on by its horns.”

Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands, 1900, 78

The strong (we might say excessive) faery reaction to a branch being cut from the tree clearly indicates that they felt a strong affinity for the ash and wished to act to protect it. We are familiar with this behaviour in cases where people have sought to fell thorns or elders.

This story seems reasonably understandable, in itself, but it sits oddly with other folk traditions. For example, around Rhyl, North Wales in the late 1880s, it was recorded that ash sap was given to babies to stop the tylwyth teg taking them (Llangollen Advertiser, Nov.9th 1888). The same was reported for the Scottish Highlands in Choice Notes & Queries for 1859. The note added that the sap was a powerful astringent that protects against both faeries and witches. The practice was, as soon as a baby had been born, for the midwife or nurse to put one end of a green stick of ash in the fire. Sap will ooze from the other end, which was caught in a spoon and then fed to the neonate (see ‘Curious Creeds’ in Newcastle Courant, Sept. 6th 1890 page 1).

I have also read that the tree’s seeds, the ash keys, might be placed in cradles to guard against changelings. We have an apparent contradiction, then: the faeries will protect an ash tree, but they are also repelled by it. Perhaps there’s some almost homeopathic property being exploited here.

The role of the ash in human health in Britain seems well established. Gilbert White, in the Natural History of Selborne, recorded that sickly children might be passed naked through a cleft in a pollard ash before dawn in order to cure ruptures. The cleft would often be made specially for this purpose and would then be bound up again afterwards, healing over as the child also healed. There might even be a longer term link between the health and survival of the tree and that of the person. Harm to the tree would be reflected in the healed person’s body and life-span, meaning that people could become highly protective of the tree that had cured them. This custom survived in several rural parts of England (such as Somerset and Suffolk) as late as the 1880s and ’90s. There is even a report of a child being passed through an ash at Terling in Essex in 1925.

Sidney Hartland (author of The Science of Fairy Tales) wrote about these ash tree cures in the journal Folklore for 1896 (vol.7 pages 303-6). His accounts of ceremonies don’t mention any faery aspect, but they include fascinating detail: in both Suffolk and Somerset, the child was put through three times. In the first county, three different people had to do this; at Bishop’s Lydeard in Somerset the sick child was passed through from a virgin girl to a boy. The patient had to be face-up as this was done. At Terling the infant had to be naked as it was passed from father to mother (C. Mason Craven, Essex- Its Forest, Folk & Folklore, 1928, 120).

There may, too, be some much deeper tie with Norse and, possibly, Anglo-Saxon myths of Yggdrasil, the ash tree supporting the universe- which, of course, includes Alfheim, home of the elves. In fact, as Robert Graves records in the White Goddess, the ash tree has significance in Greek and Irish mythology as well. It seems that we only have the merest traces of something more complex and significant.

For a broader discussion of faeries, plants and the natural world, see my recent book with Green Magic Publishing on the subject.

The Reformation & Faery Sightings

The Green Children

I’ve recently been reading Chris Gosden’s book The History of Magic, which is a fascinating survey of magic over the last 20 to 30,000 years. Considering ‘Medieval and Modern Magic in Europe’ he remarked:

“The Reformation changed much, of course. Religion shifted from being a communal matter to a more personal relationship with God.”

History of Magic, 392

This set me thinking. I’d already been considering how the Reformation impacted upon those who had contacts with faeries and led to them being branded as witches (see my recent post on the possible pardon for the Scottish witch victims). I wondered whether this communal to personal shift might have been a more general feature of our interaction with the supernatural.

Reviewing the oldest British accounts of faery encounters, it does seem to be the case that many of these were, indeed, more communal than individual experiences. For example, the two Green Children of Woolpit in Suffolk were found by people working in the fields and were delivered to the lord of the manor and his staff. Thereafter, they lived on the manor and, in due course, the survivor of the pair, a girl, married a local man (though she did have something of a reputation for promiscuity). This was sustained contact with a faery being on the part of dozens of people. The child faery called Malekin appeared at Dagworthy Castle to all the members of the lord’s household there- and for a prolonged period. The faery king encountered by King Herla attended a wedding with all his company and then invited Herla and his courtiers to attend a wedding in Faery. A few years ago I discussed the medieval poem A Disputison By-twene A Cristenemon and a Jew which features another journey by two men into ‘Faery’ and their encounters with large number of people. The story of Huon of Bordeaux involves a similar group interaction between Huon and his companion knights and the fairy king and his court. The poem Sir Orfeo is, essentially, the interaction between two noble courts- one human, one fae. Lastly, in the story of Wild Edric, the eponymous hero first encounters his future wife dancing with her sister faeries when he is out hunting alone- except for his accompanying page. However, the wedding of the mortal and the faery bride is a grand, public affair, and Edric and his new wife then go to see King William (the Conqueror) at his court in Westminster accompanied by many witnesses of her faery origin.

These examples of the most famous medieval faery encounters certainly suggest that interactions were very often enjoyed by large group of people. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, by any means. The Welsh story of Elidyr and the Golden Ball involves the boy visiting Faery alone; Thomas of Erceldoune was entirely alone on the Eildon Hills when the faery queen approached him; Gervase of Tilbury reported how a swineherd searching for a lost pig entered a cavern under Peveril Castle in the Peak District and eventually stumbled into Faery; William of Newbury described several cases in which lone men had fae encounters- such as the man who stole a faery goblet from a banquet taking place inside the East Yorkshire barrow known as Willy Howe. This is just a handful of possible examples from the Middle Ages.

Willy Howe, East Riding

Conversely, later encounters aren’t exclusively solitary. There is, for example, the eighteenth century case from Bodfari that I featured quite recently in which a group of children saw some of the tylwyth teg dancing. Only three years later, in July 1760, six people making hay in a field near Bedwellty witnessed a large number of faery beings flying over the nearby hilltops; in August 1862 in Carmarthenshire, two carters saw a group of the tylwyth teg dancing on a hill summit before vanishing from sight.

To return to the witch connection that triggered these speculations, they too were individual and personal interactions with the inhabitants of faery- often by visiting their halls under the hills. All the same, there is some indication that mass sightings and contacts have become a thing of the past and are far less experienced today.

If this is correct, what is it that has changed since the Middle Ages? Have the faeries become more shy or have we altered our social habits? I suspect the key difference is the way we organise ourselves socially and economically. Many of the early examples involve the whole staff of manors (what was called the familia– the lord, his family and the various domestic and farm servants). These households, living so closely together, aren’t replicated in modern Britain; the closest we’ve got in later generations (and highly comparable) may be the farming households who have contact with boggarts and, more commonly, brownies and hobs. They’ve lived in close contact with these beings and parents, children and maids are all familiar with them.

These last examples aside, we are perhaps more likely to be at home or to travel alone and, therefore, to have a greater chance of a solitary encounter. This is a substantial generalisation of our habits, but there’s no denying that the communal, multi-generational lifestyles enjoyed by our predecessors are much less typical today than they were. Smaller families, later marriage, the absence of domestic servants, the availability of personal transport in cars- all of these raise the likelihood that- if there is a contact with another dimension- it may be experienced alone- and without other witnesses.

T’boggart, under t’bed

If my suggestion is right, there’s one clear result of it: it’s much easier now for people to dismiss the faery encounter as a figment of the imagination, the result of too much beer, a trick of the light and such like. If a whole manor full of people saw the same thing, it was very much harder for anyone to convincingly argue that it was all in their heads. This individualisation of faery experiences must be part of the reason for the rise in faery disbelief. Perhaps, with the expansion of human settlement, our increased pollution of the environment- with noise as well as noxious substances- and the general acceleration of our lifestyles, our Good Neighbours have become more reluctant to reveal themselves (or are less noticed) but this may only compound the situation.

Magical Faery Cows

The Llyn Barfog cow is called home

I have discussed faery beasts and faery livestock before a few times, but one aspect of this subject has been neglected until now. That is the curious matter of magical cows.

In Wales, these supernaturally productive beasts are typically from the herd known as the gwartheg y llyn, the lake cattle (and, in other words, the ‘faery cows,’ given that many of the tylwyth teg are thought to dwell under lynnoedd or lakes.) An example of such a beast is the so-called fuwch gyfeiliorn (stray cow) of Llyn Barfog, which was found alone by a farmer, was rounded up and was incorporated by him with the rest of his herd. She bred very well and gave plentiful milk, cheese and butter. After some years, the man felt she had reached the end of her productivity and he began to fatten her for slaughter. The cow, being magical, overheard his plans and promptly left for the lake from whence she’d come- taking with her all her calves; in some accounts, she was called back by her owner, one of the gwragedd annwn or lake women (see, for example, Sikes, British Goblins, 36-37)

An extension of the idea of the highly productive faery cow is the magically bountiful cow. Across Britain it is quite common to find folk accounts of cows that suddenly appear and produce plentiful quantities of milk, feeding an entire community for a period of time until, normally, someone abuses the cow’s generosity- and it vanishes. One such animal was the faery cow of Cefn Bannog. She appeared suddenly and was able to produce milk enough for all who had need of it. Whether people turned up with jugs or bowls or buckets, she could fill them without being exhausted. Eventually, though, this never-ending supply of milk was abused by a person with a sieve; the cow could never fill the container to the brim, of course, and, in anger and despair, she went to the a lake two miles away, taking her two calves with her, and was never seen again in the district. Similar stories are known in England, as well, for example at Audlem in Cheshire, at Stanion in Northamptonshire, at Kirkham and Whittingham Moors, both in Lancashire, and in Warwickshire. At Stanion, Kirkham and Whittingham, the mistreatment of the cow led to its death of a broken heart and the local churches displayed a rib of the beast in testimony to her beneficence. In Scotland, an identical story is told of the white cow of Calanais (Calanish) on Lewis.

These stories usually say that the origin of the beast was mysterious, but a few explain where she came from. In Shropshire, on Stapeley Hill, near the megalithic monument called Mitchell’s Fold, a cow appeared in a time of dire drought and famine. She had been sent by the faery queen to feed the local people until conditions improved; a faery woman was turned into a cow for the duration, apparently (not a pleasant experience, presumably, but such is the power of the faery queen over her subjects). Again, the cow would appear twice a day to supply all households with their needs so long as they only came with one receptacle each day. Eventually, a witch arrived who had replaced the bottom of her pail with a sieve. The faery cow realised it was being abused; firstly, she kicked the witch, so that she became rooted to the ground. Then the cow disappeared, leaving the local people bereft. In revenge, a cairn of stones was piled up around the witch who had injured them so cruelly (Byegones, July 1893, 118-119).

In British Goblins, Wirt Sikes also gives an intriguing variant of the Llyn Barfog story:

“The milk-white milch cow gave enough of milk to every one who desired it; and however frequently milked, or by whatever number of persons, she was never found deficient. All persons who drank of her milk were healed of every illness; from fools they became wise; and from being wicked, became happy. This cow went round the world; and wherever she appeared, she filled with milk all the vessels that could be found, leaving calves behind her for all the wise and happy. It was from her that all the milch cows in the world were obtained. After traversing through the island of Britain, for the benefit and blessing of country and kindred, she reached the Vale of Towy; where, tempted by her fine appearance and superior condition, the natives sought to kill and eat her; but just as they were proceeding to effect their purpose, she vanished from between their hands, and was never seen again. A house still remains in the locality, called Y Fuwch Laethwen Lefrith (The Milk-white Milch Cow.)”

(British Goblins, 38)

This faery intervention in human affairs in order to help them is not entirely unknown. Assistance with tasks to individuals and to specific households by hobs and brownies is, of course, pretty familiar. Help to large groups and whole communities is much less common, but readers might possibly recall the decision of one Scottish faery queen to help the women of the world by bestowing wisdom upon them, something I highlighted in a previous post. Nevertheless, one element will be familiar- and that is the warning never to try to take advantage of or to trick the faes. This can only ever led to loss and regret.

Mitchell’s Fold stone circle

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

For more on this subject, see my 2022 book with Green Magic Publishing, Who’s Who in Faeryland.