Tuesday 26 March 2013

Fairy Women & their Deer

My first post from the trip to Argyll earlier this month, and how glad I am that we missed the snow! Once again unfortunately I didn't spot any fae folk, but that won't stop me telling you all about the enchanting places I visited in search of them. We did spot a lot of lovely wildlife though including deers, and in this part of Scotland it is said by Campbell in his Superstitions of the Scottish Highlands (1900) that "the red-deer are associated with the fairies, and in some districts, as Lochaber and Mull, are said to be their only cattle". He also tells that it is believed that no deer is found dead with age, and that it's horns are not found because they are hid by the fairies. Fairy women in this area are also said to be able to assume the guise of the red deer. Though in the Mull area it is said that fairies only have one nostril, though I dare not ask one how they smell!

Although my posts usually focus on a specific location, I became intrigued by the folkloric connections between fairies and deer in this area of Scotland and decided to delve deeper into this fascinating topic. Here you'll find a few of the thoroughly intriguing stories I came across....

The Fairy Wife of Ben Breck
"The Fairy wife, who owned the deer of Ben Breck, is well known in the Highlands. It is told of her that on one occassion, as she milked a hind, the animal became restive and gave her a kick. In return she struck the hind with her open palm and expressed a wish that the arrow of Donald, the son of John (a noted hunter in his day), might come upon it. That very day the restive hind fell to Doil MacJain's arrow." - Superstitions of the Highlands, Campbell (1900) p122.

This same fairy wife also appears in a tale where she comes to the door of a bothy on Ben Breck where three hunters are passing the night. The hunter's dog sprang up to attack her and she retreated, requesting the hunters to tie up their dog. She asks 3 times but the dog's master refuses, finally giving the excuse of having nothing to tie it with. So the fairy wife pulled a hair from her head and told him to tie the dog with that, claiming it was strong enough to hold a four-masted ship at anchor.  The hunter was cunning and pretended to agree to this but when the fairy wife entered she found the dog had not been secured and she ran away in fury, saying that it was well for the hunter that the dog had not been tied, and warning that she would return.

Similar tales are told of the Glaistig, who is also said to fear dogs and also have a habit of bothering men in bothies! Campbell tells that the fairy wife of the story was last seen twenty years ago (c.1880) in Lochaber and that age had told severely upon her. Instead of being broad and tall she was now "no bigger than a teapot!" and wore a little grey plaid or shawl about her shoulders.

John McKay's 'The Deer-Cult & the Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient Caledonians' Folklore vol 43, No 2 (1932) is a fascinating read on this topic and refers to the fairy wife as the Cailleach of Ben Breck, and tells that she would "upon occassion take the form of a gray deer". He also tells that a gamekeeper at Corrour Lodge in Invernesshire told his friend Mr Ronald Burn in 1917 that the Cailleach of Ben Breck in Lochaber had "cleaned out a certain well of hers, and had afterwards washed herself therein, that same year."

MacDougall's Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English (1910) speaks further of the lady of Ben Breck. A cow-herd named Donald Maclan from Achantore went with his cows to the summer pastures of Ben Breck. There he met a Glaistig on multiple occassions and whilst sheltering in the bothy at Ruighe-na-cloiche beside Ciaran Water he heard her voice again. Similiar to the previous tale his dog prevents her from entering and she promises to give him no more trouble if he removes the dog that is bothering her. He was a trusting young man and did as asked, and in return for his kindness she told him "Go to Ben Breck early to-morrow, Donald Maclan, and thou wilt find the White Hind which thou hast been hunting for many a day, but which thou hast not yet caught". He did as told and there he saw the Glaistig and a herd of deer before her with the White Hind at their head. "He took aim at the Hind, and let go the arrow. But before the arrow left the bend of the yew, he heard the Glaistig crying, in a spiteful tone: "Stick in the stomach, arrow. Stick in the stomach."" The arrow did as told and Donald took the hart home as promised.

MacDougall kindly shares with us the croon that the Glaistig of Ben Breck was said to sing to her hinds whilst driving them on the mountain side:

"Lady of Ben Breck, Horo!
Breck, horo! Breck, horo!
Lady of Ben Breck, horo!
Lady of the fountain high.
I ne'er would let my troop of deer,
Troop of deer, troop of deer;
I ne'er would let my troop of deer,
A-gathering Shellfish to the tide
Better liked they cooling cress,
Cooling cress, cooling cress;
Better liked they cooling cress,
That grows beside the fountain high."

MacDougall also tells of two brothers who met the Glaistig and were not quite so fortunate. She would visit them regularly but the hunters had no pleasure in her visits for she delighted in causing them bother and trouble. One brother was patient with her and afraid of provoking her, but the other was not so sensible and when she teased him he told his terrier to attack her, followed by his greyhound too. She angered and raged and threatened as she ran "Perhaps I'll pay thee back for this yet, my lad". Sure enough she returned and the dogs were urged out to meet her, with the brothers staying safely in the bothy. They heard the expected barking, first close, then further away. The fight ceased as night turned to day and the dogs returned, only the big dog was left with nothing but a tuft of hair and the terrier came as hairless as a newly plucked hen!

Perhaps most curious of all comes the tale of a hunter returning from Ben Breck. As he passed the foot of the mountain he heard a strange sound, like the clacking of two stones striking or the rattling of a stag's horns against a rock. He continued on until he passed a large rock at the side of the path, and "there he saw, crouching at the foot of the stone, the semblance of a woman, with a green shawl about her shoulders, and in her hands a pair of deershanks, which she kept striking against one another without ceasing." He knew at once that she was the Glaistig, and he boldly spoke to her "What are you doing there, poor woman?" But she spoke only to say, "Since the wood was burnt, since the wood was burnt" and this she repeated over and over again for as long as he was in earshot.

I find this story slightly chilling, and can't help but wonder if the Glaistig's herd of deer had cruelly perished in a forest fire, or perhaps since the woods were burnt her deer had deserted her. Or perhaps this tale is no more than a sorrowful story of a mortal woman whose house burnt down, taking her mind and sanity with it. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this curious story.

Scalasdal, Mull
Campbell leaves us guessing with his short intriguing comment that "On the lands of Scalasdal in Mull, a deer was killed, which turned out afterwards to be a woman." (p126). Alexander Carmichael writes in his Carmina Gadelica volume 2 (1900) of women using Fath Fith to change into animals including hinds, and men into stags. He writes that this could be voluntary or involuntary, and was especially useful to hunters, warriors, and travellers.

Lochaber Deer Glaistig
A young man named Donald Cameron from the Braes of Lochaber met the Glaistig and her deer in the first half of the past century, tells MacDougall in 1910. Donald was a famous deer-hunter, and gifted with the second sight. One day while looking "up from the bottom of the Glen to the top of the Yellow mountain, he said to a neighbour who was standing near him: "Tis I who behold the sight! Place your foot on mine, and you will see it too." His neighbour did as he was told, and he now beheld, what he saw not till then, the finest view of deer he had ever witnessed." So on a calm morning Donald went to a deer-pass on the ben and stood wait for the deer herd to descend the mountain for their morning drink from the fresh waters of the spring. "At length he saw them coming out of the mist which hid the rocky summit above him, and a tall Glaistig driving them before her. She at once noticed the hunter, and before the foremost deer came within shooting distance she cried to him: "Thou art too heavy on my hinds, Big Donald. Thou must not be so heavy on them as thou art." Big Donald was read-witted, and so he put her off with his apt answer: "I never killed a hind where I could find a stag." He allowed the hinds to pass with the Glaistig behind them, and she gave him no further trouble."

This Lochaber Glaistig was perhaps one of many, as a further tale tells of four Glaistig visiting four hunters in a bothy in the Braes of Lochaber. Three of the hunters had retired to a corner of the bothy when soon after four women entered the bothy, having the appearance of the hunter's sweethearts. Three joined the three hunters in the corner and the forth approached the remaining hunter and tried to trick him into giving her his hand. He was a sensible young man and had his wits about him, and kept a tight hold of his dirk. When she asked him for some snuff he agreed but gave it to her on the point of his dirk and prodded her with it, leading her to withdraw to the other side of the fire. The women made their depart at cockcrow, and when the forth hunter went to the corner of the bothy to check on his comrades he found them "cold and dead, with their throats cut, and every drop of blood sucked out of their veins. He had now no doubt that the women were Glaistigs".

In defense of Glaistigs I'd like to point out that this does not seem to be typical Glastig behaviour, and in many tales they are harmless creatures, though they do seem to take pleasure in playing tricks and causing mischief, and some claim them to be mortal women under enchantment. That said, this is not the only tale by far of fairies drinking the blood of mortals, and should you find yourself in a lonesome bothy be sure to keep a watchful eye on the door and a faithful hound at your side.

Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to visit the Braes of Lochaber or Ben Breck on this visit, but I hope to update this page one day with photos of these beautiful locations. I hope instead you'll settle for some photos of a beautiful fearless stag I met on the edge of a loch on Mull...

Sources & Further Information
Superstitions of the Scottish Highlands, Campbell
Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English, MacDougall
The Deer-Cult & the Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient Caledonians, McKay, Folklore Vol 43, No 2
Carmina Galedica Volume 2, Carmichael
The Hair and the Dog, Davidson & Chaudhri, Folklore Vol 104, No 1/2

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