[From A Second Manx Scrapbook]
" And in this country, as you must have heard,
(Doubtless the rumour has far overpassed
The shores of Mannin), gossip is never weary
Of fairies and monsters lurking everywhere;
In this small Isle they're hourly spoken of
As being seen by us, both night and day."
(Translated from " Coontey Ghiare jeh Ellan Vannin," " A Short Account of the Isle of 'Man," Joseph Bridson, 1860.)
OF fairy-lore, a subject which is at present a little out of fashion, the accepted theory seems to me satisfactory so far as it goes. According to this theory, three main sources, two of them supernatural and one historical or prehistoric, have combined to form the body of belief conveniently termed " the Fairy Faith." These three sources are : (a) Nature spirits ; (b) Souls of the dead (to which I would add " unborn souls," as being of the one substance) ; and (c) Extinct peoples.
(a) " The nature-spirits " or natural forces personified in human-like shapes are, with us, usually tiny because (it may be suggested) the energies of Nature in these latitudes are not large and violent. In China, for example, a land of cataclysmic floods, the destructive powers of rain-clouds and rivers are typified as monstrous dragons. The Scandinavian alfar, whose name answers to that of the English elves, were of ordinary human size.
(b) " Souls of the dead and unborn." We and They are to each other as walking shadows. They interfere with us chiefly in our hours of crisis, thrusting themselves into the apparent breaks of continuity in our existence. They have special power over women at marriage, over women and animals in parturition, and over their new-born offspring ; they are present and potent, consequently, at our births and deaths, our passing from the one world to the other. In like manner they are, at least in Celtic countries, active on November Eve, when the old year dies and the new is born; and equally active on May Eve, which marks the end of Winter and beginning of Spring, by the antique reckoning of Celtic-speaking humanity.
In illustration of the identity, in a folk-lore sense, of some kinds of fairies with the dead, a hundred tales could be quoted and a hundred observances and beliefs specified. The generalization quoted hereunder contains the germ of many of the Scandinavian beliefs that have impressed themselves on Manx superstition " In Iceland some families are said to have believed that after death they entered into a hill, which they accordingly worshipped. In this connexion ' elf ' is again used, and it seems reasonable to assume that, whatever other signification this word may have had later, it must also have meant the spirit of a dead man."1 The leaving of food at these hills or gravemounds late in the evening, is of course comparable with the Celtic custom of leaving out food for the fairies, the glaistig, and other dwellers in the wilderness.
Derived from the old Scandinavian conception of death (which, it scarcely need be said, was far from being exclusively Scandinavian), is the recently existing belief implied in an Orkney expression for sickness" being in the hill." The idea is that the sufferer has been carried off and a changeling left in his place. " It is within the memory of men not yet qualified for old-age pensions that an old man dying in Rousay complained bitterly that ' George and Jean wadna' bring him cot o' the hill,' though he had described to them the very place where they would find him." Also, " there were two or three women in Rousay who 'had to do wi' ' the fairies, and when anyone was ill they were applied to that they might take them ' oot o' the hill ' " before it was too late.2
An even more remarkable illustration of the identity believed to exist between fairies and the dead is that a " fairy blast," dangerous to living human beings, was caused by the ashes of the dead returning through the air from foreign lands to the ancestral burial-places in Ireland. 3
Mention of kindred beliefs in the Isle of Man will be found in the following pages.
(c) Extinct races. The explanation of the fairies as a memory of human races which have died out or become absorbed is the easiest of the three contributory theories to understand and to handle, because it is the most concrete. In the Isle of Man the Finoderee also, though he differs from any kind of fairy, is best explained by this theory. No one can read the accounts of the relations between fairy and non-fairy people, Scottish accounts especially, without seeing that they depict two sets of human beings, alien to each other in many ways, mutually hostile sometimes, but both undeniably human.4
The gap between the present time and the time when remote places of shelter and souterrains were in human occupation is bridged by rapprochentents from both directions. In the first place, such sites have been occasionally re-occupied in recent days by the poorest class of people, especially wanderers and those wishing to conceal themselves. The folk-memory of " the fairies," the earliest occupants, was thus refreshed, and no doubt the old tales were enriched with the later details. " I heard from an elderly man of Danes having encamped on his grandmother's farm. Smoke was seen rising from an unfrequented spot, and when an uncle went to investigate the matter he found small huts with no doors, only a bundle of sticks laid across the entrance. In one of the huts he saw a pot boiling on the fire, and going forwards he began to stir the contents. Immediately a red-haired man and woman rushed in, they appeared angry at the intrusion, and when he went out threw a plate after him."5
There is a second way in which tales of the fairies have been kept in circulation as events of recent occurrence ; in some cases they may even have enjoyed an unbroken continuity from the period that saw the strange tribes in possession of the brochs, the hut-dwellings, the underground chambers. Stories told to children are imagined by them so vividly that when they grow old their dimming faculties are apt to see in them either their own personal experiences or at the least the experiences of those elders who first related them. We all know how an episode in our own infancy which is described to us in later childhood seems even in middle life to be a first-hand reminiscence, until reflection tells us that we could not possibly remember what happened to us at such an early age. And all collectors of folk-lore know how a story may be related in perfect good faith as a personal experience which is in fact common to nearly every country in Europe.
Actual happenings do at times lend themselves to fortifying the belief in fairies, with a curious faithfulness to accepted traditions. " At Airlie in Forfarshire a cottage was supposed to be haunted because oatcakes baking on the hearthstone occasionally disappeared from sight in a mysterious manner. It was thought proper to pull down the cottage altogether, and then it was accidentally found out that the hearthstone was the roof-stone of an underground house, into which the cakes had fallen through a crevice."6 This disappearing of cakes from the hearthstone is a motive in more than one recorded fairy-tale.7 The Airlie affair belongs to the 18th century, and it is easy to imagine the local folks of that period (or a much later period, for that matter) maintaining that the fairies had indeed taken the cakes found mouldering below, and had extracted from them their essential food-qualities.
These two conceptions of the fairies, as the dead and as neighbours (neighbours who have, in fact, been a long time dead), naturally tend to merge into each other. In a Lewis tale of this class an unexpected change of standpoint is seen. An old fairy-man complains, in Gaelic verse, of the doings of the housewife who lives above his hillock-dwelling: " . . . The dumb woman who came from the land of the dead took the kettle . . . " " Dumb " signifies, probably, that she spoke a language unintelligible to him, that of another race ; in this case, according to the terms of the story, the race of the dead.
1 Cambridge Medieval History, ii., 488.
2 Orkney and Shetland Old-Lore Miscellany, April, 1909.
3 Proceedings of the Ossianic Society, ii., 94.
4 The comparatively late occupation of Western Scotland by the Gaels may explain why the Highland stories of this kind read the most freshly and realistically of any. Their " Good Neighbours " would be largely the Picts of those districts who were overcome and partly absorbed.
5 Anderson, Ulster Folk-lore, page 9. The " Danes " were probably tinkers, or similar vagabonds at odds with the law. In the West of England there is a tendency to attribute fairy doings to " the old Danes."
6 MacRitchie, Celtic Review, iv., 319.
7 See, for example, Nicolson's Folk-Tales and Legends of Shetland, page 43, where one of the hearthstones is slowly lifted and a hand from below snatches a cake.