Chapter 8: Fairy Folk

A lot of this is also in Beacons, Folklore.doc Can delete everything not relevant to archaic Gaelic.

There are fairies, and brownies, and shades Amazonian,
Of harper, and sharper, and old Cameronian,
Some small as pigmies, some tall as a steeple:
The spirits are all gone as mad as the people.
James Hogg.

It has been shown that irrational or supernatural elements in the oral lore of the Gaels can be explained as confused memories of deer-hunting or attempts to explain obsolete fragments of archaic hunting lore, inspired by puns with modern Gaelic. This is particularly true of fairy lore. Last Dragon.

Several Lowland fairy tales such as ‘Habitrot’ (below) were written around Gaelic elements which must by the calendar of language change in Scotland be of some age. A common origin for Highland and Lowland fairies and other elements is supported by Grant’s observation that ‘the fairy lore of the Lowlands and of the Highlands is very similar, although there is a wide gulf between that of Scotland and England’.1

To restrict ourselves for the moment to fairies, we can note the link between E. fairy and G. faire ‘to keep watch’. There is nothing supernatural about the original fairies. The fairy knolls of Scotland were a combination of outlook point and signal station which appear to have formed a network operated by those who controlled prehistoric Scotland. They were typically prominent hills of moderate height with extensive views and can still be identified in most localities in Scotland, Highland and Lowland. Examples of such hills, still associated with fairies, are numerous: The Doon or Fairy Hill at Aberfoyle, Tomnahurich at Inverness, Tombuidhe Ghearrloch ‘hill of the hunting troop of the Gairloch’ which was inhabited by a dwarf. D. McRitchie 1890, 112. In Strathtay the fairies danced on moonlit nights at Tom Challtuinn. J. Kennedy, Folklore of Strathtay and Grandtully, c,1927, 46-7. They also migrated three times a year from Cnoc Forbaidh (‘knoll of the ambush’) to Creag Scraidhlain. The Fairy knowe of Logie ‘still stands as an adornment to the Golf Course of Bridge of Allan’. It was visited at New Year (an important date for hunters) and has a view which embraces the Vale of Menteith, Stirling Castle, the Forth and the distant Grampians. R.M. Ferguson, The Ochil Fairy Tales, 1912, vii, 58-9. ‘Two very good examples may be seen at Dalry, on the Ken, in Galloway, and at Parton, on Loch Ken. The grassy howes are large and symmetrical, though it is possible they are medieval rather than prehistoric. Round the tumulus at Dalry, according to the local form of the Marchen of Hesione, a great dragon used to coil in triple folds, before it was killed by the blacksmith.' A. Lang, introduction to R. Kirk The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, 1933, 37 (reprinted from the 1893 edition). The worm that twined round the Mote of Dalry, in Galloway, was for once a male. He was eventually killed by the local blacksmith. The Mote is next to the parish church and this story suggests that it was the local beacon site.

The Gaels had many names for fairies: sìthichean, daoine-sìthe and sìth-bhruthaich ‘people of the fairy hills’, daoine bega ‘little folk’, daoine matha ‘good folk, sluagh math ‘the good troop’, and tuilleach ‘fire people’ (G. tul ‘fire, hearth’). These names are all regarded as equivalent and if they hide old distinctions it is not so far possible to suggest what they might be. G. sìthionn ‘venison’ provides a link between fairies, fairy hills and hunting and suggests, as does much else, that G. sìth is not the fairy hill or mound, as usually claimed, but the hunting hill or deer forest and that the correct Gaelic name for the fairy knolls is tom.

The fairies described in Gaelic oral tradition were very assorted, which points to their being a recent and localised development. MacDougall divides them into social fairies and solitary fairies. According to the popular view, the social variety lived in green knolls like Tomnahurich, near Inverness, from which came a light like the light of day and the sound of the sweetest music that ever was. If the door was open, mortals could see ‘fairy men and women in a circle in the middle of the floor, wheeling and dancing with mad energy’. J. MacDougall 1910, 132-3. A mortal had to take elaborate precautions against being trapped inside, where a year under enchantment passed like an hour. But when the glamour was broken, ‘The grand place was turned into a pit of red gravel, and the tall, handsome people that were in it into old creatures, small and ill-favoured.’ J. MacDougll, 1910, 277.

In Speyside the same features appear in a different light.

It is well known that the fairies are a sociable people, passionately given to festive amusements and jocund hilarity. Hence, it seldom happens that they cohabit in pairs, like most other species, but rove around in bands, each band having a stated habitation or residence, to which they resort as occasion suggests. Their habitations are generally found in rough irregular precipices and broken caverns, … and so solid in their structure, as frequently to resemble ‘masses of rocks or earthen hillocks’. Their doors, windows, smoke-vents, and other conveniences, are so artfully constructed, as to be invisible to the naked eye in day-light, though in dark nights splendid lights are frequently reflected through their invisible casements. Within these Tomhans or, as others term them, Shian, sociality and mirth are ever the inmates; and they are so much addicted to dancing, that it forms their chief and favourite amusement.

There is nothing supernatural about these fairies. The fairy hill is a camouflaged stone bothy in a designated upland area. They light bright fires at night (hunting beacons or watch fires) and, like fairy folk elsewhere, are addicted to dancing. Dancing was hunting magic, miming the capture of the deer by the circle of dancers, but the term also seems to have meant ‘to drive deer’, a point explored below. That they enjoyed their lives, spartan as they were, is suggested even in this account, from which the glamour is entirely missing.

More commonly accounts of fairies are a tissue of inventive puns. The daoine-sìthe were adults, described as slender (caol ‘narrow, as a deer trap’) and with red or gold hair (like a fire) W.G. Stewart 1822, 90-1. but also as big, grey-haired, old men, seann duine mór, liath, sitting round a fire. J. MacDougall 1910, 151-2, 282-3. This is perhaps a memory of a council of elders, sitting in their hunting hut, but seann duine mór, liath is also liable to mean ‘light of the great deer gathering’, for G. liath is a pun for ‘fire’. This description can be compared with a tale from the north-east in which a grey horse, a fairy animal, changes into an old man with long grey hair and a long grey beard. W. Gregor 1881, 67. This probably refers to a beacon.

The solitary fairies were infinitely varied and the types tend to be mutually exclusive and in some cases may be quite recent inventions. Almost every word of the original Gaelic reveals a possible hunting pun. A few of these are identified here. One of the most common fairy apparitions was a screaming, withered male child, J. MacDougall 1910, 100-1, 116-7. who looked like a little old man, sometimes with long teeth, J. MacDougall 1910, 116-7. and who failed to thrive, no matter how much he was fed. Being tricked in some way, he was revealed as a fairy changeling, and flew away screaming abuse when thrown in water or in the fire. J. MacDougall 1910, 116-7, 144-5. G. sean ‘old’ is also sean ‘to gather’; seargta ‘withered’ is also ‘blasted with heat, scorched’, from céir ‘wax’ (cf also suire ‘syren, fairy’); fiacail ‘tooth’ may be fachail ‘strife, dispute (hunt), or faicill ‘caution, guard, watchfulness’, or fiadh-cùil ‘deer-trap’, or all three; aodann ‘face’ is aodhan ‘fire’, since the brow of a hill was the usual place for a signal beacon. G. còineachan as ‘child stolen by the fairies’ is recent and imaginary. This comes from coinneachadh ‘meeting, assembly (hunt)’. The còineachan or ‘child stolen by the hunters’ is a poetic way of referring to a young stag, for the changelings are always male and deer were the children of the Cailleach. The description of the fairy changelings matches the clinical picture of children born with foetal alcohol syndrome. Can they perhaps be related to an over-indulgence in whisky, common in many parts of the Highlands in the eighteenth century?

A mournful or sorrowful female fairy is also reported: this rests on a pun between brònach ‘mournful’ and bronnach ‘bestowing, generous’, an epithet of the Cailleach, and on another pun, this time bilingual, between G. soraidh ‘blessings, happiness’ and E. sorrow. Mourning is also a feature of the Little Washer, the Bean nighe, who was ‘a female wraith of very small stature believed to be seen or heard at a loch or burn washing clothes when some person in the neighbourhood was about to die.’ Angus Mor once peeked over the parapet of the bridge of the Easan Dubh and saw the Fairy Queen cleaning and rubbing clothes on a stone in the water and singing to herself. J. MacDougall 1910, 139. The clothes, the washing, the bridge, the name of the river and no doubt much more are all hunting puns. G. caol-shùil ‘peek’ can also mean ‘narrow place (deer trap) of the beacon’; barran ‘parapet’ is a pun on bar ‘hero (hunter)’; drochaid ‘bridge’ is also a hurdle used by hunters to transport venison; glanadh ‘cleaning’ is also ‘blazing, bright’; fùcadh ‘rubbing’ remains to be decoded; aodaich ‘clothes’ is a pun on aodh ‘fire’; easan ‘waterfall’ is a pun on essan ‘death’, and dubh ‘black’ is also dubh ‘deer’. Inventive beliefs about omens predicting deaths or ability to foresee the future derive from the lighting of a hunt beacon which predicted a forthcoming hunt and the death of deer.

A further type of solitary fairy is the fairy sweetheart, the leannan sìthe. The first MacIntyre of Glenoe had a fairy sweetheart who haunted the glens and corries of Ben Cruachan and whom he consulted when he had any problems, as when his wife was in child-bed. J. MacDougall 1910, 198-201; 238-9. One of the Whytes of Cowal had a fairy sweetheart in the form of a white hind, the Agh Bàn. When shot in 1644, this magical animal ‘rose like a cloud of smoke up the shoulder of the neighbouring mountain,’ G. Henderson 1911, 124-5. so there was evidently a further dimension to the concept. James VI, in 1622, learned of a white hind in the Black Mount, near Rannoch, and was anxious to acquire her for his private zoo but he was disappointed. W. Gillies 1938, 140. That a white deer represented the deer goddess is shown by a much earlier legend attached to the Sinclairs of Roslin, Midlothian. It is said that Robert the Bruce gave Sir William St Clair the choice between killing the white hind in his Pentland deer forest or being executed himself. Sir William succeeded in killing the hind in the March Burn, at the very edge of his property, but only after calling on St Catherine for help. He was rewarded with feudal rights to the Pentlands, where he built a chapel dedicated to St Catherine. In other words, the Sinclairs were forced to renounce the old hunting religion, on pain of death, and adopt a more acceptable if equally synthetic Christian saint, for Catherine represents G. catheran ‘hunter’.

The hunt beacons of the Hebrides.
This is the song that the Fairy Queen sang beside the bridge of Easan Dubh.

‘S aithne dhomh ‘Bheinn Mhór an Muile,
‘S aithne dhomh mullach Sguir Eige,
‘S aithne dhomb ‘n cat a bha ‘n Ulbha
Agus ‘earbhall ris an teine.

I know Ben More in Mull
I know the top of Sguir Eigg
I know the cat that was in Ulva
With its tail turned to the fire

The map shows that Ben More and Sguir Eigg are both visible from Coll in the Inner Hebrides, and probably from nowhere else. The look-out on Coll was either Ben Hogh (G. aodh ‘fire’) (NM1858) which has a cairn on its summit to hold a beacon pole, or the height beside Loch nan Cinneachan (NM1856) ‘the loch of the gathering’, which has a crannog, standing stones and more cairns. The ‘cat’ in Ulva was the hunt (G. cath) with its tail of followers turned to watch for the lighting of a beacon announcing the next hunt. Sguir Eigg, the highest point on the island of Eigg, is only 394 m in height but its beacon was visible over an immense distance. Leyden in 1800 described the view from the top. Leyden’s Journal of a Tour in the Highland and Western islands of Scotland in 1800, p. 158.

Immediately under us lay the green flat isle of Muck, while at a considerable distance we observed the low isles of Coll and Tiree, with the black hills of Mull rising beyond the point of Ardnamurchan. On the west we seemed to touch the rough ridges and bare spires of Rum and the broken irregular tops of the mountains of Sky, while at a vast distance, almost on the horizon, we perceived the isles of Barra and Uist, beyond which the sun was setting, divided by a thin white cloud. The shores of Moideart, Arisaig, Morar and Knoydart were full in our view, indented with estuaries and bays, on which the last beams of the sun rested, while their gray and lofty mountains presented a wild and singular horizon, that I several times mistook for hovering clouds of snow.

In such a landscape a single well-placed beacon could be seen over an immense area. Sguir Eigg would link a vast stretch of the western mainland with the Inner Hebrides and the Outer Isles. Several sources suggest an annual round of communal hunts in the Hebrides, announced by local beacons. This well-tested routine served for other purposes. Dun-mac-snitheachan is a vitrified fort at Ledaig, in Lorne (NM 9038). This account suggests that it was badly situated, being out of sight of the long-distance beacon. D. McInnes (ed), Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition, Argyllshire Series II, 1890, 386. He says that the name of the fort is Dùn-Mac-Uisneachain ‘the fort of the sons of Uisneach’ who settled there with Deirdre (p.491). This is a mythical reinterpretation but may point to recent Irish settlement which was not part of the old native network.

The people of Ardnamurchan noticed the Lochlanners coming, and put a fire on a height opposite Morvern. The people of Morvern put a fire in sight of Lismore; and Conal went with a boat and crew from Lismore to tell the news in Dun-mac-snitheachan. The Lochlanners arrived at Dun-mac-snitheachan on the second day after this.

From Cluny Rock, above the Aodin of Cluny (aodhan ‘fire’) in Strathtay, Perthshire, seventy or seventy-five Halloween bonfires could be seen along the strath below. In other words, it was a beacon centre controlling seventy or more townships in Strathtay. Externally it provides a view of many other beacon hills: Farragon in Strathtay, Schiehallion in Rannoch, the Ben-y-Gloes and Ben-y-Vrackie in Atholl, the hills of Amulree and Glenquaich, Drummond Hill on Loch Tay, Ben Lawers in Breadalbane, and as far as Benmore in Glendochart. The major external beacon for that area was Farragon or Feargain – home to a giant – from which nine glens and sixty-two mountains over 914 m (3000 ft) are visible. from the Ochils and Lomonds in Fife to Lochnagar, Cairngorm and Ben Mac Dhui in the Grampians, Ben Nevis and the mountains of Glencoe. From Ben Lawers, a long-distance link in Breadalbane one can see as far as Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh (57 miles), Goat Fell in Arran (74 miles ) and Tinto in Lanark (85 miles), all in turn well-known as the sites of regional beacons. That on Tinto (G. teine ‘fire’) was lit at Beltane and at Samhainn.

General elements of Highland fairy lore.
The key phrases, personal names and puns on which folk tales are built almost invariably produce puns in Gaelic referring to hunting lore. There is no certainty that these are correct but they are invariably more sensible that what is now offered and the cumulative effect is persuasive. The attributes of fairies are very mixed in their origins and have been combined by story-tellers in many inventive ways. Certain of them, such as meeting on certain days, moving rapidly from place to place, and dancing and feasting describe more or less literally the regular activities of hunters. Other features, such as their fear of iron, arise from a reworking of old hunting lore influenced by puns in Gaelic and in English. Here we consider dancing, doors and doorposts, the fairy knoll or mound, flying, iron, lights, milk, music, the Northern Lights, physical characteristics, and working at night.

Dancing. The various dances performed by horned or masked men or which encircle an individual who imitates a stag by leaping actively and raising his arms represent the movement by which hunters encircled and killed the deer. Fairies danced in a circle, so did witches but fairies also danced on the hills, which suggests that to dance is a synonym for ‘to hunt’. Dancing and hunting have been linked since the Upper Palaeolithic and the etymology of G. dannsa, found also in English, French, German, Spanish and the Scandinavian languages, is very obscure. It runs with G. tàn ‘country, land, earth’, teann ‘closely packed, rigid, firm’, teannaichchadh ‘crush, clasp, confine’, and teannachan ‘pincers, vice’, but stands alone. There is a general sense of ‘gathering together’ and ‘enclosing’. [Dancing related to tam-tam, drum.

Doors and doorposts. There is a pun between G. ursainn ‘door-post’ and ursainn ‘muster of hunters’ and another between E. door and AG. doire ‘deer forest’. The door of the fairy mound opened only on certain days such as Halloween, which can be interpreted to mean that access to the deer forest (the fairy mound or monadh) was limited to specific dates. See also iron.

The Fairy Knoll or Mound. Fairy knolls or toms were outlook points and signal stations, many of them natural features. G. tulloch ‘knoll’ is from G. tul ‘fire’. A fairy ‘mound’ represents G. monadh ‘upland, deer forest’ and the two have been confused in Lowland tradition. The green, grassy fairy mound is G. monadh ‘mount, upland (deer forest)’. This is also the proper sense of G. sìth. Both have been confused with the fairy knoll or outlook point which appears to be properly a tulloch or tom. The hollow hill may refer to the disguised stone bothies used by hunters.

Flying. A beacon signal flies through the air. So do fairy arrows which were red-hot and passed through the air with a humming sound. Extant examples are prehistoric flints. When fairies ‘fly’ or depart like a whirlwind, this only means that they go very fast. This is discussed in more details in the context of witches (page ref).

Iron. The door of a fairy mound could be kept open by planting an iron weapon such as a dirk in the door-post. This is not a memory of Iron Age immigrants suppressing tiny Stone Age aborigines but a pun. The most plausible are earrann ‘province (tribal deer forest)’, and oirean ‘borders, edges, limits (hunting grounds)’. Both can be linked to G. ire ‘ravage, plunder (hunt)’ and ireann ‘mother of a race’ (the Cailleach or tribal beacon). To keep the door of a fairy mound by means of iron appears to be an extension of the idea of entering the deer forest (see doors). In some accounts this was only possible at Halloween, when the fairies mustered for the new season. The spirits of those who hid iron during their lifetimes could not rest till they had told their secret J.G. Campbell 1901, 173. – everyone had an obligation to pass on oral learning. When shaking hands with a ghost it was prudent to offer him an iron ploughshare or to hold a ball of iron in your hand. J.G. Campbell 1901, 175. E. ball is a pun on G. beoll ‘fire’. A ball of iron is a pun for the fire of the tribal lands.

Lights. The bright lights associated with fairies were watch-fires or signal beacons. Hunters must also have used torches at night when travelling. Well into the twentieth century in the Western Highlands, any light seen on the hills at night was believed to belong to a fairy and was left well alone, to the distress of at least one traveller. Is this a memory of hunters equipped with torches moving into position before the deer-drive began at dawn? No doubt one got into serious trouble for interfering in hunts.

Milk. Fairies not only stole milk but abducted nursing mothers. One woman escaped by offering in exchange the best mare under milk that her husband had, W. Gregor 1881, 62. which suggests that people not so very long ago milked the mares of the wild forest ponies. In addition to the fact that hunters liked milk and probably depended on it when deer were out of season, many fairy stories contain a pun between G. cìochd ‘breast’ and AG. gochd ‘deer’ (see glossary). G. bainne ‘milk, white stuff’ is also a pun on ‘light’.

Music. Fairies were great pipers which suggests that the Highland bagpipe was used in hunting to co-ordinate the march, announce the attack, and pass information.

Northern lights. The northern lights, or aurora borealis, G. fir-chlis ‘the nimble men’, Scots ‘the merry dancers’, are regarded as fairies, probably because they are lights seen at night. D.A. MacKenzie 1930, 120. Red crotal melted by overnight frost was fairy blood. Cú Chulainn had a weapon called deil chliss, for G. cleas ‘warlike exercise (hunting)’. It can be understood as a beacon shooting out rays but may also have been the aurora borealis.

Physical characteristics. Red hair or golden hair are typical of personified beacons and also found, for example, in Arthurian romance, where the pages or messengers are invariably so described. Grey fairies (liath) are probably to be seen as beacons, or as smoke signals. Slender fairies (caol) are ‘of the deer trap’, a narrow place.

Working at night. There is a repeated and varied emphasis on fairies being active at night. This is due to the fact that hunters got into position during the night to begin their hunt at dawn. Those responsible for creating a prehistoric beacon system also worked at night, since they had to test it by lighting a fire at night and confirming results with distant observers the following day. Hence the many tales of churches, chapels and early castles, including Columba’s church on Iona, which were built up by day, often by fairies or similar supernatural agencies, and cast down again by night, generally by the devil. Fairies went into mills at night (to grind stolen corn, it was said, but in AG terms a mill is a gathering or round-up or hunt, the same word as G. mill ‘lay waste, destroy’, milidh ‘soldier, champion, hero’ and E. military.

A few old stories. Delete one or two?

Fairy Tales from Argyll.
One Halloween Donald the Post met a dozen fairies on the road to Corrie Chaorachain (G. caoir ‘fierce blaze of fire’), in Lochaber. They thought of taking him with them but let him go because he was ‘the poor post of our own farm’. When Donald looked up at the hill, ‘what did he behold on the green plain on the summit but a large troop of fairies wheeling and dancing like the merry-dancers.’ He never again saw the fairies but on certain nights of the year he heard the murmur of their voices in the same place. J. MacDougall 1910, 126-7.The fairies in question reached the top of the hill am priobadh na sùla, usually translated as ‘in the twinkling of an eye’, but the Gaelic means ‘in the flash of a beacon’ (cf. G. priob-losgadh ‘sparkle, blaze’). G. sùil ‘eye’ is a common metaphor for a beacon; G. sol ‘the sun’ is also a large fiery object.

The Portair Cam or One-Eyed Ferryman was a beacon, like all one-eyed characters, and even appears in Arthurian legend, Somewhere in M. Alexander. though he is also said to have living descendants. [ref] He once followed a polled dun cow, bó maol odhar, into Sìthean na Doire-MhicBhranndaidh, the Fairy Knoll in Nether Lochaber, keeping the door open by sticking his dirk into one of the jambs. The inside of the Sìthean was full of brilliant light and he could see a large fire in the middle of the floor, with an iron caldron hanging over it and a circle of big old grey-haired men resting on their elbows around it. J. MacDougall 1910, 280-3. Doire is a hunting forest and Branndaidh is a BRN ‘fire’ name; G. brann ‘firebrand, live coal’.

A Loch Awe man once got into trouble with certain fairies for sitting on Craig Tulloch (G. tul ‘fire, hearth’), a fairy knoll at Balliemore, where he had stopped for a while to admire the view. J. MacDougall 1910, 190-1. Beacon sites invariably had splendid views and were out of bounds to ordinary mortals.

Communal hunts in Morvern.
Na Sithichean ag Connsachadh is said to mean ‘the Fairy Wrangling’ but is more accurately ‘Hunters at the Communal Hunt’. The story tells that troops of fairies from every corner of the neighbouring district were in the habit of holding a great gathering in Morvern. Once a troop (buidhe) came from Mull and met near the river of Acharn. There was a dispute as to which troop should possess a man called Iain Og (‘fire of the hunt’). Eventually he was allowed to pass and they all went to Acharn to dance. J. MacDougall 1910, 123, 192-5. This story, which is hardly a story, hangs on the meaning of connsachadh, now ‘dispute, quarrel’ but originally ‘joint hunting’.

The merit of this story is that it allows us to link several archaeological features in Morvern with hunters. Carn Liath (NM6455), a chambered cairn, once marked a beacon site on Loch Teacuis. Doire-Buidhe is ‘the hunting forest of the troop’ (NM7150). Sidhean Achadh nan Gamhna is ‘the knoll of the field of the stags’ (NM6848). Donald Gregory, who visited the area in 1831, noted a field at Kinlochaline called Auchindruineach Donald Gregory, Archaeologica Scotica 4, 1857, quoted in J.N. Graham Ritchie 1988 (op cit). Donald Gregory died, much regretted, in 1834. ‘field of the boring or piercing’ (or ‘of the druids’) which was probably where deer were butchered prior to the venison being loaded into boats for transport to Mull and other islands. At the west end of Loch Arienas is Doire nam Mart, ‘the hunting forest of the meat supplies’ and along its north shore is a spread of 77 recessed platforms. E.B. Rennie 1997, 112-3. There are similar platforms at Baile Geamhraidh ‘winter settlement’ (NM6155) and thirty more to the east of Loch Aline, between Ardtornish Bay and Inninmore Bay, facing Mull (NM6943 to NM7241). In the absence of any other viable prehistoric activity in this area, it is reasonable to suppose that they were used by seasonal deer-hunters. Such platforms are generally in isolated and secluded locations, where the light from camp-fires would not be visible at a distance, and which are easily reached by boat. Most notably, there are several ‘interesting’ Bronze Age cairns in Morvern, at Kinlochaline, at Claggan, and at Acharn. J.N. Graham Ritchie and Iain Thornber 1975, ‘Cairns in the Aline Valley, Morvern, Argyll’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 106 (19784-5), 15-30; J.N. Graham Ritchie and Iain Thornber, ‘Cairn 3, Acharn, Morvern, Argyll’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 118 (1988), 95-98. [Find Graham's letter] In Cairn 3 at Acharn, an Iron Age cremation burial of a young person of about twenty was found, contained in a very rough little coiled pot and deposited in a Bronze Age kist which also contained five flints. This episodic use confirms organised activity in Morvern from at least the Bronze Age. The place-names, the platforms, the cremation and the flints all suggest the presence of local deer-hunters.

Fairies in Menteith.
Cnoc-n’an-Bocan or Bogle Knowe, on the south-east shore of the Lake of Menteith, southern Perthshire, was the headquarters of the fairies of the whole district. In those days the Earls of Menteith had a red book, the opening of which was always followed by something preternatural. One of them one day opened this book, and the fairies immediately crowded in and asked him for employment. Puzzled what work to send them to, he fixed at length on the making of a road from the south shore to the middle of the Lake. This road still exists as the wide promontory known as Arnmauk which reaches into the loch from the south side. W. Marshall, Historic Scenes in Perthshire, 1881, 383-4. We can identify these fairies as local hunters who worked for the Earls of Menteith. The red book was evidently preternatural and is perhaps a pun on leobhair dearg ‘hunter of the red one’ or ‘deer hunter’ (see discussion of the Cluasa Leabhra below). It may also have been a name for the local beacon, since it summoned the fairies. This beacon was probably on Ben Venue (NN4706) which was given to the local fairies as a reward by the Earl. W. Marshall 1881, 384. The Lake of Menteith has four crannogs or artificial islands, probably of late Bronze Age date. Dog Island was where the Earl kept his hunting dogs. Jon C. Henderson, ‘A survey of crannogs in the Lake of Menteith, Stirlingshire’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 128 (1998), 273-292.

Fairies in Atholl.
There are two accounts which suggest that the fairies of Atholl in the sixteenth century were still an organised body, to some extent independent of the feudal earls. ‘Perthshire was of old a noted district for the intrigues of the fairies. The Clan Donnachaidh, or Robertson of Struan, were not generally favourites with them. During the minority of James V, this powerful clan committed bloody outrages over the district of Athole, at which the fairies were so enraged that they contrived means whereby the enemy waylaid the laird of Struan while visiting his uncle, and basely assassinated him in the presence of his relative.’ A. MacGregor 1891, Highland Superstitions, 25. The main facts are not in question. William Robertson of Struan succeeded his grandfather, Alexander, in 1505 and took advantage of the interregnum of 1513-14 to commit mayhem on the property of his cousin, John Stewart, Earl of Atholl, with whom he was at odds. When the Duke of Albany eventually restored some measure of law and order in Scotland, William was captured and heidit at Tulliemet, the justice seat of Atholl, in 1516. What he did to enrage the local fairies is not recorded but his bloody outrages very probably included uncontrolled hunting, which would have caused great hardship among the local population and outraged the forest guardians.

That the fairies of Atholl can be seen in such a light is clear from the account by Sir David Lindsay of the great deer-drive organised by the same John Stewart to entertain James V in 1528. The splendid wooden halls built for the reception of the king and other guests were burned as soon as the event was over, ‘by order of the fairies’. This suggests that it was standard practice to remove all traces of a hunt by burning. This would leave nothing which might attract wolves, for example. Both accounts point to an organised and indispensable group of native hunters, who retained a certain independence of the feudal Earl.

The building of Stirling Castle.
The first castle of Stirling was built by night by a fairy called An Coigreach ‘the hunter’. His secret name was Thomas son of Jock, which means ‘surveyor son of light’ since surveyors worked over long distances, by night, by aligning lights. An Coigreach was absent only on quarter nights when, we may deduce, he was required for hunting. When the castle was finished and his secret name was guessed, the fairy disappeared through the wall in a flame of fire. J. MacDougall 1910, 168-71. An coigreach now means ‘stranger’ but at one time any hunter who came from outside the parish was a stranger. G. coigchreach ‘plundering, sacking, pilfering’ means ‘hunting deer’. G. coig-crich ‘confines, border, edge, march’ was a deer-forest at the edge of settlement. Stirling was a major beacon site, visible throughout Lowland Scotland, and its beacon was evidently known as An Coigreach, since its light travelled abroad.

The Girl and the Inexhaustible Meal Chest of the Fairies. J. MacDougall 1901, 160-1.
A girl was abducted by fairies who promised to let her go free as soon as she had baked all the meal in the meal-chest. But this filled magically (it is a metaphor for the deer forest) and she escaped only with the help of an old woman who had lived with the fairies since she also was a maiden (the Cailleach, who was always with the hunters). As she was leaving, the leader of the fairies said: Mo bheannachd ort-sa, ach mo mhallachd air do bheul ionnsachaidh, which is taken to mean: ‘My blessing on thee, but my curse on thy teaching mouth’.

This makes no sense at all, not even in the context of the tale. Mallachd ‘curse’ is a pun on malach ‘hairy’ which refers to a stag or perhaps an aurochs bull. It is related to mal ‘king, champion, soldier (hunter)’, màileachan ‘sprite, brownie’, maillich ‘retard, hinder’. G. beul ‘mouth’ is regularly used of a deer trap. G. ionnsachadh ‘learning, teaching’ makes more sense, in the context of a hunting parable, as ionnsuidheach ‘aggressive, disruptive’, from ionnsuidh ‘attack’, while ionnsuidhear is ‘assailant, attacker (hunter)’. The first element in all these words is aodhan ‘fire’, which suggests that ionnsachadh was the fire knowledge taught to hunters. We can thus reconstruct a hunting blessing:

Mo bheannachd ort-sa, agus mo mhallachd [air do] bheul ionnsachaidh
My blessing on thee and on the hairy one at the hunting trap.’

Brian Borumha and the Fairies.
Finally, an Irish reference to fairies. In Ireland, after Brian Borumha had defeated the Danes in 1000 A.D, he recovered much treasure that had been plundered from places of importance, including diamhraibh dichealta ag fianaibh no ag síthcuiraib – ‘sanctuaries and solitudes belonging to the Fians or to men of the síth’. D MacRitchie 1890, 81-2. G. diamhladh ‘place of refuge, sanctuary’ is synonymous with dichealtair ‘deer forest’. The fianaibh or Fian were legendary deer-hunters who are equated here with the síthcuiraibh, conventionally translated as ‘men of the hollow hill’, in other words, fairies. The treasures that Brian Borumha recovered in this case were the resources of the deer forests still occupied and exploited by bands of organised hunters.

There is an enormous amount of material still to analyse but we have found enough and more than enough to show that Scottish fairy lore is a popular view of a dwindling hunting culture. It represents a variety of attempts to explain surviving sayings, beliefs, scraps of instruction, and distant memories of hunters. Whether these fictional reinterpretations arose spontaneously or were inspired by imported stories with supernatural elements, the idea arose among the Gaels that the daoine-sith had been a supernatural people when in fact they were deer-hunters whose way of life no longer existed. There was no single philosophy or consistency in this little proto-religion but this approach to Highland fairy tales shows that there is a single underlying reality. This is also evident in Lowland fairy tales.


Much of Lowland Scotland remained Gaelic-speaking through the medieval period and much of its folklore is also inspired by fragments of obsolete Gaelic lore, converted into English at a time when hunting lore was obsolete and Gaelic itself was on the verge of extinction. But before then Gaelic tales evidently circulated freely in Highlands and Lowlands for we find not only Gaelic elements but whole tales translated into English circulating in Lowland Scotland.

The Red Etin.
A repeated theme in Lowland tales is that though the bannock, i.e., fire, is divided, there will always be enough to go round. The general type is well shown by the tale of the Red Etin, in Chambers’ Popular Rhymes of Scotland. It is a variant on the story of the Widow’s Son. In this case there were for some unexplained reason two widows who lived each one on a small bit of ground that they rented from a farmer. One of them had two sons and the other had one. By and by it was time for the widow that had two sons to send them away to seek their fortunes. In the convention of such tales. But conventional only in a matrilineal, matrilocal society. The following story retains many familiar puns: a can (G. ceann ‘deer trap’), fetching water (G. iasg ‘hunt’), making a bannock (‘fire’), being given half a bannock (perhaps G. leth for liath ‘light’) with a blessing (the purpose of the incantation), or a whole bannock with a curse. It is of course always better to share and so the first son and then the second son who refuse to do so fall foul of a giant known as the Red Etin (G. aodhan ‘fire’, a personified beacon) and are turned into pillars of stone (beacon sites were marked by stone pillars). The son of the second widow sets out, shares his bannock with an old wife who is of course the Cailleach, learns from her the answers to three difficult questions, survives his interview with the Red Etin, finds an axe (G. tuagh), and kills the giant by hewing off his three heads (a standard theme in beacon lore). Our hero then brings back to life many beautiful ladies (reincarnated deer?), changes the two stone pillars back into his friends by striking them with his wand (G. slat), marries the princess and becomes king when her father dies. It has evolved and borrowed but its sources are recognisably archaic and not English but Gaelic.

The Wife and her Bush of Berries.
This Lowland nursery story is a cumulative tale with much in common with ‘Minneachan and Monnachan’ and in addition has references which by now are familiar to milk, bread, a cat, a mouse, a kid, berries, and an ox. It has been translated from an obscure oral Gaelic version into more intelligible English in Lowland Scotland within the past four or five centuries. It follows the modern sense of the Gaelic so closely that many archaic Gaelic puns are clearly recognisable. Here is the introduction and the final episode of ‘The Wife and her Bush of Berries’, as told in Lowland Scotland in the nineteenth century. R. Chambers, Popular Rhymes of Scotland, new edition of 1879, 57-59.

Lang syne, there was a wife that lived in a wee house by hersel, and as she was sooping the house one day, she fand twall pennies. So she thought to hersel what she wad do wi her twall pennies, and at last she thought she couldna do better than gang to the market and buy a fine kid. Sae she gaed to the market and coffed a fine kid. And as she was gaun hame, she spied a bonny buss o berries growin beside a brig. And she said to the kid: ‘Kid, kid, keep my house till I pu my bonny, bonny buss o berries’. But the kid refused (and the wife went on through a long series of frustrated meetings). But, finally, the wife was able to give bread and milk to the cat who then killed the mouse, while the mouse cut the rope, the rope hanged the smith, the smith smoothed the axe, the axe felled the ox, the ox drank the water, the water slockened the fire, the fire burned the staff, the staff struck the dog, the dog bit the kid, and the kid keepit the wife’s house till she pu’d her bonny buss o berries.

Many of the elements in the story, including the berries, come directly from archaic Gaelic contexts. The ox can be identified with damh ‘stag’ and the kid with meann ‘fawn’. The only uncertain elements are rope and dog. The original Gaelic is beyond recovery but it can be reconstructed if we assume that the key elements in this story, as in the Highland examples, are all archaic hunting words, or puns on archaic hunting words.

Probable AG terms in ‘The Wife and her Bush of Berries’.
axe: G. tuagh, literal. Perhaps a pun on tuath ‘people’.
berries: G. sugh, subh or suibh, a pun on su ‘to gather’ and eibh ‘fire’.
bread: G. lòn, for lon ‘beacon’, or bonnach ‘beacon site’; it is the bannock of many tales.
cat: G. cath ‘hunt’.
dog: G. cu, ie, he who gathers.
fire: G. teine, literal.
kid: G. meann, also ‘fawn’. ‘Kid’ is the Lowland meaning.
milk: G. bainne ‘fire, light’, literally ‘white stuff’. Bread and milk probably represent fire and light.
mouse: G. luch ‘light’.
ox: G. damh, also ‘deer, stag’. ‘Ox’ is the Lowland meaning.
rope: perhaps G. ball for beoll ‘fire’. G. camul was the cable used in a tug-of-war, and a pun on ‘gathering ground’. Another type of rope is the cathcrios ‘battle-girdle’ which was perhaps a lassoo. Táin Bó Cúalnge, 2244.
smith: G. gobha, a common pun for gobhar ‘goat, a captured animal’.
staff: G. slat ‘rod’, for slad ‘carnage, slaughter, plunder’.
water: G. uisge, a pun on AG iasg ‘hunting’.
wife: the Wife who gives bread and milk to the cat is the Cailleach, moved to the centre of the story. She confirms that in the original she gave food to the hunters and that the recital was a supplicatory prayer addressed by the hunter to her.

The original archaic Gaelic had evidently become obsolete before it was converted into English, and this provides direct evidence for the former existence of an archaic Gaelic hunting society in the southern or Lowland parts of Scotland as well as in the Highlands. Another sign that the change in meaning of the obsolete Gaelic original took place during the Gaelic period and not at a later time within English is that damh ‘stag’ and meann ‘roe’ are given their later meanings of ‘ox’ and ‘kid’. In other words, Lowland Gaelic adapted to farming before it disappeared.

Habitrot and Scantlie Mab.
The Selkirk fairy Habitrot can be identified with the Gaelic Cailleach. Both were large, ugly women. Habitrot had huge lips, not from spinning yarn as the tale tells, but to direct deer into an ambush – this is the invariable meaning of any mention of lips, teeth or mouth or even an ugly expression in such a context. The spinning at which she was so expert is a best guess at G. cas ‘to turn against, oppose, fire or cast a stone, wreath, twist, become wrinkled, shoot out the lip in derision or otherwise’. There is plenty to suggest chasing, trapping and killing by a chain of hunters, while the mention of a lip takes us back to the Cailleach. As for Habitrot, the first element in her name is cabach ‘long-toothed, ugly-mouthed’, the adjective from cab ‘mouth ill-set with teeth’, a fine description of a deer ambush. The Cailleach also had notably bad teeth, like rusted bone in one case and crooked and red in another. The second element is G. truid ‘field of battle (deer forest)’ or ‘strife, battle (hunt).’

Only one name is given for her equally ugly companions, that of Scantlie Mab. This also is hunting Gaelic: sgann ‘herd’ + ilidh ‘place’ (so a deer forest) and mab for màm ‘gap, pass through mountains (deer trap)’ or ‘battle (hunt)’. This a landscape metaphor for the cleft or cleavage between two prominent breasts which perennially exercises the male imagination. It is also found as the name of the Irish Medb, Mab or Maeve, who was the goddess of the sovereignty of Tara. Scantlie Mab is another Borders manifestation of the Gaelic Cailleach, but at one time there were evidently known to be others. The ugly crones explain to the handsome young prince that their labial deformation is due to spinning but what they are actually saying is ‘Nakasind’: G. na casain ‘of the hunt’.


At Cluny in Strathtay the graveyard or cladh was known as the Aodin of Cluny aodhan ‘fire’. ‘Like most old burying-grounds it was haunted.’ (J. Kennedy Strathtay, 38). Evidently at one time a cremation or beacon site.

Fairies never tread ploughed land (arable v. hunting forest). They never cross running water: rivers and streams were used to define township lands and deer forests.

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