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:

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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:

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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.

 

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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):

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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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An Interview with the Brothers Gillespie

Foreword

The Brothers Gillespie showcased their musical and vocal talents during a performance at Palace Green Library in November 2017, captivating the audience with songs and stories which brought characters from the Between Worlds exhibition to life. 

This interview with The Brothers Gillespie goes deep into their roots. It allows us to get to know their story and how they created their set-list for the Between Worlds exhibition.

Katie Braithwaite, Project Officer at Palace Green Library


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We are James and Sam Gillespie, brothers raised in Northumberland, specifically Wall in the North Tyne Valley, Hexham and the surrounding area. We are musicians inspired very much by the beautiful wild and troubled lands and histories of these isles we call home. We are drawn to music partly because of its power to create shared spaces of reverence within our cultural milieu, which seems of particular importance given the widespread tendency we are seeing to aggressively rationalise away the sacred or to adopt a posture of all pervasive sarcasm. It’s our belief that it is through our capacity for reverence and listening that we have a chance of hearing and receiving what is really going on between us beneath the chatter and noise. Like the Fairy Realms, for instance, that our ancestors lived their lives in connection with and which the Palace Green exhibition reverently reminds us of.

How did you first become interested in folk music?

We first became interested in folk music as teenagers through discovering the artists of the 60’s folk revival: Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Sandy Denny, The Incredible String Band, Richard Thompson, Anne Briggs, Nick Drake and many others. They carried such a spirit of wildness, freedom and rebel soul that we had up to that point been finding mostly in Rock and Grunge music. Up until then, because of our ignorance of the depth of the tradition I think, folk maybe seemed a bit tame and anachronistic, like Morris men waving Union Jacks and so on. Having said that, our early contact as children with our parents’ tapes of Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, African and other traditional music made a deep and lasting impression on us and blew our minds.

You had a great performance last year at Palace Green. How did you come across the Folklore you incorporated into your set?

Many of the songs have come to us bit by bit over the last few years. For sure Alan Lomax’s early field recordings from Scotland have provided a really inspiring well of songs and a glimpse into living folklore of the past. One or two of the stories came to us from the Newcastle based Storytelling collective A Bit Crack and the Dreaming the Land Pilgrimage from Lindisfarne to Rothbury, during which James played musical accompaniment to the Hen Hole story. Storyteller Lizzie McDougall of Ross-shire gave some deep insights into the Thomas the Rhymer story. Listening to other musicians playing between the Tyne and the Firth of Forth has been gradual learning through osmosis. So too walking the land and its rolling contours, such as the night we slept on the Eildon hill, a place long associated with Thomas the Rhymer whilst walking St Cuthbert’s way. It’s impossible to definitively say how we came across the folklore such as we have come across, the roots and connections get more and more subtle unfolding outwards into the living landscape. This brings us back to the requirement for deep listening to tune in to the messages of the wind and rivers such as there may be.

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

There are so many stories and folklore, but how did you choose the ones you wanted to perform?

Given that the Between Worlds exhibition is devoted to the otherworld, for the Palace Green set we decided to choose several songs about fairies. Many such songs are within the Gaelic tradition and language. Part of our motivation to study the Gaelic language is to be able to fall more fully into this tradition of wonderful songs. We chose otherworldly and fairy songs in English and Scots too, rooted in places in the North of Britain particularly the big stretch of borderland between England and Scotland. We also included some songs we had composed ourselves which we felt had some of this otherworldly spirit within them.

Are any of the stories you performed your favourite or are there any tales you had in mind?

Many of the songs we sang are our favourites! We had so many ideas for songs, stories and poems to learn for this performance that we were limited by time in what we could accomplish. We have decided to treat our involvement with this wonderful exhibition and our performance at the Palace Green library as the beginning of a project and as an invitation for us to deepen relationship with the otherworldly side of the tradition which is so close to our hearts.

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The Brothers Gillespie’s next gig date will be 7.00pm on Friday 4th May at the art gallery Gallery 45 in Felton, Northumberland: http://feltongallery45.co.uk/about/.

More about the Brothers Gillespie can be found on their website: http://thebrothersgillespie.co.uk/. Their music can be heard on SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/the-brothers-gillespie.

 

Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales 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.

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