Friday, 8 February 2013

The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan Castle, Skye

This is a story that I've been putting off writing about for fear that I cannot do it justice. It's a beautiful story, with romance and tragedy, but it's such a varied and traditional story that I'm simply not sure where to start. The more I researched it, the more variations I came across, and the longer and longer my notes became. Hopefully these notes will make sense and form some sort of order as I write them!

What is the Fairy Flag?
For those unfamiliar with this curious relic, the Fairy Flag is a piece of ancient looking fabric, that some say originally belonged to the fairies. Norman MacLeod in 1799 described it has consisting of "a piece of very rich silk, with crosses wrought on it with gold thread, and several elf spots stitched with great care on different parts of it." The crosses are no longer visible but the elf spots remain.

The flag is currently on display at Dunvegan Castle and truly worth a visit as such wondrous fairy relics are few and far between. The Dunvegan Castle website tells that the flag is thought to have been dyed yellow and is made of silk from the Middle East, and has been dated between the 4th and 7th centuries AD. An image of the flag can be seen here on the castle website. 

Stories of the Fairy Flag
An early version of the tale can be found in 'A tour in Scotland and voyage to the Hebrides' by Thomas Pennant (1772):
"Here is preserved the Braolauch shi, or fairy-flag of the family, bestowed on it by Titania the Ben-Shi, or wife to Oberon king of the fairies. She blessed it at the same time with powers of the first importance, which were to be exerted on only three occasions: but on the last, after the end was obtained, an invisible Being is to arrive and carry off standard and standard-bearer, never more to be seen. A family of Clan y Faitter had this dangerous office, and held by it, free lands in Bracadale. The flag has been produced thrice. the first time in an unequal engagement against the Clan-Roland, to whose fight the Macleods were multiplied ten-fold. The second preserved the heir of the family, being then produced to save the longings of the lady:  and the third time, to save my own; but it was so tattered, that Titania did not seen to think it worth sending for."
Notes of the Relics preserved in Dunvegan Castle, F Macleod
'Notes on the Relics preserved in Dunvegan Castle, F Macleod (1915?) includes two tales told to the author by Rev RC Macleod that he heard in his boyhood of how the Flag came into the possession of his forefathers.
"The first relates that an early Chief espoused a fairy, whose married life was limited to a period of twenty years. Summonsed to leave him at a spot about three miles from Dunvegan, which now bears the name "Fairy Bridge," she flew away, dropping in her flight a portion of her silken attire - the Fairy flag - which was found and preserved by the Chief."
"The other relates that on the occasion of the birth of an heir to a former Chief great rejoicings were held in Dunvegan Castle; that, as the child was slumbering peacefully, the nurse, who was anxious to join in the festivities, slipped away and left the infant alone. Being restless, the clothes in which the infant had been wrapped fell off, and he lay exposed to the cold. The fairies watched over the sleeping babe, and wrapped his body in the flag. Meanwhile the clansmen had been clamouring to see the young heir, and the nurse, returning, found him thus clothed, and brought him into the hall. As she entered, an invisible choir was heard singing the magic powers of the Flag."

Image: The Fairy Bridge, near Dunvegan
This book goes on to tell more stories of the Flag, including a version given in a manuscript history of the MacLeods written around 1800 that tells of the importance of the flag bearers and how it was once stolen. This version tells of a She-Devil rather than a Fairy:
"The legend of its origin is that a MacLeod who had gone on a Crusade to the Holy Land when returning home in the garb of a pilgrim was benighted on the borders of Palestine in a wild and dangerous mountain pass, where by chance he met a hermit who gave him food and shelter. The hermit told him that an evil spirit guarded the pass and never failed to destroy the true believer; but by the aid of a piece of the true Cross and certain other directions given by the hermit this MacLeod vanquished and slew the 'She Devil' called Nein a Phaipen, or Daughter of Thunder, around whose loins this banner had been tied; and that in reward for conveying certain secrets which she wished some earthly friends to know she revealed the future destinies of the Claim to her conqueror, in whose family this knowledge was supported to be deposited to its final extinction, and desired that her girdle should be converted into this banner, which was to be attached to her spear, which became the staff which is now lost. The secrets were never known and are likely to remain unknown forever, although many editions have been recited."

The Macleods of Dunvegan, Rev RC Macleod
Rev RC Macleod in 'The Macleods of Dunvegan' (1927) narrows the Fairy Flag story down to three versions. Version 1 tells of the 20 year romance with the fairy, and the author writes that we owe this tradition and the lullaby that the fairy sings to the infant, to "Mr Neil MacLeod, the clan bard in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He obtained the version given below from several old women in the MacLeod country, and published it in the Gael in October 1878."
"According to the tradition, on a fine evening in autumn a beautiful fairy paid a visit to Dunvegan Castle. Without any difficulty she passed through several closed doors, and made her way to the nursery where the infant heir of the Chief was lying in his cradle. With him was his nurse, but if she had wished to oppose the fairy's entrance, she would have been powerless to do so, for some potent spell made it impossible for her to move. 
Taking no notice of the nurse, the fairy went straight to the cradle, took the child on her knee, and sang to him the famous lullaby. Both the words and the tune were so remarkable that they impressed themselves on the nurse's memory, and from that time forward she habitually lulled the child to sleep by singing to him the fairy's lullaby. 
As time went on it came to be believed that any infant of the Chief's family over whom this lullaby was sung would be protected by the fairies in any dangers which might assail him during his life and, for a long time, no nurse was engaged to take charge of the Chief's children who could not sing the lullaby to them."
The author's friend Miss Tolmie, gave him this version of the fairy's lullaby in English rather than the traditional Gaelic:

Behold my child, limbed liked the roe or fawn,
Smiting the horses,
Seizing the accoutrements of the shod horses,
Of the spirited steeds,
Behold my child.

Oh, that I could see thy cattle folds,
High up upon the mountain side,
A green shaggy jacket about thy white shoulders,
And a linen shirt,
My little child.

Oh, that I could behold thy team of horses,
Men following them,
Serving women returning home.
And the Catanaich sowing the corn.

Oh, tender hero, whom my womb did bring forth,
Who didst swallow from my breast, who on my knee wast


My child it is, my armful of yew [bow and arrows],Merry and plump, my bullrush, my flesh and eggs, that will
soon be speaking.

Last year thou wast beneath my girdle,
Plant of fertility, and this year fair and playful on my
shoulder, thou wilt be going round the homestead,
My little child.

Oh, let me not hear of thy being wounded.
Grey do thou become duly ;
May thy nose grow sharp [with advancing years],
Ere the close of thy day.

Oh, not of Clan Kenneth [MacKenzie],
Oh, not of Clan Conn [MacDonald],
Descendant of a race more esteemed.
That of the Clan Leod of swords and armour,
Whose father's native land was Scandinavia [Lochlann.]

According to version 2 of Roderick Macleod's version the flag is of Eastern origin. A Macleod joined a crusading army in the Holy Land and was sent on a mission requiring a lengthy and lonely ride through the desert. After narrowly escaping the clutches of a wicked old witch, which is a whole different tale, he came to a river and proceeded to cross it by a ford. Suddenly a fairy maiden rose from the water, blocking his passage. After a "severe struggle he overcame her, and made good his passage over the river. After this he made friends with the maiden, and before they parted, she gave him a box of scented wood. In this, she told him, were several smaller boxes, each of which exactly fitted the one outside it. In the inmost box was a magic banner, the waving of which would bring forth a host of armed men to help its owner. ' Take it home with you,' the fairy said, ' and wave the banner in danger's hour but in any case do not dare to open the box for a year and a day. If you do, for another year and a day no crops will grow in your land, no sheep or cattle will produce their young, no children will be born." He took it home and presented it to the Chief's wife and told her the warning but her curiosity got the better of her and she opened the box. The events foretold by the fairy followed, but the chief was impressed by it's power and preserved it to be used when he would need it most.

Version 3 is the same version I have already told above, where a fairy lady wraps the heir to a former Chief in the fairy flag after the nurse sneaks off to join in the festivities. The author also relates information from the Bannatyne Manuscript, including the circumstances of when the flag has been used, these events also vary greatly from text to text.

Skye: The Island & It's Legends, Swire
In Swire's 'Skye: The Island & It's Legends' (1961) the author relates the story of the fairy lover,  she names the Macleod who married the fairy as Ian the forth Chief or his father Malcolm, and says that marrying a fairy was not an unusual practice at this time. In this version of the tale she is called back to her own people after giving birth to a son. Her husband accompanied her as far as he could, and at the Fairy Bridge they said their final goodbyes. The story then turns to the story of a heir being born, only in this version it is the fairy wife's child with the chief. During the celebrations when the nurse sneaks away, the baby cries as he wakes cold and miserable after his covers have fallen away. His mother, the fairy, hears his cries and covers him with the fairy flag and sings him a lullaby to comfort him. The nurse hears the singing and returns to the room and takes the baby to the banqueting hall, where fairy voices were heard singing about the powers of the flag and how it can be used only 3 times. The baby's nurse ever after sang the lullaby to him and told her descendants that although she never forgot a note, she found the words hard to remember, and whenever she hesitated or stopped she was helped by "voices all about her taking up the song." she also sang the lullaby to her own baby  and she believed he was also guarded and protected by the fairies as he never suffered any accidents. The author then gives Miss Tolmie's version of the lullaby, and a version by a Kenneth Macleod:

Sleep my little child,
Hero, tenderling,
Dream, my little child
Hero, fawn-like one,
high on mountain brows
Be thy stag tryst
Speed thy yew arrow straight antlerwards

Sleep my little child,
Hero, gentle-bred,
Dream, my little child
Hero, battle-bred.
skin like falling snow
Green thy mail coat
Live thy steeds, dauntless thy following

I think this is my own favourite version of the tale. It's certainly the most romantic and heartwarming. The author then gives detail of the times the flag is said to have been waved, and gives suggestion that it could be the magic banner "Landoda, the Land Ravisher, which when waved brought certain victory. It belonged to Harald Haardrada of Norway who saw service in the East including Jerusalem and returned with the flag banner." He is said to have brought it into battle whilst fighting in England but it was too late to save him, and what happened to the banner is unknown.

A Summer in Skye, Alexander Smith
In Alexander Smith's 'A Summer in Skye' (1865), a man named Malcolm tells that author that that the fairy Flag is "kept in a glass case, and never shown to strangers, at least when the family is from home." The author asks him how the Macleods came into possession of the flag and he replies "Well the old people say that one of the Macleods fell in love with a fairy, and used to meet her on the green hill out there. Macleod promised to marry her; and one night the fairy gave him a green flag, telling him that, when he or one of his rae was in distress, the flag was to be waved, and relief would be certain. Three times the flag was to be waved; but after the third time it might be thrown into the fire, for the power would have gone all out of it. I don't know, indeed, how it was, but Macleod deserted the fairy and married a woman." This version of the tale ends in tragedy, the fairy woman heard of the marriage and was in a great rage. "She cast a spell over Macleod's country and all the women brought forth dead sons, and all the cows brought forth dead calves. Macleod was in great tribulation. He would soon have no young men to fight his battles, and his tenants would soon have no milk or cheese wherewith to pay their rends. the cry of his people came to him as he cat in his castle, and he waved the flag, and next day over the country there were living sons and living calves. Another time, in the front of a battle, he was sorely pressed, and nigh being beaten, but we waved the flag again, and got the victory, and a great slaying of his enemies." He tells that it has not been waved a third time yet, not even during the potato failure when people were starving.
Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, Campbell
In this book, written in 1900, the author briefly mentions the banner, calling it the Bratach Shith MhicLeoid, and tells of it's powers. He also mentions that "Every pregnant woman who sees it is taken in premature labour (a misfortune which happened, it is said, to the English wife of a former chief in consequence of her irrepressible curiosity to see the banner), and every cow casts her calf."

This brings me to the end of my research at present. I apologise for not going into further details of the times the flag has been used, but those are also as varied as the story itself! Whilst visiting Skye I couldn't resist paying a visit to Dunvegan Castle and the Fairy Bridge.

Primroses, picking them is said to call the fairies....
Dunvegan Castle & it's gardens....
Sources & Information
The Dunvegan Castle Website
A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, Pennant
Notes of the Relics preserved in Dunvegan Castle, F Macleod
The Macleods of Dunvegan, Rev RC Macleod
Skye: The Island & It's Legends, Swire
A Summer in Skye, Alexander Smith
Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, Campbell


1 comment:

Vagia said...

Bravo for the thorouht research of the version of this legend. The castle and the gardens are also splendid!