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No. II. – On the Fairy Superstitions of the West of Scotland, 1st April, 1816, p.265-271.

[Scottish Antiquities Contents]

“Antiquam exquirite matrem.”

[Seek out your ancient mother.]

   To the Right Hon. the Earl of BUCHAN, the illustrious founder of our National Societies. 

   MY LORD, 

   THE study of popular superstitions, though intimately connected with the history of the human mind, has in a great measure been neglected in this, and but partially investigated in any country. In those transmitted antiquities and legendary creeds we behold, as in a mirror, the manners and dispositions of that particular people on which we turn the eye of investigation – it is there we beheld the infant germs of society expand – it is there we mark the progressive advance of civilization and refinement, and according as the mighty features of this awful principle have advanced or receded, so much as we at liberty to judge of the stage or degree of intellectual greatness or barbaric ignorance which that country or kingdom exhibits in the scale of nations. If we descend for a moment into the profundity of other years – into that almost bottomless abyss, even there we may decry faint glimmerings of their manners, rites, and customs, by the aids of those very sepulchral lights which reason and religion had taught us to despise. Tradition has transmitted, with all the faithfulness of history, those vulgar orgies and popular opinions which characterize the eras of our warlike forefathers; and in no instance whatever has more faithfulness been exhibited than in such venerable transmissions. In our progress through the shadowy regions of romance and superstition, the mists of antiquity gather round us, magnifying every object till it becomes too prominent to be forgotten; and we retain the same reflective view of those mighty ruins that we do of a Perseponlis or an Ecbàtan in the desert, or a city overwhelmed by the internal fires of agitated nature. Many of these once popular superstitions appear in the arena of history like mutilated statues, where we contemplate the beautiful symmetry and expression of one part, as contrasted with the hideous deformity of another. – Yet these tend to point out the imperceptible gradations which have been made from the rude imaginations of Scaldic fiction, to the more sublime and interesting traits of “Oriental Minstrelsie.” Materials such as those, though of a transitory nature, yet by the tenacity with which they lay hold on the human mind, survive amid the shocks which have annihilated nations, and desolated empires. That these popular superstitions and creeds have no small degree of influence in directing the operations of society, is manifest from every page both of ancient Grecian and Roman, as well as Celtic history. On the one side we behold the Augur gazing intently on the quivering entrails of his slaughtered victim, and on the other the Aurispiciæ noting down, with the gravest precision, the flights of magpies and of chickens. Virgil, in his beautiful eclogue of Mœlibæus and Tityrus, hath seized upon the leading features of that superstition under which imperial Rome was governed, in the following line:- 

   “TIT. – Si mens non læva fuisset De Cœlo tactas memini prædicere quercus Sæpe sinistra cava prædixit ab ilice cornix.” 

   An oak scathed by the fires of heaven, the chattering of magpies, or the raven’s croaking from an old hollow tree, were matter sufficient for the most solemn cogitations, and even of power to deter them from the senate of the field. Facts such as these serve to convince us of their remote antiquity, as they have long outlived every trace of that source from whence they first derived their origin. Rugged and circumscribed, however, as this path may seem to the elegant and classical scholar, still it must be acknowledged, that many of the more sublime and beautiful passages, both in foreign and domestic literature, are founded solely upon these ancient superstitions. The enchantments of Armida, the gardens of Alcinous, the spirit of the Cape, with the varied personifications of witchcraft, magic, and demonrie, give an irresistible charm to the pages of a Tasso, an Ariosto, a Camoens, and a Spenser, immortal as the language in which they are written, and have hung the temple of Occidental Fancy with all the splendour of her magical creations. 

   The most beautiful and interesting relict of that popular creed of superstition which characterized the “olden time,” was the belief in fairies; and in no part of the world was this belief so fondly cherished as upon the western borders of Scotland. The idea of a diminutive, though elegant race of beings, endowed with supernatural gifts, is perhaps common to most nations; but none have arrayed them in all that lovely and animating spirit of jocund hilarity, that nearly angelic beauty of semblance, save the dwellers in that land of romance and chivalrie. There we contemplate them as links in that golden chain connecting the mortal with the immortal nature; and ponder, with emotions of delight, over the tiny features and amusements of these visionary forms, the shadowy inhabitants of fairy-land. Deprived of all that cruel and malignant ferocity which characterize the Duergar, the Froddenskemen, or the Dives, of boreal and oriental superstition, the border fairies were always dancing and making merry. No bloody or unhallowed rite ever seems to have marked their revels; and garrulous old age still loves to dwell upon the friendly deeds and intercourse of their “gude neighbours,” the elves and fairies. Arrayed in green, they assembled under the rays of the midnight moon, on the southern side of some fine sloping lawn, on the banks of a solitary rivulet, or the enchanting seclusions of a woody-girdled dell, – there, to the strains of mystic harps they bounded in the dance, or passed the moments in festive merriment and in song. This custom is finely alluded to by Scotia’s bard, in his inimitable poem of “Hallowe’en” – 

“Upon that night, when fairies light 

On Cassel’s downans dance; 

Or o’er the leys, in splendid blaze, 

On jingling coursers prance.” 

Their little coursers were decked out in gorgeous trappings – fine silver bells suspended from each teat of the plaited main, which rung with every breath of wind, making the most enchanting harmony, as they rode in procession to their nocturnal haunts. They were always of exquisite proportions, and beautiful in the extreme. Their ringlets of yellow hair floated over their shoulders, and bound above their brows with combs of the purest gold. Their dress consisted chiefly of a mantle of green silk, inlaid with eiderdown, and bound around the waist with a garland of wild flowers. Green trews, buttoned with blobs “o’ gems,” and silver sandals, formed the under parts of their dress. Over their shoulders hung quivers of the adder skin, stored with arrows tipt in flame. A golden bow slung negligently over the left arm, and little scymetars of the same metal glittered at their sides. – The dress and appearance of these (little) tiny revellers is finely pourtrayed in the following beautiful stanzas, from a hitherto-unpublished poem in MS. 

“Tiny their stature, tiny each feature, 

Yet are they gracefrul and fair; 

Their eyes sparkle bright, as diamonds at night, 

And a strange lustre darts through the air. 


Little bells of beath from the simple wreath 

That round their shoulders twines, 

And a thread of light is the girdle bright 

That their flowing robe confines. 


All sparkled with dew that robe of green hue, 

It was wove in the Gossamer’s loom; 

Their purple wings shine of net-work so fine, 

In the moon-beam distilling perfume. 


With gold hair is slung, with gold hair is hung, 

O’er their left arms a golden bow; 

And an arrow tipt with green of a dazzling sheen, 

In a gold quiver hangs below.” 

   Thus accoutred, they mounted on steeds fleeter than the wind, whose hoofs of viewless print would not dash the dew from the ring-cup, or bend the stalks of the slenderest fern. Attached to particular spots, which had been held as sacred in the annals of fairy-land, they never exchanged them for others, unless disturbed by the encroachments of mortal habitation, or torn up by the “all-devastating ploughshare.” Burnswark, a beautiful green hill of a conical form, in Annandale, has long been distinguished as a noted fairy residence, from the earliest ages, and which has not lost as yet any portion of its wonted sanctity. – Innumerable are the tales which tradition has treasured up of this terrestrial fairy-land: children have been lured from their nurses arms at the sounds of “elfin minstrelsie;” young virgins forsaken by their lovers have been greatly decoyed into these subterraneous abodes, and beguiled of their sufferings by the tones of lutes more sweetly soothing than those by seraphs tuned above. These notices are also beautifully illustrated in the above-mentioned MS. 

“Mid that band she views, in robes of green hue, 

Three mortals youthful and fair – 

One, a mother forc’d to part from the child of her heart, 

To nurse tiny babies there. 


And one an infant meek, on whose dimpled cheek 

The tear yet glisten’d bright 

That its mother in joy dropt on the fair boy, 

As she kiss’d him, and bade him “good-night.” 


On her own tender breast she had lull’d him to rest, 

But forgot a blessing to say; 

And at midnight deep, as she lay in soft sleep, 

The elves stole the sweet boy away. 


And a lovely maid, by a false vow betray’d, 

Had pin’d forsaken and forlorn, 

And wandering wide by the green hill side, 

To the land of the fairy was borne. 


In a jess’mine bower, at the twilight hour, 

So sweetly her sorrows she sung, 

That the fairies sigh’d as the wild notes died 

On her woe-entrancing tongue. 


For their woes are shar’d, and a rest prepar’d 

For that lovely hapless band; 

But the thorn remains of their rankling pains 

In the regions of fairy-land.” 

A young man from the banks of the Milk, having occasion to pass by Burnswark one night about twelve o’’clock, was surprised to hear the most enchanting tones of minstrelsy from the distant hill. With a romantic daring, peculiar to a Scottish peasant when in search of love adventures, he doff’d his clogs, (wooden shoes) and followed the sound. On approaching the eastern side of the hill, he discovered a splendid apartment, seemingly cut out of the rock, brilliantly illuminated with innumerable gems, in the form of crescents and stars. A green table, covered with a profusion of dainties, was placed in the middle of the apartment, from off which a large cup full of wine, that sparkled like fire, was presented to our adventurer by a female fairy, beautiful as imagination could devise. He partook of the cup, and immediately joined in the festivities of the night, which continued till the day had dawned and the grey cock crown, when he was permitted to depart. The wine conferred upon him the gift of foreknowledge, and guarded him for ever after from the attacks of “spell and charm.” 

   At the approach of summer is held the grandest of the fairy festivals. – Their merry minstrelsie, with the tincling of their silver bells, and the hub-bub of voices, have kept the Scottish villages awake on the first eve of May. They placed branches of rowan tree over their doors, and gazed on the fairy procession from beneath the charm-fraught twig. This raide is described by an old woman of Nithsdale, in the volume of its “Remains,” with all the characteristic naivetté and simplicity of the “good old times.” 

   “I’the night after ‘Roodsmass,’ I had trysted wi’ a neeber lass, a Scots mile frae hame, to talk anent buying o’ braws at the fair. We had nae sutten lang aneath the haw-buss, till we heard the loud laugh o’ folk riding, wi’ the jingling o’ bugles an’ the clanking o’ heufs. We bang’d up, thinking they wad a’ ridden o’er us; we kent nae but they micht a’ been drunken fouk gaun to the fair i’ the fore night. We glowr’d roun’ an’ roun’, an’ sune saw it was the ‘fairy fowk’s raide;‘ we cour’d doun till they passed by. A beam o’ light was dancing o’er them, mair bonnnie than the mune-shine. They were a wee, wee fouk, wi’ green scarfs on, but ane that rode foremost, and that ane was a gude deal langer than the lave, wi’ bonny lang hair bun’ about wi’ a strap, whilk glented like starnes. They rade on braw wee white naigs, wi’ lang swooping tails, and mains hung wi’ whusles that the wun played on. This, an’ their ain tongues whan they sang, was like the soun’ of a far-awa’ psa’m. Marion an’ me was in a brade leafiel’ whan they cam’ by us; a hie hedge o’ haw-trees keepit them frae gaun throu’ Jonnie Corrie’s corn – but they lap a’ our’t like sparrows, an’ gallopped into a green knowe ayont it.” 

   In their intercourses with mortals there was a benevolence and a dignity of character, which raised them considerably in the estimation of mankind; and it was reckoned “unco sonsie” to live on terms of a friendly footing with them. A woman of relief in Annandale was once sifting meal at the lonely mill of Cleughbrae, when a “feat little body, as clean as a new preen,” came to her with a basin of the most curious workmanship, requesting the loan of a little new meal. The goodwife cheerfully complied, filling the basin as full as it could hold. In a few days after, one morning when she was throng baking, she was surprised as the comely little creature made her appearance, saying, “Gudewife, I’ve brought you back your meal; take this basin, which for your courtesy shall henceforth never be toom;” waving, as she spoke, a little white rod over the basin, and breathing three times on its contents, she departed; and though the gudewife lived for many years after, she never had occasion to wipe the bottom of her blessed basin:- hence the origin of that proverb, 

“One good thing deserves another.” 

   An old woman, who lived in the ancient burgh of Lochmaben was returning one evening from the Dumfries fair, down the green hills of the Carthat, when a lovely little boy, dressed in all the finery of fairy-land, came to her, saying, “Coupe your dishwater farther frae your dore-step; it pits out our fire.” The request was complied with; and plenty abode in the goodwoman’s house to the end of her days. 

   There are chosen fields of fairy revelry which it is reckoned “unsonsie” to plough or to reap. Old thorn trees, or large stones standing on end in the middle of fields, have always been held as sacred to their nocturnal sports, and preserved with the greatest care. A stone of this kind was once taken away from a fine green meadow below Wisebie hill, in Annandale, to make a threshold to a door. The stone was obliged to be brought back and placed in tis former siituation; as the person who had been the cause of its removal was continually assailed by the most piteous lamentations, as of children exclaiming, “Ho, Robin Smith! gie’s back our trysting-stane, if e’er you wis’ to do weel agen.” 

   “Their love of mortal commerce, (for they seem to have been enthusiastically fond of mankind,) prompted them to have their children suckled at earthly breasts. The favoured nurse was chosen from healthy, ruddy-complexioned beauty, and one every way approved of by mortal eyes. A fine young woman of Nithsdale, when first made a mother, was sitting singing and rocking her child in her cottage, when a lady made her appearance, richly dressed, covered with a fairy mantle. She held a beautiful infant in her arms, swaddled in green silk. “Gi’e my bonny thing a suck,” said the fairy. The young woman, conscious to whom the child belonged, took it kindly in her arms, and laid it to her breast. The lady instantly disappeared, saying, “Nurse kin’, an’ ne’er want.” The young mother nurtured the two babes, and was always astonished when she awoke at finding the richest suits of apparel for both children, with meat of a most delicious flavour, which tasted like loaf mixed with wine and honey. It posessed more miraculous properties than the manna of the wilderness, – preserving its relish even over the seventh day. On the approach of summer, the fairy lady came to see her child. It bounded with joy when it beheld her. She was much delighted with its freshness and activity. Taking it in her arms, she bade the nurse follow. Passing through some scroggy woods, at the foot of a beautiful green hill, they walked mid-way up. On its sunward slop a door opened, disclosing a splendid porch, which they entered, and the turf closed behind them. The fairy dropt three drops of a precious dew on the nurse’s left eyelid, as they entered the enchanting boundaries of fairy-land. – It was watered by fine flowing rivulets, and yellow with corn. The fairest trees enclosed its fields, laden with fruits, and dropping honey. The nurse was rewarded with exhaustless treasures of raiment and of medicine, which could restore mortal vigour when gone, or heal the deadliest wounds. She then dropt a drop of green dew over her right eye, and bade her look. She beheld many of her lost friends and acquaintances doing menial drudgery, reaping the corn, and gathering the fruits of fairy-land. This, said the lady, is the punishment of evil deeds. She then passed her hand over her eye, and restored its mortal faculties. The nurse was conducted to the porch; but had the address to secure the heavenly salve. She lived and enjoyed the gift of discerning these earth-visiting spirits, till she was mother of many children: but happening to meet her former benefactress one day, she attempted to shake hands with her. “What e’e d’ye see me with?” said the lady. “Wi’ them baith,” was the reply. The fairy breathed on her eyes, and even the power of the box failed to restore their gift again.”1 

   Tradition has arrayed the fairy inhabitants of the welds in gifts and graces – the high prerogatives of Heaven. Theirs was the power to mould the minerals of their subterranean kingdom into mortal forms, endowed with every seeming ornament of beauty and of life – to clothe the sculpture of their hands in flesh and blood, and breathe animation through its flexile frame. They are also said to have had the power of changing with a breath the finest infant features, rendering them loathsome, haggard, and deformed. To cure one of these fairy-blighted blossoms, the following recipe was generally resorted to in the years of old. 

   The child is undressed, and laid out in unbleached linen, new from the loom; water is brought from a sacred well, without speaking, an hour before the sun rises, in a pitcher wet for the first time; the child is them washed, and its clothes sprinkled by the hands of a virgin; repeating at every sprinkling, “Holy, holy, holy He – look wi’ mercy upon thee!” inscribing, at the same time, the figure of the cross upon its forehead. This repeated three different times, will restore the child to its wonted vigour. 

   But matron knowledge has frequently been known to have baffled every fitful charm and way-word spell by experiments and incantations, at which mortality shudders. When one of these elfin forms was substituted for a son or daughter of the children of mankind, the chimney top was covered up; every inlet barred and closed, that not a breath of wind could enter. The fire was roused into a furnace, then, without mercy, the elf was thrown into the heart of the glowing embers, whilst it uttered the most piercing unearthly yells. In a moment the faries would be heard moaning at every avenue, pleading piteously for their offspring; the mother of the lost child frequently exclaiming from within, “I’ the name of the Most High, bring back my bairn!” The windows would then fly open with a dreadful crash; the child he laid unhurt upon its mother’s lap, while its unnatural changeling would fly up the chimney with a wild terrific laugh. 

   Those beautiful queen lawns and verdant hillocks, the immemorial haunts of elfin millions, when once cut by the scythe, or turned by the plough-share, ceased to be resorted, or held in secret repute by them ever after. A farewell of this nature is said to have taken place when the Annan common was divided, a few years ago, and their recesses intruded upon by the sickle and the scythe. The sun was setting on a fine summer evening, the breeze sighed gently through the waving broom, and the distant Solway rolled on the view like a sheet of fused gold; suddenly the most entrancing tones of elfin minstrelsie were heard by the peasants returning from their toil: they stood to listen, when, on the side of a green height called the Cairne of Creka, appeared a procession of thousands of small personages habited in green, freckled with light. They circled the heights three times, singing, 

“Creka’s heights, sae wild, sae fair, 

Adieu, adieu, for ever mair!” 

and instantly vanished, with a shrill, plaintive noise. 

   These superstitions have been seized upon by the minstrel of the border, and interwoven into a beautiful drapery, which still decorates the ancient remains of feudal grandeur, and gives a lasting tendency to the fabulous narratives of tilts and tournaments, romance and chivalrie. – Mr Scott, in his minute introduction to the beautiful fairy tale of Tam Linn, has thrown great light upon this subject, tracing their origin and descent, from the first of days, down to the lingering superstitions of recent times: but in this he seems to have been entirely unacquainted with the genuine characteristics of the west border fairy. His elfin marauders are universally of a capricious, malignant disposition, unforgiving and revengeful. The occidental fairy was of a quite different nature – mild, generous, forgiving, and easy to be propitiated: they mingled in the assemblies of mortals, and frequently performed the kindest acts of benevolence; would overlook a thousand improprieties, if springing from a levity, not a barbarity of disposition. – These superstitions have given rise to several of the most beautiful stanzas in English poetry; and of course merit delineation in a work of this nature, whose chief end is merely to investigate the origin and progress of society, through the various stages of arts, arms, and superstitions, as connected with the history of those ages I have undertaken to delineate. 

Edinburgh, March 10. 1816.                                                                                         W. S. Irving

(To be continued.) 

1  Remains of Gall. and Nithsdale Song. Appendix, 303-4. 

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