Beyond Faery

I am very pleased to announce that Llewellyn Worldwide has now published Beyond Faery, the companion to my book Faery which they released in April this year.

As its full title indicates, in Beyond Faery- Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts, we’ve gone beyond the conventional boundaries and perceptions of the faes- as winged, female beings- to explore a much wider and wilder world of supernatural creatures. Many of these are far more dangerous- but perhaps, as a result, rather more predictable- that the humanoid fairies about whom I normally write.

The faery beasts that are the subject of this book share a number of traits that differentiate them from the more familiar members of fairy-kind. Firstly, they are- without exception- of conventional, human-world size. There are continual debates about the size of the human-like faes (as you’ll read in several of posts), but there is never any dispute that mermaids are the same size as we are and that the other creatures that resemble the mammals of this world- the dogs, horses, bulls and so on- are all the same size as their domesticated equivalents- if not somewhat bigger.

Secondly, the faery beasts have next to no conception of working with human beings to either assist them or to improve the natural world. Whilst the ‘eco-fairy’ has gained some vogue in recent decades, the faery beasts are far less complex creatures- or, we might say, more single minded in their purpose. Very many of them have one of two intentions: to scare us and/ or to kill and eat us. Mermaids are a bit different from this: they can enter into relationships with humans and raise families, but there is seldom any suggestion of any wider co-operation with us. They live in their world, we live in ours; they are in different dimensions- and the merfolk like to keep it that way.

These beasts are faery, then, in terms of their supernatural nature and their magical powers. They may look like the livestock or pets that we’re familiar with, but their behaviour is very different: their purpose and their powers are nothing like the ordinary dog’s or cow’s. In many ways, we might call them monsters.

Contents

The book’s chapters cover, firstly, the various water beasts: the mermaids, mere-maids (fresh water mermaids), river sprites, kelpies, water horses and water bulls and other less well-known creatures, such as the njugl and the shoopiltee. Then I turn to the land beasts, amongst whom I number the ‘hags,’ the banshees and similar; the hobs and goblins; the bogies, boggarts, brags and bugganes; the black daemon dogs; the fearsome faery beasts such as fae cats and bunnies and, lastly, the wills of the wisp.

Controversy?

I have already given readers a taste of what’s covered in the book in my recent postings, in which I’ve made use of material I’ve come across since the manuscript of Beyond Faery was finalised earlier this year. Those new examples supplement what you’ll find discussed in more detail in the chapters of the book. The text’s 270 pages long, including a glossary and a full bibliography.

I was a little surprised to note that Google has designated my book ‘controversial literature’- as, indeed, was the case for the previous book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk, too. On consideration, I quite like the thought of having written two controversial books. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you think it’s as subversive as this might suggest!

Beyond Faery II: Faery water beasts

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This second posting in advance of publication of my next book, Beyond Faeryexamines some of the water beasts of Britain.

There are various faery beasts that infest fresh and salt water in the British Isles.  They are primarily found in Scotland and they are primarily horse like.

Each uisge

These ‘water horses’ live in lakes.  Usually people only encounter and have to deal with one, but at Loch Aird na h-uamh there are reported to be multiple horses.  Some of these steeds, people have been brave enough to ride; some have even survived the attempt, though many of those who tried were drowned or torn to pieces.

Typical of the species is the horse found at Lochan-larig-eala near Breadalbane.  It is a white horse and when it first appears on the lake side, it lies down on the grass and looks very placid and pretty.  Nine children playing there once climbed on it- at which point it dashed for the water immediately.  The child at the back was able to use the horse’s tail to swing off; the rest didn’t escape and it’s said that they were eaten and all that remained was their lungs, which floated ashore in due course.  Some versions of this story say that it happened on a Sunday, so that the faery beast was actually being employed to punish children who were playing rather than attending church. In this second account, the boy who survived happened to have a few Bible pages in his pocket, which saved him.

Some water horses will submit to working for humans, just to be able to get near enough to kill one.  The story is told of John MacInnes of Glenelg who was struggling with his farm work when he was approached by a stranger and offered assistance. He accepted, despite the odd conditions imposed, and immediately found a fine horse standing in his field. MacInnes used it for ploughing and was delighted to find that it was both strong and obedient.  Things went very well for time, although every evening when the horse was stabled John had to make sure he threw earth from a mole-hill over its back and said a blessing.  One night he forgot.  The next day, as soon as they were out in the field, the horse grabbed him with its teeth and dragged him into the nearby loch.  All that was ever recovered was his liver.  The stipulation of the mole-hill is curious, but one way of trapping fairy cattle (and mermaids) on land is to sprinkle grave-yard earth across their path (Scottish Notes & Queries, vol.6, 1893).

There is an each uisge in Loch-nan-Spioradan in Strathspey, which is seen as a beautifully equipped horse.  A local healer who managed to obtain the bit from this horse’s bridle found that it had great healing properties, especially for ‘maladies of the mind.’

Water horses are also known in Wales, where they’re called ceffyl y dwr.  Like their more northerly counterparts, their habit is to tempt people to ride them- and then to destroy them.  From the island of Guernsey there are reports of a white fairy horse that shared many of the traits of each-uisge.  Its back could extend to accommodate as many victims as wanted to ride on it and, once the riders were settled, it would gallop off at alarming speed with its passengers unable to dismount.  Luckily, on Guernsey, the aim of all this was relatively benign- it was just to give the victims a fright before they were dumped in a marsh.  

Fairy Horses

The each uisge is a uniquely savage creature, most unlike the average horse used for riding (whether by humans or their fairy neighbours).  From Breadalbane there also comes a report of a ‘fairy horse’ that was much more like the sort of animal known in the human world.  A man spent an evening dancing in the sithean at Lawes.  He enjoyed himself immensely and, at the end of the festivities, the fairies lent him a horse to get home, which flew through the air like lightning and dropped him down his chimney. 

There are a number of less benign variations upon this supernatural steed.  From Leeds, West Yorkshire, come reports of a ‘goblin horse’ that would allow people to mount it before it galloped off at high speed, shouting ‘I ride, Madge!’ and dumping the rider in a pond.  Further north in Durham there are similar creatures called ‘brags.’  The Leeds area is also home to a ‘black dog’ apparition called the ‘padfoot’ (which I will discuss in a separate posting).  These beings are notorious shapeshifters and, in one instance, it changed into a donkey which ran between a man’s legs and carried him off at speed to his home (to the accompaniment of clanking chains) before sinking into the earth.

The Isle of Man also has the mysterious ‘night horses,’ which seem to be a faery horse with some of the traits of the each uisge. These are found at night on roads, ready saddled and bridled, but if any is incautious enough to mount, he will find himself flying along at a terrifying pace before being dumped on the ground somewhere. The night horse seems to like to give shocks, but no more. The creature called the glashtyn, which can have human and equine form, is more deadly. In its horse shape it will carry off any who mount it and try to drown them in a nearby river or pool.

As mentioned, Wales has its own water horse, the ceffyl y dwr, which is in fact one of several water beasts known there- or, alternatively, there is a single water sprite that assumes a number of different forms. Amongst those identified, there is a thin old man who is seen in raging mountain streams, sometimes stretching out his bony arms to observers; there is the water horse proper that’s found in pools or in rivers, where it tries to seize fishermen’s lines and drag them into the waters, and, lastly, there’s a monstrous fish (generally a salmon) that will try to drag under those that hunt it. In one instance, a man who tried to spear it whilst out fishing on a Sunday was nearly drowned; he ascribed the fish’s attack to a righteous rage over his Sabbath breaking- something that’s also been said of the each uisge already, although this may be more a matter of his guilty conscience than the faery beast being recruited to policing the reformed religion.

Kelpie

Kelpies

Kelpies are often treated as being interchangeable with the each uisge, but whilst the former live in still fresh water, kelpies live in rivers or in the sea.  They are just as unpleasant as the each.  One sighted near Leurbost on the isle of Lewis in 1856 was described as looking like a “huge peat stack”- so large that a six oar boat could pass between the fins that were seen. Iit was up to forty feet in length, witnesses claimed, and it had swallowed whole a blanket left by the loch by girl tending cattle.

Kelpies have been called ‘sly devils.’  Very much like the each, the kelpie will often appear on the banks of a swollen stream, feeding tamely as a traveller approaches.  If the person is already on a horse, the kelpie will trot across the stream ahead, suggesting that it is shallow and safe.  If the person is on foot, he’ll be tempted to mount the horse and ride it across the river.  If he does this, it will immediately gallop off with shrieks of terrifying laughter.  Either way, the hapless traveller is overwhelmed by the flooding torrent.  For these reasons, William Collins, in his Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, described how the kelpie will:

“Instant, furious, raise the whelming flood,

O’er its drowned banks, forbidding all return…” 

So that victims are “Drown’d by the kaelpie’s wrath.”

Sometimes, it is possible to tame a kelpie by surprising it and slipping over its head a halter that has been blessed by having crosses cut into the cheek pieces.  The beast can then be used for farm labour, pulling loads and ploughs and such like.  It can’t escape as long as the bridle is kept on it, however badly it’s treated.  Kelpies have been used like this to help build churches and castles all around Scotland.  

Interestingly, like fairies, it’s said that kelpies can predict or see future events.  They are said, around Buckhaven, to roar before a loss at sea.  Likewise, at Rumbling Bridge in Clackmannanshire, the kelpie predicts drownings by lights and noises at night (although, admittedly, it is also that same kelpie that helps to drown many of these unfortunate people).   At St Vigeans, near Arbroath, a kelpie had been used to build the church and, when finally released, it foretold the minister’s death by suicide and collapse of the church.  Both these things happened in the early eighteenth century.  The kelpie that was used to build the church of St Mungo’s in Dumfriesshire advised that a larger graveyard than had been planned ought to be laid out, as it would be needed one day to accommodate all the bodies from a nearby battle.

Given their violent propensities, people have often tried to hunt and exterminate kelpies living in their vicinity.  This is, perhaps predictably, very difficult to do, because the kelpie is a hardy, elusive and indestructible creature.  In the 1780s, for example, Highlanders tried to drag Loch Garn with nets to catch the underwater beast.  They failed to catch it, after which they tried scattering lime in the loch to kill the monster.  Neither succeeded.

tarbh

Other monsters

In the far north of Scotland and on Orkney and Shetland you’ll encounter (if you’re very unlucky) the njugl or neogle, a creature seen near water mills that resembles a pony.  It will stop the mill wheel to gain attention and, when the miller goes out to see what the problem might be, he will find the pony, saddled and bridled, grazing nearby.  If he mounts it, it will dash for the water and leap off the bank, with both rider and mount vanishing in a flash of flame.  Wiser millers chase the creature off with a red hot poker or similar.  A notorious example of the nuggle used to plague the Orkney island of Hoy.  It lived in a small lake on the north-east coast of the island, called the Water o’ Hoy, but frequented the ford over the Pegal Burn, a little further to the south, where it would try to catch hapless travellers.

In the Scottish Highlands and on Orkney and Shetland a variety of other terrifying and often hybrid beasts were known.  Some of these are mentioned in my forthcoming posting on boggles.  Here I’ll mention one that seemed to have no specific name.  Over Yule on Shetland people were not expected to do any of their normal day to day activities or work.  Once, however, two men went out fishing in defiance of the prohibition.  They netted a monstrous creature that was half fish and half horse and which spoke, declaring to them:  “Man who fished in Yule week/ Fortune never more did seek.”  Once again, these supernatural beings seem to be recruited to back up religious rules and festivals.

Water Bulls

As I have discussed previously, you may encounter fairy cattle owned by the good folk, which have their own identifying characteristics, but there are also water bulls, the tarbh uisge of the Highlands.  The bulls of Glenlochay near Breadalbane are said to be brindled, red and yellow.  A cow will abandon its herd and travel up the glen to the lochan, where she will bellow until the tarbh appears and mates with her.  The hybrid offspring are known to be those of a tarbh because they are all black with curly hair.  

On the Isle of Man, water bulls are also found, being called tarroo ushtey.  They’re recognised by their shining coats and sharp ears.   They often mix with normal herds of cattle, and rouse the fury of the bulls kept with them, although the tarroo seems indifferent to the rage of the farmer’s bull.  They can be fierce, but they often move quite slowly, making a strange whirring sound.

In one Manx story a farmer objected to the bull grazing with his herds and consuming his valuable grass, so he drove it off several times.  The result, though, was that blights struck his crops.  A wise-woman told the man that he could subdue the tarroo with a stick made from rowan wood- which he duly did.  Having the beast under his control, he resolved to sell it at the market.  He was easily able to drive the bull there, but no-one seemed interested, despite the size and sleekness of the animal.  Right at the end of the day, a man finally showed interest, but he asked the farmer to ride the bull to prove that it was tame and well-behaved.  Desperate for the sale, he consented to this, but as soon as he’d mounted he dropped his rowan switch.  This of course released the tarroo from his control and it bolted, nearly carrying the man off into a deep pool in the river.  He narrowly escaped- and learned his lesson, which was to always show the proper respect to the fairies and the faery beasts.

Also found on the Isle of Man is the glashtin, a sort of bogie that will very commonly take on equine form and which will inhabit pools and rivers.  Unlike the tarroo ushtey, the glashtin is said to mingle with the herds of horses kept by Manx farmers without any disturbance or hostility between the animals.  However, the glashtins only liked to mate with pure Manx-bred ponies, and as the island’s horses interbred more and more with outside breeds, the glashtin was seen less and less.

If you’re interested to learn more, see too my separate posting on water beasts.  Additionally, several chapters of Beyond Faery deal in detail with the many aspects of the lore of the inland and marine water beasts of Britain.  The book is due for release in early November.

Fairy Herds- winning and losing good luck

flossie

There are two sorts of fairy cattle: there are the supernatural ‘water beasts,’ the water bulls of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man, which are magical and live under water (but are relatively harmless) and there are the less magical herds of cattle kept by the faes themselves.

Crodh mara & crodh sith

The fairies’ own livestock are the crodh mara, the fairy sea cows of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the fairy cattle or crodh sith of the Scottish mainland and the gwartheg y llyn, the Welsh ‘lake cattle’, that are frequently brought to marriages with men by the beautiful lake maidens- and just as frequently are taken away again by them when the relationship ends or when some taboo is breached.  These beasts may be livestock belonging to fairies, but they are by and large without any fairy characteristics of their own.  The dividing line between fairy cattle as simple chattels and fae beasts, as otherworld creatures, is a very fine one, though; here are two examples.

Elf Bulls

Victorian fairy expert Crofton Croker gathered some very interesting information on ‘elf-bulls.’  He described how, in Scotland at the end of harvest, the farmers’ cattle would be gathered into the cleared fields to graze the ‘aftermath.’ They might be seen to run about, bellowing, without apparent or visible cause.  However, if a person cared to take the risk, they might look through a knot hole in a piece of wood or through the hole made in a cow’s hide by the strike of an elf-bolt (both well-attested ways of penetrating fairy glamour) and the source of the disturbance would be revealed.  An elf bull would be seen, fighting with the strongest bull in the herd and mating with the cows.  The price of this revelation was the loss of sight in the eye used, however.  As I’ve described previously, the cows are naturally able to see the fairy beings, the second sight being innate.

Elf bulls are smaller than conventional ones, mousy in colour with upright ears, short horns and legs, and hair that is short, smooth and glossy like an otter’s pelt.  They are supernaturally strong and courageous and linger around rivers, grazing on the banks at night.

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The Manx taroo ushtey, from Bamart

Catching a Fairy Cow

These creatures, as I’ve said, may voluntarily mix with farm livestock and leave their hybrid offspring amongst those herds as well.  They can be trapped too.  At Shewbost on the Hebrides the crodh mara used to come ashore to graze and the local people were able to catch them and add them to their own stock by the simple measure of sprinkling maistir (stale urine) across their path back to the sea, as I’ve described previously.

On Skye, the cattle were known only to graze in certain spots on land and it was common to hear their fairy owners calling them home again at night.  They could be caught by strewing earth across their route back to the sea; soil taken from a churchyard being especially favoured.

How to Lose a Fairy Herd

One Scottish farmer had a cow that, every May, would suddenly leave the herd in its pasture and make her way to the adjacent river bank.  She would swim across to a small island in the stream and stay there for a few hours before returning.  In due course a calf would be born, displaying many of the characteristics of an elf-bull.  This went on for many years, but eventually one Christmas the farmer, sitting by the fire with his family, suggested that the time had come to cull her.  She had given many years of milk and calves, but she was ageing and less productive.  The cow, however, heard their plans- and had understood. She bellowed, broke out of the cowshed and charged down to the river bank, where she swam to the island and disappeared forever.  Even worse, she took all her offspring with her.

Nearly identical events are told involving a couple on the Scottish island of Pabbay: they found there an abandoned cow and from it bred their entire herd.  Once again, after some years had passed, they decided that the time had come to slaughter their original cow.  It overheard and left with all its daughters, vanishing into the sea.  The ‘abandoned’ beast had in fact been one of the crodh mara.  In both these accounts the cow’s comprehension and its ability to vanish clearly set it aside from normal members of a herd.  Unlike many of the gwartheg y llyn in the Welsh stories, these cattle are not called away by their fairy owners- rather they leave of their own accord.

‘The Wild Calf’

A very attractive story, related to the preceding ones, concerns the ‘Wild Calf’ of the Highlands.  This was an invisible cow that would visit farms at night.  If the farmer went out to his byre in darkness and embraced the supernatural calf, he would gain great good fortune in cattle keeping: he’d become a very successful cattle breeder, he would always have healthy and productive herds and he would become very rich.  However, one farmer was visited by the Calf sometime during the mid-nineteenth century and was too scared of the dark to go out to his byre without a candle.  Because he took the light, he breached that fairy condition of secrecy that attached to the rewards he would have received.  The Calf vanished- and was never seen again.

Summary

As we know, the fairies aren’t just great lovers of milk and cream; they are very active beef and dairy farmers.  I also discuss fairy livestock in chapter 5 of my recently published book, FaeryMy next book, Beyond Faery, published in November 2020 by Llewellyn, specifically examines the magical water bulls and horses of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man.

For more on the faeries’ interactions with animals , livestock and nature more generally, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

In search of Orkney trows

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The Stones of Stenness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fairy lore in ‘Outlander’

claire and changeling

I have recently published an article in Faerie Magazine describing the significance of standing stones and stone circles in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  The standing stones of Craigh na Dun are central to the story, but there are other fairy incidents in the series that deserve our close attention.

Changeling children

The first scenario involves the finding of a changeling child; this that takes place in the first TV series episode 10 (‘By the pricking of my thumbs’) and in chapter 24 of the book Outlander (which was originally published as Cross Stitch).

These infants are traditionally called shag-bairns or shargies in Scotland.  I’m not sure of the etymology; there’s a Lincolnshire fairy beast called the ‘shagfoal’ which may be related, although this very possibly has connotations of the naturally shaggy nature of the creature; perhaps elvish bairns are also curiously hairy for their age.  Changeling elves usually are described as being thin, wizened and yellow in appearance but abnormal hairiness is not a typical characteristic, as far as I know.

In chapter 24 Claire Fraser is gathering plants in the woods with Geilis Duncan when she finds a baby laid in a hollowed rock, accompanied by a bowl of milk and some wild flowers tied with red thread.  The child looks very ill and, in fact, dies very shortly afterwards.  Claire’s outraged to find the infant abandoned but Geilis tells her not to interfere: the family will be in the vicinity and the child has been left out because it’s believed to have been changed by the fairies, an impression probably arising from the fact that its behaviour has changed and it has started to cry and fuss all the time.  Infants who ceased to develop (who ‘dwined’) and who were constantly grizzling (winicky) were prime suspects of elvish substitution.

In the story, where the baby is found is a fairy knoll and the hope is that the Wee Folk, seeing one of their tribe exposed to the elements, will swap it back and that the parents will be able to retrieve their own child the next morning.  As ever Claire wants to intervene but she is restrained first by Geilis and then Jamie.

The episode is a good representation of Scottish beliefs: James Napier in 1879 described how in the west of Scotland the practice was to take a suspected changeling to a fairy haunt- somewhere where the wind is heard to sough in a peculiar way in the trees, a place that is often near to a cairn, stone circle, green mound or dell.  With certain ritual words the parents would then leave it, along with an offering of bread, milk, cheese, eggs and the flesh or fish or fowl.  They would wait for an hour or two until after midnight and return to where the baby had been left in full expectation that the offering would have been taken and that this would be a sign that the fairies had accepted their own back again and had restored the human babe.  The Outlander account could almost be modelled upon Napier’s description.  The mention of red thread is also authentic as this was used to protect children and cattle from being taken by the fairies; it would be tied around their necks as a sort of amulet. (Napier, Folk lore or superstitious beliefs in the west of Scotland within this century).  The offering of milk is authentic, for the fairies’ love of dairy products is well known, and the hollowed rock also fits with tradition (although often it was milk and beer that were poured into cup-shaped stones as offerings to the fairy folk.)

Gabaldon captures effectively the desperate response of many communities to the possibility of an elf being substituted for a healthy child.  In what may appear to border upon irrationality, there was a conviction that only by forceful means could the changeling be expelled and the real baby recovered.  This undoubtedly led to a good deal of child abuse- not just exposure but burning, drowning and beating.  For example, in one Cornish case the frantic mother recruited her neighbours too to help her batter the pixie-substitute with brooms before leaving it overnight by a church stile.  In the Outlander episode the infant dies, although not directly at the hands of its parents.  Another Scottish remedy was what was called ‘nine mother’s meat’- the anxious parent would visit nine other mothers in her vicinity and beg from them each the gift of three different sorts of food which, being fed to a sickly child, would save it from abduction.

In Outlander this superstitious and powerless mood is reflected in the fact that Jamie Fraser, whilst being a rational man whose tutor taught him German, Latin and Greek and who has studied history and philosophy in France, will neither sleep on a fairy hill at night nor dare to contradict his neighbours in the matter of the taking of children by the fairies.

Changeling Baby Closeup

An t’each uisge– the water horse

The second mythical creature that appears in the first book, albeit a little more briefly, is the ‘water horse.’  It features in two separate chapters of Cross Stitch, although the second addresses more contemporary ideas of monsters and legend.

In chapter 18 Rupert tells stories to the encamped Highlanders.  One concerns the waterhorse of Loch Garve, who takes a fancy to a human wife and carries the woman to his home beneath the waves.  It’s icy and unhappy down there. so he gets a human builder to construct a fireplace for her so that she can warm herself by her hearth and cook proper hot human food, instead of subsisting upon snails and waterweed like her husband.  In the next chapter Claire actually sees the waterhorse, except in the story it’s the Loch Ness monster, a prehistoric plesiosaur risen from the depths.

Diana Gabaldon’s version of the waterhorse is a good deal more benign that the folklore original.  It’s true that the traditional kelpie carries off humans on its back, but this is not for the purpose of abducting a likely wife but rather with a view to drowning and consuming the hapless rider.  Often all that remains are the victim’s heart and lungs, which are washed ashore by the side of the haunted loch.  The true waterhorse– and related beasts- are all dreaded for their penchant for devouring unwary travellers and careless children.  Some will set out to charm and seduce mortal females, but this is only as a preliminary to their destruction.  No serious or long term affection is involved.

Whereas the changeling incident in Outlander confronts the harsh treatment of sickly children in earlier times, the fresh water monster is rationalised and made benign and thoughtful.

Kelpie-2

Further reading

You can read my Outlander article here (FM#44_StandingStones).  I discussed fairies and megaliths more generally in a much earlier posting on the blog, too, and also covered the subject in my book, British fairies.

‘Something in that witching face’- kelpies and mermaids

caffieri mermaid

Caffieri, ‘Young siren’

A long time ago, in an early posting on this blog, I discussed mermaids; I want now to return to the subject with some further reflections and information.

The little mermaid

Just like fairies, elves and pixies, it is very notable how the popular image of mermaids has improved and how they are coming to be regarded as wholly cute and attractive figures of myth.  The illustrations to this posting by Hector Caffieri demonstrate an early stage in this trend; perhaps the best known contemporary example might be Disney’s Ariel, the little mermaid.  In passing, it may be worthwhile making an additional observation on visual conventions.  The cartoon Ariel, for one, is sanitised and winsome.  Caffieri’s ‘Siren’ above is likewise a small girl, but it’s notable how the standard image has changed in the last century or so.  Today, the fish scales extend to the waist; in Victorian times (as can be seen) they often started somewhat lower, requiring a more discrete treatment (or perhaps a chance for a little titillation).

Today, mermaids are viewed wholly as figures suitable for children to like, draw and to imitate, with mermaid tails being a widely available form of fun beach wear.  It seems very likely that this more benign idea is derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 story of The little mermaid.  The main character in this is presented as a model of Christian self sacrifice and goodness and has doubtless had a pervasive influence commensurate with the story’s popularity.  For modern generations, the aforementioned cartoon version of the story from Disney has profoundly influenced popular views of marine supernaturals since its release in 1989.  Other symptoms of these revised views of merfolk may be the 1984 film Splash starring Daryl Hannah and the very recent appearance of female entertainers playing mermaids for parties and corporate events.

Folklore mermaids

Whilst terrestrial fairies have been the subject of prettification and miniaturisation since the late sixteenth century,  this process has only been applied to mermaids during the last century and a half.  The consequence is that a great deal more of the older folklore attitudes survive, both in stories and in poetry.  Mermaids are still supernatural creatures deserving of awe, fear and mistrust.  Kindliness was never one of the mermaid’s traditional traits and it is still not how other supernatural water beasts are perceived.  In this respect, the dependable J K Rowling gives us a depiction more observant of folklore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (there called grindylows).  It may be easier for us to identify with and to find attractive qualities in a being that lives solely on land; mermaids live in a different element in which a human cannot survive and this important distinction may help to preserve their distance from us and our healthy respect for that difference.

caffieri-hector-1847-1932 a-young-siren

Caffieri,  ‘Siren’ (Bonhams)

It’s also inescapable that most mermaids are depicted as young, beautiful, naked women.  There’s probably a lot of psychology here if you’d like to find it.  This iconography may tell us about relations between men and women: the separation between elements may be a metaphor for the difference between the sexes.  It may equally just have something to say about sex more generally- that physical attraction is powerful, but dangerous; that we are entering a new and exposing environment when we entrust ourselves to another individual; that the lure of the strange and mysterious is strong but perilous.   As with all supernatural partners, love for mermaids is enticing but full of risk: what is placed in jeopardy may be long term happiness, your present way of living and connections or, even, life itself.

Irish poet Francis Hackett (1883-1962) captured many of the conventional traits of the mermaid in his poem Sea dawn:

“From Wicklow to the throb of dawn
I walked out to the sea alone
And by the black rocks came upon
A being from a world unknown.

As proud she sat as any queen
On high, and naked as the air:
Her limbs were lustrous, and a sheen
Of sea-gold flowed from her flowing hair.

And as the spreading sea did swell
With dawns strange and brimming light
Her little breasts arose and fell
As if in concord with the sight.

Faint was the sea sound that she made
Of little waves that melt in sand
While with her honey hair she played
And arched the mirror in her hand.”

This evocation of adolescent allure may well now trigger thoughts of the recent controversy concerning J. M. Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the nymphs and its temporary removal from the walls of Manchester City Art Gallery.  Both the picture and Hackett’s verse are of a piece and represent one powerful current of thought on mermaids and their nature.

Common mermaid themes

Across the world, there are several themes common to tales of merfolk.  The principal of these are as follows:

  • they can predict the future (see John Rhys, Celtic folklorethough very often this knowledge is dispensed in cryptic terms;
  • they can grant magical powers to those they favour (see for example The old man of Cury in Hunt’s Popular romances of the West of England);
  • they can punish those who offend them or who injure those whom they protect (see Hunt’s stories of the mermaid in Padstow Harbour and of The mermaid’s vengeance);
  • they can assume normal human form by magical means; and,
  • they can become involved in love affairs with mortals, whether that involves living for a while on land with the human or luring the human beneath the waves.  The outcomes are seldom good (see Matthew Arnold, The merman’s lament).

As is the case in contact with all supernatural beings, involvement with merfolk is generally risky and involves an imbalance of power.  Romantic attachments can be fatal whilst any information or ability gained from them is only obtained through coercion, whether that is bribery or physical force.

mucha mermaid

An art nouveau mermaid or water sprite

Water monsters

To repeat, as with the improvement in the character of fairies, the changed perception of merfolk is a relatively recent amelioration.  Evidence of the earlier, much more dangerous, nature of these beings is still to be found in the Scottish accounts of water horses (associated with salt water), water bulls and other water beasts like kelpies, which are found in freshwater lochs.  Their main occupation, it seems, is seducing mortals and luring them to their doom.  James Hogg’s 1819 poem The mermaid is representative of this:  the Maid of the Crystal Wave lures a young man to ‘places he should not have been and sights he should not have seen’ and it proves to be his ruin.  Similarly in Charles Mackay’s 1851 ballad The Kelpie of Corryevreckan a handsome stranger on a horse rides off with love-struck Jessie, but then plunges beneath the waves with her, so that she is found drowned the next day.  Poet Joseph Rodman Drake in his verse, To a friend, described travellers being terrorised by “the kelpie’s fang.”

It is notable that whilst mermaids might accidentally drown their lovers, it is not generally their intention, whereas the character of the water beasts is specifically to seek out humans in order to destroy them.  In light of this, there is perhaps a case for excluding the latter from the category of ‘fairies.’ Mermaids are semi-human in form; the kelpie can take on human form whilst the water horses appear as animals alone and may be better described as monsters.

Lastly, what is particularly notable is the Highland Scottish link between water creatures and horses.  Exactly why this should have been made is far from clear, but it is to be found across Northern Europe in Scandinavian folklore, from Iceland through to Denmark.  It seems very likely that Viking settlement introduced this idea into the north of Scotland.

waterhouse, sketch-for-a-mermaid-1892

J W Waterhouse, ‘Sketch for a mermaid’, 1892.

Further reading

As mentioned, I posted before on the risks of loving mermaids and water beasts and I have also discussed catching the fleeting and vulnerable asrai.  Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see my post on mermaid wisdom and my posting on Gwenhidw, the Welsh mermaid queen. See too my discussion of freshwater mere-maids and of of Charles’ Kingsley’s famous novel, The water babies.