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Popular Superstitions of the Highlands
Of the Fairy's Embezzling and Criminal Propensities


BUT, although the correspondence now subsisting between the human and fairy people is much more chaste and innocent than it as of old, still it appears that the strong predilection which the fairies entertained for human society is far from being yet extinguished. It is no doubt the existence of this predilection on the part of the former, and the increasing shyness on the part of the latter, that could induce the fairies to resort to those dishonest methods to which they now recur, to have their passion for human society gratified.

We presume the reader is aware that the fairies are much addicted to that heinous crime  child-stealing—a crime which these people, in consequence, no doubt, of their long experience in the practice, commit with wonderful address. Often have they robbed the inexperienced mother of her tender babe in the height of day, while his place is taken by an impudent impostor, whose, sham sickness and death entail on the unhappy parent an additional load of misery. To warn unsuspicious mothers of the dangers to which themselves and their offspring are exposed from fairy practices, the following narrative may be of use:

"There were once two natives of Strathspey who were in the habit of dealing a little in the whisky way—that is to say, they were accustomed occasionally to visit a family in Glerilivat, from, whom they would buy a few barrels, which they would again dispose of among the gentlemen of Badenoch and Fort-William, to pretty good account; and on those occasions, for reasons well known to every district gauger, (an evil death to him,) the Strathspeyrnen always found it most convenient to travel by night. Well, then, on one of those occasions, as they were busy measuring the whisky in the friend’s house at Glenlivat, a little child belonging to the good.man, and which lay in the cradle, uttered a piteous cry, as if it had been shot. The good-wife, according to custom, blessed her child, and, as she supposed, raised it from the cradle. Ascribing the cry merely to infantine frailty or fretfulness, the Strathspeymen took no particular notice of it, and having their business transacted, they proceeded on, their way with their cargo. A short distance from their friend’s house, they were not a little astonished to find a little child abandoned on the high road, without a being in sight of it. One of the lads took it up in his arms, on which it ceased its plaintive cries, and with great fondness, clasped his little hands round his neck, and smiled. This naturally excited some curiosity, and on closer examination they clearly recognised it to be their friend’s child. Suspicion was instantly attached to the fairies, and this suspicion was a great deal strengthened by the circumstance of the cry uttered by the child, as already mentioned. Indeed, they came to an immediate conclusion, that the fairies having embezzled the real child, then in their possession, and deposited a stock or substitute in its place, it was the lucky presence of mind discovered by its mother in blessing it on its having uttered the cry, that rescued it from fairy dominion, for no sooner was the blessing pronounced than they were compelled to abandon the child. As their time was limited, they could not with convenience immediately return to their friend’s house to solve the mysterious occurrence, but proceeded on their journey, taking special care of their little foundling.

"In about a fortnight thereafter, having occasion for a few barrels more, they returned to Glenlivat, taking the child along with them, which, however, they concealed on arriving at the father’s house. In the course of mutual inquiries for each other’s welfare, the goodwife took occasion to lament very bitterly a severe and protracted illness which seized her child on the night of their preceding visit, the nature of which illness could not be ascertained, but, at:all events, certain death was the consequence to the child. During this lamentation, the impostor uttered the most piteous cries, and appeared in the last stage of his sufferings; upon this, the lads, without any preliminary remarks, produced their little charge, telling the mother to take courage, that they now presented her with her real child, as healthy and thriving as a trout, and that the object of her great solicitude was nothing more than a bare-faced fairy impostor. A short statement of facts induced the happy mother to agree to an exchange, she receiving back her child, and the lads the stock or imposter, to whom his new proprietors proceeded to administer a warm specific commonly given to his kin on similar occasions. They procured an old creel and a bunch of straw, in order to try the effects the burning element would have in curing him of his grievous complaints. But at. the appearance of those articles, the stock took the hint, and not choosing to wait a trial of its effects, flew out at the smoke-hole, telling the exulting spectators, on attaining the top of the ‘Lum,’ that, had it not been for the unfortunate arrival of the two travellers, he should have given the inmates, very different entertainment."

When we reflect upon the extreme covetousness manifested by the fairies for human children, the frequent instances of their ernbezzlement; and, on the other hand, the ease and —simplicity by which these robberies can be foiled, we feel persuaded neither mother nor nurse will now neglect the safe-guards prescribed for the preservation of children from such practices. It is universally allowed by people conversant in those important matters, that suspending the child’s head downwards, on its being dressed in the morning, is an excellent preservative from every species of supernatural agency, and this is certainly a cheap and simple process. A red thread tied about its neck, or a rowan cross, are said to be equally efficacious in preventing the influence of evil spirits, evil eyes, and other calamities of the same description.

But as it is natural to suppose that those precautions will still be sometimes neglected, as they have always too often been, it is fortunate that a remedy has been discovered for those desperate cases, where repentance for past imprudence would not avail. When a child has actually been stolen, and a stock or substitute left in its stead, the child may be recovered in the following manner :—Let the stock be carried to the junction of three shires, or the confluence of three rivers, where it is to be left for the night, and it is a certain fact, that if the child has been stolen by the fairies, they must, in the course of the night, return the genuine offspring, and take away the spurious one.

[We are informed, that there is a woman still living In the parish of Abernethy, on whom this experiment was tried. She was found one night, rather unaccountably, as it appeared to her wise parents, on the outside of a window. No doubt, therefore, remained, but that she had been stolen by the fairies, and a stock left as her substitute. It was, therefore, unanimously resolved to carry the stock to the junction of the shires of Inverness, Moray, and Banff, where the poor child was left for a night to enjoy the pleasures of solitude. Being well rolled up in a comfortable blanket, she sustained no material injury from this monstrous exposure, and, accordingly, the result proved highly satisfactory to her enlightened guardians.]

But children are not the only objects of the envy. They are equally covetous of pregnant females at a certain juncture, when they embrace every opportunity of securing them, well knowing that, by such acquisitions, they obtain a double bargain. The process of stealing women is the same as that of stealing children, only their ranges in quest of such prizes are much more extensive, as the following story will show:

"There was once a courageous clever man, of the name of John Roy, who lived in Glenbrown in the parish of Abernethy. One night as John Roy was out traversing the hills for his cattle, he happened to fall in with a fairy banditti whose manner of travelling indicated that they carried along with them some booty. Recollecting an old, and, it seems, a faithful saying, that the fairies are obliged to exchange any booty they may possess for any return, however unequal in value, on being challenged to that effect John Roy took off his bonnet, and threw it towards them, demanding a fair exchange in the emphatic Gaelic phrase, Sluis sho slumus sheen. [Mine is yours, and yours is mine.] It was, no doubt, an unprofitable barter for the fairies. They, however, it would appear, had no other alternative, but to comply with John Roy’s demand; and in room of the bonnet, they abandoned the burden, which turned out to be nothing more nor less than a fine fresh lady, who, from her dress and language, appeared to be a Sasonach. With great humanity, John Roy conducted the unfortunate lady to his house, where she was treated with the utmost tenderness for several years; and the endearing attentions paid to her by John and his family won so much her affections, as to render her soon happy in her lot. Her habits became gradually assimilated to those of her new society; and the Saxon lady was no longer viewed in any other character than as a member of John Roy’s family.

"It happened, however, in the course of time, that the new king found it necessary to make the great roads through those countries by means of soldiers, for the purpose of letting coaches and carriages pass to the northern cities; and those soldiers had officers and commanders in the same way as our fighting army have now. Those soldiers were never great favourites in these countries, particularly during the time that our our  own kings were alive; and, consequently, it was no easy matter for them, either officers or men, to procure for themselves comfortable quarters. But John Roy forgot the national animosity of his countrymen to the Cottan Darg, when the latter appealed to his generosity as an individual and he, accordingly, did not hesitate to offer an asylum under his roof to a Saxon captain and his son, who commanded a party employed in the immediate neighbourhood. His offer was thankfully accepted of, and while the strangers were highly delighted at the cleanliness and economy of the house and family of their host, the latter was quite satisfied with the frankness and urbanity of manners displayed by his guests. One thing, however, caused some feelings of uneasiness to John Roy, and that was the extreme curiosity manifested by them, whenever they were in the company or presence of his English foundling, on whom their eyes were continually riveted, as if she were a ghost or a fairy. On one occasion, it happened that the captain’s son laps-ed into a state of the profoundest meditation, gazing upon this lady with silent emotion. 'My son,’ says the captain, his father, ‘ tell me what is the cause of your deep meditation?’ - 'Father,’ replies the sweet youth, ‘ I think the days that are gone; and of my dearest mother, who is now no more. I have been led into those reflections by the appearance of that Iady who is now before me. Oh, father! does she not strikingly resemble the late partner of your heart; she for whom you so often mourn In secret?‘—‘Indeed, my son,’ replied the father, ‘the resemblance has frequently recurred In me too forcibly. Never were twin sisters more like; and, were not the thing impossible; I should even say she was my dearest departed wife;‘.—pronouncing her name as he spoke, and also the names of characters nearly connected to both parties. Attracted by the mention of her real name, which she had not heard repeated for a number of years before, and, attracted still more by the nature of their conversation, the lady, on strict examination of the appearance of the strangers, instantly recognised her tender husband and darling son. Natural instinct could be no longer restrained.. She threw herself upon her husband’s bosoms and Ossian, the soil of Fingal, could not describe in adequate terms the transports of joy that prevailed at the meeting. Suffice it to say, that the Saxon lady was again restored to her affectionate husband, pure and unblemished as when he lost her, and John Roy gratified by the only reward he would accept of—the pleasure of doing good."

From the sequel of the story, it appears that some of the hordes of fairies, inhabiting the, "Shian of Coir.laggack," found it convenient, for purposes which may be easily guessed at, to take a trip to the south of England, and made no scruple to kidnap this lady in the absence of her husband, and on the occasion of her accouchement. A stock was, of course, deposited in her stead—which, of course, died in a few days after—and which, of course, was interred in the full persuasion of its being the lady in question, with all the splendour which her merits deserved. Thus would the perfidious fairies have enjoyed the fruits of their cunning, without even a suspicion of their knavery, were it not for the "cleverness and generosity of John Roy, who once lived in Glenbrown."

The natural passions, lusts, and covetousness of which we have now shown the fairies to be possessed, are not, however, our only grounds for calling in question the fitness of their title to angelic nature and attributes. For it will be seen from some traits in their character about to be detailed, that their appetites are as keen and voluptuous, as their inclinations are corrupt and wicked. Our readers would be apt to believe from the first outline of their character, that they were an amiable harmless race of people, strictly honest, and given entirely to innocent amusements. But it is a fact too well known, that many of them are employed in very different avocations from mirth and dancing; for, to repeat an old Scottish proverb, "if a’ tales be true," thieving and blackguarding occupy fully as much of their time as mirth and dancing. And what is still worse, it is much suspected, that their proneness to theft and knavery is not so much the effect of necessity, as it is the effect of wanton depravity. However base and degrading in the eyes of society appears the thief even when his deviation from honesty is the resuIt of sheer necessity, he appears infinitely more so when he is solely led to the commission of crimes from wanton levity. Hence the indignation which a worthy man feels, whenever those pilfering depredators embezzle the fruits of his honest industry. The whirlwind is not the alone engine of robbery to which the fairies resort; they recur to others of a more direct and ruinous character; while the loser, from the speciousness of their artifices, is seldom conscious of the true cause of his loss. In order to expose the wantonness of such pillage as they will be shown to be guilty of, we need only call our reader's attention to the extent of the indisputable perquisites which they derive from fire and other calamities incident to the estate of man, many of which calamities, we are told, are accomplished by their agency. As, however, we would not readily accuse them of crimes so atrocious, without some foundation, we submit the following particulars to the judgment of our readers, leaving them to draw their own inferences.

"One day a fairy woman, residing in the turrets of Craig-ail-naic, called on one of the tenants’ wives in Delnabo, in her neighbourhood, and requested of her the loan of a firlot of oatmeal for meat to her family, promising she would return it in a very short time, as she herself hourly expected a considerable supply. Not choosing,  for so small a trifle, to incur the fairy’s displeasure, the tenant’s wife complied with her request, from the same motives as if she had been the exciseman. After regaling the fairy with a dram and bread and cheese, as is the custom of the country, she went out to give her the customary convoy. On ascending the eminence above the town, the ‘Benshi' paused, and, with apparent exultation, told the tenant’s wife that she might take her meal home with her, as she herself was now supplied as she expected. The woman, without putting any impertinent questions to the lady, as to the source whence her supply proceeded, cheerfully agreed to receive back her meal, and took leave of her visitor. She was not a little surprised however, to observe, in a few minutes thereafter the corn-kiln of an adjacent farm in total conflagration, with all its contents."

Over and above this, all liquids spilled on the ground are supposed to go to their use; and there are some people even so charitable, as purposely to reserve for their participation a share of the best they possess. It is not unlikely that such generous actions were in some degree influenced by such returns as the following:

"Once upon a time, a farmer, in Strathspey, was engaged sowing a field upon his farm, and, as is not uncommon, he accompanied his labours with a cheerful song. Now the fairies are very fond of music, and not less so of spoil, - and whether it was the music or the seed that attracted her most to the spot, certain it is, that a fairy damsel, of great beauty and elegance, presented herself to the farmer. She requested of him, as a particular favour, to sing her an old Gaelic song, Nighan Donne na Bual;’ and, when this favour was granted her, she sought of him a present of corn. Although he had far less objections to her first request than he had to her second, he did not flatly refuse her, but he did what any prudent man would do in similar circumstances,—.he inquired what she would give him in return. She answered, that, provided he granted her request, his seed would not the more speedily fail him; and this assurance she enforced with a look so significant, as to induce him at once to supply her very liberally from his bag. She then departed, and he resumed his work. He was soon after very agreeably surprised, when he found that, after sowing abundantly a large field, wont to take five times the bulk of his bag, it appeared equal in size and weight to what it was when he met with the fairy nymph. Far from being in the least confounded at the agreeable circumstance, he threw his bag over his shoulder, highly satisfied at the act of munificence he did in the morning, and sowed with it another field of equal extent without its exhibiting any appearance of diminution. Perfectly satisfied now with his days labour, he returned home, fully determined to take care of his bag. But, just as he was entering the barn door, who met him but his wife, who was a foolish talkative hussey, having a tongue as long and a head as empty, as the parish church bell. With her usual loquacity she accosted him, expressing her astonishment at the unaccountable nature of the sack, that had thus sown half their farm,—expressing, moreover, very notable suspicions of the cause. Now it is well known that, whenever any supernatural agency is chalIenged, the spell is instantly broken. So that the clashmaclavering Jezebel had scarcely uttered those inconsiderate and highly reprehensible words, when the burden on the farmer's back became an empty bag. ‘I’ll be your death, you foolish, foolish woman,’ exclaimed. her woe-struck husband; ‘were it not for your imprudent talk, this bag were worth its weight of gold.’ "

Such relations as the foregoing should go very far to induce every prudent and foreseeing man to be on as friendly a footing, as possible, with those capricious and all powerful people, especially when their friendship is to be purchased on such reasonable terms as those of which we have just read. The unhappy hero of the following narrative was convinced, when too late, of the truth of this observation.

A farmer, who at one time occupied the farm of Auchriachan, of Strathavon, was one day searching for his goats in a remote hill in Glenlivat, and what came on, but a thick hazy fog, which marred his way, and bewildered his senses. Every stone, magnified by the delusion of the moment, appeared a mountain; every rivulet seemed to him to run in an opposite direction to its usual course; and the unhappy traveller thought of his fireside, which he expected never to see more. Night came on apace; its horrific gloom, as it approached, dispelled the unhappy wanderer’s forlorn hopes, and he now sat down to prepare for the world that has no end. Involved in perplexity at his unhappy situation, he threw a mournful look on the gloomy scene around him, as if to bid the world an eternal adieu,—when, lo! a twinkling light glimmered on his eye. It was a cheering blink that administered comfort to his soul. His frigid limbs, which lately refused their office, recovered their vigour. His exhausted frame became animated and energetic; and he immediately directed his course towards the light, which, from its reflection, seemed not far distant. On reaching the place, however, his joy was a good deal damped when he examined the nature of the place whence the light reflected. A human foot never seemed to have visited the scene; it was one of wildness and horror. Life however, is exceedingly. sweet when we are on the brink of losing it, and necessity had so far subdued every vestige of fear, that Auchriachan resolved at all hazards to take a night’s lodging with the inmates, whatever their nature or calling might be. The door was open, and he entered the place. His courage, however, was a. good deal appalled, on meeting at the door an old female acquaintance, whose funeral he had recently attended, and who, it appeared, acted in this family in the capacity of housewife. But this meeting, however disagreeable it proved to Auchriachan, in one respect, ultimately turned out a fortunate circumstance for him, in as much as his old acquaintance was the happy means of saving his life. On observing Auchriachan, for that was the farmer’s title, enter the abode, she instantly ran towards him, and told him he was done for, unless he chose to slip in into a bye-corner off the principal apartment, where he had better remain until she found an opportunity of effecting his escape. The advice of the friendly housekeeper he thought it prudent to adopt, and he was accordingly content to hide himself in a crevice in the apartment. Scarce had he done so, when there entered the dwelling an immense concourse of fairies, who had been all day absent upon some important expedition; and being well appetized by their journey, they all cried out for some food. Having all sat in council, the question proposed for discussion was, 'What was their supper to consist of?’—When an old sagacious looking fairy, who sat in the chimney corner, spoke as follows: 'Celestial gentlemen, you all know and abhor that old miserly, fellow the tacksman of Auchriachan. Mean and penurious, he appropriates nothing to us; but, on the contrary, disappoints us of our very dues. By learning too well the lesson taught him by his old and wizend grand-mother, nothing escapes a blessing and a safeguard; and the consequence is, that we cannot interfere with the gleanings on his fields, far less the stock and produce. Now, Auchriachan himself is not at home this night, he is in search of his goats, our allies, [The goats are supposed to be upon a very good understanding with the fairies, and possessed of more cunning and knowledge than their appearance bespeaks.] —his less careful household have neglected the customary safeguards; and, lo! his goods are at our mercy. Come, let us have his favourite ox to supper.’—’ Bravo! exclaimed the whole assembly; ‘the opinion of Thomas Rymer is always judicious; Auchriachan is certainly a miserable devil, and we shall have his favourite ox to supper.—’But whence shall we procure bread to eat with him?’ inquired a greedy-looking fairy. ‘We shall have the new baken bread of Auchriachan,’ replied the sagacious and sage counsellor, Mr Rymer; ‘for he is a miserly old fellow—he himself is not at home, and his wife has forgot to cross the first bannock.’—’ Bravo!‘ exclaimed the whole assembly. ‘By all means, let us have the new baken bread of Auchriachan.’

"Thus did Auchriachan, honest man, who, indeed, was not at home, with no very grateful feelings, learn the fate of his favourite ox, without, however, dissenting from the general voice that pronounced his doom. And, in pursuance of the same unpleasant decision, he had the additional mortification to see his ill-fated ox deliberately introduced by the nose and killed in his presence. Meantime, when all were engaged cooking the ox, the officious housekeeper took occasion, under pretence of some other errand, to relieve Auchriachan from his uncomfortable seclusion. On issuing forth from Mr Rymer’s council-chamber, Auchriachan found the mist had entirely disappeared—the stones were now of their natural size—the rivulets now ran their usual course—the moon threw her silver mantle over the lately murky scene, and he had now no difficulty to make his way home, lamenting most sincerely the lot of his favourite ox.

"On arriving at home, he was cordially welcomed by his happy family, whose great anxiety for his safety was probably the cause of the omission of that duty that poor Auchriachan had so much cause to deplore. His Overjoyed wife, supposing her husband to be no doubt in a hungry case, provided a basket of new baked bread and milk, and urged him to eat, for sure he might well be hungry. He did not, however, mind her solicitude for his comfort—he was sorry and sullen, and cared not for the provision, particularly the bread, well knowing it was only an abominable phantom. At last he inquired, ‘Which of you served the oxen this night, my lads?‘—‘ It was I, my father,’ replied one of his sons. ‘And did you mind the customary safeguard ?‘—‘ Indeed,’ says the son, ‘ from my great agitation for the fate of my father, I believe I forgot.’—’ Alas! Alas!’ exclaimed the affectionate farmer. ‘My dear and favourite ox is no more !‘—‘ What!’ exclaims one of his sons, ‘I saw him alive not two-hours ago!’ ’It was only a fairy stock,’ says Auchriachan. ‘Bring him out here until I dispatch him.’ The farmer then, venting the most unqualified expressions of his indignation upon the stock and its knavish proprietors, struck it such a pithy blow on the forehead as felled it to the ground. Rolling down the brae, at the back of the house, to the bottom, there it lay and the bread along with it, both unmolested; for it was a remarkable circumstance, that neither dog nor cat ever put a tooth on the carcase."

it now only remains for us to describe the most heinous of all their crimes, a crime which we are peculiarly reluctant to bring so openly to light, did not our impartiality as an historian compel us. This crime consists in the destruction of human beings, and their cattle by means of their magical dart commonly called an elf-bolt. Those bolts are of various sizes, of a hard yellowish substance, resembling somewhat the flint, for which they are no bad substitutes. The bolt is very frequently of the shape of a heart, its edges being indented like a saw, and very sharp at the point. This deadly weapon the wicked fairy will throw at man or beast with such precision as seldom to miss his aim, and whenever it hits, the stroke is fatal. Such is the great force with which it is flung, that on its striking the object, it instantaneously perforates it to the heart, and a sudden death is the consequence. In the blinking of an eye, a man or an ox is struck down cold dead, and, strange to say, the wound is not discernible to an ordinary person, unless he is possessed of the charm that enables some wise people to trace the course of the bolt, and ultimately discover it in the dead body.—Note, whenever this fatal instrument is discovered, it should be carefully preserved, as it defends its possessor from the fatal consequences of the "Fay," so long as he retains it about him.

Having now travelled over the leading traits of the fairy’s character, publicly and privately, we shall now conclude our treatise of him by subjoining a few of the most approved cures and safeguards, which afford protection from his dangerous practices. An abler historian might be disposed to offer some learned observations on the strange incongruity of character exhibited by the fairy in the preceding sketches, and endeavour, if he could, to reconcile them so as to form any thing like a rational subject. As a plain unvarnished compiler, however, we have discharged our duty; we have detailed, to the best of out ability, the fairy’s character, according to the nature of our materials; and if our delineations are strange and inconsistent, the fault lies either with the fairy or his professed historians, and not with the mere machine, ourself, the compiler.

Go to the summit of some stupendous cliff or mountain, where any species of quadruped has never fed nor trod, and gather of that herb in the Gaelic language called "Mohan," which can be pointed out by any "wise person." This herb you will give to a cow, and of the milk of that cow you are to make a cheese, and whoever eats of that cheese is for ever after, as well as his gear, perfectly secure from every species of fairy agency.

A piece of torch fir carried about the person, and a knife made of iron. which has never been applied to any purpose, are both excellent preservatives.


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