Sight of another World

The belief that people could have visions into an invisible world parallel with ours has long been a feature of Atlantic European culture. The belief in what has been termed ‘Second Sight’ encompasses visions that are both prophetic and intimately linked to the idea of fairies and the fairy world.

The 17th century was a period when there was renewed interest in prophecies due to political and religious upheaval. Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (1703) contained a particular account of the ‘Seers’ in the Hebrides in the late 1600’s, and is useful because it corroborates many of Robert Kirk’s observations of Highland beliefs at the same period. Kirk’s work, usually known as ‘The Secret Commonwealth’, was to remain unpublished until rediscovered by members of Walter Scott’s literary circle in the early 19th century. A perhaps lesser-recognised book about the Second Sight among the Scots (‘Deuteroskopia or, A Brief Discourse upon the Second Sight, so-called’) was published in 1707 from the notes of the late Revd John Frazer, minister of Tiree and Coll. There was considerable interest in the intellectual and scientific examination of such phenomena at this period.

However, accounts of the second sight go back much further. During the 14th century, Ranulph Higden – a cloistered monk at St Werberg’s monastery, Chester, was writing an encyclopaedic Latin compendium of knowledge about Britain that he called the Polychronicon. It was to become a popular book – so much so that it was eventually translated to English and printed. In this work, Higden mentions the following fascinating account of superstitions in the Isle of Man (probably gathered from a Scotsman called Martholine who was supposedly an administrator there during the occupation by Robert the Bruce):

In ilia insula vigent sortilegia, superstitiones, atque praestigia …. Ibi frequenter ab indigenis videntur etiam de die homines prius mortui, decapitati sive integri, juxta modum suae mortis; ut autem alienigenae et adventitii hoc videre possint, ponunt pedes super pedes incolarum, et sic videre poterunt quod incolae vident.

Which translates as:

“In this Island are observed prophecies, superstitions and trickeries … Frequently, by the very light of day, some of the islanders have visions of men who are about to die, and can tell by their appearance – beheaded or whole – in what manner they will meet their demise. Incomers wishing to share the sight of the Manxmen simply place their foot upon that of the islander.”

This description is congruent with those gathered 400 years later by Martin, Frazer and Kirk (who also mentions the placing of the foot), and there is good evidence of a continuity of the belief in both the Hebrides and the Isle of Man down to the 20th century if not longer. In fact, Adomnán of Iona‘s 7thC ‘Life of Columba’ draws upon traditions about Columcille which depict him as a prophet in the Hebridean sense.

Kirk’s 17thC account suggests that it was believed that ‘fairies’ would make premonitions by acting out or aping scenes of what was to come, and a near-contemporary account of the Manx by George Waldron suggested that this was believed in the Isle of Man too. Visions of fairies performing funerals or christenings were supposed to predict a death or a birth respectively. However, Kirk mentions the belief that each living person has an attendant spirit double which can be transmitted to appear to others over great distances – particularly when the owner was in peril. The other aspect to the belief was the appearance of inanimate objects such as funeral shrouds or hangman’s nooses in the visions, sometimes also of sparks of light. It can be of little doubt that there was a fervent belief in such phenomena which approached the religious, and that this was reinforced by telling stories of accounts of it, as can be seen from Martin’s extensive and somewhat credulous reports.

The concurrence of the Second Sight beliefs and Fairy beliefs indicates that the ‘Otherworld’ could be accessed by the common people, although not by all, and not always by choice. The world of the dead and the world of fairies were the same realm, albeit in a seemingly inverted state to that of ours, and from which we might gather information about the future. Periods at which the spirits were closer allowed for a greater common appreciation of what the otherworld might show, and this is why festivals such as Samhain were associated with popular prognostications. At other times, the Second Sight was the province of specialist Seers and ‘Fairy Doctors’ who could read the signs from where the two worlds interacted.

The Cailleach in ‘Togail Bruidne Dá Derga’

Togail Bruidne Dá Derga is one of the most stylised tales from the ‘Ulster Cycle’ mythological tales, found in a number of versions spread over a number of famous medieval Irish manuscripts. It deals with the fate of King Conaire Mór, who is introduced in the tale as being fathered by a magical bird who visits his mother. The story’s themes are fate, inescapable doom, sacral kingship and the idea of geasa – the taboos a king or a recipient of magical gifts must follow if they are to retain the benefits.

The tale is paralleled by another which appears in the ‘Ulster Cycle’ corpus and seems to be an alternative ‘opening act’ to the story: Togail Bruidne Dá Choca in which the character Cormac is cast in place of Conaire. ‘Choca’ appears to be a phonetic/dialetic transliteration of ‘Derga’.

The stage for the tale is set in the ‘Hostel’ or castle of Dá Derga – full of magical rooms filled with the many strange visitors whom the hosteller is obliged to entertain. He is visited by the King who is surprised when a certain Wyrd Sister visits the door of the hostel and gives dire prophecies to Conaire about his coming fate. She is the Cailleach herself, as the tale’s description quite clearly shows:

When they were there they saw a lone woman coming to the door of the Hostel, after sunset, and seeking to be let in. As long as a weaver’s beam was each of her two shins, and they were as dark as the back of a stag-beetle. A greyish, wooly mantle she wore. Her lower hair used to reach as far as her knee. Her lips were on one side of her head. She came and put one of her shoulders against the door-post of the house, casting the evil eye on the king and the youths who surrounded him in the Hostel.

…and identifies herself as one with many names:

CailbSamain, Sinand, Seiscleand, Sodb, Saiglend , Samlocht,
Caill, Coll,
Díchoem, Díchuil, Díchim, Díchuimne, Díchuinne,
Dairne, Dáirine, Der úaine,
Égem, Agam, Ethamne,
Gním, Cluichi, Cethardam,
Nith, Nemain, Noenden,
Badb, Blosc, Bloar,
h-Uaet,
Mede, Mod.”

It is obvious that this character is a very significant individual, whose names echo many others given to ‘fairy women’ in the various other Irish bardic tales. Her great size, twisted face, her mantle, her prophetic powers, ancient nature and names all point directly to the Cailleach archetype or goddess. Standing upon one leg with one arm outstretched she utters a terrible doom on Conaire:

‘Truly I see for thee,’ she answers, ‘that neither fell nor flesh of thine shall escape from the place into which thou hast come, save what birds will bear away in their claws.’

What comes from the birds will go with the birds*, in other words…

In Togail Bruidne Dá Choca the ‘Cailleach’ appears again as the Badb, described as a ‘red woman’ washing blood from a chariot at a Ford, and presaging the death of the would-be king Cormac. She too stands on one foot and closes one eye and chants Cormac’s doom, a similar pose to the Badb or Cailb etc. She then apparently transforms into a fair maiden to restate Cormac’s fate… This Badb is very similar to the TBDD one and also to the Morrigan in the Tain, and was obviously a motif of orature or literature strongly linked to the narratives of the pre-Christian past.

(* Birds appear as a recurring theme in early and middle Irish stories representing the spirits of ancestors and forebears, and the Badb/Cailleach character is often associated with them.)

The <Cailleach/Badb/Aine/Morrigan/Brighid> ‘hypostasis’** is a ruler of herds and flocks in the various traditions surrounding her: Of Cattle, Deer, Birds and Souls of the Dead. She also represents the phases of the annual cycle and embodies both generation and death in continuity with annual rebirth. For this reason she appears in the old irish stories as a prophetic being, as she embodies everything which has gone before (her age) with everything which will come again (her knowledge of the future). The occasional narrative tendency for her to transform into a youthful countenance represents the continuing uncertainty about the future, while the aged decayed appearance arises from our knowledge of past certainties.

The comparison of tribal kings with rutting bulls and their contests in their respective territories (on the Magh or ‘Plain’) is a theme underpinning the contest of the Old Order and New Order in Irish mythology: The attempts of powerful mythical females to control these is the main theme of the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

** Hypostasis means “underlying state” or “underlying substance”

‘Sluagh Sidhe’ and ‘Hidden Folk’ – the Host of Souls

The belief in souls having an aerial or avian aspect is based upon the ancients’ elemental system of belief which put things of Air above the mundane world of Earth and Water in their scheme of the Universe – closer to the ‘upper’ stations occupied by Fire (which was believed to ascend above air) and Spirit (which was the ‘Ethereal’ aspect of Fire). Christian iconography today still uses the figurative portrayal of their ‘Holy Spirit’ as a dove coming down from the spiritual realms of heaven, but this idea has its roots deep in pagan ideaology (ie – natural philosophy).

Writing in Ireland during the 7thC CE, a monk known to scholars as ‘Augustine Hibernicus’ made a reference (in his exegetic writing known as De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae) ridiculing historic ‘magi’ (pagan priests) who once taught that the ancestral soul took the form of a bird. He argued that to give literal credence to the biblical miracle story of Moses and Aaron in Egypt which states that the wands of the Hebrew magicians were turned into actual serpents was:

`… et ridiculosis magorum fabulationibus dicentium in avium substantia majores suos saecula pervolasse, assensum praestare videbimur…’

`…to show assent to the ridiculous myths of the magi who say that their ancestors flew through the ages in the form of birds…’

The context of this comment was against a political background where Christian authors and proselytes in Ireland (mostly monks related closely to clan chiefs) were still promoting stories about local saints such as Patrick, Brighid, Columba, Kevin, Senan etc. defeating ‘magical’ pagan adversaries in the early days of christianising Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man etc. For example, one of the adversaries of St Patrick in Tírechán’s 8thC account of his life was a flock of magical birds on Cruachán Aigli. Contemporary christianity was still struggling to come to terms with the fact that the biblical miracles it was trying to promote could not be reproduced to the sceptical (pagan-thinkers) who still transmitted fabulous magical tales of their own as part of the stylised traditional oral narrative about how the world was, and which undoubtedly formed an unassailable part of clan and community life.  There was therefore an atmosphere of ‘anti-magic’ in the contemporary monkish discourse, but allowances made for magic in historical tales involving saints to show that for every action by a pagan character the Christian god would allow a greater and opposite reaction in order to destroy paganism once and for all.

This Irish theme of birds representing fairies or souls of ancestors (as ‘fallen angels’) appears later in a modified form in one of the most popular European books of the high middle ages – the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend) of James/Jacob of Voraigne (c.1260). This collection of stories in Latin about saints was drawn from traditions across Europe and of particular interest is the popular Irish hagiography of St Brendan, postulated to be a christianisation of the apparently pagan tale of the voyage of Bran mac Febal to the otherworld. In the Brendan tale, the saint is addressed by a flock of birds (here translated from the Latin):

“…And then anon one of the birds fled from the tree to Saint Brandon, and he with flickering of his wings made a full merry noise like a fiddle, that him seemed he heard never so joyful a melody. And then Saint Brendon commanded the bird to tell him the cause why they sat so thick on the tree and sang so merrily ; and then the bird said: Sometime we were angels in heaven, but when our master Lucifer fell down into hell for his high pride, we fell with him for our offences, some higher and some lower after the quality of the trespass, and because our trespass is but little, therefore our Lord hath set us here out of all pain, in full great joy and mirth after his pleasing, here to serve him on this tree in the best manner we can…”

The birds are recounting to Brendan a version of a belief that became common across Europe after the spread of christianity, and that was applied in dealing with pagan indigenous spirits from Iceland and Orkney (Hulderfolk) through to Slavic Russia (Domovoi etc): This was that these spirits, beloved of the people, were really fallen angels from that (confused) Christian interpretation of the biblical narrative (Isaiah 14:12) about a character called ‘Morning Star’ (‘Lucifer’) and his ‘fall’ from grace. This sole reference in the Jewish religious books is used by christians to suppose that the angel Satan (God’s right-hand man in the Book of Job) was ‘Lucifer’ who fell from heaven with his rebel angels after challenging the monotheistic god. Jews don’t believe this, saying that the passage is about a human ruler punished for his pride. The Christian interpretation was designed to incorporate and find a place for recidivist (probably ‘pre-Olympian’) indigenous European beliefs: of genii and daemones, and in ancestral domestic spirits in the new Christian order. It paints them as evil representatives of an adversarial christian anti-god called ‘Satan’, who appears as god’s most important angel-servant in the semitic Old Testament stories, and arguably in the same context in the Gospel of Matthew (4:9).

‘Augustine Hibernicus’ and James/Jacob of Voraigne both appear to be quoting from or referring to the same tradition of folkore that remembered the old beliefs. This legend existed in Ireland and the Isle of Man in the late 19thC. Manx folklorist William Cashen wrote the following of it (‘William Cashen’s Manx Folk-Lore’, Pub. Johnson, Douglas 1912):

“…The Manx people believed that the fairies were the fallen angels, and that they were driven out of heaven with Satan. They called them “Cloan ny moyrn”: The Children of the pride (or ambition) (Ed: May be a corruption of Cloan ny Moiraghyn – see later). They also believed that when they were driven out of heaven they fell in equal proportions on the earth and the sea and the air, and that they are to remain there until the judgment…”

And Lady Wilde said ( ‘Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland’, p.89 1888):

“…all the Irish, believe that the fairies are the fallen angels who were cast down by the Lord God out of heaven for their sinful pride. And some fell into the sea, and some on the dry land, and some fell deep down into hell, and the devil gives to these knowledge and power, and sends them on earth where they work much evil. But the fairies of the earth and the sea are mostly gentle and beautiful creatures, who will do no harm if they are let alone, and allowed to dance on the fairy raths in the moonlight to their own sweet music, undisturbed by the presence of mortals…”

This belief was common to many other countries besides, from the Atlantic to the Baltic. The fairy multitude was the ‘Sluagh Sidhe’ or ‘Fairy Host’ – represented in Irish, Manx, Welsh and Scots folklore as a tumultuous aerial flock who might carry people aloft on wild rides, and that caused whirlwinds and bad weather through their aerial battles. They also caused sickness and disease.

Walter Evans-Wentz’s ‘The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries’ was a compendium of fairy lore collected around the turn of the 20th century collected with the assistance of a group of prominent folklorists from throughout the Celtic provinces. He collected the following account of the Sluagh Sidhe from a woman named Marian MacLean (nee MacNeil) of Barra (pp.108-110):

‘…Generally, the fairies are to be seen after or about sunset, and walk on the ground as we do, whereas the hosts travel in the air above places inhabited by people. The hosts used to go after the fall of night, and more particularly about midnight. You’d hear them going in fine. weather against a wind like a covey of birds. And they were in the habit of lifting men in South Uist, for the hosts need men to help in shooting their javelins from their bows against women in the action of milking cows, or against any person working at night in a house over which they pass. And I have heard of good sensible men whom the hosts took, shooting a horse or cow in place of the person ordered to be shot…

… My father and grandfather knew a man who was carried by the hosts from South Uist here to Barra. I understand when the hosts take away earthly men they require another man to help them. But the hosts must be spirits, My opinion is that they are both spirits of the dead and other spirits not the dead.’

Wentz then goes on to comment:

The question was now asked whether the fairies were anything like the dead, and Marian hesitated about answering. She thought they were like the dead, but not to be identified with them. The fallen angel idea concerning fairies was an obstacle she could not pass, for she said, ‘When the fallen angels were cast out of Heaven God commanded them thus:–“You will go to take up your abodes in crevices under the earth in mounds, or soil, or rocks.” And according to this command they have been condemned to inhabit the places named for a certain period of time, and when it is expired before the consummation of the world, they will be seen as numerous as ever.’

Again, we can see a tantalising expression of ancient traditions that Wentz found his modern narrator having difficulty fully reconciling in her own mind, although she quotes the catechism about fairies as fallen angels as if it were a passage from the bible!

Alexander Carmichael (Carmina Gaedelica 2 pp.330-331) was more explicit than Wentz when speaking through his Hebridean sources, some of whom he no doubt introduced to Wentz: (Ed note: my emphasis added)

Sluagh – ‘Hosts’, the spirit world – the ‘hosts’ are the spirits of mortals who have died. The people have many curious stories on this subject. According to one informant, the spirits fly about “n’an sgrioslaich mhor, a sios agusa suas air uachdar an domhain mar na truidean’ – ‘In great clouds, up and down the face of the world like the starlings, and come back to the scenes of their earthly transgressions’. No soul of them is without the clouds of earth, dimming the brightness of the works of God, nor can any make heaven until satisfaction is made for the sins on earth. In bad nights, the hosts shelter themselves, ‘ fo gath chuiseaga bheaga ruadha agus bhua-ghallan bheaga bhuidhe’ –

‘behind little russet docken stems and little yellow ragwort stalks’.They fight battles in the air as men do on the earth. They may be heard and seen on clear frosty nights, advancing and retreating, retreating and advancing, against one another. After a battle, as I was told in Barra, their crimson blood may be seen staining rocks and stones. ‘Fuil nan sluagh’, the blood of the hosts is the beautiful red ‘crotal’ of the rocks, melted by frost. These spirits used to kill cats and dogs, sheep and cattle, with their unerring venemous darts. They commanded men to follow them, and men obeyed, having no alternative.

It was these men of earth who slew and maimed at the bidding of their spirit-masters, who in return ill-treated them in a most pitiless manner. ‘Bhiodh iad ’gan loireadh agus ’gan loineadh agus ’gan luidreadh anus gach lod, lud agus lon’–They would be rolling and dragging and trouncing them in mud and mire and pools. ‘There is less faith now, and people see less, for seeing is of faith. God grant to thee and to me, my dear, the faith of the great Son of the lovely Mary.’ This is the substance of a graphic account of the ‘sluagh,’ given me in Uist by a bright old woman, endowed with many natural gifts and possessed of much old lore. There are men to whom the spirits are partial, and who have been carried off by them more than once. A man in Benbecula was taken up several times. His friends assured me that night became a terror to this man, and that ultimately he would on no account cross the threshold after dusk. He died, they said, from the extreme exhaustion consequent on these excursions. When the spirits flew past his house, the man would wince as if undergoing a great mental struggle, and fighting against forces unseen of those around him. A man in Lismore suffered under precisely similar conditions. More than once he disappeared mysteriously from the midst of his companions, and as mysteriously reappeared utterly exhausted and prostrate. He was under vows not to reveal what had occurred on these aerial travels…

… The ‘sluagh’ are supposed to come from the west, and therefore, when a person is dying, the door and the windows on the west side of the house are secured to keep out the malicious spirits. In Ross-shire, the door and windows of a house in which a person is dying are opened, in order that the liberated soul may escape to heaven. In Killtarlity, when children are being brought into the world, locks of chests and of doors are opened, this being supposed, according to traditional belief, to facilitate childbirth.

The West is, of course, the direction of the setting sun and supposed location of the ‘Blessed Isles’ (which go under a variety of euphemistic names) where the dead live in ancient Atlantic/Celtic folklore and legend. Carmichael’s account of the Hebridean idea of the Sluagh draws together the widespread references from throughout the Celtic world of fairies in an aerial state: Riding plant stalks through the air, causing illness by darts and diseased blasts of wind and carrying the living spirits of humans aloft, enslaving them to their bidding.

The connection between birds and spirits also occurs in the Irish and Manx wren legends and wren-hunts, also as the Morrigan-Badbh of Irish folklore and legend, and in the form of the Manx Caillagh ny Groamagh (a personification of winter and storms just like the highland Cailleach) who supposedly comes ashore from the oceans on St Bridget’s day in the form of a great bird before transforming into an old woman (Caillagh/Cailleach) who looks to kindle a fire. In southern Scotland during the 16thC this fearsome legendary female was referred to as the ‘Gyre Carline’ – the bird-form of the ‘Cailleach Vear’ legendary female figure of the Highlands, and once at the centre of the Celtic/Atlantic religious mythos as I shall later attempt to prove. In fact, the association between the Cailleach Vear/Bhear/Beara (and the multiplicity of other names she appears under) and flocks or hosts of animals is explicit in ancient Scottish traditions. In the Isle of Man she was sometimes also known as ‘Caillagh ny Fedjag’ (‘Old Woman of the Feathered Ones’ or ‘Old Woman of the Whistlers’) and was sometimes imagined as a giant whose presence could be witnessed in swirling flocks of birds, such as crows, starlings and plovers. Her name (and gender) became corrupted to Caillagh ny Faashagh in Sophia Morrison’s book of Manx Fairy Tales. Another Manx folklorist – W.W.Gill – said (A Manx Scrapbook, Arrowsmith, 1929) that fairies were known by the term Feathag. All seemingly related to a core idea – first referred to by ‘Augustine Hibernicus’ – that ancestral spirits have an aerial presence…

Going back much further in time to Iron Age Europe, we must remember that the Augurs and Haruspices of ancient Rome (originally Etruscan in their foundation) were priests and officials whose job it was to watch the behaviour and flight of birds in order to determine the will of the divine, so we can see that there is an entrenched ancient belief about spiritual forces being represented by birds in ancient Europe. Medieval Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians applied similar superstitious import to the calls, flight and behaviour of members of the crow family…

The ‘Hidden Folk’:

The other theme in Atlantic fairy belief is the idea of them as (ancestral) spirits hidden away after the coming of christianity. The Icelandic Huldufólk, Orcadian Hulder-folk, and the fairy children of Germanic folklore’s Huldra/Holde/Hylde female personages have their equivalent versions in the legends of the Atlantic celts: A prime example of this, and one that also ties in to the souls-as-birds theme, is the great medieval Irish story of ‘The Children of Lir’ which occurs in a modified form in the writings of the christianised pseudo-history of Ireland: the ‘Book of Invasions’ or Lebor Gabála Érenn as well as in the text called Acallam na Senórach. These tell of a group of children (adopted or otherwise) of an ancestral heroic figure, sometimes turned into swans (or fish), and destined to wonder or hide in this form for many ages until released by a christian agency, depending on the telling.

Interestingly, the Valkyries of Norse folklore (conductors of the souls of the battle-dead) appear as swan-maidens in some tellings… Even in Wales, a form of the legend exists, and author William Wirt-Sikes reported the following one from Anglesey in the late 1800’s (‘British Goblins: Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy-mythology, Legends and Traditions’, Pub: London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1880):

“…In our Savior’s time there lived a woman whose fortune it was to be  possessed of nearly a score of children, and as she saw our blessed Lord  approach her dwelling, being ashamed of being so prolific, and that he  might not see them all, she concealed about half of them closely, and  after his departure, when she went in search of them, to her great  surprise found they were all gone. They never afterwards could be  discovered, for it was supposed that as a punishment from heaven for  hiding what God had given her, she was deprived of them; and it is said  these her offspring have generated the race called fairies…”

All of these types of legend or folktale (Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 758) often refer back to the ‘hidden’ elves/fairies/subterraneans (the souls of the dead) as children of a particular impoverished female, in order to suit a euhemerised christian narrative.

Fairies as ancestors in the Isle of Man

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.

The_Isle_of_Man_svg

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).

‘The Secret Commonwealth’

As promised here are my transcriptions of the relevant chapters from Robert Kirk’s ‘Secret Commonwealth’. The spelling is Kirk’s own and I have endeavoured to explain archaic words where appropriate:

Chapter 1:

THESE Siths, or FAIRIES, they call Sleagh Maith, or the Good People, it would seem, to prevent the Dint of their ill Attempts, (for the Irish use to bless all they fear Harme of;) and are said to be of a midle Nature betuixt Man and Angel, as were Dæmons thought to be of old; of intelligent fluidious Spirits, and light changable Bodies, (lyke those called Astral,) somewhat of the Nature of a condensed Cloud, and best seen in Twilight. Thes Bodies be so plyable thorough the Subtilty of the Spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear att Pleasure. Some have Bodies or Vehicles so spungious, thin, and delecat, that they are fed by only sucking into some fine spirituous Liquors, that peirce lyke pure Air and Oyl: others feid more gross on the Foyson or substance of Corns and Liquors, or Corne it selfe that grows on the Surface of the Earth, which these Fairies steall away, partly invisible, partly preying on the Grain, as do Crowes and Mice; wherefore in this same Age, they are some times heard to bake Bread, strike Hammers, and do such lyke Services within the little Hillocks they most haunt: some whereof of old, before the Gospell dispelled Paganism, and in some barbarous Places as yet, enter Houses after all are at rest, and set the Kitchens in order, cleansing all the Vessels. Such Drags goe under the name of Brownies. When we have plenty, they have Scarcity at their Homes; and on the contrarie (for they are empow’red to catch as much Prey everywhere as they please,) there Robberies notwithstanding oft tymes occassion great Rickes of Corne not to bleed so weill, (as they call it,) or prove so copious by verie farr as wes expected by the Owner.

THERE Bodies of congealled Air are some tymes caried aloft, other whiles grovell in different Schapes, and enter into any Cranie or Clift of the Earth where Air enters, to their ordinary Dwellings; the Earth being full of Cavities and Cells, and there being no Place nor Creature but is supposed to have other Animals (greater or lesser) living in or upon it as Inhabitants; and no such thing as a pure Wilderness in the whole Universe.

Chapter 2:

WE then (the more terrestriall kind have now so numerously planted all Countreys,) do labour for that abstruse People, as weill as for ourselves. Albeit, when severall Countreys were unhabitated by us, these had their easy Tillage above Ground, as we now. The Print of those Furrous (Ed: ‘Runrig’ furrows) do yet remaine to be seen on the Shoulders of very high Hills, which was done when the champayn Ground (Ed: ‘Countryside’) was Wood and Forrest.

THEY remove to other Lodgings at the Beginning of each Quarter of the Year, so traversing till Doomsday, being imputent and impotent of staying in one Place, and finding some Ease by so purning (Ed: packing up) and changing Habitations. Their chamælion-lyke Bodies swim in the Air near the Earth with Bag and Bagadge; and at such revolution of Time, SEERS, or Men of the SECOND SIGHT, (Fæmales being seldome so qualified) have very terrifying Encounters with them, even on High Ways; who therefoir uswally shune to travell abroad at these four Seasons of the Year, and thereby have made it a Custome to this Day among the Scottish-Irish to keep Church duely evry first Sunday of the Quarter to sene or hallow themselves, their Corns and Cattell, from the Shots and Stealth of these wandring Tribes; and many of these superstitious People will not be seen in Church againe till the nixt Quarter begin, as if no Duty were to be learned or done by them, but all the Use of Worship and Sermons were to save them from these Arrows that fly in the Dark.

THEY are distributed in Tribes and Orders, and have Children, Nurses, Mariages, Deaths, and Burialls, in appearance, even as we, (unless they so do for a Mock-show, or to prognosticate some such Things among us.)

Chapter 3:

THEY are clearly seen by these Men of the SECOND SIGHT to eat at Funeralls & Banquets; hence many of the Scottish-Irish will not teast Meat at these Meittings, lest they have Communion with, or be poysoned by, them. So are they seen to carrie the Beer (Ed: Bier) or Coffin with the Corps among the midle-earth Men (Ed: people of our world) to the Grave. Some Men of that exalted Sight (whither by Art or Nature) have told me they have seen at these Meittings a Doubleman, or the Shape of some Man in two places; that is, a superterranean and a subterranean Inhabitant, perfectly resembling one another in all Points, whom he notwithstanding could easily distinguish one from another, by some secret Tockens and Operations, and so go speak to the Man his Neighbour and Familiar, passing by the Apparition or Resemblance of him. They avouch that every Element and different State of Being have Animals resembling these of another Element; as there be Fishes sometimes at Sea resembling Monks of late Order in all their Hoods and Dresses; so as the Roman invention of good and bad Dæmons, and guardian Angells particularly assigned, is called by them an ignorant Mistake, sprung only from this Originall. They call this Reflex-man a Co-walker, every way like the Man, as a Twin-brother and Companion, haunting him as his shadow, as is oft seen and known among Men (resembling the Originall,) both before and after the Originall is dead, and wes also often seen of old to enter a Hous, by which the People knew that the Person of that Liknes wes to Visite them within a few days. This Copy, Echo, or living Picture, goes att last to his own Herd. It accompanied that Person so long and frequently for Ends best known to it selfe, whither to guard him from the secret Assaults of some of its own Folks, or only as ane sportfull Ape to counterfeit all his Actions. However, the Stories of old WITCHES prove beyond contradiction, that all Sorts of People, Spirits which assume light aery Bodies, or crazed Bodies coacted by forrein Spirits, seem to have some Pleasure, (at least to asswage from Pain or Melancholy,) by frisking and capering like Satyrs, or whistling and screeching (like unlukie Birds) in their unhallowed Synagogues and Sabboths. If invited and earnestly required, these Companions make themselves knowne and familiar to Men; other wise, being in a different State and Element, they nather can nor will easily converse with them. They avouch that a Heluo, or Great-eater, (Ed: either a reference to diabetics, or people who always eat but never seem to fatten) hath a voracious Elve to be his attender, called a Joint-eater or Just-halver, feeding on the Pith or Quintessence of what the Man eats; and that therefoir he continues Lean like a Hawke or Heron, notwith standing his devouring Appetite: yet it would seem that they convey that substance elsewhere, for these Subterraneans eat but little in their Dwellings; there Food being exactly clean, and served up by Pleasant Children, lyke inchanted Puppets. What Food they extract from us is conveyed to their Homes by secret Paths, as sume skilfull Women do the Pith and Milk from their Neighbours Cows into their own Chiefe-hold thorow a Hair-tedder, at a great Distance, by Airt Magic, or by drawing a spickot fastened to a Post which will bring milk as farr of as a Bull will be heard to roar. The Chiefe made of the remaineing Milk of a Cow thus strain’d will swim in Water like a Cork. The Method they take to recover their Milk is a bitter chyding of the suspected Inchanters, charging them by a counter Charme to give them back their own, in God, or their Master’s Name. But a little of the Mother’s Dung stroakit on the Calves Mouth before it suck any, does prevent this theft.

Chapter 4:

THEIR Houses are called large and fair, and (unless att some odd occasions) unperceaveable by vulgar eyes, like Rachland, and other inchanted Islands, having fir Lights, continual Lamps, and Fires, often seen without Fuel to sustain them. Women are yet alive who tell they were taken away when in Child-bed to nurse Fairie Children, a lingering voracious Image of their being left in their place, (like their Reflexion in a Mirrour,) which (as if it were some insatiable Spirit in ane assumed Bodie) made first semblance to devour the Meats that it cunningly carried by, and then left the Carcase as if it expired and departed thence by a naturall and common Death. The Child, and Fire, with Food and other Necessaries, are set before the Nurse how soon she enters; but she nather perceaves any Passage out, nor sees what those People doe in other Rooms of the Lodging. When the Child is wained, the Nurse dies, or is conveyed back, or gets it to her choice to stay there. But if any Superterraneans (Ed: people of our world) be so subtile, as to practice Slights for procuring a Privacy to any of their Misteries, (such as making use of their Oyntments, which as Gyges’s Ring makes them invisible, or nimble, or casts them in a Trance, or alters their Shape, or makes Things appear at a vast Distance, &c.) they smite them without Paine, as with a Puff of Wind, and bereave them of both the naturall and acquired Sights in the twinkling of ane Eye, (both these Sights, where once they come, being in the same Organ and inseparable,) or they strick them Dumb. The Tramontains (Ed: nomadic highland cattle drovers or gypsies/peddlars) to this Day put Bread, the Bible, or a piece of Iron, in Womens Beds when travelling, to save them from being thus stollen; and they commonly report, that all uncouth, unknown Wights are terrifyed by nothing earthly so much as by cold Iron. They delyver the Reason to be that Hell lying betwixt the chill Tempests, and the Fire Brands of scalding Metals, and Iron of the North, (hence the Loadstone causes a tendency to that Point,) by ane Antipathy thereto, these odious far-scenting Creatures shrug and fright at all that comes thence relating to so abhorred a Place, whence their Torment is eather begun, or feared to come hereafter.

Chapter 5:

THEIR Apparell and Speech is like that of the People and Countrey under which they live: so are they seen to wear Plaids and variegated Garments in the Highlands of Scotland, and Suanochs therefore in Ireland. They speak but litle, and that by way of whistling, clear, not rough. The verie Divels conjured in any Countrey, do answer in the Language of the Place; yet sometimes the Subterraneans speak more distinctly than at other times. Ther Women are said to Spine (Ed: Spin) very fine, to Dy (Ed: Dye), to Tossue (Ed: Tissue), and Embroyder: but whither it is as manuall Operation of substantiall refined Stuffs, with apt and solid Instruments, or only curious Cob-webs, impalpable Rainbows, and a fantastic Imitation of the Actions of more terrestricall Mortalls, since it transcended all the Senses of the Seere to discerne whither, I leave to conjecture as I found it.

Chapter 6:

There Men travell much abroad, either presaging or aping the dismall and tragicall Actions of some amongst us; and have also many disastrous Doings of their own, as Convocations, Fighting, Gashes, Wounds, and Burialls, both in the Earth and Air. They live much longer than wee; yet die at last or least vanish from that State. ‘Tis ane of their Tenets, that nothing perisheth, but (as the Sun and Year) every Thing goes in a Circle, lesser or greater, and is renewed and refreshed in its Revolutions; as ’tis another, that every Bodie in the Creation moves, (which is a sort of Life;) and that nothing moves, but as another Animal moving on it; and so on, to the utmost minutest corpuscle that’s capable to be a Receptacle of Life.

Chapter 7:

THEY are said to have aristocraticall Rulers and Laws, but no discernible Religion, Love, or Devotion towards God, the blessed Maker of all: they disappear whenever they hear his Name invocked, or the Name of JESUS, (at which all do bow willinglie, or by constraint, that dwell above or beneath within the Earth, Philip. 2. 10;) nor can they act ought at that Time after hearing of that sacred Name. The TABHAISVER, or Seer, that corresponds with this kind of Familiars, can bring them with a Spel to appear to himselfe or others when he pleases, as readily as Endor Witch to those of her Kind. He tells, they are ever readiest to go on hurtfull Errands, but seldome will be the Messengers of great Good to Men. He is not terrified with their Sight when he calls them, but seeing them in a surpryze (as often he does) frights him extreamly. And glaid would he be quite of such, for the hideous Spectacles seen among them; as the torturing of some Wight, earnest ghostly stairing Looks, Skirmishes, and the like. They do not all the Harme which appearingly they have Power to do; nor are they perceaved to be in great Pain, save that they are usewally silent and sullen. They are said to have many pleasant toyish Books; but the operation of these Peices only appears in some Paroxisms of antic corybantic Jolity, as if ravisht and prompted by a new Spirit entering into them at that Instant, lighter and mirrier than their own. Other Books they have of involved abstruse Sense, much like the Rosurcian (Ed: ‘Rosicrucian’) Style. They have nothing of the Bible, save collected Parcells for Charms and counter Charms; not to defend themselves withall, but to operate on other Animals, for they are a People invulnerable by our Weapons; and albeit Were-wolves and Witches true Bodies are (by the union of the Spirit of Nature that runs thorow all, echoing and doubling the Blow towards another) wounded at Home, when the astrial assumed Bodies are stricken elsewhere; as the Strings of a Second Harp, tune to ane unison, Sounds, though only ane be struck; yet these People have not a second, or so gross a Bodie at all, to be so pierced; but as Air, which when divyded units againe; or if they feel Pain by a Blow, they are better Physicians than wee, and quickly cure it. They are not subject to sore Sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain Period, all about ane Age. Some say their continual Sadness is because of their pendulous State, (like those Men, Luc. 13. 2. 6.) as uncertain what at the last Revolution will become of them, when they are lock’t up into ane unchangeable Condition; and if they have any frolic Fitts of Mirth, ’tis as the constrained grinning of a Mort-head, or rather as acted on a Stage, and moved by another, ther cordially comeing of themselves. But other Men of the Second Sight, being illiterate, and unwary in their Observations, learn from those; one averring those subterranean People to be departed Souls, attending awhile in this inferior State, and clothed with Bodies procured throwgh their Almsdeeds in this Lyfe; fluid, active, ætheriall Vehicles to hold them, that they may not scatter, or wander, and be lost in the Totum, or their first Nothing; but if any were so impious as to have given no Alms, they say when the Souls of such do depairt, they sleep in an unaictve State till they resume the terrestriall Bodies again: others, that what the Low-countrey Scotts calls a Wreath, and the Irish TAIBHSHE or Death’s Messenger, (appearing sometimes as a little rough Dog, and if crossed and conjured in Time, will be pacified by the Death of any other Creature instead of the sick Man,) is only exuvious Fumes of the Man approaching Death, exhal’d and congeal’d into a various Likness, (as Ships and Armies are sometimes shapt in the Air,) and called astral Bodies, agitated as Wild-fire with Wind, and are neather Souls or counterfeiting Spirits; yet not a few avouch (as is said,) that surelie these are a numerous People by them selves, having their own Polities. Which Diversities of Judgments may occasion severall Inconsonancies in this Rehearsall, after the narrowest Scrutiny made about it.

Chapter 8:

THEIR Weapons are most what solid earthly Bodies, nothing of Iron, but much of Stone, like to yellow soft Flint Spa, shaped like a barbed Arrow-head, but flung like a Dairt, with great Force. These Armes (cut by Airt and Tools it seems beyond humane) have something of the Nature of Thunderbolt subtilty, and mortally wounding the vital Parts without breaking the Skin; of which Wounds I have observed in Beasts, and felt them with my Hands. They are not as infallible Benjamites, hitting at a Hair’s-breadth; nor are they wholly unvanquishable, at least in Appearance.

THE MEN of that SECOND SIGHT do not discover strange Things when asked, but at Fits and Raptures, as if inspyred with some Genius at that Instant, which before did lurk in or about them. Thus I have frequently spoke to one of them, who in his Transport told he cut the Bodie of one of those People in two with his Iron Weapon, and so escaped this Onset, yet he saw nothing left behind of that appearing divyded; at other Times he out wrested some of them. His Neibours often perceaved this Man to disappear at a certane Place, and about one Hour after to become visible, and discover him selfe near a Bow-shot from the first Place. It was in that Place where he became invisible, said he, that the Subterraneans did encounter and combate with him. Those who are unseened or unsanctified (called Fey) are said to be pierced or wounded with those People’s Weapons, which makes them do somewhat verie unlike their former Practice, causing a sudden Alteration, yet the Cause thereof unperceavable at present; nor have they Power (either they cannot make use of their natural Powers, or ask’t not the heavenly Aid,) to escape the Blow impendent. A Man of the Second Sight perceaved a Person standing by him (sound to others view) wholly gored in Blood, and he (amazed-like) bid him instantly flee. The whole Man laught at his Airt and Warning, since there was no appearance of Danger. He had scarce contracted his Lips from Laughter, when unexpectedly his Enemy leapt in at his Side, and stab’d him with their Weapons. They also pierce Cows or other Animals, usewally said to be Elf-shot, whose purest Substance (if they die) these Subterraneans take to live on, viz. the aereal and ætherial Parts, the most spirituous Matter for prolonging of Life, such as Aquavitæ (moderately taken) is among Liquors, leaving the terrestrial behind. The Cure of such Hurts is, only for a Man to find out the Hole with his Finger; as if the Spirits flowing from a Man’s warme Hand were Antidote sufficient against their poyson’d Dairts.

Chapter 9:

As Birds and Beasts, whose Bodies are much used to the Change of the frie and open Air, forsee Storms; so those invisible People are more sagacious to understand by the Books of Nature Things to come, than wee, who are pestered with the grosser Dregs of all elementary Mixtures, and have our purer Spirits choaked by them. The Deer scents out a Man and Powder (tho a late Invention) at a great Distance; a hungry Hunter, Bread; and the Raven, a Carrion: Ther Brains, being long clarified by the high and subtil Air, will observe a very small Change in a Trice. Thus a Man of the Second Sight, perceaving the Operations of these forecasting invisible People among us, (indulged thorow a stupendious Providence to give Warnings of some remarkable Events, either in the Air, Earth, or Waters,) told he saw a Winding-shroud creeping on a walking healthful Persons Legs till it come to the Knee; and afterwards it came up to the Midle, then to the Shoulders, and at last over the Head, which was visible to no other Persone. And by observing the Spaces of Time betwixt the severall Stages, he easily guessed how long the Man was to live who wore the Shroud; for when it approached his Head, he told that such a Person was ripe for the Grave.

Chapter 10:

THERE be many Places called Fairie-hills, which the Mountain People think impious and dangerous to peel or discover, by taking Earth or Wood from them; superstitiously beleiving the Souls of their Predicessors to dwell there. And for that End (say they) a Mote or Mount was dedicate beside every Church-yard, to receive the Souls till their adjacent Bodies arise, and so become as a Fairie-hill; they useing Bodies of Air when called Abroad. They also affirme those Creatures that move invisibly in a House, and cast hug great Stones, but do no much Hurt, because counter-wrought by some more courteous and charitable Spirits that are everywhere ready to defend Men, (Dan. 10. 13.) to be Souls that have not attained their Rest, thorough a vehement Desire of revealling a Murther (Ed: murder) or notable Injurie done or receaved, or a Treasure that was forgot in their Liftyme on Earth, which when disclos’d to a Conjurer alone, the Ghost quite removes.

IN the nixt Country to that of my former Residence, about the Year 1676, when there was some Scarcity of Graine, a marvelous Illapse and Vision strongly struck the Imagination of two Women in one Night, living at a good Distance from one another, about a Treasure hid in a Hill, called SITHBHRUAICH, or Fayrie-hill. The Appearance of a Treasure was first represented to the Fancy, and then an audible Voyce named the Place where it was to their awaking Senses. Whereupon both arose, and meitting accidentallie at the Place, discovered their Designe; and joyntly digging, found a Vessell as large as a Scottish Peck, full of small Pieces of good Money, of ancient Coyn; which halving betuixt them, they sold in Dish-fulls for Dish-fulls of Meall to the Countrey People. Very many of undoubted Credit saw, and had of the Coyn to this Day. But whither it was a good or bad Angell, one of the subterranean People, or the restless Soul of him who hid it, that discovered it, and to what End it was done, I leave to the Examination of others.

Chapter 11:

THESE Subterraneans have Controversies, Doubts, Disputs, Feuds, and Siding of Parties; there being some Ignorance in all Creatures, and the vastest created Intelligences not compassing all Things. As to Vice and Sin, whatever their own Laws be, sure, according to ours, and Equity, natural, civil, and reveal’d, they transgress and commit Acts of Injustice, and Sin, by what is above said, as to their stealling of Nurses to their Children, and that other sort of Plaginism in catching our Children away, (may seem to heir some Estate in those invisible Dominions,) which never returne. For the Inconvenience of their Succubi, who tryst with Men, it is abominable; but for Swearing and Intemperance, they are not observed so subject to those Irregularities, as to Envy, Spite, Hypocracie, Lieing, and Dissimulation.

Chapter 12:

As our Religion oblidges us not to make a peremptory and curious Search into these Obstrusenesses, so that the Histories of all Ages give as many plain Examples of extraordinary Occurrances as make a modest Inquiry not contemptable. How much is written of Pigme’s, Fairies, Nymphs, Syrens, Apparitions, which tho not the tenth Part true, yet could not spring of nothing! Even English Authors relate Barry Island, in Glamorganshire, that laying your Ear into a Clift of the Rocks, blowing of Bellows, stricking of Hammers, clashing of Armour, fyling of Iron, will be heard distinctly ever since Merlin inchaunted those subterranean Wights to a solid manuall forging of Arm’s to Aurelius Ambrosius and his Brittans, till he returned; which Merlin being killed in a Battell, and not coming to loose the Knot, these active Vulcans are there ty’d to a perpetuall Labour. But to dip no deeper into this Well, I will nixt give some Account how the Seer my Informer comes to have this secret Way of Correspondence beyond other Mortalls.

THERE be odd Solemnities at investing a Man with the Priviledges of the whole Mistery of this Second Sight. He must run a Tedder of Hair (which bound a Corps to the Bier) in a Helix about his Midle, from End to End; then bow his Head downwards, as did Elijah, 1 Kings, 18. 42. and look back thorough his Legs untill he sie a Funerall advance till the People cross two Marches; or look thus back thorough a Hole where was a Knot of Fir. But if the Wind change Points while the Hair Tedder (Ed: tether) is ty’d about him, he is in Peril of his Lyfe. The usewall Method for a curious Person to get a transient Sight of this otherwise invisible Crew of Subterraneans, (if impotently and over rashly sought,) is to put his Foot, and the Seer’s Hand is put on the Inquirer’s Head, who is to look over the Wizard’s right Shoulder, (which hes ane ill Appearance, as if by this Ceremony ane implicit Surrender were made of all betwixt the Wizard’s Foot and his Hand, ere the Person can be admitted a privado to the Airt;) (Ed: the viewer puts his foot on that of the seer and the seer places his hand on the head of the viewer) then will he see a Multitude of Wight’s, like furious hardie Men, flocking to him haistily from all Quarters, as thick as Atoms in the Air; which are no Nonentities or Phantasms, Creatures proceiding from ane affrighted Apprehensione, confused or crazed Sense, but Realities, appearing to a stable Man in his awaking Sense, and enduring a rationall Tryall of their Being. Thes thorow Fear strick him breathless and speechless. The Wizard, defending the Lawfullness of his Skill, forbids such Horror, and comforts his Novice by telling of Zacharias, as being struck speechless at seeing Apparitions, Luke, 1. 20. Then he further maintains his Airt, by vouching Elisha to have had the same, and disclos’d it thus unto his Servant in 2 Kings, 6. 17. when he blinded the Syrians; and Peter in Act, 5. 9. forseing the Death of Saphira, by perceaving as it were her Winding-sheet about her before hand; and Paul, in 2nd Corinth. 12. 4. who got such a Vision and Sight as should not, nor could be told. Elisha also in his Chamber saw Gehazi his Servant, at a great Distance, taking a reward from Naaman, 2d Kings, 5. 26. Hence were the Prophets frequently called SEERS, or Men of a 2d or more exhalted Sight than others. He acts for his Purpose also Math. 4. 8. where the Devil undertakes to give even Jesus a Sight of all Nations, and the finest Things in the World, at one Glance, tho in their naturall Situations and Stations at a vast Distance from other. And ’tis said expresly he did let sie them; not in a Map it seems, nor by a phantastick magicall jugling of the Sight, which he could not impose upon so discovering a Person. It would appear then to have been a Sight of real solid Substances, and Things of worth, which he intended as a Bait for his Purpose. Whence it might seem, (compairing this Relation of Math. 4. 8. with the former,) that the extraordinary or Second Sight can be given by the Ministery of bad as weill as good Spirits to those that will embrace it. And the Instance of Balaam and the Pytheniss make it nothing the less probable. Thus also the Seer trains his Scholler, by telling of the Gradations of Nature, ordered by a wise Provydence; that as the Sight of Bats and Owls transcend that of Shrews and Moles, so the visive Faculties of Men are clearer than those of Owls; as Eagles, Lynxs, and Cats are brighter than Mens. And again, that Men of the Second Sight (being designed to give warnings against secret Engyns (Ed: ‘machinations’)) surpass the ordinary Vision of other Men, which is a native Habit in some, descended from their Ancestors, and acquired as ane artificiall Improvement of their natural Sight in others; resembling in their own Kynd the usuall artificiall Helps of optic Glasses, (as Prospectives, Telescopes, and Microscopes,) without which ascititious Aids those Men here treated of do perceive Things that, for their Smallness, or Subtility, and Secrecy, are invisible to others, tho dayly conversant with them; they having such a Beam continuallie about them as that of the Sun, which when it shines clear only, lets common Eyes see the Atomes, in the Air, that without those Rayes they could not discern; for some have this Second Sight transmitted from Father to Sone thorow the whole Family, without their own Consent or others teaching, proceeding only from a Bounty of Providence it seems, or by Compact, or by a complexionall Quality of the first Acquirer. As it may seem alike strange (yet nothing vicious) in such as Master Great-rake (Ed: Valentine Greatreakes, a 17thC prodigy and celebrity healer), the Irish Stroaker, Seventh-sons, and others that cure the King’s Evill, and chase away Deseases and Pains, with only stroaking of the affected Pairt; which (if it be not the Reliques of miraculous Operations, or some secret Virtue in the Womb, of the Parent, which increaseth until Seventh-sons be borne, and decreaseth by the same Degrees afterwards,) proceids only from the sanitive Balsome of their healthfull Contsitutions; Virtue going out from them by spirituous Effluxes unto the Patient, and their vigorous healthy Spirits affecting the sick as usewally the unhealthy Fumes of the sick infect the sound and whole.

‘Sith’ in the 17th century – survival of an ancient tradition.

In 1691 when he wrote his famous essay on local fairy beliefs, Robert Kirk was the minister in the Scottish village of Aberfoyle, bordering the Trossachs hills in the southern edge of the Scottish Highlands. Being the seventh son of a minister, he was young and enquiring, and seems to have been socially well-connected in both Ireland and England as well as his native home, largely on account of his involvement with translating the Bible into Irish – an effort which would have had the support of Britain’s Protestant elites. As a seventh son, local and wider Gaelic tradition would have deemed that he would be party to the ‘Second Sight’, or visions of the otherworld. Perhaps because of this, he appears to have been able to question and elicit many curious and ancient beliefs from local ‘seers’ to do with the Otherworld – one that Highlanders believed was parallel to our own and inhibited by spirits of both the living and the dead. He wrote these down in a book the year before he died (his body allegedly being found on a fairy knoll near the village), although this work appears to have remained unpublished for over 100 years after when it was rediscovered by Scottish literary romanticists, hungry for source material. It remains one of the most important and detailed early modern accounts of more ancient fairy beliefs, as well as a detailed source on ancient Atlantic paganism. The title at publication was:

“The Secret Commonwealth or An Essay of the Nature and Actions of the Subterranean and for the Most Part Invisible People Heretofor Going Under the Name of Elves, Faunes, and Fairies Or the Lyke, Among the Low Country Scots”

In those days, it was not unusual for the clergy to develop an interest in the occult, as they could always claim the purpose was to grant knowledge in order to purge people of their beliefs. Nonetheless, you can never quite shake the impression that Kirk’s interest is wavering between religious duty and a genuine credulity in regard to the traditional beliefs of his ancestors. Perhaps inspired by his visits to London where he met and talked with many intellectuals, he frequently uses references to contemporary science (particularly microscopy and the discovery that the world is teeming with invisible life) in order to attempt to justify the beliefs. In the preamble to the main text, Kirk describes his work as:

“…an Essay to suppress the impudent and growing Atheisme of this Age, and to satisfie the desire of some choice Freinds.”

Although I will post all of the relevant chapters online here for you, I will start here with a full quote of chapter 1 and some selected quotes from other chapters to illustrate the key important aspects of this work:

Chapter 1: Of the subterranean inhabitants

THESE Siths, or FAIRIES, they call Sleagh Maith, or the Good People, it would seem, to prevent the Dint of their ill Attempts, (for the Irish use to bless all they fear Harme of;) and are said to be of a midle Nature betuixt Man and Angel, as were Dæmons thought to be of old; of intelligent fluidious Spirits, and light changable Bodies, (lyke those called Astral,) somewhat of the Nature of a condensed Cloud, and best seen in Twilight. Thes Bodies be so plyable thorough the Subtilty of the Spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear att Pleasure. Some have Bodies or Vehicles so spungious, thin, and delecat, that they are fed by only sucking into some fine spirituous Liquors, that peirce lyke pure Air and Oyl: others feid more gross on the Foyson or substance of Corns and Liquors, or Corne it selfe that grows on the Surface of the Earth, which these Fairies steall away, partly invisible, partly preying on the Grain, as do Crowes and Mice; wherefore in this same Age, they are some times heard to bake Bread, strike Hammers, and do such lyke Services within the little Hillocks they most haunt: some whereof of old, before the Gospell dispelled Paganism, and in some barbarous Places as yet, enter Houses after all are at rest, and set the Kitchens in order, cleansing all the Vessels. Such Drags goe under the name of Brownies. When we have plenty, they have Scarcity at their Homes; and on the contrarie (for they are empow’red to catch as much Prey everywhere as they please,) there Robberies notwithstanding oft tymes occassion great Rickes of Corne not to bleed so weill, (as they call it,) or prove so copious by verie farr as wes expected by the Owner.

THERE Bodies of congealled Air are some tymes caried aloft, other whiles grovell in different Schapes, and enter into any Cranie or Clift of the Earth where Air enters, to their ordinary Dwellings; the Earth being full of Cavities and Cells, and there being no Place nor Creature but is supposed to have other Animals (greater or lesser) living in or upon it as Inhabitants; and no such thing as a pure Wilderness in the whole Universe.

As well as the names ‘Sith’ and ‘Sleagh Maith’, Kirk refers here to domestic fairies (Brownies) using the term ‘Drags’, which is a derivative of an Old Norse term for the undead: Draugr. He tells of the belief that – as well as human houses – they occupy subterranean or infernal places, in green ‘fairy mounds’ and in caves and rocks.

He further expounds the important tenet that the fairies occupy a parallel world to ours that seems to be an inversion of our own: When we have plenty, they have scarcity, and on the contrarie”, by which he explains their hunger for the spiritual quintessence of our world, which these spirits were believed prone to try and steal. The entry of fairies into the house at night to carry out domestic activities is also a reflection of what I will refer to as the ‘Inversion’ principle: that night is daylight for the ‘fairies’, the moon is their sun, death is their life, and so forth. Discussion of this principle is continued in subsequent chapters in the descriptions of fairies ‘aping’ or mirroring the actions of humanity , a belief found elsewhere in Atlantic Celtdom:

“There Men travell much abroad, either presaging or aping the dismall and tragicall Actions of some amongst us; and have also many disastrous Doings of their own, as Convocations, Fighting, Gashes, Wounds, and Burialls, both in the Earth and Air. They live much longer than wee; yet die at last or least vanish from that State. ” (Chapter 6)

Kirk’s authorities for most of his statements appear to be a specific group of people who are able to see into and understand the fairy world, and he refers to these as people of the ‘Second Sight’ or Seers. Speaking of them in the context of funeral wakes, he says:

Some Men of that exalted Sight (whither by Art or Nature) have told me they have seen at these Meittings a Doubleman, or the Shape of some Man in two places; that is, a superterranean and a subterranean Inhabitant, perfectly resembling one another in all Points, whom he notwithstanding could easily distinguish one from another, by some secret Tockens and Operations, and so go speak to the Man his Neighbour and Familiar, passing by the Apparition or Resemblance of him. They avouch that every Element and different State of Being have Animals resembling these of another Element.

What is really interesting is how these accounts blur the boundary separating fairies from the spirits of the dead AND of the living, and as you read the whole essay you become aware that Kirk struggles to conceptualise and organise the information of his sources. In Chapter 7 he says that one seer averred the fairies

“..to be departed Souls, attending awhile in this inferior State, and clothed with Bodies procured throwgh their Almsdeeds in this Lyfe..”

and elsewhere says:

“…There be many Places called Fairie-hills, which the Mountain People think impious and dangerous to peel or discover, by taking Earth or Wood from them; superstitiously beleiving the Souls of their Predicessors to dwell there. And for that End (say they) a Mote or Mount was dedicate beside every Church-yard, to receive the Souls till their adjacent Bodies arise, and so become as a Fairie-hill…”

Perhaps the most amazing assertion he makes about Fairies brings us immediately back to the Roman accounts of the core tenet of the Druids of Gaul and Britain some 1700 years before:

“‘Tis ane of their Tenets, that nothing perisheth, but (as the Sun and Year) every Thing goes in a Circle, lesser or greater, and is renewed and refreshed in its Revolutions; as ’tis another, that every Bodie in the Creation moves, (which is a sort of Life;) and that nothing moves, but as another Animal moving on it; and so on, to the utmost minutest corpuscle that’s capable to be a Receptacle of Life.”

He is speaking of a supposed tenet of the ‘Sith’ or fairies, not that of the ‘illiterate’ seers he discussed them with! The implication is one of continual rebirth or metempsychosis, and comes straight from the core of what Caesar left for posterity about the ancient religion of Atlantic Europe. Kirk makes another (unwitting) reference to part of this tenet in chapter 2 where he describes the fairies moving their habitations en masse at four particular times of the year: the Celtic ‘quarter day’ festivals of Beltain, Lughnasa, Samhain and Imbolc. These spirits and their movements are tied to the regenerative cycle of the year, the evidence for which I will discuss in due course, gathered from evidence from across Atlantic Europe.

Kirk was writing at a juncture in history that was critical in that it marked a watershed in the continuity of pre-Christian traditions, the reasons for which can be summarised as follows:

1. The collapse of the Gaelic cultural world after the protestant Reformation: Following the Roman legal codes, Christianity was established within the Empire through a process of assimilation of paganism and utilisation of its fundamental festivals, myths and geographical sites as the framework for the new religion. Thus, Roman Catholicism was a culture that maintained links with the pagan past and Roman Catholic culture was strong in the Gaelic speaking world of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands and Islands at the inception of the Protestant Reformation. Tudor expansionism and the wavering religious sympathies of the Stuart dynasty that succeeded it was to set the scene for the final collapse of this world: The invasion of Ireland, the plantations, the Statutes of Iona, and the Flight of The Earls were to start what the Hanoverian succession, the Battle of the Boyne, the Jacobite Wars and finally the Highland clearances, mass emigration and famine were to all but finish.

2. The explosion of Rationalism and Sciences and the final collapse of the classical scientific and spiritual system. New models were replacing the old everywhere, and there was a general tendency to denigrate the old as barbaric and superstitious. Literal Protestantism marched more or less conveniently on the coat tails of this, attacking the last vestiges of ‘superstition’ with destructive abandon.

3. Imperial expansion and conquest of the ‘New World’ bought immense wealth as well as exposure to ‘primitive’ cultures that were to be used as a yardstick by which to view what the European should not be: a heathen savage. Ancient marginal lifestyles in Britain and Ireland that were once ignored as existing in the shadows became exposed to the glare of ‘enlightened’ observation and their existence increasingly questioned.

4. This wealth led to unparalleled economic growth and the subsequent Industrial and Commercial Revolution. Society began to urbanise around commercial centres and traditional models of ‘feudal’ rural economic organisation supporting ancient traditional lifestyles began to collapse as a new mercantile aristocracy redefined the world to meet their own ends. Common lands became enclosed, agriculture intensivised and communities dissipated. The burgeoning urban ‘poor’ became defined as a class of the technically and traditionally disenfranchised – consumers of the produce of the wealthy, including religion.

Although none of these got rid of the idea of fairies, they appear collectively to have decimated any coherent vestiges of the paganism underpinning the beliefs described by Kirk – tenets that might in former times have been dismissed as harmless and ignorant (due to their marginal and unthreatening nature), or otherwise persecuted by murder and intimidation by the state and the church for political ends…