International Faerie Day: A Scottish History
So, before we go any further. One thing…don’t call them Faeries! For they most certainly do not like it. Fair folk is fine but remember to show the utmost respect as they enjoy playing tricks on humans and take very badly to perceived slights. Though there is the odd kind faerie, most of them are mischievous at best, and terrifying at worst.
Scotland and Faerie History
In Scotland, Fairies are traditionally called Seelie or Unseelie from the word ‘seilie’ in Scots, which means Happy or Lucky (source). Also known by the fair folk, elevs, good people and many other names. In Gaelic they were called Daoine Sith meaning ‘people of peace’ (not because they were peaceful mind, but as an act of fearful respect). In Gaidhealtachd, the Scots Gaelic oral storytelling tradition they were called the “still folk” or “silently moving people,” spelt SITH and pronounced SHEE .
We have mentions of them throughout the last 1000 years of recorded history, which is pretty incredible. Some of our earliest sources are from poems like Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin and The Elfin Knight.
Throughout Scottish History, there are many records of Faeries being blamed for people’s misfortune, from crops failing and cream curdling to lost children.
To protect themselves superstitions grew around how to protect oneself. Wearing rowan berries or decorating your home with them was one. Carrying Iron was another. There were also the acts of Saining or maistir. Saining involves the burning pine cones or metal-imbued water being sprinkled over a new mother and her child. Maistir, a rather more unpleasant choice involved stale urine. This was placed on windows and doors to keep out Faeries…and everyone else probably .
It was believed that every source of water from a well to a loch had its own Faerie protector. One must appease these protectors with gifts and respect. This is perhaps why we find so many precious items from the past in them.
Famous Scottish Fair Folk
Apart from Nessie, is any other creature more famous in Scotland now than The Kelpies? The stunning sculptures pay homage to a terrifying creature, half man, half horse. Said to trick the unwary into rides on his back, only to drag them into the water and drown them. Gulp!
The sad tales of Selkies are another well-spun story. Beautiful creatures who take on human form when they remove their seal-like skin. Humans would fall in love with them and trap them by hiding their skins. Preventing the Selkies from returning to their homes. These tales always end in heartbreak when the Selkie finally frees itself and returns to the water where it belongs.
A lesser-known being (I only heard about them when researching this article!) is the Scottish Faerie Vampire. Baobhan Sith. Known to devour their male victims and take their hearts .
Not that they were all bad! Wee sprites and Brownies would favour children and help them out in times of peril. The well-known Ghillie Dhu or Gille Dubh was thought to be a kindly sort, devoted to children.
Places to visit
One of the best places for Faerie fun in Scotland is the Isle of Skye. With its well-known Fairy Pools and Fairy Glen. Take a brave dip in a pool and see who you might meet! or wander the glen just as dusk falls and keep your eyes open.
Although not actual Kelpies thank goodness, Scotland’s stunning sculptural artwork of them is well worth a visit. Also, whenever you are on the coast keep your eyes peeled for both Selkies and Kelpies, but don’t get too close.
No matter where you are in the Scottish countryside, you will find faerie circles hidden in woods or mystical glens to wander through. Just keep your wits about you or you could disappear into the faerie court for 100 years in the blink of an eye!
By Juliet Kinsey
Read more about the subject of Faeries on Librarysearch.napier.ac.uk.
How about this article by Moir Marquis, Otherworld Here: On the Ecological Possibilities of Faeries
or this book: The Virtue of Temperance in the Faerie Queene
To learn about all things fairytale and Celtic, read The Golden Bough.
Why not learn more about History in our blog post on May Day?
Henderson, L. & Cowan, E.J., 2001. Scottish fairy belief: a history, East Linton: Tuckwell Press