Mexico

Los Aluxes – The Fairies of Mexico by Amy Van De Casteele

When you think of fairies and where they might live, you probably immediately think of Great Britain or Scandinavia. But fairies are far more widespread than you would think and you can find them in seemingly unlikely places – such as the deepest, darkest rainforests of Mexico and Guatemala. Here, there is a lingering belief in the Alux, or Aluxob – little Mayan sprites associated with various natural features such as caves, rivers, fields and forests. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Celtic leprechaun, the Alux are only knee high but have a cheeky, capricious nature which can even extend to outright malice if you happen to offend one of them.

Supposedly born in moonlight, Alux can be called upon to become guardians of your property, and in fact this was a practice among Mayan farmers, who would summon them by building a little house for the Alux somewhere on their property. It was believed that the Alux would come to live in their fairy house for seven years, and during that time they would perform various useful tasks around the farm, such as scaring off thieves and predators, helping the crops to grow and even summoning rain. But when the seven years was up, the farmer was to seal up the windows and doors of the little Alux house to trap the creature inside, or its period of helpfulness would draw to an abrupt end and the little sprite would turn wicked and begin to play tricks on the very people it had spent seven years helping.

Every now and then, an Alux might present itself to a human in order to beg for an offering. If the offering is duly given, the Alux may help the generous mortal by protecting them and bringing good luck. But if the human does not yield up an offering – things are liable to take a grim turn. Easily offended and as changeable in their moods as children, Alux have been known to play cruel tricks on anyone who angers them.

Unsurprisingly, it is children who often have encounters with Alux, sometimes even playing with them on the beach or in the rainforest. American writer Signe Pike supposedly saw one of these Mayan elves during a trip to Mexico, though it appeared more as a mental image of a short, squat troll-like figure than as a tangible form – but it was enough to give her quite a fright! Not surprising when you consider that many contemporary Mayans avoid Alux like the proverbial plague, in the belief that encroaching on their territory may lead to swift – and fatal – retribution by these eerie little people of the rainforest…

Mexico

Isla De Las Munecas by M J Steel Collins

From Wikipedia

Lying in Xochimilco, in Mexico City, Mexico, is one of the most unnerving places you’ll ever find. Isla de las Muenecas, Island of the Dolls in English, is one of several man-made islands built by the Aztecs as floating gardens when they constructed the canal system that makes up Xochimilco. The island is festooned with around 1,500 dolls hanging from the trees and in a hut, quietly rotting as they stare off into the middle distance.

The reason behind the dolls is rather tragic; approximately 50 years ago, farmer Don Julian Santana, who owned the island, witnessed a young girl drowning in the canals. He was unable to save her and remained traumatised by her death. Shortly after, Don Julian saw a doll floating by in the canal. He fished it out and hung it up on a tree to appease the spirit of the girl whom he believed to now haunt the island. But one doll was not enough. Don Julian began hanging up every doll he saw in the canal. Eventually he began hunting rubbish dumps for dolls on his rare trips off the island, later selling his homegrown fruit and vegetables in order to buy dolls.

As well as hanging up the dolls, Don Julian would also play guitar and sing to the mermaids he believed he saw in the canals. Interestingly, the canals have an association with ancient supernatural beings. Xochimilco is also haunted by La Llorona, a woman who killed her children for the sake of the man she loved. However, he spurned her, and she committed suicide by drowning herself in the canals. On misty days, La Lorona is said to walk the islands calling out for the children she murdered.

As for Don Julian, some thought he was mad, that he believed the dolls he hung up were children who had to be saved from the canals. But those who knew him, his close friends and family said that this wasn’t the case. He knew that the dolls were  just dolls and he simply wanted to make the little girl who drowned happy in the afterlife. Some people even questioned the existence of the girl herself, arguing that Don Julian had just made up the story as a result of the solitary life he led. Others say that the girl was killed by the supernatural beings haunting the canals.

Esparta Palma/Wikimedia Commons

When Don Julian died in 2001, some folk believed that these same spirits had pulled him into the canal and drowned him, as he was found dead in the water by his nephew. But what had actually happened was that Don Julian had died from a heart attack and fallen into the canal. During Don Julian’s life, the Isla de las Muenecas was relatively unnoticed. Now it is operated as a tourist attraction by Don Julian’s family, receiving up to 50 visitors a day. Several TV crews, including the Ghost Adventures team have also visited.

It takes a two hour trip along the canals to reach the island. Those meaning to pass it by say they feel compelled to visit. People have reported hearing the dolls whispering and claim that they move of their own accord. The dolls are believed to be possessed by the spirit of the drowned girl, or several spirits of children. Don Julian’s nephew now lives on the island and says you do get used to hearing the dolls’ whisperings…

For some reason, the island is portrayed as a negative place, but it is generally felt to be quite positive. The spirit of Don Julian himself is now also believed to haunt it.

The first doll Don Julian pulled from the canal is still there, now hanging up in a hut with what are said to be the most possessed dolls. It is now incredibly decomposed, but still stares blankly at the rest of it’s creepy brethren, no doubt thinking doll thoughts.

Further information can be found at http://www.isladelasmunecas.com/

Scotland

Nessie and Other Strange Creatures of Loch Ness by Amy Van De Casteele and M J Steel Collins

 Ad Maskens/ Wikimedia Commons

Loch Ness itself is pretty impressive with or without a monster. Located 23 miles south west of Inverness, the Loch is the largest body of fresh water in the UK. Although its length of 22.4 miles is just pipped by Loch Lomond’s 23 miles, Loch Ness is the largest due to its depth of 754 feet, holding 263,000 cubic feet of water. Quite a lot for a cryptid to swim in! The surface of the Loch can also rise by as much as seven feet in heavy rain. Another interesting quirk is that due to the large amount of water, Loch Ness has a thermocline 100 feet down. This causes the top 100 feet to alter its temperature according to the weather, but the water below maintains a steady 6.6 degrees centigrade all the time. During the winter, the extreme cold causes the warmer water to rise, and the Loch lets off steam if it’s particularly chilly. Or Nessie has put the central heating on!

As for Nessie herself, the first indications of her may in fact go back to when Picts lived around the Loch. Romans arrived in the area at the time, and found several carvings of animals, most of which were recognisable. However, one depicted an eel like creature with flippers. It became known as a water horse (or Each-Uisge in Scottish folklore). The first ‘official’ sighting of Nessie occurred in 565, when St Columba and his followers arrived by the Loch.

There are slight variations to the tale, but a document from the 7th or 8th century has it that the band of Christians came across a group of Picts burying a man who had died after being being bitten by a monster in the Loch. St Columba directed one of his men to swim across the Loch and bring back a boat from the other side. As the man swam, a water beast rose to the surface and began chasing him. As the others looked on in terror, St Columba raised his hand and, in the name of God, ordered the beast not to touch the man. The monster halted and vanished under the water. The follower in the water was safe and St Columba’s entourage was joined by the Picts in praising the wonders of God.

The modern era of Nessie was born in 1933 with the construction of a road around the Loch. Users of the new road occasionally met some unusual local fauna. George Spicer and his wife were out when they saw a massive beast about 25 feet long, with a long neck, cross the road towards the Loch. A few weeks later, motorcyclist Arthur Grant almost crashed into a similar creature as it crossed the road and vanished into the Loch. The following year saw the publication of the infamous Surgeon’s Photo, which claimed to be the first photo of Nessie. Although it was claimed to be fake in 1975, and further debunked in 1993, debate still rages about it’s authenticity. And that was pretty much the start of Nessie mania. Down the years, this has taken in several Cryptozoological hunts, a myriad of sightings, more photos, the claim by the Italians that they had killed Nessie with a bomb in WW2, and during the campaigns for the Scottish Independence Referendum quips that Nessie had moved to England on the off-chance Scotland seceded after a photographer claimed to have taken the monster’s photo in Lake Windermere!

The area surrounding Loch Ness has the usual fare of ghostly tales. Back in the days when Cromwell’s New Model Army were holed up just by Inverness during its occupation of Scotland, it was decided to burn the town to the ground in a pre-emptive strike, just in case the locals rose against them. The army didn’t get far. They found Inverness was well defended – by the dead who rose from their graves and surrounding the town! Then there is the case of Castle Spioradan, formerly Castle Bona. It was the scene of massive bloodshed between the Camerons and Macleans, that ghosts haunted it to the extent it became abandoned and it’s name changed to Spioradan, meaning Castle of Spirits. It no longer stands.

But what Loch Ness has to offer, as well as it’s monster, is a brilliant cross section of classic Scottish supernatural entities – in particular, the Cailleach and the Kelpie/Each-Uisge.

Before the advent of Christianity and the institution of the single omnipotent (male) God figure, Gaelic mythology boasted a rich pantheon of gods and goddesses – each one usually connected in some way to a natural phenomenon such as a season, or to geographical features like trees and mountains. One of these figures, arguably one of the most ancient, is known as the Cailleach – which translates as ‘hag’ in modern Scots Gaelic and came from the Old Gaelic ‘Calleich’, meaning ‘veiled one’.

The Cailleach is believed to be an ancestor deity but is also connected to the weather, to the mountains and to the season of Winter. In fact in Scotland she is also known as Beira, Queen of Winter – and old legends say that she formed many of the country’s starkly beautiful mountains and hills, either by dropping stones from her creel or wicker basket as she walked, or by purposefully erecting them as stepping stones (depending on the story). It is said that she is the divine Mother figure, and from her the other gods and goddesses sprang forth.

She is linked to the goddess Bríghde – the Cailleach rules over the winter months from Samhain to Beltaine, while Bríghde holds sway over the summer months. In February and March the ‘pass-over’ of power between the two goddesses was once celebrated by our ancestors – and, in some cases, still is. Legend has it that February 1st is the day the Cailleach devotes to collecting firewood for the following winter; and if she intends the winter to be long and harsh, the first day of February will be bright and sunny to give her plenty of light in which to collect all the wood she will require to keep warm during the icy months to come.

There is a rich tapestry of beliefs revolving around this fascinating ‘crone’ figure. On the Isle of Man she has been seen in the form of a giant bird; in Scotland and Ireland the first farmer to complete his harvest must make a corn dolly to represent her and fling it into the field of a neighbour who has not yet finished collecting his grain. Then, too, there are some scholars who believe that the Old Irish poem entitled ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’ is in fact about the Cailleach herself. The poem speaks of this woman’s longevity and states that ‘…her grandsons and great-grandsons were tribes and races’.

There is even a Scottish glen named for the hag, and a fascinating local legend is connected to it which tells how the Cailleach, her husband the Bodach and their children were taken in by locals living in the glen, and how they made it green and fertile by way of thanks. When they departed from the glen they left several stones behind them, and told the people that as long as these stones were carefully placed to watch over the glen on Beltaine and then returned to their shelter on Samhain, the reign of prosperity and fertility would continue. Even now, the people of Glen Cailleach still move the stones according to the goddess’s instructions – and the valley remains green and beautiful.

There are a few tales of Cailleachs lurking in the hills around Loch Ness. One was Cailleach a’ Chrathaich, the Hag of the Craach. Living in the hill to the west of Loch Ness, she particularly had it in for the MacMillan clan. The Hag of the Craach’s favourite trick was to keep an eye out for passing travellers with whom she’d strike up a conversation, passing herself off as an old woman living in the hills. She would surreptitiously take the traveller’s hat from him without his realising – they would in fact leave, not realising they were bare headed. The Hag would sit and rub at the material until it was worn away, at which point the hat’s owner would drop dead instantly. In this manner, she killed several men, quite a few of them from the MacMillan clan.

One clan member she caught out was Donald MacMillan. Donald spent some time talking to the Hag when he realised who she was and that she had his hat. He ordered her give him his hat back ended up fighting her for it. While he got his hat back, his fate was sealed, as the Hag let out a blood curdling scream, telling Donald that although he got his hat back, in three weeks, he would die. Donald was left in a lather, and three weeks to the day of the curse, his friends and family gathered around him, praying for the curse to be lifted. But it wasn’t to be. At nine o’clock, Donald fell down dead.

The Kelpie is a water-bound mythological creature which is said to be dangerous and malevolent – though also sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful, when they appear in human form. Kelpies are said to dwell beside the banks of rivers or streams, and in this way are slightly different from the Celtic water horse, or Each-Uisge, which is said to be far more dangerous and can be found in the sea, in sea lochs or in fresh-water lochs.

Because of the similarity between the two, and also because of the sheer variety of stories told about them, it can be difficult to make general statements about Kelpies. They can be vicious and murderous – dragging innocent children to their deaths in the water – or appear as helpful fairy-tale creatures, seeking out human companionship in their loneliness. They can also show themselves in various physical forms. In one myth the Kelpie appears as a beautiful, well-muscled black horse; in another, as a wizened old man with ‘a malignant scowl’.

One rather romantic folk story, hailing from the Outer Hebrides island of Barra, tells of a Kelpie showing himself as a handsome young man in order to woo a beautiful mortal girl and take her as his wife. But the girl discovers the truth and, while the kelpie-man sleeps, steals the silver necklace he wears, which represents his bridle when he is in equine form. Instantly the young man changes into his true shape, a mystical horse, and the girl takes him home to her farm where her father puts him to work in the fields for one full year. When a year has gone by the girl mounts the Kelpie and rides him to visit an old wise man, who instructs her to return the silver necklace to the beast. When this is done he transforms back into a handsome boy and the wise man asks him which form he would prefer – will he remain a man or revert to his horse shape forever?

The Kelpie turns to the young woman and asks her if she will marry him, so long as he stays a man. She agrees, and the Kelpie thus opts for the human form – choosing mortality, in order to be with her. They marry…. and, hopefully, they lived happily ever after.

Unsurprisingly, as the body of water is already so steeped in myth and legend, Loch Ness was said to have its very own Kelpie. But unlike the handsome man of Barra, the Kelpie of Loch Ness was a much less amenable beast and appeared only in equine form, haunting the eerie woods and windswept shores of the famous loch back in the 1800’s.

Fully tacked up with saddle and bridle as if it were nothing more ominous than an escaped horse, the Kelpie thus hoped to lure a hapless mortal onto its back and drag him into the loch to drown. But a famous legend recounts how Highlander James MacGrigor captured the creature and cut off its bridle, without which it would surely die within the space of twenty four hours. The Kelpie – which could speak – tried to bargain and plead for its bridle to be given back, but to no avail. Dismally it followed MacGrigor all the way back to his home, where it told him that he could not enter the house with the bridle, as there was a cross over the entrance. By way of response, the cunning MacGrigor simply flung the bridle into the house through a window – and the outwitted Kelpie was forced to retreat to the woods to die, all the while cursing MacGrigor and its unfortunate fate.

Some Kelpie/Each-Uisge tales from Loch Ness seem to tie in with the monster; in fact, as as already been mentioned, the first ‘official’ Nessie sighting occurred in 565 when St Columba saw off an Each-Uisge determined to eat one of his followers having already killed a Pict fisherman. Perhaps it could be said that Nessie is the modern form of the Each-Uisge. One rather vivid Kelpie tale from Loch Ness involves two young brothers who were allowed to go fishing on the Loch by themselves for the first time.

The boys were warned by their father to watch out for the Each-Uisge, which appeared as a beautiful white horse wearing bejewelled, golden bridle. The boys promised to be careful, and off they went. They had a very successful day’s fishing, and were returning to the shore when the younger brother pointed out the Each-Uisge, noticing how beautiful it was. The pair became entranced by the creature’s unearthly power and walked slowly towards it.

But the eldest remembered their father’s warning and shook himself from the Each-Uisge’s spell. He tried to rouse his brother from the enthrallment, but to no avail. By this point, the youngest boy was already on the Each-Uisge’s back. The eldest suddenly, somehow managed to break free from the spell, and put up a hard struggle that he ultimately won to save his brother from the Each-Uisge hypnotic power by slicing through the beast’s neck with a sword. It turned out that the creature was a young man cursed by an evil wizard to live as an Each-Uisge until a person who had never lifted a sword cut off it’s head.

Further Loch Ness legends can be found in Tales of Loch Ness by Stuart McHardy, Luath Press

Scotland

The Ghosts of Self Determination by M J Steel Collins

The Referendum for Scottish Independence is a very big deal. Scottish history is littered with skirmishes when the Scots have battled to rule themselves. And if it’s not a battle, there are even more ghosts up and down the land, quietly reminding us of when more violent methods were used in the name of Scottish self rule. If ghosts could vote, there is no doubt that they’d be joining the reported queues at the polling stations up and down Scotland. Here is just a short list of the battles that have resulted in some spectacular hauntings…

The Battle of Culloden, 16 April 1746

The last battle on British soil, which also saw the Jacobite rebellion squashed and saw something akin to martial law by the army, with the odd escaped Jacobite hiding out in caves and remote areas in the Highlands.

There have been strange stories of ghosts trooping around the area; one person refused to travel past the battlefield after seeing ghostly battalions lining up, whilst an elderly lady saw ghosts marching through her garden, which she discovered was on land where the battle took place. The battle is also said to be re-enacted each anniversary.

In 1936, a woman lifted a tartan plaid from one of the graves at Culloden, to find the ghost of a Highlander lying underneath.

The Battle of Killiecrankie, 27 July 1689

A battle from the first Jacobite uprising, that saw clans supporting James VII/II fight clans supporting King William of Orange. The Jacobites were successful in this one, though their leader was slaughtered. It had an interesting aftermath, where about one month after the battle, it’s ghostly re-enactment in the sky above the battlefield was witnessed. Word of this got back to King James VII/II, who sent a team to investigate. They saw another re-enactment for themselves and even recognised some of the apparitions battling above them, apparitions of men killed in the battle and men who had survived.

Strange things have been reported in the area ever since by several people down the centuries.

The Battle of Langside, 13 May 1568

Previously covered on this site, this saw Mary, Queen of Scots and her army taken on that of the Regent Moray. It was a relatively short battle, which Mary had tried to avoid as she had just escaped captivity Loch Leven, and was heading towards Dumbarton. However, her forces were headed off by Moray’s in Glasgow, and despite a positive start (if there really is such a thing in a battle), Mary’s army were defeated with a loss of 300. She later tried to reach out to her cousin, Elizabeth, but things didn’t turn out very well.

Ghosts are said to rise from the pond in Victoria Park, which was built on the battle ground, on the anniversary of the battle. Like Killiecrankie, they re-enact the battle in the sky, but really only for the odd person wandering home after a late night these days.

Strangely enough, what is probably the ultimate Scottish battle, Bannockburn, doesn’t have any reports of ghosts. It may be that over the years, any haunting has petered out, or the battle is too well remembered to merit a ghost story.

Thankfully, the decision of Scotland’s future involves a lot less bloodshed, well, apart from the odd fisticuffs between those getting overly keen in putting their point across. Hopefully the ghosts of 18 September 2014 will be a lot happier than their historical counterparts.

Ireland

Immortal Lovers – The Leanan Sidhe by Amy Van De Casteele

When people think of fairies, the image that usually springs to mind is of a delicate ethereal being with flowing hair and a radiant gleam; an uncanny creature, ravishingly beautiful and – depending on the person – either cute and dainty, or tall and ‘perilously fair’. These beings, which humans have supposedly encountered since oral traditions began, are said to reside in an ‘Otherworld’ on the liminal boundaries of our own – a world that some hapless mortals have visited. To think of the Otherworld is to evoke images of shining beauty, of immortality, of swirling mists and dark deeds and mystical spells.

This ravishing beauty which the fairies embody (and their attendant ‘glamour’ or grammarye, their magical webs of illusion) are particularly crucial to our sense of the fairy realm. This beauty may be no more than a visual deception caused by the fairies themselves but it has led to our fervent belief in preternaturally attractive creatures with luminescent skin and eyes that shine like pieces of sky or sea glass. A form of supernatural being we could easily be seduced by, even fall in love with.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that there are many stories, throughout our British history, which speak of men and women taking fairy lovers or simply being left helplessly enchanted by the magic and beauty of a member of that “Other” realm.

Common among these tales are those which speak of the Leanan sidhe, which is often translated as Barrow Lover and denotes those beautiful fairies who take a mortal partner.

Generally these Leanan sidhe are female but there have also been stories of male fairies seducing young human women. Whatever the gender the outcome of this mortal-immortal mingling is usually the same; the mortal love object gradually becomes mad or simply sickens away and dies at a young age, after living a short, turbulent but brilliant life.

Most often the people chosen to be ‘fairy lovers’ are poets and musicians, to whom the fairy appears as a muse; a source of otherworldly inspiration.

In fact many of the great poets of the last three or four hundred years, such as Keats, Shelley and Byron, are thought to have died as a result of the attentions of a Leanan sidhe. These fairies, a sort of Celtic succubus, inspire their mortal lovers and bring them prodigious poetic or musical talent, immense creativity and a fine-tuned appreciation of beauty; while at the same time draining them of vigour, causing them to burn out way before their time. Hence Keats died at the age of 25; Shelley at the age of 19 – and Byron at the age of 36.

On the other hand renowned Irish poet W.B. Yeats lived well into his 70’s – perhaps because he was well versed in folklore and so was unable to be ensnared by the beguiling beauty of the Leanan sidhe? It is a romantic notion, whether it is true or not. Yeats actually mentioned this particular kind of fairy in his book Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland and declared that the Leanan sidhe “lives upon the vitals of its chosen, and they waste and die. She is of the dreadful solitary fairies. To her have belonged the greatest of the Irish poets, from Oisin down to the last century.”

Poor, doomed Keats wrote a famous poem about the perils of falling in love with a fairy: La Belle Dame sans Merci. In it he writes,

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful — a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

There follows a romantic interlude with this beautiful otherworldly being – but things quickly turn sour when the unfortunate man falls asleep and has an awful dream. In it he sees “pale kings and princes too / Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; / They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci / Thee hath in thrall!’

Horrified, the man realizes they are giving him a warning; but the final verse of the poem hints that the warning came too late, as the young mortal lover remains “in the meads”, a grim figure, “alone and palely loitering”, perhaps waiting for his fairy paramour to return. Anyone familiar with the habits of the leanan sidhe will be well aware that the only likely outcome for the unfortunate mortal is a lonely, bitter death, consumed by longing and desire for a being he can never possess.

The fate which perhaps poor Keats himself was subject to.

Because of the prevalence of premature death in poets such as Keats and some of his contemporaries, and because of the general mythology of destruction and death which surrounds them, the Leanan sidhe are classed as hostile, an evil breed of fairy. But we must not forget that there is another, less grotesque side to them too – after all, while they may cause their mortal victims to suffer from a considerably shortened life span, they do impart great stores of poetic talent and beauty, not to mention a keen appreciation of those most poignant and noble human emotions – love, longing and sorrow. If Keats and his fellow poets truly were inspired by fairy beings and carried off to an early grave as a result, the poetry they left behind stands the test of time and has surely achieved at least some form of immortality. It is arguable that the poets themselves would not have had it any other way; rather a short and gifted life than a lengthy one of literary mediocrity; this is, after all, how such intensely creative types tend to think.

As for the Leanan Sidhe, perhaps they are still among us to this day, drawn to luminously creative souls whom they both inspire and slowly destroy – while at the same time leaving us in possession of a strikingly beautiful literary and musical legacy; otherworldly in its beauty and consummate skill.

Ireland

Fairy Gifts by Amy Van De Casteele

Taking a quick scan through human history, and its many colourful cultural beliefs, legends and mythologies, it seems clear, at least to me, that human beings simply cannot exist without fairies – or at least, not without stories of fairies.

Ever since our ancestors first began speaking about these strange creatures around the flickering flow of a cooking fire, our minds and our myths have been haunted by fairies, by their magic and by their many weird and wonderful deeds.

From Ireland’s supposed historical invasion of the Tuatha De Danann – also referred to as the Shining or Lordly Ones – to the Victorian obsession with tiny, delicate pixie beings with Tinkerbell-style wings, we have told tales, painted pictures and dreamed many a dream of these mysterious creatures.

Of course not all of our beliefs about them are as sweet and cutesy as the Victorian’s precious ‘tiny fairy’ image. In Anglo Saxon times elves were believed to inhabit our meadows, woodlands and hilltops and though our ancestors told stories of how beautiful they were elves were also treated with a healthy mixture of fear and respect. Sacrifices were made in their honour, both to appease them and ask for their aid, and pieces of iron – which they supposedly hated – were left under the cribs of new-born babies, so that the children wouldn’t be stolen away in the night and replaced by changelings. Elves were also blamed for an affliction which was known in Anglo Saxon times as ‘water-elf disease’ but was probably dropsy, and for many years our ancestors had a firm belief in ‘elf-shot’, tiny malevolent barbs shot by the elves which caused illness, lassitude and sometimes even death.

However elves and fairies could also impart good fortune as well as bad. From helping with the crops to – ironically enough – curing diseases, we believed that these magical beings could give us aid when ordinary human techniques or knowledge failed. Two famous gifts said to be imparted by fairies are those of music and literary skill. As I have written in a previous article, the leanan sidhe are ‘fairy lovers’ which legend has it imparted poets such as Keats and Shelley with uncommon writing abilities…while at the same time draining them of vitality and causing their early deaths.

Meanwhile, British folklore – particularly that of the Irish – is filled with tales of people who became able to play sublimely beautiful music after being visited by fairies or falling asleep on a fairy mound.

Many of these tales date back centuries but there is a more recent example of a talented creative soul who was said to be enchanted by fairies. This person was none other than the revered Edinburgh artist, John Duncan, who was described by a close friend (Charles Richard Gammen) as being “the Scottish Blake” and was not only a skilled painter but also a poet, scholar and mystic. Member of the Theosophical Society for almost 40 years, John Duncan not only believed in fairies but supposedly saw them on many occasions when visiting Scottish islands such as Iona. On these islands he saw “not only the Little People but the Lordly Ones”, according to Gammen.

These encounters began on his very first holiday to the beautiful isle of Iona. He was supposed to stay for a few days or weeks at most, but Duncan soon became so entranced by the stunning landscape and ‘feel’ of the island that he ended up lingering for months. He went walking alone one day through the spectacular countryside when he suddenly noticed “two figures – tall and of strange aspect” who were walking down a heather-clad hill towards him. Duncan must have known straight away that they were uncanny creatures for “their feet did not bend the thick heather over which they walked, and they made no sound as they passed close to him…”

The two eerie beings then simply “faded out”, and in that moment John Duncan knew that he had witnessed fairies, walking abroad in the sunshine. From that day forward “he saw other members of the Sidhe on Iona”, according to friend Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, who went on to say that, “He had so much experience of Faerie and the Lordly Ones….that he found himself losing touch entirely with the earth and his own earthly existence. So, in the end, he thought it wiser to tear himself away from that mystical, haunted Isle.”

Duncan, who became famous for his stunning artworks, which had more than a trace of mysticism about them, famously led a somewhat unusual life and some modern-day cynics might say that he was mentally unstable. After all, he openly stated that he heard ‘fairy music’ while he was painting, and he proposed to, and later married, a woman who – he believed – had discovered the Holy Grail in Glastonbury’s Chalice Well (she later divorced him).

Then again, many famous ‘Creatives’ throughout history have been thought to be mad or in some way ‘unnatural’.

One can’t help but wonder if these tragic yet highly talented figures are just more examples of the common belief that madness and genius go hand in hand – or if the fairies, with their power to both inspire and destroy, had some influence on our many tortured but brilliant (and much beloved) poets, writers and painters… Could their talents, and subsequent unhappy ends, have been partly inspired by fairies, their brilliance imparted as a fairy gift? And, if so, was it truly a gift – or (thinking of the resultant madness and premature death) something of a spectacular curse?

Singapore

Fairy Roses, Fairy Rings by Amy Van De Casteele

Fairy roses, fairy rings, turn out sometimes troublesome things” – William Makepeace Thackeray
The inhabitants of Great Britain have been telling tales of elves and fairies for hundreds if not thousands of years. Known as ‘the little people’, the ‘Fair Folk’, the Sidhe and many other names besides, these mysterious creatures have fascinated us throughout our history and continue to do so even now, in this technological age when so many myths and legends have been reduced merely to dusty pages in forgotten books.
While fairies and elves are varyingly portrayed as being helpful, sweet, pure, mischievous and even malicious, one of the most enduring motifs in tales of the fairies is that of hapless mortals being whisked away to Elfland to join in the fairy revels. On the surface this sounds like an enchanting prospect but legend has it that in the land of the fairies time is much more fluid than in our mortal realm and can flow much faster or even stop and stand stock still. As a result, when these unfortunate humans are returned to their homes, they often find that in the “real world” time has galloped onwards and perhaps a hundred years have passed and everyone they once knew – including all their loved ones – are dead.
One of the most famous accounts of a mortal being taken away to Elfland is that of True Thomas, also known as Thomas the Rhymer, who encounters the beautiful Queen of the fairies riding on a milk-white steed. Mistaking her at first for the Queen of Heaven, Thomas consents to ride away with her and is shown “three marvels, the road to Heaven, to Hell and to her own world”. Finally she bestows upon him a gift of “even cloth” and “shoes of velvet green” and, lastly, a tongue that cannot tell a lie – hence his later nickname of True Thomas. He is then returned to the mortal realm where he is blessed with the gift of foresight and becomes a prophet, predicting among other things the Scottish triumph at the Battle of Bannockburn, the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333 and the defeat of King James IV at Flodden.
Many poems and ballads have been made about the predictions of True Thomas and his supposed encounter with the Queen of the elves. In real life not much is known about him besides his predictions and the fact that his name was probably Thomas of Erceldoune and he was born in or around 1220. No one is really sure how he died but there are two differing versions of events; one says that he was the victim of a political killing; the other more mystic tale states that he lives on still in the Eildon Hills and will rise again one day, just like King Arthur or that other famous prophet, Merlin.
Another famous “real life” tale of a person being whisked away to Fairyland – in this case, for all eternity – is that of the minister and Gaelic folklorist Robert Kirk, who penned the rather iconic A Secret Commonwealth (of Elves, Fauns and Fairies) back in 1692. A dedicated scholar, devoted husband and minister of Balquhidder and then his hometown of Aberfoyle until his death, Robert published a few other Gaelic works and oversaw the printing of the Gaelic Bible which was published in 1690, but it was his work on folklore and fairies which has brought him most renown. The reason for this is partly the work itself but also the romantic and rather haunting mystery surrounding his death.
Robert Kirk passed from this world on May 14 1692 at the relatively young age of 48; his body was found on the slopes of what was known as the “fairy hill” above the village of Aberfoyle. Although there is a grave and a tombstone with his name on it in the churchyard it is rumoured that no corpse is interred there; that, in fact, Robert Kirk’s body was spirited away to Fairyland where he will dwell for all eternity and serve as chaplain to the Fairy Queen. This seems an ethereal and very romantic notion; however a darker version of the story says that the fairies took him because they were angry at how he had betrayed their secrets, and another equally disturbing rumour is that the fairies imprisoned him in the lonely Scots pine which stands atop the hill, echoing the fate of the Arthurian mystic Merlin, who was also held captive in such a way in the forest of Broceliande.
It is even said that the spirit of Robert Kirk appeared both to his pregnant widow and to his cousin, begging them to free him from Fairyland, and later Colin Kirk, the unfortunate folklorist’s eldest son, stated that his father came to him in dreams and told him that he could be saved if a child was christened at the Aberfoyle manse and a dirk stuck into his chair. Unfortunately it seems that this has never been achieved and local people say that if you cross the bridge to go up the fairy hill where he died you will feel a heavy weight riding on your back – the poor lost spirit of Robert Kirk himself, clinging to your mortal flesh, still desperate to be rescued from his eternal captivity.
Of course there are many fairy tales and fictional accounts of people being stolen away to Elfland but these reports of true-life encounters with the Fair Folk are enough to give us pause, to send shivers rippling down our spines and raise the fine hairs on the back of our necks. While the “abduction” of Thomas the Rhymer and Robert Kirk took place centuries ago, there have been more recent stories of strange vanishings, such as the 1960’s case of the little boy from Govan, who was walking home along the road with his brothers when suddenly he disappeared as if into thin air – he hasn’t been seen since.
Whatever you believe – or don’t – about the Fair Folk there is no doubt that humans remain fascinated by tales of these fantastic creatures; perhaps within us all there is some ancestral yearning for a connection with the mystical, making the idea of a sojourn in Elfland seem desirable despite the inherent otherworldly quality of this place; the element of danger and death. Whether it is a real place or not, Fairyland will continue to haunt our dreams and imaginings for many years to come.