Fairy Song (Excerpt)
My child, smooth-shining,
The Fostering Fairy's Lullaby (Excerpts)
These lines are from a longer poem. A fairy who had stolen a human baby one night, sings to it:
Hush! hush! little man,
Long ago a poor woman happened to call in a house near the fairy-hill of Torr-a-Bhuilg . At the time there was no one in the house but the housewife and what appeared to be a little child. The child kept tumbling about on the floor and screaming without stopping day and night.
The poor woman asked what lad she had there on the floor. The housewife answered that she did not know.
"Well," said the poor woman, "I know well what he is, and if you take my advice you will get rid of him; but, if not, you will get enough of him."
The housewife said that she would take her advice, and the poor woman then told her what she was to do to him.
After the poor woman left, the housewife went out and brought in a basket of eggs, which she placed in a circle on the floor. While she was engaged in this way, the lad kept looking sullenly at her, and said at length, roughly: "What are you doing in that manner?"
"I am making a brewing caldron," was the reply.
"A brewing caldron? I am more than three hundred years old and I never yet saw a brewing caldron like that!"
The housewife had no longer any doubt that the child was a fairy, but she went about her business for a while in her usual way. Then she looked out at the window and assumed a scared look and began to start back as if she beheld something dreadful. The squaller on the floor, looking askance at her for a while, at last asked what it was she beheld.
"I see Torr-a-Bhuilg on fire," she said.
He waited where he was no longer, but sprung out at the door, saying: "My hammers and my anvil and my bellows," and after that he was never seen again.
In another story the fairies rush out of the woman's house, crying "My wife and little ones! My cheese and butter-keg! My sons and daughters!" and so on for a long list which includes the hammers and anvil. J. F. Campbell of Islay comments: "The versions which I have of this story vary in the telling as much as is possible, and each is evidently the production of a different mind, but the incidents are nearly the same in all, and the rhyme varies only in a few points." (Campbell)
The plot varies quite considerably among several tales that all contain an old fairy rhyme that was known over a wide area. Several versions also retain a memory of unemployed hunters cluttering up the house, helping with the chores but eating all the oatcakes, until the shout goes round that the signal fire is burning. Then they depart in a great hurry, reciting their good-luck prayers as they go.
By a long shot, the unwelcome child was a hunter or hunters in older tales, but that is speculation.
About three hundred years ago there was a poor man working as a labourer on a farm in Lanarkshire. He was what is known as an "orra man," that is, he had no special work mapped out for him to do, but he was expected to undertake odd jobs of any kind that happened to turn up.
One day his master sent him out to cast peats on a piece of moorland that lay on a certain part of the farm. Now this strip of moorland ran up at one end to a curiously shaped crag , known as Merlin's Crag, because that famous wizard had once taken up his abode there. So the country folk said.
The man was a willing fellow. When he arrived at the moor he set to work with all his might and main. He had lifted quite a quantity of peat from near the crag, when he was startled by seeing the smallest woman that he had ever seen in his life. She was only about sixty-five centimetres, and she was dressed in a green gown and red stockings, and her long yellow hair was not bound by any ribbon, but hung loosely round her shoulders.
She was such a delicate and pretty little creature that the astonished countryman stopped working, stuck his spade into the ground, and gazed at her in wonder.
His wonder increased when she held up one of her tiny fingers and addressed him in these words: ' What would you think if I were to send my husband to uncover your house? You mortals think that you can do anything that please you."
Then, stamping her tiny foot, she added in a voice of command, "Put back that turf at once, or you shall regret this day."
Now the poor man had often heard of the fairy folk and of the harm that they could work to unthinking mortals who offended them, so in fear and trembling he set to work to undo all his labour, and to place every divot in the exact spot that he had taken it from.
When he was finished, he looked round for his strange visitor, but she had disappeared completely. He could not tell how, nor where. Putting up his spade, he wended his way homewards. He went straight to his master and told him the whole story, and suggested that in the future the peats should be taken from the other end of the moor.
But the master only laughed. He was a strong, hearty man, and did not believe in ghosts, or elves, or fairies, or any other creature that he could not see. But although he laughed, he was vexed that his servant should believe in such things. So to cure him of what he thought was superstition, he ordered him to take a horse and cart and go back at once, and lift all the peats and bring them to dry in the farm steading.
The man obeyed only reluctantly, and was greatly relieved to find that despite what he had done, he came to no harm as weeks went on. In fact, he began to think that his master was right, and that the whole thing must have been a dream.
So matters went smoothly on. Winter passed, and spring, and summer, until autumn came round once more, and the very day arrived on which the peats had been lifted the year before.
That day, as the sun went down, the orra man left the farm to go home to his cottage, and as his master was pleased with him because he had been working very hard lately, he had given him a little can of milk as a present to carry home to his wife.
So he was feeling very happy, and as he walked along he was humming a tune to himself. His road took him by the foot of Merlin's Crag, and as he approached it, he was astonished to find himself growing strangely tired. His eyelids dropped over his eyes as if he were going to sleep, and his feet grew as heavy as lead.
"I will sit down and take a rest for a few minutes," he said to himself; "the road home never seemed so long as it does today." So he sat down on a tuft of grass right under the shadow of the crag, and before he knew where, he was he had fallen into a deep and heavy slumber.
When he awoke it was near midnight, and the moon had risen on the crag. And he rubbed his eyes, when by its soft light he became aware of a large band of fairies who were dancing round and round him, singing and laughing, pointing their tiny fingers at him, and shaking their little fists in his face.
The bewildered man rose and tried to walk away from them, but in whatever direction he turned, the fairies would accompany him, encircling him in a magic ring. There was no way out of it, he found.
At last they stopped, and with shrieks of elfin laughter, led the prettiest and daintiest of their companions up to him, and cried, "Tread a measure, tread a measure, man! Then you will not be so eager to escape from our company."
Now the poor labourer was but a clumsy dancer, and he held back with a shamefaced air. But the fairy who had been chosen to be his partner reached up and seized his hands, and lo! some strange magic seemed to enter into his veins, for in a moment he found himself waltzing and whirling, sliding and bowing, as if he had done nothing else but dance all his life.
The strangest thing of all was that he forgot about his home and his children. He felt so happy that he had no longer the slightest desire to leave the fairies' company.
All night long the merriment went on. The little folk danced and danced as if they were mad, and the farm man danced with them, until at last a shrill sound came over the moor. It was the cock from the farmyard crowing its loudest to welcome the dawn.
In an instant the revelry ceased, and the fairies crowded together with cries of alarm and rushed towards the crag, dragging the countryman along in their middle. As they reached the rock, a mysterious door that he never remembered having seen before, opened in it of its own accord and shut again with a crash as soon as the fairy host had all trooped through.
The door led into a large, dimly lighted hall full of tiny couches, and here the little folk sank to rest, tired out with their exertions, while the good man sat down on a piece of rock in the corner, wondering what would happen next.
But there seemed to be some kind of spell thrown over his senses, for even when the fairies woke up and began to go about their household occupations and to carry out certain curious practices which he had never seen before, and that he was forbidden to speak of afterwards, he was content to sit and watch them without in any way attempting to escape.
As it drew toward evening someone touched his elbow, and he turned round with a start to see the little woman with the green dress and scarlet stockings, who had remonstrated with him for lifting the turf the year before, standing by his side.
"The lumps of grass and earth that you took from the roof of my house have grown once more," she said, "and once more it is covered with grass; so you can go home again, for justice is satisfied your punishment has lasted long enough. But first must you take a solemn oath never to tell to mortal ears what you have seen while you have been among us."
The countryman promised gladly, and took the oath with all due solemnity. Then the door was opened, and he was at liberty to depart.
His can of milk was standing on the green, just where he had laid it down when he went to sleep, and it seemed to him as if it were only yesternight that the farmer had given it to him.
But when he reached his home, his wife looked at him as if she saw a ghost, and the children that had been small toddlers when he had left, were now well-grown boys and girls who stared at him as if he was an utter stranger.
"Where have you been these long, long years?" cried his wife when she had gathered her wits and assured herself that it was really he, and not a spirit. "And how could you find it in your heart to leave the children and me alone?"
And then he knew that the one day he had passed in fairyland had lasted seven whole years, and realised what heavy punishment the little folk had laid on him.
(Cf. Grierson 1910, 136-44)
Lanarkshire (red) in southern Scotland