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Evidence of Fairies in Scotland
[Note: This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]
THE TESTIMONY OF JOHN
Our next witness from Barra is John Campbell, who is ninety-four years old, yet clear-headed. He was born on Barra at Sgalary, and lives near there now at Breuvaig. We were on our way to call at his home, when we met him coming on the road, with a cane in each hand and a small sack hanging from one of them. Michael saluted him as an old acquaintance, and then we all sat down on a big boulder in the warm sunshine beside the road to talk. The first thing John wanted was tobacco, and when this was supplied we gradually led from one subject to another until he was talking about fairies. And this is what he said about them :-
The Fairy and the Fountain.- ‘
I had a companion by the name of James Galbraith, who was drowned about forty years ago, and one time he was crossing from the west side of the island to the east side, to the township called Sgalary, and feeling thirsty took a drink out of a Spring well on the mountain-side. After he had taken a drink, he looked about him and saw a woman clad in green, and imagined that no woman would be clad in such a colour except a fairy woman. He went on his way, and when he hadn’t gone far, looked back, and, as he looked, saw the woman vanish out of his sight. He afterwards reported the incident at his father’s house in Sgalary, and his father said he also had seen a woman clad in clothes of green at the same place some nights before.’
A Step-son Pitied by the Fairies.- ‘
I heard my father say that a neighbour of his father, that is of my grandfather, was married twice, and had three children from the first marriage, and when married for the second time, a son and daughter. His second wife did not seem to be kind enough to the children of the first wife, neglecting their food and clothing and keeping them constantly at hard work in the fields and at herding.
‘One morning when the man and his second wife were returning from mass they passed the pasture where their cows were grazing and heard the enjoyable skirrels of the bagpipes. The father said, “What may this be?” and going off the road found the eldest son of the first wife playing the bagpipes to his heart’s pleasure; and asked him earnestly, “How did you come to play the bagpipes so suddenly, or where did you get this splendid pair of bagpipes? “ The boy replied, “An old man came to me while I was in the action of roasting pots in a pit-fire and said, ‘Your step-mother is bad to you and in ill-will towards you.’ I told the old man I was sensible that that was the case, and then he said to me, ‘If I give you a trade will you be inclined to follow it? ‘ I said yes, and the old man then continued, ‘How would you like to be a piper by trade?’ ‘I would gladly become a piper,’ says I, ‘but what am I to do without the bagpipes and the tunes to play?’ ‘I’ll supply the bagpipes,’ he said, ‘and as long as you have them you’ll never want for the most delightful tunes.’ “ The male descendants of the boy in question were all famous pipers thereafter, and the last of them was a piper to the late Cluny MacPherson of Cluny.’
Nature of Fairies.-
At this point, Michael turned the trend of John’s thoughts to the nature of fairies, with the following result :- ‘ The general belief of the people here during my father’s lifetime was that the fairies were more of the nature of spirits than of men made of flesh and blood, but that they so appeared to the naked eye that no difference could be marked in their forms from that of any human being, except that they were more diminutive. I have heard my father say it was the case that fairy women used to take away children from their cradles and leave different children in their places, and that these children who were left would turn out to be old men.
‘At Barra Head, a fairy woman used to come to a man’s window almost every night as though looking to see if the family was home. The man grew suspicious, and decided the fairy woman was watching her chance to steal his wife, so he proposed a plan. It was then and still is the custom after thatching a house to rope it across with heather-spun ropes, and, at the time, the man was busy spinning some of them; and he told his wife to take his place that night to spin the heather-rope, and said he would take her spinning-wheel. They were thus placed when the fairy woman made the usual look in at the window, and she seeing that her intention was understood, said to the man, “You are yourself at the spinning-wheel and your wife is spinning the heather-rope.”
‘I have heard it said that the fairies live in knolls on a higher level than that of the ground in general, and that fairy songs are heard from the faces of high rocks. The fairies of the air (the fairy or spirit hosts) are different from those in the rocks. A man whom I’ve seen, Roderick MacNeil, was lifted by the hosts and left three miles from where he was taken up. The hosts went at about midnight. A man awake at midnight is in danger. Cows and horses are sometimes shot in place of men ‘(and why, will be explained by later Witnesses).
Father MacDonald’s Opinions-
We then asked about the late Rev. Donald MacDonald, who had the reputation of knowing all about fairies and Spirits when he lived here in these islands, and John said :- ‘ I have heard my wife say that she questioned Father MacDonald who was then a parish priest here in Barra, and for whom she was a housekeeper, if it was possible that such beings or Spirits as fairies were in existence. He said “Yes “, and that they were those who left Heaven after the fallen angels; and that those going out after the fallen angels had gone out were so numerous and kept going so long that St. Michael notified Christ that the throne was fast emptying, and when Christ saw the state of affairs he ordered the doors of Heaven to be closed at Once, Saying as he gave the order, “Who is out is out and who is in is in.” And the fairies are as numerous flow as ever they were before the beginning of the world.’
Here we left John, and he, continuing on his way up the mountain road in an Opposite direction from us and round a turn, disappeared almost as a fairy might.
AN AGED PIPER’S TESTIMONY
We introduce now as a Witness Donald McKinnon, ninety-six years old, a piper by profession; and not only is he the oldest man on Barra, but also the oldest man among all our witnesses. He was born on the Island of South Uist, one of the Western Hebrides north of Barra, and came to Barra in 1836, where he has lived ever since. In spite of being four years less than a hundred in age, he greeted us very heartily, and as he did not wish us to sit inside, for his chimney happened not to be drawing very well, and was filling the straw thatched Cottage with peat smoke, we sat down outside on the grass and began talking; and as we Came to fairies this is what he said : -
Nature of Fairies –
I believe that fairies exist as a tribe of spirits, and appear to us in the form of men and women. People who saw fairies can yet describe them as they appeared dressed in green. No doubt there are fairies in other countries as well as here.
‘In my experience there was always a good deal of difference between the fairies and the hosts. The fairies were supposed to be living without material food, whereas the hosts were supposed to be living upon their own booty. Generally, the hosts were evil and the fairies good, though I have heard that the fairies used to take cattle and leave their old men rolled up in the hides. One night an old witch was heard to say to the fairies outside the fold, “ We cannot get anything to-night.” The old men who were left behind in the hides of the animals taken, usually disappeared very suddenly. I saw two men who used to be lifted by the hosts. They would be carried from South Uist as far south as Barra Head, and as far north as Harris. Sometimes when these men were ordered by the hosts to kill men on the road they would kill instead either a horse or a cow; for in that way, so long as an animal was killed, the injunction of the hosts was fulfilled.’ To illustrate at this point the idea of fairies, Donald repeated the same legend told by our former witness, John Campbell, about the emptying of Heaven and the doors being closed to keep the remainder of its population in. Then he told the following story about fairies :-
The Fairy-Belt.- ‘
I heard of an apprentice to carpentry who was working with his master at the building of a boat, a little distance from his house, and near the sea. He went to work one morning and forgot a certain tool which he needed in the boat-building. He returned to his carpenter-shed to get it, and found the shed filled with fairy men and women. On seeing him they ran away so greatly confused that one of the women forgot her gird (belt), and he picked it up. In a little while she came back for the gird, and asked him to give it her, but he refused to do so. Thereupon she promised him that he should he made master of his trade wherever his lot should fall without serving further apprenticeship. On that condition he gave her the gird; and rising early next morning he went to the yard where the boat was a-building and put in two planks so perfectly that when the master arrived and saw them, he said to him, “Are you aware of anybody being in the building-yard last night, for I see by the work done that I am more likely to be an apprentice than the person who put in those two planks, whoever he is. Was it you that did it? “ The reply was in the affirmative, and the apprentice told his master the circumstances under which he gained the rapid mastership of his trade.’
ACROSS THE MOUNTAINS
It was nearing sunset now, and a long mountain climb was ahead of us, and one more visit that evening, before we should begin our return to Castlebay, and so after this story we said a hearty good-bye to Donald, with regret at leaving him. When we reached the mountainside, one of the rarest of Barra’s sights greeted us. To the north and south in the golden glow of a September twilight we saw the long line of the Outer Hebrides like the rocky backbone of some submerged continent, The scene and colours on the land and ocean and in the sky seemed more like some magic vision, reflected from Faerie by the ‘good people’ for our delight, than a thing of our Own world. Never was air clearer or sea calmer, nor could there be air sweeter than that in the mystic mountain stillness holding the perfume of millions of tiny blossoms of purple and white heather; and as the last honey-bees were leaving the beautiful blossoms their humming came to our ears like low, strange music from Fairyland.
MARIAN MACLEAN OF BARRA, AND HER TESTIMONY
Our next witness to testify is a direct descendant of the ancient MacNeils of Barra. Her name now is Marian MacLean; and she lives in the mountainous centre of Barra at Upper Borve. She is many years younger than the men who have testified, and one of the most industrious women on the island. It was already dark and past dinner-time when we entered her cottage, and so, as we sat down before a blazing peat-fire, she at once offered us some hot milk and biscuits, which we were only too glad to accept. . And, as we ate, we talked first about our hard climb in the darkness across the mountains, and through the thick heather-bushes, and then about the big rock which has a key-hole in it, for it contains a secret entrance to a fairy palace. We had examined it in the twilight as we came through the mountain pass which it guards, and my guide Michael had assured me that more than one islander, crossing at the hour we were, had seen some of the fairies near it. We waited in front of the big rock in hopes one might appear for our benefit, but, in spite of our strong belief that there are fairies there, not a single one would come out. Perhaps they came and we couldn’t see them; who knows?
Fairies and Fairy Hosts (‘Sluagh’)
(1) - ‘O yes,’ Marian said, as she heard Michael and myself talking over our hot milk, ‘there are fairies there, for I was told that the Pass was a notable fairy haunt.’ Then I said through Michael,’ Can you tell us something about what these fairies are?’ And from that time, save for a few interruptions natural in conversation, we listened and Marian talked, and told stories as follows : -
‘Generally, the fairies are to be seen after or about sunset, and walk on the ground as we do, whereas the hosts travel in the air above places inhabited by people. The hosts used to go after the fall of night, and more particularly about midnight. You’d hear them going in fine. weather against a wind like a covey of birds. And they were in the habit of lifting men in South Uist, for the hosts need men to help in shooting their javelins from their bows against women in the action of milking cows, or against any person working at night in a house over which they pass. And I have heard of good sensible men whom the hosts took, shooting a horse or cow in place of the person ordered to be shot.
(1) ‘Sluagh, “hosts,” the spirit-world. The “hosts “ are the spirits of mortals who have died. . . . According to one informant, the spirits fly about in great clouds, up and down the face of the world like the starlings, and come back to the scenes of their earthly transgressions. No soul of them is without the clouds of earth, dimming the brightness of the works of God, nor can any win heaven till satisfaction is made for the sins of earth.’ - ALEXANDER CARMICHAEL, Carmina Gadelica, ii. 330.
‘There was a man who had only one cow and daughter. The daughter was milking the cow at night when the hosts were passing, and that human being whom the hosts had lifted with them was her father’s neighbour. And this neighbour was ordered by the hosts to shoot the daughter as she was milking, but, knowing the father and daughter he shot the cow instead. The next morning he went where the father was and said to him, “You are missing the cow.” “Yes,” said the father “I am.” And the man who had shot the cow said, “Are you not glad your cow and not your daughter was taken? For I was ordered to shoot your daughter and I shot pour cow, in order to show blood on my arrow.” “I am very glad of what you have done if that was the case,” the father replied “ It was the case” the neighbour said.
My father and grandfather knew a man who was carried by the hosts from South Uist here to Barra. I understand when the hosts take away earthly men they require another man to help them. But the hosts must be spirits, My Opinion is that they are both Spirits of the dead and other Spirits not the dead. A child was taken by the hosts and returned after one night and one day, and found at the back of the house with the palms of its hands in the holes in the wall, and with no life in its body. It was dead in the spirit. It is believed that when people are dropped from a great height by the hosts they are killed by the fall. As to fairies, my firm opinion is that they are Spirits who appear in the shape of human beings.’
The question was now asked whether the fairies were anything like the dead, and Marian hesitated about answering. She thought they were like the dead, but not to be identified with them, The fallen angel idea concerning fairies was an obstacle she could not pass, for she said, ‘When the fallen angels were cast out of Heaven God commanded them thus :- “ You will go to take up your abodes in crevices under the earth in mounds, or soil, or rocks.” And according to this command they have been condemned to inhabit the places named for a certain period of time, and when it is expired before the consummation of the world, they will be seen as numerous as ever.’
Now we heard two good stories, the first about fairy women spinning for a mortal, the second about a wonderful changeling who was a magic musician : -
Fairy-Women Spinners.- ‘
I have heard my father, Alexander MacNeil, who was well known to Mr. Alexander Carmichael and to Mr J. F. Campbell of Islay, say that his father knew a woman in the neighbourhood who was in a hurry to have her stock of wool spun and made into cloth, and one night this woman secretly wished to have some women to help her. So the following morning there appeared at her house six or seven fairy women in long green robes, all alike chanting, “A wool-card, and a spinning-wheel.” And when they were supplied with the instruments they were so very desirous to get, they all set to work, and by midday of that morning the cloth was going through the process of the hand-loom. But they were not satisfied with finishing the work the woman bad set before them, but asked for new employment. The woman had no more spinning or weaving to be done, and began to wonder how she was to get the women out of the house. So she went into her neighbour’s house and informed him of her position in regard to the fairy women. The old man asked what they were saying. “They are earnestly petitioning for some work to do, and I have no more to give them,” the woman replied. “Go you in,” he said to her, “and tell them to spin the sand, and if then they do not move from your house, go out again and yell in at the door that Dun Borve is in fire !” The first plan had no effect, but immediately on hearing the cry, “Dun Borve is in fire!” the fairy women disappeared invisibly. And as they went, the woman heard the melancholy wail, “Dun Borve is in fire! Dun Borve is in fire! And what will become of our hammers and anvil? “ - for there was a smithy in the fairy-dwelling.’
The Tailor and the Changeling.- ‘
There was a young wife of a young man who lived in the township of Allasdale, and the pair had just had their first child. One day the mother left her baby in its cradle to go out and do some shearing, and when she returned the child was crying in a most unusual fashion. She fed him as usual on porridge and milk, but he wasn’t satisfied with what seemed to her enough for any one of his age, yet every suspicion escaped her attention. As it happened, at the time there was a web of home-made cloth in the house waiting for the tailor. The tailor came and began to work up the cloth. As the woman was going out to her customary shearing operation, she warned the tailor if he heard the child continually crying not to pay much attention to it, adding she would attend to it when she came home, for she feared the child would delay him in his work.
‘All went well till about noon, when the tailor observed the child rising up on its elbow and stretching its hand to a sort of shelf above the cradle and taking down from it a yellow chanter [of a bagpipe]. And then the child began to play. Immediately after the child began to play the chanter, the house filled with young fairy women all clad in long green robes, who began to dance, and the. tailor had to dance with them. About two o’clock that. same afternoon the women disappeared unknown to the tailor, and the chanter disappeared from the hands of the child also unknown to the tailor; and the child was in the cradle crying as usual.
‘The wife came home to make the dinner, and observed that the tailor was not so far advanced with his work as he ought to he in that space of time. However, when the fairy women disappeared, the child had enjoined upon the tailor never to tell what he had seen. The tailor promised to be faithful to the child’s injunctions, and so he said nothing to the mother.
‘The second day the wife left for her occupation as usual, and told the tailor to be more attentive to his work than the day before. A second time at the same hour of the day the child in the cradle, appearing more like an old man than a child, took the chanter and began to play. The same fairy women tilled the house again, and repeated their dance, and the tailor had to join them.
‘Naturally the tailor was as far behind with his work the second day as the first day, and it was very noticeable to the woman of the house when she returned. She thereupon requested him to tell her what the matter might be. Then he said to her, “I urge upon you after going to bed to-night not to fondle that child, because he is not your child, nor is he a child: he is an old fairy man. And to-morrow, at dead tide, go down to the shore and wrap him in your plaid and put him upon a rock and begin to pick that shell-fish which is called limpet, and for your life do not leave the shore until such a time as the tide will flow so high that you will scarcely be able to wade in to the main shore.” The woman complied with the tailor’s advice, and when she had waded to the main shore and stood there looking at the child on the rock, it cried to her, “You had a great need to do what you have done. Otherwise you’d have seen another ending of your turn; but blessing be to you and curses on your adviser.” When the wife arrived home her own natural child was in the cradle.’
THE TESTIMONY OF MURDOCH MACLEAN
The husband of Marian MacLean had entered while the last stories were being told, and when they were ended the spirit was on him, and wishing to give his testimony he began :-
Lachlann’s Fairy Mistress.- ‘
My grandmother, Catherine Maclnnis, used to tell about a man named Lachlann, whom she knew, being in love with a fairy woman. The fairy woman made it a point to see Lachlann every night, and he being worn out with her began to fear her. Things got so bad at last that he decided to go to America to escape the fairy woman. As soon as the plan was fixed, and he was about to emigrate, women who were milking at sunset out in the meadows heard very audibly the fairy woman singing this song :-
What will the brown-haired woman do
‘Lachlann emigrated to Cape Breton, landing in Nova Scotia; and in his first letter home to his friends he stated that the same fairy woman was haunting him there in America.’ (1)
Abduction of a Bridgegroom. -
‘I have heard it from old people that a couple newly married, were on their way to the home of the bride’s father, and for some unknown reason the groom fell behind the procession, and seeing a fairy-dwelling open along the road was taken into it. No one could ever find the least trace of where he went, and all hope of seeing him again was given up. The man remained with the fairies so long that when he returned two generations had disappeared during the lapse of time. The township in which his bride’s house used to be was depopulated and in ruins for up to twenty years, but to him the time had seemed only a few hours; and he was just as fresh and youthful as when he went in the fairy dwelling.’
Nature of Fairies. -
‘Previous to his story-telling Murdoch had heard us discussing the nature and powers of fairies, and at the end of this account he volunteered, without our asking for it, an opinion of his own : - ‘This (the story just told by him) leads me to believe that the spirit and body [of a mortal] are somehow mystically combined by fairy enchantment, for the fairies had a mighty power of enchanting natural people, and could transform the physical body in some way. It cannot be but that the fairies are spirits. According to my belief they cannot be anything but spirits. My firm belief, however, is that they are not the spirits of dead men, but are the fallen angels.’
Then his wife Marian had one more story to add, and she at once, when she could, began
(1) This curious tale suggests that certain of the fairy women who entice mortals to their love in modern times are much the same, if not the same, as the succubi of Middle-Age mystics. But it is not intended by this observation to confuse the higher orders of the Sidhe and all the fairy folk like the fays who come from Avalon with succubi; though succubi and fairy women in general were often confused and improperly identified the one with the other. It nee not be urged in this example that we have to do not with a being of flesh and blood, whatever various readers may think of her.
The Messenger and the Fairies. -
‘Yes I have heard the following incident took place here on the Island of Barra about one hundred years ago :- A young woman taken ill suddenly sent a messenger in all haste to the doctor for medicine. On his return, the day being hot and there being five miles to walk, he sat down at the foot of a knoll and fell asleep; and was awakened by hearing a song to the following air: “Ho, ho, ho, hi, ho, ho. Ill it becomes a messenger on an important message to sleep on the ground in the open air.”’
And with this, for the hour was late and dark, and we were several miles from Castlebay, we bade our good friends adieu, and began to hunt for a road out of the little mountain valley where Murdoch and Marian guard their cows and sheep. And all the way to the hotel Michael and I discussed the nature of fairies. Just before midnight we saw the welcome lights in Castlebay across the heather-covered hills, and we both entered the hotel to talk. There was a blazing fire ready for us and something to eat. Before I took my final leave of my friend and guide, I asked him to dictate for me his private opinions about fairies, what they are and how they appear to men, and he was glad to meet my request. Here is what he said about the famous folk-lorist, the late Mr. J. F. Campbell, with whom he often worked in Barra, and for himself : -
MICHAEL BUCHANAN’S DEPOSITION CONCERNING FAIRIES
‘I was with the late Mr. J. F. Campbell during his first and second tour of the Island of Barra in search of legendary lore strictly connected with fairies, and I know from daily conversing with him about fairies that be held them to be spirits appearing to the naked eye of the spectator as any of the present or former generations of men and women, except that they were smaller in stature. And I know equally that he, holding them to be spirits, thought they could appear or disappear at will. My own firm belief is that the fairies were or are only spirits which were or are seen in the shape of human beings, but smaller as regards stature. I also firmly believe in the existence of fairies as such; and accept the modern and ancient traditions respecting the ways and customs of various fairy tribes, such as John Mackinnon, the old piper, and John Campbell and the MacLeans told us. And I therefore have no hesitation in agreeing with the views held by the late Mr. J. F. Campbell regarding fairies.’
THE RECITERS’ LAMENT, AND THEIR STORY
The following material, so truly Celtic in its word-colour and in the profound note of sadness and lamentation dominating it, may very appropriately conclude our examination of the Fairy-Faith of Scotland by giving us some insight into the mind of the Scotch peasants of two generations ago, and into the then prevailing happy social environment under which their belief in fairies flourished For our special use Dr. Alexander Carmichael has rendered it out of the original Gaelic, as this was taken down by him in various versions in the Western Hebrides. One version was recited by Ann Macneil of Barra, in the year 1865, another by Angus Macleod of Harris, in 1877. In relation to their belief in fairies the anti-clerical bias of the reciters is worth noting as a curious phenomenon : -
‘That is as I heard when a hairy little fellow upon the knee of my mother. My mother was full of stories and Songs of music and chanting. My two ears never heard musical fingers more preferable for me to hear than the chanting of my mother. If there were quarrels among children, as there were, and as there will be, my beloved mother would set us to dance there and then. She herself or one of the other crofter Women of the townland would sing to us the mouth-music We would dance there till we were seven times tired. A stream of sweat would be falling from us before we stopped - hairful little lassies and stumpy little fellows. These are scattered to-day! scattered to-day over the wide world! The people of those times were full of music and dancing stories and traditions. The clerics have extinguished these. May ill befall them! And what have the clerics put in their place? Beliefs about creeds, and disputations about denominations and churches! May lateness be their lot! It is they who have put the cross round the heads and the entanglements round the feet of the people. The people of the Gaeldom of to-day are anear perishing for lack of the famous feats of their fathers. The black clerics have suppressed every noble custom among the people of the Gaeldom - precious customs that will never return, no never again return.’ (Now follows what the Reciters heard upon the knee of their mother) : -
I have never seen a man fairy nor a woman fairy, but my mother saw a troop of them. She herself and the other maidens of the townland were once out upon the summer sheiling (grazing). They were milking the cows, in the evening gloaming, when they observed a flock of fairies reeling and setting upon the green plain in front of the knoll. And, oh King! but it was they the fairies themselves that had the right to the dancing, and not the children of men ! Bell-helmets of blue silk covered their heads, and garments of green satin covered their bodies, and sandals of yellow membrane covered their feet. Their heavy brown hair was streaming down their waist, and its lustre was of the fair golden sun of summer. Their skin was as white as the swan of the wave, and their voice was as melodious as the mavis of the wood, and they themselves were as beauteous of feature and as lithe of form as a picture, while their step was as light and stately and their minds as sportive as the little red hind of the hill. The damsel children of the shelling-fold never saw sight but them, no never sight but them, never aught so beautiful.
‘ “There is not a wave of prosperity upon the fairies of the knoll, no, not a wave. There is no growth nor increase, no death nor withering upon the fairies. Seed unfortunate they! They went away from the Paradise with the One of the Great Pride. When the Father commanded the doors closed down and up, the intermediate fairies had no alternative but to leap into the holes of the earth, where they are, and where they will be.”
This is what I heard upon the knee of my beloved mother. Blessings be with her ever evermore !’
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