A Description of the Isle of Man

G. Waldron 1731 - pages 30 to 39

[Changelings – – ]

The old story of infants being changed in their cradles(49) is here in such credit, that mothers are in continual terror at the thoughts of it. I was prevailed upon myself to go and see a child, who, they told me, was one of these changelings, and indeed must own was not a little surprised, as well as shocked at the sight. Nothing under heaven could have a more beautiful face; but the' between five and six years old, and seemingly healthy, he was so far from being able to walk, or stand, that he could not so much as move any one joint: his limbs were vastly long for his age, but smaller than an infant's of six months; his complexion was perfectly delicate, and he had the finest hair in the world; he never spoke, nor cryed, eat scarce anything, and was very seldom seen to smile, but if any one called him a fairy elf, he would frown and fix his eyes so earnestly on those who said it, as if he would look them through. His mother, or at least his supposed mother, being very poor, frequently went out a chairing, and left him a whole day together. The neighbours out of curiosity, have often looked in at the. window to see how he behaved when alone, which, whenever they did, they were sure to find him laughing, and in the utmost delight This made them judge that he was not without company more pleasing to him than any mortal's could be; and what made this conjecture seem the more reasonable was, that if he were left ever so dirty, the woman at her return, saw him with a clean face, and his hair combed with the utmost exactness and nicety.

A second account of this nature I had from a woman to whose offspring the fairies seemed to have taken a peculiar fancy. The fourth or fifth night after she was delivered of her first child, the family were alarm'd with a most terrible cry of fire; on which, every body ran out of the house to see whence it proceeded, not excepting the nurse, who, being as much frightened as the others, made one of the number. The poor woman lay trembling in her bed alone, unable to help herself, and her back being turned to the infant, saw not that it was taken away by an invisible hand. Those who had left her, having enquired about the neighbourhood, and finding there was no cause for the outcry they had heard, laugh'd at each other for the mistake; but as they were going to re-enter the house, the poor babe lay on the threshold, and by its cries preserv'd itself from being trod upon. This exceedingly amazed all that saw it, and the mother being still in bed, they could ascribe no reason for finding it there, but having been removed by fairies, who, by their sudden return, had been prevented from carrying it any further.

About a year after the same woman was brought to bed of a second child, which had not been born many nights before a great noise was heard in the house where they kept their cattle (for in this Island, where there is no shelter in the fields from the excessive cold and damps, they put all their milch kine into a barn, which they call a cattle-house.) Every body that- was stirring ran to see what was the matter, believing that the cows had got loose: the nurse was as ready as the rest, but finding all safe, and the barn-door close, immediately returned, but not so suddenly but that the new-born babe was taken out of the bed, as the former had been, and drops on their coming, in the middle of the entry. This was enough to prove the fairies had made a second attempt; and the parents sending for a minister, join'd with him in thanksgiving to God, who had twice delivered their children from being taken from them.

But in the time of her third lying-in, every body seem'd to have forgot what had happened in the first and second, and on a noise in the cattle-house ran out to know what had occasioned it. The nurse was the only person, excepting the woman in the straw, who stay'd in the house; nor was she detained thro' care, or want of curiosity, but by the bonds of sleep, having drank a little too plentifully the preceding day. The mother, who was broad awake, saw her child lifted out of the bed and carried out of the chamber, tho' she could not see any person touch it; on which she cryed out as loud as she could, Nurse, nurse ! my child, my child is taken away; but the old woman was too fast to be awaken'd by the noise she made, and the infant was irretrievably gone. When her husband, and those who had accompany'd him, returned, they found her wringing her hands and uttering the most piteous lamentations for the loss of her child; on which, said the husband, looking into the bed, the woman is mad, do you not see the child lies by you ? On which she turned and saw indeed something like a child, but far different from her own, who was a very beautiful, fat, well-featured babe; whereas, what was now in the room of it, was a poor, lean, withered deformed creature. It lay quite naked, but the clothes belonging to the child that was exchanged for it, lay wrapt up all together on the bed.

This creature lived with them near the space of nine years, in all which time it eat nothing except a few herbs, nor was ever seen to void any other excrement than water; it neither spoke, nor could stand or go, but seemed enervate in every joint, like the changeling I mentioned before, and in all its actions showed itself to be of the same nature.

A woman who lived about two miles distant from Ballasalli, and used to serve my family with butter, made me once very merry with a story she told me of her daughter, a girl of about ten years old, who, being sent over the fields to the town for a pennyworth of tobacco for her father, was on the top of a mountain surrounded by a great number of little men who would not suffer her to pass any further. Some of them said she should go with them, and accordingly laid hold of her; but one seeming more pitiful, desired they would let her alone; which they refusing, there ensued a quarrel, and the person who took her part fought bravely in her defence. This so incensed the others, that to be revenged on her for being the cause, two or three of them seized her, and pulling up her clothes, whipped her heartily; after which, it seems, they had no further power over her, and she ran home directly, telling what had befallen her, and showing her buttocks on which were the prints of several small hands. Several of the towns-people went with her to the mountain, and she conducting them to the spot, the little antagonists were gone, but had left behind them proofs (as the good woman said) that what the girl had informed them was true; for there was a great deal of blood to be seen on the stones. This did she aver with all the solemnity imaginable

Another woman equally superstitious and fanciful as the former, told me, that being great with child, and expecting every moment the good hour, as she lay awake one night in her bed, she saw seven or eight little women come into her chamber, one of whom had an infant in her arms; they were followed by a man of the same size with themselves, but in the habit of a minister. One of them went to the pail, and finding no water in it, cried out to the others, what must they do to christen the child? On which, they reply'd, it should be done in beer. With that, the seeming parson took the child in his arms, and performed the ceremony of baptism, dipping his hand into a great tub of strong beer, which the woman had brew'd the day before to be ready for her lying-in. She told me that they baptized the infant by the name of Joan, which made her know she was pregnant of a girl, as it proved a few days after, when she was delivered. She added also that it was common for the fairies to make a mock-christening when any person was near her time, and that according to what child, male or female, they brought, such should the woman bring into the world.

But I cannot give over this subject without mentioning what they say befel a young sailor, who coming off a long voyage, the' it was late at night, chose to land rather than lie another night in the vessel: being permitted to do so, he was set on shore at Duglas. It happened to be a fine moon-light night, and very dry, being a small frost; he therefore forbore going into any house to refresh himself, but made the best of his way to the house of a sister he had at Kirk Merlugh [Malew]. As he was going over a pretty high mountain, he heard the noise of horses, the hollow of a huntsman, and the finest horn in the world. He was a little surprised that any body pursued those kinds of sports in the night, but he had not time for much redeation before they all passed by him' so near that he was able to count what number there was of them, which he said was thirteen, and that they were all drest in green, and gallantly mounted. He was so well pleased with the sight, that he would gladly have follow'd, could he have kept pace with them; he cross'd the foot-way, however, that he might see them again, which he . did snore than once, and lost not the sound of the horn for some miles. At length, being arrived at his sister's, he tells her the story, who presently clapped her hands for joy, that he was come home safe; for, said she, those you saw were fairies, and 'tie well they did not take you away with them.

There is no persuading them but that these huntings(50) are frequent in the Island, and that these little gentry being too proud to ride on Manx horses, which they might find in the field, make use of the English and Irish ones, which are brought over and kept by gentlemen. They say that nothing is more common, than to find these poor beasts in a morning, all over in a sweat and foam, and tired almost to death, when their owners have believed they have never been out of the stable. A gentleman of Ballafletcher assured me he had three or four of his best horses killed with these nocturnal journeys.

At my first coming into the Island, and hearing these sort of stories, I imputed the giving credit to them merely to the simplicity of the poor creatures who related them; but was strangely surprised when I heard other narratives of this kind, and a'lto gether as absurd, attested by men who passed for persons of sound judgment. Among this number, was a gentleman my near neighbour, who affirmed with the most solemn assevera tions, that being of my opinion, and entirely averse to the belief that any such beings were permitted to wander for the purposes related of them, he had been at last convinced by the appearance of several little figures playing and leaping over some stones in a field, whom, a few yards distance, he imagined were school boys, and intended, when he came near enough, to reprimand, for being absent from their exercises at that time of the day, it being then, he said, between three and four of the crook: but when he approached, as near as he could guess, within twenty paces, they all immediately disappeared, tho' he had never taken his eyes off them from the first moment he beheld them; nor was there any place where they could so suddenly retreat, it being an open field without hedge or bush, and, as I said before, broad day.

Another instance, which might serve to strengthen the credit of tho other, was told me by a person who had the reputation of the utmost integrity. This man being desirous of disposing of a horse he had at that time no great occasion for, and riding him to market for that purpose, was accosted, in passing over the mountains, by a little man in a plain dress,(51) who asked him if he would resell his horse. 'Tie the design I am going on, reply'd the person who told me the story. On which, the other desired to know the price. Eight pounds, said he. No, resumed the purchaser, I will give no more than seven; which, if you will take, here is your money. The owner thinking he had bid pretty fair, agreed with him, and the money being told out, the one dismounted, and the other got on the back of the horse, which he had no sooner done, than both beast and rider sunk into the earth immediately, leaving the person who had made the bargain in the utmost terror and consternation. As soon as he had a little recovered himself, he went directly to the parson of the parish, and related what had passed, desiring he would give his opinion whether he ought to make use of the money he had received or not. To which he reply'd, that as he had made a fair bargain, and no way circumvented, nor endeavoured to circumvent the buyer, he saw no reason to believe, in case it was an evil spirit, it could have any power over him. On this assurance, he went home well satisfied, and nothing afterward happened to give him any disquiet concerning this affair.

A second account of the same nature I had from a clergyman, and a person of more sanctity than the generality of his function in this Island. It was his custom to pass some hours every evening in a field near his house, indulging meditation, and calling himself to an account for the transactions of the past day. As he was in this place one night, more than ordinarily wrapt in contemplation, he wandered, without thinking where he was, a considerable way further than it was usual for him to do; and as he told me, he knew not how far the deep musing he was in might have carried' him, if it had Dot been suddenly interrupted by a noise, which, at first, he took to be the distant bellowing of a bull; but as he listened more heedfully to it, found there was something more terrible in the sound than could proceed from that creature. He confess'd to me, that he was no less affrighted than surprised, especially when the noise coming still nearer, he imagined whatever it was that it proceeded from, it must pass him: he had, however, presence enough of mind to place himself with his back to a hedge, where he fell on his knees, and began to pray to God with all the vehemence so dreadful an occasion required. He had not been long in that position, before he beheld something in the form of a bull, but infinitely larger than ever he had seen in England, much less in Man, where the cattle are very small in general. The eyes, he said, seemed to shoot forth flames, and the running of it was with such a force, that the ground shook under it as in an earthquake. It made directly toward a lime cottage, and there, after most horrible roaring, disappear'd. The moon being then at the full, and shining in her utmost splendor, all these passages were perfectly visible to our amazed divine, who having finished his ejaculation, and given thanks to God for his preservation, went to the cottage, the owner of which, they told him, was that moment dead. The good old gentleman was loth to pass a censure which might be judged an uncharitable one; but the deceased having the character of a very ill liver, most people who heard the story were apt to imagine this terrible apparition came to attend his last moments.

A mighty bustle they also make of an apparition, which they say, haunts Castle Russin,(52) in the form of a woman, who was some years since executed for the murder of her child. I have heard not only persons who have been confined there for debt, but also the soldiers of the garrison affirm they have seen it various times: but what I took most notice of, was the report of a gentleman, of whose good understanding, as well as veracity, I have a very great opinion. He told me that happening to be abroad late one night, and catched in an excessive storm of wind and rain, he saw a woman stand before the castle-gate, where being not the least shelter, it something surprised him that any body, much less one of that sex, should not rather run to some porch or shed, of which there are several in CastleTown, than chuse to stand still exposed and alone to such a dreadful tempest. His curiosity exciting him to draw nearer, that he might discover who it was that seemed so little to regard the fury of the elements, he perceived she retreated on his approach, and at last, he thought, went into the castle, the' the gates were shut: this obliging him to think he had seen a spirit, sent him home very much terrified; but the next day, relating his adventure to some people who lived in the castle, and describing, as near as he could, the garb and stature of the apparition, they told him it was that of the woman above mentioned, who had been frequently seen by the soldiers on guard to pass in and out of the gates, as well as to walk thro' the rooms, though there was no visible means to enter.

Tho' so familiar to the eye, no person has yet, however, had the courage to speak to it, and, as they say, a spirit has no power to reveal its mind without being conjured to do so in a proper manner, the reason of its being permitted to wander is unknown.

Another story of a like nature, I have heard concerning an apparition, which has frequently been seen on a wild common near Kirk Jarmyn mountains, which, they say, assumes the shape of a wolf and fills the air with most terrible howlings.

But having run so far in the account of supernatural appearances, I cannot forget what was told me by an English gentleman and my particular friend. He was about passing over Douglas bridge before it was broken, but the tide being high, he was obliged to take the river; having an excellent horse under him, and one accustomed to swim. As he was in the middle of it, he heard, or imagined he heard, the finest symphony,(53), I will not say in the world, for nothing human ever came up to it. The horse was no less sensible of the harmony than himself, and kept in an immoveable posture all the time it lasted; which, he said, could not be less than three quarters of an hour, according to the most exact calculation he could make when he arrived at the end of his little journey and found how long he had been coming.

He, who before laugh'd at all the stories told of fairies, now became a convert, and believed as much as ever a Manks man of them all.

As to circles in the grass,(54) and the impression of small feet among the snow, I cannot deny but I have seen them frequently, and once thought I heard a whistle, as tho' in my ear, when nobody that could make it was near me.

For my part I shall not pretend to determine if such appearances have any reality, or are only the effect of the imagination; but as I had much rather give credit to them than be convinced by ocular demonstration, I shall leave the point to be discussed by those who have made it more their study; and only say, that whatever belief we ought to give to some accounts of this kind, there are others, and those much more numerous, which merit only to be laughed at: it not being at all consonant to reason, or the idea religion gives us of the fallen angels, to suppose spirits so eminent in wisdom and knowledge, as to be exceeded by nothing but their Creator, should visit the earth for such trifling purposes as to throw bottles and glasses about a room, and a thousand other as ridiculous gambols mentioned in those voluminous treatises of apparitions.

The natives of this Island tell you also that before any person dies the procession of the funerals, is acted by a sort of beings which for that end render themselves visible. I know several that have offered to make oath that as they have been passing the road, one of these funerals has come behind them, and even laid the bier on their shoulders, as tho' to assist the bearers. One person, who assured me he had been served so, told me that the flesh of his shoulder had been very much bruised, and was black for many weeks after.

There are few or none of them who pretend not to have seen or heard these imaginary obsequies, (for I must not omit that they sing psalms in the same manner as those do who accompany the corps of a dead friend) which so little differ from real ones, that they are not to be known 'till both coffin and mourners are seen to vanish at the church doors. These they take to be a sort of friendly demons, end their business, they say, is to warn people of what is to befall them: accordingly they give notice of any stranger's approach, by the trampling of horses at the gate of the house where they are to arrive. As difficult as I found it to bring myself to give any faith to this, I have frequently been very much surprised, when on visiting a friend I have found the table ready spread and every thing in order to receive me, and been told by the person to whom I went that he had knowledge of my coming, or some other guest, by these good-natured intelligencers. Nay, when obliged to be absent some time from home, my own servants have assured me they were informed by these means of my return, and expected me the very hour I came, tho' perhaps it was some days before I hoped it myself at my going abroad. That this is fact, I am positively convinced by many proofs; but how or wherefore it should be so, has frequently given me much matter of reflection, yet left me in the same uncertainty as before. Here, therefore, will I quit the subject, and proceed to things much easier to be accounted for.


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