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Issue 97 - Fairytales

Scotland Magazine Issue 97
February 2018

 

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Fairytales

James Irvine Robertson shares a few old Scottish tales

My great-granny was kidnapped by fairies. A Mrs Margaret Irvine, she lived in Highland Perthshire where her husband Alexander was a tenant farmer in Strathtay. Their home was just a few miles from the mountain Schiehallion - the Seat of the Caledonian Fairies.

Margaret had just born a child, a girl, when she was stolen. The fairies took her from her bed and replaced her with a log of wood. They carried her to a bog just east of the summit of Farragon where they put her to work cutting peats and barrowing them up to the peak to dry. They treated her kindly, fed her well and took her back home a fortnight later where she lived happily ever after. The 16-inch spade that she brought back was long preserved as evidence of her harrowing experience.

To be honest, she was a rather greater granny than I have stated as she married in 1684, but antiquarian James Kennedy wrote up her story a century ago. Hindsight might suggest that she was suffering from some post-natal trauma and took herself off, returning with a story (and a wee spade) that her husband might accept. Bears sometimes borrowed women in parts of central Europe, often those suspected of having a secret lover, for a few weeks or months. But these beasts had been extinct in the Highlands for centuries and fairies provided a more convincing, as well as a more seemly, explanation for such an absence.

It is said that such ethereal beings once proliferated throughout the Highlands. Of course, they are now exceedingly rare because they require the oxygen of human presence and interest to survive. Today, hillwalkers and tourists do not often recognise the characteristic signs that suggest that fairies once lived nearby.

The tales say that fairies wore green, that their size was about a third of our own and that they lived in ‘sitheans’ (pronounced ‘sheans’). These were little hillocks, often those built to entomb urns holding the cremated remains of Bronze Age man. The easiest way to find out whether such a sithean was inhabited was to go out late at night and listen beside it. If you heard music or the sound of hammering then you had neighbours!

They were not like Tinker Bell or her dainty Victorian contemporaries. These were cold, pitiless creatures, not malevolent but always dangerously unpredictable. The stories say that if the whim so struck them they could vastly increase the yield of your cows, do the washing up, or mend clothes. If they liked you, you could be invited in to their kingdom to enjoy their ceilidhs and they would touch your eyes so that you could see their treasures, but try to peek without permission and they might strike you blind. Their favours were often double-edged.

One such folk tale says that a hunchback met a group of singing fairies one evening just behind Schiehallion. He joined in and so pleasing was his voice that the fairies removed his hump as a reward. He had a friend, also a hunchback, who went hurrying up the mountain when he heard the story. He, too, met the little people but his warbling was dire.

So they gave him two humps instead of one. Inside an old Highland home hygiene was unheard of and the diet inadequate.

Livestock spent the winter at one end of the house, slowly rising towards the roof on their bed of dung. Clothes were unwashed from one season to the next. The peat fire filled the interior with smoke and ventilation was non-existent. In such an environment, no child had a better than 50 per cent chance of surviving its first year of life. All too often a woman would bear an apparently sturdy baby that would then sicken and die. When this occurred it was said that the fairies had been at work. The healthy child had been snatched by them and replaced with a changeling - of course, such miserable little scraps inevitably perished.

Thus, a mother must protect her baby and, indeed, her whole household with spells to ward against such nefarious practices. A piece of cold iron or the Bible supposedly kept them at bay but the most potent talisman was a cross made out of rowan twigs bound with a red thread. When placed over a byre or a baby’s cradle, this would safeguard against both fairies and witches.

Stone Age man left his flint arrowheads behind and these were explained as fairy or elf bolts. When found they were carefully preserved as charms. One, owned by the Stewarts of Achnacone, was encased in silver in the 15th Century and ever since has been worn by women of the family when pregnant to ensure a healthy child.

The greatest expert on the subject of Scottish fairies was the Gaelic scholar Rev Robert Kirk. He wrote a book about them, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, and was himself stolen by fairies. You see, in the 17th Century the border between life and death was less clear-cut than today.

So when Rev Kirk’s comatose body was found beside a sithean just to the west of his manse, it was obvious that he had been abducted to the secret world and this changeling, too inadequate even to keep breathing, had been left in his place. Tradition has it that he did try to return. His widow was pregnant so he apparently appeared to a kinsman. ‘Go,’ he said, ‘to my cousin Duchray and tell him that I am not dead; I fell down in a swoon and was carried into Fairyland. When he and my friends are assembled at the baptism of my child, I will appear in the room and if he throws a knife over my head, I will be released and restored to human society.’

The poor Graham of Duchray was so disconcerted to see Kirk’s wraith hovering anxiously by his elbow that he messed up the ritual and the minister is stuck in Fairyland.