Elves in Scotland: Relation with Men

By Thomas Crofton Croker

The dwellings of the fairies have sometimes been visited by men, who have either been enticed by them or else discovered the entrances at particular seasons. The people in Perthshire believe that a person who walks alone nine times round a fairy hill on Christmas eve will see an open door on his left hand, by which he may enter.

* * *

A farmer in the neighbourhood of Cairngorm, in Strathspey, emigrated with his family and his cattle to the forest of Glenavon, which is known to be an abode of fairies. Two of his sons, who had gone out in the night to seek some strayed sheep, came to a Shian of great extent; to their no small surprise they saw the most brilliant light issuing from innumerable clefts in the rock, which the keenest eye had never before discovered in it. Curiosity prompted them to approach, and, enchanted with the magic notes of a violin, accompanied by expressions of the greatest mirth, they were in some measure reconciled to their dangerous situation.

One of the brothers, in spite of the dissuasions of the other, could not resist his desire to take part in the dance, and at length jumped, at one leap, into the Shian. His brother, who did not venture to follow him, placed himself near one of the clefts, and, as is customary, called him three times by his name, Donald Macgillivray, and earnestly entreated him to return home; but all in vain: Donald was obliged to bring the melancholy news of his brother’s fate to his parents. Every means and art which were resorted to, to withdraw him from the power of the fairies, proved fruitless, and he was given up for lost.

At length a wise man advised Donald to return to the Shian after the lapse of a year and a day; that a cross on his dress would protect him from the power of the Elves, and he might then go in with confidence, demand back his brother in the name of God; and part in case he refused to follow him, to carry him away by force.

Donald sees the light in the Shian, and hears music and rejoicing: after some anxious hesitation he at length enters and finds his brother, who, with the utmost hilarity, is dancing a highland reel. He hastens up to him, takes him by the collar, and conjures him to accompany him. He consents, but wishes first to finish the dance, saying he had not been there more than half an hour. Donald in vain assures him, that instead of half an hour, he had already been dancing a twelvemonth; nor would he have credited him on his return home had not the growth of the children and of the calves convinced him that his dance had lasted a year and a day.

* * *

About three hundred years ago there lived in Strathspey two men who were celebrated for their skill in playing on the violin. It once happened that they went, about Christmas time, to Inverness to exercise their art. They immediately took lodgings, gave notice of their arrival, and offered their services. There soon appeared an old man, with a venerable aspect, gray hair, and wrinkles in his face, but agreeable and courteous in his manners.

They accompanied him, and came to the door of a rather singular house; it was night, but they could easily perceive that the house was not in any part of the country with which they were acquainted. It resembled a Tomhan in Glenmore.

The friendly invitation and the sound of the money overcame their scruples, and all their fear vanished at the sight of the splendid assembly into which they were introduced. The most delicious music inspired boundless joy and pleasure; and the ground trembled under the feet of the dancers.

Both the men passed the night in the most satisfactory manner, and took their leave, much pleased with the kind reception they had experienced. But how great was their surprise when, on leaving this singular abode, they found that they were coming out of a little hill, and that every thing which only the day before had looked fresh, new, and splendid, was now in ruins and decayed by age, while they, at the same time, remarked strange alterations in the dress and manners of the many spectators who followed them, full of wonder and amazement!

After coming to a mutual explanation, they concluded that the two musicians must have been with the inhabitants of Tomnafurich, where the Elves in the neighbourhood used to assemble.

An old man, who had been attracted by the crowd, on hearing the story, exclaimed: “You are the two men who lodged with my great grandfather, and who, as was supposed, were enticed away by Thomas Rymer to Tomnafurich. Your friends lamented you very much, but a hundred years, which have since elapsed, have caused your names to be forgotten.” Both the men, astonished at the miracle which God had wrought in them, went, as it was Sunday, into the church; they sat and listened for a while to the ringing of the bells, but when the clergyman approached the altar to read the gospel to his congregation, strange to say, at the first word which he uttered, they both crumbled into dust.

* * *

The traditions respecting the manner in which persons may be released from the power of the fairies are various. According to the general opinion, it must be done within a year and a day, and can be performed only on Christmas eve, at the annual festive procession of the Elves. Whoever in the slightest degree partakes of the proffered dainties forfeits, by this act, the society of men, and is for ever united to the fairies.

It is supposed that a person who has once been in their power will not be permitted to return to the abodes of men till after seven years. After the course of another seven years he vanishes, and is then rarely seen again among mortals. The accounts given by them respecting their situation are different. According to some, they lead a life of uninterrupted action, and wander about in the moonshine ; and according to others, they inhabit a delightful district: but their situation is rendered miserable by the circumstance, that one or more of them must be sacrificed to the devil every seventh year.

* * *

The wife of a farmer in Lothian had fallen into the hands of the fairies, and, during the probationary year, sometimes appeared on a Sunday, among her children, combing their hair. On these occasions she was addressed by her husband; she related to him the melancholy circumstance which had separated them, and told him the means by which he might recover her; she exhorted him to summon all his resolution, as her present and future happiness depended on the success of his undertaking.

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

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