By Betty Kirkpatrick
Anyone who has recently read a story to a young female of the species cannot fail to be aware of the immense popularity of fairies in modern children’s fiction. Are these fairies a throwback to those which once played such an important role in Celtic tradition? Is history repeating itself?
Absolutely not. The modern fairy is a minute female who is very much a creature of her times. She is fashionably dressed in well-coordinated clothes, with modishly styled hair, the whole liberally sprinkled with sparkles. Above all, the fairy of today’s fiction is intent on doing good, both in fairyland and in the land of humans.
In the Celtic tradition of Scotland and elsewhere, by no means all fairies were out to do good. Admittedly, there were some kindly fairies who did good deeds to humans and these belonged to what was called the Seelie Court. The many fairies who were malicious and wicked belonged to the Unseelie Court. These mischievous creatures were dead set on causing as much harm as possible to humans and they were a powerful force for evil.
As to clothes, some fairies were thought to wear green – but, apart from that, not much was known about their appearance. This is hardly surprising, as they were invisible for most of the time.
In modern children’s fiction, children – or at least little girls – are very anxious to meet up with fairies and they frequently do so. In former times, however, people were only too anxious to avoid the company of fairies and did their very best to ward them off.
Various things were called into play to help in this task. Horseshoes, then as now, were considered to be a symbol of good luck, but they were also regarded as a fairy deterrent. This was particularly effective if the horseshoe was made of iron, as would most likely be the case, since iron was regarded as a powerful deterrent to all malevolent supernatural creatures. The horseshoe was made even more of a threat to fairies if iron nails were used to fix it to door or the fireside.
A rowan tree planted near the threshold of the house was thought to keep at bay fairies and other forces of evil, such as witches. Other plant life was also used in the relentless struggle against fairies. Such plants included gorse, rosemary and dill, while St John’s Wort, now often used to ward off depression, was used to ward off fairies who were intent on stealing away humans while they were asleep.
It was a common part of fairy business to steal humans away. However, it appears that they mostly concentrated on the removal of human children. When they did steal away a human child, they would frequently leave a fairy child (called a changeling) in its place. The fairies’ most determined attempts at child-stealing were made between the time a child was born and the time it was baptised.
Much effort was concentrated on preventing the fairy invaders from carrying off a baby – or, indeed, the baby’s mother. Staying with the iron theme, someone in the household where there was a new-born baby might hammer a row of iron nails into the headboard of the bed where the new mother and baby were lying.
In some parts of Scotland, a pair of trousers belonging to the baby’s father was thought to frighten off fairies. The trousers were hung at the foot of the bed in which mother and baby slept. Sometimes the father’s shirt was used to wrap the new-born baby in, to stop the fairy thieves in their tracks. I do not know why fairies should be so afraid of male garments. It cannot have been that fairies were weak females who were afraid of men, because not all fairies in the Celtic tradition were female.
Human urine was another weapon used in the battle against the fairies. Presumably this could be supplied by a member of either sex. The urine was sprinkled on the doorposts of the front door or on the doorposts of the room where the baby lay. Apparently fairies found the smell of human urine extremely offensive and were likely to give it a wide berth. It cannot have been very pleasant for the humans in the house, either.
More pleasant-smelling was the practice of lighting a piece of fir-wood and carrying it three times around the bed where mother and baby lay. Alternatively, the lit wood was twirled three times round the heads of mother and baby. Poor things. They never seem to have got a moment’s peace when this fight against the fairies was being waged around them.
How would you know if the fairies had outwitted all attempts to stop them from making off with the baby and had left one of theirs in its place? Well, the fairy child was apt to be very pale, almost greenish in hue, and very frail-looking. They were said to seem to be always hungry and always crying, often with a particularly strange, pitiful cry. I know. That does sound like most babies, does it not?
Many Scottish changelings were thought to have a particular longing to play the bagpipes. They did their best to get hold of a set and if they did they could play them without receiving any tuition. Or was that skirling noise just their pitiful cry again?
If you suspected that the fairies had taken a baby and had left a changeling in its place, what action could you take? Well, you could get out the girdle. A girdle in this sense was not a female undergarment to pull the stomach in, but a flat cast-iron pan for making pancakes or scones on.
The girdle was placed on the open fire as though a baking session were about to begin. The child who was thought to have been dumped by the fairies was then held very near the girdle over the fire. If the child were indeed a changeling it would, supposedly, go straight up the chimney to be replaced by the real child who would come down the chimney.
The purpose of the girdle was to catch the baby who was returning home so that it would not land in the fire and get burnt. It presumably did not matter if the changeling suffered such a fate. There were various variations on this process and they all sound decidedly risky.
If members of a household failed to unmask a changeling at a very early stage, the outlook was not good for the changeling. When its identity was suspected, he or she might be subjected to ill-treatment, such as being left to suffer from exposure on a dung-heap, or might even be murdered. It has been suggested that the authorities might turn a blind eye to such treatment of changelings.
In more recent times, it has been proposed that children who were described as changelings were in fact not children of fairies, but human children who were developmentally disabled in some way. Many such disabilities would make them look different and this difference could be put down to the fact that they were fairy children. Unfortunately, this may have been considered to be more socially acceptable than having a disabled child in those unenlightened days.
There was a particular kind of fairy in the Celtic tradition that people did not want to ward off. This was a Brownie. A Brownie was a kind of nocturnal fairy who spent the night carrying out the household or farm tasks while members of the household were asleep. The said household members allegedly had to be hard-working and kind-hearted in order to qualify for Brownie help.
The work of Brownies did not go unrewarded. They were paid not in money, but in food – particularly milk, honey and porridge. Brownies were very fond of their food and could be temperamental. If one night the food was not put out, the Brownie might well go into a huff and storm off to households new.
I have long felt that a Brownie would make an ideal addition to my household. Alas, one has never come my way, although I consider myself to be both hard-working and relatively kind-hearted. Mind you, I do not like honey. That could be it.
Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.