‘Fy nhy, eich ty’: my house, your house

Florence Anderson, The Artist at Home

The faeries are remarkably attracted to our homes.  For a people who (we are frequently told) have an aversion to all aspects of human civilisation- the noise and pollution, the electric lighting, the religion- there are still numerous examples of them being drawn to using our buildings.  Mills (both operational and disused) are popular, but our houses are even more attractive.

There are, of course, some fairies who live and work with us- the brownies, boggarts and hobs– but what I’m interested in here is the ‘wild,’ non-domesticated faeries who have their own homes and yet still choose to come and use ours.  It may be that our buildings are better than theirs: on this, the evidence is conflicting.  We hear plenty of accounts of people who visit palaces and grand mansions below ground, with halls that accommodate feasts and fine furnishings, but we also hear about dilapidated hovels.  For example, in 1910 a Welsh district nurse reportedly attended a birth in a fairy dwelling.  The room where the woman in labour was lying was formed of bushes; her bed was made of moss (Welsh Outlook, 1931). We can never be sure how much the finery is just glamour that disguises the much more humble reality.

Whatever the exact situation (and perhaps it’s just a matter of class and wealth), there are plenty of accounts of faeries entering our houses and making their presence felt there.

Firstly, the fairies tend to be very particular about the manner in which premises should be prepared for their uninvited nocturnal visits.  They like to find hearths swept, floors washed, good fires built up and water and towels set out for them to wash.  If all is in order, people might hope to be rewarded with small coins; if householders or their servants neglect these preparations, they can expect to be pinched or pulled out of their beds.  For example, a Mrs Owen on Anglesey described in 1886 how her mother used to ready the house for its night time visitors.  She had to set out two chairs, a candle, a basin of clean water, a towel and soap for them.  Then, when the family were in bed, the tylwyth teg would come down the chimney and would spend the entire night bathing.  In the morning, though, the towel would have been washed and dried, the basin would have been emptied and placed on the table and there would be gold sovereigns inside. (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886)

On Shetland, the trows seem even more fussy.  An untidy home might be cursed for a year and a day; the water that is left out has to come from particular wells.  Conversely, sometimes the visitors (as on the island of Guernsey) might come and do unfinished household chores– although they’ll expect a bowl of porridge in return.

Once the fairies have arrived, their presence is frequently burdensome.  The Manx fairies seem to treat local houses with great familiarity.  They will enter at night, bank up the fires and make use of the spinning wheels.  They too expect bread and water to be left out for them.  In particular, it was accepted on the island that on dark and stormy nights the little folk would need to be able to shelter somewhere and people would go to bed early to make way for them.  In The Fairy Faith, Evans Wentz records a witness saying that his grandfather’s family would sometimes be visited by a little white dog on cold winter’s nights. This was a fairy dog, and was a sign that the fairies themselves were on their way.  The family would then stop whatever they were doing and make the house ready (fire stoked and fresh water set out) before hurrying off to bed. (Wentz 122)

In Buckhaven in Fife, the fairies used to be very troublesome indeed, dancing around the chimneys, running through houses and (of course) stealing babies.  A Welsh man was asleep in his home at Bwlch y ddar, near Llangedwyn, outside Oswestry, when he awoke to find a small man fiddling and others dancing in the room.  He asked who the intruders were, and was told “Yspriddion yr awyr” (spirits of the air).  Then he asked why they were there, and was told that they planned to dance that night and the next.  He swore they wouldn’t- and they vanished.  Perhaps a better response came from one elderly Manx resident, whose house was used regularly at night for faery dancing. The old man was unable to sleep because of the racket, but one evening, hearing the fiddles being tuned downstairs, he got out of bed, descended and asked the fairies if he might join in with their dancing. He was invited to enjoy himself and participated in a couple of reels before finding himself so tired that he slept soundly the rest of the night. Thereafter, he was never troubled again, and wise people in the neighbourhood praised his actions: if he’d stormed in shouting, he’d have been cursed for life, but his friendly attitude won him the esteem of the little people.

Returning to Wales, it was reported in Edwardian times that one Glamorgan neighbourhood was “infested with fairies.”  In one farmhouse, the supernatural visitors annoyed the family continually and gave them no peace: if the occupants were in the kitchen, the fairies would be gambolling in the dairy; if they were in the cow byre, the faes would be dancing in the kitchen.  When the household sat down to a meal, they would be disturbed by noise in the next room.  Eventually, the fairies had to be exorcised (Rhondda Leader, 17/9/1904).

It should be plain that the best policy is to be tolerant and accommodating. The fairies will get into our homes and other buildings whatever we do- they can’t be locked out- so it seems only sensible to make them welcome and to make the best of their company. This attitude is likely to be rewarded; showing exasperation and meanness will only be viewed as disrespect– and will be punished suitably.

Faery Charms- Magical Objects

Hag-stone by Hermitchild on Deviant Art

A study of the folklore records reveals that a range of objects, many of them extremely ordinary, have been found to be efficacious as charms that ward off or repel fairy harm.  They fall into several broad categories, although most of them are natural materials.

Minerals

A number of commonly occurring rocks and such like substances seem to dispel the fairy presence.  Iron is by far the most famous of these, being effective in any shape- whether a knife, a horse shoe, a pin or needle, pairs of tongs or the bolt of a door, but other less well-known (yet equally potent) materials include:

  • A hot coal thrown in a vat of brewing ale, which will prevent the fairies spoiling it. Likewise, live (that is burning) coals carried by travellers will prevent them being misled or abducted during their journey;
  • Amber beads sewn into a child’s clothes will prevent its abduction;
  • Salt will certainly drive off the fairies, scattered around or put into food stuffs that you don’t want stolen (I’ve discussed the power of salt separately);
  • In the Highlands, calves’ ears were smeared with tar just before May Day to protect them against theft;
  • The last, rather well known, natural object in this category is the so called adder stone, a naturally holed stone that could be worn around the neck to protect an individual or might be hung over a byre or stable to safeguard the livestock. When not in use, the stones were often kept safe in iron boxes which stopped the fairies trying to interfere with them. The antiquarian Edward Lhuyd, visiting Scotland in 1699, recorded that these ‘self-bored’ stones were also known as snake buttons, cock-knee stones, toad stones, snail stones and mole stones.
‘Elder at Walberswick’ by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 1915

Plants

It is pretty well known that sprigs of rowan repels faeries; other plants equally repulsive to the faes are:

  • Fresh nettles, which, if laid on a milk churn will stop them hindering the churning (according to Manx belief).  In this connection, see Guilpin’s play Skialaetheia (1598) in which a character says “I applaud myself, for nettle stinging thus this fayery elfe”;
  • Vervane and dill can dispel evil influences, as can milkwort and mugwort.  Other handy herbs are mistletoe, nightshade, yarrow, groundsel, rue and the sap of ash trees. Burnt bindweed would safeguard a baby in a cradle, as would four leaved clover;
  • In Wales, meanwhile, it was said that a four leaved clover (combined, apparently, with nine grains of wheat) helped you to see the fairies- which would certainly enable you to avoid them if need be;
  • On the Hebrides, St John’s Wort and pearl wort both granted a general protection to cattle and people;
  • Sugar water, especially if it was served from a silver spoon or cup (or at least, from a receptacle containing a silver coin) would help ensure that a mother and her new born baby were safe from unwelcome faery attention. Even humble tea apparently drove fairies away in one Welsh case;
  • On Skye, oat cakes were said to have a protective effect.  Quite whether this derives from the oats themselves or from the fact that they have been processed by baking and very possibly salted is less certain;
  • In county Durham, an elder branch was said to guard against witches and fairies. On the Isle of Man the fairies were said to dwell in elder trees, but elder springs could also be carried to ward off the faes- and even to strike them;
  • Also on Man, a willow cross would protect against bugganes and fynoderees, but how much efficacy derived from the wood and how much from the religious significance of the shape, I can’t tell (see later for religious items).
The Crosh Bollan & Thor’s Hammer

Animal Products

I’ve described the effects of stale urine before, but an odd variety of animal parts and by-products could prove revolting to fairies- some understandable, some more surprising:

  • Drawing blood was believed to drive off the fairies on Orkney and Shetland;
  • On the Isle of Man, two special animal bones were found to have powerful effect.  These were the crosh bollan, which is the upper part of the palate of the wrass fish, and the so-called Thor’s Hammer, which is in fact from a sheep’s mouth and prevents fairy leading. Manx fishermen would carry the crosh bollan for protection at sea;
  • Burning leather repelled fairies from houses (see next section) as did the presence of a black cockerel;
  • Near Stirling, in central Scotland, it was recorded in 1795 that new born calves would be forced to eat a little dung as this would prevent both witches and elves harming or stealing them.

Cloth Items

It’s quite well-known that red threads are effective against fairies, for example tied around a child’s throat to protect them from taking or woven into the hair of a cow’s tail to prevent the fairies stealing its milk.  If you wanted to double your protection, securing a spring of rowan to someone or something with a red thread was recommended.

A burning rag carried round a woman in childbirth three times would stop the fairies taking her and her new born baby, it was said on Orkney and Shetland. It’s also reported that, when the trows smelled the smoke from the rag, they would express their displeasure in a rhyme: “Wig wag, jig jag,/ Ill healt so weel/ Thu wes sained/ Wi’ a linen rag.” To be fair, though, the smell of the smouldering material was probably the really effective part of this ceremony- for comparison, burning peats were also carried around farms on Shetland at Yule to ward off the trows. The combination of the smoke plus the flame (recall the lit coals earlier) appear to have been what discouraged the trows.

Wells & Well Water

As I have described previously, faery kind have an ambivalent relationship to wells, sometimes inhabiting them, sometimes avoiding them, sometimes giving their waters healing properties. In Wales, wells would be protected from the fairies by circling them with stones painted white; however the water from some springs was reputed to keep the fairies at bay- for example, St Leonards Well at Sheep’s Tor on Dartmoor.

Religious items

Linked to the possibly erroneous belief that fairies are fallen angels or emissaries of the devil and, as such, innately antithetical to all aspects of Christian religion, items such as bibles, psalm and prayer books were constantly regarded as sure remedies against fairy threat.  Even a few pages torn from a holy book could work, it was said in Scotland. It was found that an open bible could be especially potent, if carried around the person or place to be blessed and protected. On Shetland, plaiting crosses out of straws or the livestock’s tail hairs was a further precaution undertaken.

***

As will be seen, a variety of items carried with you can provide excellent protection against fairy interference and abduction. Properly equipped, you should not need to fear being pixie-led or being taken. Luckily, too, although some of these items are quite rare, many are readily available to all.

For further discussion, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

‘An Ill Wind’- Faery Paralysis and Other Blights

Sleigh- Phylis & Demoophoon, Phantastes
Bernard SleighPhyllis & Demoophoon

People can be rendered completely incapable of movement by the fairies.  This is generally inflicted as some sort of punishment and can be a short-term measure to remedy a temporary problem- or a long-term state, which is indicative of a completely different state of affairs.  Long lasting paralysis is often a sign of fairy abduction.

Frozen on the Spot

A lazy, drunken farm labourer from the Cotswold area of England sneaked away from the harvest work in the fields to drink beer in the sun.  He chose a small mound with a hawthorn growing on top as comfortable spot and settled down to relax.  However, a crowd of small green beings appeared in front of him.  Despite his fear, he found he was completely unable to move.  After a while, they disappeared and he recovered the use of his limbs; he needed a drink, but found that all the beer in his flask had also disappeared.

It seems very clear from this account that the shirker had chosen a fairy hill to laze upon.  The incident might simply be a case of the fairies stealing alcohol because they fancied their own binge, but it seems more likely that this is an incident of a trespass being punished and- at the same time- a human being chastened for infringing the fairies’ moral code.  Whilst the story doesn’t say it explicitly, I reckon we may infer that the shock was such that the man rarely drank afterwards.

Incursion upon the fairies’ reserved places seems constantly to be the cause of cases of paralysis.  A farmer of Ffridd Uchaf was returning from Beddgelert fair in Snowdonia. He saw a company of fairies dancing and, whilst he lay in hiding watching them, he fell asleep. As he slumbered, they bound him so tightly that he could not move, after which they covered him over with a veil of gossamer, so that nobody would see him in case he cried out for help. As the man did not return home, his family made a thorough search for him, but in vain. Fortunately, about the same time the next night the fairies returned and freed him and, a little while later, he awoke after sleeping a whole night and a day. He had no idea where he was, and wandered about on the slopes of the Gader and near the Gors Fawr until he heard a cock crow, when he finally realised he was less than a quarter of a mile from his home.  This case is comparable to the story of ‘Miser on the Gump at St Just.’  An old man set out one moonlit night to Woon Gumpus, near the village of St Just, where he had heard that the fairies assembled and where he thought he might be able to steal some fairy treasure.  The whole fairy court emerged from under ground for a feast and the man hoped to steal some of their gold and silver plates.  He was so preoccupied with the precious metals that he neglected to notice that he had been surrounded by spriggans.  They threw hundreds of tiny ropes around him and pulled him to the ground, where he was pinched and stung by the entire fairy multitude.  At dawn they vanished, leaving him bound with cobwebs on the open moor.

A man who unwittingly stumbled upon a fairy market on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset was mishandled in a similar way. He tried to ride through the crowd of fairies gathered around the numerous stalls and was “crowded and thrust, as when one passes through a throng of people… He found himself in pain and so hastened home; where, being arrived, lameness seized him all on one side, which continued with him as long as he lived, which was for many years…” Although the writer here, Richard Bovet, calls it ‘lameness,’ it seems apparent that the man suffered some sort of paralysis on one side of his body (Pandaemonium 207).

Our last example comes from Torrington in North Devon.  One day at the very beginning of June, 1890, a man was working in a wood.  At the end of the day he separated from his companions to collect a tool he had left nearby.  On bending down to pick it up, a strange feeling came over him; he was unable to move and he heard pixies laughing.  He realised he was at their mercy.  When he had not returned home by ten o’clock that night, his wife became very alarmed and went out to look for him.  She met the man emerging from the wood, soaked to the skin.  He explained he had been held under the pixies’ spell for nearly five hours, capable only of crawling along on his hands and knees.  It was dark and he had no idea where he was, as a result of which he fell into a stream, which broke the spell.  The wood was apparently known for pixie-leading, although this is not really the right term for the man’s experience, which was much more akin to a paralysis.

Several features unite these cases: an action which somehow incurs fairy displeasure and their sanction, which is a loss of bodily function that may vary in terms of its extent and/ or duration.  I have called this fairy paralysis; our forebears seem to have called it something else- ‘fairy blast.’

soper spell
Eileen Soper, The Spell That Went Wrong

Fairy Blast

Roughly speaking, there are two main ways in which the fairies make humans sick.  One is to shoot us with arrows (elf-shot), which leaves the victim elf-struck (suffering from a stroke).  The other is to blast them with an ‘ill-wind’- a condition also sometimes called the evil eye.

The condition was recognised in England, and was often termed ‘the Faerie’ but it is from Scotland that we have the better records of the illness and its cure. The evidence mainly comes from the trial of women suspected of being ‘witches,’ although in reality what they had usually been involved in was folk healing, using herbs, of the sickness caused by fairies and witches.  For example, Jonet Andersone of Stirling was tried in 1621: using a shirt worn by the patient and an iron knife, she had diagnosed that the illness had come from ‘a blast of ill wind.’  Likewise, Janet Boyman of Edinburgh told a mother than her child had been blasted with an evil wind by the fairies when they found it in its cradle, unblessed by the mother and therefore unprotected from faery malignity.

In 1662 Jonet Morrisone of Bute was tried for witchcraft.  Amongst the evidence against her was an incident where she had told a man that his daughter was paralysed and unable to speak because of “blasting with the faryes,” something she cured with herbs.  She had treated at least two others in the same way.  Janet Trall of Perth treated a baby that had got “a dint of evil wind” by bathing the infant with water from a south-flowing well.   I’ve discussed before the crucial role of water in curing fairy illness and in cures provided to us by the fairies.

On Shetland and Orkney, the trows were also said to cause identical illnesses. The islanders said that an ‘ill wind’ in the face could lead to languor, stupor and loss of appetite.

There were two explanations as to how blasting happened.  Healer Catie Watson of Stow explained in 1630 that people were “blasted with the breath of the fairy.”  Jonet Morisone, though, said that “blasting is a whirlwind that the fayries raise about that persone quhich they intend to wrong and that, tho’ there were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot him quhom they were set for.”  She went on to explain that the effect of the wind gathered in one place in the body and, unless treated in a timely manner, would cause the victim to ‘shirpe’ (shrivel) away.   Janet Boyman in 1572 expanded a little on this: the purpose of the blasting was, in her opinion, to enable the fairies (the “sillyie wychts” as she called them) to abduct the victim.  She saw blasting as part of a longer term strategy, therefore, rather than as an immediate response to some offence.

Some close contact was evidently necessary for the blast to be inflicted.  I’ll end this discussion with a mention of a Highland Scottish belief that cattle could be paralysed by the so-called ‘fairy mouse.’  The luch-sith was the name for the shrew and it was believed that its presence in pastures could lead to livestock being struck down with the marcachd sith, (fairy riding), a paralysis of the spine brought on by the shrew running across the backs of the cattle when they lay down.

For more on this aspect of the faery character, see my 2021 book The Darker Side of Faery:

Summoning Faeries- spells and practices

Canziani Good morning
Good Morning‘ by Estella Canziani

In a much earlier post on summoning spells, I examined some of the methods that have been used to bring fairies before you.  During my researches, I’ve come across a few more, which are presented here now.

Broadly, there seem to be two ways in which it is possible to summon fairies into your presence.  One involves the use of a crystal ball and the conjuring of the faery with the correct words; the other exploits the faeries’ own magic or glamour to override their invisibility and expose them to our view.

Crystal Balls

The first method was the one adopted by many magicians and seers, especially during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when efforts to contact spirits of different kinds by these means seem to have been at their peak.  One of the leading English practitioners was William Lilly, who describes some of the methods used in his History of His Life and Times.  He tells us that he knew two skilled seers.  One was a woman called Sara Skelhorn who practiced in the Gray’s Inn Road in London.  She contacted beings she described as angels through her crystal ball and gained information from them.  In fact, Sara seems to have been rather too good at this.  Late in her life, she complained to Lilly how the angels wouldn’t go away, but followed her around her house until she was weary of their presence.

The other conjurer he knew was a woman called Ellen Evans, who summoned up the fairy queen using her ball and a summoning spell, that began “O Micol! O Micol! Regina pigmeorum veni…”  (Micol, come, queen of the pygmies [fairies]).  This line is evidently the start of a much longer invocation, and I have discussed before the sorts of lengthy charm that was usually required.  You’ll also note that it seemed necessary to invoke the faes in Latin; I’ve examined the question of fairy language several times before- and there’s little basis for thinking they spoke as the Romans did- but Latin as a learned language seemed very suitable for these charms at the time.

Here’s an example summoning ritual from Percy’s Reliques (III, 263).  It’s titled “an excellent way to get a fayrie.” :

“First, get a broad square christall or Venice glasse, in length and breadth three inches. Then lay that glasse or christall in the blood of a white henne, three Wednesdayes or three Fridayes. Then take it out and wash it with holy aqua [water], and fumigate it. Then take three hazle sticks, or wands, of an yeare groth ; pill [peel] them fayre and white ; and make them soe longe as you write the spiritt’s name, or fayrie’s name, which you call three times on every stick being made flatt on one side. Then bury them under some hill, whereat you suppose fayries haunt, the Wednesday before you call her : and the Friday followinge take them uppe and call her at eight, or three, or ten of the clocke, which be good planetts and houres for that turne ; but when you call be in cleane life and turne thy face towards the East, and when you have her bind her in that stone and glasse”

At this point Lilly goes on to warn readers that the spirits won’t appear for everyone.  They prefer people of “strict diet and upright life,” which is what he means by his reference to “cleane life:” a ritual cleansing in advance is recommended.  Moreover, even if they do appear, it will often transpire that the magician is not suited to the experience.  As Lilly says, even those of undaunted character and firm resolution can be astonished and trembling “nor can many endure their glorious aspects.”  However much you may desire to see the faery queen, therefore, the reality may be overwhelming.

Anning Bell Cupid_s_visit

Glamour

The second way to see fairies is to use their magic against them.  A seventeenth century spell book in the Bodleian library in Oxford contains a variety of faery related spells, including ‘To call Oberon into a crystal stone’ but the one I wish to discuss is called ‘Experimentum optimum verissimum for the fairies.”  It sets out a lengthy and complex procedure, which I reproduce for you here:

“In the night before the newe moone, or the same night, or the night after the newe moone, or els the night before the full moone, the night of the full, or the night after the full moone, goe to the house where the fairies mayds doe use and provide you a fayre and cleane buckett, or payle cleane washt, with cleere water therein and sett yt by the chimney syde or where fyre is made, and having a fayre newe towel or one cleane washt by, and so departe till the morning; then be thou the first that shall come to the buckett or water before the sonne ryse, and take yt to the light, that you find upon the water a whyte ryme, like rawe milk or grease, take yt by with a silver spoone, and put yt into a cleane sawcer; then the next night following come to the same house agayne before 11 of the clocke at night, making a good fire with sweet woods and sett upon the table a newe towel or one cleane washt and upon yt 3 fyne loaves of new mangett [fine wheat bread], 3 newe knyves with whyte haftes and a newe cuppe fulle of newe ale, then sett your selfe downe by the fyre in a chaire with your face towards the table and anonynt your eyes with the same creame or oyle aforesaid.  Then you shall see come by you thre fayre maydes, and as they passe by they will obey you with becking their heads to you, and like as they doe to you, so doe you to them, but saye nothing.  Suffer the first, whatsoever she be, to passe, for she is malignant, but to the second or third as you like best reache forth your hand and pluck her to you, and with fewe words aske her when she will apoynt a place to meete you the next morning for to assoyle such questions as you will demand of her; and then, yf she will graunt you, suffer her to depart and goe to her companye till the houre appointed, but misse her not at the tyme and place; then will the other, in the mean tyme whyle you are talking with her, goe to the table and eat of that ys ther, then will they depart from you, and as they obey you, doe you the like to them saying nothinge, but letting them depart quyetlye.  Then when youre houre is come to meete, say to her your mynde, for then will she come alone.  Then covenant with her for all matters convenient for your purpose and she wilbe always with you, of this assure yourselfe for it is proved, ffinis [the end].”

The process is reasonably straightforward, as you will have seen.  You will need to have acquired some fresh fine loaves, some new ale, some clean buckets filled with clean water and clean towels, but none of these items ought to be too hard to come by.  The tricky part is knowing whether a house is one “where the fairies mayds doe use,” in other words, a place that is frequented by female fairies on a regular basis.  Provided that you’re sure you’ve correctly identified the place, everything else will apparently fall into place like clockwork.

How does this ritual work?  Well, as fairy expert Katharine Briggs explained, the unspoken assumption lying behind it is as follows: overnight the fairies will enter the house to wash themselves and their children in the fresh water.  As I’ve described before, fairy babies are anointed with an ointment that gives them their second sight and powers of glamour and (it seems) reinforces their immortal fairy nature.  Some of this salve will, it seems, be washed off during the ablutions and it is this that forms the rime on the surface of the bucket.  You then simply lift it off with your silver spoon and you have acquired the key to faery.

All that remains is to wish you good luck- and to remind you to read other postings discussing some of the potential downsides of any encounter.  For a discussion of the summoning faeries for sexual purposes, see my Love and Sex in Faeryland, 2021 (Amazon/ Kindle)

Fairy cures and potions

I have previously paid some attention to fairy healing, but I’ve recently gathered together a range of evidence on the types of cures and medicines that people have got from the fairies and it made sense to sort and arrange these to give a you a full idea of the sorts of methods and ingredients used.

There are a number of key elements or procedures regularly found in the cures, which are as follows.

Herbs

As a primarily rural people, it is far from surprising that the fays tend to use commonly found plants to make their potions.  Frequently we’re only told that ‘herbs’ were used, made into drinks and salves, but sometimes we are given more detail than just reading that they were “divers green herbs” which doesn’t help much at all.  Suspected witch, Isobel Stirling, used rowan in her cures; Elspeth Reoch used yarrow to cure nosebleeds; Bessie Dunlop was given something like the root of a beet by her fairy adviser and was told to cook it and make it into a salve or dry it and powder it.  Katherine Cragie was tried on Orkney in 1643 for both curing and inflicting illnesses; she treated those stricken by the trows with an application of foxglove leaves (the plant was called ‘Trowis Glove’ on Orkney at this time; it is not a practice to be imitated given the toxicity of the plant).  Nonetheless, Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried in May 1658, also treated a dumb man with foxglove leaves in water from a south running stream.  Isobel Haldane of Perth was tried in 1623 for making charms, a skill she claimed to have been taught by the fairies.  She attempted to drive out a ‘shargie bairn’ (a changeling) using a drink made from ‘sochsterrie’ leaves (possibly star-grass); the infant died (which may or may not have been a successful cure). Lastly, in 1716, Farquhar Ferguson of Arran was tried before a church court for practising charms: one of his medicinal drinks was made from agrimony.

A range of illnesses would be treated with herbs.  For such maladies as “ane evill blast of wind” or being “elf-grippit” (having a fairy attack or seizure) Bessie Dunlop had a variety of cures.  She would mix assorted herbs together to feed to sick cattle; illnesses in people might be cured by ointments or by powders (which were presumably ingested); during her examination in court she added that if the patient “sweated out” the treatment, they would not recover.  Just like Bessie, Jonet Morrisone from the isle of Bute healed a little girl who’d been ‘blasted with the faryes’ using herbs.  Rather like Bessie, too, she told the court at her trial in 1662 that treatment in time should guarantee recovery, but if she was consulted too late, the patient might still “shirpe” (shrivel or wither) away.

Alesoun Peirsoun treated the Bishop of St Andrews for trembling fever, palpitations, weakness in the joints and the flux with a herbal ointment which she rubbed into his cheeks, neck, breast, stomach and side.  Alesoun had spent seven years visiting the faery court in Elfame and had seen the ‘good neighbours’ making their salves in pans over fires, using herbs they had picked before sunrise.

Herbs seemed to do more than cure illness in livestock and people, though.  Janet Weir of Edinburgh told her trial in April 1670 that her fairy helper, a woman who would intercede on Janet’s behalf with the fairy queen, also gave her a piece of tree or herb root which allowed her to “doe what she should desyre.”

A Visit to the Witch 1882 | Edward Frederick Brewtnall | oil painting
Edward Frederick Brewtnall, A visit to the witch

Food

The herbal remedies just discussed as often hard to separate from those involving food stuffs, some everyday ingredients, others rather more expensive and harder to come by.  For instance, Alesoun Peirsoun also treated the Bishop with a medicinal broth made from ewe’s milk, wood-ruff and other herbs, claret and the liquor of boiled hen, which he had to drink over two successive days- a quart at a time.  Bessie Dunlop made a similar preparation.  She was approached for help by a young gentlewoman who suffered from ‘cold blood’ and fainting fits, for which she prescribed a potion made from ginger, cloves, aniseed and liquorice mixed in strong ale and taken with sugar in the mornings before eating.  Margaret Dicksone of Pencaitland used eggs and meal to drive out a changeling- perhaps more of a charm than a cure, just as was the case with the aforementioned Elspeth Reoch.  She acquired the second sight by means of boiling an egg on three successive Sundays and using the ‘sweat’ that formed on the egg to wash her hands and then rub on her eyes.

The vicar of Warlingham in Surrey in the early seventeenth century recorded a range of cures that had apparently been taught to him “by the fayries.”  Some of them involved the shedding and use of blood (quite common in magical remedies), others used food and herbs together.  For example:

  • To cure boils, blotches and carbuncles, take the ripe berries of ivy growing on a north facing wall, dry them, powder them and then give as much as will cover a groat coin in a glass of wine. The patient should be rubbed til they sweat and then put to bed in fresh sheets and clothes.  They will be well by morning;
  • To make a tooth fall out- mix wheat meal with spurge and put the paste in the hollow of the tooth. Given that spurge sap is acidic, this would certainly have had some sort of effect; and,
  • For those who are forespoken or bewitched- take three sprigs of rosemary, two comfrey leaves, half a handful of succory, half a handful of thyme and three sprigs of herb grace. Seethe these in a quart of water taken from a stream and then strain.  Flavour with nutmeg, ginger, mace and sugar and drink warm, followed by five almonds.

Water

I’ve discussed before how water can have magical properties. For example, from Shetland there come several accounts of trows using ‘kapps’ (wooden bowls) to pour water over patients during healing ceremonies.  The implement and the liquid were both important apparently (Saxby, Shetland traditional lore, p.151).

This is very often seen in the fairy-taught healing procedures.  Margaret Alexander from Livingstone used well water combined with charms to cure sick people.  Likewise, Isobel Haldane, who lived in Perthshire, took water from wells and burns and in it washed the shirts of her patients.   A woman called Jonet Boyman from Edinburgh would also diagnose sickness using a patient’s shirt, taking it to a well on Arthur’s Seat just outside the city.  Jonet had first acquired her healing skills by going to the well and raising a whirlwind, from which emerged a fairy man who taught her.

Earlier I mentioned Jonnet Miller, from Kirkcudbright, and it’s worth repeating here that one of her remedies (at least) required water taken from a stream that ran southwards.  Stein Maltman of Stirling told his 1628 trial that he made several different uses of water in his cures.  He boiled elf-shot in water from a south flowing stream and either had a patient drink it or bathe in it; in another case he had a man bathe himself in such a stream having first diagnosed his illness by reciting charms over one of the man’s shirts. Margaret Dicksone, mentioned just now, also treated a suspected changeling child by washing it- and its shirt- in a south-flowing stream.

Rituals and other items

Our last category involves a mixture of odd materials that were considered to have medicinal effect.  Catharine Caray from Orkney diagnosed and cured the sick using thread, charms and stones to cure physical and spiritual illnesses. For example, the thread might be tied on with an invocation of the holy trinity and the words “’bone to bone, synnew to synnew, and flesche to flesche, and bluid to bluid.”  Threads, often red in colour, were regularly used to protect cattle and children from fairy attacks.  Bessie Dunlop, for example, was given a green silk thread by her fairy helper, Thom Reid, with which she assisted women in childbirth.

Suspected witch Andro Man was tried at Aberdeen in 1598.  He used several methods to cure animals: he hit them with birds but he also employed salt and black wool.  A sick man was cured by passing him nine times through a length of yarn, and then transferring the illness from that to a cat.  He would invoke St John and use other holy words in Latin borrowed from Catholic liturgy; he stopped oxen from running away using ‘lax water’ (possibly water from a salmon stream or in which salmon had been cooked).  Lastly, he protected fields of corn by placing four stones at each corner.

Treatment by passing patients through hanks of yarn was also practised by Isobel Haldane, by Janet Trall from near Perth- who then cut up the yarn into nine parts and buried it in three different places- and by Thomas Geace of Fife, who burned the yarn afterwards.  I assume that this has some relation to the use of girdles in diagnosing sickness.

Stein Maltman, mentioned in the last section, had learned his healing skills from the “fairie folk,” whom he often saw, and they supplied him with a repertoire of cures.  He rubbed some patients with elf-shot; over others he waved a drawn sword, on the basis that the naked iron would scare the malignant fairies away; finally he advised some of those who consulted him to return to the spots where they felt they had picked up their infections, there to pray for healing.

waterhouse_destiny

J M W Waterhouse, Destiny

For more on faery medicines and cures, see the discussion in my ‘Faery Lifecycle’ (2021):