For the first of this year’s fairy investigations I chose the wonderful Isle of Arran in Scotland, a place I’d never been before but have long wanted to go. Although perhaps more famous for its castles, whiskey and golf, Arran is also home to a very generous scattering of prehistoric monuments and stone circles, including the beautiful Machrie Moor containing six stone circles and a variety of burial cairns and cists. On an island so full of history it comes as no surprise to find so many stories of fairies and fae folk, and a wide variety from fauns to bochans, and bleaters to uruisg. Many of the fairies of Arran were found in groups, small in size, and often dressed in green or red. But not all of the fairies on Arran were wee folk. “They were of all sorts and sizes. Some of them were as great as giants; others of them were of the same size as Human Folk; many were of a shape that was partly human and partly animal.” (Scott, 1919). MacArthur’s Antiquities of Arran tells that in 1861 the belief of fairies in Arran still lingered in the minds of the older inhabitants, “many curious stories are told of the pilfering habits and cunning tricks of the wee-folks, who held their midnight meetings within the stone circles and old forts of the Island" (MacArthur,1861).
Where to Find Fairies
The fairies of Arran live in a wide range of habitats from the cave of Aird-bheinn (Mackenzie, 1914), to the Tor na’ Shian of Glen Cloy where the faerie queen sat at twilight (McArthur, 1861). If you see a tough hard grass called the pull of necessity growing in circular patches on the moors, you’ve found a place where the fairies dance (Mackenzie, 1914).
Fairy dance circles? Spotted on the walk to Dun Dubh
They dwell in and about cairns and stone circles, old stone chambers, beside bridges, beside fords with flat stepping stones, everywhere on the hills, and some glens are populous with them (Scott, 1919). If this is to be believed, there is barely a spot on Arran without fairies!
“Where do they say the Fairies in Arran are to be found? The best way to get an answer to that question is to ask the old people very gently and politely about the magic places. They will likely say, “Hoot, toot!” to begin with, and pretend to have no interest in the matter at all. But if you try again and hang on to them very gently and politely, they will tell you where the magic places are. It doesn’t matter very much if they say at the end “O, it is just nonsense!” – that is what they always say!” (Scott, 1919)
In Bennan two men were walking home from an inn when a hole opened in the ground, “the interior of which was lit up, while strains of fine music were to be heard” and the men saw fairies dancing and making merry. One of them men joined them but was rescued a year and a day later (Mackenzie, 1914).
In Dundubh at Corriegills was a cave where the fairies lived with their treasure. To this home of the fairies an old man named Fullarton would visit, he’d take a stocking with him and sit knitting and talking. But Fullarton was aware that the fairies did not always let their guests leave, so always placed a darning needle in the collar of his jacket, or carried a piece of rowan wood with him so they would have no power over him. On one occasion he forgot to take these precautions, and the cave nearly closed before he could escape (Mackenzie, 1914).
I think the mound at the back is Dun Dubh, but couldn’t get any closer due to forestry work
Fairies were also said to dance on a stone in nearby Corriegills burn, and the top of the granite boulder was said to be flattened out by the fairies dancing on it. Baukans or bocans were also seen near the burn, and only the bravest folk would go through the area at night. The bochan is a hobgoblin usually seen about fords or bridges, or at lonely places along the road or shore. It could not speak to you unless you spoke to it first, and if you ask a question you should ask it in the name of God. They were usually known by the name of the person who saw them, e.g. Donald’s Bocan. It could appear in human form, animal form, or even an inanimate object like a ship (Mackenzie, 1914). Bochans are also common in Kintyre, and some seem to have moved to Canada with Scottish settlers.
Corriegills Burn, where the fairies dance
Few Scottish islands are without a fairy cave and piper story, and Arran is no exception. A piper named Currie and his dog went into a cave playing the pipes. He never returned, but his dog came out at some place in Kintytre. Another piper entered the King’s caves to explore the subterranean passage, armed only with his bagpipe and accompanied by his dog. After some distance he must have met with enemies as these wailing words were played loudly on his pipe: “Woe’s me, woe is me not having three hands, two for the pipe and one for the sword”. He never returned, but his dog returned, without its hair (Mackenzie, 1914). A piper also entered a cave near Dippin with his dog, and the muffled notes are still said to be heard today (McArthur, 1861). The piper story is a common one, and in some versions it is the fairies or even a fairy queen responsible for the death of the piper, though I’ve yet to find mention of this on Arran.
King's Caves, where the piper entered and never returned
A most unusual fairy home can be found in the stone circles of Machrie Moor. “The perforated column of “Fion-gal’s cauldron seat”, on the Mauchrie Moor, was believed to contain a fairy or brownie, who could only be propitiated by the pouring of milk through the hole bored in the side of the stone” (McArthur, 1861). After much searching I managed to find the hole in question, but unfortunately had forgotten to bring any milk!
Machrie Moor holed stone, said to be home to a fairy or brownie
In a town in the south end of Arran some farmers stopped for dinner by an old disused burial place, said to be under the guardianship of the fairies. One farmer joked to the others that “surely the little folk think very little of our work since they don’t think it worth their while to give us dinner” and sure enough, when they returned to resume their work they were much surprised to find a table spread with every food you can think of. Now, the men were no experts on fairy etiquette, and none of them could bring themselves to take even the smallest bite, and this caused the fairies great offense. Not so much as one blade of grass grew for all of the farmers labour (Mackenzie, 1914).
Another time a farmer out ploughing the fields was struck with hunger and said to himself “If I had a bit of bread it would keep me up until noontide”. As he came to the head-rig he could smell a newly baked bannock and exclaimed that he’d like to eat a piece, and when he next reached the head-rig there lay a newly baked bannock lying on the ground before him. He was astonished but ate it, and he’d never tasted a sweeter bannock. He said how he’d like to get a boll of the meal from which it was made, and when he returned again to the spot there he found a boll of meal. He concluded this was the work of the fairies but knew it was his duty to reward their kindness so when his own meal came from the mill he left a boll at the head-rig. A short time later the fairies met him in the field and thrashed him severely with flails for not giving them the top grain like they gave him. He promised to give them some top grain and this he did, and they stayed good friends after this (Mackenzie, 1914).
Not all fairies were so kind. A housewife on Arran suddenly became very lethargic and sleepy and no amount of rousing would wake her up, much to the puzzlement of her family. They decided to keep watch one night to find out the cause and witnessed a group of fairies enter her room, turn her into a horse, and with this steed they rode their cart all night. In the morning a careful search revealed the harness hidden in the garden (Mackenzie, 1914).
Although no direct mention of the fairies is given, there are a few warning tales on Arran of misfortune to those who disturb an ancient burial cairn. A man partially removed a cairn at Torlin and strewed the human bones over his field, taking one skull home. He had barely entered his home when the walls began shaking as if struck by a tornado, though there was no breeze at all in the neighboring wood. He was wise enough to know a warning when he saw it, and re-buried the bones in their desecrated grave. Day and night shadowy phantoms continued to haunt his mind and track his steps and a few months later he was thrown from his horse and died (McArthur, 1861). At Tor Castle, the locals cleared a mound to partition the land and plant cabbages. Before the year ended the children of the hamlet were all fatherless, all apart from one father who had been called away to another part of the island when the mound was cleared (McArthur, 1861).
Torrylin Cairn, do not disturb!
Perhaps more mischievous than dangerous, a group of fairies twelve to eighteen inches in height took the door off a cart on the road between Lamlash and Brodick (Mackenzie, 1914). Scott’s The East of Arran says the event took place as the cart was passing by the “strange stones” on the right of the road, and describes them as “little brown men”, hanging on to the tail-board of the cart and pulling it off with a clatter before running off with great glee.
Stone circle at the side of the Lamlash to Brodick road, where the brown men climbed on the cart? There are a few stones along this road, but these are the most visible.
Near Shiskin lived another group of trouble making fairies. They met on the summit of Durra-na-each and amused themselves by throwing pebbles into Mauchrie forest. The rules of the game required the stones to be thrown from between the finger and the thumb. The great forest is now gone but the stones can still be seen over the moors in the grey monoliths and stone circles (McArthur, 1861). Due to the large size of the stones in question, they were either very strong fairies, or this tale originally featured giants rather than fairies!
One of the Machrie Moor stone circles, thrown by the fairies?
Fairy Kidnappings and Stolen Wives
Fairies are well known for their kidnapping of women, especially those at liminal moments in their life, e.g. child birth, the wedding night, or the death bed. The fairies of Arran are no exception. The wife of Farmer Cook at Claoinead had recently given birth and was attended night and day by the neighbouring maidens, as was the custom at the time. One night a terrible noise was heard coming from the byre. The attendants rushed down to see what was the cause only to find everything as quiet as a mouse, but when they returned to the house the wife had disappeared, stolen by the little folk. Her husband sorely missed her but one day as he was working by the Sliddery burn he saw a great many little folk travelling over his head. He threw in his reaping hook and there appeared his wife, only she could not stay. She said the fairies were good to her, but asked him not to sweep the kiln entirely clean, but leave some grains for them to eat. She told him to leave the front and back doors of the house open on a certain night and as she and the fairy folk trooped through the house, he should throw his wife’s wedding cloak over her and she would be restored to him. As is often the case in such stories, the husband lacked the courage to throw the cloak, and the fairies snatched her away and she was never seen again (Mackenzie, 1914).
An old derelict cottage in Cloined, could this be where the wife was stolen?
A similar tale appears in Napier’s Folk Lore or Superstitious beliefs in the West of Scotland within this Century, where a new mother near Pladda was carried away by the fairies and her husband failed to throw her wedding gown and save her as his neighbours held him back. In the morning the roof and wall were dashed with blood and the wife was seen no more.
A Kilpatrick farmer was cutting brackens at the Leaca-Bhreac when the sky darkened as something like a thick swarm of bees blotted out the light. He threw his reaping hook up and down came his own wife who he thought to be ill in bed. He tied her to his horse and took her home and put her in the barn as he went to check the house. There he found a “black, ugly old woman” in bed shivering with cold. He said he would put on the fire to warm her up, and then threw her into it! She let out a terrible cry and vanished up the chimney (Mackenzie, 1914).
A man named MacMurchie in Druimaghineir was friendly with the fairies and visited them often, but always sticking a piece of iron above the door as an escape route. One night be found them assembled on a hillock and he travelled with them on ragwort stalks to Ireland. He followed them to a house where a housewife was on her deathbed, and he saw them snatch her and leave in her place a log of wood with the appearance of the woman. When they returned home the fairies gave the woman to Machmurchie for accompanying them to Ireland, and she remained with him as his wife. Seven years later an Irish beggar came by and saw the woman, exclaiming “Well, if I had not placed my wife with my own two hands in the coffin, I would swear that thou art she”. What happened next isn’t told, but the story ends with her departing with the Irish beggar, her lawful husband (Mackenzie, 1914). Carmina Cadelica volume 2 mentions a 79 year old crofter named Donald Macalastair at Druim-a-ghinnir on Arran who told a story in August 1895 of how a man used to visit the fairies in their home. The story is similar to above and they travel to Ireland on ragwort with the King of the Fairies, but no mention is made of a kidnapping.
Not all humans joined the fairies unwillingly. A married man of Arran fell in love with a fairy and visited her often. His wife found out and consulted an old lady who was believed to have power over the fairies. She advised her to watch her husband and when she thought he was about to leave to meet his fairy lover, sprinkle oatmeal on his back. This caused him to see his lover as the ugly creature she was, and he never strayed again (Mackenzie, 1914).
It was not only men who took fairy lovers on Arran. An Arran girl had a most handsome sweetheart, he met her in secret whilst she was spinning and would never tell her his name or where he lived. He asked her to elope but she always refused, until one day he offered to spin the whole sack of wool if she would go with him. As she was very tired of spinning she agreed but on the condition that she would be free from her promise if she discovered his name before the sack of wool was spun. A few evenings later she happened to hear a spinning wheel whilst crossing a stream in a lonely place. She drew nearer and saw a n “old, dark, wizened man” spinning and singing “Oh ! little does my sweetheart know that "Crodhanach" is my name” and she now understood what kind of a sweetheart she had and gained her freedom (Mackenzie, 1914).
Bleaters and Brownies
Although the brownie seems to be very common in Kintyre, few mentions are made of the brownie on Arran. The brownie on one Arran farm was said to be a most useful member of the household, although very jealous of strangers. The farmer once invited a friend to supper but the guest could not eat his porridge for as soon as he lifted a spoonful it slipped back onto the plate. The farmer noticed and violently flung his chair into the corner, shouting “Get out of this”, and explained to his friend about the brownie, and he concluded his meal in peace (Mackenzie, 1914).
Perhaps unique to Arran are the bleaters: curious creatures, neither human nor beast, who came and went as they liked. A bleater in the south end of the island stayed with a family for a long time, going in and out with the cattle, and lying in a cow stall at the end of the byre. He was never seen eating but every night the goodwife would leave meal for him and in the morning it was gone. This went on for a long time until the farmer’s son got married and the young wife threw a coat over him to protect him from the cold. He took offense at this and left, weeping sadly. It is also given the name of the meileachan, and in this source is said to be the young one of the glaistig.
The bleater in Beannan visited three of the largest farms in the area and every day went in and out with the cattle. His head and body were always covered, and all that could be seen of him were his legs. Every morning he stood on a certain hillock and shouted:
“The cattle of Cook, the cattle of MacKinnon,
The cattle of Big Ferguson of Beannan –
Turn them out”
One cold winter day one of the women found him standing on a flagstone moaning and lamenting and shivering cold. She took pity on him and threw her own plaid over him, but he wept bitterly and left the farms, crying “ill is the turn thou hast done me, and heavy is the burden thou hast laid on me” (Mackenzie, 1914).
Even more unusual is the tale of the farmer who was riding home to Clachaig from Lamlash when a monster leapt on his horse’s back. It leapt on and off, startling the horse, and eventually the farmer managed to seize the creature, a young meileachan. He took it home and tied it to the post that was supporting the rafters, but it was not long before mother glaistig tracked it down, threatening to pull down his house. He was glad to be rid of them both and when her young returned to her she told it “I hope you have not revealed to them the virtue of egg-water or of the root of the nettle”, what this means is anyone’s guess! (Mackenzie, 1914). The version in Scott’s East of Arran describes the monster as “cold and slimy. It had hair upon it too, like an animal’s hair, but he touched an arm and shoulder like the body of a human being”. It had human hands but webbing between the fingers, and hair like an otter on the back.
Uruisg, Gruagach, and Hoofed Women
A terrible uruisg was once said to swell in The Monster’s Pool. It had a young male one called meileachan, and at times he would leave the banks of the stream and walk through the fields. The uruisg was a large solitary creature that haunted lovely and mountainous places, they were said to be the offspring of unions between mortals and fairies (Mackenzie, 1914). This suggests that perhaps meileachan and bleaters are different creatures after all, or the uruisg and glaistig are interchangeable in this area, both being considered to be the parents of these creatures.
A young maiden in a shieling at Loch Iorsa was visited one night by a strange woman seeking shelter. As she entered the maiden’s sheep dog moved to the farthest corner, with an angry look. The woman soon retired to bed and the young girl watched her distrustfully, and suddenly noticed with horror a black hoof stretched out from under the bed covers. The maiden ran out the door and down the hill, her dog running behind. The hoofed woman gave chase and the maiden set her dog on her, but still she didn’t stop. The girl reached her father’s house with her heart in her throat, and she barely had time to bolt the door behind her. Her dog didn’t manage to get inside the house in time, and was found the next morning mangled to pieces with not a hair left on him (Mackenzie, 1914). No name is given to this creature, but it does bare similarity to highland stories of the glaistig.
A gruagach lived in a cave in East Bennan, and herded the cattle of the town of Bennan. The herd thrived without death or mishap, and she would come forth with her long golden hair streaming on the morning breeze, and her beautiful voice filling the air with melody. She would wait on a hillock until the folk brought out their creatures, singing her song. The townsfolk were so grateful they resolved to give her a linen garment and sandals, but she was greatly offended by their gift and left the district. She placed her left foot on Benbuidhe in Arran and her right foot on Ailsa Craig, and as she tried to step to the mainland or Ireland she was struck by the mast of a ship and fell into the sea and was never seen again (Carmichael, 1900). The story ending seems more fitting to a giantess than a gruagach perhaps.
This next tale is perhaps more typical of a ghost than a fairy. Archie M’Millan was driving his cart home and as he passed the stone bridge over the Achancairn Burn he felt uneasy, sure that something was about to happen. His mare stopped in a cold sweat and no amount of coaxing would move her. Suddenly he noticed a quiet blue flame before him on the bridge, not unlike a corpse light. A pale figure stood by the light, maiden in form and with a deadly beauty. He felt a shiver up his spine but he was brave as a lion and shouted “On I will go, I tell ye, though I drive horse and cart to the Bottomless Pit!” Out went the light and the “fay maiden” melted away like a puff of mist. On moved the mare, and as they passed the bridge Archie heard a splash in the burn, like the sound of a great monster slipping back into the water (Scott, 1919).
Bridge over the Auchencairn Burn, was this where the fay maiden appeared?
Ailments and Cures
Elf shot was the weapon of choice of the Arran fairies, more commonly known today as prehistoric flint arrow heads. It was shot so hard that it required much force to remove it when stuck in the shaft of a spade (Balfour, 1910). An account from 1716 tells of a man who claimed to cure people who were elf shot using a “little black soap” (Mackenzie, 1914).
Flint arrowheads, or elf shot, at Arran Heritage Museum
The fairies of Arran seem unusually keen to share their knowledge with humans. It was said of physician Doctor Ban that he gained his learning from the fairies under castle hill (Mackenzie, 1914). Doctor M’Larty, said to have lived in the 1700s, was famous for his cures and also said to have been educated by the fairies. He was born at Corriecravie and on his first day of school was met by a “little green-coated man” who took him to a fairy school underneath Torr a’ Chaisteil, an ancient dun (Mackenzie, 1914).
Torr a’ Chaisteil fairy school. Note the solitary hawthorn tree.
Should you need protection against the fairies of Arran, oatmeal is said to be effective, as well as the usual methods involving iron and the bible. One grandmother protected her grandson on a journey by breaking an oatcake over him as he slept in his mother’s arms, to keep the fairies from doing him harm (Mackenzie, 1914).
A popular method of protection was to always keep on good terms with the fairies. “When corn was dried on a kiln, it was always considered necessary to leave a portion for the fairies. If this were not done grievous harm might be wrought by them on the owner of the corn” (Mackenzie, 1914) When threshing corn it was also good practice to leave a few grains on a stone nearby to “keep the Fay Folk sweet” (Scott, 1919) This book also advises to throw an iron reaping hook among the fairies if you see them flying overhead like a swarm of bees, and a poor mortal trooping with the fairies can be rescued by throwing his coat or mantle over the prisoner.
The Last Fairies in Arran
Depending on who you believe, some say the fairies no longer dwell on Arran. An Arran smack was crossing to Ireland when it began to sink deeper and deeper into the water. The crew could find no leak but one of the men was gifted with the second sight and observed a small brown figure walking across the deck. He called to the other men and told one of them to stand on the top of his feet so look at the deck, and he was horrified to see that the deck, shrouds, and whole vessel were swarming with “brown mannikins”. The little men explained that Arran had become so holy that they were unable to make a livelihood on it, and were moving to Ireland (Mackenzie, 1914). A similar tale can be found in Scott’s East of Arran, where the stowaways are described as “little wee fay folk, red ones, and green ones and brown ones, and all”.
However, since this story was published there have been further sightings of fairies on Arran. One man saw ten fairies playing amongst gorse bushes and round about the grazing sheep. “The sheep were quite undisturbed except that if a fairy went too near one of them it would trot off for a few yards”. Another day he saw fairies whilst wandering in a wood. “I heard the silvery, plangent accents of fairies, and following the sounds saw quite a clan of them hurrying along a green footpath. They seemed angry about something. Observing me, they chattered loudly, scattered as one sees a flock of excited sparrows scattering, increased their speed and fled”. These stories appeared in John O’Groat Weekly 28 March 1936 and can also be found in Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson.
Seeing Fairies also contains an account of a fairy sighting on the cliff top at Whiting Bay. Miss Dorothy McIntyre saw a “transparent lime-green being, eight-to-ten-inches tall and wearing vague, flowing garments.” It was speeding along and vanished over the edge of the cliff. She remembers at the time she had just been laughing with sheer happiness, and it was a perfect summer day. There is a Viking burial site and dun just to the north of Whiting Bay, so perhaps this is the location of the sighting, though we can’t be sure.
Cliff tops near Whiting Bay, possibly where the fairy was sighted
In a folder of interviews kept at the Arran Heritage Museum in Brodick is found the following account given to Linda by her grandfather Bobby Taylor: "Miniature people were said to appear in the kitchen of the house on Holy Isle. A lady who lived there a few years ago confirmed that she had seen them." An accompanying note by R Taylor says it is a true story as the writer was "told about the Holy Isle "wee people" by a lady born on the Isle when I took her on the ferry long with her grand daughter to show her where she was born".
Holy Isle, home to the "wee people"
Even more recently, a lady named Moyra Doorly claims to have encountered the fairies of Arran on multiple occasions including “a procession of little figures led by a faun”. She described the faun as about 3ft tall with tiny hoofs, horns about 6 inches long, and a wrinkled face. He was strutting with pride, and seemed pleased with himself. Her partner Peter also saw the faun and described it as having horns and shaggy legs and hooves, and it appeared agitated “as if some kind of male rivalry issue had been involved”. Moyra also saw an elf boy in the house: “a small figure dressed in mottled greens and browns looked up at me with an expression of sinister mirth. If he had been a child, his height would have put him at around six years old, but he bore no resemblance to any child I have ever met. His face, which was unusually long and well defined, seemed the face of one who had lived for a thousand years.” She also saw a procession of tall slender nature spirits in striped brown green clothing with dull greyish hair by a stream, and dancing imps in bright green who offered her clothing. She entered a hall with them that appeared hewn out of rock, with a long table with preparations for a meal. The couple had perhaps had a lucky escape, and they later decided to “pull back” and stop encouraging the encounters. Full details can be found in the original article, ‘Invitation to Elfland’ in issue 179 of Fortean Times. She also comments that a local folklore expert on Arran said the fairies left when electricity came to the island, though she believes they didn’t leave, people just stopped being able to see them. It took her months of practice to see the fairies she tells, but I will finish this post with her kind advice for those who wish to see:
"The technique I practised is similar to that required to see the hidden holographic images in Magic Eye pictures. It involves detaching the vision from the object by focusing beyond it and allowing the mind to rest. On a pitch black, moonless night, the aim is not to frantically look for the path ahead but to defocus the eyes and wait for the vague shapes of things to emerge. Rest long and patiently enough and the rocks, trees and hedges will slowly reveal themselves and a slow but safe progress can be made."
Be sure to let me know if you do spot any fairies!
Faded drawing of a fairy spotted on an information board near Whiting Bay
Bibliography & Further Information
Balfour, John Alexander (1910) The Book of Arran Volume 1.
Carmicheal, Alexander (1900) Carmina Gadelica, Volume 2.
Doorly, Moyra (2004) Invitation to Elfland, Issue 179, Fortean Times.
Holder, Geoff (2008) Guide to Mysterious Arran.
Johnson, Marjorie (2014) Seeing Fairies.
Mackenzie, W.M. (1914) The Book of Arran Volume 2.
McArthur, John (1861) The Antiquities of Arran.
Napier, James (1879) Folk Lore or Superstitious beliefs in the West of Scotland within this Century.
Scott, Andrew Boyd (1919) The East of Arran.
P.S. A word on copyright. Sadly more and more often i'm finding my photos and research being shared on social media without a link back to my blog or any credit given. I'm happy for readers to cut and paste the stories and share them on Facebook etc, but all I ask is that you include a link back to my blog page. It's just polite, and always makes me smile to see my research appreciated :)