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Popular Superstitions of the Highlands
Of the Fairies as a Community

Of the Fairies as a Community - Their Political Principles and Ingenious Habits

FROM the descriptions the reader may have seen of the fairy community in general, as drawn in the works of the eminent writers of the day, he may have been led to form very erroneous estimates not only of the dress of the Highland fairies, but also of their political economy and government.

There are few who have not heard of the Illustrious and divine beauty the Queen of the Fairies, and the splendid and dazzling courts with which her majesty is surrounded on all occasions of intercourse with the inhabitants of this world. It appears, however, from all that the compiler can learn, that the empire of Queen Mab, like that of the renowned Caesar, never was extended to the northern side of the Grampians,---for the is entirely unknown in those countries. Indeed, it is believed that the Highland fairies acknowledge no distinctions of this sort. As there were originally none such amongst them in Paradise, so they are not disposed to create any on earth,—and a more complete re-public never was.

It is true, Satan, no doubt, exercises a sort of impotent chieftainship over them as his once rebellious confederates,—but, it is believed, his laws and his edicts are as much despised by them as those of the Great Mogul. In spite of all his power and policy, like the Israelites of old each does what is right in his own eyes; and, unless on a Halloweven, or such occasion of Sate, they may submit to a pageant review more from motives of vanity than of loyalty, Auld Nick’s ancient sovereignty over the fairy community in this land of freedom has fallen into desuetude.

The fairies are a very ingenious people. As may be expected from the nature of their origin and descent, they are possessed of very superior intellectual powers, which they know well enough how to apply to useful purposes. Nor are they so vain of their abilities as to scorn to direct them to the prosecution of those more ignoble employments, on which the politer part of mankind commonly look down with contempt. Whether this condescension, on the part of the fairy, be more the result of choice or necessity, it is hard for us to determine; but certain it is, that few communities can boast of a more numerous or more proficient body of artisans. We are told, indeed, by some of those well acquainted with their manners, that every individual fairy combines all the necessary arts in his own person—that he is his own weaver—his own tailor— and his own shoemaker. Whether this is truly the case public opinion is rather divided; but all our informants concur in this conclusion—that by far the greater number of them understand well enough those several callings; and the expertness they display in handling the shuttle, the needle, and the awl, evidently demonstrate their practical knowledge of these implements. In support of this conclusion, we have the authority of a decent old man, whose veracity, on subjects of this description, has never been questioned in the district in which he lived, who favoured the compiler with the following narration:

"My great-grandfather, (peace to his manes!) was by profession a weaver, and, by the bye, a very honest man, though I should not say it, was waked one night from his midnight sleep by a tremendous noise. On looking "out over" the bed, to see whence it proceeded, he was not a little astonished to find the house full of operative fairies, who, with the greatest familiarity, had made free with his manufacturing implements. Having provided themselves with a large sack of wool, from whence it came they best knew, they were actively employed in converting it into cloth. While one teethed it, another carded it; while another span it, another wove it; while another dyed it, another pressed it; while the united bustle of theirt several operations, joined to the exclamations uttered by each expressive of his avocation, created a clamour truly intolerable to the gudeman of the house with whom they used so unacceptable a freedom. So diligent were they, that long ere day they decamped with a web of green cloth, consisting of fifty ells and more, without even thanking my venerable grandfather for the use of his machinery."

Another narrative, with which we were favoured, related the activity of a fairy shoemaker, who sewed a pair of shoes for a "mountain shepherd" during the time the latter mealed a bicker of pottage for them. And another narrative related the expertness of a fairy barber, who shaved an acquaintance so effectually with no sharper a razor than the palm of his hand, that he never afterwards required to undergo the same operation. These, and a number of equally creditable stories, confirm their transcendent superiority as artisans over any other class of people in Christendom.

Nor in the more honourable and learned professions are they less dexterous, As architects they stand quite unrivalled. To prove their excellence in this art we have only to consider the durability of their habitations. Some of these, it is said, have outlived the ravages of time and vicissitudes of weather for some thousand years, without sustaining any other injury than the suffocation of the smoke-vents—defects which could no doubt be repaired with little trouble. But as the relics of former ages receive additional interest from their rude and ruinous appearance, so must these monuments of fairy genius excite in the breasts of the community the most proud sentiments of respect and veneration.

Nor are these the only monuments remaining calculated to perpetuate their excellence as architects and engineers, — there are others of too lasting and extraordinary a character to escape the notice of the traditional historian. We allude to those stupendous superstructures built by the fairies under the auspices of that distinguished arch-architect Mr Michael Scott, which sufficiently demonstrate the skill of the designer and the ability of the workman. As the history of this celebrated character (rendered not the less interesting by the notices of him written by the Minstrel of Minstrels) is not yet quite complete, we shall make no apology for submitting to the reader the following anecdotes of his life, which we have collected in the course of our peregrinations.


In the early part of Michael Scott’s life he was in the habit, as is not yet uncommon with northern tradesmen, of emigrating annually to the Scottish metropolis, for the purpose of being employed in his capacity of mason. One time as himself and two companions were journeying to the place of their destination for a similar object, they had occasion to pass over a high hill, the name of which is not mentioned, but supposed to be one of the Grampians, and being fatigued with climbing, they sat down to rest themselves. They had no sooner done so than they were warned to take to their heels by the hissing of a large serpnt, which they observed revolving itself towards them with great velocity. Terrified at the sight, Michael’s two companions fled, while he, on the contrary, resolved to encounter the serpent. The appalling monster approached Michael Scott with distended mouth and forked tongue; and, throwing itself into a coil at his feet, was raising its head to inflict a mortal sting, when Michael, with one stroke of his stick, severed its body into three pieces. Having rejoined his affrighted comrades, they resumed their journey; and, on arriving at the next public-house, it being late, and the travellers being weary, they took up their quarters at it for the night. In the course of the night’s conversation, recurrence was naturally had, to Michael’s recent exploit with the serpent, when the landlady of the house, who was remarkable for her "arts," happened to be present. Her curiosity appeared much excited by the conversation; and, after making some inquiries regarding the colour of the serpent, which she was told was white, she offered any of them, that would procure her the middle piece, such a tempting reward, as induced one of the party instantly to go for it. The distance was not very great; and, on reaching the spot, he found the middle and tail piece in the place where Michael left them, but the head piece was gone, it is supposed, to a contiguous stream, for which the serpent is said always to resort, after an encounter with the human race, and, on immersing itself into the water, "like polypus asunder cut," it again regenerates and recovers. On the other hand, it is a circumstance deserving the attention of the medical world, that should an individual, unfortunate enough to be bitten by this galling enemy of mankind, reach the water before the serpent, his recovery from the effects of the calamity is equally indubitable.

The landlady, on receiving the piece, which still vibrated with life, seemed highly gratified at her acquisition; and, over and above the promised reward, regaled her lodgers very plentifully with the choicest dainties in her house. Fired with curiosity, to know the purpose for which the serpent was intended, the wily Michael Scott was immediately seized with a severe fit of indisposition,—an excruciating colic, the pains of which could only be alleviated by continual exposure to the fire, the warmth of which, he affirmed, was in the highest degree beneficial to him.

Never suspecting Michael Scott’s hypocrisy, and naturally supposing that a person so severely indisposed should feel very little curiosity about the contents of any cooking utensils which might lie around the fire, the landlady consented to his desire of being allowed to recline all night along the fireside. As soon as the other initiates of the house were retired to bed, the landlady resorted to her darling occupation; and, in this feigned state of indisposition, Michael had a favourable opportunity of watching most scrupulously all her actions, through the key-hole of a door leading to the next apartment where she was. He could see the rites and ceremonies with which the serpent was put into an oven, along with many mysterious ingredients. After which, the unsuspicious landlady placed it by the fireside, where lay our distressed traveller, to stove till the morning.

Once or twice, in the course of the night, the "wife of the change-house," under pretence of inquiring for her sick lodger, and administering to him some renovating cordials, the beneficial effects of which he gratefully acknowledged, took occasion to dip her finger in her saucepan, upon which the cock, parched on his roost, crowed aloud. All Michael's sickness could not prevent him from considering very inquisitively the landlady’s cantrips, and particularly the influence of the sauce upon the crowing of the cock. Nor could he dissipate some inward desires he felt to follow her example. At the same time, that he suspected that Satan hid a hand in the pye, yet he liked very much to be at the bottom of the concern; and thus his reason and his curiosity clashed against each other for the space of several hours. At length, passion, as is too often the case, became the conqueror. Michael, too, dipt his finger in the sauce, and applied it to the tip of his tongue, and immediately the cock parched on the spardan announced the circumstance in a mournful clarion. Instantly his mind received a new light to which he was formerly a stranger, and the astonished dupe of a landlady now found it her interest to admit her sagacious lodger into a knowledge of the remainder of her secrets.

Endowed with the knowledge of "Good and evil," and all the "second sights" that can be acquired, Michael left his lodgings in the morning, with the philosopher’s stone in his pocket. By daily perfecting his supernatural attainments, by new series of discoveries, he was more than a match for Satan himself. Having seduced some thousands of Satan’s best workmen into his employment, he trained them up so successfully to the architective business, and inspired them with such industrious habits, that he was more than sufficient for the architectural work of the empire. To establish this assertion, we need only refer to some remains of his workmanship still existing north of the Grampians, some of them stupendous bridges built by him in one short night, with no other visible agents than two or three workmen.

As the following anecdote is so applicable to our purpose, we shall submit it to the reader as a specimen of the expertness of Mr Scott and his agents.

On one occasion, work was getting scarce as might have been naturally expected, and his workmen, as they were wont, flocked to his doors, perpetually exclaiming, Work! work! work! Continually annoyed by their incessant entreaties, he called out to them in derision to go and make a dry road from Fortrose to Arderseir over the Moray Firth. Immediately their cry ceased, and as Mr Scott supposed it wholly impracticable for them to execute his order, he retired to rest, laughing most heartily at the chimerical sort of employment he had given to his industrious workmen. Early in the morning, however, he got up and took a walk down at the break of day to the shore, to divert himself at the fruitless labours of his zealous workmen. But on reaching the spot, what was his astonishment to find the formidable piece of work allotted to them only a few hours before almost quite finished. Seeing the great damage the commercial class of the community would sustain from the operation, he ordered them to demolish the most part of their work; leaving, however, the point of Fortrose to show the traveller to this day the wonderful exploit of Michael Scott’s fairies.

On being thus again thrown out of employment, their former clamour was resumed, nor could Michael Scott, with all his sagacity, devise a plan to keep them in innocent employment. He at length discovered one. "Go," says he, "and manufacture me ropes that will carry me to the back of the moon, of those materials, miller’s-sudds and sea-sand." Michael Scott here obtained rest from his active operators; for, when other work failed them, he always dispatched them to their rope-manufactory. "But," says our relator, "though these agents could never make proper ropes of those materials, their efforts to that effect are far from being contemptible,—for some of their ropes are seen by the sea-side till this blessed day."

We shall close our notice of Michael Scott by reciting one anecdote of him in the latter end of his life, which, on that account, will not be the less interesting.

In consequence of a violent quarrel which Michael Scott once had with a person whom he conceived to have caused him some injury, Michael resolved, as the highest punishment he could inflict upon him, to send his adversary to that evil place, designed only for Satan and his black companions. He, accordingly, by means of his supernatural machinations, sent the poor unfortunate man thither; and had he been sent by any other means than those of Michael Scott, he would no doubt have met with a warm reception. Out of pure spite to Michael, however, when Satan learned who was his billet-master, he would no more receive him than he would receive the Wife of Beth; and, instead of treating the unfortunate man with that harshness characteristic of him, he showed him considerable civilities. Introducing him to his "Ben Taigh," he directed her to show the stranger any curiosities he might wish to see, hinting very significantly, that he had provided some accommodations for their mutual friend Michael Scott, the sight of which might afford him some gratification. The polite house-keeper, accordingly, conducted the stranger through the principal apartments in the house, where he saw sights which, it is hoped, the reader will never witness. But the bed of Michael Scott!—his greatest enemy could not but feel satiate with revenge at the sight of it. It was a place too horrid to be described, filled promiscuously with all the horrid brutes imaginable. Toads and lions, lizards and leeches, and, amongst the rest, not the least conspicuous, a large serpent gaping for Michael Scott, with its mouth wide open. This last sight having satisfied the stranger’s curiosity, he was led to the outer gate, and came off with far more agreeable reflections than when he entered.

He reached his friends, and, among other pieces of news touching his travels, he was not backward in relating the entertainment that awaited his friend Michael Scott, as soon as he would stretch his foot for the other world. But Michael did not at all appear disconcerted at his friend’s intelligence. He affirmed, that he would disappoint the devil and him both in their expectations. In proof of which, he gave the following signs: "When I am just dead," says he, "open my breast, and extract my heart. Carry it to some place where the public may see the result. You will then transfix it upon a long pole, and if Satan will have my soul, he will come in the likeness of a black raven, and carry it off; and if my soul will be saved, it will be carried off by a white dove." His friends faithfully obeyed his instructions. Having exhibited his heart in the manner directed, a large black raven was observed to come from the east with great fleetness; while a white dove came from the west with equal velocity. The raven made a furious dash at the heart, missing which, it was unable to curb its force, till it was considerably past it; and the dove, reaching the spot at the same time, carried off the heart amidst the cheers and ejaculations of the spectators.

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