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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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


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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

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.