The fairies…magical creatures we’ve heard of since childhood. Fairies are imagined of small stature, dressed in green or red and intent to occupy the day doing the same tasks as men. However, it could be very dangerous to meet them, because, staying with them, people could lost the notion of time and risked “aging” hundreds of years without realizing it (lot of stories tell of people who were entertained to dance with the fairies, but when go back home, they find no more their homes, and centuries have passed!). Also famous were their cù sìth “fairy dogs” (large and dark green) that mounted the guard or went wandering through desolate moors. The laments of such creatures were feared because, if heard three times, they were thought to be a harbinger of death.
The Fairies could also be omens of death (bean nighe), like in the famous story of the “Knight without Head”. In the 16th century, at Lochbuie on the Isle of Mull (called the Isle of Darkness for the macabre fame of her witches), Ewen MacLaine was trying to kill his father Iain “The Toothless” to snatch her leadership on the clan. The latter, alarmed, asked the relative of Hector MacLean of Duart to prevent the threat. According to certain versions of the story, the young Ewen, the night before the battle against her father Iain, was riding on the hills of Mull when, suddenly, she crossed a bean nighe intent to wash clothes on a stream. Approaching, he noted with dread that he was rinsing his blood-soaked shirt. His destiny was already marked! The day after, in the battle, a blow cut off his head while leaving him straight on the stirrups, having previously tied to the saddle for not being thrown to the ground in combat. Later, the horse was seen galloping like crazy through the hills and along the steep cliffs. From this story was born the legend of the “Knight without Head” who, in foggy days, was seen roaming the glen of the island.
The Fairies could also take the form of women courting and being courted or being “kidnapping children”, as it is handed down in a legend of the MacLeod of the Isle of Skye, fairy place par excellence. Skye boasts a Fairy Glen “Valley of the Fairies” and a complex of ponds and green and blue waterfalls called Fairy Pools.
From a geographical point of view, the legends concerning the fairies spread mainly in the territories inhabited by the Celts, the ancient population that, before the arrival of the Romans, dominated most of central-northern Europe. Among this areas there is Scotland, in particular its Highlands, and in my opinion, there could not be more suitable habitat for fairies.
This is a world apart and certainly a magical and timeless land, a wild environment, strewn with vast moors and threatening marshlands, marked by rock mountains and jagged ridges that are thrown on the sea, penetrated by the ice that, attacking the rock, in ancient times created deep fjords. The Highlands then, above all, are the realm of the Mist and the fine, drizzling Rain that muffle the sounds and limit the view. But that, for sure, increase the inner sight and the inclination to belief in the Fantastic. Even today in the Scottish slang the importance of fairies is alive: “he went away with fairies” is said to define one who behaves in a nonsensical way, “make a fairy” to repudiate someone and “who sees fairies” to indicate a mysterious person!
The Fairies, as well as sensual and ethereal female creatures, could be also understood as elves or gnomes endowed with prodigious powers, residing in underground and remote places. About their origin there are various and fanciful interpretations: some considered them something like “angels fallen from the sky”, other souls of the dead, still others Tuatha Dè Danann (mythical Irish population hunted in the bowels of the earth by successive conquerors).
There is a fascinating theory supported, in particular, by the Celtic-Indo-European folklore scholar J. G. Campbell. The fairies would be the survivors of native populations (such as the Sami of Scandinavia and the Basques of Spain) who were relegated to the margins by Celtic conquerors from the East. A possible evidence of the overlap between fairies and indigenous populations would be the expression “to touch iron” against malign influences and to put iron in children’s cribs. This statement derives from the metal armament of the Celts thanks to which they conquered the victory against the original native peoples, thus giving birth to the belief that iron kept away evil. Placing an iron object near the cradles was intended to keep away the “kidnapping children” Fairies, a mineral they were terrified of.
In the Celtic Isle of Man (between England and Ireland), the belief that the first inhabitants of the island were the fairies was very strong up to 800. In Scotland it was thought that their homes were the shi-en “The Hills of the Fairies” (still today survived in the popular folklore), not too distant from the villages and, therefore, in close relationship with people. Near Glasgow there is the Carmylie Hill, a mound with the name “hill of the enchanted people” where, according to tradition, the fairies dance happily during the night. In Aberfoyle (Central Highlands) there is the Doon Hill, where the Reverend Robert Kirk in 1692, the year of his death, fantasizes that he was transported to the realm of fairies. His grave of red sandstone, it is said, would be full of stones. In the Shetland Islands, at Haltadans, there is a large stone circle, like Stonehenge, where the Fairies would dancing in the moonlight. One day they danced until dawn and so, as punishment, they were turned into stones.
Finally, we can say that, in the collective imagination of the Celtic areas of Europe, the magical aura of the Ladies of the Woods still persists because lot of people and curious continue to perceive its charm and they love to believe that these fantastic creatures float around them.