Introduction and Part I. – Fairies, 1st August, 1818, pp.49-54.

[Popular Superstitions of Clydesdale Contents]

   [The following communication, which is from the pen of a very respectable and worthy correspondent, will, we apprehend, be interesting to such of our readers as are gratified by the preservation of the fast-fading remains of the popular superstitions and peculiar dialect of our old Scottish peasantry. The author had prefixed a short introduction to his paper, in which he strenuously defends the almost exploded doctrine of “the visible interference of spirits” in human affairs, – professes himself a determined adherent to the ghostly creed of his venerable grandmother, – and, moreover, gravely professes his actual belief in the “Fairy Mythology,” of which he has given such curious details; but as we are not quite sure that we rightly understand our author’s meaning or real “mood of mind,” in this singular introduction, we have for the present withheld it from the public. We are happy, however, in the prospect of soon hearing from him again, in continuation. – Edit.] 

   MR EDITOR, 

   DURING my infancy, it was the custom, at rockings, to entertain each other with stories of apparitions and unearthly visitations; a numerous collection of fairy tales, also, formed part, and no inconsiderable part, of the general amusement; and he was esteemed the most acceptable rocker, whose memory was most plentifully stored with such thrilling narratives. But a very great change had taken place within these fifteen years, the date to which my recollection reaches. The inhabitants of Clydesdale, for I speak of that portion of Scotland only with which I am most intimately acquainted, in place of frequently meeting and entertaining each other with the romantic traditionary lore of former times, seldom have any merry meetings at all; and when one does happen to take place, the conversation even of the very youngest persons present is either about the shortest and surest way to riches, or else consists of puerile scandal concerning absent lads and lasses. With extreme interest and with delight, mingled with piercing terror, have I formerly listened, however, every night for weeks and months to these fearful tales; and as my memory is pretty deeply imbued with the mythology of at least my native country, if it be consistent with the plan of your Magazine, I shall send you from time to time a short account of the Fairies, Brownies, Witches, Kelpies, &c. who still linger amongst our hills and glens, as loth to forsake that beloved land wherein they formerly reigned so long with unquestioned dominion. 

   The first of my little essays shall be upon the Fairies; but I must be permitted to observe, that after the detailed and extremely interesting memoir on the fairy superstition introduced into the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, it would be a presumptuous work of supererogation in your humble correspondent, as well as a thankless labour, were he to attempt to give a fuller or more explicit account of this most elegant branch of our national mythology. But notwithstanding all the multifarious anecdotes which the indefatigable industry of Mr Scott has collected, several curious traditions have escaped his search, which tend in some degree to shew, that the opinions of the “people of the west” concerning the Fairy Folk, though in general agreeing with those of the romantic borderers, yet differ from them in various particulars. 

   According to popular belief in most parts of Scotland, the fairies are under the dominion of a Queen, but in Clydesdale, at least in the Upper Ward, they have a King to rule over them, who is no less a personage than Thomas the Rhymer, who now for many centuries has swayed the Elfin sceptre with great splendour. He obtained the monarchy neither by conquest nor election, but by a transference of the queenly power, to which their ancient and legitimate sovereign was compelled by the great love which she bore for “True Thomas.” According to an old traditionary ballad, an indisputable authority in these matters, but which I cannot at present completely recover, Thomas, while a young man, 

“— gade doun to the cashie wud 

To pu’ the roses braw, 

An’ the blossoms that hing frae the rowan-tree 

As white as the driftit snaw. 

The ouzel an’ the mavis grey 

Rejoicit in their sang, 

An’ the lustie cushat scoup’t through the shaw, 

An’ currooit the trees amang. 

The eerie scaddows o’ the aiks, 

Fell black ower the skinklan grun’ 

As frae a heap o’ blude-reid cluds 

Brast furth the mornin’ sun. 

He hadnae call’d on the Halie Name 

That scugs in the evil hour, 

An’ thraws a bield roun’ sinfu’ man, 

Frae the blasts o’ fairy power, 

Whan he was aware of a lady fair 

Come out of a birken bower. 

Her rude was redder than rose on rice 

On Cairnie-castle lea, 

Her teeth was the dew on the heather-bell, 

The diamon’ stane her ee; 

Her mantle greener nor the gerse 

Soup’t doun alang the grun’, 

At the turn o’ her ee the branches swirl’t 

As muv’t by a whirlwin’. 

To Thamas sho cam ridin’ up 

Wi’ mickle state an’ pride, 

An’ ye maun gang wi’ me, luve Thamas, 

I’ll be your winsome bride; 

An’ we will lig in the brumie braes, 

Or daff in the birken shaw, 

An’ tak our fill o’ drouerie,1 

An’ nae man can it knaw.” 

   Thomas rather ungallantly persists in refusing to comply with the request of the queen, though her Elfin Majesty presses her suit in terms which I beg leave not to be compelled to repeat. The virtue of Thomas is inflexible, till at last the princess offers him her hand, and along with it her crown, with perpetual sovereignty over Fairy Land. 

“An’ I will gie to thee, luve Thamas, 

My han’ but an’ my crown, 

An’ thou shalt ring ower Fairy Lan’ 

In joy an’ grit renown. 

An’ I will gie to thee, luve Thamas. 

To live for evermare, 

Thine arm sall never feckless grow, 

Nor hoary wax thy hair: 

Nae chaneran grief we ever thule, 

Nae wastan pine we dree, 

An endless life’s afore thee placed 

O’ constant luve an’ lee.” 

   These were no doubt alluring offers, and the temptation, as was to have been expected, proved too powerful for the virtue of the poor Rhymer, who from thenceforward became King of the Fairies. 

   Hunting appears all along to have been a favourite amusement of the Seelie Court, and innumerable are the stories which are told concerning the magnificence and splendour of the royal retinue. Amidst all the numerous and gorgeous train, the sovereign was easily distinguished by his superior stature, and majestic demeanour. Upon his right hand rode Her Majesty, and upon the left Kilmoulie, a personage of rather a suspicious character, being, according to some accounts, the resident envoy from the Court of Hell, while, according to others, he was a prime noble among the fairies themselves, of rather a mischievous disposition, and the principal instigator of all their roguish tricks. Be his character or office what it may, he was readily known from his riding a large and powerful black charger, while all the rest of the company in which he ranked were mounted upon very little milk-white horses. 

   The Fairy Court always rode out in three bands, – the first mounted upon brown horses, the second upon grey, and the last, which contained the king and queen, with the chief nobles, mounted upon horses white as the driftit snaw. It was in this last company that Kilmoulie cut so great a figure, and I forgot to mention, in its proper place, that this high dignitary and his charger, contrary to all rules of optics, appeared to be full as big at a distance as near at hand. 

   Just before my window, and within two or three minutes walk of the door, lies a beautiful sloping field, called Auchreoch, where a peasant who died not many years ago had the fortune to witness the magnificence of a fairy raid. I knew the man when I was a boy, a steady and sincere Christian, at the venerable age of ninety-two; whose mind was deeply imbued with the superstitions and freitty observances of his native land. With supreme interest have I often listened to the excellent man, while he, seated on an old high-backed chair, with his palsied head, which he supported by leaning his brow on a short staff, almost bowed down between his knees with age, narrated, with strong feeling, and in the picturesque language of former days, many a striking relation of the malignant kelpie, the boding wraith, the spiteful witch, and the mischievous but elegant fairy. 

   In one or two of the following little stories, I shall preserve as much as possible of the original language, in order to give your Scottish readers a specimen of the Clydesdale dialect. 

   “In the afternune of a braw hairst-day, about sun-settin’, an’ as the mune was wadin’ up through an eastlan rowk, the haill bune saw a wee bit crynit-lukin’ woman, nae heicher nor a water stoup, and bussit in a gown o’ the auldest fasson, gang daunerin’ through amang the stouks. Sho cuist mony a lang look at the shearers, but we ne’er luit on that we saw her, though ony body wad, in a moment, hae seen that it was something wanearthlie. The shearers quat rather suner that night nor usual; an’ my brither an’ I taiglit a while ahin’, ettlan to fetch hame a draucht o’ green corn to the ky. The mune be this was shinan clearly abune a’ the ure, an’ ha’in’ buggen the draucht, my brither tuke the uaig be the head, to lead him hame, whan, till our amazement, we perceived him to be a’’ lashan wi’ sweat. Nowther fleechan nor whippan could mak him mudge a fit; but there he stude, quakan, lith an’ limb, like the leaf o’ the lin. While we war stannan upo’ stappan-stanes, switheran what to do, we war sprisit wi’ the soun’ of an onkennable nummer of sma’ bells, a’ tinkle-tinklan. In a doup, by cam thousan’s o’ milk-white hunds, nae bigger nor whittrets, an’ souchan as gin they had been a flaught o’ dows. Mony a wearie company o’ wee wee gerse-green riders cam neest, stennan ower the lea; their graith a’ jinglan wi’ siller, an’ their clais skinklan i’ the wanyoch mune as though they had been just ae diamon’. Muckle din an’ loud gilraivitch was amang them, gaffawan an’ lauchan. They rade furth in three wheens; the first muntit on black ponies, the neest on grey, an’ syne the last on bonnie wee beasties white as the driftit snaw. I could brawlie observe the king amang the lave, wi’ the queen on his richt, an’ coal-black Kilmoulie on his left. Be this the fore-en’ was tint frae view, amang the brumie knows o’ Daiberdillie, an’ we war glowran at the sicht, whan he on the richt o’ the king wheelit roun’ his beast, an’ rade straucht to whar we war stannan. he held his richt han’ ower us, crunan out some fleyfu’ words as he gade souchan by like the wind. We baith sank to the grun’ wi fricht, an’ I am far mistane, gin I did nae hear the eldritch creature guffawan an’ lauchan at the pliskie he had playit us. – Whan we cam till ousells a’ was gane thegither, an’ the cart was stannan cowpit up on its hin’ trams, but no ae bit o’ the graith was lowsit. Aff we set, gey an’ sare fleyit, to seek the beast; and as we war gaun by a sauchen buss in Glenaskie, we thocht we saw something white in the buss, an’ heard it gurr gurran like a dog shoran to bite. We gade nerrer to see what it was, thinkan it micht be a hown’ worryan a lamb, whan out cam sic a smytrie o’ wee white dogs, as ee ne’er saw. The hale o’ Dumtersie was perfectly cu’rit, an’ the lift rang again wi’ their gowlan. My ain bonnie grey cam by what he could flee frae Daiberdillie-wart, an’ stintit nae whill he wan to Nether Auchenleck, whar we fan’ him i’ the lone, wi’ the sweat gaun hailan aff at his very huves. The jags o’’ the spurs war visible in his sides; an’ the puir thing was never its ain wordie mare, but frae that dwynit awa an’ deeit.” 

   Upper and Nether Auchenlecks are said to have been anciently the property of one of the relatives of Wallace, and to have been so denominated after the possessions of his family in Ayrshire. At Nether Auchenleck, or as it is usually called Nether Affleck, there is a very curious relic of antiquity called Wallace’s Syles, which, as tradition reports, was made by that matchless man while he was staying with his kindred at Killbank and Nether Auchinleck. The Syles, which are of a very curious and complicated construction, and exceedingly strong, are made of oak, which, having stood for centuries in one of the smokiest hovels in Scotland, has long ago become quite saturated with soot, and rendered almost incombustible. The feet of the Syles are placed on the ground, with the sides built firmly into the wall; and though the house has been twice burned down to the ground, this venerable relic of Wallace has escaped unharmed. The people around fond of the memory of their beloved chief, attribute this preservation to the interposition of some superior power; for they contend that Sir William Wallace was not only the greatest hero and most disinterested patriot that the world ever saw, but also an eminent Christian. 

   Nether Auchinleck has always been a peculiar haunt of the fairies and other spiritual beings. The late tenant, Alexander Waddel, having, in the course of his improvements, grubbed up a broomy brae where the fairies were wont to hold their revels, incurred the displeasure of these irritable spirits. “They rade his horses in the night till they were quite blawn, shot his ky, an’ did na even haud aff himsell. For ae nicht as he was sharpan his saw by the fire-en’, ben cam an elfshot-stane wi’ unco birr frae the foor, an’ dang a tuith out o’ the saw. but nae doubt it was ettlet to break his arm, gif no to do him war skaith.” At another time as he was felling some trees, he perceived an arm strike at him several times with a hatchet; “but the shaft o’ his ain axe was made o’ rowan-tree, saw they could nae harm him.” – There is a deep glen at Nether Auchinleck, called Hellsgill, wherein a spirit has frequently appeared in the very extraordinary shape of a cart-wheel, or rather of the ring of a cart-wheel, trundling down the brae. It appears always rolling right against the beholder, and often has the eirie night-traveller been terrified that he would be overturned by this whimsical apparition: but after coming bounding from brae to brae, thundering to his very feet, all of a sudden it vanishes, and a loud unearthly laugh, or, as it is expressed in our country dialect, “an eldritch nicheran gaffaw” is heard in the bottom of the ravine. 

   But let us return to Thomas the Rhymer, – who appears, from the most authentic accounts, to be a very beneficent prince, and to have still a very great regard for the inhabitants of his native land, to take delight in promoting their interest, and in doing all in his power to release them from the thraldom of superhuman malicious powers. A worthy old woman who lived in a small cottage, (the remains of which were lately discernible on the banks of the Taigillin burn, a small streamlet in the parish of Lesmahago,) and who had no other means of support than what she earned by spinning, and what she drew from a cow which the neighbouring farmers very kindly allowed her to pasture on the uncultivated braes, and by the waysides, and hedges, – was harassed almost to death by loud and unearthly noises; so that what with terror and want of sleep she was nearly driven distracted. Her cow, which lowed continually, either produced no milk, or what she gave was sour as vinegar: and let her spin ever so diligently, she could make no progress; she had just as much thread when she began as when she stopped. Tibbie knew not what to do; her neighbours judging her uncannie, deserted her; and she was in the utmost distress. One day exactly at noon, having passed a most fearful night, and when, after much consideration, she had just determined to flee from the house and all that was in it, a gentle tap came to the door, and a mild voice inquired if any were within. The good woman rose and opened the door, but saw nothing. Imagining that she had been mistaken, she went and sat down, when she again heard the same tap with the same inquiry. A second time she went to the door, and a second time she saw nothing. She had no sooner returned again to her seat, than the tapping and inquiry were repeated. Tibbie’s patience was inexhaustible. She went a third time to the door, and again seeing nobody, she stepped round the corner of her hut to see if any boys had been playing her a trick. Nought was there, and, not a little agitated, she returned into her house, when, to her amazement, she found the floor occupied by a tall young man, clad in green, attended by seven blooming boys dressed in the same habiliments. The young told her not to be alarmed: that, being out a hunting he had taken the liberty of calling for a drink, to which, as he was somewhat hungry, he would be much obliged to her if she would add a little bread and cheese, for which he would most willingly pay. He apologized for their conduct at the door, by saying, that his young attendants wished to give her a little surprise, but he should be sorry if it had occasioned her any alarm. “I am vext I canna gie ye a drink of ocht but water, my bonnie bairn, but that ye’s hae clear as the bell; for though I hae tholit muckle wearie ill, He has nae luiten them scaithe the siller well.” She bustled about, and set before them excellent bread and cheese, the last indeed which she had in the house, and, taking a white bowl, she filled it with crystal water, and, according to the invariable practice of the Scottish peasantry, after having wished them good health, and God’s blessing, she took one sip and placed it before them. They ate very heartily, though still the good woman’s bread and cheese appeared to be growing no less; which she perceiving,a fter looking for some time, she couldf no longer contain herself, but in great anxiety exclaimed, “I doubt, Sirs, ye binnae cannie!” The eldest smiled, and told her not to be alarmed, that he was indeed no longer a man, but Thomas the Rhymer, King of the Fairies, and that these were seven of his pages. He further told her, that he perfectly knew her situation, and what it was that had long haunted her abode, but that, if she would take his advice, she should get quit of all her misluck, as well as of her nocturnal visitors, for he was well aware of her great kindness in setting before unknown strangers her only provisions. “Ony thing, ony thing, that tramps nae on Him that is abune us a’, an if ye’ll but say the Lord is gude an’ gude till a’, whate’er ye bid I’ll do.” His Majesty smiling, satisfied the good woman’s fears, and told her to watch till eight o’clock exactly, when she would perceive the outer door to open apparently of its own accord, and a gentle whirlwind to enter thereat. This would move slowly forwards, till, having arrived at the middle of the floor, it would stand there whirling a few moments, when a red worm would come up between the stones. The instant that appeared, she was to throw a few drops of the liquid contained in the phial, which he now put into her hands, upon it, and say, 

“Gin God made ye sae, 

Remain as ye are, 

But if ye be in wae, 

Return to what ye war.” 

   Whatever she might see she was not to be afraid, and if at any time she grew alarmed, she was to sprinkle a few more drops on the subject of her apprehensions and repeat the above words. If she grew terrified and forgot this advice, it was a thousand chances to one but both she and her house would be destroyed. The fairies, having said this, immediately vanished, leaving a large purse of money behind them, which the good dame would not touch till she had sained it, when, finding that it did not turn into withered leaves, nor bits of “sclate stanes, but bade still gude white siller,” she adventured to put it into the press. About eight o’clock she watched with great anxiety, and no sooner had the church clock of Abbey Green struck, than the door slowly opened. The whirlwind moved to the middle of the floor, where, according as “True Thomas” predicted, a red worm came crawling up from between two stones. Tibbie immediately threw some of the liquid upon it, repeating the incantation. A large black boar in a moment stood before her, gnashing its tusks, and apparently just going to fly at her. Some more of the phial was bestowed upon the board, which was instantaneously changed into a most enormous serpent, coiled around the room, and crawling towards her with glaring eyes and open mouth. Tibbie dashed some more of the liquid in its face, when suddenly a corpse was extended at her feet, with its cold and glassy eyes fixed sternly upon her. In great terror she dropped the phial at her feet, when the stiffened corpse began to relax, and extended its arm to seize the bottle. Suddenly recollecting herself, she snatched up the phial, and dashed it, liquid and all, with her whole force, upon the corpse, roaring out, “His presence be about us! what will come neest!” The room grew dark as midnight, – a loud peal of thunder shook the house, and, by the momentary glare of the lightning, the goodwife could perceive a little ugly thing, somewhat resembling a man, but exceedingly hideous, come out of the mouth of the corpse, and fly away on the fireflaucht. All was light, and a young woman, whom Tibbie recognized to be her daughter, who had been lost when an infant, was lying on the floor in the manner of one recovering from a swoon. The child told her mother that one day when she had “gane out to blade some kail for the pat, a little man, no that doons braw,” came to her, and asked if she would go with him. “He shew me a wheen rings an’ braw flegairies. I replied, scorninwise, ‘Tweel I may gang wi’ you, for wow but ye are a bonnie strappan body!’ – ‘Chapse ye at your word!’ quo he; an’ wi’ that the grun’ clave aneth us, and we sank down till a frichtsome den, whar naething was to be seen but the cauld clattie sides o’ the cove, shawn by a blae wanyoch glare. Because I wadnae submit to be his ain, he dumit me to torment an’ fley my kind auld mither, an’ this I bude to do, whill I was winfreeit by a mare poweerfu’ being nor himsell. Ilka nicht I was turnit intil a laithsome worm, an’ the illdeedie fairie entered the house by a whirlwind, an’ forcit me, sair agains my will, to tak an active han’ in a’ the trouble an’ mischief whilk has happenit to you sen ye war trystit wi this sare visitation.” – The old woman was also informed, by this communicative daughter, that she had lived fourteen years in the fairy’s dungeon, during which time she had resolutely withstood all the dishonourable attempts of the elf who, by anointing the crown of her head, and the palms of both hands, with a very fragrant oil, “gart her grow woman-muckle in twathree days.” – She also informed her mother that the real reason why the Fairy King did not enter her dwelling at the first, was because she had only opened her door a-jar, at which the dignity of the gude fairies would not permit them to enter, it being only evil spirits who come in at doors in this situation. 

   Many, indeed, are the traditionary stories afloat in Clydesdale, which prove that the fairies are not to be looked upon as uniformly malignant, but rather that there are two orders, the members of the one distinguished for their goodness, generosity, and loving kindness towards man, while those of the other are no less remarkable for their irritableness, peevishness, and malignity. 

   An old woman in the moors of Avondale, who lived with her only daughter, a lively lass of twenty-two, was entirely dependent upon the industry of her child for bread. A wasting seized the industrious girl, and, after consultations had been held with every medical gentleman in the neighbourhood, her case was given up as hopeless, and her aged and helpless parent was plunged into the utmost distress. In her extreme necessity she applied to the only never-failing source of consolation, and besought the Father of mercies “that he would not leave her when she was old and grey-headed, but that he would yet spare her beloved bairn to close her auld an’ feeble een, whilk had lang sensyne been shut to all the vanities of this wearie world.” The prayers, says the story, of the waefu widow, are always accepted. A coagful of loaf and milkwas placed at her door every morning, and a little phial, of a reddish liquid, and a small loaf, as white as snow, which she rightly conjectured were for her daughter. Upon this diet she lived sparingly, but was contented and thankful, and her daughter recovered slowly, but surely. Anxious to behold the immediate hand that blessed her in so extraordinary a manner, the old woman watched one morning, and saw two beautiful children, a boy and a girl, bring the food, and place it on the threshold, the girl carrying the medicine for the daughter, and the boy the provisions for the mother. Having carefully performed this operation, their eyes were thrown upwards for a moment, with an expression of great devotion. As they were turning to depart, the old woman, who, as the story goes, declared that “they war sae unco bonnie, an’ sweet-lukan, that she couldnae be fleyit,” could not help exclaiming, “fair fa; ye, my bonnie bairns, may ye be as gude as ye’re bonnie, an’ as happy as ye’ve made me.” The boy looked on her with an evanescent frown, mixed with pity. “Was it not aneuch, wanweirdit woman, that ye sould hae been servit wi’ meat and drink, but ye boud alsae pry into things on whilk ye maunna turn your ee? Nevertheless, lest ye sould imagine an evil thocht agains the hand that feeds, I will tell you that we are Gude Fairies, an’ live for ever mare in happiness an’ bliss.” The fairies instantly vanished, and the old woman continued to receive her daily supply of provisions till her daughter recovered, when it ceased. 

  There are innumerable stories remaining in this country, illustrative of the peculiarities of the fairy mythology; but, as I have not Scott’s Essay on that superstition by me, I am afraid to mention any more at present, lest I should perhaps transmit to you some which are already contained in that curious and valuable performance. I shall, therefore, in the meanwhile, conclude with saying, that, if this be deemed worthy of a place in your valuable Miscellany, I shall as soon as possible transmit you several more stories of the Scottish fairies hitherto unpublished, and likewise some account of the Clydesdale belief concerning Wraiths. I remain your obedient servant, 

C. T. C. S.    

1  I have taken the liberty to substitute this ancient word for the unmeaning one dowrie or doulerie, which occurs in this place, as sung by the peasantry. 

One thought on “Introduction and Part I. – Fairies, 1st August, 1818, pp.49-54.

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