A siren, J W Waterhouse
The special status of song in fairy culture is demonstrated extremely well in a story from Highland Scotland. Angus Mór of Tomnahurich was a shepherd. He heard music coming from a fairy knoll, accompanied by the voice of his wife-to-be singing. Approaching the knoll, he peeped in but couldn’t see her. A fairy woman happened to be passing by so he seized her with his iron-tipped crook and demanded to know what was happening. She told him that he would only be able to save his intended if, at the end of that week, he could tell the fairy queen’s secret on the Bridge of Easan Dubh (the Black Falls). Seven days later Angus was on the bridge, where he heard a woman singing in a very fine voice. It was the queen, and the song itself was her secret. The last verse went as follows:
“There is music (ceol) in the hall of my dear,
There is gold in the land of Mackay,
But there is a song (oran) in Inverness,
That shall never be known.”
Big Angus cried out that he now knew every word of her song- and her secret with it. The Queen screamed in frustration, but he had effectively broken her spell, and she was forced to relinquish her claim to his wife.
James Halliwell long ago observed that “fairies always talk in rhyme” and it is true to say that many of their activities and many significant statements are accompanied by song. For example, fairies at work- grinding, churning or ‘waulking’ cloth- had special songs that went with those activities. Expressions of strong emotions, such as anger, love and grief, would also take a verse form (Halliwell, Popular Rhymes & Nursery Tales, 1849, p.190; Evans Wentz pp.102 & 112).
The use of verse and rhyme to formulate secrets was also common amongst faery-kind. Think, for example, of the British equivalents of Rumpelstiltskin, creatures such as Whuppity Stoorie and Sili Go Dwt: these goblin-like characters sing their secret to themselves, but are always overheard and undone:
“Little kens oor gude dame at hame,
That Whuppity Stoorie is my name!”
“Nimmy, nimmy not,
My name’s Tom Tit Tot” and,
“Little did she know
That Trwtyn Tratyn
Is my name.”
This last verse works much better in the original Welsh:
“Bychan a wydda’ hi
Yw f’enw i.”
Wordplay was something that supernaturals particularly respected and enjoyed- and a skill in it could prove crucial. Some fishermen from the Isle of Lewis were out in their boat when a mermaid briefly surfaced. They saw her ‘blood-charm’ (perhaps a reference to the fact that a mermaid’s shed blood will stir up the waves into a tempest) and, in any event, merely sighting a mermaid would normally have been interpreted as a sign of disaster. She resurfaced nearer to the boat and asked the helmsman for his ‘half-stanza.’ The steersman gave a clever answer, referring to his control over the ship, to which she said “It is well that you gave such a reply” and then sank out of sight. It appears that his quick wit and versifying pleased her, because the boat and the crew got home safely, although other ships out that day foundered and men drowned.
Closely comparable to this incident are the circumstances which gave rise to a ‘fairy song’ from Argyllshire. A fairy woman daily visited a mother and her new-born son, “with words and with singing of verses to try if she could ‘word’ him away with her.” Luckily, the mother always had a ready answer and was able to prevent her child being taken. The fairy woman in her verses successively disparaged the boy- in response to which his mother praised him- then she warned of the temptations of the girls in town as he got older, with their curly brown hair and their bouncy breasts (cìochan currach) and lastly the bean-sith admitted that she wanted him to be the herder of her sheep on the moor. The mother instead retorted that she hoped he’d be a warrior or a rich farmer.
Henry William Walker, A Fairy Bower
Mermaid wisdom is also often expressed in verse, as in this advice on health and diet:
“If they would drink nettles in March
And eat mugwort in May
So many braw maidens
Wadna gang to the clay.”
The same habit was known amongst fairies: for example, a man on the Island of Barra was sent to fetch a doctor for a seriously ill woman. It was a hot day and on his return journey he sat down on a fairy knoll for a rest and fell asleep. He awoke to hear a song “Ill it becomes a messenger, on an important message, to sleep on the ground in the open air.” (Evans Wentz p.114)
Faery song can have a sinister significance as well. The song of the kelpie, the supernatural horse that lives in Scottish rivers, is said to signify that it is in search of human blood. It is certainly known to sing in triumph when a person is already on its back and it is too late for them to escape. One song had these words:
“And ride weil, Davie
And by this night at ten o’clock,
Ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”
Another version, recorded in 1884, went as follows:
“Sit well, Janety, or ride well Davie
For this time morn, ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”
Pot Cravie is the English attempt at the Gaelic place-name Poll nan Craobhan, a deep pool on the River Spey. The song celebrates that the victim will be plunged into the kelpie’s lair and won’t be returning.
Another very famous fairy song is that of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. This was a lullaby, sung over the cradle of the new-born heir to the clan MacLeod by a fairy woman. It foretold the child’s strength in arms and that he would possess plenty of cattle and rich crops in the fields; it promised that he would be free from injury in battle and would enjoy a long life. Each verse of the song had a different tune. For many generations afterwards, the custom of the clan was to sing the protective charm over the baby heir (Evans Wentz p.99).
In summary, in Faerie speech and words in all their forms are magical and must be carefully guarded.