Random Notes Anent the Antiquities, Traditions, Superstitions, and Old Manners and Customs of the Borders. – X. – Fairies.

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]

   THERE is perhaps none of the creations of superstition more attractive than that of fairies. Their diminutive size and handsome form, their habits of green and prancing palfreys, their midnight revels and their many elvish pranks, their king and queen with their glittering “compagnie” of courtiers have each and all of them been the themes of the poet’s lay, and a knowledge of these airy beings will be better learned from a few well-arranged selections than from a lengthened description. 

   1. King James in his demonology thus writes concerning fairies:- “That there was a king and queene of Phairie, that they had a jolly court and traine, they had a teynd and duetie as it were of all goods, they naturally rode and went, eate and dranke, and did all other actions like natural men and women.” 

   2. In Randolph’s Amyntas we have the following humourous description of fairyland:- “A curious park paled round about with pick-teeth, a house made all with mother-of-pearl – an ivory tenis court – a nutmeg parlour – a sapphyre dairy-room – a ginger hall – chambers of agate – kitchens all of chrystal – the jacks are gold – the spits are all of Spanish needles.” 

   3. Here is Dr King’s account of a fairy feast:- 

“A roasted ant that’s nicely done 

By one small atom of the sun; 

These are flies’ legs in moonshine poached; 

This a flea’s thigh in collops scotch’d, 

‘Twas hunted yesterday i’ the park, 

And like t’ have ‘scaped us in the dark; 

This is a dish entirely new, 

Butterflies’ brains dissolved in dew; 

These lovers’ vows, these courtiers’ hopes, 

Things to be eat by microscopes; 

These sucking mites – a glow-worm’s heart; 

This a delicious rainbow-tart.” 

   4. Many passages might be selected illustrative of the numerous pranks in which the fairies indulged; and quotations may be made from old ballads, Percy’s Reliques, the Minstrelsy of the Borders, the Poems of the Ettrick Shepherd, and innumerable tales of legendary lore. One, however, from Poole’s English Parnassus must suffice:- 

“There is Mab, the mistress fairy, 

That doth nightly rob the dairy, 

And can help or hurt the churning 

As she please, without discerning. 

She that pinches country wenches 

If they rub not clean their benches, 

And with sharper nails remembers 

When they rake not up the embers. 

But if so they chance to feast her 

In their shoe she drops a tester. 

This is she that empties cradles, 

Takes out children, put in ladles; 

Trains forth midwives in their slumber 

With a sieve the holes to number, 

And then leads them from their boroughs 

Thorough ponds and water-furrows.” 

One of their most notable pranks was, as is mentioned above, their carrying away children and substituting vixens of their own. These, it is supposed, were the victims which they paid to the devil at the end of every seven years, as we find in the ballad of Tam Lane. 

O pleasant is the fairy land, 

And happy there to dwell; 

But aye at every seven years’ end 

We pay a kane to hell. 

   It was an article in the screed of superstition that fairies could not take away children or inflict on them incurable diseases if an article of clothing belonging to the father or mother were always kept in the cradle, or if the mother wore any part of her husband’s dress. A story is told of a woman in the neighbourhood of Selkirk having given birth to a fine male child, who was lying in her bosom. Next morning, in the absence of her husband, who was a shepherd, she heard a confused noise of voices in the spence, or room-end of the house. This, it was afterwards ascertained, proceeded from the fairies, who, amid peels of laughter, were forming a child of wax resembling hers, whom they intended to steal away, and leave in his place this one of fairy birth. She became terrified, and observing her husband’s waistcoat lying at the foot of the bed, took hold of it, and laid it on both herself and her child, when immediately loud screams were heard, and all was silent. Soon after she heard something fall down the chimney, and on looking over the bed, she beheld the waxen figure of her own child lying on the hearth stuck full of pins. When her husband came home, he made a large fire into which he threw the fairy child; but instead of burning it flew up the chimney, and instantly (quoth the legend) the house was surrounded by peals of laughter and shouts of joy. To enumerate all the pranks of the fairies handed down to us either in the creations of the poet or in the pages of legendary lore would occupy more space than can be afforded here; and we are obliged to dismiss this subject with the words of the well-known fairy song. 

“When mortals are at rest, 

And snorting in their nest, 

Unheard and unespied 

Through key-holes we do glide, 

Over tables, stools, and shelves 

We trip it with our fairy elves. 


“On tops of dewy grass 

So nimbly we do pass, 

The young and tender stalk 

Ne’er bends when we do walk; 

Yet in the morning may be seen 

Where we the night before have been. 


“The grasshopper and fly 

Serve for our minstrelsie, 

Grace said, we dance awhile, 

And so the time beguile, 

And when the moon doth hide her head 

The glow-worm lights us home to bed.” 

   5. Elf-shot, elf-arrows, elf or fairy-stones. – Elf-shot were arrow-heads of stone, which the common people supposed were shot by fairies at cattle, which caused them to be diseased. “when elf-shot,” says Ramsay, “the cow falls down suddenly dead; no part of the skin is pierced, but often a little triangular flat stone is found near the beast, which is called the elf’s-arrow.” On the other hand, Wilkie, in his MS., says the disease called elf-shot is known by the cow withholding her milk, or what she gives has the appearance of being rancid, and is called by the dairy women, eeny, which is unfit for being made into butter. The cure for this disease is to take a blue bonnet which has been worn by the chief of the family, or that of a very old man, and with it rub all the cow over and the wound will make its appearance, or the place will be seen where the wound has been. 

   The elf-stone is described as being very sharp and having many angular points, so that whichever way it falls upon the animal it makes an incision which is cured according to the preceding direction. These stones are said to be procured from the old fairies by the elves, having been previously used as breast pins by them at the Fairy Court. The old fairies were believed to have had them from the mermaids, who manufactured them from the eyes of persons whom they had stolen or deluded into their emerald caves. It is reported that a few years ago, while a man was ploughing in a field in Ettrick Forest, he heard the sound of something buzzing through the air, which he perceived to be a stone falling in the direction of one of his horses which he drove forward, and presently the stone fell by the side of the animal. The stone was transparent, and its angles were so sharp that by its mere weight it perforated the skin of his hand. 

“There, every herd, by sad experience knows, 

How, wing’d with fate, their elf-shot arrows fly; 

When the sick ere her summer food foregoes, 

Or, stretched on earth, the heart-smit heifers lie.” 


   6. Fairy Rings are to be met with in many parts of the country, and were supposed to be the circles in which the fairies danced hand-in-hand by the light of the moon. “Ringlets of grass,” says Dr Grey, “are very common in meadows, which are higher, sourer, and of a deeper green than the grass that grows round them, and by the common people are usually called fairy circles.” These rings are often alluded to by the poets, especially by Shakespeare in the “Tempest” – 

             “You deny puppets, 

By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make, 

Whereof the ewe not bites;” 

and in an old fairy carol, of which the following is the first verse – 

“Round about, round about, in a fine ring-a, 

Thus we dance, thus we dance, and thus we sing-a, 

Trip and go, to and fro, over this green-a, 

All bout, in and out, for our brave queen-a.” 

   7. It would be unpardonable were we to omit here the famous account given by Shakespeare of the equipage of Queen Mab:- 

“Drawn by a team of little atomies, 

Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep; 

Her waggon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs; 

The cover of the wings of grasshoppers; 

The traces of the smallest spider’s web; 

The collars of the moonshine’s wat’ry beam; 

Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film; 

Her waggoner, a small gray-coated gnat, 

Not half so big as a round little worm, 

Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid; 

Her chariot is an empty hazel nut, 

Made by the joiner squirrel, or old grub, 

Time out of mind the fairies’ coachmakers.” 

   8. To this description of Queen Mab’s equipage may be added that of the clothing of his majesty King Oberon, as found in Poole’s “English Parnassus.” His shirt, “a cobweb;” his waistcoat “of the trout fly’s gilded wing;” his doublet “of the four-leaved true-love grass,” with buttons “of the sparkling eye of a young speckled adder;” his mantle “of silver gossamere,” bestrewed with “diamond drops of morning dew;” his cap “all of lady’s love;” his buskins “of the cow-lady’s coral wing;” and his belt “of yellow leaves beset with amber cow-slip studs,” 

“In which his bugle-horn was hung, 

Made of the babbling echo’s tongue.” 

   In penning these notes on the most prominent peculiarities of the fairy superstition, the writer has no pretension to exhaust the subject, which has been so ably and extensively treated of by authors of the highest celebrity, as, for example, by Sir Walter Scott in his “Notes on the Ballad of Tom Lane,” and in the legend of “True Thomas,” and also by Halliwell in his “Illustration of Fairy Mythology,” 1845. To the attentive perusal of these authors he can do little more at present than recommend the curious reader, who cannot fail to appreciate the beauty of the allusions to the fairy mythology in the following verses by Bishop Corbet:- 

“Farewell, rewards and fairies, good housewives now may say, 

For now foul sluts in dairies do fare as well as they; 

And, though they sweep their hearths no less than maids were wont to do, 

Yet who, of late, for cleanliness, finds sixpence in her shoe. 

Lament, lament, old abbeys, the fairies’ lost command, 

They did but change priests’ babies, but some have changed your land; 

And all your children stolen from thence are now grown Puritans, 

who live as changelings ever since for love of your domains. 

At morning and at evening both you merry were and glad, 

So little care of sleep and sloth these pretty ladies had; 

Witness those rings and roudelays of theirs which yet remain, 

Were footed in Queen Mary’s days on many a grassy plain. 

A tell-tale in their company they never could endure, 

And whose kept not secretly their mirth was punished sure. 

It was a just and Christian deed to pinch such black and blue; 

O how the Commonwealth doth need such justices as you.” 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 2nd October, 1863, p.3.

Leave a Reply