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:


Photography by Dwight Burdette: close-up of fairy door at Red Shoes, 332 South Ashley, Ann Arbor, Michigan,

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.



Illustration by Helena Nyblom for ‘The Seven Wishes’ from Among Pixies and Trolls (1913) by Alfred Smedberg,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.


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:


Piskies in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

By Judith Hewitt, Museum Manager at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic


Folklore, fairy tales, and superstition are a topic of interest to numerous museums throughout the world. Palace Green Library is hardly the first museum to touch on the topic of fairies, and we definitely won’t be the last.

Judith Hewitt shows us that the land of Cornwall and the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic are terrorised by small mischievous creatures known as piskies.

If you find yourself in Cornwall, why not take a trip to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic to learn more about piskies and other creatures.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library

The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic is located in Boscastle, Cornwall. The West Country is said to be inhabited by piskies: small creatures with pointed ears, who wear brightly coloured clothes and cause mischief. If you get lost on the moors, Cornish folk say you have been “piskey led.” The Museum has a large display on the “fae” (otherworldly beings such as faeries, piskies, tree sprites, shapeshifting hares and green men).

BLOG IMAGE - Judith Hewitt - Cornish Peskies 3

“Pixies and Piskies… small elf-like spirits…They have pointed ears, round faces and squinting eyes and dress in…a medieval type tunic, pointed cap and pointy toed shoes that curl back on their feet. 

“Various theories have been put forward to explain the origins of the pixy tribe.  It is said that they are the departed spirits of druids or other pagan people who once inhabited the West Country or are the souls of unbaptised children… they love playing tricks on humans, but if left regular offerings… they will help around the house or farm…

“Small images of pixies and piskies are still popular on key rings and fridge magnets sold to tourists in the West Country.” The Book of Faerie by Michael Howard.

BLOG IMAGE - Judith Hewitt - Cornish Peskies 2This painting of piskies (left) was probably painted in the 1960s.  We know that it dates to the early days of the Museum.

Cecil Williamson, the Museum founder once said, “People are always asking me why there are so many stories of piskies on the moors – the answer is because there are so many piskies on the moors!”.

Look carefully at the picture and you will see that one of the piskies is dressed as a churchman. He seems to be telling the others off, perhaps showing the difference between the playful piskies and the perceived dullness of the Church.

Alternatively, this picture might illustrate someone who has been “pisky led” or “kidnapped by the fairies”.

Robert Kirk, a Scottish minister, researched fairy lore. When he died, his research was published in a book called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1692).

Rumour had it that Kirk had fallen asleep on a known fairy mound and disappeared. Other stories state that he was kidnapped by the fairies for trying to reveal their secrets. One legend tells that his dead body was taken away by the fairies so he could become “Chaplain to the Fairy Queen”. Perhaps this picture is inspired by the story of the Christian Minister who found himself trapped in Fairyland!

The picture communicates many important ideas about piskies. They are small, associated with death, have a playful nature and their own morality. Why do people in Cornwall think of them like this?

“they thought… that the Piskies were the spirits of the ancient dead, our Pagan ancestors who dwell in the Otherworld reality of the Cornish landscape, alongside the living… One old story collected by William Bottrell… illustrates this view; the Piskies are described as being ‘not of our religion but star-worshippers.’

“…Another interesting Christian justification for Piskies was that they were the old Pagan Gods of Cornwall and that since the birth of Christ they had been forever diminishing in size until they became muryans (ants), and would one day vanish altogether. It was thus taboo in Cornwall to destroy a muryans’ nest, and it was believed that if a piece of tin were placed in such a nest during the time of the new moon, the old Gods, in their ant-form, still had enough power left to turn tin into silver…”Traditional Witchcraft by Gemma Gary.

BLOG IMAGE - Judith Hewitt - Cornish Peskies 1

This pisky (above created by Alan Manktelow) has a very mischievous demeanour!

“Like all things, the Piskie have their light and their dark sides.” – Gemma Gary, Traditional Witchcraft.

People who provided food and warmth to piskies could be rewarded with good fortune or even help with their chores (but only if they respected the privacy of the pisky!).

Tales tell of piskies who took vengeance on the rich when they exploited the poor. Other pisky tricks included making noises and hiding household objects.

In the past, people worried that their child might be “kidnapped by the fairies”. Beautiful children were supposed to be the most susceptible and were said to be swapped with a “faery changeling” (an ugly fairy child).

A lot of protection magic related to this fear. This pisky is displayed with a bit of protective iron next to him (just in case!).


BLOG IMAGE - Judith Hewitt - Cornish Peskies 4The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic (MWM) explores British magical practice, making comparisons with other systems of belief, from ancient times to the present day. They aim to represent the diversity and vigour of magical practice respectfully, accurately and impartially through unique, entertaining and educational exhibitions, drawing upon cutting-edge scholarship along with the insights of magical practitioners. The Museum is located by The Harbour in Boscastle, Cornwall (taken from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic 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.

‘A gudely gift ye wad gie to me!’: Creative Process in the Fairy Tradition

By Kevan Manwaring, Teacher in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth, Open University, and University of Leicester


Each story featured in the Between Worlds exhibition tells of an encounter between a human and a fairy. The outcomes of these strange, supernatural interactions are mixed; a meeting with a fairy could bring great riches, be they material or creative, but it could also begin a journey towards misfortune or even death. In this post, author Kevan Manwaring examines the double-edged sword of these encounters, and speculates on how the fairy-folk are still influencing authors and artists today.

David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library

Encounters with Fairy, in whatever form they take, can bear fruit, albeit of the strange, chancy kind. Even walking into an exhibition can be hazardous. It has long been thought those who chance upon the Fey, whether through a tangle of trees or via one of their fatesome songs or melodies, is doomed to be not long for this world. Like the wayward sister in Elizabeth Barret Browning’s ‘Goblin Market’ (the classic narrative poem of Victorian temptation and taboo-breaking sexuality) or the population of Lud-in-the-Mist (a unique 1920s novel by Russian translator Hope Mirrlees), they have tasted forbidden fruit and nothing in this world will ever satisfy their hunger. Deprived of their otherworldly opiate, they grow ‘fey’, wither and die.

Yet the delights of Fairy are many and if you do succumb, you are in good company. Both the characters and collectors of folk tales, folk lore and songs and customs are prone to catastrophic moments of weakness. Even men of the cloth are not immune.

The essential pattern is this: a wanderer chances upon a strangely-shaped hill from which beautiful music and merry lights emanate. Curiosity piqued, they enter. The unpromising passageway opens out in a dazzling cavern alive with exquisitely-dressed dancers (or sometimes sleeping knights). They get caught up in the festivities – swept off their feet by an alluring partner, or overwhelmed by the irresistible music. Time flies. Before they know it, a cock crows in the distance and all vanishes in a flash. The trespasser is left disorientated – for many hours, sometimes days, weeks, years or even centuries have passed. Often, they find themselves on a chilly hillside with only a hangover to prove something happened, and a tale no-one will believe. But sometimes they are ‘gifted’ (always a dangerously reciprocal arrangement when the euphemistically-called Good Neighbours are involved) with a cup, a song, the sight, an artistic or prophetic gift (or both).

Elements of this archetypal can be seen in the ballad of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, in the folk tales of Canonbie Dick, the Piper of Ednam’s Knowe, the Fairy Boy of Leith (all from the Scottish Borders)  and many others.  You find similar tales across Britain and Ireland (and analogues around the world). The critical caveat is: when a remarkable gift is given by the Fey there are always strings attached. The 17th Century Reverend Robert Kirk, Minister of Aberfoyle in the Trossachs, knew this all too well. It was commonly believed he was ‘taken’ by the Sluagh Sith, the ‘People of Peace’, for revealing their secrets in his monograph The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies (1691/1815). Some believe he remains in Elfland to this day.

What are we to make of these folkloric scraps? Are they the tantalising remnants of an ancient indigenous tradition? Cultural curiosities? Old wives’ tales? Well, Fairy Tale scholar Marina Warner would have a thing or two to say about this. It is probably no coincidence that many Fairy stories, dark and disturbing as they originally were, are about the struggle for female emancipation and empowerment. Retold and repurposed over the centuries, their power (and the secret of their resilience) is that they can withstand multiple readings. Like the modern folklore of the ‘alien autopsy’, when the (remarkably fairy-like) specimen is dissected, there is nothing there. Hoaxes feed our hunger for consoling fictions.  The author of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, no less, was duped by a couple of school-girls in the infamous case of the Cottingley Fairies. He robustly defended them and what they apparently heralded in The Coming of the Fairies (1922). The fact was Doyle was suffering from bereavement and he was not alone: in his case, his son; in the nation’s case, the Lost Generation. In the aftermath of the First World War the placebo of spiritualism was fervently popular. The legacy of his uncle Richard Doyle, a successful Victorian Fairy artist who ended up, like Richard Dadd (artist of ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’, 1855-64) in an asylum, did not dissuade him.

The bottom line is a brush with Fey got the pencil, pen or brush moving (even as it took its toll). Divine inspiration has been cited as the mark of a true artist since Greek and Roman times when the 9 Muses bestowed their respective gifts upon their chosen one. To court their favour, poets would invoke them at the start of their odes. In enlightened France and Spain, the troubadour wooed his ‘Lady’; in Elizabethan England, Drake, Spenser and Shakespeare, their Faerie Queene. Whoever found Her favour, her ‘laurel’ was a lucky man. And thus continued the gender-dynamic – the apparently high status but ‘passive’ woman recipient to the admiration of the ‘active’ male, perpetuated by a patriarchal establishment. Until the late 20th Century, the Laureateship had been a post occupied by males. There is only a short hop from that tradition to the one Robert Graves invents in his influential but problematic ‘Poetic Grammar of Myth’, The White Goddess (1961), in which he claims all poetic inspiration to be a continuation of a Frazerian Goddess cult.

Such comparativist (and gendered) approaches have been rightly deconstructed in recent years, but there is no denying a long (and active) tradition of poets, artists and musicians finding inspiration in the opposite (and same) sex. Visionary artist and poet William Blake (who had more than his fair share of fairy encounters) said: ‘the nakedness of woman is the work of God’.  We personify the masculine or feminine aspects of our personality – give them form, give them names, and sometimes give them agency: the Green Man… the Goddess… Gwynn ap Nudd… the Cailleach… Pagan artists and musicians, poets and writers, actively engage with these and see them as autonomous, powerful presences – not tricks of the mind.

The blind Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670 –1738) claimed to have received tunes direct from the Queen of the Fairies herself, e.g. The Fairy Queen.  WB Yeats sublimated his unreciprocated love for political firebrand Maud Gonne into poems praising Queen Maeve (whom she played on stage, completing the circle). Robert Louis Stevenson, describing the ideas behind The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde talked about ‘the little people of his theatre’ (1888: 124), whom he called Brownies. Operating within his dreams, they bequeath him ideas, details of plot, and even, upon waking, contribute to composition.

Taking the phrase penned by John Dryden, Joseph Addison developed the notion of “the Fairy way of writing” to define the concept of a kind of writing that ‘makes new Worlds of its own, shews us Persons that are not to be found in Being, and represents even the Faculties of the Soul’ (1712). The works of Shakespeare, fusing high and low culture, were the pinnacle of this, according to Pask (2013). In The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest the debt to the Fairy Tradition most directly evident, although the ‘Fairy way of writing’ permeates the Bard’s entire body of work.

A radical reading of Kirk’s 1691 monograph, ostensibly framed as a proto-anthropological and proselytizing treatise charting Highland Fairy beliefs, to, in his own words ‘suppress the impudent and Growing Atheism of this Age’, would be to see it as a taxonomy of the imagination, of the inchoate forces that influence and inspire us in often mysterious ways. To Kirk this was undoubtedly an earnest endeavour, written as a counterblast to the Empiricism and Secularism inimical to his faith. And yet the elusive providence and status of the surviving manuscripts (Rossi, 1949; Sanderson, 1976; Hunter, 2001) and the lingering folk belief that he stepped into his own story (Briggs, 1943; Stewart, 1990) give Kirk and The Secret Commonwealth the quality of a both folklore and a literary device — the ‘Found Manuscript’, the classic trope of Scottish Gothic literature (Baker, 2014).

Yet the ‘Fairy way of writing’ persisted, withstanding the Age of Reason, the Industrial Revolution and Modernism. Fiona Macleod (William Sharp), Lord Dunsany, Poe, Blackwood, Machen … The Great War should have stopped it dead in its tracks, but strangely seemed to have consolidated it, as John Garth explores in Tolkien and the Great War (2011). I see this tradition continuing – throughout the 20th Century into the present day in the works of David Lindsay, Charles Williams, JRR Tolkien, Alan Garner, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Philip Pullman and many more.

Delving into the Forest Perilous of Fairy can produce creative riches – the artist/author enters the hollow hill of their own unconscious where unimagined treasures, dormant archetypes, and whispering shadows await. You only risk your sanity and your soul. And when (or if) you emerge, decades or centuries may have passed. You have been warned.


Kevan Manwaring is an award-winning author and Creative Writing lecturer for the Open University. For further insight into Kevan’s ongoing work, visit his blog:


Further Reading:

  • Addison, J. (1712) ‘The Fairy Way of Writing’, The Spectator. 419 (1 July 1712).
  • Baker, T.C. (2014) ‘Authentic Inauthenticity: The Found Manuscript. Contemporary Scottish Gothic. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Hunter, M. (2001) The Occult Laboratory: magic, science and second sight in late seventeenth-century Scotland. London: Boydell Press.
  • Kirk, R. (2006) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. New York: New York Review of Books.
  • Pask, K. (2013) The Fairy Way of Writing. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Rossi, M. M. (1949) Text-Criticism of Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth.
  • Stevenson, R.L. (1888) ‘A Chapter on Dreams’. Scribner’s Magazine. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  • Warner, M (1995) From The Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers. London: Vintage.


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.