Everyone is familiar with fairies, the ethereal and beautiful Disney-styled spirits. But a closer look into Scottish folklore reveals a different
side to these beings. Many stories tell of the dangers of fairy folk and their malicious nature. Fairies were said to steal babies, and leave sickly
fairy babies in their place. Worse still, they would leave crudely carved wooden effigies in the cot having snatched the real, healthy infant. They
were known to spirit people away to their own lands, where time was different to ours and if a wanderer ever returned, he would come back a very
different man. They were said to be warded off with both iron and a rowan tree.
So who were they? Why did generations of families fear these creatures and why are their tales so prevalent in our lore? It seems unlikely that our
ancestors were all plain stupid, and relied on superstition to explain life as they knew it. And yet that is the rather smug myth that permeates
society; we are now cleverer, smarter, more scientifically minded than our family from centuries ago.
Really? I’m not so sure.
In the late 1890’s Scottish folklorist David McRitchie put forward a theory that many later folklorists would adopt. This was the idea that fairies
were actually memories of a tribe of Northerners, the Picts (the painted/tattooed ones). The Picts inhabited the north east of what we now call
Scotland from around the late Iron Age. Although no written history or language survives, they have left us carved stones and crosses which allow a
glimpse of their culture. The earliest stone to have been dated comes from 6AD.
Little is known about the Picts, why no record of their language exists or where they went. But are they now our fairies? A Norwegian excerpt from the
12th century tells us that “the Picts were little more than pygmies in stature. They worked marvels in the morning and evening buildings towns, but
at midday they entirely lost their strength and lurked through fear in little underground houses.”
But let’s not forget that these ‘pygmies’ were also capable of holding back the invading Roman legions so this could well be an exaggeration!
But what then of the story of the Bean sidhe (pron. Banshee) literally ‘woman fairy’. Lore tells of this spirit crying by a river, eternally
washing clothes who could predict the names of those who were bound to die soon. And yet there are many tales of a Beansidhe marrying mortal men.
‘Second sight’ and ‘seers’ are commonplace in Scottish history. Could these have been mortal Picts with a gift of sight who have been
immortalised as spirits?
R.L.Brown explains that “early Scottish tribes had the custom of kidnapping the children of their enemies and leaving sickly ones in their place.”
Is this more evidence that fairies have their roots firmly in reality rather than the supernatural?
I’m not sure if I can attribute all of fairy doings to the Picts, and wonder if some tales were not perpetuated as some kind of racist propaganda of
the times. Memories, embellishments, tall tales have all fused to give us our modern day fairy. But this does help me to feel closer to our ancestors
too; to feel that they were real humans with a fear and wariness of strangers, and the necessity for passing on these stories. We know we humans have
the propensity for racism and tribalism, so this idea fits with what we know of us. Or maybe the demonic and the mortal have blended through stories
You will have to make your own mind up as to the verity of these theories, but me? I like to imagine that my great, great, great...etc grandmother
was a fairy!
Sources and further reading:
The Quest for the Celtic Key – K.R. MacLeod & I. Robertson
Scottish Folklore – Raymond Lamont Brown
The Supernatural Highlands – Francis Thomson