Elves in Scotland: Changelings

By Thomas Crofton Croker

Among the wicked propensities of the Fairies is their inclination to steal children, in doing which they display particular sagacity. They have often, in broad daylight, taken a favourite child from its inexperienced mother, and substituted a changeling, whose fictitious illness and death makes the lot of the poor parents still more hard. And they have even stolen a child out of its fathers arms when he had taken it out with him on horseback.

Two men of Strathspey used to visit a family at Glenlivat for the purpose of dealing in spirits, which could be the most securely carried on during the night. One night, while engaged in measuring the whiskey, an infant, which was lying in the cradle, gave a violent shriek, as if it had been shot. The mother immediately made the sign of the cross over the child, and took it out of the cradle: the two men took no further notice of it, and, when their business was finished, went away with their load.

At a short distance from the house they were surprised to find a little child quite alone in the road. One of them took it up, when it instantly left off crying, threw its arms round his neck, and began to smile. On looking at it more closely, they recognised their friend’s child, and directly suspected the Elves, particularly as they remembered the shriek. They had carried off the real child, and put a changeling in its place; but on the mother’s making the sign of the cross, it was delivered out of the power of the Fairies, who were forced to abandon it. As their time was limited, and they could not turn back on the spot to explain the mysterious event, they continued their journey, and took every care of the young traveller.

A fortnight after, business again brought them to Glenlivat; they carried the child with them, but concealed it on their entrance. The mother began to complain of the obstinate illness of her child, with which it had been afflicted since their last visit, and which would certainly be the cause of its death. At the same moment the changeling uttered lamentable cries, as if in the greatest pain. The strangers told the mother to be of good courage—she should have her own child restored as healthy and lively as a fish in water—that the other was nothing but a changeling. The mother received her own child with joy: the men lighted a bundle of straw to throw the changeling in, but at the sight of it the Elf made its escape through the chimney.

If a mother wishes to protect her child against fairies, she must let its head hang down when she is dressing it in the morning. A red thread tied round the throat, or a cross, is likewise a safe-guard. If the child has already been exchanged for a fairy, it can be obtained again in the following manner: the changeling is laid before night-fall, in a place where three lands, or three rivers, meet; in the night the Elves bring back the stolen child, put it down, and carry the substitute away with them.

On the east coast of Scotland, the people resort to a peculiar method to avert the danger. During the month of March, when the moon is on her increase, they cut down branches of oak and ivy, which are formed into garlands, and preserved till the following autumn. If any one of the family should grow lean, or a child pine away, they must pass three times through this wreath.

The Elves likewise endeavour to gain possession of women who are near their lying-in; and, as in the case of child-stealing, they substitute a fictitious and illusive being.

At Glenbrown, in the parish of Abernethy, lived John Roy, a very courageous man. One night he was going over the mountains, when he fell in with a company of Elves, whose mode of travelling clearly indicated that they were carrying a person off with them. He recollected to have been told, that the fairies are obliged to give up what they have, for any thing offered to them in exchange, even if it should be of inferior value.

John Roy pulled off his cap, threw it to them, and cried, “Mine is yours, and yours is mine,” upon which the Elves were obliged to take his cap, and resign their prey, which proved to be nothing less than a beautiful woman, by her dress and language a Saxon. John Roy brought her with much kindness to his home, where, for seven years, she was treated with the greatest respect. She gradually accustomed herself to her new mode of life, and was looked upon as a member of the family.

It chanced that “the new king” caused the great public road in this neighbourhood to be made by soldiers. John Roy forgot his dislike to a Saxon, and offered a lodging, (which could not otherwise have been easily obtained), in his house, to a captain and his son, who commanded a body of workmen in the vicinity. Both the host and his guests were mutually pleased with each other; only it was disagreeable to Roy that the latter regarded the English lady with so much attention. One day the father said to his son, “I am struck with the resemblance of this woman to my deceased wife; two sisters could not be more like each other, and if it were not morally impossible, I should say that she was my own beloved wife;” at the same time mentioning her name. The woman, attentive to their conversation, on hearing her own name, recognises her husband and son, and runs to embrace them.

The Elves who inhabited the Shian of Coirlaggack had undertaken an expedition into the south of England, and made no scruple to steal the woman even during her illness. A false being was laid in her room, who died a few days after; and the husband, supposing it to have been his own wife, had her buried.

From Fairy legends and traditions of the South of Ireland, part III., by Thomas Crofton Croker.
London: John Murray, 1828.

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