Five things we’ve learned about fairies through writing this blog

By Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library

 

Our first step on the trail into the world of fairies was creating the exhibition Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain. Between Worlds considered the various types of fairy folk that had existed in Northern British literature, history, and art. Our goal was to try to dispel the popular belief that fairies were pretty little creatures dancing at the bottom of the garden.

When we started this blog to run alongside the exhibition, we thought we would be prepared for all the weird and wonderful folklore and fairy facts that came our way. I’m happy to say that that was most certainly not the case…

Just as Between Worlds came to an end, so must this blog. For our final post, we thought we’d round it all up by telling you the top five fairy and folklore facts we found most interesting:

 

Folklore Fact No. 1:

Fairy_door_at_Red_Shoes_Ann_Arbor_Michigan_close-up

Photography by Dwight Burdette: close-up of fairy door at Red Shoes, 332 South Ashley, Ann Arbor, Michigan, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fairy_door_at_Red_Shoes_Ann_Arbor_Michigan_close-up.JPG

Homes are a safe haven for many of us, and landscapes are sacred to fairy folk too. The consequences of trespassing on their land is dire and often deadly, depending on which stories you believe. Whether it’s from setting up camp, walking into a fairy ring, or crashing one of their parties, many unsuspecting mortals have been whisked away or had their lives threatened.

Even in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the unsuspecting humans find themselves the play-things of the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, especially after waltzing into their woodland (see Prof. David Fuller’s piece on Shakespeare’s play).

One of the most prominent examples is Thomas the Rhymer, who played a significant role in the Between Worlds exhibition. The romance between Thomas and the fairy queen is famous, with many people regularly trekking to Eldon Hills to visit the location Thomas was gifted his prophetic powers. To read more about this extraordinary story, check out Dr Victoria Flood and Poppy Holden’s posts.

 

Folklore Fact No. 2:

As folklore and fairy tales are rooted in the supernatural, it has been easy to manipulate them for one’s own purposes. Fairies have been the foundation of numerous hoaxes, including the famous Cottingley Fairies: a story of two young girls who nearly managed to convince the world of the existence of fairies.

Myths, folklore and fairy tales have always been a key tool for learning throughout history, and have often been manipulated for this purpose. One of the more surprising posts we received was on the adaptation of fairy tales by the Nazi regime. Many of the us know that there are variations of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, whether it’s the child-friendly or Brothers Grimm versions, but very few of us recollect a Nazi officer as the hero of that story. More on these sorts of tales can be read about here.

 

Folklore Fact No. 3:

Just as in our own human societies, fairy folk – both good and bad – have their own customs and etiquette too!

If you were to find yourself facing head-on with the Faerie Host, Andy Paciorek informs us that you should shout ‘God Bless you’! He also recommends throwing your left shoe at them (but if that doesn’t work, then you’re going to have to fight them with only one shoe on…).

We believe the general rule is try not to disturb them if you don’t need to. Don’t break a fairy ring if you ever come across them and, if you do want to draw a fairy in, then try using something shiny. But if you want to keep them away, then you should keep yellow flowers outside your house or have some iron objects lying around.

Read Pollyanna Jones’ eight tips on how to socialise with a fairy here.

 

Folklore Fact No. 4:

86. groach

Groac’h or Water Witch. © Andy Paciorek

The prominence of certain fairy types differs from region to region. Here in Northern Britain, we have hob goblins, fairies who abduct children and adults alike, and even fairy folk royalty (see Rosalind Kerven’s post on the ancient fairies of Northern Britain), amongst many others.fairy folk royalty (see Rosalind Kerven’s post on the ancient fairies of Northern Britain), amongst many others. But then in Scotland, there’s the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, described by author and illustrator Andy Paciorek as good and bad fairies. In County Durham itself, there’s the Water Witch, which waits by the water’s edge, luring in small children to feast on their flesh and bones.

 

800px-I_samma_ögonblick_var_hon_förvandlad_till_en_underskön_liten_älva

Illustration by Helena Nyblom for ‘The Seven Wishes’ from Among Pixies and Trolls (1913) by Alfred Smedberg, https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pixie_(folletto)#/media/File:I_samma_ögonblick_var_hon_förvandlad_till_en_underskön_liten_älva.jpg

Our friends at the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft explained that Cornwall has a variety of fairies, but their most prominent is the piskie. The piskie runs rampant causing mischief and mayhem along its path. Like most fairies, in order to fend the piskies off, you need some iron. Otherwise, they’ll steal anything shiny and play tricks.

Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff University also had an folklore exhibition running at the same time as ours here at Palace Green Library. Lisa Tallis explained that they wanted to focus on the darker side of Welsh folklore, looking at demons and devils. She speaks of fairies such as the Bendith eu Mamau (Their Mothers’ Blessing), who are known to both bless favoured humans and steal new-borns from their beds.

 

Folklore Fact No. 5:

Folklore and fairy tales aren’t just a thing of the past or creativity to be inspired by the fairy and mythological folk. They still inspire people today, from writers to musicians to artists.

Many authors who have contributed to this blog are still inspired by the stories of fairy folk (the list of authors and their blogs can be viewed here). Adam Bushnell discusses in his post a few modern works that have used folklore and myth as the foundation of their narratives.

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The Brothers Gillespie performing at Palace Green Library Cafe ©Ross Wilkinson

The Brothers Gillespie performed for an audience here at Palace Green Library, playing many songs inspired by the folklore they’ve accumulated on their travels. They’re influenced not only by the likes of Nick Drake and other modern musicians but also the folk songs and fairy tales of old. Many singers today still perform the traditional folk ballads, such as one of our contributors Poppy Holden.

The enchanted atmosphere and landscapes the fairy tales create provide some  fantastic photo opportunities (read James Brown’s blog on his ventures into the fairy landscapes of Melrose, Aberfoyle, Middridge and Inglewood):

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

We hope you’ve all enjoyed reading this blog as much as we enjoyed putting it together! However, we couldn’t have done it without the help of all those who made some fantastic contributions:

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On Dealing with Fairies

By Pollyanna Jones, co-author of Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies (2018) and author of Legends & Folklore: London (awaiting publication)


Foreword

There are many tales about fairies, but how do we deal with them? Over the years, customs and behaviours have been developed so that your encounter with a fairy can be a positive one. Pollyanna gives us her top eight tips on how to keep on a fairy’s good side.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library


Fairies have been both loved and feared throughout the ages. With supernatural powers, they are described in folklore and fairy tales as being able to both gift and curse, or at least cause mischief to humans. Items going missing, a spate of breakages of household items, sickness in animals, and periods of bad luck were suspected to follow an instance of upsetting the fairies. As a result, various superstitions and customs developed on establishing healthy relationships with the Good Folk to avoid displeasing them.

Tip One:

It would seem that fairies dislike discord within their host’s homes. Bad language and arguments are bound to cause upset; seemingly these magical folk enjoy their peace and quiet. Offerings of milk and honey could be left to appease the fairies should they have been upset by their human companions.

Tip Two:

Circles of mushrooms known as fairy rings were described as being left behind by fairy footfalls after a night of dancing under the moon. It is considered very bad luck to break a fairy ring, causing seven years of bad luck to fall upon anyone who damages them. Some people avoid walking inside them entirely, believing them to be portals to the fairy realm.

Tip Three:

Anything shiny is supposed to attract the fairies, and you may find that these items go missing only to appear in the most unexpected places once the fairies are bored with their newly found toy. A more recent phenomena is that of placing “fairy nests” or fairy doors in the garden in the hopes that the fey will make such a place their home, helping a garden to thrive. This is a very recent idea, following on from the Victorian concept of flower fairies, and romanticism and taming of these folk.

Tip Four:

The elder tree is believed to be associated with the fairies, and bad luck or seven years in fairyland awaits anyone who would pick flowers from this plant on Midsummer’s eve.

Tip Five:

429px-Puck_and_a_Fairy_Rackham

Puck and a Fairy by Arthur Rackham, available: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Puck_and_a_Fairy_Rackham.jpg

 

Not all fairies are benevolent! Should you find yourself out walking alone at night, and hear the whickering of a horse or see a strange light up ahead, do not follow, for you may find yourself waylaid and Puck led. Survivors of such experiences often awoke in a muddy ditch, fooled by fairy lights into straying off their path and into disaster.

Tip Six:

For those fearful of fairies dwelling in their homes, yellow flowering broom plants outside the house are thought to act as a deterrent. As are any items crafted from iron.

Tip Seven:

Whilst invisible to most humans, there were ways in which one could obtain the enchanted eye. One would be to wash their eyelids with the dew collected on May Day’s eve. Another is to gaze through  a hole within a hagstone: a stone with a naturally formed hole within it.

Tip Eight:

There are ways to know when a fairy is present nearby, without the aid of a hagstone. The bobbing of a head of bog cotton, when the air is still, laughter heard without an apparent source, or a sudden swirl of leaves crossing the road marks the passing through of one of these magical beings. It is courteous to nod your head or tip your hat to acknowledge them if you are to be known as a friend to the fey. Be warned though, once you are noticed, this can never be undone!

 

Pollyanna Jones’s published work includes articles for The Celtic Guide magazine, Mythology Magazine, and internet sites, including The Spooky Isles and Radio Rivendell. Pollyanna has written a chapter on Worcestershire’s Pixies and Pixy Rocks for Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies (Gibson Square Books Ltd, 2018), and is awaiting the publication of Legends & Folklore: London (Bradwell Books). She tackles various projects – from interviews to reviews, magazine articles to non-fiction publications – focusing on the magical world of folklore.

You can follow Pollyanna on Facebook and Twitter, or you can follow her work on her website or linkedin.

Seelie or Unseelie?

By Andy Paciorek, author and illustrator of Strange Lands: A Field Guide to the Celtic Otherworld & Black Earth: A Field Guide to the Slavic Otherworld.


Foreword

The fairy doors within the Between Worlds exhibition were home to numerous types of fairies to discover: Banshees, Selkies, Hobglobins, and Brownies. However, these are not the only fairies in the North. In this post, author Andy Paciorek discusses – both through stories and his own illustrations – the darkest fairy folk of Northern Britain.

 Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library


“We should naturally attribute a less malicious disposition, and a less frightful appearance, to the fays who glide by moonlight through the oaks of Windsor, than to those who haunt the solitary heaths and lofty mountains of the north.”

Sir Walter Scott

Should we? Is it the case that, when it comes to Otherworldly denizens, it is indeed grim (or Grimm) up North?

It is a matter of course when dealing with the Hidden People that care must be taken, for all are capricious; they may appear genteel and kindly, but like a golden coin made in payment by such folk, their manner could change as dramatically as the precious metal turns to a dry and dusty dead leaf. Their very nature is in question – what are they? Some theories suggest that the faeries are fallen Angels or alternatively the spirits of the deceased. If the latter, then any necromancer will tell you that you cannot trust the dead; if the former, well they are not even trusted by God. If they are neither of these but are indeed a curious species unto themselves, then in all circumstances their ways differ to those of most humans. Strange and dangerous encounters with the (not always so) Good Folk have been recorded across the British and Celtic isles. The more I dwell upon Scott’s comment, more malevolent entities of the North creep into my mind like insidious earwigs.

To the Scots, there was a clear distinction between the natures of the not so bad and the not at all good faeries. The benign belonged to the Seelie Court – the blessed, the joyful. The others – the malevolent, the blighted, the demonic ones – were the Unseelie Court. Also known, in hushed tones, in various places by myriad other names, such as the Host, the Spirit Multitude, the Sounds of Infinity – the Unseelie Court manifested first as an ominous, brooding, black cloud sweeping across the darkened, crepuscular northern skies.

lion fairy

© Andy Paciorek

As the sinister horde approached, writhing among their number were a multitude of the vilest Fay beings imaginable, hollering and snarling hexes and curses. Also, perhaps to be spotted amongst their number, were the lost souls of the deceased who had passed over from their wicked lives.

Soaring through the air, the vicious maelstrom of the Unseelie Court would damage crops and dwellings and inflict injury upon both man and beast with a flurry of elf-shot (people who found Neolithic flint arrowheads would in the past sometimes identify these as the weaponry of fairie forces). Other unfortunate folk could find themselves snatched into the air by the grasping fingers of the Multitude. They may become roughly compelled to join the Court in their unholy practises or simply dragged along for a nightmare ride before being unceremoniously dumped many miles away from where they had been abducted. Some victims would be found alive; others less so.

Holding on

© Andy Paciorek

To avoid such an experience, should one see the Faerie Host approaching through the air, then some of the following words might protect from injury or death – to exclaim “God Bless you” at the gathering storm. To hurl your left shoe at the Unseelie Court or to wear a sprig of Rowan. These tokens might protect, but we stress the word might.

However, not all of the malevolent fays and otherworldly entities of the North Country were gregarious. Others were solitary, but no less savage.

Briefly, I will outline merely some of these strange and sinister beings.

Armed with a wooden flail tipped with poison apples, the Fachan is a one-legged, one-eyed, one-armed fiend of the hills of Western Highlands and Argyllshire. Plumed at the neck with an array of blue feathers and clothed only in rough fur scraps, oddly the Fachan has been considered by some to be a folk-memory of the Celtic seers of olden times, who, with one arm outstretched, one eye closed and standing on one leg, would in such a manner commune with the Otherworld.

Along the English-Scottish borderlands, particularly in the locality of old forts and castles and their ruins, lurk the Red or Bloody Caps. Named after their headwear, which is dyed in the blood of their victims, these fiends, armed with halberds or pikestaffs, wear cumbersome iron boots, which is curious as most fairie breeds intensely fear iron. Red Caps may sometimes serve as familiar spirits to sorcerers and warlocks versed in the blackest of magical arts.

57. red-caps

© Andy Paciorek

Numerous rivers of the North are haunted by Groac’h or Water Witches. In the county of Durham and its neighbouring county where the River Tees flows, children playing on the water’s edge may fall foul of the green haired, sharp tooted water harridan Peg Powler. Seducing the children with brightly coloured trinkets placed on the bank side, she will grab them with her strong, sharp, spindly fingers and drag them beneath the surface to drown and sometimes to provide a feast of blood, bone and flesh to the hungry Water Witch. In the River Skerne, a tributary of the Tees in the Darlington area, dwells Nanny Powler, Peg’s equally nefarious sister.

 

86. groach

© Andy Paciorek

 

Many more weird and wondrous entities and creatures can be found within the pages of Strange Lands: A Field Guide to the Celtic Otherworld and Black Earth: A Field Guide to the Slavic Otherworld, both written and illustrated by Andy Paciorek. More information can be found here and on Goodreads.

Andy Paciorek is an artist and writer drawn mainly to the worlds of myth, folklore, symbolism, the supernatural, decadence, curiosa, forteana, anomaly, dark romanticism and otherworldly experience.

His solo books, Strange Lands: A Field Guide to the Celtic Otherworld and The Human Chimaera: Sideshow Prodigies and Other Exceptional People are to be followed by Black Earth: A Field Guide to the Slavic Otherworld.

He has produced art work for numerous projects, such as Harper Collins’ Element Encyclopedia and Art for Mindfulness series, Cumbrian Cthulhu and has worked on books by several notable writers including Dr Bob Curran, John and Caitlin Matthews, Chris Lambert and Dr Karl Shuker.

He is the creator of Folk Horror Revival multimedia project and Wyrd Harvest Press, and you can find their Facebook and Twitter here.

 

 

Although Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is now closed, you can still view and contribute to our collection of favourite sayings, customs and folklore in the comments section. Visit Palace Green Library’s website for more information on our future exhibition programme: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/.

The Fairy Folk of Northumberland

By Laura Coulson, fairy and folklore blogger


Foreword

Folklore and landscape are very much intertwined. There are numerous locations that bear witness to the acts of fairies, some even being the home of fairy folk. Like many places in Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, Northumberland also has its own magical locations. If you fancy taking a trip, then why not take your pick from one of the suggestions fairy folklore enthusiast Laura Coulson has to offer.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library


Northumberland is home to a wide variety of fairy folk, from the sweet and benign to the downright deadly. We have singing and dancing fairies at the Hurl Stane and Dancing Green Hill, a wish granting fairy at Wooler Well, pottage cooking fairies of Rothley Mill, and the infamous mine goblins Cutty Soams and  Shilbottle Bluecap. We have fairy royalty at Old Fawdon Hill where Queen Mab herself is said to dwell, and a fairy graveyard at Brinkburn. I’ve visited all of these Fairy Sites and more in my Fairy Folklorist Blog, and when I heard about the Between Worlds exhibition, I was understandably a little excited!

For this blog post, I’ve written about my top 5 favourite fairy sites of Northumberland. All of these sites are easy to visit and open to the public, but do so at your peril; the fairy folk do not always take kindly to visitors…

The Duergars of Simonside

In the shadows of the Simonside Hills dwell the Duergars, a race of dark dwarves who appear mostly at night, preying on lost travellers and tricking them into bogs or luring them to their death over the edge of a rocky precipice.

One traveller on the moors found a little hut containing the embers of a fire, two rough grey stones, and two old gate-posts. He sat down on one of the grey stones and was adding some brush wood to the fire when a small human-shaped figure, no higher than his knee, came waddling in through the door and sat down on the other grey stone. The traveller remained silent so not to anger the creature, but he began to feel the cold so snapped a piece of wood over his knee and laid the pieces upon the dying embers. The strange intruder seemed angered by this and picked up one of the gate posts, likewise breaking it over his knee, and added it to the fire. The traveller, not wishing to anger his host further, permitted the fire to die away and remained silent. It was not until the dawn of the following day, when the dwarf and his house had disappeared, that the traveller realised the true extent of the danger he had been in. He found himself still sat upon the grey stone, but on the edge of a deep rugged precipice, where he could have easily fallen to his death with a single movement.

Simonside

Simonside Hills © Laura Coulson

The Fairy Music of Hen Hole

Hidden away in a deep chasm in the Cheviot Hills lives a group of Northumbrian fairies who play the sweetest music known to man. They run and dance through the valley, with all the grace that fairies do, but it is said these fairies have a sinister side too and once lured in a hunting party, who remain trapped there to this day.

“On the north-west side of Cheviot there is a deep chasm called the Hen Hole, in which there is frequently to be seen a snow egg at midsummer. There is a tradition, that a party of hunters, when chasing a roe upon cheviot, were wiled by the fairies into the Hen Hole, and could never again find their way out.”

Rambles in Northumberland, Chatto (1835).

Hen Hole

Hen Hole, Cheviot Hills © Laura Coulson

Brinkburn Fairy Graveyard

Brinkburn is said to be the burial place of the Northumberland Fairies. Little more is known about the fairies of Brinkburn and why they left this mortal realm, but I have a feeling perhaps the bells of the nearby priory were to blame!

“In the sweet precincts of the solitude of Brinkburn, the villagers point out a shady green spot as covering the graves of the tiny people, and truly a more suitable place could not have been devised as the scene of so purely poetic a belief.”

The Local Historian’s Table Book: Legendary Divison Volume 3, Richardson (1846).

Brinkburn

Brinkburn Fairy Graveyard © Laura Coulson

The Elf Hills of Cambo

In a little village called Cambo, curious signposts can be found pointing to the Elf Hills. It is said to be a popular haunt of the Northumbrian moorland Elves, who dressed in the brown and gold of the heather and bracken among which they made their home.

“The Elf-Hills near Cambo – that is, Cambo Hill, where Sir John de Cambo kept watch and ward – had, as permanent tenants, a gregarious band of “the little people” who did not in the least resent that their stronghold was often invaded and used again and again as a signal tower on which the wisp of tow mounted on a spear-point was set on fire when a raid was imminent.”

Northumberland painted by A .Heaten Cooper, described by Agnes Herbert (1923).

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Elf Hills at Cambo © Laura Coulson

The Brown Man of the Muirs

On the wild moors surrounding the village of Elsdon lives the Brown Man, guardian of the moors and protector of the wild beasts who live there. Many years ago two young men from Newcastle were hunting on the high moors above Elsdon, and when the youngest lad went to fetch water he met the Brown Man of the Muirs:

“This extraordinary personage did not appear to be above half the stature of a common man; but was uncommonly stout and broad-built, having the appearance of vast strength; his dress was entirely brown, the colour of the brackens, and his head covered with frizzled red hair; his countenance was expressive of the most savage ferocity, and his eyes glared like a bull.”

The Lady of the Lake, Walter Scott (1812).

The Brown Man spoke to the lad and threatened him for trespassing on his land, and thinking him to be the lord of the moors the lad offered him the game he had killed. The brown man was deeply offended as he considered the wild creatures of the moors to be his subjects, but he invited the young lad to accompany him home to partake of his hospitality. The young lad was just about to accept and cross the brook to follow him, when his companion arrived, wondering what had delayed him so long. When the youngest lad looked across the brook again, the Brown Man had fled. A fortunate interruption, as if he had crossed the water the Brown Man would have torn him to pieces!

Brown Man

The Moors Surrounding the Village of Elsdon © Laura Coulson

For those who would like to see a Northumbrian fairy for themselves, carrying a four leaf clover is said to grant the wearer the power of seeing fairies. It certainly worked for a young milk maid in Netherwitton who accidentally carried one in the grass pad on which she carried the milk pail on her head, and saw a host of fairies gambolling in the fields.

Further Reading

  • The Denham Tracts, Michael Denham.
  • County Folk-Lore Vol IV Northumberland, M. C. Balfour.
  • Legends and Folklore of Northumbria, Margaret Tyndale.
  • Folk Tales of the North Country, F. Grice.
  • The Local Historian’s Table Book series, M. A. Richardson.
  • Folklore of Northumbria, Fran & Geoff Doel.

For further information and photos of the above Fairy sites and many more throughout England and Scotland, please take a look at The Fairy Folklorist Blog: http://faeryfolklorist.blogspot.co.uk.

 

Although Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is now closed, you can still view and contribute to our collection of favourite sayings, customs and folklore in the comments section. Visit Palace Green Library’s website for more information on our future exhibition programme: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/.

The Real True Thomas

By Poppy Holden, professional singer and singing tutor.


Foreword

Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas the Rhymer, True Thomas: this man of many names, famous for his journey to the land of the fairies and the gifts he gained there, is a prominent figure in the Between Worlds exhibition. In this post, singer Poppy Holden explores the first written account of Thomas and how the seemingly inexplicable events of the story have a curious link to the real world geography of Melrose.

 David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library


Poppy 1

Manesse Codex, c.1300

Inter-species sex in the late thirteenth century; travel between worlds; wealthy elves partying nonstop in a castle; magical gifts; prophecies; curious geological phenomena. An interesting story!

Recently, I met some distinguished physicists who were amused that I was investigating a story with characters who move between our world and another, what? Dimension? Something like that. They thought I was being foolish and fanciful, and I might dare to say the same about their daily work searching for dark matter, invisible particles, and so on. We laughed about it, and agreed to differ. No doubt they’ll eventually find what they are looking for and explain it in scientific terms.

Perhaps the wild and magical story of Thomas of Erceldoune will also, one day, find a logical explanation.  His existence in our history can be shown: the signature of Thomas Rymor de Ercildune attests a legal document concerning the old chapel at Melrose, and Thomas’s son conveyed his property at Earlston to Soutra Hospital where powerful mind-altering drugs have recently been unearthed by Dr Brian Moffat’s team of medical archaeologists.

In the richly detailed medieval ballad Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas views from afar a beautiful, richly dressed woman hunting on the Eildon hill near his home. She has everything a well-equipped huntress could possibly want: palfrey, falcon, horn, bow and arrows, three greyhounds and seven bloodhounds. Her outfit is beautiful, her horse is covered in precious stones and silver bells, her stirrups made of crystal embellished with pearls. He assumes she has to be Mary, Queen of Heaven, but she says “I am of another country”. Thomas asks to lie with her and plights his troth to the lady: she warns him it will hurt her, but he persists, and they have sex seven times, taking all day about it: weary and bruised, she takes him on a three-day journey underneath the Eildon hill, wading through deep water to a land of exotic singing birds and fruit trees arriving at her own castle in the middle of a fabulous party. A few days later, to protect him from a fiend, the Queen hustles Thomas back to his home, where he later made good use of the power of prophecy which he exacted as a farewell gift from the Queen. He became famous as a seer, independently of his adventure: and at the end of his life he vanished once more. Some said he was led away by a white hart and hind who appeared in the main street of his town, and he was never seen again. Since his property was gifted to Soutra Hospital, possibly his disappearance from the world might be explained by a hidden illness. One day perhaps another document might be discovered to let us know what really happened.

Eildon Hills

Looking down from Eldon Mid Hill on the LIttle Hill or Lucken Hare (green, to the right). © Poppy Holden.

The landscape setting of the story is very special. The spot where Thomas entered the Eildon hill is known in local legends as the Lucken Hare, from the pre-Christian iconography of three hares, magical women’s familiar spirits, running round in an eternal circle. There is something odd about its geology:

Poppy 3

While I was browsing the National Library of Scotland’s extensive collection of historical maps, I stumbled across a geological survey of the Melrose area.

The map shows there are just two occurrences of volcanic quartz-porphyry rock in the vicinity, one at the exact spot where Thomas first sat and saw his vision of the Queen, on Huntly Banks, and the other at the Lucken Hare or Little Hill on the Eildons, where the Queen took Thomas into Elfland. Sir Walter Scott also recounts a folk tradition of Canobie Dick, who saw the sleeping knights of King Arthur in a cave under the Lucken Hare. A folk name for this quartz-porphyry basalt is Elvan!

Millions of years ago, material from far below the Earth’s surface spurted up to visit our own world.

Marvelous stories have sprouted up in their turn, which embellish and explain this geological anomaly.

 

Further reading:

  • Tom Greeves, Sue Andrew, and Chris Chapman, The Three Hares: A Curiosity Worth Regarding (2016).
  • Emily Lyle, Fairies and Folk: Approaches to the Scottish Ballad Tradition (2007).
  • Brian Moffat, SHARP Practice: Report on Researches into the Mediaeval Hospital at Soutra, Lothian/Borders Region, Scotland (1989).
  • Sir James Murray, The romance and prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune (1875).
  • Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802).
  • Sir Walter Scott, Letters of Demonology and Witchcraft (1830).

 

Poppy Holden is a singer and singing tutor with a particular interest in border ballads. Find out more about her work here. You can also follow her on Twitter.

 

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. For further information about your visit, please visit the Palace Green Library website at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=36250

Neighbourly Devils – Fairies, witches and demons

By Lisa Tallis, Assistant Librarian of the Special collections Archives, Arts and Social Studies Library, Cardiff University


Foreword

Whilst Palace Green Library’s Between Worlds exhibition looks to dispel modern misconceptions of fairy folk in Northern Britain, Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff University chose to delve right into the dark side of Welsh folklore.

Here, Lisa Tallis tells us about the special collection currently on display in the Arts and Social Studies Library at Cardiff University (on show until 31 March 2018). The exhibition studies the folklore, myths, and history surrounding spiteful fairies and demons in Wales, looking at first-hand accounts, poetry, and artwork from the fifteenth century up until modern times.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library


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To coincide with the Welsh Government’s Year of Legends, Special Collections and Archives decided to curate an exhibition based on the theme of myths and legends. As the Assistant Librarian, I was aware that our collections were incredibly rich in materials relating to these themes, especially works on folklore and Celtic myths. The fairies were an ideal subject since they touch upon so many aspects of these themes, from the supernatural to their almost human characteristics and conducts.

Appropriately, we launched the exhibition on Halloween with a fascinating talk by Professor Diane Purkiss entitled ‘Darkness Made Visible: What Are Fairies?’. A supernatural setting for our exhibition – Neighbourly Devils – was a welcome spin, for as the title suggests, one of the themes that I was especially keen to highlight was the darker side of these intriguing beings.

Known variously as Y Tylwyth Teg (The Fair Family) and Bendith eu Mamau (Their Mothers’ Blessing), so called because of their bestowing blessings on selected mortals whom they favoured, the fairies could also invoke fear as they reputedly stole new-born babies from their cradles and replaced them with their own ugly offspring known as changelings.

Goblins Dazzy Walters

‘Jennet Francis struggles with the fairies for her baby’, illustration by T. H. Thomas from Wirt Sikes, British Goblins (London, 1880).

Naming them by a harsh epithet was known to invoke their anger, and it was essential to show them kindness as they were known to punish those who failed to do so, quite severely in some instances. Fairies were considered secretive people who lived in caves, hollows, or ‘sepulchral mounds’ – a ‘Between Worlds’ existence certainly. They were believed to have supernatural powers that enabled them to hear what was spoken in the air and whisk people away on otherworldly adventures.

 

Hence we have on display an edition of Ellis Wynne’s Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsg (Visions of the Sleeping Bard). First published in 1703, this classic piece of Welsh religious prose describes how it was the ‘Tylwyth Teg’ who ‘lifted me on [to their] shoulders’ and took the bard on his otherworldly journey where he witnessed scenes of earthly vice, death, and hell.

This belief is also expressed in a small book of Welsh folktales named Ysten Sioned (Sioned’s Pitcher), based on the character of a beggar woman who would collect any charities offered, no matter what they were, in her pitcher. So too this book gathers together an eclectic mix of Welsh tales and traditions, one of which relates to Ellis Wynne and the popular belief that he was whisked away to the top of Moelfre mountain by the fairies who then took him with them through ‘the whole world’.

ysten-sioned

Extract from D. Silvan-Evans, Ysten Sioned (Wrexham, 1894), relaying the popular belief that the fairies have taken Ellis Wynne away from them.

It is interesting that Ellis Wynne initially mistook the fairies for a bunch of ‘witsiaid-melldigedig’ – accursed witches. This brought to mind the story of the ‘old woman of the mountain’ recorded by the author and Independent minister, Edmund Jones (1702-1793) in his Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in Wales (1790), which we also have on display. This apparition, believed to be the ghost of a witch named Juan White, would haunt Llanhyddel mountain in Monmouthshire, leading travellers astray.

Goblins Old Woman

‘The Old Woman of the Mountain’ by T. H. Thomas. Frontispiece from Wirt Sikes, British Goblins (London, 1880), where various versions of the tale are recorded.

Again, what’s interesting is this connection between fairies, witches, and ghosts because they do share certain characteristics. Like fairies, witches were known to punish those who had caused them offence and were also believed to be able to transport people on supernatural journeys, while fairies were thought to be spirits of the dead who would converse with witches or cunning folk. However, the one figure that does bind them all is of course the Devil!

Some people in Wales believed that fairies were the souls of Druids who, not being Christians, could not enter heaven but were too good to be cast into hell and therefore condemned to exist in limbo. For many others, however, their origins were far more ominous. Several sources portray fairies as spiritual beings of demonic origin. In 1677, the Puritan Charles Edwards describes them as neighbourly, or friendly devils (cythreuliaid cymdeithgar), a phrase that lent itself very well as an exhibition title as it captures their mischievous and demonic nature.  Edwards explained how these ‘vermin of darkness’ used to appear as a visible ‘swarm’ to drag people away to their merriments. Edmund Jones was also in ‘no doubt’ that fairies were ‘evil Spirits belonging to the Kingdom of darkness’, while an anonymous author of an early eighteenth-century tract against witchcraft and conjuration claimed they were spirits that were conjured by cunning-folk, and argued that it was forbidden to seek help from those who converse with ‘the dead’ (y meirw). The author was under no doubt that that such spirits were, in fact, devils.

Popular Antiquities

The Fairies by Peter Roberts. Illustration appears in his Cambrian popular antiquities: or, An account of some traditions, customs, and superstitions, of Wales; with observations as to their origin, &c. (London, 1815).

These demonic understandings of the fairies might surprise those of us who are more familiar with the delicate, winged depictions that became popular with the increase in fairy tale publications and the development of Victorian fairy illustration. This is yet another key theme that the exhibition explores as many of the works included featured beautiful illustrations by some of Wales’s most talented artists. Most of these follow the Victorian tradition of romanticising the appearance of fairies, such as Margaret Lindsay Williams’ paintings of the Llyn y Fan Fach Legend, or the lady of the lake.

Llyn y Fan 1 WG30(1917)

He saw a girl sitting on the lake’s smooth surface illustration by Margaret Lindsay Williams, from William Rees, Chwedl Llyn y Fan (The Legend of Llyn y Fan) (Liverpool, 1917).

However, some artists appreciated the darker side of the Tylwyth Teg and created haunting images that reflected this, one of which provided the initial inspiration for the exhibition. So, I will leave you to ponder the following from the proofs of Shirley Jones’ book Chwedlau (Legends) and her description of creating this particular print, and what happened next…

Llen y Werin, Chwedlau Proofs, Artists Books

Shirley Jones, ‘Llên Werin’: Chwedlau: page proofs (Brecon, 2005).

‘Llen Werin, or Folklore, was the final chapter in my artist book, Chwedlau, an exploration into fifteen centuries of Welsh myths, legends and folklore. I thought a fitting image would be of a candle, by which so many of these tales were told. I drew our own candle in its holder, and burnished out this image on a mezzotint copperplate. I left the finished plate overnight, in my studio, protected by a sheet of paper, having decided it needed nothing more added to it. I locked my studio door, as usual, intending to take a print from it next day. But this was when I had a shock: there was now smoke coming from the candle on my mezzotint plate! I hadn’t burnished it out, and no one else could have. And I have never known how it came to be there.’

 

Special Collections and Archives’ exhibition Neighbourly Devils/Cythreuliaid Cymdogol is open until 31 March, 2018, and is available online at neighbourlydevils.weebly.com.

Find out more at www.cardiff.ac.uk/special-collections. Follow Cardiff University’s Special Collections Archives on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: @CUSpecialColls.

 

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. For further information about your visit, please visit the Palace Green Library website at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=36250

Photographing Folklore

By James Brown, Science Communicator and photographer


Foreword

One of the main themes of the Between Worlds exhibition is the relationship between encounters with fairies and specific geographical locations. As the exhibition developed, photographer James Brown visited the sites where the selected stories were set, capturing these locations as they appear today and looking for traces of the folklore which forms their history.

David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library


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© James Brown

The fish served at breakfast had been caught just 90 minutes previously by two of the guests, obviously regular visitors to the B&B for the fishing opportunities that were available in the rivers around the Eildon hills. They were more than happy to share their catch with the table, garnished with stories and tales of their morning work in the mist. I’m not a fisherman, but even I thought that the picture they painted of the early morning river bank sounded rather idyllic.  Eventually, the topic of conversation turned to me and the purpose of my visit. Unable to resist, I explained that, like them, I was there to capture something out in the wild; I was on the hunt for fairies.

When I was asked by Dr Victoria Flood if I would be able to contribute some pictures of the locations of fairy tales for the Between Worlds exhibition, I leapt at the opportunity. I wasn’t familiar with any of the stories she forwarded me, nor the places where they occurred. The extent of my knowledge about the subject was limited to having read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, so it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in a different world.

 

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For each location I visited (Melrose, Aberfoyle, Middridge, and Inglewood), I would read the tale(s) and then spend a day or two walking the surrounding area taking photographs. In both Aberfoyle and Melrose it very quickly became apparent that these tales were still in the forefront of the local consciousness. The woodland around Aberfoyle has been decorated with carved fairy houses, warning signs about the supernatural denizens of the woods, and of course the Fairy Tree perched atop the hill with its brightly coloured but weathered ribbons containing prayers, wishes, hopes and dreams. Despite the carefully maintained paths and walkways, there is still enough superstition contained in the mound of dense woodland on the edge of town to compel people to make a pilgrimage up to this site of special supernatural interest.

Similarly, in Melrose there are plenty of signs that the old tales are still remembered. At the base of the Eildon hills there is a monument to Thomas the Rhymer, sheltered by an Eildon tree, which relates to his story. Like Aberfoyle, the landscape has been tamed and sanitised, but the stories have not been erased – they are there to be discovered, hewn into the rock (literally in the case of Melrose), perhaps as a reminder of what lurks in the shadows.  Rhymer’s glen is still marked on the OS maps and in fact is advertised at the local tourist information office. When I visit the path is closed off; industrial logging is taking place and it’s unsafe to enter. Danger has returned to the woodlands again, at least for a short time.

 

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If both Melrose and Aberfoyle proudly display their links to the fairly world in the midst of modernisation, Middridge and Inglewood have no trace of the stories that are set there. Inglewood forest itself has almost gone entirely. A small copse of trees surrounded by farm land, it is a tiny time capsule back to a pre-cultivated Britain. It feels like the modern world has slowly encroached on the woodland down to this last bubble which could pop at any moment. Yet it holds out, surrounded by barbed wire and ditches to keep people out (with the exception of intrepid fairy hunters).

 

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In Middridge, this battle between ancient and modern is much less a done deal. The village and surrounding farms feel under siege from the natural world. Bus stops are dwarfed by trees, houses are covered in ivy, fences strain to hold back the weeds from carefully manicured lawns. The allotments on the edge of the village are half-way between cultivated and untamed. The people of Middridge are in a constant war, trying to hold back the green tide from their little corner of civilisation. Totems line the road, human simulacra designed to ward off the dangers from outside the village (well – reckless drivers at least).

 

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As I say, I’m not a fisherman, but I understand the attraction of heading out of the town and into the wild. All the locations I visited, the scenes of these fairy tales, demonstrate the push and pull between humans and their relationship with the wild borders around their homes. These twilight areas where town and country meet are fertile ground for stories and tales, inspired by the landmarks that dominate the local geography and have a strange attraction to those of us who want a little less civilisation every now and then.

 

James Brown is a Science Communicator with a particular interest in developments around genetic technologies. You can follow him @jcwbrown27 on Twitter and see more pictures on Instagram @jcwbrown.

 

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. For further information about your visit, please visit the Palace Green Library website at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=36250.

If this blog has inspired you to find out more about fairies and folklore, then why not come along to the final public lecture running alongside the Between Worlds exhibition. Find out more about this exciting free talk here: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=37740.