A Cornish changeling

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The holy well at Carn Euny, April 2019 (note the strips of cloth tied to the tree as votive offerings)

Further to my last posting on the Sennen fairies, some more fairy reflections, based upon my recent visit to west Cornwall.

This story of a fairy changeling is taken from Bottrell’s Hearthside Tales vol. 2 pp.200-205.  I’ve edited it down to the most important details. It’s set in an attractive area at the heart of Penwith in West Cornwall.  Carn Brea is the first and last hill in the county, with stunning views around the coast to the north, west and south; on a clear day you can see the Isles of Scilly thirty miles off Land’s End. Brea hamlet lies just west of the hill and Brea Vean (‘little Brea’) just a short distance to the north.  A mile or so east is Bartinney Hill, topped by an Iron Age hillfort; on its south-east slopes lies Carn Euny, the site of the ruined chapel and holy wells, as well as a very well-preserved Iron Age village.  Further west still lie Sancreed village and church.

Here’s Bottrell’s account:

The Brea Vean changeling

“Hence, one might descend to the famous Chapel Uny Well, situated between Chapel Carn Brea and Bartine hills; the one crowned with its ruined chapel and the other with a castle. At Chapel Uny will be found a copious spring of as clear water as was ever seen. The only remains that can be identified, as having belonged to its ancient chapel, are a few dressed stones near the well. These, from their shape, would seem to have formed part of an arched door or window…

The Holy Well is, however, the most celebrated object in this vicinity; a few years ago, it was resorted to on the first three Wednesdays in May by scores of persons who had great faith in the virtue of its waters, which were considered very efficacious for curing most diseases incidental to childhood, and many ricketty babes are still bathed there at the stated times when the spring is believed to possess the most healing powers.  Belonging to this well and its neighbourhood there is a somewhat curious story, which we will relate just as it has often been told us by old people of the West Country.

A hundred years or more ago- one afternoon in harvest time- a woman called Jenny Trayer, who lived in Brea Vean (a little out-of-the-way place at the foot of Chapel Carn Brea) gave her baby suck, rocked it to sleep, then covered up the fire, turned down the brandis, placed fire-hook and furze-prong across the hearth for good luck, and, leaving the child alone, away she hastened over to Brea [for the celebration of the end of the harvest.  This went on very late and when Jenny returned home]  she opened her door, she saw, by the moonlight, that the cradle was overturned.  Straw and rags were on the floor, but no child was in sight.

Jenny groped round the room a long time; then, not finding any live embers among the ashes, she took the tinder-box and struck a light. “The more haste the worst speed.” It was a long time before she got the porvan (rush-wick) lit in the chill (iron lamp). In searching all the holes and corners, she came to the wood-corner and there among turves, ferns, and furze, she found the “cheeld,” fast asleep. Being very tired, she took up the child and went to bed. Next morning, when she looked at the babe, by daylight, it seemed to her that there was something strange about it—she didn’t know what—it was hearty enough, for it seemed never satisfied unless it was all the time sucking or eating it would roar like a bull if it hadn’t its will; and always wanted to be in her arms or eating pap.

The poor woman couldn’t do her “chars,” and had no rest of her life with the squalling, hungry brat. Yet, with all its sucking and eating, it seemed wasting to skin and bone. So it kept on all the winter—the more it ate the leaner it became. Many of the neighbours shook their heads when they saw it, and said they feared the “small people” had played her a trick that afternoon when she went to “neck-cutting.”

“Whether or no,” said they, “you can do nothing better, Jenny, than to bathe it in the Chapel Well as soon as May comes around.”

Accordingly, the first Wednesday in May she took it on her back and trudged away to Chapel Uny Well.  Three times she put it through the water from west to east, then dragged it three times round the well against the sun. Whether the bath made it any better or not she couldn’t tell in one week. The following Wednesday, however, the troublesome creature seemed to expect the jaunt, and to enjoy it as it rode away on her shoulder over hill and moor to the spring, where it had the same ducking again. The third Wednesday was a wet day; yet, not to spoil the spell, Jenny took the brat, placed it astride on her shoulder, held one foot in her hand, whilst he grasped her hair to keep himself steady, as they beat over the moors against wind and rain. The thing seemed to enjoy the storm, and crowed, like a cock, when the wind roared the loudest.

They had nearly passed round Chapel Carn Brea and were coming by some large rocks, near the open moor, when she heard a shrill voice, seemingly above her head, call out-

“Tredrill! Tredrill!  Thy wife and children greet thee well.”

Jenny was surprised to hear the shrill voice and nobody in sight. When she stopped an instant to look round, the thing on her shoulder cried out in a voice as shrill and loud-

“What care I for wife or child,
When I ride on Dowdy’s back to the Chapel Well,
And have got pap my fill?”

Frightened out of her senses, to hear the miserable little object talk like a man about his wife and his child, the poor woman cast it on the ground and there it lay sprawling, until she took courage, threw it across her shoulder, and ran back as fast as she could lay feet to ground till she came to Brea town. She stopped before some houses a little below Brea mansion, threw down the thing, that clung to her neck for dear life, on to a dung-heap beside the road.

The women of Brea all ran out to see what could be the matter. As soon as she recovered her breath, she told them what she had heard. “Ah,” exclaimed one, “didn’t I tell thee, months ago, that thee wert nussan a small body’s brat, ever since the neck-cuttan night, when thy child was spirited away, and that thing left in his place.”

“Shure enow,” said another, “anybody of common sense might see that. Only look at the thing there, sprawling upon his back in the mud. Did one ever see a Christian cheeld like that, with his goggle eyes, squinting one way; his ugly mouth drawn another, and his pinched-up nose all a-wry too?”

“And now, Jenny,” broke in the oldest crone, “’Tis lucky for ’e that I can tell ’e what you must do to get rid of this unlucky bucca [that is, a ‘puck’ or fairy], and get back thy own dear cheeld. Now there’s an old way, and I don’t know but it es the best; and that es to put the smale body upon the ashes’ pile and beat it well with a broom; then lay it naked under a church-way stile; there leave et, and keep out of sight and hearan till the turn of night; and, nine times out of ten, the thing will be took off and the stolen cheeld put in his place. There’s another plan but I never seed et tried—to make by night a smoky fire, with green ferns and dry. When the chimney and house are full of smoke as one can bear, throw the changeling on the hearth-stone; go out of the house; turn three times round; when one enters the right cheeld will be restored.”

The women of Brea- resolved to try what a beating on the ashes’ pile would do towards getting rid of the goblin- threw it on a heap near at hand and commenced belabouring it with their brooms. But they had scarcely touched it than it set up such a roar that it was heard in Brea mansion.  [The local landowner’s wife came and tried to stop them but the village women had little regard for their opinions as they were Quakers]

“who haven’t the grace,” said they, “to know anything about such creatures as spriggans, piskies, knackers (knockers of the mines) and other small folks, good or bad, that haunt our carns, moors, and mines; who can vanish or make themselves visible when and how they please, as all more enlightened folks know.”

The Brea women, in spite of the “unbelieving Quakers,” … determined to have their own way and waited till all was dark in the great house; then Jenny, with the bantling or spriggan, and another woman, who was very knowing about changelings, passed quietly up Brea town-place, and under a stile on the Church-way path crossing a field from Brea lane, they left the creature (then asleep) that had been such a plague to them.

Jenny returned to Brea Vean, and there stayed till morning. Being fatigued and worried she overslept herself, for it was nearly daybreak when she awoke and hurried away, between hopes and fears, to the stile; and there, sure enough, she found her own “dear cheeld,” sleeping on some dry straw. The infant was as clean, from head to foot, as water could make it, and wrapped up in a piece of old gay-flowered chintz; which small folks often covet and steal from furze-bushes, when it is placed there in the sun to dry.

Jenny nursed her recovered child with great care, but there was always something queer about it, as there always is about one that has been in the fairies’ power—if only for a few days. It was constantly ailing and complaining, and, as soon as it was able to toddle, it would wander far away to all sorts of out-of-the-way places… when he was about nine years of age the Squire took the changeling (as he was always called) into his service, but he was found to be such a poor simple innocent that he could never be trusted to work in the fields alone, much less with cattle, as a whim would take him, every now and then, to leave his work and wander away over hills and moors for days together. Yet he was found useful for attending to rearing cattle and sheep—then kept in great numbers on the unenclosed grounds of Brea. He was so careful of his master’s flock in lambing time that there was seldom any lost. Forsaken or weakly lambs were often given to him by the neighbours, and he contrived to rear them so well that, in a few years, he had a good flock of his own…

When he grew to man’s estate, however, he became subject to fits, and had to remain at home with his mother great part of his time. Yet, when the fits were over, nothing could restrain his propensity for wandering, and his sheep, goats, and even calves, always followed, and seemed equally to enjoy their rambles. He often talked to himself, and many believed that he was then holding converse with some of the fairy tribe, only visible to him, who enticed him to ramble among the earns, hills, and moors- their usual haunts.

When about thirty years of age he was missed for several days; and his flock had been noticed, staying longer than usual near the same place, on a moor between the Chapel Hill and Bartinné, and there- surrounded by his sheep- he was found, lying on a quantity of rushes which he had pulled and collected for making sheep-spans.  He lay, with his arm under his head, apparently in sweet sleep, but the poor changeling of Brea was dead.”

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Sancreed holy well, April 2019.  The glimmer inside is a night light candle we found on a ledge, along with a joss stick; note again the strips of cloth on the branches above.

The fairy well

I have written before about the magical properties of fairy wells, and several other accounts confirm the healing qualities of the Carn Euny well:

“Hither, on the first Wednesday in May, are still annually brought crippled or maimed children. At that period a bath is formed in front of the well by stopping up the course of the little stream with pieces of turf. Each child is stripped, and then made to drop a pin into the well itself, previously to being immersed three times in the bath. My informant, a native of the parish, told me that he had hardly, if ever, known the process to fail in giving relief. He also told me that the well was sometimes called the Giant’s Well- a title that seems inconsistent with the attribution of such great virtues.” (J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, Rambles in Western Cornwall by the Footsteps of the Giants, 1861).

Another account, from the mid-eighteenth century, states that:

“as a witness of its having done remarkable cures, it has a chapel adjoining to it, dedicated to St. Eunius, the ruins of which, consisting of much carved stone, bespeak it to have been formerly of no little note. The water has the reputation of drying humours as well as healing wounds…

The common people (of this as well as other countries) will not be content to attribute the benefit they receive to ordinary means; there must be something marvellous in all their cures. I happened, luckily, to be at this well upon the last day of the year, on which, according to vulgar opinion, it exerts its principal and most salutary powers. Two women were here who came from a neighbouring parish, and were busily employed in bathing a child. They both assured me that people who had a mind to receive any benefit from St. Euny’s well, must come and wash upon the first three Wednesdays in May. But to leave folly to its own delusion, it is certainly very gracious in Providence to distribute a remedy for so many disorders in a quality so universally found as cold is in every unmixed well water.” (William Borlase, Natural History of Cornwall, 1757, p.31)

Dr. Paris, in his Guide to Mount’s Bay, p.82, recorded that the water of the well was supposed to possess many miraculous virtues, especially in infantile mesenteric disease. Poorly children were dipped on the three first Wednesdays in May, and drawn through the pool three times against the sun and three times on the surrounding grass in the same direction.

Whatever the well’s properties, you’ll note that in this case the mother had to resort to far more unpleasant means to get rid of the changeling: he’s beaten (by all the local women) and then exposed, which was far from unusual (mis)treatment.  It’s also worthwhile emphasising the human boy’s physical and mental condition after his return from faery: he’s never well and he dies young, neither of which are unusual.

Gotch, Thomas Cooper, 1854-1931; A Golden Dream

A golden dream, Thomas Cooper Gotch

Sancreed well

The church of the parish here is that of Sancreed, which is just over two miles from Brea.  There too are the remains of an ancient chapel and a holy well (see above photo)- perhaps one of the largest and most impressive in Cornwall.  The church itself is an attractive building, but it is most notable for the fact that there are five Celtic crosses in the churchyard and because it is the resting place of several famous artists from the Newlyn school of painting.  Just to the south of the church are the graves of painters Stanhope Forbes, his wife Elizabeth Forbes and Thomas Cooper Gotch.  Whilst Stanhope Forbes mainly painted plein air scenes of Cornish farming and fishing life, his wife and Gotch both tended to prefer more mystical or mythical scenes.

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Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, The green knight, from ‘King Arthur’s Wood.’

Further reading

A much longer and more detailed discussion of changelings and of the effects of fairy contact will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.  See too chapter 16 of my British Fairies (2017).

 

 

‘Elf addled’- the ill effects of faery contact

froud, somethign wicked

Brian Froud, ‘Something evil this way comes’

I take the title of this posting from one of the Anglo-Saxon herbals or Leechbooks.  Our forebears diagnosed a number of ailments which they ascribed to malign fairy intervention; one of these was called ælfadl (which we may roughly translate as elf- addle today).  Its nature is uncertain- it appears to involve some degree of internal physical pain- but I have co-opted it to describe the mental health effects of contact with our fairy neighbours.

Physical risks of fairyland

It’s pretty widely known that a visit to fairyland can have serious physical consequences. Because time may pass more slowly in Faery, the returning visitor may discover that their few hours away were really years or centuries, so that they return to a land wholly unfamiliar to them and where they often crumble away to dust as soon as they have contact with the food or soil of the mortal world. The ill-effects may be less drastic than this, but nevertheless contact with the otherworld can lead to permanent disablement by the fairies.

Psychological risks of faery

Less well-reported are the psychological ill-effects of a sojourn with the fays.  We can piece together the evidence from various sources across the centuries.  In seventeenth century England John Aubrey collected a story concerning a shepherd, employed by a Mr Brown of Winterbourne Basset in Wiltshire, who had seen the ground open and had been “brought to strange places underground” where music was played.  As Aubrey observed of such visitors, they would “never any afterwards enjoy themselves.” (Briggs, Fairies in Tradition, p.12).

Later the same century the Reverend Robert Kirk met a woman who had come back from Faery; she ate very little food and “is still prettie melanchollyous and silent, hardly seen ever to laugh.  Her natural Heat and radical Moisture seem to be equally balanced, lyke an unextinguished Lamp, and going in a circle, not unlike the faint Lyfe of Bees and some Sort of Birds that sleep all the Winter over and revive in the Spring” (Kirk, Secret commonwealth chapter 15).  The ‘half-life,’ withdrawal or hibernation that Kirk seems to be describing here is mentioned elsewhere in Scotland.  On Shetland it was believed that the trows might steal part of new mother, that part that remained at home seeming ‘pale and absent.’  (Magical folk, p.132)

The Shetland trows would also take children for a while, but released them at puberty.  Back with human society, they always maintained “an unbroken silence regarding the land of their captivity.”  Indeed, that silence could be physically enforced: in Ireland it was believed that “the wee folk puts a thing in their mouth that they can’t speak.” (Spence, Fairy tradition, p.262)

W. B. Yeats was fascinated by this condition and reported that those who’d been ‘away’ were always pining with sorrow over their loss of fairy bliss.  They had a cold touch and a low voice.  They seemed to have lost part of their humanity and would be queer, distraught and pale, ever restless with a desire to be far away again.  Yeats was told by one woman from the Burren that:

“Those that are away among them never come back, or if they do they are not the same as they were before.” (Unpublished prose, vol.1, p.418 & vol.2, p.281)

The symptoms of having been ‘away’ are a dazed look, vacant mind, fainting fits, trances, fatigue, languor, long and heavy sleeping and wasting away.

Sometimes it is hard to determine whether the after-effects are psychological or physiological (though one may lead to the other).  The Reverend Edmund Jones in his history of Aberystruth parish in Wales described a neighbour and good friend who had been absent with the fairies for a whole year.  When he came back,  “he looked very bad.” (p.70)  Likewise Jones wrote in another book on spirit apparitions in Wales that the experience was debilitating and left the revenant sickly and disturbed; often the person would fade away and died not long after their return home (The appearance of evil paragraphs 68 & 82).  In Welsh belief of the time, in fact, even seeing fairies might prove to be a premonition of the person’s death (paras 56, 62, and 69).

Cornish case study

An example of being elf-addled comes from the well-known story of the House on Selena Moor, in Bottrell’s Traditions and hearthside stories of the West of Cornwall (1873, pp.94-102).  Pixie led on the moor, a Mr Noy finds a farmhouse at which a celebration is taking place.  As he approaches, he meets a former lover whom he thought dead, but who has actually been captured and enslaved by the fairies.  She warns him not to touch the fairy food and drink, as she had done, and tells him something of the fairy life.  The experience of seeing the fairies, and of knowing his lost love still to be alive in fairyland, deeply affected him:

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail), or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

Noy had had no physical contact with Grace nor had he partaken of the fairy fruit and beer- otherwise he would never have been able to return home at all.  Nevertheless, what he saw and heard was enough to blight the brief remainder of his life.

It’s worth recalling here too that prolonged physical contact with the fairies- a sexual relationship with a supernatural lover, perhaps in the course of a prolonged partnership or marriage- can have both physiological and psychological consequences.  It can often be fatal, whether almost immediately or over time.

Summary

A visit to fairyland need not be harmful.  Many travellers come and go unscathed. Some are even transformed for the better by the experience.  As alluded to earlier, girls might be abducted by the Shetland trows but returned to their homes when they reached adulthood.  They would be restored to their families “in maiden prime with a wild unearthly beauty and glamour on them.” (Magical folk p.132)

To close, time spent in faery must always be viewed as potentially perilous.  Even if the person is not enslaved or entrapped, they can still be affected long term by the experience, both physically and mentally.

Further reading

Morgan Daimler has posted on fairy possession on her blog, looking particularly at the Anglo-Saxon and old Irish evidence for the problem and its treatment.  See also my posting ‘Some kind of joy’ which looks at the positive aspects of fairy encounters.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faery, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in March 2020.

“Al on snowe white stedes” – fairy animals

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A number of domesticated beasts are also associated with fairies, showing how often their society imitated and paralleled our own.  Sometimes this livestock was imagined as being its normal size, so as to match human sized fairies; on other occasions the creatures were diminutive, just like their supernatural owners.  Some of the creatures were larger than their counterparts in the human world, enhancing the fear associated with their unearthly origins.

Fairy livestock

We find regular reference to:

  • goats– I have discussed fairy goats before.  They were very well known in Wales, but the Cornish were also aware of the link.  For example, William Bottrell recorded that wherever goats preferred to graze would be certain to be places frequented by the pixies.  In the Highlands of Perthshire it was believed that the fairies lived on goat’s milk.

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  • horses– fairies liked hunting and processing and for this horses were nearly essential.  In the poem Sir Orfeo the fairy king arrives to seduce the knight’s wife with his ladies and retainers, “Al on snowe white stedes.”  In the Scottish poem Young Tamlane the fairies process on black, brown and white mounts whilst in Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen appears astride a ‘palfrey.’ We also hear of Welsh fairies hunting on grey horses and- from an old woman in the Vale of Neath in 1827- an account of fairies seen riding white horses ‘no bigger than dogs.’  These Welsh fairies were said to ride in the air, never coming to ground.  Appropriately, fairy horses were renowned for their swiftness.  In contrast to these generally small and pale-hued steeds, a horse that collected a midwife to attend a fairy labour near Tavistock was coal black with eyes ‘like balls of fire’…  John Campbell in Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands suggested that the fairy horses might not be real, at all, but just enchanted ragweed stems, on which fairies so often flew through the air like broomsticks.  This might indeed have been the case in the north of Scotland, at least.
  • deer– in the Highlands fairies were especially associated with the red deer and, indeed,  it was believed by some that they were their only cattle.  It was also alleged that fairy women could transform themselves into deer and might be captured in this guise.
  • dogs- for the fairies’ great sport of hunting, hounds are required.  Searching to recover his wife, Sir Orfeo meets the king of fairy riding out “with hundes berkyng.”  Likewise in Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen is met with “hir greyehundes” and “Hir raches.”  The latter are ‘rachets’- specially bred hunting dogs.  The Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) of Welsh legend were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven. They dashed through the air on stormy nights, terrifying the mortals below.  More dainty, perhaps, were the “milk white hounds” that accompanied the elfin ladies of the lakes.  In stark contrast, the ‘people of peace’ of the Scottish Highlands possessed dogs the size of bullocks, which were dark green (though paling towards their feet). These hounds’ tails either curled tightly on their backs or appeared flat, even plaited.  They were kept as ferocious watchdogs for the fairy knolls and were said to move by gliding in straight lines.
  • cats: fairy felines were apparently the size of human dogs, black with a white spot on their chests, their backs constantly arched and their fur bristled.
  • cattle– Irish fairy cattle are famed for their distinctive appearance: they are white with red ears.  In Britain, though, such distinctive characteristics are not so regularly recorded, but in Wales the “comely milk white kine” were definitely famed.  These were the gwartheg y llyn,  the ‘lake cattle’, that were frequently brought to marriages with human males by the beautiful and mesmerising lake maidens.  Alternatively they might mingle and interbreed naturally with human herds (and are clearly envisaged as being of normal proportions and appearance).  If (when) the fairy wife is later rejected or insulted, her departure will also inevitably mean the departure of the fairy beasts from her husband’s herd.  The same is bound to occur if the human farmer tries to slaughter the fairy cattle, as this too will be interpreted as demonstrating a want of respect for the owners/ donors.  In the Scottish Highlands fairy cattle typically were dun coloured and hornless, but on Skye they were red speckled and could cross the sea.
  • other livestock– In British goblins Wirt Sikes says that the Welsh fairies may appear in the shape of sheep, poultry and pigs.  It is not wholly clear from his account whether these are fairy animals or fairies in the form of animals.  Whatever the exact situation, these creatures were often reported as being seen flying or rising from pastures up into the sky.

In summary, there seem to be a number of common features to fairy animals. They are very commonly pure white- a sure sign of their supernatural nature- and most commonly airborne (another clear indication of their enchanted nature). Although in many respects, their behaviour was identical with that of normal farm beasts, they were prone to appear and disappear unpredictably.  As with all fairy gifts, poor treatment of them guarantees their loss.

cnn-annwn

cwn annwn