Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Fairies of Galloway & Nithsdale

It seems there are none more prepared for battle than the fearsome faeries of Galloway and Nithsdale! Although there are stories of far more pleasant fairies having dwelt in this area too, today I shall be writing of a particular group of fae who were feared for good reason by those who offended them and attracted their retribution. A description of these rogue characters can be found in 'Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song' by R. H. Cromek (1810), where he gives them the title of 'Light infantry of Satan!':
"They were small of stature, exquisitely shaped and proportioned; - of a fair complexion, with long fleeces of yellow hair flowing over their shoulders, and tucked above their brows with combs of gold. a mantle of green cloth, inlaid with wild flowers, reached to their middle;- green pantaloons, buttoned with bobs of silk, and sandals of silver, formed their under dress. On their shoulders hung quivers of adder slough, stored with pernicious arrows; and bows, fashioned from the rib of man, buried where 'three Lairds' lands meet,' tipped with gold, ready bent for warfare, were slung by their sides. Thus accoutred they mounted on steeds, whose hoofs would not print the new plowed land, nor dash the dew from the cup of a hare-bell. They visited the flocks, the folds, the fields of coming grain, and the habitations of man;- and woe to the mortal whose frailty threw in their power!- a flight of arrows, tipped with deadly plagues, were poured into his folds, and nauseous weeds grew up in his pastures; his coming harvest was blighted with pernicious breath,- and whatever he had no longer prospered. These fatal shafts were formed of the bog reed, pointed with white field flint, and dipped in the dew of hemlock. They were shot into cattle with such magical dexterity that the smallest aperture could not be discovered, but by those deeply skilled in Fairy warfare, and in the cure of elf-shooting."
The following passage regarding the local fairy rades can also be found in the above book, and was told to the author by an old woman of Nithsdale:

"I' the night afore Roodsmass, I had trysted wi' a neeber lass, a Scots mile frae hame, to talk anent buying braws i' the fair:- we had nae sutton lang aneath the haw-buss, till we heard the loud laugh o' fowk riding, wi' the jingling o' bridles, an' the clanking o' hoofs. We banged up, thinking they wad ryde owre us;- we kent nae but it was drunken fowk riding to the fair, i' the fore night. We glowred roun' and roun', an' sune saw it was the Fairie fowks Rade. We cowered down till they passed by. A leam o' light was dancing owre them, mair bonnie than moonshine: they were a wee, wee fowk, wi' green scarfs on, but ane that rade foremost, an' that ane was a gude deal langer than the lave, wi' bonnie lang hair bun' about wi' a strap, whilk glented lyke stars. They rade on blaw wee whyte naigs, wi' whustles that the win' played on. This an' their tongues whan they sang, was like the soun' of a far awa' Psalm. Marion an' me was in a brade lea fiel' whare they cam by us, a high hedge o' hawtrees keepit them frae gaun through Johnnie Corrie's corn;- but they lap owre't like sparrows, an' gallop't into a green knowe beyont it. We gade i' the morning to look at the tredded corn, but the fient a hoof mark was there nor a blade broken.'"

Some had more pleasant dealings with the fairies, like this young man:
"A young man of Nithsdale, being on a love intrigue, was enchanted with wild and delightful music, and the sound of mingled voices, more charming than aught that mortal breath could utter. With a romantic daring, peculiar to a Scottish lover, he followed the sound, and descivoered the Fairy banquet:- a green table, with feet of gold, was placed across a rivulet, and richly furnished with pure bread and wines of sweetest flavour. Their minstrelsy was raised from small reeds, and stalks of corn:- he was invited to partake in the dance, and presented with a cup of wine. He was allowed to depart, and was ever after endowed with the second sight. He boasted of having seen and conversed with several of his earthly acquaintances whom the Fairies had taken and admitted as brothers!"
Although fearsome, the fairies were said to be fair, and only punished those deserving. They rewarded those who were kind to them, as shown in this story:
"A woman of Auchencreath, in Nithsdale, was one day sifting meal warm from the mill: a little, cleanly-arrayed, beautiful woman, came to her, holding out a bason on antique workmanship, requesting her courteously to fill it with her new meal. Her demand was cheerfully complied with. In a week the comely little dame returned with the borrowed meal. She breathed over it, setting it down bason and all, saying aloud, 'be never toom.' The gude-wife lived to a goodly age, without ever seeing the bottom of her blessed bason."
It is said in Galloway and Nithsdale to be very bad luck to plow certain fields deemed to be the rallying places of fairies, often marked with an old thorn tree in the middle, as told in this story:
"Two lads were opening with the plow one of these fields, and one of them had described a circle around the Fairy thorn, which was not to be plowed. they were surprised, when, on ending the furrow, a green table was placed there, heaped with the choicest cheese, bread and wine. He who marked out the thorn, sat down without hesitation, eating and drinking heartily, saying, 'fair fa' the hands whilk gie.' His fellow-servant lashed his steeds, refusing to partake. The courteous plow-man 'thrave,' said my informer, 'like a breckan, and was a proverb for wisdom, and an orable of local rural knowledge ever after!'"
Unfortunately, or fortunately for those who crossed them, the fairies were said to have left the Nithdale and Galloway area around the year of 1790:
"The 'Fairy Farewel,' is a circumstance that happened about twenty years ago, and is well remembered. The sun was setting on a fine summer's evening, and the peasantry were returning from labour, when, on the side of a green hill, appeared a procession of thousands of apparently little boys, habited in mantles of green, freckled with light. One, taller than the rest, ran before them, and seemed to enter the hill, and again appeared at its summit. This was repeated three times, and all vanished. The peasantry, who beheld it, called it 'The Fareweel o' the Fairies to the Burrow hill!'
So it appears that I'm over 220 years too late with my visit! Though I wouldn't be surprised if the fairies have sneaked back to the area, or stealthily emerged from one of the many cairns in the area, finally leaving their green grassy hills behind and moving into nearby forests. Below are some photos taken on my visit to Galloway and Nithsdale, locations include the walk to St Ninian's Cave, Cairn Holy II, and nearby forests.

P.S. A request for help! Currently researching a fairy story of a piper visiting fairy caves near Grennan on the Mull of Galloway. Any help would be gratefully appreciated!

Sources & Further Information
Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, R. H. Cromek
Cairnholy, Modern Antiquarian


Valkrye said...

Very interesting post again and lovely evocative photos too. Must have been nice to have the sun along for your explorations!

S said...

I just discovered your blog and am thrilled by it, very happy to see that there are other people out there interested in this subject and working to keep this lore alive. I've been interested in faery lore for several years now, but it has been difficult for me to find other people and resources who treat it seriously and respectfully. Please keep up your wonderful work!

The Faery Folklorist said...

Thanks Valkrye! Have just come back from more travels and will be updating again soon with even more adventures! :) It's been so lovely and sunny lately, on my travels anyway, back home in Northumberland it's been a bit frosty and cold!!

The Faery Folklorist said...

Thank you for your lovely comments S! :) Always great to meet another interested in faery lore! There does seem to be a lack of websites dedicated to faery lore in the serious sense, it's lovely that fairies have reappeared in popular culture again but it's all gone Victorian again, with fairies being cute little characters in gossamer and all smiles and dimples! Who am I to judge what fairies look like if they do indeed exist, but ive always imagined them as the traditional characters of lore rewarding the helpful and punishing the naughty, full of mischief and tricks, and definitely something to be a little wary of. Will be updating soon with even more adventures! :)