Official Website of the
Fairy Faith in Scotland
[Note: This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]
Introduction by ALEXANDER CARMICHAEL, Hon. LL.D. of the University of Edinburgh; author of Carmina Gadelica.
The belief in fairies was once common throughout Scotland - Highland and Lowland. It is now much less prevalent even in the Highlands and Islands, where such beliefs linger longer than they do in the Lowlands. But it still lives among the old people, and is privately entertained here and there even among younger people; and some who hold the belief declare that they themselves have seen fairies.
Various theories have been advanced as to the origin of fairies and as to the belief in them. The most concrete form in which the belief has been urged has been by the Rev. Robert Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle, in Perthshire. Another theory of the origin of fairies I took down in the island of Miunghlaidh (Minglay); and, though I have given it in Carmina Gadelica, it is sufficiently interesting to be quoted here. During October 1871, Roderick Macneill, known as ‘Ruaraidh mac Dhomhuil, then ninety-two years of age, told it in Gaelic to the late J. F. Campbell of Islay and the writer, when they were storm-stayed in the precipitous island of Miunghlaidh, Barra :-
‘The Proud Angel fomented a rebellion among the angels of heaven, where he had been a leading light. He declared that he would go and found a kingdom for himself. When going out at the door of heaven the Proud Angel brought prickly lightning and biting lightning out of the doorstep with his heels. Many angels followed him - so many that at last the Son called out, “Father! Father! the city is being emptied!” whereupon the Father ordered that the gates of heaven and the gates of hell should be closed. This was instantly done. And those who were in were in, and those who were out were out; while the hosts who had left heaven and had not reached hell flew into the holes of the earth, like the stormy petrels. These are the Fairy Folk - ever since doomed to live under the ground, and only allowed to emerge where and when the King permits. They are never allowed abroad on Thursday, that being Columba’s Day; nor on Friday, that being the Son’s Day; nor on Saturday, that being Mary’s Day; nor on Sunday, that being the Lord’s Day.
God be between me and every
On certain nights when their bruthain (bowers) are open and their lamps are lit, and the song and the dance are moving merrily, the fairies may be heard singing lightheartedly : -
Not of the seed of Adam are
The fairies entered largely into the lives and into the folk-lore of the Highland people, and the following examples of things named after the fairies indicate the manner in which the fairies dominated the minds of the people of Gaeldom :-teine sith, ‘ fairy fire’ (ignis fatuus) ; breaca sith, ‘fairy marks,’ livid spots appearing on the faces of the dead or dying; marcachd shith, ‘fairy riding,’ paralysis of the spine in animals, alleged to be brought on by the fairy mouse riding across the backs of animals while they are lying down; piob shith, ‘fairy pipe’ or ‘elfin pipe’, generally found in ancient underground houses; miaran na mna sithe, ‘the thimble of the fairy woman,’ the fox-glove; lion na mna sithe, ‘lint of the fairy woman,’ fairy flax, said to be beneficial in certain illnesses; and curachan na mna sithe, ‘coracle of the fairy woman,’ the shell of the blue valilla. In place-names sith, ‘fairy,’ is common. Glenshee, in Pertbsbire, is said to have been full of fairies, but the screech of the steam-whistle frightened them underground. There is scarcely a district of the Highlands without its fairy knoll, generally the greenest hillock in the place. ‘The black chanter of Clan Chattan’ is said to have been given to a famous Macpherson piper by a fairy woman who loved him; and the Mackays have a flag said to have been given to a Mackay by a fairy sweetheart. The well-known fairy flag of Dunvegan is said to have been given to a Macleod of Macleod by a fairy woman; and the Macrimmons of Bororaig, pipers to the Macleods of Macleod, had a chanter called ‘Sionnsair airgid na mna sithe’, ‘the silver chanter of the fairy woman.’ A family in North Uist is known as Dubh-sith, ‘Black fairy,’ from a tradition that the family had been familiar with the fairies in their secret flights and nightly migrations.
Donald Macalastair, seventy-nine years of age, crofter, Druim-a-ghinnir, Arran, told me, in the year 1895, the following story in Gaelic :-‘ The fairies were dwelling in the knoll, and they had a near neighbour who used to visit them in their home. The man used to observe the ways of the fairies and to do as they did. The fairies took a journey upon them to go to Ireland, and the man took upon him to go with them. Every single fairy of them caught a ragwort and went astride it, and they were pell-mell, every knee of them across the Irish Ocean in an instant, and across the Irish Ocean was the man after them, astride a ragwort like one of themselves. A little wee tiny fairy shouted and asked were they all ready, and all the others replied that they were, and the little fairy called out :-
My king at my head,
“Follow me,” said the king of the fairies, and away they went across the Irish Ocean, every mother’s son of them astride his ragwort. Macuga (Cook) did not know on earth how he would return to his native land, but he leapt upon the ragwort as he saw the fairies do, and he called as he heard them call, and in an instant he was back in Arran. But he had got enough of the fairies on this trip itself, and he never went with them again.’
The fairies were wont to take away infants and their mothers, and many precautions were taken to safeguard them till purification and baptism took place, when the fairy power became ineffective. Placing iron about the bed, burning leather in the room, giving mother and child the milk of a cow which had eaten of the mothan, pearl-wort (Pinguicula vulgaris), a plant of virtue, and similar means were taken to ensure their safety. If the watching-women neglected these precautions, the mother or child or both were spirited away to the fairy bower. Many stories are current on this subject.
Sometimes the fairies helped human beings with their work, coming in at night to finish the spinning or the housework, or to thresh the farmer’s corn or fan his grain. On such occasions they must not be molested nor interfered with, even in gratitude. If presented with a garment they will go away and work no more. This method of getting rid of them is often resorted to, as it is not easy always to find work for them to do.
Bean chaol a chot uaine’s na gruaige buidhe, ‘the slender woman of the green kirtle and of the yellow hair,’ is wise of head and deft of hand. She can convert the white water of the nil into rich red wine and the threads of the spiders into a tartan plaid. From the stalk of the fairy reed she can bring the music of the lull of the peace and of the repose, however active the brain and lithe the limb; and she can rouse to mirth and merriment, and to the dance, men and women, however dolorous their condition. From the bower could be heard the pipe and the song and the voice of laughter as the fairies’ sett’ and reeled in the mazes of the dance. Sometimes a man hearing the merry music and seeing the wonderful light within would be tempted to go in and join them, but woe to him if he omitted to leave a piece of iron at the door of the bower on entering, for the cunning fairies would close the door and the man would find no egress. There he would dance for years - but to him the years were as one day - while his wife and family mourned him as dead.
The flint arrow-heads so much prized by antiquarians are called in the Highlands Saighead sith, fairy arrows. They are said to have been thrown by the fairies at the sons and daughters of men. The writer possesses one which was thrown at his own maid-servant one night when she went to the peatstack for peat’s. She was aware of something whizzing through the silent air, passing through her hair, grazing her ear and falling at her feet. Stooping in the bright moonlight the girl picked up a fairy arrow!
‘But faith is dead - such things do not happen now,’ said a courteous
informant. If not quite dead it is almost dead, hastened by the shifting
of population, the establishment of means of communication, the influx
of tourists, and the scorn of the more materialistic of the incomers and
of the people themselves.
ABERFOYLE, THE COUNTRY OF ROBERT KIRK
My first hunt for fairies in Scotland began at Aberfoyle, where the Highlands and the Lowlands meet, and in the very place where Robert Kirk, the minister of Aberfoyle, was taken by them, in the year 1692. The minister spent a large part of his time studying the ways of the ‘good people’, and he must have been able to see them, for he was a seventh son. Mrs. J. MacGregor, who keeps the key to the old churchyard where there is a tomb to Kirk, though many say there is nothing in it but a coffin filled with stones, told me that Kirk was taken into the Fairy Knoll, which she pointed to just across a little valley in front of us, and is there yet, for the hill is full of caverns, and in them the ‘good people’ have their homes. And she added that Kirk appeared to a relative of his after he was taken, and said that he was in the power of the ‘good people’, and couldn’t get away. ‘But,’ says he, ‘ I can be set free if you will have my cousin do what I tell him when I appear again at the christening of my child in the parsonage.’ According to Mr. Andrew Lang, who reports the same tradition in more detail in his admirable Introduction to The Secret Commonwealth, the cousin was Grahame of Duchray, and the thing he was to do was to throw a dagger over Kirk’s head. Grahame was at hand at the christening of the posthumous child, but ,was so astonished to see Kirk appear as Kirk said he would, that he did not throw the dagger, and so Kirk became a perpetual prisoner of the ‘good people’.
After having visited Kirk’s tomb, I called on the Rev. William M. Taylor, the present successor of Kirk, and, as we sat together in the very room where Kirk must have written his Secret Commonwealth, he told me that tradition reports Kirk as having been taken by the fairies while he was walking on their hill, which is but a short way from the parsonage. ‘At the time of his disappearance, people said he was taken because the fairies were displeased with him for prying into their secrets. At all events, it seems likely that Kirk was taken ill very suddenly with something like apoplexy while on the Fairy Knoll, and died there. I have searched the presbytery books, and find no record of how Kirk’s death really took place; but of course there is not the least doubt of his body being in the grave.’ So thus, according to Mr. Taylor, we are to conclude that if the fairies carried off anything, it must have been the spirit or soul of Kirk. I talked with others round Aberfoyle about Kirk, and some would have it that his body and soul were both taken, and that what was buried was no corpse at all. Mrs. Margaret MacGregor, one of the few Gaelic speakers of the old school left in Aberfoyle, holds another opinion, for she said to me, ‘Nothing could be surer than that the good people took Kirk’s spirit only.’
In the Aberfoyle country, the Fairy-Faith, save for the stories about Kirk, which will probably persist for a long time yet, is rapidly passing. In fact it is almost forgotten now. Up to thirty years ago, as Mr. Taylor explained, before the railway reached Aberfoyle, belief in fairies was much more common. Nowadays, he says, there is no real fairy-lore among the peasants; fifty to sixty years ago there was. And in his opinion, ‘ the fairy people of three hundred years ago in Scotland were a distinct race by themselves. They had never been human beings. The belief in them was a survival of paganism, and not at all an outgrowth of Christian belief in angelic hosts.’
A SCOTCH MINISTER’S TESTIMONY
A Protestant minister of Scotland will be our next witness. He is a native of Ross-shire, though he draws many of his stories from the Western Hebrides, where his calling has placed him. Because he speaks from personal knowledge of the living Fairy-Faith as it was in his boyhood and is now, and chiefly because he has had the rare privilege of conscious contact with the fairy world, his testimony is of the highest value.
Reality of Fairies.-‘
When I was a boy I was a firm believer in fairies; and now as a Christian minister I believe in the possibility and also the reality of these spiritual orders, but I wish only to know those orders which belong to the realm of grace. It is very certain that they exist. I have been in a state of ecstasy, and have seen spiritual beings which form these orders.
‘I believe in the actuality of evil spirits; but people in the Highlands having put aside paganism, evil spirits are not seen now.’
This explanation was offered of how fairies may exist and yet be invisible :- ‘Our Saviour became invisible though in the body; and, as the Scriptures suggest, I suppose we are obliged to concede a similar power of invisibility to spirits as well, good and evil ones alike.’
Precautions against Fairies.-‘
I remember how an old woman pulled me out of a fairy ring to save me from being taken.
‘If a mother takes some bindweed and places it burnt at the ends over her babe’s cradle, the fairies have no power over the child. The bindweed is a common roadside convolvulus.
‘As a boy, I saw two old women passing a babe over red-hot coals, and then drop some of the cinders in a cup of water and give the water to the babe to drink, in order to cure it of a fairy stroke.’
Fairy Fights on Halloween.-‘
It is a common belief now that on Halloween the fairies, or the fairy hosts, have fights.
Lichens on. rocks after there has been a frost get yellowish-red, and then when they thaw and the moisture spreads out from them the rocks are a bright red; and this bright red is said to be the blood of the fairies after one of their battles.’
Fairies and the Hump-back.-
The following story by the present witness is curious, for it is the same story of a humpback which is so widespread. The fact that in Scotland the bump is removed or added by fairies as it is in Ireland, in Cornwall by pixies, and in Brittany by corrigans, goes far to prove the essential identity of these three orders of beings. The story comes from one of the remote Western Hebrides, Benbecula :- ‘ A man who was a hump-back once met the fairies dancing, and danced with their queen; and he sang with them, “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,” so well that they took off his hump, and he returned home a straight-bodied man. Then a tailor went past the same place, and was also admitted by the fairies to their dance. He caught the fairy queen by the waist, and she resented his familiarity. And in singing he added “Thursday” to their song and spoilt it. To pay the tailor for his rudeness and ill manners, the dancers took up the hump they had just removed from the first man and clapped it on his back, and the conceited fellow went home a hump-back.’
Libations to Fairies.-‘
An elder in my church knew a woman who was accustomed, in milking her cows, to offer libations to the fairies.’ The woman was later converted to Christ and gave up the practice, and as a result one of her cows was taken by the fairies. Then she revived the practice.
‘The fairy queen who watches over cows is called Gruagach in the Islands, and she is often seen. In pouring libations to her and her fairies various kinds of stones, usually with hollows in them, are used.
‘In Lewis libations are poured to the goddess [or god] of the sea, called Shoney, in order to bring in seaweed, Until modern times in lona similar libations were poured to a god Corresponding to Neptune.’
IN THE HIGHLANDS
I had the pleasure as well as the great privilege of setting out from Inverness on a bright crisp September morning in company with Dr. Alexander Carmichael, the well-known folk-Iorist of Scotland, to study the Fairy-Faith as it exists now in the Highlands round Tomatin, a small Country village about twenty miles distant. We departed by an early train; and soon reaching the Tomatin country began our search - Dr. Carmichael for evidence regarding rare and Curious Scotch beliefs connected with folk-magic, such as blood-stopping at a distance and removing motes in the eye at a distance, and I for Highland ghosts and fairies.
Our first experience was with an old man whom we met on the road between the railway station and the post office, who could speak only Gaelic. Dr. Carmichael talked with him awhile, and then asked him about fairies, and he said there were some living in a cave some way off, but as the distance was rather too far we decided not to call on them. Then we went on to see the postmaster, Mr. John MacDougall, and he told us that in his boyhood the country-folk round Tomatin believed thoroughly in fairies. He said they thought of them as a race of spirits capable of making themselves visible to mortals, as living in underground places, as taking fine healthy babes and leaving changelings in their place. These changelings would waste away and die in a short time after being left. So firmly did the old people believe in fairies then that they would ridicule a person for not believing. And now quite the reverse state has come about.’
THE TESTIMONY OF JOHN DUNBAR OF INVEREEN
We talked with other Highlanders in the country round Tomatin, and heard only echoes, mostly fragmentary, of what their forefathers used to believe about fairies. But at Invereen we discovered John Dunbar, a Highlander, who really knows the Fairy-Faith and is not ashamed to explain it. Speaking partly from experience and partly from what he has heard his parents relate concerning the ‘good people’, he said : -
The Sheep and the Fairy-Hunting.- ‘
I believe people saw fairies, but I think one reason no one sees them now is because every place in this parish where they used to appear has been put into sheep, and deer, and grouse, and shooting. According to tradition, Coig na Fearn is the place where the last fairy was seen in this country. Before the big sheep came, the fairies are supposed to have had a premonition that their domains were to be violated by them. A story is told of a fight between the sheep and fairies, or else of the fairies hunting the sheep :-James MacQueen, who could traffic with the fairies, whom he regarded as ghosts or spirits, one night on his old place, which now is in sheep, was lying down all alone and heard a small and big barking of dogs, and a small and big bleating of sheep, though no sheep were there then. It was the fairy-hunting he heard. “I put an axe under my head and I had no fear therefore,” he always repeated when telling the story. I believe the man saw and heard something. And MacQueen used to aid the fairies, and on that account, as he was in the habit of saying, he always found more meal in his chest than he thought he had.’
My grandmother believed firmly in fairies, and I have heard her tell a good many stories about them. They were a small people dressed in green, and had dwellings underground in dry spots. Fairies were often heard in the hills over there (pointing), and I believe something was there. They were awful for music, and’ used to be heard very often playing the bagpipes. A woman wouldn’t go out in the dark after giving birth to a child before the child was christened, so as not to give the fairies power over her or the child. And I have heard people say that if fairies were refused milk and meat they would take a horse or a cow; and that if well treated they would repay all gifts.’
Time in Fairyland.-.—‘
People would be twenty years in Fairyland and it wouldn’t seem more than a night. A bridegroom who was taken on his wedding-day was in Fairyland for many generations, and, coming back, thought it was next morning. He asked where all the wedding-guests were, and found only one old woman who remembered the wedding.’
Highland Legend of the Dead.-
As I have found to be the case in all Celtic countries equally, fairy stories nearly always, in accordance with the law of psychology known as ‘the association of ideas’, give place to or are blended with legends of the dead. This is an important factor for the Psychological Theory. And what follows proves the same ideas to be present to the mind of Mr. Dunbar :-
‘Some people after death are seen in their old haunts; no mistake about it. A bailiff had false corn and meal measures, and so after he died he came back to his daughter and told her he could have no peace until the measures were burned. She complied with her father’s wish, and his spirit was never seen again. I have known also of phantom funerals of people who died soon afterwards being seen on the road at night.’
TO THE WESTERN HEBRIDES
From Inverness I began my journey to the Western Hebrides. While I waited for the steamer to take me from Kyle to the Isle of Skye, an old man with whom I talked on the docks said this about Neill Mackintosh, of Black Island:- ‘You can’t argue with the old man that he hasn’t seen fairies. He can tell you all about them.’
EVIDENCE FROM THE ISLE OF SKYE
Miss Frances Tolmie, who was born at Uignisb, Isle of Skye, and has lived many years in the isle in close touch with some of its oldest folk, contributes, from Edinburgh, the evidence which follows. The first two tales were told in the parish of Minginish a number of years ago by Mary Macdonald, a goat-herd, and have their setting in the region of the Koolian range of mountains on the west side of Skye.
The Fatal Peat Ember.-
‘An aged nurse who had fallen fast asleep as she sat by the fire, was holding on her knees a newly-born babe. The mother, who lay in bed gazing dreamily, was astonished to see three strange little women enter the dwelling. They approached the unconscious child, and she who seemed to be their leader was on the point of lifting it off the nurse’s lap, when the third exclaimed :- “Oh! let us leave this one with her as we have already taken so many! “ “ So be it,” replied the senior of the party in a tone of displeasure, “but when that peat now burning on the hearth shall be consumed, her life will surely come to an end.” Then the three little figures passed out. The good wife, recognizing them to be fairies, sprang from her bed and poured over the fire all the water she could find, and extinguished the half-burnt ember. This she wrapped carefully in a piece of cloth and deposited at the very bottom of a large chest, which afterwards she always kept locked.
‘Years passed, and the babe grew into a beautiful young woman. In the course of time she was betrothed; and, according to custom, not appearing in public at church on the Sunday preceding the day appointed for her marriage, remained at home alone. To amuse herself, she began to search the contents of all the keeping-places in the house, and came at last to the chest containing the peat ember. In her haste, the good mother had that day forgotten the key of the chest, which was now, in the lock. At the bottom of the chest the girl found a curious packet containing nothing but a morsel of peat, and this apparently useless thing she tossed away into the fire. When the peat was well kindled the young girl began to feel very ill, and when her mother returned was dying. The open chest and the blazing peat explained the cause of the calamity. The fairy’s prediction was fulfilled.’
Results of Refusing Fairy Hospitality.-‘
Two women were walking toward the Point when one of them, hearing churning going on under a hillock, expressed aloud a wish for some buttermilk. No sooner had she spoken than a very small figure of a woman came out with a bowlful and offered it to her, but the thirsty woman, ignorant of fairy customs and the penalty attending their infringement, declined the kind offer of refreshment, and immediately found herself a prisoner in the hillock. She was led to an apartment containing a chest full of meal and a great bag of wool, and was told by the fairy that when she had eaten all the meal and spun all the wool she would be free to return to her home. The prisoner at once set herself to eating and spinning assiduously, but without apparent result, and despairing of completing the task consulted an old man of very sad countenance who had long been a captive in the hillock. He willingly gave her his advice, which was to wet her left eye with saliva each morning before she settled down to her task. She followed this advice, and gradually the wool and the meal were exhausted. Then the fairy granted her freedom, but in doing so cursed the old man, and said that she had it in her power to keep him in the hillock for ever.’
The Fairies’ ‘Waulking’ (Fulling).-
‘At Ebost, in Bracadale, an old woman was living in a little hut, with no companion save a wise cat. As we talked, she expressed her wonder that no fairies are ever seen or heard nowadays. She could remember hearing her father tell how he, when a herd-boy, had heard the fairies singing a “waulking” song in Dun-Osdale, an ancient and ruined round tower in the parish of Duirinish, and not far from Heleval mhor (great) and Heleval bheag (less) - two hills occasionally alluded to as “ Macleod’s Tables “. The youth was lying on the grass-grown summit of the ruin, and heard them distinctly. As if with exultation, one voice took the verse and then the whole company joined in the following chorus: “Ho ! fir-e ! fair-e, foirm ! Ho ! Fair-eag-an an clo! (Ho ! well done ! Grand ! Ho ! bravo the web [of homespun] ! “ ‘
Crodh Chailean.- ‘
This tale was related by Mr. Neil Macleod, the bard of Skye :- “Cohn was a gentleman of Clan Campbell in Perthshire, who was married to a beautiful maiden whom the fairies carried off on her marriage-day, and on whom they cast a spell which rendered her invisible for a day and a year. She came regularly every day to milk the cows of her sorrowing husband, and sang sweetly to them while she milked, but he never once had the pleasure of beholding her, though he could hear perfectly what she sang. At the expiry of the year she was, to his great joy, restored to him.” ‘
Fairy Legend of the Macleod Family.- ‘
There is a legend told of the Macleod family :- Soon after the heir of the Macleods was born, a beautiful woman in wonderful raiment, who was a fairy woman or banshee (there were joyous as well as mourning banshees) appeared at the castle, and went directly to the babe’s cradle. She took up the babe and chanted over it a series of verses, and each verse had its own melody. The verses foretold the future manhood of the young child, and acted as a protective charm over its life. Then she put the babe back into its cradle, and, going out, disappeared across the moorlands.
‘For many generations it was a custom in the Macleod family that whoever was the nurse of the heir must sing those verses as the fairy woman had sung them. After a time the song was forgotten, but at a later period it was partially recovered, and to-day it is one of the proud folklore heritages of the Macleod family.’
Origins and Nature of the Fairy-Faith.—
Finally, with respect to the origin and nature of the Scotch Fairy-Faith, Miss Tolmie states :-‘ As a child I was not permitted to hear about fairies. At twenty I was seeking and trying to understand the beliefs of my fathers in the light of modern ideas. I was very determined not to lose the past.
‘The fairy-lore originated in a cultured class in very ancient times. The peasants inherited it ; they did not invent it. With the loss of Gaelic in our times came the loss of folk-ideals. The classical and English influences combined had a killing effect ; so that the instinctive religious feeling which used to be among our people when they kept alive the fairy-traditions is dead. We have intellectually-constructed creeds and doctrines which take its place.
‘We always thought of fairies as mysterious little beings living in hills. They were capricious and irritable, but not wicked. They could do a good turn as well as a bad one. They were not aerial, but had bodies which they could make invisible; and they could make human bodies invisible in the same way. Besides their hollow knolls and mounds there seemed to be a subterranean world in which they also lived, where things are like what they are in this world.’
THE ISLE OF BARRA, (1) WESTERN HEBRIDES
We pass from Cuchulainn’s beautiful island to what is now the most Celtic part of Scotland - the Western Hebrides, where the ancient life is lived yet, and where the people have more than a faith in spirits and fairies. And no one of the Western Hebrides, perhaps excepting the tiny island of Erisgey, has changed less during the last five hundred years than Barra.
Our Barra guide and interpreter, Michael Buchanan, a native and a life-long resident of Barra, is seventy years old, yet as strong and active as a city man at fifty. He knows intimately every old man on the island, and as he was able to draw them out on the subject of the ‘good people’ as no stranger could do, I was quite willing, as well as obliged on account of the Scotch Gaelic, to let him act on my behalf in all my collecting on Barra. Mr. Buchanan is the author of a little book called The MacNeils of Barra Genealogy, published in the year 1902. He was the official interpreter before the Commission of Inquiry which was appointed by the British Parliament in 1883 to search into the oppression of landlordism in the Highlands and Islands, and he acted in the same capacity before the Crofters’ Commission and the Deer-Forest Commission. We therefore feel perfectly safe in allowing him to present, before our jury trying the Fairy-Faith the evidence of the Gaelic-speaking witnesses from Barra.
JOHN MACNEIL’S TESTIMONY
We met the first of the Barra witnesses on the top of a rocky hill, where the road from Castlebay passes. He was carrying on his back a sack of sand heavy enough for a college athlete, and he an old man between seventy and eighty years of age. Michael Buchanan has known John MacNeil all his life, for they were boys together on the island; and there is not much difference between them in age, our interpreter being the younger. Then the three of us sat down on a grassy knoll, all the world like a fairy knoll, though it was not; and when pipes were lit and the weather had been discussed, there was introduced the subject of the ‘good people ‘ - all in Gaelic, for our witness now about to testify knows no English - and what John MacNeil said is thus interpreted by Michael Buchanan :-
A Fairy’s Visit.- ‘
Yes, I have’ (in answer to a question if he had heard of people being taken by the ‘good people’ or fairies). ‘A fairy Woman visited the house of a young wife here in Barra, and the young wife had her baby on her breast at the time. The first words uttered by the fairy woman were, “Heavy is your child; “ and the wife answered, “Light is everybody who lives the longest.” “Were it not that you have answered my question,” said the fairy woman, “and understood my meaning, you should have been less your child.” And then the fairy woman departed.’
Fairy-Singing. - ‘
My mother, and two other women well known here in Barra, went to a hill one day to look after their sheep, and, a thick fog coming on, they had to rest awhile. They then sat down upon a knoll and began to sing a walking (cloth-working) song, as follows :- “ It is early to-day that I have risen;” and, as they sang, a fairy woman in the rocks responded to their song with one of her own.’
Nature of Fairies.-
Then the question was asked if fairies were men or spirits, and this is the reply :- ‘ I never saw any myself, and so cannot tell, but they must be spirits from all that the old people tell about them, or else how could they appear and disappear so suddenly? The old people said they didn’t know if fairies were flesh and blood, or spirits. They saw them as men of more diminutive stature than our race. I heard my father say that fairies used to come and speak to natural people, and then vanish while one was looking at them. Fairy women used to go into houses and talk and then vanish. The general belief was that the fairies were spirits who could make themselves seen or not seen at will. And when they look people they took body and soul together.’
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