Right at the centre of Europe’s Atlantic archipelago, in the sea between Ireland and Britain and guarding the southern approaches to the Hebrides and west of Scotland, sits the Isle of Man – smallest of the surviving ‘Celtic’ nations. Although falling under successions of external rulers from Ireland, Scandinavia, Scotland and England since the middle ages, it has managed to maintain an independent cultural identity and language (Manx Gaelic, a version of Irish). Due to its insular nature, fertile geology, habitable geography, and because it has faced relatively little major warfare and social or political upheaval in its history, it has managed to maintain a good deal of its ancient traditions down to quite a recent period, traditions which elsewhere would otherwise have been lost.
When a man called George Waldron (a commissioner for the British government) was working there in the early 1700s, he wrote a treatise on the island’s history, geography and economy embellished with some interesting sketches of the beliefs, traditions and stories of some of the locals. His purpose was, no doubt, to portray islanders as credulous, superstitious and backward, but you can tell from some of the stories that Waldron’s own credulity was being cheekily tested. Nevertheless, the book he wrote: A Description of the Isle of Man (published posthumously in 1731 following his untimely death) stands as one of the late Early Modern period’s most valuable ethnographic tracts dealing with fairy belief in the Celtic/Atlantic world. Along with Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (1703) and Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth (1691) it was to inspire generations of future writers such as Sir Walter Scott, and fuel the romanticisation of what ‘progress’ was rapidly destroying. In fact it may have been indirecctly responsible for a great deal of the tourism the Isle of Man experienced during the 19th century!
Of the Manx belief in fairies Waldron had this to say:
Some hundred years, say they, before the coming of our Saviour, the Isle of Man was inhabited by a certain species called fairies, and that everything was carried on in a kind of supernatural manner; that a blue mist hanging continually over the land, prevented the ships that passed by from having any suspicion there was an island. This mist, contrary to nature, was preserved by keeping a perpetual fire, which happening once to be extinguished, the shore discover’d itself to some fishermen who were then in a boat on their vocation, and by them notice was given to the people of some country, (but what, they do not pretend to determine) who sent ships in order to make a further discovery: that on their landing they had a fierce encounter with the little people, and having got the better over them, possess’d themselves of Castle Russin (Ed – Castle Rushen, at Castletown in the south of the island), and by degrees, as they received reinforcements, of the whole Island. These new conquerors maintained their ground some time, but were at length beaten out by a race of giants, who were not extirpated, as I said before, till the reign of Prince Arthur, by Merlin, the famous British enchanter. They pretend also that this Island afterward became an asylum to all the distress’d princes and great men in Europe, and that those uncommon fortifications made about Peel Castle were added for their better security…
Waldron’s account that some Manx people in the 18th century apparently believed that their land was first inhabited by fairies and giants would have gained snorts of derision from the enlightened, rational coffee-sipping intellectuals of the day. He continues warming to his theme later in the text:
I know not, idolisers as they are of the clergy, whether they would not be even refractory to them, were they to preach against the existence of fairies, or even against their being commonly seen: for, tho’ the priesthood are a kind of gods among them, yet still tradition is a greater god than they; and as they confidently assert that the first inhabitants of their Island were fairies, so do they maintain that these little people have still their residence among them. They call them the good people, and say they live in wilds and forests, and on mountains, and shun great cities because of the wickedness acted therein; all the houses are blessed where they visit, for they fly vice. A person would be thought impudently profane who should suffer his family to go to bed without having first set a tub, or pail full of clean water, for these guests to bathe them selves in, which the natives aver they constantly do, as soon as ever the eyes of the family are closed, wherever they vouchsafe to come.
He paints a picture of a local belief in fairies not dissimilar to that of Robert Kirk, of which there is ample support in the Island’s folklore records, which show that the Manx had fairy-seers, believed that fairies prognosticated events, and that they interfered with the ‘substance’ or quintessence of humanity. He also demonstrates a belief in them as representing the souls of forebears who continue to live as spirits among the living, and are welcomed into their homes at night. Waldron paints a picture of fairies as moral agents who bestow a blessing upon correct deeds and living – a distinctly religious aspect to the belief, existing in parallel to Christianity.
Writing in 1845, following on from a renewed and somewhat more sympathetic romantic interest in fairies and the rapidly disappearing old world, Joseph Train published his Historical and Statistical Account of the Isle of Man in Two Volumes in which he noted the following custom:
” On New Year’s eve, in many of the upland cottages, it is yet customary for the housewife, after raking the fire for the night, and just before stepping into bed, to spread the ashes smooth over the floor with the tongs, in the hope of finding in it, next morning, the track of a foot ; should the toes of this ominous print point towards the door, then, it is believed, a member of the family will die in the course of that year ; but, should the heel of the fairy foot point in that direction, then, it is firmly believed, that the family will be augmented within the same period.” Volume 2, p. 115, (1845).
The implication here is that it was believed that fairies entering the house portended deaths and births, linking these spirits to the process of genesis and decay. In fact the hearth seems to have been the focus of the domestic fairies in the Isle of Man, as supported by numerous other Manx traditions: leaving bowls of water and food near the hearth for fairies, the traditional curse was a damnation of hearthside empty of ‘root, branch and seed’, ‘Saint’ Bridget’s bed being made here on the 1st of February, planting an Elder (‘Tramman’) tree at the hearth gable end of the house for the fairies to live in, rebuilding houses but maintaining the hearth etc etc. Waldron had commented that it was the custom of the people to never allow their hearth fire to be extinguished, citing the legend of the fairies’ perpetual fire going out, implying this was a superstition against calamity. The original Celtic New Year appears to have been Samhain or the night of October 31st (November 10th in the original Julian calendar) and it is probable that Train’s account refers to this, as throughout the Atlantic/Celtic world Samhain was a time to look for these prognostications. A similar belief in the ‘fairy footprint’ was recorded in Ireland during the same century by Lady Wilde, and in 1932, Manx folklorist William Walter Gill elaborated on Train’s observation of nearly 100 years before, saying that the Manx believed the fairy footprint to be like that of a bird – the crow (W.W. Gill – A Second Manx Scrapbook; Pub. Arrowsmith Bristol 1932).