The Ancient Faeries of Northern Britain

By Rosalind Kerven, folklorist and author of over 60 books, including Faeries, Elves & Goblins: the Old Stories (The National Trust/Pavilion, 2013)


Not only has our perception of fairies altered over time, but the types of fairies we might encounter change geographically too. From little old grumpy men helping in northern households to piskies wreaking havoc in Cornwall (read next week to find out more about these little mischievous creatures), fairies differ from region to region.

Based on her thorough research, Rosalind looks at the varying nature of fairies and encounters with them in Northern Britain. She explores the many tales that have been told over time.

 Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library

What does the word ‘fairy’ make you think of?  Twee, Disney-style little girls with wings and cute faces?  Well, if you’d lived in Scotland or northern England in the 19th Century or earlier, you might well have taken a different view; for serious belief in these otherworldly creatures was once firmly engrained in popular consciousness. And it wasn’t just children who believed in them, but mature men and women too.

A few years ago, I did some in-depth research into old faery beliefs for my book Faeries, Elves & Goblins: the Old Stories. The ancient lore I unearthed was very different from that portrayed in modern children’s books.  This is how I summed up my discoveries in the book’s introduction:

They are older than history and bitter-sweet as memories. They dwell under the ground, inside the hill, through the passage, beneath the water and beyond the mist.

 They are both male and female, young and old, immortal. They may grow tall as kings or stay small as sucklings. They are of the earth yet unearthly.  Some are beautiful, angelic and light as gossamer; others are wizened, moth-eaten, prickly old men.  They dress in caps and feathers, breeches and gowns: green, red, white or the colours of dust. They spin and weave, bake bread, work metal.  Their music is like honey spiked with sorrow.

 They are passionate, vengeful and cunning, yet neither good nor evil.  They are secretive and sly, creators of illusion, shapeshifters. They fly with magic cap or powerful words, astride twigs and stems, or dizzily on gusts of wind.  They can fade, turn invisible and vanish.

Many country people claimed to have seen real, live faeries in the wild. Here’s a good example, simplified from an account originally recorded in dialect from an anonymous elderly Scottish woman in the 19th Century:

…we heard the loud laugh of folk riding, with the jingling of bridles, and the clanking of hoofs…We looked round and round and soon saw it was the Faerie Folks Rade.  We cowered down till they passed by. A beam of light was dancing over them, more bonnie than moonshine: they were all wee, wee folk with green scarfs on, but one that rode foremost, and that one was a good deal larger than the rest with bonnie long hair, bound about with a strap which glinted like stars.  They rode on fine wee white horses with strange, long swooping tails and manes hung with whistles that the wind played on.

Highly educated people believed in faeries too, like the Galloway doctor who, travelling a lonely road late one night, met a host of Faeries trooping towards him. When he nervously stood aside for them, one cried: ‘Open up and let the honest doctor through!’ – and the procession parted in the middle, the Faeries bowing as he passed.  On the English side of the border, a Northumberland farmer out at midnight was lured by music to a hillside door through which he saw faeries enjoying a banquet. In County Durham, a woman came face to face with a faery sitting on a stone near her house, and brought her inside for a good meal.  A Yorkshireman saw scores of Faeries dancing in the moonlight and snatched one into his pocket to show his children; but it had flown by the time he reached home.

In northern England, faeries were often supernatural little old men who attached themselves to a family as household drudges. A well-known example was Hob Thrush in Northumberland, who took offence and vanished as soon as the family tried to thank him with a gift. Child abductions by faeries were greatly feared, as in a story from Weardale, Co. Durham in which a little girl was lured by music into a faery cave; then rescued with the help of an old wise woman and three mysterious magic objects. Scottish stories often involved faery royalty, such as Tam Lin – sung of in numerous old ballads – in which a feisty young woman braved unspeakable horrors to rescue a handsome stranger from an evil faery queen; and Thomas the Rhymer who voluntarily became enslaved to another faery queen, and returned to this world with eerie gifts of prophesy which he could only express in verse.

In her monumental work, A Dictionary of British Folk Tales (1970), Katherine Briggs recorded no less than 235 different stories about faeries from the British Isles. If this brief summary has whetted your appetite, read on!


Rosalind Kerven lives in the Northumberland National Park. She has been collecting and retelling myths, legends and folk tales from all over the world for over 30 years, and is the author of 60+ books published in 22 countries, including many bestsellers.  Her book Faeries, Elves & Goblins: the Old Stories was published by The National Trust / Pavilion in 2013. To find out more about her work, visit her website,


Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. Please visit the Palace Green Library website for further information about your visit.


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