Monday, 20 April 2015

The Fairies of Burg

Of all the hills and glens on Mull, no area is said to contain more fairies than the beautiful headland of the Burg. I'd previously read a couple of stories about the fairies of Burg, but after reading of the fairies in 'Tea with Chrissie' by Rosalind Jones I just knew I had to visit the area for myself. Though be warned, the fairies of Burg are described as being "capricious, cantankerous, and sometimes downright spiteful", so be careful where you tread.

The author of 'Tea with Chrissie' tells "there existed at Burg and Travool a spiritual plane revealed from time to time" and notes that Chrissie and Duncan sometimes spoke of the men of Travool, little men who came out at night and did things. Others felt the place to be mystical and heard strange faint music in places and voices chanting in an odd tongue. A surgeon who stayed every year was convinced that it was haunted and one summer night down by the river he was convinced he'd been surrounded by people, even though there was no-one there at all. Another lady heard voices within the house and knocked on the door but received no answer. As she walked away she felt a push and fell flat on her face, but she saw no one there. The author tells that Chrissie believed the supernatural occurrences were dye to an old burial ground being robbed of stones to build a wall that refused to remain upright. The former owners of Travool, the Bells, left in 1915 though Mr Bell was not sad to leave "for ever since he'd dug at the back of Travool House he'd heard 'voices' at a mound never the burn, whilst folk who didn't believe in the Sithe thought he was off his head!" The book contains a couple more tales too, as well as many lovely old photographs of the area and a thorough history of Burg, it's well worth a read and can be purchased here.

Tales of the fairies at Burg date back at least one hundred years, as Campbell's Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands (1900) mentions:

"Some say the elves were brought to the house by two old women, who were tired spinning, and incautiously said they wished all the people in Ton Bhuirg were there to assist. According to others, the Elves were in the habit of coming to Tapull House in the Ross of  Mull, and their excessive zeal made them very unwelcome. The rhyme they had when they came to Tapull is known as " The rhyme of the good-man of Tapull's servants" (Rann gillean fir Thabuill)

"Let me comb, card, tease, spin,
Get a weaving loom quick.
Water for fulling on the fire.
Work, work, work."

Maclean gives further details in his 'History of the Island of Mull' (1923). He tells that when the housewife invited the fairies to help they appeared and sang in Gaelic:
"Combing, mixing,
Carding, spinning,
A weaving loom quickly
And the waulking water on the fire."

Afterwards they crowded around the table expecting a customary meal, but the housewife was unprepared and desired them to leave. She went to the door and called an old man for help. He advised her to shout in Gaelic as loud as she could that the Burg was on fire, so she did and they fled, crying in Gaelic "My hammers and my anvils, my little children and my offspring, Burg is on fire. Alas! Alas! ". They disappeared at the entrance of their home, and the woman saw them no more. In 'Tea with Chrissie' the author mentions fires being lit on the Dun to call the doctor in Bunessan, so perhaps the fairies were forced to evacuate the Dun on a regular basis!

Peter Macnab gives an even more detailed version of the story in his 'Traditional Tales of Mull' (1998) and also adds that another lady who invited the fairies to help with the spinning was more lucky and although she only had some oatmeal and a few eggs in her larder, the fairies said that this would do fine, and she found that no matter how much of the food she used up there was always plenty more, and when the fairies finished eating they just vanished.

According to Island Voices by Mackenzie (2002) Tiree tradition states that the fairies once invaded the Island from Mull where they had their fortress, Dun Bhuirg. They returned to Mull as quickly as possible when they heard a war cry of "Dun Bhuirg is on fire!".

In his 'History of the Isle of Mull' (1923) Maclean also tells a story titled "The men of the laird of Tapoll":

"The laird had dismissed two men for uselessly spending their time. Some months later, while walking in a field where the newly cut crop had been shocked, he saw a stranger approaching. When near, the stranger asked for a bundle of the harvest, which was granted. A rope was spread upon the ground, and both began to pile bundle after bundle on it, without increasing its size. When the laird saw that the whole field was being swept away by the magic of the stranger, he repeated the following prayer:

"On Tuesday I sowed,
On Tuesday I reaped,
And on Tuesday I stuck
My plow in the soil,
And Thou, who hast given us those three days,
Let not my corn in one bundle away."

The bundle and stranger vanished, and not a sheaf was wanting in the field. The two men dismissed were fairies; one of whom returned to take vengeance and carry off the entire harvest."

So, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, off we walked to the Burg! The land is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and there is a public parking area along a road and rough track not far from the B8035. Full details and maps can be found here on the Walk Highlands Website. To get to the Burg itself it is a fair walk, so come prepared with sturdy walking shoes. A leaflet with map can be purchased for a donation from a machine in the car park, or a similar leaflet can be downloaded here from the NTS Website.
Above you can see the Dun in the distance, overlooking the sea.
Along the old track you will pass many old stone ruins including the ruined townships of Salachry and Culliemore. They were cleared in the mid-19th Century to make way for sheep.
Below is Tavool House as it stands today, previously known as Tapool House or Tapul House. It is now an Outdoor Centre and offers holiday accommodation too. In this area the 'Men of Travool' were said to live and play their strange fairy music, chanting in a mysterious tongue.
As you pass the house the path dips down into a green mossy valley with a stream running through. Here on a summer night the surgeon found himself surrounded by invisible people.
Passing over the stream and up the hill you soon arrive in Burg....
Heading towards Dun Bhuirg, said to be a fairy mound and home to the fairies of Burg. On the top is a memorial to Daisy Cheape, a young girl who drowned in the Loch in 1896. Further details on the history of the Dun can be found here on the RCAHMS website.
 The old bothy, one of the remaining old cottages in Burg. Perhaps it was here the old lady invited the fairies in to help with her spinning.
 Dun Bhuirg, home to the fairies of Burg, described in 'Tea with Chrissie' as being "capricious, cantankerous, and sometimes downright spiteful, if not actually malicious - which they could be if upset or provoked." Needless to say, this is as close as I ventured, I certainly didn't want to risk upsetting them.

Sources & Further Information
Tea with Chrissie, Rosalind Jones
Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, Campbell
The History of the Island of Mull, Maclean
Traditional Tales of Mull, Macnab
Island Voices, Mackenzie
Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, Grinsell
Burg on the National Trust for Scotland Website
Tavool on RCAHMS Website
Dun Bhuirg on RCAHMS Website
Holiday Accommodation at Tavool House
Video of Tavool House on Vimeo, including the interior

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