“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.