Fairies of Ireland & Scotland

“Every legend, every myth, contains a kernel of truth; if we could only remove the husk of fable which envelopes it.”  

O’Curry’s “Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish.”
Glencoe Valley in the Scottish Highlands. An image of high rolling green mountains and peaks with the layered valleys beneath them; set against a gray and blue cloudy sky with the sun trying to peak out.

Many of us first became familiar with fairies, elves, dwarves, pixies, leprechauns, and other hidden spirits of the natural world through the legends and “fairy” tales of the British Isles. From the coastal meadows of the Emerald Isle to the rolling hills of Pictland – the Sidhe (Fairies), Hidden People or Little Folk still hold a very special and relevant place to the people, their everyday environments, cultures, and literary history. In traditional Irish folklore, including the “Fairy Faith,” Fairies are known to be descendants of the Tuatha de Danann, or People of God existing between our world and the Otherworld, a realm that is accessible through caves, tombs, forests, certain trees, forts, as well as sacred wells and springs:

A stone “Fairy” Ringfort: Grianan of Aileach in Donegal Ireland, City of Derry. The circular stone fort sits on a hillside overlooking the Irish countryside, including misty mountains and pastures of green meadows.

“Although the Fairies are known as dwellers in Fairy mounds, yet, with an inconsistency common to Fairy lore, the other world is not always described as inside a hill; a hill is often only the entrance to Fairyland, which may lie over the western ocean or even under the waters of a lake. A familiar folk belief is that paradise is in the west, the land of the setting sun, the country of departed spirits…Mortals who were taken to the land of immortality were not always able to revisit the world without paying a penalty…sometimes they found that Time in Fairland had passed far more swiftly than by mortal reckoning and that an absence of a year in the other world had been actually the passing of a century…”

The Early Irish Fairies and Fairyland, Norreys Jephson O’Conor

Not surprisingly, long held fears of trespassing or angering the Hidden Folk has caused many groups, including the government, to protect certain heritage sites and monuments associated with these beings. It is still believed that to show any kind of disrespect or provocation towards the hidden ones and our shared lands will lead to misfortune, generational curses, and illness. As they are such an intrinsic part of the land and history, many believe the Wee Folk to be ancestral spirits, healers, tricksters, and deities who are to be respected and in many cases, feared! While there are many to name, below we’ll learn about just a few groups of Hidden Folk known to the Celtic people of this region.

“Had it not been for so-called superstition, many of our old raths and ruined shrines would have been levelled to the ground, and the consecrated clay of our burial-grounds would have been turned out as top-dressing on the land of “Planters,” whose centre of gravity was mainly in this world.”

Irish Popular Superstitions, The Irish Monthly, J.J. Doyle

Banshee

Image of a dark hazy midnight blue forest, with a silhouette of a ghost woman with skeleton hands ominously standing in the middle. She wears a black lace veil and dress.

The Banshee, or bean-sidhe, is believed to be an ancestral spirit, wise-woman, and fairy-seeress appointed to warn the descendants of certain Irish families of an impending death. She does this by emitting a bone-chilling scream. It is said that only the descendants five ancient families can hear her ominous cries: The O’Neills, O’Briens, O’Connors, O’Grady’s, and Kavanaghs; each family has their own Banshee. When she makes herself visible, she usually presents herself as a young woman, matron, or elder wearing a dark-hooded cloak or shroud, sometimes washing the blood-stained clothes of the person who is about to die. She can also shapeshift into other forms like crows, hares, and stoats. However, there are times where she will only make herself known by screaming, wailing, or crying the evening before a death. Her cries can be loud enough to shatter glass, or low enough to mimic the sound of a moaning owl. 

While there are several origin stories for the Banshee, historians have traced some of the first recorded tales of her to the 8th century, where a tradition existed of women who sang sorrowful songs to lament a person’s death. Known as keeners, these women sometimes would accept alcohol as a form of payment, and were thus believed to be cursed sinners doomed to become Banshees upon their own passing (this is also an example of the blending between traditional pagan beliefs and Christianity). The legend of the Banshee can also be attributed to the wise-women, nurses, or herbal practitioners of noble Irish houses: 

“Every great Irish house retained a nurse, who had knowledge of herbs, who prepared decoctions and administered them, and who attended to and watched the sick and dying. Accustomed to be up at night, she perhaps went out occasionally to gather herbs in the moonlight; and accustomed to mourn and cry, a “keener,” she would, when the patient under her care was past hope, naturally begin to lament in her fashion. The inhabitants of the house or castle in which the sufferer lay, would recognize in her cries a sure sign that the sufferer was dying; and thus it came to pass that the banshee’s or fairy-woman’s shriek was truly deemed a forerunner of death.”

Origin of the Irish Superstitions Regarding Banshees and Fairies, Herbert Hore and David Mac Ritchie

Brownies

Illustration by Alice B. Woodward of a Brownie spirit. He has on a red cloth cap and brown clothes and shoes, and is sweeping the floor with a scraggly wooden broom. He looks about two feet tall and has the appearance of an elderly man with a long pointy nose and skinny arms.

The Brownies, also referred to as brùnaidh or gruagach in Scottish Gaelic, are small, benevolent, hairy sprite-like fairies known to reside in the hollows of old trees, ruined castles, or the abodes of humans. Often, they are attached to specific families and will reside with their descendants for centuries. They are most famous for helping tenants to clean the home, tend their livestock, assist with farmwork and household chores, and even aid children. All of their work is completed at night while members of the home are fast asleep, as they do not like to be seen. It is said the best way to thank a Brownie for their service is to leave them a piece of bread or sweet cake with a bowl of milk, cream, honey, porridge, and/or alcohol at the hearth of the home, but it must be done discreetly. Clothing should never be offered as a gift to a Brownie unless you want to offend them and have them leave:

“At Leithin-hall, in Dumfrieshire, a Brownie had dwelt, as he himself declared, for three hundred years. He used to show himself but once to each master; to other persons he rarely discovered more than his hand. One master was greatly beloved by Brownie, who on his death bemoaned him exceedingly, evening abstaining from food for many successive days. The heir returning from foreign parts to take possession of the estate, Brownie appeared to do him homage, but the Laird, offended at his mean, starved appearance, ordered him meat and drink, and new livery. Brownie departed, loudly crying, 

Ca’, cuttee, ca’! 

A’ the luck of Leithin Ha’

Gangs wi’ me to Bodsbeck Ha’.

In a few years Leithin Ha’ was in ruins, and “bonnie Bodsbeck” flourishing beneath the care of Brownie…”

The Fairy Mythology by Thomas Keightley (1828)

Redcaps

An image of Hermitage Castle in the Scottish borderlands. It is a rectangular stone structure with a large entryway and small windows overlooking the surrounding hills of green with a gray cloudy backdrop. This was the home of William de Soules and his Redcap familiar in the 14th century.

Redcaps are the malicious, castle-dwelling counterparts of the playful-natured Brownies. They are believed to reside in the ruins, castles, and towers of the Scottish borderlands, particularly the ones with history steeped in bloody battles. They are short, stocky, vicious goblins with straggly white hair, wiry beards, large razor-sharp teeth and nails, as well as red eyes. The boots they wear are made of iron, and they can usually be seen carrying some kind of weapon like a scythe or pike. Their name comes from the cloth hats they wear, soaked with the blood of their victims, which, if they were to dry out would signal their soul’s demise. It is for this reason they are most feared, because they must continuously appease their blood-thirst. Despite their small stature, they cannot be outrun, and they are able to defeat even the strongest of humans. The only known way to defeat them, due to the influence of Christianity, is to quote scripture, which will immediately cause them to burst into a flame. 

The most famous of the Redcaps in Scottish folklore is Robin Redcap, the familiar of a violent, 14th-century border nobleman named William de Soules who lived in Hermitage Castle during the time of Robert the Bruce. In the year 1320, he tried to kidnap a woman from her home, and he murdered her father who had tried to stop him. He murdered another man at a banquet, the Laird of Mangerton, who had tried to save Soules from being lynched by the local people who knew of his atrocities. 

“Countless complaints had been made about Lord Soules over the years and by 1321 more and more were reaching the ears of the king, Robert the Bruce. When news of Soules’s latest atrocity reached Bruce he called for him to be put to death. Unfortunately Soules was protected by his Redcap and could not be bound by rope or injured by steel, so his ingenious executioners rolled him up in a sheet of lead and boiled him to death in a cauldron on Ninestane Rig, a ring of standing stones near Hermitage Castle.”

The Blood Soaked Redcaps of Border Folkore, Fee of Wee White Hoose. 

A poem by John Leyden recounts the deal Soules made with Robin Redcap, who had promised him protection from his enemies:   

“ Lord Soules he sat in Hermitage castle,

And beside him Old Redcap sly; 

“Now, tell me, thou sprite, who art meikle of might,

The death that I must die!” 

“While thou shalt bear a charmed life, 

And hold that life of me,

’Gainst lance and arrow, sword and knife,

I shall thy warrant be.

“Nor forged steel, nor hempen band,

Shall e’er thy limbs confine,

Till threefold ropes of sifted sand

Around thy body twine.”

4 Lord Soulis, John Leyden

Leprechauns

A 1900 engraving of a Leprechaun spirit sitting on a rock counting his gold. He wears a long pointy cloth cap and jacket. He has the appearance of a small elderly man with a long beard and pointy ears.

Leprechauns, or leipreachán, are another distinct and infamous class of Fae most closely associated with artisan dwarfs, goblins, and other household familiars. A part of ancient Irish oral tradition, they are known to be solitary, mischievous cobblers, or shoemakers who possess great riches hidden away in caves that mortals try to pursue and almost always fail. They love to drink the best wine, dance, make and repair shoes, and especially play tricks on greedy people. 

“Records from East Galway suggest a strong tradition of the leipreachán being captured and imprisoned in a box or chest. It has only been recorded once outside of Galway and of the Galway instances only once outside of the East of the county. ‘It is said if you caught him and kept him in a tightly closed box for a year and a day, he would tell you where to find a pot of gold.’ This seems to be the reason for his imprisonment, itself referred to in more than a dozen accounts. He uses his habitual repertory of tricks to escape.”

The Leipreachán and Fairies, Dwarfs and the Household Familiar: A Comparative Study, Diarmuid Ó Giolláin

While several origin stories for the leipreachán exist, one of the first written tales of this little trickster first emerged in the 8th century, when stories about little “water-dwellers” rose in popularity among the Celts. This tale is known as the Echtra Fergusa maic Léti (‘The Adventure of Fergus Son of Léte’). In this story, several water-dwellers capture the hero Fergus while he is sleeping, stealing his sword as they attempt to carry him over water. The moment he feels water, he awakes and grabs three of the fairies. They are only able to gain their freedom when they promise to teach Fergus their swimming skills. 

A depiction of the “Ghillie Dhu” with text: A Scottish solitary faerie who inhabits certain birch thickets. His clothng is made of leaves and moss. The Fairy is shown within a thicket of birch trees, wearing leaves and crouching as he looks to his left. He has a thin, worn face and scraggly brown hair.

Ghillie Dhu 

The Ghillie Dhu, or ‘dark-haired servant’, is one of Scotland’s most famous and solitary guardian sprites, known to be as ancient as the Caledonian Forest itself. Though a shy one, he is a devoted protector of trees, animals, and children, and is believed to have once lived within a sacred Yew tree at Fortinghall, Highland Perthshire that is over three thousand years old. His clothes are made of leaves and spun moss, and he enjoys the company of the birch and fir. Today, you can still find him within the woods and thickets of Gairloch in Ross-shire, the northwest highlands of Scotland.    

Sources & Further Reading 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s