By Fiona Grahame Images and art work by Martin Laird
“For ages an army of spirits, once so near, has been receding farther and farther from us, banished by the magic wand of science.” Sir James Frazer, The Scape Goat.
The Disney Corporation made their 1953 interpretation of J.M. Barrie’s Tinkerbell the unofficial mascot of the company: blonde, dressed entirely in green and with her hour glass figure trailing sparkling pixie dust as she tinkled through the air.
Thirty years earlier Cicely Mary Barker ‘s successful Flower Fairies books were best sellers with enchanting images based on real children. Today those images are part of a successful franchise and you can even decorate your child’s room in Flower Fairy wallpaper surrounding the sleeping innocent with pictures of the magical beings.
Sugary, pretty, lightsome fairies a far cry from the wondrous and terrifying folk lore they originated from.
Orkney faeries are short in stature with small faces and a yellow complexion. They have red eyes and green teeth. Their clothes are dark grey and they wear brown woollen mittens. They are ugly malevolent beings who continually harass their human neighbours.
How much more interesting already.
They steal new born babies and replace them with a weak, fretting child of their own which will have an insatiable appetite. Despite this it will never thrive and eventually die.
Faeries in Orkney are particularly disliked and feared because of their attacks on cattle which they shoot with an ‘elf’ dart. Fear not, however, for in every parish and island there is a woman (certainly in the old days) who could cure the poor beast. The old woman, is summoned to the farm, runs her hands over the animal till she finds the open hole which the faerie dart has made. With great ceremony and magical words she washes the wound. It is less common for human beings to be shot by elf darts, faeries preferring to inflict that wound on cattle instead.
The elf darts, or arrow heads, are small flint weapons which can often be found in fields. These bring protection to whoever possesses them as no faerie can have power over any person, or their cattle, who has an elf dart. People in the past kept the faerie darts, often wearing them round their necks from a cord and passing them on to family before they died. Although one old lad, who had no family, left strict instructions that his faerie dart be buried with him.
Faeries in Orkney leave few clues but one such is the faerie ring.
‘He that tills the fairies green
Nae luck again sall he.’
Indeed in Hoy in 1920 a lad and his lass walking with her family came upon a dark green circle. The parents knew this was a faerie ring but the girl ignored their warnings and jumped into it. The lass died giving birth to her first child.
It really is not safe to enter places where the Orkney faeries frequent although often people are drawn to them by the sound of mirth and music. Many are the tales of, particularly young men, who disappear into Mounds never to return for decades.
A farmer in the parish of Harray would tell of the dancing and frolicking he witnessed at the ruin of a Broch near his farm on a Christmas Day but on his approaching them the revellers all disappeared.
Some Orcadians, certainly in the past, have had a somewhat closer relationship with the faerie folk. Mansie o’Kierfa from Sandwick had a faerie wife who lived with him and his human partner. The faerie wife provided him with such valuable information about healing and the use of herbs that he became famous in the parish as a physician. Mansie always made sure that on ‘rife nights’ such as Hallowe’en, Christmas and New Year’s Eve that there was food in the house for his faerie wife. The faerie wife bore Mansie three daughters, all of whom thrived.
The Orkney faeries, as are the tales from across Scotland, reflect a folk memory of a people long gone leaving only fragments of arrow heads and grassy mounds as evidence that they once strode upon our land. Our once magnificent and fearsome faeries have been replaced with a gossamer brand.
‘Only in poet’s dreams is it given to catch a glimpse of the last flutter of the standards of the retreating hosts, to hear the sound of their mocking laughter.” Sir James Frazer
This article first appeared in issue 57 of iScot Magazine